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.

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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!

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.

SoundMAGIC HP200

11010050I have a confession to make. I have completely disregarded the SoundMAGIC headphones for ages simply because of their name. It wasn’t the fact that they’re a Chinese (i.e. not German) company because I love some of the IEMs and headphones coming from companies like HiFiMan. No, the simple reason is that I thought the name sounded a bit dinky and cheap.

It was only because the HP200s were setup as a demo at the recent AV Show in Melbourne that I heard them at all and I was really excited to discover a hidden gem. These are an incredibly well-priced headphone for their outstanding performance and well worth considering for anyone looking at headphones like the Sennheiser HD650s or HD600s.

Overview

The HP200 is an open-backed full-size headphone from Chinese manufacturer, SoundMAGIC. SoundMAGIC built a reputation on their excellent budget IEMs, but are showing with their HP100 (closed) and HP200 (open) headphones that they can play at a higher level too.

Specifications

  • Driver:  53mm dynamic
  • Frequency range:  15 Hz – 35,000 Hz
  • Impedance:  20 ohms
  • Sensitivity:  98 dB / mW (at 1 kHz)

With a price tag at a little over AUD $300, the HP200s are direct price-point competitors for headphones like the Audio Technica ATH-AD900 and AD900X, the AKG K/Q701, and Beyerdynamic DT880 and DT990. That’s stiff competition, but I would also go so far as adding the much praised and more expensive Sennheiser HD600 and HD650 to that mix. Intrigued? I was…

Design & Comfort

11010059These are some nice looking cans – and they feel as good as they look!

They are made from a combination of plastic, metal and faux leather and everything looks and feels solid, but not heavy. When you pick up the HP200s they just feel great – soft and smooth where they should be (ear pads, headband, etc.), and solid and sturdy everywhere else. In terms of design and build quality, the HP200s are easily on par or ahead of every other headphone I listed above as their competitors so we’re off to a good start.

The headband slider is metal over plastic and moves in clearly notched increments. It’s even labelled with numbers painted onto the metal to help you return to your perfect settings every time.

The outside of the ear cups are covered in a gloss black metal grille that looks and feels great. Meanwhile, other parts of the frame are made from high quality soft-touch plastics that feel almost luxurious.

In terms of practical design, the HP200s are basically faultless. Their visual design is a matter of taste, but isn’t going to offend anyone. I personally wasn’t “wowed” by the styling of them, but I would also be very happy to have these displayed on my headphone rack.

Electronic Design

The HP200s have a relatively low, 20 ohm  impedance which helps them easy to get good volume levels from portable devices but can be a double-edged sword because lower impedance leads to less control, especially in the bass and can reduce the overall tightness in the sound of the headphone. If I had to pick a fault with the HP200 it would be this low impedance. Had these been a >100 ohm headphone, they might just have completely dethroned some of the long-term kings of the category. As it is, they are great, but can be a little bit picky with the source / amp used. If you try these or buy these make sure you use them with a source or amp that has an output impedance below 2 ohms. If you listen to them and they sound a bit loose and flabby try another amp or source – it’s not the headphones.

Accessories

11010051It’s always nice to receive some extra goodies with a set of mid-to-high level headphones and the HP200s deliver with a nice black hard-case, extension cable and airline adapter. A really nice touch is the pouch that’s built into the case using a velcro system so you can store your adapters, etc. in the case without them rattling around and damaging your headphones.

Cable Options

I mentioned the extension cable provided with the HP200s, but it’s worth going a little deeper.

11010057The headphones come with a straight, 1.2m cable which is great for desktop use, but won’t reach to your television and may be a little limiting if you like to move around without always having your source at your hip. The extension cable takes care of that by adding a couple of extra metres to the cable. The main cable ends in a 3.5mm jack with a screw on adapter for 6mm connection while the extension cable ends in a plain 3.5mm plug without screw thread.

In addition to the extension option, the HP200s have a detachable cable which uses a simple 3.5mm stereo jack so it would be very easy to buy (or make) a replacement cable if required. If you did decide to go the custom cable route though, it’s worth noting the SoundMAGIC locking system which limits the size of the plug used (and means the plug won’t lock into the headphones so it could pull out if accidentally tugged on.

The stock cable is a little bit prone to hold the “waves” created by coiling so a slightly better cable would be nice for ergonomics, but it sounds fine.

