Cons: Battery drains quicker than most; slim on features
REVIEW: Meier Audio Stepdance
Jan Meier was kind enough to send me an early production sample of his new Meier Stepdance portable amp. The Stepdance is the first Meier Portable to use his “Balanced Ground” topology. It’s designed as a performance-first portable amp, which means it has very few features (for example, Meier’s normal Crossfeed is omitted), and it also uses battery faster than his other amps, again with the goal of providing maximum sonic performance. In my opinion, this goal is achieved for sure.
Build Quality: A: Very attractive and sturdy chassis – same other Meier portables. The amp is very well built, and looks nice. I subtracted the “+” from the A because I am not fond of the Meier battery door, and I also don’t like the slight rounding of the chassis, as it makes mating with an iPod for portable use a little difficult. But this is really picking nits.
Treble: A+: The treble is smooth, delicate, extended and transparent. Compared favorably to the very extended but smooth treble of the Qables iQube, and slightly bettered the RSA P51 Mustang. Small little nuances were registered cleanly, but there was nothing at all aggressive about the highs. Cymbals are rendered with a smoothness and naturalness that belies the level of extension and detail that is also very much in evidence.
Midrange: A+: Superbly open, transparent, and clean sounding. The mids were smooth and enjoyable, if just very slightly warm, although there were times I thought I heard a little extra warmth, and times I felt they were nothing short of completely neutral. In any case the mids were very seductive and natural sounding for sure. Outstanding for a portable. Female vocals like Alison Krauss’s on “It Doesn’t Matter” sound terrific without being artificial in any way.
Bass: A+: Full, punchy, and well defined. As deep as you could hope to get from a portable amp – and impressively so at that. The very deep bass at the end of Porcupine Tree’s “Russia On Ice” was reproduced in full measure. Phil Lesh’s “Phil Bomb’s” from the recent “Crimson, White, and Indigo” release were also very meaty, but with outstanding control and definition. The punchy bass from the MFSL remaster of REM’s “Murmer” was very satisfying, as it was from “Open Car” from Porcupine Tree’s “Arriving Somewhere” live release.
Neutrality: A+: The overall sound is unfailingly neutral and natural. Nothing sticks out at all. It’s a little less dry than the iQube, and a little less plump than the P51 Mustang – right down the middle. That’s a good place to be. To a degree I am not used to in a portable, the StepDance really just provides power, and otherwise gets out of the way completely. The difference between the iPad’s line out and the line out of the NuForce uDAC were easily discernable.
Soundstaging: A+: Great depth and width both, and a very palpable, well defined image. Truly excellent performance here. Even without the hallmark Meier Crossfeed, I felt the performance in imaging was at the very top of the class. Nice holographic presentation of Alison Krauss and Union Station’s live recordings. The sense of all acoustics during the a-capella “Down In The River To Pray” was so startling that I had to pause the recording to make sure I was really hearing that and not some other sound! Sure enough, there it was. Impressive.
Transparency: A+: Generally a Meier strength, and very much so here as well. I found no hint of grain or messiness. Just clean, clear, and open sound. This makes the Stepdance really seem to provide a higher level of performance than I have come to expect from portable amps.
So do I think the Stepdance achieves its goal of maximum performance from a Portable? In spades. The Stepdance is my new reference Portable Headphone Amp, against which the others will be judged. It sets the bar very high in what can be done in a headphone amp, and rather than put money into features that many users do not want or need, it puts all the emphasis on sonics. This is a laudable direction. Are there trade-offs? Sure. It ate through a 9V LITHIUM battery in about a week of heavy use. If you want a battery-sipper, this isn’t it. While not huge, it’s far from the smallest and lightest portable amp I’ve ever seen. But combined with the iPad and the NuForce uDAC (via the uDAC’s RCA outs), the sound from a transportable rig was just unbelievably satisfying.
The Stepdance is slated to cost $350 USD (270 Euro in the EU). At that price, and given its performance level, I think the Stepdance also sets the current bar on price/performance ratio.