My Lifelong Quest to Make my Expensive Rig Sound as Good as $500 Headphones

For over 20 years of striving for audio nirvana (and mostly failing until just this year), I’ve been dismayed when comparing the micro-detail, lightning speed, low noise, confidence and coherency, rapid and substantial bass, and listenability of $500 headphones (currently Sony WH-1000XM3 Noise Cancelling Headphones), I’ve been utterly dismayed at how my rig simply can’t keep up in those areas. Yes with the rig it’s in front of you with a realistic image instead of "in your head", but I’ve always felt down about how much decent, modestly priced headphones slayed my system in the areas I mentioned above.

After upgrading my entire cabling system (Audioquest Dragon and Hurricane, Nordost Valhalla 2 speaker cables, installing dedicated AC circuits), adding a Torus RM20 isolation transformer, an Innuos PhoenixNET(network isolator), an Innuos PhoenixUSB (USB reclocker), upgrading to B&W 802 speakers, and adding Herbie’s decouplers under my speakers, and leaving my Gryphon Diablo 3 Integrated (with DAC and phono modules) and Innuos Zenith Mk3 the way they were, I thought it was time to run the dreaded headphone test again. I LOVE the way my system sounds now, but my rig has ALWAYS been SO far behind the headphone experience in those areas that I was expecting to be disappointed again. My feeling was that this objective of equalizing my rig with the performance of headphones in these areas would likely cost about $300k, which would never ever happen with me.

I was surprised. Yes, there is still a gap. But all of a sudden, I was noticing MANY ways in which my rig was far surpassing the headphone experience, with these being new qualities in my rig that weren’t present in prior comparisons. The "bigness" of the sound. FAR better imaging than before that just put the headphones to shame. Soundstage depth. Immersion!  SOME types of details that came through more with my rig than with my headphones. Now I was getting somewhere, finally, after all these years!

In regard to the remaining gap in those specific areas where headphones have always been better, rather than being an impossibly large gap, the gap is now much smaller! I feel that closing that gap is within spitting distance. Maybe a rather far spit. But still, instead of being dismayed, I felt encouraged!

I think I may surpass the headphone experience in ALL areas with the following upgrades:

-Treating my room. Yes! I’ve not done this yet. My room is very large with high ceilings and no corners to speak of anywhere close to my speakers, so treatment may not go as far as it has with smaller rooms. But still will make a big difference I know.

-Adding Herbie’s anti-vibration feet to all of my gear.

-When funds permit: Upgrading my source power cords (network isolator, server/streamer, USB reclocker) from Audioquest Hurricane to Audioquest Dragon cords.

For the first time, this headphone comparison test made me happy... Overall there are significant qualities that really shine through with my system now, way over and above headphones.

Anyone else tried this comparison and thought about it? Hopefully won’t be depressing for you!



Hey NY -

Great to read that you have brought both your systems so far along.

Amazing how much enjoyment upgrading to better quality components and accessories can add to it all.

I found your comments regarding headphones of interest.  Covid & WFH have ruined, at least temporarily, headphone listening for me.  For the last 2 1/2 years, I have had to wear headphones (these days, gamers no less) for work and I absolutely hate having anything near my ears.  I have tried more headphones and buds than I care to mention, from cheapies to serious coin, headsets to buds, and quite frankly 10 to 12 hours a day of using headphones has left me despising the medium.  (PLEASE:  NO SUGGESTIONS ... after 47 years I will be hanging up my working shoes soon enough, so this won't be part of my daily uniform anymore).

At this point, just enjoy your systems and resist the urge to spend & tweak more.  One thing I feel that most of us don't do is to spend the time taking in and living with what we have done and hone in on what really works for us over the long haul.  After 50 plus years of this hobby, I understand (finally) what type of sound works for me.  Many things do work, and there is a lot of equipment that is just so enticing, but some things work much better than others.    

Be well, 



I use the Sony phones, and they are very good headphones for noise canceling Bluetooth phones, but they are still a league or 3 behind my mid Fi HT systems, let alone my 2 channel.  And they also can’t beat my $200 Meze Audio cans.

  Your problem seems to be the room.  I wouldn’t waste dosh  on power cords and feet isolaters  until you solve that.  They you describe the room it’s no wonder the headphones sound better

First, I think your post helps to underscore that different people have vastly different values. There is an element of fine detail that you really enjoy and drives your choices. While details can be good on headphones, most folks find them tremendously compromising… even at levels much higher than yours. Nothing wrong with them or your appreciation. We all have our likes.

I have my main system and headphone system at the opposite ends of adjoining rooms. My main system I referred to as a reference system… a very good one for the $60K and decades it took me to put it together. A few years ago I decided that I wanted to have a high end headphone amplifier using 300B… to really appreciate what the attraction was to so many people.


