Pros - Portability: small, thin & light, battery time, BASS
Cons - Bass too addictive; neglected non bassy music for weeks. The wait, of course
While I was scrolling through previous reviews of the Headstage Arrow something became apparent: some things never change. The Headstage Arrow comes with a tradition. If you want one, you’ll have to wait for it. Up to the point the wait seems unbearable - and then some. But as always when you finally get it, it’ll have been worth it. Besides the wait, Robert (Headstage is a one man company located near Hong Kong) can take his time returning emails. There would be times that I’d have sent him 3 emails over the span of a month, without hearing a reply. I’d comfort myself with the thought of Robert in a monk’s garment, working away on his amps in a far off cave somewhere in rural China, without unnecessary luxuries as internet or hot water. Then once in a while he makes the journey down to the closeby village, to send off a fresh batch of amps to customers all over the world, and check his emails before heading back.
Anyways, I’m currently on a loan Arrow 5P that Robert sent me. I ordered a 5TX, but after its release got pushed back for the second time Robert offered to loan me a 5P in the meanwhile. Probably because he felt sorry for me after I explained I had been hitting the refresh button on my account every day for two months straight, in the hope of seeing it had been sent. So just to make things clear, while this amp is a loaner, I have actually paid for one (nothing free here). This will also give me the chance to compare the 5P and 5TX directly in a few weeks – I’ll update this review then.
For starters I’m reviewing the 5P with the EarSonics Velvet, which I absolutely adore. It’s characterized by an energetic, full and smooth sound. If you want to know more about why I love it so much, check out my review here. But more importantly, at least for this review, it (already) has excellent bass. Other head fi’ers have described its bass quality and quantity better than I can in the Velvet thread here. The Velvet is currently connected with a Whiplash TWau gold-plated silver cable. I tested the Arrow with a DX90 (albums, in flac), or ipod (playlists, 320 kbs mp3). Generally I'd say theArrow 5P is a bit dark and made to improve lows/mids a bit more than highs. Connected to the DX90, I've noticed it helps reduce sibilance in iems that are prone to it. The amp is outstanding, while the dac is included more as a service for those who need it as a necessity, than a quality component.
I’m not gonna describe differences in the sonic frequencies as analytically as others can. I’d say I have a more holistic (emotional?) approach to listening. So this is not going to be an objective review. What I can tell you is that this review is about bass, and lots of it. If you value a clean, analytic sound, and not messing with sound characteristics as bass and treble this review might not be for you. And I’m aware this counts for a lot of Head Fi’ers. I’ll narrow it down even further; if you don’t have a warm, intimate relationship with bass in particular you’re probably going to want to skip this. But then again, you probably haven’t looked up a review on the Headstage Arrow 5P because you felt Mozart’s Requiem was missing an ounce of bass, or that Norah Jones album sounds good, but good use an extra bit of ‘oomph’. See this amp ain’t for Norah. It’s for Xzibit and Fred Durst. The Arrow 5P sounds great, like a lot of amps sound great. It will probably add an extra 20% or so in SQ compared to a standard source. But the 5P has something extra, a magical switch with two extra settings. You can either add bass, or BASS.
Compared to the 5N, the P can add an extra +9db of bass; and that’s on top of the +9db that the 5N and 5TX can add. That’s a lot of bass, trust me. Adding +9 bass gives the right amount of bass for nearly all genres. It makes bass pleasantly present. Not dominating the overall sound; but confidently dictating the rhythm, in support of the highs and mids. It should have already become clear that I’m a bass enthusiast, so ‘the right amount of bass’ has become very subjective at this point. Since both the 5N and 5TX can add either +6 or +9db of bass, they will already be perfect for a lot of music, pleasing most people (including bass lovers). But the next +9db’s of bass; now that’s a whole different game. At this point, the bass starts to somewhat distort the sound. The balance between highs and lows has audibly shifted towards the lows, which can warp the whole sound. As is, it doesn’t fit a lot of genres. Only songs where the bass is the center focus of the song without too many distracting instruments or tones, like Jon Hopkins’ “Vessel” (ff 1 min) or Ginuwine’s “Pony” sound good – and with good, I mean incredible. To actually feel the bass so strongly, comes close to the sensation of standing in front of speakers. Also excellent for demoing your iem/amp capabilities to innocent bystanders btw.
