"If it measures good and sounds bad, it is bad.
If it sounds good and measures bad, you've measured the wrong thing."


Building a reference system - Introduction

Posted by Amine Slimani on October 9, 2014 at 4:50 PM


Those who have visited before might have noticed that I haven’t written any new article for more than two years. How did that happen?

Part of the explanation is that I was busier than usual with non-audio related things but that was not the main reason for this disappearance. The main reason for my taking away a break was that I had reached such a satisfying sound quality level with the Beyer T1, Audio-gd DAC and headphone amplifier combination that I was able to settle for a while with the same system and enjoy listening to music without touching to anything.

Nonetheless, as an audiophile and a long time “tweaker”, I could not help myself from wondering: “What if …?”

At that stage, I had two options: either I could continue (my upgrade path) with the audio-gd equipment and have my Beyer T1 balanced or try something totally new. Indeed, I have had a very good experience with audio-gd equipment in the past, and was very satisfied with the price performance ratio of their line up (especially their PCM1704 based DACs). However, I decided to try something totally new instead of simply getting the top of the line equipment from their company. Buying “bigger” component from the same manufacturer would have guaranteed me a “better” sound, while perhaps keeping the same house sound. Meanwhile, I had started noticing some minor faults with my equipment that prompted me to try a new direction.

Before starting buying new equipment, I read a lot of reviews about different equipment and asked opinions from people whose opinion I trust.

What I have been looking for is a sound that is free from any harshness yet detailed enough, revealing yet enjoyable on a very broad range of recordings, and analytical yet very engaging to listen to. Those might seem as contradictory qualities, but one should be able to find such qualities in a good audio system, or else why bother at all with endlessly upgrading equipment?

The way I ended upgrading my equipment, over the course of a few months, was as follows:

1. The DAC, by getting the Metrum NOS Octave MKII

2. The amplifier, by getting a custom made OTL headphone amplifier made by Glenn R.

3. The headphone, by getting the Sennheiser HD800s

4. The headphone cable, by getting a custom silver/gold upgrade cable for the HD800s

5. The tube dampers, by getting the top of the line RX dampers for all 8 tubes of my headphone amplifier

That it is also the order I will us for publishing my next articles.

Meanwhile, the rest of my equipment remained the same: the USB source (i.e. the Aqvox powered Audiophilleo 2), the other cables (mainly from the French manufacturer Hifi Cables & Cie), the power filter (Bada), the audio rack and various tweaks (E&T spider rack, Aktyna ARIS decoupling feet…;).


Did the sound get transformed switching from the older reference to this newly built one? The answer is both yes and no.

On the one hand, one might consider that the sound did not get transformed given that every single album I listen to remained recognizable. The thing is that the coloration of most good audio systems is far smaller in scale than that of most commercial albums.

On the other hand, one might consider that the quality of the system was totally transformed, especially by audiophile standards. Indeed, the level of refinement went up tremendously, the timber and richness of instruments got closer to the real thing than anything I had listened to previously, the soundstage became more immersive than ever, and most importantly, the enjoyment I started getting from listening to my music reached new levels of greatness. The sound has become so breathtakingly good on so many types of recordings that it feels like a hallucination. In my previous reference system, some of the recordings were exceptional to listen to but many of them were just adequate to listen to. In my current system, I enjoy every single piece of recording I listen to whether it is classical music, piano, jazz or modern popular music. Isn’t that what we are after?


I attribute this high quality of musical enjoyment to every single component in my chain, and to the synergy of the system as a whole. Is it the best headphone system one can build? I am pretty sure it is far from it. However, this system has a set of qualities that I have never personally experienced in another system.

Can this system be improved? It most probably can: there are probably systems with deeper and more powerful bass, bigger soundstage or more low level details. However, after months of listening and comparing to my older equipment (I didn’t sold any of it), I have found that is hard to find annoying faults with this system. Perhaps, the most surprising thing is how musical and wonderful sounding the HD800s ended up to be in this system - I have to say that I did not use to care for the HD800s when I listened to them in other configurations.


In the next series of articles I will go into more details on how I ended up choosing every major component in my system, and how I feel each component sound in my system. I will also try to go into as much detail as possible in describing the sonics of each component in order to help people that are interested in one of the components listed previously.


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