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Head-Fi Buying Guide (Portable Amps, DACs, & DAPs)

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
Head-Fi Meets
Music
Head-Fi Buying Guide

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Chord Electronics HUGO c57420db_blast_new_green_2.png
TYPE: Portable DAC/headphone amp
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PRICE: $2,495.00 
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URL: www.chordelectronics.co.uk

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Going into CES 2014, I had never heard of the Chord Hugo, and I had no specific plans--in a very packed CES schedule--to stop by the Chord Electronics exhibit. However, David Chesky (of Chesky Records and HDtracks.com) texted me to ask me to check out something called the Chord Hugo, and to let him know if I thought it was worth getting. (David was stuck at his own HDtracks.com CES exhibit, where people who stopped by would certainly want to see and meet him.) Time had passed, and I still hadn't seen or heard the Hugo (and still didn't know what it was). Another message from David popped up, again asking me to check it out for him. So I finally went--still having no idea what this Hugo thing actually was--and was greeted by Chord Electronics' founder John Franks, who had been waiting for someone from Head-Fi to stop by.

 

I'd seen Mr. Franks at audio shows before, and he always seemed to me like a man normally possessing of confidence and brio. That day at CES, though, he was positively brimming with it. He walked me over to a little component that looked rather like Chord's machined aluminum full-size components, only this one in miniature--including their signature circular glass porthole through which some of its circuity was visible (a detail Chord is well known for).

 

I should say at this point that Chord Electronics has long been known for its expertise in digital component design, and their gear is typically designed for--and priced for--the higher end of the audio market. So when John Franks said that not only was the $2500 Hugo a portable DAC/amp combo, but it was also their current flagship DAC, and the most advanced DAC they'd yet designed, and just happened to be portable--there was that brio, in full effect. I also saw that they had a Sennheiser HD 800 plugged into it; and seeing that, my first thought was that these guys might be way too plucky for their own good--when the marvelous HD 800 is used to demo a portable amp (or portable DAC/amp), the results are, more often than not, less than ideal, the HD 800 being a remarkably picky German genius. Then I listened to this HD 800-driving setup, and understood right away why Mr. Franks looked like the Cheshire Cat the moment I introduced myself. It sounded awesome.

 

In the 13 years since Head-Fi's founding, few products I can recall have taken the audio world by storm the way Chord Electronics' Hugo has this year. As someone who now himself has a Hugo, I can say the hype is understandable, and in every way deserved, because when it comes to its sonic performance, to my ears, the Hugo just doesn't set a foot wrong.

 

However, before I get to its sound, let me first get out of the way those things about the Hugo that I find a bit silly, almost all to do with its somewhat wacky layout and physical design. First of all, nothing--and I mean nothing--on the Hugo is labeled. Just memorize which button does what--oh, and memorize the nine sample rate colors, the three crossfeed indicator colors, the five input source colors, and the four battery life colors. Even the volume control glows in six different colors to indicate volume level.

 

Also, all of the Hugo's audio jacks, except one (the 1/4" headphone jack), are recessed, limiting cable and plug choices. The volume control and all those colored LED indicators are on the Hugo's top surface. This means that if you want to pair it with a digital audio player (virtually all of which have front-facing screens), then the Hugo has to be placed underneath, upside down, so you can use the Hugo's volume knob and see all the pretty indicator lights. This also means that when you set your portable stack down, you have to set the Hugo down face-first and lift it up every time you want to change volume or see what its seemingly endless variety of LED colors are indicating.

 

However, once you've figured out the Hugo enough to get some music out of it, its sound will make you forget all of the aforementioned quirks and silliness. The Hugo’s sound places it--to my ears, beyond any doubt--in the top tier of DACs I've had here, ever, period. That it's portable (on the larger side of portable, but still portable), and that it's priced at less than $2500…well, let me just say that the Chord Electronics Hugo is to DACs what the KEF LS50 is to loudspeakers--one of the best audio values I've ever come across.

 

Like other DACs by Chord Electronics (all of which, until the Hugo, had been plug-in-the-wall full-size components), the Hugo uses a field programmable gate array (FPGA) DAC, as opposed to off-the-shelf DAC chips. In the case of the Hugo, specifically, it's a custom-coded DAC (with a 26,000-tap-length filter) programmed by designer Rob Watts on a Xilinx Spartan-6 FPGA. The DAC in the Hugo supports PCM files up to 32-bit/384kHz (so that would also include DXD), and also supports DSD (both 64 and 128), and so I think it's fair to say that the Hugo is virtually future-proof.

 

The Hugo's digital inputs include Toslink optical (24-bit/192kHz-capable), coaxial digital (24-bit/384kHz-capable), and USB. There are actually two USB inputs, a lower power one for mobile phones and tablets that tops out at 16-bit/48kHz, and one HD USB input that opens up the Hugo's full range of format support. The Hugo also can receive audio via A2DP aptX Bluetooth, so you can pair it with your smartphone, tablet, or a Bluetooth-enabled music player.

