Headphone-focused tabletop streaming kit?

Lemmy's Ghost

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Dec 16, 2021
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Hi, I'm new to the hifi game and am hoping to take advantage of the superior knowledge of the What Hi-Fi? crew. Feeling a bit lost as to what I need, so will be very grateful for your help!

I want to put together a tabletop hifi setup that will be focused on headphone listening. This whole setup will be left out on a small side table next to a comfy chair in our living room, so the components should look nice in addition to sounding great. The idea is to have a beautiful hifi headphone experience available to family members and guests. Here's what I think I'll need:
  1. Streaming device as input (I use Tidal)
  2. Headphone amp (if necessary depending upon the input device)
  3. Headphones
Can you please let me know if I'm considering the right components here? Do I not need a headphone amp? Am I forgetting something important (e.g., DAC)? What specific products would you recommend?

Note this setup will not be connected to a computer or phone as a source. Budget is around $2,000, but I could go a little over if needed.

Thanks!

LG
 

Tinman1952

Well-known member
May 19, 2021
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Hi, I'm new to the hifi game and am hoping to take advantage of the superior knowledge of the What Hi-Fi? crew. Feeling a bit lost as to what I need, so will be very grateful for your help!

I want to put together a tabletop hifi setup that will be focused on headphone listening. This whole setup will be left out on a small side table next to a comfy chair in our living room, so the components should look nice in addition to sounding great. The idea is to have a beautiful hifi headphone experience available to family members and guests. Here's what I think I'll need:
  1. Streaming device as input (I use Tidal)
  2. Headphone amp (if necessary depending upon the input device)
  3. Headphones
Can you please let me know if I'm considering the right components here? Do I not need a headphone amp? Am I forgetting something important (e.g., DAC)? What specific products would you recommend?

Note this setup will not be connected to a computer or phone as a source. Budget is around $2,000, but I could go a little over if needed.

Thanks!

LG
Hi. Thats a nice idea! Yes unless your streamer has a DAC built in (many do...) you will need a separate one. I would say a headphone amp is essential to get the best out of your headphones. Some products have a DAC and headphone amp built into one case...may be worth considering. The biggest decider of sound quality will be the headphones you buy...so spend wisely.
There are so many options available to you...so I will just suggest what I myself use just as one example:
iFi Zen Stream (connects wirelessly to your network and does Tidal)
iFi Zen DAC v.2
Quad Era-1 headphones (planar magnetic)

Sound is such a subjective thing you need to audition a few options...good luck!
 
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Lemmy's Ghost

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Dec 16, 2021
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Hi. Thats a nice idea! Yes unless your streamer has a DAC built in (many do...) you will need a separate one. I would say a headphone amp is essential to get the best out of your headphones. Some products have a DAC and headphone amp built into one case...may be worth considering. The biggest decider of sound quality will be the headphones you buy...so spend wisely.
There are so many options available to you...so I will just suggest what I myself use just as one example:
iFi Zen Stream (connects wirelessly to your network and does Tidal)
iFi Zen DAC v.2
Quad Era-1 headphones (planar magnetic)

Sound is such a subjective thing you need to audition a few options...good luck!
Thanks so much for this info. I did some research and it seems like the iFi setup is going to work great. What do you think about the Focal Clear MG headphones? Thinking of pairing them with the iFi kit.
 

Tinman1952

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Thanks so much for this info. I did some research and it seems like the iFi setup is going to work great. What do you think about the Focal Clear MG headphones? Thinking of pairing them with the iFi kit.
Well if it is within your budget then I am sure the Focal Clear will sound excellent. I have not heard them personally but What HiFi gave them a 5 star review.


A bit too 'bling' for my taste. For that money you could also look at the Sennheiser HD 800s. 👍
 

Friesiansam

Well-known member
Thanks so much for this info. I did some research and it seems like the iFi setup is going to work great. What do you think about the Focal Clear MG headphones? Thinking of pairing them with the iFi kit.
I think the Focal Clear Mgs would be well over the top, if you are thinking of using a budget headphone amp to drive them. The Zen will not be able able to exploit the Clear Mgs potential.
 

