What actual benefit do $500+ DAPs offer for mid-volume IEM listening?

I’m not being snarky, I’m earnestly trying to figure it out. I’ve been finding that I enjoy listening to IEMs and being mobile more lately, so I went looking for a DAP upgrade to use with some high-end IEMs. I’m not too interested in full headphone listening, and I don’t plan on blasting them at high volume. So after falling down a rabbit hole pretty hard and doing a bunch of research, I’m pretty confused as to what the sound quality benefits would actually be, and where those benefits would come from, if they would actually be audible at all!

The only reason I would be looking to upgrade would be sound quality. The more and more I read reviews and impressions, the harder it became to actually figure out what actual tangible advantages there were, if any. There are all these huge spec lists, but then when it comes to reviewing sound, the language to describe sound is so imprecise and impressionistic that it comes off as BS a lot of the time.

For reference, my current DAP is a Hiby R5. It’s a really solid unit with tons of features in a small form factor. I’ve been happy with the SQ generally. The tricky thing is that the R5 is so fully featured that you end up losing features on a lot of the things you’d upgrade to, and that unit would be larger and heavier.

So, I’m curious. Where wound the benefit come from, and what experiences do you have with the more expensive DAPS?

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Would depend on your iems tbh, but there are easily benefits to be had that can be very audible

And that’s the harder part, as you go up and up you get more into the intangibles like detail, soundstage/spatial recreation, timbre/organicness, speed and impact, noise floor/blacker background, etc. It’s not something you can really look at a spec sheet and find out for the most part. And again this will depend on the iems you have as well, some aren’t amp picky and won’t benefit as much, and others may greatly benefit from higher quality amplification. Generally most if not all iems would benefit from higher quality source gear, but it would depend on how much and if a dap upgrade could be justified with the specific iem. Also factor in system synergy, as some daps will be more suited to specific iems than others, so getting a good pairing is important as well

Then imo if you are pretty satisfied with it, it’s not a bad idea to just stick with that, unless you are looking for more of course

Typically you can keep the features but you do tend to get a more beefy or larger player (those electronics gotta go somewhere lol). Generally when you hit the point of the r5/m11/dx160 you have pretty much all of the features you would want, going up higher than that are mainly increases in sound quality, you don’t see a huge improvement in terms of interfaces or software features, but you might see more hardware features

As someone who purchased a ~$1000 DAP about a fortnight ago, I can tell you everything just sounds much cleaner. Without my DAP, every time I listened to music it sounded as if there was a sort of wall infant of it, that’s gone now and it is just so much more immersive.

Thanks for the answers! One of the things I know I don’t need is the ability to power high-impedence headphones because I could just get a separate amp if I needed it. I would rather have low output impedance for higher-end IEMs, and just to generally have great detail and sound at lower volumes.

Do you have a sense of which of those components tend to make more of an impact? I figure the DAC is pretty vital, but some of these have like 8 in them, which makes me wonder a bit! I’m sure there are tangible sonic differences, but there does seem to be an element of it in some of these highere end products I’ve been looking at, where you’re buying components for the sake of components, rather than actual tangible sonic benefit.

What did you get? Maybe it’s something I’ve overlooked.

Questyle QP2R. It isn’t for everyone though

Makes sense, most of the time you only buy amps for sound quality improvements anyways, not the added power

All depends on the topology and design, there really isn’t something I can point to really. A well implemented dac is important, a good headphone amp is important, using quality components like capacitors and resistors is important lol, it all matters for the most part in the end

The dac is indeed important. Regarding the 8 dac thing, you might be thinking of the ess dacs, and that’s really one chip with 8 streams or something, I won’t say it’s marking bull, but it really isn’t what you think and it doesn’t mean it’s sonically superior over something like an akm dac, it all comes down to the implementation

I mean those components are typically bringing the sonic benefits (but again it depends), but there are some players where you might pay a bit for looks, but most of them you are paying for improved sound quality the most

That does look pretty nice! I hadn’t seen that one before, and I really like the super-high end iPod look it has! I’ll have to pore over the numbers sometime.

