Help me determine how to spend $1,500

Hey there everyone!

I am a new member of the community and am coming here for the advice of you all on my future audio setup purchase. So without further ado, onto the question!

I am in the market for an audio system for on my desk at home. I am a PC gamer (these would be used while playing) and enjoy music most times while I play. I generally listen to rap/hip-hop/metal as well as some rock, pop, etc. on occassion. My main music would be rap and metal though.

I have done a ton of research over the last few weeks (we are talking hours per day watching Z Reviews and DMS content as well as reading here and on Reddit) so I have a few conclusions/things narrowed down to this point.

I am essentially between the Focal Elex, Focal Clear and ZMF Aeolus. I also have considered the LCD-2, LCD-2C, LCD-X as options as I know they are all well reviewed headphones. I am also open for thoughts/suggestions on this front as my main goal is simply making the best decision I can.

For the record at this point I would consider myself 99.9% likely to purchase the Aeolus assuming the community feedback doesn’t educate me otherwise.

So here is what I am asking for. Esentially a discussion around how to best allocate this budget towards a pair of headphones (and what would be suggested) as well as the best amp/DAC options to go with with whatever I choose.

On the amp/DAC side of things I have considered the following (and would be open to any of these): Shiit stack, Atom stack, Element II, El Stack II, THX AAA 789, SMSL SP200 & M200, Geshelli Erish & ENOG2 Pro. Once again, I am not exclusive to these models and am open for suggestions, I just feel these are the best options all things considered. For the record at this point I am leaning towards the Element II. It seems to have reviewed extremely well and will provide all of the power I need for any of these choices. My main concern is that this isn’t a balanced amp and I don’t want to give up any kind of performance for simplicity.

In terms of my sound preferences, I would say that something neutral is really my goal. I don’t want something bass dominant, but not with piercing highs either. More warm than cool would probably be acceptable if I had to lean a certain way.

Thanks for any and all help offered here guys! I am really looking forward to joining this world!

TLDR; I have $1,500 to spend on an audio setup. Would like a recommendation on a full setup!


DISCLAIMER: if you don’t have experience with some of the more midrange and budget gear, I would highly suggest you consider trying that stuff out first, imo it’s very valuable to try out some of the more budget stuff to really start to understand your preferences first. It can be very valuable to really start from the lower end and climb to the higher end, you really nail down what you are looking for and also understand what you are getting for your money. Also the journey and experience is really fun, it’s no fun to start near the top lol. It’s very hard to confidently say what you want without having heard examples of it, so I do think it really is smarter to start lower end here if you are new to this (it will be more rewarding in the long run imo). If you have already tried some of the more midrange stuff, ignore this segment lol

Welcome to the forum, with what you are considering, you are on the right path for sure. Generally I would say if you are after something neutral is your goal, the focal clear is a good option, although it’s not something I would call warm and thicker, but it is a great headphone. If you went with an amp like the rnhp and a dac like the bifrost 2 that would be an excellent combo for that headphone imo. If you wanted a bit more fun sound but still somewhat neutral from focal (a bit more forward, better impact, w shaped sound, more exaggerated dynamics), the elex is a good pick for sure, but it’s a bit behind resolution and capability wise from the clear.

Regarding the aeolus, honestly I would hesitate to go for it imo, as it’s kinda lacking in technicalities and imo is a fair bit too smooth for me personally, kinda just doesn’t really impress me whatsoever. It’s got a generally agreeably relaxed and warmer signature, but sacrifices the capabilities of the headphone to get to that imo. I think you might really like the auteur and eikon as that would do excellent with your sonic goals (mainly neutral, great organic impact, very detailed and refined) and would be very good with the music you listen to for the most part. You would have to look used for these to actually find them in the budget range. The auteur is a more neutral headphone where the eikon is slightly warmer and more impactful leaning. Amp and dac wise for the eikon/autuer I might suggest either something like a monolith liquid platinum or bottlehead crack + speedball for something more impactful and a bit warmer tilting with an ares ii dac, or if you wanted something more refined and neutral the hagerman tuba with a bifrost 2 is a very good combo imo.

