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.
Design and specs
If headphone amps abound, why the M2Tech Marley? What differentiates it from the rest? Unlike many headphone amps, the Marley uses a class-A topology: its output devices run through the full 360 degrees of the waveform. The advantage of this arrangement is lower levels of distortion than are possible from most class-A/B designs. The downside is that class-A is inefficient and generates a lot of heat -- something that fans of class-A’s sound quality gladly put up with. In addition to serving as a headphone amp, the Marley can serve as a preamplifier, probably most usefully when driving powered speakers in a desktop system.
Further differentiating the Marley from the competition, M2Tech designed it to achieve the benefits of balanced operation while offering both balanced and single-ended outputs. In balanced output, the usual three-conductor cable is replaced with a four-conductor cable, two for each channel, thus eliminating the common ground and the accompanying crosstalk that can be introduced. In the Marley, a completely separate amp is used for each of the four legs of the signal. This purportedly improves the output by requiring each amp to drive only half of the coil in each headphone, to greatly improve control of the coil and thus increase the music’s dynamic realism. The Marley has three headphone outputs: one balanced, two single-ended. The latter can run in balanced mode to drive a single pair of headphones, but when the two single-ended outputs are used to drive two pairs of headphones, the output to each pair will be single-ended. When two pairs of headphones are being used simultaneously, each pair can be driven with different volume settings tailored to each listener’s preferred volume.
The Marley’s appearance is consistent with that of M2Tech’s Young DAC and the optional Van der Graaf power supply, which can be used with the Marley. The Marley is housed in an attractive, silver-colored aluminum case measuring 8"W x 2"H x 8"D, with black top and bottom panels perforated for ventilation. The front panel, of black acrylic, is fastened to the case with a silver bolt at each corner. At the center of the front panel is a blue fluorescent display; to the right of this is a large silver knob that serves as the digitally controlled analog volume control and as a menu navigator. To the left of the display is a small silver Power/Mute button that can also be used to select a menu item.
On the rear panel, from left to right, are: two pairs of RCA jacks for Line In, and one pair each for Tape Out and Line Out; the balanced headphone output (XLR), flanked by the two single-ended outputs (phone jacks); and inputs for the optional Van der Graaf power supply and the wall-wart supply (the latter is included).
The Marley’s claimed power output is 4Wpc RMS into 8 ohms, with a signal/noise ratio of 120dB (A-weighted), an input impedance of 40k ohms, and gains of 12dB single-ended or 18dB balanced.
Setup was very easy and straightforward, but I have two minor complaints about the Marley’s ergonomics. First, there’s no remote control -- unless the Marley is used as part of a desktop system, you’re going to have to get up and adjust the volume. In the Marley’s defense, this was rarely a problem for me, but a remote would have been nice. Second, while placing the outputs on the rear panel is great from an aesthetic standpoint, my headphone extension cable barely stretched the required extra distance. Again, this will be much less of a problem with a desktop system.
The Marley throws off a lot of heat. Give it plenty of room for ventilation.
The last six months have been one big headphone binge for me, and not only because I’m reviewing headphone gear. Since last June, my parents have been living with me. Since there are significant generational differences in musical tastes and volume levels, the ’phones have come in very handy. Not only that, the Marley’s arrival coincided with the release of the high-resolution remasters of Led Zeppelin’s first three albums. I was ready to rock.
Even on the original vinyl, Led Zeppelin’s III (24-bit/96kHz AIFF, Atlantic) has been, in my experience, one of the worst-sounding rock recordings ever, with a dark, murky mix. Subsequent remasterings had done little to improve it over the years, but regardless, III is one of my favorite Led Zep recordings, so I’ve put up with its crappy sound for decades in light of its musical greatness. The new remastering goes a long way toward improving the clarity of the recording, though the sound is still compromised. No matter -- through the Marley I was able to fully enjoy the explosive staccato assault of Jimmy Page’s guitar army in “Immigrant Song.” From the opening chords to its abrupt finale, the Marley kept pace with the music, and powered my Sennheiser HD 600 headphones to the fullest degree, with no sense of compression or strain.
