TouchMyApps » Headphone Amp Reviews All Things iPhone and iPad for those who like to Touch. iOS App reviews, News, New Apps, Price Drops and App Gone Free Sat, 14 Nov 2015 06:42:18 +0000 en-US hourly 1 ALO Audio’s The International headphone amp/USB DAC in review Mon, 25 Feb 2013 07:28:46 +0000 It’s off to the races again. This time, ALO have suited up their youngest and most exciting audiophile offspring, The International. This amp features at 24/96kHz USB DAC, discrete analogue/digital sections, a powerful battery, extremely low noise floor, and the must-have feature of the decade: balanced input and output. With all that under the bonnet, … Read more]]>

ALO The International BW

It’s off to the races again. This time, ALO have suited up their youngest and most exciting audiophile offspring, The International. This amp features at 24/96kHz USB DAC, discrete analogue/digital sections, a powerful battery, extremely low noise floor, and the must-have feature of the decade: balanced input and output. With all that under the bonnet, you can be sure this youngster will turn heads as it swishes by.


Battery: 1600 mAh Lithium-Polymer
Dimensions: 71.5 mm x 85 mm x 25.5 mm
Battery Play Time: 14-16 hours (Amplifier) 8-10 Hours (Amplifier + DAC)
Battery Recharge Time: 3 hours
Frequency Response : +/- 1 dB:10-25,000 Hz
Colour: black or silver

Output Power – Balanced:
130 mW into 32 Ohms
200 mW into 50 Ohms
330 mW int 600 Ohms
660 mW into 300 Ohms
Input Impedance:

Output Power – Unbalanced:
130 mW into 32 Ohms
160 mW into 300 Ohms
200 mW into 50 Ohms
83 mW into 600 Ohms

Manufacturer: ALO Audio
Product: The International
Price: 599$

ALO The International accessories ALO The International box ALO The International BW-2 ALO The International BW ALO The International iphone ALO The International National

Build Quality
Every current-generation ALO portable amp is built like a tank. The International is no exception to that rule. It retains the essentials of The National: 2mm hex screws, a thick mounting chassis, and solid main board. Of course, The International also touts a fine 24/96kHz USB DAC, which is located on a 2nd main board( separate from the analogue section), as well as balanced input/output circuitry.

Chassis size has shrunk, but build quality has stayed the same. Inside, solder joints are robotically precise and the boards snap cleanly into their 9-pinned joint section. The battery clips into the main board. Presumably, it could be replaced by a dextrous user, however, it’s bum is glued to the bottom of the chassis, so it requires experience with a mechanic’s spatula and glue solvent. The volume pot follows the RX, incorporating tracking and power on/off functions into a single part.

Ergonomics and Polish
Every iterative ALO amp is better than its predecessor. The International bested the old RX with a hard-to-scratch matte chassis and perfectly spaced in/out panel. Later RX amps bested their predecessors with more secure connections and switches. The International finishes the tradition with a fiercely compact design that is packed with features while remaining simple to use.

The on/off lamp still shines demurely, equally ready for a bedside rig or a night out. Single-ended ins and outs are spaced far apart and are sunk modestly into the faceplate. Even ALO’s fattest pipe cables will work. Balanced ins and outs are split front to back. The volume pot is precisely aligned. The ALO logo reads horizontally when the amp is off; the arrow graphic between ‘ALO’ and ‘audio’ indicates where on the volume scale the amp is set. The International does all this without a blinding array of letters.

Understated and rational layouts are chief in ALO’s designs. What can’t be stated enough is how much smaller The International is than The National, and of course, The Continental. Normal-sized hands can completely cup ALO’s latest, while they would do no better than palming The National.

Inside, the main board is laid out in logical, clean lines. All parts are easy to read, and with the snap-in design of the analogue/digital boards, taking a greasy look at at any part is simple. As mentioned above, to remove the battery, you will need to use a solvent and a workman’s spatula on the chassis-side. Otherwise, no specialised tools are needed to access any part.

Passing over any part in the audio chain would be ingenuous. Chiefly, The International is ALO’s first portable DAC. (Of course, The amazing Pan Am sports a USB DAC as well, but primarily, it is a desktop amplifier.) Plug its USB port into a Mac or PC and your computer preferences will display “ALO(HD)Audio” rather than a generic label. No drivers are necessary.

Better yet, the DAC chip receives its power from the internal battery, not from a computer’s bus system. That means that it works directly on an iPad via the Camera Connection Kit, or on a jailbreaked iPhone or iPod touch without necessitating an external USB hub. To get iPhone and iPod touch devices working, you will need the 30-pin Camera Connection Kit, BigBoss Camera Connector app (99 cents), and iOS 5. I’ve not been able to get iOS 6 to work with BigBoss’s Camera Connector app and either version of Apple’s Camera Connection Kit with the iPhone or iPod touch. When/if support for the new devices are made available in BigBoss, I’ll update this section.

Currently, there are few DACs that work directly with iOS devices, mainly because they need more voltage than the iPad can supply. The International doesn’t stand alone, but it stands with the most poise among a rather small number of truly portable-friendly amp/DACs.

As you will notice, the International also sports balanced input and output. To enable balanced input, flip the switch the switch at the back from USB to the up arrow. No matter the input, either single ended or balanced can be used from the front panel. It’s automatic (cue Utada Hikaru’s early 2000 mega hit), and easy as pie. Single ended input takes precedence over balanced or USB. If you with to use either, unplug the singled ended bits.

Suffice it to say that I didn’t expect the diminutive The International to spit with such depth and power. It puts roughly the same amount of slam into high Ω headphones such as the DT800 600Ω as The National. Thus, it is perfectly home plugged into a HiFi.

Through the years, ALO have delivered amps with respectable to excellent headphone out performance. The Rx, for instance, remains a benchmark at TMA and other enthusiast publications. However, it tends to output more background noise than is comfortable for IEM use. Even The National outputs a slight bit more noise than many rivals. Still, both of those amps perform very well for an unbelievably wide range of headphones.

The International puts an end to the days of background noise. In fact, on low gain, background noise is lower than the IEM-specific hippo cricri and cricri+. Noise levels are similar to the iBasso T3D, an amp that I praise endlessly for IEM usage.

‘Zero’ volume corresponds to about 10 o’clock on the volume pot. There are about 45 minutes of play on the pot before sound comes in at 10:45. With ultra-sensitive earphones such as the Sleek Audio CT7, I feel comfortable listening to volume levels of up to 12 o’clock with older recordings, and 11:45 with newer recordings. In addition, there is no volume pot scratching and when turned on/off, the amp doesn’t thump loudly. Instead, there is a tiny audible blip, but nothing that hurts the ears, phones, or amp.

Essentially, users of sensitive IEMs will have roughly one to one and a quarter hour turns to enjoy their music, possibly more. (Remember, I listen to low volume levels.) That one and a quarter turn is also a reassuring ordeal. The volume pot doesn’t turn at the slightest nudge. It stays in position unless deliberately adjusted and therefore, is safe for blind pocket use.

The only amp in recent memory that gives that much control to sensitive earphones is the IEM-specific Headamp Pico Slim. The Pico Slim, however, has very little reserve when used with full-size headphones, and, it suffers to listener to quite an on/off power thump.

The International has no such constraints on its output. Where its low gain is a virtual playground for sensitive IEMs, its medium and high gain settings are all business. For most headphones, high gain is a mere academic setting. Even the DT880 600Ω gets plenty of volume on low gain, and on medium, a little more headroom. On high gain, only at a setting of 95% on the volume pot does The International show signs of fatigue. 90% will render strong dynamics and no hint of IMD.

Similarly, the medium-low Ω ES7 turns into a desktop speaker when plugged into The International. The amp’s circuitry begins to be troubled by compressed dynamics on high gain and set at 70%. After 75%, IMD makes it impossible to listen to. Of course, at such volume settings, the amp is simply too loud for any ear. Power doesn’t quite reach Pan Am levels, but it gets as close as a battery powered portable amp will.

In terms of actual resolution, for the most part The International plays hardball. It is most comfortable with headphones above 40Ω, and demonstrates absolutely no load at around 60Ω, but with low Ω earphones, as well, it shows strongly, delivering generally high levels of resolution. Multiple armature earphones MAY trip up The International on certain, bass-heavy tracks, but not enough to remove my recommendation for earphone use.

The International’s clear background renders strong dynamic punch and contrast between frequency bands. Here, again, it reminds me of The National – a National with less distortion and slightly clearer dynamics.  Both amps tend to drop stereo separation when confronted with hard-to-drive low Ω earphones like the Earsonics SM2, but maintain good dynamic control. Harmonic distortion takes a 1000% uptick when the SM2 is plugged in, but never flares into veiling audibility. Very few amps deliver distortion values of less than 3% when coupled with the SM2.

In fact, other than delivered resolution to the lowest Ω earphone, The International handily steps up to the Rx. Users of low Ω IEMs may notice some low frequency loss in some music, and maybe a slight heat to the upper midrange, but it’s nothing big. Overall, ALO nailed with the International.

On USB input
As with nearly all portable USB DACs I’ve come across, optimal performance is achieved via analogue input. It’s not necessarily that there is more noise in the USB signal, it’s that actual signal quality is poorer. It’s not an ALO thing – it’s generally a non-CENtrance thing. In the case of The International, USB input curtails dynamic range and stereo image the most. Background noise is still kept low, and is certainly lower than the output of most if not all computers, but it isn’t as silent or high quality as either of the analogue inputs.

On Balanced VS Unbalanced
Balanced allows more current to hit a set of transducers than an unbalanced signal. Even in 2013, there are only a few balanced portable sources out there. On the iDevice front, Cypher Labs’ CLAS DB works its magic, while on the desktop front, there are many options to choose from.

The International will take a single ended analogue signal and split it into correct phases for balanced output. It will also do the same thing to a USB input signal. Balanced signals run in and out similarly. Every signal will pass the same Burrbrown DRV134ua output amplifiers that convert single ended signals to balanced signals. From a performance perspective, the balanced signal splits phases wonderfully even if the original signal is single ended. The International does a phenomenal job.

Its balanced signal gains several decibels of dynamic range and, a lower noise floor, and more power to high Ω headphones.

NOTE: for balanced armature earphones, a balanced signal may sound like a great idea, but it is only really good if the earphone transducers are made specifically to accept balanced signals. If not, the earphone’s sound will alternate greatly from the manufacturer’s ideals. It’s not as simple as slapping on a balanced cable. Whether you like that sound or not isn’t up for question; what is is if you can live with its effects. With the exception of ALO’s FitEar 334 there are very few balanced armature IEMs that are designed for balanced signals. Dynamic driver earphones and headphones, however, are another story. Both are run splendidly via The International.

Sound in a Nutshell
The International boasts low distortion, high resolution, a very low noise floor and decent to good stereo separation. There is enough power in it to blow headphones and eardrums to oblivion and still retain a high quality signal. It’s like a better The National with the added plusses of a balanced audio circuit and USB DAC. In ALO’s line, it is the amp with the lowest background noise floor, and therefore, a killer accessory for IEM users. The fact that it packs a wallop of a punch with voltage and current hungry headphones, too, is a wonderful surprise. Way to go ALO.

RMAA and Square Wave Test Disclaimer
Tests performed in this section reflect The International’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. Tests will appear in TMA’s forums.

Out and About
For its uses, The International is a small amp. It pockets friendlier than any ALO amp to date, employs a sturdy volume pot, and boasts excellent gain settings. It is fully recommended for all earphones/headphones you can throw at it whilst you sit on the train, bus, or walk about town. Thankfully, its matte casing isn’t easily scratched; simply wrapping it and your source with the included elastic bands is enough to safely keep things going all day. RF interference ins’t a big problem, either.

There’s no skimp in The International’s engineering regimen. This amp runs with the big boys while keeping up with IEM-specific midgets. Noise is stuffed way down and tracking errors are minimal. The plug-and-play simplicity of its fully battery-powered USB DAC means that it runs from pretty much any source, including iOS devices. If you’ve got 599$ waiting for the right piece of audio equipment, you likely won’t find a more comprehensive all-in-one deal than The International. There’s simply nothing The International can’t do – a fact that even ALO’s older siblings would be wise to note. Because what you are looking at is the amp, that, in capability-for-dollar values, simply runs circles around whatever’s out there.


- Excellent construction
- Extremely low noise floor
- Great resolution and power into high Ω headphones
- Good resolution for low Ω earphones
- Internal DAC’s power supplied by internal battery, NOT computer bus
- Excellent left/right tracking for all headphones
- Fully balanced in/out circuitry with measurably better performance

- Output resolution with low Ω earphones limited because of semi-high output Ω
- USB performance isn’t as good as line performance

Hot damn! Headphones really are a rockin’ way to enjoy music, right? Feel free to explore TMA’s headphone oubliette

Read more]]> 1
Triad Audio L3 Headphone Amplifier in Review Fri, 08 Feb 2013 03:59:43 +0000 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 … Read more]]>


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.

Good question

Manufacturer: Triad Audio
Product: L3
Price: 800$

TriadAudio-L3 AD744K TriadAudio-L3 back TriadAudio-L3 battery TriadAudio-L3 DX100 iPod nano TriadAudio-L3 ins-outs TriadAudio-L3 logic bottom TriadAudio-L3 threads TriadAudio-L3-box TriadAudio-L3-front TriadAudio-L3-iso

Build Quality
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.

Bass boost
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.

Power Thump
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.


Excellent performance
RCA and 3,5mm inputs
Well made
Graceful bass boost

No 6,3mm headphone jack?
In/Out orientation
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

Read more]]> 1
Tralucent T1 portable headphone amp in review Tue, 08 Jan 2013 11:42:25 +0000 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 … Read more]]>

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.

Manufacturer: Tralucent Audio
Product: Tralucent Audio T1 Portable Amplifier
Price: 229-250$ USD

tralucent-t1-accessories tralucent-t1-back tralucent-t1-DX100 tralucent-t1-front tralucent-t1-guts tralucent-t1-in-box tralucent-t1-iphone tralucent-t1-iso-back tralucent-t1-iso tralucent-t1-plug tralucent-t1-side

Build Quality
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
User-replaceable battery
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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MST FiQuest headphone amplifier and Cio MB DAC in Review Mon, 15 Oct 2012 03:40:37 +0000 Two years ago, boutique manufacturer MST rocked headfi by teaming up with iBasso to create what was arguably the highest quality portable amplifier on the market. Getting one required some patience as MST are a small outfit with a few employees. Their FiQuest, which has been upgraded in the year 2012, is better than ever. … Read more]]>

Two years ago, boutique manufacturer MST rocked headfi by teaming up with iBasso to create what was arguably the highest quality portable amplifier on the market. Getting one required some patience as MST are a small outfit with a few employees. Their FiQuest, which has been upgraded in the year 2012, is better than ever. In this review, TouchMyApps will be looking at two versions, plus a small optical DAC.

FiQuest-2012-ciomb-iphone FiQuest-2012-family-ES10 FiQuest-2012-iPhone-next FiQuest-2012-iPhone-top FiQuest-2012-powercontrol FiQuest-2012-volume

Build quality
As you can expect from a Japanese outfit, things are put on straight. The FiQuest is less a portable amp than it is a transportable all-in-one portable/desktop replacement amp. The FiQuests large battery keeps it humming for 7-10 hours depending on load and usage. Because of its size, and because of its designer, ergonomics – as they apply to a transportable amp – are very good. Point number one: the in and output ports (all metal affairs) are spaced perfectly. No matter how large your headphone and input cables are, they will fit. And the ports are anchored well into the board and into their niches on the amp’s faceplate.

MST use slide switches for bass and gain rathe than knobs or flick switches. Considering that the FiQuest is primarily a transportable amplifier (and ostensibly not subject to the same amount of bumping as small amps are), the slide switches may be overkill. Small amp makers should take note: flip switches are easier to break, MST chose right. And, overkill that protects one’s investment is always good. In fact, it’s excellent.

The on/off switch is a flip switch, but it is a shallow-trunked affair that is as likely to break as I am to get that pay rise I’ve been begging after for years. Good for the FiQuest, rotten for me.

The one item that bothered me two years ago bothers me still. It’s the thin-pitch bolts that fasten the front and back plates to the chassis. If you’re in the habit of frequently and haphazardly opening up your FiQuest, eventually you will strip the bolts. I guarantee it. So be careful. The FiQuest is a joy open and dink around with. In fact, it is so customisable that it almost begs you to dig and dig. Just make sure you use good tools and don’t cock your hands at hard angles.

Ergonomics and Polish
As I hinted at above, ergonomics are damn good. In fact, despite being such a beast, the FiQuest is quite simply one of the easiest to use amps. It’s not just the switch panel layout or the spacing of the in and output ports. It’s the heft, which balances easily in the hand, never too bottom nor too top heavy. And even at low volumes, great balance is achieved from the large, smooth volume pot.

This is the FiQuest I remember. And it is wonderful.

Charging functions are on the back, and again, implemented via slide switches. The power supply is chunky, but so is the male jack and pin on the FiQuest’s bum. You won’t break it. Again, small amp makers with chintzy plugs, take note. This is the way to ensure you have fewer hardware malfunctions.

Apart from that, though, MST’s amp really is a straightforward metal brick. Fitting it into the pocket of any trouser is not recommended. It is simply too big. While I find the array of in/out ports very good, I’d like the output to be 6,3mm, not 3,5mm. Ryuzoh said the FiQuest is primarily a portable amplifier – a fact I well understand – but so is the GoVibe Portatube+. A 6,3mm jack just simplifies the use of other headphones.

Next, neither gain nor bass settings are labelled. You have to find your own way with the FiQuest, or just listen to me. Right is start, left is end. MST are Japanese. Keep that in mind.

Late night Music fans, the lamp on the FiQuest will not brighten your room like the sun like Vorzüge’s amps do. As great as they are, the Vorzüge amps are in dire in need of circumlision (in case my language is too deep for you, that’s the combination of circumcision and light, meaning nothing less than circumcision of light. How’s that for professional writing?) MST’s lamps are understated, more so even than ALO’s masterpieces, if that were possible. And believe it or not it’s pink. Damn. And I thought MST had grown up.

I’ll start this off reiterating how good the FiQuest volume pot is. It is the best I’ve used among portable amps of any price. Balance is perfect. And because the FiQuest has three levels of gain, low really is low. If you are using this monster with earphones (and trust me, there is good reason to), you will have no problem achieving left/right balance. If you are using it with headphones that need either lots of voltage or stamina (which some people call current) you are in luck.

Just as it did two years ago, the n FiQuest features a bass boost. It’s understated just like it was back then. It amplifies up to ~3,5 decibels. You will hear it, but you won’t be blown out of your seat. You want to know its polar opposite? Vorzüge.

Gain settings are gregarious: 0dB, 9dB, and about 20dB. Medium and low gain settings enough for any headphone out there, and because they impact signal quality very little, are most recommended. High gain is like the 230km/h top speed limit on your minivan’s speedometer: it makes you look like a badass in front of your kid’s popular friends, but is best left untested.

Which brings me to sound.

Two years ago I had one reservation: IMD errors forced at loud volumes from low ohm earphones. MST rectified the issue in a hardware release. If you have the first or second or third batch, you might opt to send your amp to MST for a tune up.

Today’s models need nothing so much as a willing ear, and a thick wallet. Now, there are several models to choose from, each offering slightly different sound. I’m sure MST would argue with me on this point, but this is MST’s baby. I’m a hardened reviewer with calloused ears. Small differences faze me like a mosquito phases a space shuttle.

That said, I can definitely see that the different flavours will appeal to different users.

The Accuro-bat
While there is no such word, there is a gaggle of amps that follow what I feel is the purest audiophile dictum: neutrality. Among powerful portable amps, MST’s FiQuest is a strong fighter. Its signal is clean, lean, and never damns itself by stepping where it shouldn’t. While its size sets it apart, sound-wise, the FiQuest almost completely disappears.

But it’s not just signal neutrality and authority that advertise MST’s latest opus; its the FiQuest’s coy noise signature, and resolution. This amp is powerful enough to whip the Audeze LCD-2 into shape, yet gentle enough to handle a FitEar To Go! 334. Noise simply doesn’t enter into the FiQuest’s picture in the way it does MST’s desktop-replacement competition. And resolution is extremely high, yet somewhat cozy.