 

The Hugo's internal rechargeable batteries will power it for up to 14 hours on a full charge, and its built-in charging circuit will get the Hugo fully charged quickly (around two hours). These robust batteries send much of their power to the Hugo's brawny analog outputs, with a maximum output of 720mW into an 8-Ohm load (and a still hearty 600mW into a more headphone-typical 32-Ohm load). What's also nice is that even with all that power to drive challenging full-size headphones, it is still flexible and quiet enough to be just as competent with very sensitive in-ear monitors. Oh, Hugo, you spoil me!

 

Despite the Hugo's unorthodox physical design, there's no arguing that it's built like a tank, with its hard-anodized machined aircraft-grade aluminum chassis. My portable gear typically takes a lot of abuse, and so far the Hugo has held up very well, and still looks good as new.

 

Again, though, what has the Hugo flying off dealer shelves is primarily its sound, which has been greeted with plaudits by just about everyone I've known who's heard it. At once, it's outrageously resolving and relaxed sounding--a combination that's certainly not common, but almost universally desired. Not surprisingly, the Hugo is at its absolute best when I feed it hi-res PCM and DSD material that is well-mastered. I wouldn't characterize it as warm or forgiving, but it has a sense of organic ease that takes the edge off, without actually smoothing away any detail.

 

And it's not just hi-res material that benefits from the Hugo's touch--I also stream Beats Music and Spotify through it (both of which are at 320kbps at their best), and the Hugo actually makes streaming music sound better to my ears, too--so much so that, with the Hugo, I'm using streaming music services more than ever before. No, it doesn't make my music streaming services sound like the best hi-res you can get from HDtracks, but I will say that there are some DACs that I find less pleasing while playing CD-quality music than the Hugo is when playing some lower-than-CD-quality streams.

 

Long story short, the Chord Electronics Hugo is a strong candidate to compete to become your dream desktop DAC, and yet it can be thrown into your backpack to be both that dream DAC and headphone amp anywhere you want to take it. As far as portable DAC/amps go that I've used, the Hugo is currently unrivaled when it comes to sonic performance.

 

From day one, the Hugo has been an absolute joy and marvel to own and use, and has easily become my reference portable DAC/amp, and one of my reference desktop DAC/amps, too.

 

Thank you, David Chesky, for asking me to give the Hugo a listen at CES. And, yes, sir, it is most definitely worth getting.

 

"What I like about it is that it is that it excels in NOT sounding like a "hi-fi" DAC, but can be both ultra-detailed yet musical at the same time, without resorting to compromises to achieve that."

-Currawong
Head-Fi Adminstrator / Member / Reviewer

Portable Headphone Amps Designed for IEMs

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

In-ear monitors (whether universal-fit or custom-fit) often have a couple of things in common: high sensitivity and good isolation from ambient noise. This presents an interesting challenge to those devices driving them.

 

Whether an external headphone amplifier or the built-in headphone output of your digital audio player (be it a dedicated portable media player or smartphone), many IEMs will quickly reveal any noise in the audio chain, as well as any channel imbalance (especially at the lowest part of the volume range).

 

Two of most popular designed-for-IEM portable headphone amps in the Head-Fi community are the HeadAmp Pico Slim ($399.00), and the Ray Samuels Audio Shadow ($395.00). These amps maintain perfect channel balance at any volume level, and virtually background-noise-free performance. Both of these portable amps accomplish this with the use of stepped volume controls and special attention to low circuit noise.

 

A newer entry into this field is the Apex HiFi Audio Glacier ($495.00), which replaces the popular TTVJ Slim (that had appeared in previous editions of this buying guide). The Glacier is even slimmer than its predecessor, comes in a much nicer chassis, has an improved power supply, and a tremendously improved USB DAC that is 24-bit/96kHz capable.

 

Though all of these amps are particularly adept at driving IEMs, they can drive a lot of over-ear headphones nicely, too.

 

"Sound-wise the Pico Slim is typically HeadAmp: Nothing but the facts and no grain or harshness to speak of. "

-Currawong
Head-Fi Administrator/Member/Reviewer

 

"The Glacier has one of the best refined micro details I ever heard from a portable amp."

-turokrocks
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

TYPE: Portable headphone amplifiers
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PRICE: $399.00 (HeadAmp Pico Slim), $395.00 (Ray Samuels Audio Shadow), and $495.00 (Apex HiFi Audio Glacier)
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URL: www.headamp.com, www.raysamuelsaudio.com, and www.ttvjaudio.com
TYPE: Portable DAC/headphone amp
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PRICE: $299.00
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URL: www.meridian-audio.com

 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

To say I was fired up when I found out Meridian would be entering our space would be an understatement. There are few names in digital audio that command the reverence that Meridian does. I still remember the old Meridian 508.24 CD player very fondly, and have been a fan of just about everything Meridian's made that I've heard.

