It comes as no surprise higher end headphones benefit from additional hardware upgrades between your computer and the headphones. It's not always a plug and play affair if you're looking for the best sound, so here are few audio component upgrades for anyone looking to take a step up from "good" to "best"...
PC Desktop Setup
Here's a basic setup which allows you to setup a direct feed of digital audio (FLAC, 320kbs or lossless MP3s) utilizing a sound card into a dedicated, separate hardware DAC ("digital-to-analog converter", converting digital file data into analog signal to the speakers). This in turn feeds into the headphone amp. There are DACs + headphone amp combo units, with components like the iBasso D7
as a viable alternative for users wanting to curb their spending.
1. PC Sound card: You don't need a professional card, but Audigy 2 cards will work. The main goal is to bypass the integrated sound card of your motherboard, if that's what you usually use. Professional plug-in sound cards use more expensive components, which will result in better sound. They will also include more ports and will come studio-ready for recording purposes for professional musicians.
Some of them come in external rack-mountable form, allowing for more customization than a simple plug-in card. Users will experience less latency with a professional sound card, and will be able to handle multiple audio inputs and outputs at the same time.
2. DAC (Digital to Audio Converter):
Specialist standalone DACs are important in any hi-fi setup because they take the digital signal stored in music files on computers and turn them into something the human ear can process.
The better the DAC, the better the sound. Cheap integrated DACs are found in CD players and speakers, but standalone DACs create a better sound that can be fed into any amplifier, headphone or otherwise.
The Music Hall dac25.2 is a good option for users wanting a tube-based DAC. However, these kinds of DACs can cost more. It make sense to pair a tube DAC with a headphone amp that also uses tubes. Tube amps will help deliver the typical valve sound associated with vacuum tubes. In order to get the most out of this kind of DAC, you should rip all of your music files in a lossless format. That will allow the DAC to perform its work. The sound is less clinical, "warmer" than what's usually associated to sound coming from a digital source. You'll spend between $200 to $500 on a good DAC.
3. Headphone Amp:
There are a lot of different kinds of headphone amps available, from retro tube amps that can give a warmer sound to completely modern ones that optimize the sound to your presets. Tube amps use vacuum tubes to increase the amplitude of an audio signal. The corresponding valve sound is "warmer" than the one resulting from a solid state amp.
The simpler circuits produce less harmonic distortion. Some examples of headphone amps using vacuum tubes are Woo Audio's headphone amp and the Bellari Class A Tube Headphone Amp (VHA540). Headphone amps start out pretty cheap but they can get expensive quickly. Expect to spend $300 to $500 for something decent.
You can get an external sound card for your Mac, but to start off with, a good basic setup simply involves a DAC and a headphone amp. That will allow you to get the most from your higher end headphones.
There are a few different DACs made for Macs exclusively, and the Apogee Duet 2
is one of the better ones since Apple partnered in its creation. iBasso makes a few different models, including the aforementioned D7, but the DB2 Boomslang2
is a portable version which could provide useful.
2. Headphone Amp: As with PC setups, the headphone amp is a core part of any audio enthusiasts' system. The good thing is that headphone amps are audio hardware that's compatible with either Mac or PC systems.
MORE HEADPHONE TIPS
5 Tips for Upgrading to Hi-fi Headphones
8 High-End Headphone Amps
Woo Audio Headphone Amp
(Images: Flickr member Noelas licensed for use under Creative Commons, Flickr member Aspherical Element licensed for use under Creative Commons)