Even engaging gain and bass boost does very little to harm the signal. There is no deleterious noise anywhere. That said, of course you will have less background noise in an amp like a Pico Slim, but then again, target headphones for each device are completely different. Among desktop replacement amps, the FiQuest is the trump card, and I am impressed.

The midrange is full of springy energy. Acoustic guitars resonate with pure, fast attack; decay is speedy and frontal, displaying its meaty underbelly to the ear. On low and medium gain settings this presence is as clean as clean can be until the volume is pushed too high. If you need extra oomph, choosing the next gain setting is your best bet to retain the same fidelity. Again, I recommend low and medium gains.

Sound in a nutshell
MST employ neither low nor high pass filters in their amps. Their bass and gain circuits play kindly both with the most sensitive of earphones and voltage-hungry cans.

The FiQuest’s father, Ryuzoh, assured me that my favourite headphone, Beyerdynamic’s DT880, would require the best spec and best parts to sound best. The poor lad needn’t have worried. The DT880 is driven so well by any flavour of FiQuest that I simply have to chuckle at the semi-worried face he had before I put my recommendation behind the combination.

The only proviso is that if you are stupid enough to play your DT880 600Ω at ultra-high volumes when fed from weak sources, you should keep move the gain up rather than maxing volume on low gain. Overall, overhead is high; at normal to medium-high volume settings, every earphone/headphone performs without flaw. But when passing 90% on the volume pot in low gain and whilst under load, the FiQuest spits out moderate levels of distortion. The audible effects are debatable since at those volumes, your eardrums are likely to collapse rather than delightedly hammer away to your favourite tunes. But for the sake of pushing an honest review, I’ve got to say it.

The FiQuest is as powerful at full volume as the Centrance DACmini PX. Surprisingly, ALO Audio’s The Pan Am is quite a bit more powerful with the likes of the DT880 600Ω. Of course, the Pan Am doesn’t play as well with earphones like the FitEar To Go! 334. And, when I say ‘power’, don’t misinterpret it for ‘pleasure’. At those volume levels, it’s your headphones or ears that will be destroyed.

There is no way this side of hereditary hearing loss that anyone would need anything more than a FiQuest to drive their DT880 of any ohm rating and sensitivity to deafening levels. More impressive to me is that the sensitive TG334 is driven equally authoritatively.

That brings me to this conclusion: despite its general coy indifference to whatever is plugged into its output, the FiQuest delivers truly excellent resolution all the way along the frequency path. I know that its tight, smooth treble will gain fanatics. Its bass is surely in for the same fate.

The bass gain settings go up in baby steps: less than 3 dB on gain 1, and just over 3dB on gain 2. This maturity is borne of dedication. MST’s house sound is resolving with energetic midrange and excellent reach in both treble and bass. Bass holds more texture than treble, which, for a solid state amp, is intimate and forgiving. Sibilant earphones and sensitive ears may find the FiQuest’s grainless treble presentation indispensable. Indeed, this box is a powerful, portable alternative to a high-class valve amp.

Scaling with better sources
There’s no need to ask. Yes, the FiQuest amp is capable of meeting your system. Feeding it from an iPod or Walkman will reveal most of what it is capable of, but stepping up to a Cypher Labs CLAS or CD player will only reveal more. Herein lies a question: with such power and resolution and the ability to scale from source to source, why doesn’t the FiQuest have RCA inputs? I’d love to plunk it down in my HiFi system connected via RCA cables. Assuming that the analogue input section is implemented well, channel separation and noise should improve even further with RCA input over the current 3,5mm input.

But, the FiQuest is a portable amp. RCA inputs seem right out of place, don’t they?

Best headphones for the FiQuest
I’ve sung some pretty high praise for this amp. And overall, it deserves it. While the FiQuest plays no real favourites with regards to what is plugged into its output, take a look at it. It’s huge. And powerful. And looks like a skinned wireframe extrusion. It really fits a desktop better than it does a pocket or bag.

Medium-high headphones are close to perfect. There are no checks in my spirit warning me to suggest to LCD-2 and K701 headphone users to suggest a different amp. The FiQuest is about as good as it gets – that is, as long as you are using a strong line-level output and keep the volume below 80% and stay away from the high gain setting.

Sensitive high Ω headphones like the DT880 600Ω and the FiQuest are somewhat of a mixed bag when run from equipment like naked Apple iDevices. To avoid distortion, use a Cypher Labs CLAS and apply the gain settings liberally. But, that is only if you tend to listen to insanely loud volumes. At normal listening levels, the DT880 is an excellent friend to MST’s amps.

Ryuzoh plugs custom earphones into his FiQuest and hangs the stack from a cool leather belt at his side. He’s hardcore. I’m not. But I’ve met many hardcore portable audiophiles like him out there. For them, there may not be a better portable amp to connect to custom earphones when on the go and to power full-size headphones at home. The FiQuest has more power, more control, and a uniquely fine-tuned bass gain circuit that enhances the lows for any headphone out there than any rival in its class. The fact that it is done maturely is a testament to MST’s devotion to quality rather than quantity. In short, for custom IEMs and high-end universals, the FiQuest is perfect. If you are after the largest soundstage and super-detailed treble, there are slightly better options on the market. If you love the resolution of solid state amps, but sometimes find treble to sometimes be painful, take a look at the FiQuest.

The Cio MB DAC
How cute is this little box? Just like the one I tested a few years ago, this is a high-performance optical DAC that works well with a MacBook Pro, Go-DAP X, Go-DAP Unit 4.0, and Fostex HP-P1.

It’s tiny. It’s battery lasts for up to 10 hours. There are small optical cables on the market. Everything seems in order for it to take its place at the top of great portable systems -that is, except output volume.

Its line out is underpowered. Plugging it into a HiFi or external headphone amp will reveal less pressure than an iPod or iPhone. Indeed, it steps down more than 10 decibels from the output of an iPod line out.

But, its signature is lovely. There is very little interference that gets into and out of the box. The sound is laid back, smooth, hearkening back to CD players of old. Connected to the FiQuest, it makes you want to curl up with favourite jazz CDs and knock back a bottle of wine.

Is performance isn’t aimed at better-than-16-bit like the CLAS; rather, it exerts soft control over the entire gamut of metrics, toning here and prodding there until even the harshest recording sings in engaging, mellifluous accents. I recommend it for lovers of NOS parts, valves, and vinyl. It is a digital piece that injects a little analogue magic into a system.

On the flip side, if you gauge DACs by absolute resolution, no matter how brittle, the Cio MB isn’t for you. Stay with the CLAS.

Gain – unlike its mature bass settings, gain settings are aggressive. An approximate 9dB gain in medium position is quite a jump. The high gain performs like a proof-of-concept rather than a real feature. Sure, you’ll get loads of extra volume at high gain, but you’ll obviate some of what makes the FiQuest so special. Resolution remains high, but dynamic range is compressed slightly. Interestingly, the DT880 600Ω and FiQuest on high gain at any comfortable listening level remind me very much of the Pan Am. I love the Pan Am, but the two are very different beasts with very different audiences.

Volume DAC – the Cio MB is a wonderful product in a small, sturdy package. A battery-powered DAC is most welcome. But its output is quite low. Even an iPod outputs more SPL into a headphone amp. Paired with the FiQuest, you’ll have to bump gain quite high with headphones like the DT880 600Ω, and move the volume pot into somewhat dangerous territory.

Volume FiQuest – despite offering enough (in fact, more than enough) volume to any headphone out there, the FiQuest does so with less precision than it should. Maxing out any volume setting reveals more distortion than necessary. And of course, there is the maximum gain setting, which I feel is unnecessary. Features for the sake of features are sometimes better left out.

3,5mm only – this is a portable amp. Ryuzoh reiterated this many times in our conversations. It is a wonderful portable, but it can replace bulky mains amps, too, and works wonders for a large majority of full-size headphones. I know I am not the only one who wishes it came with a full-size 6,3mm stereo phono plug. This isn’t an issue; it’s an observation. But, it’s a pointed observation about an amp that deserves the full monty.

The FiQuest would be the perfect amp if it weren’t for its somewhat mild volume issues.

I actually published this review about a month ago, but for some reason left it private. Such tardiness is unpardonable. But in the meantime, I’ve had the chance to discover the Pan Am, another intriguing desktop replacement amp.

In terms of resolution, the two carry on in two very different ways; the Pan Am goes the way of warmth and intimacy, while generally, the FiQuest attacks from the perspective of resolution. Interestingly enough, the Pan Am’s absolute volume ceiling with hungry headphones such as the DT880 600Ω is quite a bit higher. At such volumes, it suffers comparatively less distortion, too.

But, the FiQuest is easier to finely tune, and runs the full gamut of headphones from the likes of custom earphones to the mighty DT880, better overall. But, because of my private publishing boner, I can add the following addendum:

The FiQuest is the 2nd most powerful portable amp I’ve used for full-size headphones.

MST run an uncompromising business. For just about every headphone out there, their amps are overkill – and that is a good thing. It’s better to start out from a position of strength. The FiQuest boasts excellent resolution and volume balance. And wonderful bass circuitry. Its lows and mids attack with energy and resolve with fine detail. Treble is ever so slightly forgiving. Indeed, this is an amp for custom earphones and high-end universals. It is an amp for high-end full-size headphones, too. MST have come a long way and despite a few polish niggles, deliver one of the best amps at any price.

Excellent resolution
Excellent volume balance
Lots of power
Good ergonomics
Taught, energetic sound

Unlabelled sound controls
Test-mode style 3rd gain setting

Hot damn! Headphones really are a rockin’ way to enjoy music, right? Feel free to explore TMA’s headphone oubliette

Read more]]> 4
Sony PHA-1 iDevice DAC and headphone amp in Review Tue, 09 Oct 2012 17:23:31 +0000 About two months ago, the particulars of the Sony PHA-1 were leaked to the internet. About the same time, I suffered the second of what would become three intense bouts with an active stomach ulcer. In my circles, both made news. I’d would have to set up endless appointments with doctors that would cancel trips, … Read more]]>

About two months ago, the particulars of the Sony PHA-1 were leaked to the internet. About the same time, I suffered the second of what would become three intense bouts with an active stomach ulcer. In my circles, both made news. I’d would have to set up endless appointments with doctors that would cancel trips, meals, would-be drunken stumbling along busy Japanese streets; more importantly, however, the world of high-end portable audio had hit the mainstream. Sony stepped into the ring.

Wolfson WM8740 DAC
Sampling rate: USB DAC input: 24bit/96kHz
Frequency response: 10Hz – 100kHz (analogue audio input)
Maximum output power: 175mW + 175mW (8Ω); 26mW + 26mW (300Ω)
Impedance range: 8Ω – 600Ω
Inputs: 3,5mm stereo plug, micro USB (PC), USB (iDevice)
Outputs: 3,5 stereo plug (TRS type)
Battery: 3,7V Lithium Ion
Charge time: ~4,5 hours
Playback time: ~10 hours (analogue input), ~5 hours (iPod, iPad, iPhone)

Price in Japan: ¥32.800 – 40.000¥ (~400$-520$)

Sony-PHA-1-box Sony-PHA-1-connectors Sony-PHA-1-dune-buggy-bottom Sony-PHA-1-dune-buggy-top Sony-PHA-1-iPhone4S-2 Sony-PHA-1-iPhone4S-top Sony-PHA-1-iPhone4S Sony-PHA-1-rear

Build Quality
I am the typical portable audiophile (aka marketing sucker). I’ve been a Sony user since the mid 1990s. Cassette Walkman, CD Walkman, MD Walkman, ATRAC Walkman, MP3 Walkman, plus various microphones and headphones. So when I say that I didn’t have a lot of faith that Sony could build something robust, take a look at my geek CV above. Apart from their microphones, which are veritable jewellery tanks, many Walkman products left a LOT to be desired next to the competition. Treating Sony stuff with kiddy gloves is something I got used to until their MP3 Walkmans, which were a good step up, but one that still didn’t match Apple by any stretch of the imagination.

But the PHA-1 is different. Gone are kludgy seams and paper-thin-and-easily-dent-able alloys of previous models. This machine is thoroughly designed to withstand the rigours of a portable’s life.

Check this:

Fenders around the volume pot and in/out ports, rubber guard rails, rear bumpers and countersunk screws. As far as I am aware, there is no other portable amplifier that has sports as many precautionary measures. It’s like Sony’s engineers got sick and tired of kitsch and decided finally, and at the very least, on top quality engineering.

Their one oversight is the USB input. The larger one sits too far into the case to receive support from the amp’s aluminium walls. I predict Sony will have to service a number of PHA-1 units for faulty and/or broken USB input. The micro USB port fairs a little better, sporting fingers that – just barely – wedge against the case for support. This oversight isn’t small. As the PHA-1 will primarily be used as an on-the-go DAC where primary input will be USB, it needs to be fortified against bumps and bruises that invariably will occur at the hands of purses, crowded trains, audiophile holsters, and over-large cables. This is failure one.

Apart from that – rather large nit – this amp is simply astonishing. Japan has long been praised for its machine precision (hell, in Japan machines build machines). Every seam, every groove, every angle is flush, tight, and proud. There is no flex in the case and no hint of rebellion anywhere. Even the rubber feet stay firm despite my most vigorous and violent attacks.

Ergonomics and Polish
This tight, flush, and proud build quality is fleshed out in perhaps the most polished of designs I’ve set eyes on. Sony thought of everything. Firstly (and tirelessly), I’ll start in on the rubber feet. The PHA-1 feet are a departure from the stick-on-warts that come with the amps of many other makers. Its feet are built into the chassis. They slip in on rails built into the outer case. These won’t go anywhere. They cover the top and bottom sides of the amp, making sure it won’t surreptitiously slip off a desk or out of a pocket. These are the PHA-1’s first line of defence.

The second, the massive front and rear fenders, is more obvious. Guarding against accidental volume increases and potentially fatal drops, these things have to be massive. They’re like a roll cage over a dune buggy, headgear on a teenager, a racing cage on a Polar Bottle. Hot damn! The volume pot moves effortlessly, and doubles as the on/off switch. It clicks into position at about 8:50 o’clock and runs to about 5:25 where there is a hard stop. There is no wobble, no off-axis spin, no grind. It is perfect. Turn it on to use the amp, and off to charge (when plugged in, that is).

Next to it, the input and output ports come in countersunk craters that accept large cables just as well as ALO’s fantastic The National and Continental amps do. You don’t have to turn the amp around to see whether or not it is charging. Both charge and power lamps are inoffensive. They are small and flush with the case.

Around the back, Sony array the digital inputs much like Qables do, even including a familiar input switch. ‘Audio In’ refers to the analogue input on the front of the amp; ‘Digital In’ refers to the two USB inputs. Again, the larger of the two is for iDevices, while the micro input is for Android devices and PCs.

Sony also include hooked elastic tongues to secure your source to the PHA-1. I had to dig into the manual for a hint at how to use them. The hooks bite into the PHA-1’s large shoulders, stretch across your iPhone, and across the amp to the other side, where again, they bite into the opposite shoulder. Brilliant. This design works great for securing your device in a holster, or on a desk. If you tend to use your amps from inside a pocket, you may want to consider using ALO’s excellent elastic bands instead, as the hooks may come undone (cue Duran Duran).

Even the packaging is a step up above the norm. Until now, portable amps and DACs have been the realm of fanatic audio makers who moonlight as customer survey designers. There are some exceptions, notably ALO who design simple and useful packaging and amps. On the other extreme, you have Jaben who haphazardly cram products into tight spaces and call it a day.

Sony are as Japanese as makers come. That means you get lots of packaging, plastic bags, instruction manuals – it’s a geek’s wet dream of reading material and openables. Yee haw. It also feels (for the first time) like the sort of package you’d see at a local ONOFF or Best Buy. Make of that what you will. Sony’s intention – I’m extrapolating here – is to have the PHA-1 in regular Jane stores catching the eye of regular Jane. It will be in retail stores all over, and in its font-happy package, innocuously blend into iDevice/PC peripheral fauna.

While esoteric, it doesn’t awe or confuse customers out of its periphery.

And while I’ve left the volume pot for last, it is by no mean least. It is the most precisely machined pot I’ve used, turning unctuously. Overall, there isn’t a portable amp unit that polishes up as nicely as Sony’s latest. If Leica decided on entering the amp business, they’d likely source from Sony.

A DAC merely converts your digital music into analogue signal. The PHA-1 can be used as a regular ‘ol headphone amp by plugging an analogue output into its AUDIO IN port. But, it really begs to be used digitally. Plug your computer into the micro USB port or your iDevice to the USB port, select the source on the rear of the unit, and play. It is an elegant solution in overcoming horrible computer audio, or augmenting your iDevice (or particular Android phone) with the clarity and power that only a good DAC/headphone amp can bring.

And Sony’s is a good DAC. It resolves music far better than your computer and, and in most categories, better than the best iDevice can at loud volumes. For all-out quality, the Cypher Labs AlgoRhythm SOLO is still king (by a good margin), but requires an external amp. The PHA-1 spits forth great quality and culls requisite boxes to a minimum.

All you need is the PHA-1 and the PHA-1 is all you need.

Unlike the SOLO (a straight DAC with line and digital outputs) and Venturecraft’s Unit 4.0 and Go-DAP X, the PHA-1 is strictly for headphone use. Few serious users will seriously consider connecting it to downstream equipment. The only output is an amped headphone signal. It’s good, but it’s not what you want to (or can) hook up to your preamp or external DAC without attracting the ire of the audiophile gods.


The PHA-1 really is a simple device. It sports two digital inputs, accessible at the back via the two USB ports, and one analogue in, accessible from the front panel. This arrangement is perfect for a variety of devices. All your audio are belong to Sony.

Having the analogue input along the front makes the PHA-1 very simple to use for people who either don’t have a compatible device or don’t want to use the PHA-1‘s digital output. Of course, the main selling point of the PHA-1 is its DAC. Otherwise, the PHA-1 is merely a very expensive amp.

And, because it can be charged and used by USB devices, you never need to carry around another cable or adapter. That is a major plus. In fact, looking at the CLAS next to the Sony will make your ears itch.

Sony’s latest amp also features a solid gain switch that changes input by about 3 decibels. This is especially handy when you switch between various earphones and headphones.

Again, it lacks a line output of any sort. You can of course connect it to analogue inputs via an adapter of your choice, but it is possible that the output will carry some artefacts not found in a true line level output.

Perhaps the PHA-1′s most amazing feature – especially for earphone users – is its absolutely black background. Well, eliminating all hiss and dirt from an amped signal is impossible. But Sony got as close as possible to a squeaky clean signal. Compared even to the impressively pious GoVibe Vestamp’s headphone output, it is angelic. The only amp I’ve tried that even comes close is the Headamp Pico Slim, which is made expressly for earphones and in-ear monitors. Damn.

Which leads us to sound.

Sound Performance – the Good
Black background – I could rant and rave all evening about the PHA-1′s black background. It is not something I’m used to doing. Sony’s engineers are quite proud of their achievements – and they should be: for a long spell, earphones were getting easy-to-drive. Some, like the Grado GR8, even run over 100 Ω, presenting very little load to an amplifier. Bless the gods of the moving armature. But, in 2011, the resurgence in balanced armature earphones (fuelled in no small part by Sony) pushed sensitivity levels back up while upping effective load.

Such sensitive earphones can show noise in even the best of audio hardware- that is, until today. The PHA-1 is as dead silent as portable headphone amps get. There is nothing on my desk now, nor ever, that compared. I suspect there will not be a comparable amp for some time.

Hands down, I can recommend it for users of SHURE SE530, Westone UM2, Sleek Audio CT7, the FitEar Private 333, and so on.

Benevolent volume pot – The PHA-1 also has a volume pot that makes perfect use of its Stygian background. Even users of sensitive earphones will find the right volume without blasting their ears off. Effectively, usable volume travel of the pot is just about 100%, depending on your headphones/earphones and volume. I don’t suggest going that loud, however, as the PHA-1, despite its delicate tramplings, still packs a punch.