 

Meridian's direct appeal for the attention (and the moola) of Head-Fi'ers comes in the form of the Meridian Explorer, a 24-bit/192kHz-capable USB DAC and headphone amp that's about the size of a BIC lighter. Entering a segment popularized by AudioQuest's Dragonfly, Meridian chose to add a few more bells and whistles to turn ears and eyes toward its entrant.

 

First of all, the Explorer goes a step further than the Dragonfly, in terms of supported sample rates, going to up 24-bit/192kHz, versus the Dragonfly's 24-bit/96kHz. The Explorer also provides more output versatility, with a dedicated analog line out that's combined with a mini-Toslink optical output, in addition to the Explorer's dedicated headphone output. (The Toslink output downsamples 192kHz and 176.4kHz to 96kHz and 88.2kHz, respectively.)

 

In terms of sound, I give a slight edge to the Explorer over the Dragonfly, with its smoother presentation, and its ability to support my highest resolution recordings (with a driver on Windows, and without the need for a driver on Mac). Headphone-driving versatility is very similar to the Dragonfly, with a relatively black background for even very sensitive IEMs, but yet with enough drive to power most of my over-ear headphones.

 

The Explorer has a beautifully finished extruded aluminum outer shell with molded plastic endcaps and a rubberized flat bottom surface; and it's assembled by hand at Meridian's UK headquarters. Its sample rate indicator is, in my opinion, more intuitive than the Dragonfly's color-coded one--one light means 44.1kHz/48kHz; two lights means 88.2kHz/96kHz; and all three being lit indicates an incoming sample rate of 176.4kHz/192kHz.

 

Because the Dragonfly is the smallest of the bunch, it's still the one I tend to tote around the most. That said, I have to give the Explorer the edge in versatility, and the slight edge in sound quality. It's also now the first DAC I turn to when I want 24-bit/192kHz support on the go.

 

The Explorer is a fantastic first foray by Meridian into the world of headphone audio. Welcome to the world of Head-Fi, Meridian! Please do stick around.

 

"The combination of price, performance and form factor is very attractive and as an audio upgrade for a travel laptop it's almost a no-brainer. In short, this little device rocks and I have no problems recommending it."

-TwoEars
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

Light Harmonic Geek Out 1000 c57420db_blast_new_green_2.png

Light Harmonics had been around long before they did their first crowdfunding campaign, but I think it's safe to say that it was their "Geek Out" campaign on Kickstarter that brought more attention to them then they'd ever had before it. As a consumer, I've had mixed success with participating as a funder, having been burned before by a couple of unfulfilled crowdfunded projects. Thankfully, though, the Geek Out campaign was not one of them, and it resulted in a very good USB bus-powered portable DAC/amp combo for me!

 

The Geek Out is available in a few different versions, differentiated by their maximum output power (450mW, 720mW, and 1000mW). I opted for the most powerful version (the Geek Out 1000), so that's the version this gift guide entry is specifically about--however, other than output power, I believe the feature sets are exactly the same on all three versions.

 

The Geek Out 1000 has some pretty crazy specifications for a device its size: it can decode up two 32-bit/384kHz PCM, and also DSD (I believe the Geek Out's DAC chip is the ESS9018). Its analog output is Class-A (so the Geek Out runs quite toasty). Its 3.5mm stereo line-out's output impedance is 47Ω, and its 3.5mm stereo headphone output's output impedance is a very low 0.47Ω, which I think a lot of diehard portable audiophiles will be thrilled to know. Both analog outputs are level-adjustable, using a 64-bit digital volume control. Again, the version I have has a maximum output of one watt (1000mW), which is impressively powerful, given the fact that the Geek Out is as small as it is, and entirely USB bus-powered.

 

Even though its quite powerful, the Geek Out 1000 still sounds excellent with my IEMs (in-ear monitors), though my more sensitive IEMs do touch its noise floor. I'm actually considering also ordering the least powerful one (the Geek Out 450) to use with my in-ears, as I'd expect a lower noise floor with it, and 450mW is still plenty of juice to drive most of the headphones I take with me (and it would likely consume less of my MacBook Air's battery when I'm on the go).

 

Where the Geek Out 1000 sets itself apart is when you start using it to feed headphones that you'd normally reserve for your desktop rigs. Sennheiser HD 800? No problem. HiFiMAN HE-6? In a pinch, sure, why not? My favorite headphones with the Geek Out 1000 so far? Audeze LCD-X, the new HiFiMAN HE-560--and, surprisingly, the Abyss AB-1266, which the Geek Out 1000 pushes around with surprising authority (though with the big Abyss you're likely going to go higher on the Geek's volume settings than you're probably used to).

 

The Geek's sound signature, to my ears, is of the more detailed, borderline-analytical variety. Though not particularly forgiving, it's also not harsh. Probably owing to its robust power output, the Geek Out 1000 has a good, strong sense of drive. Relative to other small form factor USB bus-powered DAC/amp combos I've used, the Geek Out 1000, to my ears, is capable of the most, in terms of resolution and drive versatility. In this class of products, it is the one most able to serve as an all-in-one desktop rig alternative, and you'll find some people in the Head-Fi community using it as their main setup.

