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Head-Fi Buying Guide (Desktop Amps & DACs)

Introduction
Over-Ear Headphones
In-Ear Headphones
Wireless Headphones
Gaming Headphones
Exercise Headphones
Cables & Accessories
Desktop Amps & DACs
Portable Amps, DACs & DAPs
Ultra-High-End Headphones (Summit-Fi)
Desktop & Portable Speakers
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Head-Fi Buying Guide

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Desktop Amps and DACs

There is a lot of other gear discussed by Head-Fi'ers other than headphones, including amps to power those headphones, digital-to-analog converters (DACs), other source components to feed the amps that power those headphones, other audio accessories, and occasionally even loudspeakers for when we don't feel like listening to headphones.

OPPO HA-1
TYPE: Desktop DAC and headphone amplifier
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PRICE: $1199 
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URL: www.oppodigital.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

OPPO's first foray into headphones with its planar magnetic OPPO PM-1 has been a resounding success. It was also a remarkable stretch for a company known among audio and home theater enthusiats for their high-performance / high-value universal disc players (Blu-ray/DVD/DVD-A/CD/SACD). With so much experience in digital component design and manufacturing, though, developing a DAC / headphone amp combo would certainly seem to be more in their wheelhouse (than a headphone), and perhaps it was. It was far from a walk in the park, though, as OPPO wanted to develop and craft a DAC/amp combo that the pickiest of high-end headphone enthusiats (maybe most especially OPPO PM-1 owners) would be thrilled with. They held off release dates. They scrapped and started over when necessary. They wanted it right. And the end product--the OPPO HA-1--was the imperssive result.

 

When the production HA-1 arrived at Head-Fi HQ, we were immediately struck by its fantastic build quality. Usually, when I train our cameras on a component to photograph it, I can spot (under the scrutiny of studio flashes and a good macro lens) imperfections in construction--surface scratches and nicks, minor (and occasionally major) seams not perfectly lining up along their entire lengths, dented corners, etc. With the HA-1, I literally could not find a single flaw anywhere on its beautifully built outer chassis. Even the included wireless remote control is built to similar standards of fit and finish.

 

Within the HA-1's impressive chassis is a DAC capable of decoding up to 24-bit/384kHz PCM and DSD up to 12MHz (DSD256), based on the ESS ES9018 SABRE DAC chip. Digital inputs include AES/EBU (XLR), S/PDIF (coaxial RCA), TOSLink optical, and async mode USB. There's also wireless connectivity via Bluetooth, which I love, which includes aptX support. The HA-1 is also Apple "MFi" certified, so using it as an iDevice DAC is as easy as plugging your iPhone, iPad or iPod directly into the conveniently located front panel USB jack, with no additional adapters (or Camera Connection Kit) needed.

 

The HA-1's headphone amp is a discrete Class-A design (so the HA-1 runs quite warm), with all of the discrete parts hand-picked and hand-matched. The amp is also a fully balanced design, and is quite powerful. From its 4-pin XLR balanced headphone output, the HA-1 is rated to deliver an impressive nominal output of 2000mW into 32Ω, and 800mW into 600Ω. Its 1/4" (6.35mm) single-ended headphone output is rated for nominal output of 500mW into 32Ω, and 200mW into 600Ω. The balanced headphone output's rated output impedance is 0.5Ω, and the single-ended headphone output at 0.7Ω, both being impressively low.

 

The HA-1 can also double as a stereo preamp--a role made easier with a "Home Theater Bypass" mode that bypasses the HA-1's volume control, with both RCA and XLR outputs.

    

The HA-1's volume control uses an analog potentiometer, to avoid re-digitizing the audio signal to adjust volume. This volume control is connected to a motor, allowing for remote control. In addition to the included wireless remote, the HA-1 can also be controlled by a smartphone app (available for iOS and Android) that includes all the same functionality as the wireless remote. (I have not tried either of these apps yet.)

 

One of the most striking features of the HA-1 is its 4.3" front panel color display, which is also the heart of the HA-1's user interface. This display panel offers several different screens that you can keep on display (or that you can turn off completely), including a screen that shows you system status, there's one that shows which source you're using, another screen that simply shows your volume level, an 18-band frequency spectrum meter, and a VU meter.