Comfort

Having waxed lyrical about the great feel of these headphones in the hand, it’s probably a good time to consider if they feel as good on the head!

The simple answer is “yes”. The HP200s are very comfortable. The soft ear pads are very comfortable and the cups are big enough to fully cover the ears without putting pressure anywhere and without getting too big. The padding on the headband is sufficient to keep it comfy for long listening sessions, but I’d say overall the headband is not quite as comfortable as some of the best in the game (HD650 / Beyer T1, etc.) due to a slight sense of pressure in the centre of my scalp. It’s worth keeping 2 things in mind here: firstly that I have no hair to add padding between my scalp and the headphones, and secondly that I am being very nit-picky to find anything you might want to know.

Overall I’d rate the HP200s as a fraction behind the HD650s in terms of comfort, but it’s literally just a fraction.

Sound Quality

The HP200s garnered their comparison to the HD650s on account of their sound signature. Similar to the HD6X0 series from Sennheiser, the HP200’s sound smooth and a touch warm, but without losing any detail. They have more top-end sparkle and clarity than the HD650s and may be more akin to the HD600s, but I can’t compare directly to the HD600s because I don’t know the HD600s well enough.

Bass

11010060The HP200s produce excellent, controlled bass that has plenty of body and impact in the mid-bass region, but without bloat and boom. Once again they’re quite similar to the HD650s in their presentation. Bass is warm, full and smooth with kick and presence. It’s not the most detailed bass I’ve heard, but it’s very enjoyable and tends to flatter most music I’ve thrown at the HP200s.

I often use Marrakech by Incognito to test bass because it opens with a well-recorded kick drum that really tests a headphone’s ability to move the air cleanly and tightly, but with force. The HP200s performed beautifully here and sounded as natural as anything else I’ve tried. The presentation had both the sound and the feel of standing in a room with a kick drum being played.

The HP200s also have sneaky sub bass. I was about to write that they didn’t go as deep as I might like, but I changed tracks and found the hidden rumble. While not quite at the level of the Beyer T1s (which cost nearly 4x the price of the HP200s), the sub bass is present and authoritative. While not a bass-head can, the HP200s are very impressive in the bass department, but present the bass in a very natural and musical way.

Mids

Hopefully you’re not getting bored of my HD650 references yet because there are at least 2 more to go.

The midrange from the HP200 is clean, smooth and balanced with everything else. Nothing about the midrange sticks out, but I think that’s exactly how it should be because it means nothing is being overshadowed or over-emphasised.

Switching over to Tin Pan Alley by Stevie Ray Vaughan, the guitars and the drums had beautiful texture and clarity, but were buttery smooth the way they should be. What struck me though is a level of openness that I think was lacking from the Sennheiser HD650s. People often talk about the Sennheiser veil and although I never bought into it 100%, I can understand where the term came from. To my ears, the HP200s present the same quality of silky smooth midrange for vocals and instruments, but manage to add a tiny amount of edge and attack that the HD650s never gave me. That edge takes the sound from relaxing and enjoyable to exciting and enjoyable. It does this without bringing fatigue – just excitement.

I also like to test headphones with tracks from the Alison Krauss and Union Station album, Paper Airplane because some headphones can sound a little glassy with some of the strings used. The HP200s aren’t among that group though. The strings all remained clean and “plucky” (for want of a better term), but without getting edgy and fragile sounding. To sum it up I guess I’d say they maintained both warmth and detail which is perfect!

Treble

11010053

If you’re waiting for the big “but” here and expecting the HP200s to falter you might be disappointed, but the treble does require some discussion.

Final HD650 reference alert! In my opinion the HP200s deliver better treble than the HD650s. It is brighter, more detailed and with more extension. Where the HD650s may have an edge over the HP200s is that they never become sibilant. It’s not a regular issue, but it is possible for the HP200s to sound a bit edgy in the treble, particularly if a track has been poorly recorded or heavily compressed. While not brutal like the T1 or HD800 headphones, the price we pay for treble detail and extension is the risk of sibilance. I personally think the HP200 balances the divide really well. Overall it’s still a smooth sounding headphone, but without drifting into anything mushy or vague.

I think the sound engineers at SoundMAGIC created a beautiful balance between enjoyable listening and detailed listening by presenting just the right amount of treble, but without going to the extremes and revealing every flaw and weakness in the music or the source.

