Arcam rHead headphone amplifier

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Headphone amps and amp/DACs
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Arcam rHead
Arcam rHead headphone amplifier

The audio business is a bit creepy: it suffers from mission creep and price creep. Brands start out with good intent and a fine product at a fair price, but then slowly begin to add more devices to the basic design, and the price begins to rise accordingly. In its 40 years, Arcam has resisted these temptations better than most, and its rSeries components typify this pared-down, no-nonsense approach to audio design.

The rHead (pronounced ‘arhead’, not ‘aah… head’, as the latter can get you into trouble in the wrong places) is a standalone headphone amplifier, and an obvious visual match to the irDAC-II from the same brand (not tested). It’s a small, black box with a choice of one XLR and one RCA stereo input. The prevention of mission creep kicks in here, because this is not a two-input headphone amp; the choice of input is selected at the rear of the rHead, using a small toggle switch. The prevention of price creep kicks in at that back panel too, as the rHead draws its power from an external 12V, 1.5A power supply. Even the power switch is on the back panel.

The front of the rHead is equally severe in its ornamentation. A little green light in the centre of the front panel to denote the juice is flowing. From the front, 3.5mm and 6.35mm headphone jacks poke out from a little recess on the left of the  black panel, while a silvery volume control is to the right. The volume control has a standby/mute click to the far left of its travel, and the green LED turns orange as a result of engaging mute. Oh, and the Arcam rHead logo is printed on the top panel. That’s it! No tone stack (mission creep, remember), no balanced output (mission and price creep), no inch-thick aluminium front panel (price creep). In fact, there’s practically nothing on the rHead that gets in the way between music and listener from the outside.

What counts instead is what’s underneath that minimalist exterior. The first clue is the weight of the rHead. You might be forgiven for thinking from the pictures and the price that the Arcam box is some ABS lightweight, but is in fact cast and anodised black aluminium. Although the rHead is not much thicker than a blockbuster paperback book (remember them), the main box weighs more than the hardback first edition of the same. The lone exception is the low resonance rubberised baseplate (Arcam’s no-frills design means it unwittingly channels The Treasure of the Sierra Madre meme to comic effect: “Feet? We don’t need no stinking feet!”).

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