Baked-In Amplifiers Suck (And DACs Too, But Not as Much)
So recently I started listening to a lot of music again, mostly at work where I’m typically heads-down working on things while I’m at my desk. Four or five months ago I bought a pair of Bowers and Wilkins P7 headphones after my 10+ year old Denon DNHP1000’s started getting nasty. (The “leather” on the headband and ear cups isn’t real leather, and the fake stuff started to flake off from the foam. The ear cups are replaceable on those, but the headband is not.)
I really like the P7’s, but my laptop made them sound crappy at any sort of decent volume level. Keep in mind that I’m not really a fan of listening to really loud music when I’m working because I get distracted easily, but music that isn’t mastered very loudly tends to have a lot of detail that isn’t at the same volume as other detail. As a result, said music requires a greater volume for the listener to be able to hear everything. Typical music today (rap, pop, rock, etc.) is mastered in this “loud” way, but acoustic music and vocal performances typically are not, and the later is the type of music I like to listen to when I’m working.
The P7’s aren’t really designed to require a headphone amplifier like some other large headphones. For over-the-ear can-style headphones, their impedance is relatively low – around 22-25 Ohms depending on who you ask. Still, the DAC that typically comes in an off-the-shelf laptop or phone is usually not great (though good enough for compressed music and laptop speakers/earbuds 95% of the time), but the amplifiers that they typically put in laptops or phones are almost always garbage. With earbuds you don’t typically notice since the drivers are so small, but with cans / large drivers, it’s very noticeable.
When listening to things quietly on the P7s on my phone/laptop, they sounded good. When listening to loudly-mastered music quietly, they sounded okay. When I had to crank the volume on vocal and acoustic tracks, they began to sound very muddy very quickly, and after reading reviews where people were using them with proper equipment (not just the headphone jack on a laptop/phone), I began to think that lack of quality wasn’t the headphones’ fault.
If you have never heard of “loudness” in terms of mastering music before, please watch this video:
Loud mastering is done because people don’t sit in a quiet room and listen to music anymore, so music must sound good in places like a car, where you’ve got a 65dB+ noise floor. Or via the really shitty in-ear headphones that came with your cell phone and have tiny drivers, or those crappy over-ear plastic headphones that came with Walkmans/Discmans in the 80’s and 90’s – which is what everyone was using then. The quality only has to appeal to the most common denominator, and for a price. Unfortunately that common denominator is also the lowest. All the sounds have to be all the loud, so you can hear ALL of it! Loudly! …Even on garbage equipment or in less than ideal environments.
Oppo HA-2 SE
Given the above backstory, which is very long, I’ll skip telling you about how I watched YouTube videos about just about every DAC/headphone amp on the market between $0-$500. No way in Hell was I going to spend something like $500 on a unit like this, but I wanted to make sure that the “entry” level stuff (starting at $200) wasn’t that much different than the “mid-range” (~$500) stuff – and, luckily, some of it’s not. Sure there are some sub ~$100 devices that you can buy, but the consensus among everything I read was basically “Anything that you buy in that range isn’t going to be much better than what’s already inside your laptop or phone.” Especially if it’s supposed to be a DAC + amp vs just an amp. (Some decent amp-only devices can be had for just over $100, like the FiiO A5).
So my choices were narrowed down to the Teac HA-P50, the Oppo HA-2 SE, the Creative Labs E5 (which ended up being garbage), xDuoo XD05, and the FiiO A5 (which was the cheapest, but lacked a DAC and a TON of functionality; compared to…). The Oppo was the most expensive of all of them, but was heads and tails better in terms of build quality and features than most comparably priced offerings, and in of all of the shoot-out tests I found, sound quality on the Oppo was at the same level or sometimes better than solid state (non-tube) units at 2x to 3x the price. Wow.
The Oppo HA-2 SE
As a bonus, when I was searching around for the best price, I found a very specialty audio company who sells online-only, and they happened to be located within a mile of my office. I called to ask if they had a storefront (their website listed an address but no hours). They don’t typically sell locally, but the sales guy I talked to said that he could take my order over the phone and then just go in the warehouse, pick it if it was in stock, and I could pick it up at the front desk if I came before the office closed. I was pretty stoked for that.