Tinman1952

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I think the Focal Clear Mgs would be well over the top, if you are thinking of using a budget headphone amp to drive them. The Zen will not be able able to exploit the Clear Mgs potential.
I don't disagree although the Zen is excellent and you would have to spend 3 times as much on a headphone amp to better it...plus the Focal Clear are over priced in my opinion. I would suggest Focal Elegia is a better value and more appropriate proposition....👍
 
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Lemmy's Ghost

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Dec 16, 2021
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A bit too 'bling' for my taste. For that money you could also look at the Sennheiser HD 800s. 👍
I think the Focal Clear Mgs would be well over the top, if you are thinking of using a budget headphone amp to drive them. The Zen will not be able able to exploit the Clear Mgs potential.
Yeah totally get that. My wife likes the look of the Clear MGs...

The Elegia looks like it's closed-back. Would like to go with open back for now. The Sennheiser HD 800s might work. Any others I should look into?

OTOH, are there any other compact streamer/DAC/amp setups that might pair better with the Clear MGs?
 
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ThisIsJimmy

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Nov 11, 2020
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hmmm an interesting one this. several ways you can got about it, but it does depends on what you are planning to use as your source.

1) You could go down the ifi Zen Stream route as Tinman has said
2) Why not use just a phone/music player/laptop as the streaming device as it would then open up more DAC options for you.
3) You could build a roon media server and have that connected to a DAC via USB or Optical etc.

If you are seriously considering the Focal Clear MGs then that isn't a budget headphone. The Budget Focals would be Elegia at this point and some people wouldn't consider that budget either.

For either of them you don't necessarilly need an uber powerful headphone amplifier, just a setup that's going to be transparent and make them sing.

I could suggest a number of different headphone DAC and AMP options, but ultimately it depends on your budget.

As for spending 3 times as much on a headphone amp to match that, i do disagree with that statement from Tinman, but at this point until the Zen DAC V2 is put through an audio analyzer and I have not auditioned one, I cannot say where it comes out in the mix.

I would be suggesting though that you pick a DAC option which gives you as much flexibility as possible. DSD, MQA (If you ascribe to that), and decent linear performance.

Factoring that in an alternative cheap all in one solution would be the Topping EX5.

If you went seperates and would be using Roon to handle all streaming you could go Schiit Magni 3 and Magni Heresy

If you have more of a budget, you could look at a Schiit Bifrost, Topping D90SE, or Gustard X18 as your DAC

From an AMP Side, their's the Topping A90, Singxer SA-1, Geschelli Archel 2 (though that might be getting a replacement due to chip availability) and plenty of others.
 

Tinman1952

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Yeah totally get that. My wife likes the look of the Clear MGs...
Well that's sorted then! 🙂 Happy wife...happy life!
I get the impression that the look and style is important to you (nothing wrong with that...!) So the Zen products are quite stylish for a stand alone table. Other amp/streamer options will be little black boxes (Topping, SMSL etc...) might not get the 'wife approval factor'.....
 

Tinman1952

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hmmm an interesting one this. several ways you can got about it, but it does depends on what you are planning to use as your source.

1) You could go down the ifi Zen Stream route as Tinman has said
2) Why not use just a phone/music player/laptop as the streaming device as it would then open up more DAC options for you.
3) You could build a roon media server and have that connected to a DAC via USB or Optical etc.

If you are seriously considering the Focal Clear MGs then that isn't a budget headphone. The Budget Focals would be Elegia at this point and some people wouldn't consider that budget either.

For either of them you don't necessarilly need an uber powerful headphone amplifier, just a setup that's going to be transparent and make them sing.

I could suggest a number of different headphone DAC and AMP options, but ultimately it depends on your budget.

As for spending 3 times as much on a headphone amp to match that, i do disagree with that statement from Tinman, but at this point until the Zen DAC V2 is put through an audio analyzer and I have not auditioned one, I cannot say where it comes out in the mix.

I would be suggesting though that you pick a DAC option which gives you as much flexibility as possible. DSD, MQA (If you ascribe to that), and decent linear performance.

Factoring that in an alternative cheap all in one solution would be the Topping EX5.

