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- Beat Kaestli: “Invitation”
Traditionally, headphone amps have been afterthoughts -- relatively low-cost circuits built into receivers, computers, portable media players, etc. After all, even with relatively insensitive headphones, the amp usually needs to put out no more than 50mW -- 0.05W -- to drive headphones to loud volumes with no audible distortion. But with headphones’ recent surge in popularity, and the concomitant growth in the number of hardcore headphone enthusiasts, many manufacturers have been putting serious design effort and resources into their headphone amps.
Oppo Digital PM-2 measurements can be found by clicking this link.
Luxury has never much appealed to me. The word can mean an indulgence, something inessential. Both latter terms are anathema to me, which is probably why my audio-reviewing beat has largely been gear that scores highly on the scale of performance per dollar spent. S. Andrea Sundaram recently reviewed Oppo Digital’s PM-1 headphones ($1099 USD), and was so taken with them that they ended up being named a SoundStage! Product of the Year. Andrea not only has discerning ears; he’s a fastidious critic. When it was suggested that I review Oppo’s PM-2, a model for which nearly identical sound quality is claimed (provided the synthetic earpads are used for both models) for a price $400 lower ($699), I jumped.
Founded in 1946, in the aftermath of World War II, Japanese electronics firm Onkyo began by manufacturing phonograph pickups. By the 1970s, Onkyo had established global distribution of a wide range of audio products. Onkyo models are some of the most rich in features for their price points, and the company has the reputation of being among the first to implement certain features -- the world’s first THX-certified audio/video receiver was an Onkyo, in 1994. While today Onkyo makes a full range of products, from Blu-ray players to speakers, they’re best known for their AVRs and amplifiers -- their website currently lists 19 AVRs, from $279 to $2999. These range in power from 60 to 145Wpc, but even more widely in their feature sets: input/output options, processing capabilities, and five, seven, nine, or 11 channels. In terms of processing, the spec sheet for the TX-NR838 A/V receiver ($1199 USD) reproduces no fewer than 31 logos, representing those technologies Onkyo has licensed for this product.
Bluesound Pulse Wireless Loudspeaker System, Powernode Streaming Receiver, Duo Sub/Sat Loudspeaker System, and Vault CD Ripper and Storage Device
“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” I’m reminded of the old adage even when encountering apparently daring new products from old, familiar companies. Bluesound is a new line of innovative audio equipment from the Lenbrook Group, longtime owners of NAD and PSB, whose pedigree and ability to make great, affordable audio equipment are the stuff of legend. But even after poring over Bluesound’s website, I still had only a vague idea of what their products actually did. So I said, “Send ’em all.”
Turns out they’re simple, elegant turns on products you’ve used and read about for years.
2014 seemed to be the year of the portable high-resolution music player. Pono was finally released, Astell&Kern released the magnificent AK240, and then came the M, from South Korean manufacturer Calyx Audio.
I was asked to compare the M with A&K’s AK240. No way. The AK240 has many functions absent from the M -- though each might be the best in its price category, the price difference is significant. At $999 USD, the Calyx M costs a lot less than the AK240 at $2499, and you get less: no Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, thus no wireless connection to music stored on your computer -- and no form-fitting protective case. But what you do get with the Calyx M is very good, and makes it a reasonably good value . . . once the bugs are worked out.
In the box
The Calyx M comes with a soft carrying pouch and two USB-to-USB Micro charging cables, one short, one long. Its gorgeous copper color is matched by the cables. There’s no quick-start guide -- you download the instruction manual.
At 5.25” x 2.75” x 0.5”, the Calyx M is large -- about the size of a new iPhone 6 or Samsung phone, but thicker. Its 7.7 ounces felt a bit heavy in my hand over long periods of use. The front is almost all screen -- a handsome, 4.65”, high-definition (1280x720) OLED display covered with Gorilla Glass. On a tiny strip below the screen is an “M.” The rear panel is all smooth metal, with Calyx’s engraved treble-clef logo and manufacturing information -- the fine print. Along the top edge are a 3.5mm jack, slots for SD and MicroSD cards, and an On/Off button. On the bottom is the USB Micro jack for charging.
The headphone market is on fire these days, and not just for the “personal audio” mobile market. I can’t recall a time when I’ve seen so many announcements of new headphones and related components. Most notably, the market for headphone amplifier-preamplifier-DACs has exploded and continues to grow. But what if you, like me, already have a DAC you’re happy with, and would rather spend less to get only what you need? Thankfully, there are plenty of standalone headphone amps available, with new ones being launched regularly.
