The Headstage Arrow HE amplifier
I'm picky when it comes to investing in electronics; I am not wealthy, below median income level, and yet I've still managed to spend quite a few thousand dollars on all my headphone equipment, be it amps, DACs, wires or headphones. I consider even this level of sonic investment to be quite considerable and therefore, I shop for keeps, always. Had I the resources, I'm sure I'd be a rampant collector, buying this amp then that amp, that pair of cans and those, piles of insanely bad ass equipment building up around my home (one can dream). But reality forces me to find something that's worth holding on too and then hold on to it. I've grown to appreciate this and I enjoy said devices more and more as time goes by...
So it went with my four month wait to acquire a Headstage Arrow HE portable headphone amplifier. Call it a geeks wet dream if you want ... a perverse desire to handle well designed hardware ... a true desire for better sound ... whatever. But as I read about the Arrow amp, as I read the oddly endearing (yet mildly abrasive) peculiarities of it's creator, the more I realized that I just HAD to have one.
So ... necessary introductions now behind us, feeling much closer to you readers already, I can continue with a few comments on what I think of the Headstage Arrow HE portable headphone amplifier (jeezus that's long! I'm just gonna say "Arrow" from now on. phoof!).
Why the hell did I want a portable amp, anyway?
I'm a diehard Shure fan-boi. Have been for years. I like just about everything they make (or at least respect their intentions) ... from microphones (I have several) to IEM's (at least the upper offerings) to the full sized headphones (albeit, new but still fairly important).
I'm a huge fan of the default sonic signature of the Shure SE530's Inner Ear Monitors (IEM's); I consider them on the neutral/accurate side, not too extended in any given frequency range and just damn fine in a "reference" sense. That said, I *do* typically enjoy just a tad more bass in any given track than the SE530's natively impart. As with just about everything Shure makes, from microphones to headphones, the SE530 IEM's seem to have the musical professional in mind before the popular enthusiast.
The above considered, I've always used my portable player's EQ to offer up just a few more notches of low end; and, in that regard, I've found the SE530's to be extremely responsive. Never distorted, no matter the volume, incredible drive and midrange, and with the proper equalization (or hardware bass boost circuit), they can be some damn delicious sounding IEM's in the bass realm as well. Odd that I should make an allowance for equalization when it comes to my portable (near demand it) while I'm rabidly opposed to any equalization when it comes to my full sized headphones; strange that.
So in large part, my reasons for investigating the Headstage Arrow have much to do with wanting to find just the right synergy between DAP, Amp and the Shure SE530's. And although I would go on to test the Arrow with an assortment of fairly high end, full sized headphones as well (more below), I still am most pleased with the Arrow when combined with the SE530's.
And just speaking of equalization, beyond a doubt, I prefer a hardware circuit over a software circuit any day and given my choice, I'd much rather leave my Nationite S:flo 2's EQ set at mostly flat. My hopes were that the Headstage Arrow would not only be a damn fine sounding amp in general, but that it's bass boost circuit would allow me to "zero out" the bass settings on my S:flo 2 EQ and simply use the Arrow's hardware circuit to accentuate the bass.
Source: S:Flo 2 Portable DAP
Primary IEM's: Shure SE530 (using med sized Shure "Black Olive" tips)
Secondary Full Size Headphones: AKGK701, Grado GS1000, Audize LCD-2, Shure SRH840
Contrary to most reviews such as this, both my own and others, I will forego listing each track I demo'd. Suffice it to say, I listened to the Arrow amp with all sorts of music, from Classical to Alt-Country to Stoner and Sludge and general Indie(tm). And I'm certainly not going to wax poetic over any given little sonic nuance such as, "the pluck of the strings gave me an erection," .. or ... "I could hear fingers on fret boards and it was chilling!" ...or, the worst... "I heard things in familiar music that I'd never heard before!" ;-) I will spare you such nonsense (hell, I'm winded enough as it is without finding even more things to write about).
So carrying on ...
General Features Set/ETC.
