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Head-Fi Buying Guide (Desktop Amps & DACs)

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Type:   Desktop amplifier and pre-amp

 

Price:   $599 USD

 

URL:   http://www.schiit.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Where Schiit Audio is concerned, I would guess that most Modi DACs are probably sold with Magni amps, and I'd guess that most Bifrost DACs are sold paired with one of the similarly sized Schiit amps, too. As well as those paired-up Schiit separates sell, though, there are still many enthusiasts who opt for single-chassis DAC/amp combos, which, until recently, Schiit did not offer. In the world of personal audio over the last several years, enthusiasts have gravitated rather heavily (in both the portable and desktop worlds) to integrated DAC/amp combos.

This was a trend Schiit resisted. As far as I can recall, Schiit had made clear that they felt the idea of permanently marrying a DAC with an amp was a recipe for eventual obsolescence. They've also said that cramming a noisy DAC section into the same chassis (and sharing power supplies) with an amp could be something less than ideal. I knew if Schiit ever decided to do that--to integrate amp and DAC into a single chassis--it'd be unique, and on their terms. So while I was surprised when Schiit Audio's Jason Stoddard told me about the Jotunheim, I wasn't shocked, especially when he told me the specifics of their approach to the category.

Since the biggest gripes Schiit had with the concept of an all-in-one were eventual obsolescence--and the possible disadvantages that can come with cramming two separate components together into one chassis--they decided that doing something akin to an all-in-one would mean addressing these two concerns. To address obsolescence, the Jotunheim is actually--in its base form--a headphone amplifier and preamp with a single expansion slot to which can be optionally added a USB DAC module or a moving magnet phono input module. So if you add the phono module, you have a phono/amp combo. If you add the DAC module, you have a DAC/amp combo.

Now, since I'm almost certain far more Head-Fi'ers will be opting for the DAC module over the phono module, then, for all intents and purposes, the Jotunheim is Schiit's first desktop DAC/amp combo, however reluctantly they want to own up to their entrance into that category.

The Jotunheim's optional USB DAC module is a hardware-balanced DAC, using two AKM AK4490 DAC chips. According to Jason Stoddard, this module is Schiit's first DAC with passive filtering, which eliminates the typical active output stage (and a whole lot of circuitry). Long story short, to address their other concerns with DAC/amp integration, they designed a solid DAC in modular form. 

However, perhaps most impressive to me is the Jotunheim's amp section, which is one of the most versatile high-powered headphone amps we've yet used. It's a new topology developed by Schiit called Schiit Pivot Point--a differential current-feedback design, with the ability to use one side of the topology as a single-ended output, to eliminate the need for summers. It is fully discrete, with no opamps (except the DC servo) and no integrated chip outputs--and it's completely DC-coupled from input to output.

Pivot Point makes for a remarkably flexible gain stage. While it can output up to 5000 milliwatts RMS per channel into 32 ohms from its balanced outputs--not to mention up to 900 milliwatts RMS per channel into 300 ohms from its balanced outputs--it's still also quiet and delicate enough to silently drive my most sensitive in-ear monitors. There's not a non-electrostatic headphone I have (and I have a lot of headphones) that the Jotunheim can't comfortably drive.

That the Jotunheim amp alone is priced at only $399 is remarkable. If you add the DAC module or phono module when ordering the Jotunheim, the price is still a very modest (and still remarkable) $499. That kind of performance for the price is market-disrupting, and will almost certainly upend even some of Schiit's own lines of products.

For more information, we shot an episode of Head-Fi TV about the Schiit Jotunheim, which you can see below:

 

Type:   DAC, headphone amp, preamp

 

Price:   $1,895 USD

 

URL:   http://www.gracedesign.com

Written by Ethan Opolion (third_eye)

 

The symbiotic combination of clarity and musicality have always been a hallmark of Grace Design products and the new Grace m920 High Resolution Monitoring System follows in this great tradition. Now in its fourth generation, the m920 comes on the heels of the highly popular m903 and adds some meaningful new features, most notably a new 32-bit/384kHz Sabre ES9018-2M DAC which supports DSD64 and DSD128 playback via DoP.

 

The m920 can be used as the central hub in a desktop headphone or combination headphone/studio monitor audiophile system. It is a high-resolution DAC, headphone amplifier, and preamp, but what really sets it apart from much of the competition is the spectacular user configurability of the unit. For example, outputs (headphone out, Line 1, Line 2) can be toggled--and volume independently controlled--via remote control. Additionally, the user can set the volume level upon powering up the device for each of the 3 outputs. 

 

The m920 has fantastic build quality and ergonomics. It feels and handles like a premium product should, with a beautiful brushed aluminum that is similar to the all-familiar Apple products. All of the functions and LED readouts have clear labels indicating the status of the unit. And with this release, the user has multiple options for remote control, including the use of Logitech Harmony remotes, Apple's remote, and Grace’s own remote control unit.

 

The introduction of the Sabre ES9018 provides an increased level of resolution compared to the already highly resolving m903. The unit also has a useful digital filter response with three settings: fast, slow, and minimum phase. I found that different types of music (and recordings) might benefit from each of these settings, but for the most part the minimum phase setting provided the best overall tonal balance.

 

For $1895, the Grace m920 is an amazing piece of gear and should be on a very short list of components designed to offer this level of flexibility, ergonomics, and sound quality. It is equally a fantastic all-in-one solution with ideal synergy for low-impedance headphones, but can also serve as a state of the art DAC for use in other applications.

Type:   Headphone amplifier, and USB DAC / headphone amplifier, respectively 

 

Price:   $1,439.95 and $1,799.95, respectively 

 

URL:   http://www.sennheiser.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Since its release in 2009, one of the rites of passage for new Sennheiser HD 800 owners is finding an amp that can synergize well with the phenomenal--but very picky--HD 800. It's a scene I've seen played out at many meets: The HD 800 owner toting his silver, ring-drivered wonder of a headphone around the room, the HD 800's cable coiled around his hand, his eyes scanning the amps brought by other attendees, plugging his HD 800 in, pondering, unplugging, moving on to the next amp. I went through the same thing, and found that only a few of the many amps I have were able to truly satisfy me and my HD 800. What we hear when the match is bad is most commonly a brighter, colder sound; and if it's real bad, it can be downright harsh. What we hear when the match is great is organic, ridiculously detailed, big sweeping vistas of sound so satisfying that most who get there will tell you it was worth the effort.