 

I only have a couple of beefs with the Geek Out 1000. First is the dang volume buttons on the side of the Geek Out. My recommendation? Whenever possible, do not use them. On my Macs, if I use the Geek Out's volume buttons to lower the volume really low, and then try to turn the volume down further with my Mac's volume buttons, the Geek Out's volume actually leaps up to greet the Mac's volume setting. This has resulted in some uncomfortable, unexpected increases in volume; and, frankly, I think that Light Harmonic should either change the Geek Out's buttons' behavior or remove them altogether. Secondly (and this one is more an observation than a beef), I haven't specifically compared the impact on my MacBook Air's battery life, but the Geek Out 1000 runs hot. And because it's Class-A, it essentially idles at full-on, and so, if it's plugged in, it is always drawing substantial power from USB even when you're not using it. Again, though I haven't specifically measured the battery impact, I would think the Geek Out 1000 would shorten the per-charge duration of my MacBook Air more than something like the AudioQuest Dragonfly, as evidenced by the heat. (I ordered it knowing it was Class-A and powerful, so I'm not complaining.)

 

Something I appreciate in any headphone amp is a well-implemented crossfeed circuit, and Light Harmonic Calls theirs the "3D Awesomefier." This crossfeed circuit works quite well, helping music with extreme left-right panning to image more naturally through headphones. Does it make it sound 3D, or take the image out of my head? No, it doesn't. But, as far as crossfeed circuits go, it seems to be effective and without the tonal balance shifting that some crossfeed circuits suffer from. This is a feature I'd love to see in more headphone amps--it's not something I use often, but really appreciate having when the need arises.


Before I had the chance to hear the Geek Out 1000, I was worried that perhaps Light Harmonic's Kickstarter campaign (in terms of what kind of product they were promising) was a bit too ambitious, and perhaps too optimistic--I mean, they really pumped up what it was going to be capable of. I have to say, though, that I think it has in fact lived up to the campaign's promises, and the Light Harmonic Geek Out 1000 is one of the easiest $300 Head-Fi DAC/amp recommendations I can think of right now, in terms of sound quality, format versatility, and its ability to drive anything from in-ears to the big Abyss.

TYPE: Portable DAC/headphone amplifier 
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PRICE: $199 
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URL: www.lightharmonic.com
TYPE: Portable headphone amplifier
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PRICE: $129.99
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URL: fiio.com.cn

 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

I've seen a lot of discussions about FiiO on Head-Fi in recent years. However, I’d somehow made it through to the early part of this year without ever having tried anything made by one of the brands taking Head-Fi by storm. Because one of the last things I need is another headphone amp, perhaps the FiiO collection--all of which is affordable, and some of which is super affordable--simply struck me as something I didn’t personally need in addition to all the more expensive, higher-end portable amps strewn about my home and office.

 

Fast forward to CES 2013, to a time when FiiO was already well established as an immensely popular brand on Head-Fi. I had a meeting with James Zhong of FiiO. It was just a casual meeting during which James introduced me to the FiiO line. As the meeting concluded, he gave me a FiiO E12 Mont Blanc portable headphone amp.

 

It was probably a few weeks after returning from CES that I finally charged the FiiO E12 up, and started using it. I started with its low-gain (+0 dB) setting, and plugged my most sensitive IEMs into the E12. Relative silence. I played music, and was treated with a wonderful sounding amp that had me double-checking it for Ray Samuels Audio or HeadAmp markings. I tried a few other headphones with it, and, with aplomb, the FiiO E12 Mont Blanc drove them all.

 

In its high-gain setting (+10 dB), the FiiO E12 was making easy work--and beautiful driving--of my Audeze LCD-2 and LCD-3, and my HiFiMAN HE-400 and HE-500. And the HD 800? You bet. With the exception of a few portable amps by ALO Audio and Ray Samuels Audio, I’ve not had much luck with finding a portable that I liked with the HD 800. Until the E12, that is. Not only did the E12 drive the HD 800, its bass boost (with its emphasis peaking way down low) gave the HD 800 a kick up the fun scale--this is something I’ve also enjoyed with the ALO Audio Mk3-B that also has a bass boost circuit (a very nice adjustable one).

 

Okay, so the 130-buck E12 was inspiring some derring-do, and I reached for the HiFiMAN HE-6. And the hits just kept on coming. Bass boost with the HE-6? Try it, 'cause it's real fun.

 

How does the E12 compare to the best of my portables? My SR-71B from Ray Samuels Audio, for example, is still the more impressive, more hi-fi driver of the HE-6 and HD 800 (using its balanced output)--bigger soundstage, blacker background, more dynamic. But that SR-71B is $650.00. My HeadAmp Pico Slim is still the more impressive, purpose-built amp for my top-tier IEMs, but at $399.00. The FiiO E12 is a $129.00 steal of an amp that brings together some of the qualities of my favorite portable amps, in a very well-built, full-featured package. (I haven’t even mentioned the fact that the E12 also has a crossfeed circuit!)