Good design can win me over, any day. And you'll find this entire little diatribe littered with constant references to how well designed I think the Arrow amp is. Really, it's hard to believe that such output and really well realized features could fit within such a slim design and yet be in what I would call the "top tier" of interface useability (<- my word). I daresay, it's chock full of optional features, the majority of which I've never really even found a use for such as two stage crossfade, two stage bass boost, auto power on/off (<-awesome), unbelievably long play time and various impedance and gain settings. That said, I have investigated all options thoroughly and can matter of factly claim that their implementation/use does absolutely nothing to NEGATIVELY affect the sonic performance of the amp (I'll briefly discuss each of those a bit below). All features function as described (a rare thing!) and when/if in use? They in no way compromise the sound (also a rare thing).
Meanwhile, here's a quick run-down copied from the Headstage website:
- Automatic Power Adaptation with up to 12V Internal Voltage
- Maximal 11V Output Voltage (Peak to Peak)
- 50 Hours Play Time in Lowest Power Mode (without voltage boost)
- 15 Hours Play Time in Highest Power Mode (12V)
- Analog AD8397 Opamp in Output Stage
- Three Selectable Gain Settings (6dB, 12dB, 21dB)
- Ultra Tight Bass Boost (0dB, 9dB, 9dB+9dB below 120Hz)
- Öhmann Crossfeed (Off, Low, High)
- Impedance Setting (0/20/65 ohm)
- Automatic Power Switch (OFF/ON/AUTO)
- High-Capacity 1200mAh/4.2V Lithium-Ion Battery
- High Efficiency Battery Charging from USB Port
- Easy Battery Replacement without Soldering
- Symmetric & Short Audio Paths with Low Noise
- Analog Audio Input Jacks on Both Ends
- Two Headphone Jacks
- ALPS Analog Volume Potentiometer (Not Digital!)
- Low-Battery Indication (Slow and Fast LED Blinking)
- 4-Layer Circuit Board with two Ground Planes for Low Noise
- Black Anodized Aluminium Case with Laser Engraving
- ABS End Panels with White Silk Print
- Size: 8.5mm x 56mm x 98mm (0.33'' x 2.20'' x 3.86'')
- Weight: 75g
Overall Look/Feel/Build Quality
As mentioned a few times already, I'm a fan of the design of the Arrow amp; it's intuitive, extremely thin and matches perfectly next to my S:flo 2's form factor. It feels good in the hand and is extremely "pocketable". It's also very well built, with no superfluous casing elements or features, solid feeling, durable and all the pieces mate well and with a very minimum of raised seams/joints and the like. Ah hell, like other things in my life, I just like holding it. LOL. But then again, I did collect well made ball point pens as a 10 year old and so my fixation on solidly constructed and well designed industrial products began at an early age. But that's getting off course a bit and so I digress.
General Sonic Quality
I'd imagine this is the main question most folks have about the Arrow amp: "Does it sound good?" Ironically, this is also the hardest part to discuss and strangely enough, the topic I find the least to write about. This latter fact is mostly because the answer to the question is simply, "Yes. It sounds bloody hell good."
But how to further sum such a claim?
Hmmmm, well for one it perfectly maintains what I find so brilliant about the S:flo 2 DAP. The same excellent spatial qualities and sound staging, the same clarity with no added mud or distortion, just a really true communication of the sources natural features.
I've heard folks describe the S:flo 2 DAP as being a bit dark. I've also heard folks describe the Arrow amp as being a bit dark. Yet I've never considered either one particularly dark sounding and nor (as would be expected) do I find the combination of the two to equal further darkness (sounds like I'm talking about a fantasy film for chrissake!).
And I suppose the one main attractive quality I find about the Arrow amps addition to the sonic chain is that it takes an already nice sounding signal and somehow (here's where it gets difficult) imparts an undeniable "impact" or "weight" to the sound. Even without any bass boost enabled, the signal that is delivered from the Arrow is simply more present and more engaging. Whose to say that this is not placebic? Certainly not me. But I know when I've had to do with out the Arrow and simply use the S:flo 2 for a day or two, I have found myself truly missing that extra bit of "something" that the Arrow lends to the overall sonic delivery.
I've heard many various portable headphone amplifiers from other major designers/builders (I will forego listing them so as to not imply any sort of slant on these fine folk) and (IMHO) the Arrow amp simply destroys them all in regards to general "enhancement" of my sources sound.
And nothing from any of them have equaled the absolutely delicious implementation of "bass boost" in the Headstage Arrow...
A Couple Things I Really Dig...
