(2023-03-15) Curse Of The Audiophile

Have you ever heard audio gear that sounded either nice or terrible? Have you ever wondered what happens between the audio media and your ear drum to cause that? I'm certainly not even close to an expert on this matter, but over the past couple months I have gained a better understanding about what makes some audio gear sound better to our ears. The conclusion I have reached was not what I expected to reach before and even during my little audio adventure. Read on to find out more.

But first, I'd like to talk about cool audio stuff I've owned before 2023, because I've never really had another nice opportunity to write about that. If you don't care about my backstory (😒), then skip to the definitions part. So anyways, this all essentially began when I was in middle school, when I had a friend who brought in a pair of Skullcandy headphones. What the heck is a "skull candy"? Around this time I didn't have any opinions about music and audio equipment, but when my friend showed me those headphones and let me try them on, I was blown away. Those headphones were the OG Skullcandy Skullcrushers.

What made the Skullcrushers so cool was the fact that they somehow boosted the bass so hard that the sides of the headphones vibrated when the music was playing. Like... damn. Later I bought myself my own pair of these and enjoyed them for a couple years. These Skullcrushers were wired, and had an inline "converter" thing that had the bass adjustment slider and took in a single AA battery to power the bass boosting. And these headphones also folded up neatly into a compact form that fit inside the included mini drawstring bag. I later bought a different pair of better headphones, and sold my Skullcandies to a high school friend for around 🍁$50 (🍁$ = CAD, $ = USD for later reference). This friend literally broke the Skullcrushers about a week after I sold it to them. Alright then πŸ˜’

Sometime circa 2010, I slightly got into reading about audiophile stuff. Honestly I didn't really understand anything, and all of the audiophile discussion flew over my head, but a certain name I saw kept sticking out: Sennheiser, an apparently really good headphone maker. Somehow I ended up in Best Buy and bought myself a pair of Sennheiser HD428's. Many years later I would learn that the HD428's were definitely not the kind of headphones that Sennheiser was famous for in audiophile circles, but to my clueless 15 year old self, these were super awesomesauce "audiophile-approved" headphones 🀩

The bass of these Sennheisers could clearly never match the battery-powered bass boost of the Skullcrushers, but was still quite solid, and the sound of the rest of the audio spectrum sounded really nice too. Also, they had a looong cable that was 3 metres or about 10 feet long. I used these headphones until they died circa 2016. The thing that killed these headphones was that the wire leaving the audio jack part wore out right at the end because these headphones don't have the "wire bend absorber" you see on most headphone audio jacks. Theoretically I could have tried to somehow fix this with a soldering iron and some other stuff I had lying around, but I decided to give up and throw them away because these headphones felt like they were at the end of their lifespan with their worn out ear pads. Even though I probably wouldn't like them today, I still miss the HD428's I had a lot 😒

Sometime either before or after the failure of my Sennys I bought a pair of Sony earbuds at a local tech store. These Sonys (Sonies?) didn't seem like anything special at first. I mainly bought them because they had silicone tips for sound isolation, and had an inline pause/volume/mic controller that would be useful if I had them plugged into my phone. However, for whatever reason, I ended up falling in love with their sound and used them for a lot of audio listening. I could have ended up using these for a long time, but unfortunately I murdered one of the buds.

I was just chillin' one day in front of my computer with my earbuds and had my usual big mug of coffee in front of me. And somehow when I took out one of the earbuds, it ended up falling out of my hand right into the cup of coffee. The bud did keep working right after its coffee bath, but finally decided to die a day later. I did go to that same store to buy another pair of Sony earbuds, but the new ones I got had a different design and an unappealing sound, and I had no way of finding out what model I had before. RIP mystery Sony earbuds, you will be missed 😭

I also played around with speakers and other audio thingies in the early 2010s, but it honestly all this wasn't that special or interesting, though I did have a lot of fun in the moment. I took apart probably at least 2 pairs of computer speakers and somehow soldered the different audio parts together randomly. One pair of computer speakers that my family owned for a long time that I played around with were a pair of Labtec Spin-50's, which played the lovely GSM buzz back in the day. I kind of want to experience these again, but don't know if it's worth it to acquire old computer speakers today. Another cool thing I did once was try to make a small sound amplifier from scratch using various electronic parts I had access to. It appears it worked in the end, but I realized that it would be a pain in the butt to use it in practice, so I basically gave up after I tried it once.

