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!



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.