 

So by now it's obvious that the OPPO HA-1 is a very full-featured, very well-built component. But how does it sound? Thankfully, very good, in either the role of DAC or headphone amp (although overwhelmingly most of my use of it has been as a DAC/headphone amp, which is what all the following comments apply to). Other than the PM-1 (which I'll get back to in a minute), the first headphone I tried with the OPPO HA-1 is Sennheiser's flagship HD 800--still one of my favorite headphones--to see if this was a synergistic pairing. In my experience with the HD 800, there's no good guessing about whether or not the HD 800 is going to synergize well with a particular amp--to find out, you have to actually try it yourself, or talk to someone who's tried the same combo. I'm thrilled to report that the HA-1 sounds excellent with the HD 800. The bottom fills out nicely, and there's good detail throughout with the HD800. Overall, as far as solid state amps go, the HDVD 800 by Sennheiser has the edge, and remains my favorite solid state amp for the HD 800--it just fleshes out more detail than just about anything else I've tried with the HD800, including this HA-1. That said, the HA-1 is still very much one of the better solid state pairings I've tried with the picky German flagship. (With the HD 800, I use the HA-1 in its normal gain mode.)

 

The HA-1 has proven very versatile, driving everything that I've plugged into it, including the Abyss AB-1266 and the HiFiMAN HE-6. Yes, those. In its high-gain mode, I've found the HA-1 to have very good drive, even with the HE-6, able to drive it well past any volume level I'd ever listen at. In terms of its sonic qualities with the HE-6, it's a good pairing, but not as smooth as the best pairings I've heard with the HE-6, which include the Cavalli Audio Liquid Gold and Ray Samuels Audio Dark Star. With the Abyss AB-1266, the HA-1 matches up with greater synergy than with the HE-6. Again, it's still not at the same level as the Liquid Gold or Dark Star with the Abyss, but still a good pairing that I love listening to. Keep in mind that both the Liquid Gold and Dark Star are far more expensive than the HA-1 and neither has a built-in DAC. If you have either or both of these headphones, would I recommend you try the HA-1 with them? Without hesitation. (With both the HE-6 and the AB-1266, I use the HA-1 in its high gain mode.)

 

In addition to the HD 800, the three headphones I've enjoyed the most through the HA-1 so far have been the new HiFiMAN HE-560, the Audeze LCD-X, and OPPO's own PM-1--admittedly, these are three headphones I've found easy to enjoy out of a lot of good amps. Through these headphones, the HA-1 absolutely shines, driving them all easily, and allowing them to to do what they do best, without taking anything away, or adding anything untoward. I won't go into a lot of discussion here about its performance with the LCD-X and HE-560 beyond saying that HA-1 works great with both. (With the LCD-X, I use the HA-1 in its normal gain mode; for the HE-560, I use high gain.)

 

Focusing on OPPO's own PM-1 now, I will say this: the two go hand in hand. Obviously, I don't think this was a coincidence. Though I'm sure OPPO designed their PM-1 to sound good with other amps (and it does), and the HA-1 to sound good with other headphones (and it does), it seems they made extra sure that as an OPPO system, the HA-1 and PM-1 were matched up perfectly, and they are. The smoothed high-end of the PM-1 seems to have just a little more presence through the HA-1, which I find a bit odd considering that I don't find the other headphones I've mentioned treble tipped-up by the HA-1. I'll chalk this one up to synergy, plain and simple--and these two OPPO pieces have a lot of it. If you own one of the two OPPO pieces, I strongly suggest you search out an opportunity to try pairing it with the other.

 

One thing I want to mention is that the HA-1 is a very quiet amp with all of the above headphones--dead quiet actually. However, with sensitive IEMs, I can hear low-level noise from the HA-1. It's very low, but it's there, so it's not as dead quiet with IEMs as the Benchmark DAC2 HGC. It's also a little higher in level than the Schiit Audio Ragnarok with the same IEMs tested. I can't imagine too many HA-1 owners are going to be using sensitive IEMs with it, but I thought I should mention this.

 

Other than that, I literally have no complaints about the OPPO HA-1. For what it is, and for its price, it's absolutely fantastic. You an OPPO-quality hi-res DAC that is feature-packed beyond any DAC I can think of at this price--that just happens to also come with a powerful, fully balanced, discrete Class-A headphone amp, and that can serve as a system preamp.


I expected great digital from OPPO, as they've done digital for years. However, as they did with their PM-1 as a first headphone, they've hit a big ol' home run with their first serious headphone amp. OPPO's on fire right now, and I can't wait to see what else they'll be coming out with in the future.

Sennheiser HDVA 600 and HDVD 800

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."