So I did (you can see it under my ID). My headphones include some of the best… Focal Utopia, Sennheiser HD800… etc. with the addition of the amp and top quality 300B tubes the system went from sterile and highly detailed, to glorious and musical, lush…. with all the details and incredible bass. I realized what I had been missing… nothing to do with details. For the previous ten years I had season tickets to the symphony… so it became obvious how much closer this system was to the real sound of music.


For the first time ever, I sat down to my main system and was disappointed. It sounded mechanical, with the details of the venue stuck in my face and the music taking a back seat. That experience spurred me into a two year upgrade cycle where I changed all components but my Audio Research REF3 Phonostage and ARC REF preamp to tubed components. The change in sound quality was striking… and my main system again gained superiority… except that the character of both systems was now almost identical again.

Anyway, that was my most recent journey. Very expensive… but the result has been two really musical systems.

I have about a dozen headphones including the likes of Audeze LCD-4, Sony MDR-Z1R, Sennheiser HD 800 and the like with a great Simaudio 430HA headphone amp and a couple of Sony TA-ZH1ES headphone amps.  I rarely listen to headphones anymore as they just aren't as realistic as any of my systems.  I'd much rather have the soundstage and imaging of speakers and not have to wear anything on my head to listen to music. 

There's something about noise-cancelling headphones though.  I have some older Sennheiser wireless noise-cancelling headphones that I wear when I mow the lawn and listening to Spotify using bluetooth, they are beguiling.  I know it's a very artificial sound, but they do some weird sorcery that really brings out a lot of detail.  I've had a number of "I never heard that before" moments with them, but they are not "better" in any way, other than that they are the only headphones I own that I could wear while mowing the lawn.

As professor Choueri explains in the generally fascinating Audioholics video below (around the 22 minutes mark).

"A $100 pair of well designed headphones has a far better impulse response than a $100,000 pair of speakers, it’s just a fact."


It’s just the laws of physics, and until an impossibly light and impossibly strong new loudspeaker cone material emerges (graphene?), we're stuck with this situation.

As we all know, ye cannae change the laws of physics Jim.




Great comments all. @cd318 , that is precisely what I am talking about. Maybe “detail” is the wrong word. But that professor’s description of how a $100 set of headphones had better impulse control is exactly what I am referring to. My system is very close to matching headphone performance in this area now, thanks to my speaker upgrade and my Nordost Valhalla 2 speaker cables which are known to be lighting fast.

@ghdprentice yes I know my headphones are entry level, which made the comparisons all the more frustrating, all these years. And I agree, the “detail” is better on my system than the headphones. It’s “impulse control” I should have been referring to as @cd318 noted. Blazing fast impulse control seems to improve a dimension of detail, but it’s not detail overall. I’ve not been to a live symphony lately but that would be a great comparison experience.

And yes I feel my system is far, far more realistic in reproducing music now, than my headphones ever were. As such I’ve now far exceeded my objectives that I originally had with respect to trying to recreate the performance of headphones in specific areas, by improving things immeasurably in areas I wasn’t actually focused on. I guess I was chasing “impulse control” for so long, and finally getting really close, and my rig has just far surpassed the headphone experience in so, so many other ways.

I listened to music more than most as a kid, primarily with headphones and also through this Sony ghetto blaster I had that actually sounded okay for what it was. It also had a 3 band EQ and a third bass woofer. I think when I first went to full systems as a teen, I was shocked at how bad the shrill tonality was (my first amp was a JVC receiver bought with paper route money saved up for many many months), and the system just didn’t have the speed that I was used to (I didn’t realize that was the problem at the time), which launched me on this decades long quest. Because my first system was so terrible, I quickly came to think that having an EQ was an absolutely essential feature. For me I was REALLY into music starting as a young kid, and when I got my first full scale system my connection to the music was utterly broken because my system was really, really bad. Yet I felt back then that I could still get into my music with that ghetto blaster and cheap headphones…

I tease my wife saying she can’t complain of my obsession because she know what she was getting into.  25 years ago before we were married I was dragging her around to speaker auditions and she was a great sport and weighed in on what she was hearing, even if she didn’t care!  She still weighs in, and still doesn’t actually care..




Also - for so many years, I struggled with stridency and harshness in lower end mid-if gear. And it seemed my only alternative was moving to overly warm and sluggish gear. Thankfully I now have a slightly warm leaning and meaty tonality that I adore, while at the same time having that blazing my fast detail and transparency. And unrestrained air and openness at the top end, with no trace of brightness. It’s like having my cake and eating it too. The Gryphon and it’s DAC module add a tough of “romance” to the sound to make the system “musical”, with the rest of my system focused on transparency and neutrality.  I don’t think I’d like my speakers with any other amp .

