Airist Audio Heron 5 Headphone Amplifier

General Information

Frequency Response 20 Hz – 20 kHz +- 0.05 dB
1 Hz – 101 kHz +- 0.2 dB
Phase Response 20 Hz – 20 kHz +- 2 degrees
Noise Floor < -100dBm (0.1 picowatts)
THD+N @ 1kHz <0.0015%`
Dynamic Range ≥ 130 dB, 20 Hz-20 kHz A-weighted
Signal to Noise Ratio (SNR) @ 1kHz 132 dB A-weighted
Crosstalk < -80 dB, 20 Hz-20 kHz
Gain 12.5 (22db)
Output Power 5W at 32 Ohm
Inputs 1 pair RCA, 1 pair XLR
Outputs 1 low impedance 6.3 mm, 1 high impedance 6.3 mm
Power Consumption 65W max, 10W nominal
Size W13″(33cm) X D11″(28cm) X H3.9″(8.5)
Net Weight 14 lbs (6.4kg)
Shipping Size W17.3″ (44cm) X D17.1″(43cm) X H8.7″(22cm)

Latest reviews

Pros: articulate, silky smooth, neutral, black background like the dark side of the moon, spacious, detailed, power to spare
Cons: doesn’t mate well with low impedance phones, no impedance measurements provided for low and high jacks, some may want a balanced output (I don’t care)

Acknowledgment   

Thanks Airist Audio for organizing this tour and producing this brilliant amp. I was the last stop on the tour and bought this amp directly from Airist Audio (without sending it back) with a small discount.

Introduction

First, I’ll tell you a bit about me, below the fold. Every reviewer is biased, but we all have different flavours of bias. I think my flavour is maple walnut, cause I’m the sweet mildly complex stuff with a bit of crunch and overall neutral visual tone that is an ironic reward for a trip to the dentist in the winter cold of Fairbanks, Alaska (my home town). Like dentists, audio gear is pricey, and the good ones don’t charge that much different than the bad ones. It doesn’t matter if it’s cold outside give me that creamy smooth frozen yummm—Hot Licks, RIP. Frozen eyelashes and blue lips build character.
 
1979331547.jpg
 
Like most sensible people I started falling in love with music as a child. My first portable audio device was a Sony Walkman (the cassette kind) that I got when I was 10 years old (24 years ago).  I listened with the cheap Sony on ears that came with the Walkman until I bought a Koss CD boombox and started listening to UAF College Radio and 103.9 (alternative rock at the time) in Fairbanks, Alaska. I once listened to Louie Louie for 3 days straight, and I’m not insane. My musical tastes started out with listening to what my friends liked (Dr. Dre and Green Day) and what my parents liked (The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan) and I only really discovered my own musical tastes and sonic preferences in my late teens to early 20s. What I discovered is that I have very eclectic and some would say weird tastes. I could be listening to gay punk rock, Japanese dream garble pop, 8-bit chiptune, Scandinavian black metal, Latin guitar, the Mariinsky Orchestra, or Miles Davis, but I mostly listen to Classic Rock and Indie/Alternative. I’m a big fan of intelligent hip-hop like Metermaids, Kendrick Lamar and Aesop Rock, also.
I tend to like headphones that are all-around performers, this generally means a balanced or neutral sound. I somehow never manage to have much money, so I don’t want to buy infinity headphones to switch between my myriad genres that I play. I can hear all the way down to 10hz and all the way up to 23Khz—these are what I’ve heard doing test tones on headphones.  It has been a long time since I had a test with an audiologist. I’m sensitive to peaky treble but do enjoy smooth extended treble. I like deep rich tight bass and impactful drums, and dislike upper midbass emphasis.  I like my vocals crisp, so stay away from Josh Tillman’s voice you nasty upper midbass hump.  I hear soundstage better than just about anything I identify in music, but my words haven’t caught up to my ears. I listen at volume levels that others consider loud (72 to 75 dB), but I just set it to where the dynamics peak. I’m not here to shatter my eardrums. I like them just how they are.
I don’t believe in using EQ, not even for inexpensive headphones, especially in reviews. I won’t claim that I haven’t done it, but I generally try to avoid it.
I’m a firm believer that cables can make a difference, but I don’t think they always do. When I tried out Toxic Cables line, none of them had labels and the cheapest looking one was the one I liked the best. I was excited that I wouldn’t have to spend much to improve my sound. It turned out that the cheapest looking one was the Silver/Gold top of the line cable. I’ve heard the difference that USB cables can make, from upgrading from the crappy cable that came with my Geek Out 1000 to a Supra USB, and then again when upgrading to the LH Labs Lightspeed 2G with the iUSB3.0. When I picked up a cheap shielded power lead from Mains Cables R Us (who also sell iFi gear) to replace my standard kettle lead on my amplifier, I heard more crunchy and clearer treble. I switched the leads with my wife blinded and she heard the same difference. I didn’t tell her what I heard and let her describe it herself. But cables don’t always make a difference. When I switched from my standard HD650 cable to a custom balanced cable (Custom Cans UK, very affordable), the sound stayed exactly the same when hooked up via a top tier (custom made by @dill3000 silver/gold) 4-pin XLR to 6.3mm converter. Balanced mode made a difference in clarity and blackness of background. Your mileage may vary and you may not hear a difference, but I have.

