Tralucent T1 portable headphone amp in review
Tralucent Audio came out of nowhere. Their unique 1Plus2 earphone began stirring up Headfi a few months ago; other audio forums have followed suit. Startlingly less uproarious is their excellent T1 amplifier, a 250$ piece of aluminium, solder, and bolts, that thumbs its nose at many a +400$ amp. It’s a pretty little thing, sporting a black coat, thick walls, good ergonomics, and an audio drive
train that is as strong as it is resilient.
Spec is hard to come by. Check out Tralucent’s T1 webpage for details.
The T1‘s in and out ports are milled into solid aluminium walls 3-4 millimetres thick. The top and bottom halves of the casing come flanged for precise fit. All bolts sit flush with the exterior chassis. The only projecting parts are the on/off flick switch, which resides at the back, and the generous volume pot.
It’s chassis is refreshingly designed. It has its ups and downs. One of the downs is that there may be a tad less signal shielding in the T1 than some other similarly priced amps. Another is that the case itself, despite being so compact, and precisely fit, flexes. The reason is clear: the T1’s exoskeleton is composed of 4 main parts while most portable amps go with 3. More parts means more flex.
However, flex is limited, and will in no way effect its sound or function. In fact, if you need to get in and out of the case often, this design will prove to be a blessing. There’s no need to slide out the logic board to change the battery. Just lift off the top panel after removing 4 hex screws. Bob’s someone’s uncle.
The volume pot wobbles somewhat. You can fix that easily: remove the pot with the supplied Allen key, cut out a thin cardboard spacer, place it where the volume pot usually sits, then re-install the volume pot, making sure to push its base flush with the cardboard. Finish the cardboard with a hobby knife. If like me, you dislike imprecision in metal devices, this will cure you.
The volume pot itself rotates exceptionally smoothly and the on/off switch at the back will bust your nut before it busts from the chassis.
Ergonomics and Polish
Portable amps owe it to their users to be simple to use, supply adequate battery power, and go about doing music comfortably. In most of those benchmarks, the T1 excels.
Firstly, its use of milled ins and outs makes it easy to find the correct port, even in the dark. Aside from the volume pot and the on/off switch, nothing juts out to damage other audio equipment, tables, laptops, etc. Even the USB charge port is milled, making it more secure and easier to connect.
Tralucent’s choice of mini USB means that anything from laptops to iPad/iPhone chargers, to USB mains ports can charge the T1. Really, this amp is an ergonomic tour-de-force.
Perhaps most telling of Tralucent’s pursuit of perfect ergonomics is their use of a single size bolt for all hardware joints. That means the tending of only one Allen key. In the box are other goodies. Two elastic bands for fitting the T1 to a portable source, a quality interconnect cable, and a cheap USB/charging cable are included. All of that for under 250$ USD. Wow.
There are, however, two drawbacks to its design. The first is that the milled in/out ports comfortably accept jacks of up to Switchcraft size and no larger. As soon as you get fatter than that, getting a secure connection will be difficult if not impossible. The second problem is that the charging and on/off LEDs are too bright. Way too bright in fact. Vorzüge’s amps are worse, but next to them, the T1 has no rival. If you like to listen to music at night with your rig at your bed stand, you’ll get no sleep unless you’re Norwegian and used to 24 hours of light.
Eager to make a memorable entry, Tralucent brought to market one of the best designed amps in the price range. Simplicity is the name of the game, but so is thoroughness. Rather than stuffing in a hard-to-replace, soldered-in rechargeable battery, Tralucent packed in a 9V 650 mAh Lithium Polymer batter that can readily be found just about anywhere.
As mentioned above, getting to it is easy. Swapping is easy, too.
As we will see, the T1 is also a star performer. It has no gimmicks to hook you. Instead, it offers what I believe to be best-in-class output quality and timeless, ergonomic design.
As always, I tend to spend more time grading portable amps with portable earphones and headphones. The reasons are that portable earphones exert more stress on the output of an amp at reasonable listening volumes. Amps that exert control at all volumes (prior to danger zones) are the ones to watch.