 

But what if Sennheiser themselves provided the answer? I think Sennheiser understood their flagship headphone to be a picky one, and decided to craft their own pairing for it--an amp designed, engineered, and manufactured by the HD 800's home team. Yes, Axel Grell was involved. And his team came up with not just one mate for the HD 800, but two: The Sennheiser HDVA 600, and the Sennheiser HDVD 800. The HDVA 600 and HDVD 800 are essentially the same, their amp sections identical to one another. The only difference--a big difference, really--is that the HDVD 800 adds a very nice 24-bit/192kHz DAC to the package (which we'll get to in just a minute).

 

The headphone amplifier in the HDVA 600 and HDVD 800 is a fully balanced design, necessitating four separate amplifier sections--two amp sections for the left channel, two amps sections for the right. That is, for each channel, one of the amp sections is driving the signal, and the other driving the inverted signal. Given the fully balanced design (again, necessitating four total amp channels), volume is controlled with a high-end ALPS quad potentiometer. And, even though it's a fully balanced design, Sennheiser did include provisions for unbalanced inputs, too.

 

Other details include a metal chassis to help protect against signal scatter and vibration. The chassis, by the way, is beautifully finished--the entire surface of the HDVD 800 we have is absolutely flawless. The control knobs are turned from solid metal, with buttery smooth mechanisms behind them. Also, Sennheiser is so proud of the work they've done inside that they include a glass window on the top of the chassis through which to admire the well-turned-out internals, subtly lit by an LED.

 

The HDVD 600 has one set each of balanced and unbalanced analog inputs (XLR and RCA, respectively), and one set of balanced analog outputs (XLR). The HDVD has the same inputs/output, but adds the following digital inputs for the DAC: Toslink (optical), coaxial (RCA), AES/EBU (XLR), and USB. With both the HDVA 600 and HDVD 800, gain of the unbalanced input (RCA) can be adjusted.

 

Late 2012, Sennheiser sent me a very pre-production prototype of the HDVA 600, and it was a bit rough around the edges--looked like it had been around the block...several times. Its chassis finish was good, but not great. Its control knobs weren't anything like the production units' controls are now. And the sound with the Sennheiser HD 800 was very good, but not spectacular. Then, a little while ago, Sennheiser sent me a production-version HDVD 800, and, in every possible way--from the refinement of finish and control feel to the sound--it was (and is) spectacular.

 

The production Sennheiser HDVD 800 I have here elevates the performance of the HD 800, and inspired me to take the photo accompanying this piece. The results are a sort of combination of the sweetness of some OTL (output transformerless) tube amps I've tried with the HD 800, and the electrostatic-like microscopy the HD 800 is capable of, but without any hint of edginess as a penalty for the detail. It's certainly not the only great companion for the HD 800, but it is a great companion for the HD 800.

 

Remember, the HDVA 600 and HDVA 800 have the same amp design, so, assuming you have a good source feeding the HDVA 600, you can likely expect similar results. Which brings me to the HDVD 800's DAC. So far, I've only used the HDVD 800's DAC as a source for its own amp section--that is, I haven't yet tried to assess its performance with other amps. What I have done, though, is plugged other DACs into the HDVD 800, and the HDVD 800's internal DAC compares very favorably. I haven't used an external DAC with the HDVD 800 yet that compels me to give up the all-in-one solution the HDVD 800 is.

 

If you're wondering how the HDVA 600 and HDVA 800 will do driving other headphones, the answer is very good, especially with other high-impedance headphones. I've had great results with the Sennheiser HD 600 and HD 650, and also with my vintage 400Ω AKG K 340, which is just about as picky as the HD 800. That said, here's what I'll say: The amps in the HDVA 600 and HDVA 800 were built for one thing, as far as I'm concerned, and that's the Sennheiser HD 800.

 

Again, the HDVA 600 and HDVA 800 beautifully elevate the performance of Sennheiser's flagship HD 800. And the Sennheiser HD 800 rite of passage has been simplified.

 


 

"Overall I'm happy with how the HDVD 800 is making my HD 800 and LCD-2 sound. As an amp it sounds wonderful, and the fit and finish goes well with the HD 800. They look and sound like they belong together."

- TheManko

Type:   Integrated DAC, headphone amp, and preamp

 

Price:   $1,999 USD

 

URL:   http://www.questyleaudio.com

Excerpted from the Questyle CMA800i review by John Grandberg (project86)

 

Say you're an audio designer and you want to offer a really high quality all-in-one device. You can't make it huge so you've got to pack everything in a reasonably sized enclosure. A superb DAC is an absolute must - you've already got a reference caliber DAC in your stable (Questyle CAS192D), so you end up using that as a reference and packing in as much of that technology as possible. Since this is Head-Fi, you'reextremely concerned about the headphone amp quality as well. The usual simplistic opamp output or voltage divider from the speaker amp simply won't do. Luckily you already have an exceptional headphone amp in your lineup (Questyle CMA800R), so again you try to cram most of that design in this magical box as well. This leaves you with very little room for anything else. You make sure the preamp section is up to snuff, with analog volume control via motorized potentiometer so a remote can be included. You provide a reasonable amount of inputs and outputs - as many as will be allowed given your size constraints. And that's pretty much all we need right? (And maybe the ability to incorporate speakers, too.)

 

The product in question does exist. It's called the CMA800i from Questyle Audio Engineering. Maybe I'm just overly concerned with semantics, but for some reason I'm really intrigued with what Questyle has going on here. It's essentially a modern integrated amplifier with a focus on digital inputs rather than analog, but it swaps out the speaker amplification for a very potent headphone stage based on the highly regarded CMA800R headphone amp. The DAC stage is based on their CAS192D which again is known for being extremely high quality. The logic here is that most of us are primarily concerned with headphone amplification and wish to build a system around that aspect. And yet we may want to add speakers to the mix at some point as well. The CMA800i makes a fantastic preamp for dedicated amplifiers or active speaker systems, and fits right in at the heart of a semi-complex system in a way that most DACs can't - even those modern DACs with volume control on board.

 

The Questyle CMA800i is a very clever device. Whether we consider it a cutting edge integrated with a focus on digital inputs and headphone amplification, or just call it an all-in-one headphone amp/DAC/preamp device like so many others on the market, the end result is the same - a versatile device with exceptional sound that can take a central role in most any audio system. When I recall how much I like the individual Questyle flagship components, and then consider how close the CMA800i comes to that level of performance, for much less cash... it's an easy recommendation for anyone seeking extreme levels of accuracy and refinement. It even does some things better, like playing well with sensitive IEMs.

 

There's a lot of competition in this space. The BMC PureDAC is excellent and costs a bit less, and then there's the Benchmark DAC 2 and Grace Design M920, and probably others that I'm missing. Unfortunately I didn't have any of those here for direct comparisons. I will say the BMC falls on the warmer, smoother, more "analog" side of the spectrum, making it a very different animal than the CMA800i. Still, I don't recall any of these knocking me out in ways the Questyle does not. Most others tend to start as a DAC and then add a headphone out as a sort of bonus - Questyle starts with a genuine high-end amp, avoiding that "afterthought" syndrome. 