 

Airist Audio: aiming for the stars and quicker student loan debt relief?

Airist Audio is a New York startup founded by a small group of audiophile tech nerds with a passion for audio. These 5 baby-faced entrepreneurs have some serious school credibility, these kids are either done with or doing degrees at Columbia, Harvard, MIT, etc…. If these kids are anything like me, their student loan debt would make most of the bourgeoisie blush. That’s the American education system for you—I saved money by getting a degree in England. I hope this audacious endeavour pays off some of those debts. Go get ‘em kids. Look at those faces. So much courage!
 
 
12268706_10206529458168154_1601169445_o-e1447891443803-300x200.jpgterry.jpgeyck.jpg
William Tse
Founder
Terry Yeung
Founder
Eyck Freymann
Co-founder and CMO
ben.jpg_1160759.jpgmaggie.jpg
Benjamin Wilentz
VP of Strategy
  Maggie Tse
CTO
 
 
 
If you’d like to know more about this start-up from New York, check out Airist Audio’s website for some hot pics and information. They don’t skimp on catwalk worthy New York style (I'm so sorry, I had to do it).
 
 
0.jpg

 

Vital Statistics (what the manufacturer says about their gear)

Audio gear comes with fancy charts and marketing descriptions. Here are some from Airist Audio. The main selling points that Airist Audio puts forth are a completely flat frequency response accomplished with a completely accurate phase response. They also boast of ridiculous resolution, silence, and lack of distortion. The proof is in the pudding. This amp is neutral, silent (with right impedance headphones), and instrument placement is special. To the charts and graphs!
 
3d_pie_chart.jpg
How not to do charts and graphs, ironically on a blogpost about using charts and graphs effectively (say no to unnecessary 3D!)
 
 
 
 
Heron-5-Frequency-Response.jpg
Frequency Response
 
 
 
Yep, that tape measure isn’t drooping at all. Ruler flat on frequency response. Looking below, we see something I’ve never seen and can’t really judge without having sufficient math or engineering expertise, a flat phase response across all frequencies. From the explanation on the website, this means that instruments are in the exact place they should be without bleeding into other instruments. I can confirm this, and its gorgeous.
 
 
Heron-5-Phase-Response.jpg  
Phase Response
 
 
 
Courteously, Airist Audio provided lots of numbers. Here are the rest of the numbers Airist Audio has provided:
 
Frequency Response
20 Hz – 20 kHz +- 0.05 dB
1 Hz – 101 kHz +- 0.2 dB
Phase Response
20 Hz – 20 kHz +- 2 degrees
Noise Floor
< -100dBm (0.1 picowatts)
THD+N @ 1kHz
<0.0015%`
Dynamic Range
≥ 130 dB, 20 Hz-20 kHz A-weighted
Signal to Noise Ratio (SNR) @ 1kHz
132 dB A-weighted
Crosstalk
< -80 dB, 20 Hz-20 kHz
Gain
12.5 (22db)
Output Power
5W at 32 Ohm
Inputs
1 pair RCA, 1 pair XLR
Outputs
1 low impedance 6.3 mm, 1 high impedance 6.3 mm
Power Consumption
65W max, 10W nominal
Size
W13″(33cm) X D11″(28cm) X H3.9″(8.5)
Net Weight
14 lbs (6.4kg)
Shipping Size
W17.3″ (44cm) X D17.1″(43cm) X H8.7″(22cm)
 
