Here is a compilation/copy-paste of my impressions from the 1st and 2nd day of RMAF, which I posted in the wrong thread, sorry:
FIRST DAY IMPRESSIONS:
I probably spent too much of my time at the CEntrance table after setting up my rig, but it was worth it. I was pleasantly surprised by the CEntrance DACmini desktop DAC/amp combo, which is reminiscent of a Stello DA100 driving a warm tube amp. This thing should be a hit, with 24/96 USB, optical and coax S/PDIF inputs, analog input and output, and built in headphone amp that can run on almost any 9v - 18v power supply. (I recall hearing something about 7 regulated power supplies inside?) The RCA outputs shut off when a headphone is plugged in, so if you are using it to feed some powered speakers with your computer the speakers will mute when using headphones. It's also nice that it's form factor fits the Mac mini, but it can also be set up on it's side next to a computer monitor or laptop. They will also have a version to match the newer style Mac mini. The photo on their web site is old, and the selector knob now chooses between analog, optical, coax and USB inputs (4 options instead of 3 where optical and coax where combined).
I took my Nuforce HDP over to the CEntrance table and hooked it up to compare it next to their DAC-mini using Beyer T1, HD800, HE-5 LE, LCD-2, and HE-6 headphones. As many of you know, the HDP is one of my favorite budget desktop DAC/amps - it's not perfect but it offers a lot of bang for the buck at $449. The DACmini price is not final yet, but it might be in the neighborhood of what a Stello DA100 without an amp would cost, which should be reasonable for the features and sound quality that it offers (and with the economy). I think I will have to seriously consider getting a DACmini, and I plan to spend some time Saturday listening with my Westone ES5, ES3X, and JH13Pro custom IEM. From what I can tell, the volume pot is also better and more precise than on my HDP, so I'm hoping it will work well with IEM.
While the HDP's amp sounds better than my Apogee mini-DAC via headphone out, it still has a slightly brighter and slightly more aggressive character like the Apogee , while the DACmini has a more natural and less analytical sound without giving up detail. In the time that I spent comparing the two DAC/amps via USB from their Mac mini, I felt that the DACmini was warmer and more musical, with more body and a more solid foundation, and less colored upper mids and a more spacious soundstage - transparency in the mids and highs was where it stood out over the HDP. Both are very detailed with good air, but the notes seem to die off faster with the HDP, with a more natural decay to the DACmini. The HDP is slightly colored and sounds better to me with phones like the HD600, LCD-2 and HE-5 LE than it does HD800. I think I prefer the DAC-mini with any of these phones, especially the HD800.
While I like to listen to the Apogee or HDP DAC while driving a better amp like the WA6, I didn't feel the urge to plug in a nicer amp to the DAC-mini. I like that it can be used as a stand alone DAC, or a stand alone amp, and if I get one to review I'll try that out. Saturday I'm hoping to see how the DACmini amp sounds using the HDP as the DAC, and also how the HDP amp sounds feeding it from the DACmini's DAC.
I also listened to the newer version of HiFiMan HE-6 on several amps including ZDT, HDP, EF6 and DACmini, which sounds wonderful and is more efficient than the earlier prototype. I would now listen on the ZDT amp with the volume at 1-2 o'clock instead of 3-4 o'clock like with the prototype. In comparison, I listen to my HD800 or LCD-2 with the volume set at 10 o'clock and the HE-5 LE with the volume at 11 o'clock. So, HE-6 is still difficult to drive, and while it sounded a little better with the DACmini than the HDP, the HDP gave them 2-3 more db in volume which was appreciated. Normal listening volumes with the HE-6 on the DACmini was at 5 o'clock max volume, but with the new HE-6 this was a good bit louder than the original prototypes on my WA6 at home. I did try the prototype EF6 amp for driving the HE-6, and it sounded good but I think it also needs more gain, with power somewhere in the neighborhood of the HDP if I recall correctly. I'd really like to compare the EF5 tube hybrid to the EF6 with the HE-6 headphones. I did prefer the HE-6 on the ZDT which has extra headroom without having to max out the volume to play loud now. I still suspect the HE-6 will still shine with a powerful speaker amp, but they are definitely more useable with standard headphone amps now. A nice feature of the EF6 prototype is the stepped volume attenuator which is much better than the one in the EF5.
I should note that the demo DACmini has a gain of only 2, and they might bump the gain a little since they aren't hitting max power output or clipping with a gain of 2. That should give it enough juice to drive the HE-6 better, although it could play quite loud with LCD-2 and HD800 and fairly loud with the HE-5 LE and T1. The DACmini would typically be set at 4:30 - 5 o'clock (max) with the HE-6 for normal to moderate volume listening, vs 3:30 - 4 o'clock with HDP and HE-6.