The Italian manufacturer M2Tech first came to my attention several years ago, with their hiFace USB-to-S/PDIF output interface. Since then they’ve broadened their range to include two such converters, four standalone DACs, an ADC, a clock generator, a power supply, and the subject of this review: the Marley headphone amplifier ($1699 USD). Following M2Tech’s custom, the Marley is named for a famous musician, in this case one whose first name was Bob.
Now that we’re almost half a decade into the revolution in portable hi-fi, with enough headphone and earphone models out there to saturate if not drown demand, I didn’t expect to be so taken with an earphones-and-amp-DAC package. But after a month with Alpha Design Labs’ EH008 ’phones ($239 USD) and matching A1 portable USB amplifier ($599), I continue to be surprised by just how much performance can be had for under $1000.
ADL, for short
Alpha Design Labs (ADL) is a subsidiary of well-known Japanese manufacturer Furutech. While ADL already has to its name several headphone models and a standalone DAC, the EH008 represents a new foray, into earphones. Unlike the single-dynamic-driver or multiple-armature designs available from other manufacturers, each side of the EH008s has two dynamic drivers: an 8mm midrange-bass driver directly behind a 5.8mm treble driver. Each is Alpha-Cryo treated in what ADL says is a two-stage process. First, all metal parts are frozen to temperatures below -328°F (-200ºC) with liquid nitrogen and liquid helium. ADL claims that this binds together the components’ individual molecules more tightly, the overall structure thus becoming more stable in a way that relieves internal stresses. This purportedly improves electrical conductivity and, in turn, power and signal transfer.
NuForce Primo 8 measurements can be found by clicking this link.
Ever had to buy cheap earphones when you were traveling because you broke the ones you had? If you have, you might wonder why some earphones cost $500 USD. I’ve bought several cheap sets of earphones over the years, and while a few were breathtaking in their suckitude, most were OK. The $9 set I got at a truck stop in Jennings, Louisiana, sounded shockingly nice -- a little bassy, perhaps, but quite listenable overall. And the amazingly neutral sound of the $15 Panasonic RP-TCM125 creams a lot of $100 models I’ve heard.
But there must be some reason audio enthusiasts buy $499 earphones like the NuForce Primo 8, right? There are. The Primo 8s have not one, but four drivers in each earpiece. These are not the dynamic drivers found in all inexpensive earphones, but balanced armatures. A dynamic driver is basically a miniature version of a conventional loudspeaker driver. A balanced armature is like a little motorized teeter-totter that drives a diaphragm. Balanced armatures are known for more extended, delicate, and airy treble, and, to some extent, for low tonal coloration -- although dynamic drivers, too, can have low tonal coloration, as proved by the Sennheiser IE 800.
In July 2013 I reviewed the Grace Digital Mondo, a portable Wi-Fi player and radio that can easily be moved from room to room. Grace’s Encore ($199.99 USD) is a larger, more solid component that you’ll want to leave in place, but like the Mondo, it lets you experience a world of music and conversation, from stations in your hometown to broadcasts from Australia -- provided you have a Wi-Fi network.
In the box
The Encore comes with a remote control (batteries included), a power adapter and cord, and an RCA-to-3.5mm mini patch cable for optional device connection. The 54-page, single-language instruction booklet is a far cry from the “quick-start” guides that are all you get from too many manufacturers. The Encore’s manual isn’t perfect, however; here and there, it includes instructions for the Mondo instead of for the Encore.
Like them or not, Beats by Dr. Dre can take credit for lighting a fire under the headphone market. Manufacturers of much better headphones and associated gear are now reaping the benefits as consumers explore better alternatives. While the bulk of consumers’ attention seems to be on the portables market, the increased focus on high-performance audio has also shone a light on the burgeoning market in headphone amplifiers, and buyers are taking notice.
Right now, the hottest action in the amplification segment is in the category of headphone amp-preamplifier-DAC, with examples from Benchmark Media, Grace Design, and Antelope Audio (among others) receiving rave reviews. Charging into this space is Oppo Digital, already well known for their excellent-sounding universal disc/streaming players, with their HA-1 headphone amplifier ($1199 USD).
As usual, however, Oppo has not been content to create another me-too product. The HA-1 contains some notable differences from the rest of the herd.