Opinions sought on new system for desk-based headphone station

First post, so hi to everyone!

I only discovered Roon last week, so still in my trial period, but I’m loving it so much that I will definitely be signing up after the trial. I love the sound quality, the UI, and even the community (which I have been avidly reading this week). I also signed up for Qobuz which I am also enjoying.

So far I have just been a Apple iTunes guy listening to my ripped CD collection and purchased tracks via my iPhone or Sonos. Using Roon felt a bit more like enjoying buying new LPs or CDs in my youth and sitting down to listen and read the cover info.

So, as I am mostly working from home, and with possible further lockdowns to come I have decided to put together a decent headphone system for desk-based listening. Any opinions on gear I should checkout would be welcome.

I’m looking for something that can sit on my desk in the living room and drive some nice headphones well. Also because my desk is in our living room, the size and looks are a consideration, needs to be small enough to not take over my desk, and not hideous enough that the wife will keep nagging me to “clear up that mess”.

Here is my current plan:

Server: Currently running the Roon server as a docker image on a server elsewhere in the house. Seems to be working well so far, but haven’t had to deal with any updates yet. If it becomes a pain then I will swap it for either a NUC or a Nucleus.

Headphones: Looking for something nice sounding, nice looking, that are comfy and well built, to last me years :slight_smile: Current shopping list…

  • Sony MDR-Z1R
  • Focal Clear
  • Meze Empyrean
  • Focal Utopia

DAC/Amp: Looking for something smaller than a full-width hi-fi unit, with balanced headphone outputs, that can handle any of the above headphones…

  • Sony TA-ZH1ES, seems to be a nice size, well built, people say it sounds great and it supports a good amount of formats/resolutions, with a good selection of outputs.
  • Focal Arche, similar size to the Sony, supposed to sound good.
    Any others I should check out?

Streamer: Currently planning to use a stock Raspberry Pi 4 running Ropieee, connected by Ethernet cable, and feeding via USB to the DAC/Amp. I can hide this out of sight.
I have also looked into streamers such as Limetree Bridge, Sonore ultraRendu/microRendu, Pro-ject Stream Box Ultra but they are a big jump in price for something which can be done so cheaply. Any other streamers worth checking out? Is there actually any benefit to getting a more expensive dedicated streamer over the RPi?

Controller: I will be using either the Mac app running on my laptop, or I also have an iPad mini on my desk which also makes a pretty great remote control for Roon.

I have also considered some all-in-ones:

  • Naim Uniti Atom, at the upper limit of size I would accept, don’t really need the big screen, no balanced headphone output, might be overkill if I will never use it with speakers.
  • Matrix Audio Element X
  • Mytek Brooklyn Bridge
    I really haven’t decided if I prefer all-in-one or more separate components that I can swap out individually if necessary.

I do have an equipment rack about 5m away from where I sit, so I might be able to hide any ugly or large equipment in there, but then I will need at least a 5m cable run to my desk. I guess only the headphone amp needs to be on my desk. If I have my streamer/DAC in the rack then I will be sending an analogue signal over a 5m cable run into the headphone amp on my desk, but if I hide only my streamer in the rack then I can send a digital signal over the 5m into a DAC/Amp on my desk.
Any pros/cons with either of these approaches?

Sorry for the long post, and thanks for any insight/opinions.


I have a Topping D90/A90 combo. The D90 gets great reviews and I am quite satisfied. A RoPieee feeds it. Many compare the A90 favorably to a Benchmark headphone amp.

Only problem is now I need to upgrade my headphones, probably Focal Clears.
I’ve also been checking out ZMF headphones, for a boutique solution.

Check out the Denafrips Aries II for an R2R alternative.

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Headphone amp to check out - Headamp GSX-mini

Focal Clear are great headphones for the price.

Sonore is coming out with a new microRendu for $400. Worth a look…

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My initial thought was a one-box solution of Orchard Audio Pecan Pi as a streaming headphone amp (when used with the balanced out to headphone adapter), however it seems your budget way outstrips this!

I can definitely vouch for the Naim Atom as I regularly use it with headphones and it sounds fantastic.

If I had your budget, however, I would almost certainly pair the Meze Empyreans with the Brooklyn Bridge. The headphone amp is apparently phenomenal.

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Matrix Element X, M or I all are Roon Ready streamers, DACs and headamps.

RME ADi 2 FS DAC is an awesome DAc and I use it for headphones or you can pair it with a seperate amp. Perhaps a Violectric v282 which I have heard pair very well with the Meze Empyrians.

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How have you connected Roon to the RME ADi?

Using a fanless NuC thin client running ROCK, it’s just an endpoint not my core as its a very low powered nuc. I could use a Raspberry Pi instead but this has LPSU as well.

