Christmas Headphones!

184 posts / 0 new
Last post
Christmas Headphones!

I am hoping to get some headphones this Christmas. At the moment, I am using some all-purpose Sony over-ear things which cost about £10 from Tesco. They are actually alright - certainly a lot better than nothing. But I would like to get something better, especially as circumstances (a new home, new family around) now make it more difficult me to play music out loud.

My budget is about £100 - possibly a bit more, if I am really convinced. From reading around here and there, I think I would like some "open backed" ones. I don't intend to listen to them outside and am not worried about leakage (though some insulation from external noise might be an occasional benefit.......). I would also much prefer a "neutral" or "flat" sound or at least something close - no pumped up bass or any nonsense of that sort. 

My concerns: reading reviews on the internet, I keep coming across people who recommend a certain set of phones provided you have the right amplifier etc. ("Excellent, but hard to drive.......") This leads into the whole world of dedicated headphone amps, DACs etc My understanding of these is pretty limited. I will probably do the bulk of my listening from a laptop (no external DAC, though I am certainly open to getting one). When able, I will sometimes plug into my "system" - a Denon UD-M30 - as a special treat. 

Anyway, I would be grateful for any recommendations - either of a specific set of phones, or a set of phones plus other necessary devices. As long as the price is somewhere around £100, and not more than £150. Getting out to try anything is absolutely out of the question at the moment. Thanks in advance. Apologies if this has already been covered somewhere else.

Christmas time again

First, read this:

Conclusion, make sure the output impedance of the source is less than 1/8 of the input impedance of the headphones. So, e.g. the Sennheiser HD 559 headphones (I like Sennheiser and this one is inside your budget) has an input impedance of 50 Ohm, so output impedance of your laptop or receiver should be less than 6 Ohm. I have been unable to find a figure for the output impedance of your Denon unit, but Ken Rockwell's review suggests it is better with (old) 600 Ohm headphones, so may not be ideal with modern headphones like that Sennheiser. The output impedance of your laptop is anybody's guess. So you may do well to budget for a basic headphone amplifier like this:, or perhaps one with inbuilt dac.

Alternatively, you may use a smartphone for Spotify streaming (is that what you plan to do?). Unfortunately, here too the quality of the electronics varies enormously (but is rarely tested). IPhones are fine, but by no means all androids.

I am sorry I cannot be that much more specific. I am not a headphone user (other than on planes) so I cannot imediately think of that many sites to link to for solid data.


dac/headphone amp

The Fiio E10K is the kind of usb dac/headphone amp that may be necessary.


Thanks Willem. Very useful. I

Thanks Willem. Very useful. I am obviously going to have to get to grips with this impedance business..........(One slight advantage of moving house is my stereo with the Wharfedale's you recommended sounds much better in its new room.)

I am seriously tempted by a DAC, but haven't settled on anything yet. I do have an android phone with spotify, but it is about the cheapest phone around, so I don't plan to do too much listening with that. I use it for unavoidable calls and texts, otherwise I try not to use it. I will mostly use my laptop (cheap, as well) which has a large hard-drive full of FLAC recordings, along with the Denon.

The ears have it

Listen before buying if you can. I've got headphones costing from $9 to close to $1000 and I'd say the relationship between price and sound is tenuous at best. At something like the price you want to pay, Sennheiser used to make a very good headphone, the PX100, before they decided to improve it by boosting the bass and completely messed it up. Grado make a very good headphone at around your price point, can't recall the model number. The most surprising headphone buy I've ever made was the Koss KSC75, ugly little things but amazing sound and they're going for about £18 in your neck of the woods. But I repeat, do your own listening if you can. Some of the highly-recommended headphones I've tried sound dreadful to my ears.

The phones I've mentioned above are open-backed.

your gear

/* Style Definitions */
{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";
mso-padding-alt:0cm 5.4pt 0cm 5.4pt;
mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";

Jane, the problem with your gear is that your Denon is a bit underpowered, and lacks modern digital inputs. Buying a DAC/headphone amp partly solves the input problem (but only for usb) but is not cheap. In some ways it would be a wiser investment to first get a modern amplifier with digital inputs and a decent headphone output, and use your existing headphones. The snag is, of course, that that will cost you rather more (upwards of 200 pounds). An alternative would be a traditional analogue only receiver like the 2x100 watt Sony STR DH 130, selling for 170 euro in Holland, and just add a basic Behringer USB DAC for some 25 pounds. That combination would certainly improve your sound, both with the speakers and with the headphones, and you would not waste money on gear that you would no longer need later. On the other hand, the Fiio DAC/headphone amp could continue to serve later as a usb DAC combined with a receiver like the Sony.