Circa 2010 I bought a Sony MHC-EC99i Hi-Fi system which were a fun house-shaking bass monster, though overall they didn't really sound great. I probably used these for maybe around 6-7 years, and after gave them away to my father, who used it with his iPod to play his favourite music when he was doing stuff in his workshop. These also ended up dying sometime later, possibly due to water damage that may or may not have been caused by yours truly (not trying to hide anything here btw, I legit don't get how or why they died, and a moment of me touching them once with very wet & sweaty arms/hands seems to be around the point where they stopped working properly).

Now I can introduce the headphones that will segue us into the part where I talk about audiophile stuff. In the pre-pandemic beginning of 2020, for whatever reason I decided I needed a Gamingβ„’ headset, even though I wasn't a gamer then (still am not). Because of an issue I had with my previous Sennheisers where my auricles (visible part of the ear) would get hot after a few hours of music listening, I wanted open-back headphones so my auricles could stay ventilated and cool. First I bought a Sennheiser G4ME ONE Open. They sucked, and I returned them. Then I paid way too fucking much (<🍁$250) for a pair of Sennheiser GSP 500's. These were okay, and I didn't hate them, but I didn't really use them for some reason and the return window passed, and now I was stuck with them.

From then until the very end of 2022 I essentially never put on a pair of headphones or earbuds, and only listened to music from speakers. The speakers I have with my computer are the Creative Pebbles, which aren't impressive, but they are fun to listen to. Those are the speakers I used to decide whether most of the songs I put on my Singing Synthesizer pages were worthy. All that time my GSP 500's were lying in their box in my closet, waiting to be put on again one day. That day eventually came, when I needed a headset for some teleconferencing I had to do for career stuff. In the breaks between the meetings I was in, I decided to listen to some music since I never really heard the vast majority of my currently favourite songs on headphones. Wow, when I listened the headphones, I realized I was missing out on a lot of details in my favourite music that I didn't hear with my computer speakers. I also remembered that there existed better headphones that could make my listening experience even better. The audiophile awakens.

Before I get into talking about audiophile stuff, I absolutely must define some terms that I will use and/or you will find helpful if you end up on your own audiophile journey:

So you may be wondering: how did I know that better headphones existed even though I back in the day I didn't get audiophile stuff? The answer is simple: I am a tech nerd, so some basic knowledge of audio stuff rubbed off on me in the tech spaces I lurked. But there is another bigger reason I knew some stuff about headphones: DankPods. DankPods is a YouTuber I've been watching for a while who makes very fun content involving iPods, cheap MP3 players, crappy old phones, and a bunch of other random stuff. He is also a musician and an audiophile, and he made a few videos recommending and showing off various headphones. I've seen many of his headphone videos, but I mainly (re)watched two of those videos (Vid 1 & Vid 2), and used them as a base for what audiophile headphones I would end up buying.

Now a lot of the headphones that Dank shows off in his videos are pretty expensive, and the way he talked about them made it seem that you needed to spend big bucks to have a good audio experience. However, the videos were somewhat informative, for example Dank showed frequency response graphs (from RTings) so we can see how the audio sounds, and explained how to read the graph. Dank also explained about how expensive headphones need better amps so you can drive them. However, Dank did not explain a lot of important things that I ended up having to figure out myself either through research or right when I got my hands on a pair of headphones.

And honestly at this point it was smart of me to consider what exactly I'm trying to get out of buying better headphones. What does a "good audio experience" mean to me? The main things of course were having fun listening and also hearing the music in better detail, but I also thought about the idea of "hearing music how the artist intended". Though later on I ended up dropping the "artist intention" idea because I first intuitively realized that this is a dumb idea, then I watched a video explaining why it's dumb. Hint: most musicians want their music to sound good on even the worst sound systems. So I ended up just being left with trying to get "fun" headphones that sounded detailed.

