That Thriving Space between Cheap and Free

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That Thriving Space between Cheap and Free

Postby ttommy » Mon Dec 22, 2014 1:10 pm

I hadn't planned on this but one thing led to another. My new job has me commuting daily via subway and I wanted to get back to listening to music. The last NY audio show had me thinking about headphones but I wanted something practical, just "good enough" to tide me over during the hour-long ride to/from work. I also wanted something inexpensive.

The Cheap

That long Chinese IEM thread at head-fi got me started and I ended up with a $70 Astrotec AX-35 to use with my LG G2 cellphone running Neutron music player. These IEMs were initially very disappointing but radically improved after 50 hours or so. At this price I didn't expect to nitpick what they did wrong, instead, I preferred to listen to what they did right. In contrast, another FOTM (flavor of the month) IEM at head-fi, the SIDY DGS100, which I also bought was just too bloated that I couldn't live with. I realize that at some point all these cheap purchases add up that one may as well buy an excellent IEM so I'm stopping here for now. I'm not looking for over-the-ear IEMs as I keep imagining them getting snagged as our crowded throng exits the train, hurling my glasses underfoot. I also don't want total isolation of a custom IEM as I want to be aware of the surroundings, just in case there are train announcements. I know something like Dita may very well be "The Answer" but I reasoned the price is a no go as I'm only listening casually anyway.

The Chinese IEM market is definitely thriving! It seems folk are equally happy with their Vsonic, DUNU, Fidue, etc. as owners of JHA and Noble customs. The downside of that lowered bar though, is that there's a lot of hyping and it's difficult to find that true gem up front. Eventually I was fed up with my phone which sounded anemic and truncated decays. But then I didn't want a dedicated amp bricked to my phone. Researching portable players led me to the Shozy Alien and for $180, this was a good buy. If you can put up with the Alien's quirks and inconveniences, finally here was a component that didn't sound sonically compromised... again, if you can put up with its quirks.

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If there are decent sounding Chinese IEMs, then there's gotta be decent sounding cans, right? Well, as it turns out these $60+ Takstar Hi2050 headphones is quite a bargain. Open and non-fatiguing, they're also quite detailed and just fun sounding. Removing my Mytek DAC from my main rig to drive the Takstar from iTunes made me think this could very well serve me as my desktop can.

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IEMs and headphone group shot--

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Then again, one thing led to another (this seems to be a pattern :)) as I already had planned on retiring my 5+ year old Windows laptop and have been using Linux exclusively. Not wanting to buy additional audio hardware, I checked the Mytek compatibilties with Linux and settled on Audiophile Linux.

The Free

Audiophile Linux is a free distribution based on Arch that uses real-time extensions to the Linux kernel to help eliminate dropouts. I had looked at a few others, Daphile, Vortexbox even Openelec (which may be the ticket if you're considering XBMC as well) but loved the thought process behind AP Linux.

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The downside? Well, you need to be well acquainted with Linux to attempt this install and build the Mytek driver modules separately. There is a good amount of hacking involved here and it didn't help initially that I wanted to run AP Linux within its own KVM virtual machine running on top of CentOS. I could get AP Linux on the VM to see the Mytek DAC, have it work on USB1 but not on USB2, which was needed for DSD. Eventually, I gave up on this hack.

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Since upgrading my notebook to 16GB RAM, I had a 4GB stick lying around and decided to find a small form factor PC to use as my music box. Not wanting to spend more than $150, I looked at the Intel "Next Unit of Computing" (NUC) DN2820 and the Gigabyte BRIX N2807 but eventually settled on a Zotac CI320 due to it being fanless (unlike the NUC) and quad-core (unlike both the Brix and NUC). Not that quad-core is gonna matter for a single threaded player, but I reasoned if I couldn't get AP Linux to run with Mytek on this, then I can bring it to the office and use it as a dev MPP cluster.

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As you can see above, this PC is about the size of 4 CDs put on top of each other. I used my extra 4GB RAM, added a bargain 120GB SSD and played around with a few Linux distros to check compatibility. The main thing with this machine is to disable UEFI and use "Legacy" BIOS option. Bottomline, for less than $200 (since I already had the RAM), I had an extra computer that's much more capable than the Windows laptop I was using to drive iTunes.

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I love the amount of ports on this box! HDMI, Displayport, 4 x USB3, 1 x gigabit Ethernet, wireless, 2 x USB2, infrared for remote controls (no plans to use this), SDCARD and audio ports (I disabled the audio hardware). Did I say it was fanless and is totally quiet? Despite what others have reported about this running hot, running AP Linux on mine gets to around 48 deg C on average.

