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Earmax amp (standard) w/ Sennheiser HD580 - questions

Discussion in 'Headphones, Earphones & Portable Music' started by mister_d, Sep 21, 2004.

  1. mister_d

    mister_d
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    I've contemplated buying a headphone amp since acknowledging many months ago that I would need one to fully utilise the benefits of my Sennheiser HD580s, and a few days ago I finally acquired an Earmax non-Pro headphone amp from ebay to replace the headphone output on my Arcam Alpha 8R integrated amp. It arrived this morning, and I've tested it with numerous CDs in my Marantz CD6000OSE (non-LE) with QED Qunex II interconnects, comparing it against the headphone outputs on both the amp and CD player.

    Although it's certainly different, I've yet to decide whether it's even an enhancement, let alone sufficiently superior to justify the cost (which, at £200, was fairly bargainous compared to the retail price of the Pro). I can just about discern an improvement in the mid-range, but the harshness in high frequencies that initially sparked my interest in purchasing a headphone amp is barely improved to my ears, and while I never expected nor indeed wished it to provide monstrous bass I can't help finding it somewhat underwhelming in that department as well.

    A couple of points need clarifying here. As is probably obvious from the contents of my post thus far, I'm no audiophile, and many aspects of the art confuse me completely. I will readily admit that I chose the Earmax chiefly on the grounds of its availability at the price I paid. After reading on this and other forums that it's considered a highly appropriate match for HD580/600s and other high impedance headphones, I decided to go ahead, reasoning that even if it isn't exactly the perfect choice, I would never be able to get anything comparable for a similar price new.

    Secondly, I realise that my source is bound to be the limiting factor in this situation. During the past few months I have already arrived at the conclusion, though almost certainly without justification, that it's perhaps weakest component in my system (completed by a pair of B&W DM601S2s on Atacama Nexus 6 stands connected with QED Silver Anniversary). While with some material it copes admirably, I've considered replacing it for a while to address my concerns about harsh treble and pacing problems with non-funereal tempos through both speakers and headphones; I just don't know how to decide what to replace it with.

    As far as the amp itself is concerned, the seller assures me that the stock valves have been replaced with the ECC81 and ECC88 from the Pro, but since I can see no such markings anywhere on them I'll have to take his word for it. It's second-hand so presumably fully broken in, and I had it running plenty of time to warm up, though I understand this is an unusually minor concern with the Earmax in the first place.

    So three possible conclusions can be drawn - either my CD player (possibly together with interconnects) genuinely is almost solely responsible for the unimproved tonal characteristics, or the Earmax isn't appropriate to my needs, or my ears are too unrefined to appreciate good hi-fi. I wouldn't rule out the latter at all, and if to hardened experts it's the logical consequence of everything I've said then I'd welcome that opinion so I can sell the Earmax, relinquish the notion of attaining perfection and content myself with a sound that is still vastly improved over anything I've heard from headphones before.

    If, however, either the source or the amp itself could make a night-and-day difference, I would very much appreciate any suggestions (preferably not bank-breaking), remembering that I'm still fairly clueless about hi-fi and don't really know where to begin with choosing a new CD player. I will hopefully be able to borrow a friend's NAD C541i at some point for testing, but since it's in a similar price bracket to my player it might not give a good indication of the improvements I can expect.

    Profuse apologies for the length of this post if you've made it this far, and if you've skipped straight to this paragraph the above can be summarised as follows - 'Earmax headphone amp disappointing, is it my Marantz CD6000OSE player or my ears?'. Any constructive (which I'm sure it will be) advice welcomed.
     
  2. WhyAyeMan

    WhyAyeMan
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    The integrated amplifier you use will almost always have a higher output impedance (aka resistance). All headphones have a rated resistance, and all headphone amps do (or at least should) strive for an output resistance of close to 0 ohms as possible. Increasing this output resistance changes the characteristics of your headphones.

    The reason your Arcam has a higher output resistance is the same reason the majority of integrated amps has increased resistance. It is in fact, taken from the power stage of your amplifier through a series of resistors. The average figure I see for resistance in the headphone output stage for most integrated amps is about 220 ohm.

    Given that most headphone amps aim for 0, then you can see 220 ohm's is very high, increasing the overall resistance of the headphones to around 520 ohms in this particular case. Obviously, this has a negative effect on the sound.... but nevertheless, it is this sound you have become used to, and the "clean-up" of the sound that you witness is not to your taste.

    So what effect in real terms does driving headphones with increased output resistance have? Well, it requires even more power than it would normally require to drive them, and it reduces the damping factor, and thus control that the amplifier has on the headphones. In real terms, on most headphones it results in a collapsed soundstage, bloated bass (read less controlled, louder, flabbier) and the treble can sometimes be quieter (although this is headphone dependent). The overall sound is usually warm and slightly "muddy" out of an integrated amp.

