REVIEW: Red Wine Audio “Audeze Edition” balanced Headphone Amplifier – DAC combo
I was very intrigued when I saw that Red Wine Audio, ALO, and Audeze had gotten together to offer what amounts to a complete headphone listening system. The subject of this review is primarily the “Audeze Edition” DAC/Amp from RWA (which I will refer to as “AE” hereafter, but it is marketed with a nice ALO cable and sold as a package deal with the Audeze LCD-2 headphones. I own two pairs of LCD-2’s (both of which are “rev 1”), and so what I was sent for the review was the ALO cable and the AE. I have written a very positive review of the LCD-2 headphones, and a search of my posting history on Head-fi will show I think very highly of them – they are my favorite headphone currently available of all I own or have ever owned or heard. They do require a good amp and source to sound their very best of course, and that is exactly what the AE purports to be.
RWA makes the bold claim that this combo will be the best the LCD-2 can sound, and they offer a money-back guarantee if you are not happy, which is backing up the bold talk, for sure. I have always enjoyed RWA products, and thought very highly if the Isabella that I reviewed a while back.
This is a somewhat tricky review, however because the AE is a combo DAC - AMP with no analog input, and so I had to try to isolate the performance of the DAC section by using it with another amp and then switching between it and the AE, and then later focus on the amp section once I felt I really knew what the DAC was doing. I wasn't even really sure what forum to put this review in!
Classic RWA understated good looks:
Product Design and Topology
The AE, being battery powered, comes with a very nice main chassis, and a smaller charging unit. The AE can be used while charging, which I think is critical, but for the absolute best sound, a switch flips the unit into all battery mode and isolates the charger. A 12V power option has been cleverly added, and RWA will supply a cable for the inexpensive Pure i20 digital iPod dock, allowing an iPod, iPhone, or iPad to serve as the digital feed for the DAC in a nice compact way. I had a Pure i20 already, so that is how I used the AE, sending Apple Lossless to the AE’s DAC:
The power supply from the AE to the Pure i20 is even claimed by RWA to make it sound better than the battery supply, and while it was very subtle at best in my listening, it might just have been the case. In any case the convenience factor is very high.
The DAC: the AE actually has two DAC chips, one NOS R-2R ladder DAC and 16/44.1 only, and one modern multi-rate/high-res capable DAC, a Wolfson 24/192. Both D/A converters have their own sonic signature, and it was both easy and fun to switch between the two. More on the sonic differences below. Both D/A converters pass to the tube stage after conversion.
The tube stage: is Class-A and is used after the dac (it is not part of the dac). It is used to provide current gain (not voltage again) to the headphone stage. So while it impacts the sound of the headphone amp, it is not used in the headphone amplification stage. With the LFP-V Tube stage, the owner gets the opportunity to fine tune the sound via tube rolling to suit their tastes, which is the advantage of tube rolling of course. The AE is supplied with a JJ, which is a tube I know to sound bad. So while I listened to the AE briefly with the JJ, I scrapped it for a NOS Mullard 2492, which sounded much better. These are very easy to get NOS, and so my comments below refer to the sound with the Mullard tube, except where noted. The AE definitely responded well to tube rolling.
The Amplifier: the headphone amp itself is thus solid state. It’s a balanced headphone output stage and is discrete FET (Class A / AB). The output power for headphones is 5W rms at 32 ohms, which is MORE than enough to drive the LCD-2 very well, with ease. This is a very powerful headphone amp. Only a 4-pin balanced headphone out is provided. I found that the amp sounded marginally better when operating purely off battery, although the effect was subtle.
The Cable: The supplied ALO cable is 8-conductor (four per channel). It was much lighter than the 16- wire “chain mail” ALO cable I bought and subsequently sold a few months back. Loved the sound of that cable, but I found it much too heavy. This cable was just fine in that regard, and sounded better to me than the 4-pin cable that I bought from Audeze. It’s also less stiff than that. My favorite LCD-2 cable, the Q-Audio, is ¼”/SE, and so I could not compare it to the ALO. I’m not going to comment on the ALO cable further – it’s an excellent cable, and it’s part of the package.
