Several years ago my favourite headphone shop in the world (It’s a hole-in-the-wall joint on Yonge Street south of York Mills on the hill across from McDonalds) sold me a tiny Fiio E-11 headphone amplifier (about $60).
The E-11 is a pretty basic and cheap add-on that makes your tablet, IPad, smartphone or IPhone’s audio sound much cleaner and much more detailed in the music. A small headphone amp like the E-11 or any of the others here can make difficult to drive headphones just sing on portable devices.
(In Photo above: left to right – That’s my MacBook Pro with a second monitor with Tidal running. On it are the Sennheiser HD-439 headphones, the Audeze LCD-X and Grado 60s headphones with Apple earbuds on the far right. On top of the Tivoli Audio receiver are an old Apple Shuttle, the Olympus E-10 and on the table the Olympus E-17.)
At under $100 it’s worth the experiment to see if you can hear the difference and I sure could. Using the E-11 with a decent set of headphones (Grado 60s at $99 are a great start and just about anything costing around $200 will sound amazing and is at least a 10-year investment in your listening pleasure.
I particularly like my Shure in-ear headphones but at $500 they’re not cheap and like most decent in-ears are so sensitive that they can pickup some background amplifier noise.) and my IPad movies from Netflicks sounded as good, if not better, than the sound system in the movie theatre.
I’m doing some experiments right now between my new Fiio Olympus II E-10 which sells for around $75 and my older Fiio Alpen E-17 ($180) into the Shure 535s.
The Olympus connects to the MacBook Pro via a USB connection while the Alpen has a digital in which I’m using. (The Alpen can also go USB and is a highly rated and overall really nice DAC/amp which will work with just about anything.)
I’m losslessly streaming from Tidal and I’m really enjoying listening to Mathew E. White’s Fresh Blood album. I keep switching between the D-10 and D-17 and for this music I’m preferring the less expensive E-10!
The E-10 is more relaxing to listen to while the E-17 is more precise. Both have a very very low background hiss when using the extremely sense in-ear monitors. This is a hiss that comes from the amplifiers and I can barely hear it (to not hearing it) if I change over to my Senniheiser HD-439 and due to the Sennheiser’s lower sensitivity I’ve got to crank the volume up. (I bought the $150 HD-439s for around $50 at a Future Shop Boxing Day sale a couple of years ago and for the money they’re not bad at all and way cheaper than most to buy.)
There’s still a hiss way way back in the background which is immediately covered up any sound whatsoever.
So now I’m getting curious. I wonder if my Audzee’s LCD-X headphones will hear the hiss and on the Olympus it’s there but so far down that I’m thinking it’s an artifact coming from the MacBook Pro as stopping the music stops the hiss?
The Audeze’s are perfect BTW. Exceptionally detailed and big sound stage with this music. Aside from being physically enormous, the sound is while not fatiguing very demanding. For example, listening to some of the more famous opera arias can bring tears to your eyes despite not knowing the opera, the singer or the tune. Honestly this is the best audio experience you can have next to sitting on stage with the singer and the band.
Listen to Daft Punk’s Get Lucky or Shelby Lynne’s Revelation Road with your best headphones and be prepared to be amazed especially if you’re using a service like Spotify or Tidal.
(BTW I saw Shelby Lynne live here in Toronto. I think she was singing in some bar on Queen Street in Toronto. A very underrated and very complex and highly talented singer she’s not to everyone’s taste but her music is insanely good.)
Just for fun I got my Shure’s back on and the noise hiss has increased but so has the presence. The music sounds snappier and there’s a whole lot less base which is to be expected. I’d be quite happy listening to this setup all day long. The musicians sound like their right there in front of you.
Again just for fun I put on my Grado 60s and the music is much more listenable and laid back. The sound much less demanding and very pleasant to listen to. The noise hiss is still there but it is way down and kinda matches the overall musical sound and is thus masked to the point I don’t notice it.
You’ve got to remember I’m 66 and I’ve got on-and-off moderate-to-loud tinnitus which sounds like background hiss or when it ramps up to a single high-pitched note. Tinnitus drives some suffers nuts but I’ve managed to tune it out most of the time.
So what’s this all about?
There’s a huge wave of people moving back to listening to really good sounding music that’s being streamed over the Internet.
My Tidal subscription is $20 a month but for that I’m getting an enormously cheap first-class listening experience. I likely wouldn’t buy the Matthew E. White album but I’ve listened to it three or four times in its entirety over Tidal.
You can have much the same experience listening to Spotify for free (with ads) or going for the $10/month ad-free subscription. Spotify steams at a lesser speed than Tidal and it’s tough to tell the difference most of the time.
Using anything better than $10 earbuds that came with your smartphone and an inexpensive DAC/amp can revolutionize the way you listen to music and it’s the way of the future.
Of course here lies dragons and madness as there is much much more expensive stuff out there. (We’re talking tens of thousands of dollars folks.)
As I finish typing this post I’ve settled on the Fiio Olympus and the Grado 60s ($150 all in if you shop around). I can think and type while listening to this setup where the Audeze or Shure units are a little too demanding on my being deeply connected to what’s happening in my ears,
BTW there are pieces of music that are recommended for testing your system and your own ears that you can find online.
I’m ending up listening to Modest Mouse (I’m not kidding.) Strangers To Ourselves with the Fiio E-10 (which BTW has a gain switch which I need for the less efficient headphones) and a bass switch (which provides a nice bass boost which some headphones need) and my HD-439s (which needs both switches on).
Modest Mouse is a pretty good find. Formed in 1993 Tidal commenters call them the most surprising commercial success stories of the new millennium. Who knew?