Desktop solid state headphone amplifier with external power supply

Shonyun 301 Pro amplifier

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  • Desktop solid state headphone amplifier with external power supply

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  1. project86
    "Solid State amp from a new company"
    Pros - Surprisingly good sound! Clean, exciting, and fun but not overly colored, with a silent background
    Cons - Build quality a bit suspect on my unit, not exactly the most handsome, could be cheaper

    The Shonyun 301 - this amp was sent to me for review along with the 306 portable amp. Like most readers I had never heard of the brand Shonyun. The packaging looked professional though, and the person sending it gave it a high recommendation, so I figured I'd give it a try without bringing any pre-conceived ideas into it. This was hard to do based on the outward appearance of the unit, which didn't seem to fit the sound it produced. But I'm getting ahead of myself - allow me to start from the beginning.
    Shonyun is a relatively new company based out of Shenzhen China. The lead designer is named ChengShan Deng who is notable for placing very highly in the annual design competition held by National Semiconductor. He also dabbled in speaker design and won some acclaim there as well. This brings to mind Kingwa of Audio GD fame, who received notoriety by taking first place in the same competition. Shonyun offers two portable units and a single desktop model. The desktop unit is called the 301 Pro and sells for $450. There was an original 301 (non-pro) with wood side panels which may or may not still be available. 
    The 301 Pro is a very compact unit with a separate outboard power supply. Theoretically both parts could be stacked a la HiFiMAN EF5 - I suspect the PSU is a perfect match for the original model with wood sides, but the fins protrude a bit more making it just slightly wider. Still, it could be a good looking stack. Unfortunately the design of the power supply has the AC cable entering one side and the "umbilical" connector on the other. So there's no clean way to use the power supply unit without having a cable visibly intruding. This relegates it to being hidden down on the floor or somewhere else where it won't be obvious. The other bad thing about the power supply is the bright LED indicator which constantly cycles from color to color. I disabled mine immediately, to the disappointment of my 3 year old daughter who loved staring at it in a darkened room. 
    The main amplifier portion has an interesting look to it. It's very small - smaller than the pictures would have you believe. Fins on the left and right side act as heat sinks which helps the Class A design dissipate heat. The front panel has a pair of 1/8th inch jacks - one for input from an iPod or other portable device, and one for the headphone output. This seems to be an interesting choice. Why not swap one for a 1/4 inch version? Is there really a need for a 1/8 inch input on a desktop amp selling for $450? In any case, the side fins plus the small jacks made the unit seem larger in the pictures; I probably assumed the jacks were 1/4 inch and made a mental adjustment for the rest of the enclosure. The top panel is dominated by a largish low profile volume knob. The rear is a simple affair with a single set of RCA inputs and a port for the power umbilical. Simple and easy. 
    Internally - the 34V regulated power supply unit is almost entirely filled by the large toroidal transformer. There are a few caps here and there for smoothing but I'd say the huge majority of the enclosure is taken by the transformer: The amp section itself is designed around a combination of TI OPA627 opamps with a discrete buffer comprised of MJE15030 and MJE15031 transistors from ON Semiconductor. As mentioned prior the design is supposedly pure Class A. Maximum output reaches 800mW though we aren't told at what load that happens. We also aren't given a good breakdown of power into different loads - I find it ideal when a company lists their output into 32 ohm, 50 ohm, 150 ohm, 300 ohm, and 600 ohm loads. But even just 32 and 300 is a good start to work with, so I'm a bit disappointed that Shonyun doesn't at least give that. I did find some info on the older 301 version (non pro) which listed 550mW at 16 ohms, 160mW at 300 ohms, and 85mW at 600 ohms. Apparently the 301 pro with heatsinks allowed for a higher output due to the better heat dispersion which is why it goes all the way to 800 mW - we can assume that comes at 16 ohms, and the other loads show a corresponding increase of roughly 50% as well, compared to the non-pro version. But that's just an assumption so don't hold me to it. All in all a reasonably powerful amp if not quite a blockbuster like some of the recent major releases from HiFiMAN, Burson, etc. But for the price and especially for the size, this is fairly robust. 




    The 301 Pro is a mixed bag for me. On the one hand it's decently well put together - fit and finish is what I'd call average at best, but I see no significant problems with it. On the other hand, it doesn't really impress either. The graphic work on the device is a matter of personal taste but for me it seems a little gaudy. It's worth noting that for $250 the Schiit Asgard looks far more polished and pleasing to the eye than this unit does, as do any number of other amps in the sub-$500 class. And then there's the issue of the volume control...
    On my unit, the volume control seems to be tensioned too tightly. When turned, it feels like metal scraping against metal for at least half of its range. And due to the output transistors being permanently fixed to the heatsinks, I can't fully disassemble the unit to fix it. Or at least I'm not confident that I could get it all back together properly once I did. It's still workable but doesn't have the feel I expect from a $450 amp. I'm recalling the Ortofon HD-Q7 which was somewhat cheaper than the 301 at around $380: it had a similar design with the top being dominated by a large volume knob. But it had a great feel to it, with a smooth but firm action that oozed quality. In contrast, the Shonyun unit is a drag to use, reminding me every time I use it that something isn't perfect with the amp. Perhaps mine is just faulty though.