Yet another route would be a Chromecast. If I remember you primarily use the laptop for streaming from Spotify. In that case you could  use a Chromecast (but only with Spotify premium), and add a cheap headphone amplifier like the Fiio E5.

So, on balance, I think that whichever way you go you have to face the problem that the DAC in your laptop is likely to be substandard, and that the headphone outputs of both your Denon and your laptop may well be similarly suboptimal.


Sorry for the mess

I am afraid I composed the text in a Word document first to simplify navigation between browser windows. I then copied that to the forum page, and at that time no funny formatting codes appeared. They only did after I saved my answer, but then I could no longer edit the junk away because the edit button has disappeared.


Thanks again, Willem. I

Thanks again, Willem. I really do appreciate the time you take to answer these questions.

I don't really want to think about ditching my current system just yet........Plugging headphones into the Denon isn't all that important. The system is mainly for loud playing and I am happy with that. 

What if I got a DAC/combined headphone amp and used that in conjunction with my laptop? Will that allow me to get the best out of a decent pair of headphones? (I assume it will bypass the laptop DAC.......) I can probably run to that, budget-wise. 

I still don't really understand Chromecast............I will have to read up on it. What benefit will it give me? I will still have to plug the headphones into something (a laptop or ipod etc), so I don't understand the impact of Chromecast here. 

Jane asked: What if I got a

Jane asked: What if I got a DAC/combined headphone amp and used that in conjunction with my laptop? Will that allow me to get the best out of a decent pair of headphones?


Not my area but did run into a few  when looking for DACs. Have read good things about the Audioquest Dragonfly Red for example. Just plug a very small DAC device into your laptop and plug the headphones into the DAC. In business. Red is recommended in your setup and costs 199 dollars.

Highly recommended is the Meridian DAC Audio USB Explorer 2 which is costs 129 pounds.


Plenty more of this small portable devices available which seem perfect for your laptop/headphone combo. 



Chromecast Audio is a simple cheap unit that turns a traditional amplifier into a network streamer. You use a Chromecast app on your smartphone (even a cheap Android as long as it is not too old) to connect to a service like Spotify, Youtube, Qobuz etc and select what you want to hear. You then click for a conection to the Chromecast ujnit, and aftere that the Chromecast takes over. It makes a direct connection to your wifi (or via ethernet via an extra adapter)  and wil start streaming. With speacial software you can also make it stream from download files on a harddisc. The output from the Chromecast is either optical digital, or analogue. For that, the Chromecst has its own inbuilt DAC, of really rather high quality. I use it on my high end system, without any reservation.

Your current system has three weaknesses.

1 an almost certainly crappy dac in the laptop

2 an almost certainly crappy headphone amplifier in your laptop. The headphone output of the Denon is an unknown quantity, however.

3 a pretty basic headphone


1 can be solved by a Behringer usb dac or by a Chromecast (this way you would not even need to use your laptop). Both will cost about the same.

2 I think you want to know the output impedance of the Denon. I could not yet find it, so you may want to call Denon. It may be quite OK. How does the Denon headphone output sound compared to the laptop, using your current headphones?

3 this is the last thing to adress.


If the Denon headphone output is indeed a problem, you could buy e.g. a Fiio E10k usbdac/headphone amp. This should sound a lot better than directly from your laptop. It will also work as a DAC into your Denon. Alternatively you could get a Chromecast, plug it into the line input of your Denon, and perhaps add a Fiio E5 headphone amp, if that will work with the Denon (ask Denon).


Since you're listening on

Since you're listening on your laptop, why not take it to a shop and try some headphones with it using a few favourite recordings. You'll soon see how well things work with your system and you will have your own views rather than a mixed bag of other peoples'.


I suggest another key factor with headphones is comfort and again, our heads are all different so find what suits you.


I would echo the suggestions for a separate DAC/amp.




Log in or register to post comments

Gramophone Subscriptions


Gramophone Print

Gramophone Print

no Digital Edition
no Digital Archive
no Reviews Database
no Events & Offers

Gramophone Reviews

Gramophone Reviews

no Print Edition
no Digital Edition
no Digital Archive
no Events & Offers

Gramophone Digital Edition

Gramophone Digital Edition

no Print Edition
no Reviews Database
no Events & Offers

If you are a library, university or other organisation that would be interested in an institutional subscription to Gramophone please click here for further information.

© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2019