For the lcd series, I think ideally if you could find a lcd 2.2 pre fazor or lcd 3 pre fazor those have great slam and impact, with some nice smoothness without sacrificing technicalities. Generally with these amp wise I do like the aforementioned liquid platinum for more impact and width/spaciousness with a bifrost 2, or I like the lake people g111 to really tighten them up and give them a bit more neutral character, you could look for a used soekris dac1421 later on (or a 1321)) for the dac as they par pretty well. The lcd x is very nice, personally not my favorite but I do think they are a good linear planar that is up close and personal that is more forward, I like this with the rnhp and bf2 pairing to fix the not as good timbre, but these don’t have the same smoothness and impact of the other lcd headphones

Some other headphones you might want to consider would be the hifiman arya, that would play nicely with the genre you like, and would give a pretty interesting grand and large presentation to things with good layering, my only concern would be potential treble elevation, which you could offset with something like the liquid platinum a tad, but it will still be prominent, so finding a hifiman edition x v2 might be a good play if you wanted to get into the larger driver hifiman but were concerned with treble they might have (personally I’m not bothered by the arya treble when properly amped but some still are)

I realize that what I have mentioned most likely exceeds your budget because of the amps and dacs, but I do think it’s pretty worthwhile to give these headphones a really good signal chain, if you can’t fit the amp and dacs I mentioned in the budget, if you weren’t opposed to it you could grab the amps and then grab a dac like a topping e30 or earmen donald dac for the time being and go for a higher tier dac later on (so like for a clear it would be rnhp + e30 for example and a bifrost 2 later on)

From the dacs and amps you mentioned, generally I would personally recommend against the thx amps for what you are after imo, as they have pretty overshadowed and over elevated treble, and lack good spatial recreation with mediocre timbre. The Element ii is a good dac amp combo, solid with enough power for most and clean but not boring. As is the geschelli combo. The schiit asgard 3 + modius is a warmer thicker leaning combo that’s pretty engaging and doesn’t really sacrifice technicalities so that would also be worth a look for sure.

Generally my preference would lie with the amp and dac pairings above but if you can’t make it happen even with skimping on the dac, for the elex I think the erish and enog 2 pro stack is a good pick (without upgrading your amp and dac I don’t think the clear is worthwhile), for the auteur and eikon I also really like the asgard as well, same with the lcd’s. But I do really think you are leaving a decent amount of performance on the table by not bringing your source gear up to the same level as the headphones in this range

Also since I forgot to mention gaming performance, imo mostly everything mentioned will game well for a casual or semi competitive range, although the clear and elex have some spatial presentation that can be sometimes confusing with certain games


My Eikons custom for handling gaming and conference call needs comes in tomorrow. Will report as they maybe the gaming headset to get. Otherwise I’d start low. Sennheiser pc37x from Drop + Schiit Fulla 3 is damn good for a starter set. Welcome and you have the pleasure of getting M0N recommendation right away which is always an excellent.

Warning with M0N:
“Abandon all budgets ye who enters here.”

The up votes my comment will show everyone that spent more money because of M0N… And come back for more.


Ok yeah so what I just wrote above, do really ignore that if you haven’t tried anything in the midrange, I would highly suggest doing that first and getting a real good feel for things, didn’t realize that this could/would be a first setup until I was done typing this lol. Do not go all in on your first setup


Spend the money on good HPs (like the ones @M0N has suggested) and if you don’t have much left over, you can get a beginner amp and dac combo for $200. You can upgrade them down the road. My 2c

Can’t emphasize this enough. Have made a few bad purchases because I realized that what I thought I would like from reviews are not actually what I was looking for.

Keep in mind, if you plan on doing gaming for a while with an LCD series headphone, your neck may have a bad time from the weight.