Staging & Imaging

When listening to the HP200s, the headstage (a new term I’ve picked up from someone somewhere and prefer to soundstage because it recognises the fact that it’s all inside the head) is spacious and clear. The sound is intimate and feels like you’re up close to the musicians, but it’s not claustrophobic, just intimate. I noticed that the size of the headstage was influenced by the source I used. A better-matched source (i.e. <2 ohm output impedance) resulted in a larger, more spacious sound and a headstage which is clean, open and very lifelike.

Spacing in the headstage is good and instruments are well placed in a good-sized semi-circular stage. While I’ve noticed a few triangular headstages lately (front and sides with no depth at the diagonals), I’d say the HP200s perform quite well at the diagonals and present a convincing auditory picture. There’s also good vertical layering with voices sounding slightly higher than the instruments being played by singers.

In terms of imaging, the HP200s define the placement and boundaries of instruments really well. Listening to orchestral music, each instrument is clearly separated and defined and there is a nice sense of depth and placement within the stage.

I would describe the HP200’s staging and imaging as immensely enjoyable and relaxing. Sure, surgical tools like the HD800s will perform better at pulling apart instrument placement, etc., but the HP200s do a great job for enjoyable listening and a wonderfully relaxing and yet engaging presentation.

Summary

The easiest way to sum up this review is to say that this pair of HP200s was kindly loaned to me by Billy at Noisy Motel for the purpose of reviewing them. I am dropping them off again tomorrow afternoon and will not only miss them, but have started budgeting to by a pair. I like them that much!

I really wish I still had my HD650s to compare side-by-side with the HP200s because I have a feeling that the HP200s are on par or better in every area (as long as they’re paired with the right source) and a clear winner in the treble region. As mentioned, I have a feeling the HP200s are actually a very close competitor to the HD600s and look forward to a direct comparison soon hopefully.

In the meantime, if you have around $300 to spend on an open headphone and you’re looking for a headphone that delivers a slightly warm, but mostly neutral sound with plenty of detail and clarity then honestly look no further than the HP200s. I’ve tried the HD650s, HD600s (briefly), DT880s, AD900s, AD900Xs, and various other headphones at this general price-point. The HP200s are the first ones I’ve decided to buy since owning my T1s and selling my HD650s. If I could have HD650s or HP200s at the same price, I’d still choose the HP200s and the same goes for all of the other headphones at the same general price-point with the possible exception of the HD600 which I need to listen to in more depth.

Don’t be put off by the relatively unknown brand-name and lack of European heritage, the HP200s are the real deal and an absolute must-listen before spending any money on an open headphone. I can’t stress enough though that these must be paired with the right source. With a poosly matched source (like my tube amps) the HP200 sounds better than average, but with the right amp / source, the HP200s are simply astounding – not just for their price – simply astounding, period.

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.

 

Unique Melody Miracles

The Unique Melody Miracles are a custom-moulded in-ear-monitor (or CIEM). There are many manufacturers making CIEMs – some cheaper, some more expensive. The Miracles are the top-of-the-line option from Unique Melody. I chose the Miracles after much research into these other options:

  • JH Audio JH13
  • JH Audio JH16
  • Heir 8.A

Deciding to buy custom in-ears is a big decision. They’re expensive (but completely worth it), take a while to make, require a trip to an audiologist, and have lower resale value due to their custom-moulded nature. There’s also the chance that they won’t fit properly the first time around. For any lover of music, custom IEMs are a very worthwhile investment, but one that you need to make knowing the process that awaits…

Overview

Miracle boxThe UM Miracles are a 6-driver, 3-way design meaning that they use a total of 6 individual speaker units (called balanced armatures) inside each earpiece. The 6 drivers are combined in a 3-way configuration meaning that they are paired up to produce bass, mid-range, and treble (2 per frequency range). They are designed to produce a fairly neutral sound (i.e. no specific emphasis on any frequency range). Specifications are:

  • Frequency range: 18 Hz – 19 kHz
  • Impedance: 15.9 ohm
  • Sensitivity: 114 dB SPL

PresentationThey arrive in a beautiful package and with a hard case, metal warranty card, and glass cube paperweight. It’s an impressive presentation. Admittedly, I don’t think many people will find use for the paperweight, but it’s beautiful and you can always just leave it in the box. Mine’s serving as a weight on the base of my headphone stand so it’s both purposeful and beautiful. The Miracles are supplied with the same cable as most other CIEMs on the market, the Westone Epic cable. It’s thin and supple with a nice right-angled jack to connect to your source units. Although not a world-beater by any stretch, it’s a perfectly serviceable cable, but there may be some longevity issues due to it’s thin design from what I have heard.