The noise floor and SNR really stand out when listening.
Other features listed in the owner’s manual include the following:
  1. 100% discrete power supply and amplification circuits
  2. Minimum phase amplification with bandwidth from DC to 30Mhz
  3. Active power regulation synchronized with the amplification circuit
  4. No coupling capacitors or DC servo in the signal path
  5. OCC pure silver wiring in the signal path
  6. Highest grade toroidal transformer with a laser inscribed carbon steel core and American-made winding wires
  7. Power transformer with overhead capacity rated at 5x power consumption
  8. Class A output power with an internal chassis design that keeps the Heron 5 warm, not hot to the touch (without ventilation holes  on the top—winning!)
  9. Soft start circuit protects your headphones from equipment destroying start-up peaks
  10. Elite grade Mundorf capacitors in the main power supply

 

Form & Function

The Heron 5 is a big hunk of aluminum that has reassuring heft whilst maintaining lean lines and a serious stately stature. The amp has no visible screws and keeps the facia simple. It features a delicate curvature to the top and bottom of the facia, the Airist Audio insignia (like two birds flying in concert), a simple small power button, two headphone jacks marked high and low (more on that later), and a big stepped attenuator volume knob with a red LED line drawn in a black circle signalling the benthic depths of the joy pumping into your cranium. The Kraken, Leviathan, and Dandân battle in the depths here.
 
The back of the unit has has the IEC port, a pair of balanced inputs and a pair of RCA inputs. You can flick a switch to choose which you’ll be listening through. My balanced source died before I could get a chance to listen in balanced mode, so all my listening in this review was done in single-ended mode, which is fine, as the internals are single ended.
 
The front headphone jacks are somewhat confusingly labelled. The ‘High’ jack is intended for lower impedance headphones (Airist Audio says for better impedance matching), whilst the ‘Low’ jack is for high impedance headphones. I found that basically everything sounded clearer on the low jack (high damping factor) but it was also more prone to buzz, the high jack adds a bit of body to headphones and is slightly less prone to buzz. I don’t think either of these jacks are truly low impedance and Airist Audio doesn’t tell us any output impedance statistics. If I had to wager, I’d guess the low jack has an impedance of around 5. The reason for this being that my venerable RE0 iems (64 ohm impedance) had no buzz at all out of the Heron 5. Actually they sounded pretty darn great.
 
Inside the box are the unit, a manual, and a USA plug IEC cable. The manual is informative, with good diagrams, details about features, startup instructions, dos and don’ts for using the Heron 5 and a short FAQ. I would have liked if I could lay the manual flat—I had to type most of the above bullet points one-handed because the binding is too tight. The included power cable appears to be well made, but I didn’t use it during the review as I have a shielded IEC cable that has a UK plug. Airist should be making plugs for the region the amp is being sent to, not telling people to use an adaptor. This is something to fix in the future. I don’t have much confidence that my available adaptors will provide enough quality to the power lead.
 
Heron5-3.jpgHeron5-1.jpgHeron5-2.jpg

 

Audio quality

In one word: spectacular. I used this with a number of pieces of excellent gear in the test-bed. Here are the constant parts:
 
Acer Revo RL70 mediaPC to LH Labs Lightspeed 2G USB Cable to iFi iUSB3.0
 
The LH Labs Lightspeed 2G cable adds definition to the upper end, blackens the background a bit and opens up the soundstage a bit. The iFi iUSB3.0 makes the background even blacker and increases soundstage in all dimensions whilst giving notes a rounder more natural attack and decay (review of iUSB3.0 here).
 
Other elements that were used include Atlas Element Integra interconnects, a LH Labs Lightspeed Micro USB, a custom made Van Damme 3.5mm to RCA cable, the Chord Mojo, the LH Labs Pulse X-Infinity, LH Labs Geek Out V2, and a pantheon of headphones. The mountaintop vista included such headphones as the Sennheiser HD600, Sennheiser HD800, HiFiMan HE6, AKG K1000, oBravo ERIB-2a, HiFiMan RE0, and Echobox Finder X1. I won’t list impressions with all of those headphones, but will attest that there was some buzz with the Echobox Finder X1 and the ERIB-2a (dependent on track and volume), but no buzz with the RE0.
 