I guess that depends on the brand. I was looking at the Fiio M15, and ended up having to write it off because they focused on extra power so much that their output impedance was too high to get great results on more sensitive stuff like Andromedas.

I guess some of the crazier examples were sticking out in my head. It has tended to blur together a bit, as things tend to when you’re falling down the rabbit hole! I am kond of new to this, but I’m catching up I think. I can hear a difference between ESS and AKM though, so I’m not a complete scrub when it comes to these things. :grinning:

You’ve been pretty clear that there are tangible differences, and it is kind of distributed across all of the components. That isn’t the answer I wanted, but I’ll take it!

Very broadly speaking, do the improvements you would get from a higher-end DAP scale across anything you plug into them, or do they reveal their value more with higher-end IEMs?

Gotcha. 1.1 ohms actually isn’t bad and would be fine for most iems, but the andros are indeed really picky lol, and I haven’t tried that combo so I can’t say for sure. But I did really like the andros on the cayin n6ii with the e02 module, despite the 1.2 ohm output impedance, it was really good imo with only a slight hiss that wasn’t audible at all when music was playing. (that’s just a really good dap in general with lots of flexibility with swappable dac and amp cartridges/modules) Honestly with the andros you have to make a bit of a sacrifice, if you go for something with super low impedance, there is a really good chance the sound quality might suffer as you might have to use more negative feedback or other choices that will sacrifice sound quality to get real low output impedance, and while you might get no hiss whatsoever, it might not sound as good as another player that only has a slight hiss that isn’t audible with music for the most part, just something to consider

Yeah there are def differences, but personally I have heard a ton of variance between different implementations of the ess and akm, I have heard some garbage and excellent ess implementations using the same chip, so it can really vary from dap to dap. But to overgeneralize typically akm will be more neutral smooth with a bit more spacious stage and ess is going to be a bit brighter more forward/sharper with a more tight but deeper stage, but this can vary for sure

You can typically still get the quality improvement on lower end iems, but higher end iems or more picky iems will pronounce these differences way more

I have some pretty damn picky iems that only really sound good off my desktop gear or the best daps out there, but typically that’s not the case. With something like an andro, you should be able to easily appreciate the benefits a higher end dap can bring sonically

I just want to avoid a situation where I would spend four figures on a DAP and not have it work reasonably well on everything I could plug into it. I don’t currently have an Andromeda but I enjoyed the time I spent with it and have thought of rebuying it sometime.

I did look into the Cayin a bit, but not to the detail that I looked into the iBasso DX220. The idea of a tube amp in your pocket does seem pretty cool! I dove way deep into that one. That was part of what made me second guess a lot of things, because with the DX220, you have all these different amp cards, then people making firmware and doing hardware upgrades to the hardware and the amp, “tuned” Android ROMs, it’s pretty crazy. Reading a bunch of that got me wondering, is this actually some great diamond in the rough, or is there an element of all this where people are enjoying the time, effort, and money they put into the components more than the actual unit?

That’s kind of what I figured. What about an IEM on the other side of the spectrum, like 64 audio’s stuff where they have that LID tech that minimizes the impact of impedance and that kind of stuff. Would that sensitivity to better gear apply as much to that?

Yes that is def something to consider. Personally when I have tried both the n6ii and it’s modules as well as the 220 and it’s modules I did think they had the performance to match, but also the demographic that is going to be spending a grand on a portable music player are most likely going to be enthusiasts looking to push the limit. But I don’t really think it’s only popular around the mods or changes, both are mighty good stock (I prefer the n6ii in sound but the 220 has a speedier more polished ui, but the cayin isn’t bad either in this regard). By using custom roms and such you have more flexibility in how you want to use the player and what you can do with it, so further tweaking to your liking. This isn’t unusual on android phones either. The hardware upgrades are a bit extreme though and I don’t see people do those too often lol

Yeah, but just in different ways, by reducing the affects of output impedance now the iem can be enjoyed on more players and reap the benefits of more players/sources. I will say those scale super well and are very revealing of the source (the 64 audio stuff), so it’s not like you are reducing the amount the source gear can improve them, you are just making it more compatible with more gear, so there is a lower chance of it sounding bad on some portables, but that doesn’t handicap it’s ability to scale

So do you think the DX220 would be a solid jump from the R5? I will look at the Cayin more too, but the DX220 caught my attention first.

