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!

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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.

Beyerdynamic T1

Beyerdynamic are a well known name in the headphone industry and in the professional audio world. I have toyed with the idea of purchasing Beyers on many occasions, but never pulled the trigger… until now.

Specifications

  • Style:  Semi-open
  • Frequency response:  5 – 50,000 Hz
  • Impedance:  600 ohms
  • Nominal SPL:  102 dB

To read this review please head over to the new Passion for Sound site. It’s sexier and there’s lots of great new content.

 

$300 Headphones at a Glance

I had a great afternoon today, courtesy of the team at Addicted to Audio (www.addictedtoaudio.com.au) I spent about an hour and a half in their audition room checking out a bunch of closed style headphones for around $300. I’m not going to try to give you a full-blown review for all of them, but thought a little description of each pair might be helpful. Here goes…

Shure SRH840 (approx. $200)

Shure SRH840

Having read lots of good things about the 840s, I came in with them high on my shortlist and they didn’t disappoint. The 840s have a warm, but detailed and balanced sound. They’re very easy to listen too, but not boring. Of all the phones I listened to today, the 840s probably had the sweetest midrange. The sound of rim-shots (when the drum stick is used against the metal rim of a drum) sound very warm and woody – just like they should.

Pros: The 840s are easy to drive and ran perfectly from iPod and laptop. They’re also comfortable on the head and have good padding all around.

Cons: My only real issue with these phones is the small cable running outside of the body of the headphones. Just about each cup, a small cable comes out of the housing and then loops back into the cup. This is obviously to allow for adjustment, but leaves a potentially fragile piece of the headphones exposed to accidental damage.

Verdict: These are still very much on my mind and may yet be my final choice given they are so easy to drive. They’re not as exciting to listen to as the Ultrasones, but they are more comfortable and have a beautiful smooth sound signature while still being detailed and crisp. They’re also a great deal at just under $200.

Ultrasone HFI 580 (approx. $250)

Ultrasone HFI 580

I knew nothing about the 580s going into this afternoon, but considered them because of their price and the fact that they’re easier to drive than the 680s. I was told that they are more bass oriented than the 680s, but can’t say that I was overly aware of that.

Having already listened to some other headphones, the 580s weren’t as good and therefore left the shortlist fairly quickly. That said, they’re a very capable headphone and would definitely suit a lot of people, but I like a bit of extra high-end sparkle and detail. It’s a very subtle gap in the 580’s sound signature and it took direct comparisons to realise that the 680s gave me the sparkle that the 580s lacked – it’s very minor and those who prefer a slightly warmer sound will definitely like the 580s.

Pros: The soundstage is huge (for closed headphones) and the sound is lively, detailed and exciting.

Cons: Although solid, the construction is a bit plastic and they’re not as comfortable as some comparable headphones.

Verdict: The HFI 580s are off my shortlist, but only because they were outdone by their senior sibling, the 680s and that was only by a hair. They’re a great headphone with balanced sound, solid bass and a smooth, slightly less bright signature than some others.

Ultrasone HFI 680 (approx. $300)

Ultrasone HFI 680

The 680s were high on my shortlist after reading plenty of good things. They didn’t dissapoint. Plenty of punch, plenty of detail and that awesome Ultrasone soundstage. It’s important to note that the 680s really do need amplification. I listened to the Shure SRH840 and the Ultrasone HFI 680 side-by-side and alternated between them across a variety of music. Initially, I was listening through a dedicated headphone amp, but soon moved over to my iPod and then laptop so I could hear some music I was more familiar with. I wasn’t using amplification at this stage and started to be amazed at the difference between the SRH840s and the HFI 680s. At first I put it down to the music selection, but soon realised it was amplification. Once an amp was added, the 680s once again edged ahead of the 840s in terms of their lively detail and punchy presence.

Pros: Punchy, lively sound in a great big soundstage.

Cons:
As per the whole HFI range, the comfort isn’t as good as some alternatives and the build quality isn’t spectacular. Also, the significant difference between amped and un-amped performance means an amp is a must.

Verdict:
A great headphone for the dollars. I listened to some $1000+ phones today and kept coming back to the fact that I couldn’t justify the extra for the type of listening I do and for the minimal difference in sound. I’m not suggesting the more expensive headphones aren’t better, but the 680s do such a great job across the board that they’re ahead of most other closed cans in terms of bang-for-buck.
I’d highly recommend a listen to these if you have a device that will drive them effectively. I’m personally looking at something like a Nu Force uDAC-2 (approx. $200), but it takes the 680s up to around $500.

Audio Technica ATH-A900
(approx. $250)

Audio Technica ATH-A900

As a massive fan of the open style ATH-AD900s, it made sense to listen to their closed equivalent, the A900s. I’d heard that they have a “darker” sound, but didn’t yet know exactly what that meant – I had my theories, but it’s a very subjective term. I know understand exactly what those people meant. The top-end and bottom-end are just like the AD900s – crisp, detailed and awesome, but then came vocals… The closed design of the A900s make the mid-range sound very closed-in. The mid-range and vocals were muffled and crowded – not very enjoyable.

Pros: Beautifully made and insanely comfortable (like all similar style Audio Technicas with their 3D fitting system)

Cons:
The mid-range is so muffled and crowded that it completely smothers the rest of the sound – such a shame.

Verdict:
There are much better options out there for the price. I would take the Shure SRH840s anytime over the A900s.

Beyer-Dynamic T50p
(approx. $300)

Beyer-Dynamic T50p

I had seen these online, but knew little about them other than funky looks and a good, reliable brand. Straight out of the box they were the most impressive in terms of build quality and style of all the phones listed in this “At a Glance”. The only comparable quality of build is the Audio Technicas, but the T50ps are funkier in style (but that’s also a matter of taste).

Before talking about the sound of these it’s important to note that they were straight out of the box with no burn-in or general play time whatsoever so the following description needs to be taken with a grain of salt as it were…

The T50ps had an interesting sound signature. While detailed and neutral, there was something I couldn’t put my finger on at first, but after a few tracks I think the mid-range is a bit too forward and the top-end not quite forward enough. The bass is sublime for a small on-ear headphone. It’s tight, but with plenty of mass and presence and this continues up into the mids, but somewhere that outstanding start falls away. The T50ps reminded me of the AKG Q460 headphones which I’ll be reviewing very soon. They’re probably a touch better than the Q460s, but still lack a little sparkle at the top-end.

Pros:
They’re sexy, made of metal (i.e. high quality) and have a quality sound if you like warm, mellow signatures.

Cons:
The lack of sparkle at the top-end was a deal-breaker for me, but that was the only issue I could find so if you like the sound signature you’ll love these phones!

Verdict:
Probably a great option for some depending on your music and sound tastes. I’d love to own a pair from a design and quality point of view, but just not sure if I can justify it when I don’t like the sound style. That said, I haven’t had a chance to try them with slightly boosted treble.

At a Glance Overview

After plenty of listening and switching between sources and music tracks, I definitely gravitated towards 2 options. The Shure SRH840s and the Ultrasone HFI 680s were clearly the best of the bunch. For non-amplified use I think the Shures are a winner. For amplified use, the Ultrasones take a slight lead. The tricky thing now is that I haven’t yet auditioned the Ultrasone HFI 780s, but will do so before purchasing because they’re easier to drive from a non-amplified source. I’ll keep you posted…