 

 

Type:   DAC/headphone amp

 

Price:   $$2000.00 and $1250.00 USD, respectively 

 

URL:   http://www.meridian-audio.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Say "digital audio," and a few companies come to my mind immediately--Meridian is usually the first. You can imagine, then, why I was so excited when I found out earlier this year that Meridian was entering our space with the Meridian Explorer, their pocket-sized USB DAC and headphone amp. Their affordable little Explorer has become one of my favorite USB DAC/amps for on-the-go use. However, as well received as the Explorer has been, it might have seemed to some that perhaps Meridian was just dipping their toes in our water with it, as Meridian isn't exactly known for making components that most would consider affordable.

 

As it turns out, though, Meridian already had more planned, and recently launched something that is more in line with what the Meridian aficionados among us would probably have expected from Meridian entering the world of Head-Fi--something more high-end, something very Meridian, something called the Meridian Prime Headphone Amplifier. The Meridian Prime is certainly more than just a headphone amplifier--it's a Meridian DAC with a Meridian headphone amp, housed in an elegant, compact desktop chassis.

 

As with the immensely popular Chord Hugo, the Meridian Prime eschews use of just an off-the-shelf single-chip DAC solution in favor of more custom-developed technologies. The Meridian Prime uses custom-coded computationally-intensive, Meridian-developed DSP code for things like Apodising, upsampling, filtering, matched dither, etc. So much of what makes a Merician component a Meridian component are the custom-coded digital technologies they put into it.

 

The Meridian Prime is 24-bit / 192kHz capable, including 88.2 and 176.4, with its dual oscillators (based on those found in Meridian's flagship Reference Series components). The Prime's USB input (its only digital input) is async, and upsamples 44.1/48kHz sources to 88.2/96kHz prior to the DAC. The Prime also uses Meridian's Apodising filter, which, among other things, is designed to eliminate digital pre-ringing, for more natural sound. Their Apodising filter was first introduced in what was then their flagship 808.2, and is thought by many to be one of the key reasons for the many plaudits hurled in the direction of Meridian's flagship players.

 

The headphone outputs on the front panel consist of two 1/4" stereo outputs and one 3.5mm (mini plug) jack. Each of the 1/4" stereo jacks is rated for maximum output of 3V RMS off load, THD below 0.002%, power output 250mW up to 42Ω, with output impedance <100mΩ (or less than 0.1Ω). The 3.5mm jack is rated for maximum output of 3V RMS off load, THD below 0.002%, with output impedance of 2.2Ω. The 3.5mm jack is intended for use with in-ears and other sensitive headphones.

 

I've found its built-in headphone amp to have good driving power and very low noise floor, and suitable for most of my headphones, from my most sensitive in-ears to mildly challenging over-ears. My favorite headphone pairings with the Prime so far have been the Audeze LCD-X and the HiFiMAN HE-560, two phenomenal interpretations on neutral'ish sounding high-end heapdhones, and both of which sound fantastic with the Prime. As for harder-to-drive headphones like the Abyss AB-1266 and the HiFiMAN HE-6, the Prime can drive them in a pinch, but if either of those is your main headphone, consider pairing the Prime as a DAC with a monster-powerful separate headphone amp (that is, consider the Ray Samuels Audio Dark Star, HiFiMAN EF-6, Cavalli Audio Liquid Gold, or Schiit Audio Ragnarok, as a few good possibilities).

 

In terms of its sound signature--whether used as a DAC to drive other amps, or as a DAC/amp combo--the Prime is pure Meridian, which is to say it is, for my preferences, a wonderful combination of superb resolution that isn't at all compromised by the ease and smoothness that I've come to expect from Meridian since falling in love with the venerable Meridian 508.24 many years ago. Feed well-recorded high-resolution recordings to the Prime, and it only gets better, with fantastic inner detail and timbral richness.With the little Meridian, you won't think you're listening to your high-end turntable, but, true to Meridian high-end form, the Prime is digital that even diehard analog lovers can love.

 

If you want to elevate the performance of the Meridian Prime to something more approaching statement-level Meridian, give serious consideration to the optional reference-quality, high-current Meridian Prime Power Supply, the design of which is based on the linear power supplies developed for Meridian's flagship 800 Reference Series. It's a fantastic power supply that does its work on both the mains power andUSB. With the Meridian Prime Power Supply, you'll have the biggest taste of Meridian's flagship series you can get in under a square foot of desk space.


If you haven't figured it out by now, I am absolutely thrilled that there's a Meridian DAC/amp combo that sounds like a Meridian player in a compact chassis on my desk.

 

 

Type:   Headphone amp

 

Price:   $599 USD

 

URL:   http://www.rupertneve.com

Written by Ethan Opolion (third_eye)

 

For those that are in the music production world, Rupert Neve is nothing short of a living legend. Mr. Neve’s designs have been at the forefront of recording technology for many decades now, with the famed Neve analogue mixing consoles being responsible for some of the finest sounding recordings from the likes of Steely Dan, Nirvana, Pink Floyd, Dire Straits, Quincy Jones, George Clinton, Chick Corea, and many others. Indeed, the legendary Neve console was the main storyline in Dave Grohl’s fantastic documentary “Sound City”, a wonderful film which should be required viewing for every Head-Fier. So many of us were understandably excited, when the news of the Rupert Neve Designs RNHP Precision Headphone Amplifier came out.

The RNHP is a dedicated 24V reference-quality headphone amp based on the headphone output circuit of the 5060 Centerpiece Desktop Mixer. It has a calibrated +4dBu balanced line, unbalanced RCA and 3.5mm (1/8”) inputs and a 1/4” single ended output housed in a no-nonsense, utilitarian VESA-mountable steel chassis. The unit features switchable inputs that are highlighted by a single green LED, as well as an absolutely lovely red volume knob that just feels fantastic and is silky smooth. Measuring 6.5” wide x 4.6” deep, and 1.9” tall, the RNHP is perfect for a desktop and is also small enough to be easily transportable.

I first got the opportunity to hear the RNHP at CanJam London 2016 and came away really impressed at the overall balance and musicality of this amp. Now that I have gotten to spend some more time with the RNHP in my own system, I’m even more impressed. With the the exception of the notoriously hard to drive Hifiman HE-6, the RNHP has done an admirable job with the Utopia, HD800, and Andromeda which were mostly used, and was also able to scale nicely depending on the source and DAC used. For most of my listening, I was using the AK380 as a source/DAC and occasionally switched to using an Auralic Vega DAC and Aurender N100H as source, which yielded even higher sonic results.