Distortion and resolution – Almost across the board, the PHA-1 performs like a champ. I’ve used a drove of different ‘phones with it and nary a skip nor a blip hits its signal. Generally, contrast between frequency bands is stunning. This amounts to one of the most coherent sound images I’ve heard, where the smallest of details turn out in the music. Thanks in no small part to its nearly noiseless headphone output, this dune buggy simply rolls over your tunes. Rendered in particular beauty and absolutely clean lines is a favourite, Mozart’s Symphony No. 42 in F. The PHA-1 is equally suited to faster paced recordings, but this brilliant composition stresses in its sometimes airy, sometimes busy passages how capable Sony’s amp/DAC really is.

Stereo separation – Generally speaking, the stereo image of any amp takes a hit when under load. The PHA-1, like many amps, finds the load of low Ω earphones/headphones restrictive. Among all of my earphones, I found the Grado GR8 to be the most suited. The difference between the PHA-1 loaded by the GR8 and by the Earsonics SM2, for example, isn’t so stark as it is eye-opening. When presented indifferent loads, its stereo image is capacious. I suggest throwing something like the Beyerdynamic DT880 250Ω or 600Ω at the PHA-1 like you would throw the Autobahn at a BMW M3. You’ll feel better for it.

Noise – As mentioned above, there is next to no background noise in the signal. Not only that, but the signal to noise ratio is very very high, reaching almost to the idealistic lofts of 16bit limits. With the right headphones/earphones, this, too, causes detail to simply shine.

Sound performance – the Not So Good
High Ω headphone output – While by no means a Sony problem alone, it is an annoying issue to endlessly drone on about in portable amplifiers that should target the hardest to drive earphones instead of the easiest. Amps that target easy to drive earphones end up in many cases performing no better than the device they are meant to augment.

Sony’s new XBA line is exquisite. It is also incredibly sensitive and boasts a couple low Ω models. In order to wrest the last iota of resolution from their earphones, Sony would need an output of less than 1 Ω. And, being that the PHA-1 comes with a battery and without hiss, it sure seems targeted toward IEM users. Suffice it to say that Sony provided all of the tools necessary to dredge every detail from your music, but forgot the bond. In practical terms, the impact isn’t huge, but what is via the DT880, a continent-sized soundstage, bristling with low and mid range resolution, erupts into a less extravagant island, brilliantly laid out, but lacking in breathing room. If you happen to have an earphone that trips up the PHA-1, get ready for vocals drift more toward the pianos and violins that bang heads with the guitars. Again, Sony’s implementation of the amp is pretty good. Most amps on the market to day do much worse.

There is also the issue of truncated high frequencies, which rears a mostly pardonable head when driving earphones like the Earsonics SM2. I found that with earphones of less than 40Ω, treble truncation is pretty common. Bass and midrange remain unaffected, as do noise levels and the contrast between frequencies.

Overall, there is very little to complain about; I pick nits only because as a reviewer, I am sort of expected to. What good would it do to heap praises only on a company like Sony? None, I’m sure. I’m also sure that Sony are listening intently to reviewers now. A little tweaking and the PHA-1 could be the best of its kind on the market. Thus, I’ll stick with the assertion: the output impedance is too high.

Sound Qualities
Now, thanks to the tanning I received from many years of using what I honestly consider inferior Sony MD players and Walkmans, I wasn’t prepared for what I heard first from the PHA-1. Not at all.

I always start my listening with sensitive earphones; its pathological and I won’t stand to be cured. Earphones the likes of the SM2, you see, draw out an amp’s weaknesses, and being the bastard – in the figurative sense – that I am, I like to start with the bad news. The problem is that if there is bad news, I don’t get the right impression from the get go. Well, the SM2 is the PHA-1’s nemesis, but still, it is handled fairly well, exercising control, dynamics, contrast, and spitting absolutely no noise from its transducers.

Assuming you have the magical combination of a plus-40Ω earphone/headphone, you are in for clarity, that for all its resolution and dynamics, is beautiful. In particular, the oft-smushed toms and snares of a drum kit are absolutely pristine. Dare I say ‘spacious’? I do.


The PHA-1 renders drums and the space between drums in cavernous syllables. It just takes the right output device. Even with earphones like the SM2, or the ‘nemesis’ as I like to call it, contrast and space between instruments remain tip top. It’s just that everything else is pulled in closer together.

I’ve been able to detect no low or high frequency roll offs, though, again, with the SM2, highs rise a couple of steps above where the should be. It’s addictive in its own right.

Best headphones for the PHA-1
I reckon that doubters will come out of the woodworks when I say that the DT880 600Ω truly is, with certain genres, a wonderful tool to pair with the PHA-1. Provisos exist for every maxim. Both the Sony and the Beyer come from detailed, highly-resolving parents. If your music is extremely energetic in the high registers, you might find that the pair excite excessively. Favourable genres are trance, IDM, and classical. But a finer pair is the timeless HD600 or HD580 (if you can get hands on a pair). Don’t be scared off by their high Ω and relatively low sensitivity ratings, these headphones are powered mightily by the PHA-1. For me, comfortable listening levels for the DT880 are on low gain at up to 3 o’clock, or high gain at 1 o’clock. Turning all the way to 5:25 renders no phase errors or other audible artefacts.

Fans of organic, but detailed sound will likely love the Victor FX700 and FX500 paired with the PHA-1. It’s a practical match: Sony delivering the controlled resolution, the Victor delivering the bass and tasteful texture to the music.

Another favourite is Sony’s own XBA-3SL. I’m also partial to the pairing of Grado’s GR8 or the Ortofon e-Q5 with the PHA-1, which offers the best of the both resolution and impact and PRAT.

As mentioned above, the rear iDevice USB port is flimsy. Sony aught to fortify the back of the case. As a portable audiophile, I can assure from first-hand experience, that portable amps take much more abuse than they should. Starting with a foolproof design makes all the difference in the world.

The last (and most tirelessly droned on about) is the high Ω headphone output. Sony: it’s not for me, it’s for you. Lower that output and suddenly, you have one of the highest if not the highest performing all-in-one unit on the market. Thank you!

After nearly 3500 words, there’s little left to say but “wow”. Sony’s first step into the ring is a decisive one. Without directly stepping on any of their competitor’s toes, they battle close and hard against the likes of Fostex, Cypher Labs, and Venturecraft. The PHA-1 has a better internal amp than the Venturecraft units do and its DAC has no ‘quirks’ to shift around. Apart from its high Ω headphone output, and my bloody stomach ulcer, all is pleasure and light. If only Sony would fix that output, I could pop in my favourite amp-killing earphones, guzzle some pain meds, and be off to glorious sleep. Until then, I’ll balance proper headphones from the ends of one of the finest all-in-one units on the market today. Sony, I love you.

No hiss
Incredible dynamic range
Generally great performance
Almost perfect build quality
Ergonomic to a tee
Easy to use

High Ω headphone output
Non-anchored iDevice USB socket

Hot damn! Headphones really are a rockin’ way to enjoy music, right? Feel free to explore TMA’s headphone oubliette

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ALO the Pan Am Headphone amplifier/DAC in Review Thu, 04 Oct 2012 16:46:11 +0000 After an evening of Ghostbusters, it’s hard to want anything more than a date with the Sigourney Weaver of 1991. Keymaster? That’s me. Hell yeah! But, returning to my desk, I am met by another comedy great – or the likeness of one. Indeed, Bender lives on in ALO’s Pan Am, a wonderfully competent full-size … Read more]]>

After an evening of Ghostbusters, it’s hard to want anything more than a date with the Sigourney Weaver of 1991. Keymaster? That’s me. Hell yeah! But, returning to my desk, I am met by another comedy great – or the likeness of one. Indeed, Bender lives on in ALO’s Pan Am, a wonderfully competent full-size headphone amplifier/USB DAC that just happens to, like Bender, enjoy galavanting around different spaces.

Expansive Sound Stage
Great Bass Response and Extended Highs.
Frequency Response 40Hz-30KHz +/- 1dB

16/24 bit Resolutions supported
8/16/32/44.1/48/96 KHz sampling rates supported
Wolfson Digital to Analog Converter Chip

ALO don’t supply a bevy of spec, but in reality, they don’t need to. If their amp works, it works. And, it like crossing dematerialiser beams, the Pan Am ‘cleans up’ exactly where it needs to. In fact, it is one of the most powerful desktop amps in its size category.

Contact ALO
If you’re pining for the Pan Am, hit up ALO Audio. They’re out on the west side of the USA in beautiful Oregon. Here are their contact details:

1810 SE 10th Ave. Unit B
Portland, OR 97214
Phone: (971) 279-4357

You can also check out their new blog, which is a great mix of audiophile and music foolery. And is very fun to read. In fact, every aspect of their current website is ordered quite precisely: reviews are prominent, new products are well shot and come up quickly. Ordering and interacting with their website is a delight – an experience not unlike Apple’s homepage.

But let’s get onto the review.

ALO-Audio-Pan-Am-Bender-face ALO-Pan-AM-back ALO-Pan-AM-ballasts ALO-Pan-AM-box-set ALO-Pan-AM-covers ALO-Pan-AM-ES10 ALO-Pan-AM-forza-alo ALO-Pan-AM-front-ports ALO-Pan-AM-rear-ports ALO-Pan-AM-Valves-top ALO-Pan-AM-valves

Build Quality
If you’ve been following TouchMyApps headphone reviews, you know that ALO have featured prominently in 2012. ALO are simply on a winning streak: they make quality products that by and large, have no competition. It would be a shame to leave any potential ALO podium empty.

Enter the Pan Am. This amp handles, looks, and feels very much like either The National or The Continental. It shares the same volume pot, gain and power switches, very similar face plates and input/output ports (though this time, the a 6,3mm jack made the cut). And, in terms of footprint, the Pan Am is just three millimetres longer than The National and about twice the volume.

Its aluminium case is the same sturdy chunk. If you’re out and about with the Pan Am and things get ugly down at the bank, you could crack some would-be robber’s skull with it. Good riddance.

It stacks perfectly with its accessories: Gateway and Passport, each of which come with their own power connectors that mate to the Pan Am in with almost uncanny precision. Horizontal channels are dug into the top of each unit; their inverses run along the bottom. They fit together like a set of well-loved Legos.

The front and back plates of the Gateway and Passport rise flush with the extruded aluminium chassis so that when mounted, the Pan Am (or other accessory) doesn’t slip. Genius.

‘Round the back, ALO have fitted RCA, 3,5 stereo mini, and USB inputs. The input selector looks exactly like the volume pot; the familiar 12V input sinks into the other side. You have seen this before.

The 61J valves sit firmly in shallow-seated. They are easily rolled (trust me, you will have fun with this). And, in the case of radio or other interference, you can cap the valves with the included aluminium gowns.

Overall, this design is very well thought-out. That said, handle the RCA jacks with care. They aren’t bolted onto the case; constant pushing and pulling could damage their contacts. The only other nit to pick is the 12V mains and battery leads, which bumble around a little in their ports. Again, just play nice and you will have no problems.

Ergonomics and Polish
Forget Industrial. The Pan Am pushes the cute angle. It’s an amp for today’s up-and-coming audiophile (and fans of yesterday’s scifi cartoons). It looks great on a desk or near the TV, and with its tote bag, on your hip. I can picture a young music-loving chap at Starbucks or Juleno, balancing a pair of Grados on his head, the Pan Am feeding his ears. I could imagine his love interest next to him with a pair of Grados on his/her head, sharing the 2nd output – I could except that only one output works at a time. Bugger, love bugs.

Dates and, okay, RCAs aside, the Pan Am is a rocking unit. The ins, the outs, the volume, the gain, and the input switch are all intelligently designed. Even getting into and out of the amp (if you like to dismantle your stuff) is easy. Ditto Gateway. Ditto Passport.

Maybe more than foolproof, the Pan Am is all-inclusive. You can even buy quality ALO cables for it, rig it all up, and merely attach headphones. (By the way, you can also buy Audeze LCD-2 from ALO…)

From desktop to floor to train to bag to deck to tent to tray to the pit of hell, this amp will go with you.

Forza Audioworks RCA cables and ALO 3,5mm and USB

You already know this thing works as a DAC and an amp. You also know that you can get the upgraded power supply (Gateway) and the battery (Passport) for the it. The Passport will give you a good 8-10 hours of battery life, so your work day, or your play day are pretty much covered.

It is also my number 1 recommended accessory. It completes its main product like no other accessory can. That is, from ALO and from the competition. It’s simple: the Pan Am and the Passport were made for each other.It turns your desktop amp into a walkabout amp. Amazing.

The included DAC works in both 16 and 24 bit word length and supports up to 96 KHz resolution audio when fed by USB. Unfortunately, the Pan Am’s DAC draws its power from USB and uses too much power for iDevices to run it. No BigBoss CameraConnector trickery will get your iDevice to play nice with any but the analogue inputs of the Pan Am. Of course, if you plug the DAC into a powered USB bridge, then you can use its DAC with your favourite device.

Sound impressions
For this portion of the review, my impressions will, in the main, be based on listening impressions taken with the Beyerdynamic DT880, and here and there, with the LCD-2 and HD600. Here goes…

Space (or is it bass?) is the first thing that gets me – it got Bender, too, many times, but that’s another story. The Pan Am’s linear stereo image carves my favourite recordings into deliberate chords and lines. Via rather spacious-sounding headphones such as the DT880, powerful and detailed bass drives music. It corrals mids and highs between its pillars while never stepping on its own – rather heavy – feet. Interestingly, songs like Paul Oakenfold/Ice Cube’s ‘Get Em Up’ weather the Oregonian sound rather well.

Hip hop fusion is one thing. Smoother genres are even more interesting. The Pan Am’s bass comes across dryer than bass in the Porta Tube+, but is ever so much more PRAT-full. It yawns over Boards of Canada’s methodic chasms while preserving detail and space. Paucity afflicts no frequency.

Bass drives, mids steer, and highs check the road for bends and roadkill. The delicacy with which each presents itself in creating a lucid whole is perfect (as in complete). And yet, behind – or perhaps I should say over – everything is a light layer of fuzz. It’s not pulled tight into smothering corners or stuffy. It’s just comfy. Still, while I consider this fuzz to be characteristic of valve amps, there are do’s and don’ts to fuzz. If that fuzz bunks up the midrange, something is off. If it fuzes bass or treble, something is off. Typically, my sources are flat, and since I am rather more of a solid state fan than I am a valve fan, I forget the pleasures that a little fuzz can bring. Fuzz a la the Pan Am is like Japanese sansho pepper: citrusy, spicy, but light, and good in everything but pudding. It won’t make you cough, or stop up your favourite music, not matter the speed.

That said, There are a few genres that may may prefer a different flavour. One is speed metal. The other is speed trance. Simply put, these two genres prefer solid state and impeccable performance to atmosphere and spice. Only solid state can deliver that.

Genres that have grown on me (and flown through the Pan Am) are Intelligent Dance Music (IDM), vocal and instrumental jazz, and hip hop. Overly technical genres such as trance and symphonic music do sound wonderful paired with the Pan Am, but then, I feel that listening styles change, too. One doesn’t relax the same way to classical as one does to Faithless or MC Solaar or even Classified, where slumped as you are in your sofa, your foot is pumping away on your carpet.

Mids and highs present themselves in much the same way: melodic, realistically detailed, and up front. Musical stage focus narrows mostly between the ears and projects forward as if what you were hearing came from a stage about a half a metre in front of your eyes. That is cozy. It’s not cozy in quite the same way the Continental is, but in comparison to the expansive musical stage of the ALO Rx, for example, it is intimate. A lesser amp would be drowned by the intimacy. The Pan Am’s linear separation of channels along the frequency plane strengthens the dynamics.

As does the lack of ringing. As long as you have the right headphones fastened to your ears, resolution isn’t impeded by internal stop. Typical to all valve-based amps of any price, overall resolution falls well below the bounds of 16-bit audio. But, then again valves aren’t primarily about resolution. They are about power. This amp supplies current and voltage by the bushel as long as the output headphones are high Ω.

In which case, you get that lovely, smooth, but heavy-footed low bass.

And that, friends, is the grease that lubes this robot. Bass, like or hate the word, as gentle as it is pronounced, is the Pan Am’s drivetrain. And I love it.

Sound performance
The Pan Am is duly impressive. Noise levels are low enough to use with sensitive earphones, and left/right balance is a cinch for all but the most sensitive earphones on the market. Take for instance the Heir Audio 3 & 4.Ai models, which can show up noise in an iPhone 4. When paired with the Passport, there is little to no noise through their sensitive transducers. Ditto FitEar ToGo! 334. And the Grado GR8. Quite an amazing feat.

The included wall wort, on the other hand, exhibits some noise, but, generally, it isn’t bothersome.

All of that said, the Pan Am is most suitably mated to cans of more than 60Ω. It prefers headphones whose efficiency rating is 86-106dB. It all depends on what headphone you are using, though, and even on the valve set you plug in. Whatever set you use, favourites such as the Beyerdynamic DT880 600Ω, the Audeze LCD-2 and 3, and a slew of Sennheiser’s top headphones will sound just perfect. HD600/650/700/800. Done, done, done, and done.

With the above headphones, the Pan Am’s full character gets the chance to play. That character is an interesting mix of ALO’s house sound. Partly governed by the wilder, warmer Continental lineage, partly governed by the controlled, detailed sound of The National, the Pan Am pays homage to its older siblings at every turn.

By ‘play’, I mean that the Pan Am goes ‘boom!’ in the lower bass. That is, if it is paired with high Ω headphones. Headphones of over 300Ω, or otherwise insensitive headphones show almost no load to the amp and therefore go ‘boom!’ the most. It is a pleasant, but noticeable upturn in the range of 20Hz to about 100Hz. Earphones, on the other hand, are the complete opposite. Whether low or high Ω, super-sensitive or not, you will get massive bass drop off. The best pair for the Pan Am is the Etymotic ER4s which suffers the least bass drop off.

Gain on the Pan Am is semi-aggressive, the difference between low and high being roughly 6dB. The great news is that if you bump it accidentally, you won’t bust your ear drums even if you have sensitive earphones plugged in. But, gain is implemented almost perfectly to reflect the limits of what the Pan Am is able to deliver. And folks, it delivers a LOT.

Power here needs to be redefined. The Pan Am delivers power to low-sensitivity, high Ω headphones that belies its price/size/Bender face. Even when fed from the comparatively weak line out of an iPod touch, the DT880 600Ω are completely rocked out. I say this with some sickness in my stomach because I forced my Beybies (get it?) through horrible trials. I maxed out the volume. On high gain. Ouch.

What they gave back was nothing short of astonishing. No phase errors. No crackling. Through the Pan Am, the DT880 600Ω perform like desktop speakers, not headphones. Damn. Of course, at such volumes, my ears would break. For the few short minutes I tortured my Beybies, I stayed safely away from my headphones. I had to. There was simply too much volume. And it wasn’t just a lot of volume, it was high quality volume. Absolutely no distortion. The more expensive (and larger) Centrance DACmini isn’t capable of delivering such power to the same headphones. No way.

For its part, the Audeze LCD-2 is put in its place. It simply can’t overcome the powerful little Pan Am. With new recordings I generally listen to the DT880 at about 9:40 – 11:00 on the volume pot. THe Audeze LCD-2 hovered near that mark. That’s low gain. My ES10 hovers about 5 minutes past the minimum setting. Earphones work well with 2-5 minutes thanks to the excellent volume pot balance.

Stereo separation is quite typical of valve amplifiers, topping out at about 65dB. What’s nice is its rather flat curve. Bass, mids, and highs, each, are tidy. Some valve amps lump bass and low mids together in what amounts to ‘warmth’ and ‘intimacy’ at best, and ‘muddy’ at worst. Assuming you are using high Ω headphones, the Pan Am glides through left/right separation. Unnecessary channel bleed never occurs. Of course, as a valve amp, stereo image is closer than it is in a typical solid state amplifier.