The Process

Miracles0011 When you order any CIEMs there are a few steps to go through regardless of which brand and model you choose. For this part of the review, I am referring to all brands and models, not just the Miracles.

Design – decide on the colours and inserts you want for the tips, shells, and faceplates of your CIEMs. Most CIEM manufacturer sites have designer pages to help you choose. This is a big decision because once it’s done, you can’t change it without the time and expense of remoulding (basically having them remade f rom scratch). It’s a good idea to check around on forums and different manufacturers’ sites for images of CIEMs to see what looks good to you.

Impressions – next you’re off to the audiologist for them to take moulds of your ear canals and outer ear. This step takes about 30 minutes and is a little weird-feeling, but pretty straight forward.

Important note!!! When having your impressions taken, be sure to stay completely still and looking straight ahead (you might want to choose a spot on the wall to stare at for the whole time). Different companies recommend different mouth positions (i.e. open, closed, wide open, open & closed) so you may find variation in the instructions. Many audiologists will have bite blocks you can use to hold your mouth still in an open position. I found for the Miracles that a bit block around 1.5cm thick worked best.  Importantly, the audiologist may forget to instruct you thoroughly so make sure you remind yourself of the steps provided by your CIEM company and stick to them or it could be a painful wait as you send your brand new CIEMs back to be redone.

Waiting – Once you send your completed impressions / moulds to the CIEM manufacturer, you’re in for a bit of a wait. It varies between manufacturers, but is always multiple weeks. In some cases though it can extend out to 6+ weeks so be prepared. It is a long time to be waiting for something so special to you, but it’s completely worth it.

2012-12-07 16.34.22Receiving – The day does come eventually after what seems like forever. You open the packaging and excitedly try to put your new toys in your ears. Please note that a couple of things happen at this time:

  1. They feel weird, difficult and uncomfortable to put in at first – this passes as you get more practiced
  2. They feel weird and possibly a little uncomfortable even when they’re properly inserted – this will settle down in most cases. Allow a couple of weeks or at least some extended listening sessions for your ears to adjust to having a foreign object inside the canal
  3. There is a chance they won’t fit properly and that the seal will be incomplete or will break easily. Don’t decide immediately while everything feels new and strange. Let your ears get used to the sensation and fit before deciding to return them for a refit because it’s another big decision that may require another trip to the audiologist and another long wait.

Hopefully, they fit first time around and you can just get on with enjoying them! When they do fit, here’s what you can expect from the Miracles. From here on, I am talking only about the Miracles and your experiences with other CIEMs may vary dramatically depending on the brand and model.

Build Quality & Design

The Miracles are made by Unique Melody, one of the more prominent custom manufacturers in the market along with Ultimate Ears (UE), Heir Audio and JH Audio to name a few. The Miracles are beautifully made and well finished. There are a pair of tiny dimples in the faceplate of my left earpiece, but they’re only visible under the right lighting and at a certain angle so really not worth worrying about. All-in-all the Miracles arrive beautifully finished and without any bubbles, cracks, seams, or any other significant flaws in the acrylic. They feel sturdy and solid.

FacesAs you can see from the images, I chose to get red and blue shells (right and left respectively) with purple faceplates on both. I asked for the silver Unique Melody insert which is a free addition, and I had them keep the tips clear. There is absolutely no benefit with the clear tips and in hindsight I have no idea why I did this!? It’s not bad, but serves no purpose and doesn’t look any better – maybe I just wanted to maximise my customisation…

Metal tubeDepending on the colours chosen, you can see the wiring and drivers inside the shells as well as the small metal pipe in the bass tube (see image to right). This can be cool, but realistically there’s not a lot to see.

Other than seeing your choice of colours and inserts come to life, the design is quite straightforward. It’s an exact replica of the space inside your ear canal and outer ear moulded in acrylic and with a bunch of miniature drivers inside. I’m not suggesting it’s an easy achievement from Unique Melody – there’s a lot of design and technology built into a small space, but the end result is a solid, moulded piece of acrylic that’s deceptively simple on the outside.