If I had to describe the sound of the RNHP, the first words that come to mind are “balanced”, “clear”, and “musical”. The RNHP is able to get out of the way and lets you hear what’s on the recording and also what the individual characteristics of the headphones and source equipment you are using and that’s really what a headphone amp should do. While there are other headphone amps that have more output power, more features, and fancier chassis, the RNHP represents an incredible value at it’s retail price of $499. Enthusiastically recommended!

 

 

 

Type:   DAC/headphone amp

 

Price:   $1,995 USD

 

URL:   http://www.benchmarkmedia.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

The brand new Benchmark DAC2 HGC only arrived a few days before the due date for me to submit its review, so my experience with it at the time of this writing has been very limited, so this is going to be brief. I'll try to include more information about it in a future guide update.

 

I've had a Benchmark DAC1 before (one of first-generation ones). I liked it. I certainly didn't love it. I felt it rather cold, sometimes harsh. I've got the Benchmark DAC1 PRE here now (which is a much more recent edition of the DAC1 than I had), and I feel it an improvement over the DAC1 one I had--while it's still more on the analytical side, to these ears, I haven't felt the inclination to call the DAC1 PRE harsh. I'm only bringing this up to erase any preconceived notions you may have if you similarly found the DAC1 not to your tastes.

 

The brand new DAC2 HGC sounds to these ears to be as darn near technically perfect as any DAC I've had in my systems, and it's so far been an absolute pleasure to listen to. It is so revealing of details that I sometimes feel distracted by it, and suspect it's something I should just get used to, and learn to appreciate. Is it analytical sounding? Well, yes, but not in the cold analytical sense. The DAC2 HGC is analytical, to my ears, only in the sense that I feel sometimes like information, details, nuances are being thrust at me more than I'm used to. What I'm hearing from the DAC2 HGC is very impressive, very attention-grabbing. I'm looking forward to spending more time with it, to further flesh out my feelings about it.

 

Using my most sensitive custom in-ears, I can also say that, in terms of background noise, it's one of the quietest headphone amps I have here (perhaps the quietest).

 

The DAC2 HGC has a nice feature set, including a digital volume control to control all digital inputs, and an analog volume control for the analog inputs. There are five total digital inputs (and its USB 2.0 input is async), two sets of analog inputs, three sets of analog outputs (the analog outputs are both single-ended and balanced), and two headphone outputs (the left one mutes the rear analog outputs).

 

I can say for sure that a DAC2 HGC will be a part of one my reference systems here.

Type:   Desktop DAC/amp combo

 

Price:   $4,795 USD

 

URL:   http://www.chordelectronics.co.uk

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

I confess.... When I first saw the Chord Hugo TT at CES 2015, I got really excited. The Chord Hugo was my favorite product of 2014 and judging from the unprecedented success of the Hugo, it certainly seemed that many others shared the same sentiment. Chord Electronics managed to release a truly state of the art FPGA (field programmable gate array) DAC in the form of a portable dac/amp. And with its incredible engagement and musicality, the Chord Hugo was a pure home run, and arguably the finest sounding portable dac/amp on the market. But for those of us who loved the Hugo sound and did not need portability, the Hugo had some room for ergonomic improvement in desktop/home use applications. Enter the Chord Hugo TT.

 

The Chord Hugo TT (which stands for Table Top) is Chord’s desktop version of the Chord Hugo. It features the same FPGA DAC with a 26k tap-length filter, and follows a similar design philosophy of the Hugo with its topside component viewing portholes, its touch-sensitive volume control, along with its color-coded LEDs that indicate volume settings, sample rates, crossfeed selection, and input settings. Build quality is exceptional with the TT, weighing in at a stout 3 kg (6.6 lbs); and like the Hugo, the TT comes in silver and matte black. 

 

I can answer the most pressing question right away. Running as a DAC only into my DNA Stratus/HD800 rig, the Hugo TT is a significant step up from the already excellent Chord Hugo. The TT sounds smoother, without any loss of detail or resolution and provides incredible texture, layering, and three-dimensionality to the musical canvas. The bass hits harder, and has more impact. The overall sound is more nuanced, more fleshed out, and the overall image is even more coherent and intoxicating than the little Hugo.

 

So, how did they do this? Despite identical FPGA specifications, including the same 26k tap-length filter, the Hugo TT has a few tricks up its sleeve which provide this significant jump in sound quality. New for the TT (as well as the recently released 2Qute) is galvanic isolation (up to 384k) on the HD USB port, which removes incoming noise from the computer. Like the Chord Hugo, the TT is battery powered but the addition of supercapacitators adds energy storage and maximizes battery and charging efficiency, and provides the increased dynamics and transient response. In addition to galvanic USB isolation and supercapacitators, the TT uses an all new and much larger circuit board, has upgraded I/O connections, as well as a new alphanumeric display and remote control.

 

The retail price of the Chord Hugo TT is $4795 which is commensurate with the upgrade in sound and ergonomics from the Chord Hugo. Anyone looking for an end game DAC in this price range owes it to themselves to seek out an audition of the Chord Hugo TT, which gets my highest recommendation. 

Type:   Desktop amplifier

 

Price:   $2,000 USD

 

URL:   http://www.ttvjaudio.com

Written by Amos Barnett (Currawong)

 

Big transformers. Bulging tubes. Heat radiating all around the orange glow. That's what we imagine when we think about tube amps. However Pete Millet, long known for his amplifier designs joined us at the 2016 Autumn headphone festival in Tokyo and brought along with him his new and unique amp.

The Sangaku uses the Korg Nutube, essentially a modern re-design of a single-ended triode. To quote the Nutube site:

Nutube, similar to a conventional vacuum tube, has an anode grid filament structure, and operates exactly as a triode vacuum tube. Also similar to a vacuum tube, it creates the same characteristic rich overtones. By applying their vacuum fluorescent display technology, Noritake Itron Corp., a Noritake Co. Ltd affiliated company, have devised a structure which achieves substantial power saving, miniaturization, and quality improvements when compared with a conventional vacuum tube.

Using the Nutube in the Sangaku's hybrid design allows the amp to run using only a small transformer, giving the amp a footprint a bit larger than Apple's Mac Mini, if about double the height. With balanced input and output via buffers (the amp itself is single-ended) and up to 1.4W of power, the Sangaku can easily powered the HE1000 V2, Mr Speakers Ether Flow and Sennheiser HD800. Unfortunately it has a bit too much hiss to be ideal with IEMs, though despite this, to its credit it controlled ALOs Andromedas with fine precision. 

