The Weakest Link in the Headphone Audio Chain with Digital Sources on HDD

What are the links in such a set up?

  1. The quality of the digital file
  2. The music system such as ROON
  3. Connecting lead
  4. The bridge
  5. Connecting lead
  6. The DAC
  7. Connecting lead
  8. Headphone amplifier
  9. Connecting lead
  10. Headphones
  11. Ears

Note the above does eliminate several significant problems caused by the CDP at one end and the speaker/room interaction at the other. It also has the potential to yield far better audio quality at significantly less cost.

A weakness anywhere in the chain will affect audio quality but IMHO the most significant culprits are the transducers (headphones) and the DAC, not necessarily in that order. It could well be a wrong move to upgrade the headphones if there is a weak link earlier as better headphones will faithfully reproduce the distortions caused by earlier links in the chain. Logically then the DAC should be the component to upgrade first.

The importance of hi-rez digital, files over CD quality remains questionable to me. Yes I do hear differences and prefer the hi-rez files but wonder if the more TLC engineering devoted to them is more the reason for improved audio than the basic format. CD quality can be extraordinarily good (as it was bad in the early days of crude DACs when I hated digital and worshipped the LP).

I’m no fan of wireless so use LAN cabling to the bridge but must admit to not experimenting with different types but have installed category 5 and that seems to work OK here. But from here on it becomes challenging.

I sense the bridge is more important than many realise as a quality unit can significantly reduce jitter to make the job of the DAC easier. And I’m VERY happy with the Auralic G1. The cabling used to carry the digital signal to the DAC is also important, something not appreciated earlier. Appropriate balanced Canare cable is used here with a Henry Engineering powered 4 way AES digital splitter to send quality balanced digital to 4 sites in the house. And yes, cable quality elsewhere in the system can be significant, but in my experience it is less important than the major components bridge, DAC, amplifier and last the headphones.

Two of the frequently used end systems here have L.K.S. DA004 DACs, modified by Rick Schultz. I’m still playing around with headphone amplifiers, items currently being re-appraised for their importance. The two main headphone systems currently use a Violectric V280 and a Auralic Taurus 2 but the Taurus is about to be replaced by a audio gd master 9. I sense that any improvement in AQ will not be dramatic as it is already very high quality, but such is the madness of Audiophilia.

The preferred headphones here are Focal Utopia although I also like the Sennheiser HD800S, maybe not as revealing of the inner music detail as the Focals, but more comfortable and display a superb soundstage.

The last item on the list, the ears, an extension of the brain, can be a dominant factor as is frequently illustrated by the futile arguments on some forums about differences of AQ of components. Ultimately there is no right or wrong about judgements as they are so subjective. What is important is one’s own personal satisfaction with components and that is a compound mixture both of genetics and music listening experience.

It is embarrassing how often I’ve proclaimed to have achieved the “best” I require, only to turn around and be seduced by another component. That is the nature of this “hobby” which can easily turn into an obsession. But what better obsession can one have than be immerged in a head full of beautiful music? That is my excuse anyway :blush:


The weak link in your impressive system is probably your ears, especially since you’re a bit older. Hearing loss occurs. That is something you just to have to deal with and make the best of. On a personal note, I find Bryston MPD is superior to Roon for music sound quality. User interface is where Roon shines.

The HD800s and Focal Utopia are excellent headphones.

1 Like

You are spot on!! But I’m still surprised at how I can detect AQ differences, I guess because it is the midrange which is critical. I find the harpsichord is one of the most revealing instruments to test for. In most systems it can sound a jangled mess (explaining why few audiophiles like it) while in a top system the delicate harmonics come shining through.


The weakest link is the headphones BY FAR. The distortion and other errors are orders of magnitude more than the same issues in the electrical domain. Think about the huge differences in the sound of various headphones. Now think of the differences in the sound of say DACs. The electrical unit differences are tiny. But swap out headphones and it’s like a completely different world. Those differences are because all loudspeakers (even tiny ones on your noggin) suck. They are dismal at doing what they are supposed to do from an objective standpoint, and they each are dismal in slightly different ways. That’s why return on investment in a stereo is the biggest in the speaker department.


No argument that transducers are basically the weakest links but there is a paradox in all this - improved headphone might not yield better sounding music because they are more revealing of faults earlier in the chain.

And IMHO the DAC is the worst culprit in those earlier links. The most revealing test I know of how good a DAC is, is how well they handle well recorded harpsichord music. Sadly most only make it sound a jangled mess and do not handle the complex harmonics at all well, explaining why few people really like harpsichord playing.

But I am currently re-appraising my opinion of the importance of the amplifier. Until now I had not appreciated the different subtleties that can be lost with a lot of amplifiers.

Headphones are the weakest link just like speakers are in a full system. Doesn’t matter how good the back end is, if the front is incapable of reproducing the quality needed.

I was ready to kick in my amp and source. I was convinced they where causing my system to sound off. How wrong I was, I had chosen the wrong speakers for my room and system l, found ones that work in harmony and it’s a completely different system that shines. Its all about balance you can equally go too far the other way and have the source not good enough for the speakers. But start with the speakers and build everything to sound the best with those not the other way round.

1 Like


This is totally correct! The difference between good amplifiers/very good amplifiers is not huge. With speakers this is a complete different behavior. Much more “personal listing style” driven.
However I am since a couple of years with active speakers, one problem solved :crazy_face:


I don’t know enough about your specific system, but we are now at the point where for around $200 each you can buy a DAC and HPA that are completely transparent to the underlying files in any audible respect. I would be surprised that, unless there were a fatal flaw in the design of your DAC, there would be a real (which to me means measurable) difference between your DAC and virtually any thing that you might replace it with.

I also disagree about cabling. If cabling made a difference, then trading floors around the world would use audiophile cable (spoiler: they do not) as a better cable could mean hundreds of millions of dollars of value to them in terms of accuracy and latency.