It’s been tough juggling sources, IEMS, and cables in my head all at the same time. I remember catching myself yesterday when I was looking at that AMP9 tube amp while thinking about the Andromeda, then was like, “Wait, that would just make everything sound like Silent Hill.” Had to take a break after that.

That’s kind of what I figured. Actually, the reason I’m even thinking about all of this right now is because I bought a 64 Audio Nio and received it a couple of weeks ago. It should be a phenominal IEM, but I had to return it due to a couple confusing issues that I wasn’t sure were either QC related or it just not agreeing with my ears. Lesson learned: Never preorder expensive IEMs while the company is shut down due to a pandemic. So now I’ve got all this store credit I’ve gotta use, and if I’m seriously thinking about that level of gear, the Hiby might not cut it.

I personally think so imo, but again it depends on what iem you end up with

Generally from my experience the andros did not go well with tubes lol. The only iems that tended to go well on some of my tube stuff have really been dynamic iems, the balanced armatures just didn’t really sound that right to me. Also I think cayin is also working on a tube module for the n6ii as well, so that’s neat, but idk when that would be coming

Hmmm what did you think was the issue, and how long did you have it before returning it? I want to hear one when I get a chance, since I think it’s their first hybrid iem which sounds like it would be a pretty enjoyable listen imo

I think something 64audio is pretty likely in the future. At the moment the heavy contenders are u12t and the Andromeda. I’ll need to think on that more probably because there’s tons out there. Even though I had the issues, I am definitely sold on 64 audio.

Oh, it’s definitely enjoyable. Dangerously enjoyable! It is tuned rather brillliantly. It isn’t aiming for a reference or analytical target, more warm and musical. The bass is extremely potent and accurate. It can rattle your ears for sure, especially if they haven’t been burned in. Burn-in on the dynamic driver is real and necessary, because out of the box, the bass was just absurd. The mids are warm and superb, and the treble is really smooth. The treble is pretty recessed in how smooth it is to avoid any sibilance or other treble nastiness. It may actually be impossible to make these sound sibilant, even in really extreme cases, that’s how tuned bad the treble is. The detail and resolution of what it’s putting out is pretty incredible throughout. There wasn’t much in the way of soundstage, but that was likely my gear holding that back.

Even on a Hiby R5, it is clear that these are a solid step above the Andromeda in most respects and several steps above something like the Fiio FH7.

There were two issues that may or may not be interlinked, and may or may not be QC issues or as intended. I’m not sure and I’m not going to find out. First and most importantly, it didn’t seem to be relieving enough of the dynamic driver pressure, which led to a lot of ear pressure, even at lower volumes. It turns out that ear pressure agitates my extremely minor case of tinnitus really badly, so that was a nice thing to learn, I guess. Hearing is fine, got it tested, but it clearly doesn’t agree with me, so I’m taking a rain check on dynamic drivers right in my ear for the time being.

The second one is that at lower volumes (~80dB and under), it lost a lot of its charm. At lower volumes, the bass loses some focus and is pretty omnipresent, and the highs become more difficult to come through the mix. Because I got pretty spooked by the reaction to listening to these at louder volumes, I turned them down a lot, and they are quite muddy at lower volumes.

So yeah, both my dealer and I aren’t sure if there’s a defect or not, but he didn’t experience the negatives that I did. Either way, full refund and good support, and I learned a few things along the way. Oh yeah, they’re really pretty and the accessories are trash. Review over!