-Peter Hasselström (TheManko)
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

TYPE: Headphone amplifier, and USB DAC / headphone amplifier, respectively
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PRICE: $1,439.95 and $1,799.95, respectively
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URL: www.sennheiser.com
Schiit Audio Ragnarok

Details about the Schiit Audio Ragnarok can be found in the Summit-Fi section of the guide.

 

Click here to check it out.

Woo Audio WA7 Fireflies

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.

 

"It gives vocals the kind of warmth that wants to seduce you with the music more than point out every little detail and makes listening very relaxing. "

-Currawong
Head-Fi Administrator/Member/Reviewer

TYPE: USB DAC / tube headphone amplifier
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PRICE: $999.00
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URL: www.wooaudio.com
Naim DAC-V1

CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v62), quality = 75

TYPE: Desktop DAC
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PRICE: $2,400.00
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URL: www.naimaudio.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

As a college student (many years ago), I worked at a hi-fi store. The highest-end brands of electronics we sold were by Linn and Naim. Some of the best audio I've heard in my lifetime was in that store; and in that store Naim was found in most of the best setups we put together.

 

One thing I remember fondly about the Naim elegance, inside and out, and in use. The years that have passed have enabled Naim to express their sensibilities in more technologically advanced ways, like with the cool display on the DAC-V1 that gives you a clear reading of volume level, input source, sample rate, this ridiculously thorough (and fascinating) real-time USB status display that includes detailed information about the USB feed (including real-time buffer status, under/over flow, feedback errors, and more), firmware version/status, and a host of other information and settings way too long to list here. And, in Naim style, it's very neat, easy to use.

 

As a digital preamp/DAC, the Naim DAC-V1 offers six digital inputs, including one async USB input (supporting up to 24-bit/384kHz), and five S/PDIF inputs supporting up to 24-bit/192kHz (1 x BNC, 2 x RCA, 2 x Toslink optical). The RCA and DIN analog outputs can (through the settings menu) be set to fixed or variable. One nice touch is that even if you fix the rear outputs, volume control is restored while headphones are plugged in.

 

When using USB input, the Naim DAC-V1's remote control can control the media player (depending on your media playing software) on your computer, to play/pause and to change tracks. It works very well with my Macs and iTunes. So if you want to use your computer as a source component in a loudspeaker-driving system, the DAC-V1's remote can be a godsend.

 

As for driving headphones on its own: when you plug headphones into its headphone out, the DAC-V1's discrete transistor, single-ended Class A preamp stage has its current drive turned up five times to meet the demands of driving headphones. And while Naim intended the DAC-V1's headphone amp to be able to drive "all headphone impedances," that doesn't necessarily mean it's ideally suited to all headphones--it met its match with the hard-to-drive HiFiMAN HE-6, pushing it to mild volume levels, but straining beyond that. The DAC-V1 had a much easier go of it with most of my standard dynamics, including the Fostex TH600 and TH900, and my more sensitive planar magnetic models, like the Audeze LCD-X. With the headphones it drives well, the DAC-V1 sounds awesome, exhibiting great impact and detail, with a smoother tonality, no edge or glare of its own. So far, my favorite headphones with it have been the Sennheiser HD 800 and HD600/650--it seems to smile very favorably on their higher nominal impedances.

 

With any over-ear headphone I tried with the DAC-V1, it was dead silent, in terms of noise floor. With my most sensitive in-ear monitors, however, there is very low-level hiss. I don't think in-ears were the target headphone for the Naim DAC-V1, but they can be driven with low enough noise floor to use in a pinch. Keep in mind, though, that the DAC-V1's output impedance maxes at 4.7Ω, and, while low-ish, it might have an audible effect with some headphones, maybe most obviously with certain multi-armature in-ears.

 

As a DAC feeding other headphone amps, the Naim DAC-V1 has so far been outstanding. In this role, the DAC-V1's performance would be best described as I described its performance with headphones it likes (above).

 

Naim has really created a beautiful sounding DAC in the DAC-V1. Its built-in headphone amp is certainly great when it's paired up correctly, but isn't quite as versatile a headphone driver as I'd hoped it would be. If you're looking for a desktop all-in-one--and not going to be driving relatively inefficient planar magnetic headphones--you should consider the Naim DAC-V1, especially if getting a high-end-sounding DAC in the process is something you'd value greatly.