FYI the company is called Audio Advisor and I’ll be looking to them first from now on when I want to buy things. Excellent and exceptional customer service. (http://www.audioadvisor.com/) – No, I haven’t paid paid for that recommendation.
Modes and Features
The basic functionality of the Oppo HA-2 SE is two-fold. It’s a battery-powered (unless it’s plugged in to USB, but I’ll get to that) portable DAC (Digital-Analog Converter) and headphone amplifier. It can be used portably, but it doesn’t have to be. When used that way, there’s a little USB-A to Lightning cable (or micro-USB to USB-A cable if you have an Android phone, the unit includes both) that connects the unit and your phone. The unit is powered by its own battery, and the phone uses the HA-2 SE as a DAC instead of using it’s own DAC when the HA-2 SE is plugged in – no drivers needed. This is pretty damn slick. In this state, it also offers Line Out (great for the AUX IN port in your car, or a receiver) as well as headphone output for a set of cans. The Line Out is a fixed-level output, i.e. not dependent on the volume knob on the unit, while the headphone output is. Both of those outputs are 3.5mm TRS jacks.
This picture shows the unit connected to my iPhone 7 Plus, with the iPhone in its case. There’s really nothing that holds the two together, but they sit nicely in a cup holder, on a desk, or in your pocket like this, and the unit did come with some little rubber band things if you would ever want to try to strap them together.
When not used in portable mode, the unit can be hooked up to a Windows PC or Mac via a micro-USB to USB-A cable (included), and will function as a stand-alone sound card. When used in this way, Windows/OSX will use the device as the system’s sound card, will use the DAC within this device, and you’ll end up with a high quality USB audio interface. This is pretty damn cool. The only down side is that the Line Out / headphone jacks (you can still use either when in this mode) are unbalanced 3.5mm TRS, so you aren’t going to be getting balanced audio out of this device. There is a Pioneer unit for twice the price that supports balanced output via some weird, proprietary Japan-standard-only square XLR’ish plug… but screw that. If you’re running it in to a consumer receiver, a car, or headphones, unbalanced is fine, but it’s not going to be replacing my Native Instruments Komplete Audio 6 at home in my studio monitor setup.
At work though, I can use my PC to play audio files and not have to put up with the weak DAC/amp in my laptop – which is just your standard Realtek audio garbage.
In addition to these two modes, you can also optionally use it as JUST a headphone amplifier without using the DAC. The number of situations that I would use this unit in this way are basically non-existent, but if you were a vinyl lover with a turntable, you could go from the pre-amp output in your turntable, or even an external pre-amp output, directly in to this, and then in to a set of headphones. Kinda sweet. At least they give you that analog option.
What a sexy board.
As a bonus, on top of all of this, the large lithium-polymer battery inside the unit can also be used to charge USB devices, including the phone connected to it though the same USB-A port where the phone connects to enable DAC support! You can manually enable or disable this mode, so you don’t have to worry about your phone chewing up the battery inside the HA-2 SE if the phone’s at anything less than 100%. This was a pretty slick bonus to me, as the internal battery is a fairly beefy 3000 mAh Li-Po.
Sound Quality and Testing
I haven’t had this unit for very long, but I was able to do quite a few real-world listening tests today in the day-to-day environments where I’d be using the device.
Note – For Science: For this test I used a 320kbps Spotify OGG VORBIS files. There is a FLAC player for IOS, but it’s $4.99 and I haven’t grabbed it yet to test. The FLAC player does support 24-bit/192kHz audio (CD quality is 16-bit/44kHz), which this unit also supports, but honestly hardly anyone I’ve read comment on the subject – anyone who is being honest anyway – can’t hear the difference between 320kbps Spotify OGG and high-resolution FLAC lossless. I tried a blind A/B test at home with my equipment and I couldn’t a difference either, so I doubt I’m going to be able to tell the difference with these headphones or in the car.
Test 1 – Connected to my Laptop as a USB DAC / Headphone Amp – The difference in sound quality here was absolutely immediate and noticeable even at moderate volume. As I said before, the 22-25 Ohm B&W P7s are designed to not require a headphone amp. They are on that edge of requirements where the drivers and overall impedance don’t technically require greater-than-normal amplification, but they definitely benefit from it. The Realtek “HD Audio” that most laptops have today isn’t great. The DAC is okay, but the amplification output is seriously lacking.