A look at the internals:
The Sound – the DAC
The AE is as much DAC as it is amp. This is very important to understand. There is no analog input. So to understand the AE requires understanding the sound of the DAC. And as mentioned, the AE is really two DACs. As it happens, I own two DACs; the $900 “NOS” tube-output MHDT Havana, and the $2,000 Wolfson 24/192 based Audio By VanAlstine Vision Tube-Hybrid DAC. So these made good comparison points. I used the line-level outputs of the AE to send it’s DAC to my Leben CS-300, and then compared the AE’s DAC to the other two DACs. This was a real challenge, but it was the only way I knew of to perform the review.
The sound of the AE’s “Hi-Res” DAC, to me, was marginally better than the NOS DAC. There were, of course, some tracks where I preferred the NOS, but I did most of my listening in Hi-Res mode. You can drive yourself crazy switching back and forth, and there were so many variables I could handle and ever actually finish this review. So for the comparisons, I decided to mainly stock with the Hi-res DAC.
This decision was furthered by the fact that the AE’s DAC was much better than the MHDT. I like the MHDT quite a bit, actually, and think it sounds very good, especially for the money. But the MHDT is much less neutral than the AE. I like the Havana’s “sound”, but it has a sound, for sure, regardless of tube rolling. It isn’t neutral. And that was the primary trait that impressed me about the AE’s DAC – it was extremely neutral and stunningly transparent. I would say it was just marginally more neutral than my AVA, although not more transparent. On some tracks I would prefer one over the other, but both the AE’s DAC and the AVA were outstanding, providing wideband and highly dynamic sound which was never edgy or harsh in any way, but was rather effortless and smooth. Note again that this was via the Leben as amp, and using careful level matching.
I was thus satisfied that the DAC section of the AE was very good sounding, and compared well with my reference, the AVA Vision DAC. So having done so, I could turn to the sound of the AE as both DAC and amp.
The Sound – the Amp
So comparing the AE as an amp also required some compromises. I fed the AE’s line out to one of my other amps – the Leben, the Woo Audio WA22, or the Decware Mini-Torii. I again level matched for performance, but the switching is not instant, and in the case of the Leben and Decware, it required also a change of cable, since while the WA22 has a 4-pin balanced input, the other two did not.
Taken on its own, the AE sounds truly excellent. It drove the LCD-2 to very loud levels with ease, and the sound was lively, engaging, and highly transparent. I think the AE provided the most neutral sound I have heard from the LCD-2, but without being the least bit bright, edgy, or etched. Bass was extremely well defined and tight, with the appropriate amount of weight (but the bass is not overweighted). The treble is very extended and smooth – and the AE may provide the best treble performance I have ever heard from the LCD-2, in that there was absolutely no feeling of treble reticence, in spite of there also being no unwanted sibilance or etch. That’s not an easy trick. And the mids were beautiful – clean, clear, and yet very sweet and lush. Note here that the treble and mids were both notably less impressive with the JJ tube.
But with the Mullard 2492, the sound was enthralling. Rush’s “YYZ” from the newly remastered Moving Pictures was absolutely thrilling – the keys were lush and full, the bass was tight and deep, and Peart’s percussion was propulsive, and sounded very realistic, without ever being overly aggressive in an unnatural way. I know this recording like the back of my hand, and the AE + LCD-2 playback of it was absolutely top notch.
The layered guitars on Mogwai’s “Daphne and the Brain” from “The Hawk Is Howling” were crunchy and grumbling, like they should be, but the various layers were very discernible. On some systems they are just a lumpy mass, but not with the AE, where they were all clearly defined, as was the very tinkly triangle at the very end. Same with Dave Matthews Band’s “I Did It” – a song with a lot of complex instrumentation which was beautifully articulated on the AE. I use that song as a test for the combination of smoothness and extension – it’s tough to hear the triangle on some systems, and on some where you can the rest is too harsh. The AE was spot on here – easy to hear what was going on on top, while the bass was still very impressive, as were the vocals.
Some people will bristle when I say this, but a song popped up on my iPad and I immediately went “wow that sounds BAD” – I looked over and immediate recognized it as one of the few songs on my iPad that isn’t lossless. It was actually jarring. Such is the high resolution nature of the AE.
I then moved on to some comparisons. The WA22 sounds quite different from the AE. It’s much “tubier” – and in fact it takes the exact right combination of tubes in the WA22 to keep the LCD-2 from seeming too soft and mushy sounding. Once done, the WA22 is a very good amp for the LCD-2, but as I have commented elsewhere, I do not think it is the ideal amp for the Audeze cans. Some people differ with my assessment here, and so be advised of that, but for me, the AE was definitely better at driving the LCD-2 than the Woo. It wasn’t really even much of a contest. I preferred the AE hands down. Again I like the WA22 better with other headphones, but with the LCD-2, "This Killer" by Blackfield was so much cleaner sounding on the AE, and the beauty of the song was better conveyed.
