A83 Teal-01

FIDUE A83

As I sit to write this review I have a confession to make. I had an assumption about these earphones before I received them and it made my initial impressions of them very confusing. You see, most hybrids on the market (IEMs using both dynamic drivers and balanced armatures) have lots of bass, sucked out mids and sharp, nasty treble. Many of them come close to the fun signatures that many of us are looking for, but none that I’ve heard in the crowded $200-$400 range are yet to achieve that signature without the curse of sizzling, snapping treble.

So when I heard about the upcoming A83 from FIDUE I got really excited. They have received excellent reviews for their A63, a mid-centric budget earphone, so I automatically thought that same warm, fun colouration would be added to the A83 along with the glorious bass of a well-tuned dynamic driver. When I eagerly unpacked the beautifully presented and engineered A83s I was in for a shock. “Where’s all the bass?” I thought, “And what’s with that treble!?” I was completely shocked and found it really hard to figure out what had gone wrong. Where was the fun, musical hybrid I was expecting? Was this another shouty hybrid, but this time without the bass chops?

Um… no.

I just made a really stupid assumption and I feel really silly now because I spent 3 weeks not appreciating the A83s for what they weren’t instead of realising what they are. Would you like to know what they actually are? Read on…

Overview

SAM_0250-4FIDUE is another newcomer to the audio scene with 4 IEMs now under their belt, the A31, A63, A81 and now the A83. FIDUE is a name made by an acronym:

  • Fidelity – Natural original voice of high fidelity
  • Inspired – The resonance of soul
  • Durable – Long-lived quality
  • Unique – The unique design
  • Enjoyable – Enjoy happily

As far as I can see they are achieving their brief with their products so far, as each is as good as it is unique. So, no, the A83 is not a souped-up A63 or A81 – it’s a product of its very own merits.

At $399 (AUD) the A83 is at the upper end of the mid-priced IEM range as there tends to be a leap up to the near-$1000 range once you crest the $500 mark. For this price I was expecting big things and I am convinced that they justify their price tag… Earlier though? Not so much – but that’s the power of false assumptions for you!

Specifications

  • Drivers:  1 x 10mm dynamic + 2 x balanced armatures (BAs)
  • Frequency range:  9 – 31,000 Hz
  • Impedance:  11 ohms
  • Sensitivity:  104dB
  • Cable:  Detachable 1.3m cable with MMCX connectors (same connector as Shure, Audiofly and a few other manufacturers)

Design & Comfort

SAM_0234-1The A83s initially caught my attention for 2 reasons – the fact that they might have been the hybrid that finally got it right and their design. These are one of the most unique looking IEMs you can buy. They have transparent coloured inner shells in blue and red for left and right respectively. These inner shells are married to beautifully sculpted metal outer shells with a striking, finned design like nothing I’ve ever seen in an IEM. I’m not sure what metal they’ve used either because it’s a subtle gold colour, but it’s subtle, not that cheesy gold colour you sometimes see on products seeking the “bling” factor. No, to me these aren’t bling – these are classy, but striking.

Inside the retail packaging of the A83s you receive a nice set of tips, an airplane adapter (single 3.5mm to twin 3.5mm) and a 3.5 to 6.3mm adapter and a clear pelican case with a FIDUE label and a sneak peek to the goodies inside. I loved seeing the gold shell of the right earpiece peeking through at me when I first unpacked the box – it’s a nice touch and continues to bring a subtle pleasure each time I see that hint of gold through the clear case.

The Cable

Sometimes I discuss cables, sometimes I don’t. This cable though… this cable has to be discussed because it’s perfect!

Not good.

Perfect!

The cable is a greenish-grey fabric covered, silver-plated copper cable in a tight braid emerging from a beautiful custom, metal, slimline 3.5mm jack. There’s a nice, metal cuff at the split and the lengths from the cuff to the earpieces are twisted and wrapped in soft heatshrink to protect them and keep them in a tight twist I assume. Finally, the cable ends in MMCX connectors with a small locking tab to prevent them from spinning in the earpiece like the Shures do. I personally have no issues with the “Shure spin”, but others do so this will be welcome to some and has no drawbacks that I can see so it’s a good feature.

The cable is soft, just the right length (1.3m) and no more microphonic than any other IEM cable I’ve tried and far better than many. In other words, in my experience all IEMs produce some degree of microphonics if you try hard enough. The A83 cable is as good as it gets in my experience.

Fit & Comfort

SAM_0258-1The shape of the A83s may have you believing (like I did) that they will nest neatly in your ears like Shure and Westone offerings. Don’t be so sure…

The angle and position of the nozzle means that these sit out a little at the front, just above the ear lobe. It’s not uncomfortable in any way, but it’s not quite as streamlined as I expected when I first saw the A83s. The good news is that the back portion of the A83 is perfectly curved and nice and shallow so they do nestle in the hollow of your ear quite nicely and are comfortable for long sessions in that regard.

The other challenge I faced with the A83s is the angle of the nozzle. For many people the following points will be of no concern, but I have relatively small ear canals that bend quite sharply close to the opening. The A83s have a similar nozzle size to the RE-272s which I find extremely comfortable, but the nozzle is a tiny bit longer and angled slightly forward and up. This tiny change made getting the right fit extremely challenging for me at first. I tried lots and lots of different tips and even bought some Comply foam tips (which were a complete disaster when combined with the A83s’ design and my bendy ear canals). In the end, I have found a silicone tip (which may have been one of the FIDUE ones, I’m not sure) that provides a perfect seal and good comfort. Interestingly, once I got used to the slightly different, quite shallow insertion, I’ve found these to be a welcome change because the nozzle and tip seal quite close to the outside of the ear canal rather than forcing their way inside my head.

The moral of this story is that the A83s may not fit quite how you expect so please work with them and don’t expect them to necessarily be the same type of insertion as your other IEMs. They are not actually difficult to fit – just different. Once I found the right tip and angle of insertion I could get a good and comfortable seal quickly and easily every time.

Sound Quality

You already know of my doomed first encounter with these. I was so disappointed with the lack of warmth I thought I was hearing. In fact I thought they were one of the most unbalanced earphones I’d heard lately. To my ears they were all treble, but I was wrong and here lies the second moral of the story: our brains get confused and uncomfortable if we expect one thing and hear another. This is a cautionary tale – beware of your expectations when you test any earphones or headphones.

You see, I expected warmth and bass and midrange. Because of that, my brain had turned down the sensitivity to bass and midrange (because I expected it by the truckload) and turned up the sensitivity to treble because I didn’t expect that much – good treble, but less than the other frequencies.

Instead of a bassy, hybrid warmth-monster, my ears were greeted by a beautifully balanced, neutral and detailed sound and my brain freaked out! What I thought I was hearing was all treble, but in truth the sound was more balanced than anything else. The FIDUE A83 is a beautiful example of natural, balanced, enjoyable sound. It’s not analytical and cold like some IEMs seeking detail at all costs. It’s also not bloomy and boomy like some IEMs seeking the “wow” factor of prodigious bass. No, the A83 delivers every frequency equally with just a slight treble tilt, but it’s slight. This isn’t another sizzling hybrid. This is a tamed, controlled hybrid delivering the detail and control of a full-BA setup and the bass warmth (not quantity) and control of a pure dynamic setup.

Bass

SAM_0239-3For most of us, the term hybrid means bass-oriented or V-shaped earphone. Certainly, the A83 shows all the capabilities you expect from the possession of a dynamic driver, but it does it with subtlety and control. The T-PEOS H-300 showed me what dynamic bass could be like when it wasn’t overdone, but was present, well controlled and beautifully detailed. The A83 shows very similar characteristics with slightly less bass prominence (from my memory of the H-300), but equal agility and detail from the bass registers.

The bass is present, firm and warm, but tight and controlled with absolutely no bloat or bleeding into the mids. There’s nice bass energy, but if you’re expecting an earphone like the other hybrids on the market you’re going to be disappointed – that’s not what the A83 is about.

I recently reviewed the Noble PR which is an analytical IEM designed for detail and clarity. My one issue with that earphone was its lack of bass which left larger instruments like cellos sounding a bit hollow and lifeless. I used a 2Cellos track to test that so I decided to do the same with the A83s. The results were much more satisfactory in terms of realism in the cellos. Plucking and strumming of the cello strings had body and warmth, but no bloom. The sound was tight and punchy, but full and realistic.

That’s not to say the A83 is an all-around better earphone than the Noble PR – they are quite different, but they share a sense of accuracy and neutrality so it was a parallel worth making and the A83 brings extra firepower with its dynamic driver and perfect bass tuning.

Mids

Unlike many of the A83’s competitors, vocals and midrange instruments are present and accounted for with the A83s. There’s a slight dryness to female vocals, but nothing that detracts from enjoyment – it’s just a character of the sound and possibly exposes some of the vocal textures that are sometimes smoothed over. Either way, it’s not good or bad – it just is.

To my ears, the A83 probably has a slight dip in the lower mids which create that slight dryness, but also keeps the sound clean and crisp. Male vocals have less sense of the dryness because they live a little lower in the frequency range. Other midrange instruments like guitars and horns receive a beautiful sense of agility and texture from the A83’s tuning. I wouldn’t say the sound is coloured, but that the A83s have a noticeable character similar to the subtle differences from one instrument to the next. The sound is still very, very accurate so don’t be worried that the A83s will mess with your enjoyment of your favourite music. Regardless of the genre I’ve tried, the A83s have stayed pure, realistic and accurate – just right.

While writing this review, I actually heard some distortion in the vocals of some tracks I know very well and thought were very well recorded. The distortion sounds like the recording levels were just a touch too hot during the peaks in the vocals and the result is subtle, but noticeable with the A83s. I have never heard the problem before though so this is a sign of how revealing and detailed the A83s can be. The reason I haven’t put this front and centre though is that the A83s don’t shove detail in your face – they aren’t detail-mongers, they’re just accurate and revealing IEMs which, to me, is far more fun and far less fatiguing.

Treble

OK, so you know I got it wrong at first with these and thought they were evil bringers-of-sibilance. They are far from that, but they do still have a slight treble bump relative to complete neutrality.

I really dislike hot, sibilant earphones, but as I approach the 90 minute mark of this review, having listened to the A83s throughout at normal listening levels (estimated at 75-80dB), I can honestly say that I haven’t once reached to turn down the music, switch tracks, or otherwise reacted to splashy, rowdy treble.

Yes, the A83 presents a tiny treble tilt, but like its control of bass, its control of treble is equally poised and graceful. This is one of the few IEMs I have tried where I find myself actively enjoying the treble and that puts the A83 in some good company with the Noble PR and Shure SE846 (review coming soon).

A fellow Head-Fi’er recently posted a frequency response chart of the A83s on the discussion thread which might explain the A83’s treble voodoo. According to that chart, the A83s have a small treble peak at around 2-3kHz (hence the enjoyably dry vocals and agile strings) before dropping away around 4kHz and then peaking again around 8kHz.

Our ears are most sensitive to the 4kHz frequency range because it’s where a lot of the detail in speech occurs in the form of consonants (t, s, p, th, f, etc.) There’s no need for this area to be boosted in audio gear and it often results in sibilance from vocals because all of those consonants suddenly get over-cooked. If indeed that chart is accurate then Mr Benny Tan, the mastermind behind the tuning of the A83s, is a genius because he’s simultaneously created beautifully detailed and slightly prominent treble while deftly side-stepping the common issues with this approach – namely sibilance. Perhaps Mr Tan and Dr Moulton (“The Wizard” behind the Noble PRs) have been comparing notes because they have both nailed the perfect treble presentation that’s a joy to listen to without becoming fatigued (in fact I just turned my music up a notch).

Imaging and Staging

The imaging and staging from the A83s isn’t something I’m drawn to rave about, but it’s very good and easily on par with anything else I’ve heard in the price range. There’s not a great deal of depth to the soundstage (forwards / backwards), but it extends really well from side-to-side to the point that some sounds seem to come from slightly beyond the extremities of the earphones themselves. What’s good about the staging is that it is coherent, accurate and realistic. There are no phantom sounds appearing outside the stage all by themselves and there are no glaring gaps or irregularities in the shape of the stage. Playing my favourite staging track (Dancing Flute & Drum) from the Chesky Sensational Binaural Album (not its full title) shows an accurate sense of space, but not a huge sense of space.

Imaging from the A83s is equally as competent, but also not mind-blowing. That said, there are very few truly mind-blowing IEMs out there when it comes to staging and imaging and the A83s sit very comfortably in the tier directly below the mind-blowing tier. To let you into my little rating scale of imaging, there’s:

  1. Whoah!!!
  2. Nice!
  3. OK
  4. Meh

So the A83s receive a score of “Nice!” There’s a good sense of each instrument’s position and enough space between them to be believable, but I didn’t find myself wanting to reach out and touch a vocalist or an instrument like I have on one or two very special occasions with IEMs. For the $399 price tag, the imaging is easily as good or better than you’d expect and you’d have to spend a significant amount more to achieve better performance in this area.

Summary

SAM_0235-2Recognise what the A83s are – a detailed, accurate, neutral IEM with a tiny treble boost and perhaps a slight touch of warmth in the bass, although that’s debatable given that our impressions of what is “natural” all vary. To me, the A83s are dead accurate with a touch of treble and I love that about them. To my ears the bass brings realism and life to the music without becoming a prominent feature. They have bass that can hit like a subwoofer when it’s in the track, but completely retreat when not required.

