Triad Audio L3 Headphone Amplifier in Review
Triad Audio’s L3 is one of the biggest battery-powered carry-around headphone amps that TMA has gone over. The other, MST’s FiQuest, is a champion of customisation and performance. While not nearly as customisable as the FiQuest, the L3 commutes from HiFi component to road warrior with less hassle. It is also one of the handsomest large amps this audio fool has seen.
Manufacturer: Triad Audio
I get the giddy lust for blood every time I hold something made of metal. Perhaps it’s this living in Japan where everything is made of plastic and stuffed behind endless shrouds of … plastic and more plastic. Perhaps its that a heavy chunk of aluminium or steel awakens the viking in me. I’m not sure. Whatever it is, the L3’s got me seeing red.
Its walls are are 5,5mm thick – so thick in fact, that the in/out ports must be sunk 3mm into its face. Ditto the DC port. The power and gain switches are the same part and securely grounded into the green board. They protrude from the case by 6,5mm, which isn’t a problem unless you tend to slam the back end of your amp on tables, tile floors, the sidewark. Don’t. You’ll snap off the switch or jack it into the amp – and break your tiles.
‘Round back, a single set of RCA jacks supplies the most logical input for a HiFi. They are the only somewhat flimsy part of the L3. It’s the wiggling they do when cables are plugged and unplugged. It’s like gripping the back of an Edirol FA-66 (the cheery unit I use to RMAA and SQ benchmark all the amps – for reference of course). It’s the feeling of a cram-all-in 250$ device. Perhaps I’m just mental wishing for an 800$ amp that feels its price in all its parts.
But apart from that, damn, it’s blood lust.
A 2mm H2,0 Allen keys will get you in. Triad fix the ends of the L3 with two Allen bolts per side. It reminds of like runaway skateboarding after having half-fastened your trucks to the board. Diagonally fasten two of four and you’re good to go. I still fasten my amps cross wise first. Except that Triad’s bolt threads are high quality, hardly prone to stripping. The other plus is that if you want to get in (to change the batteries, or just gape at the green real estate), you have only half the amount of screwing to do.
Bolts all counted for, I’d have to say that the L3 inspires a bit more confidence in me than does the FiQuest. The thicker walls should hold off more RF interference, and the bolt threads are better aligned. No stripping. Expect the L3 to survive many turns of your audio system.
Ergonomics and Polish
The best part of the L3 is the main board. It’s as well-labelled as the Vorzüge amps are. The batteries are rechargeable 9V batteries. If anything goes wrong, a quick fix shouldn’t be hard to pull off. Moving to the outside, we have a precise laser inscribed logo, controls, and, (egads) a serial number. The latter part must be a blessing to distributors and customers who want to know of which batch their L3 is part.
If you love to listen to music late at night, the L3 is your friend. Its blue LED can be seen in any light, but it isn’t too bright at night. You can’t use it as a torch to find the bathroom at midnight, or that dog shyte you swear you smell, but don’t have care to flip the electricity to find. Triad Audio’s implementation is near-perfect. Well done.
The volume and bass pots move smoothly and come off and on with a few twists of a 1,5mm H1,5 Allen key. They are, however, too close to each other for comfortable fiddling. Adjusting the bass without affecting the volume can be difficult. The biggest difficulty is in/out real estate. There is hardly any room at all. Two thick jacks will clog the in/out port and will frustrate that poor bass knob. To no end. The L3 is a LARGE amp, but has one of the most cramped front panels I’ve used. And, just like the FiQuest, the only headphone output is a 3,5mm stereo jack. There has to be a way to cramp some of the green board together to fit a 6,5mm jack. If you’re going to have to fuss with down-stepping headphone adapters anyway, RCA connection sort of loses its ribald lure.
At least the batteries have logos on them. That sort of makes up for the cramped face plate and the lack of a 6,3mm headphone jack.
It doesn’t make up for the up-side-down gain switch, which switches to high in the ‘down’ position, and low in the ‘up’ position, exactly opposite to the OFF/ON switch. It’s opposite’s week! The L3 is also the only amp in recent memory that crams in the headphone out right next to a pot of some sort, in this case, the bass pot. Even if you use the RCA input rather than the 3,5mm input, the front panel will feel cramped.
But remember, laser-engraved logo is precise, and you get Triad Audio labels on your batteries – you can’t forget that.
What the L3 loses in polish, it makes up in features – to an extent. While there are no sockets to switch out buffers and op-amps, the L3 does sport a powerful bass contour and a decent gain system. Oh yes, and an honest-to-god RCA input circuit. The latter is my favourite but I think fans of the ER4 and Audio Technica CK10 on the earphone end, and the T70, K701, and HD800 on the headphone end, will enjoy playing with the bass – that is, if they can reach it after plugging a headphone into the headphone output.
As a reviewer, I’m tickled by the bass ackwards design of the in/out ports, the on/off vs the gain, and the lack of a 6,3mm headphone jack, but sound-wise, the L3 strikes a deep chord in me. It deserves all the praise that has been heaped upon it since its inception.
But performance isn’t only the art of expensive amps like the L3. We’ll come back to this in the conclusion.