Whereas my attempts to get Mytek to run on the AP Linux VM took several hours with limited success, this one was a breeze. Below note the Mytek display showing DSD which streams flawlessly from AP Linux. I'm looking forward to dusting off the PS3 I use to rip SACDs (see here). But then even with regular 16/44.1 FLAC, the performance is a significant step above iTunes driving the Mytek.

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Fact is, since I'm at work during the day, it's the wife who'll be listening mostly. Unfortunately, she's spoiled listening to the main rig and can't put up with the Takstar. So she requested that the Mytek be put back in its proper place, behind bars, away from "the boss." :roll:

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So now I'm without a DAC to drive the Takstar and am thinking maybe a small USB thingie to geek this one out? :lol: But first let me take a step back and ask -- does this mean I'm back? :^)

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Thanks for reading!
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Re: That Thriving Space between Cheap and Free

Postby rtsyrtsy » Mon Dec 22, 2014 4:23 pm

One is in fact never really away, Tito!

I love your Pubby-proofed rack!

Interesting that we are taking a similar journey in opposite parts of the world. Of course, mine involves a lot less hacking.

Re: head-fi path, I've not come across the DAP's you mentioned. I've probably searched the more mainstream head-fi forums and websites. I am likely to pull the trigger on a Ibasso DX90 in the next day or two. I find it interesting that there is quite a lot of choice locally for DAPs, from the accessible Fiio's to the $$$ A&Ks. Wasn't dimfer pushing another one of these luxe DAPs? Please put some sense into me if you think I am doing the wrong thing!

One DAP I really enjoyed but I drenched mine in sweat till it gave up the ghost is the Sansa Clip. Not sure if it is available locally. This is my bet for a beater DAP.

I've also contacted the local guys who can do custom IEM's. I'm a spoiled Shure SE535 user. I should say "was" since I abused the hell out of it using it daily at the gym, on long bike rides (one ear only!), etc. I thought about the 835 but thought I'd go custom this time since I'm at that price range already. Unfortunately, the headphile folks are too far North for me (Polaris in Makati, Listening in Style in Megamall, Egghead in Galleria). If any of you are on WS reading this thread and are headed to the South metro, please give me a holler.

My over a decade old (no more foam on the head band!) HD600 is back on duty with a mini-but-mighty Audioquest Dragonfly 1.0. Easily bettered but it is what i have and hence it is what I use. My classic AKG K1000 is still in hibernation. The Geeks are indeed interesting and I do have another desktop I spend a lot of time on (at the office). Then again, I prefer to not have to tinker with Windows and I won't have to if I have a DAP and a C-IEM mentioned above.

Of these full-size cans, it is the HD800 (though really picky with electronics yet wonderful with Senn's own $$$ DAC-amp) and the Audeze's that endanger my net worth. This is probably the lowest priority right now since I have 2 hardly used full-sized's at home.

Oh, one thing I could use your wisdom on and it is not audio-related--how do I season a cast iron griddle? Can't find Flasxeed Oil but found (edible) Linseed Oil--suitable substitute? Also, is there a local source of electric smokers? Or perhaps an easy DIY alternative--I have not found those drums turned to smokers all over YouTube that come with a divorce settlement.
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Re: That Thriving Space between Cheap and Free

Postby ttommy » Tue Dec 23, 2014 10:23 am

One is in fact never really away, Tito!
I love your Pubby-proofed rack!


True, Russ, and it's good to be listening with refreshed ears again :) and I did clean up the mess in front of the rack before taking the picture last night.

Interesting that we are taking a similar journey in opposite parts of the world. Of course, mine involves a lot less hacking.

Re: head-fi path, I've not come across the DAP's you mentioned. I've probably searched the more mainstream head-fi forums and websites. I am likely to pull the trigger on a Ibasso DX90 in the next day or two. I find it interesting that there is quite a lot of choice locally for DAPs, from the accessible Fiio's to the $$$ A&Ks. Wasn't dimfer pushing another one of these luxe DAPs? Please put some sense into me if you think I am doing the wrong thing!


I was looking at the iBasso as well, but the cheaper DX50, before stumbling upon the Shozy. Ding, I think was looking at a Calyx and truth is, before the Shozy, I hadn't heard any DAP at all. But knowing you're an Apple fan, perhaps you'd take to the design of the Aurender Flow? :geek:

One DAP I really enjoyed but I drenched mine in sweat till it gave up the ghost is the Sansa Clip. Not sure if it is available locally. This is my bet for a beater DAP.