The A83s seem slightly eccentric to me. They sound different to their peers. They look like they should nestle completely into your ears, but actually stick out ever-so-slightly and don’t insert as deep as you might expect. They are vibrant and colourful on the inside, but subtle and classy on the outside. And they can slap you around with bass in one moment before dancing through delicate passages like a ballerina the next. They are warm in one moment and bright in the next, but they’re not confused – they just know what the music is saying.

Know going into any introduction to the A83s that they are eccentric, but revel in that eccentricity because they are like a wonderful eccentric friend who you might not “get” at first, but as time passes and you get to really know them you are treated to one surprise and delight after another. The A83s have certainly become a friend of mine who’ll be sticking around for a long time. I hope you’ll find the same experiences if these sound like a good fit for your tastes!

Noble PR Orange-01-01

Noble PR IEM

I find myself in the enviable position of having way too much gear to review at the moment thanks to a couple of purchases (Mr Speakers Mad Dogs and Shure SE846s) in addition to being included on some product tours for IEMs such as the Audiofly AF180s and these Noble PRs. I also have an upcoming review of the very interesting FIDUE A83s. For that reason I’m going to keep this review brief in words, but hopefully heavy on meaningful content. So here we go…

Overview

The Noble PR is one of 2 IEM models from Noble that include a switch on the IEM body that allows you to change the signature of the IEM on the fly. In the case of the PR, the options are a “Pure” sound (P) or a “Reference” sound (R). This is a first (as far as I know) because it is essentially two IEMs in one. For more detail, please take a look at the Noble website and while you’re there, do your eyes a favour and take a look at the “Wizard” range of universals – they are strikingly beautiful one-off, unique IEM designs that are incredibly affordable as a great sounding piece of artwork!

The only other specs I want to provide here are that these IEMs have two distinct impedances – approximately 240 ohm or 30 ohm depending on the mode.

By the way, before I continue I’d like to say thank you to Noble and Head-Fi’er, d marc0, for arranging this tour!! It’s a great initiative in the community to get people experiencing and talking about gear they might not otherwise try. Playing with the PRs has certainly got me very interested in Noble’s other products thanks to the great build quality and execution of the PR.

Design and Comfort

SAM_0265-4The PRs are really nicely put together with a simple, black shell and nice gold accents by way of the assembly screws. They come with a great stock cable that’s reminiscent of the well-known Epic cable from Westone, but it’s better in that it’s a thick, but flexible braid and feels more sturdy for the long haul, but is equally as soft and comfortable.

The shells of the PR are quite compact for a “2-in-1″ IEM and fit snugly in the ear, but protrude slightly more than some other universals like the Shure SE series or Westones for example. They feel secure and don’t get in the way at all so nothing to worry about and, to me, their design is preferable to some of the bullet style earphones that stick straight out of the ear.

Nozzle Size

The nozzles on the PRs are quite thick and may be challenging for people like me with smaller-than-average ear canals. I was able to find a good seal with the smallest of the Noble silicone tips, but I was always aware of the pressure in the canal. It was relatively comfortable, but my ear felt “full”. For those with moderate to large canals you should have no trouble at all, but smaller-ear-canal-ed folk might want to check before buying.

Tips and Accessories

The PRs come in the becoming-ubiquitous pelican style case which I think is a great touch for any IEM manufacturer. It makes for nice packaging, a nice sense of a value-adding accessory and it’s a useful, well-sized carry case that can fit IEMs, cleaning cloth / tool, and some spare tips.

Noble also provide a range of really nice silicone and foam tips and a couple of Noble branded elastics for your audio stack or however else you like to use them.

Sound Quality

As the name might suggest, the Pure / Reference design is all about crazy detail. You could say it’s about smooth detail (Pure) and fast detail (Reference). I’m personally not a detail freak (at least not in lieu of other parts of the whole musical experience), but I can definitely appreciate the execution of the mission for these IEMs. Let’s discuss the 2 signatures separately because they are essentially 2 different IEMs with detail being the common thread.

Pure

SAM_0263-3In Pure mode, the PR is a 240 ohm, multi-BA IEM that’s sensitive enough to work with portables, but can also present a suitable load to a desktop amplifier for full enjoyment (I’m using my Mainline with it right now!)

I really like the overall tonality of the Pure mode. It’s very neutral and very detailed, but has a smoothness that’s surprising for a detail-oriented IEM. It can get a tiny bit treble happy if the recording dictates it, but it’s not a treble monster and will only show what’s there in the recording. I think it could have been called “Transparent” instead of Pure because it just shows you what’s there for better or worse.

My only criticism of the Pure mode would be a slight lack of natural bass. There is bass present in the reproduction from the Pure mode, but it’s just a little shy of neutral compared to what you would hear from a live, acoustic performance (i.e. just considering the natural bass resonance of say a guitar or cello). I tried listening to some tracks from 2Cellos album, In2ition and it just didn’t sound natural which is a shame because in all other regards, the sound is as the name suggest – pure. Still, for guitars, vocals, and other mids-up instruments, the Pure mode reproduces the frequencies as authentically as anything else I’ve heard.

Reference

SAM_0262-2As I said earlier, if Pure mode is smooth detail, Reference mode is fast detail. After flicking the little switch on each IEM, the PR becomes a single-BA IEM, details become turbocharged and the sound takes a hit of some kind of illicit drug! Suddenly, Pure mode sounds like muffled mode. Of course it’s not muffled at all, but the Reference mode is just so darn open and fast.

Those of you who’ve read my other reviews will know that I’m no treble-head and in fact can be quite sensitive to treble. Even in this ultra-revealing mode, the PRs still manage to stay on the comfortable side of the treble line and deliver a sparkling, detailed, and airy presentation without falling into the trap of getting strident and edgy. A couple of times I noticed that cymbals sounded a little bit splashy, but on the whole, once I adjusted to the sound, the Reference mode was enjoyable for what it was. I also think it presents slightly more punch in the bass so even though extension is about the same in both modes, the Reference mode seems a bit more full-range. A quick test with 2Cellos says it’s a slightly more realistic representation of the cello’s range of resonance, but still falls just short of total realism (in frequency response).

Quick Comparison: HiFiMan RE-272

Although no longer available, the RE-272s are a reference point for me for a neutral, transparent, but enjoyable earphone. They might have a touch of warmth in the mid-range, but stay highly transparent and detailed. I haven’t yet heard the RE-400 or RE-600 to compare, but personally find the RE-272s to offer 90% of the Noble PR’s detail rendering, but with a tiny bit more bass and therefore a slightly more natural and enjoyable overall tonality. As I’ll discuss more in a second, this doesn’t make the PRs a bad IEM, but rather an IEM with a specific purpose. The question is whether you want all detail like the PRs or detail with a tiny touch of warmth and more natural bass like the RE-272s.

Summary

SAM_0252-1For $699 (USD), the PR isn’t a cheap IEM, but it’s very well priced for the levels of performance on offer. That said, it’s not going to be for everyone. This isn’t a full-range IEM in my opinion and that will limit its abilities to create an enjoyable and immersive listening experience on some genres. There’s no doubt that it completely nails its brief to be a detail monster while still maintaining a sense of musicality and enjoyment (i.e. it doesn’t fall into the “super-bright treble = detail” trap), but I believe it is more of an analytical listening tool than a musical enjoyment device. Of course, that might just be a matter of taste so others might love all the detail and find that to be their doorway to musical enjoyment. If so, this IEM is a cracker and I’d highly recommend it! For those who want a more balanced (i.e. with natural levels of bass) presentation, don’t discount the Noble products, but look at some of their other beautiful options rather than the PR.

DAO Feature - Teal-01

Tralucent DacAmp One

The DacAmp One is a new entry into the portable audio market from relative newcomer, Tralucent. Subscribers to this blog who’ve been with me for a while may have read my reviews (and ongoing praise) of Tralucent’s previous portable device, the T1 amplifier. That amp, despite it’s simplicity, has a certain magic in its ability to be warm, detailed and spacious all at the same time so I was interested to hear what Voodoo Tralucent managed this time around…

Overview

The DacAmp One is a portable USB DAC and headphone amp similar (in concept) to products like the Fiio E17 and JDS Labs C5D, however, at a price of approximately $500 the DacAmp One sets itself apart from these and places itself in a bit of a gap in the market occupied only by the Pico Headamp. There are more expensive DAC/amp combos from the likes of Cypher Labs and plenty of cheaper options like those already mentioned, but the $500 mark is less crowded (at least in the Australian market).

  • Inputs:  mini USB, optical, 3.5mm stereo line-in
  • Outputs:  3.5mm stereo line-out, 3.5mm headphone out
  • Battery life:  around 30 hours (depending on the load and volume used)
  • Sample rates:  16 & 24-bit up to 96kHz (same for USB and optical)
  • Compatible impedances:  8 – 300 ohms
  • Output power: 190mW (95mW per channel)
  • Dimensions:  60mm x 115mm x 24mm (W x L x D) – length includes volume knob of roughly 12mm

On paper, the DacAmp One appears capable. There are no features or specs that jump off the page at me, but as you may have experienced in your own purchases and auditions, there is far more to a product than its specs and features – implementation is everything!

Design and Features

So the DacAmp One doesn’t appear to offer any unique features, but how are those features combined into a single package for portable audio pleasure?

Form Factor

SAM_0184-2The DacAmp One (DAO) is presented in a similar case to the Tralucent T1 except that the DacAmp One is slightly larger. Surprisingly though it seems lighter. This may be that it’s lighter than you expect for the size or maybe it is lighter than the T1. Either way, what matters is that it’s light for its quality of build and finish.

The DAO is very nicely finished and shows significant development in Tralucent’s quality of finish since the early days of the T1. It’s still a simple aluminium case with aluminium end caps attached by screws, but the case is now stamped with the Tralucent logo and the end caps are really nicely moulded and printed. The small toggle switches look and feel like quality items and the unit has an overall feel of sturdy, but well-finished ruggedness.

On the front of the DAO (from left to right) is the gain switch (high / low), headphone out, line in, and volume knob. Everything is well spaced and the recessed sockets are large enough to allow for even large 3.5mm jack housings to fit with no problems at all.

Moving to the back of the DAO things get a little more complicated…

SAM_0188-6From left to right again we have the line in / optical in port (this is a clever, dual function port like the ones used in the AK100), the mini USB port used for charging and USB DAC duties, the mode indicator light (more on that shortly), the mode switch and the power switch.

All of this seems straight forward, but the functionality of the lights for the mode indicator took a few moments to get my head around. The mode switch selects between DAC mode (either optical or USB) when down and charging mode when up. What threw me initially is that the blue DAC indicator light comes on even if the unit is switched off. You still have to power on the unit to hear anything though whether using the onboard amp for headphones or using the line out to a different amplifier. In fact, the power switch has to be on for your computer to even “see” the DAO as a DAC device. The blue DAC indicator light might be on, but the DAC circuitry is only active when the power switch is on.

Battery Use & Charging

To be fair to the DAO I wanted to allow plenty of burn-in time before judging its sound quality. When I first received the unit I set it up with my computer and a pair of headphones to run as both DAC and amp over night and into the next day. What I didn’t know is that the DAO runs on battery power exclusively meaning that even as a DAC it will chew through your battery and not be charging at the same time. The charging circuit is completely disconnected when running in DAC mode. This could well have been a deliberate decision to prevent any USB noise creeping into the sound, but it’s a shame that you need to then charge the DAO before taking it portable.

For example, imagine you commute with the DAO as your portable amp. You arrive at the office, plug your DAO into your computer to improve your office-based auditory experiences and then want to unplug the DAO to once again use it as your amp on the way home again. At some point in this process (perhaps on day 2 or 3 of this cycle) you are going to have to go without the DAO while you charge it because (as far as I can tell) it’s not taking any charge while you’re using it as a DAC.

On a positive note, the charge time is only 1.5 hours so you could always just switch to charge mode each day on your lunch break and continually keep the DAO topped up, but I was slightly surprised that I couldn’t charge in any way during use. I did try charging while using only the amp stage, but heard all kinds of noise coming from the USB circuit.

Supplied Accessories

SAM_0161-1The DacAmp One is packaged almost identically to the T1 amplifier which is a good thing because that means you’re getting everything you could possibly need: some rubber feet, a hex key to open the case and install the battery, a nice quality interconnect cable, 2 Tralucent rubber bands, a USB cable, and an optical adapter to connect standard optical leads to the 3.5mm port. There’s nothing flash here, but there doesn’t need to be – everything is exactly what you need at a good quality level and you’re not paying an excess for things you don’t need.

DAC Performance

 To test the DAC of the DacAmp One completely isolated from its amplifier, I ran the DAO in DAC mode with the line-out running to my Bottlehead Mainline. The Mainline has 2 inputs that are switchable on the fly so I can directly compare the DAO line-out with other options like the vastly more expensive desktop X-Sabre DAC and the built-in DAC of the Fiio X5.

As you might expect, the DacAmp One doesn’t compete with the X-Sabre, but you might be surprised that it took me a couple of tracks to hear the difference! I recently bought “The Union” by Elton John & Leon Russell so I’m listening to that album as I write this review. Foobar is driving the X-Sabre via its ASIO drivers while MediaMonkey is driving the DAO via WASAPI. Both are running in exclusive mode for the purest possible audio path.