Pretty much yeah, by spending less now you save yourself more later, aside from the other benefits

Fair enough, but a true dedicated gamer would never forget his neck exercises and strength training lol (and of course your other gaming related stretches and exercises, since clearly every gamer has perfect posture and a fully ergonomic setup)


If you are eyeing the Focal Clears/Elex, I would highly recommend getting an amp/dac pairing that is on the warmer side. On the Element II for me, the Clears are a bit too bright (haven’t tried the Elex). I don’t have tubes with them, but they don’t have the punch that I want for songs like rap and pop imo. The Element II is a great amp/dac combo for the price imo in general, just talking about the pairing with those Focal headphones. That fun sound is not really there for me with the Clears even though they are great sounding headphones. It pairs better with my ifi Micro iDSD black label over the Element II. It is nice for competitive gaming, but haven’t tried it on CS yet, mainly Overwatch, but I imagine it would be great for that as well.

Are you sure that you want neutral though with those genres? Like have you tried mid range headphones to know that neutral is your preference? Reason I say this is I thought I wanted neutral as well or I wanted really warm sounding headphones and after experimentation, found that I really wanted something in-between. Like an engaging sound for most modern music, but not so warm that it ruins the other technicalities of the headphone.

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The main reason I like the rnhp with the clears and elex is that it has really great timbre and makes them sound more natural (one of the weaknesses of the focals), also very high preforming in the midrange and treble for very good refinement. Also not super large stage with the rnhp but a ton of depth with also good verticality which works very well with the focal headphones, and maintains very good detail and speed throughout. The only complaint wit the rnhp pairing might be a tad more impact in the subbass but overall I think it’s a great pairing imo. The idsd with the bass boost and the focals is pretty fun if you want to jam out lol

Yes, generally you won’t want to lean too far into one specific sound, a balance is key

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I appreciate all of the input provided in your first response. Those are all fantastic things to consider and I will look into each individual option to at least better familiarize myself.

I do want to expand/comment on the first setup side of things. I totally get (and appreciate) the advice to start slower and work my way up into the bigger leagues over time. This journey started with me thinking a pair of DT 1990’s with an Atom/Shiit stack would be all that I needed. Nope!

Further down the rabbit hole I went, looking into options and trying to really nail down the best performance for the money. So I tweeted at DMS for his input on where to go in the $500-$1,000 neighborhood and his recommendation was the Elex. For $100 upgrade it makes sense, so I felt that would be a strong choice.

Then things change. I ask for some feedback (similar to this post) on Reddit on the choices I am making and for their general feedback on the best options to go with. This lead to me hearing quite a few horror stories about the Elex and their QC both on the first build and issues with the pads in the recent builds. This kind of turns me off of the headphones even though they’re so well reviewed (and honestly sound like exactly what I am looking for). In this same thread where I am reading this, someones suggests Aeolus with Topping E30/L30. This blew my mind. I felt on a high end headphone like those, getting a $250 stack wouldn’t do them justice. Through discussion the community pretty adamantly insisted that these would work with no issues at all and be everything I need.

So I look into Aeolus! And lo and behold, these headphones are billed as the second coming. Reviewed well, fit my entire aesthetic/interests (I love hand built, heirloom quality things) and seem to also be extremely versatile through pad changes. Those all sounds fantastic to me!

So I pushed the budget. Feel I have essentially landed on the right choice for me after all of this reading, but I am really struggling to decide on an amp/DAC as there is a lot of conflicting information here. I like the JDS Labs gear. Enjoy their aesthetic, they seem to be universally recommended. My only concern there is the lack of being balanced and what I may lose with choosing their product over a THX/Geshelli or other setup.

So that is where I am. I am fine scaling back down to mid-range if that will serve me better. I also have the budget and the desire for getting into the upper echelon of these products (within reason) so I don’t mind taking that leap if the decision can be reasoned enough. As of writing this thread, I felt pretty comfortable with Aeolus and an Element 2. I also would feel comfortable with an Elex if their werent such massive QC issues (I think they’re off the list due to that) and would also heavily consider the Clears.

Sorry if any of this is jumbled or rambling. There are a LOT of things to consider with audio gear, as I am finding out! Haha.

100%, entry level gear with good synergy out performs mid or high end gear without synergy. I would really listen to M0N on the Aeolus. For gaming, remember Zeos said the Eikons were the best gaming headphones (once).