That’s food for thought. How does the headphone amp of the RME compare with the Atom?

Way better in my opinion I don’t like Naims headphone implementation at all feels a bit anemic and the cable won’t stretch to where it lives. But I use the RME in a different room. It has more oomph but this depends on headphones your using but powers even pretty demandig ones, it is very neutral and the DAC is too class. It has powerful EQ if you want it and more importantly a very good implementation of Loudness that works well for low level listening. I am very happy with it and use it a lot when I can’t get in the front room.


@Slim_Fishguttz The A90/D90 does look nice, and the right kind of size for my desk, I’ll check out some reviews, thanks.

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@rrwwss52 Thanks, checking out the GSX-mini now.

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@Red_R Actually the PecanPi was on my list for all-in-ones, I just forgot to add it to my post. It does get great reviews, but I think I’ll step up a level for some more features and flexibility.

Can I ask what kind of headphones you are using with your Atom. I assumed that the headphone jack was kind of an afterthought and it was really aimed at driving speakers, which I don’t need. I haven’t seen much talk of how good the headphone amp is in the Atom, so good to hear it is working well. My local dealer has one available, it is very tempting to just go in and pick one up, but I wanted to explore more dedicated headphone options first.

I think if I went all-in-one I would be looking at the Matrix Element X, same kind of features as the Brooklyn, but I prefer the styling of the Matrix, and no adapter needed for the balanced output.

The headphones are going to be a tough call, unfortunately none of them are available anywhere near me to try them out first, so I’m going on reviews only. I love the styling and reviews of the Empyreans, but I have also found some new Clears in a sale, which is very tempting.

@CrystalGipsy thanks, I am seriously looking at the Element X if I go all-in-one, but I will also look into the RME.

I have also heard the Violectric mentioned, but it seems hard to get here in the UK.

Can I ask which NUC you are using as an endpoint? I was thinking of an RPi, but I think a NUC might be more reliable, and has a working power button :wink: But the cost of a NUC is probably similar to something like a Sonore ultraRendu, is there a reason you went NUC rather than a dedicated streamer? I love NUCs, I previously used one as a Plex server, it was rock-solid.

I like Pi’s too but I definitely find them a bit more temperamental.

The one I use was recommended by @Henry_McLeod. Its a DE3815 I got it refurb stuck a small SSD and some ram and added a LPSU never let me down.


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I’m using a RP4 running Ropieee and a USB wifi antenna. Short USB cable to an Oppo HA-1 powering Audeze LCD-3s. Can’t buy Oppo anymore unless you find one used. Have you tried planar magnetic phones? I have a hard time putting them down once I start listening. Highly recommended.

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I use Sennheiser HD 660S and Meze 99 Classics. They both sound great with the Atom. The 3.5mm out does seem to suggest that the headphone amp was an afterthought, however to my ears it sounds pretty good. I also couldn’t find much information on the headphone amp, though the opinion seems generally favourable:

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Thanks for the suggestions everyone, shopping has commenced!

For the streamer, I went for an 8th gen i3 NUC running ROCK as an endpoint. Set it up today and tried it out with my Dragonfly Cobalt while I wait for everything else to arrive. Worked perfectly first time, but I almost deafened myself when I tried playing through it for the first time, using IEMs, and hadn’t noticed that for some reason Roon had set the default volume at 100. Well I noticed pretty quickly after I pressed play and then yanked them out of my ears. I can think of better default values!!!
Working well so far, just waiting for a fanless case to arrive.

For headphones, I found some new Focal Clears with £300 off, they should arrive in a couple of days, excited to try them after hearing so much about them. I’m still very interested in the Meze Empyreans, but where is the fun in going straight to endgame??? Something for the future…

After the recommendations above I spent all weekend researching the RME ADI-2 DAC FS and the Topping D90/A90 combo. They both sound amazing according to the reviews, but I ruled out the RME because I wanted to try running the Clears balanced, and so in the end I decided to start out with the Sony TA-ZH1ES that I originally shortlisted. It will suit my desk setup well, involves a lot less cables than the Topping combo, and it does get great reviews too, plus it can drive any of the above headphones that interest me. It should be arriving tomorrow, so now I just have to hope that it plays nicely with my NUC endpoint over USB.

Thanks again for the suggestions. If I’m not happy with the Sony TA-ZH1ES then I will try out the Topping next.


After awhile, post how things turn out.

Have fun.

There is a bug in the Cobalts firmware and Linux I have had the 100% volume happen a few times. It will just jump to it when first switched on with ROCK.

A problem, Maximum Volume at start up, which also occurred with Naim MuSo & MuSo-QB mark 1. A workaround was developed which partially fixed the problem. As far as i am aware the mark 2 devices are OK.