Using my Schiit Yggdrasil as the source, the Sangaku has just the right amount of tube euphoria, and delivers music, regardless of the headphones, with a fantastic degree of effortless dynamics and precision. With high-end headphones I felt I could get a very good sense of the space in which music was recorded. Small ensembles sounded close together. Concert halls sounded large, and instrument position was clearly focussed. All this while the amp barely gets to room temperature. The only negative to the design is an audible "ping" when the amp is tapped or push-button selectors pressed. 

I also hooked the Sangaku up to my ADAM ARTist 3 monitors where it did good duty as a pre-amp, a distinct step above the Audio-gd NFB1AMP that serves that duty. I only wish that the pre-amp outputs were balanced.

The Sangaku has quickly become one of my favourite amps, striking a perfect balance between precision, dynamics and euphoric sound and I can highly recommend it to anyone with a good source looking for an amp in its price range.

Type:   USB DAC / tube headphone amplifier 

 

Price:   $999 USD

 

URL:   http://www.wooaudio.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

If we nominated Head-Fi products of the year, the Woo Audio WA7 Fireflies would certainly be one of my nominees. I first saw the WA7 Fireflies at 2012's CanJam @ RMAF, and assumed the diminutive component was a mini system that was more flash than dash. At best, I thought it might be a good system for something so small, designed as an ultra-stylish compromise piece for those who simply didn't have room for a more serious rig. Others at the meet listened to it before I did, and many whose opinions I respect were coming up to me saying things like "Did you hear that thing at Woo's exhibit?" and "Man, you have got to hear that little Woo amp!"

 

Packed into that little five-inch cube is a 32-bit/192kHz DAC (with one async USB input, and one set of analog stereo RCA inputs that also serve as the DAC's analog output, selectable with a switch). Also packed into that five-inch cube is a vacuum tube headphone amplifier that is a pure tube design--no semiconductors used in the entire signal path.

 

Okay, this is the part where I reveal the wee bit of Woo sleight of hand: The WA7 Fireflies comes with a largish linear external power supply to provide clean power to the WA7. The power supply is in a simple black chassis, and comes with enough cable to hide it away. Still, there's a lot going on in the WA7, and a lot of power coming out of it. With the two 6C45 driver/power tubes, the WA7's class-A, single-ended tube amp outputs up to one full watt at 32Ω. When it comes to headphones, the WA7 can drive just about anything, its transformer-coupled outputs switchable to accommodate both low-impedance and high-impedance headphones (for headphones of nominal impedances ranging from 8Ω to 600Ω).

 

Its ability to drive the big, tough headphones is fantastic; but what impresses me even more than that is the pure tube WA7's ability to drive sensitive IEMs, and to do so against one of the lowest noise floors I've heard (or not heard) in any tube amp. Even with IEMs, turning the volume knob way up when no music's playing shows you just how quiet a tube circuit the WA7 Fireflies has.

 

Whether driving a sensitive IEM or a planar magnetic toughie, the WA7 is perfectly comfortable--from delicate to explosive, and everything in between. Given how much detail I'm hearing, I have the utmost confidence in the WA7 DAC stage's ability to impressively feed that little wonder of a tube amp. I couldn't have been more wrong with my initial assumptions. The Woo Audio WA7 Fireflies is a giant performer, not just for its size, but even compared to components of similar functionality of any size.

 


 

"The WA7 has sounded exceptional with every headphone that I’ve plugged into it from low impedance headphones to high impedance headphones. The WA7 is a beautiful piece of machinery that should not be overlooked by those wanting a high-quality tube amp that works with low impedance headphones as well as it works with high impedance headphones."

- keanex

Type:   DAC/headphone amp
 

Price:   $1,480.00 USD

 

URL:   http://www.lavryengineering.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Lavry Engineering sent me a LavryBlack DA11 years ago to demo, and I was so impressed I ended up buying it. When I finally tired of carrying it to my office and back, I picked up a second one.

 

Lavry gear is used in some of the most prestigious recording and mastering studios in the world, and using the DA11 reflects that, in terms of its no-frills aesthetics, utilitarian operation and, most importantly, in its transparency and sonic performance. The DA11 also has a very unique feature called PIC (Playback Image Control), which allows left-right manipulation of each stereo channel in the digital domain, with minimal to no effect on tonal balance. For headphone users, this means PIC can be used as digital crossfeed, and I use it frequently, especially when listening to stereo recordings with heavily exaggerated left-right panning.

 

The DA11's inputs include XLR, USB, RCA (coaxial) and optical (Toslink) digital inputs, and accepts input sample rates between 30kHz and 200kHz (though the USB input is limited to 96kHz). Analog output is fully balanced, but the DA11 comes with nice Neutrik adapters for those who need single-ended outputs. It also has a discrete headphone output, which is actually quite good.

 

My two Lavry DA11's--having served as my primary DACs for quite some time-- have finally taken back seats to the Fostex HP-A8C, Mytek Digital STEREO192-DSD, and Benchmark DAC2 HGC in my reference rigs. The Fostex, Mytek, and Benchmark are more future proof, all supporting up to 32-bit/192kHz via USB, and all also supporting DSD via USB (the Fostex's DSD-via-USB still only with beta firmware at the time of this writing).

 

Still, the DA11's PIC feature keeps the DA11 in the roster, though I do admit I'm hoping to see a DA11 successor from Lavry.

Type:   Transformer-coupled, single-ended triode vacuum tube headphone amplifier

 

Price:   $2,700 USD

 

URL:   http://www.dnaaudio.com

Written by Ethan Opolion (third_eye)

 

Emotion. Body. Presence. Realism. The Donald North Audio Stratus 2A3 single ended triode tube amplifier is Donald North's foray into Summit-Fi and follows on the heels of the popular DNA Sonett (now in its second generation). The Donald North signature blue powder-coated finish and fantastic build quality makes a true statement and is part of the experience of owning a real piece of audio art. 

 

Designed to operate with both low and high impedance headphones, the Stratus has a completely silent background and is a purist class A single ended triode (SET) design. To provide the user with a wide range of configuration options, the Stratus' single-ended headphone output has user selectable output impedance between 8-ohm and 120-ohm, and selectable gain attenuation between 0dB and -6dB for greater volume range. 

 

The XLR outputs have 8-ohm output impedance and come in both dual-3-pin and single-4-pin variety. The 4-pin XLR output is labeled K1000, the legendary headphone which provided inspiration for Donald to develop the Stratus. And with 1.8W (into 50 ohms) of output power, I can confirm that the Stratus has enough juice to power the AKG K1000 (and the even harder to drive HiFiMAN HE-6). But the real standout pairing with the Stratus is the Sennheiser HD800. The Stratus-HD800 is one of those magical combinations where you can simply forget that you're listening to music being reproduced, and instead just listen to, and become one with, the music.