11010045I started with the very simple track, “Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes” which is quite reminiscent of Elton John’s own “Candle in the Wind” – simple, slow and thoughtful. On a simple, stripped-back track I was honestly having trouble telling which DAC was which and started to worry that my X-Sabre was not the excellent DAC I believed it to be, however moving on to the next track, “Hey Ahab”, I soon heard the difference. With the more complex and multi-layered arrangement of “Hey Ahab”, I soon heard the X-Sabre stretch its legs and create a sense of space and depth that the DacAmp One just couldn’t match. Don’t get me wrong, a portable DAC shouldn’t be able to match the abilities of a desktop DAC that costs 3x as much.

What really stood out in this first test is the wonderful tonality from the DacAmp One. It is very, very close to neutral, but with just a hint of smoothness. I won’t go so far as saying warmth because that may overstate the delicate touch of musicality from the DacAmp One. For my tastes, the DacAmp One nails the signature perfectly – there’s no in-your-face, bleeding edge push for details at the expense of enjoyment, but there’s still plenty of detail, it’s just not emphasised to try and “wow” you and that’s great because that sort of approach leads quickly to fatigue and harshness.

With the DAO stacking up so well in tonality, but falling behind in terms of layering and spaciousness compared to the X-Sabre, I thought it was probably time to create a level playing field by comparing apples with pears as it were. If the DAO is a metaphorical apple and the X-Sabre is a metaphorical banana, the Fiio X5 is more like the DacAmp One and is my metaphorical pear in this comparison.

I struck a small quandary when comparing the DacAmp One and X5 because I didn’t have matching source cables. I’m using some nice Neotech RCA cables for the DAO, but had to handicap (out of necessity, not choice) the X5 with a decent quality 3.5mm to RCA cable I made myself, but it’s slightly inferior to the Neotech RCAs.

Predictably, the sound from the DAO reflected the improved cables with slightly better treble detail and sparkle, however, the X5 showed a clear edge once again in the sense of depth and layering created. To my ears, the DacAmp One DAC creates a stage that’s a bit flat. It’s as though spatial cues are not rendered as well in the DAO DAC as they are in some of the alternatives. There’s no doubt that the tonality and accuracy is exceptional across all frequencies, but the space and layering cues fall a little behind what I would like to hear from a $500 unit.

Amp Performance

The LED on the DacAmp One is not as blindingly bright as this image makes it look - gone are the days of lighting your bedroom at night with a Tralucent T1 on your bedside table

The LED on the DacAmp One is not as blindingly bright as this image makes it look – gone are the days of lighting your bedroom at night with a Tralucent amp on your bedside table

DacAmp One is a combined device – DAC and amp – so it’s important that you don’t make your decision based only on the DAC stage (unless that’s the only reason you’re considering buying it of course, but then I would suggest you should consider a dedicated DAC rather than any of the 2-in-1 options out there).

To isolate the amp stage in the DacAmp One I am using the X5 as my DAC (driven by MediaMonkey on my PC) and feeding the DacAmp One via the Fiio L16 high quality interconnect.

Similar to the DAC stage in the DAO, the amp stage is very clean with no significant emphasis on any frequencies, proving itself as an accurate, neutral and well-balanced device in all regards. Interestingly though, the amp stage presentation and staging is very similar to the DAC’s meaning that the soundstage is quite small and intimate with not a lot of layering and depth to speak of. I wouldn’t call it congested because there is good separation between each instrument and voice, but it all happens in quite a limited space that’s fairly heavily centred in the stage.

In comparison to the DAO, the X5’s onboard amp (still using the X5 as a DAC from the PC) is noticeably more open sounding and has slightly more treble energy (this is neither good or bad – just different and provided purely as an observation). Although I consider the X5’s onboard amp to be adequate, I don’t rate it as exceptional in comparison to dedicated offerings like Fiio’s own (and extraordinary) E12DIY. In other words, to my ears, the staging and presentation from the DacAmp One falls a bit short of my expectations from a $500 amp / DAC combo. As I hear it, it is bested by an all-in-one digital audio player that costs less and does more (i.e. stores your music in addition to decoding and amplifying).

DacAmp One with Various ‘Phones

Unique Melody Miracles

The DacAmp One is nicely powered for sensitive IEMs and provides plenty of range on the volume control in low gain mode. That’s often a challenge for portable amps that aim to drive both IEMs and full-size headphones so this is a big win for the DacAmp One.

Beyerdynamic DT1350

On low gain mode, the DacAmp One comfortably drives the DT1350s with plenty of play in the volume control so this it likely a good indication of how it will perform with many of the popular portable headphones on the market. Even in low gain mode you’ll have ample power for the majority of portable headphones.

Fischer Audio FA-011 Limited Edition

The Fischers are a relatively sensitive (98dB) headphone with moderate impedance (150 ohm) and once again are comfortably handled by the DAO even on low gain mode. In fact, it’s worth noting that this seems to be the sweet spot for the DacAmp One. While the X5’s onboard amp runs out of puff with the Fischers, the DAO seems to thrive. The sound is full, punchy and detailed with plenty of range still available on the volume control. The presentation is still a little flat, but the sound itself is wonderfully balanced across the full spectrum from bass to treble whereas the X5 starts to lack bass and volume output in low gain mode with the Fischers.

From here things get a little more interesting…

In theory, the DacAmp One should be able to drive the Audeze LCD 2s which need only 40mW to achieve 110dB (remembering that the DAO can supply 95mW per channel), but the LCD 2s pull quite a lot of current (up to 24mA for a 110dB peak). Most of my listening occurs at around 80dB which should be no problems so how will the DAO handle the LCD 2s at my normal listening volumes?

Audeze LCD 2

The LCD 2 pushes the limits of the low gain setting on the DacAmp One and had me second guessing whether to switch up to high gain or stick with low gain. To my ears, the sound is a bit compressed in high gain mode compared to low gain mode so I chose to stick with low gain using about 80-85% of the available volume to achieve perfect listening levels for my tastes. The good news is the LCD 2s were perfectly enjoyable from the DAO. I wouldn’t choose it over a dedicated desktop amp for the LCDs, but for portable use it’s definitely up to the task.

I didn’t bother trying the DAO extensively with the Beyerdynamic T1s because the DAO is rated up to 300 ohms. I’m not sure if that should actually prevent it from comfortably driving the T1s, but a brief listen proved to be easily acceptable (low gain mode onace again) even if the electronics of the DacAmp One aren’t specifically rated for a 600 ohm load like the T1s. It’s possible that the sound was a bit light in the bass, but I find that to be the case with most portable devices trying to drive the T1s.

Summary

I really like Tralucent as a brand and still don’t hesitate to recommend the T1 amplifier as a great option for a reasonably priced portable amplifier so I really wanted to love the DacAmp One. As it is though I’m left a little underwhelmed. It’s a nice looking and feeling product with outstanding plug-and-play compatibility, exceptional neutrality and good range in being able to drive everything from IEMs to full-size headphones with a definite sweet spot on higher impedance headphones, but it doesn’t quite reach that final 5% that takes good sound to great sound – namely the subtle spatial cues, textures and layering that leave you thinking “wow” every now and then. If it were priced a bit lower, I might feel differently, but for $500 I have a hard time identifying who this product is for and would likely recommend alternatives like the X5 as being more versatile (it’s a DAP in addition to amp and DAC), better sounding and cheaper.

Planar Feature - Orange-01

Planar Magnetic Comparison – HE-500 vs LCD-2

Most headphones on the market use a “traditional” driver technology referred to as dynamic drivers. These are much the same as the speakers you see in your stereo system or car with a cone of some sort driven by a coil of wire inside a magnet structure. In the past, planar magnetic technology was a fringe product in the headphone world, but over recent years this technology that was once nearly abandoned has enjoyed a resurgence to create some of the finest headphones on the planet. I’m going to talk about 2 of them here…

Audeze LCD-2

SAM_0151-4The LCD-2 was first released around 2010 and marked the first headphone from Audeze and the first really well-known planar magnetic headphone of the current generation. The LCD-2 has since undergone multiple revisions to tweak and improve on the sound and comfort. My pair are a December 2013 model which were made shortly before the most recent upgrade known as the Fazor. For the sake of comparisons to your tastes in music, the December 2013 version of the LCD-2 brings more treble energy and detail than its predecessors, but it’s still a warm / smooth sounding headphone compared with similarities to the HD650 (although I believe the LCD-2 is noticeably better than the HD650).

  • Frequency response:  5 – 20,000 Hz
  • Impedance:  70 ohms
  • Efficiency:  93 dB / 1mW
  • Weight:  600g
  • Cable:  detachable, twin entry cable using 4-pin mini XLR plugs
  • Price:  from approx $1000 (USD)

Those specs might seem normal at first glance, but 2 of the biggest considerations with planar headphones is their relatively low sensitivity and their relatively high weight. I’ll discuss both factors in more detail as the comparison continues, but next, let’s introduce the alternative.

HiFiMan HE-500

HiFiMan HE-500HiFiMan have an extensive range of planar magnetic headphones which culminates in their flagship HE-6, however the HE-6 is a demanding headphone to drive and is therefore prohibitive to some potential buyers (like me) because of the need for a dedicated amplifier just for the HE-6s. There is no doubt that the HE-6 is an outstanding headphone, but the HE-500 seems to be (in my experience) the more common option for people seeking a high quality planar headphone. The HE-500 is just about to be discontinued for a new and, by all accounts, quite different sounding headphone called the HE-560, but I imagine it will still be readily available on second-hand markets for years to come so I thought it was worth discussing here.

  • Frequency response:  15 – 50,000 Hz
  • Impedance:  38 ohms
  • Efficiency:  89 dB / 1mW
  • Weight:  502g
  • Cable:  detachable, twin entry cable using screw-on coaxial connector
  • Price:  from approx $600 (USD)

You’ll notice immediately that the HE-500 costs nearly half the price of the LCDs, so do they belong in the same article? Read on to find out…

Design & Build Quality

In very general terms, both of these headphones have a similar design style in that they feature large, round cups – larger than most dynamic style headphones. After the initial, obvious size and shape they become more different than similar. The LCD-2s are built with beautiful rosewood or bamboo cups (mine are bamboo) with the rosewood version being slightly more expensive and heavier. The HE-500s are housed in a glossy grey housing made of plastic (I think). Both headphones offer padded leather headbands with the LCD-2 feeling higher quality, softer and more padded.

SAM_0150-3The pads of the headphones are an area of significant difference between the two headphones with the LCD-2s coming with either super-soft leather pads or vegan (i.e. non-animal product) micro-suede pads. Both options from Audeze are angled pads which are thicker at the back (behind the ear) to better direct the sound and improve imaging. For this comparison review I am using the leather pads supplied with my LCD-2s.

The HE-500 comes with 2 sets of pads, both of which are flat or non-angled. HiFiMan provides a velour set and a leather set with a foam insert. I have chosen to use the velour set on mine because they sound slightly more open and balanced than the leather option.

To look at both headphones, I believe both look like quality offerings, but with the Audeze LCD-2 looking significantly more refined and luxurious. Both are solid, well put together and robust so there’s no question of quality and longevity, just design aesthetics and that’s a very subjective realm where your tastes and mine could very well differ.

That Grille

The HE-500 comes with a metal grille backed by fabric and the grille is recognised as a detractor from the HE-500’s sound quality (there’s even an article about this where HiFiMan acknowledged that removing the grille improves the sound). Many HE-500 owners choose to replace the grille with less restrictive options and while it’s important to note that this could void warranty, it’s a simple and reversible process that can be completed with just a few dollars and an hour or so.

For this comparison I am using the HE-500 with no grille attached as it creates the most natural and open sound from these headphones. Leaving the headphones grille-free could potentially lead to dust / particles entering the driver, but has been reported by many users to be safe over the long terms so this is a question of your personal preferences towards risk and reward.

Cables

SAM_0149-2I won’t get into detail about the supplied cables other than to say that the LCD-2s come with a flat, ribbon style cable which is OK, but not special and the HE-500s come with a silver-plated copper cable that is a bit stiff and shows kinks and bends over time, but is equally as serviceable as the LCD-2 cable. Unfortunately neither headphone really excels in the cable department, but thankfully both offer interchangeable cables which is great!

The LCD-2 uses a 4-pin mini-XLR connector for its cable which is excellent for DIYers because 4-pin XLR connectors are generally readily available from electronics stores. With only 2 wires (positive and negative / ground), the choice of the 4-pin connector is strange, but not a negative in any way.

SAM_0156-7The HE-500 uses a coaxial style screw connector and HiFiMan are kind enough to include a pair of connectors in the box so you can make your own cables straight away if you want to. The reason I am discussing this in detail is that these considerations are important to anyone wanting to upgrade their cables or to drive their headphones with a balanced output. With both the LCD-2 and HE-500 you can either reterminate the existing cables or make your own quickly and easily. For my purposes I have reterminated the HE-500 cable because I find their coaxial connectors a bit fiddly to work with and I have made a brand new cable for the LCD-2s.

