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Review of the NJC Audio Reference DAC and Monitor II Amp

post #1 of 10
Thread Starter 

Hi everyone,

 

I looked long and hard for a British made DAC and amp combo and stumbled across NJC Audio. The limited reviews I could find were all very positive, but I couldn't find anything in-depth about this company (least of all any pictures) so thought I'd try my hand at a first proper head-fi review.

 

Firstly, a browse of their website had me liking this small (2 guys in Cornwall!) company's ethos.For example, the DAC chip can technically run at 24/192khz but Nick keeps it limited to 24/96khz because he thinks it sounds better. This willingness to focus on musicality and not chase sales straplines really appeals to me.

 

I have to say that is a refreshing change compared to the usual hype and some pleasant e-mail exchanges with the responsive Nick (the designer and builder) were reassuring...so I took the plunge.

 

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Two weeks and several e-mail updates from Nick personally later, and it all arrived beautifully - you might almost say lovingly - packaged.

 

Very solid units, and a really quality feel to everything. What I was particularly impressed with was the instructions - not just comprehensive, but personalised with my name and the test results of my amp direct from Nick's bench!

 

I thought that was a nice touch - a small thing but it really underlines the fact that every product out of NJC is handmade to order. Of course the technical results actually mean very little to me but it's reassuring nonetheless smile.gif

 

 

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Another thing I liked about NJC is the avoidance of any attempt for after-market sales of power supply upgrades etc. The amp comes with its own supply that is also designed and built by Nick:

 

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And here is the complete package : DAC, amp, 2 power supplies, interconnects, an optical cable and a very nice-looking USB cable. The interconnects, also handmade by Nick, are an optional extra but one I'm glad I went with as they have the same solid quality feel as everything else. NJC talk about "hand made, not home made" and that is pretty spot on as far as I can see. 

 

 

The solid aluminium faceplates remind me of my first ever piece of hi-fi kit, a Creek 5050 integrated. Everything is hand-turned, not CNC machined, and overall I have a real pride of ownership already - this stuff has the feel of being put together by a dedicated craftsman and not rolling off an assembly line.

 

You can just about make out the Beresford Caiman here that the units are replacing...the Beyer DT880s (250 ohm) that I will be using, and my Mac Mini with lossless AAC files. I'm using a Beresford TOSlink to hook it all up and will probably link it to my Squeezeox touch. The whole lot is plugged into a Tacima mains conditioner.

 

IMG_0043.JPG

 

The rear panels - you get a choice of optical, coax, USB and analogue into the DAC as well as 3 different DAC filter settings. The amp also has 3 gain settings for various impedance cans, so plenty of flexibility. I guess the pre-outs on the amp also allow it to be used as a pre-amp but I'm not planning to do that.

 

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And here it is all hooked up. Sorry it's upside down, not sure why that has happened. Anyway, nice soft orange and green LEDs - no glaring blue here which is a nice change from the Caiman and my other amp, the Little Dot mk3, and looks way better late at night! 

 

Onto the test and how it actually sounds. I'm going to be using Grado SR325is (the gold edition), the Beyers above, and a newly acquired pair of HiFiMan HE-6s which Nick tells me were the headphones he used to design the amp and DAC combo. I've read these are hard to power but the high gain setting specifically mentions the HiFiMan HE series so I reckon that is all good.

 

So far so good. Next post in a few days!

post #2 of 10
Thread Starter 

Right, and here we are with the review. I'm now using a SB Touch plus the same gear as before but will be using the HE-6s pretty much exclusively...and they are now resting on a stand worthy of them ;-)

 

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This wasn't really intended to be a headphone review, but I'll just say that I loved the Grados for their immediacy and excitement and the Beyers for their more relaxed, all-day listening feel and sheer comfort. The single best things about the HE-6 in comparison is that to my mind they combine the best of both - they make me tap me feet and occasionally smile in the same way the Grados do, but I can listen to them all day without listening fatigue or discomfort in the same way I could with the Beyers. In fact, all my other full-size cans are now going on sale as I will always head straight for the HE-6...since I got them, there is just no comparison. And arguably nor should there be at 3x the price.

 

A quick shout out to the excellent people at hifiheadphones.co.uk and their brand new listening room (I was their first customer to visit!), which let me compare all sorts of high end phones and amps (including my own) before I settled on the HE-6s. If you're in the West Sussex area it's well worth a trip.