So the Marley could rock -- but given its namesake, could it swing? I’m not a big fan of reggae, but I love the Police and their reggae-influenced music. The bouncy, reggae-calypso beat underlying “Bombs Away,” from Zenyatta Mondatta (DSD64, A&M), was a foot-tapping pleasure to hear, with a good sense of rhythm and time. Similarly, the bubbling bass line from Sting that anchors “Walking on the Moon,” from Reggatta de Blanc (DSD64, A&M), had good timing and textural suppleness.
Imaging was fine, more rounded than finely etched. However, this was not at the expense of detail, which was fully fleshed out. In this regard the Marley was notable for a burnished tone resembling that of tubed sound, yet with the advantage of solid-state’s tight bass response. This made the M2Tech well suited to acoustic recordings of all genres. “Helplessly Hoping,” from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s So Far (16/44.1 AIFF, Atlantic), had a delicate plucked string tone, nicely rendered vocal harmonies, and natural-sounding warmth, all of which recalled the LP of my youth. Given the Marley’s class-A circuitry, this wasn’t unexpected, and tonally the Marley exhibited a warm but not sumptuous or rich midrange. This quality added life to recordings without making them sound saccharine.
I really can’t listen to classical music while wearing headphones -- no matter how good the headphones or amp, the soundstaging is suboptimal, even with crossfeed circuitry. But I did evaluate the Marley with solo-piano recordings of artists such as Keith Jarrett. I recently attended a student piano recital, and paid particular attention to the sound of the instrument as my daughter and her fellow students played. The kind of woody resonance and spaciousness one experiences live can be captured by recordists of exceptional skills, for which Jarrett’s label, ECM, has a well-deserved reputation. With the live Testament: Paris/London (24/96 AIFF, ECM), the Marley’s warmth and clarity allowed these qualities to fully bloom as Jarrett developed his improvisations.
I compared the Marley with Oppo’s HA-1 headphone amplifier, also class-A and balanced, which I’d recently reviewed ($1199). (I bought the review sample.) Since the Marley is a standalone headphone amplifier, I bypassed the HA-1’s internal DAC and connected the HA-1 to my Meitner MA-1 DAC. And because the Marley has only single-ended inputs, I used single-ended interconnects for the HA-1 during the comparison. Although the HA-1 has a balanced headphone output, I don’t have a balanced headphone cable. So to level the playing field, I set up the Marley for single-ended output.
Like the Marley, the HA-1 is a class-A amplifier, and both models’ sonic outputs tend to veer toward the warmer side of neutrality. However, switching between them revealed that the Marley was a touch warmer and a shade less distinct in fine detail. In its favor, though, the Marley seemed to sound more lively, the HA-1 more analytical. I felt the Oppo had a slightly faster sound, but the M2Tech didn’t sound at all slow or flabby. However, sonic textures were more palpable through the Marley, and thus more lifelike. Both amps had easily enough power to drive my HD 600s to high SPLs without audible distortion, but the HA-1 had a little more low-end oomph that resulted in better overall bass response.
The M2Tech Marley is a very fine headphone amplifier that I found well suited to a broad selection of music. Its differences in sound quality from the Oppo HA-1 are minimal, and I know I could be happy with it over the long term, regardless of my ergonomic complaints. There are competing products at lower prices, such as the HA-1, that offer more options and flexibility, but I don’t think it’s fair to judge solely on the basis of price -- so much goes into the cost of an individual product, such as parts quality, labor, place of manufacture, shipping, and sales volume. If you don’t need the DAC, and/or have a tube-based system, and/or prefer things on the warmer side of neutrality, the Marley may be what you’re looking for. You should definitely check it out.
. . . Uday Reddy
M2Tech Marley Headphone Amplifier
Price: $1699 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.
Via Giuntini, 13/L1
I-56023 Navacchio di Cascina (PI)
Source Systems, Ltd.
35 S. Montilla
San Clemente, CA 92672
Phone/Fax: (949) 369-7729
Alternate phone: (949) 322-4973