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REVIEW: KingRex Technology “HeadQuarters” HQ-1 Solid State Home Headphone Amp/preamp

Discussion in 'Headphone Amps (full-size)' started by skylab, Oct 3, 2009.
  1. Skylab Contributor
    KingRex asked me to review their new top-end headphone amp, the “Headquarter” HQ-1. This amp sells for about $850, which isn’t crazy expensive, but isn’t exactly cheap either, and does put it in direct competition with some very fine amps, both tube and solid state. According to KingRex, the HeadQuarters is designed to compete with the big boys: the HQ-1 is a Class-A MOSFET design using discrete devices, consisting of theToshiba A970/C2240 for first stage of amplification and the Hitachi MOSFET 2SK214 in the output stage. Other very nice “audiophile approved” parts are used, including WIMA caps and VISHAY resistors and an ALPS pot.

    The HQ-1 has one input and two outputs which are selectable by a front panel push button- one is a line-output for preamp use, and the other is the headphone output. A gold-plated NEUTRIK ¼”/6.35mm headphone jack and gold-plated, chassis-mounted RCA jacks are used. The power supply is in a separate unit that is matched aesthetically and uses an IEC power cord. The build quality is very good, and it looks very nice:


    I broke the HQ-1 in for 300 hours continuously before beginning the review, on top of the 72 hour burn in that the factory does. This proved very important, as the sound during the first 150 plus hours was not very promising at all. It improved significantly after about 200 hours or so. I listened to the HQ1 with My trio of 600 ohm Beyers (which is had no problem powering), and my JVC DX1000. Sources were my iMod/VCap dock, and my Denon CDRW 1500 > Music Hall DAC 25.2. I also listened to the HQ-1 with my Vinyl rig.


    Life is funny. Immediately prior to reviewing the HQ-1, I reviewed the Audio-GD Phoenix. The Phoenix costs $1,200. The HQ-1 is $850 - about 2/3 the price, so considerably cheaper, yes, but still close in price. Yet the Phoenix is 3 times the size, probably 5 times the weight (or more), and has considerably more features (balanced operation, remote control, multiple inputs). And perhaps even more strikingly, they don’t sound much alike at all. In fact, it’s hard to imagine them sounding much different, given that they are both solid-state headphone amps selling for +/- $200 of the $1K mark.

    Maybe this was bad luck for KingRex – the Phoenix sets a new bar of performance in @$1K solid state headphone amps, and this is a very high bar indeed. And ultimately, it makes it difficult to judge other amps independently of this point of reference. As such, I did compare the HQ-1 to some other amps, as well, both less expensive SS amps and some tube amps in the same basic price range as the HQ-1.

    The HQ-1 features a lively, slightly forward sound, with a subtle but nonetheless noticeable lower treble “bite” and a slight upper bass/lower midrange “congestion”. Interestingly, the KingRex sent me a FR graph for the HQ-1, and it measures essentially ruler flat (as one would expect any well-designed amp to when the load tested is well above the amp’s output impedance, which was the case here. Here is the graph they sent:


    As seen above, the design was ambitious, with lots of audiophile-approved parts. But there is no doubt that the HQ-1 is has a slightly aggressive sound, and just isn’t quite as transparent as I would expect an amp in this price class to be. As one would expect, this was more of an issue for some headphones than others. With my Beyer headphones, it meant that the treble was just too biting – the DT880 especially laid bare the bite of the treble, which is definitely more forward than is natural. With the JVC DX1000, the overall sound was quite good, but here the “cloudiness” or congestion of the upper/bass and lower mids was a bit detrimental, lending things a slightly woolly sound that is totally absent on the Audio-GD Phoenix, or any of my tube amps. I also felt the mids lacked a little of the remarkable purity that the DX1000’s usually exhibit on other high-end amps.

    Moreover, the effect was that of somewhat homogenizing music. The differences between recordings weren’t as pronounced as I experience on my other high-end headphone amps.

    Aside from the slight treble forwardness, the treble was generally good. It was fairly clean, with good detail retrieval, although it was not a sweet sounding as the Phoenix, or my Decware CSP-2. Extension and air were both very good.

    The bass was well defined, and punchy – but as mentioned a problematic in the upper bass. The FR graph shows a *very* slight deep bass roll-off, which seems insignificant, but I did notice this occasionally, to a greater extent than the FR graph would indicate. During many songs, this wasn’t very noticeable, but there were some tracks where it was. But the wooliness in the upper bass was more notable than the very slightly lightweight deep bass.

