The control ergonomics of the HS-IPA are a little idiosyncratic to be frank, regardless of whether you use the rather nice remote or the front panel selecting an input requires the up/down buttons be used to find it followed by a confirm button to actually select it. You get used to this but it will confuse first time users. This is not really helped by the arcane nature of the remote that has analogue and digital input buttons that are used to scroll through either set of inputs. The buttons on the amp itself are disguised by being black against the black of the screen but legends indicate their whereabouts sufficiently and pretty well all functions are accessible from the handset. The volume display does not change with every tap of the level button but jumps when you have gone up or down a few dB, below -51 the display doesn’t change at all.
The DAC’s specs are not particularly of the moment, maximum bit and sample rates of 24/192 is hardly cutting edge but it’s adequate for all but the most extreme audiophile releases and suggests that the chipset was chosen on the basis of sound quality rather than specmanship. It’s good for DSD but doesn’t suggest that any multiple of the base DSD64 sample rate will be accepted. The headphone amp promises high current and high voltage alongside the ability to drive dynamic and orthodynamic headphones with impedances between 16 and 600 Ohms, which is a usefully wide range.
While they are a little on the revealing side the Bowers & Wilkins 802 D3 are the most sensitive speakers I have to hand so listening commenced with them hooked up to the Norma’s outputs via Townshend Fractal F1 speaker cable. I started with the USB output of an Auralic Aries G1 streamer connected to the relevant digital input and enjoyed Stephen Malkmus’ latest release [Traditional Techniques, Matador] courtesy of a Qobuz stream. This sounded good and open with the vocal placed front and centre surrounded by vibrant guitar strings that had real shine to them, the way new strings do. The amp proved itself sensitive to the timing improvement achieved when switching from Roon to AURALiC’s Lightning server software on the streamer, and resolved the drums on Malkmus’ ‘Shadowbanned’ really nicely. The Norma does voices really well regardless of signal quality, I only have an MP3 of the Cinematic Orchestra’s ‘Wait Now’ [Ninja Tune] but it sounded superb through this combination of DAC and amplifier.
With the Rega P10/Aphelion record player hooked up to the phono stage the result was strong on vitality and reverb with a slightly mid forward character that brings out tonal shading really nicely. Nathan Salsburg’s acoustic guitar playing [Third, No Quarter] sounded very natural with plenty of depth and shape. I used the Norma in my second system for a while too, partnering it with Rega RX3 speakers and a P8 turntable with Apheta 3 MC and playing the sometimes frantic post techno of Floating Points [Crush, Ninja Tune] to intense high speed effect. With a nimble source and speakers like these there is no sense of overhang with this amp, it has more than enough power on tap to deliver the goods with as much impact as they require and not blur the transients in the process. The Norma also images well, delivering excellent stage depth and instrument shape from Sarathay Korwar’s live album My East is your West [Gearbox], giving a great sense of the church interior in which it was recorded and revealing plenty of power in the percussion. You get a high energy soundstage and things get better as the energy level of the music rises, especially for the electrifying tabla solo.
With another speaker, the Russell K Red 120 floorstander which has a brighter balance than average, timing is very strong indeed especially when the Grateful Dead get going as they were want to do in their heyday. With an Innuos Zenith SE server connected directly to the USB input Patricia Barber’s ‘Nardin’ [Café Blue, Premonition] the piano is a little forward but the power of the drums and bass was very engaging, the amp controlling the low frequencies with little apparent effort. Switching to a coax input from another streamer, the dCS Network Bridge, brought a plushness to the balance that compensated nicely for the speakers. The combo delivering loads of reverb around Barber’s voice and allowing it to project really well. Now the piano seemed to be at a more natural level relative to the voice but retained its power and attack, it also sat in the room more effectively, the bass resolution giving a strong sense of the body of the instrument. Going over to a more recent release from blues singer Fiona Boyes [Professin’ The Blues, Reference Recordings] the kick of the bass drum and the space around her growling vocal made for a powerful experience with a real sense of the singer being in the room. The amp also made a good job of placing the manipulated sounds on Felix Laband’s Dark Days Exit [Compost] the fabulous ‘Whistling in Tongues’ making this very clear cut.