Fit

Being custom moulded, the Miracles (or any CIEM) should fit beautifully and comfortably, but it’s possible that the moulds made by your audiologist could be imperfect. If that’s the case, you may have an experience like I did at first where the seal breaks on one (or both) sides during certain movements. For me, the seal on the right would break anytime I looked down (e.g. to read a book or look at my laptop), or if I tilted my head to the right (e.g. leaning against the wall of the train while trying to relax listening to music). It can be very off-putting and take you straight out of the music.

The good news is that a good mould will result in an incredibly comfortable CIEM. Now that they’re fixed and fitting properly, I can easily wear the Miracles for hours on end with no discomfort. Along with comfort, the perfect fit and seal means that, once the music is playing, the rest of the world disappears – isolation of sound is extreme. Loud sounds like alarms, announcements on trains / in airports are still audible, but background noise just ceases to exist.

Service

I’m writing this now so as not to leave a bad “after-taste” at the end of the review. The service I received from UM Australia (aka ACustoms) ranged from exceptional to really poor. Communication was inconsistent and sometimes inaccurate, and the first proposed solution to a fit issue I had resulted in a 4-5 week wait (from memory) with no joy at the end and another 6-7 week wait after that. I can’t speak to the reasons for the inconsistencies and there may be short-term issues, but it has definitely left me feeling like I won’t use their services again which is a shame because individually, everyone but 1 person I dealt with was really friendly and helpful in terms of their attitudes. It’s just a shame that their systems and processes seem to let down the overall experience. What makes it even more of a shame is how truly brilliant the product is. It’s a prestige, top-end item that fulfils all that it promises and deserves to be supported with an equivalent standard of customer service.

Sound

Shells & Tips - bottomIn the end this is what really matters and the Miracles do not disappoint! First impressions of these are that they deliver perfect sound across the entire frequency range. There’s plenty of detail without any fatiguing sibilance or harshness. There’s plenty of bass without any excess rumble or flab, and the midrange is solid and present without becoming thick and creamy or too dry and raspy.

Pairing

The Miracles, like most multiple balanced armature IEMs are a bit picky about the device they’re paired with. Combined with a great source with low output impedance (<1 ohm ideally), they really sing, but you may find a slight loss of bass and increase in top-end when used with non-ideal devices. For example, I find they don’t pair perfectly with my desktop amp (Audio-gd NFB-5.2), iPod, or mobile phone, but are great with my portable amp (Tralucent T1). I’m still undecided about how well they pair with my USB DAC, the AudioQuest Dragonfly because on paper they are a match, but I hear a little bit of harshness when paired directly with the Dragonfly (i.e. not via an amplifier).

Bass

The bass from the Miracles is a revelation. It’s solid, full and punchy – much more so than I ever expected from an earphone. The Miracles manage to be punchy and tight while also having all the body and rumble you could need unless you’re a major basshead. Of course, as I’ve already touched on, this will depend on the source driving them. A poor pairing will strip the bass out of the Miracles, but that’s on the source, not the Miracles. They are absolutely up to the task of producing any bass I’ve ever heard in a recording and I’m yet to be disappointed by them when paired with the right source.

Mids

Miracles0009The mids of the Miracles are subtle in a good way. With the stock cable (more on that later), the mids are well-placed and present, but not emphasised or forward like some high-end IEMs (e.g. Shure SE535). Vocals and instrumentals won’t jump out at you or get lost behind the rest of the music – they’re just there, right where they should be.

Those coming from very warm, lush earphones or headphones may find the Miracles a bit lean at first, but to me they are just beautifully balanced rather than lean or analytical.

Highs

The highs on the Miracles are quite surprising. There’s nice brightness and oodles of detail, but it never seems to get harsh. Even with poor recordings, the Miracle seems to present the music tastefully and never hacks up your eardrums with sibilance and harshness. Yes, they will absolutely shine a light on any shortcomings in the recording, but they’re not ruthless like other headphones I’ve tried.

Presentation

This is where the Miracles really shine. So far they do everything exactly as I expected, but it’s their presentation that really blows me away again and again.