Spoiler alert: keep your eyes peeled, the T1 is genius.
Firstly, I’ve discovered not a single transducer that exacts any notable strain on the output of the T1. This amp remains stable with every earphone and headphone I’ve thrown at it at all volumes levels from safe to borderline suicidal. Even the SM2, infamous as an amp-beater, stays well within the norms the T1 spits out when unloaded.
And those norms are on par in most respects with the best amps on the market. Sure, there is more power in the ALO National, and a digital volume pot on the ALO RX – the T1 has both beat in size, price, and performance for your dollar.
RMAA and Square Wave Test Disclaimer
Tests performed in this section reflect the T1’s performance when connected to a specific set of output/input devices. They should not directly be compared to any other result. The input device is an Edirol FA-66. The output devices are: Earsonics SM2, Beyerdynamic DT880 600Ω, and Audio Technica ES10, which are connected in parallel to the output signal. All Tralucent T1 hardware tests will be posted in TMA’s forums.
Sound – Frequency Responose
Flat. Throw anything at it whirly knurly. If the SM2 can’t phase the T1, then likely nothing can. Low or high Ω headphones alike will enjoy absolutely clear and strong bass and treble lines. If it is in the recording, it will be in your ears. In terms of neutral frequency responses, the T1 is up there with or surpassing the ALO Rx, MST FiQuest, and Vorzüge, none of which come cheaper than 420$.
Sound – Dynamic Range and Distortion
In particular, the T1 suffers no artefacts in its dynamic range, no matter the earphone plugged in. In RMAA terms, it hovers at around 90dB whether loaded or unloaded, observing the practical limits of 16 bit audio. Considering how most modern music is heavily compressed due to the economics of the loudness war, the T1 likely outpaces your favourite recordings by a factor of 10 to 1.
Similarly, the signal to noise level is quite high. RMAA rates it at 85dB. This, too, remains level no matter the transducer. As you might imagine, square waves are rendered nearly perfectly, too, with very little ring. I’ve yet to find an amplifier that exhibits no ring. Unamped sources such as the AlgoRhythm Solo get away with perfection in every category, but in the end, they need an amp. The T1 is a great way to retain most of the performance of a high end source while keeping things small.
Sound – Stereo Image
Unlike the Rx, the T1 has a somewhat compressed stereo image. Typically, solid state amps push anywhere from 70-90dB unloaded. The T1 pushes 63dB from an iPod nano 6G. It’s not a good score, but it’s not a doomer either. Amps with very wide stereo images tend to sound crisp, clear, and oftentimes, scratchy. It is one of the pains we’ve had to come to live with when dealing with digital audio. In the case of the T1, sound is a bit more ‘analogue’ in that you get neither too great nor too little separation between channels. Intimacy is another term for it. Of course, greater stereo intimacy can also mean smaller soundstage. We’ll get to that later.
Sound – Volume Pot
While smooth and easy to control, the T1’s volume pot is somewhat finicky. Even at a base setting of ‘0’, music will leak into your ears. Good balance is achieved early on, but it comes with the rather steep price of a loud signal. Earphone users beware: the T1 may be too loud for you. For portable headphones and home headphones, it has no problems, whatsoever. Control issued across its volume range is incredible, especially with nervous headphones such as the Audio Technica ES7, which distorts quite easily at high volumes. The T1 takes care of it pish posh.
Sound – IMD
While I can recommend the T1 for almost every transducer out there, I’ve found a few instances of trouble, and all with the same headphone. Alas, it is my favourite portable, Audio Technica’s ES10 and ESW11LTD. Distortion rendered by these headphones comes off as a slight sheen and compactness across the sound field, but really only audibly affecting higher frequencies where your ears would be begging you to stop listening.
Fortunately, that sheen doesn’t sound bad. It’s just not there with any other headphone I’ve tested. IMD isn’t high enough to creak a single note. Overall, however, there are artefacts present that aren’t accounted for in the different design of the headphones themselves.