 

The stock tube complement of the DNA Stratus includes a Winged "C" (SED) 5U4G rectifier, a Sovtek 6N1P dual triode input/driver tube, and 2 Shuguang 2A3B directly heated power tubes. Donald has done a great job here finding budget tubes that provide rock solid performance, musicality and lush intimacy. 

 

For enhanced resolution, speed and increased soundstage layering, popular tube upgrades for the Stratus include: EML Meshplates, Sophia Princess, and Shuguang Nature Sounds for 2A3's; EML 5U4G Mesh, NOS RCA 5U4G, and Ken-Rad CKR 5U4Gfor the 5U4G rectifier; and NOS 6BQ7A's and Cryoset 6N1P's for the input tube.

 

Originally released in 2012, the Stratus has undergone one revision change in 2013 with the introduction of new balanced choke-filtered 2A3 filament supplies. This upgrade option was offered to all Stratus owners at the time and is included in all current production Stratus amplifiers. The main result of this upgrade was an even blacker background, enhanced soundstage layering, and an increased sense of three-dimensional realism.

 

The DNA Stratus is an incredible value at $2700. It is worth noting that lead times for the Stratus can be fairly long due to the nature of it being a custom-built product. But good things come to those who wait, and the Stratus is certainly worth waiting for--especially if you're an HD800 owner looking for an end-game rig.

 

Type:   DAC/headphone amplifier

 

Price:   $799 USD

 

URL:   http://www.sony.com

Written by Warren Chi (warrenpchi)

 

Every once in a while, a piece of gear will catch us all off guard with it's performance, or value proposition, or some combination thereof. 2014 has already seen more than its fair share of such surprises with stunners like the Astell&Kern AK240Chord HugoBlue Mo-Fi, etc. And now, into that fray, comes a fantastic DAC and headphone amplifier from Sony.

 

:blink:

 

That's right, I said Sony. Yes, I'm being serious. Stop laughing.

 

If you're shocked by that, because you expected to see a more Head-Fi-centric brand like Cavalli, CEntrance or Schiit, then join the club. I certainly never saw this coming. In fact, I largely ignored the UDA-1 when it was launched earlier in 2014. And it was only by pure chance that I auditioned this at a press event in CanJam 2014, where I finally took notice of it.

 

So what makes the Sony UDA-1 so special?

 

For starters, it's a 32-bit 192 kHz DAC capable of processing the lowliest of MP3s to the most regal of DSD (5.6 Mhz) and everything in between... using any one of three included digital input methods (USB, coaxial and optical). As a component in Sony's new HiRes Audio strategy, it can also post-process your music using their new DSEE (Digital Sound Enhancement Engine) which, I must admit, actually sounds pretty good. It outputs clean, fixed-gain analog at 2V into your choice of headphone amps, but it also sports it's own built-in headphone amplifier capable of delivering 170mW/channel into 300 Ohms (1% THD). Not in the mood for headphones? The UDA-1 can drive speakers too, outputting 20 Watts/channel RMS into 4 Ohms. It even comes with a remote control so you can use The Force on its motorized volume pot. And you get all of this for - wait for it - under $800 ($799 USD).

 

 

:eek:

 

But hold on, we still haven't gotten around to what makes the UDA-1 truly special. What makes the UDA-1 a brilliant piece of kit - and thus worthy of a place in this guide - is that it sounds amazing. Unbelievably good. Very, very OMGWTFBBQ.

 

:smile:

 

As just a DAC, the UDA-1 achieves that elusive, Goldilocks-esque balance that lies at the crossroad between detail and refinement, offering us 85%-90% of the detail found in a Mytek Stereo 192-DSD, with none of the occasional glare or harshness that can occasionally accompany such an uber level of detail.

 

As a DAC and headphone amp, the UDA-1 is clean, quiet, surprisingly neutral, remarkably transparent, and refreshingly natural. It's a solid state amp of course, but it offers us a very organic and textured presentation that sounds more like a hybrid. With headphone after headphone - including Audeze's LCD-X, Denon's D7000, and even Sony's new MDR-Z7 - the UDA-1 drove them all effortlessly. It even pierced the HD 650's veil to a degree that I did not expect. In short, it simply makes music sound like music.

 

I didn't think I'd be saying the following anytime soon... but the Sony UDA-1's price-vs-performance ratio, incredible feature set, and magical sound practically demands it of me... 

 

Sony is back! :)

 

:beerchug:

Type: USB DAC and headphone amplifier, respectively

 

Price:   $149 USD each

 

URL:   http://www.schiit.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

At less than $300 for the pair of them, each essentially built for the other--and performing as well as they do as a system--I couldn't bring myself to separate the Schiit Modi 2 Uber and Magni 2 Uber for this guide.

 

The Modi 2 Uber has asynchronous USB 2.0, Toslink SPDIF, and coaxial SPDIF inputs, and can support up to 24/192 via all of those inputs. The DAC chip inside is the AKM4396. It has single-ended analog output via a pair of RCA jacks. My first-gen Modi (and the current Modi 2 non-Uber) support up to 24/96, and have only USB input.


As a DAC that has had tremendous attention paid to its measured performance as well as its sound, the Modi 2 Uber reads like a DAC that couldn't possibly be priced at $149.

 

The Magni 2 Uber might be even more ridiculous (and I mean that entirely as a compliment). For 149 bucks, one expects a simple opamp-based design (not that there's necessarily anything wrong with such amps), but the Magni 2 Uber's topology is described by Schiit thusly: "Fully discrete FET/bipolar, constant feedback through audio band, complementary VAS drive, Class AB, DC coupled throughout." I can't think of another fully discrete amp at its price point, other than Schiit's own Magni 2 (non-Uber version), which I haven't yet heard, and that goes for even less at $99!

 

The Magni 2 Uber has single-ended input via a pair of RCA jacks, and also has a preamp output that's controlled by the volume pot, and switched via the headphone jack. I intend to eventually use these preamp outs to feed active studio monitors (loudspeakers). My original Magni (and the newer Magni 2 non-Uber) do not have the preamp outs.

 

What does the Magni 2 Uber drive? So far, everything I've thrown at it. Rated at a maximum 1.5W into 32 ohms--and with a very low noise floor--I've driven several headphones, from my most sensitive IEMs to some harder-to-drive planars. With my most sensitive in-ears, I get a rather loud pop during both plug insertion and extraction, but, once in, the Magni 2 Uber is dead silent, even with my FitEar MH334 custom, which seems to be able to touch just about any amp's noise floor.