I hear it's one of the popular choices. There's quite a few more candidates in this thread.

I've also contacted the local guys who can do custom IEM's. I'm a spoiled Shure SE535 user. I should say "was" since I abused the hell out of it using it daily at the gym, on long bike rides (one ear only!), etc. I thought about the 835 but thought I'd go custom this time since I'm at that price range already. Unfortunately, the headphile folks are too far North for me (Polaris in Makati, Listening in Style in Megamall, Egghead in Galleria). If any of you are on WS reading this thread and are headed to the South metro, please give me a holler.


Not sure if you've read this, but Inner Fidelity ran a review comparing a bunch of custom IEMs..

My over a decade old (no more foam on the head band!) HD600 is back on duty with a mini-but-mighty Audioquest Dragonfly 1.0. Easily bettered but it is what i have and hence it is what I use. My classic AKG K1000 is still in hibernation. The Geeks are indeed interesting and I do have another desktop I spend a lot of time on (at the office). Then again, I prefer to not have to tinker with Windows and I won't have to if I have a DAP and a C-IEM mentioned above.


Tinkering isn't worth the aggravation it may cause unless you're deriving some pleasure in doing it. But given a choice between listening to IEMs and regular headphones, I'd choose the latter.

Of these full-size cans, it is the HD800 (though really picky with electronics yet wonderful with Senn's own $$$ DAC-amp) and the Audeze's that endanger my net worth. This is probably the lowest priority right now since I have 2 hardly used full-sized's at home.


You probably can flip the K1000 for a HD800 ;) Not too well known, but supposedly the ECP audio amplifiers do a great job with this phone.

Oh, one thing I could use your wisdom on and it is not audio-related--how do I season a cast iron griddle? Can't find Flasxeed Oil but found (edible) Linseed Oil--suitable substitute? Also, is there a local source of electric smokers? Or perhaps an easy DIY alternative--I have not found those drums turned to smokers all over YouTube that come with a divorce settlement.


Saw your BBQ grill on FB, hehe, lovely backyard too! Don't overthink the seasoning, with continuous use you'll get there. For my cast iron pan I used grapeseed oil. As for electric smokers, I wouldn't recommend it if you can do charcoal... you don't get the pink ring with electric.
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Re: That Thriving Space between Cheap and Free

Postby rtsyrtsy » Tue Dec 23, 2014 5:54 pm

Didn't have time to pick up the DX90. I'll try again in Jaben.

Are there other headphile joints in HK?
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Re: That Thriving Space between Cheap and Free

Postby Mamimili » Wed Dec 24, 2014 9:03 pm

Russ, while at Jaben try their Hippo Biscuit, it's very limited in features but for the price and SQ hard to beat.
Plus, perfect as a gift :)
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Re: That Thriving Space between Cheap and Free

Postby ttommy » Sun Dec 28, 2014 3:29 am

Mamimili wrote:Russ, while at Jaben try their Hippo Biscuit, it's very limited in features but for the price and SQ hard to beat.
Plus, perfect as a gift :)


Hope you got yourself a little pamasko from Jaben, Russ ;)

The Geek has landed! This allows me to listen to headphones without having to transfer the Mytek. Sonically, the Geek Out 450 is fantastic and drives the Takstar very well, with much more power in reserve. I'm staying with this desktop rig for now.

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Meanwhile, one side benefit is being able to stream music through two DACs at once--



as well as controlling MPD (and Cantata) from an Android APP--



Now if only I can find the *@#! PS3 controller so I can get back to ripping more SACDs!
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Re: That Thriving Space between Cheap and Free

Postby rtsyrtsy » Mon Dec 29, 2014 11:16 pm

Today, I visited 3 headphone havens all at the corner of Shantung Street and Nathan Road. Not one of them was Jaben!

After a quick but thorough browse of DMA, Kingsound, and Mingo, my guts told me to take my business to Mingo. I would've preferred to deal with Egghead and Polaris but alas, I found it more bearable to travel to Kowloon than to Ortigas and Makati, respectively! Both Egghead and Polaris took good care of me via SMS and PM's. I will in the near future send my business their way.

The DAP picking was not hard. A&K, HiFi Man, and Calyx were beyond the price I can stomach for something that will get abused in my pocket or bag. This left me with the likes of Fiio, iBasso, and *gasp* iPods! Ipod got ruled out quickly as its battery can barely keep up with me without using it as a music device. I did not care for Fiio's user interface. So iBasso DX90 it is.