 

I should note that I am a complete amateur when it comes to audio. I've been listening to "real" hi fi for about 10 years - Creek, Arcam, Naim - but only got into headphones in the relatively recent past. I've owned a few different set ups but I"m not used to describing "mids", "highs", "black backgrounds" etc or getting overly scientific. What I love is that hard-to-define musicality - detail, pace, rhythm & timing and an overall sense of fun.

 

So, on to the Monitor Audio / HiFiMan combo review. I'm listening to a variety of tracks for different reasons, but the first thing to note is that with the Audio Monitor in high gain mode, the volume is unbearable to my ears past 11 o'clock and I'm doing all my listening at about the 10 o'clock position. So it seems this amp has very little problem in driving the HE-6s, as the spec would suggest.

 

First up is Take the Power Back by Rage Against the Machine. I think this a good track for PRaT and a great test of any system. The opening kick drum / bass combo is the best I've heard, genuinely eye-blinking depth to the bass but also a finesse I didn't hear before. This might sound a bit over the top but it's almost like you can hear the metallic texture of the bass strings as they are struck. There is also a bit of what I think is called "slap bass" at 1.01 in this track which was muddled in my previous Beresford / Beyer combo and hard for me to follow on my Little Dot mk3 with any phones. This now stands right out and in fact, overall the instrument separation generally is superb. As I said, great PRaT on this track and sure enough, halfway through I am tapping my feet - the same effect my Naim hi fi has and for a fraction of the price. And no ASBO.

 

January Hymn by the Decemberists and a listen to some folky acoustic instruments. Again, absolutely fantastic detail - all the little hammer-ons and pull-offs on the guitar are beautifully present, without losing any of the cohesion and overall rhythm of the song. The vocals are also super clear, there are a couple of vocal lines in this track I hadn't figured out before that suddenly resolved themselves in my head - and I have listened to this track a lot on my portable Shure 535s and Just Audio rig. I've noticed that on quite a few other tracks as well, that sort of "oh, THAT's what they're saying" epiphany if you know what I mean. I'm not sure whether this exceptional clarity is due to the DAC, the amp or the phones - and life's too short to mess about listening separately trying to figure that out - but either way, very pleasurable.

 

 

Next up, Some Kind of Wonderful by Joss Stone from the immaculately recorded "The Soul Sessions". This is a great female vocal track, not just Joss Stone herself but also a host of gospel singers who come in at 2.37 ("Can I get a witness", etc). The vocals on this have a really luxurious, sensual feel that is reproduced in spades through the NJC / HiFiMan gear. Every little breath is there, but even more you can hear how Ms Stone is forming words with tiny movements of her lips and tongue. I also get a real sense of top end "sparkle" from this track, there is a real crispness to it that is hard to describe.

 

Default by Django Django, and some dance/electronica (or as close as my taste gets). If you know this track, there is a great riff that comes in at 0.24 and once again all this combo's ability to delivery musicality is there. This is a pretty complex track with lots going on but the reproduction feels effortless - there is a real sense of controlled power, like the amp has a ton of muscle in reserve, and the sound feels separated into layers. I can focus on any one of the details and hear it clearly, but without it becoming detached from the overall mix. I'm not sure what the technical term for this "stratification" is but it's there and it's fantastic.

 

And finally, Grandma's Hands by Bill Withers. Not as well recorded and this shows, but loads of low level subtle detail in this track and I particularly like the level of complexity in the percussion, switching from brushes to sticks etc. On the brushes I really notice the sound of the individual brushes, again a subtlety I hadn't appreciated on my previous gear. However, about half way through I find myself forgetting about the detail and I'm half way through the next track before I remember I'm meant to be listening critically. There is a sense of humour at one point in this track ("Grandma's hands...they really came in handy") that reminds me not to take this hobby too seriously and maybe I should stop :-)

 

So, all in all, I would say:

 

1. The customer service and products from NJC are outstanding. Personalised comms, individual documents, great build quality, lots of flexibility and user tweaking on the DAC filter and gain settings. A very uncynical approach to sales and marketing with musicality trumping statistics and no post-purchase agonising over upgraded power supplies etc. Also very friendly after-sales communications which are a better test than pre-sales :-)

 

2. Nick at NJC states that he used the HE-6 when designing his gear. In my view the NJC / HifiMan combo is all-around stunning and, without exaggeration, outperforms every other headphone and amp combo (see my profile for details) I have owned, and in every area I know to compare. To be fair, I haven't listened to other flagships at length. But I do know this set up is so good it's threatening to replace my Naim XS / Neat Elite SX gear at around 5x the cost.