Even though I have created balanced cabling options for both headphones, this comparison is conducted using an unbalanced output for both headphones. For all comparisons I am using the Bottlehead S.E.X. amp which offers 2W of power per channel and can comfortably drive both headphones to their peak performance.

Sound Quality

Because this is a comparison rather than an individual review, I will address sound quality in 3 broad categories of signature, detail retrieval and staging / imaging.

Signatures

Audeze LCD-2

The LCD-2 is known as a warm headphone and although later revisions such as mine have improved treble and upper-mid response, they are still warmer than neutral, but that’s where their magic lies. The LCD-2 manages to be simultaneously warm and detailed in much the same way as the Sennheiser HD650 only better. The LCD-2 doesn’t sound slow or thick to my ears, but smooth and relaxed – not to be confused with boring. There are neither hints of veil or harshness when listening to the LCD-2s. Vocals and instruments are clear and present, but not over-emphasised in relation to the rest of the spectrum. Finally, as you might expect if you’ve experienced planars before, the bass from the LCD-2s is truly magnificent with depth and punch delivered in equal measure. The bass extends deep, hits hard and does all this without ever influencing the other frequencies.

HiFiMan HE-500

SAM_0155-6The HE-500s have an interesting signature and the following statements may draw the ire of some of my peers and HE-500-loving friends, but they are simply my perception of the HE-500’s sound.

Overall I would describe the HE-500s as slightly warm, but not as warm as the LCD-2s. They have a less prominent midrange, but don’t lack for vocal and instrumental reproduction. Rather, I’d say that the mids are perceived differently because of the HE-500’s extra treble energy in relation to the LCD-2.

Now that we’re talking treble I should share the observation that may cause some conflict. I personally feel that the HE-500 treble carries a very slight dryness or grain that can make it slightly edgy at times. The HE-500s aren’t hot in the treble by any means and in fact are probably right on the money in terms of the amount of treble they deliver, but I find the treble to be a little harsh on some tracks where other, bright headphones manage to navigate the treble with more energy, but less fatigue. I’m talking subtleties here so it’s not a big deal, but it is a significant factor in my overall perception of the HE-500s.

Note: the choice of grille material and the use of a fabric backing for the grille can significantly alter the treble on the HE-500s with the grille-free approach being the smoothest and cleanest I have found. The stock grilles have noticeable ringing in the upper mids and also slightly harsher treble in my opinion – most likely due to reflected sound and ringing.

So, mids are slightly less emphasised than the LCD-2s and the treble has just the right amount of energy, but also a very slight harshness. So what about the bass?

The bass from the HE-500 is slightly punchier than the LCD-2s around the mid-bass region, but is therefore less linear. I think both actually extend similarly deep, but the LCD-2 seems to go deeper because there’s no bump in the bass halfway down. As to which is better? I don’t think I could say because they are both outstanding although different.

Signature Summary

So which headphone’s signature do I prefer?

Honestly, I can’t really split them. They are both completely enjoyable signatures with different pros and cons. Both are well-balanced in their own ways with the LCD-2s perfectly achieving a warm, but clean sound and the HE-500s achieving a balanced and energetic sound without hot treble or sucked-out mids. This is a personal taste decision if ever there was one.

Detail Retrieval

SAM_0147-1The retrieval of details is an interesting differentiation for these headphones because you’d expect the slightly brighter HE-500s to have an edge on one hand, but might also think that the extra sensitivity of the LCD-2s would give them an edge in the more subtle elements of a recording. The truth is that they both do a very good job of illuminating the details in your favourite tracks, but I believe the LCD-2s have a slight edge.

Where the LCD-2s creep ahead is the sense of space they create for each individual sound. They don’t throw a huge soundstage as I’ll discuss shortly, but somehow they create a blacker background and blanker canvas for the music so details are cleanly etched into time and space and are easier to discern as a result. The biggest achievement of the LCD-2s is their ability to create this incredible sense of detail while still sounding natural, warm and musical – it’s very impressive.

The HE-500s aren’t a slouch on details by any stretch and are an incredibly proficient headphone for their price, but just don’t quite reach the level of the LCD-2s which truly perform at a flagship level in this area.

Staging & Imaging

The staging and imaging of these 2 headphones is probably the most significant difference in terms of more objective measures than sound signature which is such a question of personal taste. While both headphones create a good soundstage and the HE-500 creates a slightly larger sounding space for the instruments, I can’t help but rate the LCD-2s significant winners in the staging and imaging department.

HE-500

HE-500 Stage 2Let’s start with the HE-500 – it’s no slouch on staging and imaging with a nice clean presentation of each instrument and a fairly wide stage that can extend slightly beyond the sides of the head. It doesn’t project very far forwards, but enough to provide some sense of space. I think the part that holds me back slightly from really applauding the HE-500’s presentation is that the stage starts out wide and spacious at each side, but seems to almost compress slightly in the middle so the overall sonic picture doesn’t strike me as completely natural and realistic. I’ve created a very rough graphical representation of what I hear from the HE-500s to hopefully make it a bit clearer.

LCD-2

The LCD-2 offers a different approach by creating a stage that is quite ordinary in size stretching only from ear to ear, but with a perfect shape the extends proportionately forwards in relation to its width – more of an oval shape. This results in a natural and realistic sounding stage for your music and audio, but is only the first part of the puzzle.

Remember earlier I said that the LCD-2 seems to somehow have a darker background for the music? This same trait means that every sound, every instrument, and every voice is carved out in it’s very own space. Despite the stage being narrower than the HE-500, the sense of space from the LCD-2s is significantly greater – everything feels so separate (in a good way) while maintaining a perfectly cohesive and natural presentation. The HE-500 on the other hand can feel a little like a wall of sound where everything sounds good, but still sounds like a recording. Somehow the LCD-2s make it all sound real even though it’s trapped inside your head.

I thought when I first got the LCD-2s that the small stage size was going to be a deal breaker for me, but it is such a non-issue because the stage feels so spacious even though it’s small. The result of this sense of space and separation between instruments is razor sharp imaging. It is SO easy to place exactly where each sound is coming from when using the LCD-2s – they are carved out in space and time as clearly as if you could look at them. I don’t find the same to be true with the HE-500s.

Note Weight

I wasn’t really sure where to discuss the topic of note weight so I’m throwing it here as its own sub-point. What I mean by ‘note weight’ is the impact and density of sounds compared to how they might sound and feel when played by a real instrument in a live setting. I would rate both of these headphones highly in this area as they create an excellent sense of realism and weight to all range of sounds. The HE-500s may be one of the best headphones I’ve heard at conveying the true sound and weight of a piano . When it comes to tracks featuring pianos, the HE-500s are a step ahead of both the LCD-2s and the beyerdynamic T1s which is no small feat.

Overall though, the win goes once again to the LCD-2 because of its ability to be almost as good as the HE-500s with pianos and slightly better on all other instruments, especially vocals and guitars. The midrange of the LCD-2s has just the right amount of attack and note weight to make everything sound and feel so real. The extra treble energy and speed helps the HE-500 when it comes to pianos, but leaves them feeling slightly light or perhaps a touch too fast for some other sounds and textures.

The Power Myth

Planar magnetic headphones are known to be less efficient than dynamic driver headphones and often require specific amplifiers to do them justice, however, if you’re considering a planar headphone, don’t get caught in the power myth trap. Headphones like the HE-500 and LCD-2 run very comfortably with a headphone amp delivering around 1 watt of good quality power. Some will tell you that you need a speaker amplifier for planars, but the physics and my own subjective testing says otherwise.

A planar headphone driven with insufficient power will sound thin and possibly a bit harsh, but that doesn’t mean that the more power you give them, the better they’ll sound. Once you reach sufficient power it becomes about the quality of that power, not how much power you have.

According to pure maths, a pair of LCD-2s should only need about 400mW per channel to create 120dB of sound and that’s hearing-loss territory. A pair of HE-500s needs 1.25 watts to reach the same volume, but can reach 115dB (significantly quieter, but still rock concert territory and able to cause hearing loss with long-term exposure) with that same 400mW. So as you can see from the numbers, crazy power outputs aren’t necessary. You want more than 400mW on hand to allow for momentary peaks in the music (also sometimes referred to as transients) and to not be working your amplifier at 100%, but an amplifier with about 1W of good clean power is plenty for most planars (except the likes of the HE-500’s bigger brother, the HE-6).

Summary & Recommendations

So, you’re looking to buy a planar headphone… First of all, great idea! They are a wonderful style of headphone and deliver a style sound that I have never heard from a dynamic headphone. That’s not to say they are better than dynamics, just different and therefore worth experiencing. The next question then is which one is for you? As always that’s a very subjective decision, but I would sum it up as follows:

Reasons to buy HE-500s

  • The price tag on the LCD-2 is just too high – fair enough because it may be difficult to justify the large leap in price for the comparatively small leap in performance, but don’t forget to look for second-hand options like mine where you can get all that performance for far less dough
  • You love listening to piano music – classical, jazz, popular… doesn’t matter – the HE-500 is really special when it comes to piano reproduction
  • You like to modify gear – there is a huge community of HE modifiers out there with lots of ideas on pad modifications, grille modifications, and even some more subtle damping mods
  • You like your treble as much or more than your bass – the HE-500s aren’t bright, but they’re detailed enough and have sufficient extension for those who might otherwise find headphones like the LCD-2s or HD650s too mellow

Reasons to buy LCD-2s

  • You love realism in your music – look no further – I think the LCD-2s are one of the most realistic sounding headphones I’ve heard in terms of weight and imaging and I’d highly recommend them to anyone looking for a natural and realistic sounding headphone (except perhaps for classical lovers where the intimate soundstage may be a little too intimate to sound realistic for large orchestral works)
  • You like a sexy / luxurious headphone as much as a good sounding one – there’s no doubt that the LCD-2s are beautifully made and crafted and leave most others behind in terms of their luxurious wood and leather aesthetics – sure there are great looking metal and plastic ‘phones out there, but there’s just something about wood and leather…
  • You just want the best you can get – overall I believe the LCD-2s are the better overall headphone of these two – sure the HE-500 has a couple of advantages with piano and large orchestral works, but I almost always reach for the LCD-2s before I reach for the HE-500s just because the LCD-2s are so good

With the HE-500s being retired soon (or right now perhaps) to be replaced by the HE-560 and HE-400i, be sure to check those out on their own merits because they are quite different to the HE-500. Also note that there are many different versions of the LCD-2 and the sound has changed over the years (although not drastically – they have always been warm, just slightly less so now). I completed these comparisons with a December 2013 model of the LCD-2s so be sure to check out the specific model you’re considering before buying because it may vary slightly from mine in terms of sound and presentation.

All-in-all I encourage you to try planars at least once – they are wonderful and there are plenty of flavours out there now to suit lovers of dark, neutral and bright presentations so do yourself a favour and check them out!

X5 Feature - teal-01-01-01-01

Fiio X5 Portable Hi-Res Music Player

Fiio’s latest contribution to the world of sound and music came in the form of the X5 portable music player. Following on from the recent release of their limited edition portable amplifier, the E12DIY, the X5 is another statement from Fiio that they want to play at the high end of sound quality, even if the pricing is still only at the mid level (and for that we are thankful!)

Overview

  • Size:  67.6 x 114 x 15.6 mm
  • Weight:  195 g
  • Storage:  2 x micro SD (TF) card slots – max capacity 256Gb at time of launch
  • Line-out:  1.5 Vrms
  • Output impedance:  <0.26 ohms
  • Recommended headphone impedance:  16 – 300 ohms
  • Max output current:  >150 mA
  • Max output voltage:  8 V (peak-to-peak)
  • Battery life:  > 10 hours
  • Sample rates:  up to 192 kHz / 24 bit

There are plenty more specs available on the Fiio website (fiio.com.cn), but to me these are the key elements that show the general versatility of the X5. There are some further outstanding numbers such as crosstalk and signal-to-noise ratio, but there are different figures for the amped headphone out and the unamped line-out so I’ll let you look these up yourself to as not to overload everyone with numbers.

The X5 retails for around $400 and offers the same compatibility as other much more expensive players. However the question is whether it offers the same performance? I bought the X5 to replace my far more expensive RWAK100 so outstanding performance was a must and I haven’t been disappointed… for the most part.

Design & Compatibility

On first look at the X5 you’ll probably immediately think of it as an iPod clone and in many ways it is from a form factor point of view, but it’s slightly larger and heavier than an iPod, has a broader range of connectivity options, plays many more formats of audio (compared to iPod models released up to May 2014), and sounds better than any iPod I’ve tried, but we’ll get to that later.

The case of the X5 is made from high quality aluminium which is anodised (I think) to a dark grey finish. The player feels solid, high quality, and durable, but not too heavy for a portable device. It’s no lightweight, but it’s quite pocketable.

The top of the X5 is home to three 3.5mm jacks – a headphone out, a line out and a coaxial out – a reset button and a power button. Down the left side (looking from the front of the unit) you’ll find volume controls, and on the bottom of the unit you’ll find a pair of TF card sockets with rubber covers, and a micro-USB socket.

Moving to the business side of the X5, the front houses a 2.4 inch screen, a control wheel with central button and buttons at each of the 4 corners of the wheel. Unlike the iPods that the X5 resembles, the wheel is a mechanical scroll wheel that spins versus the iPod’s touch-based wheel. The X5 wheel is also just a wheel with no press-down button functions – on the X5, button functions are handled by 4 buttons at the “corners” of the wheel.