Distortion is one of the specialties of a valve amp and the Pan Am doesn’t disappoint. Depending on what valve set you use, distortion ranges from moderate to high, but the effect isn’t gamey. I’ve found that the Pan Am really straddles the mid ground between the tight sound of The National and the looser sound of the Continental. Its warmth is cued toward smoothness rather than atmosphere. In this regard, it reminds me a little of the Porta Tube+.

Output impedance is obviously rather high. I have not measured it though, as I have not yet invested in a multimeter. Headphones like the DT880 250 or 600 present themselves essentially as no load while headphones like the Audio Technica ES7 present medium loads. Obviously, the Pan Am is most comfortable with the DT880, though headphones with similar spec to the ES7 still sound great. Considering its size, and that it has cute valves poking through the top, the Pan Am is obviously geared toward full-size headphones and desktop listening. The Pan Am is quickly becoming a favourite of mine when paired with the DT880. But, when using earphones, I am left with one thought: where’s the bass? The image isn’t congested, which is a blessing. Generally congesting comes from channel bleed and the collapse of the high midrange in the face of an overbearing bass. Well, with earphones, bass collapses. What’s left is midrange and an interesting and chaotic high range shelf. Shame. Since there is so little noise and since the output is already almost perfectly balanced at low volumes, I wish that this amp had the low Ω output of the Porta Tube+. It would be the perfect do-it-all amp.

If you would like to read more about the performance of the Pan Am, head to our forums where RMAA benchmarks and square waves have been uploaded. (NOTE: these will be uploaded in the next 24 hours.)

On the valves
I’ve not decided on a favourite valve set yet. Each offers plusses and minuses. The Chinese set offers higher output volume, decent stability with low Ω earphones, and a certain ‘wild’ character that is half the fun of valve amps. Think Woo Audio 3. The German valve set is more laid back and at its best with high Ω headphones. Overall, it probably performs the worst, but is nice to listen to. The Russian valve set really rides the line between the Chinese and German sets. It has the same excellent left/right balance of the Chinese set and sports a more laid back, performance-by-the-numbers sound. But, like the Siemens set, it is less susceptible to outside outside interference. Overall, its performance is best across the board. Looking over the last month, I can say firmly that I’ve used the Russian valves most often.

Ahem, the Russian set may be my favourite.

Unfortunately, there are a few issues with the Pan Am. First and foremost to an iDevice user is that Jailbreaked or no, no iDevice can currently power the DAC. If you want to keep the Pan Am and its companions small, the best you can do is a netbook. But, that’s almost par for the course. About half the USB DAC units I try require too much power from the USB port. Ho hum.

1. Interference from external mains sources can be intense when using low Ω headphones and earphones. Particularly, interference comes into play when using the Pan Am around laptops. Typing away, your palms and your lappy’s keyboard will form a small electric circuit, causing a small ground loop even when connected to the Passport. The Pan Am will hum. Humming is ameliorated by keeping your hands away from mains-sucking devices.

The front plate also conducts electricity, so if you have a habit of cuddling your amps, you’ll have to adapt. The good news is that this ground loop is inaudible via high Ω headphones such as the DT880, HD600 and LCD-2, and nearly so via headphones such as the Audio Technica ES10.

2. USB input quality isn’t the best. I think that most of us are used to USB DACs that under-perform, particularly in portable amps. Perhaps it’s the proximity of the DAC and the power input, I don’t know. If I were big into USB audio, I’d probably consider this an Achilles heel to what is otherwise a very fine amplifier.

3. High Ω output is an issue that is finally making it to the lips of the regular Joe and Joeette at Headfi, particularly as it applies to portable headphone amplifiers. Portable headphone amplifiers need to be able to power very difficult to drive multiple armature earphones. If their output impedance is too high, they can’t supply enough current to sustain clean, non-distortive signals at any volume. Well, the Pan Am isn’t able to drive those earphones very well at all. It does an overall good/decent job with the likes of the ES7 and ES10 and maxes its performance with headphones in the same class as the DT880/HD600/LCD-2. But earphones aren’t its forte.

Why I write this issue last is that it is somewhat ameliorated by the fact that the Pan Am is a desktop amp. It isn’t meant to be pushed into a pocket (though it may fit into a purse). Generally, it won’t be paired with the likes of the Earsonics SM2. It will be paired with headphones that actually sound good with it. So, while I wish ALO had implemented a lower Ω output, I don’t think it’s necessary for the current design. What it means is that owners of low Ω headphones will not hear the Pan Am in all its glory. And that is a shame.

I’ve seldom been this excited about a headphone amp. I can’t even follow up the last sentence with “once you’ve seen one-” for one simple reason: I’ve never seen a headphone amp like the Pan Am. It is part portable, part desktop, all modular, and as powerful as hell. I almost expect it to walk off my desk and guzzle down a case of Grand Kirin, yelling “kiss my shiny metal ass!” punching a hole in this shoddy Japanese apartment on its way out. It’s an amp that the competition won’t forget. Nor will its customers. Stack it, pack it, snap it together. Plug it in and take it out. As long as you have the right headphones, the Pan Am is the most clever sub 1000$ amplifier out there, bar none. Its few issues aren’t small, but they are overshadowed by a fantastic feature set that overall, screams: “Grab my shiny metal ass!”

Easy to use
Goes with you
Extremely powerful output
Rollable valves

Case conductivity
High output impedance
So-so USB DAC performance and not iDevice compatible

Hot damn! Headphones really are a rockin’ way to enjoy music, right? Feel free to explore TMA’s headphone oubliette

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Centrance DACmini PX Audiophile Desktop System in Review Thu, 27 Sep 2012 02:54:49 +0000 Centrance’ entrance at TouchMyApps is the Mac mini-sized DACmini PX, an all-in-one DAC/headphone amp/power amp that plays with the big guys. Most of you already know Centrance and are familiar with their excellent USB DACs for guitar, microphone, and headphones. You know that their audio devices are free of noise. You know that they put … Read more]]>

Centrance’ entrance at TouchMyApps is the Mac mini-sized DACmini PX, an all-in-one DAC/headphone amp/power amp that plays with the big guys. Most of you already know Centrance and are familiar with their excellent USB DACs for guitar, microphone, and headphones. You know that their audio devices are free of noise. You know that they put on a steady and graceful show no matter what they are driving. You know that this review will end with a kiss.

Resolution: 24-bit (Also supports 16-bit)
Sample Rate: USB: Up to 96kHz, S/PDIF: Up to 192 kHz
Interface: USB1.1 or 2.0, driverless
Local clock: 10 ppm precision, unmeasurable jitter
Compatibility: Any computer running Mac, PC, or Linux

Analog Specs
Nominal Output level: +6.0dBV (RCA outputs, line level)
Frequency Response: 20Hz…40kHz; +0.0dB / -0.1dB (Line or Digital inputs)
S/N Ratio: (A-wght) 144dB (Line inputs); 113dB (Digital inputs)
THD+N: 0.00022% (Line inputs); 0.001% (Digital inputs)
Crosstalk: -128dB (Line inputs); 118dB (Digital inputs)
Output Impedance: 25 Ohms (Line output); 10 Ohm (Headphone output) **
Output Power 1.5W: (headphone output, total), drives 32…600 Ohm headphones
Output Power 50W: (speaker output, total), drives 4…8 Ohm speakers
Max Output level:* 
+13.5dBV (headphone output, 32 Ohms load)
+18.6dBV (headphone output, 300 Ohms load)
+19.0dBV (headphone output, 600 Ohms load)

Contact Centrance
CEntrance, Inc.
8817 Mango Ave
Morton Grove, IL
60053 USA

TEL: +1 847-581-0500
FAX: +1 847-581-0901

Class A Inside
I had coffee with Michael Goodman, Centrance’ Chief product architect. He’s a nice bloke who’s just become a daddy. He has a better beard than me. He may also be more down to earth – it’s probably the beard.

Speaking of earth, one of the features Centrance have been trumpeting is Class-A circuitry buried in their amps. The DACmini’s got it. Defining what it is is a marketing study. Put simply, it is a circuit whose output never idles. This dissipates a LOT more heat, but when done right, can result in very clean output, and, according to experts (and certain online demagogues), less distortion in the high frequencies.

That said, when Class-AB or D are done properly, the result can be very clean, with the added benefit of less heat dissipation. I can attest to the fact that the DACmini’s Class-A circuitry gets warm when powering a pair of headphones.

Let’s get onto the review.

Build Quality
Centrance’ machining is very nice indeed. All internal parts of the DACmini PX are hidden by at least 3mm of aluminium. The analogue and digital portions of the amp lie on separate circuit boards. So, too, does the split-ground transformer-isolated power supply. Centrance do all of this in the name of fidelity. There should be less cross-talk between components in a layout like this.

The insides are supported by aluminium tongues that Centrance dub ‘Antivibration stalibizer and internal EMC barrier’. I certainly hope the engineers and marketers got together over some good drinks, as, well, there’s a lot of hocus-pocus going on under the bonnet in the PX. You can read all about it here.

Despite housing so many different parts and warming so much air in its vast internal cavity, the PX is built very well. It’s not just the thick aluminium shells. It’s the firm and smooth volume pot and sturdy ringbolt-fastened headphone output. Neither its RCA ins and outs flex under straing. Every part comes perfectly flush with the aluminium fenders. It’s a study in utility.

In terms of build, Centrance cut no corners.

DACmini-PX-back DACmini-PX-banner DACmini-PX-digital DACmini-PX-input-lamps DACmini-PX-phone-jack DACmini-PX-speaker-terminals DACmini-PX-speakers-back DACmini-PX-speakers-front DACmini-PX-terminals DACmini-PX-volume-pot

Ergonomics and Polish
Centrance flex their engineering muscles here more than anywhere else. Bristling with knobs and ports, the PX is a veritable armoury of inputs and outputs. It’s trim, but spare – utilitarian in all aspects.

It has several nice design touches. One is its pre-2011 Mac Mini footprint. The other, is its volume pot, which I’ve already mentioned. It is smooth and perfectly aligned. Some hack with a screwdriver didn’t battle it to the chassis. Next to it is the ingenious input selector, a small nub that looks for all the world like the MyST volume pot. It cycles through the various inputs with a flick forward or backward and switches instantaneously. Better still, as you cycle from source to source, music merely pops in. There is no sudden thud or pop accompanying input changes.

The PX comes with rubber feet that cover up the bolts on the bottom of the amp. They are dime a dozen in design, but do their job admirably. Remember, you’re not paying for user-aligned conical feet, backlights, VU meters, etc. and so on. Your money has gone into user-friendly design, a glut of digital and analogue inputs, and good sound.

Still, Centrance market this as part of the Audiophile Desktop System. I’m convinced of its audio fidelity and have no reason to doubt that it could be used in studios, but its primary market is the fickle (and easily swayed) audiophile. Audiophiles like two things: price/performance, and flash. The PX has price/performance, but it is about as flashy as a woollen driver’s cap. Its shape, being associated with a Mac mini, may do it no favours either, as Apple are one of the companies loyal audiophiles love to bag on.

The U Factor
The DACmini PX ADS is the ultimate all-in-one system. Tipping the scales at just below 2000$ makes it enticing enough for those who’ve eyed more expensive options, but it remains precious enough that it will attract the eyes of the upgrader.

At headfi at least, the DACmini PX was one of the components that introduced headphone geeks to the world of speakers. It’s not a bad step at all. In fact, I fully recommend it. I think it possible that some spec-drunk potential customers be turned off by the 25w*25w power amp. Shame. The power amp section is a D-class power amp. D-class amps have always been extremely efficient, and many really are audiophile powerhouses, rivalling, in some cases, the best AB and A-class amps. In terms of overall power, a 25w*25w D-class power amp can power sensitive speakers to insane levels. The speakers that come with the DACmini PX are very good matches to the DACmini power system, though you can do better.

If you live in Japan, or have no beef with your neighbours, it may be all you ever need. In Canada, Australia and other countries with vast tracks of land and houses the size of a block of apartments, the DACmini fills ‘smaller’ rooms perfectly. At 44m squared, my flat is considered generously sized. I’ve not once raised its volume passed 60%. Ever. The speakers can handle quite a bit of input power, but are small speakers. Push them too far and you will get compressed dynamics the same as you will with headphones.

While Centrance economised the power amp due to space confines, they most certainly did NOT on their headphone amp. A fine-sounding class-A headphone amp sits inside and puts the DACmini in a class all its own. In my flat, it fits under a small IKEA bookshelf. My DT880’s 3-metre cable runs perfectly to there from my TV, and with Mountain Lion at the helm of my Airport Express, I can use my Apple MacBook Pro remote to control the volume so I don’t have to wander over to my laptop or to the amp. Wonderful.

I’ve been without speakers since 2006. My former amp was a Sharp Auvi 1-bit Class D amp that output exactly 25mW per channel. Before that I used an ancient integrated Tannoy system.

I remember unboxing the Auvi back in 2001 or 2002. Perfunct packaging and slim, its refined lines made it a looker. I was 21 and impressionable. I was exactly the sort of person then that is probably looking at the ADS now. Except that, after reviewing so many pieces of audio gear, I’ve become even more impressionable. Experienced headphone geeks are always looking further afield. If not this year, next year they will have the new Burson integrated amp and a Beyerdynamic T1. Or STAX. As a hobby, there is no end in sight. But again I say, the DACmini may be the last headphone amp/DAC you ever need. It may in fact, be the last power amp you ever need.

Or, it will be the stepping stone for headphone lovers to cross over to the much more involving and better sounding world of speakers.

There are few amps as well-featured as the DACmini PX. Remember the Travagans Red? As small as a bar of soap, the Red sports a headphone amp and power amp, both of which do the job remarkably for their sub 300$ price. The Red plays with the big boys.

The DACmini PX is a big boy that plays with the bigger boys. It is fully 24bit 192kHz compatible, and effortlessly upsamples your music. If you want to plug in coaxial input, just plug it in. Turn the front dial to COAX, and go. Same with optical, line, or USB. There’s nothing to learn.

I think a few people may decry the lack of sampling/bit rate display, which I understand. When you play with the big boys (who often display sampling rate in LED arrays or OLED readouts), you should be ready to show them up. But that’s not part of the DACmini experience of no frills. What it boasts (beside its wonderful amp/DAC section) is incredibly strong, well-sealed connections and a good pre-amp output. The RCA and speaker terminals are as solid as oaks from their bristling positions on the outside of the chassis. I’ve used a number of gear at varying price positions that is no where near as strong or reliable. Centrance took care to ensure your investment will stick around.

Speaking of sticking around, the DACmini PX system comes in a giant Pelican case that’s about the size of a large carry-on. It is splash and soak-proof, crush proof, and and sturdy. After unpacking everything (if you live in America or Canada), toss it in your walk-in closet or garage. If you live in Japan… I’m still trying to find out what to do with it. Whatever the case, Centrance didn’t leave things to chance; they shipped your precious cargo in a box that will outlast your feeble bones. This attention, paid to detail and utility, is just one example of Centrance’ pursuit of customer satisfaction.

One other thing sets the DACmini apart: power settings. There is no off/on switch. The amp has an idle setting, enacted by turning the input selector to one extreme or the other, then flicking it once more in the same direction. Effectively, the machine falls asleep. It still draws a certain amount of power (all electronics do, even in off states) more than it would in an OFF state, but is a simple and effective method of combining motley functions.

Sound – Headphones
At first, I was just going to borrow the PX. It took about three days for me to decide that I wanted to keep it. I’m still scraping the last few yen together to pay it off, but this PX will be mine, and well, I can’t live without it. (My wife just rolled her eyes.)

But it’s true. The first three days with any new amp/DAC are pretty simple: set up, trial, error, and the frustration of matching curtains to anodised aluminium. After that, comfort sets in. This fully integrated system argues its case better than any other integrated system I’ve used. Size, power, build, simplicity – all in its favour.

Centrance made this thing for music. And made it well they have.

Let’s start off with background noise. Combined with the vast majority of headphones out there, the DACmini will exhibit no noise at all. That includes earphones. It goes without saying that with heavy weights such as the Beyerdynamic DT880 (of any impedance) it will render the blackest of blacks. It is in fact as black as many battery-powered portable players are.

The only time you may find noise is when you plug in sensitive earphones such as the FitEar To Go! 334 or Private 333. Still, the noise that will come out of either earphone is minimal, and compares rather favourably to the likes of the Vorzuge VorzAMP, an excellent amp made for on the go listening. Moving down the sensitivity ladder to something like the Grado GR8 and noise is completely gone.

Better yet, volume balance is extremely good. If the volume is off at the pot position of 6:35, by 6:37 it is completely balanced with FitEar To Go! 334. For less sensitive earphones and headphones, comfortable volume and balance are achieved simultaneously.

Yet, despite such finesse in noise and volume balance, there is no end of quality power for the biggies. My DT880 600Ω (again, not that hard to drive, but hard to get to very high volumes) are at their best when plugged into the DACmini. Even when fed by the comparatively weak line out of an iPod, I never rotate the volume past 1 o’clock (just past half way up – and that is when a train is passing). When adolescents on muffler-less motorbikes aren’t riding down nearby highways at 12 AM, the volume never veers past 11 o’clock. I often set the volume much lower.

Of course, I’ve done the typical stupid reviewer thing and rotated the volume pot way past safe listening levels with my headphones on their stand (aka Ikea lamp), and no matter the position on the volume pot, there is no crackle and pop from the DT880. Absolutely not phase errors. Part of that reason is the gain on the DACmini isn’t aggressive. Part of it is that Centrance have concentrated on bringing high quality rather than excessive volume to their amps.

People intent on destroying their hearing (and headphones) may be disappointed. I am sure that, if gained up, the DACmini would be capable of delivering another 10-15 decibels of noise to the DT880 with little to no distortion, but it doesn’t. It’s quality sound, not noise, that Centrance aimed for.

Regarding One area that I tend to be a stickler about is stereo separation – a facet of audio that can, when rendered at the correct frequency, make or break a ‘detailed’ sound. The DACmini is an interesting specimen. Typically, both mains and battery amps deliver best results in midrange or high bass frequencies; treble and/or low bass tend to bleed a little. Not so with the DACmini. Straight from the nigh inaudible frequencies of 20-40Hz, all the way to 20.000Hz, stereo separation stays a steady course. It doesn’t carve out great caverns of detail, but no one frequency takes the lead over another. Each is good, not great, but hammered together (assuming you are using headphones over 40Ω), the effect is altogether pleasing.

The one caveat with the DACmini is what seems to be a rather high Ω headphone output. The numbers I hear thrown around pin it at 10Ω. That means that low Ω earphones, and especially multi balanced armature earphones, will render a distorted signal. The Earsonics SM2, for example, loses up to a couple of decibels of bass and ‘gains’ hot upper midrange bloom. The SM2 is a difficult to drive earphone, proving many dedicated portable amps not up to their task, so consider the DACmini – a desktop amp – put up against a product it probably wasn’t meant to cope with. Centrance do offer an upgrade system where you can have the output lowered to 0 Ω. If you frequently use low Ω headphones and earphones, the upgrade will render your DACmini into the perfect desktop amp.

Quality of Sound
Apart from excellent balance, low noise, and nearly perfect control even at high volumes, the DACmini effuses a simple, straight sound that one could almost characterise as wire-with-gain. It is ever so slightly warmer than that tired trope, though.

The overall effect is effortless and smooth, and viscous in parts. It favours energetic headphones, which are exactly what I favour, too. The spacious Beyerdynamic DT880 is an excellent match and so is the energetic ES10. The DACmini also pairs well with the cantankerous Audeze LCD-2, though I can imagine a few people wanting even more drive volume – who they would be, and how long they’ve boxed professionally, however, is anyone’s guess.

Viscosity shows up in the low to middle midrange, enhancing vocals, strings, and guitar. Where it will impress the most is in acoustic music. Nick Cave’s pianos shine a bit more here and there, and the sweet Nicki Parrot sings sweetly as ever. I’m reminded of the intimacy of the MyST 1866, but delighted by this amp’s more linear output.

The DACmini plays a disappearing act. It isn’t grainy or harsh and it’s not overly warm, either. It has no jitter artefacts to speak of and as mentioned above, no noise. It’s a conglomerate of hasn’ts and isn’ts, but in the best way possible.