The first setup I listened to was the X-Infinity feeding the Heron 5 with the Atlas Element Integra interconnects, a 2nd Lightspeed 2G USB cable from the iUSB3.0 to the DAC, and the HD600 as the headphone. I nearly cried. I’ve never heard the HD600 sing like it does with the Heron 5. I listened to City of the Sun – to the sun and all the cities in between, and to Keith Greeninger & Alex deGrassi’s  Live at the Fenix (from Blue Coast music). City of the Sun is binaural and very immersive especially with the Heron 5. I was getting sound like a speaker presentation. Live at the Fenix has the best recording of a live acoustic environment that I’ve ever heard. The purchase of the set in advance for Live at the Fenix was the best audio decision I’ve made so far this year (all formats including DSD256 for $25). Listening to the album with the HD600 fed by the Heron 5 was like sitting in the front row of the concert venue next to the very California lady telling Keith Greeninger when he’s done a ‘nice job’ just to your left.
 
Heron5-5.jpgHeron5-6.jpg
 
My X-Infinity packed it in the next day (RMA in process—I’m sad), so I listened with the GO V2 with all other elements the same (adaptor to use the interconnects was a cheapie ebay number, but works). The GO V2 doesn’t have as much stage or as much precision as the X-Infinity, but it still pairs wonderfully with the Heron 5. The HD600 continued to sing, but not like any long-necked marsh bird you ever heard. The Heron should be the Blackbird 5. There are few things as pretty as a blackbird’s song sweetly sung while the sun is just awakening dusky eyed from its nightly slumber. With 9bach – Llwynog in 24-96 the background is completely black, silent. The soundstage has exceptional depth and height. Instruments are coherently arranged with articulate interplay in a well-defined sonic space—percussion instruments hang in the air and echo in the soul. The bass grooving throughout the track has excellent weight and tonality. Notes are well-rounded, but with excellent precision. I can find no flaw in the transient representation. The sound is clean, yet musical. There is no white coat sterility here. The sound is like a buxom renaissance nude with a coy smile that grows ever more suggestive and more vivid in your mind with more time spent with her. The canvas of the tune is alive with sonic brush-strokes.
 
Turning to Fleetwood Mac – Never Going Back Again (a track I like for the acoustic presentation) reveals no new insights, but provides a pleasurable listen to the articulate guitar with organic attack and decay.
 
There are moments when the Heron 5 tells you the truth about your music, and you might not be ready for it. When listening to Father John Misty – Nancy from Now On, the Heron 5 reveals track noise from the recording process. This album isn’t audiophile top fare and it is apparent, but I love it none-the-less. Aside from bringing out noise, the amp also highlighted some subtle over-dubbing on Josh Tillman’s voice on ‘run boy, run boy….’ I never noticed the layers in his vocals on that before. On Hollywood Forever Cemetary Sings (the music video is spectacular and features Aubrey Plaza of Parks and Rec—watch her), the cymbals and tambourines crash within their own violent little halos more than I’ve ever heard them. Heron 5, I dub thee the Phase King.
 
0.jpg

 
The Heron 5 is a truth-telling straight shooter from New York. In the classic mythology of six-gun slinging straight-talkers, this amp should really hail from The West, The Frontier, somewhere like Arizona or Colorado, or a gold panning town in the streams surrounding San Francisco. New Yorkers have no right to mete out frontier justice on my audio. When listening to vinyl rips, the vinyl is more apparent with the Heron 5 than any other amp I’ve heard, there is no doubt that your digital track came from a flawed purely analogue source, no matter how well that record was cleaned, no matter how good the recording set-up.
 
Eurythmics – Love is a Stranger is a great track for looking at imaging. The Heron 5 doesn’t disappoint. Drums are back in the deep depths of the stage, Annie Lennox seduces from up high and at the front of the stage, whilst David A. Stewart’s grunts undulate from low to middle height and from varying depths in the stage with excellent precision.
 
The spacious aeries of Kraftwerk’s Autobahn gave the Heron 5 another opportunity to be a straightshooter, this time about the limitations of the HD600. I’ve listened to the record with speakers, and the soundstage can extend up to the ceiling from my almost pension-collecting Mordaunt Short bookshelf speakers (28 years old is past most speakers retirement age).  For the first time, the HD600's stage height goes a bit higher than my head, which is truly impressive. The panning cars zoom across miles of horizontal space.
 
I found myself taking notes about the flaws in the music or the flaws in my headphones. It was especially apparent on my West German Target CD pressing of Stairway to Heaven. The track is not an audiophile track, it has compression artifacts, an elevated noise floor, and other flaws. The Heron 5 pulls no punches. The Heron 5 doesn’t force anything but honest representation of the music. It sounds natural, neutral, and transparent with precise imaging and expansive soundstage. I think that my other components (especially the iUSB3.0) help the Heron be the best it can be, but it is something special in its own right.
 