 

3. Sound-wise, I can't distinguish which elements of this system make it so good (would the Graham Slee Solo perform better, etc). All I can say is that the combination is brilliant.

 

4. In terms of the sound, I particularly like:

 

  • Amazing detail and resolution (probably down to the DAC) - but unforgiving on poorer recordings
  • Seemingly effortless power and grunt (probably down to the amp)
  • Brilliant separation (probably down to the phones but helped by the amp and DAC)
  • Great top end "sparkle" (almost definitely down to the phones)

 

Thanks for reading!

post #3 of 10

Excellent review & a great find! that pairing of the njc audio amp & dac with those he-6 phones sounds like its wonderful.

 

I know you said this wasnt a headphone review but did you audition any other phones while you were in the hifi headphones listening room?, like for example the Sennheisers HD800, as id be interested to hear how the he-6's sound compared to those phones.

post #4 of 10
Thread Starter 
Hi, thanks for commenting.

Yes, i tried the top end Audio Technicas (w1000x) and the statement series grados. Took my own Beyers with me as well for comparison.

To my ears the HE-6 knocked the socks off those two but i didn't try the senns, no. I've seen a few threads on here making the comparison but not tried them myself.

They also had a selection of amps to tempt me with...the Just Audio aha, a rhinelander and the amazing Icon Audio hp8 mk2 with upgraded tubes which was very nice and the only amp they had capavle of driving the he-6s.

Well worth a visit if you are anywhere nearby...they are in Lancing, Sussex.

Cheers!
post #5 of 10

Thanks for the info , I was wondering about the HE400's but now im thinking its false economy as some say they are darker than the sennheiser hd650! so I may as well just get the HE6 & be done with it, otherwise I will always be wondering if I should have got the better pair & never be content until I do!.

Anyway I dont wanna distract from your amp review about phones but just thought id ask you as it sounds like you tried quite a few, but speaking of amps while im not in the market for a headphone amp yet as I need to get the phones first, that NJC amp has really got my interest, especially with the DAC that all matches, ive just been looking at their web site & reading about them & I stand to be corrected but I cant think of any other audio company that makes so much themselves, I mean designing (R&D), electronics, the whole hand machining side of it all & even the legends on them, wow! pretty unique combination & their stuff looks excellent.

I read the part about they dont advertise, I really like that as I think its quite reasuring to see a British company obviously so confident in what they make, that they have chosen to let the quality of their products sell themselves with no adverts or promoting, while all the rest rely on the usual approach of having to keep on the good side of review & audio sites, hifi magazines & any other means (even including the odd bribe or freebie) to get reviews & awards, which is why they have to be taken with a large grain of salt.

Now if only NJC audio made headphones as well, I can only imagine how good they would be o2smile.gif

post #6 of 10
Thread Starter 
You jogged my memory there, i did try the HE400 as well. Definitely a step down from the HE6. If you can stretch to the top model then I would definitely go for it. I didn't try the HE500 though, that could be a compromise. Especially if you don't have an amp that can drive the HE6.

Sounds like you are liking NJC in much the same way I did! You have to love the fact it's basically two guys in Cornwall biggrin.gif
post #7 of 10
Quote:
Originally Posted by TheotherLarryB View Post

You jogged my memory there, i did try the HE400 as well. Definitely a step down from the HE6. If you can stretch to the top model then I would definitely go for it. I didn't try the HE500 though, that could be a compromise. Especially if you don't have an amp that can drive the HE6.
Sounds like you are liking NJC in much the same way I did! You have to love the fact it's basically two guys in Cornwall biggrin.gif

 

Absolutely! from what ive read so far it just goes to show what two guys can achieve with enough enthusiasm, dedication & of course a whole lot of skill, that kind of niche individualism is unbeatable in my opinion.

 

Thanks for your helpful info on the phones, I know its never good to judge based on price but while the HE400's are nowhere near the price of the HE6's I dont think I would be happy with those, like you said they were quite a step down & I want the best sound I can get so I will just save a little longer for the HE6's, ive heard how the HE6's are possibly the worlds most hardest to drive headphones so up until I read your review I was a little concerned about how I was going to power them (another reason I was looking at the HE400's), but its reassuring to know that the NJC amp drives them so well.

 

thx.

post #8 of 10
I saw this very combination for sale on eBay a few weeks ago and nearly took the plunge before opting for the T1's instead. Sounds like a wonderful headphone setup.
post #9 of 10

It seems that they do not sell outside  U.K.

post #10 of 10
Looks like a good amp for the price. 2.5 watts into 50ohms is pretty impressive. I'm considering their DAC.
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