 

 

KingRex UD384
TYPE: USB DAC and USB-to-S/PDIF interface
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PRICE: $499
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URL: www.moon-audio.com (KingRex U.S. distributor)

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

If being able to play recordings up to 32-bit/384kHz interests you--but the $3995 Zodiac Gold is outside of your budget--then I know of no more economical way to do this than with the KingRex UD384 USB interface / USB DAC, priced at just $500. For 32/384 support at that price, the UD384 is (not surprisingly) a no-frills design, consisting of a very small, very simple (yet nicely finished) aluminum chassis, with no controls on it whatsoever--just three RCA jacks (one is an S/PDIF digital output, and the other two are the left and right analog outputs), a power supply input, and a USB input. That's all.

 

I currently do not have any 384kHz files, so I've so far only used the UD384 up to 24/192, and it has performed very impressively--sonically comparable, in my opinion, to any of the other DACs I've mentioned.

 

KingRex has made more of a name for itself in Asia so far, but, with a recent push to expand distribution, I expect they'll be making waves internationally soon-- especially with bargain-priced products like the UD384. (Moon Audio picked up U.S. distribution rights.)

ALO Audio Island

Written by Michael Mercer

 

This is one of my favorite products of 2013. For many, the Island will be a perfect travel mate for somebody lookin' for a 24/192 USB DAC/amp combo.



 

It comes in a slick modern design with musical goods to match. But that's not the only reason I've been glued to it since I got mine at CanJam at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest.

 



The Island offers both 3.5mm and RSA balanced outputs: A nice touch. I prefer to listen via the balanced output. There seems to be more gain, better control in the bass, and a cleaner, more transparent midrange. However, the 3.5mm output also sounds great.

 



The Island also features low, medium, and high gain to accommodate all sorts of headphones, from sensitive IEMs to power-hungry over-ear designs. Plus, and this may sound a lil' strange, but I love the textural feel of the over-sized volume knob! It's makes getting the level just right a cinch.

 



As a small DAC/amp combo, it's killer for all of us who don't have the budget for a full-sized desktop DAC/amp - especially those of us with cans that require a little juice.

 



I don't say this about many products in this price category, nor this size frankly, but the ALO Island hung in there with some of my larger desktop rigs - and that's saying something.



 

ALO's got a winner here.

TYPE: USB DAC and headphone amplifier
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PRICE: $299
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URL: www.aloaudio.com
Lavry Engineering LavryBlack DA11
TYPE: DAC/headphone amp
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PRICE: $1,480.00
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URL: 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.

Schiit Audio Vali

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Schiit continues to blaze trails with this one. A tube hybrid headphone amplifier, made in the U.S.A., for $119, that sounds very good. Given its price--and given that its chassis matches Schiit's $99 Modi DAC--I can't help but think of the two together as a single $218 DAC/tube hybrid amp combo component (just as I think of the Modi / Magni as a $198 combo component).

 

For its price, the Vali is an amazing amp, with some caveats (that I'll get to momentarily). For driving headphones that are not super-sensitive--and/or for driving high-impedance headphones like the Sennheiser HD 800 and HD 600/650--the Vali is going to be the first amp I recommend for people interested in tube audio, but who might be afraid of the price and complexity typically associated with tube audio. For those people, the Vali is perfect--the price is, again, only $119. And for that price, you get a big heaping taste of what a lot of tube audio aficionados are after with good tube audio, like mids with a touch of glow and warmth, fuller body, smooth treble, yet still with good detail. And the Vali takes complexity out of the equation, with its soldered-in tubes--NOS (new old stock) JAN Raytheon 6088's--so if the idea of tube-rolling intimidated you, the Vali takes that off the table for you.

 

Earlier I mentioned the Sennheiser HD 800. If you bought yours and are still looking for a good amp match (I find the HD 800 one of the tougher amps to find a good match for), start with the Schiit Audio Vali. It's marvelous pairing, sounding full-bodied and quite detailed. You just might find yourself stopping at the Vali. I've heard the HD 800 with no fewer than a bazillion amps, and I'll say right now the Vali is by far the best value of all I've tried so far with that headphone. You can do better for the HD 800, yes. For $119? Not. Even. Close.

 

Now for those caveats: do not use the Vali for in-ear monitors. There are very few looking to drive IEMs with tube amps anyway, but I thought I'd mention it. Do not choose the Vali if the headphone you're going to pair it with is a really sensitive, low-impedance headphone--you'll likely get into the amp's noise floor that way. Don't expect it to have the burly take-charge-of-any-headphone power that, say, the Schiit Mjolnir has. (It does do well with more sensitive planars like the Audeze LCD-X and HiFiMAN HE500, though.) And don't expect it to be as quiet as a solid state--it's not as quiet as the Magni, for example, but, with the right headphones, is, to my ears, the nicer sounding amp. The tubes are microphonic, too. Plug your headphones in, and riiiiiinnnnnnnngggggggggg. Tap on the chassis (even lightly), and riiiiiinnggggg. Thankfully, the ringing subsides after a minute or two, and is a small price to pay for the tube sound you get with the Vali.