When listening to Rodrigo y Gabriela – Viking Man I was wondering who let these Mexicans in the house and what kind of beer that brilliant bastard wants in thanks. It was like being in the front row, while the guitars duel at breakneck speed, with the amp and headphones keeping up, never missing a beat, never smearing a string transient. If you want to blow your mind on a supremely layered percussion track, go check out KUNIKO – Xenakis IX Pleiades 1. Melanges. The track is busy as hell on a Saturday, but every element of the stage is beautifully articulated.
 
I also booted up the HD800, HE6, K1000 and ERIB-2a (review of ERIB-2a here) with the Heron all fed by a Chord Mojo connected to the iUSB3.0 with a LH Labs Lightspeed Micro USB cable and a custom made Van Damme 3.5mm to RCA cable. The Heron really lets each headphone shine. The best pairing, to my mind was the HD800. I threw City of the Sun on again, and for the first time, the haze (it has a sort of ambient feel) that is prevalent on the album was pulled back a little. Sennheiser lifted a veil.
deadhorse.gif
 The sound was crystal clear, the soundstage was vast (especially in width), the treble had excellent attack while sounding organic. The ambient tones from hanging transients are plucked like so many apples for Grandma’s pie. The pie is delicious and there’s no need to wait for it to cool on the window sill. With the HE6 the menace of organs on Jan Kraybill – Allegro from Symphony No. 6 in G Minor (HD Tracks 2015 sampler, which is free) is present, but the HE6 doesn’t quite have the treble clarity of the HD800 (the only mod on this HE6 is removal of the screens, a lot more can be done). The K1000 was also beautifully powered by the Heron 5. There wasn’t a headphone that sounded under-driven on the Heron 5. From memory, I prefer the HE6 with a custom made First Watt F6 30w per channel power amp fueling them (the minibeast). The HE-6 likes the extra energy. I don’t think the HD800 has ever sounded better than it sounds with the Heron 5. HD800 owners should be lining up around the block to buy this amp.
 
Heron5-7.jpg
 
I did find some flaws with the amp, mainly related to the front headphone jacks. The labelling is not intuitive, so those who hurry to listen and don’t read the manual will likely be disappointed in what they hear. I would have rather had one well-labelled (labelled with output impedance instead of ‘low’) high damping factor output than two ambiguously labelled jacks. Both outputs buzz with low impedance headphones, this may be related to the fixed, decently high gain (12.5 dB). This isn’t really a design that makes you think: ‘You know what this big beefy amp needs to power? An uber sensitive iem!’, but it would be nice to have the option. I think having variable gain might solve some of the problem. When comparing the Heron 5 to the iFi iCAN SE, the iCAN SE did a much better job at impedance matching, but was worse at everything else (even with switches engaged).
 
Some reviewers on the tour reported volume issues with the stepped attenuator, after hearing on Massdrop that there were two versions of the volume control I asked William at Airist Audio for clarification. Apparently, the first six or so amps were made in two batches. The first batch had some units with volume control issues. All amps built after that point, including all European units don’t have a volume control issue. Speaking of Massdrop, this amp is currently live on Massdrop (3 days left at time of writing). Two more people and the price will be $749. That is a steal of a deal, and people should consider it strongly, especially if you've got an HD800.
 
Other reviewers have expressed disappointment that the amp doesn’t have a balanced output. However, the amp has single-ended internals, a balanced output wouldn’t have sounded better than the single-ended outputs the amp has. Adaptors are prevalent, get an adaptor for your balanced cable. I’ve got one, you can get one. This amp sounds better than my Pulse X-Infinity balanced out sounded, and competes with my memories of previous listening on the balanced Schiit Ragnarok with the HD600. It’s been too long since that listening session to draw any clear comparisons, but both amps are fantastic.
 

Non-audio niggles

Airist Audio is inexperienced, and it shows. When they took volunteers for the tour, they were incredibly brave. The person who was supposed to be after me on the tour was a person with 0 posts with a freshly minted join date. I was concerned that I would send off the amp with tracking and it would be to a phony address meant to steal the amp, luckily that zero post Head-Fier never responded, which might have led to my purchase of this amp. Because I was the last on the tour, the amp was going to be shipped across the ocean to Airist Audio after me.
 