Shells & Tips - sideThe Miracles manage to create a large, deep, and tall soundstage between your ears which stretches from ear to ear and from the top of your head down to your jaw. I am often blown away when I feel a guitar strumming in one ear – yes, I said feel, not hear. Somehow, they present not just sound, but texture and sensations which are rarely experienced when listening to earphones, let alone headphones.

Instrument placement is perfect – clean, separate, and unforced. You don’t have to think about where instruments are placed, you just know. The experience is similar to my first “wow” moment with the Shure SE535s and yet so much better. It’s like you can mentally walk around between the band members and explore the stage with them. It only gets better with a change of cable…

Summary (Part 1)

For around $1000 you expect a massive amount from these little nuggets of acrylic and I think you’d be hard-pressed to be disappointed. Unless you have very specific tastes in sound signature (i.e. you like gobs of bass or an extremely lean, analytical experience) the Miracles should tick all the boxes.

If you’re buying them, be sure of a few things:

  1. You have the patience to wait
  2. You have a source or amp with <1 ohm output impedance
  3. You’re ready to disappear from the world for a while as you get completely absorbed in music you thought you already knew like the back of your hand

There are other great CIEMs out there, and the new JH13 packs some recent technology which may actually make it better than the Miracle while being comparable in sound signature so do your research before buying, but rest assured if you settle on the Miracles – they are an epic audio experience in a very small, extremely comfortable package.

Cable Changes

The detachable cable of the Miracles means that you can easily swap the stock cable for a massive range of custom options made of all different exotic metals and combinations. The socket used on the Miracles is common to most CIEM brands so it’s easy to find alternatives. Do be aware though that the Miracles use a recessed socket and not all cables will fit the recess even though they may use the same 2-pin design. Just double-check before laying down your dough.

Miracles0013So far I’ve tried a couple of different cables with the Miracles, a silver cable which I think was from Chris_Himself from Headphonelounge (on Head-Fi.org). I bought it second hand so I am not completely sure. The sound with the silver cable was good, but brightened the signature of the Miracles more than I like. Some people would love it, but it wasn’t for me.

I bought the silver cable while I was waiting for the beast pictured to the right. It’s the DHC Symbiote SE Litz from Double Helix Cables and it’s an amazing piece of cable engineering, so much so that I’ll be doing a dedicated review of it soon.

In terms of its impact on the sound, the Symbiote SE Litz delivers essentially the same signature as the stock cable, but somehow does everything better. Every sound is smoother, cleaner, fuller, more detailed and better. I know that sounds like hyperbole, but I can’t describe it any better. There’s no individual element of the sound which jumps out to me, but everything is undeniably better.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is the impact those improvements have on the listening experience. After swapping to the DHC cable, I was listening to the same tracks I always have on my portable player (a selection of my favourites list of around 4000 tracks, all of which I know well) and noticed that I was listening to and hearing the lyrics of songs I’d never really paid attention to before.

It’s not like the DHC cable emphasised the midrange to make vocals more prominent – it just made everything so coherent and organic that it became like sitting at a live gig or recording session where all of the individual sounds came together perfectly and naturally making it easy to hear everything and take in the entire musical canvas.

The DHC cables require a significant outlay and there are a couple of pointers I’ll cover in the separate review (mainly the large size of the stock plug). They also have a long lead time because they’re handmade to order, but I am extremely comfortable recommending the Symbiote SE Litz cable with the Miracles as one of the most perfect pairings I’ve ever experienced. It won’t wow you upfront like the brightness and detail of silver cables might, but will continuously improve your listening experience and keep the Miracles silky, smooth, detailed, and incredible.

Summary (Part 2)

I’m really excited to continue using the Miracle + Symbiote combination and look forward to hearing my music in all new ways as I keep sifting through my collection. In future I’ll be trying some other CIEMs I think, but will be amazed to find anything more than subtle, incremental changes to performance. For now, I am comfortable saying that the Miracles + Symbiote are the greatest personal audio experience I have found so far (i.e. better than any headphones I’ve used as yet). The fact that you can take them anywhere you go is a massive bonus.

No doubt there are better products and combinations to be found out there, but I really can’t see it coming for the same money or less. If you’re looking to spend $1000-2000 on a great portable (or even home) earphone solution, these are a great option. The Miracles alone are around $1000 depending on the design options you choose and you can always choose to add the cable later for that extra little upgrade. The cable I bought was a big outlay, but worth every cent. Keep your eye out for the review…

Tralucent T1

I’ve been sitting on this review for a while now, but it’s worked out better for everyone involved because I’ve had time to truly appreciate this little packet of awesomeness called the T1 from Tralucent Audio.

