Hello all. I just bought a pair of Shure E500 headphones to use on my intel-based iMac. I am disappointed in the audio quality. The E500's on my SB Audigy-equipped PC are spectacular, but they are just okay on my iMac.
Would buying a headphone amp boost the quality, or do I need a sound card? Any recommendations?
i really like the m-audio usb and firewire sound input/output cards. you should look for things that do not use your original sound output, things that use firewire or usb connections. also check out emu.
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I wasn't impressed with my Macbook 2ghz Core 2 Duo audio out either.
I use an iBasso D1 portable DAC with included headphone amp - I changed the opamps inside and use a pair of AD797 on a 2:1 adapter, I put an AD8397 in each of the buffer sockets (the 8397 is a SOIC chip mounted to a DIP adapter), and an LTC6234 in the DAC socket. It sounds world class now, meaning very portable few amps can match it, and you might have to spend 2-3x as much to keep up. Optical or USB audio work equally as well. I HIGHLY recommend this for your Mac.
Almost as good but not quite as open sounding is a Headstage Lyrix with built-in USB DAC, and it runs on an AD8397 opamp. It is smaller in case you want to take it portable with you.
BOTH amps needed burn-in. They were decent out of the box, and the Lyrix sounded better with zero hours than the iBasso. The Lyrix needed over 200 hours to really shine and show what it can do, and the iBasso 400 hours (on the stock opamps). After 400 hours it was nice, maybe a little grainy, and on some headphones maybe slightly shrill. EVEN STOCK IT SYNERGIZED VERY WELL WITH MY SHURE E500/SE530. The new opamps fixed all concerns immediately without burning them in additionally.
The Lyrix out of the box ties my RSA Tomahawk with 750 hours, but the Meier Headsix out of the box was a little better than the Lyrix. By 200 hours the Meier and Lyrix were evenly matched, surpasing the Tomahawk. The Meier Headsix and RSA Tomahawk don't have a DAC built-in, but Headstage sells a USB DAC for $30 that does a better job than the built-in audio and works well with those amps.
I've done reviews on all these that you can find on head-fi.org when they get it back up and running.
He hee...my Turtle Beach sound card is almost the size of an entire iMac by itself! I definitely wouldn't expect the audio output to be very good on such a machine....after all look at it's target audience...14 year olds playing MP3's
If you can afford it, try the Benchmark DAC-1 USB (http://www.benchmarkmedia.com/dac1/). It's an external sound card, a DAC and a headphone amp. It even got a Stereo Review ranking. There isn't much in its price range that compares. If that's too rich, then the M-Audio at around $160 is the best bang-for-the-buck - it has all the same features, just not the same HiFi cache.
I added the Zaolu 2.5 DAC/amp to my mac powerbook and Senn HD580's. The difference was huge. I'm guessing the Z2.5 is a step up from M-Audio but far short of the DAC-1.
I think it's mostly the power the amp brings that makes the diff. The onboard amp on a basic Mac or PC is just not made for demanding cans.