To me, the button operations of the X5 are pretty spot on. The wheel feels a bit odd at first – looser than you’d expect, but in no way at risk of falling off – but it does a great job as a scrolling interface for the various menus. The central button works as an “OK” and play / pause button and the 4 corners work as (from top left and moving clockwise) a shortcut / menu button, back button, step forwards button, and step backwards button. I’ll expand on the operation of these shortly.

Menus & Interface

The X5’s menus are clean and simple and the interface is (to me) very intuitive. I have noticed a number of comments on the Head-Fi forum that it is not as intuitive to some, but to me it made perfect sense after reading the quick start guide so this is probably a question of what we’re used to and how we think. Some of you might find the X5 takes a little more time to get used to, but hopefully your experiences will be equally straight forward and enjoyable.

From the “Now Playing” screen of the X5, you can access the menu with a long press on the top left corner button (meaning the top left of the four silver buttons around the central wheel) or you can use the top right button to step back through previous views. The back button is also a quick way to get back to “Now Playing” when you’re in the menus.

Within the menus, the scroll wheel and the forwards and backwards buttons make navigating quick and easy (except in long menus, but I’ll get to that) and the central button has a consistent role to select the desired options. One thing that is a tiny bit confusing here is the variable function of the forwards and backwards buttons which will sometimes operate the scrolling function to move through menu items and at other times become toggle switches to choose options like high or low gain. It’s a really minor thing that you get used to quickly so this is not a criticism so much as an observation.

Another feature which I use rarely, but really appreciate is the shortcut button which brings up a horizontal list of options over the top of the “Now Playing” screen. I’ve included a picture further down the page that shows this shortcut bar. This quick access menu allows you to select options such as marking a track as a favourite, choosing shuffled or sequential playback, and even deleting a track on the fly.

While the touch screen of my previous player, the RWAK100, was nice, I find the mechanical control of the X5 more consistent and direct given the small screen sizes of these devices.

File Compatibility

At the time of writing this review (June 2014) the X5 supports an incredibly wide range of formats including FLAC, MP3, WMA, AAC, APE, OGG, and ALAC. It also supports the super-high spec DSD format, but it downsamples this to what is essentially super-high quality FLAC before decoding so it’s more of a convenience factor that it converts your DSD for you rather than you having to convert before loading onto the device.

I’ve found a few minor glitches with compatibility, but I like the fact that the X5 just shows a quick notification of incompatibility before moving on – it hasn’t locked up or frozen in my experiences. The files that I haven’t been able to play back so far have been very low bitrate podcast files and some wave files that may have been unusual sample / bitrates. All-in-all, the X5 has comfortably played every normal media file in my collection that includes a wide range of MP3, WMA, AAC, ALAC, and FLAC.

Other Comments on the Interface

There are too many interface elements to cover in detail without turning this review into the X5’s user manual so instead I want to highlight a few things I really like and a few things that will hopefully be fixed in the X5 via future firmware updates.

Things I Like

  • The automatic library scan (used to populate library browsing options) is quick! The AK100 used to take ages to scan 3000 files while the X5 completes a scan of nearly 5000 files much, much faster.
  • The player has a selectable auto-start feature which means it will automatically start playback when you power it up with headphones or line-out connected
  • The screen is bright and clear – easily viewed even in bright light
  • 120 steps of volume make fine adjustments easy
  • 10-band equaliser allows fine adjustments to the sound signature
  • When the screen is off, the volume buttons also act as track forwards / backwards buttons using a long press – this makes “in pocket” use really easy

Things I don’t like so much

  • No playlist support*
  • No replaygain (volume levelling)*
  • Unable to select to play all of a certain artist – only one album at a time*
  • Can only scan / catalogue 5800 tracks despite the large, 256Gb max capacity – you can still load more tracks, but can only browse them via folder view, not by categories such as artist, album, or genre*
  • The screen is smaller than the window on the device – the screen is square while the window is a wider rectangle – this is really a minor niggle
  • Scrolling through the library doesn’t accelerate so long libraries can be tedious to navigate*

* These items (above) will likely be fixed / added in later firmware updates.

One final comment about the interface and usability of the X5 is that a number of people have reported stuttering playback, system freezes, and other issues. In my time with the X5 so far I have not experienced any of those issues and any glitches that have arisen have been due to faulty / corrupt audio files and in no way a fault of the device. Like many of the boutique / hi-res players on the market (really that means non-Apple players), the X5 can be a little bit sensitive to file issues, but that is true for the X5’s competitors too so should not be a subject for comparison I believe.

Accessories

One of the best things about the X5 is its huge range of accessories. It comes with a black silicone case, but there are also other cases available from Fiio (via their retailers) including the HS6 stacking kit (see image) to use the X5 with a portable amplifier and the “leather” case which is not genuine leather, but looks and feels quite nice.

Best of all, the accessories are all incredibly well priced and offer a wide range of options for all different scenarios. This allows you to have multiple cases for different scenarios which is a really nice touch.

Audio Performance

The X5 is designed to play the highest quality music you can find and therefore it should recreate that music with grace, precision and accuracy on par with the devices from the likes of Astell & Kern / iRiver and iBasso. Fiio spared no expense it seems in creating a clean and accurate path for the signal from the DAC to your headphones and the results are excellent.

Signature

Rather than discuss the treble, mids and bass of a DAP (digital audio player), I prefer to consider the overall signature of the player and whether it delivers an accurate representation of the music or whether it colours it or alters it in any way.

To my ears, the X5 is clean and accurate with just a hint of warmth. The warmth doesn’t come at the expense of any detail though. Much like the Matrix X-Sabre DAC that I use at home, the X5 is able to balance warmth and smoothness with clarity and detail. This is an impressive balance to strike because it keeps the music enjoyable, but in no way lacking the accuracy and detail you expect from a top-end system. I prefer a slight touch of warmth to a more analytical sound so this is perfect.

There has been some discussion on forums of the X5 lacking bass, but to my ears it is accurate to the recordings I know well and love so I think this might be a personal taste thing and there’s always that 10-band EQ to give you a bass, mid or treble fix – whatever your tastes require.

Imaging and Staging

The shortcut band at the top of the screen allows quick access to common settings

The X5 creates an outstandingly accurate image and stage, but it also has a minor flaw here.

When I contemplated buying the X5 to replace my RWAK100, I was concerned about a drop-off in sound quality given that the X5 literally costs half of what I paid for the X5. I was fortunate to be able to test my concerns with some direct A/B comparisons of each device and what I heard astounded me. (Note: I completed the test with an X5 that already had many hours of use as a demo unit so burn-in was not an issue.)

I loved the RWAK100 and held it in high regard as a reference for affordable portable sound, but the X5 offered greater accuracy and size in the soundstage! The most revealing test here was the track called Dancing Flute & Drum from Dr. Chesky’s Sensational, Fantastic, and Simply Amazing Binaural Sound Show. At the beginning of this track you can hear some drum sticks (or similar percussive instrument) being hit together. The resulting sharp, stoccato sound rings out through the space they were recording in and effectively creates a sonar-style image of the room. On the RWAK100, this image was good, but seemed to fade slightly around the corners. On the X5, the image was complete and perfect – every inch of the room’s reflections returned to me and revealed their tale of the room’s size and shape. I was sold.

So the X5’s image and soundstage is entirely accurate and detailed which may lead you to wonder how there could be a minor flaw here… well the flaw is very subtle and only revealed by comparing the headphone output of the X5 with the line-out from the X5.

Upon connecting the X5 to the E12DIY amplifier and comparing the two outputs, the outstanding performance of the E12DIY reveals a minor shortcoming of the X5’s onboard amp. Before I go any further though, let’s get real – the X5’s onboard amp has to fit into the same space as the DAC, power supply, screen, scroll wheel, buttons, line-out, coaxial out, and processors whereas the E12DIY uses essentially the same chassis size for amplification and power alone – it’s not a fair contest.

So, back to this flaw. The flaw is very subtle once you’ve “burned-in” the device, but it was quite noticeable at first. The flaw I’m referring to is a slightly less than “black” background to the music. There’s no hiss or audible noise, but the sounds don’t leap out of nowhere in the X5 in quite the same way they do when using the E12DIY (or other high quality amps) connected to the X5’s line-out. There seems to be a limitation to the blackness of the X5’s background that is initially caused by something that benefits from burn-in (capacitors perhaps?). The good news is that after 30-40 hours of use (based on various users’ opinions and experiences) the sense of a slight haze in the music all-but-disappears. After burn-in the X5 is not quite perfect and with A/B comparisons using a high quality amp you can here the difference, but that difference is tiny, especially if you’re using the X5 when you’re out-and-about with noise and other distractions. Even despite this tiny, tiny, tiny (have I emphasised how miniscule this issue is?) drawback, for a $400 device that is a transport, DAC, amp, and database, the results are still nothing short of extraordinary.

My recommendations would be to not judge the X5’s headphone output until you’ve used it for a while. I have to admit that I was quite disappointed when I first started using the X5s headphone output and stuck to using the line-out exclusively for some time (while leaving the X5 driving headphones overnight to see if burn-in would help). Upon returning to the headphone out recently, I was shocked to hear the improvement and now have to seriously consider whether the tiny improvement in sound from using the E12DIY is worth the extra size and weight of the stack compared to the easy single-box option of the X5 on its own. The X5 is honestly good enough that I now often choose to use it on its own and that’s saying something coming from someone who’d always rather carry an extra bit of gear if it means extracting that last little bit of sound quality. The difference is just too small to justify in many situations now.

Performance with Various Head / Earphones

I mostly use the X5 with my Unique Melody Miracles, but have taken the time to test it with a wide range of devices including:

Although I could happily listen to all of these head / earphones with the X5, I would have to say that the two planar headphones (HE-500 and LCD 2) definitely benefit from the extra power of an amp, but they are absolutely enjoyable with the X5 even if not quite reaching their peak.

The T1s are another headphone that probably benefits from a dedicated amp, but the X5 brings the T1 very, very close to it’s peak performance even without an external amp.

With everything else I’ve tried, the X5’s relative neutrality and hint of warmth makes it an excellent source that allows the earphones and headphones to sing with their own voice and sound exactly as they should.

The Line-Out in Detail

It’s a few days since I posted this review and I’m revisiting it to add a quick comment on the line-out of the X5. The line-out is an unamplified 1.5V output designed to run straight to an external amp so it bypasses the X5’s internal amplifier and gives your external portable or desktop amp a straight shot to the X5’s DAC.

The reason I wanted to come back and add this is because the line-out deserves special attention for incredible performance. I used it one evening to quickly audition a Burson Soloist amp which I was borrowing from a friend. The sound from the setup was so good with “just the X5″ that I had to see how good it would get with the much more expensive DAC only Matrix X-Sabre that I use in my office. Switching to the X-Sabre I was shocked to hear almost no improvement!!

Now, in subsequent, more thorough comparisons I can say that the X5 is not quite as good a DAC / source as the X-Sabre, but we’re comparing a $400 device that’s a portable player, amp, database and DAC to a dedicated DAC worth $1200-1300. The X-Sabre has a slight edge in resolution and refinement, but it’s not an $800 edge which is to say that the X5 performs so much higher than its price.

The X5 line-out has a nice authority in the bass without adding significant “colour” the sound and is easily on par with other dedicated desktop DACs (and DAC/amp combos) I have heard up to about the $600 mark. This is incredible performance for a compact, portable device in the price range of the X5 so I simply had to come back and give that fact the airtime it deserves!

Summary and Conclusion

Coming from the RWAK100, the X5 had big shoes to fill (despite the RWAK100’s tiny form factor) and it has not only filled them, but redesigned them. My expectations for a portable player have shifted thanks to the X5. It’s ability to be so well priced, feel great in the hand, have a wide range of affordable accessories, deliver world-class sound via it’s dedicated line-out and near-world-class sound from it’s on-board amp, and enjoy excellent ongoing support from the wonderful folks at Fiio make this a portable player to reset the bar for others to follow.

Every time I use the X5 I find that I enjoy it – the whole experience. It feels good, works well, looks good and sounds good. I honestly can’t imagine spending more on a portable player without leaping into the rarified air of the AK240 or Tera Player because there’s just no need when the X5 is SO good at $400. So in other words, in my mind, the X5 just made the $400-$2000 range redundant in the world of DAPs.

E12DIY Feature-01

Fiio E12DIY Portable Amplifier

It’s kind of appropriate to be returning to review a new Fiio amplifier given that my very first portable amplifier was the Fiio E11. The E11 was a great starting amp for me, but the E12DIY is in a whole different league!

Overview

02230003The E12DIY is a special project from Fiio and is a limited editing offering for audio enthusiasts and tinkerers. The DIY is designed to let enthusiasts tweak the amp by changing op amps (more on that later), capacitors and resistors, but it begins life as a very capable portable amp even if you do nothing to modify it.

Because of the modifiable nature of the DIY, the specs provided (other than dimensions) are indicative and by no means fixed:

  • Dimensions:  124 x 65.5 x 14.5mm
  • Weight:  163g
  • Signal-to-Noise: 110dB
  • THD: 0.005%
  • Power: 600mW to 16 ohms

Inside the DIY’s box you’ll find a soft carry pouch, a hex key for opening the case, a tool for removing the op amps, a USB charging cable, 3.5mm to 3.5mm interconnect, rubber bands to attach the amp to your player, and a tin containing a variety of op amps, buffers, capacitors, resistors, and adapters.