The difference between the HA-2 SE and the built-in Realtek DAC/amp was night and day. Loudly-mastered music, quietly-mastered music, didn’t matter. At anything other than very soft volume, the clarity was immediately noticeable. Rather than getting exponentially more muddy as the volume increased, the clarity didn’t waiver at all. The volume just got louder (quickly I may add, you have to be careful with these amps), and everything was crystal clear. This is where I would be using this device the most, so I was immediately delighted with the results of this test.
Test 2 – Connected to the Car via AUX Input, Parked – This will be totally subjective based on the acoustics of the car you have (which are usually horrible), the stereo you have, and probably a million other factors, but I’ll make observational notes on this anyway, because if you’re probably still reading this, you might care. I have a 2016 Mazda CX-9 with the optional upgraded Bose stereo. Typically I’m not a fan of stock car stereos, but this one actually sounds relatively nice, and the cabin of this vehicle is very quiet, so it’s not a bad experience as far as stock car stereos go. Typically I just listen via Bluetooth connectivity, which sounds ok.
That being said, when plugged in via AUX, I noticed an immediate difference in sound quality versus Bluetooth. No surprise. Bluetooth compression isn’t horrible by any means – not nearly as bad as satellite radio, which sounds like absolute trash – but it’s far from great. With the HA-2 SE vs standard phone output to AUX input, sound quality increase was very apparent.
Sitting in the car without road noise, Bluetooth muddiness was gone, the volume level didn’t need to be adjusted nearly as high to produce the same volume output (we’re talking like half here), and the sound stayed very clear to louder volumes – much higher than I would ever listen to music in the car.
Test 3 – Connected to the Car via AUX Input, Driving – This test was much harder, and honestly wasn’t perceptively different over Test 2. Sure the volume advantage was still there, but the muddiness of the Bluetooth difference was FAR less noticeable with the 60-65 db noise floor that comes with tires on the road at 60-70 mph, which is where Car and Driver measured the CX-9 from the passengers seat. As I said, this is one of the quietest cars I’ve ever owned aside from my 2006 Acura RL, which used some kind of Bose sound-cancelling magic through the factory stereo in conjunction with mics placed throughout the passenger cabin to reduce road noise, so I’m sure the louder your car is the less difference you’d notice at speed. (Cool tech, but typically I don’t like stuff like that).
Still, it sounded great.
Overall, I’m very impressed with this unit for the price. The build quality is great. The ability to use it as both as DAC for your phone natively and without any sort of proprietary apps and as a connected DAC for a Windows/Mac computer is awesome. The ability to charge a device via the USB port is an excellent bonus. I like that the device has a Macbook-style battery meter on the side that shows you the charging state as its charging (has 4 very tiny green LEDs), and provides charge status while on the go at the push of a button. I love that it’s thin, small, and light, and is made of solid aluminum and leather. It just feels premium.
I like that it has a fixed line-level output in addition to a headphone amp output, so you can connect it to a car stereo or a set of amplified speakers, or you could optionally run it though a receiver. It’s great that I can not only use it at my desk, but in the car and on the go as well. Bonus that it can be used as just an amplifier.
Down-side is that it doesn’t have any sort of balanced outputs, but honestly if you need that you probably won’t use something like this to get that anyway.
Would I recommend it? That really depends. For what it is, how much it costs, and how it compares to the competition – yes, absolutely – if you need it. That’s the real question. If you’re using ear-buds vs big over-ear cans, you probably don’t need this. In fact I’ve read lots of stories over the past few days of people destroying in-ear headphones with headphone amps.
That being said, does anyone really need one of these? Probably not, unless you have a good set of large over-ear phones and you want them to sound excellent. In that case I’d say yes, get one. If you have even a mid-range set of over-ear cans ($200-$500) and you aren’t powering them with some sort of amp, I’d seriously look long and hard at one. Maybe not something with this many features if it doesn’t sound like you’d use them, but oh the difference it makes when your phones are amplified properly.
As a bonus… I performed a like-for-like sound test in a quiet room with the same song between the P7s and my aging Denon DN-HP1000’s. I know they still sell a DN-HP1000 equivalent replacement for 1/2 the price of the B&W’s. Are the DN-HP1000s bad cans? Nope. Not at all. Are the P7s worth twice as much or more today. Yep.