I prefer the Decware Mini-Torii over the WA22, in fact, with the LCD-2. And the Decware + AE DAC was close in overall performance to the AE as a system. The AE here is clearly more neutral, but the Decware is a bit prettier in the mids, and richer in the bass, while still having a very clear and extended treble, although not quite to the extent of the AE. I wouldn’t say the AE was clearly better in every way than the Decware as an amp, but it was better overall, with the LCD-2. However, someone who wants a more euphonic sound might prefer the Mini-Torii. And of course, it can drive small speakers, and paired with a $2K DAC like the AVA would be slightly cheaper than the AE.
With the Leben, the situation was much tougher. The LCD-2 / Leben combo has so affected me that I completely lost interest in buying any other amp for them. I find the combination very compelling. It does sound a little different than the AE – the Leben is not strictly as neutral, although it is very close – the Leben is not at all a “tubey” sounding amp. The Leben has always possessed, though, a remarkable combination of transparency, neutrality, and an organic “rightness” that few other headphone amps achieve. I did not feel that the AE surpassed this. In fact, when I compared the AVA + Leben versus the AE, I preferred my existing combination over the RWA. That said, the AE is less expensive than the AVA/Leben combo, and actually has several features than my existing combo does not, like remote control (although in fairness the AVA/Leben have features like multiple inputs on each, balance control, etc.).
It’s important to note, however, that I believe many people would prefer the sound of the AE over my AVA/Leben combo. In addition to being cheaper, it was also slightly more neutral, strictly speaking. They two also differ notably in soundstage presentation. While both are excellent in this regard, the AE has the wider soundstage than the Leben, with the Leben having the deeper and slightly more holographic soundstage. Both were excellent at lateral image placement and stability. And don’t misunderstand – the soundstage on the AE-LCD-2 system was truly first rate – it’s just the Leben was a touch more holographic, an area in which I have not found anything that betters the CS-300.
And that said, even the fact that the AE could challenge the AVA/Leben combo was a very big deal for me – I didn’t think that was going to happen. But it did. And the AE’s form factor, with the Pure dock and an iPad, is so cool that it has me contemplating buying the AE even though I truly don’t have any real need for it.
I did do one last comparison, which also proved slightly troubling in its own way – I compared the AE to the MHDT Havana + Schiit Lyr. The Havana + Lyr was really very, very good sounding with the LCD-2, and while not even close to as neutral as the AE, it was nonetheless very, very musically enjoying, and it’s $1,350 as a combo. The AE is $3,950. And while it was clearly better sounding, in that it was audibly more neutral and transparent, the Havana + Lyr is so good that it can and should give people pause in paying much more. But such is the way in the wacky world of high-end audio – the returns are diminishing, but can be very meaningful - it all depends on your preferences and expectations. I can appreciate the imrpvements that the AE offers over the MHDT/Schiit combo. But for some, it may not be worth the difference.
So where does that leave the AE? I think it’s a very impressive product, and it provides world-class sound from the LCD-2 in a compact package. It provides some very cool features, and is very well built and easy to use.
That said, there are some considerations to be made. One I, while the AE sounds truly excellent, it is not cheap. Two,if you don't need or want to use the outstanding DAC that the AE has, then I wouldn't bother with it, and consider a different solution, such as perhaps waiting for RWA's amp only offering, as with the AE one is paying for a DAC. It is a very, very good DAC, with some cool features, but that's a lot of what makes the AE cost what it does. If you love your current DAC, and you don’t want this for a second system, the AE isn't for you. However, if you want a high-end, digital-only, compact system for your LCD-2, you really can’t do much better than the AE. For someone who wants a whole system in one shot in a compact package, it’s as good as it gets. I can't imagine a better bedrrom or office set-up than this - a ton of great sound in a fairly small package.
This, with the caveat that it will not fit everyone’s needs or budget, the AE is very highly and enthusiastically recommended. If I decide not to buy the review sample, I will be very sad to see it go. Vinnie Rossi is a very talented audio designer, and the AE is a great example of that.