After watching the DankPods headphone recommendation videos I sort of had this plan: first I would buy the cheap audiophile headphones, then I would upgrade to the more expensive ones and also get an amp for them and I would have the greatest awesomest audio experience ever. So, the cheap audiophile headphones that DankPods recommended were the semi-open back Superlux HD681 and the Samson SR850, two cheap headphones which are both clones of the AKG K240, a pair of well-known headphones that have been around since 1975. I needed to find out which was better. Dank said that he personally preferred the SR850's sound, which seemed to be slightly more expensive, but also more comfortable to wear. But then reading around on Reddit, I came across someone who managed to convince me that the HD681 sounds better. And anyways, I was planning to get better headphones later, so who cares if I don't get comfortable headphones as long as they sound good.

Over the past couple months the price of the HD681 and the SR850 hasn't been consistent everywhere, nor has their availability. And I don't know what their actual MSRP even is anymore because there have been points where the SR850 was cheaper than the HD681. However, at the time of buying, the SR850's were more expensive, and for whatever reason, the cheapest place I could find the HD681's was Amazon America, which had a price of $35. Even after taking into account the currency conversion, import charges, and the shipping cost, it was the cheapest place to get the HD681 headphones. The total cost of my order after everything was 🍁$65.

The Superlux HD681 finally arrived. These headphones are cheap, and the packaging really shows it. They don't even come in a box, they're inside a single piece of cardboard and shrink-wrapped. On the headphone jack of the headphones there was a 6.5mm headphone jack (the bigger kind that's used in like studios). However, that's just an adapter that screws on top of the typical 3.5mm headphone jack that's underneath. This to me was really interesting because the Skullcandy and Sennheiser headphones I had before both came with 6.5mm to 3.5mm adapters, but these didn't screw on. Also, another neat thing about AKG K240 and these clones is that they have a self-adjusting headband, which is kind of nice to have if you want to quickly share your headphones with people who have differently-sized heads.

Anyway, on to the sound. Holy shit, I was completely blown away by the Superluxes. At first they sounded kind of weird, but after a few minutes of listening I noticed just how insanely detailed they were relative to anything I had heard before. I could not believe that so many of my favourite songs that I've been listening for a while actually sounded how they did. I was missing out on so many details either listening through my computer speakers or with my Sennheiser headset. When I put my Sennheisers back on, the music basically sounded like it was being played underwater. These cheap Superluxes sound that good to me.

However, there were a few problems that I noticed with these headphones. First off, the ear pads were made of some super cheap "leather" that made my skin sweaty after a few minutes of wearing the headphones, and the headband was too tight. Another issue that took me some time to notice was that the Superluxes are bright and sibilant. Because I liked the sound of these headphones so much I decided to try upgrading them. People on the interwebs often recommended getting ear pad replacements for these anyway. I wanted things to be comfy, so I bought a pair of Geekria replacement velour pads that were compatible with the AKG K240 (smol side note: people recommend never buying from Geekria directly, only use resellers).

These ear pads were kind of a nightmare. I did see photos of people managing to put them on the Superlux HD681, but they mentioned that it took them a while to manage to do it. When I tried, I just couldn't get the new ear pads attached normally. I pretty much gave up trying to do this normally and decided to superglue the new ear pads onto the ear cups. When I finally managed to get the ear pads on, I tried using the headphones. It was not a good time. While yes, the velour ear pads were much nicer and comfier, they somehow ruined the sound of the Superluxes by making them bright enough that it kind of hurt to listen to music. I had to rip off the glued on new ear pads put the stock ear pads back on, and at this point is where I really noticed that the HD681's were too bright and sibilant for me. I was not happy, and around this point is when I bought a different pair of headphones that I will talk about later. But I did not give up on the Superluxes just yet.

This little situation with my replacement ear pads ended up enlightening me a lot, because I ended up finding out that a lot of design considerations go into the engineering of audio products. The headphone drivers are just simply one part of a whole system, and headphones with a very good driver can still sound like crap if what they're in isn't designed properly. Things like the ear cup shape, whether the back is open, the distance from the driver to your ear, the material of the ear pads, etc. all affect how a headphone sounds. And I simply found out that for my Superluxes, going from a leather material to a velour material in the ear cup makes them sound brighter.

