Preliminary Review: Headroom Desktop w/Max Module, Max Dac, Stepped Atten., DPS
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TheSloth

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Warning: Long and verbose post.

A long time Headroom fan, I caved in a few weeks ago and ordered myself a Desktop with Max Module, Max DAC, Stepped Attenuator and Desktop Power supply, which arrived yesterday. The total cost was $2140, with overnight shipping. I've only had a day to play with it, but I am left with an overwhelmingly positive impression so far.

Firstly, the packaging is excellent. A simple double box with the Headroom logo on the outside, with black foam cutouts on the inside to hose the amp and included power supply (which of course doesn't work in this configuration, but I suppose they figure that you've payed for it anyway). The amp is small. Very small for a full featured Amp and DAC - if you're familiar with either the Desktop Portable enclosure, or the Supreme/Cosmic enclosures, simply imagine two of them stacked on top of one another and you have a Desktop! The urethane bezel is a very nice touch, and does give the enclosure a softer, more rounded feel. The anodised aluminium looks lovely, though is prone to picking up finger prints and grease marks, and does beg you to handle it with linen gloves!

Powered up, there is a cute little green LED in the middle of the headroom logo. Plugging in the headphones, and turning up the volume you get a sense of complete solidity - the 1/4" socket grips the jack tightly, and the stepped attenuator is surprisingly solid, especially given the relatively small volume knob. A quick tour - the front panel has 5 switches, which turn the amp on and off, turn the rear output on and off, adjust the treble boost filter, turn the crossfeed circuit on and off, and adjust the gain. The rear panel houses the entry points for the DAC (USB, Coaxial (full size) and Optcial (full size, with a nice dust flap instead of the removable (and lose-able) plugs you often find), 2 inputs and 1 output (nice Cardas RCA connectors, the output is in parallel with the headphone output). There are also switches to select the digital and analogue inputs. The power supply uses a blank version of the same enclosure, has 6 power outputs on the rear panel, as well as a ground float switch.

My initial listening was done with the following configuration: ALAC -> Airport Express -> [Max DAC -> Max Amp] -> HD 650. On first listening, it's immediately clear that this is a high end amp. The music is exactly as it's supposed to be - smooth and liquid when called for, yet punchy, detailed and articulate when required. The DAC, at $399 extra is probably the best bang-for-buck part of this amp. The quality of this puts it up there with standalone DAC's retailing at over $1500. In comparisons with my Monarchy Audio M22C, itself considered to be great VFM at $1499, I found the Monarchy to be a little more airy and detailed, where the Max DAC had a little more weight and energy. Neither one was better than the other, simply offering a slightly different flavour of sound. Whichever you prefer, the important thing is that the difference is very, very small, and in my case, I don't feel like I'm making a sonic compromise in replacing my Monarchy with the Max.

The fact that the small differences between these two obviously fine DAC's were clearly audible speaks for the quality of the amplifier section. Their ability to control my 650's is simply fantastic, particularly in the bass region where they can sometimes get muddy and floppy. The bass resolution is also excellent - where before I would only feel the presence of certain bass tones, I can now feel and hear the musical tone played. I don't really have much to say about the rest of the tonal range, except that to my ears it's flat, which is exactly what I want. In large scale orchestral or piano works, no particular notes, timbres or frequencies stand out as being out of alignment, either tonally or spatially, with the rest of the spectrum. Things sticking out where they shouldn't, drilling into my temple is one of my pet headphone peeves, as people who saw my STAX SRS 3030 review will know, and thankfully the Desktop has yet to exhibit this 'quality'. The Max module also makes up for my one complaint about the other, OPA2134 based modules, which is a slight lack of detail in favour of warmth and liquidity. The OPA627 goodness is certainly felt here, and the Max Module retains all the fantastic qualities of the other Headroom modules, while plugging their shortcomings very effectively. Don't think it's just the opamp that is responsible for this - the 2001 reference module also used OPA627's yet doesn't sound half as good as this, and doesn't even measure up to the 2134 based Desktop Module (at the bottom of the line). The whole module itself is obviously carefully thought and laid out.

The difference in opamp has a subtle effect on the crossfeed circuit (which involves sending the audio signal through another set of 627's in this module, or 2134's in the others). The crossfeed performance of the Max Module is clean and clear, barely having any effect on the overall tonal balance, allowing for fatigue-free listening with little compromise. I admit (and so do Headroom...) that it's not perfect, and I find myself switching it on and off depending on the recording I'm using, but it's closer than ever.

