Is it worthwhile to upgrade my current stack? (D30+Atom)

I’ve been rocking a Topping D30 DAC (the original) and a JDS Atom amp for 2 years now, my entry into the audio hobby. Back then it was the most I could afford, and both pieces of hardware were praised highly for their price-to-performance for their time. It was such a massive upgrade from on-board PC audio for me that it literally changed my life. Now, 2 years later, my stack is still my faithful daily driver, but I’m just wondering what else is out there, and if it’s worth upgrading one or both of my components in 2021?

My setup is: Mac (USB) + PC (SPDIF) —> D30 —> Atom Amp, which serves as both my headphone amp as well as a pre-out to a pair of powered JBL 305ps. I use Foobar for lossless music listening, and my PC is also hooked up to the D30 for gaming audio. I use software EQ to tweak sound to all my headphones and speakers. My headphone collection is small, KPH30i, ATH-AD2000X, and Sennheiser 58x. (As a side-note, I briefly owned HIFIMAN HE5XXs and Sundaras, but I found them so extremely revealing of micro-details in my music that they were distracting, and ended up returning them.) I listen to all genres of music, from classical to power metal to jazz to hip-hop.

Everything I plug into my stack sounds amazing, especially with EQ. And yes, I am happy, but I feel like this wouldn’t be much of a hobby if I stopped here, haha. My question is, with what’s available now in 2021, will I enjoy any audible improvement in sound quality if I upgrade any of my components? Is there a combination any of you can suggest that could make my current sound more resolving, more fun, more engaging? I’m asking here because all of you have much more collective experiencing listening and comparing vs my experience, where my only comparison is on-board audio.

Last year people commented on Reddit that my setup reproduced sound accurately, but leaned heavily towards the cold, flat and analytical. I was originally saving up for an RME ADI-2 DAC, but a lot of people said it too leaned to the more analytical side. Plus, I read the manual, and I don’t think I need all the features for the price it’s selling for.

I know I’m my question here is pretty vague for the most part, but I spent weeks independently researching different DACs and amp combos before I posted this question and it’s not the same as asking all you great folks firsthand about your experiences. I’d like to have that same visceral feeling I did back in 2019 when I plugged in my stack, after years of living under a rock with on-board audio, tears rolling down my face, haha.

My budget is $600-$700 in total. Balanced is not necessary, however I need a DAC with multiple inputs (USB/Toslink/Coax). I also need a way to control the volume on my passive speakers. I am curious about the new Geshelli J2 DAC and how it sounds, but there aren’t a lot of people talking about it/comparing it.

I know I’m just another guy asking the same dumb question here again, but any suggestions would be super appreciated!

I’d say upgrade if you want to and can afford to. think about your headphones, the music you like and the sound profiles you prefer and then chase after ways to maximize those. :slight_smile:

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You can always upgrade in steps. The big issue you’ll have is the $100 amp and face market is really really good for the price and that ah-ha moment is harder to achieve. I’ve been on a similar path but I upgrade my headphones as well. IMO I would spend the money on an amp and rock it with the D30, save up again and go for a new DAC or a new set of headphones.

It’s exactly as you said, and it’s sort of been my dilemma. I know the Atom amp is still relevant in 2021, it’s ultra linear, and lots of people say it’s about 97% of the performance of THX amps 3x its price. I know at least with the Atom, it’s linear enough that I’m hearing the DAC itself. So I’m not sure which step to take next in my upgrade path: get an amp that’s more colorful, or an DAC that’s more colorful.

I know there’s 2 schools of thought on whether well-engineered DACs sound different. I’d like to think there is ‘some’ difference to a point of diminishing returns.

DAC upgrades will make the least difference and to get the audible difference you would definitely be spending all of your budget and then some. Also at that point you really have to think about what your whole chain looks like to get the most out of the DAC.
I would probably pick up an amp or new headphones first. Or stretching your budget you could try for something like Stax or koss 95x.
Oh saw you didn’t enjoy micro details I would definitely try a headphone like Dan Clark audio RT or if you can find an audioquest night hawk to try out.
Amps I would try out an Asgard 3, singxer SA1, or a Monoprice liquid platinum.

Honestly you’re at a good level right now, so what I’d have to ask is what do you want from an upgrade? The problem is that if you upgrade one item, say your headphones, to something that demands more, you’ll either not get the performance increase from the headphones or it will start to show the limitation of your existing equipment. It would depend on the synergy.

You can do steps as suggested but in the end it’s a financial commitment that to get to the next level. I have no idea of where the ATH-AD2000X stands performance wise but it does seem like that’s the headphone you should focus on if you’re going to upgrade as it’s the most out of line with your existing system.

So your options are stay exactly as you as because you’re happy. Or know that to get more you’ll likely need to spend around $1500 to get a good noticeable jump from where you are now, but also get something that will scale for you a bit as you upgrade to other headphones. The HD58X scales pretty well, but you can use a phone to power it as it’s just very easy and forgiving.

One thing that may seem out of left field but that will improve your music dramatically, would be to either get a Rasberry Pi with a good hat like the Pi2AES and use that to feed your DAC as a network bridge. Or try and find a DDC (digital to digital converter) that will take the USB in from your PC or MAC and turn that into SPDIF out. It will clean and reclock the signal it feeds to your D30. Your PC or MAC are insanely noisy environments and getting your music out of there into a Pi bridge or a DDC then into your DAC will feel like you’ve upgraded your entire system. Plus it’s an upgrade you can do for around $300 bucks.