    The midrange is generally pretty good. It wasn’t on par with the Audio-GD Phoenix in terms of richness or transparency – it’s a little on the drier side. I also felt, compared to the other SS amps I have heard in its price class, that it lacked a little bit of transparency and resolution. Songs like Stereolab’s “Eye of the Volcano” were very crisp sounding, as they should be. “Ring Them Bells” from Heart’s “Desire Walks On” was reproduced with a very engaging reproduction of the vocals. However, on “Straight, No Chaser” by Kristin Korb, which is a terrific recording sonically, things were a tiny bit muffled and “wooly” versus how they sound via my other top-end amps. There was also a little bit of grain present that I do not find in my other high end amps.

    The soundstaging capabilities of the HQ-1 are excellent. Depth is very good, as are soundstage width and definition. The spatial presentation was quite convincing.

    The one headphone I owned that the HQ-1 sounded especially good with was the Shure 840. Here, I thought the extra bass bloom and slight extra treble presence seemed to work really well. In fact, it was the best sound I had heard from the 840. This was a very enjoyable pairing, in spite of the fact that it’s unlikely anyone will pair a $900 amp with $200 headphones. It was a case of the HQ-1’s colorations synergizing well with the 840’s. There are undoubtedly other headphones that would sound very good with the HQ-1, but it wasn’t a great fit with the majority of mine, because it does have a distinct flavor, which isn’t very consonant with Beyer headphones.

    I don’t want to make too much of a big deal about all this, as it will be overblown – the HQ-1 isn’t overwhelmingly colored, or anything like that. We are talking about fairly subtle things, here. However, in an amp at this price level, even the very subtle shadings need to be noted. And the HQ-1 is best characterized by a slightly dry midrange, and slightly present lower treble, and a slightly wooly upper-bass, which is overlaid on all recordings. So the prospective buyer will have to be aware of these things. The sound does have some colorations, and they are of the generally more problematic “additive” rather than the less problematic “subtractive” sort. Because of this, my stable of headphones don’t really sing with the HQ-1, in the main, the way I expect them to when listening to them though what is designed to be a “Statement” amp.


    So the “HeadQuarters” is a bit of a tough one for me. The KingRex people are VERY nice, and I liked their DAC, which I reviewed previously, a lot. So I really, really WANTED to like the HeadQuarters. Unfortunately, I really don’t think it hits the mark. The HQ-1 is a pretty good sounding amp, and is built very well, and is pretty to look at. But I had a hard time finding much that was special with the HQ-1 sonically, and in this price range, the overall performance level should be higher, IMO. With the Shure 840, the HQ-1 was really enjoyable to listen to, and made the Shure sound as good as I have heard. But with most of my other headphones, the HQ-1 was an underachiever. The HeadQuarters has a distinct personality that isn’t going to work universally, and the overall level of performance is simply not on par with other amps in this price range, and even some that are well below the price of the HQ-1.

    I have sent this amp to MrArroyo for him to audition and review. He has different headphones than I do, as well as different ears, and will be able to provide some very useful additional perspective. As for me, for the $850 selling price, I can’t really recommend the HQ-1 with much enthusiasm, and certainly think that more than the usual care in matching with the right headphones would be advisable for someone considering buying one.
  2. mrarroyo Contributor
    Well I am next in line w/ this amp. I hope to have more details following further listening of this unit. I will say that it is a very nice looking amp with lots of heft a very nice finish to it. BTW, great pictures you have there skylab!

    I do not need a pre-amp out so instead I would have preferred a pass through option. On the features and cosmetic side I do have an issue and thankfully it is an easy one to correct. The rubber feet are not thick enough to allow the two part unit to be stacked, if you attempt it the face plates rub. So I would either put ticker rubber feet or mill down the face plate a tad, the first option would be my choice to allow for better cooling and vibration control.

    Here is a poor picture I took, I hope to take better ones in the near future.

  3. krmathis Contributor
    Another great review from Skylab. Thanks! [​IMG]
    ..and thanks to KingRex Technology for lending you (I suppose they did) the HQ-1.

