2015 InnerFidelity Holiday Gift Guide Bob Katz
Supreme Sound Lycan Headphone Amp/Preamp: No Frills, All Thrills
I haven't done a formal review, but definitely want to recommend this goodie, which actually fits in your Xmas stocking!
The Lycan Headphone Amp/Preamp is made by Supreme Sound, Australia, a division of Burson Audio. It's a detailed, clean and powerful headphone amp at the bargain price of $249 USD to $299. At $249 it comes with a basic IC opamp, the NE5532, which to my ears does not produce a very focused sound in the Lycan circuit (despite the 5532's good reputation). However, at $299, Lycan comes with the version 5 discrete Opamp, which really brings their circuit to life. The discrete opamp is such a good performer that this choice is a no brainer, so I would have to say "skip it" if you can't go for the additional $50.
It's plug and play, no assembly required except to insert the opamps in their sockets. Just insert the power coax, two RCA connectors, your cans and go! However, it does not have a case and is quite delicate with exposed parts, so if you're a cat lover, you're gonna need to cage it (the amp, silly). The volume control is flimsy, as would be expected at this price. If you're handy mechano-electrically, I suggest putting the Lycan in your own box and replacing the volume control with the next gift in this guide. I found the stock Lycan to be quite detailed, yet warm and deep, with reasonable separation. Separation is probably its weakest link, but still it throws a good stereo image and compares favorably with powerful "fancy looking" headphone amps costing well over $1000, which makes it quite a bargain. The only thing I have which beats the Lycan is my self-built AMB M3. To my ears, Lycan is just as powerful, clearer, tighter, more dynamic and detailed than my far-more-expensive Burson Soloist, which was quite a surprise. Tonally, the Lycan is nice, open but not harsh, with accurate tonality, unbeatable at 3 times the price.
TentLabs Volume Control: Improved Separation, Lower Distortion
If your mate is going to put Lycan in a case, then add this Tentlabs passive, precision volume control (€ 197,52) to their Christmas stocking, his reward will be better sound than the cheap pot included in the Lycan, and better separation, with 64 precision 1 dB steps. Again, he must be handy with a drill and soldering iron, but this comes assembled and all you have to do solder input/output and drill mounting holes and a hole for the display. If you don't want the input selection, you can solder directly to the RCA jacks or purchase a special version without the jacks. Use a separate 5 to 9 volt AC or DC supply. It has a 5 volt regulator on board.
You can purchase a new or surplus case from Ebay, mount the Lycan along with this volume board. Remove the original Lycan pot, but first decipher which pins are input, output and ground. Be aware there is no Lycan schematic and you'll surely void its warranty, so you better know your gozintas from your gozoutas! I can help you with that chore if you have any doubts: post in the comments section when you get your units. Use short lead lengths to and from the Lycan to avoid capacitive losses. Anyone with reasonable soldering and drilling skills should be able to assemble this on Christmas day, barring nasty looks from the little elves.
Caveat: I have not tried this product but the company has a great DIY reputation. So, buy if you're handy and don't mind a small gamble for potentially big sonic rewards. A bargain at 197.52 EU, currently equivalent to $209, plus shipping and external power supply.
Enigma Acoustics Dharma D1000 Headphones
I've been drooling over the Enigmacoustics Dharma ($1190) since Tyll introduced them to me at Big Sound 2015. The electrostatic tweeter seems to exceed the transparency of any Audeze except perhaps the LCD-4. This is without EQ, because with EQ I can seriously extend the high end of my LCD-X. My audition time with the Dharma was sadly brief but long enough to recommend these for any serious phone-o-phile. The price/performance ratio can't be beat; a big-ticket item, but at $1190 it's a bargain compared to the Planar-Magnetic competition. If you can afford these for your lucky mate, he or she will find themselves in Dharma-Nirvana for years to come. Can someone please gift me a Christmas Dharma?
ES9018K2M DAC Kit
Excuse me for suggesting that you stuff those stockings with DIY stuff. If you've got industrious teenagers, this is a no-brainer project that'll keep 'em off the texting for a week or two. Even if you do not have a tinkerer in the house, you deserve to let your audiophile friends know they can save thousands of dollars (literally) and get great sonic rewards by building their own DAC from a kit!
The DIYINHK deluxe kit, with LED PCB and XMOS USB board is $169.90. Add three power supplies for about $180 from DIYNHK, a power transformer from Digikey, and a case from Ebay and you can build a state-of-the-art DAC for literally a fraction of the cost of a commercial product. Soldering time should be only a few hours, but figure several days to drill holes and mount components in the case.