Travagan’s Red headphone/speaker amplifier in Review – Bullseye!
If a headphone amp/dac combination product like the Firestone Fireye II is unique — and a good buy at 115$–, the 190$ Travagan’s Red which powers both headphones and sensitive speakers is the jackalope. Understated in matte black with a Rudolf-red volume and pot, it fits beautifully next to any desktop audio/video rig, computer, or in the living room, but understated it most certainly is not. Its lively, punchy sound has become one of my favourites, and for the comparatively small wallet bite, is sure to leave bite marks all over the competition.
- LM4562 for main amplifier，current boosters made by NPN/PNP power transistors
- Class AB / DC amplifier；coupling capacitor less
- Extra low output resistance ( Zo ＜ 0.05 ohms)，high current capacity ( 1A per channel) 2Hz~120Khz ,-1dB (at 8 ohms/2W loading)，very low noise !
- Max. output 5Vrms，easy to match 8Ω speaker to 600Ω headphone
- OP amplifiers exchangeable! You can tune the tone by yourself!
- Power by 24VDC ,100V/240V input auto-switching adaptor
- “Anti-dummy” power supply protection
- Size: 110mm (L) X 76mm(W) X 57mm(H)
- Weight: 420g
Build and Packaging
Travagan’s is the brainchild of former Firestone Audio engineer, David Lin, a fact which is evident in the Red’s incredibly well-machined chassis, cute packaging and great design. It is machined from a single aluminium block, hollowed, and then fastened in the front and on one side by countersunk allen bolts. The rear is a clean, easy-to-access assembly of in/out analogue RCA ports and speaker terminals. It can take in either single-ended or balanced input (for that extra bit of bass) and sounds great, but for clean freaks, I would suggest steering away from balanced input which may sound more dynamic, but ends up with a bit more distortion. The speaker terminals are thumbs-for-fingers friendly with wide birthing to accept the most brittle of banana plugs, or for slobs, a knotted mass of frayed wires.
Its volume pot and integrated power switch is excellently finished, rotating smoothly on its fulcrum from the ‘off’ position to its highest setting of 9. And thankfully, it gracefully turns on, avoiding the loud clap of some of its competitors. The usable volume range likely differs from unit to unit, but each Red should foot a similarly balanced signal. For reference, I kept the amp humming at volumes of 2-3 for use with the 64 ohm Ultrasone DJ1Pro and smaller headphones, and about 4-6 for the 600 ohm DT880. It performs best with headphones as opposed to earphones, sounding great with current-hungry monsters like the AKG 701 and perfectly stress-free with the Beyerdynamic DT880.
The one area which can be picked apart is that it lacks a full-sized headphone jack. Instead, it makes do with a mini-jack which means that in order to listen to headphones with real phono plugs, an adapter must be used. As this is a main-powered amp, it should safely accommodate full-size headphones without the need for phone jack adapters which can over-stress headphone ports.
Features in Review
Apart from that one caveat, Travagan’s Red is a special amp. It can power a pretty wide gamut of headphones, and in the same flourish, sensitive desktop speakers for a range of audio delights. David was kind enough to supply Travagan’s homebrewed 2” full-range speakers – small marvels which despite their size, output loud, clean signal, and amply show off the Red’s multi-tasking talents. The speakers get quite loud without distortion, but lack window-rattling power. For their part, bass is mostly lacking, but mids and highs kick out pretty well. But they never tarry far from a plastic echo which can be bothersome for fast, bass-heavy trance. These are great to bundle with the Red, but won’t replace the quality speakers you might already have unless you are looking for complementary speakers.
Although unadvertised, the next feature will appeal to the DIYer, to the scientist, and to the tinker. The chassis can be taken apart to reveal a socketed op-amp (LM4562) which can be switched out for minute audio tailoring.
I have owned a number of desktop headphone amplifiers in the past 4 years at prices which start at 160$ and rise to quite near to 1000$. In that range, the Red stands strong. It sounds at least as good as its asking price, has a good auto switching power supply, and powers speakers. What it doesn’t ‘do’ that well is flush balanced armature earphones with unadulterated signal. And for valve lovers, it doesn’t have that familiar, fuzzy warmth. But for 190$, its versatility and performance should make it fly off Travagan’s virtual shelves.
Despite fitting perfectly into a comfortable price niche (as well as snugly into any desktop corner), the Red doesn’t suffer typical jack-of-all trades compromises. It sounds good, very good. Again, there is no ON/OFF thump which plagues many low and high end amps. And it outputs levels of hiss which would embarrass many digital audio players – it is that good. The Red is also usably balanced and powerful at low volume levels and can pierce ears with a quality signal till about ‘7’ on the volume pot when coupled with a strong source. After that, however, its output suffers audible distortion, channel narrowing, and loss of definition in all frequencies. But, audible degradation happens to all amps sooner or later; it is just that more expensive options often have a bit more headroom before pooping out.