I started my iem search with my old paid, Shure's SE535. Still good and something I can buy again. But a quick switch to a Westone UM30 and I immediately realized how much better bass could be. I tried an Uktimate Ears model In the same price range of about usd300 (see, I cannot even recall the model!) and immediately dismissed that option, finding the sound rather lightweight and tipped up. Sennheiser ie80 came up next and while I heard Senn's house sound of balance, I went back to shortlist the Westone.

I was offered end to try the se846, ie800, etc. but I declined since I was going to use these iem's in the gym and hence to replace them rather regularly. Besides, at those price points, I would go for custom iem's.

I went back to the um pro 30's then compared them with the regular w30. I much preferred the latter. Perhaps I truly have no idea what it is like to be a musician on stage to whom the um pro 30 is targeted. I can't quite place why--perhaps I found the pro model unnecessarily more aggressive--just slight. I can live with both but would prefer the w30 and several orders of wanton noodle soup in my tummy bought from the slight price difference.

Right before reaching for my wallet, I tried the w20. To my amazement, I preferred it over the w30 with the iBasso dx90. I sensed the w20 was more coherent, perhaps the simpler design: one driver less, passive crossover, actually preserved more of the music. Yes, the w30 offered more extension both ways, more detail, etc. but going back and forth between the w20 and w30, I went with the w20 and headed straight for wanton noodle soup!

I did try the w10 to see how much more orders of wanton noodle soup I can save but alas, at that point, the westone's lost its magic to me. Besides, I can only have so much wanton noodle soup

Maybe I really do have cheap ears! Maybe I really prefer the dark, sweet, mid-centric presentation of Westone.

I did not bother trying the myriad Sony's, Philips, audio trchnica's, nu force, etc. I experienced the irony of too much choice! Looking back, perhaps I should try the single driver etymotics.

Oh. I also picked up replacement foams for my hd600. That purchase beat my bicycle for the most expensive thing I ever bought per gram. But I still do like my hd600--it holds a special place bring amongst my first cans.
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Re: That Thriving Space between Cheap and Free

Postby rtsyrtsy » Thu Jan 01, 2015 12:58 am

As I was packing, I realized that Mingo packed me a Westone UM Pro 20 instead of my choice, the W20 so I went back today to exchange the item.

This gave me the opportunity to re-audition the um pro 10/20/30/50, adventure series, and the w20/30/40/60. My audition was practically blind as I kept on forgetting which ones I was listening to. Consistently though, I was picking the W series over the UM pro series. I also kept on ruling out the single driver models. Using the dx90 as source with MP3, 44.1, and high res files, I also consistently picked the 2 driver models. I did find the w30/40/60 to be better than the w20 but I kept on thinking about going custom iem's at those asking prices.

Having picked my Westone of choice, I tried a bunch of others. Shure's, Sennheisers, JVCs, Audio Technica, a-Jays, Philips, Sony, etc. to be honest, many were unlistenable to me without the first few bars. There was one revelation though, I did like the sound of the Brainwavs. Tried everything from M1 to M5. Ignoring the text on the packaging which describe pen at that model excels in, my pick of the bunch is the m3.

The Brainwavs Did not sway me from my w20s.

I then went across the street to Jaben. I actually think the set-ups At DMa, Mingo, and Kingsound was better with more iem's to try. To jaben's credit though, the sources and DACs were better laid out for headphone listening. But I was not there for headphones. I did however spot a Vsonic and took home a gr07. Still burning it in but to my ears, the hype is quite well deserved on this model.
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Re: That Thriving Space between Cheap and Free

Postby ttommy » Sat Jan 03, 2015 1:21 pm

Congratulations on the iBasso DX90, the Westone W20 and Vsonic GR07, Russ!

I kept reading wanton noodle soup but with the price savings vs an SE846 or IE800 siguro naman you snuck in a roast goose or two? :P
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Re: That Thriving Space between Cheap and Free

Postby rtsyrtsy » Sun Jan 04, 2015 8:17 pm

I had lunch with college mates today in BGC and in one of the "Apple" stores, I saw RHA.

I read on the Headphiles Facebook group that Fidue is also available locally.

There is one headphone that I am quite curious to try: Mr. Speakers Alpha Dog. Have you tried that one?
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Re: That Thriving Space between Cheap and Free

Postby ttommy » Mon Jan 05, 2015 1:56 pm

rtsyrtsy wrote:I read on the Headphiles Facebook group that Fidue is also available locally.