 

The Magni 2 Uber's versatility is helped by two gain settings, switchable via a rear-mounted switch. Also, its output impedance is only <0.2Ω, so that's a non-issue.

I've only used the Modi 2 Uber and Magni 2 Uber together as a stack, so I haven't yet compared each separately to other DACs and amps, but I can say emphatically that together they're a DAC/amp combo that represents the best DAC/amp combo I've heard for anywhere near $298, which is just an insanely low price for how great this stack of Schiit sounds.

 

Compared to the first-generation Modi/Magni stack I have, the Modi 2 Uber / Magni 2 Uber combo is richer sounding--the first-gen stack kept me plenty happy, but, in direct comparison, sounds less authoritative and more clinical to me. Using the ultra-transparent HiFiMAN HE1000 to compare them, the newer "2 Uber" stack provides more resolution and refinement, and, again, richer tone. If you spent almost all you had on the $3000 HE1000, and had only $300 left to spend on the rest of your system, here it is.

 

For five years, Schiit Audio has been one of the coolest stories in our community, and the Modi 2 Uber and Magni 2 Uber will only strengthen our enthusiasm for this company that was founded by a couple of wily audio industry veterans. Since Schiit's launch, it's been hit after hit from them--including (on the other end of the price scale) the best sounding DAC we've yet heard at Head-Fi HQ (the Yggdrasil)--and the tiny Modi 2 Uber and Magni 2 Uber may be their biggest crowd-pleasers yet, for their performance far beyond their price.

Type:   Desktop headphone amp

 

Price:   Starting at $2,500 USD

 

URL:   http://www.wooaudio.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

One of the best tube amps I've heard, in a variety of rigs, is the Woo Audio WA 5 LE, a two-chassis, single-ended triode, transformer-coupled, Class-A headphone amp that uses the venerable 300B tube. I personally love the sound of a great 300B amp, and the WA 5 LE is a great 300B amp. Though I don't have one yet, that may have to change. As is customary with Woo, the WA 5 LE uses point-to-point wiring.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Type:   Desktop amplifier/pre-amplifier 

 

Price:   $520 USD

 

URL:   http://www.audio-gd.com

Written by Amos Barnett (Currawong)

 

Whenever I think of the number 11 in audio, the famous “turn it up to 11” scene from Spinal Tap comes to mind. While I don’t think that that was what Kingwa (He Quingua, the owner of Audio-gd) was thinking when he named the amp, the first balanced amp I had from him, the Phoenix had a volume control that went up to 99. It may well have been the first commercial headphone amp to use relays and resistors to control the volume via a rotary encoder and digital controller. The NFB-1AMP reminds me a lot of the Phoenix, given that it is in the same size box as the Phoenix was, albeit a one-box solution compared to the older amp’s two-box system in the manner of a Mark Levinson design.

While little seems to have changed over the years, Audio-gd amps spotting multiple inputs, pre-amp output, digitally-controlled resistor-and-relay volume control and Audio-gd’s own take on a current-gain amplifier, incremental improvements have kept Audio-gd’s products competitive. Not needing to spend vast amounts on marketing, promotions and fancy cases make their products quite a bargain. What is more, I’ve discussed with Kingwa the efforts he makes to find good workers and subsequently take good care of them as individuals, both for their sake as well as to ensure the quality of the final product.

Feature-wise, the NFB1AMP packs no less than 5 inputs: 2x XLR balanced inputs, 2x RCA single-ended and 1 set of ACSS current system inputs, which are intended to be attached to one of Audio-gd’s DACs. Outputs are either the balanced or single-ended headphone outputs or balanced or singled-ended pre-amp outputs. Audio-gd’s balanced products are ideally intended to be used at least with the balanced outputs, especially with headphones, as the single-ended outputs wont utilise half the electronics. Instead Audio-gd usually provides single-ended versions of their products designed for people who don’t have headphones with a balanced cable and don’t want to re-terminate theirs.

If you have a pair of headphones already with a balanced cable, such as from Audeze or MrSpeakers, or a pair of active monitors, then once you’ve got a DAC, you’re all set with a great desk rig. Audio-gd’s matching DACs, along with their amps, share the ACSS connection system, intended for higher-quality signal amplification and transmission. Externally it connects the current-gain circuits between components, bypassing the conversion to and from voltage transmission and negating any concern about what interconnects to buy as the cables can be ordered from Audio-gd.

The Audio-gd house sound is one where the amp simply disappears and it was that way with the NFB-1AMP. People talk of amps with a black background, but the non-feedback designs from Audio-gd I’ve only experienced a similar feeling with from amps from Bakoon Japan (which use similar technology) in producing a that seems to be both very smooth and very detailed without being rolled off at all. It is more as if the music has just appeared, suddenly, out of a black hole of nothing, with a complete lack of distortion.

That makes brighter headphones, including ones with a livelier treble, wonderful to listen with. The HD800s simply sound fantastic, as do the MrSpeakers Ethers. Warmer-sounding headphones aren’t left behind at all, with as much pleasure to be gained from Sony’s MDR-7Z and Audeze’s LCD-X, and there is enough volume range in low-gain mode that IEMs, if not excessively sensitive, will work from the single-ended output.

The NFB-1AMP doesn’t quite match my ALO Audio Studio Six for ultimate dynamics, but the degree to which it is close using a Chord Hugo as a source means that I will have to upgrade to Schiit Audio’s Yggdrasil for a more fair comparison I think! To get better from Audio-gd, one would have to buy the much larger, much hotter-running and more expensive Master 9 amp.

If you’re after a moderately-sized and effortlessly powerful headphone amp and pre-amp that just gets out of the way of the music, put the NFB-1AMP on your shortlist.

Type:   Closed, on-ear headphone

 

Price:   $3,499 USD (AURALiC Vega), $1,899 (AURALiC Taurus MKII)

 

URL:   http://www.auralic.com

Written by Ethan Opolion (third_eye)

 

Going back to 2013-2014, there was a particular brand gaining a whole lot of attention in the audio world. With beautiful design aesthetic, robust build quality, and sonics to match, AURALiC quickly distinguished itself by offering high end audio products at attainable price points. Founded in 2008 by Xuanqian Wang and Yuan Wang, AURALiC committed themselves to creating a series of user-friendly audio products combining the most modern audio technologies, while focusing on advanced design aesthetic.  Which brings us to the AURALiC Vega DAC, and Taurus MKII headphone amplifier. These two highly regarded audio products have gained an incredibly strong following and when Summer Yin, AURALiC North America’s Sales Manager contacted me to ask if I wanted to demo these units, I was happy to oblige. It’s always fun to listen to audio products that you have read so much about and even more fun when your expectations are met and even exceeded. 

