There's a lot of things I really enjoy about audio that can't simply be "what's better". All of us want upgrades when we spend money. The next thing that's just better than the last thing. In reality, it's always tradeoffs, and not just "more money is the tradeoff". That applies to everything in life though really. Intagible things like features, be it wireless connection, ANC, or even just look and feel are things that you may want other than just raw performance. Today I wanted to take a look at things that I have spent money on that aren't just about squeezing every last bit of detail out of music, and have given me joy in one way or another to help explain the insanity to a bit.
Amps and DACs have a sound, end of story. There are some that may do things differently that you prefer, but it's a lot harder to just say "this source is just better at everything" sometimes even comparing across price ranges. There are different designs out there. Let's look at two catefories of amps first. Tube amps tend to offer you a warmer presentation of audio. Sub bass and the really high highs can roll off in the upper air region, but they tend to be a lot of fun when it comes to classic rock, slower metal, orchestral, acoustic, and several other types of music. They tend to not be so great for really fast music such as metal with high BPM and double base notes, quick or very deep layered electronic music, and a few other places, but those aren't hard and fast rules. They augment the sound and present it in a new way and can shape the sound of headphones that you love already in new ways. Solid states are better for the inverse. Source chains rarely can take a headphone that you hate and make it great, but it gives you a new look at music you feel that you know inside and out, and give you another look at it. I'll cover this in a review, but there are factually exceptions of really picky headphones that can be make or break with source gear, but know that's an exception.
As for DAC's, it's the same story. DAC's are often broken up into categories of delta sigma, which is what you are used to, and R2R. Delta sigma tend to be much more sharp, and give you a sense of more detail, where R2R tend to give you a much more natural sound. R2R excel in similar places that tube amps can, but offer a different presentation all together. R2R are quite the investment to truly start getting into, which is their main drawback. I'd recommend giving one a listen before committing to them before you truly decide it's for you. One goodd exception that presents "R2R-like sound" is the Gashelli Labs Jnog with the AKM4493 DAC chip for those interested in a cheap way in. I'll do a mini review of that at some point, but I'm well off topic at this point. Long and short is that there's reason to look around at source gear to augment your experience as opposed to just "get an upgrade".
Yes. No. Sorta. Once your headphones cost $5000+, we can start debating on if materials really matter, but that's not the topic today. I'm simply talking about if you care about the cable. How it feels, how it looks, what functions cat it offer you. Braided cables are often more flexable and have less chance of stressing connectors. Maybe you care about how thick the cable is because a big cable that's flexable just feels premium to you. Material choice on the outer coating can play a difference as well. Maybe you want a soft material on the outside so when you bump it, it has a nicer feel. This also gets into microphonics. Microphonics are basically the ability for the cable to introduce noise into your headphones/IEM's when they rub on things and that vibration goes up the cable and onto the headphones, or worse, IEM's. That sound doesn't have anything to do with electrical signal, but it's something you end up hearing if it's rubbing on a desk or your clothes in some situations. What about connections? Most of us are used to cables that aren't modular so we don't think about them. Companies like Hart Audio are one to offer you different connectors with their quick connect system. Have the wrong plug for the device you want ot plug your headphone/IEM into? Why buy a new cable when you can just switch out the end. This saves you money if you end up needing more than one cable to plug into, say, a phone with a 3.5mm jack, and a balanced amp at home with XLR. Or if you buy new gear, you don't have to worry about which connectors they offer. The cable will work, and you only need a new end! This also allows you to easily add extensions that work with every end type as you aren't buying new cables. Long cable for the desk, and make it short while on the go, all without buying any extras you may not need later. It's up to you if you feel like a cable will make a sound difference, but to me, it's all about feel and function, and that's worth spending a bit extra on.
What about headphones? My DAC/amp arguement holds here even more true for headphones. Those have the greatest impact on sound, and can give you massively difference enjoyment in different tracks. If you have one nice set of headphones, and say, IEM's of any quality, I recommend listening to the same song on both. Each one will not only have different levels of detail, but also a different overall sound. Is one more pleasing to you? Which one is better at everything? Chances are, it's neither. Most of the time, we have different types of headphones for convenience, or comfort, which is itself a great reason to own more than one kind of headphone. Maybe it's as simple as wanting the spacious sound from open back headphones, and sometimes it's loud, so you switch to closed back headphones so you can listen uninterupted without letting everyone else hear what you are listening to. I've often been asked "What's the next headphone up from [insert their audio dewice]?". Most of the time, I can offer suggestions on where to go up, but I've found that many people enjoy having options of sidegrades rather than one really expensive headphone with a huge downside. The higher you go up in price, normally the more you have to spend on supporting gear. If you have a $1600 headphone, you probably don't want a $100 amp or you'll probably be missing out. Same with the DAC. Not to mention that there are parts of audio that you'll learn exist thanks to hov much better your headphone is at doing some things, and then other things just don't improve much, and if that's something that you care about, you may feel like it's lacking. There's no best anything, and there's no rush to the end. If you even think you care about high end audio, either find someone with lots of hardware to listen to, or see if you really care by playing with what you have, or keep it affordable when buying new things to try. Higher end headphones aren't always as much fun as some cheaper ones.
So that was a long unstructured ramble about things that were going around in my head. Hi-fi is true insanity, but it's out of love for music for most people. Hopefully that can give you something at least to think about or help you understand why I take such a seemingly odd stance on reviews of audio gear for those that haven't heard things for themselves. As always, I'm sure I missed something, so feel free to reach out if there's anything else you'd like covered, or if you want to ask about specifics that apply to what you have, ect.