When reading around for how I can make my Superluxes sound less bright, I found a modification you can do that sounded completely nuts. You can take a piece of toilet paper, put it in front of the driver, and the paper will end up "filtering" the high frequencies, making the headphones sound less bright. Though this comes at the cost of muffling the sound kind of. When I found this tip, people mentioned that one piece of two-ply paper was good and you can go down to one-ply, but I also saw someone say they used up to three layers of toilet paper. What the heck? Anyways, I tried a piece of two-ply toilet paper I had, and... it was an improvement, my Superluxes no longer sounded too bright, and any sibilance I heard was manageable. However, they now sounded kind of muffled to me, so I thought maybe I should go down to one-ply of toilet paper. This ended up being perfect! Now my Superluxes no longer sounded too bright, but also the paper was thin enough that any muffling was hard to notice. (I later upgraded my toilet paper to one ply of two-ply Kirkland paper towel, which has the same effect, but is more durable.) But unfortunately I still had these really bad ear pads.

I tried doing research into ear pad materials and how they all affect sound, and still even now I don't understand how they change sound. So I decided to just get ear pads with the same material type so theoretically the my headphones will sound the same. Some people recommended ear pads from a company called Brainwavz, and I bought their compatible round replacement ear pads. These fortunately were very easy to put onto the ear cups. Again, I had a similar situation as before. The new ear pads were comfy, but they ruined the sound of my Superluxes. This time, these new ear pads made my headphones sound like they're underwater, and also they made them painfully bright. This change in sound is probably related to the fact that the depth of the ear pads changes the distance from the driver to my ear, and thus makes the sound waves bounce around more inside the ear cups and ear pads. Legit, they sounded bad enough that I was delighted to go back to my crappy stock pads.

Because of the past bad experience with Geekria's velour ear pads, I was worried about buying their protein leather version of their AKG K240-compatible ear pads and hearing the sound ruined again, but these were the closest thing to my stock Superlux earpads in shape, size, and material. I decided to take the plunge, and got new ear pads again. Again, just like with the previous Geekrias I had to superglue the ear pads on because I couldn't get them onto the ear pads properly. This time, fortunately, my Superluxes sounded basically the same, and were finally comfortable to wear and sounded as best as they could. Finally!

A few times earlier I mentioned amps and DACs for headphones. I was planning on getting better headphones that were likely to need to need a lot of power, more than what my computer or laptop or phone could supposedly provide. I did shop around, and the FiiO K5 Pro seemed like one of the best options because it had both a powerful amp and a DAC. Wait, why are DACs important? Unless you have an Apple device with a headphone jack made in the past decade, a really good sound card, or a fancy Asus motherboard with good onboard audio, it's likely that the DAC you have in your devices doesn't convert the sound as cleanly as possible and won't let great headphones reach their full potential. This is why audiophiles buy either an amp/DAC combo unit, or buy separate amp+DAC sets or "stacks" along with their fancy headphones.

I was ready to buy the FiiO K5 eventually to be able to handle the heavy duty headphones I would buy, but I noticed people mention something interesting: the Apple headphone dongle. So apparently, Apple's USB-C to 3.5mm headphone adapter is literally one of the best DACs you can get, and has more than enough amplification for most high-end headphones. This adapter is only $9 and people say it beats DACs worth hundreds of dollars. This apparently isn't just a subjective view, people have used some scientific testing equipment to validate this fact.

I decided to later buy the Apple dongle instead of the FiiO DAC, but when I found out about the Apple dongle's reputation, I still hadn't received my Superlux headphones yet, so it was just a thought I kept in the back of my mind. One evening however, I randomly decided to just lie down and listen to some music on my iPhone with my GSP 500's. My iPhone does not have a headphone jack, and I needed to use the Lightning to headphone adapter to be able to listen to the music on my headphones. I was just listening to the music and relaxing, but the music felt somehow different from how I heard it on the computer. Was it because I was lying down and relaxed? But then one song I like started playing, and I was like "wait, that background riffing in the right channel never sounded that clear".