I also listened to a new RSA portable amp (bare circuit board) that has fully balanced input and output. I think it will be called the SR-71b, and it has two large rechargeable batteries that seem about 2x that of the Protector. This portable amp drives the HD600 and LCD-2 better and louder than any other portable amp I have tried. I loved it with those two phones. But similar to my experience with my RSA Protector and HDP amp, the new balanced portable isn't perfect with the HD800 either. But I think it got along with them better than my Protector. I'll have to compare the two side by side on Saturday, before I put my Protector up for sale to upgrade.
I also spent a bit of time with a Sennheiser HEV70 electrostatic amp that Ray Samuel's modified and improved internally and with a nicer PSU, and it's now a much better match for the HE-60 headphones than ever before. I was very impressed with it. It's not a giant killer, but it doesn't sound like a cheap amp anymore either. Apparently it would be too expensive to have my HEV70 modded to sound like his, but maybe I can talk him into releasing the details in case other DIY modders want to try their hand at it.
I waited to listen to the ALO LCD-2 headphone cable, but got distracted and will go back Saturday to try it out. I also want to try out their iPod LOD > Digital output device too. I haven't been by the Headroom or Moon Audio tables yet, and there are several others that I need to hit as well. Until Saturday...
I also heard the Beyer T1 on the SPL Phonitor, with I believe an Arcam CDP as source - and the T1 sounded a little more lively and interesting than when I heard them at the Colorado meet in August from the B22 or my ZDT. My first time around I thought the T1 sounded nice but nothing special, and maybe a little bland. I'll have to give them another listen with that rig, and try my HD800 and LCD-2 on the SPL as well.
And I tried the HiFiMan RE262 which I still need to burn in more, but I think they are an upgrade to the RE252 in the mids. They still wont win any awards for bass quantity, but it's bass quality is superb. I like these and will be taking a pair home to burn-in and listen to, and will post more impressions later.
DAY TWO IMPRESSIONS:
My pleasure. I know I said previously, "Saturday I'm hoping to see how the DACmini amp sounds using the HDP as the DAC, and also how the HDP amp sounds feeding it from the DACmini's DAC. " But RMAF was just too busy to find the time to do more of those experiments today. If we have time Sunday maybe we can try that then, or at a later date. I'll be sure to stop by with my custom IEM Sunday to listen to those on the DACmini before the day is over.
I stopped by the Head-Direct table again, and listened to the HE-6 on the current EF5 hybrid amp, and I was very happy with the sound. The new HE-6 really is easier to drive, and while I was using my own EF5 with the original prototype at a volume setting of 2-3 o'clock during my time with them, at RMAF I was listening to the production HE-6 with the volume at 10:30 - 11:00 (both set for high gain). Normal listening volume with the HE-5 LE and EF5 amp was with the volume at about 9:30. The EF5 can drive either phone at extremely loud volumes.
I listened to the HE-6 with the EF6 prototype amp again, and with a different source and music it would actually play quite loudly. It a very neutral sounding amp, but I still thought it could stand to be a little warmer and "tubey" sounding like the EF5. Detail does seem to be a step above the EF5 though. The EF6 is a prototype and not final, and Fang feels that those sort of issues will improve as the internal caps and transformer are upgraded for the final version. So now I'm not so sure that the EF6 needs more power after all.
I spent some time with the ALO Audio and Moon Audio cables for the LCD-2 today, on a variety of rigs including my ZDT amp, Protector, and new RSA SR-71b balanced amp, and I was pleased with all of them. There is a subtle improvement in micro-detail and air with all of them, which makes listening to the LCD-2 a more complete experience without a sense of slight darkness to the sound. I may have a slight preference for the 8 wire ALO cable's sound over the ALO 4-wire, but the Moon Audio Silver Dragon with mini-XLR connector and multiple adapters (for 4-pin XLR, Protector, single ended, etc) seems very versatile, and the cable was small and light and portable. I could see myself getting one with all the adapters because it's neat, but I have to decide if I really want to use them with anything but a desktop amp. I can't compare the Moon Audio cable to the ALO because I heard them all in different rigs at different times.
