Pros: No lack of inputs, including Bluetooth; Headphone amp is good all-round with plenty of power; Functionality is well thought-out.
Cons: Mute function for the pre-amp output only accessible on the remote. Knob feel for the volume is terrible. Display text is hard to read at a distance.
Thanks to Oppo Digital Japan for allowing us to borrow the PM-1 and HA-1.
Oppo coming out with a pair of headphones was quite a surprised, especially a pair of planars. Likewise the HA-1, though it is logical that a company would provide an appropriate matching amp to do with their own headphones.
The HA-1 is based upon the BD-105 essentially, but with fewer features and a better headphone amp, in this case with balanced output. Like the BD-105, apart from the lack of disc playback, it is still designed to be the centrepiece of your home theatre system with no less than 8 inputs: RCA and XLR (balanced) analogue and S/PDIF, optical, AES and Bluetooth digital. The latter supports APTX transmission which gives essentially CD quality wireless audio transmission. For iDevice users there's even a special USB port on the front for when a friend brings around their music on their phone or iPod.
Selecting the inputs is thankfully very simple, each has its own button on the included remote control. They can also be selected simply by turning the selector knob on the front panel until the desired one is highlighted.
By pressing the selector switch instead you cycle through the options for the unit:
Display type, which includes a funky digital rendition of analogue style meters and an EQ display or just information on the input used and music playing.
Home Theatre Bypass, which is a fancy way of saying that the volume control for the pre-amp output can be switched to a fixed line-level instead.
Headphone amp gain.
My only complaints about the unit are here in that the text on all the displays was too small to be read at any kind of distance. Also, the volume knob has the worst "knob feel" of any I've ever encountered. One other issue is that the pre-amp output "mute" function can only be switched using the remote, so if you can't find the remote but only want to listen through headphones, you'll have to switch off the rest of your system or un-plug it. Also, though people are unlikely to encounter it: Make sure to switch the unit off via its own power control. When I used my Power Plant Premier to switch everything off, the Home Theatre Bypass reset itself to "fixed" mode and the next time I played music I got blasted!
Now I've had the chance to try the HA-1 in a few scenarios, such as a HP amp and pre-amp with the in-built DAC and external DACs, here are my thoughts. Note that I listen to an incredible variety of music, too long to list here.
The HA-1 is about spot-on for value. It isn't the most resolving DAC or amp compared to, say, my Master 7 or Hugo. I was talking to anakchan about it and the word he used was "polite" which I tend to agree with. I've had mixed results with ES9018-based DACs and the HA-1 is one of the better ones, not having the flatness to the sound poorer implementations have that usually annoys me with acoustic instruments. The headphone amp gives an equally effortless-sounding presentation with both Oppo's own PM-1s and the Audeze LCD-XC as well as the Sennheiser HD-800, suggesting good power delivery. If I hadn't owned my main DACs, I'd be quite happy with the HA-1 sonically, as it does a good job of getting out of the way of the music and presenting it as it is. If anything though, I felt the HA-1 was too polite for the PM-1s and they sounded better directly out of the Hugo! It was a nicer match with the brighter HD-800s.
Comparing it to other equipment to get a handle on its actual ability to resolve detail, if I used the HA-1 as a DAC, it wasn't quite as resolving as my Master 7 or the Chord Hugo, missing out on some micro-detail. Likewise if I used the HA-1 as a headphone amp for my Master 7 or the Hugo, knowing that both are more resolving than the Oppo's built-in DAC, the greater resolution of either unit didn't come through the amp. Both units, however, are far more expensive than the the Oppo, the Hugo being 2.5x the price, so if anything the Oppo did well.
I also tried the HA-1 using the Bluetooth input using my iMac, and the results were very good, only a tiny bit behind the sound quality of a direct connection, something only apparent when directly compared.
Overall though I felt performance was spot-on for what Oppo are asking, especially considering the wealth of features included. It would best suit someone who wants to use the variety of features, such as with a pair of active speakers as well as headphones. With a pair of, say, the inexpensive but good quality Emotiva active speakers and headphones of choice it would make a great complete rig.