If you went seperates and would be using Roon to handle all streaming you could go Schiit Magni 3 and Magni Heresy

If you have more of a budget, you could look at a Schiit Bifrost, Topping D90SE, or Gustard X18 as your DAC

From an AMP Side, their's the Topping A90, Singxer SA-1, Geschelli Archel 2 (though that might be getting a replacement due to chip availability) and plenty of others.
Why on earth are you suggesting he build a roon server!😖
It is for a stand alone table and also for 'guest' use. None of your options address the wireless streaming......
 

ThisIsJimmy

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Why on earth are you suggesting he build a roon server!😖
It is for a stand alone table and also for 'guest' use. None of your options address the wireless streaming......
Point 2 does address that though.

They might choose to "bring their own device". kids these days have their own phones, or apple touch, laptops etc. You name it :)

It also then opens up greater options on DACs and AMPs.
 

Tinman1952

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As for spending 3 times as much on a headphone amp to match that, i do disagree with that statement from Tinman, but at this point until the Zen DAC V2 is put through an audio analyzer and I have not auditioned one, I cannot say where it comes out in the mix.
Well I don't need an audio analyzer to tell me what to think.... I just listen! And as you said, you haven't heard it...
 

Lemmy's Ghost

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Dec 16, 2021
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hmmm an interesting one this. several ways you can got about it, but it does depends on what you are planning to use as your source.
I'm not too picky about the exact source device so long as it can stream full-quality files from Tidal and looks nice so it gets the approval of the spousal committee. A little hard drive for FLAC files might be nice, too, but not mandatory.

Why not use just a phone/music player/laptop as the streaming device as it would then open up more DAC options for you.
We're trying to have this be a standalone listening station that looks nice and sounds nicer. Ideally, someone could just flop down in the chair and turn it on. I think the spousal committee would object to a laptop sitting out at all times, but maybe a DAP or something with a nice-looking cradle?

You could build a roon media server and have that connected to a DAC via USB or Optical etc.
That might work! Will look into Roon's options.

I could suggest a number of different headphone DAC and AMP options, but ultimately it depends on your budget.
I don't want to go completely crazy with the budget, but a couple thousand dollars give or take should be reasonable. Was thinking $2,000 max for this whole project, but could push that a little if needed.

I'm pretty new to all of this hifi stuff (though I am a musician) so don't really understand all of the components I would need to make a system run. If you were trying to complete this project at, say $2,500 or less, what would you pick?

Other amp/streamer options will be little black boxes (Topping, SMSL etc...) might not get the 'wife approval factor'.....
I have definitely noticed that. And yeah, this will be kind of a little feature in a common area and my wife has...ideas...about how things should look. As you say, happy wife - happy life :)
 

ThisIsJimmy

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Nov 11, 2020
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I have definitely noticed that. And yeah, this will be kind of a little feature in a common area and my wife has...ideas...about how things should look. As you say, happy wife - happy life
Based on wife / female party approval ratings, if this has to be a 'chic' design then yeah, the Ifi Zen DAC V2 would present more of a statement. Some people like the Ifi products and others don't so it would certainly be worth your wife seeing them in the flesh before purchasing. It may not be best performance, but it will probably fit your requirements the best.

As for the streamer then yeah, something like Roon or Volumino for playback of local files gives you greater format and playback flexibility. However if you go down that route then you would be using the App for your streamer rather than Tidal Connect which might mean the music available via their Tidal App may not be as up to date as on the Tidal Connect, so that choice would be up to you.

I don't want to go completely crazy with the budget, but a couple thousand dollars give or take should be reasonable. Was thinking $2,000 max for this whole project, but could push that a little if needed.

I'm pretty new to all of this hifi stuff (though I am a musician) so don't really understand all of the components I would need to make a system run. If you were trying to complete this project at, say $2,500 or less, what would you pick?
As you are new to this, at this point don't get carried away on a budget front. You can always get yourself a more expensive system later if you like what you hear. As plenty of people on this forum will tell you, it can become an expensive hobby if you get hooked.
 
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Tinman1952

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However if you go down that route then you would be using the App for your streamer rather than Tidal Connect which might mean the music available via their Tidal App may not be as up to date as on the Tidal Connect, so that choice would be up to you.
iFi Zen Stream has Tidal Connect built in...that is one of the reasons I suggested it.
 
