I want to spend a few words about the device I bought today after thorough testing (3 hours in a silent room in the shop) against three obvious DAC/headamp combos between 500 and 700$. First let me say that before I entered the store, I didn't even know this device existed. I went in to return the Asus Essence One which I received a day earlier to test, and compare it to two main competitors. But I ended up walking out of the shop with this thing.
Its the Onkyo A-5VL, a fully digital integrated speaker amplifier with dedicated DAC (dual 24/192 burr browns) inside, excellent headphone output with loads of power and above all, fantastic sound quality and value.
Not only is it built really well, feels and looks expensive, has great fit and finish, weighs a ton (23 lb), sounds excellent, has dual high quality dac chips inside, dual power supply, one for each channel, it also has an excellent headphone output with lower output impedance than usually in integrated amps and receivers, because its fully digital.
It runs the Beyerdyanmic DT880 600 Ohm version with absolute ease and with loads of headroom to spare, and MUCH better than any of the other devices I will be mentioning, they're not even in the same league. 50% at volume knob is too loud for me to handle, but sound remains clean and undistorted way above that, and loudness just gets higher exponentially. Proof for how much power headroom there is that on bass heavy songs, turned up as loud as I can handle, bass still feels as solid as a rock, with no hint of distortion, and even if I turn louder for a few seconds, sounds is still crystal clear, which proves the power. That can not be said for any of the headphone amp or amp/dac combos I compared with it. None of them can even match the volume that Onkyo produces at 30% of max. But its not just about volume, the dynamics, speed and the sheer weight and fullness of the sound is on a different league. This amp has serious amount of power. It also works well with low impedance headphones, like the Ultrasone Hfi-2400, it doesn't bloat the bass as I'd expect, it just sounds perfectly clean and transparent, which again proves its low output impedance. For example, NAD 356Bee did bloat the bass on the HFi2400, but sounded equally good on higher impedance DT880's.
I've compared it directly to three dedicated headphone products that are all in same, or slightly above Onkyo's price range. Cambridge Audio DACmagic Plus, Asus Xonar Essence One and Teac UD-H01. All DAC's with head amps inside that apparently can power 600 ohm headphones (yes, they can, just like the iphone can power HD800's).
Anyway, after 3 hours of listening, switching between the three, I concluded that Onkyo beat them all as a head amp + DAC, with the DT880's. I can't tell how it will be with all other headphones, but assuming it runs the low impedance Ultrasones extremelly well, I'd say it should be excellent with all headphones, plus its a speaker amp as well. That's why I refused to buy any of the other three and returned the Essence One a day after I took it for a 8 day test period. You see, I was disappointed by E1's ability to run DT880's to satisfying volume levels, and it clearly lacked a lot of juice, which is obvious in comparison to Onkyo. I chose it over the other three, because as a package (a DAC and headphone amp), there's just no competition. We've talking toys against real equipment here, literally.
Sound wise, Onkyo has a slightly larger soundstage with better imaging, especially compared to CA and Teac, Asus is pretty close. It sounds very big, as if the source of the sounds that I hear is very large. It has much more power than the three, and therefore more control of the headphones, resulting in cleaner, tighter and faster sound (that is especially apparent in comparison to CA Dac Magic, which manages to sound bright, thin and slow at the same time).
I don't wanna spend too much describing how it sounds, I'll just say its transparent, very detailed, clean and tight, neutral with slight warmth in the mids. Great thing is also that treble and bass knobs work for headphones as well, allowing me to tune the 100 hz and 10khz regions by +- 14 db. This feature works great, much better than eq in foobar2000.
So, to conclude, its excellent value for money, its a cheap product (550-600$) that looks, feels and sounds expensive, and does so many things so well. Absolute no brainer for someone needing a dac/head amp. Most importantly, I've proven to myself (and hopefully many others will feel the same after trying this amp) that a dedicated head amp is not the only way to power high impedance headphones, in fact, most standalone head amps up to the price of Onkyo are a joke in comparison and did not do nearly as good in terms of powering the DT880's, in fact, a lot of amps downright failed at it. Also, all other integrated amps I've tried (NAD's, Denon's, Marantz) sounded better than any of the dedicated headphone outputs on the above mentioned DAC's. So much for now, I'll write a full review soon.
Edited by derbigpr - 8/8/12 at 11:56am