So it turns out that the DACs on the Apple Lightning headphone dongle I already had and the USB-C headphone dongle were both either the same or of the same caliber. I quickly ordered the USB-C headphone dongle, it was a no brainer because it was so cheap and improved the sound, but I also had to order a USB-C to USB-A converter because my main computer only has USB-A ports. By the way, Apple's USB-C headphone dongle isn't only for Apple devices without headphone jacks, it works with anything that supports audio over USB, which is basically all modern systems. Even Android devices with USB-C ports will work, though apparently on Android the volume is cut in half unless you use a special app that fixes this.

I should note that there are two models of the Apple USB-C headphone dongle, the A2049 and the A2155. The difference is that A2155 outputs half as much power as the A2049. It seems like the A2155 exists mainly because of EU headphone jack loudness regulations, and it's the model you will likely get if you buy this adapter in Europe. In Canada and the USA, we get the full power A2049. In other countries I don't know which models get sold, but just keep this in mind if you want to get this adapter and want to power strong headphones. The A2155 might not be enough if you really need a lot of power. But so far I based on what I've seen, the A2155 will still probably be enough for many powerful headphones.

Before you go out and buy your own dongle or DAC I would like to explain how it actually sounds like. Compared to buying an excellent pair of headphones, it's actually not a massive improvement in sound. The best metaphor I can come up with is that it's like having your windows cleaned. Yeah, what you see outside is clearer, but it's not like you couldn't see exactly what was outside before. At best your reaction will be "oh, that's nice". But still, it's definitely worth it for that extra little bit of clarity.

In the middle of my Superlux ear pad and brightness frustrations, I was looking for better headphones. At this point I had heard what good audio sounded like, and I wanted to take things to the next level. My target: the Sennheiser HD600. These are apparently legendary headphones in the audiophile space. Dankpods always brings them out and talks about how great their neutral sound is, Linus from Linus Tech Tips has owned a pair for over a decade, and people say that these are headphones that can be the last pair of headphones you buy. I really wanted to get my own pair to hear this legendary sound, but HD600 are noooot cheap. Fortunately, they randomly went on sale when I was looking around one day, and I bought them for "just" 🍁$450. Honestly I was kind of buying them more to try them out and then return them if they didn't wow me, but I really hoped that they would sound as good as people say.

So I got the HD600 expecting something amazing. The box and packaging wasn't super impressive, but it got the job done. When I opened the box I smelled that kind of disgusting "new memory foam" smell. But whatever, that would go away. The headphones were really solidly built. The headband adjustment clicking mechanism was so satisfyingly firm. So far nothing surprising for a pair of headphones made in Germany. The headphone jack was just like the Superlux one, a 6.5mm screw-on adapter on top of a 3.5mm jack. In fact this adapter was the same for both headphones. And the HD600 also had a strong headband clamp, but were otherwise comfortable to wear.

But anyways, on to the sound. How did these "legendary", neutral, made in Germany, audiophile approved headphones sound to me? Very... very... boring. Yeah, sure, they sounded better than my Superluxes, but I could barely hear that betterness over how boring these sounded. These have bass, these have treble, I could hear those frequencies fine, but they felt drowned out by the rest of the music compared to my Superluxes. I was disappointed. Fortunately, I pretty much bought the HD600 mostly to test them out, so returning them was no big deal. Also, people mentioned these Sennheisers need a proper headphone amp. I had no issue driving them with my Apple dongle, the volume was more than enough (I just needed about 50% volume for comfortable listening).

Quality audio products used to long be the domain of Western audio brands, but in recent years there have been a lot of very nice sounding audio products made by Chinese audio brands. This "niche" is called Chi-Fi (Chinese Hi-Fi) in the audiophile space. The most popular audio products made by Chinese companies seem to be DACs (the FiiO DAC I mentioned earlier is Chi-Fi), and IEMs (in ear monitors, basically audiophile earphones). In the past Chi-Fi earphones were bought mainly because they sounded great for the price, but now many Chi-Fi earphones are great sounding earphones, period. However, the biggest complaint about Chi-Fi is that things often aren't built to last, and may break sooner than expected despite their great sound.