Its sound is more studio than it is live. Nicki Parrot’s rendition of Sakura Sakura is equal part vocals, equal part background instruments, until, that is, you sit back and relax. It’s all Nicki from here on in. The DACmini renders her forward and fleshy. She tickles your ears from the front and centre (for lack of a better term). You have the stars, and you have their satellites. Yet, despite central intimacy, satellites get no less detail. But here, subjective warmth meets its bounds.

Perhaps it is down to the DACmini’s negligible levels of signal distortion, or minimal ringing, whatever the case, this headphone amp comes off as pleasing. It’s wonderful, but not addictive. I’m a strong believer that anything addictive is in some way flawed or odd. Take Kraft Dinner for instance. It’s a cheap meal, and combined with SPAM, onions, garlic, and pepper sauce, the best thing for movie nights. But, suck it down more than once a month and you’re sure to beat your poor heart to a gooey death. And then there is Oktoberfest in Tokyo. Usually miffed, tight faces are smiling and singing above drinking and dancing bodies. But, it’s only for a few weeks per year and the sausages cost too much. The next morning, the train is as full of dead eyes as it ever was.

Addictive audio equipment has its appeal, but whether because of tuning or technical faults, it comes with a slew of caveats. High ohm output comes to mind. So, too, does distortion, roll off, and a fist full of other terms. The DACmini has no real faults in its headphone output – nothing at least that would lump it in the oddly addictive category.

Again, its Achilles heal is the rather high output impedance of 10 Ω. I suggest that the majority of headphone listeners will not be bothered by it simply because they are probably plugging in heavy-duty headphones, not earphones, into the DACmini. Still, if you are the type that uses earphones with desktop amplifiers, that 10Ω output is audible.

Overall, the DACmini is detailed, but not too detailed, warm but not too warm, linear, but not too linear, smooth- You get the drift. So, why am I purchasing it? Remember the part about the Japanese flat? The shiny black Aquos? Size has a lot to do with it. I neither need nor want a larger amp. Nor do I want a hot piece of aluminium burning a hole in my rubber floor (horrible Japanese invention). It took me about three days to acclimatise to the DACmini PX ADS. Had I listened in that time to headphones only, I may not have decided to purchase it. Why? Because I have like a billion other headphone amps. One, a fine unit from Graham Slee, does just about as good a job as the DACmini with the headphones I prefer.

Rather, it is because the DACmini does EVERYTHING very well. Everything, folks, includes amping speakers for small to medium-sized spaces.

I was forced into headphones in the early 2000s. Forced isn’t the best term. I love headphones and have since I was twelve.

As much as I like them, for me, the love for headphones was borne out of necessity. At twelve, I hadn’t the bank to roll a pair of speakers, appropriate amp(s), cables, CD/LP player, and power supply. I did have enough to hoard raisins and Pearson’s mints. Strangely, it was music, not cavities, that I collected through my teen years.

That lasted till I hit 20 in the year 2000, and landed a fantastically boring 9-5 job as a painter. I invested in a decent living room setup almost immediately. But, things as they are (and thanks to constant moving), I sold my living room setup. By 2006, I was speakerless and ampless, a poor man by any audiophile definition.

Only recently have my wife and I moved into a place that has the 30cm x 30cm space necessary to lay a speaker down on either side of the telly. Lo and behold, the ADS comes with two speakers. Being a DAC/amp company, Centrance’s marketing literature didn’t sell me on their speakers. All-in-one companies rarely do well across the entire gamut of their portfolio. I’m sure you can understand my penchant for honesty when I say I didn’t expect much from their speakers, ‘Masterclass’ moniker or no. The name grates against my better senses as much as the terms ‘authentic’, ‘professional’, and ‘audiophile’ do.

But in the weeks (and now months) since, I’ve begun to see beyond the name. The Masterclass speakers are compact, solidly made, and easy to hide from guests. Their piano finish is a little gaudy for this 33 year old (oops), but so is the nasty Sharp TV that towers over them (oops again). With the towering Aquos above, the trio look part and parcel of an Apple OSX screenshot from the early 2000s. Yikes. Then again, flash may be your thing. If they are, you will probably enjoy the view I saw in my photo studio.

Looks aside, Centrance’ speakers are pretty damn good. Centrance would have you believe that including the tweeter in the low-mid manifold allows more direct communication between the entire frequency spectrum and your ears. Basically, no delay. There are certainly no delay problems in this set of speakers, but then again, in order to settle that scientifically, you have to sit pretty damn far from the speakers and hunker down with noisome equipment. You also probably won’t have graduated with Honours with a degree in English Literature.

The Masterclass 2504 sound is an interesting mix of studio monitor and pill box gunner. Despite housing a single low-mid driver and one tweeter, low bass hits with ferocity. It is also strangely detailed for having come from such small speakers. Yet, unlike some ferocious speakers that pound you in the chest again and again, Centrance’ Masterclass speakers generally tread tenderly. They handle the midrange first from a resolving position, and secondly, from a position of intimacy. Let’s get back to Nicki Parrot’s Sakura Sakura for a moment. Nicki, singing in a tongue far from her home, has somewhat of a lisp. Fortunately, a Parrot lisp is nothing like a shiggy lisp. The DACmini PX/Masterclass combo renders her soft voice just as softly as a the Beyerdynamic DT880 does. What you get is the wet sounds of singing lips and throat, but nothing too graphic. Similar to its headphone out, the DACmini PX won’t render your favourite records into just bits. There is space for a few errors, but nothing large. Generally, for most music, the detail in the midrange and lower highs is simply spot on, and with good placement on a desk or on small stands, the speakers render sonorous mids.

Still, what is most impressive is the sheer amount of bass the small Masterclass speakers can dish out. In a small apartment like mine, a subwoofer is right out. Simply unnecessary.

Fine resolution is delivered down to the lowest quoted spec and the DACmini drives their load just fine. There is plenty of stretch in the high region and excellent positioning, though that is heavily dependent on where and how you set them.

I would suggest bringing them up off the floor, or angling them slightly up, to get the best frequency range from them. On the floor, lower mids can tend to boom. This is especially the case when watching movies. Very few studio albums of mine exhibit this boom, but just about every movie from Lord of the Rings to Jabberwocky and Eat the Peach drives part of me mad with tedious boom when set on the floor. Why? Probably because of the bass reflex port on the bottom. It needs to breath. If you don’t set the speakers optimally, that bass port will reflect high bass/low mids back up into the co-planar cone and back in your face. If you can set them a metre from the ground, they will treat you to their best.

Unfortunately, these masterclass speakers lack mounting hardware or cleats. If you’re as hard-put as I am to find a nice speaker stand, why not try a plastic Ikea stool? The three-legged version works wonders for the midrange, and its glaring plastic hues offset the piano finish somewhat.

Midrange boom eliminated, I can fully endorse these speakers. In fact, set up properly, they can be at the centre of a pretty decent audio system.

Plug & Play and iPad
If you have a Mac, PC, or an iPad, just slip in your USB and get grooving. There is nothing to set up – that is, unless you want 24bit/192kHz, in which case, PC people are stuck at 96kHz. The iPad has its limitations, too, but with a Camera Connection Kit, music is plug & play.

The DACmini’s DAC derives its power from the mains, so there is no worry about the iPad’s 20mA USB output. Jailbreakers: iPod touch 4/5G and iPhone 4/s (and presumably an iPhone 5), can use the Camera Connection Kit, too, with the purchase of Big Boss’ CameraConnector, which rings in at 99 cents.

In fact, I am currently enjoying Nick Cave’s Brompton Oratory from an iPod touch 4, which is wonderful. There are a number of DAC units out there that require more than 20mA to run, essentially requiring a netbook, or a USB hub.

Alternatively, you could use the optical output from the Venturecraft Unit 4.0 or the the coaxial out from the AlgoRythm Solo.

All that said, the DACmini PX and ADS isn’t without its faults. Each is quite small relative to the performance and cost effectiveness that it serves; nonetheless, take note.

1. Volume pot static

Firstly, when using sensitive earphones and headphones, turning the volume pot will reveal static from the headphone output. I do not notice this via the speaker terminals. The good news is that the static only affects output whilst the volume pot moves and with sensitive earphones.

2. High Ω headphone output
As mentioned elsewhere in this review, the DACmini has a rather high Ω output from its headphone output. Again, this is a desktop amp/DAC. Quantitatively, fewer sensitive earphones will be plugged into it than, say, a Venturecraft Unit 4.0 (which is comparatively naff). Centrance measured the DACmini’s output at 10Ω. It’s not high enough that headphones like the Audio Technica ES10, AKG K701, and certainly the DT880 will hear andy differences, but as noted above, the FitEar ToGo! 334 and Private 333, will sound dull when plugged in. Centrance offer a 0Ω modification that will bring full resolution to every headphone in your collection. You will have to decide for yourself if it is worthwhile or not. So will I.

3. Freezes
Finally (and perhaps most annoying), is DAC freezing. Typically, I plug several items into a single amp at one time. The DACmini is simultaneously plugged into a Macbook Pro (optical), iPod touch (USB), iBasso DX100 (coaxial), and an iPod nano (line input). Plugging and unplugging the USB from the iPod touch and into the MacBook Pro and vise versa, can cause the input selector to freeze, followed, at times, by the DAC.

The simple fix is as simple as just resetting by unplugging the power and replugging it in again. Annoying, but a solution. I am not sure if a firmware update can fix this issue or not.


Centrance’ focus on utility and construction quality is practically myopic; there is simply nothing they leave to chance. While I don’t suggest dropping or blending your DACmini, I do believe that it could withstand quite a beating. The DACPort opened my eyes when I demoed it back in Korea in 2010. I didn’t expect such a small item to sound and work so well. But the DACmini bests it in every quantifiable metric except size. It boasts the same black background, but is much more powerful, and bristles with useful ports. But the killer feature for audiophiles on the move, is that it serves as a decent power amp as well. Bought as part of the ADS package, the PX takes centre stage. Through speakers or headphones, it is a level-headed, reference-quality machine that has my full recommendation.

Great sound
Compact, solid
Low noise
Perfect balance
Good power amp and speakers
Myriad standard connectsions
Fully mains-powered DAC

Static in the volume pot (with sensitive earphones)
High Ω headphone output

Hot damn! Headphones really are a rockin’ way to enjoy music, right? Feel free to explore TMA’s headphone oubliette


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ALO Continental V2 headphone amplifier in review Sun, 09 Sep 2012 23:45:37 +0000 I have high blood pressure. I get excited easily. For my weight and height, I have a large bum. Fortunately, after applying minus 6 and minus 5 contacts to my eyes, my vision is good – I can tell a masterpiece when I see it. I’m certainly not one. The ALO National is. But for … Read more]]>

I have high blood pressure. I get excited easily. For my weight and height, I have a large bum. Fortunately, after applying minus 6 and minus 5 contacts to my eyes, my vision is good – I can tell a masterpiece when I see it. I’m certainly not one. The ALO National is. But for the mistake of ending early, so is its forebear: the Continental V1 nearly is, too. The Continental V2 makes the grade, too. It shares most of The National’s good stuff and brings to the table a sound all its own.

Dimensions: 2.32 x 3.89 x 0.56
Battery Play Time: 7-8 hours
Battery Recharge Time: 3 hours
Frequency Response : +/- 1 dB:40Hz-20KHz
Input Impedance: 30KOhms
Maximum Input Level: 5VRMS
Channel Tracking: < +/- 0.2dB
Maximum Output: 20 V Peak to Peak
THD+N: 1%

Contact ALO
1810 SE 10th Ave. Unit B
Portland, OR 97214
Phone: +1 (971) 279-4357

ALO-ContinentalV2-accessories ALO-ContinentalV2-box ALO-ContinentalV2-DT880 ALO-ContinentalV2-glamour ALO-ContinentalV2-in-box ALO-ContinentalV2-rubbers Continental dominating a Stack with CLAS and MyST 1866

This review is TMA’s third glut of grammatical errors and mug shots dedicated to valve amps. The first detailed Woo Audio’s WA3, and gushed on and on about craftsmanship and a sound that is decidedly ‘tubey’. The second, detailed the GoVibe Porta Tube+, and waxed lyrical on about beautiful highs, buttery smooth transitions, but waxed cynical about its itchy workmanship.

The Continental V2 is every bit the feat of engineering that the Woo Audio WA3 is, though it runs from batteries, not the mains. Its guts, rather than being strung point-point, lay soldered into silicon. It is solid, beautiful, ergonomic, and a pleasure to use in every turn of its volume pot, in every flip of its volume lever.

And, most important of all, its voice effuses the same lush, rich midrange, the same delicate highs. Woohoo!

Build Quality
Because The National and the Continental V2 are – practically and wonderfully constructed – two peas in a pod, I’m tempted to copy and paste test from The National review here for reference.

There is very little that distinguishes one from another in quality of build. The Continental V2 inherits every one of The National’s good points.

On the outside, the differences are nill. For the sake of brevity, you can read my gushings here. For the sake of thoroughness, however, the differences, where evident, will go down here.

The most obvious comes in fifteen tiny holes sunk into the amps’ brow and temple, just above the valve. These help ventilate hot air coming from the valve. The Continental V2′s guts sit in a smaller chassis than Porta Tube+ guts do, and are sewn in tightly. They need all the ventilation they can get as the Continental V2 gets quite warm.

One reason the guts are sewn in so tightly is that ALO followed Apple’s lead and have glued the battery into the V2′s chassis. Thus, the battery isn’t user replaceable. If by chance the battery should perish, ALO will replace it for you. But you, armed even with the most ferocious of spatulas and pick axes, will not get it out yourself without damaging the spatula, and perhaps the pick axe. The Continental will be reduced to a resume of interesting parts and aluminium shavings. You won’t be able to check the circuit board, either, without breaking the seal. The Continental’s guts, my friends, are tucked safely (and very securly) into their skeleton.

Apart from that, both The National and the Continental V2 share the same thick, scratch-resistant aluminium chassis and are built to the highest standards possible.

Ergonomics and Polish
Again, I’m tempted to copy and paste my ramblings from The National review. Instead, I’ll let you read it on your own.

Overall, nothing drastic has changed. The same perfect spacing, wonderful volume pot, easy-to-engage gain, the same perfectly lit lamp – all there. The Continental V2 is all that The National is, and a bit more. Bigger that is. It’s about 1 centimetre longer front to back. But for a bit of paint advertising ALO’s website, the front and back plates are virtually identical, too.

The difference – and my wife feels this is no small thing (and it isn’t – it’s huge) – is the brand font. Yes, folks, I’m going to yammer on about a font… in an amp review.

I’m with my wife here and much prefer The National’s tastefully off-centre, newspaperesque script. It’s less geeky, more metro, and utterly attractive. The Contintenal’s font is classy, but it’s the Masonic ALO badge that has me hiding the entire amp in an Apple Sock.


That’s just my interpretation of polish.

Let’s get back to ergonomics. Like I said, there’s not much between the two amps. They’re siblings through and through. Hot siblings. The National dissipates quite a bit of heat for a solid state headphone amp. The Continental V2 dissipates quite a bit more. So much more in fact, that I can’t recommend stuffing it in your pocket in a Japanese summer.

I did that on my way sweaty way to immigration.

Damn near electrocuted myself.

Again, nothing new here. Both the National and Continental are straightforward amps. Plug in your source, your phones, adjust the gain, the volume, and enjoy. And, assuming you enjoy rich, lush sound, you will enjoy.

Under the bonnet is the Continental’s magic, a tiny, low-voltage valve and a sound that fits the description. The volume pot is wonderfully balanced, and its low gain setting fits most highly sensitive earphones just fine.

Here, I’m not tempted to copy and paste. The sonic differences between the National and Continental are evident from the first listen. Still, I think you will agree with me that ALO have begun to develop what I think is a nice house sound, though between The National, Continental, and Rx brands, there are important differences.

Valves amps take time to wake up – and sleep. Portable amps are no different. The Porta Tube+ goes from silence to full sound in about ten seconds. The Continental takes about 12-15 seconds longer. Turn it off, and music drifts out in the same manner. It’s like pins and needles, but much more fun.

Then, there is power. Both amps spit out enough voltage to get almost any headphone to ear-splitting levels, though their approach is different.

With headphones and earphones that present small loads, say over 40Ω, the Continental will give quite a bit of extra low end rumble. With no load, that peak, which starts pretty much at 20Hz and goes to about 120Hz, is even bigger. It’s very interesting, and for people that consider cans like the DT880, K701, and K550 to be bass shy, this low end hump could be a godsend. Also interesting is the placement of this small, but discernible hump. It isn’t in the mid-bass (the frequency slot that most people call bass). No, it’s in the proper bass.

This amp raises that frequency band by up to three decibels. But even if ALO were to have raised it by 8 or so decibels, they would still have obviated boom and bloom that occurs from raising the mid bass. Just a reminder: extreme frequencies tend to border on inaudibility. But, this hump is discernible – if your music has that information to begin with, and if your headphones aren’t severely rolled-off to begin with – though just.

Interestingly enough, that same bass (sub-bass to help the younger generation) isn’t held up when using headphones of less than 40Ω. The amp becomes a different beast with low Ω headphones. Most presence is shifted to the high-mids. Both bass and high treble dynamic presentation is softened.

Which I am fine with. Here’s why:

Though the Continental II is a portable amp, it is probably best suited to desktop-replacement work, where it will drive highΩ headphones that value its voltage.

And regarding size, the Continental II is just longer than The National, weighing just a bit more. But as I said before, it gets warm – quite warm. The National lit a small fire in the pocket. The Continental should probably stay out of the pocket to begin with! It does get warm. The breathing holes are there for a reason. Keep them clear. In my month or so of use, I’ve found that I tend to use it most near my computer, or on my sofa almost always plugged into my DT880 600Ω which is basically made for it.

Besides the above-mentioned bass bump, the Continental II has that telltale valve sound – warmish, with a dry (like wine, not humour) lower midrange. On a valve scale, it is more Woo Audio 3 than Porta Tube+. In fact, the differences between Jaben’s and ALO’s amps are stark. Jaben’s amp is loved for its extended but smooth high range, while the Continental is loved for its well-resolved midrange, warmth, and slightly elevated bass. Both are valve amps, but in sound signature, the two are very different.

Their similarities are the similarities that nearly all valve amps have: high distortion. That distortion smooths out little niggles in bad recordings, and tames some screechy headphones. Smooth really is the name of the game. In Japan, both amps have drawn comparisons, and some people have decided there isn’t enough difference to make a decision, while others prefer one or the other for a certain reason.

The Continental outputs a tad less background hiss than the Porta Tube+ and sports the necessary (as this amp is powerful) gain switch on the outside of the amp. Jaben requires you to undo the front plate, get out your eyebrow tweezers and replace jumpers.

I find the Continental II to be clearer in the bass while the Porta Tube+ is clearer in the upper mids (hence, maybe, the reason I fell in love with its high mids). They are similarly congested in the highs, but again, that congestion is comfortable. Overall, for a warm tubey sound, the Continental II is a better buy. For a slightly clearer, but more solid state sound, the Porta Tube+ is better. Other decisions should be made on the headphones you want to use, and on build quality.

Remember, the Continental is more at home with full size headphones and portable phones with impedances of more than 40Ω. The Porta Tube+ is equally comfortable with low or high Ω loads.

Sound in a Nutshell
Smooth out The National’s highs and upper mids a bit, add an emphasis to extreme lows, and some of that good ol’ valve distortion and you have the Continental II. There really is a family resemblance to the two. It is amazing. The Continental II also has less background noise, but with low Ω headphones and earphones, it is also less dynamic. If you are primarily using earphones, I suggest staying with The National, which will give you harder hitting lows and a more exciting upper midrange.

But, if you are out for the warm, lush valve sound and use headphones of more than 40Ω, I can’t recommend the Continental II enough. It really is the most characteristically tubey amp I’ve heard. Ever. Woo Audio 3 in your pocket. Tell that to your friends.

RMAA scores
For those interested in seeing RMAA scores, go here.

Scaling with better sources
As with most good amplifiers, you will get more power from this amp with higher quality/more powerful input. The CLAS is a source that will really up the output power. Fortunately, the volume pot behaves well even when hooked up to line-level sources. With full-size headphones, it is perfectly matched with a good HiFi or CD player.