I was pleasantly surprised by the Grado PS-1000 and Silver Dragon Cable off the Cary CAD 300SEI amp at the Moon Audio table, which turns out to be Drew's personal rig. It sounded much more refined, spacious and capable than when I heard the stock PS-1000 off the TTVJ 307A hyrbid amp at CanJam 2009. Previously I felt the PS-1000 sounded a little grainy or harsh. My opinion of the PS-1000 has improved, especially since the re-cabled LCD-2 did not sound as good off that same source and amp. (see photo)
I also tried the HD800 with a bunch of amps. I'm one of those people that likes a wide variety of gear, from budget to high-end, and if I write that something "sounds nice" as my first impression from a brief listen, it shouldn't be construed as a full review or endorsement (unless I call it a review). So, I don't have a fully formed opinion about this stuff yet yet. Regardless, it seems there are a lot of rigs that are a good match with the HD800 these days. The Blossom Blo-0299 solid state balanced amp with HD800 and Black Dragon cable was another nice surprise, and I thought it sounded very well balanced, powerful and spacious. It's size and features make me miss my SP Square Wave amp. I had a similar experience with the Headroom Balanced Ultra Desktop Amp with Cardas cable, and liked what I heard. I listened to the Schiit Valhalla with the stock HD800 at the Sennheiser booth, and the amp is definitely capable and nice with more than enough power for them. The Schitt also sounded nice with my APS V3 cabled HD600 and the new HD598, but I still don't like the HD650. The new HD598 is more of a fun sounding headphone, with warm strong bass and better sparkle than the HD650, although less transparency than the HD600/800. I didn't listen to these rigs nearly as long as Asr did, and maybe he'll chime in with his impressions later.
I went to the JH Audio booth and listened to the JH16 demo unit for the first time, and I was expecting overdone bass in comparison to my JH13Pro, but I really liked the sound of the demo JH16 (using iPad > Protector with balanced TWag cable). I compared my JH13Pro with the same amp and cable, and felt the JH16Pro had a better sense of focus on the bass, and that bass notes were coming from real instruments. Sometimes (not always) with my JH13Pro the deep 40-50Hz bass seems like it's coming from nowhere in particular and from everywhere around me at the same time. With the JH16Pro demos the bass in the 20-100Hz region seemed fuller and better connected to the instruments. However, I also felt the mids were just a little fuller than with my JH13Pro. Jerry said that might be due to the 3-bore sound-tube reinforcing the mids better in my ears. At this point I am no longer averse to owning the JH16Pro, and should finances allow I might get one. However, I really wanted to hear the JH3A, but it wasn't able to be demo'd this time around. I spoke to Jerry about someday having my JH13Pro upgraded for the JH3A, but he felt the JH16 made a better foundation for the JH3A to drive.
I also listened to the UE18pro demos, and I liked what I heard. Their bass was strong but not boosted in the mid-bass like my UE11Pro. Mids were also fuller than with my UE11Pro. I felt the highs had a slight roll-off in the very top highs vs the JH16Pro demo or my ES5 and JH13Pro. But it wasn't really lacking in the highs at all and not dark, just slightly restrained sounding up there. I don't know how well this would translate to a full fitted custom IEM shell, but even the way that they sounded would be okay with me. It looks like JHA and UE have both upped the ante with their latest customs, as has Westone with the ES5.
I listened to the Rethm amps again, and I much prefer the one we heard last year at RMAF over the new amp prototype. The older amp is a transformer coupled tube amp, and the new one is a hybrid if I recall correctly. George said the new amp prototype is still going to undergo a number of refinements. So, we'll have to see how it sounds next time. As for the original one, I only heard it with the LCD-2 and wasn't inspired to buy one - although it's not a bad amp it just didn't excite me.
Lastly, I spend a bit of time listening to the Lavry DA11 as a DAC/headphone amp, to play with the PIC crossfeed/expansion controls, and I really enjoyed it's functionality. I put on a Sarah Vaughn album with some extreme split in the instruments, where a guitar or string bass was way off to one side or the other, and the DA11 would allow me to pull in the just one side of the soundstage or the other or both, in order to balance the soundstage better. It did this without dimming the highs like other crossfeeds that I've heard, including the Headroom Micro Amp and Meier Headfive or 3MOVE. The XM5 amp that I own has more of a variable channel blend/mix knob and doesn't affect the highs, but it also only narrows the soundstage instead of bringing the far off instruments more to center, and like the XM5 crossfeed the least of all of them. The Lavry is simply the best I've tried for this. Previously I compared plaidplatypus's DA10 to my Apogee mini-DAC and liked the Lavry more as both a DAC > Woo GES and as a headphone amp. The DA11 is really cool and would be fun to own just for the PIC.