I asked about buying the amp, and was offered what looked like an unbeatable price. Before I paid the invoice (I was still debating), the official price was cut in half. I don’t think economies of scale quite covers that. Beyond that they offered a CanJam discount to $850, but now have a potential $750 price on Massdrop. Not only that, but the price of shipping to the UK on their website was $190, whilst the price of shipping to the UK on Massdrop is $73. Airist Audio needs to realise that people won’t trust you if you sell them a product and then immediately lower the price.
At this point I’ll put it down to inexperience, but it is something they need to be vigilant about in the future lest they create customers who feel that Airist Audio has taken advantage of them.
 
I think if Airist Audio keeps putting out gear that is as special as the Heron 5, they have a bright future. With the new lower MSRP of $1000, I think they have a headphone amplifier that could be a run-away hit.
 

Conclusions

The Heron 5 is a special amp. It has wonderful transparency, tight natural bass that digs as deep as your headphones will go, treble that is smooth and natural without any touches of harshness, flawless imaging, and a tell me no lies injectable truth serum quality that still manages to be forgiving as it is revealing. Until the Heron 5, I never felt like I was reviewing the music and the headphones more than I was reviewing the amp when I was taking notes on an amp. The Heron 5 doesn’t impose it’s will on the sound, it is natural and neutral, the music and headphones are completely allowed to be themselves without any colouration from the amp. For these reasons I bought the Heron 5.
 
The only problem I have now, is that I feel like I need the HD800 to pair with it. That match is made in heaven, and that heaven is a Southpark heaven. Fly, Kenny, fly.
 
kenny_angel___wallpaper_by_deckz.jpg
 
I can’t wait to see what their DAC has to offer in the future (make sure it has a pre-amp, Airist Audio).
MattTCG
MattTCG
Nice review sir! I listened to this amp over the weekend at a local meet. It turned out to be the only amp that shocked me with the level of performance. I was listening with an Ether from Mr. Speakers. 
glassmonkey
glassmonkey
Thanks for the compliments! I'm glad to hear that more folks are enjoying the Heron 5.
chicken beer
chicken beer
The review is very good. I feel this amp can power any types of headphone well. I do have the HD800 pairing quite nicely with them (though I still prefer using Senn with tube amps), and my biggest WOW came from the pairing the heron 5 to a Grado 325.

psonoda

Head-Fier
Pros: Wide and deep soundstage. Effortless.
Cons: Volume control noise and function.
I was fortunate to be accepted to the Heron 5 beta test group. This is one of many amazing programs that is supported only because of the proper participation of the members of Head-Fi. Thank you Airist Audio.

The Heron 5 arrived at my house in a the well protected double-sleeved cardboard box. Inside, the Heron 5 was protected with custom cut foam that adequately protected the amplifier from potential shipping damage. Given that this amplifier has been shipped to multiple locations, it is proof to me that the packaging is adequate to make sure that your purchase will arrive safely.

image.jpg

Included in the box is the Heron 5 amplifier, an owner's manual and a nicely upgraded power cable. Boy this amplifier has some heft to it. I added the Heron 5 to my simple setup which consists of an 11" MacBook Air feeding a Schiit Wyrd through a Grace m9xx to a modded HD 700. I connected the Heron 5 to the SE output of the Grace setting the output to a unity gain.

image.jpg
image.jpg
image.jpg


The fit and finish of the Heron 5 is excellent. My only nitpick is the headphone jacks which are not secured to the front faceplate. There is a little wiggle to the connectors. All the other connectors are nice and solid. I really like the large and easy to use volume control. Powering on the Heron 5 is relatively quiet and adds a subtle Amber/ red line to glow on the volume knob. This amplifier is a single ended amplifier through and through. On the input side, you can use either single ended or balanced. However, the balanced inputs are just converted back to single ended. So don’t feel if you are not using the balanced inputs you are missing anything, you are not. Out the output side, things are a little more different. There is a “High” and “Low” 1/4” plugs for the headphone outputs. The manual was kind of confusing as to what high and low reference. Is it gain? Or, was it the impedance of the headphones? After plugging into to both connectors, I liked the “Low” connector better. Your headphones may benefit from the “High” setting, so I recommend testing for yourself.

