If you think about it, almost all of high-end audio can be viewed as a balancing act. It’s been said that, armed with enough cubic dollars, almost anyone could eventually produce great-sounding components. The hard part, really, is figuring out ways to produce components that sound fantastic, yet that don’t cost the proverbial arm and a leg. For headphone enthusiasts, the quest for equipment that offers maximum bang for our buck sis even keener, since one of the unspoken rules of our “sport” is that we’re trying to achieve sonic greatness while holding expenditures within reasonable bounds.
While Playback has covered a number of headphone amps that offer good value for money, the three models referenced below have particularly impressed us with their ability to deliver true affordable excellence.
Burson Audio HA-160 Headphone Amplifier ($695)
What it is: The Australian-made Burson Audio HA-160 is a precision-crafted, carefully thought out, solid-state headphone amplifier priced at $695. The Burson provides one single-ended stereo analog input (via RCA jacks) and two ¼-inch phone jack-type headphone outputs—each optimized for a different impedance range of headphone.
What’s the Draw? There are at least three aspects to the Burson’s appeal, the first of which would be build quality. If you look closely at this product, both inside and out, you’ll see a level of attention to detail that is almost unheard of at this price point. Let me supply just a few bullet point examples to show what I mean. The HA-160 features:
- So-called “HD Opamp Modules” that are comprised entirely of discrete low-noise transistors (because Burson vehemently argues that they sound better than IC-type opamps).
- A precision, 24-position stepped-attenuator volume control comprised of precision matched sets of resistors.
- A low noise power supply again comprised of discrete devices—not ICs.
- A beautifully-made “Resonance Free Aluminum (RFA)” Enclosure made of thick slabs of aluminum of different thickness and resonance profiles to help fight mechanically induced noise.”
Second, and setting construction details aside, the real draw here is perhaps the best sound quality we’ve heard from any headphone amp priced below the four-figure range. The sonic qualities of this amp are wonderfully well balanced, combining neutral voicing, very good levels of resolution/subtlety/nuance, and enough power to drive anything we’ve tried, including extremely power-hungry planar magnetic headphones.
Many listeners will find the sound of the HA-160 so compelling that they’ll feel no need to look further, which means it represents a point of diminishing returns of sorts (you can, if you want to push a point, get even better sound quality, but it will cost you a significant pile of cash).
Finally, let us mention a third, not-so-obvious aspect of the HA-160 story. Should you wish to up the performance ante of the HA-160 without blowing a ton of moolah, try using the amp in conjunction with Burson’s own AB-160 RCA buffer module. There is a certain synergy between the products that can help unlock even higher levels of resolution and transparency. For a review of the AB-160, follow this link: http://www.avguide.com/review/burson-audio-ab-160-rca-audio-buffer-stage-playback-44).
CEntrance DACmini CX Headphone Amplifier/DAC ($795)
Playback review pending.
Preliminary blog: http://www.avguide.com/blog/first-look-listen-centrance-dacmini-cx-dacheadphone-amplifier
What it is: The CEntrance DACmini CX is versatile high resolution DAC (192kHz/24-bit resolution for S/PDIF and Toslink inputs, 96kHz/24-bit resolution for USB input) plus a pure class A headphone amplifier—all for $795. Note, too, that depending on the factory options (or “mods” as CEntrance would call them) that you choose, the DACmini can also be configured as a minimalist stereo preamplifier. The DACmini comes with self-loading plug’n’play drivers for PC and Mac-based systems, plus a free download for CEntrance’s cool, proprietary UD (“universal driver”) ASIO driver, for those whose music software will support use of an ASIO driver.
What’s the Draw? The DACmini CX—along with all other CEntrance products—benefits from the firm’s wealth of technical know-how in areas such as DAC performance optimization, USB (and other) digital audio interface designs, jitter reduction technologies, noise reduction technologies, and analog circuit designs. It helps to know that, before it ever began building components of its own, CEntrance served (and still serves) as a consultant to some of the most influential firms in both the high-end audio and pro-sound communities. Although the DACmini looks deceptively simple from the outside, there’s a wealth of deep and careful thought applied on the inside. To see what we mean by these comments, visit the CEntrance DACmini homepage (http://www.centrance.com/products/dacmini/) and—under “Features”—click on the link to the firm’s 12-page white paper on this product’s design.
But obviously there’s a world of difference between writing compelling white papers and building products that deliver the sonic goods. Happily, the CEntrance folks know how to do both.
As a DAC, the DACmini is very sophisticated and versatile, is about as future-proof as it can possibly be, and sounds ultra-refined, finding the neat balance point between a full-bodied sound and a sound that is full of subtlety and finesse. This is one of those components that sounds more and more “right” the longer that you listen to it.
The same goes for the DACmini’s amplifier section. It offers the expected clarity and underlying purity we expect of fine class A designs, with a richer and more full-bodied sound that CEntrance’s also very good DACport is able to produce.
One very cool aspect of the DACmini CX is that it is offered with a small but very useful range of available factory “mods,” including:
- Black anodized, scratch resistant finish (the standard DACmini CX is silver).
- “Headphone Linearity” 1 Ohm output impedance mod (the standard DACmini CX provides 10 Ohm output impedance).
- “Rock and Roll” Gain mod provides gain of 10 (the standard DACmini provides gain of 8).
- “Variable Output” mod replaces the DACmini’s fixed-level rear panel analog outputs with outputs whose levels are controlled by the same gain knob that controls the headphone amp output levels.
The key point is that the DACmini offer huge helpings of technical and sonic sophistication for its price.
HiFiMAN EF5 Headphone Amplifier ($499)
What it is: A minimalist, two-chassis, hybrid tube/solid-state headphone amplifier from the Chinese high-end headphone specialist HiFiMAN. The latest (and now the only) “CE Approved” version of the amplifier now comes with an improved volume control and a Fullmusic 12AU7 vacuum tube. The amp features a single-ended stereo analog input and a single-ended, ¼-inch phone jack-type headphone output.
What’s the Draw? The little EF5 is an attractively styled but certainly not ostentatious two-chassis headphone amp, so that very little about its compact appearance prepares you for the amp’s robust yet refined sound. While it may not be quite the equal of the Burson HA-160 amplifier, above, in terms of resolution, the EF5 comes in a pretty close second and does so for even less money. What is more, it also offers the ineffable harmonic richness or “rightness” for which fine tube circuits are justly famous.
But perhaps the EF5’s “secret weapon” is its absolutely fearless ability to drive difficult and/or power-hungry headphones—a description that might fit any number of top-tier headphones, include HiFiMAN’s own excellent but admittedly difficult-to-drive planar magnetic phones. In practice, this means that you quickly learn that the EF5 can be trusted to drive just about anything, and to do so with grace and full-throttle dynamics aplenty (which is more than you can say for many otherwise excellent headphone amps that tend to “wilt” under pressure).
I recently let a hardcore high-end audiophile buddy listen to Playback's review sample of the EF5, and my guest kept asking me how much the amp cost, as if in disbelief. After concentrating on a few very demanding tracks played through what some might consider "problem" headphones, my friend said, "that little amp does so well for so little that anybody looking to build something better is going to face a bar that's already been set pretty high. It's amazing for the money."