    What you have now done though, is reduced this resistance, and so the headphones are performing more closesly to how they were designed. The treble has increased, the bass has more control, but also seems subjectively less present, but you should get a "cleaner" sound. Whether that is to your taste is of course, a different matter. Ultimately, the headphones are now beginning to show you what is on the source, and any weaknesses they may have.

    So, the source is a suspect area, but I also have another theory - that you just dont get on with the headphones. With so many audiophiles using Sennheiser headphones, it will almost seem like blasphemy to suggest you just dont like those phones, but I can tell you now that it is very likely also. A source will go some way to helping the headphones sound better, but quite honestly I believe the problem does in fact lie somewhat with the headphones. I think that if you really liked the headphones, you would like them whether or not your source and amp was up to the job, and the amp and source will simply make it do what it does, better. If you see what I mean?

    You dont say what music you like, but there are other headphones that can offer a different sound. It sounds like you enjoy hearing good bass, and a warmer sound. I recommend you try different headphones. The HD650 from Sennheiser does have a more prominent bass and less harsh treble than the 580 (I used to have both). However, with your valve amp, I think you could do worse than audition a pair of Beyerdynamic DT990's. These are excellent headphones, with an atmospheric and lush sound, crisp treble and deep, and powerful bass far in excess with what is possible with the Sennheiser's IMHO (I used to own those as well). I think they would be a great match for your amp, and would cure many or all of the problems you presently have with your rig.

    Let me know how you get on :)
     
  3. mister_d

    mister_d
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    Thanks very much for such a detailed reply, frankly I'm amazed that anyone bothered to read all of my post :)

    Your advice seems entirely logical. I must admit that I opted for the Sennheisers largely because of their ubiquity (and because a friend was selling them quite cheaply in preparation for upgrading to HD600s), and have only briefly considered swapping them as I presumed that my amplification and to a lesser extent my source were always the limiting factor. Their comfort is also a fairly major consideration, I sometimes wear them for hours at a time so it's almost as important a concern as sound quality.

    Once again, I should probably clarify a couple of points. The overall negative tone of my original post is in relation to the money I'd just spent, as even though I realise that headphones offer a more moderately-priced path into high-end audio than speakers, it seems expensive. I do like my Sennheisers and always have - considerably more than my amp/speaker setup in many respects - I'm just aware of the imperfections and presumed they were mainly attributable to my amplification.

    My comment about the sound being 'different' was a little awkwardly phrased. What I meant to emphasise, as my subsequent sentence implied, is that I can identify minor overall improvements (and I do consider them to be improvements) with the Earmax, I had just expected them to be more striking. Broadly speaking, I find that gentler, acoustic material and ambient electronics, along with softer vocals (particularly female), sound excellent just as they did before, whereas anything with a fast or even moderate tempo or discordant guitars tends to sound thin and uncoordinated. Certain vocals also sometimes seem to have a harsh, raspy edge, though this probably reflects the nature of the source recording more than anything.

    Perhaps it's just the placebo effect, but I'll admit that when I started listening to complete CDs rather than comparing specific tracks while swapping interconnects around every few minutes, I was more impressed than earlier in the day. While "soundstage" has always seemed a slightly ill-defined concept to me, to the best of my understanding it has improved noticeably if not dramatically. There also seems to be a stronger mid-bass presence than I thought - in one specific track I found the bass distorting slightly while the Arcam set to roughly the same volume didn't - but much like my B&Ws with their notoriously high frequency response floor, below a certain level the bass is barely audible.

    Anyway, enough prattling - I'll definitely give another pair of headphones a go whenever I can. Unfortunately all I can realistically get my hands on without spending more cash is the HD600s that replaced my current headphones, and I understand these are fundamentally equivalent to HD580s but with a lower impedance and slightly improved frequency range. If I'm spending this much money on an amp I suppose a second pair of headphones shouldn't be too much of an extravagence should I find that the best alternative is only appropriate for certain types of music.

    Thanks once again for replying, I probably won't rush into this as I don't want to make any purchases I might regret but I'll definitely hold onto the amp until I've exhausted all possibilities with the source and headphones.
     