After returning my HD600, I decided to buy one of these great Chi-Fi earphones, the Moondrop Chu, after seeing this video and other people praise these. These earphones cost about $20, and I got them with free shipping from China. They actually arrived unexpectedly quickly. Four or five days after I ordered them, they were already in Canada, and they spent over a week being processed in customs and getting sent to my city. This may have been just a small box, but I don't get the accounting and economics that have allowed these earphones to arrive so quickly to me for so cheap.

This is kind of a Chi-Fi thing, but a few of these Chinese audio brands have waifus on their box art. Moondrop is one such company that does this, and when I got my Chu earphones, this was the picture on the box art. Anyways, these earphones came with differently sized ear tips, and rubber ear hook things. These earphones are meant to be worn around your ears, but the ear hooks were total garbage, and it's hard to get the wire wrapped around your ear. But you can kind of wear them like regular earbuds, though they may fall out easier that way. So the sound... I'm not sure if the Moondrop Chu sounded better than my Superluxes, but they definitely didn't sound worse. They were kind of bright, not as bright as my unmodded Superluxes, but still pretty bright. That brightness aggravated my tinnitus once, which was annoying. Also, these are kind of low on bass, though there is bass there. Overall, I don't really have any big complaints about the Moondrop Chu.

Next up, I decided to buy another pair of super cheap-but-apparently-awesome-sounding Chi-Fi earphones: the Salnotes Zero. These earphones were tuned by the (in)famous audio reviewer Crinacle. These are also about $20, but I feel I overpaid for them by getting them shipped from America for fee instead of from China for free. Shame there's no waifu on the box art this time. These earphones are also meant to be wrapped around your ear, but these have a nice stiff section of the cable near the earphones that is much easier to wrap around your ear than the Chu-chus. And also the cable is detachable from the earphones. Sound, sound, sound... these sound... superb. The only complaint I have is that the bass isn't as fun as on my Superluxes, but the Salnotes Zero sound more detailed than my Superluxes. These are overall excellent earphones.

I have to mention this: detachable cables on IEMs are a really neat thing. I think the biggest reason people want this is for "balanced" cables, something I'm not going to get into, but it's a thing audiophiles use to make their sound apparently better. However, you can use different detachable cables for other uses. For example, if you buy a pair of IEMs with no microphone and you need a mic, you can just buy a cable with a microphone. You can make your IEMs wireless with either a bluetooth cable, or make them totally wireless AirPods-style with wireless ear hooks like the FiiO UTWS5 or the KZ AZ09. This stuff is really neat, but if you want to get into this, do note that different IEMs have different kinds of plugs/ports for the cable attachment and they're not all compatible.

(Another little thing with IEMs is different kinds of ear tips. I haven't read much into this, but it's similar in nature to different headphone ear pads: different kinds of ear tips create different a different sound.)

All of the headphones you've likely ever used, and all of the previously-mentioned headphones & earphones in this blog post use a kind of headphone driver that is called a "dynamic driver". This is a pretty simple and cheap design that's basically a regular old speaker. It has a stationary magnet with a voice coil that moves a membrane with electromagnetic force. However, this isn't the only kind of headphone driver type that exists, there are three other kinds: planar, balanced armature, and electrostatic. I can't really explain the technical details of how all these work and the pros and cons because it's complicated, but I do recommend looking these up because this is really cool tech. I want to bring your focus to planar drivers. The tech behind these has been around for a few decades, but only recently have there been a lot of headphones made that use these. Planar drivers are not necessarily better than the regular dynamic driver, they just sound different, and a lot of people love their unique sound. So I decided to go buy a planar headphone in hopes that it would be an upgrade my Superluxes.

One of the big names in the headphone space that exclusively makes planar headphones is Hifiman. Their headphones are praised a lot in the audiophile community, and one model they make in particular called the Sundara is often recommended. I kind of wanted to get these, but they're also kind of expensive. However, Hifiman makes a cheap planar headphone called the HE400se that people have called the "baby Sundara". The HE400se are supposedly 90% as good as the highly praised Sundara. Unfortunately Hifiman has doesn't have a good reputation in regards to QC, though people say it's gotten better.