To put things in perspective, fulla 3 + pc37x sounds so damn good together it took over $1600 in gear to say something definitively sounded better.

(Would have been a) solid setup imo

Compared to the rest of the focal lineup, the elex is def an outlier in these issues, I guess drop was shoving them out too fast and qc took a hit compared to other focal products

So this setup would work, but generally I can’t say that would be a very high preforming setup imo both in headphones and dac. The aeolus isn’t that amp picky, and the l30 and e30 are pretty impressive for their price, but it’s really more in the “get the job done category” imo for the amp and dac. You will get plenty of detail and clean sound from the e30+l30, but you might miss out on lower level information, better spatial recreation, and overall a more natural and believable sound. If you were to temporarily ignore the dac and amp, I would just use what you already have. I don’t think you would be disappointed with the setup too much, but you might be quite surprised about how much more you can actually get out of that price range with different headphones and amps

So I really don’t think this is a downside, going balanced really isn’t going to give you a higher quality sound, it’s really a design choice, single ended amps can sound just as good if not better than some balanced designs, I really wouldn’t worry about it imo. Although if you do end up with a balanced amp, use it balanced ( since the single ended on balanced amps tend to be afterthoughts). Also imo the element ii outperforms the thx amps lol

So where you are at, you are clearly looking for a significant upgrade, so I do think it would be worthwhile to take that step if you can and really be rewarded for it imo misread you had 1990s, I would suggest trying some of the more mid-range options first

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With higher end dacs and amps, you start paying for the more intangible things like more accurate spatial recreation, more true to life timbre, and more natural presentation overall, it’s something that’s hard to realize until you actually try some of the higher end components and experience it yourself (but that could be said about anything in this hobby lol)


I found this to be true with my thx 887. Single ended sound was disgusting on everything except IEMs (where I enjoyed the iem experience).

If you want a single ended thx amp, Schiit Heresy does everything just better.

On the topic of my sound preferences, I have some experience with mid-fi home theater setups as well as various “high end” mass market headphones from recent years. I know I am not a fan of music dominated by the low end or the high end. If the treble is too highlighted for me I feel like the music lacks soul, which is important for me. That being said, retaining detail and some amount of sparkle on the high end can really take something over the top. I don’t want muted. I want lively, energetic, punchy with some depth.

within my current gaming headset (lol, I know) I have a decent EQ built into it that I have been playing with and listening to some of my favorite music recently. I know these are nowhere near the quality I am looking at, but I feel it at least gives me a general understanding of what happens in music when elements change. I can definitely say that music with recessed lows and very present highs is something I am not a fan of! I also don’t enjoy music where the mids have been totally stripped out. It feels that the vocals and detail of the song get dominated by the bass/high notes.

My most pleasing EQ was one with more present mids, moderate to slightly toned down bass (compared to the mids) and with highs that were slightly more recessed than the lows/mids. None of this was too drastic though, so I don’t want to misrepresent what I was enjoying. Here is a screenshot of the EQ that I really enjoy with these:

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Sounds a bit like a dynamic Headphone like Focal Clear would actually be a good choice here. Buy it used to get enough money for a nice AMP.
If you also want a punchy Headphone i would not suggest buying Audeze i have the LCD2C which has a lot of rumble but isnt really punchy. My Focal Elex ist better in that and is way more clear and i heard the Focal Clear ist even more clear.


So honestly I might suggest you try like a 58x and see what you think for a warmer more mid focused headphone, or perhaps like a dt880 600 ohm for a more neutral and wider headphone, see what your thoughts on them are, they are pretty excellent headphones for their price, and will give you a good idea signature wise what you are after

(Going to be real I misread that you had a 1990, so this changes things again lol, would suggest you start a bit lower here)

Also i would suggest buying multiple Headphones and Return the ones You dont like i did that with DT1990 and it was very sibilant for my ear with the element 1 since then i stay away from Beyer.

Focal Elegia is what I am thinking.

The elegia is a good example of a neutral focal, with a tuning more reminiscent of the clear, except it’s not as amp picky, so it will run well on most things, would be a solid thing to try imo

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