Speaking of 627's I should note that this amp gets quite hot with prolonged use, with everything running in class A. Not worryingly so - in fact I tend not to trust audio equipment that doesn't get a bit hot - but it certainly needs to be somewhere where it can lose heat effectively.

Finally, I should note it's performance doing pre-amp duty. In my setup, the purpose of this amp is to slim down to one 'kitchen sink' component that replaces the function of many. In my case, the Desktop replaces my standalone DAC, pre-amp, and headphone amp. My airport express connects to the optical input, my phono stage connects to the first analogue input, and my TV connects to the second. The output is connected directly to my QUAD 12L Pro Active monitors, and drives them beautifully. As the headphone output and rear outputs are in parallel, I find a significant improvement in sound quality when I unplug the headphones.

A word in lieu of a Desktop v. Home debate. I posted in another thread that I feel that the order of priority with headroom amps is electronics module first, power supply second, other board components and layout third. The sonic advantage of the Home, assuming it has the same electronics as the Desktop, comes from it's dual power supplies, and upgraded capacitors etc. on the board. This configuration would cost around $3000, almost $1000 more than the almost as good sounding Desktop. In my case, the Desktop has it's own advantage of being small enough to move around the house, and even small enough to throw in a Traveller bag and take with me to the UK when I go for months at a time. Even if the two systems were the same price, I'd still probably go for the Desktop. If you have the money, Max out a Home, or just get a Max, but I'd venture that you're getting at least 99% of the performance of those systems for $1-2000 less. If you are looking to save a bit on the Desktop, I'd guess that the least important upgrade is the Stepped Attenuator. Yes, it gives that tiny bit of extra transparency, and has basically perfect channel balance, but if it's a choice between that and a module/DAC upgrade, take the module or DAC. The steps of the stepped attenuator can also sometimes to a little too wide to achieve a perfect listening level, but in my case the impact of that is that I tend to end up listening at a slightly lower level than I would with a continuous pot, and my ears will thank me for that! I just realised that I may actually be the only Head-Fi'er who has this particular setup, but if there are others out there, feel free to chime in! Also, any questions you have, ask away!

Addendum: just for kicks, I decided to compare the power supply with the Base Station One that I use with my supreme. I was under the impression that they are very similar under the hood, but a brief exchange with Mike at Headroom has shown me that the DPS is a complete redesign. And it sounds better. A lot better in fact. More current delivery, much improved voltage regulation and full grounding contribute to an even more accurate sound. Highs are cleaner, mids better proportioned and bass even more articulate. Plus, the stack looks great.

Update 1: I've been listening to my QUAD active monitors, driven by the rear output from the Desktop, and am simply staggered at how great they now sound! It's also very nice to have the same 'sound' driving my headphones and speakers, making them complement one another beautifully.

Update 2: Either it's burning in, I'm burning in, or both, because after running it continuously now for about 24 hours, it seems even smoother and articulate than at the outset. Notes that were sometimes too forward are in line with the others, climaxes are massive without becoming shrill or piercing. I would also like to note that the stereo imaging using the crossfeed is some of the best I've heard from headphones. The Headroom Crossfeed and Mahler seem to have special relationship IMO


Update 3: At the request of a fellow Head-Fi'er, I've just tested the DAC using the USB input from my computer. I only have a rather long and extremely low quality cable, and when compared with the optical input, the overall sound level was slightly lower (due to signal loss along the horrible cable), and ever so slightly thinner. I'll test it with a much shorter USB cable when I find one, but I'd bet that under those circumstances I wouldn't be able to tell the difference.

Update 4: Slightly pointless update, but I just want to say after 4 days with this amp, and 4 days worth of heavy burn in, this thing is absolutely awesome. Along the way, I had a few concerns about some lumps in the frequency response of the DAC, but these have all smoothed themselves out beautifully. I am now happy to pronounce that the DAC is actually better than my Monarchy by a small margin, and the variable output is better than the Monarchy's Line Amplifier by a much larger margin (for use as a preamp). Headroom have rightfully (they did pretty much start this whole headphone amplifier craze...) put themselves right back at the top with this new line.
 