The L3 begs to be mated to the Senn HD700 or 800 – with an adapter of course – and my favourite, the Beyer DT880 600Ω. Even when run on battery power, there is plenty of overhead for extreme volume levels. Battery power, of course, is cleaner than mains power. The only area that battery power alone may not be enough is when driving a headphone like the DT880 at max volume, max gain, and with the bass circuit fully open. Sizzle distortion is evident then, but plug into the mains and suddenly, there is enough current to keep the DT880 from popping. Of course, in order to get the L3 to perform poorly, you have to push it to levels that would induce immediate and permanent hearing impairment.
Otherwise, even at full volume, the signal is strong, spacious, and inviting.
At normal listening levels, the L3’s performance is gripping. If you tend to connect amps to any portable source except an iBasso DX100 or a Cypher Labs CLAS, the performance your system achieves will be source limited, not amp limited. The L3 pushes nearly reference levels of performance in almost every metric. Its one weakness is slightly above-average noise from the headphone output when listening to sensitive earphones. Noise levels are higher than the FiQuest and similar to the ALO Continental V2. If you use sensitive earphones, you may be annoyed by the noise. Headphones are never a problem at any gain/volume level.
RCA VS 3,5 Stereo Input
The L3 isn’t among the number of headphone amps with disparately performing inputs. Both RCA and stereo inputs perform identically. Volume levels are the same, as is stereo performance, distortion, and the lot. This is especially helpful for HiFi use because some amps are optimised for one input method over another.
The variable bass boost is incredibly detailed. At full tilt, it will push ~10,5dB of extra punch between its ON and OFF settings. Vorzüge’s bass circuit boosts the signal by about 15dB, which some may consider too much. 10,5dB only sounds ninny by comparison. In reality, it is macho, just not effusively so. Its range of effect is from 5 or so Hz, with a boost of around 10dB up to about 200Hz, where its effect is down to about 2dB. At 100Hz, the effect rings in around 3,5dB. In other words, the effect is most noticeable in bass and mid bass. If your music doesn’t hit 100Hz very often, the 3,5dB of extra amplification won’t really hit your music. But if your music packs lots of low notes, the effect is swarmy. I like it quite a bit.
I suggest turning the amp ON/OFF without earphones attached. Power thump is sharp and loud. Even with the 120Ω Grado GR8 plugged in, it is painful. Headphones of almost any variety exhibit a small thump, but nothing painful.
Out and About
The L3 isn’t a small amp. Not by any means. If you mean to carry it in your trousers, you will have to upgrade to your daddy’s pre-diet jeans. It measures 156mm long with all its knobs included, 132mm if you measure its chassis edge to edge. This amp is made for the desktop, the purse, or the camera bag, not your trousers. It never gets too warm, so even if you can cram it into your Uniqlo jeans, there’s no worry of frying your bearded twins. But, they complain about the loss of trouser real estate. Battery seems to last well enough to get through a day of work at a Western company, or about half a day at a Japanese company. If you work in Asia, just bring a recharger.
If you want something that will fit in your skinny’s and still perform on par with the L3 with all your earphones, check out Tralucent’s T1.
Sound In A Nutshell
There is nothing to complain about and much to laud. The L3 doesn’t quite reach the limits of 16 bit performance, but it comes close to achieving best-in-class performance. There’s no one area it gives up to the FiQuest, for example. Well, maybe signal noise. As long as you keep the bass boost off, there is nothing really to say other than: the L3 is pretty much wire-with-gain. It is absolutely clean, refreshing, wide, detailed; it renders very closely to the original signal.
If you are after performance and/or power, give the L3 a try. It is a very good performance-minded amp. If you are after hearing your amp’s defects, look elsewhere. Effortless rendering of what is in the recording is what the L3 does, nothing more.
RMAA and Square Wave Test Disclaimer Tests performed in this section reflect the L3’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 ES7, which are connected in parallel to the output signal. All Tralucent T1 hardware tests will be posted in TMA’s forums. Source components are: Cypher Labs CLAS, an iPod nano 6G, and where noted, an iBasso DX100.
This reviewer hasn’t heard or seen it all. The L3 has been on my radar for a long time. Gavin of Tralucent loaned it to me a looong time ago and expected a review back in 2012. It’s taken me a long time for many reasons. The L3 is a wonderful amp. It performs up to any snuff you choose, it is handsome, and generally, it is well-made. The niggles I have: cramped front, poor part labelling, mixy-do switches and swapped 3,5mm input/output orientation, are only severe because the L3 is a premium product. Price determines many things, but never in a premium product should price reveal design flaws. If you are an earphone user, the T1 is a far better choice. If you want the power for a HiFi system so you can blast your ears and headphones to oblivion, well, get a desktop system. A Pan Am will set you back less, get you similar or better high volume fidelity (though not performance), plus a DAC. The left over will get your a T1 for portability. As much as I admire the L3’s performance, it isn’t anything that a cheaper amp with the right (insane) current/voltage output can’t do. Triad, you are on the right trail. 800$ is a great site; polish the L3 so that it works like a premium product should and you’ll get my blessing.
RCA and 3,5mm inputs
Graceful bass boost
No 6,3mm headphone jack?
Squished front face
Unlabelled interface controls
Up/Down swticheroo gain
Hot damn! Headphones really are a rockin’ way to enjoy music, right? Feel free to explore TMA’s headphone oubliette
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