In fact, I recently attached a Hifiman HE5 to the Continental II and was surprised by the power and control in the combination. Again, I listen to lower volumes and have no intention of bursting my eardrums for reviews. I listen to enjoy my music, not break my biology.

Best headphones for the Continental II
As long as you have a somewhat sensitive headphone, even 600Ω is chicken pie. The DT880 600Ω goes with high gain to about 88% of the volume scale with no phase errors or other telltale signs of distortion.

My Audio Technica ES10 is also another wonderful combo headphone that fits the Continental’s nature. I have a feeling that if you find your headphone to be ‘sibilant’ or harsh, the Continental may well be the amp for you. I’ve heard it said that even warm headphones such as the Sennheiser HD60 ( shares good synergy with this amp.

My only issue with the Continental II is that it doesn’t play nice with low Ω earphones. It’s definitely audible. The amp has wonderful bass and wonderful highs, but with low Ω earphones, you will get an upper-mid centric amp that isn’t excessively detailed. The output impedance seems too high. Plug in a pair of ES7 headphones to it and the National, both matched to the same out line volume and the ES7 is quieter and less dynamic on the Continental II.

Which is a shame because otherwise, this amp is the sliced bread among portable valve amps.

What’s the conclusion?
Let’s face it, ALO are one of the masters of portable headphone amplifiers. Not a one lacks sufficient power, nor good looks, nor build quality. And as I said above, there is a definite house sound developing, and overall, that sound is great. The Continental II has a very low noise floor, excellent ergonomics and build, good low end kick, and great balance. If it were not for the fact that low Ω earphones sound congested in comparison to proper headphones – this is, after all, a portable amplifier – I would consider this the king among ALO’s amp line. Mated with the DT880 (250 or 600), the T1, T70, HD600, K701/2, K550, etc., it is one of the most soothing, beautiful sounding portable amps out there. With 7-8 hours of battery life, you can forgo the mains for your home rig, and pack in an entire day (or night) of music loving. For headphone users, I consider it a must-have amp. Fit it in your bedside rig, your HiFi, your TV rig – anything. Because it really can sing.

Like a WA3 in your pocket
Warm, smooth sound
Extra low end for high Ω headphones
Excellent ergonomics
Excellent build quality

Gets hot
Low Ω earphones change the sound of this amp

Hot damn! Headphones really are a rockin’ way to enjoy music, right? Feel free to explore TMA’s headphone oubliette

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MyST 1866 Wireless DAC and headphone amp for your iPhone Tue, 04 Sep 2012 04:51:34 +0000 Last month, Musica Acoustics had me photograph their new MyST 1866, a portable DAC unit from MyCroft that Dimitri was very excited about. The lad is almost always lost for words about cool new things, so I patted him on the shoulder and took the unit to my office. I shot the thing. I turned … Read more]]>

Last month, Musica Acoustics had me photograph their new MyST 1866, a portable DAC unit from MyCroft that Dimitri was very excited about. The lad is almost always lost for words about cool new things, so I patted him on the shoulder and took the unit to my office. I shot the thing. I turned it on and off. I listened to it. Then I emailed Dimitri and threatened a review.

A DAC like no other
The MyST 1866 isn’t like any other amp/DAC combo out there. Some of the usual stuff got stuffed in: line output, USB input, and a good headphone out. Today, most portable ‘DAC’ units merely convert USB digital signals to analogue. If you’ve got something smaller than a netbook, or if you have a dedicated DAC like the AlgoRythm Solo or Venturecraft Unit 4.0, you’re stuck.

The 1866 is different. There are NO analogue inputs, so you can’t just connect your iPhone/iPod/iPad LOD and have at it. Instead, the following inputs bristle from the back: USB, coaxial (3,5mm mono or stereo jack), and toslink (optical). Somewhere in the front is an antenna, and get this, a Bluetooth receiver.

Yes, Bluetooth.

It does sound a bit gimmicky, and it probably is, but let me explain it this way: with Bluetooth input, you no longer need cables to connect your iPhone/iPod touch to your amp/DAC. Evidently, the unit I photographed is a prototype. Its edges are rough, its rear case doesn’t fit flush with a USB cable so the thing comes unplugged from a computer with the slightest nudge. I’ve been told this will be fixed. It had better.


Because this unit is damn fine sounding and unique. If it weren’t for the aluminium, it would look like an excited Twinkie. But the real deal here (honestly) is that you can forgo the cables. Bluetooth isn’t just a gimmick.

I tested this out on the train for many hours. Typically, to enjoy a portable amp and my music, I have to strap my iPhone to an amp with ALO’s rubber bands, or broccoli elastics. It’s not hard, but after 1,5 hours of nudging and old men fondling my bump, it gets hard to keep an amp AND an iPhone up. The MyST 1866 makes things easier because it can stay in the pocket while your iPhone stays in your hand. Headphones, then, plug into the MyST, and you look less the geek, and more ready to defend yourself from concupiscent gaffers.

At least, that is the theory anyway.

Currently, the prototype allows about 20cm of distance between your iPhone and it before its Bluetooth signal gives out. In other words, an 1866 in your pocket will mean that your iPhone will have to stay near your junk, which isn’t comfortable. The problem, it seems, is that the prototype’s antenna isn’t finished. I’ve been told that the new version will have better antenna with a stronger signal. Good.

I don’t have much information apart from that. Spec list is brief: AD1866 16-bit DAC, 24-bit receiver, and some other stuff. Musica Acoustics have this written:

Digital input is received by a 24/192 chip and decoded by the famous AD1866 multi bit DAC. The circuit is laid out in an R2R ladder for the utmost in precision and sound quality. It doesn’t get better than this. This is the world’s first 4-source portable digital-to-analogue-converter to combine optical, coaxial and USB with bluetooth.

I’m no engineer, but countless hours slaving over potential purchases and simple hobby research has led me to the conclusion that R2R ladders can be more accurate in DACs than some other resistor implementations – and I’m all for that. How that pans out in the end, however, isn’t at the DAC’s sole behest.

In actual use
Apart from the short distances with which Bluetooth can be used to connect to a computer, iPhone, iPod touch, or Android device, things are mostly peachy. Of course, that pesky back plate keeps USB from jacking in securely, but if you are at a desk, and actually listening to a pair of headphones, that isn’t a bother. Still, MyST MUST move the back plate back. There is no excuse for USB jacks to fall out.

Coaxial and toslink connections work flawlessly. Selecting any input source is easy: just click the button on the front panel. A light will flash under the input source until connected. The only other controls are volume pot and the stubby on/off switch.

Devices I’ve used with it are:

  • MacBook Pro
  • iPhone 4/s (bluetooth)
  • iPod touch 4G (bluetooth)
  • iPad 1G (bluetooth)
  • iPhone and AlgoRythm SOLO (via coaxial RCA to 3,5mm)
  • Colorfly C4 Pro (via coaxial RCA to 3,5mm)
  • iBasso DX100 (via coaxial 3,5mm to 3,5mm)
With the exception of some strange phase errors on the Colorfly C4, and the aforementioned bluetooth antenna difficulties, each input worked flawlessly. Flawlessly. I’ve never used such a compact device that does everything. I was impressed from first listen and still am impressed. Unfortunately, I can confirm that the iPad will NOT work with the 1866 if used via camera connection kit. The 1866 uses too much voltage. If you are keen to use it in USB mode with your iPad, you will need either an external battery-powered USB hub, or a mains-powered USB hub. That, or spring opt for Bluetooth or spring for an AlgoRythm SOLO.
Many of you may wonder about the choice of 3,5mm mono/stereo jack to carry the coaxial signal. Don’t. It’s great. If you’re sick of expensive aftermarket cables, coax may be your ticket for small and relatively inexpensive ICs. You can even use an analogue cable if you want. Yup, that 3,5mm you’re using to connect your Fiio to your Cowon player will work. Some cables will work better than others, of course, and a real coaxial cable will be better than a typical 3,5mm stereo cable, but the difference isn’t as night and day as you’d guess.
I spent 15$ on parts to make my own 3,5mm-3,5mm coax cable for the 1866, but my ALO mini-mini works almost as well. So does my cheapo from Jaben. Go figure.
USB or not, DAC-laden amps really suck down battery. The 1866 is no different. I reckon my best streak was about 8 hours, but on average, 7 or so was what I managed to get. That’s not bad at all, but it’s not groundbreaking. My SOLO gets about the same battery life, and my DX100 is no better. Using Bluetooth or plugging your iPod/iPhone/iPad into a SOLO will drain the source battery faster, too. It’s just one of those tradeoffs you get with discreet external components. Assessing its worth to you is your job.

Signal quality
Frenchbat of Headfi said it best “the tracking is flawless” (or something like that). The 1866′s internal gain is set low enough that sensitive earphones can be used without turning the volume up too far to achieve balance between left/right channels. There is some volume mismatch between channels, but it is remedied quickly. If you are using Bluetooth input, you can adjust output level from the iPhone to further balance the signal. If you are using the 1866 with a computer or an Apple Airport Express-type device, you can adjust output levels from software. None of my sources allow that luxury via coaxial.

Similarly, the noise floor is rather low. It’s not completely silent, but it’s in line with or below the vast majority of amps out there. For reference, an iPhone 4s has less noise, an ALO The National has more. Suffice it to say that most IEM users, unless they are using extremely sensitive earphones such as the Shure SE530/5, will probably enjoy the relatively silent background of the 1866.

What keen-eared music lovers will discover is a sound that is softer, more relaxing than some DAC units. That may come from the AD1866, which seems to have a low-pass filter applied in its extreme high frequencies. Of course, to really hear its effects, you earphones have to be capable of hitting highs, and your music has to have information in the highs to be rolled off.

The MyST 1866 passed the Frenchbat test, which, I assure you, isn’t chicken soup. In the same day, I saw him tear through another amp that I was keen on, but we found common ground in the Vorzuge amps, though he wasn’t as keen as I am on the ALO The National. Ho hum.

Output impedance
I’ve not tested this yet, and will probably refrain until I have a production model in my hand (if that happens). What I can say is this: if your earphones drop down below 8Ω at any place when playing back music, the MyST will lose some resolution. It’s nothing like what the Graham Slee Voyager suffers, but it may be audible under some circumstances and with certain earphones.

My reference low Ω beast, the Earsonics SM2, did a small number on the MyST 1866′s frequency response, but it is a beast. With the FitEar To Go! 334, you might also hear a difference, that being small reductions in bass, a slight smear in upper mids, and more compression in soundstage versus, say, an iBasso DX100. With an iPhone 4s, the difference is less pronounced.

Moving to the likes of an Audio Technica CK10 or Grado GR8 or similar high Ω earphone and you won’t hear the differences. The 1866 runs those earphones fine. Headphones are almost all equal. I’ve encountered no headphone that isn’t fully driven by the 1866. That said, output voltage isn’t as high as some desktop amps. The National will best it for delivering fidelity at extreme volumes.

The internal amp is obviously geared towards portable headphones and higher Ω earphones, though it sounds great through low Ω earphones as well. If you’re absolutely set to make a stack, the MyST 1866 has a good line out that is entirely separated from the analogue amp stage.

When Dimitri asked me to photograph this amp, he was unsure of pricing. I was told it might be around 600$. A few years ago 600$ seemed incredible. Today, many portable units tip the scales around that price. The MyST, which has even more functionality, and evidently is made by hand in an aircraft assembly plant, is considerably more expensive. Dimitri’s webpage shows a pre-order price of 899$ and a full retail price of 999$. Yikes says me.

In Japan, that translates to something like 85.000 yen. Even at that price, the MyST 1866 generated a LOT of interest at the headphone festival. I have a feeling that international portable audiophiles are comparative misers to their Japanese counterparts. Partly this could be because we spend (you, not me) less time on the train, packed in with hundreds of other bodies and grabby old men. Japanese audiophiles spend everything on their portable systems. I’ve seen a number of FitEar To Go! 334 out in the wild. And even an AKG K3003. Both earphones tip the scales at over 1300$. Amazing.

You will know if the MyST 1866 is for you or not. The truth about me is that as much as I appreciate its innovative technology and Twinkie good looks, I’m just not its market. But, the tech idiot in me loves it. And, the smooth, soft, and powerful sound is something I like, especially paired with my GR8 and DT880. To each her own.

I’m quite sure that Musica Acoustics will be joined by other dealers soon enough as this product – as a technological wonder, and an audiophile machine - is exciting. One thing I’m quite sure of is that this is probably the most expensive portable audiophile unit of any kind to connect to an iPhone. If nothing else, that should generate a LOT of interest.

Hot damn! Headphones really are a rockin’ way to enjoy music, right? Feel free to explore TMA’s headphone oubliette

MyST-1866-battery MyST-1866-innards MyST-1866-stackRead more]]> 9
Vorzüge VorzAMPpure and VorzAMPduo headphone amps in Review – There’s none more black Thu, 28 Jun 2012 08:08:57 +0000 Okay, apes, it’s time to toss bones to the firmament. It’s time to beat on your mates and rip sinews from the teeth of angry panthers. Evolution’s catching us up again. This time, however, it’s the Germans, not Americans, who are pressing us to the edge of the audiophile solar system. The eponymous VorzAMP has … Read more]]>

Okay, apes, it’s time to toss bones to the firmament. It’s time to beat on your mates and rip sinews from the teeth of angry panthers. Evolution’s catching us up again. This time, however, it’s the Germans, not Americans, who are pressing us to the edge of the audiophile solar system. The eponymous VorzAMP has its sights and prices set high, and has been the cause of an infatuated uproar among Japanese audiophiles for quite a turn. I think you will agree with them that you don’t need a Discovery-sized headphone amp to blast off toward Jupiter. The lovely fräulein, VorzAMP, is beautiful to hold, behold, and listen to.

Models: VorzAMPpure VorzAMPduo
Price: (USD $) pure 430 duo 520
EQ: pure no, duo yes
Silver Solder with Gold Compound
Gold Plated PCB YES
Top Grade Metal Film Resistors
Top Grade Metallic Capacitors
RoHS (Environment Friendly, Free from Hazardous Chemical)
Play Time [hours]: pure 30, duo 26
Size [mm] – slim design 83 x 66 x 18 83 x 66 x 18
Weight [g] – light weight design (with batteries): pure 100 (140), duo 110 (150)

Included in the box
VorzAmp™ (Headphone Amplifier)
VorzKabel™ (20cm long)
Set of Li-ion batteries (2x1000mAh)
Protective pouch
USB Power Adapter (100AC to 230AC)
Mini USB to USB Cable (Charging from Computer)

Today’s review centres on both amps. The difference between the two is the EQduo EQ system, which only the VorzAMPduo has. The two amps are very similar, but have different target users. The pure user probably doesn’t care so much about boosting frequency bands. He or she loves his/her earphones as they are, but wants a bit more power. The duo user is out for power and the utmost in EQ pleasure. And the EQduo does offer that.

Build quality
Attention to detail is a German trait that has endlessly been copied, and in some ways, improved upon through the ages. I think that Vorzüge have proved that it’s not a wholly copiable trait. Every VorzAMP comes with four back screws and four front screws, and usually a two bolts in the volume pot. Blah blah blah. We’ve seen it before. But Vorzüge’s take on this ubiquitous design is simple: countersink everything, miniaturize everything, label the parts that matter. Each screw sits in its own niche, as does the EQduo’s switches, the on/off switch, and the in/out jacks. The volume knob is secured by two bolts which are driven precisely into an aluminium trunk, leaving nary a dimple or a pimple. Beautiful.

As sure as Bob is somebody’s uncle, the VorzAMP is the most solid amp I’ve ever mishandled. And trust me, I do my best to mishandle what I review. If I could throw the GoVibe VestAmp+ or Hippo box+ through a wall, I could throw the VorzAMP through the Vestamp. And evidently, the paint might not even scratch.

That is because the VorzAMP is blessed with a special epoxy that is treated at especially high temperatures. The overall effect is a highly scratch-resistant surface, and a veritable blackness that could even extinguish Satan’s candle. While I’ve yet to scratch mine, I’ve smeared it with the touchy-feely finger prints of a true admirer.

The overall effect of the VorzAMP is one of stunning beauty and workmanship. Of course, no beauty is unharassed by caveat. While anyone would be floored by the absolute precision with which each screw is driven into its metal chassis, if one wants to undo those screws, one will find that utter precision in construction needs utter precision in deconstruction. Behind the beautiful epoxy, is a beautifully laid out and labelled amp made of expensive parts and dipped in that audiophile ambrosia that we commonly dub gold. But laying it all bare is a labour of love, not lust. Merely screwing around will damage parts. My suggestion for eager screwers is to first, twiddle the volume pot off. Then you can move to that succulent body. Remember, the VorzAMP is a lady.

The above caveat deepens to a cavern-eat as I consider the included T5 hex key, a scornfully wicked tool that Vorzüge reckon is good enough for their lady. It isn’t. It will bend and warp under the pressure of a good twist, possibly stripping the head of a bolt, or in utter embarrassment, strip itself. Vorzüge should know better than to include such a chintzy, teenage tool in seduction of a lady. If you want to get in and out of the VorzAMP for any reason, man up. Wine and dine VorzAMP with a real tool, not a freebie.

Caveats aside, the VorzAMP is a work of art.

Ergonomics and Polish
Perhaps its those 88 million people cramped between the Alps and the Baltic Sea that has Vorzüge engineers chasing down every last spare millimetre. Fresh from its vacuum blister, the VorzAMPduo’s black matte sucks in light, and never lets it out again. It has me humming ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ while confidently prodding the lady’s lush blackness with broken fingernails.

Maybe I’m clinging to the obtuse assumption that my essays make sense on their own. Perhaps I just need more whisky. Or less. Gulp. But if you haven’t gotten a glimpse of my thesis for this next section, then I’ll take another sip.

What I’m trying to say is that I’ve not used a portable amp of the same size that at any price exudes this much polish. Sure, Vorzüge’s display box loses to the Americans. And the logo is the unladylike amalgamation of Star Wars and the 90′s. But let me reiterate what I’ve not yet properly said: the VorzAMP isn’t just a pretty face; it’s also a kick arse piece of engineering. It fits in a front pocket (barely), doesn’t scratch easily, can be operated blind, holds battery life for almost 30 hours, and has the most beautifully labelled circuit board I’ve ever seen. Those insides and the attention to outer detail shame GoVibe by hundreds of dollars, and honestly, ALO can’t hold a candle to it. A brief comparo with ALO’s The National is disgustingly one-sided. A quick look at the VorzAMP’s circuit board reveals rows of precisely labelled and soldered components, and the the most calculated use of space in its class. The Germans have used every square centimetre perfectly. Which points to its intended uses.

The VorzAMP is a portable amp. The IN/OUT ports are spaced closely together – close enough, in fact, that massive in/out jacks won’t work. I’ve had no problem using ALO fatties next to each other, but fatter than that and you will risk damaging the amp or the plugs.

Actually, there is one instance of severe over engineering: the on/off lamp. Gee whiz, Sunny Cooper! It’s enough to blind a bat. My first flick of the switch foretold how I’d use the VorzAMP: as a flashlight, handtorch, keyfinder, dust pointer, etc., and so on. It is far too bright to use at night on a bedside. Hell, it causes eyes to squint in bright light, too. Shame, too, because the VorzAMP is a great size for a bedside rig.

Indeed, it is a great size…

The VorzAMPpure and VorzAMPduo are twins fräuleins with different personalities. The pure is Snow White, singing and dancing, and never straying from the two. She sounds lovely. The duo probably came out second, and has an attitude for it. She loves to rock out, and headbang, and grind in the club. She’s the one I’d recommend for hip-hop lovers, or those people who cling to prude earphones such as the Etymotic ER4, and don’t mind a bit of a romp.

The EQduo is powerful. It is also the only feature between the two. It boosts bass to the tune of 15dB, and treble to the tune of about 9dB. Powerful.

Another thing to note: even after a full day of play, the VorzAMP doesn’t get hot. Maybe a degree here or there goes up, but really, this thing is perfectly cool for the pocket-stuffer.