 

My only real quibble with the FiiO E12 Mont Blanc is some sensitivity to radio frequency interference. If I'm using my iPhone as a source, for example, I'll occasionally hear interference and hash through the E12. This is most noticeable with sensitive in-ears, and also with some sensitive over-ears. It hasn't been bad enough to prevent me from pairing it with my iPhone, but it's not something I'm experiencing with most of my other premium portables. Also, since James gave me this E12, FiiO has since modified the bass boost circuit, moving the peak from 20Hz to 50Hz, so your results with bass boost may be different than mine.

 

If you’re looking for a do-everything portable amp--something you can use with your IEMs and hard-to-drive over-ears alike--I’ve not used anything else I’d recommend more heartily at anything near the price of the FiiO E12.

 

I may have been late to the FiiO bandwagon, but I’m definitely on it now.

 

"The FiiO E12 Mont Blanc is a realization of FiiO enginuity yet again. They managed to put out a product at such a low price with good hardware and sound."

-Bowei Zhao (bowei006)
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

 

Fostex HP-A4

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

The Fostex HP-A4 fills a chasm between the Fostex HP-A3, a simple, bus-powered USB DAC, and the technology-packed powerhouse of a USB DAC/amp that is Fostex's flagship HP-A8C.

 

Like the HP-A3 (which I've carried around so much it looks like it's been through wars), the HP-A4 is USB bus-powered--that means no power adapter is needed. That's where the resemblance ends, though, because I think the HP-A4 is not so much an evolution of the HP-A3 as it is something aspiring to be like the HP-A8C--it even looks like a mini version of the HP-A8C.

 

The commonalities between it and the HP-A8C extend to the feature set, too, including support up to 24/192 (the HP-A8C supports up to 32/192), and support for DSD up to 5.6MHz!

 

Of course, being bus-powered, it doesn't have quite the power supply and power output that the HP-A8C has, the HP-A4's headphone-driving power topping out at a respectable 100mW into 32Ω, versus the HP-A8C's more monster 700mW into the same load.

 

But what it can do is a fairly good imitation of its flagship sibling (only up to its own limits, of course), yet can be thrown in a bag for trips to the library, coffee house, hotel, or extended layovers while traveling. At only 500g, it's very light weight--the HP-A8C's toroidal power transformer alone probably weighs more than the HP-A4.

 

I had a prototype HP-A4 here, and its performance was superb. No, it wasn't an HE-6-driving powerhouse. But just about every headphone I'd most likely want to use with it--like Fostex's own TH600 and TH900, Sony MDR-7520, Audeze LCD-X, and others--was driven with excellent results.

 

Like other Fostex DAC/amp products, the HP-A4 continues the tradition of a digital optical output (in addition to its USB and optical digital inputs). This allows me to use and try other DACs without having to swap out the HP-A4. It also allows me to pass optical digital to my favorite wireless headphones in the Sennheiser RS 220 and the Skullcandy PLYR 1.

 

I didn't have much chance while the prototype was here to use it as a DAC feeding other amps, but I'll give that a go once the production unit arrives here (which should be in the next week or so).

 

Fostex HP-A3, you served me well, and have the scars to prove it--but you're being replaced with the mini-HP-A8C called the HP-A4.

 

TYPE: USB DAC/headphone amplifier 
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PRICE: $499
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URL: www.fostexinternational.com

 

TYPE: Portable amp/DAC
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PRICE: $395 
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URL: www.practicaldevices.com

 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

The Practical Devices' XM6, is one of my go-to portable amp/USB DAC combos. Its list of features is almost too long to list here, but includes adjustable crossfeed, bass boost, treble boost, output impedance adjustment, adjustable gain, media control dial, and more. The USB DAC section is also very good for something of this size (I ordered the Wolfson WM8741 upgrade option). We discussed the Practical Devices XM6 in Episode 002 of Head-Fi TV.)

iFi Audio nano iDSD and nano iCAN c57420db_blast_new_green_2.png

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TYPE: Portable DAC/amp and amp, respectively
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PRICE: $199.99 and $189.99, respectively 
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URL: www.ifi-audio.com
TYPE: DAC/headphone amp
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PRICE: Around $200 
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URL: www.audioquest.com

 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Is it possible that something the size of a USB thumb drive can be mentioned in the company of the other DAC/amps in this section? If it's the AudioQuest Dragonfly, then, yes, absolutely. That something so small checks off as many audiophile buzzwords as it does is pretty amazing. ESS Sabre DAC? Check. Supports up to 24/96? Check. Asynchronous USB transfer? By Gordon Rankin, no less--so check. 64-step analog stepped volume control? Check. And it's quiet enough (in terms of noise floor) to drive most of my in-ear monitors in relative silence, yet also has the oomph to drive many of my over-ears, too.