The T1 is a portable amplifier designed for use with various source units such as iPods, Walkmans, Cowon players, Sansa players, etc. The T1 is normally priced at $250 (US dollars I think) and is specially priced at $229 at the time of this blog post. That pricing places it below well-known and well-loved  amplifiers like the Graham Slee Voyager, Meier Audio Corda 2 Stepdance, and Pico Slim. I’m not going to do a direct comparison because I don’t currently have access to all of these models without blowing a lot of $$$, but can assure you that the T1 definitely holds its own in this company and many users of both the T1 and the amps listed above report preferences towards the T1.

Overview

T1 Full Kit

The T1 with its accessories

The specs of the T1 aren’t published on the website so I can’t give you exact measurements, but I can tell you that the power output is easily ample to drive full size cans like the Sennheiser HD650s and it has enough dynamic range and control to also work effectively at lower volumes with sensitive IEMs like the Shure SE535s and Unique Melody Miracles (or other sensitive customs)

The T1 comes with a nice array of pieces including:

  • High quality 3.5mm to 3.5mm interconnect cable (middle)
  • 2 elastic bands (grey and black)
  • A USB charging cable (bottom right)
  • A 9V rechargeable battery (not pictured)

T1 Front PanelThe design of the T1 is very simple. The front panel houses a volume knob, input socket (closest to the volume knob), output socket, and blue power LED to show you when the amplifier is switched on.

The back panel houses the red charging LED and the mini-USB socket used for charging. Although micro-USB is becoming more and more common, most people will likely T1 Back Panelstill have devices with both so finding a spare micro-USB cable (or ten) shouldn’t be too hard and of course there’s one provided in the box with the T1.

Size

E11 & T1 Piggyback

Fiio E11 (top) and Tralucent T1 (bottom)

The T1 is a compact portable amplifier, but is not quite as small as some others on the market. As you can see in this image, the footprint of the T1 is about the same as the Fiio E11, but the T1 is about twice as thick.

It’s easily worth the extra cost of real estate when compared to the sound of an amp like the E11 as the T1 far outperforms it’s slimmer cousin.

E11 & T1The overall dimensions of the T1 (not including the volume knob or switches) are: 88mm x 50mm x 21mm

The T1 fits really nicely behind my full-sized iPods. It makes it basically impossible to put the rig into your pocket, but the T1 + iPod bundle sits nicely in the hand without too much trouble.

Battery Life and Charging

The T1 reaches a full charge in a few hours using USB power and this charge lasts for ages. I’ve successfully used the T1 for about a week of normal use without charging. (That means using it on the 1 hour journey to and from work, plus some incidental listening.) It’s easy to expect it to cover any of your listening needs without interruptions for charging – full days of listening, days of commuting, listening while travelling, etc. I can’t see a fully charged battery failing to see you through in any circumstances.

You can also use the T1 while it’s connected to power. It uses a smart power system that will divert the USB power directly to the amplification circuit when plugged in so you can use it without draining the battery. When I tried this from my computer (which has noticeably  noisy USB ports), the amp was unlistenable due to the noise being conveyed. I have heard that the amp works better of mains-powered USB chargers, but haven’t tried this so can’t comment. For me, most listening with the T1 is away from a power source so it’s battery power all the way.

Sound Quality

Tralucent T1 trans“Finally!” you say.

Yes, this is what really matters and the T1 doesn’t disappoint.

Out of the box, the T1 is a little bit underwhelming. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it doesn’t amaze…

…and that’s why god invented burning-in.

Burn-In

After an overnight burn-in (leaving it connected to headphones and my iPod on shuffle), the T1 grew into its skin and sounded wonderful.

The T1 continued to improve over the following days of use and reached its peak after a week or so of use. I’ve heard 200 hours suggested as the ideal burn-in period for the T1 to reach its full potential. This may be true, but it sounded great after just one night and steadily improved after that, but I wouldn’t wait until the 200 hour mark – just start enjoying it and let it improve.

The Finished Sound

Once burnt-in, the sound of the T1 is exceptional. It’s very neutral and uncoloured – giving you the music as it was recorded and without any significant emphasis.