  4. WhyAyeMan

    WhyAyeMan
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    Your story rings true with an experience I had way back last year when I first started getting into headphones. I had the Beyerdynamic DT931's, which are [I discovered much later on] one of the few headphones optimised for high output impedances and so are probably more suited than most to to being driven in such a fashion. Hence in my particular case I did not realise that in reality, an amp was probably totally unnecesary to me. Yet, they were said to be very good when driven from a 120 ohm output of an amp called a Corda, which is a good quality solid state amp. Unsurprisingly and unaware of this fact at the time, the DT931's sounded barely any better from this Corda than out of my integrated amp. Bear in mind that this is an amp I paid over £200 for!!

    Dissatisfied, I later tried different headphones, but to no avail, it still did not sound much better to me. It wasnt until I actually had sold the amp that I got hold of the HD580's and finally found a headphone that seemed to benefit. Typical, the day before the amp was due to be posted to its new owner. :rolleyes:

    Synergy is everything, but then so is taste. What you are learning now is that the differences between some integrated amps and headphone sockets can sometimes not be all that great. Nevertheless, I believe it sometimes takes for you to listen to it for a while, without being analytical or overlly critical or comparing that you do eventually find the differences. However, in this case, that particular amp was never going to be to my taste.

    I know what you mean, and I expected similar. Like I say, just try it on its own for a little while and then switch back. Any differences should become more obvious given more time. Perhaps the harshness is the recording, or the headphones, but I am a firm believer in getting something that makes your music enjoyable to you. There will be headphones that work in your system that will deliver the sound you want. This is why I ended up with headphones which on paper do not look impressive and are certainly not expensive, but they make ALL of my music very enjoyable, and that was the reason I got rid of all of my headphones before these ones. The problem with headphones is they are so revealing that they can make mince meat out of some recordings and/or sources. The headphones I ended up choosing are one of the least resolving I've ever owned, yet somehow, by far the most enjoyable too. There will be a headphone out there that you like... so why not try the DT990 and take it from there ;)

    Soundstage (or at least as much as you can get in headphones) is one of the things I would expect most to be improved by a headphone amp. There is an album of mine (DJ Tiesto - Nyana) which has a strange sound on a track early on in CD1. On the integrated amp, the sound seems to pan from left to right. On the headphone amps I've tried, the sound seems to actually rotate around your head. OK, simple example I know, but one where the improvement is obvious and worth pointing out. The Earmax is regarded to have pretty strong bass, so if you still think it lacks, then it is most likely the headphones at fault, IMHO. Also, the Sennheisers like to be played loud. For someone who likes lower level listening, there are far better choices - the DT990 for one, IMO. I must admit I quite liked the Senn's but I listen loud, and even considering that, I much prefer the cans I'm using now.

    Personally if you are seeking change, then unless you will be happy only with a different appearance, chassis and slightly better matched drivers, the HD600 will be a pointless "upgrade" for you. It sounds all but identical to the 580's even on the most high end systems. As far as I'm concerned, 580 = 600.

    Good luck :thumbsup:
     
  5. mister_d

    mister_d
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    At risk of this spiralling into a two-way conversation through a less convenient medium than email - though that isn't to say that I'm not extremely grateful for everything you've said so far - I'll try to keep my reply a little shorter this time. Comments from other members, if indeed there are any in here (my searches seem to suggest that debate about high-end headphones was much more active just a few months ago than now), are still very welcome :)

    At risk of sounding schizophrenic, a couple of hours ago I noticed that the CD I was listening to seemed to sound much better than anything I'd listened to previously, so I waited for it to finish before swapping in the Arcam - and sure enough, the Earmax was kicking its behind in a manner obvious to even the most plebeian of ears. The bass definition and general depth of sound immediately identify themselves as being improved by an order of magnitude or two.

    Fearing that the Arcam may not have fully warmed up as it had been switched off for a few hours at that stage, I went off for a while and returned later to give it another go, but even now about 90 minutes the contrast is just as before, perhaps not totally spectacular but unmissable nevertheless.

    Now I may be talking utter rubbish here, but is it possible that the valves, having not been used for at least a few days and possibly quite a bit longer (the seller had listed it on behalf of his stepfather), required a "secondary" break-in period of around 15 hours to reveal their true colours once again? The other, less attractive alternative is that the Earmax has a 7 hour or so warmup time, though since the seller quoted a figure of around 30 minutes relayed by his stepfather I like to think this is very unlikely.

    Sadly, the upgrade bug has conquered my immune system and I'm still contemplating a change in headphones as I'm no longer convinced the Sennheisers are a perfect match for me. In fact, I had to struggle hard to resist placing a bid on a pair of Grado S125s which ended for £93 just half an hour ago. I will definitely investigate other options at some point, so I hope you don't feel your assistance was entirely in vain despite my recent revelation. Of course, I also need to consider whether I would benefit from exchanging the interconnects, headphone cable, power supply or valves for the amp - my head hurts...

