Pros: Awesome build quality, ease of use, price
Cons: Lack of bass, added distortion due to the tube, no USB cable included
SPECS: ( from Music Hall )
Years ago I borrowed a Music Hall 15.2 and compared it to the HeadRoom Ultra Desktop amp/DAC I had at the time. I enjoyed its sound and build quality so much that it stuck in my mind for years. I’ve been through a ton of gear since and want to revisit Music Hall’s products to see how they compare. My current setup consists of a Grace Design m903 amp/DAC, Schiit Bifrost 4490 DAC, and a HeadRoom Balanced Ultra Desktop Amp.
One great thing about the 25.3 is that you can plug just about any digital source into it. I tested the Optical and USB inputs and made quick comparisons against the Grace m903. Using Windows 10 I found no problems installing the USB driver. This cannot be said for USB DACs from companies like Schiit. I still haven’t been able to install their drivers.
Immediately I noticed that there is harshness to the treble using both a pair of HiFiMAN HE-400i and Audio Technica ATM-R70x headphones. Going back and forth between the Grace’s USB input and the 25.3’s it was evident that the 25.3 was harsher in the treble. Treble peaks in guitar and voices were piercing. After 20 minutes the 25.3 mellowed out and sounded much closer to the Grace so perhaps it was added distortion from the tube warming up.
One of my favorite things about the 25.3 is the feel of the housing and the volume knob. Both are extremely well-made and have an industrial feel to them. They do not feel cheap. Even though the unit weighs 8 pounds it actually feels light considering how sturdy it is. Everything is labeled on the unit making connectivity a cinch. Bright blue LEDs light up the front selectors and switching between sources is easily accomplish by a touch of a button.
I am relieved that the output impedance of unit is .3 Ohms making this amp ideal for any just about any dynamic or planar headphone out there. My Audio Technica ATH-R70x was easily driven and controlled by the Music Hall which is surprising considering that the impedance of this headphone is over 1000 Ohms at the fundamental resonance of the driver. Next I tried HiFiMAN’s HE-400i which is a planar magnetic driver with a 25 Ohm impedance, but a low sensitivity of 93dB whereas the R70x is 99dB. I am pleased to say that the Music Hall drives both headphones with ease.
I am disappointed in how the unit sounds. Using the HE-400i, which has very linear bass, most tracks sound bass light as if the driver is not being controlled adequately. One characteristics of a good amp is how well it can tame bass at volume. The HE-400i should sound even and impactful from 100Hz down, but with the 25.3 it sounded anemic and lifeless. I am not sure if this is because the solid state portion of the amp has some impedance issues or the tube is getting in the way of the output. The tube is inserted as a buffer which adds a bit of tube filtering the sound signature without sitting directly on the output of the amp. It is this buffer that I blame for the inadequate bass reproduction. This is such a shame because the amp and DAC sounds great from the 25.3 if it were not for the weak bass.
I checked the lack of bass against both the Grace m903 and Balanced Ultra Desktop Amp ( BUDA ) and both of these amps brought the bass back to where I expected it to be. I think it is in the best interests of this amp if Music Hall removed the tube from the amp and stuck with a solid state design.
If you are in the $600 and below amp/DAC market and do not mind an amp coloring the sound of your music then the Music Hall 25.3 is a great option. Its build quality, ease of use, and power make it an easy choice. Used this amp/DAC can be found below $400. It would be great if the unit came with a 5 ft USB cable and 5 ft optical cable to allow users to get started using it without having to purchase cables.
If you are looking for an amp/DAC combo that is true to your music I suggest moving onto something like the Schiit Stack consisting of the Modi 2 Uber and Magni Uber which together cost under $300 and will definitely get you very close to the true sound of your music.
The Music Hall 25.3 is a fun-sounding unit with emphasis on detail over realistic sound production. It has a dead-quiet noise floor, awesome volume control, and inputs for just about any type of situation. If the bass did not roll off I would easily recommend this unit, but as it stands I provide a caveat to those wanting uncolored sound.