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Review: Furutech ADL Esprit Headphone amp and DAC/ADC

post #1 of 15
Thread Starter 

Review: Furutech ADL Esprit Headphone amp and DAC/ADC

 

1000

 

 

Furutech are a Japanese company very well known for their cable products, the other most well known being Oyaide. It was interesting to see that fairly recently, they had started branching out into making audio equipment under the name of ADL, which stands for Alpha Design Labs.  Their portable amp, the Cruise and their first USB amp product, the GT-40 (which includes a phono stage) were quite well received, though are fairly unknown on Head-Fi.  While at the Fujiya Avic Headphone festival in Tokyo, I saw that they had a new product, the Esprit, which combines a DAC, pre-amp and headphone amp and managed to borrow one briefly to give it a quick go. Since I liked what I heard, I arranged with Furutech for a loaner for review.

 
The unit itself is in a very solid aluminium box consisting of 4 main parts held together with 8 allen (hex) screws. The controls and rear jacks are all high-quality parts befitting a unit costing only a few tens-of-dollars shy of $1k. Not only that, but it has no less than 5 inputs -- 2 analogue and 3 digital and all in a relatively tiny box. Alongside that, the USB input includes an optical digital output to allow a signal to be passed to another device.
 
However, this isn't merely a headphone amp and DAC but is also an ADC, that is, it can be used to record from analogue sources such as musical instruments, record players (though you need a phono stage) or the like onto your computer. It also acts as a pre-amp if you have active speakers. This makes it a very versatile box and possibly a good solution if you want something better than the (usually awful) line in on your computer for recording something to your computer.
 
Completing the picture, the front panel has lovely, large selector and volume knobs, as well as an attenuator switch for the recording function next to an LED indicating when the input signal is clipping.
 
Internally we find the now fairly ubiquitous Tenor TE7022 USB receiver, in this case used for sending digital audio both directions. It allows 44.1 kHz (CD quality), 48 kHz and 96 kHz digital audio in both directions. Notably absent is 88.2 kHz which is only an issue if you are someone who frequently purchases music from HDTracks as some of their recordings are sold at that rate.  DAC and ADC are respectively the Wolfson WM8716 and Cirrus CS5361 units, both capable of handling data up to 24/192. Amplification is handled by a trio of Texas Instrument BB OPA2134 opamps, which are socketed, allowing the end user to replace them with other opamps if desired.  A little disappointingly given the high quality case components was the rather basic volume attenuator  (in yellow top left in the picture). For $900 I'd like to see at least a good ALPS unit.
 
I tried the headphone amp with a variety of headphone types to see how well it performs. With my Symphones Magnums, with which I first tried the Esprit in Tokyo, the sound was precise, if a touch mellow, likely a result of the OPA2134s.
 
Doing my usual tests to find the limitations of the design, I first turned the volume to maximum without any music playing and there was a tiny amount of hiss, not a significant enough amount to worry me, especially given that with the Magnums "loud" started at 10am on the volume dial. There also seemed to be a bit of DC in the output, as turning the volume dial produced a "scratchy" sound through my headphones.
 
A more difficult and unexpected test was the Sony XBA-3s. With 3 balanced armatures they have a impedance curve from hell that plays havok with many amplifiers. With these the Esprit didn't sound too happy, with the treble rather bright and the rest of the sound seeming to lack in dynamics, but they are 16 Ohm IEMs, which is the lower limit for the Esprit. Third up were a pair of MB Quart (now German Maestro) QP 400s which I keep around for high-impedance testing. With these the Esprit seemed happier though, being bright headphones a little harshness in the treble was apparent. 
 
The Esprit was most happy with my LCD-3s, which, despite the lacklustre power specifications seemed to be driven quite well, with no issues even if I turned the volume to maximum (not with the headphones on my head, however). Likewise, the Esprit also did a fine job as a pre-amp for my ADAM ARTist 3 speakers. If anything, it was the latter two combinations which I found the Esprit sounded at its best.
 
Usefully, the Esprit can easily be tweaked a little by way of changing the inbuilt opamps. Inside there are three, one for each of the pre-amp, headphone amp and a third the purpose of which I didn't check. Switching, for example, the OPA2134 for the headphone output with the NE5532 results in the sound becoming less mellow but at the expense of there being a little more hiss in the output. A pair of AD797BRZs on a Browndog adaptor resulted in a sound that was marginally less flat than the stock opamps.
 

1000

 
The DAC itself is USB powered. Very handily, it can pass through a digital signal the optical digital output even when the main unit is off. With the USB plugged in, the power button, blue when the unit is switched on, glows red with the unit switched off to indicate that the USB input is still functional. Someone wishing to pass through digital from their computer's USB using optical to another device would find this very handy.
 