    For now, though, I'm very happy that the amp is providing a noticeable improvement, and I feel confident that replacing my source will have a strong impact without having to achieve the impossible to obtain the results I desire. It's still definitely not perfect (trebles remain a little harsh for my liking, though it's not noticeable with all music) and I believe I may well end up with an entirely different pair of headphones, I'm just not in such a rush now as the sound I'm currently hearing is fairly exquisite.

    A final word on the HD600s - I had no intention of buying them unless I tested several other brands and found Sennheisers to be my preferred choice after all, but they're relatively easily available to me for testing, and I was curious to see how much of an effect the reduced impedance has on volume setting. I'm very much a high volume listener, at least when I don't have to concentrate particularly on anything (in which case I find headphones generally quite intrusive), and until just now I found myself turning the amp up to the 3 o'clock position to get a satisfactory listening level with the CD player set to 11/14.

    So much for making this post shorter than the others, looks like I got a little carried away again. The obligatory thanks go here, even though my initial disappointment has now been addressed itself it's obvious I still have a lot to learn.
     
  6. WhyAyeMan

    WhyAyeMan
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    :hiya:

    Glad to hear things are sorting themselves out for you - burn in with valve amps is certainly a possibility and it did seem strange how you reported it lacking bass. One last little thought I will leave you with is about the Grado's, they are certainly a lot brighter than Sennheisers, and I am told by a person who I trust very much and who is a massive Grado fan that the SR125's are the brightest of a collection of bright headphones. Certainly they have a different sound from Sennheiser, much more aggressive and upfront, but that may suit you - however its something to be aware of, and comfort may also be a big issue (it was for me).

    Anyway, I'll bow out of this thread and maybe someone else has something to say....

    Cheers
     
  7. alexs2

    alexs2
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    Hi there...there are a couple of things I should probably add to this post.....I also have a standard Earmax,having bought mine some years prior o the Pro model becoming available.

    It's generally a very revealing headphone amp,as the reviews will bear out,but will only be as good as the source feeding it.
    This isn't intended as a criticism,but as advice that it will get better as the source improves....I've found mine easily differentiates between a Linn transport and my current TEAC VRDS,and again can reveal the differences between various DACs and processors.


    I think that wht may be most relevant is that you say the ECC86 valves which the Earmax Standard version is fitted with have been replaced with ECC88's.
    This is definitely NOT what the original circuit was designed for as the ECC88 requires a much higher anode voltage(90 V as oppsed to 30V) than the ECC86.
    I would suggest replacing them immediately,and can give you the name of a good supplier of Telefunken ECC86 valves at suitably low cost(avoiding the cost from the Audiophile club)and also providing you with a very good replacement in terms of bass power,and sound quality.
     
  8. mister_d

    mister_d
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    Thanks to both of you for your replies. After returning home this evening and switching the amp on to find that it sounds just as good as last night I can confirm that it has a negligible warmup time, or at least almost reaches its full capabilities from cold.

    This thread has probably run its course now, so I shall bow out myself soon and perhaps start a new thread about headphones if appropriate in the future. The next area I intend to address is definitely the source, not least because it'll also enhance my integrated amp setup (which is sounding more lacklustre than ever now, and I've always been a little disappointed with its clarity). I'm aware that the sky's the limit with sources in conjunction with a decent headphone amp, but more realistically I'm going to be constrained by my budget, so I'll probably be looking at CD players that can be bought for the right side of £500 second hand.

    pbirkett, your comment about the Grados has been noted, and I will try to listen to a pair before buying. The bass with my HD580s is now extremely solid and smooth, but still somewhat understated - this may well prove to be better suited to me than a more extensive bass, I'll just have to listen to the alternatives to decide. I have no doubt that my Marantz is holding me back more than anything else now though.

    alexs2, thanks very much for your contribution. Having contacted the seller a couple of times, he seems fairly convinced that the amp is actually a Pro disguised as a standard, on the grounds that both the Audiophile Club and a Hi-Fi Magazine review picture a unit appearing identical to mine for the Pro version. I'm not sure I agree with his reasoning, but luckily he also supplied the stock valves so I can find out easily enough.

    If it is indeed a standard amp internally, would swapping the valves also lower the required volume setting, or do I have to rely on subjective assessment to decide whether the sound is improved? I'm not sure I trust my senses enough yet to make that call, hopefully it should be fairly obvious though.

    I'll conclude by saying that I'm already very happy with the improvement I've seen so far, and listening through headphones is undoubtedly a more enjoyable and less fatiguing experience than before. If I can refine it further that'd be great, but I would say the Earmax has roughly met expectations and is easily worth the money I paid.
     

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