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All your responses have been so helpful so far, thank you!

I love micro details! I picked up the HE5XXs and Sundaras to add some planars to my collection and see what all the planar fuss was about. What I didn’t enjoy was how these planar headphones brought literally everything forward in mix. For example, in this track Violet’s Letter by Evan Call at various points in the quiet parts, you could hear someone’s chair creaking in the orchestra, and you could hear the flautist’s valves clicking as they play the flute passages. On my KPH30i and 58x, these sounds are subtle and distant, the way it should be. On the Hifimans, they are loud and in your face. The Sundaras treated all my music this way, and I realized that maybe the planar sound just isn’t for me.

These are awesome suggestions, all things that I’ve spent the past couple weeks researching.

My feeling right now is, my D30 and my Atom are old, and a lot has happened in the audio world since 2019. I still love my stack and I still find myself impressed with it, but I’m just curious if I could do “better” for a decent price point today. By “better,” I mean perhaps more resolving? Maybe better clarity/separation, bigger soundstage? And I mean this in the audible sense, because I could go for a $1000 DAC that measures significantly better but it makes no difference because I can’t hear the difference. I’m driven to ask more out of curiosity than a burning need to upgrade. You’ve definitely rekindled a lot of confidence in my current setup.

Etroze86 suggested a few amps above. I’ve been looking at these because I think maybe I want to try upgrading to a system that has slightly warmer, more textured sound. A lot of people in audio forums have commented on my stack in the past saying that it’ll sound accurate, but clean and boring. I don’t really have any other experience to compare, so maybe I’m leaning towards something more fun. I’m not sure if I’ll enjoy “fun” more until I actually try it. I’m trying to hear others’ thoughts about this.

I have been researching the Pi2AES and it’s tempting, but at $200 I wasn’t sure if it was a worthwhile investment vs. just buying a brand new DAC altogether. Also, isn’t SPDIF optical clock jitter an issue between different pieces of hardware? I was under the impression USB tends to yield a cleaner signal?

Sound like you know what you’re looking for, that’s a great place to start. A planar headphone that’s a lot of fun, has a characteristic along the lines you describe and isn’t in your face like the Saundra is the Audeze LCD-2 Classic, they can be found used for around $600ish.

Optical is TosLink and it’s not as cabable headroom wise as other interfaces but a clean signal is a clean signal. SPDIF is Coax Digital, stands for Sony Phillips Digital Interface and can go higher resolution but an interface is just an interface, what’s important is how it’s implement.

The Pi2AES threas here are very good and will give you some idea of what you’re getting. The point in moving the source out of your PC and into the Pi or through a reclocker will pay dividends by giving your D30 the cleanest signal and it will be noticeable. It’s also not throwing money away as you’ll be able to use them long term.

I agree with your logical next step if you want to try something else is an amp. Keep the DAC for now as you’re likely not going to see much of a difference unless your spend around the $700 mark. A good used amp can be found for around $400 to $500.

If you want “fun” and something completely different than what you have now, that will pair very well with your HD58X is look at a Bottlehead Crack w/Speedball. Not sure how handy you are but you can either find them used already built or build your own.

It’s an insanely fun amp, completely different flavor to what you’ve got and it might keep you engaged for years to come. The BTC w/Speedball and an HD600 or HD650 is crazy fun and again you can just keep your existing D30.

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Ok I understand where you are coming from with the micro details. Audeze’s house sound would be right up your alley. The night hawks would be something completely different, kinda like a low distortion speaker against your ear, it’s a little crazy to hear at first.
If you are in Hawaii I’d definitely let you try out different gear to help along your way.

I’ll definitely have to try and demo them someday! I was so put off by the Hifimans that I thought that this was just something all planars do.

Sound advice. Talking to all of you really made me appreciate my current setup even more. I think my next major purchase would be an amp or a headphone.

I have never heard of this before, but after reading about it this is definitely feasible and within my skill set! I will most probably pick up this DIY someday in the future as a fun side project!

Thanks for the invite, though I am clear across the water way on the East Coast in NYC! I plan to visit Hawaii someday when all this craziness has blown over!


It’s one of the tried and true magical pairings in the audio world, Bottle Head Crack with Speedball and the HD600. The thread here is actually a good read to go through as a start.

my dream has always been to create a multi-device stack that lets me play with warm, neutral and cool sound profiles in both DAC’s and Amp’s. doing so would let me have the option of 9 different combinations to learn / experience and then move forward into the territory of some higher priced products.

but your headphones / speakers will influence the sound profiles of your chain due to their own unique sound profiles.

so really, it could be an amazingly fun journey to see what is what! :smiley:

This is really the kind of level I’d like to take this hobby to someday. If only money were no object :cry:

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well man, there is quite the selection in $100 DAC n Amp choices…so, unless you buy used, it’s only around $900. and who says you gotta buy all at once!

Hahaha, very true! Gets me thinking now, when you put it like that!

Just curious, what DAC/amp/headphone combos do you own and are enjoying right now?

I’m a poor sumbitch. wracked up some debt I e been paying down…6 months left then something new for audio!

that said, I have Drop HE-4xx, Senn HD599se, AudioQuest NHC n Stax SR-2100.

my chain is an ifi Zen DAC v1, n I love it.

I want a Liquid Spark amp…a Schiit Bifrost n Asgard 3, plus a solid OTL amp like Bottlehead Crack with Speedball, which I wish to pair with some Senn HD600.