Thinking back, I don’t know if there is a full size system I truly would have been happy with when I was younger, for my budget at the time.

Walsh drivers operate differently and seem to have an inherent advantage in this area compared to conventional piston drivers. 



I met my partner 37 years ago in graduate school. I told her I was into high end audio… but that she would have never heard of anything I owned. She said,” try me”. I had bought a Threshold s500… taking out my first loan of $5K… nearly $20K in todays dollars. This was a very esoteric high end amp for the early 1980’s. She casually said she knew a guy with two! I was floored. She had done a marketing research project on high end audio and met a bunch of older audiophiles. One had recently purchased two!… was running them bridged as mono amps.

Well, she really doesn’t care about audio. But I always bring her to auditions because she has better hearing and keeps me from buying anything that is harsh. Also, she puts up with my obsession with audio.

@ghdprentice I checked out the Threshold S500, I see it was designed by Nelson Pass! Looks like a serious amp with Class A goodness. You sure jumped into things in a much bigger way than me! At that age I didn’t even know how to get a loan, which is probably a good thing! But maybe I would have been able to acquire gear I would have truly appreciated if I had. My first slightly better amp when I was about 21 was an Arcam A85 integrated for about $1,500, which I still have. I fired it up for the first time in over ten years, and was reminded why I chose it over the rest - faster, satisfying sound, especially with bass. In general I recall Arcam being a sub-par brand but this particular amp stood out as an exception. But I suspect I would have liked a Threshold S500 much better.

It’s funny how we sometimes think that being an audiophile means we have refined our perceptions of audio beyond the masses. But then our wives and in my case my 15yo daughter can easily and causally in passing identify things like “air” and soundstage depth and dynamics and tonality, using different words of course. When I was testing power cords my daughter would be walking by and say “oh you changed the cord again, this one sounds more like the singer is on a stage in front of us, it’s much better than the other you were trying…”

Thanks for sharing!


I have the newest Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones and Hi-Rez Qobuz over Bluetooth Apt-X HD while mowing the grass (cordless electric mower) sounds amazing in noise cancelling mode!  Even better in a nice quiet room with the nannies turned off.  Definitely better than my home system in the detail, clarity, separation, but lacking in the bass feel part, no surprise there.

@anotherbob, it's just crazy how frequently Sony updates these relatively inexpensive headphones with new models. And with each iteration I hear they keep getting better!  I find them more pleasing to listen to than a lot of much higher-end headphones.  Having said that, I've not tested higher-end headphones with higher-end headphone amps, in which case I'd expect the higher end stuff would easily win. But as inexpensive no-fuss everyday headphones the Sony's are great.

Headphones vs. saying I've never found a car as good as my bicycle.



Yeah, the S500 was a ground breaking amp… the first professionally designed and manufactured with real serious current… something around 3 - 4 amp output.  Not that far from a welding unit. And it had serious slam.


My partner will make comments on subtle changes from the other room…”what did you do? It sounds better.” Whenever it is more musical and less harsh.

I have both a headphone system and a 2-channel system and enjoy both of them immensely. 

I think it comes down to the way my mind connects with music. I find that if the “impulse control” of qualities of my system are not near-completely unrestrained, like music played in real life is, with details flowing naturally with a sense of ease, then it disconnects me to some degree from the music as things start to sound forced to me. I think I may place a higher degree of focus on this trait than most, but it was never something I consciously decided to focus on. Psychologically the music is nowhere near as engaging for me if it’s not free-flowing without any sense of limitation. Panel/Ribbon speakers may have these qualities but I hear there are tradeoff’s (dynamics, poor off-axis performance, it’s highly inviting as a cat scratching post, etc). I do get this sense of ease and “flow” even with low end headphones.

It’s been a long journey but I’ve also got there now with my system.

I have always loved the "intimacy of good headphone sound. I've come close with upgrades over the years, finally switching to tube gear. What helped me the most, however was re-vamping my living slash listening room (18X24 ft), moving my system to the short wall, moving up my listening distance, and getting strategic with furnishings, carpet and reflection points. I also try to remember that the drivers in my headphones are so close to my ears that of course it will always sound different in ambience, etc etc via speakers.

That is indeed a worthwhile goal and achievement.  For me total room insulation resulted in removing the room, but no improvement in the system, still desirable.  The greatest difference was cabling.  After much study I resolved to building my own cables unique to each component.  Electronics alter the waveform very little, but transferring signals between equipment proved the most altering, thus the most rewarding.  The Stax 009s now appear to be almost as good as the system, it made that much difference.  However building impedance-matched cables turned out to be an unusually difficult and tedious project.