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:+1: Sounds very nice, I kinda want to get my hands on a pair now lol, that sounds pretty great


Should be the case

Did you mess with their apex thing? There should be 3 apex module pairs, those are used to release pressure and should have made that so it wasn’t an issue, but perhaps they didn’t work well on your unit

Hmmm this could come down to the iem design overall potentially, but your source gear could have played a role here, but this honestly sounds more like an iem trait than amp, but I really can’t say since I have not heard the nio yet (this wasn’t an issue with the other 64 audio I have tried so far)

Well that’s good that you got it sorted. Just wondering what gear is your dealer using for them?

Not a fan of the stock cable and tips lol?

Oh, they are. Just wait a few months, though. They were short-staffed and in a pretty precarious financial position due to the lockdown, so it’s likely the normal QC couldn’t really be done. That’s my guess anyways. In hindsight, it seems pretty obvious that it wasn’t the greatest idea.

Yeah, the modules tune the bass and isolation. The mX module trims the bass back a good deal and makes them a more reference monitor. Even on that, the pressure wasn’t releasing properly. The dynamic driver was just overwhelming the pressure release.

This one could be a design issue because I saw a few others talking about this online, but I haven’t seen anyone else mention the pressure buildup being an issue. And I’m sure they would if they had it, because it was pretty intense for me.

That is the good thing about buying locally through trustworthy sources. It was able to get resolved easily and with nothing lost on my end.

He’s certainly not lacking for TOTL DAPs, that’s for sure. That’s a big part of why I made this thread in the first place.

The preorder cable is pretty and looks like it sounds really good. The funniest part about the included accessories is that it’s a dangerously tight fit with the silver preorder cable to the point that there’s a decent risk you’d damage something everytime you would use it. Like, the normal cable is so trash, but I had hopes for the case!

Maybe it’s kind of a flex from these high-end companies to make the accessories as trash as possible? Doesn’t Astell & Kern do the same kind of thing, where they don’t even give you a case until you’re in the $2k range or something?

Very interesting, I could see that happening since this is their first iem that has a dynamic, they could have not controlled it as well

Sometimes, depends on the company, but astell and kern does do that lol

The control is clearly there at ~85dB+, but lower than that it just needs to chill some more! The Nio is more or less a universal version of their N8 custom fit, which they’ve had for a while without the kind of issue I was seeing. They probably have it hiding in other models somewhere.

Speaking of, what is your experience with them? If I do upgrade the DAP, they’d be on the list. At first, it looks like they’re just overpriced, but do they make up for it in sound quality? Some of their designs look great. I wouldn’t want to go above $1500 for the DAP which rules out most of their lineup…

I forget that exists lol, I did get to hear one and it was actually pretty solid (although not ideal since I was jamming someones custom in my ear lol)

They are pretty great but I don’t really think they offer good value, you kinda get charged a bit of a luxury tax with them, while I think their top models are very high performers, I don’t think the value prop is there for some of their more midrange or entry players. Although I do think the kann and kann cube offered decent value compared to like their sr15 or se100, but for what you are after the kann are more for harder to drive iems or portable headphones tbh so not the best fit in your case

Yeah, that’s kinda what I figured. It seems like they really aren’t trying a ton with their lower-midrange as to not upset the high-end Plus, I can’t keep their numbers straight for the life of me.

Last question: What about the Sony players? Not the one dipped in gold or whatever, the ones below that. They don’t use off the shelf DACs, right?

Also, M0N, you’re a champ! Thanks a ton for clearing this up for me and any future lurkers.

Absolutely no clue how they go about their naming scheme lol, doesn’t make sense to me at all

I don’t know what dac chips they use, haven’t really looked into the internals to find out, but I don’t think they are off the shelf. Generally they are competent, with a well refined non android interface that just works, and sound quality that while not the best value, is pretty refined and solid. Generally I wouldn’t say I would recommend them unless you are already in the sony ecosystem, but they are solid players and while they don’t lead the pack in performance anymore imo, they are a reliable, tried and trusted portables for the most part