VorzAMP is small enough to nestle smoothly into a pair of tight jeans, even connected to a nano 7G (okay, so that isn’t a big package (not at all what she said)), but compared to the sound you get, it is a hard idea to swallow. So much sound from such a small box is incredible.

But moments fade. Eventually my prodding had to come to something and that something was wonderful. I plugged my trusty (and dirty and old) Audio Technica CK10 into the outport, my iPod nano 7G (brand new) into the import, lit up the amp, and dropped my lower lip. Why?

Check it.

Blessed bass
At my inaugural listen, the first word that popped from my grinning teeth was ‘BAAAAASSSSSSSS’. That’s long for ‘bass’, and how long it is. And that was because I flipped the EQduo switch straightway. If you get the VorzAMPduo, I suggest toggling that badboy – it’s worth it. But let’s talk about the Vorzüge’s amp stock bass sound first. Without being a monster, VorzAMP bass is effortless steps back and forth to and from the midrange. It is detailed, open, and describes great width. It is never strained. In truth, it has a slow roll off about 1 decibel at 30Hz. Whether that is audible or not is up to debate. What stands at the forefront is detail, and precision. If that impression of precision comes from the slow roll off in the lower bass registers, I’ll eat someone’s hat. I tend to believe it is from the rather wide separation of left and right channels described by the VorzAMP and low harmonic distortion in the signal.

Whoever is responsible for it deserves a good, long kiss. Subjectively, the VorzAMP basslines are about as sonorous as basslines get.

It pairs brilliantly with all sorts of earphones, but I tend to find the best match in semi detailed, neutral earphones such as the Audio Technica CK10. Why? Detailed earphones simply bring out the lovely detail in the signal, especially in the bass region, which has traditionally been glossed over by audiophiles as a non-detailed part of the spectrum. But let’s move on.

The truth about the VorzAMP is that there is another slow roll off in the high frequencies. It is of the same type, about 1 decibel, and I’d argue whether it is audible or not. I had a headfi meet last week here in Tokyo, and most of the members loved the VorzAMP highs. The same thing goes for Japanese audiophiles. Most people love the extension and smoothness. Some call it effortlessness. I agree. Highs in some ways are a little less detailed than lows, eschewing channel separation for presentation. Again, highs are sonorous, smooth, and well extended. In some ways, the VorzAMP mimics the high frequency energy and lushness of the GoVibe Porta Tube+ (an even more expensive amp), though it is subjectively more ‘liquid’.

But let’s get back to the moment I hit the EQduo switch…

My jaw hit the floor. Fortunately, I had the sense to pick it up again. It is not polite to stand like that on the train. Neither is the EQduo’s bass. It registers at about 15dB over the stock response. Within its band of influence, it is more powerful than the Digizoid zO2. Transformative is the only apt adjective I can think of that describes its response. And miracle of all miracles, it isn’t flubby. It won’t flatten out in distortion, nor run amuck on signal quality.

Then, there is the treble EQ boost. Neither are polite, but the treble is the less straight. It induces some sibilance and a small amount of background noise, but otherwise, does as advertised, and boosts treble response by around 6dB. Either switch drop the baseline output by about 3dB. It’s a fair game to play, as with such intense effect, distortion could easily enter into the signal. But Vorzüge obviously know when enough is enough. Honestly, I don’t think I could handle more than 15dB on the low end.

Remember, when engaging EQ circuits, only the portions of the signal that are affected by EQ will be raised. If there is no information in the EQ band, then flicking the EQ switch will have no affect on the music.

Remember the excellent Graham Slee Voyager? Well, the VorzAMP EQduo system its next incarnation. It is both more fun, and more academic than the Voyager. Similar levels of polish are noted here, though I find the Slee more dryer in its presentation. It also doesn’t even come close to powering multi armature IEM earphones as efficiently as does the Vorzüge VorzAMP. Seeing as how the VorzAMPduo and pure are tiny amps, it is no surprise; Vorzüge’s aim seems to be portable. I think they’ll be damned if they don’t make the absolute best in class amps for the portable audiophile and I’ll be damned if I can argue against them. But to be honest, I would rather plug my DT880 into the Voyager than the VorzAMP. Synergy or whatnot, the dryness of the Voyager is gin to these ears.

The most detailed frequency is the mid-upper lows through to higher mid frequencies. Fans of just about any genre will find a hard time getting a more suitable amp for their pocket pleasure. I had one or two symphony lovers tell me they wished for a bit more instrument separation for large ensembles. They may be right here. Distortion, while very low, rings slightly. Hence, perhaps, the smooth, though well extended highs. Remember, too, that instrument separation is hard to poinpoint. For some, it comes with more treble emphasis. Flip the treble swtich and you’ll get it and the ‘detail’ you’ve been craving. The VorzAMPduo will be your last amp. For others, it comes from 100% clean signals. In which case, I’d have to recommend ALO’s Rx, or another, larger amp, the O2.

Finally, background noise is minimal, but not perfectly black. It is a little less than the Porta Tube+, which itself is minimal. You will be able to detect it with sensitive earphones, but since the noise never fluctuates, it isn’t bothersome.

The VorzAMP is about smooth extension and nonpareil bass-mid detail. I fall into the camp that loves the VorzAMP’s strengths. Let’s move on.

Sound in a nutshell
Before I get ahead of myself, I should probably summarise. The VorzAMP sound is contained within three distinct elements: slight roll offs at extreme ends of the spectrum, an extremely detailed, yet calm bass response, and, with the VorzAMPduo, a low Ω output that suffers very little at the hand of multi-armature earphones. And, if you’ve chosen the VorzAMPduo, a hard-hitting EQ circuit packs a punch when your headphones don’t. Neither amp is excitable. The sibilance-scared audiophile take note: the VorzAMP doesn’t excite recorded sibilance in any way (that is, until you flip the treble switch up).

A few golden-eared Japanese colleagues consider Vorz highs to be the most sonorous of any battery powered amp. Really, it comes down to that point. We all know that difference in signal ‘sound’ between amps is always very small, but when you are splitting hairs, the VorzAMP is one of the most sonorously smooth, yet detailed amps around.

Which leads me to my next point.

Scaling with better sources
While the iPod touch 4G does a good job of feeding the VorzAMP, the Cypher Labs Algorhythm SOLO does much better. Nearly every metric jumps up several levels of clarity. Still, the VorzAMP retains its signature smoothness while gaining what some audiophiles may argue as better treble extension.

The VorzAMP works equally well for home amps, but of course, it is built for the portable music lover: input and output spaced closely together, light, and a rapidly ramping volume pot. I could be happy using the VorzAMP at home, but I feel its place is best served in a pocket or near a desktop rig.

Best headphones for the VorzAMP
What headphones is the VorzAMP suited for? Simple, really. Anything except for the most sensitive of IEM earphones. And, unless you really want to cause your ears to bleed, full size 300-600Ω headphones such as the DT880 600Ω. The latter I comfortably use at what would equate to 10-11 o’clock on the volume pot, or just less than 50% of a complete turn. Yes, the output is powerful.

Output power doesn’t stand up to ALO’s The National, but few portable amps are able to make your ears bleed with full size headphones quite like it. The Vorzüge amps are able to hit about 80% of the volume pot before audible sizzle distortion is emitted from headphones like the DT880 600Ω. That volume is already too loud for me, but I am sure that some people actually listen to those levels. So, for comfortable and safe listening levels, the VorzAMP is more than adequate for the mighty DT880, but for levels that border on the dangerous, the VorzAMP won’t cut it.

Earphones have plenty of volume (we’ll get to that later) and are driven almost perfectly in every case. Whatever output transducer you are plugged into will rejoice.

For the DT880 600Ω, I listen at about 10-12 o’clock on the volume pot.
For the CK10, I listen to about 7:30 to 8 o’clock on the volume pot.
For the ES10, I listen to about 7:30 to 9 o’clock on the volume pot
For the Sleek Audio CT7 and the Audio Technica CK100, I listen to about 7 to 8 o’clock on the volume pot.

As you can see, volume scales up rapidly.

Which leads me into my first issue with the VorzAMP:

Issue #1: gain
The number one issue with the VorzAMPs is the sensitivity of the internal gain circuitry. The unit I’m enjoying here is part of a third batch. It is mostly free from gain problems, but not entirely. The first one or two batches had extremely aggressive gains. Many audiophiles at a recent meet in Tokyo loved the amp, but said that with sensitive custom earphones, the volume was too loud. You might be thinking: “Just turn the volume down”. You’d be right, except that by turning the volume pot down to near zero, channel imbalance rears its head. That means that one side is louder than the other. The only way to fix that is by raising the volume. And that hurts.

The last batch features a gain that is lowered by several decibels, enough to make sensitive IEMs usable. It is now similar to ALO’s The National. In orther words, more than usable, but not ideal for IEM users.

Even when using my Audio Technica ES10 headphones, I sometimes find the lowest volume to be higher than I’d like. But that is just sometimes.

Issue #2: lamp
This isn’t a sound issue, and for some, it will be a non-issue. Pictures don’t do justice, but that damn circle is as bright as the sun. You won’t be using this amp as a beside rig except as a divorcee. Even in broad daylight it is a burning aperture of light. I hope that Vorzüge can tone it down.

For instance, the CK10 can pick out a bit of background noise. The CT7 multiply that noise by about 2. The treble switch does that again. This leads me into the 2nd slight misstep of this amp: gain. It is simply too high for the volume pot, for the output power, and for sustained voltage.

Performance (NOTE: coming soon)
This review’s RMAA measurements reflect the performance of the Vorzüge VorzAMP driving a Beyerdynamic DT880 and Earsonics SM2. Since these measurements are taken with my equipment, they should not directly be compared measurement-to-measurement to other technical data taken with different equipment. The data represent the ability of the amplification circuit to drive the above headphones and no load only.

What’s my opinion?
Well, Vorzüge’s amps come at a hefty penny, something to the tune of 400-700$ depending on which model you order and which part of the world you live in. They arent’ small investments. But evolution is about big returns on big sacrifices. So is love. Battery life is great. The engineering is top notch. The amp itself is small, perfect for most pockets. It’s much shorter, but a bit chunkier than an iPhone, and perfectly made. Sound is wonderful. You won’t forget it. And that’s the crux of it isn’t it? Vorzüge’s first products are stunning achievements. Unfortunately for me, I have other products to review. More unfortunate for those products is that I’ve reviewed the VorzAMPs first. Comparisons don’t lie. I wish I had met the VorzAMP in Secondary School and be lead through a passionate university love affair that would end in two sets of lips muttering ‘I do’. Later on, we’d argue the finer points of gain and the densely packed front panel. But we’d still be in a quagmire of love.

Because, you see, once you go black…

App Summary
Title: Vorzüge VorzAMP Developer: Vorzüge
Reviewed Ver: VorzAMPpure, VorzAMPduo
Price: 430-700$
  • Lush, detailed sound
  • Low noise floor
  • Germany precision
  • Complete accessory package
  • Perfect size for on-the-go
  • Aggressive gain
  • Lamp too bright
  • Maybe not for purists
VorzAMP-box VorzAMP-DT1350 VorzAMP-fridge VorzAMP-frontback VorzAMP-frontfront VorzAMP-iPhone-iPodnano VorzAMP-iPt4G-ministack VorzAMP-mainaccessories VorzAMP-Vorz-National-Portat-stack VorzAMP-Vorz-National-Portat VorzAMP-window

Hot damn! Headphones really are a rockin’ way to enjoy music, right? Feel free to explore TMA’s headphone oubliette

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GoVibe Porta Tube+ valve headphone amp/DAC in Review – beautiful in blue Sun, 17 Jun 2012 05:14:53 +0000 There’s nothing wrong with cheap. I eat cheap. I wear cheap. I make cheap jokes. And for the longest time, Jaben shipped mainly cheap amps to my cohort: the masses, God bless ‘em. But Jaben have gotten off that kick. They’ll ring the charity bells in another season. Today is the day of the Porta … Read more]]>

There’s nothing wrong with cheap. I eat cheap. I wear cheap. I make cheap jokes. And for the longest time, Jaben shipped mainly cheap amps to my cohort: the masses, God bless ‘em. But Jaben have gotten off that kick. They’ll ring the charity bells in another season. Today is the day of the Porta Tube+ valve headphone amp/DAC for your iPad/Mac, a delightful machine for bourgeois ears, and sound fit for a king.

The name of that kingdom? GoVibe.

24/96kHz upsampling DAC CIRRUS CS4398-CZZ (24/192kHz)
Vavle: 72 6N16B-Q
USB controller: Texas Instruments TIASIO20B
7-10 hours of battery life
Amazing sound

Typical of Jaben products, you have to poke around yourself where specs are concerned. You might find what you are looking for. You might not. There is NO documentation. You have no idea what DAC a Jaben product uses. Ditto the op-amps. Ditto the Porta Tube/+ valve. Ditto practically everything. It’s very much like buying a 1990 Hyundai car full of Yugo or Toyota parts – only the dealer knows. The good news is that the Porta Tube/+ packs a good bunch of parts that makThe other good news is that Jaben haven’t laid out a list of impossible spec. A lot of amp makers give spec that lists like 120dB dynamic range etc. Pooooooosh! No way. Won’t happen when supplying a signal, especially under load.

Before we get too far, remember Jaben’s Vestamp, also a GoVibe. GoVibe is Jaben’s hi end brand, and performance wise, it plays to that branding. There are lots of gotchas otherwise, but most are worth it in the end.

Build Quality
Once you’ve seen one aluminium amp you’ve seen them all. Jaben follow the crowd here. Yep, there are four screws on the front and on the back, and one buried in the volume pot. The logic board slides between two corrugated shelves and is piggybacked by a three-cell rechargeable battery.

The input and output ports are anchored strongly to the board and extrude their necks through three nicely sunk holes. The power switch is in good shape: stubby and metal and dressed in a shiny turtleneck.

A total of 28 breathing holes open to the world, half on top and half on bottom. As the insides get warm, these are absolutely necessary. That warmth is a few degrees above The National headphone amp. On a cold day, it’s a feeble heating brick. On a hot day, it’s feels like puberty all over again. At the very least, you know it’s working.

The Porta Tube’s one gotcha is its gain hardware, which is hidden behind those eight screws and a hundred or so cumulative twists. Adjusting it isn’t difficult. All you need is smooth tweezers or a small screwdriver to remove the jumpers to their adjacent slots. Each channel can be adjusted individually. Easy breezy beautiful. But, to get that far, you have break open the four screws on the front plate, then do the back, and nudge the logic board out. Hence the hundreds twists. Before you get far, a cop’s warning on the back may hinder your progress. “Warning: shock hazard do not open”, it says. Blink blink. Welcome back Jaben. How I’ve missed your pranks. If you’re a TMA reader, you may remember the Hippo box+ fake website prank. Or the prank of the funnilly backwards labelled bass and gain switches. Ah, Jaben, you certainly like a laugh.

Pop the jumpers into the forward position and you are in high gain mode

For some, it may not be funny. A few weekend warriors may abandon their screwdrivers at the back panel. Which is a shame. The Porta Tube and Tube+ have lots of power. Lots, especially, if you’re an IEM user, you’ll want to make sure that gain is set to low. The final problem is that the gain switches aren’t labelled. If you have a modicum of electronics wisdom, you can probably suss the gain by tracing the printed circuits. If not, I’ll tell you how it goes.

With both jumpers removed, the gain is high. With jumpers moved into the ‘forward’ position – that is: moved toward the front of the amp – the gain is set to high. All other positions are low. You can set gain independently for left or right. Works great if one ear is better than another. Aside from the rear cover prank, there’s no reason to take out frustrations on the Porta Tube. In all other realities, it is a wonderful amp, wonderful, and deserves its lime light.

How’s the volume pot work? you may ask. Wonderfully. It is silky smooth and easy to grab. The volume notch is perfect for indicating where things are, even in the dark.

Ergonomics and Polish
I’m not sure TMA’s pictures do justice to the Porta Tube+. It is beautiful. The blue chosen for casing is brilliant against the silver trim and the blue LED looks like such a match as you’d not see this side of a gin and tonic. The LED isn’t too bright, but late at night in your dark room, you may want to cover the front of the Porta Tube+ with tape, or a bad myster novel, or something.

Here's the box that this 700$ piece of audio equipment comes in

In many ways, beauty is skin deep. I’m looking for a 700$ product that screams 700$. I’m looking for engraving, or a nice font, or countersunk bolt ports, for hardened steel screws. I don’t want to see the fingerprints of factory workers on the logic board or scuff marks on the face plate. I don’t want to see a warning not to open the back plate when opening it is the only way to access the gain switches. Those are part and parcel of the GoVibe Porta Tube+ experience. You have to decide whether or not it is worth it to you.

But with the ticks and tacks, come some plusses, too. Again, the volume pot is perfectly smooth. The in and out ports are spaced wonderfully for oversized headphone jacks and interconnects. Another plus is the addition of two headphone outports. They come in parallel, so you can use the Porta Tube evenly with two of the same headphone with no volume discrepancies. You won’t phase the Porta Tube or Porta Tube+. Its innards may not have the last word to say on polish, but holistically, the Porta Tube+ is eloquent.

You’ve got 7-10 hours of battery life, parallel 6,3 and 3,5 mm jacks, internal charging, and a hidden gain switch at your disposal. The Porta Tube and Porta Tube+ do what they should and don’t disappoint. The 700$ you lay down for the Porta tube buys you a workhorse. As long as you don’t need balanced output, or need an electrostatic amp, the Porta Tube and Porta Tube+ are absolutely made for your headphones, no matter the sensitivity, no matter the Ω.

The + version sports a USB DAC that upsamples to 192kHz from its native 24/96. If you listen to music from your computer, this is a killer feature. It bests The National for the simple reason that there is less noise at all points on the volume pot, and it has more voltage than the VestAmp+ going into the output ports to keep your headphones from distorting even at ear-killing volumes. Be forewarned and be careful: the Porta Tube is loud.

Sound quality
The first time I heard the Porta Tube, I was in a curry restaurant in Shinjuku. I had my trusty Sleek Audio CT7 in my ears and disbelief written on my brows. I approached the 3,5mm jack with a hand that had plugged hundreds of headphones into dozens of amps. Years ago, I would have shook with eagerness. That day, however, was just another day, another amp. I approached the Tube+ as I do every other amp: and test first for background noise. My fingers sunk the headphone jack in and made sure the volume all the way down. They flipped the power switch on. No noise. They raised the volume to what I assumed would be a comfortable listening level. No noise. They mashed the volume pot to the end. Noise finally piddled out, but so barely, I assumed it was the curry.

That was January.

Nearly five months later, with a unit from Jaben on my desk, and with my windows shut, I am even more impressed. The Porta Tube+ is almost as noiseless as an amp of its output power gets. The difference between noise at the zero position and noise at the 100% position is tiny. In fact, at 100%, the Porta Tube+ outputs less noise than The National does at about 25%. Impressive indeed.

There are many IEM oriented amps that exhibit less noise than the Porta Tube+, but few can also serve distortion free signal at ear-splitting volumes to headphones such as the DT880 600Ω.

The importance here can’t be glossed over. IEM users have a hard time. With the exception of the polishes turds made by HiSound, and a many would-be respectable Walkman units from Sony’s lineup, all portable MP3 players will have less noise in their signal pathways than portable amps meant to upgrade the sound. The Porta Tube+ is no different in a general sense, but specifically, its noise at highest volume settings is astoundingly low. Which, despite its insane power, is the most important reason I can recommend it even for IEM users.

Here in Japan, quite a few crazy audiophiles plug the Porta Tube+ into their stack, which is a combination of several audio bricks such as the Cypher Labs AlgoRhythm Solo or Fostex HP-P1, an external DAC, amp, and maybe even a signal splitter.

Noise isn’t the end of the story, however. Extension is the other, and presentation. The Porta Tube series has wonderful, bright, full-bodied mids and highs. It is one of the best, most articulate amps I’ve heard in any format. When I say bright, I don’t mean grating, or sibilant. I mean clear as a bell, and highly resolved. Instrument separation is good, especially in mid and high frequencies, but better situated to play back small band recordings than symphonies. You can pick instrument from instrument no matter the headphone, but there is a bit of decay in the mid range and low frequencies. That decay, coupled with typical valve-induced distortion, warms up the signal.