Sound – In a Nutshell
250$ nets you a very high-performing amplifier that, with very few provisos, pays homage to the gods of 16 bit audio just about as well as any amp I’ve come across. You get perfect frequency response no matter the earphone, and you attain to most of the tenets set forth in the practical limits of 16 bit audio whilst enjoying punch and power galore.
Hiss is well controlled and left/right balance is achieved early on. In short, the T1 exerts control. In most cases, it is transparent. With every headphone I’ve used, I’ve discovered a pleasant shine in the upper midrange. It’s the sort of shine that makes big, soulful music sound great. Think Vangelis, movie soundtracks, ballads, Jerry Lee Lewis, Nick Cave, The Carpenters, and modern vocal jazz – all certain heavenly matches. Like a 10% application of the DRAMA setting of Snapseed for iPad, the shine is minimal. But, for certain music, it makes a notable, and pleasurable, difference.
That’s not to say that classical, trance, and John Denver aren’t fit for the T1. The former and tweener might benefit from a bit more stereo separation, yes, but with the minimal shine the T1 gives them, they push out a strong, unique flavour. Those who like it, like it a lot. The latter I put there just for pun.
One thing you can’t overlook is the sheer amount of power the T1 dusts off. It’s almost ALO National grade. Even powering the the ES7 at 100% volume levels, nary a fleck of clipping distortion dusts the scene. In fact, at 100%, older recordings such as Chariots of Fire will split your skull before distortion really bothers. The T1 is smaller, cheaper and better resolving than most of its rivals. And, it has a low amount of background noise.
That brings me to usable volume levels.
On every one of my earphones, the loudest I will comfortably use the T1 is at the absolute lowest setting. The same goes for the ES7. The ES10 has a little more leeway, and the DT880 a great deal more. Still, I’ve yet to use a headphone that makes use of the back half of the volume pot. As the volume is crunched up too tightly, the back half is mostly wasted. It is, however, better than the Vorzüge volume pot, which reaches maximum potential at about 1 o’clock, prior to exhuming rough distortion.
Issues – Volume
Put simply, at base volumes, it is too loud for most modern earphones. Users of sensitive earphone users will be at pains to listen to their favourite music at comfortable volumes. As mentioned above, even the ES7 and sometimes, the ES10 are too loud at low volumes when fed from the line outputs of even weak players. And remember, even a volume setting of 0 still emits sound.
Add to that the ease with which the volume pot is manipulated and you could be in for quite a shock. Tralucent need to tone the gain WAY down on their amp and make the volume pot much more difficult to accidentally turn.
Issues – Milled Ports
I consider this a minor issue, but it may affect the craziest audiophiles out there. Fat plugs won’t plug all the way into the amp. That means you may have to leave your most expensive ALO cables home. Sad, but true.
Issues – Lamp Brightness
The T1 isn’t made for beside listening. Plugged into the mains, its rear red LED almost blinds in the dark. The front blue LED is even worse. Not quite bright enough to fry ants, still the T1’s LEDs tug at the tail sleeves of Vorzüge’s brightest amps, and ferociously at that.
While I take issue with three usability flare-ups, the Tralucent T1 is otherwise, a conceptually sound, well-engineered amp. In fact, it is one of the finest sounding amps at any price out there. Apart from a somewhat compressed stereo image (which may well be a design choice), it has no real flaws. It has the power of much larger and more expensive amps, the resolution of an ALO Rx, and the near silent background of a Vorzüge. Currently, the T1 sells for 229$ direct from Tralucent. It is an absolute steal. Carefully consider the above niggles. If you can cope with them, I heartily recommend the T1.
Best sound in class
Low signal noise
Great accessory set
Great build quality
Volume gain too high
LEDs too bright
Milled ports may be too tight for large connection jacks
Hot damn! Headphones really are a rockin’ way to enjoy music, right? Feel free to explore TMA’s headphone oubliette
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