Purchasing New Stack, Balanced Amp Setup v.s. SE Amp Setup

Hey all. While my EVGA NU Audio card has served my needs quite well, I am looking to start an actual stack to improve my setup. My only requirement is that the headphone amp needs some kind of RCA Passthrough so I can chain to my power amp for my speakers.

While I will probably wait for sales before I start purchasing, I have drawn up two possible stacks that I am considering.

  • Choice A: Unbalanced/SE Setup w/ RCA Cables (TOTAL COST: ~$434)
    DAC: Topping D50s $185 (OR SMSL M300 Mk. II $239.99 / $197.99)
    Headphone Amp: JDS Labs EL Amp II $249

  • Choice B: Balanced Setup w/ XLR Cables (TOTAL COST: ~$597.98)
    DAC: SMSL 300 Mk. II $239.99 / $197.99 (OR SMSL SU-8 v2 $185)
    Headphone Amp: Monolith AAA THX 887 Amp by Monoprice $399.99

The headphones I currently own are the Sennheiser 58x with a planned purchase of a T60RP Argon. The T60RP is designed for balanced use, but the Sennheiser will be used single ended as they aren’t designed for balance use.

I also own two IEMs - Sony MDR-EX800ST and the Acoustic Research AR-E10. If I get a balanced headphone amp, I will get an XLR to 4.4mm adapter to use them balanced.

My Question is will the sound quality differ between these two amps and setups? I understand that balanced essentially lowers the noise floor, prevents ground loop issues, and provides a higher voltage. I have read differing opinions on sound quality with some saying XLRs are really only going to provide a benefit if cable runs are long and others saying XLRs provided better sound quality. I think one benefit of the balanced amp is that as I purchase more headphones in the future, I can use the balanced for the headphones that allow it so it’s more futureproof. But I saw a video saying in close cable runs such as those on a desktop headphone amp setup that balanced is not really worth it at all as it provides no difference. It’s about a difference of $163.98 between balanced and unbalanced. I can afford this difference, but is it worth it in your guys’ opinion? Some help and advice would be appreciated.

Thanks! :slight_smile:

@nyj585 To be honest I would avoid THX amps. They are extremely overhyped and overrated, and sound pretty dry and unmusical. I would look for a different option if you want something that has a balanced out on it. The first option would be very nice for unbalanced.
Have you considered the Schiit Asgard 3? Many here think it is the best low budget pairing for T50 mods with the enormous amount of power it puts out. Not sure if it is balanced or not though.

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And as to your question on balanced vs unbalanced, it really depends more on the amp itself and how the balanced or unbalanced is designed. You could have a poorly made single-ended, or a poorly designed balanced. A well designed single-ended is usually just as good as a good balanced. The Asgard 3 is a great example.


IMO I wouldn’t worry about balanced/unbalanced, as long as you can get enough power from SE.

The advantage of balanced (outside long cable runs) is if the amplifier is differential, you can get some additional noise rejection. At the cost of double the number of amplifier components.

Pick components for reasons other than Balanced/SE, there is no practical benefit at the price point your looking.
My primary setup is balanced, purely because my DAC has better quality from it’s balanced output.
My secondary setup is all Single Ended, because that DAC doesn’t, and the Amp doesn’t have balanced inputs.

If anything selecting good single ended components gives you more options when you “upgrade” because even some very high end components can’t take a balanced input.


Soren is right…a really good SE implementation can be just as good as a good balanced implementation. the original benefit of balanced was that it provided more power than SE, but that’s often not the case anymore. a good example is the newer Schiit Audio Magni 3+ and Heresy amps…many have commented how they sound just as good as some of the original THX amps that are 5x the price.

that’s not to say that balanced is bad…but it’s not as important a factor as it was before.


I like my asgard 3 so I think it’s worth taking a look at as soren has said… I’d only say itll be less ‘analytical’ and more ‘musical’ than the thx stuff (from what I’ve heard, not personal experience)… you could get the multibit dac with your budget as well and on low gain it works really well with iem’s

I own a heresy as well which would serve you well on the analytical side of things (or magni 3+ as marzi says) but I dont know if itll power argons but I have no reason to think otherwise

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Yeah if you want something analytical and more transparent, while still retaining some life to the music and sound, the Magni Heresy is better than the THX.


I don’t mind the analytical or dry aspect of the amps. Even the JDS Labs EL Amp II is said to sound characteristically like the THX Amps in terms of neutral, transparent sound without coloration (at least from what I read).

I personally prefer when the coloration is added by the characteristics of the headphones/speakers/iems themselves rather than from the amp. Or by adding something to the chain like a tube pre-amp, which I hear adds a wonderful warm quality to your music and is recommended by a lot of older audiophiles like my father. From my DAC and my Amps, I prefer clean and distortionless power. But this is just my philosophy from what I have read and heard.

But yeah, I guess implementation is the most important. Both the EL Amp II and the THX Amps seem to provide plenty of power and be implemented well. I’ve read forum posts from owners who say they can’t tell the difference of quality between SE and XLR when volume matched on the THX amps. So it seems the amps have done a good job of maintaining both SE and Balanced sound quality. I guess it comes down to how much having a extra output option of balanced is worth (though it likely won’t affect sound quality in any way).

The el amp is pretty balanced sounding, perhaps a very slight w, but the main thing is that they sweeten up the treble a bit so it’s not as harsh and more pleasing, still a pretty neutral amp tho

Makes sense, that’s why I would kinda avoid the thx stuff, as it’s pretty dang colored imo, moreso than the el amp. I would say something is uncolored if it’s able to reproduce a natural accurate sound. Thx is overly sharpened, overly forward, and isn’t the best at spatial recreation, kinda making everything sound flat and lifeless. I would easily take a jds labs atom or heresy instead as imo that’s a more accurate amp that goes for the same goal as thx but accomplishes it better (for much less).

I have very high end single ended amps, it’s really a design choice. If you have a balanced capable device, use it balanced, if not, don’t worry about it lol.

So for your options imo I would easily take the el amp ii and a dac of your choice (why not go for the el dac ii?). IMO you get a more refined sounding product, and save money in the process by not having to re cable to balanced


Yeah M0N hit the mark a lot better here than I did lol.

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I wasn’t aware that the THX amps had any coloration. Most reviews I read talked about how analytical, accurate, and transparent the sound is compared to other amps.

However, I admittedly will be using the headphone amp for dual use between gaming and music. Imaging and spatial recreation will be important for me just for gaming, but less so for music. The amp is mainly there for music, but it will have to be able to stay out of the way for gaming as well.

The EL AMP II would certainly be a nicer choice in the stack though. I can just run RCAs through everything rather than having both RCA passthrough (for my speakers) and XLR for the headphone amp so it’s cleaner in that respect.

The SMSL M300 MKII and the Topping D50s seem to be the best choices for DAC based on measurements. I know measurements are kind of a touchy subject for many, but I think in the realm of DACs there isn’t much besides measurements as it’s literally turning digital bits into analog signal via math. They should also theoretically do the least amount of audible change when comparing competent DACs.

So my take is with budget setups, just grab a nice clean dac and you are good to go, but they to sound different than each other depending on how high or low you go in the range

Actually yesterday this same thing was mentioned lol, here is a response from a similar question from polygon

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