Pros: DAC in this unit sounds fantastic, simple clean aesthetics, solid build, USB option connectivity, 24/96 sample rate, nice volume pot
Cons: DAC in this unit is in a different class than the amplifier, can be pricey a lof of units sold directly from Japan
So, where to I begin... I am newer to owning and reviewing audio equipment of above the normal consumer caliber. I have come from a AMB Gamma 1 lite for desktop us, an Fiio E7 for portable, with a couple a of different sub 100$ portable amps. So I am limited when it comes to multi hundred dollar DACs and headphone amplifiers and I just want people, in this community, to keep that in their thoughts when and if reading this review.
I first saw this unit from the classified section of this community and the head-fi website, and I immediately thought this was a good price for a all in one unit for someone such as myself who was running the Gamma 1(Lite usb only version) as my main audio DAC in my home setting. Something to note about me I have a large variety of different tastes, whether that is a positive and or negative some could argue either way. I like minimal and solid peripherals of all types, from mechanical keyboards, to speakers, to my chassis of my pc being a more simple but aesthetically pleasing look to me. I contacted the seller of this unit with inquiries on both the price and the sound, he took a while to get back to me originally and when he did was very understanding and laid back, which was much appreciated at the time. I tried for around 3-4 weeks to get the necessary funds to purchase this unit from him. I cannot say for certain why this review stuck out to me compared to maybe a used ODAC/O2 unit or a Modi/Magni unit. I just know after reading the few reviews I could actually find I was pretty much set. Now, most of the reviews said the same things regarding this DAC/amp combo, and from my experience that usually is good thing when you are looking to being informed about a potential purchase.
I eventually was not able to buy the unit from my fellow head-fi member due to a towing my god awful car, but soon after my girl found it for relatively cheap brand new on a sale and bought it as anniversary gift. I got it the day later which was awesome, and my impatient self got to hooking it up to the pc. Now, this is a usb powered DAC/amp where there is not wallwart or anything else but your device charging the unit. I was a little worried because I have read that with certain measures put in place it could lead to distortion or interference, but thankfully for the past week of breaking in this unit I can say I have not had a single hiccup so far. The HP-A3 sounded very different right out of the box compared to the Gamma 1 with the WS 1.2 bluebird amp I was using, and it was both a good and bad thing to me. Where this unit was more competent with that the Gamma 1 was sound stage, details, a bit more neutrality, and overall sound coming from the much more pricey unit was to my ears a better DAC. Now, that is not to say the Gamma 1 Lite is not a bad unit if anything at the initial listen I actually preferred it, it had more warmth and more body down in the bass section(not boomy & muddy more body) So I can say I definitely did not have the placebo effect going for me at the time of first impressions, but I also new it had a integrated amp which probably needed to burn in, so what I did was to compare it directly out of the box I used the RCA out and connected it to the amp I was using with the y1. Honestly it made a difference and the detail of the Fostex was not lost if anything it sounded better being there but with more of a smoothness to the texture, I happened to like it very much. So, I decided to let the unit burn in for a bit using Foobar2000 playing all types of music from anything such as 16/44 files to 24/96khz files.
I went back about 30 hours in, and really did some long period listening with just the unit, and it definitely did make a difference for the amp section, now do I feel as though this amp is on par with the Ak4390 chip and however it was placed in the Fostex? No, I do not and I believe they had focused a bit more on the amp section keeping the DAC they would have had an even nice item here. I can say that the sound stage is nice probably one of the better than the anything I have listened to along with separation. I feel as though I know where each instrument is coming at all times but it still feels immersive and musical. I definitely like the lower end with it's control and tight and quick impact, because I feel like it really gives a nice contrast for perhaps the more intimate mid section of this unit. That being said I also feel like the lowers are a little to lean at times even though they still are enjoyable it does take away from some very bass heavy music. I really thought that if I could bring a third party amplifier in here with maybe a little more body and warmth it would do wonders for this DAC. I had the Schiit Vali on the way and I was looking forwarding to seeing how this combo would sound together.
Firstly after listening to the HP-A3 with the Schiit Vali I can say it sounds just right, not overly warm and I still feel like the music that is accurate and not over exaggerated. I really like how well these two paired together as a combo and honestly I think if you have the Vali and are looking for a DAC then this would definitely be a good option. I still think the HP-A3 is worth 300$ to use as a unit by itself, but I am also using DT990 headphones and the warmth and sound that comes from the combination of HP-A3 paired with the Vali is perfect for myself in this desk setting.
I still think people that opt to go with the Modi/Magni(or Vali for my preferences) which is the cheapest solution when comparing them to the ODAC/O2 or the Fostex A3 is a solid choice that I believe 95% of beginners would be happy with depending on situation and headphone being used. Do I believe the HP-A3 is worth the difference between them, honestly I cannot say being that I have never owned the Modi, but I think that I would agree it was, because I prefer the Fostex's DAC over the CDAC+(still getting use to the difference of the CDAC+ which is essentially a improved upon ODAC) I will eventually be doing a comparison between the CDAC+ and Vali against the HP-A3 and Vali to see if I prefer one or the other and if I believe there are benefits from either setup.
I will be reviewing that unit shortly and doing my comparisons somewhere at the end. I hope that people reading this, if there are any, will perhaps give the Fostex a listen. I think it does an exceptional job at this price point, but from what I have read that the newer A4 is even nice with a better implemented amp in that unit...just something to consider when buying.