With all these inputs and outputs available, I initially scratched my head whom this unit would be suitable for. Recently having started to use my XBox again it became very apparent: Gamers! I've seen quite a few pictures of members' set-ups where they have both a computer and console, hooked into headphones and speakers. With such a set-up, the Esprit could be the perfect unit for both listening to music from a computer then switching to the input from one's console (usually optical), sending the output to either a pair of active speakers or headphones. The quality DAC inside the Esprit would be good both for music and games where an accurate stereo image is beneficial. Gaming headphones too tend to be low impedance models such as Audio Technicas AD900s (now AD900X) which I feel are most likely to be a good match for the Esprit.
 
An often-asked question is whether or not someone should buy an internal sound card for their PC or an external unit. With all the complexity of DACs, then amps, a small, one-box plug-and-play solution is welcome. Considered thus, the Esprit shines when considered this way, as it is effectively an all-in-one amateur recording studio-type device with a good headphone amp. In that regard all it is missing is balanced input and output. As a headphone DAC/amp alone, at $900+ it is in the price territory of a lot of seriously good equipment. The Woo Audio WA7 I recently reviewed, for example, can handle everything from sensitive IEMs to planar (orthodynamic) headphones with ease, where the Esprit isn't quite as versatile. However, the headphone output on the Esprit is distinctly better than the one in my Metric Halo ULN-2 (a very highly regarded pro DAC/ADC).  At its Japanese price which is (today at least) closer to $760 the price is very reasonable considering the feature set.
 
In the end, if you want a small, neat and very functional unit with a good headphone amp to integrate into a computer/music system, this is worth considering. Now if only ADL could drop the US price closer to the Japanese one...
post #2 of 15
Thanks for the great review Currawong! I wondered about this. I don't think it's right for me but it's clearly a nice piece.
post #3 of 15

If it wasn't for this review I'd have known next to nothing about this unit. I like these purple guys. Someone has to do something about the mellow sound that's going round these days.

post #4 of 15
I'd love for you to expand this review and include a lot more detail on the unit's recording capability, please. The above is only "half the story" considering its capabilities...
post #5 of 15
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by RHMMMM View Post

I'd love for you to expand this review and include a lot more detail on the unit's recording capability, please. The above is only "half the story" considering its capabilities...

 

What kind of detail would you like?

 

I did think about the recording aspect, but the only things I have here which I might want to digitise are a couple of cassettes. If I did that, the whole process wouldn't be much more involved than opening up Audacity and selecting an input from the Esprit, so I didn't write about it.

post #6 of 15

The volume pot is so nice looking. Reminds me of the one on Primare integrateds (whose amps I've always thought were beautifully designed in that Danish minimal way):

 

http://www.primare.net/product.asp?ProductID=48

post #7 of 15

How does this compare to the WA7 with the LCD-3's?


Curra, you know my current situation, so this question is in reference to that.


Edit:  Sorry, just saw where you compared it to the WA7, so NVM, unless you want to expand on the thought and/or detail.  


Edited by Meremoth - 4/14/13 at 5:34am
post #8 of 15
Thread Starter 

The WA7 is out on loan at the moment, so that will have to wait. It has been a while since I've played around with opamp rolling, so I've decided to experiment a little until I have to give it back. HDAMs unfortunately wont fit in, even using extension cables and putting them on their side but sound very good. An easy pick here is 4x OPA627 (2 for what appears to be the gain section and 2 for the headamp).

post #9 of 15
Quote:
Originally Posted by Currawong View Post

The WA7 is out on loan at the moment, so that will have to wait. It has been a while since I've played around with opamp rolling, so I've decided to experiment a little until I have to give it back. HDAMs unfortunately wont fit in, even using extension cables and putting them on their side but sound very good. An easy pick here is 4x OPA627 (2 for what appears to be the gain section and 2 for the headamp).

 

I thought OPAMP rolling was a lot more complicated than valve. Eg. OPA627 needs more voltage etc than the design allows. Also HDAM often needs more power. In sum, I thought circuits and the their components where much more tightly matched than valve designs.

post #10 of 15

Thanks for the review Currawong.  Did you also have a chance to listen to the Cruise or Stride?

post #11 of 15
Quote:
Originally Posted by Currawong View Post

 

What kind of detail would you like?

 

I did think about the recording aspect, but the only things I have here which I might want to digitise are a couple of cassettes. If I did that, the whole process wouldn't be much more involved than opening up Audacity and selecting an input from the Esprit, so I didn't write about it.