 

I honestly don't know how the Schiit guys make any money at the prices they sell their gear for; but I'll just continue to revel in the insanely high value their products provide, and let them worry about their margins. The Vali. Wow.

TYPE: Tube hybrid (tube/solid state) headphone amplifier
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PRICE: $119
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URL: www.schiit.com
Ray Samuels Audio Apache
TYPE: Desktop headphone amp
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PRICE: $2,995
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URL: www.raysamuelsaudio.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Another fantastic solid state headphone amp--and my current personal reference amp to use with the HiFiMAN HE-500, Audeze LCD-2 and LCD-3--is the fully balanced Ray Samuels Audio Apache ($2995), www.raysamuelsaudio.com. (The Apache is also a preamp.) Though it works well with a great number of headphones, driving those particular planar magnetic models seems to be the Apache's forte--like it was made especially for them.

 

"The Apache is, as I define it, completely transparent, to a degree I have not heard before in a headphone amp. No grain, no noise, no haze – just a completely wide open window to the music."

-Skylab
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

 

Audio-GD Master 7

Details about the Audio-GD Master 7 can be found in the Summit-Fi section of the guide.

 

Click here to check it out.

Meridian Prime and Meridian Prime Power Supply

 

TYPE: DAC/headphone amp 
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PRICE: $2000.00 and $1250.00, respectively
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URL: 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 and USB. 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.

Woo Audio WA 5 LE

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 headphone amp
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PRICE: Starting at $2,500
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URL: www.wooaudio.com
Schiit Audio Modi and Magni

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

At less than $200 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 and Magni for this guide.

 

The Modi is a bus-powered USB DAC, so no additional power adapter is needed. With asynchronous USB and support up to 24-bit/96kHz (using the AKM4396 DAC)--and tremendous attention paid to its measured performance as well as its sound--the Modi reads like something that couldn't possibly be a buck under a hundred.

 

The Magni might be even more ridiculous (and I mean that entirely as a compliment). For 99 bucks, one expects a simple opamp-based design (not that there's anything wrong with such amps), but the Magni is fully discrete. As described by its makers, the Schiit Audio Magni "uses a discrete gain stage design, with low-noise JFET inputs, fast VAS transistors, and massive output power transistors. The result is greater current capability for higher power output. We’ve also used a DC servo to eliminate coupling caps from the signal path."

 

What does the Magni drive? So far, everything I've thrown at it. Rated at a conservative 1.2W into 32 ohms--and with a very low noise floor--I've driven several headphones, from my most sensitive IEMs to the hard-to-drive HiFiMAN HE-6 planars.

 

Because I only recently picked up the Modi and Magni, I haven't yet had a chance to compare each separately to other DACs and amps, but I can say emphatically that together they're a DAC/amp combo that has me giddy about the insane value for the buck it represents. In early listening, it has proven such a resolving, authoritative system, that it will likely be my first recommendation for those looking for an affordable desktop system with high-end performance.

 

Schiit Audio has been one of the coolest stories in our community in the last few years, and the Modi and Magni will only strengthen our enthusiasm for this young company founded by a couple of wily audio industry veterans. Since Schiit's launch, it's been hit after hit from them, and these tiniest of their creations may be their biggest crowd-pleasers yet.

TYPE: USB DAC and headphone amplifier, respectively
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PRICE: $99.00 each
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URL: www.schiit.com
McIntosh D100
TYPE: DAC, digital preamplifier, headphone amplifier
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PRICE: $2,500.00
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URL: www.mcintoshlabs.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

What seasoned audio enthusiast hasn't either owned McIntosh gear or wanted to own McIntosh gear. I'd owned old Fisher, Zenith and Marantz gear, but never did pick up any McIntosh stuff. Then I went to CES 2013, ambled into the McIntosh exhibit, and saw the D100. No, it didn't have the big blue meters, but, with its black glass front panel with thick metal edging, it still looked every bit the McIntosh piece that it is. That was it, I knew it--my first McIntosh was going to be the first piece they made that was largely about serving up good headphone audio.