 

One thing that's not audiophile about the Dragonfly is its price. $249. This one's already shaken up the audiophile DAC scene since its release last year, catalyzing the development and release of several diminutive high-res DAC/amp competitors in the past year, though I believe the Dragonfly remains the smallest of this new breed.

 

Of course, because it's so small, expect some limitations (also faced by its newer competitors). Its only input is USB. Its only output is analog via a mini jack (3.5mm). And though I think it keeps good company with the full-size DACs in this section, it doesn't, to my ears, have the ultimate resolution that DACs like the DA11, HP-A8C, STEREO192-DSD or DAC-100 have--again, though, neither do the others I've used of its type.

 

Even in consideration of its new rivals, the Dragonfly remains the most pocketable, so it's the easiest to take along. Also, because it plugs right in like a USB thumb drive, no cables at all (other than for output) are needed to use it. Think of what this means when you're staring at that tiny tray table in coach class seating. It means you can use the Dragonfly even there, with the most minimal muss and fuss--and I do, so I speak from experience.

 

Though its competitors are starting to offer greater versatility and a couple more bells and whistles, the Dragonfly's form factor still keeps it at the top of my list for this class of product. Given how tiny it is, the Dragonfly's sonic performance is simply staggering.

 

"...it does the one important thing we all care about: Sound good. Using my Symphones Magnums, it provides a solid upgrade to the headphone out of my MacBook Pro with a very engaging and dynamic sound delivery. "

-Currawong
Head-Fi Administrator / Member / Reviewer

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

In the preorder thread for this amp on Head-Fi, HeadAmp promotes the 18V (2x9V) Pico Power as the "recommended [portable] amp for the hardest to drive headphones." I'll confirm it'll drive the difficult stuff well, yes.

 

However, to me, one of the most impressive tests for an amp designed to drive some of the hardest-to-drive headphones on the market is to plug one of the most sensitive headphones I've got into it to see what happens. In its low-gain mode, with one of my most sensitive custom in-ears, the Pico Power is dead quiet. Turning the volume up as slowly as I can with this IEM plugged into the Pico Power reveals, to my ears, channel matching even at the lowest possible volume setting. That makes for outstanding versatility, because it'll do that, yet driving the tough stuff is just a click away.

 

Like all HeadAmp amps I've used, the fit and finish of the custom-machined chassis on the Pico Power is meticulous.

 

This amp only arrived shortly before the time of this writing, but it has been a very impressive sounding amp so far, and I should have more to say about it down the road.

TYPE: Portable amplifier
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PRICE: $475.00 
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URL: www.headamp.com

 

ALO Audio Rx MK3-B, Ray Samuels Audio SR-71B and F-35 Lightning
TYPE: Balanced portable headphone amps
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PRICE: $649.00 (Rx MK3-B), $650.00 (SR-71B), $549.00 (F-35)
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URL: www.aloaudio.com and www.raysamuelsaudio.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

It seems there are infinite choices now, when it comes to portable headphone amplifiers. For driving even hard-to-drive full-sized headphone, we've seen over the last few years an increase in fully balanced headphone amplifiers. ALO Audio's Rx MK3-B ($649), www.aloaudio.com, is a fully-balanced, portable beast of an amp, and the first to challenge the Ray Samuels Audio SR-71B ($650), www.raysamuelsaudio.com, in terms of the ability to authoritatively drive any dynamic headphone, up to and including the HiFiMAN HE-6.

 

In addition to its revealing sound signature, and having a lot of driving power for a portable amp, the Rx MK3-B adds a very well implemented bass control. I don't know the exact specs of this bass control yet, but it is effective and refined (and great for giving thinner-sounding headphones more low-frequency body), and without an effect on precious midrange. Though the SR-71B doesn't provide any tone adjustments, it does seem to me to have more driving power, and a lower noise floor, than the Rx MK3-B.

 

Another new entry to the fully-balanced field is the Ray Samuels Audio F-35 Lightning. The Lightning is fully balanced, and only provides a balanced headphone output (but both single-ended and balanced inputs). This is a very purist approach, and is intended for those who know that having a full balanced headphone amp for portable use is exactly what they're looking for. The pricing for the F-35 Lightning hasn't yet been announced, but expect it to come in well under the SR-71B's pricing. While the F-35 lightning will have the same current output as the SR-71B, expect it to have about half of the insane 36.8V that the SR-71B can swing in balanced mode.

 

I already have the F-35 Lightning here, and it is enough to drive all of my dynamic and planar headphones. And while it can even drive the HiFiMAN HE-6 to moderate levels (certainly loud enough for me), you should strongly consider stepping up to the SR-71B if you're looking to be portably driving the HE-6 (or the Abyss AB-1266) most of the time.

 

I use and love all of these balanced portable amps, and find their performance comparable to a lot of very good desktop headphone amps.