The T1 reproduces outstanding bass and I was initially unsure if there was a very slight emphasis here or if it just did a better job than some of the other devices I was used to. After extended listening my belief is that it just does a great job of producing and controlling accurate bass reproduction*. It gets the best out of the headphones/earphones connected, but doesn’t seem to add anything to the source material. I haven’t heard bass added to any tracks that I know are light on bass.

*More on this in a later section about IEMs.

In addition to its brilliant bass reproduction, the other area of excellence for the T1 is its staging and transparency.

The T1 produces no audible hiss even at levels above normal listening volume. This means that the music comes at you from a completely blank backdrop and allows every subtle nuance of the recording to come through. The result is a compelling listening experience where there is a beautiful, big and deep stage created. All of the sounds are placed exactly where they should be and the space around each instrument and performer is clearly audible.

The thing I love most about the T1 is its ability to simply enhance the ability of your headphones or earphones in recreating the music. It doesn’t get involved in the reproduction, it just supports and drives your phones to perfection.

Full-Size Cans

0cb728f9_Sennheiser20HD650

I bought the T1 to drive my Shure SE535s, HiFi Man Re272s and Unique Melody Miracles, but I thought I’d also try it out with my HD650s.

The T1 does a great job with the 650s. It’s not able to recreate the dynamics and presence of a mains-powered desktop amp, but it still manages to make the HD650s sound great (subjectively, I’d say around 75-80% of their potential). The soundstage is good and reproduction across the frequency range remains accurate and enjoyable.

The T1 runs at around 40-50% volume to effectively drive the HD650s (depending on the input used).

IEMs

SE535 LE

The low impedance of many IEMs makes them a difficult proposition for many amplifiers and portable devices. A low impedance earphone is actually harder to control than high impedance headphones.

One of the measures used by many to determine the synergy between sources / amplifiers and headphones / earphones is the 1/8 rule. Basically, they want the impedance of the output from the device to be no more than 1/8 of the headphone’s / earphone’s impedance. I don’t know it the 1/8 rule is truly a good measure, but the key is there – the bigger the difference between the source and headphone impedance the better.

IEMs like the Shure SE535s and various customs have impedance around 16 ohms which is very low in the world of headphones. This means finding a source / amp with output impedance that’s very low and the T1 fits the bill.

The T1 has an output impedance of around 0.1-0.2 ohms so you can literally pair it with anything! (From an impedance matching perspective at least)

The result of this brilliantly low output impedance is the T1’s awesome control. The T1 has the ability to exert perfect control over the drivers in your IEMs and the result is punchy and powerful bass without any bloat. By removing bloat, the texture of the bass line can really shine and you get to experience the magic across the full frequency range of your music.

Summary

All-in-all, the Tralucent T1 is an amazing amplifier for the money. It’s not flashy or full of features, but instead offers a clean and open presentation of all your music with the ability to pair seamlessly and effectively with any of your earphones / headphones.

For the dollars you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything that comes close to the T1 and it would be very easy to argue that you won’t beat it at almost any price point. Other more expensive portable amps are probably just as good as the T1, but it will be hard to find one that is head and shoulders above the T1 even for more money.

Bottlehead Crack – “The Review”

Recently I posted a review of the construction stage of my Bottlehead Crack amplifier. The amp’s been in action for a few weeks now and I’m ready to share a review of my impressions.

I’m not going to start with the normal list of specifications for the Crack because it’s so variable due to the massive range of modifications you can make to it. What does matter are the following details:

  • Tube driven amplifier for headphones
  • Designed for high impedance headphones (ideal with Sennheiser and Beyerdynamic cans)
  • Buckets of power

Overview

The Bottlehead Crack is a DIY kit sold by Bottlehead in America. It costs around $350 fully shipped to Australia and takes a couple of days to put together if you take your time, but could be completed in a day of assembly, committed soldering and testing.  If you want to know how easy it is to build one of these for yourself, you can check out the build post here: Bottlehead Crack – “The Build”

For $350, this amp is simply incredible. To put it into perspective, the Crack performs on par or better than products like the Woo Audio WA3 (~$580) and Schiit Lyr (~$550). Because of its DIY nature, you can get brilliant performance for a very low price. On top of that, building it yourself means you know what’s going on inside and can easily add to it and improve it either on your own or using the add-n “Speedball” kit from Bottlehead.

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