Design & Features

The E12DIY is a relatively large amplifier, but it’s slim so total volume is similar to other portables like the Tralucent T1 – it’s just packed in a different shaped box. Personally, I figure that the moment you add an amp to a portable rig you’re choosing to sacrifice “pocketability” so they’re all going to be much the same overall once total size and weight are considered. Sure, there are tiny offerings out there like the Shozy Magic and Ray Samuels Mustang, but the majority of amps are similar in overall size and weight.

The E12DIY is a little heavier than other amps I’ve tried, partly due to its solid aluminium shell and partly due to its large battery. I imagine that the battery also partly defines the DIY’s form factor too, but the battery is a key part to the E12DIY’s performance so no complaints here.

The E12DIY is sold (if you can still find one) in either natural aluminium silver or in a gold finish that I haven’t seen “in the flesh”. Both colours differentiate the DIY from the standard E12 models which are black.

Connectivity & Controls

The E12DIY is nice and simple – 3.5mm input and output jacks (1 of each), a micro USB power socket, 2-position gain switch (high / low), and a volume knob that doubles as a power switch (zero volume = amplifier off). Unlike the standard E12 model, there is no bass boost switch or crossfeed circuit. According to comments I read somewhere from Fiio, the E12DIY was deliberately kept simple to allow more space for the best (simplest?) possible audio and power circuit designs and I believe it was a great choice.

Power

02230001Fiio struck a perfect balance with the design of the E12DIY by making it low-powered enough to drive sensitive OEMs, while also providing a high gain mode and plenty of power to drive much more challenging headphones.

The DIY pairs spectacularly with my Unique Melody Miracles, but is equally adept at powering my beyerdynamic T1s and Fischer Audio FA-011 LEs. That’s excellent versatility and means that the E12DIY could easily be the only portable amplifier you ever need to own. Of course, being a portable amp, it doesn’t quite replace a quality desktop, mains-powered amplifier, but is excellent for portable listening.

Something I really liked about Fiio’s provided set of buffers and op amps is that one of them (the LMH6321) is more focussed on high impedance loads (that’s Sennheisers and beyerdynamics mostly), while the other 2 are more general in operation. This means you can focus your amp to drive your exact headphone if you have a higher impedance model or you can keep it more versatile with the other buffer options. I should probably clarify though, that the other buffers still do a great job of driving high impedance ‘phones, it’s just that the LMH6321 is able to produce a little more oomph into higher impedance loads.

Sound Quality

Knowing that you can change the op amps and buffers in this amp, you’ve probably also surmised that the sound quality is variable as a result. Correct!

Because of the completely variable nature of the DIY’s staging and signature, I’m going to restrict this section to discussing the elements that remain consistent regardless of the chips used.

Noise Levels

In short? None!

01170025The E12DIY provides a completely black background with no noise or hash through any earphone or headphone I’ve tried with it. I did notice that using the BUF634 buffer introduced a potential for some noise to be picked up when I moved the interconnect and earphone plugs around inside the sockets (i.e. if I had the amp in my pocket and was walking), but I think this might have been a sign that I needed to re-seat the buffer by removing it and plugging it back in to ensure full contact in the socket. In any case, this was a situational issue while 95% of the time the amp was dead silent with this buffer and is 100% silent with my preferred LME49600 buffer, bur more on that later.

Back to discussing noise levels, the most noticeable benefit of a black background is that it allows every nuance, detail and texture of your music to be heard easily and clearly, but without having to over-emphasise anything. The E12DIY is able to deliver incredible clarity and detail while never sounding like it colours or enhances anything.

Channel Separation

Some years back I worked in car audio, designing and installing stereo systems. My focus was always sound quality and imaging, not necessarily sound pressure levels (i.e. ear-drum-rupturing volume). One of the tricks I often employed to create epic sound quality without spending too much money was to have separate amplifiers for each channel. For example, we’d use a 2 channel amp for the left side of the car (1 channel for the front and 1 channel for the rear) and a second 2 channel amp for the right side of the car. This kept each half of the stereo signal completely isolated so there was nearly zero crosstalk (only what occurred inside the car’s head unit). The term crosstalk refers to the sound from one channel bleeding slightly into the other channel and it has the ability to compress or completely kill the stereo image.

The reason I told that little story is because some amps do a better job than others at replicating this type of isolation of the 2 stereo channels. You can always tell when an amp does it well because the auditory image is always deep, beautifully defined, and engaging. The E12DIY does this extremely well! There are no crosstalk measurement published, but to my ears, the stereo channels are beautifully isolated and this is particularly true when using the OPA1611 op amps (2 mono op amps being used much like my 2 separate car amp analogy above).

Overall, the E12DIY’s ability to provide a “blank canvas” for the sound and to keep the stereo channels well isolated results in a wonderfully fun foundation with which to chop and change op amps and buffers to tailor the sound to your tastes and your gear while always maximising the performance of the components you install.

Op Amps and Buffers

I am a complete newbie when it comes to op amps and buffers, or at least I was when I bought the E12DIY. I would suggest that I have progressed from newb to beginner or amateur over the last few months, but am still far from an expert so what follows is a layman’s explanations of what I have discovered and learned with the chips supplied by Fiio and a few others I’ve bought myself.

Op Amps vs Buffers

02230012My layman’s understanding of op amps and buffers is that they are both very similar, but used differently. In my understanding, an op amp processes the incoming signal a bit like a pre-amp. The buffer then provides the gain (or voltage) to drive the signal into the headphones. To put it another way, the signal comes from your device (let’s say an iPod line out) and is first fed to the op amp which outputs an amplified signal. The amplified signal now needs power applied to allow it to effectively drive the headphones you’re using and this is the role of the buffer as I understand it.

As I said, I am still learning this area of audio and electronics, but I think of the op amp as a pre-amp of sorts and the buffer as the interface between the amplifier and headphones – the engine that drives the headphones according to the directions provided by the op amp.

If you know more about this topic and can clarify (or correct) my explanation, please feel free to share your knowledge with me and others via the comments section.

What Fiio Provides

The silver tin that comes with an E12DIY contains a selection of 4 op amps and 3 buffers. The op amps essentially offer different flavours of sound while the buffers offer a combination of flavouring, but also tailoring the power output to suit your chosen ‘phones.

The op amps provided are:

  • AD8620
  • OPA1611
  • OPA604
  • AD797

02230007I will hopefully be able to dedicate a whole post to the different sounds and flavours of various op amps in the near future, but my personal preference from these op amps is the OPA1611 which balances near-neutrality with a touch of bass warmth and lots of detail and clarity.

Until I can write in more detail about these op amps, there is some great discussion of different op amps scattered throughout the E12DIY thread over on Head-Fi.

The buffers provided are:

  • BUF634 (general)
  • LME49600 (general)
  • LMH6321 (more focussed towards powering high impedance headphones)

To my ears, the BUF634 and LME49600 provide different presentations of the sound with the BUF634 creating a more intimate, warmer presentation and the LME49600 feeling more spacious and transparent. The BUF634 might have a slight edge in the texture and weight of midrange, but I find myself preferring the LME49600 and the consensus (by a small majority) on Head-Fi points towards the LME49600 being the preferred buffer.

The LMH6321 presents sound quality that, overall, is almost on par with the LME49600, but it is able to provide greater power and therefore may perform even better than the LME49600 when paired with higher impedance headphones. THe LMH6321 is a bit of a specialist in that respect because it is less capable with lower impedance ‘phones than the other buffers. It still sounds great, but just not as great as the other two “generalist” buffers. If I were using the E12DIY solely with a headphone like the Sennheiser HD650 or beyer T1, the LMH6321 would likely get the nod.

Extra Adapters

In addition to the range of supplied chips, Fiio went one step further and provided all manner of adapters so you can try your own selection of op amps. The design of the E12DIY won’t allow for DIP-8 style op amps like the OPA2107, LM4562, or MUSES 01 (to name a few), but you can grind / file the inside of the case slightly to allow sufficient clearance if you’re brave enough. So far I’ve resisted this urge because I’m worried that it would require making the aluminium housing a bit too thin, but maybe I’ll get brave one day…

Back to the supplied adapters though. When you lift out the foam inside the tin full of op amps, there are a myriad of adapters stuck to the bottom of the foam (just using the 8 pin connectors pushed into holes in the foam). These adapters include options for both buffers and op amps including dual and mono varieties. It means you can have plenty of fun trying unusual, cheap, expensive, and exotic op amps to your heart’s content… so long as you’re happy to wield a soldering iron. No soldering is required with the stock provisions, but any op amps or buffers you buy yourself will either require soldering (for surface mount options) or filing / grinding (for DIP-8 options).

So far I have only tried an AD8599 which is the same op amp as used in the Tralucent T1 and while it’s magic in the T1, I preferred the OPA1611 in the DIY.

Summary & Wrap

01170026As I write this summary, there are probably a few new, retail units of the E12DIY in captivity so if you’ve read this far and it’s still close to April / May 2014 then you might want to get hunting for a remaining E12DIY at a dealer. For the price you pay you will not find a comparable package of sound quality, power and bespoke sound. It’s a sleek package of brushed aluminium that happens to perform somewhere in the range of twice it’s price point. In terms of transparency, neutrality and overall quality, the E12DIY will absolutely not disappoint the most demanding users as a portable amplifier and will be equally as much a bargain second hand (if you can find one) as new.

With the E12DIY, Fiio seem to have announced their arrival into making serious, headphone performance gear and have taken a step beyond their previous (excellent) mid-fi offerings. The recently released X5 portable media player is a further step in this direction and I’m looking forward to reviewing it in the coming weeks so stay tuned!

Super Dart Feature-01

Atomic Floyd Super Darts

The Super Darts are a hybrid IEM from English manufacturer, Atomic Floyd. They boast some of the best build quality and bass quality I’ve ever seen and heard in an earphone, but were recently reviewed rather negatively by a local magazine publication. I was shocked to read the review and promptly asked Billy from Noisy Motel if I could have a lend of the Super Darts to review and to see if I had mis-perceived the Super Darts during my previous auditions. Despite being loaned the Super Darts there is no bias for me to write a favourable review.

Overview

  • Sensitivity:  100 dB
  • Frequency range:  5 – 25,000 Hz
  • Impedance:  16 ohms
  • Drivers:  1 x dynamic, 1 x balanced armature per earphone

The Super Darts retail for $299 (AUD) which places them firmly in the sweet spot for the many hybrid IEMs appearing on the market from companies such as Astrotec, Sony, and T-Peos to name a few. The hybrid trend is thriving at present because of the benefits of marrying the very bass-capable dynamic drivers with the more agile balanced armatures for mids and treble. I’ve previously reviewed the Astrotec AX60s which are a 3-driver hybrid that costs $100 more than the Super Darts so they provided a nice reference point for this review.

Design & Comfort

These are easily some of the sexiest IEMs I’ve ever seen and the fact that they’re made from metal and have a beautiful fabric-wrapped cable means that they feel as good as they look. They are built like a tank, but a tank made by Ferrari. Everything from the plug through the Y-split to the shells of the IEMs themselves are made of high quality materials and look and feel like they’re worth every cent of your $299.

Cable

SAMSUNG CSCThe cable is fabric wrapped up to the Y-split before being replaced by a hard-wearing red rubber to maintain the silver, black and red colour scheme of all Atomic Floyd products.

Incorporated into the left channel cable is a mic and remote control for Apple devices (it doesn’t work with any other brand of device I’ve tried including Windows and Android phones) and the mic housing is also made of metal and high quality rubber for the buttons. Everything about it feels high quality and long-lasting, but the placement leaves me wondering a little.

Using the Super Darts while wearing an open-neck business shirt, the microphone section was constantly SAMSUNG CSCcatching on my collar and soon drove me quite nuts. It also seems to be a little too high, sitting level with the adam’s apple in my neck. Although it’s probably a good placement for a microphone it is out of sight and in a position that will catch on a lot of clothing I think. Of course, some of this may also depend on your individual dimensions because we all have different length necks, ear heights, etc. It’s not a deal breaker, but I felt it was worthy of noting.

Accessories & Fit

TSAMSUNG CSChe Super Darts are supplied with a sparse selection of silicon tips – 3 sizes, but that’s fine because they are excellent tips offering great comfort and perform better with the Super Darts than any other tip I tried (including foam, Sony Hybrid, and Monster tips). The tips carry the black and red colour scheme as well so your IEMs will look extra bad ass with the provided accessories.

As well as tips, Atomic Floyd package in an airplane adapter and mini-jack (6.3mm) adapter. Both are gold-plated with red accents so they look good and they feel like they’re high quality too.

SAMSUNG CSCFinally, you also get a rubber clam style carry case which is basic, but very practical and one of the best carry cases I’ve seen for IEMs (from a practicality point of view).

Overall Comfort

The Super Darts are a very comfortable IEM. I’ve mentioned in previous reviews that I sometimes struggle with in-ear comfort because of relatively small ear canals. The small flange on the tip of the Super Darts is just enough to hold the tips securely in place, but puts no pressure on my ears allowing the Super Darts to almost feel weightless.