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ThisIsJimmy

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iFi Zen Stream has Tidal Connect built in...that is one of the reasons I suggested it.

I know it does Tinman, but he also has a local file storage as well. Zen stream ultimately is restricted to PCM and DSD with MQA pass through, and would be reliant on another device doing the audio decoding before that point. Roon and Volumino would ultimately take care of audio decoding to open that up as an option and gives him the option then of using his Tidal subscription through that. The only thing is it might not be as up to date audio library as it's the "Roon" or "Volumino" Tidal library.

At that point it's then horses for courses. What matters more? Being bleeding edge on the music library, or making use of his local archive as well as other features that roon or Volumino would give him?
 

Tinman1952

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I know it does Tinman, but he also has a local file storage as well. Zen stream ultimately is restricted to PCM and DSD with MQA pass through, and would be reliant on another device doing the audio decoding before that point. Roon and Volumino would ultimately take care of audio decoding to open that up as an option and gives him the option then of using his Tidal subscription through that. The only thing is it might not be as up to date audio library as it's the "Roon" or "Volumino" Tidal library.

At that point it's then horses for courses. What matters more? Being bleeding edge on the music library, or making use of his local archive as well as other features that roon or Volumino would give him?
He hasn't mentioned local file storage (?) In fact he said he didn't want a computer connected.
As for MQA decoding, the Zen DAC handles all that for him.
Plus the iFi app is actually Volumio...
I don't understand your comments about the library not being 'up to date' it is Tidal Connect...straight from Tidal.

The other practical consideration is how many electrical sockets are available in the 'listening area'. The last thing you want is half a dozen power cables snaking along the floor.
With the Zen Stream/DAC combo you only need ONE mains socket. The Zen DAC is powered by the Zen Stream over USB using iFi's noise cancelling technology built in.
 

Lemmy's Ghost

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I've been looking around and it really does seem like the iFi products are the only things that do what I need them to do - stream from Tidal and provide great output directly to headphones in a small, nice-looking package that can sit on a little table. If there are any other devices that do what the iFi does without unnecessary complexity, please let me know!

I totally get that the Focal headphones may be overkill for the iFi setup. I assume the Beyerdynamic headphones may be as well. Do you have any recommendations for other open-back headphones that would fit better? I've like Grado headphones in the past. Maybe some of those?
 

Tinman1952

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I've been looking around and it really does seem like the iFi products are the only things that do what I need them to do - stream from Tidal and provide great output directly to headphones in a small, nice-looking package that can sit on a little table. If there are any other devices that do what the iFi does without unnecessary complexity, please let me know!

I totally get that the Focal headphones may be overkill for the iFi setup. I assume the Beyerdynamic headphones may be as well. Do you have any recommendations for other open-back headphones that would fit better? I've like Grado headphones in the past. Maybe some of those?
Grado 325i would be one choice. Very detailed airy and open sound. I would also suggest Sennheiser HD 560 which are excellent....but you could also go for the Sennheiser HD 660s. State of the art 'reference' sound quality....👍🙂
 
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Gray

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Do you have any recommendations for other open-back headphones that would fit better?
I will second the recommendation for Sennheiser HD560S, as I can't think of a better value audio product that I've ever bought. It can also be used balanced with just a change of cable - or even by just fitting an appropriate plug on the supplied cable.

Note that they've just brought out the virtually identical-looking HD400 Pro.
It's more expensive and I was thinking that, if it bettered the 560S performance, then it really would be special.....surprisingly though, Sennheiser have confirmed that its performance is identical.
There's a slight cosmetic difference and you get a coiled and shorter straight cable (whereas the 560S comes with just a single, straight, 3 metre cable).
 
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Lemmy's Ghost

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I will second the recommendation for Sennheiser HD560S, as I can't think of a better value audio product that I've ever bought. It can also be used balanced with just a change of cable - or even by just fitting an appropriate plug on the supplied cable.

