This is my review of Red Wine Audios Isabellina HPA LFP-V Edition. The approach is non-technical and very subjective/personal.
A couple of years ago, I was out to find a DAC, that could give me some of the same organic and natural sound, that I was offered by my vinyl setup. I always was fond of vinyl in every way, and I had a hard time finding the right digital setup. Searching for synergy between dac, amp and headphone never solved the core issue of digital sound – it always sounded synthetic/artificial in some way. And most of all, the high frequencies was just too hard on my ears. I believe that was one of the reasons why I often ended up with headphones with a somewhat dark presentation, sacrificing details and clarity for a more soft, non-piercing sound.
I ended up buying a used Isabellina HPA, and I never looked back. But while I immediately found the DAC section to be superb, I felt that the amp section of the unit, while not bad at all, was not capable of driving all my headphones to their full potential. I did some testing with Beyerdynamic 770/600 Manufaktur, Beyerdynamic DT880/600 (1980’s vintage), HD650 (aps v3 recabled) and JVC DX1000 among others. My conclusion was, that compared with my Woo Audio WA2 (an OTL tube amp), the Isabellina headphone amp left quite a bit to wish for. While it did not sound bad in any way, there was definitely something missing, and I preferred to use Isabellina HPA + WA2 for all my headphones.
The LFP-V Edition completely changed that! It also changed my preferences for headphones and sound in general. Since I got the LFP-V upgrade done on my Isabellina, I’ve been listening a lot to it, and I’ve become very addicted to it’s sound signature. Furthermore I’ve gone through a lot of headphones ending up with just one pair, the Beyerdynamic T70. A very transparent and clean headphone, that I also got recabled with pure silver cable to make it even more clear and transparent. And I must say, the Isabellina and T70 is all I ever wanted.
To jump to the conclusion, I went from this:
Well, how does the Isabellina LFP-V Edition sound? In short: Organic and natural. Yet somewhat dry. And above all: detailed and accurate. Red Wine Audio’s motto says: battery powered purist hi-fi, and it’s no lie. There’s definitely something puristic about the sound. For me it hits just the right spot between a sweet and enjoyable sound and a trustworthy accuracy, that gives you the ability to analyze what’s actually going on in the recorded material.
Synergy with headphones:
This headphone has been an all time favorite for hard rock and reggae music (dub). The Isabellina controls this wild animal really well. The Precision and accuracy of Isabellina suits DX1000 well. The big, somewhat echo-like, soundstage of the DX1000 sounds so good and well controlled. Bass is never out of line (uncontrolled bass is often a problem with dx1000 when paired with the wrong amp). The highs are soft and definition is ok (mind you that dx1000 IMO is not in the best league when it comes to treble. I like it for it’s bass, it’s warmth and punchy sound). With the early version of Isabellina HPA, the dx1000 had some minor issues with piercing highs, but they are all gone with the LFP-V upgrade. I guess it’s because of the added tube stage. Isabellina does the job of taming DX1000 while maintaining the nature of the signature: crazy powerful bass, big soundstage and a good punch for rock music. I couldn’t ask for more.
HD650 (aps v3 cable)
The isabellina makes the HD650 lean more towards a neutral signature than I’ve experienced with other amps. HD650 was my first step into serious head-fi, and it has served me well. It has generally a warm tone. Details and clarity is average. Soundstage is a bit small but IMO quite accurate. It gives you an intimate and very pleasant presentation. Some find it dark, but I really don’t think it’s that dark – not when properly amped. It is a quite capable all rounder. Above all: HD650 is one of the headphones that scales incredible well with equipment. And I find the Isabellina to be a great match.
Beyerdynamic T1 was my favourite headphone until recently. I now prefer T70. I think the Woo Audio WA2 was a better match with the T1 than the Isabellina. I found the Isabellina to be (sometimes) a little short of power and I felt I only got 90% of what the T1 was capable of. It’s well known that the WA2/T1 combo is a match made in heaven. The Isabellina does nothing wrong with the T1, but IMO the T1 really likes a very tubey sounding amp like the WA2. Occasionally I find the T1 to have a tendency to be a little piercing in the high mids. The WA2 completely softens that issue out. The WA2 is really hard to compete with when it comes to drive high impedance phones like the T1, and the Isabellina does it alright. Transparency, accuracy, details is good. But The WA2 really makes T1 sing. That said, I’d also like to state, that I actually ended up preferring the Isabellina/T70 combo over the WA2/T1!
I do find it hard to find headphones that does not have a good synergy with Isabellina. But if I have to pick some, it must be high impedance headphones. I guess T1 is just a bit too demanding. If anyone decides to go for the Isabellina/T1 combo I’d recommend to talk it over with Vinnie, and you might end up with the balanced headphone stage, that should have plenty of power to drive high impedance headphones. Keep in mind that my Isabellina has the single ended headphone stage.
Though the Isabellina is not meant to drive IEM’s, I include my favourite IEM in this review. ER4S is 150 ohm and it’s not easy to drive. I use my ER4S with a pure silver cable. That makes them sound even more clear and transparent than stock. ER4S has got a monitor-like soundstage. Everything appears to be right in front of you. And everything is very clean. The Isabellina makes them sound their best ever. I also loved the sound of ER4S with the old version of Isabellina HPA, but the added tube stage in the LFP-V Edition really makes them sing. I can’t think of anything missing here, and I’d love to have the Isabellina in my pocket when I’m on-the-go…
Well, this is my end station. Isabellina HPA LFP-V Edition and Beyerdynamic T70. They are a great match. I always find it easier to describe something missing, and that’s what makes it hard to say anything about this combo. I really don’t miss anything. It has a very natural and organic sound with lot’s of details. Clarity and instrument separation is top. Soundstage and layering is exceptional. High definition and accuracy and a beautiful tone. Background is all black. Dynamics are very good. Isabellina has plenty of power to drive these, actually I think these are the sweet spot. It drives them with ease and elegance. Effortless is a word that comes to mind.
I can imagine that my two favorite headphones for the time being, the ER4S and T70, can give the impression, that my preferences is all about treble. Furthermore I’ve had both recabled with pure silver wire, which only makes the case worse. But I can tell you, that the only reason I can do this, is that I have a very good source and amp combo in the Isabellina. I can listen at loud volume for hours without any piercing feeling at all. The two headphones are very clear and transparent, and they show the sound signature of the Isabellina. And that signature is just what I wanted. I got a very high level of details presented in a pleasant way. There’s a softness to every note. There’s an organic and natural feeling to it not unlike analogue sources. There’s plenty of definition all over the frequency range – I never miss bass from my T70!
These are just some of the headphones that I’ve tried pairing with the Isabellina. Recently I also brought the Isabellina to a Danish head-fi meet, and there I tried some more. I think it does a great job with just about any headphone you could think of. To mention some, I think it was exceptionally good with ATH W1000 and AKG K550. BTW, at that meet, there was a setup with Totaldac and Sennheiser HE60 (driven from some stax amp). Best thing I ever heard. But also exceptionally expensive and way out of my league. The user who brought this setup to the meet liked my T70 as well, and he actually thought that it sounded better through isabellinas amp than with WA2 – and furthermore he liked THAT presentation of a Cardigans song BETTER than on his own setup!!! Although I guess he is more than satisfied with his own equipment, I still think it says a little about what the Isabellina is capable of…
I’m looking forward to continue my headphone odyssey, and I haven’t got the slightest thing to worry about when it comes to synergy. I think the Isabellina is about as good as it gets.
Edited by librarian - 11/5/12 at 3:52am