 

There have been problems with the ADC functionality of the GT40 and that's been reported on this site.  I can't find the link right now but the problem is after a few minutes of recording, there is static/noise in the recording.  The guy tried it with two different units with the same result.  I'd especially like to know if this happens with the Espirit.

post #12 of 15
I know about this Japanese company and are well reputed. I'd like to their products ..............
post #13 of 15

I have been using the ADL Esprit for about a week, and have digitized a few old tapes with it. It is as simple as Currawong describes it: Open Audacity (or whatever your favorite audio software is), choose the ADL Esprit as input, and click record. You can change the settings in Audacity to record in 24bit/96kHz too, if you prefer.

 

So far I have gotten great results, no static noise or anything like that. 

 

On my long journey of upgrading my stereo system I have also noticed that some of my vinyls sounded better than their equivalent CD versions. I assume that these early CDs were not digitized very well. I have a vintage pre-amp with a nice phono stage (Nakamichi CA-5) and recorded these vinyls from Turntable->Pre-amp->ADL Esprit->Macbook, and sound quality was great.

 

Overall I am very happy with the Esprit. It replaced a Benchmark DAC1 HD. There was nothing wrong with the Benchmark, but I just didn't feel that I needed balanced inputs, two headphone outs, and a remote control. I found the Esprit and thought that the ADC feature is great, and exchanged the Benchmark for the Esprit (and got about $700 back...). I was not able to do an A/B comparison of the two, but I really don't think that the sound qualities of the Esprit are any worse than the Benchmark.

 

A couple of other things worth mentioning: The Esprit worked equally well with Linux. It's pretty much the same setup as in Mac OS X, just choose your output and input device in your sound settings. One thing that confused me a bit was, that the Esprit's power button will light up in red when a computer is connected via USB but while the Esprit is not powered via the power adapter. I thought it would work through USB power, but apparently it doesn't. The manual is a bit confusing, it says:

 

 

Quote:
Dual External power supply
Power supply-1: 5V DC from USB bus powered USB chip and for optical output only
Power supply-2: External AC/DC Switching Adaptor output DC 15V/800mA/12W provides power needed for high resolution audio via LINE1, LINE2, OPTICAL, and COAXIAL inputs

 

Not sure how the USB powered power supply is supposed to work? Once the power adapter is plugged in, the button turns blue and everything works great.

 

For my purposes, it's a great device. I am using it mostly as a pre-amp to a power-amp with speakers though, so others should chip in for the headphone output quality, as I have not much headphone experience :)

post #14 of 15

Hi fellows!

 

Nice review, thanks indeed!

 

I just ordered an ADL Esprit. My main aim with it is to record vinyl records to digital, and I do of course already own the turntable and a decent mc preamp (better than the one in GT 40).

 

Now there are two things I am wondering about, and I was not able to find a definitive answer to them:

 

1. When I use the analogue input and listen to headphones, is the signal first converted to digital and then reconverted to analogue? The answer seems quite obvious, because why should the signal be over-processed that way? However, I somewhere read, that the Esprit contains a "digital amplifier" - whatever that means. Given, that it is mainly a piece of gear designed for the digital world (digital input or digital output), I don't exclude the idea, that it it is not really optimized to directly amplify an analogue source. So this is just to be sure, given that you looked into the circuit. Is the digital part really "bridged" if I use only analogue input and output? What's your thoughts on that?

 

2. Quite confusing is the question about asynchronous or not usb transfer mode. The Tenor TE7022L - USB-chip inside the Esprit supposedly supports only adaptive transfer mode, as reported in different statements I found on the web. However, the ADL product page itself says, that it supports asynchronous mode. I'm of course tempted to believe the official source... however: The chip is the chip, and as far as I remember, audio-gd had to change to another chip when Kingwa wanted to support async mode (and therefore, I had to buy an upgrade module for my former DAC). So... what is true? Does the TE7022L support ansyc mode in this implementations? This is pretty important, out of my proper experience. When I switched from adaptive to asynchronous on another system, the difference was so big, clear and amazingly positive, that I really care for it.

 

And... as a supplement: When talking about adaptive or asynchronous transfer mode, we usually refer to Computer-to-DAC-streaming. However, who knows, if this differences apply also the other way round, ADC-to-comptuer-streaming?

 

Oh yes. Among other open questions: The power supply thing... When the USB and the external PSU are connected, does the Esprit cut the power supply from USB? This would be nice, as noisy USB power is known to disturb significantly some electronics. And it would be good to know, if only the external psu has to be replaced, when upgrading, or if at the same time, a USB power supply upgrade has to be added.

 

Cheers!


Edited by ursdiego - 2/26/14 at 1:20pm
post #15 of 15

... I see, that this thread is not very active anymore, so I posted above questions in at a new place, here:

 

http://www.head-fi.org/t/707933/furutech-adl-esprit-preamp-really-digital-and-more-open-questions

 

Please reply there, thanks :) !

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