Do I need superhuman hearing to tell the difference between my DAC/AMP vs onboard?

Hi all,

Recently I purchased my first Dac/Amp combo - the FiiO K5 Pro which according to both reviews on Amazon and on Z reviews have really great sound for the price.

I connected my SHP9500’s to them only to find out I can’t tell any difference compared to my PC’s onboard audio. The PC doesn’t even have a super good motherboard on it.

I tried to A/B test particular moments during several well recorded tracks, streamed at 320 Kbps on Spotify where I thought I could hear subtle nuances that only came through due to the DAC, but found out I could hear them with equal clarity with the onboard audio.

I listen to music at 70-80 DB mostly, which should be loud enough to pick up on differences in sound, but so far it feels like I’ve been cheated, because to my ears the FiiO K5 Pro only provides more power, but no difference in sound quality vs onboard.
And for the record, I was shocked by how huge the difference was of the SHP9500’s compared to my old Shure SRH440’s, so I don’t think I have hearing problems.

Could it be that SHP9500’s are too “simple” to benefit from a DAC AMP?
Or does my hearing just suck? (I don’t think so, I’ve been into music my whole life, and a recent online hearing test showed I could hear between 24 Hz and 16.5k Hz which isn’t bad for my age of 28.

Any thoughts?

The shp isn’t very amp picky, it doesn’t really care what it’s plugged into, higher end headphones will take more advantage of the dac/amp

It really depends what onboard audio you’re coming from too… it’s definitely improved by quite a bit and the K5 Pro might not be enough of a step up to make it obvious…

The quality difference in amps are generally easier to tell apart than DACs and much more appreciable, especially after around the $100 price point… from my experience.

With DACs, I’m guessing the primary difference from the cheap stuff to anything reasonably well regarded over $100 comes from the amping stage… (That’s my personal theory) The part of the DAC that pushes the signal to a ‘line level output’. The differences from a $20-$30 DAC to $100+ is very easy to tell… and after that… there’s architecture and the primary DAC chip used (AKM vs ES usually)… R2R vs Delta Sigma… etc. That may vary more greatly at higher price brackets… but in everything I’ve tried under $1000 the differences have been pretty negligible as far as well regarded AKM based DACs are concerned. Maybe some extremely minor differences, but nothing worth nothing, IMO. My mood would make a bigger difference. I don’t have enough experience with R2R stuff to make a judgement call there.

With amps I’ve been really surprised at the differences I’ve gotten in terms of just pure fidelity (even with the same headphones) and enjoyment moving up in price brackets and tiers. Even for a novice like myself, the differences have been very appreciable and obvious. Even moving past the well regarded THX amps… there’s very appreciable improvements and differences in sound quality. The rule of diminishing returns definitely still applies, but it’s definitely worth checking out some higher end amps.

Of course headphone upgrades should always come first… and once you get something you are fairly happy with at a good price point, then I think some solid amp/dac recommendations can come next.

The first benefit I heard when I started getting into dedicated/external DAC/amps was better extension at both ends of the spectrum (and if you look at the NX4’s graphs you will see that even for some of the best-regarded modern entry-level DAC/amps the FR roll-off can still be the main deficiency). The headphones to judge that with should have neutral and well-extended response, even a bit V-shaped is better than something rolled-off at both ends like the SHP9500.

Also keep in mind that audio memory is crap - if it takes you more than 1-2 seconds to switch between sources when A/B comparing, you’ve already forgotten the details of how the first source sounded. You have to go back and forth a lot, and listen to the exact same short sample on both devices, when doing a slow-switching A/B comparison, before you will notice the differences (if any).

Give it some time, I felt the same going from the fx audio to my LS. At first they sounded identical but after some time you start noticing the difference. Only use the K5 for a week without going back to onbaord. Then compare what you hear. Give your brain time to acclimate to the new sound.

I find amplifiers can make a difference, especially with hard to drive headphones or if you have a device with a limited output to meet hearing protection regulations. For DACs I find most onboard DACs to be fine.

First of all, it takes time to train your ears to listen for and hear differences in the frequency spectrum. This part is also based on your own personal preference on what sound signature you enjoy most. There is a generla rule of thumb on what people seem to enjoy but again, we are all different. Then take into consideration what dislikes you have for frequencies and again something that takes time to develop.

Source material quality plays a major role, if you are listening to average quality recordings on averge equipment don’t expect to hear major improvement from one set-up to the other, there is just not enough quality in the source material or equipment to really stand out. Compressed master recordings, Bloated lows and extended highs are common traits people enjoy and much equipment and recorded material is made that way to sound pleasing amongst a variiety of sources across the board, from vehicles, to bluetooth speakers to box store equipment of all kinds.