I've read good things about the A83, may be worth a listen. I don't know if you've been following Massdrop or Buysonic, but there seems to be great deals from time to time.

There is one headphone that I am quite curious to try: Mr. Speakers Alpha Dog. Have you tried that one?

Nope, it looks we're looking at different types :) For IEMs, I've been avoiding over-the-ear types due to my wearing glasses. So I would consider Dunu over, say, Fidue or Dita "The Answer" over, say, JH Audio. For full-size headphones, I prefer open or planar/stats, so in the price range of Mad Dogs would consider a Philips Fidelio X2, in the price range of Alphas, Audeze LCD-2 and above that, certainly, the HD800 and Stax. Having said that, I have no plans for a serious headphone rig.

I've also been hunting for a NAS and lucked out with a Buffalo Terastation III bought refurb for $200 in our local Microcenter. This was a steal considering each of the four 2TB Seagate 7200rpm drives costs $80. The NAS is very well built but has a lot of poor reviews due to it not being too user friendly and firmware QC issues. I spent an extra $30 for a 2 year replacement warranty, have upgraded the firmware and am hoping this doesn't turn out to be a lemon. Currently running the NAS at RAID 5 which delivers ~5.5TB.

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Re: That Thriving Space between Cheap and Free

Postby rtsyrtsy » Tue Jan 06, 2015 10:20 pm

Tito,

I tried the Fidue a83 and the Dunu dn-1000 today.

As a result, I went home with a Pelican case to protect whatever iem I am carrying in my Saddleback. :P

Seriously, maybe I am getting deaf, old, senile, or all of the above but my ears preferred the 50 percent cheaper dn-1000. The bass on the dn-1000 is stupendous. Ok, not Audeze outstanding but for a sub usd200 iem, fantastic. The highs are also sublime. It seems I am describing what headphones call a v-shaped sound, maybe it is. But boy, the dn1000 is a fun listen. Probably not for monitoring recordings (which I do not do) but loads of fun and probably the best build quality I have come across. I was told that people would audition the dn1000 and the over usd1k akg k3003 which has an eerily similar driver complement and are choosing the dn-1000.

Not that the Fidue a83 is bad. It is hard to fault. Maybe it is system matching (source still the dx90 playing flac). Maybe I really do not like more complex crossovers. Whatever it is, ci'd be happy to be gifted an a83 but I would be ecstatic with the dn1000.

I chose prudence over valor and resisted purchasing it, telling myself that I have the gr07 and w20 already. I also told myself that I will not buy it. Till I have tried the dn-2000 which was not on stock.
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Re: That Thriving Space between Cheap and Free

Postby ttommy » Wed Jan 07, 2015 8:58 am

rtsyrtsy wrote:But boy, the dn1000 is a fun listen.


Congrats!! Wow, that's the 3rd in short notice, although with I'm guessing each of your IEMs characters are distinct enough you'll gravitate towards different ones depending on your mood. Let us know how they all perform!
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Re: That Thriving Space between Cheap and Free

Postby rtsyrtsy » Wed Jan 07, 2015 10:04 am

No, no! I did not buy the DN-1000 though I was very, very tempted.

I resisted because I wanted to hear the DN-2000 first. I also want to properly burn in by GR-07 and W20 before making any further IEM moves. Lastly, any $$$ that goes to IEM are $$$ that can go to an Audeze or a Supernait 2 or a Line Magnetic 845 for my Living Voice, or an ultrasonic record cleaner, etc.

I'm at work now with my DX90 and W20. Still enjoying immensely. More than the GR07 I must say. The GR07 became my beater--the one I use in the gym.
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Re: That Thriving Space between Cheap and Free

Postby rtsyrtsy » Tue Jan 20, 2015 4:20 pm

Who's tempted:

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/geek-wave-a-no-compromise-portable-music-player#home

My real question is how much true DSD 128 content is there?
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Re: That Thriving Space between Cheap and Free

Postby JoeyGS » Tue Jan 20, 2015 5:52 pm

Was almost tempted but held back because they kept on delaying delivery due to more modifications on the Geek Pulse dac, to which my order 1 year ago have not been delivered.

There are several dsd websites to choose from, but, yes, the 128 content is not that large yet.

rtsyrtsy wrote:Who's tempted:

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/geek-wave-a-no-compromise-portable-music-player#home

My real question is how much true DSD 128 content is there?
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