    This is the gear I used for this evaluation:
    SOURCE: Auraliti PK90 Music Server with NuForce LPS-1 power supply, Cambridge Audio 840C
    DAC: Anedio D2, Yulong D100 mkII, Matrix Quattro DAC, Grant Fidelity TubeDAC-11
    Headphones: Audio Technica W1000x, Sennheiser HD650, Westone AC2, Heir Audio 6.A LE, Heir Audio 8.A, Lear LCM-5, Lawton LA7000, Thunderpants TP1, HiFiMAN HE400, Ultrasone Signature Pro, Unique Melody Merlin, Cosmic Ears Flex twin
    As always, power was handled by a CablePro Revelation power conditioner and CablePro Reverie AC cables. In this case the Shonyun has its own power connection so the Reverie cables were only used with other equipment in the chain. Interconnects were the Auric Ohno from Charleston Cable Company, digital connections from NuForce. Since the 301 only has 1/8" outputs I used a CablePro Freedom series adapter to get a 1/4" connection for my bigger headphones. 


    Given the above comments on design and build, I was not entirely confident that the 301 would sound like much. So when I first plugged in my HE400 and gave it a listen, I was pleasantly surprised at what I heard. Good extension on both ends, a nice tonal balance, no specific problem areas that I could notice.... this thing sure sounded better than it looked. I switched to the HD650 to see if it could sustain this level of performance with a higher impedance load - and it did. I then tried the more difficult to drive Thunderpants and sure enough, it drove them with authority. Lastly I tried something that I felt would most certainly cause the 301 to stumble - a sensitive IEM in the form of the Heir Audio 6.A LE. Surely a unit such as this, operating in Class A and not having the highest perceived build quality, would show some bothersome hiss with these IEMs. Not so - the unit was about as quiet as they come; quieter than my Yulong Sabre A18 which sells for twice as much. Impressive - I attribute this black background to the separate power supply which serves to isolate noise from the main amplification section. 
    As I spent more and more time listening over the next few weeks, the Shonyun 301 started showing its character. In general terms, the unit has a somewhat exciting sound, calling extra attention to itself in the upper midrange region. Aside from that "liveliness" it is mostly neutral, with perhaps a very slight warm tilt on the lower end. It's got a good grip of the basics with nice resolution, transparency, and an overall sense of ease. Despite being a little on the "exciting" side, it isn't annoying or bright, which is what you might be thinking of when I use that term. It's just a bit more lively than pure neutral but not extremely so. Soundstage presentation is nice too, with a good amount of width and some depth to go along with it. Image specificity is what I'd call average for the price meaning good but not spectacular - you certainly can't have it all without paying more. Overall it's a pleasing sound that works well with most every headphone if not being an ideal match for some - I already find Grados to be somewhat harsh and difficult to listen to for long periods, so a more exciting amp certainly doesn't make that any better. But for nearly all other headphones the 301 is a pleasing partner.
    The overall sound is reminescent of what I'd call the classic Ray Samuels Audio sound. I'm not really current on his newer stuff, but older models like the Hornet and original SR71 had a fairly distinctive tone to them - bold, exciting, somewhat aggressive but not wildly colored overall, they made listening fun despite not being completely neutral. That's the same description I use for the Shonyun 301. 
    The dead silent background combined with the generous bass and lively upper midrange helps create an atmosphere of dynamic sound, where the user doesn't have to crank the volume to get emotion out of the amp. For lovers of classical music and jazz, this works out very well. For people who tend to only listen to newer recordings this may not matter so much.
    I did pair the amp with some higher end sources - I ran it straight from my Cambridge 840C or through my Anedio D2 DAC. But those aren't necessarily realistic as they each cost several times what the 301 sells for. In the end I mostly paired it with the Yulong D100 mkII and the Grant Fidelity TubeDAC-11. At $480 and $350 respectively, those are the types of units more likely to be paired with the Shonyun 301. In both cases I felt that the 301 was an improvement over the built in amplification. 
    The TubeDAC-11 has a nice headphone section utilizing dual ADA4075-2 opamps from Analog Devices, driving a discrete transistor diamond buffer. It's far better than what I expected in a multi-function $350 device. The Shonyun doesn't blow it away but does offer a reasonably noticeable improvement. It seems to dig slightly deeper as well as offer a bit more bloom in the lower regions. It also has a more engaging midrange/upper mid presentation, making the TubeDAC amp section seem a little dull in comparison. The differences were bigger when using planar headphones or higher impedance models, but even with a 25 ohm Lawton LA7000 I noticed a small improvement.
    While the TubeDAC has the word "tube" right there in the name, listening through the headphone jack is strictly a solid state affair. The tube comes into play when using the tube output, which I preferred over the solid state options when pairing with the Shonyun. It offered a nice mix of warmth and neutrality without being overly colored. This is a nice setup that I could be quite happy with for a long time.