I personally did not really start to hear or appreciate the differences in music and equipment until well after i had invested heavily into the hobby across the board and spent many many hours listening and learning about each individual element. YMMV in this hobby, but the general rule of thumb seems to be the more each individual element is upgraded the final 25% or so where you can appreciably enjoy differences really starts to shine. For example going from tablet, youtube music with $30 headphones to ——computer, Quboz, w/ $500 Dac, $500 amp and $500 headphones/IEM there will be appreciable difference. Happy Listening

It requires a better headphone. Not only that PC audio has gotten much better over the years and I doubt z has ever tried the new shit. The k5 pro I build PC’s for fun for friends family and acquaintances and doing port testing is a thing I do as a part of QC I guess. I have gone from cheap af LGA 1155 boards up to higher end x570 boards and sound has really been improving but none has beaten the k5 pro. But I don’t have super Suman hearing it’s about time training and having a headphone that is more amp picky than most.

Just my 2cents as I have sold my FX audio dac x6. I use to run my LS amp from my x6 dac. Sold the x6 and im now back to the line out of my motherboard feeding rca into my LS. The dac in the z97 MSI motherboard sounds shit. No other way to explain. Sounds dull and life less. Like its just a flat wall of sound now. Actually glad for the temporary downgrade as the Khadas tone board will sound even better when I receive it. So back to it. Onboard dacs are way off dedicated hardware. Even the entry/low level dac x6 outperformed the onboard dac. And its imediate, not trying to hear the difference. Its in your face audible.

Oh and wanted to mention, the jump between the amp in the fx audio and the LS was only noticable after some time and a lot of focus. The dac jump from fx audio to pc was a direct one. So I would say the dac and the amp both play equal roles in the mid range market. Again just my 2cents.

Appreciate all the feedbacks (as mixed as they may be :smile:)

It’s not as mixed as you might think. IMO… DAC can be a big jump up to a certain point… but that point is pretty early on, IMO.

And different experiences are going to yield different results.

But I guess I’ll try and simplify things by saying… if you are not hearing a big difference, don’t worry about… you can either just return the thing you bought or try and give it a bit more time and see if you get more appreciation out of it.

BUT that does not necessarily mean you should rule out other things. There is definitely stuff available that should be “bigger” jumps that won’t require a ‘critical listen’ to get an appreciation out of it. Sometimes it just takes a bit of trial and error. =)

Another thing that I don’t think anyone mentioned it you need to go into Windows and adjust the output setting to match the higher quality from the DAC.

Next I’d go to bandcamp and spend b$2-3 on some flac music. I recommend
Amber rubarth - strive, and Novocaine.
Black pumas have a few good sound on band camp as well.

Then A/B test with the correct setting on the Dac/Amp with FLAC.

You can tell a resolution difference from Spotify to Amazon MUSIC HD, and FLAC.

FLAC= ULTRA HD on Amazon music
FLAC > HD (cd quality) Amazon music HD
Amazon music HD > Spotify extreme

Also the extra resolution that your not getting from Spotify is exactly in the range that’s going to make you smile and say oh wow

For audio typically it’s the small differences that is the most impressive lol. Sure you can get like 95% or whatever there with a more budget headphone, but it’s that extra small percent that really makes the difference for people typically

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:100:% true. You can think something sound good but your ears will hurt or you need to turn the volume down. Another headphone will sound just as good or better and you can listen for hours. The micro detail makes a huge difference. I find songs now… like Daft Punk happy to be amazing, before it was just an ok/good song that I MIGHT let play.

Now it’s on my playlist. I think most of us went through the journey you are of low /middle/ high end setups. It’s stepping Stones…

I’ll warn you though, once you hear something it’s hard to un hear it. I have songs a really, really, really like that I can’t listen to on my setup because the mastering sucks . But it sounds great in the car or from a basic phone/ laptop headphone jack…lol

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Yeah idk but I don’t have that issue, I listen to some stuff with real bad production on higher end setups and still enjoy it lol


I totally agree on the once you hear it it cant be unheard. I love the new Tool Ulbum. But with my motherboard dac feedint my LS it just sounds bad. Like the kind of bad where I rather not listen to it. Now just waiting to get the Khadas tone board.

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Ooh, that sounds like the porn version of Bandcamp. :smirk:
Sorry, I had to.


Bwahahahahahahaha :joy::joy::joy::joy::joy::joy::joy::joy: