REVIEW: Headstage Arrow 12HE 3G
**These are my subjective opinions**
First I would like to thank Robert in sending a sample of his latest and greatest Headstage Arrow 12HE 3G. It has been truly a long wait, haha probably maybe more than my Pico Slim but it was well worth the wait. Where to begin? I’ve always wanted to try this amplifier. I’ve read many reviews of the first generation and when looking at the specifications I knew this amplifier would be a huge hit on Head-Fi. What’s not to love about this portable amplifier? Its mates well with a iPod Touch without taking up too much space and it has plethora of features that even I am unable to use it to its full potential. And, for the price of $299USD shipped worldwide it is a stunning value. Not to mention the battery life on the Headstage Arrow…it last so long! My burn in time at least 3 recharge cycles, 4 if needed, I think I stopped at after the 3rd because it took so long to discharge each cycle.
The unit was well packed, it came with an USB cable, a screwdriver to remove the casing and adhesive tape.
The built quality is very nice, nice aluminum casing with laser etched engravings. It looks and feels of quality. I don’t think anyone would be disappointed in the quality. Being a sample, it had some dings. However, Robert assures me that new owners will not be getting those dings.
If you need to take a look at the specifications please take a look at the link provided;
So Let’s Begin: Initial Impressions
I’ve heard the Headstage before at a local meet and was not impressed at all, it sounded very narrow and dark. It had decent transparency but lacked in presence and extensions throughout the treble, mid range and bass were adequate. I also hated using the bass boot, level 1 was tolerable but at level 2 it gave the lower mid range and bass a heavy sensation, as if a veiled was over them. I could click through each level and notice the signature change. Of course the owner told me it was still on the first charge from the factory, or where ever Robert produces them. My thoughts have no changed even after getting the sample unit. I couldn’t understand what the rave was about, and why this amplifier was getting such positive reviews. I already had the Pico Slim sound signature engraved in my brain so the Headstage just puzzled me. Well, slowly throughout the burn in period I would give it a listen. I can’t remember when but maybe around the end of the 2nd charge I could no longer distinguish between the Pico Slim and Headstage Arrow. But, I’ll save that for later…
Portable set up: Sansa Fuze (Finally Rockboxed but still can’t use LOD), Fiio L6 LOD, RE0, RE252, RE262, Grado HF-2, T50P, NE-7m
Just for fun: Rotel RA-1312, Taya DP550 (M95 cartridge)
Music: All FLAC
Airborne – Too Much Too Young Too Fast
Finger Eleven - Paralyzer
Melody Gardot - Goodnite
Utada Hikaru – Fight the Blues
Celtic Women – Siulil a Run
Run DMC – It’s Tricky
Tupac – Black Jesuz
K’naan – Wavin’ Falg
Dave Brubeck – Take Five
Sophie Milman – Reste
Rachmaninov – Piano Concerto in no. 2 in C minor op.18
**Vivaldi – Four Seasons
**Johann Pachelbel – Canon in D minor
** Indicated Special Addition to play list
Headstage Arrow: Bass 0, Cross 0, Gain 1, Impedance 1 (I guess default settings?)
Main Headphone use: RE0 (Neutral King)
How does it sound? Excellent. If that is all you need to affirm yourself to get this amplifier then go right ahead and order your own Headstage Arrow HE 3G now! It is really an excellent amplifier. Being acquainted with several different amplifiers from headphones to vintage and yes the odd portable, I am quite impressed by the overall sound qualities that this amplifier can do.
Treble is clean and transparent, much better after burn in. The overall vibrancy and presence is very good. There is no harshness. There is no sibilance, and that is big plus since I hate sibilance. It has very good crispness, decay and extension.
Mid Range: Like the Treble it builds on the sound quality of what is given. More extension, more presence and overall more goodness.
Bass: Now here is the most interesting part, especially when concerning the Headstage Arrow. While the Bass is set to 0, just like the mid and treble the bass frequencies are beautifully amplified, especially with the RE0. You should be able to notice a difference between the unamped and amped RE0.
So let’s talk about the bass boost feature. I found it best when it’s on level 1, I still find level 2 to be a bit much especially with more convoluted music. I find even at level 2 the bass and lower mid are just too powering, and hinders, too my ears, some of the other frequencies. But with music like Jazz, e.g. Dave Brubeck level 2 can be quite pleasing. It makes the bass string instrument much more prominent that may sometimes be forgotten due to the other instruments. But with rock and classical I like to keep it at level 1 or 0. Maybe, I’ve been so tuned to the RE series sound signature that at level 2 it reminds me of the SM3 a bit with the overbearing lower mid and bass. But, it’s not that bad, so I personally keep it between 0 and 1. That keeps me happy. Can I tell a difference between level 2 and 0? Sure can.
Nonetheless, whatever your cup of tea with the bass, the bass is still tight, with excellent punch, slam, extension and decay. The bass is not bloated at all. The bass is still crystal clear, with no distortion.
Overall: I guess one would say it has very good PRaT? I don’t use that terminology very often, but it is a good fit.
I could comment on the auto on/off switch but I am sure many of you already know about it. It really is a nice feature, just like heated seats in cars in winter. As well the automatic power adaptation a very nifty feature, I think the Headstage is the only one that has this feature. But, I could be wrong. Oh and did I mentioned the battery life? At moderate listening levels it lasts about 2 days and then some. Websites says 50. Very high tech stuff. You know those Germans; take a look at some of their cars.
Crossfeed: A very interesting feature which is wasted on me. Regardless of what stage it is in I can’t notice any difference. So enter my Rotel RA-1312 and my Taya DP-550 turntable. Tape out, RCA to 3.5mm and an old stereo LP because mono probably wouldn’t work. Again, nothing, I probably don’t have an old enough record or poor pressing to attempt this feature. Or my ears just don’t benefit from crossfeed much. Very nifty feature.
No need to explain but I will post a link just like a previous reviewer: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crossfeed
Off Headstage’s website you can get more information the Ohmann crossfeed that is utilized by the Headstage Arrow. http://www.headstage.eu/Molt_1994_04_SP12.pdf
Gain/Impedance: Excellent feature of headphones requiring more voltage/current and volume attenuation. Sadly, I don’t have any high impedance gear. Now if they could power speakers, then I can work something out. Other than playing with these features while borrowing other Head-Fier’s gear I can attest they work flawlessly. However, the T50P had some positive benefits from these features, helps with the treble. These features can help with hiss as well but in default mode I don’t hear any hiss until I crank it all the way. However, they are a very nice feature to have if you have more sensitive headphones. But, I’m content with the default mode.
End...The Arrow is an excellent product. Is it worth the wait? Yes. If you are in need of an amplifier and has $300 to spend I would not hesitate in recommending the Headstage Arrow. It is a safe investment. You’re getting an excellent sounding product, that is slim and what I call portable over some of the other “portable amplifiers” out there *cough* D10. And, if you got a fancy man-bag you can tuck it away without adding bulk and weight, haha.
So, that is my review on the Headstage Arrow, so let’s move in to something more interesting or at least intriguing. That’s if anyone really cares.
Headstage Arrow 3G vs Pico Slim: Introduction
Was it easy to tell the difference between the two? At first, no. Is it because they sound so similar? In terms of coloration, to a degree, yes. In my opinion depending on what headphone you use, the differences may be a lot harder to distinguish. Initially, I was using my RE-262 and while I noticed a difference, it wasn’t as easy to figure them out. Even after extensive and critical listening with the RE-262, I could barely notice the difference. It made me wonder for quite some time on why the differences were so unnoticeable. It wasn’t until I stared at my vintage audio setup that I realized my problems. 1) Lack of neutral headphones 2) Needed music with more dynamic range, e.g. classical which is why I used a CD ripped of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Pachelbel’s Cannon in D minor. Trying to identify the differences with Jazz and Rock weren’t the greatest, in my opinion. Now, there is a reason why I chose these two songs. I have very high quality recordings of these two pieces, and I own several different turntables, cartridges, speakers and amplifiers. I use Four Seasons and Pachelbel Cannon to see the difference between them. I know these pieces well, as well with Rachmaniov Piano Concerto I know what to look for. While I figured out the difference with the RE-262 and while listening to Rock and Jazz, I would have passed off the difference as being very minute. Using the RE0 the differences are much easier to detect and whether or not the differences are huge, is up the person.
If you like do like the bass boost on the Arrow than no need to take a look at the Pico Slim.
If you have the Pico Slim and you don’t need the features of the Arrow than you won’t be disappointed in the sonic qualities of the Pico Slim.
For those “audio-purist” keep on reading.
Features and Size are probably the major difference between the two. The Pico Slim is a lot smaller and very sparse in features, but it does come with a nice leather case! While the Arrow boast various features but is almost twice as big in terms of width and height dimensions, but no protective case. Features can be a deciding factor for some. But, for those audio-purists what matter is sound.
Let’s Begin: Audio Differences
Let’s get one factor straight before I dive into the sound quality differences. The Pico Slim cannot drive high impedance headphones very well, so I can’t compare the sound qualities for high impedance headphones. I am using my RE0 to extract all the information I can, and it does the job. Now these are my personal opinions of the matter.
Quick and dirty tidbit: Which one do I prefer? The Pico Slim.
Immersing myself in the former glory of these famous Classical pieces the Pico Slim comes out on top. By no means the Arrow is a slouch, I guarantee you that many of people will not be able to tell the difference between the two right off the bat. I’ve been listening and playing musical instruments majority of my life and at best all I get is a quick eyebrow raise and to sum out my initial reaction when using the RE0 were very bland, a simple eyebrow raise and deeper concentration to make sure I wasn’t imagining the difference. But, the differences were noticeable.
In terms of extension, clarity/transparency, detail, presence, instrumental separation and even bass the Pico Slim is better. The Pico Slim is a lot smoother than the Arrow in both treble, and mid range. The bass is tighter cleaner, punchier and deeper. Though, the Arrow might sound it’s heavier in the lower mid and bass. If you listen to a lot of string instruments the Pico Slim provides better detail, clarity and extension of the strings. The presence that the Pico Slim brings forth is much more engaging, in my opinion, and more pleasurable to listen too in both critical and easy listening. When I listened to each pieces back to back with both amplifiers I find myself liking the Pico Slim just slightly better over the Arrow. If I were to put my finger on it the overall sound signature of the Pico Slim just draws me more into my music.
However, if we are talking about bass the Arrow can have an easy advantage. If you bump the Arrow to 1 or 2 there is a pleasant surprised for all the closet basshead in all us. The Pico Slim cannot match the Arrow in this category: the physical bass sensation. When I had the bass up at level 2 in some songs I get this rumbling sensation that I’ve only heard with full sized headphones. It is really a pleasant surprise, especially when I am using just IEMs. However, bumping the bass boost doesn’t necessarily increase the quality of bass, just the overall quantity. And, that isn’t such a bad thought either. This is where the Pico Slim falls short in, the ability to provide more physical sensation.
I cannot express enough that the difference, in my opinion, is minimal. I don’t feel the need to exaggerate the difference being huge. In terms of price, some may pay the extra for the Pico Slim and you wouldn’t be disappointed at all. Some are more budget conscious so the Arrow might be a great deal. I like the Pico Slim, it sounds great, and it’s small and matches well with my Sansa Fuze. For its size there is no amplifier on the market that can beat it for the sound quality it produces for the size. In any case, I would be happy with either.
Both the Pico Slim and Arrow matches well with all my other headphones and IEMs. The RE262, RE252, NE7m, and Grado HF2 all sound great from both amplifiers. However, the T50P is a bit pickier. I find with the Arrow the T50P has a lot more sibilance than with the Pico Slim. You can tame the sibilance using the Impedance switch and it does the job quite well, though you might find the other spectrums to be slightly softer. So, synergy with the T50P and Arrow is not very good. The T50P really need a warm amplifier.
Edge goes to the Pico Slim on clarity/transparency, detail, extension, separation and bass definition. But, the Arrow isn’t far behind.
In the end, both are great products and though the Pico Slim has the edge, in terms of sound. However, think of it this way. The Arrow is very attractive. It has great sound quality and all the bells and whistles that many find useful. In terms of versatility for the size the Arrow is hard to beat. Clearly these two were engineered for different purposes. That is where you will have to decide on what you want.
Edited by mythless - 2/16/11 at 4:00pm