    The Yulong D100 mkII has an improved headphone out over what the original mode, which I already considered a nice sounding amp. The mkII has a warmer and smoother sound, making the original sound lean in comparison. The design is similar to the TubeDAC-11 which makes sense as it is made by the same designer. But the D100 uses improved parts, especially in the power supply section. Even though this multi-purpose DAC/amp device is only $480, I've always maintained that it would take a significant investment in amplification to improve it by any meaningful amount. 
    The Shonyun 301 does manage to better the D100 integrated amp, but not by a huge margin. I notice a bit more clarity and also a better sense of soundstage realism. It also seems more comfortable with complex passages - when the D100 can feel slightly congested at times, the 301 maintains its composure and openness to a greater degree. But this was not a night and day difference - I wouldn't fault someone for completely missing the differences altogether. Because of the improvement being relatively small compared to the investment required, I'm not sure this is something I would recommend across the board. Again, more difficult loads like the Thunderpants are better able to showcase the improvement.
    I started with my go-to amp in the sub-$500 price range - the Yulong A100 ($360). Featuring a similar configuration as the Shonyun - OPA627 opamps for voltage amplification followed by a discrete transistor section for Class A output. It also has a quality power supply, though it doesn't get a separate enclosure like the Shonyun. 
    Soundwise, these two are in the same league in quality but different in focus. The A100 is neutral to a fault - it will absolutely shred a low quality recording. The Shonyun is more forgiving in a euphonic way, though not overly so. Because of their different personalities, I reach for one amp or the other depending on associated equipment. I much prefer the A100 paired with the Lawton LA7000 and sourced by the TubeDAC-11. Then again, when I use the Yulong D100 mkII I prefer the Shonyun driving the HE400. So it really depends. I will say that the Shonyun has less fatigue when listening long term, a rather surprising thing given the exciting sound. I attribute this to the fact that I tend to listen to it at lower levels, while at times the A100 requires a boost in volume to give a satisfying impact.
    The Matrix Quattro amp ($399) is a solid state design which basically throws a pair of their M-Stage amps into a single enclosure for balanced operation. When used in single-ended mode, the Quattro is not all that different from the basic M-Stage. With the stock OPA2604 on board the Quattro has a fairly even tone which is somewhere in between the analytical A100 and the exciting Shonyun. It's a little on the darker side which makes it more forgiving - best paired with a Grado, Audio Technica, or similar sounding headphone that has some bite to it. The Quattro has a tad more grain to the upper mids which somewhat cancels out the forgiving aspect of it - it's hard to explain. Once again the Shonyun is in the same league, not significantly better nor appreciably worse. These two appeal to different users based on flavor but neither really pulls ahead in terms of sound quality.
    One benefit the Shonyun does have over both amps is the noise floor - while the Yulong and Quattro are both very quiet, the Shonyun is essentially silent. For users of sensitive IEMs this means the Shonyun has the advantage. It's worth noting that this is among the most quiet amps I've ever experienced at any price. Unfortunately the volume knob is not the greatest for low level listening, so it somewhat takes away from this achievement. Both the Quattro and A100 look and feel like nicer/more expensive products compared to the Shonyun. 
    As you can tell, I have mixed feelings about this amp. The most important part is that it sounds really nice - it has a pleasing and somewhat unique sound that differentiates it from its peers in the same price class. Unfortunately that high sound quality is accompanied by a mediocre build quality and a subjectively unimpressive appearance. 
    Is it enough to release an amp that competes well with, but doesn't really exceed, the existing amps on the market in its price range? That's the question that keeps me from fully recommending this amp. As a new company on the market I would expect some heavily discounted prices to differentiate themselves from the crowd. It doesn't seem as if Shonyun is on board with that idea. I'll summarize it like so - for $450, the Shonyun 301 is enjoyable enough and recommended for certain people whose tastes line up with its sound signature. If it was priced more aggressively at say $350 it would seem far more competitive and thus an easier and more universal recommendation. Still, a good start for this fledgling company, and combined with the portable 306 amp (review coming soon) it shows that Shonyun can at least be competitive in its class. That's more than I can say for some others. If they just give a bit more attention to the aesthetics and build quality moving forward, they will definitely be a brand to watch for. 

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