image.jpg
image.jpg

I let the Heron 5 warm up for several hours before I began my listing. Since I was way down the list of beta testers I figured it would be safe to say the amplifier has "broken in". That is, if you believe that sort of thing happens on electrical components. I do believe that products perform best when their electrical components reach their thermal stability. After warming up, The Heron 5 sounds great. The amplifier sounds quite effortless. There does not seem to be an emphasis on any particular area of the frequency spectrum. The highs are extended without sounding blown out or splashy. the mid are quite smooth. If I was going to pick on the the overall frequency balance, I would say the bass sounded a little soft or slightly mushy with my set-up. Your milage may vary. Never did the amplifier sound like it was working hard. Also, the amplifier never really got that hot.

image.jpg

As much as I liked the frequency balance and the effortless of the amplifier, I disliked the performance of the volume control. This is difficult to explain because I like the ergonomics of the volume knob, but, the performance is another thing. First, when first powering the amplifier on, I noticed some scratching noise when rotating the volume on the lowest three detents. This problem did seem to lessen as the amplifier warmed up. It did not go away completely. Granted, once the volume was set, the noise is not present. It only happens when going from one detent to another. Another issue to me was the volume control has bigger than ideal volume jumps between detents. There were sometimes where I couldn’t get the output I wanted. I felt like Goldilocks and trying to find the right temperature porridge. This is not a deal breaker, but I would have liked smaller jumps in output. This brings me to the biggest annoyance. The last detent. There is a HUGE repeat HUGE jump in volume on the last volume detent. From what I could tell this was around a 8dB jump! I had been playing with some equalization. As a result, the maximum gain overall was reduced to prevent digital clipping. The first time I got to the last detent it scared the **** out of me. Like I broke something. It is a definite “11” on the volume control. It did not distort, which was good, but damn, that could be a potential to damage gear, hearing etc. This should be fixed before released to the public.

Before I continue the review, I need to take a step back. I am a former product manager for an audio company. I have been involved in the development of speakers, amplifiers and processors. I was forced to believe that most amplifiers, when unclipped, sounds the same. I have taken the ABX and failed just like everyone else. I do believe amplifiers sound different in how they perform near their maximum. How they clip by running out of current or voltage the sound quality difference is obvious. It is this point that brings me back to the Heron 5. From the first moment, the amplifier sounded different. Not in frequency response, but in imaging, soundstage, space around instruments. This is not a frequency response thing but a real difference in the feeling of being there.

Up to this point in time, I just accepted that most headphones differed in width and height of the stereo image. Depth, while there, was just limited in the headphone format. Now the Heron 5 comes in and I am forced to re-evaluate. The depth from this combination is quite staggering. Sounding more like they way my Apogee home audio speakers present depth. Not depth behind but in front! This is the most impressive aspect of the Heron 5. Live recorded tracks like Cowboy Junkies - Trinity Session, or Sara Bareilles - Brave Enough: Live at the Variety Playhouse just came alive. Even studio recorded albums like Norah Jones - Not Too Late or guilty pleasure electronic music like Kraftwerk - The Mix sounded amazing on the Heron 5. With its effortless sound and amazing soundstage, I found myself listing to entire albums, just enjoying the music. Isn’t that what it is all about?

Obviously, when looking to upgrade, your audio system, price to performance does play a part in the decision making process. This is where I struggle with the Heron 5. At the original price of 2k. I would be hesitant to drop that kind of money on a single ended amplifier that does not have the features of other amplifiers. The Schiit Ragnarok is only $1699 for comparison. However, I just learned that the price of the Heron 5 was reduced to $1000. Is this a show special or the final price? If they fixed the volume control (At least the noise and big jump on the last detent), I could see wanting and recommending this amplifier for someone who doesn’t care about balanced inputs or outputs. The imaging and soundstage are that impressive.

Takeanidea

Headphoneus Supremus
Pros: Sound quality , power , looks , feel, high and low impedance outputs
Cons: Some cosmetics I'd change but very little
heronk1000closeup.jpg
I was part of the EU Review Tour of the Airist Audio Heron 5 Headphone Amplifier and as such had the opportunity to listen and compare this with my other kit for 10 days . A lot of listening was had during that time. After extensive and painstaking switching between this and my First Watt F6 Clone I sent the last half of my time listening exclusively to the Heron. By then I was comfortable with the differences between this and my main kit.


 


I was not aware of the Heron until I applied to be put on the review tour. In view of the price point I felt my existing equipment should be of high enough resolution to bring out the qualities both good and bad in the Heron. I came into this review with as few preconceptions as possible although being on the thread I was aware of the impressions others had. However, what is always the case is that others have neither the same equipment I have , the same music or the same ears.