Despite being made of solid metal, the Darts aren’t heavy or bulky. They have some weight, but they remain comfortable even for long listening sessions. As previously mentioned, the supplied tips are excellent and definitely contribute to the overall comfort.

Sound Quality

The Super Darts are best described as a fun sounding IEM with a U-shaped frequency response. They have perhaps the best bass I have ever heard on an IEM  – admittedly I haven’t heard some of the beasts in the bass department like the SE846 and IE8, but for a $299 IEM to be SO impressive in the bass region is astonishing. Before I carry on about the bass though, let’s break down the sound as usual into some categories for consideration.

Bass

SAMSUNG CSCNo suprises here. I’ve just told you how exceptional these are here. The Super Darts are able to create rumble below the audible frequencies which is just amazing to me. They have a slight emphasis in the bass, but are not bloated at all. The bass is tight, punchy and full, but not soft or bloomy. Listening to Black Capricorn Day by Jamiroquai I was literally feeling sounds against my ear drums that I couldn’t hear. There are many tracks where I’ve flat-out stopped what I was doing to marvel at the bass from these tiny little bullets of sound.

Other than describing the bass from these as perfect, there’s not a lot more I can say and that’s not hyperbole. Imagine the best bass you could hear from an IEM and you’ll know what the Super Darts sound like in this region. Wow.

Of course, bass alone doesn’t make the perfect listening experience though so read on to see how they fare as we approach the higher frequencies.

Mids

The Super Darts’ U-shaped signature automatically means the midrange is going to be slightly pulled back in relation to the bass and treble, but to my ears the mids are still very good. There’s nice cohesion with all instruments and no signs of conflict between the dynamic driver and balanced armature where they share duties at the crossover point.

The mids are natural and clean overall. I’d probably describe them as neutral and accurate when considered in isolation. Yes, they sit behind the bass and treble in terms of overall emphasis, but the mids aren’t coloured in any way to my ears. There’s no lushness or cream added, but they also don’t get too dry or analytical with vocals – a nicely balanced approach.

Treble

SAMSUNG CSCAnd it was going so well… OK, so it’s no a deal breaker, but the treble is going to be a love hate thing for some people.

The Super Darts skirt the fine line for me between being energetic and dynamic in their treble presentation versus straying into strident and “too hot” territory occasionally. They remind me of some of the beyerdynamic cans with the peaks in the upper treble around 9kHz. If I had to draw a comparison to a headphone, I would point to the beyerdynamic T90 which is just a little brighter than the T1.

Depending on your taste in signatures, your device, and your music choices, the Super Darts could be anywhere from the perfect earphone to an ear-shredding disaster (but the latter exaggeration would only be for those who swear by super dark setups like Sennheiser HD650s with uber warm amplifiers). For most people I think the Super Darts will be much like many of the high-end beyerdynamic headphones – really enjoyable for 90% of your music and just a bit uncomfortable for the 10% that’s mastered too hot or poorly and with harsh treble.

Staging & Imaging

I expected the treble profile of the Super Darts to make for some epic staging and imaging, but they aren’t quite as incredible as I hoped. They’re not bad by any stretch, but they’re probably just average. You wouldn’t pass these up because of their staging and imaging because they’re respectable and solid, but they aren’t world-beaters in this department either. Imaging is clear, well located and cohesive and the stage is moderate in size, extending from ear to ear and slightly forward. The stage is also nicely semi-circular too whereas some other IEMs sometimes create a centre section and side sections with nothing at the angles, but the Darts perform well in that regard.

Summary

So what does all this mean and would I buy a set of Super Darts?

If a friend asked me about the Super Darts I would highly recommend that they try them out. In other words I think very highly of these earphones, but also recognise that they won’t be for everyone. If you like a dynamic sound, epicly awesome bass and sparkly treble you will absolutely love these earphones. If you run screaming from anyone who says the word “treble” then you probably shouldn’t bother with the Super Darts, but everyone else should definitely give them a go and make sure you try a track with some bass – you won’t regret it!!

Just to clarify all of this for anyone on the fence, I am general a bit treble shy. I use tube amps to smooth out my heaphones and lean away from bright / analytical gear towards more musical and slightly warm presentations, but I still REALLY like the Super Darts. If I didn’t already own a set of custom Miracles I would buy the Super Darts in a heart beat. For my ears I would pair them with slightly warmer sources (the Fiio X3 and RWAK100 would both be great combos) and love every second of time spent with them. I’m almost tempted to buy a set of these just because they are such a sexy, high quality product.

 

Teal Feature C-12-01

Signature Acoustics C-12 IEMs

The C-12s are hand-made IEMs made from Indian company, Signature Acoustics. A newcomer to the scene, it seems Signature Acoustics is creating some differentiation by creating hand-made, wooden IEMs.

Overview

  • Driver:  8mm dynamic
  • Impedance: 18 ohms
  • Frequency:  17 – 20 kHz
  • Sensitivity:  102 dB

For around $60 (AUD) these are a budget earphone that performs very well for its price and are a little bit special due to their wooden construction. Of course, there’s more you’ll want to know than just that though so read on for all the details…

Design & Comfort

Cropped 1I’ve already mentioned that the C-12s are made of wood so I won’t harp on it. It is worth noting though that being handmade does mean there will be some minor variation from one unit to the next and the casings may not be 100% perfect. For example, you may be able to see in the image above that the groove around the earphone at the front of the photo is of varying width because the earphones haven’t been assembled perfectly. It seems to have no impact on the sound and is only noticeable if you look closely so I really don’t think this matters and it’s always nice to know that someone has personally put their care, attention and expertise into creating a product so I’m fine with the minor aesthetic imperfections. It’s also really nice having a beautifully crafted wooden Y-split complete with a slider so that earns points in my book.

Cropped 2In terms of comfort, the C-12 comes with a fairly basic range of silicon single-flange tips and the sound port is the same as the HiFiMan earphones so there are plenty of tips around that will fit the C-12s. My ears are fairly tricky to get a comfortable fit with when using a universal so it’s no surprise that the C-12s aren’t perfectly comfortable, but the Re-272s and Shure SE535s are the only universals I’ve found so far that were 100% comfortable so this is more about me than the C-12s. Overall, I would expect the C-12s to be as comfortable as the majority of other IEMs for most people. If you struggle to get a comfortable fit, these might not be for you, but if most earphones are OK for you there’s no reason to not consider the C-12s.

Supplied Accessories

In addition to the range of tips, the C-12s come with a beautiful brass storage case. I doubt you’d use it as a carry case because it’s really heavy, but it’s a really nice storage case to keep on a desk or in a draw with your earphones safe and sound. I wonder though if it’s a bit of a mismatch to have a fairly deluxe style container for a relatively budget IEM. Perhaps a cheaper case and some extra tips would be a better inclusion.

The other things provided with the C-12s are a lapel clip to hold the cable and 2 different sets of filters to tweak the sound to your personal preferences. I’ll discuss these in more detail below.

Sound Quality

The price tag of the C-12s might leave you expecting little, but there are various budget IEMs out there now offering great performance and the C-12 seems to be targeted at the same market. The overall signature of the C-12s is warm and smooth with a slight emphasis on bass. It’s an inoffensive sound and easy to enjoy, but let’s look more closely…

Treble

Cropped 6This is probably the weakest part of the C-12s signature. The treble is just a bit too rolled off and it leaves the overall sound feeling a bit murky and thick. The provided filters (the mesh you can see on top of one of the IEMs in the image to the right) allow you to tweak the sound, but none of them really open up the treble quite enough. It’s very hard to tell if the pre-fitted filters are the middle of the 3 or the most open. One set is definitely for a much darker sound, but the other is so similar to the pre-fitted ones that I had a hard time distinguishing the difference by the time I removed the IEMs, change filters and got them back in my ears.

In the end, what really matters is that there is no configuration of filters or tips that could produce quite enough treble extension to make these sound as open and detailed as they probably should. With no filter at all, the C-12s start to approach a better balance of treble energy, but I imagine just one small amount of ear-wax in a tiny driver like this could be curtains so I wouldn’t recommend filter-free use and only tried it myself for the briefest time to see what the starting signature is like. Doing so showed me that the C-12 probably started a little too dark before the filters were applied and it had nowhere to go. Had the starting sound included just a little more treble energy, these could have been really magic. As it is, despite the quoted 20kHz frequency peak, it sounds like there is fairly significant roll-off before about 16kHz and it leaves the C-12s lacking that little bit of air that would help them feel more spacious and alive.

I know I’ve just spent 2 paragraphs bemoaning the C-12s treble, but all is not lost. The treble that is present is of great quality – smooth and refined – and the relative lack of treble energy means there’s zero fatigue from the C-12s. For people who enjoy a laid-back listening experience, the C-12s are still worth considering so read on!

Mids

The C-12 offers a nice, creamy mid-range with plenty of detail and texture. It’s a little bit coloured and not entirely even across all mid-range frequencies, but it’s enjoyable nonetheless. These aren’t IEMs you’d use for analysis or monitoring – they’re IEMs purely for relaxed listening to music.

Vocals are clear and present with good body whether it’s a male or female vocalist. Overall, the tonality of the mids is quite neutral the majority of the time with the exception of some slight upper bass bloat which can muddy the mid-range on some tracks, but this is more an exception than the rule. All-in-all I find the C-12’s mid-range enjoyable and a little seductive. I wonder if the wooden housing is the cause for the overall warmth and the nice timbre of most vocals and instrumental presentation.

Bass

The C-12s were clearly tuned to have a nice prominent bass with punch and presence, but not too much bloat. They’re not the final word in bass control, but the bass is really good for the most part. Bass lines sing through the music, you can feel some kick and thump in your ears and with a few exceptions (as mentioned above), the bass mostly stays in its own lane and doesn’t interfere with higher registers. There’s plenty of extension down deep and on some tracks, the depth and subtlety of the rumble I was hearing and feeling was really impressive.

Summary

Cropped 4If this is the first foray into earphones from Signature Acoustics (which I believe it might be) it’s an excellent start. They probably need to make a few adjustments (like starting with a brighter driver to put inside their beautiful, but warm sounding wooden shells), but this first effort is very well priced for its quality of build and sound.

I wouldn’t recommend this for people who enjoy bright, airy sounding ‘phones, but it’s worth checking out if you’re looking for a well-priced, laid-back cruisy earphone with great bass. Think of the C-12 as a budget earphone representing something similar in overall signature to an LCD-2 or HD650 (not that it performs to the same level, but it has the same laid-back type of signature).

I’m keenly waiting to see what Signature Acoustics might offer up next because the value for money of the C-12 is excellent, their design is really nice, and the overall result is only a few adjustments from being a serious giant killer. To get a better sounding, but similarly voiced earphone you need to spend nearly twice as much on something like the thinksound TS01 so it’s a really good start from Signature Acoustics!

Quattro Feature-01

Matrix Quattro Balanced Amplifier

After spending a lot of time with some high quality tube amplifiers, I thought it was time to revisit the world of solid state (using sound processing chips rather than tubes). Some headphones seem to pair well with tubes while others like solid state so it’s always nice to have both options available.

Matrix M-Stage (HPA-1): the Quattro's older sibling

Matrix M-Stage (HPA-1): the Quattro’s older sibling

The amp I decided on is the Matrix Quattro amplifier which offers balanced and unbalanced operation (which I’ll explain later) and pairs really nicely with the Matrix X-Sabre DAC I bought a little while ago. I was fortunate enough to also be able to buy a second hand Matrix M-Stage (HPA-1), the Quattro’s baby brother (although it’s been around longer). The M-Stage is renowned as a great bang-for-buck entry level amplifier (around $300) so how would the more expensive Quattro compare at its $450 level? Let’s find out…

Overview

The Quattro builds on the success of the famously affordable and excellent M-Stage amplifier, but brings improved design and balanced operation. It was the balanced operation that hooked me because I love the idea of it from my days working in car audio where I often designed systems with completely separate left and right channels, but let me explain the concept a bit better.

Every speaker (or driver in a headphone) requires a positive and negative connection or an active signal and a ground connection. In unbalanced systems, there are two active outputs that deliver the stereo signal  – one to each driver – and there is a single ground connection that is shared between both drivers. This setup can produce very, very good sound, but there is also the risk of the ground connections causing some leaking of sound between the left and right channels which can result in the sound becoming less defined and less controlled. I’m sure there are much better explanations of these circuits out there if you’re interested, but hopefully this paints enough of a picture to say that balanced circuits have the potential to provide cleaner, better defined sound.

Specifications

  • Max power:  1 W (balanced mode)
  • Power per impedance:  800mW @ 60 ohms / 400mW @ 300 ohms (balanced mode)
  • Inputs:  1 pair RCA, 1 pair balanced 3-pin XLR
  • Outputs:  2 x stereo 6.3mm headphone jacks / 1 pair balanced 6.3mm headphone jacks
  • Signal-to-noise ratio:  >98dB via XLR / >95dB via RCA
  • Distortion:  <0.001%

Just to explain some of these specs, the power of the Quattro in balanced mode is twice that of its unbalanced mode because it’s essentially 2 amplifiers working together when running balanced versus just a single amp when running unbalanced. Also, there is just one set of outputs that are used for both balanced and unbalanced operation, but I’ll explain that setup a little later.

