One of the most common questions we get is what matters most, if you want to get the best sound: headphones, amplifiers or sources? The answer is: neither of them! The overall sensation of the perfect sound (let’s call it the “smile factor”), is a function of many variables. Simply put: it starts with the band and it ends with our brain.
To start with, and this is the single most important thing, the material must be good. For a perfect wine experience, the glass is a very important tool to refine the sensation. What matters most though, is the wine itself. It our case, it’s the music source, and this means the band, the studio, the mics, the recording and the mixing/mastering … not the bits & bytes. Obviously, don’t go for a MP3. Nowadays, file storage space is not an issue anymore, but does it need a DSD file to make a great sound? The answer is: no. It can matter, once you are ready to reach out for the stars, but a solid 16/44 FLAC is fine. It’s the recording itself that matters much more, and that’s why we came up with our crowdsourced audiophile playlist project.
Then, let’s talk about the gear itself. In my opinion, the headphones or earphones matter most, but make sure you drive them with a good amplifier that delivers enough power. So the choice of headphones always depends on the amplifier to drive them. But then, is it necessary to break a bank for streamers and servers? Well, they should be decent of course, but as long as they stream a file from a cloud-server, and nothing more, it’s not the main job to be done. On the other had, DAC’s are important of course (just as amplifiers are) but not as much, as some people think (like treating them as a religion). Again, what matters most are the headphones or in-ears. Here, make sure you select the right concept for you (open-back or closed-back, in-ear or over-ear). And pay attention to the earpads/eartips. Especially for IEMs, eartips make a huge difference and I’d argue that our unique Tailormade eartips improve a good IEM more than the best amplifier. The reason is fit, fit, fit! If they don’t seal perfectly, the sound signature will totally break apart.
So let’s summarize what components matter – in order of importance: first headphones or in-ears (including the earpads/eartips), then the entire electronics chain (amplifiers, DACs, audio players, servers or streamer). And cables? Of course you should have a decent cable, but put the main focus on other things. Once you’re there to get the very best out of a great chain, then cables become relevant.
Finally, there is another essential thing to consider: software. Needless to say that a dedicated operating system will outperform an OS that runs dozens of jobs simultaneously (like a full Android). But the magic words are “digital sound processing”. DSPs nowadays give us endless opportunities to fine-tune. Parametric EQs to polish the curve of headphones, high-pass / low-pass and many other filters, and (perhaps most importantly) cross-feed generators. Especially closed-back headphones and earphones can turn into something completely different, when getting some cross-feed from a good DSP. If you like it or not though, is up to you. Try Roon for instance, and you’ll know what I mean.
So software clearly matters, but what about our own software called “brain”? Music means enjoyment, and enjoyment means relaxation. If you’re stressed (mentally or physically) you’ll never get the best out of your system. Push your own “enjoy” button and you will get there.