Moving on, there is little to decry about this amp. Its bass is textured, dry, and thick, pushing resolution even with low ohm earphones. And after 100 ohms, it offers stunning resolution in all frequencies with great balance and harmony. Its sweet spot resounds after 200-250 ohms where its signal is most nuetral, and even pushes a commendable signal into ~400 ohms. And if you don’t mind a bit of bass hump, the Red sounds great even through ~60 ohm headphones. The 600 ohm DT880 Pro sounds great at a volume setting of 5 to 7, where the headphones are comfortably loud, but not painful. Adjusting the source to lower volumes and the Travagan’s Red to a high setting, however, reveals the aforementioned signal degradation.
It works wonders with both the 250 ohm and 600 ohm DT880. Each sustain deep, chalky bass, and thankfully, taut mids and highs though there seems to be a slight hump in the mid bass and treble. The Red can also make IEM listening a painless, low-hiss affair, but it is not a good choice for balanced armature earphones which cause the amp’s frequency response to go wild. Likely, Travagan’s didn’t have IEMs in mind when they designed the Red; still I am surprised by the minimal amount of hiss present in balanced armature earphones. On the other end of the technology spectrum, dynamic inner earphones like the Victor FX500 is a brilliant, if somewhat dwarfing match; their deep bass comes alive with even better texture.
Clean freaks should enjoy how the Red revels in delivering low distortion levels and speedy attack and decay cycles. Fortunately, speed doesn’t overpower everything; there is a thin blanket of warmth spread over music, but nothing quite as soft and fuzzy as a valve amp. Because it isn’t purely clinical, the Red sounds good with surgically accurate headphones such as the AKG K701 and to a lesser extent, the DT-880. But, probably its sweetest spot is the Sennheiser HD600 whose thick, warmish side grabs some needed edge from this wonderful amp.
It would be imprudent to forget the importance of soundstage. While difficult to gauge, it has a profound effect on music. The Travagan’s Red throws a good stage with its dynamic sound, but it is highly dependent on which headphones are paired with it. High ohm headphones are the ‘easiest to drive’ in this case, presenting a greater sense of spacial separation. But lower headphones which cause spikes in the bass and treble drive dynamics forward, and as a result, fantastic headstage. Any way you cut it, the Red is an involving, fun listen.
NOTE: High impedance headphones like the 300 ohm Sennheiser HD600 and the 250 ohm Beyerdynamic DT880 get plenty of volume from the stock Travagan’s Red. They won’t however blast speaker-like. The 600 ohm DT880 is driven very well for image, bass, and control, but at the volume setting of ’7′, will only be ‘too loud’ as opposed to ear-splitting.
This review’s RMAA measurements reflect the performance of the Travagan’s Red when fed via the line out of the iPod touch 2G as my Edirol FA-66 is out of service for a few weeks. RMAA only tells one side of the story: performance, but doesn’t give the finer details; those bits which tickle the ear, which make you blink and go, ‘wow’ don’t show up on hardware tests. And, these results are applicable to my equipment only and should be used as a reference for general sound quality, not a definitive answer.
If I were to append a character to the Red, it would be, fun and chatty. It sounds great no matter what is thrown at it. Wood, brass, electronic, and even jaw violins – everything is clean, but powerful. Textures enjoy weight and drive, and there is enough bass to go around. Until very loud volumes, distortion levels remain nominal; past 7 on the volume knob however, things go pear-shaped. And as for dynamics and throwing a sound stage, the Red is great. Instruments are clear and separate. And with such a powerful low end, and a grain-free high end, the musical soundstage is engaging. Users of ~200-300 ohm headphones, are in for a treat: Travagan’s Red performs most neutrally at that impedance and is able to Moses and the Red Sea stereo separation to its widest.
And, let’s not forget that this excellent and inexpensive headphone amp can also drive sensitive speakers quite efficiently. I cannot give a definitive judgement based on the sound of Travagan’s 2” full range speakers other than that distortion levels remain shy of audible even at full employ and are a massive upgrade over any integrated OEM speaker.
I’ve spent longer with this amp than I should have. Other products need to get some attention. But, I cannot stop listening to it. There just has to be something wrong with a 190$ audio product which on paper, does everything, doesn’t there? Try as I might, I haven’t discovered it. The Travagan’s Red is articulate, powerful, moving and accepts high quality input. Its solid construction and no-nonsense black matte exterior mate well with one of the most perfect volume pots I have used. Though it doesn’t do balanced armature earphones very well, that is hardly a loss. Every other earphone/headphone I have thrown at it comes back chiming the praises of this 190$ gem.
|Title:||Travagan’s Red||Developer:||Travagan’s Audio|
Headphone amps and DACs help your headphones get the most out of their transducers. Take a look through our headphone section for suggestions of good upgrade/sidegrade options, and our headphone amplifier section for suggestions on how to wring out the best performance from your beloved phones.
- ALO Rx Portable headphone amp in Review – Double the battery, double the fun
- Fireye II Headphone amp/DAC in Review
- Fireye I Headphone amp in Review