So anyway I got myself a HE400se. These sound... fine. They're not as boring as the Sennheiser HD600, and they did sound a little clearer than my Superluxes, but their treble wasn't enough for me, and the bass wasn't fun. Plus, I didn't really hear or understand what was supposedly so special about planar headphone drivers. In terms of comfort, the earpads were very nice and there was no strong headband clamp, but the headband actually pressed down kind of too hard onto my head if I put it in my natural headphone headband resting spot. Fortunately you can use the Geekria hook and loop headband cover or something similar to fix that. Overall, my Superluxes still were my favourite, so I returned the Hifimans.

So since the Sennheiser HD600 and Hifiman HE400se I had were closer to neutral, and my Superluxes are basically V-shaped, I thought: alright, let's try better V-shaped headphones. The main candidate for this are the Beyerdymamic DT990 Pro (made in Germany!). So I bought these, and their sound was... amazing, but with one huge flaw: they were crazy sibilant. Literally any song I heard through them sounded sibilant, even songs that I thought could never sound sibilant. Doing the paper towel mod didn't work on the DT990. At two layers of paper towel (4 plies total) I guess it was manageable, but at that point it was so muffled that these didn't really sound amazing anymore. Also, comfort-wise these were probably the comfiest headphones I ever tried. Zero complaints there. Regardless, I returned the DT990. My modded Superluxes remain undefeated.

Okay, so this is where I begin the conclusion for all this. Basically, I have no headphones or earphones to recommend... for their sound. The audiophile hobby does have some objective or authoritative elements you can point to say some headphones are better than others, but everything is extremely subjective with headphones. If you tried all of the headphones I tried, maybe you'd agree that my modded Superluxes are fun, but also maybe you'd think that the Sennheiser HD600's boringness is actually really nice, or that the sibilance of the DT990 is perfectly tolerable. (It's important to also think about how differing musical tastes may lead to different headphone preferences.) And the thing is, I returned the HD600, the HE400se, and the DT990 not because I hated how they sounded and would never want to hear them again, but because I sort of needed the money for other interesting things, and what I paid for these headphones didn't justify the upgrade in experience.

And one thing I've always wondered throughout this whole adventure is: why am I wanting to spend a lot of money so I can listen to my YouTube-bitrate weebshit music in higher quality? I still honestly don't have a clue. However, it is very delightful that I was able to greatly upgrade my music listening experience for not that much money. The total cost of my Superlux HD681, the replacement ear pads, and the Apple dongle is easily under 100 freedom dollars before shipping and import fees get factored in. So while I may not have headphones I recommend for their sound, I do have headphones that I can recommend for their low price, plus a chance that you may love them as much as I love my Superlux headphones.

So my main recommendations based on price and the possibility of sounding great would be the Superlux HD681 and the Salnotes Zero. I also cautiously recommend the Samson SR850, because I haven't heard how they sound, but they may be similar to the HD681, and also are cheap and don't require new ear pads. There are some cheaper earphones I haven't heard yet but I think might be good like the $20 Truthear Hola, the $50 Truthear Zero, or the $80 Moondrop Aria (bonus point: all of these come with waifu box art). The only thing I definitely recommend is getting the cheap Apple USB-C headphone dongle unless you already have a modern Apple device with a headphone jack, or if you know the DAC in your device(s) is already excellent.

Here are some random bullet points I want to bring up before I finish this off: My modded Superlux HD681 may have been undefeated so far in these past months, but they are definitely not perfect and I have clearly heard that things can sound better, so I'm still always going to be on the lookout for headphones that sound better to me than my Superluxes without EQ. Here are some headphones and earphones I want to try out or buy in the future:

So yeah, that is it so far. I hope you learned as much interesting stuff from this blog post as I did trying out different headphones. What do you think of all this? Have you ever tried out audiophile stuff? Do you want to buy anything I've mentioned here?

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