Every 6 months I've had the pleasure of talking to Shinobu Karaki of Aurorasound at the Tokyo headphone festivals. As an ex-Texas Instruments employee he has come up with some interesting designs, most significantly the VIDA phono stage. I’d previously built his DIY balanced amp, which, primarily due to the case cost, was a bit expensive for what it did. After lending Karaki-san a pair of Audeze headphones, he was very clear on the direction he should take with his designs, the result of which is the HEADA. So when he suggested I audition the HEADA I readily agreed.
Aurorasound’s VIDA and HEADA, as befitting an expensive product come by default in a neat, retro wood “sleeve” around the amp, though they can be ordered without if space is at a premium or if bare metal is more attractive to the customer, as the metal case of the amp is only about the same width as a Schiit Asgard or Valhalla. Likewise the amp comes with components of the highest quality, from the Nichicon and Elna capacitors on the inside to the silver plated RCA jacks on the rear. The only contrast to this is the rather colourful Aurora logo on the front, which almost seems out of place in the design.
The only downside to the design is that the balanced inputs aren’t balanced at all, but are fed to the same phase splitter as the RCA inputs. That makes buying a balanced DAC to use with it rather pointless. Likewise it might have been nice if the through output was a pre-amp output instead, as a dual-purpose headphone amp and pre-amp would make it better value.
Regardless, these things were forgiven with my first listening impressions using my Hugo as the source, with a feeling of an effortless, get-out-of-the-way-of-the-music presentation. The amp didn’t get in the way of my HD-800s, in fact bringing them a degree of body and dynamic that the Hugo by itself doesn’t seem to be able to quite deliver, despite being awesomely competent on its own. It was in contrast to my ALO Audio Studio Six and current tube complement that the character of the HEADA become apparent. While the Studio Six takes what the source gives and delivers it with that SET magic of powerful and precise, yet effortless dynamics, more like a top solid-state amp, it was the HEADA that was more “tube”-sounding, with a touch of warmth, yet without any sacrifice of dynamics. This was a spot-on match with the HD-800s. Where the Studio Six seems best with ALO’s own warmish Reference 20 ICs and Reference 16 headphone cables, the HEADA was the opposite, taking the sometimes too-much-of-a-good-thing clarity of the Hugo and my ruthless Van Den Hul The Orchid ICs and delivering just the amount of warmth and sweetness required to make listening enjoyable. If I weren’t already aware, I’d be surprised that it wasn’t a tube amp.
Despite this, the HEADA isn’t at all forgiving. Elbow’s The Seldom Seen Kid was not spared any mercy, its less than stellar recording quality readily apparent. The piano in Medeski Martin & Wood’s End of the World Party was just as disappointingly harsh as is always apparent on good equipment. On the other hand, the magic of HDTracks remaster of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue was as ever readily apparent, the extra nuances extracted from the recording as clear as ever.
What was most apparent was how the HEADA managed the dual trick of being both musical and ultra-resolving. The last solid state amp I’d had the fortune to audition that attempted such a trick was also Japanese — the Luxman P-1u attempts to add a subtle richness to the music, but doesn’t always succeed in making good music with all headphones. After my experience with the HD-800s and the HEADA I feared that the experience with Audeze’s contrasting LCD-Xs wouldn’t be as good, but I wasn’t to be disappointed, the richness of the music coming through just as strongly despite the different amplification requirements and different tone that the Audezes present.
Surely, I thought, it can’t all be all good, so I switched tack and tried my Ultimate Ears Reference Monitors instead. While there was some hiss without music playing, especially if the volume was turned up in high gain mode, it wasn’t enough to interfere with listening enjoyment at all. I’d probably stick to using those with a portable player instead, though it was good to know the HEADA could be used with sensitive IEMs, even if it’s 9-10 Ohm output impedance isn’t ideal for them.
240,000 yen (roughly US$2400 if $1 = 100 yen) puts the HEADA in the serious money territory for headphone listening. When I agreed to review it, after having reservations about the value of Karaki-san’s DIY amp, I was worried about the HEADA at 3x the price. Let alone that products such as the Hugo are coming out with very capable amps already built-in, threatening to make high-end amps redundant. Suffice to say after only one day with the amp any reservations were completely removed. What it more it is actually small enough to sit on my desk. I am going to be sorry to have to give it back.
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