But that doesn’t mean the 2[sup]nd[/sup] setting is too much the rest of the time. The balance between high and low can be restored by adding extra treble from the treble switch. At this point we’ve obviously drifted pretty far from a clean, neutral sound and entered V-shaped territory. And I’ll admit it comes with a downside, details tend to get lost in there now and then because your attention is diverted by the strong bass and highs. But what you get in return is an incredibly full and banging sound that fits all of the V-shaped, bassy genres: rock, EDM, pop, hip hop and dubstep to name a few. But don’t forget music like reggae, ska and dancehall as well. The bass dominates, as if it’s emerged from the depths to claim its rightful place in the presentation. The added bass gives music more weight, giving it somewhat of an ominous sound sometimes. Don’t get me wrong, vocals, guitars and melodies are very much in there as well. They just have less of your attention left to share amongst each other. But with EDM, its like you’re really standing in a club; or standing right in the middle of a rock or hip hop concert.
Playing around with the bass and treble switches is fun, and really helps to bring out the most in music depending on the genre and your mood. Hip hop sounds incredible with the +2 setting and a little extra treble, with electronic music it depends on a lot of factors like BPM and the type of bass in the song. With instrumental music it can go anywhere, and it comes down to fooling around with the settings. Some songs have a great beat but could use a bit of extra power so I’ll add the +2, like the Beatmaster remix of Depeche Mode’s “Route 66”. With others its best to leave in neutral to keep the sound balanced, since you don’t want the mids to become recessed.
There’s also a 2[sup]nd[/sup] bass switch. You cannot only adjust the amount of bass (or the power), but also the width. The two bass switches can be viewed as adjusting bass on the Y or X axis. The first switch will add in the depth, and the second the width. For me, the second switch is more a gimmick than of real practical use. It adds more bass quantity, but also makes the bass more audible (opposed to just feeling the bass), distorting the sound even more effectively reducing the quality. You can really only add more, if the bass is really clean, and there’s not much to distort. Again, see the first two songs I mentioned. But when you add more, even when volume is relatively low you can feel your ears rumbling. Even though you might not use the switch much, it’s still fun to have.
I have a really diverse interest in music and will go through a lot of genres in a week. But with the Velvet/5P combo I could not stop listening to EDM for the first two weeks. It was just fun to hear how different bass sounds in different tracks, and how much the quality of the bass can contribute to the listening experience. Then I discovered how hip hop sounded and got blown away by those banging beats. Surprisingly, R&B sounds even better. I’m not talking about the new crappy stuff that dominates the charts, but those good old early 2000’s tracks from artists like Aaliyah en R. Kelly. The laidback beats just sound incredible when they’re amped and put a huge smile on my face every time. I’m still hoping to return to the many other genres I like, hopefully anytime now. But that bass is just so good..
A nice little detail is the auto power switch. It just gives a nice classy feel that the amp comes on when you start playing music, and turns off by itself when you power off your music. Just that extra bit of luxury that doesn’t seem necessary at first but you value after a while. To be honest, nothing really comes into mind that you might be missing. It’s incredibly portable. I knew it was small from the images, but it was still a lot smaller than expected. Battery life is more than up to par.
So to round it all off, would I recommend the Arrow 5P? Make no mistake; the 5P is a basshead’s amp. So the question has to more refined to would I recommend this amp to a fellow basshead. In that case, I would more than recommend it. I would strongly urge you to consider buying this amp, because it will do exactly what you hope it does. Add the surplus of bass that you’ve always longed for. And I’m talking about quality and quantity, because it provides a nice punchy bass. Its just so much fun to play around with. I’m talking about a real solid 30% increase in listening pleasure due to that extremely full sound and addictive bass. And because it’s so small, you can always have it with you. And trust me once you have it, you’ll always want it with you.
About the same size as an Ibasso DX90 - but a lot thinner of course.
Pros - Form factor, battery life, flat SQ, auto on/off, hardware EQ, dual headphone out
Cons - Didn't notice much effect from the crossfeed, imbalance on volume pot at very low level, not suitable for very sensitive IEMs
First up - I am unabashed fan of this tiny amplifier. I think that it's features are quite simply amazing given the form factor.
Sadly - I'm actually moving on from it - as I find that I'm using it less with my harder to drive cans now (for most of my portable use - I now simply use my IEMs). However I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this little amp to anyone.