The auto power on/power off feature is fan-fewkin-tastic! Seriously. I love it. It works flawlessy. Attach an input source signal and the amplifier automatically turns on. Remove the input source and in 1 minute the amp powers down. There is no power switch on the device. I find this to be a subtle bit of genius on the part of the designer and wonder why more folks don't implement such. It removes a possible break down item from the device configuration and also removes one step the user must take to get to the goods (that would be the music, yo).
Equally, I've found the auto voltage feature to genuinely yield extremely long play times. According to the Headstage website: "The battery voltage of 4V is automatically boosted to a voltage just as high as needed--with a maximum voltage of 12V." Now I'm not sure what this means but it does seem to really work well at extending battery life. With my SE530's, the Arrow runs for very near the advertised 50 hours of play time. I haven't tested it in a scientific manner but I know I use the amp every day, for well nigh 8 hours a day and I only recharge once a week. Really outstanding power management. I thought it was solar powered there for a while. ;-)
The Bass Boost Circuit
As I've already opined, I find the Arrow to be uber exceptional when paired with the Shure SE530 IEM's. And with the two stage bass boost set on "I," the Shure's are jettisoned into true sonic bliss. Suddenly the default Shure bass (present, available, accurate, disciplined) is transformed into a bass sound that's immediately more punchy, deep and very taut and a hell of a lot of what some describe as "fun."
Seriously, bass boost circuits are hard to do right. Not that I've implemented any or that I even know anything about circuit layout because I haven't and I don't. But more so it's simply to say that I happen to have heard a few. Among those bass boost circuits I've heard, some have been really okay (like the Practical Devices XM variants), some that have been damn good (certain of Larocco's offerings) and others that have been truly horrendous (like the ridiculously bad bass boost of the FiiO E5). Yet the Arrow's bass boost trounces everything I've heard and I simply could not do without it at this point.
As I said, the Arrow bass boost is "two stage" ... meaning, of course, that it has two settings (see the above bulleted feature set for a frequency breakdown); yet, very very rarely do I find myself wanting to switch to the "II" setting. It's just too much bass for my ear in general. But what I can say is that even on setting "II" the bass output is still (quite amazingly) very deep, tight and undistorted. In fact, both of the bass boost settings have no unnecessary bloat, no "wool" and simply offer extended sonic versions of the original bass.
In all honesty, due to the fact that I'm a committed Shure user, the bass boost circuit built in to the Arrow amp could be considered the main selling point of the device which has created a true fan of me (followed by portability, build and power).
Other "optional" features of the Headstage Arrow
I'll be brief here, mostly because my eyes and hands hurt from writing this damn thing but also because I simply have no need for the user selectable features (other than the bass boost, which I love). But as well as bass boost, the Arrow has three other features that can be enabled to a setting of "0," "I" or "II" (0 being default/"flat") via any of the four tiny toggles along one end of the amplifier (crossfeed, gain and impedance) All have been (apparently) very well implemented and are quite effective in accomplishing what they were made to do (especially the cross feed). Here's a few comments:
I'm not a fan of crossfeed (if you don't know what it is, see here: Cross feed at Wiki
) but I did certainly spend a good deal of time toying with this feature and can say it worked quite well. I chose an old Beatles track, something off of Abbey Road I think, where the typical production tack is towards hard left right separation of drums and guitar. The Arrows crossfeed feature really did, in a very clean way, blend the left and right channels in a way that created a more centralized stereo image. But for me, it seems to therefore kill what I find so neat about recordings from Abbey Road and other such recordings; I guess I really like the way such separation sounds, even with headphones, which, admittedly can be a bit strange to some folks. Just for the record, the Arrow incorporates a "Öhmann" crossfeed circuit. What that means, I do not know. But I do know it works. I just don't care for using it and would prefer to listen to the stereo mix as it was recorded, be it via headphones or speakers.
Gain: This is an already quite powerful amplifier, even at it's default gain setting (which I generally listen with), driving just about all the full sized headphones I've tried very well. But you can certainly add quite a bit of volume via this toggle. And I mean, a LOT. In fact, with IEM's such as the SE530's, you have to be careful cause you can really blast the old drums. I'm not sure if I prefer the higher gain settings or not with power hungry cans like the AKG K701's ... although, just being nitpicky, I did slightly prefer the AKG's on the first level of gain increase (setting "I"). The Headstage website lists the various gain settings as "6dB, 12dB, 21dB"
Impedance: I don't understand how impedance works. Like I said. I'm no electronics expert. I do know when I like the way something sounds, though and I've never found any reason to change the impedance setting to anything other than it's default "0" setting. I've toyed with it but as of yet have found no benefit or heard any obvious impact on the sound. Others have said that various settings might subtly affect high frequency rendering and they may well be right but I just can't hear anything other than a slight increase or decrease in volume. For me, the default is A-OKAY.