The specs of the Quattro don’t really tell us a lot about its performance and there was nothing in that list which excited me more than any other amplifier on the market, but for the price and with its offering of balanced operation for my beloved T1 headphones, I had to give it a run.

Design & Compatibility

01170021The Quattro is a simple design that’s been described as two M-Stage amplifiers sandwiched together. That may or may not be true as there are definite similarities under the hood, but also some differences in terms of the components used.

Perhaps the most obvious differences are the combination of unbalanced and balanced circuits as well as the use of different op amps. Op amps are the chips that amplify the sound and lend the amplifier a significant dose of sound signature (how warm, cool, bright, dark, bassy, or tinny the amp sounds). Where the M-Stage uses the OPA2134 chip, the Quattro uses the OPA604 and OPA2604 chips for its balanced and unbalanced circuits respectively.

Inputs / Outputs

01170020The Quattro has a pair of RCA (unbalanced) inputs and a pair of 3-pin XLR (balanced) inputs. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get any line level outputs which is a shame. It’s always nice to have the option to use headphone amps as pre-amps or to have a straight pass-through to connect other amps in a chain, but for the average consumer who doesn’t stockpile audio gear, the Quattro offers everything you need in terms of these 2 input options.

For output of sound, the Quattro comes with a pair of 6.3mm sockets on the front which are labelled Solo 1 / Balanced R and Solo 2 / Balanced L. It’s only as I write this that I realise that the left socket is on the right side and vice versa!? Oh well, doesn’t really matter. The point is that this pair of sockets is multi-functional which is both good and bad.

The Good

01170018Having 2 jacks means that you can use 2 pairs of headphones simultaneously which is great if you’re comparing headphones or if you want to listen with a friend. It ‘s amazing how often I would like to be able to switch between headphones without having to plug and unplug leads all the time so the Quattro is great in that regard.

Neither good nor bad is the fact that the twin sockets are used for balanced output via normal stereo 6.3mm headphone jacks which are easy enough to buy from most electronics shops if you need to make an adapter. Please be aware though that you specifically need to use stereo jacks. Mono ones won’t work with the Quattro’s auto-detecting circuit which I’ll explain shortly.

The Bad

In my experience the twin 6.3mm arrangement is one of the least common ways to connect to a balanced output with 4-pin XLR being a much more common choice. That means you’re most likely going to need an adapter lead to connect your 4-pin terminated headphones to the Quattro’s 6.3mm sockets. It’s an easy DIY build if you can be bothered, but you can also buy this type of lead if you prefer so it’s not the end of the world, but an XLR socket would have been better I think.

The other thing I’m not a total fan of is the auto-detect circuit on the Quattro’s outputs. Although the concept of the amp switching modes for you is nice, the reality is that the process isn’t seamless and sometimes leaves me with a balanced connection to an unbalanced output. This is because the Quattro detects the status of the connection with the contacts on the 6.3mm plugs. It seems that sometimes, the plugs touch the wrong contacts on the way into the socket and make the amp think it’s connected to an unbalanced headphone. The only solution I’ve discovered is to unplug and reconnect the headphones or to switch the amp off and on again. It’s not the end of the world, but I would have been perfectly happy with a third button on the front panel to select my output type.

Other Design Elements

In terms of size, the Quattro is about twice the width of the M-Stage, but is shorter by about 15-20% and a hair lower in height. It’s a nice compact size.

On the front right of the unit is a nice large aluminium volume knob with a rough texture around the side. It looks good and feels good and it’s attached to a high quality Alps motorised volume pot so you can also use a remote control with the amp if you want. The remote is an optional extra, but it’s very well priced.

Also on the front panel are a power button and source button to switch between the RCA and XLR inputs. I was pleased to note that both inputs are able to provide output to balanced and unbalanced phones so you don’t have to use a balanced source to enjoy balanced ‘phones. Not only that, but the difference between the sound from the balanced / unbalanced input is near enough to identical that it makes no difference which you use.

01170017Finally, on the left side of the amp’s fascia are lights indicating mute status (only available using the optional remote control), input in use (RCA / XLR), and output status (balanced / unbalanced).

Compatibility

The Quattro’s power output means it will drive most headphones other than difficult-to-drive planar magnetics. I’m hoping to try it with some Audeze LCD 2s soon so I’ll update if there’s anything notable to share. Unfortunately, the Quattro has an output impedance of around 10 ohms which is quite high and may negatively affect the frequency response and tightness of sound from lower impedance headphones depending on their specific specs. Testing the Quattro with my 32 ohm headphones showed some variation compared to the M-Stage with its 5 ohm output, but it was very much a case-by-case thing. The one thing I can say for sure is that it will not match ideally with low impedance, multi-BA IEMs like the Miracles. The sound is really clean and hum is negligible, but the frequency response is altered slightly by the impedance mismatch.

Other than the minor issues with output impedance – and I do consider it minor because it’s an amp designed for desktop headphone listening, not IEMs and portables – the Quattro drives all my phones really nicely and I love the fact that it can run unbalanced / balanced in and unbalanced / balanced out. There’s plenty of versatility in how you use the amp and with what.

Sound

01170022Having been excited to buy the Quattro, I was initially disappointed with its sound. It was a bit harsh with the T1s and I felt like it wasn’t significantly better than the much cheaper M-Stage. The balanced output was definitely an improvement, but I was still left no really enjoying what I heard. Although I’m still quietly skeptical about the effects of burn-in, I decided to leave the Quattro running for a while to see if the sound changed at all. I didn’t listen to it during this time so I know I haven’t adjusted to its sound, but I can definitely confirm that I now thoroughly enjoy the sounds being produced by the Quattro in both unbalanced and balanced modes.

For the review of the sound, I’m referring to the character of the sound in both balanced and unbalanced mode. The balanced circuit is just 2 of the unbalanced circuits running in parallel so the character of the sound is identical. I’ll explain the audible impacts of balanced versus unbalanced output separately.

Treble

Treble from the Quattro is present and extended, but smooth. Even with the sometimes edgy Beyer T1s, the Quattro produces very listenable treble that’s easily on par with the treble produced by other amps in this price range or slightly above.

The Quattro produces brighter treble than the M-Stage, but manages to do so without getting cold or harsh. The treble can be a little dry, but the overall signature is slightly warm so it balances the treble nicely. Fans of sparkly treble may want to look elsewhere for an amplifier because there’s not a lot of sparkle in the Quattro’s sound, but don’t mistake that for a lack of treble or extension. The treble’s there, it’s just not enhanced or lively – instead it’s smooth and easy to listen to. To my ears, the Quattro strikes a really nice balance by presenting a sound that’s not as thick as the M-Stage (which is a great amp) while still keeping the smooth and musical presentation that makes the Matrix gear so enjoyable. I was really impressed with the Quattro’s rendition of the detail present in the sound of a solo violin during the listening I did for this review. The Quattro was able to accurately recreate the subtle rasp of the bow being drawn across the strings sounding completely accurate and lifelike. I think that’s a benefit of the slightly dry sound – it allows details like this to come through where a lusher, smoother sound might cover them over.

Mids

The Quattro’s midrange is accurate and clean. It’s got good presence in the overall presentation and strikes a nice balance between musicality and accuracy. Once again it’s drier and cooler sounding than the M-Stage, but still enjoyable and slightly smooth. I really like the presence of the midrange created by the Quattro. Even in busy, active tracks, the vocals are always clean and separate, but not enhanced or pushed in your face in any way. THey are slightly forward compared to the rest of the spectrum, but only to a degree that you notice if you’re listening for it.

Bass

The Quattro produces bass that is largely accurate, but possibly a bit behind the rest of the spectrum. I wouldn’t say it’s lean sounding at all, but the mids and treble overshadow the bass ever-so-slightly. The quality of the bass though is very good. There is texture and impact as well as body on sustained bass notes – it’s just that all of this happens slightly behind the rest of the spectrum. Extension of the bass is really good all the way down and is probably more balanced in the lower ranges than around the mid-bass.

It’s hard to be sure because of the time taken to switch, but I think bass impact and present improves slightly when running in balanced mode. This could simply be a reflection of the power output doubling and therefore having more energy to apply to bass notes.

The Quattro’s bass presentation pairs really nicely with bass-tilted phones like the Fischer FA-011 LEs and I imagine it would also really suit some of the Sennheiser models with a bit of extra mid-bass warmth.

Signature Summary

I don’t normally do this, but I wanted to clarify the descriptions I’ve provided of the bass, mids and treble. I found myself struggling to describe the Quattro’s sound in this review and I think it’s because the Quattro is largely neutral and accurate to the source with a slightly dry, but musical presentation. The comments above reflect very subtle impressions only and should not discourage anyone from considering this amp because it’s very, very good for its price and the evidence of that fact is the difficulty I had trying to really dissect its sound signature.

General Presentation and Staging

Matrix Quattro AmpIn unbalanced mode the Quattro produces a good-sized soundstage (or headstage) with decent width and depth, although I would say it is wider than it is deep. There’s not a lot of vertical layering or vertical space so the result is that all of the sound seems to be placed across a narrow stage extending side to side. The stage sounds open and in no way congested, but it’s not expansive and spacious like some amps I’ve heard, although those amps also cost significantly more (e.g. $200+ more). Staging is definitely more open and more accurate than the M-Stage so the Quattro is a definite upgrade.

Beware: moving to balanced mode makes a significant difference to the soundstage! Switching over to use the balanced outputs of the Quattro lifts the sound to a whole other level. The overall signature is unchanged, but staging resolution is dramatically increased. Everything becomes more sharply defined, gains extra presence and weight and just generally gets better. This is why you buy a Quattro!

In balanced mode the stage is deeper and taller while retaining the same side-to-side space. The accuracy of placement is improved and the ability to hear vertical layers in the sound is improved as well (i.e. vocals now sound higher than a guitar being played by the singer). In balanced mode, the Quattro’s stage and presentation is outstanding and highly enjoyable. It’s still not expansive and massive, but strikes a good balance by placing the listener “a few rows back” from the stage while keeping the music close enough to be engaging.

Summary

For its $450 price tag, the Quattro is definitely an amplifier worth considering if you’re running balanced headphones (or if you can get a cable to make them balanced).

I probably wouldn’t specifically recommend the Quattro if you’re only using unbalanced headphone connections even though it’s a good amplifier even in unbalanced mode. With the new M-Stage (HPA-2) out now, I would expect it to match the Quattro for unbalanced performance and you can always change op amps (see below) to upgrade the sound of either amp so I’d probably choose the M-Stage plus an upgraded op amp for unbalanced use, but it’s a no-brainer for balanced headphones – the Quattro is excellent!!

Just like its older brother, the original M-Stage, the Quattro offers outstanding value for money with good power, an enjoyable sound that’s more neutral and detailed than the older M-Stage, and the opportunity to wring every last bit of performance out of your headphones with balanced cables.

A Quick Note on Op Amps

01170024I’m new to op amps, but having come from recent experiments with tubes in amplifiers, I look at these little “chips” kind of like digital tubes. What I mean by that is that you can tweak the sound of your amplifier by using different op amps. In the image to the right, the op amps are the black, rectangular things – there are 4 along the top and one in the bottom left corner.

The Quattro uses a single, stereo op amp for unbalanced operation and uses 4 mono op amps for balanced operation. This can make it an expensive prospect to upgrade because you need to buy 5-6 op amps depending on the versions you use, but it can also provide some relatively cheap fun because you can pick up decent op amps from as little as $5-6. You can also spend up to nearly $100 each if you want to spend that much, but it’s not necessary. You do need to make sure the op amps you buy are suitable for your device, but it’s not too hard to work out with a bit of online reading and asking on forums.

I’ll be posting an article specifically on op amps soon so subscribe if you want to know more. I’ve ordered a bunch to plug into the Quattro and a couple of other amps I’ll be reviewing soon and I’ll have impressions of the different op amps and how they influence the Quattro, M-Stage and a Fiio E12DIY portable amp.

Bottlehead amplifier range Aside

I’ve been quiet for a while here on the Passion for Sound blog due to a little personal project I’ve been working on over at Head-Fi. Some of you will have read my review of the assembly and performance of the Bottlehead Crack DIY tube amplifer and you might have also read my assembly review of the Bottlehead S.E.X. amplifier too. If you’ve been waiting for the performance review for the S.E.X. then you’re in for a treat! Not only have I completed a thorough review of the S.E.X., but I’ve also built and reviewed Bottlehead’s premium, top of the line amplifier, the Mainline. I’ve compared each of the three amps to each other as well for anyone who’s unsure of which amp is for them.

Rather than post the same reviews here or take the time to redo them, I’m going to share links to the review on Head-Fi. Don’t worry, you don’t have to be a member to read the reviews, but you will need to sign up if you want to comment (it’s free to sign up and it’s a great community). If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to post them here.

Bottlehead S.E.X. full review prior to the C4S upgrade

Bottlehead S.E.X. review post C4S upgrade

Bottlehead Mainline full review

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See you soon for more reviews including:

  • Matrix M-Stage amplifier – the classic entry level performer
  • Matrix Quattro fully balanced amplifier
  • Fiio E12DIY portable amplifier with swappable components to tailor the sound
  • Signature Acoustics C-12 IEMs

Where I’ve Been Lately