Note that they've just brought out the virtually identical-looking HD400 Pro.
It's more expensive and I was thinking that, if it bettered the 560S performance, then it really would be special.....surprisingly though, Sennheiser have confirmed that its performance is identical.
There's a slight cosmetic difference and you get a coiled and shorter straight cable (whereas the 560S comes with just a single, straight, 3 metre cable).
Awesome, thanks for the recommendation! Those look great.
 
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Sam Sly

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How about a pair of Audeze LCD-X headphones?

I am planning on buying these very soon.

I personally think they look amazing, but that’s a matter of taste. I think your friends and family visiting your house will be curious about the LCD-X and might be interested in giving them a try.

I’ve auditioned theses before and thought they sounded great. It’s a bit like strapping speakers to your ears. They are heavy though.

The thing I like about the LCD-X is that they are very easy to drive and a dedicated headphone amplifier is not a must. You can use it with with something like a Chord Mojo or Dragonfly Cobalt connected to an iPad. This allows you to listen to the headphones anywhere and doesn’t tie you to listening in one place. You can always buy a proper headphone amp later if you feel the need.
 

EvShrug

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Mar 4, 2022
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Hi, I'm new to the hifi game and am hoping to take advantage of the superior knowledge of the What Hi-Fi? crew. Feeling a bit lost as to what I need, so will be very grateful for your help!

I want to put together a tabletop hifi setup that will be focused on headphone listening. This whole setup will be left out on a small side table next to a comfy chair in our living room, so the components should look nice in addition to sounding great. The idea is to have a beautiful hifi headphone experience available to family members and guests. Here's what I think I'll need:
  1. Streaming device as input (I use Tidal)
  2. Headphone amp (if necessary depending upon the input device)
  3. Headphones
Can you please let me know if I'm considering the right components here? Do I not need a headphone amp? Am I forgetting something important (e.g., DAC)? What specific products would you recommend?

Note this setup will not be connected to a computer or phone as a source. Budget is around $2,000, but I could go a little over if needed.

Thanks!

LG
Hey! Sorry for being late to the party, but I couldn’t help but immediately think the Shanling EM5 or EA5 are perfectly suited to what you are looking for 😃

All-in-one amp, DAC, and streamer, with a little touchscreen on top and Android installed, so you can use Tidal or whatever else you fancy. Shanling’s house sound is crowd-pleasing smooth and warm (but not dark and sleepy). It would be easy to set up and you don’t HAVE to use interconnect cables (just a power cord and the headphone cord) or a remote, but you do have the option of a smartphone app remote.

The EM5 has a balanced headphone output, for cancelling some forms of distortion, but side by side with the EA5 it’s just as powerful and very close sounding, and the EA5 adds the option of a speaker amp… I like that flexibility, the option to have it beside the armchair for headphones, or flip a switch and turn the living room into a HiFi stereo listening room, for sharing music without the dominating presence of a TV.

Like @Gray, I too like the linear sound of the HD 560S (it was originally intended as something home music producers could use when mixing/mastering, before the Sennheiser Pro and Consumer divisions were more hard-split like the Berlin Wall, and Pro came out with their HD 400 Pro version), it’s great if you want that Studio, “what the artist was hearing” sound in headphones. However, the slightly warmer and smoother HD 650 (or HD 6XX on Drop) has been a crowd pleaser since 2003 for a reason… it will still sound “natural” to most guests (it’s often heralded for having amazing “timbre” as well), but it’s also the perfect headphone to relax with at the end of the day and just sink into that armchair, beguiled into just letting the album play out or shuffle bring on whatever is next without feeling like you’ve gotta jump to the next thing. Personally, I use an HD 660S at my office chair (WFH), but HD 650 and an armchair just go together.

I know I didn’t use up your whole $2k budget, but I really think that would be a tidy setup that would just let you enjoy the music for years to come, and give you a lot of flexibility if you ever wanted to tinker around with adding different components to your system (like a different DAC, amp, adding a DSP or an android app with DSP/ features). If the remaining $$ is burning a hole in your pocket, just get a few years of Tidal HiFi for $79 each: https://www.bestbuy.com/site/tidal-hifi-12-month-music-subscription-starting-at-purchase-auto-renews-at-79-99-per-year-digital/6407158.p
 
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