The Lavry worked well with the high impedance HD600 and my low impedance Westone ES5, with no imbalance at the lowest setting of 1 on the digital volume attenuator. I never had to get close to max to play the HD600 quite loud, and the ES5 would typically require the volume to be dropped in half for the same levels. I didn't notice any hiss at zero volume with the ES5, but the room was quite noisy and I was distracted, so I can't promise it's silent. They were initially worried about me trying the IEM with it, so I assume they don't have many people using it that way. I personally thought it sounded much better with my ES5 than with their HD600, while they said they had high impedance phones in mind. I also liked how although it has balanced XLR output only, you can use a simple XLR > RCA adapter and set the DA11 software to ground out one of the pins for a proper +/Gnd operation instead of +/- mode. They also offer an adapter to allow connecting a second coax device to the XLR digital input, with a total of 4 iputs (USB, Optical, Coax, and AES/BDU I think it's called).
Unfortunately the cost is 2x the DACmini, and 3x the HDP. I don't know how it compares to other $1500 DAC/amps, but I do know that I paid $975 for a used Apogee mini-DAC with optional USB input card and Sigma 11 PSU and the older DA10 outperformed it nicely. I'd like to spend more time with the DA11 in the future, and give it a more in depth listen to see how I like it past 1st impressions. I could see myself owning one in place of the Apogee someday, but I drive several balanced and single ended amps with the lone Apogee DAC, not all of which have loop-out for the signal (in order to daisy chain amps if I used a DAC with only one set of outputs). I mentioned to Lavry that it would be nice if they squeezed in a small 1/8" single ended output like the Apogee, since the back panel is too full to add an RCA output. I wasn't sure if they thought it was a priority enough to consider the change, and they suggested that the front panel headphone out jack would actually drive amps quite well. I happen to have a short ALO 1/4" > RCA jack cable that does that job quite well with my CEntrance DACport, but I wouldn't want that cluttering up the front panel on a daily basis, so a switch-box might be a better solution for multiple amps.
Oh, I do want to thank Westone for the live musical performances which you have to plug yours or their IEM into the sound board to hear the music. The electronic drums are kinda cool, hearing the sticks hit the rubber pads that don't sound like drums, and then hearing the electronic drums through earphones was kinda neat. I can't think of anything else that I heard or listened to that I could comment on right now. I'd really like to go out and see the rest of RMAF on Sunday, except for trying the custom IEM on the DACmini I might just do that.
You typed this while I was typing my other impressions, so I missed this.
I mentioned above that I really like the sound of the HE-6 with the EF5 as well. It's not as capable of an amp in sheer performance, but in musicality and enjoyment it's a great pairing. The ZDT has a similar power level with the HE-6, but better soundstage and detail than the EF5 among other things. I liked the EF5's musical talent more than the EF6 sheer technical talent, and so I didn't try the HE-5 LE with the EF6. If I had to pick one of the two amps for the HE-6 or HE-5 LE I'd pick the EF5 over the prototype EF6, but the EF6 is very capable and not final in any way. Fang assures me that it will be even more enjoyable when it is done, and says already that the EF6 is flatter and more extended than the EF5, and more detailed and spacious. It was much better than the prototype Rethm hybrid amp if that helps any, and not a little better but a lot better. I just liked the warm and rich sound of the EF5 with the HE-5 and HE-6 more.
Fang had to go back to NY to finish his PhD, and so he could only display his gear on Friday and Saturday, before leaving for good tonight. So I missed any chance to try the EF6 with the HE-5 LE now. Which reminds me that I didn't speak of the HiFiMan HM-602 DAC/amp/DAP either. I listened briefly to the 602 vs the 801 with the same album on my ES5, and the 602 is not far away from the 801 sound at all. The Carla Lother "100 Lovers" album was 24/96 on the 801, and I don't know if it was 16/44 or 24/96 on the 602, but the 801 had a little better micro-detail, ambience and space to it. The timbre and tone was otherwise very similar. I have not compared the 602 to any iPod headphone out yet, but I did compare the 801 which was superior, and the 602 is not far behind the 801 at all. I have also not tried it as a USB DAC. I'll be able to write more about the HM-602 soon.
Here is the rig that I brought with me. Nuforce CDP-8 coax and Apple TV optical out with only lossless music > PS Audio Perfectwave DAC. I used the DAC XLR out > Woo WES and O2 Mk1 > loop out to ZDT for HD800/LCD-2/HE-5 LE/HD600/HF-2, and DAC RCA out to eXStatA with loop out to RSA modded HEV70 > HE60. I also used the Nuforce CDP-8 analog out to feed their HDP amp.
Edited by HeadphoneAddict - 10/16/10 at 11:25pm