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Jahn

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Thanks for the great in-depth review! Amazingly, I think this may be one of the first reviews on this particular unit. Headroom offers so many great combos, I suppose it's a rare thing to have more than one review with the exact specs of your amp - tho that may change as people read this, and consider for themselves which options to follow your lead on (or take all of the options, as you did!) Thanks again!
 
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TheSloth: "Pics?"
Us: "Yes please!"
 
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jjcha

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You're a contributor yah? Don't you have space on the Head-Fi Photo Galleries? you can upload and then link from there (see link at top of page).

Best,

-Jason
 
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TheSloth

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So you can! No-one ever told me about that...!

Anyway, I just e-mailed them to Tkam who offered to host them, so I'll do it that way. Don't expect much, my camera has such a small lens that it uses the flash for everything, which shows up some interesting shades of grey on this black amp...
 
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Here the pics TheSloth took...




 
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TheSloth

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Those photos look terrible. I can't stress how cute and perfect they look in real life. So please don't take them too seriously! Btw. I'll be updating my initial post with new impressions at the bottom of the post under 'updates'.
 
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Thanks for your impressions! Been really looking forward to them. Now I just need to know how this configurations stacks up to the Grace m902!
 
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Just a heads-up...

I have the exact headroom configuration right now, and am doing a review for the 6moons. That won't be out for awhile as I want to give it its due course, so stay tuned. Great review by the way!
 
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TheSloth

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Regarding the Grace 902, Tyll said that the 902 beat the Micro Stack, but didn't stand up to the Desktop line with DAC. I don't remember which Desktop configuration he was referring to exactly, but it wasn't the maxed-out version for sure, and might have actually been the lowest end version, but with the Desktop Power Supply. I know he runs Headroom, so he obviously prefers his baby, but at the same time I do trust his ears, and think that at least when posting on these forms, he is as objective as possible. Though, if it's $700, it does beat the lowest end Desktop with DAC and DPS on price.

I haven't heard the 902 for a while, but this is certainly a much more serious piece of hi-fi kit, despite it's more mid-fi looks. Damn well ought to be for the price though...
 
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Thanks for the impression. Looks like Headroom is really heading right direction with optional DAC move. I wonder how new MAX line will sound once they are available for audition/sale.
 
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Quote:

Originally Posted by insomniac
Thanks for your impressions! Been really looking forward to them. Now I just need to know how this configurations stacks up to the Grace m902!


i got to hear a maxed desktop/max dac vs. the grace 902 at the Cinci headroom meet, and i thought the desktop/dac was better than the grace. it was warmer and had more weight and energy than the grace, imo.
 
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Tyll Hertsens

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Quote:

Originally Posted by go_vtec
I wonder how new MAX line will sound once they are available for audition/sale.


No kidding! Me too. I've got the first unit, of course, that I haul around with me to meets, but we've yet to build a production piece. I just wish they'd (we'd) finish the damn thing off so I could have a listen/take one home. Of course I don't think I'll ever get one to keep at home as they'll be brutally expensive, and frankly bigger than I have room for reasonable anywhere. The truth is that Sloths unit is what I've got sitting on my desk at home (actually, minus the stepped attenuator--sheesh, I'm jealous) and it suits my need perfectly. Homes and Maxes are for folks with dedicated listening rooms; I've still got three kids running around the house, so playrooms trump rooms for old man's ears.

Thanks for the kind words, Sloth, glad your enjoying it!
 
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go_vtec

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Quote:

Originally Posted by Tyll Hertsens
No kidding! Me too. I've got the first unit, of course, that I haul around with me to meets, but we've yet to build a production piece. I just wish they'd (we'd) finish the damn thing off so I could have a listen/take one home. Of course I don't think I'll ever get one to keep at home as they'll be brutally expensive, and frankly bigger than I have room for reasonable anywhere. The truth is that Sloths unit is what I've got sitting on my desk at home (actually, minus the stepped attenuator--sheesh, I'm jealous) and it suits my need perfectly. Homes and Maxes are for folks with dedicated listening rooms; I've still got three kids running around the house, so playrooms trump rooms for old man's ears.

Thanks for the kind words, Sloth, glad your enjoying it!



Man, that's gotta be more than enough reason for me to attend the Head-fi national meet... to audition MAX. Or may be I can pray that Headroom still has a home auditioning program for a in-depth amature review to compare old Max with the new Max line
 
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