 

The McIntosh D100 has five digital inputs: two coaxial, two optical, and one USB. Switching between these inputs is easy, using either the remote, or the control knob on the front of the D100. The only input I've used so far on the D100 is USB; and the USB implementation on the D100 is asynchronous mode. The D100 uses an ESS Sabre 8-channel, 32-bit/192kHz DAC.

 

The D100 comes with both fixed and variable analog outputs. The fixed outputs include one stereo RCA pair, and one balanced XLR pair; the variable outputs also include one stereo RCA pair, and one balanced XLR pair, and also the 1/4" (6.3mm) single-ended headphone output on the front panel, which is powered by its own independent headphone amp circuitry.

 

The D100's headphone amp circuit has an output impedance of 47Ω, which is high, but hasn't been a problem for me, as the headphones I use with it most are the Sennheiser HD 600/650 (300Ω), Sennheiser HD 800 (300Ω), AKG K 340 (400Ω), and the Koss ESP950, which is an electrostatic headphone that comes with its own energizer/amp that I plug into the RCA outputs on the back of the D100.

 

Whether driving my dynamic headphones using its own headphone amp, or the Koss ESP950 from its rear, the D100 is a beautiful sounding piece, with fantastic resolution delivered edge-free, smooth. Compared to the Benchmark DAC2 HGC--another favorite of mine, and one of my most detailed source components--the McIntosh D100 sounds sweeter, more velvety, more forgiving.

 

Given my focus on headphone audio, I don't know if I'll ever pick up another McIntosh piece, but I'm absolutely thrilled with the one I've got in the McIntosh D100.

HiFiMAN EF-6

Details about the HiFiMAN EF-6 can be found in the Summit-Fi section of the guide.

 

Click here to check it out.

Woo Audio WTP-1 and Woo Audio WDS-1
TYPE: CD transport and DAC, respectively
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PRICE: $1,199 each
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URL: www.wooaudio.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

When spinning CD's, it has increasingly been for the purpose of ripping them to my media drives. Still, though, my entire CD collection has yet to be ripped, so I'm still playing CD's on a regular basis. Few CD players have given me the pleasure of playing music that the Woo Audio WTP-1 (transport) / Woo Audio WDS-1 (DAC) combo provide. In some part, it's due to the kid in me who used to enjoy the very involved, very deliberate routines associated with spinning vinyl to hear his music--the WTP-1's CD swing-out CD cover arm and magnetic disc clamp hark back to the physical act of playing vinyl. Mostly, though, it's because this combo sounds wonderful.

 

Given my increasing transition to computer audio, though, it's the WDS-1 DAC that interests me the most in this combo (and the two can be purchased separately). With optical, coaxial, XLR, and USB digital inputs, the WDS-1 has me completely covered, as far as my digital input needs go--and it supports up to 24/192 from all of these inputs. The WDS-1 also has single-ended and balanced outputs, with digitally adjustable output level.

 

Both the WTP-1 and WDS-1 share the wonderful new layered-metal aesthetic established by the extreme flagship Woo Audio WA234 MONO dual-monoblock headphone amplifier. The WTP-1 and WDS-1 are priced at $1,199 each; and if you do buy both, you'll need to spend another $25 for footstands and an umbilical cord that allow you to mate them properly.

Schiit Audio Mjolnir

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

In 2012, I picked up this amplifier from Schiit that's named after Thor's hammer--a great name for an amp with eight times the output power, eight times lower distortion, and less noise than their entry-level Asgard amp. Using a circuit design I admittedly know nothing about called a Circlotron-type topology, with high-voltage JFET inputs and MOSFET outputs, the Mjolnir is balanced only--so do not buy this amp unless you have headphones wired for balanced, or have plans to wire some headphones for balanced operation.

 

The Mjolnir is awesome. It's very powerful, yet exceptionally quiet (in terms of background noise). With 8W RMS per channel, it'll drive pretty much any headphone (not including electrostats, of course). Though it'll drive just about anything, what I have plugged into it pretty much all the time are a variety of planar magnetic headphones. My favorite headphone to pair with the Mjolnir so far is the Audeze LCD-3, the pair of them making for a forceful, highly resolving, world-class powerhouse of a system.

TYPE: Fully balanced headphone amplifier
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PRICE: $749
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URL: www.schiit.com
Grace Design m920  c57420db_blast_new_green_2.png
TYPE: DAC, headphone amp, preamp 
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PRICE: $1895 
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URL: 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.

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