The Arrow and Full Sized Headphones
Last, I want to say a few things about how well the Arrow drives full sized headphones, even notoriously hard to drive headphones like the AKG K701's or the Senn HD650's. It really does make full sized cans sing in a way that I've not heard another portable amp achieve (especially the Shure SRH840's which are simply AMAZING with the Arrow). I was actually stunned when doing the listening tests with the full sized headphones (and I had a pretty good representation of headphones upon which to draw a conclusion).
The Arrow does not make my full sized cans sound as good as my main desktop, a Ray Samuel's Raptor tube amp. Nor does the Arrow approach the sonic bliss of the other excellent desktop tube amp I have access too here at my crib, a Woo 6 SE. It simply does not reach the spatial loftiness, the ultra deep "blackground," the gorgeous tones and imaging of those two mentioned, very excellent headphone amplifiers ... and, what's more, it just couldn't. There's design restrictions in a package so small as the Arrow that simply will not allow for such equality.
But man, does it really take a stab at it ... and here's a quick run down of my experience:
** Arrow settings for all cans: Bass Boost: "I" , Crossfeed: "0", Gain: "1" / Impedance: "0"
Headstage Arrow w/ AKG K701
(very rich sounding, with bass boost set at 1; excellent detail and presence; with other amps not quite suited to the AKG's, they have sometimes come across as "anemic" or "thin" or lacking "muscle" ... here, though? Not the case. Perhaps the most surprising listen of the session.)
Headstage Arrow (2nd Gen) w/ Audize LCD-2
(I know it's hard to believe, but I think I prefer the LCD-2 through the Arrow over through the Raptor)
(thanks Shellylh for the LCD-2 loaner!!)
Headstage Arrow (2nd Gen) w/ Shure SRH840
(perhaps my fav match with the Arrow amp; again, the first stage bass boost really shines with these and the sound, otherwise, is thick, natural and really nice; the fact that the 840's are closed cans doesn't even slightly impact the sound. In fact, I think I like that.)
Headstage Arrow (2nd Gen) w/ Grado GS1000
(Nit picky cans that I still have learned to love; the Arrow does very very well with them; in fact, I'm still listening to my .flac collection with the GS1000's and the Arrow, 2 hours after taking those shots ... very very nice)
The Arrow HE amp was designed and is built in Germany by a fellow named Robert. I'm not concerned with his last name although you'd probably find it easy to divine if you were even a moderate online sleuth. What concerns me is the simple fact that the man is obviously driven by principles related to design/work ethic (perhaps not so much business but I could care less) as opposed to reasons of monetary gain. I could be wrong, as always but the Arrow's designer doesn't seem concerned about making his first million by building a "quiver" of desktop amps and preamps and DACs and other sonic devices. Rather, he seems content (as would I in a design sense) with doting over a single design that he himself first considers brilliant, perfectly realizing it while all the while setting it against some strange, retentive (but effective) design senseability which, apparently, is never quite satisfied. A design approach first dictated by the age old maxim, "To thine own self be true" (and fxxx the haters).
I jest a bit but I'm also very serious. I myself am a veteran of the visual/software interface design field, as well as audio production and engineering and I am exactly the same way with anything and everything I design, create and must put my name to. It's a rare thing to find in any sort of designer and it makes such persons and their eccentricities ever so slightly difficult to work with; it creates lag in production time and it causes clients to lose sleep; but, invariably, it will generally yield a truly exceptional finished piece of work in the end. Something worth keeping. I recognized these hallmarks immediately when dealing with the creator of the Arrow HE portable amp.
He might not be the easiest guy to work with, is obsessively picky about his product, probably under staffed, takes 2 to 4 months to deliver an amp but trust me. It's well worth the wait and the dude's quirks are probably why the Arrow HE amplifier turned out to be such a stellar effort.
Keep it up, Robert. I'm a fan.
Your's in OCD,
**This review has been brought to you by Insomnia(tm)!
Edited by s1rrah - 2/5/11 at 4:00pm