    It sure looks very nicely built. With those massive front plates and all.
    Do not seem like they got the sound the right way though.
  4. Skylab Contributor
    Thanks KR! Yes, Kingrex did loan me the review unit, and that same unit is now with Miguel, for his auditioning.
  5. miloxo
    Although im not interested in this amp (no money [​IMG]) I want to say this is the first SS design that I actually like [​IMG] Very good looking!
  6. mrarroyo Contributor
    Well since I believe that Skylab has plenty of high impedance cans I chose to go the other way. So today I have bee listening to the KingRex HQ-1 driving a Grado RS-1 and an HF2. The source a Meridian 506.20, and the music jazz by Joe Sample, Lee Ritenour and Wayman Tisdale. Here is another picture although still not as nice as the ones posted by Skylab.


    The HQ-1 w/ the Grado is a peculiar match. After allowing the unit to run for an hour the sound improved significantly over a cold listen. When it was initially turned on the sound was very lacking w/ just a harsh sounding and very fatiguing presentation. Thankfully the sound improved so much that I felt it was an entirely different unit. However it somehow still feels very lacking in a homogeneous and engaging sound, it is not very cohesive. I will continue to listen to it and try to get into its presentation since this unit is not sounding as I expected after having read the reviews of their t-amp. Will try a pair of Ultrasone HFI-780.

    BTW, like Skylab I really wanted to like this unit since as stated earlier I was considering the KingRex t-amp w/ USB DAC to drive a K1000. Very confused.
  7. bidoux
  8. IPodPJ
    Thanks for the review, Skylab. It doesn't sound like this amp will be selling like hotcakes unless they seriously revise it.

    And to those who have accused him of playing favorites with products he reviews, here's a perfect example that he doesn't.
  9. mrarroyo Contributor
    Following my earlier findings w/ both Grado cans I switched to the AKG K501 w/ an APureSound V3 re-cable. The source and music remained the same being jazz cd's via a Meridian 506.20. The sound reproduced by the AKG K501 was IMO much more cohesive and involving, dynamics and transients also improved.

    I then did a turnaround and used a 160 Gb iPod Classic loaded w/ Apple Lossless files via an ALO Bamboo iPod Dock w/ a Moon Silversonic BL-1 interconnect feeding the HQ-1. For headphones I switched to Ultrasone's HFI-780 also re-cabled by Alex of APureSound w/ a 7 foot long V3 cable. I was actually quite surprised by the sound, it was quite engaging and entertaining to the point of getting my foot tapping while I listened to various songs by Diana Krall. For some reason there is some peculiar synergy going on w/ this combo, making the sounds cohesive, entertaining, and quite enjoyable. No it does not have a high level of detail as a Graham Slee Solo SRG or SRGII and if this amp sold for $350-$400 it might find buyers but at $850 I fail to see the value. Even if it was in the $350-$400 range I would purchase other SS amps which IMO offer a more detailed/engaging sound.

    Perhaps this unit should be checked to find out if it is out of spec. The reviews of other gear by KingRex indicates they have some wonderful products and great sounding. Hopefully it is bad example that was rushed or bumped in transit, if so I would love to listen to it again as well as their T20U.
  10. Skylab Contributor

    Originally Posted by mrarroyo /img/forum/go_quote.gif
    . . No it does not have a high level of detail as a Graham Slee Solo SRG or SRGII and if this amp sold for $350-$400 it might find buyers but at $850 I fail to see the value. Even if it was in the $350-$400 range I would purchase other SS amps which IMO offer a more detailed/engaging sound.

    Yeah that was my feeling too - competitive in the $400 price class, but still wouldn't be my first choice.
  11. Ham Sandwich
    I like the name of the amp. [​IMG]
    Brilliant! :guinness_icon:
  12. queenchris
    Hi, Rob
    We truly appreciate your time and passion in doing the review. Your finding is most interesting as we compare it with the other review that happens to offer a contrasting conclusion. Difference of opinion is what we value most - and consumers deserve to know, be it favorable or unfavorable to us. Again, thank you.

    Best regards,
    Christine Wu
    KingRex Technology Co., LTD
  13. Skylab Contributor
    I would be happy to send the HQ-1 to another head-fier to review if anyone is interested. You would have to have been on head-fi for at least 2 years, and have a positive feedback thread here, and really commit to actually writing a review, but given that, I would be happy to send the HQ-1 to you to review. PM me.
  14. sawindra
    Think i will choose trafomatic head one or one of the Woo Audio amps, I have exhanged some emails with the latter company.
  15. slytown
    Thanks for the reveiws. I had high hopes for this thing too.

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