 

The Vega and Taurus MKII are both housed in matching, 2/3 size chassis with beautiful machined and sculpted alloy faceplates and in the case of the Vega, a gorgeous 512x64 OLED display. Both units use soft red indicator LED’s, and wonderfully damped spherical volume knobs. The units themselves are 11”W x 9”D x 2.6”H with the Vega weighing in at 7.5 lbs. and the Taurus at 8 lbs. The units come with a full host of inputs and outputs enabling a fully balanced configuration.

 

I used the Vega and Taurus MKII in a variety of configurations mostly fed by an Aurender N100H and switching out between the Utopia, HE-6, and HD800. The Vega DAC is not only a highly advanced DSD/DXD DAC, it’s also a high quality preamplifier capable of balanced output. The Vega’s volume levels are controlled by a 100 step digital controller which does not compress dynamic range and comes with a remote control that enables the basic functions of switching inputs, controlling volume, as well as some of the not so basic ones like dimming the OLED panel display. One of the Vega’s signature features is its Femto Master Clock which yields extremely low jitter measurements and includes three master clock control settings: AUTO, FINE, and EXACT. The unit also provides the user with selectable digital audio filter modes for both PCM and DSD formats. I found myself mostly switching between Filter Mode 1 and 4 but found it nice to be able to tailor a specific filter mode based on the type of music and quality of recording I was listing to. 

 

The Taurus MKII is a fully balanced solid-state headphone amplifier and preamplifier that provides selectable single-ended and balanced inputs and outputs. The amplifier has a set of proprietary ORFEO Class A output modules which according to AURALiC achieve extremely low distortion performance. The modules themselves are said to be inspired by the Neve 8078 analog console’s circuit design with the goal of achieving a similarly type of warmth and natural sound signature. With it’s generous power ratings of 4,500mW into 32 ohm loads (single-ended) or 120 ohm loads (balanced), the Taurus is capable of handling any headphone, including the hard-to-drive HE-6. 

 

The sound quality of the AURALiC Vega DAC and Taurus MKII amp is in a word, stunning. It’s a lofty goal to achieve a captivating sense of musicality while retaining the technicalities that audiophiles value. Too often, resolution is achieved at the expense of musicality and with this combo, AURALiC have managed to bridge the gap and let us have both. In terms of specific pairings, I found myself mostly listing with the aforementioned HE-6 as the Taurus MKII amplifier is one of the very few headphone amps that I have heard that can make the HE-6 truly sing. 

 

The AURALiC Vega retails for $3499 and the Taurus MKII retails for $1899. Starting on November 18, and until supplies last, AURALiC will be offering the units at a promotional price of $2500 for the Vega and $1329 for the Taurus MKII. If you are in the market for a high end DAC and/or headphone amplifier, you owe it to yourself to try and audition the AURALiC products. Highly recommended! 

 

 

 

Type:   Tube hybrid (tube/solid state) headphone amplifier

 

Price:   $169 USD

 

URL:   http://www.schiit.com

Written by Amos Barnett (Currawong)

 

For a long time there has been a fascination with cheap tube amps on Head-Fi. For many years Little Dot and Darkvoice had the lead. With Schiit storming in with their inexpensive Asgard and Valhalla, their cheapest all-rounder hybrid was the Lyr. 
 
Their first attempt at a very inexpensive tube amp, the Vali used sub-minature tubes. Intended for hearing aids before the advent of the transistor, they are capable of producing good sound, but can be pretty noisy, and in Schiit Audio's inexpensive aluminium cases would ring like crazy if the case was tapped. They also had a high failure rate (at the factory) making the amp a pain for the company.  
 
With the Vali 2, Jason Stoddard gave up trying to keep the tube in the case and relented to having it stick out of the top, negating the need for tricky thermal management. He has also selected a tube for which there are a number of types which can be used its place.  After solving the issue of the multiple voltages required for the circuit via the use of a dual-voltage transformer inside the wall-wart, Schiit Audio managed to keep the price down to a crazy low $169 by keeping everything simple, from the basic chassis to using the simplest parts.  
 
After a day of being left powered on, the Vali 2 will show some serious potential, punching way above its price point. With more delicate and calm music it is a joy to listen with, throwing a good soundstage with either the relatively easy to drive MrSpeakers Ether or the Sennheiser HD800. 
 
While demanding music can show some strain in the performance, such as horns in classical and jazz music became a bit shouty and harsh, and complex music can sound blurred compared the more effortless presentation of more expensive amps amps, the bass punch is impressive even with high-end headphones, even the HiFiMan HE1000 and MrSpeakers Ether Flow. However this is only when I compared the performance to much more expensive amps.  
 
I sure as heck don't feel like I am listening with a $169 amp, more like one that was at least triple the price, and I'd readily forget which amp I'd plugged my headphones into while it sat on my desk. Not only that, but a fair bit more detail retrieval than I had expected. For example, the slight flatness in the sound of the remaster of Jack Johnson's Bushfire Fairytales album was just as apparent through the Vali 2 as it was through my more expensive amps. That degree of looseness and blur to the sound was still there, but knowing that I'd have to spend 4-6x the Vali's price to better that I have been very impressed.   
 
Since the Vali's output impedance in low gain mode is a usefully low 1.2 Ohms, it can do quite a reasonable job with IEMs. With the 12-driver JHAudio Roxannes, I was rewarded with a pretty good and clear result, along with some quite thumping, if slightly out-of-control bass, with only a bit of sibilance in the treble on Morphine's Buena while the Yggdrasil's lovely mid-range vocal reproduction was kept sufficiently pure. Quite a good result, even if the Vali 2 is not the amp I'd choose as a first preference for IEMs, as the various DAPs and amps I have on hand are better controlled and more precise-sounding. However, the Vali wins for entertainment value, if the DAPs do a better job when it comes to purity of sound. 
 
What is more, as Schiit Audio are limited to including tubes that they can buy inexpensively in bulk, finding a good tube on eBay will almost always be an upgrade, so much so there is an entire thread on tube-rolling for it. The Vali 2 has enough power even for the 6SN7, so with tube adaptors and socket savers, quite a variety will work in the amp, giving it an distinct sonic upgraded.
 
What is most amazing is how the Vali manages to keep one entertained yet keep it together at the same time, compromisingly only a little at either end of the spectrum, and yet only costs $169 and still under $200 with the addition of a good tube. Put it together with a Chord Mojo or a DAP of choice and a nice tube off eBay and you have a rig under $1000 that will power even high-end headphones entertainingly well. 
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Comments (2)

Dear Amos and Jude,
Thanks a lot for the reviews.
Very helpful. Thanks guys.
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