Preamble - a bit about me
At the time of writing, I'm a 46 year old music lover. I don't say audiophile - just love my music. Over the last couple of years, I have slowly changed from cheaper listening set-ups to my current entry/mid-fi set-up. I vary my listening from portable (i-devices + amp) to my desk-top's set-up (PC > optical > NFB-12 (or NFB+LD MK IV) > HP). My main full sized headphones at the time of writing are the Sennheiser HD600s, AKG K701, Beyer DT880 and Shure SRH840. I also own the Asian Shure SE535 Special Edition IEMs. My previously owned gear is in my profile.. I have auditioned quite a few entry and mid-tier cans, but have yet to hear any flagships (at current time of writing this review). I have very eclectic music tastes listening to a variety from classical and opera to grunge and hard-rock. I listen to a lot of blues, jazz, folk music, classic rock, and alternative rock. I am particularly fond of female vocals. I tend toward cans that are relatively neutral/balanced - with a slight emphasis on the mid-range. I prefer a little warmth in the overall signature. I am neither a bass or treble head. Previous portable amps = GoVibe PortaTube, Fiio E11, Fiio E7.
Packaging & Accessories
I purchased the Arrow direct from Robert at Headphonia. Packaging was minimal - just the amp a mini USB charger, and a 3.5 - 3.5mm interconnect..
From the Headphonia website:
• Ultra Thin Case Design
• 30-40 Hours Battery Play Time
• Three Selectable Gain Settings
• Bass Boost
• Treble Boost Switch
• Modified Öhmann Crossfeed
• Automatic ON/OFF Switch
• High-Capacity 1200mAh/4.2V Lithium-Ion Battery
• Two Input Jacks & Two Headphone Jacks
• ALPS Analog Volume Potentiometer
• Low-Battery Indication (Slow and Fast LED Blinking)
• 4-Layer Circuit Board with two Ground Planes for Low Noise
• Aluminium Case with Laser Engraving
• Size: 8.5mm x 56mm x 98mm (0.33'' x 2.20'' x 3.86'')
• Weight: 75g
There are no real technical specs published - but in correspondence with Robert, he has informed me (by email) that the headphone out impedance is ~ 3-5 ohms.
Build / Form Factor
The Arrow is very slim, and almost exactly suited to pair with an iDevice like the Touch. It is a very solid build - and appears really well mode. On my unit, everything fits exactly - no sign of any imperfections. The Alps pot is very smooth and tracks well. The switched (whilst small) are easy to use, and appear firm. The inputs and outputs (even after well over a year) are still firm.
I'll keep this pretty brief. To my ears (and they are not perfect) the Arrow 4G sounds very flat - a wire with gain scenario. What you put into it is what you get out of it - just with very clean and powerful amplification. The hardware EQ is subtle but (IMO) very good. The bass boost is in 3 parts (off +1 +2) and definitely gives the bass (and only the bass) a small lift at each setting. It's not exaggerated. Similar with the treble switch. These have been very handy when I can't be bothered with a preset software EQ - and just wanted a quick boost in either the upper or lower end. I've tried the crossfeed - and to my ears it doesn't really do much. Perhaps it's too subtle for these old ears. Anyway - I've left it off.
It's a pity the specs aren't listed - because the amplification on this tiny device is impressive. It has 3 gain settings - and there is a noticeable boost in volume with each. Even at the lowest gain setting it was able to drive my 600 ohm Beyers to pretty loud levels. More impressive was that there was no sign of bass flabbiness (ie being under-driven). It also drove the K701 well - but without a doubt my favourite headphone with the Arrow was the HD600. Call it synergy perhaps - but I really enjoyed the combo.
Did it drive the Beyers as good as my NFB-12 or Little Dot MKIV ..... no. But it did a pretty good job - and one that I was perfectly satisfied with if I was travelling.
Yep - nothing is really perfect. My only real gripe was the sensitivity of the pot - but I can't really complain - because this is normal with most Alps pots. For really sensitive IEMs (eg my SE535 'specials'), I had to go so low on the pot that I often had issues with channel imbalance. One way to solve this (on iDevices) was to use a third party EQ app that allowed a lowering of the preamp. Using this, I could then bring the volume back enough to be able to turn up the Arrow and avoid the imbalance.
For me - besides the excellent amplification & massive battery life - the best feature is the automatic on/off switch. When music plays - it is on. When it's not, after about a minute - it switches itself off. No more flat batteries because I forgot to turn something off. It's a feature that I wish was on all portables.
I'm really sorry to be letting this little "dynamo" go - but it needs an owner who is using it more than I have been. If my circumstances change again, I wouldn't hesitate to purchase it again. Despite the cost - for the form factor and features it just 'kills' the previous amps I've owned.