 


The equipment I tested the Airist against were the best I had. I tested the Heron 5 against my finest Amplifier by a long margin - the DIY First Watt F6 Clone Power Amplifier. My friend and fellow headfier @dill3000 meticulously built this around the design offered to the DIY Community by Nelson Pass of Pass Labs and First Watt fame. Dillan has changed out some of the components in favour of some higher quality bits, all plusses for me of course. We have dubbed it "The Mini Beast" because it is huge and it is powerful. The Mini Beast was built specifically for one purpose - to slay the HiFiMan HE-6 which many of you will know needs a lot of power to perform at it's best. 


I had such good results with the HE-6 and The Mini Beast I had no particular interest in changing anything. Then my friend @glassmonkey  suggested I try the AKG K1000 Earspeakers with the Amplifier. So I am now able to bring you a review which exclusively covers my adventures with the Heron and one of the most power hungry headphones ever made - the Bass Heavy AKG K1000.

heronk1000topview.jpg

 


The Heron 5 delivers 5 Watts into 32 Ohms and has a separate 6.3 out for either low or high impedance headphones, this means your balanced cables for your HE-6 or K1000 will need the 6.3 adapter. Let me tell you right now it will drive either of these headphones perfectly well and will produce great results with them. As another teaser to the rest of this review , I preferred the sound of the Heron 5 to the sound signature of the Mini Beast. Now read on for more detailed stuff.....


 


Sound Signature of the Heron 5 compared to the Mini Beast


 


The Heron 5 has a smooth refined gorgeous HiFi sheen to the music I put through it. It was a joy to listen to any and every track. In short I loved it! Let me explain what I thought were the differences between the Heron 5 and my F6 Mini Beast. First of all - price. The F6 Mini Beast DIY build - the cost of that is a matter of a conversation between you and @dill3000 . The retail model is nearer to $4000. The Heron 5 is currently showing as $1995 on their website. The power . The F6 is designed to be powerful enough to run small to medium size speakers and can even run some floorstanders. The Heron 5 is designed to run headphones but with 5 W at 32 Ohms it will run even the most power hungry headphones that I have. The Sound - the Heron 5 has a refined smooth sound, whereas The Mini Beast has a much more lively sound signature. The power and slam of this amp is impressive. It has a crisp accurate attack. No wonder we have named it the Mini Beast!


Power and slam vs smoothness, each person will respond differently to what suits them dependent on their mood at the time their approach to music and what type of music they prefer. For the 10 days I had the Heron , I got a lot of enjoyment using my Chord Mojo as a source and had a relaxing time listening to the wonderful laidback presentation this headphone amp gave. I would be surpised if anyone who bought wouldn't feel any different from seeing this as a piece of audio kit to cherish; especially with something as difficult to get good results with as the AKG K1000s.

heronk1000.jpg



The AKG K1000s bass heavy model take even more volume on the Heron 5 than the HE-6 ; significantly more. However before the Heron 5 is maxed out and clipping the AKGs are singing. The difference between the K1000s and conventional headphones is that they are designed to be worn away from the ears. The further away they are from the ears the more spatial the sound becomes although this reduces the bass response. The impression is of a halfway point between the intimacy of headphones and the realism of loudpseakers.

The build of the Heron 5 is solid . It's weighty measuring almost 7 kg on the scales nodoubt due to the power supply inside the aluminium enclosure which is an elegant white appearance. There are the 2 jacks
heronjacks.jpg



one for low and one for high impedance phones on the front and a huge volume knob
Heron5Volumebutton.jpg


that has a knotch adjustment that goes up in specific increments. At the rear of the unit is a metal switch that toggles between RCA in and Balanced in Mode.
heronxlr.jpg


It looks strange in relation to the finish quality of the rest of the Heron; almost like an afterthought. There is a 110/230 V power selector
heronkettleleadconnection.jpg



which for my model was thankfully switched to the correct setting but at least this being user changeable can be used anywhere in the world without the need for modifying.

I have come to the end of my time with the Heron 5 and would encourage any of you interested in upgrading your headphone amp to one which can take on the best , or should I say The Beast....... to look very closely at the Airist Audio Heron 5
Wildcatsare1
Wildcatsare1
Excellent review!

Comments

There are no comments to display.
Top