 

"Still, this is one of the best, if not the best high-resolution portable amp out there for ALL your headphone needs. There are few portable amps that offer as much power as this Rx and yet are still able to control earphones just fine."

-Nathan Wright (shigzeo)
Head-Fi Moderator/Member/Reviewer

 

"...for anyone needed, or just wanting, a very powerful portable amp, or if you are looking for a powerful balanced amp for both home and portable use, and either don’t want or cannot afford to have multiple different amps, the SR-71B is really an astounding product, and it’s hard to believe what it’s capable of doing. It certainly is in the very top echelon on portable amp performance, and in fact, in its shining application, actually redefines what portable amp performance means. Ray’s delivered the unthinkable."

-Skylab
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

 

TYPE: USB DAC/headphone amp
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PRICE: $299.95
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URL: www.centrance.com

 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

The DACport is an ultra-portable Class-A headphone amp and USB DAC, powered entirely by USB bus power. About the size of a partially smoked Double Toro cigar, the diminutive DACport yielded one of the lowest (if not the lowest) jitter measurement ever published in a Stereophile review (that I can recall anyway, and I've been reading Stereophile for a long time)--amazing.

 

I've heard the DACport on many occasions, and it's a wonderful piece, and is certainly unique in its form factor. And with the 2012 price drop to $299.95 (down from $399.95), my recommendation of the DACport only intensified.

 

"Overall the DACport seems to be solid and well made 24/96 USB portable computer DAC, with excellent sound that matches or beats other $450-500 DAC/amps, although with fewer features or options. At $399 I would call it a must buy, especially for those who want to take it with them and their laptops and not have to worry about plugging it into the grid. It also makes the perfect "sit on the back deck and watch the sunset" music rig for me, once it gets warmer outside."

-Larry Ganz (HeadphoneAddict)
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Back when I was still spinning CD's to play music, UK outfit Arcam made some of my favorite reasonably priced disc spinners. As for most of you, time's have change over here, and I pretty much only spin CD's nowadays to rip 'em. With the rPAC, Arcam has reentered my life with no moving parts.

 

The Arcam rPAC is a lovely little USB DAC/amp device powered only by USB power, so no additional power cords or adapters are needed. It's 24-bit/96kHz capable, and its USB implementation is asynchronous mode. Outputs include a headphone output on the front (of course), and RCA stereo outputs out back. Volume is adjusted with two buttons atop the rPAC, and in fine increments.

 

I use the rPAC solely from its headphone out, and it's a very nice piece for driving everything from my sensitive in-ear monitors to many of my favorite reasonable-to-drive over-ears. It doesn't, however, have the drive, the authority, to drive (to my satisfaction anyway) my more challenging headphones.

 

The rPAC's sound signature is quite neutral, and just revealing enough to keep "polite" out of the pool of adjectives I'd draw from to describe it.

 

Because it's powered only from USB bus, and because of its very small footprint, I've classified the Arcam rPAC under our portable category. However, with its metal chassis, it has a nice heft to it; and its flat, rubberized base keeps it put; so my use of the rPAC is more along the lines of a desktop DAC/amp that just happens to be pint-sized. I usually keep it at one of my desks on which space is always at a premium. I have also taken it with me on a couple of trips, to serve as my hotel desk DAC/amp.

 

The rPAC is simple and versatile, sounds excellent, and has been a wonderful way to reconnect me with Arcam, one of my favorite audio brands.

 

"The Arcam rPAC is a very interesting unit, it packs Asynchronous USB, headphone out, no external power source, RCA fixed line out, stepped buttons, and good build in all the same unit which is farily compact at such a price... Good sound with a good build, wherever you go."

-Bowei Zhao (bowei006)
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

TYPE: Portable USB DAC and headphone amp
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PRICE: $249.99
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URL: www.arcam.co.uk

 

Fostex HP-V1 c57420db_blast_new_green_2.png
TYPE: Portable hybrid tube/solid state headphone amplifier
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PRICE: $500 to $600 (imported, estimated)
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URL: www.fostexinternational.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

I fully admit I'm a Fostex fan. They're like a corporate version of the intensely passionate Tokyo DIY portable audio scene, but with a lot of engineers and the facilities to productize what they dream up. While guys like me were lashing together stacks of airport-security-eyebrow-raising portable rigs, and wishing for a one-chassis version of it all, Fostex was, too--only they were able to develop and manufacture the wish with the Fostex HP-P1 (back in 2011). Well, it seems like more recently someone at Fostex was listening to his portable rig one day, and hankered for a shot of the kind of harmonic glow and richness that good tube gear can do so well, but didn't want to give up portability. Voila, the Fostex HP-V1 portable tube hybrid headphone amplifier!