On one hand, I’d describe the GoVibe as energetic and bright, and on the other, I’d call it intimate. It’s an interesting blend of two very musical properties that makes the GoVibe Porta Tube intoxicating.

Regarding brightness, perhaps it is best described as an articulate high frequency even in the face of warm valve distortion. No matter the earphone, no matter the headphone that I plug into it, what greets me back is beautiful. I think by now it should be obvious that I dislike signals that curtail high frequencies. I’m very particular about my highs. The Porta Tube+ one of a few special amps that drives perfect transition from mids to highs. The lay and play of cymbals to percussion in Massive Attack’s I Spy, is delicate and real. Imaging is precise, but directed from front of the head, wrapping slowly around, and back, but not too far. The end result is one of sitting in front of two well-placed speakers in a medium sized room. Focus is definitely at the drivers, but nuances from the walls and furniture sneak in relaxingly and naturally.

Again, I think that typical valve-type harmonic distortion, and a centrally concentrated bass output are the happy culprits. The end result is utterly smooth, slightly warm, but wonderfully extended output. Grado users, there is enough low Ω power to drive your phones perfectly, and in your quest for on-stage performance, the Porta Tube is probably a perfect guide. Users like me who love the wide, expressive DT880 headphone are in for another treat. The sometimes tweaky highs of said headphone are tame, lusher than they are through another amp, or from a stereo system. Fortunately, the Porta Tube+ isn’t too tubey.

The Wood Audio WA3+ is about the most tubey headphone amp I’ve heard in my 20 years as a silly audiophile. Its intimacy is wonderful, but comes at a price: I’d not use it with half the headphones I own. The Porta Tube is different completely, but retains the warmth of a good valve amp.

Let’s get back to the music. Protection’s title song, Protection, fronts mid-bass heavy lines, simple machine drums and almost comatose female vocals. The following tracks step in similarly but add male vocals, and even deeper basslines. Slow, full-bodies female vocals, the likes which jazz and massive attack produce, are absolutely magical. Is it the aforementioned decay? If it is, the explanation is too simplistic. Whatever the fact, DT880 and Porta Tube, or CK10 and Porta Tube, even the K701 and Porta Tube bring out all the lustre that’s there somewhere, in the recording.

The above are headphones with some high end bite. Middle-voiced headphones such as the Sennheiser HD650, HD600, Fischer Audio FA-002W are what I would consider second-tier combination phones for the Porta Tube. Keep in mind that the Porta Tube has no lack of detail in the high frequencies. But, it is slightly warmer than the typical solid state amplifier, be that distortion, or decay, I’ve no firm answer. It pairs well with the above headphones, but will emphasise some of their dark, nurturing characteristics.

An amp this intoxicating deserves a good audition with your favourite headphones. Spend a few minutes, or a few hours, and you’ll probably walk away with a new blue pretty under your arm and a significantly lighter wallet. It’s worth the price.

Charts Disclaimer
This review’s RMAA measurements reflect the performance differences between the Porta Tube+ fed by the iPod touch and driving a Beyerdynamic DT880 and Earsonics SM2. Since these measurements are taken with my equipment, they should not directly be compared measurement-to-measurement to other technical data taken with different equipment. The data represent the ability of the amplification circuit to drive headphones and speakers.

Frequency Response
The Porta Tube/+ has no problem delivering high levels of  resolution to any headphone. Even the SM2, which concoct all sorts of distortion for lesser amps, do nothing to phase the Porta Tube. You will notice, that there is small fall off in the low and high frequencies both. That is part of the original signal, and not load effect. Small levels such as exhibited by the Porta Tube (~1,5 dB) are probably not audible unless you are a dog.

Loaded noise and dynamic range
The Porta Tube+ manages 90,5 dB of dynamic range, 6dB less than CD quality. It also manages -90,5 dB of noise, making it a very clean source, but not quite up to CD quality. Then again, this amp is a valve amp. Part of it s allure is its atypical distortion and noise images.

Here’s one of the reasons to get a valve amp. For your money, you get stable, comforting distortion that varies little from source to source. That distortion is often called warm, or comforting. I can agree with both adjectives, but not in the same way I agreed with them for the Woo Audio 3. The GoVibe Porta tube is a more solid, typical sounding amp than the WA3. Distortion is much less for input and output, but still, there is ring, and lovely smear here and there. Both IMD and THD measure high, as they should from valves.

The Porta Tube+ follows the same rule that the VestAmp+ does: USB input will have the lowest signal gain. Line input from portable sources will be more powerful than USB. Home sources, or excellent portable sources such as the AlgoRhythm Solo will be loudest and clearest, driving the Porta Tube+ as well as can be.

This amp scales up very well. Strong sources and low gain induce very little phase error in phones like the DT880 600Ω. High gain introduces more, but those phase errors are coming at extremely high and dangerous volumes, volumes that no one should ever listen to. Suffice it to say that the Porta Tube has gobs of power. Like the ALO National, it is ready to replace many a home amp with no problem.

As a DAC
I’m not a big fan of USB-only DAC’s though they seem to be en vogue in the last few years. One of the reasons is that the implementation of USB DAC units aren’t as good as their line-in counterparts. Indeed, the Porta Tube+ performs best via line in, sporting better stereo separation, a lower noise floor, and better dynamic range.

But, it works wonderfully with a computer, too. I’ve not noticed any nasty USB noise in the signal, and the Porta Tube+ is fully plug-and-play, immediately recognised by my MacBook Pro. The output is considerably lower in USB mode than when driven from home-level sources, which is good news for IEM users. And, despite the output is lower, there is plenty of volume for every headphone I’ve plugged into it.

An interesting thing is that the USB input and the line input work simultaneously, meaning a running line in and music playing via USB will run through the headphone output of the Porta Tube+ concurrently. Remember to keep your different sources unplugged when you want to listen to either USB or line in.

Using with iPad
Use of the Porta Tube+ as a USB DAC for the iPad can be done, but it isn’t see-through easy. The iPad’s USB output doesn’t have the voltage to run the DAC unit in the Porta Tube+, which isn’t run on battery power. To run the DAC, you will have to use the included mains adapter and plug the iPad into the camera connection kit, and the Porta Tube+ into that. It works immediately and sounds as good as as always. It just isn’t portable.

Considering that the Porta Tube+ is a desktop/home worthy unit, there is no problem. But, users who want the cleanliness of pure battery driven signals won’t get it with the iPad. Netbooks, on the other hand, can make use of the Porta Tube+ DAC without the mains.

Use as a portable amp
Let’s face it, the Porta Tube/+ is an amp that tips the scales heavily. It is large, hot, and relatively weighty. Still, there are cargo jeans, and amp bags, and slings. The fact that it carries a battery that is good for 7-10 hours means that you can have most of a day’s work and commute buttoned up by one device. And since there is comparatively very little background noise and the volume pot is well balanced, it works wonders for sensitive earphones.

In fact, whilst driving the SM2, there is no more distortion or IMD than there is whilst driving the DT880. The signal sounds the same no matter what is plugged in. This is very seldom achieved by any amplifier. You could say the Porta Tube+ has no preferences of output earphones. Quite a feat.

For portable audio, I can’t recommend the Porta Tube enough for those willing to tote the extra weight.

Despite staunch competition from ALO and Vorzüge, the Porta Tube+ is my favorite sounding portable amp. Its lively, intimate sound is perfect for most headphones, and when paired with bright, detail-oriented headphones, it calmly takes control. Jaben won’t win any unboxing video championship, but that is obviously not their goal. With singular purpose, they have created a truly world-class headphone amp/DAC that I expect will wow discerning audiophiles the world over.


App Summary
Title: GoVibe Porta Tube+ headphone amplifier/USB DAC Developer: Jaben
Reviewed Ver: Porta Tube + Min OS Req: 4.3
Price: Porta Tube: 650$

Porta Tube+ 750$  

  • extremely powerful output
  • wonderfully detailed, warm sound
  • No preferences for earphones
  • Beautiful colours
  • Scales well with better equipment
  • Half arsed workmanship
  • cop warnings
  • No spec, accessories, literature



PortaTube-accessories PortaTube-back Here's the box that this 700$ piece of audio equipment comes in PortaTube-front PortaTube-glowing-led PortaTube-iPhone PortaTube-iPhone2 Pop the jumpers into the forward position and you are in high gain mode PortaTube-national PortaTube-valve-view PortaTube-USB-dr PortaTube-USB-fr PortaTube-USB-imd PortaTube-USB-ns PortaTube-USB-thd PortaTube-Comparo-dr PortaTube-Comparo-fr PortaTube-Comparo-ns PortaTube-Comparo-thd

Hot damn! Headphones really are a rockin’ way to enjoy music, right? Feel free to explore TMA’s headphone oubliette

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Audiophile Friday #1: Cypher Labs Algorhythm SOLO vs Venturecraft Go-DAP Unit 4.0 – Digital Output Sat, 19 May 2012 05:22:45 +0000 Last week I half-arsedly introduced two accessories made specifically for the iDevice audiophile, the Venturecraft Go-DAP Unit 4.0 and the Cypher Labs AlgoRhythm Solo. Both are able and willing to replace larger, more expensive and decidedly untransportable HiFi gear, but only one is worthy of doing so. What’s important Each decodes information internally, outputting high … Read more]]>

Last week I half-arsedly introduced two accessories made specifically for the iDevice audiophile, the Venturecraft Go-DAP Unit 4.0 and the Cypher Labs AlgoRhythm Solo. Both are able and willing to replace larger, more expensive and decidedly untransportable HiFi gear, but only one is worthy of doing so.

What’s important
Each decodes information internally, outputting high quality analogue signals. But, neither stops there. Venturecraft’s Unit 4.0 spits out SPDIF over a 3,5mm optical connection. It also protects your iPhone, charges it, and syncs it via a cheap and ubiquitous a mini-USB cable. Remember the original Go-DAP? This is its younger, more capable sibling.

The Solo won’t charge your battery nor protect your iPhone. It’s actually sort of beastly to lug around. But, its glory isn’t its general utility. Its glory is its sound and signal quality. Since it doesn’t harness an internal headphone amp, it spits analogue signal at line-level and SPDIF digital signal over coaxial. It pairs perfectly with the likes of the ALO The National and ALO Rx and many other headphone amps.


Why digital?
For years, we’ve had access to the rather high-quality line outputs of the iDevice. Via 30-pin cables, we’ve been able to hook up high quality portable amps, recording devices, microphones, and sync cables. Then came the Wadia iTransport, a device that sat on your desktop and allowed your iDevice to spit out digital signal to an external DAC. Now, there is a host of such devices.

They why of digital is fairly easy to decipher in a single word: accuracy. While analogue signals sound great, they are prone to distortion, jitter, noise, and theoretically degrade via poor quality cables.

Digital has its own host of problems, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll skip them. The music in your iPod/iPhone is 100% digital. The aim of both the Go-DAP and the SOLO is to keep that signal digital. The Cirrus Logic chips in the iPhone/iPod do a fine job of converting digital signals to analogue, but they can be bettered by external converters.

In the case of the SOLO, they are completely outclassed.

The effects
Here’s where the argument rights itself a bit. Since the iDevice already does a fine job of converting digital to analogue, DAC virgins and indeed DAC party girls and guys may not immediately realise the effects. What you pay for is the last few iotas of quality, not a revolution.

However, if you pair your iPhone with the proper outboard amps, you can get both demonstrable and measurable improvement.

Digital signals from both the Go-DAP and the SOLO can be split into balanced signals given the right outboard DAC. Balanced signals in turn, can be read by the proper amp, and plugged into the proper headphone. Balanced headphones are few and far between simply because most require rewiring. Some headphones such as new AKG and Sennheiser models can be paired up with high quality balanced cables without surgery. Some IEMs can, too, but IEM topology, whose balanced armature crossovers are meant to operate differently. Some may indeed be better balanced, but among those that sport passive crossovers, I’ve yet to discover one that retains its original magic.

Single driver headphones are another matter all together. The rather thrifty Einar balanced amp provided more power to the DT880 and better left to right stereo separation. The effect was immediately recognisable at matched volume levels.

If you want to get into the more powerful, higher-end world of balanced headphones or speakers, but want to stay portable, either the Go-DAP Unit 4.0 or the SOLO is your ticket.

Signal tests
This review’s RMAA measurements reflect the performance differences between the Venturecraft Go-DAP Unit 4.0 and the Cypher Labs Algorhythm SOLO. Since these measurements are taken with my equipment, they should not directly be compared measurement-to-measurement to other technical data taken with different equipment. The data represent the ability of the amplification circuit to drive headphones and speakers.

Frequency response
As you can see, the SOLO is flawless. In digital, there is zero deviation from RMAA’s benchmark. You cannot do better.

SOLO: win

The Venturecraft Unit 4.0 takes a different approach to playback, which is to roll off the highs from just after 1000Hz. It is an extreme approach that isn’t the effect of load. Unloaded, in both digital and analogue, the Unit 4.0 is unable to sustain anything resembling a proper signal. Because audio is subjective, such a result isn’t a disaster. Many audio makers add their own signature to sound. Personally, I enjoy the sound very much, especially with the likes of the DT880, which are bright to begin with. However, a digital signal should be as close to the original signal as possible, and in this case, it isn’t.

Go-DAP: fail

Noise levels
Again, the SOLO sweeps the test. Its noise levels top actually surpass the limits of 16-bit audio at -97,9 decibels. You won’t find better performance in any portable device, and even in home units, higher scores are probably not discernable. When spitting out analogue, noise creeps in and averages -93,1 decibels, again a damn fine score.

SOLO: win

The Unit 4.0 fairs well at -94,2 in digital. It doesn’t break the 16-bit barrier, but the difference in digital signals between the two is negligible when feeding outboard DAC units. In analogue, the Unit 4.0 falls to -87,3 decibels. Again, it is a respectable score, but not necessarily so when considering that the iDevice is able to sustain loaded levels up to -91 decibels.

Go-DAP: win

Dynamic Range
Again, the SOLO exceeds the bounds of 16-bit audio at +96,7 decibels. One wonders how it would fair if playing back higher resolution material. The DAC is capable of it, but the iPhone isn’t.

SOLO: win

The Go-DAP still isn’t putting its strong foot forward. At an averaged +63,3 decibels, it puts out the dynamic range of an iPod under heavy load. It actually sounds decent here though, quite excellent for recordings that are heavy on binaural material and harsher sounds.

Go-DAP: fail

THD IMD and noise
If there was a more violent trounce party, I don’t know what it is. The SOLO isn’t able to manage the bounds of 16-bit audio for THD+noise, but it does deliver very high quality signal.

SOLO: win

The Go-DAP sprouts IMD errors from its digital ports like the Titanic spouted water into the Atlantic Ocean. Its analogue output fairs much better, managing merely the worst output score I’ve tested thus far. The digital output is simple astonishing.

Go-DAP: fail

Stereo separation
Here, both units perform well within the bounds of my expectation. I’ve found that the original RMAA signal played end to end from other digital outputs never deviates from around -50dB at worst. Why, I can’t tell you, but: both units perform horribly here.

SOLO: fail
Go-DAP: fail

Digital output was flawless. This is the analogue wave.

Square waves
Analogue: both units perform well here, with slight ringing in the high frequencies the sort of low frequency responses you would typically see in high quality analogue devices. Ringing is minimal, though, again, the SOLO outperforms the Go-DAP Unit 4.0. I would suggest that the differences that favour the SOLO aren’t discernible.

Digital: both units perform well, but the SOLO is less plagued by ringing. The Unit 4.0 shows slight, though almost imperceptible ringing in both signal extremes.

SOLO: win
Go-DAP: win

NOTE: Take note of the shape and size of the ringing portion. The Square waves are drawn by Sound Studio when recorded in/out via Edirol FA-66. The software doesn’t allow for 100% scale comparisons.

As you can see, the SOLO ran digital circles around the Unit 4.0 in just about every test. Add to that a cleaner analogue signal, and you have a truly pocketable reference level system. Of course, the SOLO necessitates the use of external cables, amps, and a lot more money. It exceeds the bounds of 16-bit in every test but one: stereo separation, and creates a perfect square wave. In its singular purpose, it is nonpareil.

The Unit 4.0 is an amazing device. It charges. It protects. It amps. It spits digital. But, apart from its incredible ability to recharge your iDevice, it does so with a lot of strain. Since it is heavy, a fall to the floor will likely damage it. Its amp is fun, and loud, but has more signal noise and distortion than any iDevice does. Its digital signal is a wonderful accessory that adds functionality to your HiFi, but it isn’t nearly up to the same quality as the SOLO is.

If Venturecraft can fix this with a firmware update, or simply by choosing a more stable DAC, they should do so. For now, SPDIF output seems at best a lazy implementation.

Of course the Go-DAP costs less, charges and syncs syncs, and keeps cables out of the way. There is none like it. And, in case you want to ditch the charging features, Venturecraft have just introduced their next project, the X which acts as a DAC and amp for your iPhone and your computer. Again, it is the first of its kind. Get ready for myriad copycats.

On the Go
This light-hearted audiophile would choose the Go-DAP simply because it charges and has fewer parts to break. Cables are buggers. The SOLO practically requires a case of some sort to keep everything together. And, when packed with an amp, headphones, and all the interconnects you need, it looks like a bomb.

Still, both have their fans. I saw heaps of SOLO stacks at the recent Fujiya-AVIC headphone festival. People use them. People enjoy them. And those people are audiophiles that demand the utmost quality from their portable listening rigs.

Both units work with just about every recent iDevice. The SOLO is just that much more compatible. I’ve had a bugger of a time getting an iPod touch 4G working with the Unit 4.0. The SOLO worked with every 30-pin iDevice I plugged it to.

The Cypher Labs National stack – not an easy carry

Why iDevice and external DAC?
Here’s a question I’m sure is asked by many audiophiles who look at devices such as the iBasso DX100, HiFiman, Colorfly C4, etc, and suffer indecision. The simple answer is this: if your music requires gapless playback, perfect navigation, few to no firmware issues, better battery life, and almost no build quality concerns, stick with Apple.

If you want the absolute best, you will have to purchase external DACs/amp for these players anyway. Of course, if you hate Apple, you are probably not reading this article anyway.

I throw music onto my iDevices via iTunes drag and drop. I don’t want to make CUE sheets, worry about WAV compatibility, or poor battery life. I don’t suffer players that can’t play back gapless files. Since I demand that music plays back as simply in my device the same as it does from a CD, there is only Apple.

After nearly 2000 words, my conclusion is very simple, but it hinges on you. If you value compactness and have an iPhone 4/s, there is NO other choice than the Go-DAP Unit 4.0. You still get digital output and fun/powerful sound plus all the other features. The Go-DAP Unit 4.0 is a great device. But, its compromises in output signal quality are severe.

Between the two, the SOLO is the only choice for reference-quality sound. But it gives up is portability. It also requires you to invest in outboard audio components. But then again, you knew that, and you were prepared to invest. To you, only one thing matters: signal quality.

While this seems a lopsided comparison, it is the only sort that is possible. Venturecraft chose to attack all angles, Cypher Labs chose to tackle one. Audio-wise, only one nailed it. That is the Cypher Labs AlgoRhythm SOLO.

Cypher Labs
Cypher Labs LLC

4260 Galewood St. Suite B
Lake Oswego, OR 97035

Umeda 1-2-2-1400
Kita-ku, Osaka-shi
Osaka 530-0001
SOLO-GoDAP4.0-ct SOLO-GoDAP4.0-dr SOLO-GoDAP4.0-fr SOLO-GoDAP4.0-imd SOLO-GoDAP4.0-ns SOLO-GoDAP4.0-thd The Cypher Labs National stack - not an easy carry CLAS-COAX-SPDIF VCGo-DAP4.0-SPDIF CLAS-VCGo-DAP4.0-stack.2 CLAS-VCGo-DAP4.0-SPDIF.2 50SQ-SOLO-vs-GoDAP-4.0Read more]]> 3