 

The HP-V1 has a 6N16B-Q vacuum tube input stage, and a solid state opamp-based output stage. Inside are also custom Fostex large film and elecrolytic capacitors based on their work in loudspeaker engineering. Maximum rated output for the HP-V1 is 200mW into 32Ω, so there's enough to power most of what you're likely to use portably (but you can leave the inefficient HiFiMAN HE-6 at home). Though the HP-V1's specs don't give the specific output impedance, they do say that it's appropriate for use with headphones >16Ω. The rated runtime from its internal lithium-ion rechargeable battery is about 10 hours from a full charge, and while I haven't specifically measured that, it seems a reasonable estimate.

 

Because it runs rather warm, the HP-V1 is encased in a ventilated black metal chassis that looks a bit like the HP-P1's chassis, but in matte black, and with very cool vent slots and fins morphed in. In my opinion, it's a very attractive design, and feels well built. The HP-V1 weighs 390 grams (13.75 ounces), so while's no brick, it's no feather either.

 

Of course, the first headphone I tried the HP-V1 with was Fostex's own TH900, one of my favorite dynamic headphones. (The HP-V1 was being fed by the Chord Hugo.) And unquestionably, there's a beautiful mid-focused lushness, but without changing the TH900's overall tonal balance. Compared to the Chord Hugo directly from its headphone output, the HP-V1 is not as resolving overall, but sometimes I just have a taste for the a tube-induced sumptousness in the mids, and I'll take the occasional tradeoff of giving up a bit of overall resolution for that. The effect was the same with the Sennheiser HD800--also one of my favorite headphones, and one of my accuracy references--which I was happy to find the HP-V1 was able to drive to above moderate volume levels without any audible strain (it would likely go louder, but I wouldn't). In fact, from headphone to headphone, the HP-V1 was consistent in its abilities--although, to my ears, the HiFiMAN HE-6's inefficiency was simply too much of a problem, to my ears, and the romance wasn't present for that one.

 

As for in-ears, the HP-V1, in terms of its noise floor, is quiet--but not dead silent--with sensitive IEMs. Also, with sensitive IEMs, you will likely hear tube microphonics (ringgggg) when the amp is tapped on or jarred. Still, none of this is so problematic that you couldn't use in-ears with the HP-V1 in a pinch.

 

With the HP-V1, I have no real complaints. I know what it is, and I know what it isn't, and I use it accordingly. One thing I did notice is that when I flip mine upside down (and back again), I can feel what is probably the battery moving just a little bit. At the Tokyo Headphone Festival, the ones Fostex had at their exhibit were doing the same thing, and I don't think it's any reason to be concerned, but thought I should mention it.


I love the HP-V1. In the collection of portable amps we have here at Head-Fi HQ, it is certainly among the more unique ones. It's a little bit of sonic romance on-the-go. It sounds to me like what a portable headphone amp might sound like if Saul Marantz was still alive to design a portable headphone amp.

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Comments (7)

If you liked the E12 Mont Blanc imagine how much you'd like its big brother the E12DIY which comes with 4 opamps, 3 buffers, capacitors and resistors in a kit.  It allows you to easily swap combinations of opamps and buffers to achieve the sound you like. And you aren't limited to the opamps in the kit as many enjoy such other opamps as MUSES01 and MUSES02 and OPA627 and buffers such as HA-5002.  Don't like the sound?  Change it around until you do. 
I'm most pleased that you found the FiiO E 12 suitable for the HD 800, as 1) I've ordered the HD 800 and its (non portable) Sennheiser amp, the HDVD 800, and 2) was wondering what I would use for portable use of the HD 800.  Since I already have (and love) the FiiO E 12, looks like I'm set!
"I'm actually considering also ordering the least powerful one (the Geek Out 450) to use with my in-ears, as I'd expect a lower noise floor with it, and 450mW is still plenty of juice to drive most of the headphones I take with me (and it would likely consume less of my MacBook Air's battery when I'm on the go)."
As someone who owns the Geek Out 450, the noise floor is very, very noticeable with the 0.47 Ω output even with fairly sensitive portable headphones such as the V-MODA Crossfade M-100. Just a buyer alert. I just use the 47 Ω output instead.

For $300 USD (suggested MSRP) though, I do think it's a very excellent DAC/amp. I own the Objective DAC and Objective 2 and I find the Geek Out to sound similar to them, which is good news for people who prefer audio gear with little sound colouration.
Sadly I tried chasing down a Hugo. An email to get a price? I think I will look else where to as this one is a little too exclusive. Nice write up though as it sounds quite exciting.
Strangely if you read the forums, the 450 is said to be noisier than the 1000. I have not heard the 1000 but have listened to the 450 and the 720 and the 720 has a _lower_ noise floor.
@miceblue and @nudd, I guess I'm going to just stick to my Geek Out 1000 then. Thanks, guys, for the feedback.
I hope the next issue would feature the iFi Audio nano AND micro iDSD. They both hit quite above their price points, the micro going to a much greater extent. A lot of Head-Fiers prefer the nano iDSD over the Geek Out, the micro is said to be approaching Chord Hugo technicalities and is more musical
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