British HiFi Heritage Arrives in the Headphone World With Arcam's rHead
Better Late Than Never?
One thing I love about "traditional" HiFi is the history involved. There are decades worth of breakthrough designs, some quirky stuff that didn't really work out, and ahead-of-their-time products that only made sense years down the road. A lot of headphone-only folks I know (in person and online) are not really familiar with much outside their little personal-audio bubble, so they miss out on what I consider very interesting info.
Take Arcam for example. Known as A&R Cambridge (get it? Arcam?), the company dropped their first product over 40 years ago. I recently had a chance to play with their first release, the A&R Cambridge A60 integrated amp, and it held up surprisingly well. The example I used was unmolested save for aging capacitors being replaced, and while not possessing the same level of fine detail as a modern Arcam integrated, it was still highly listenable. I very much enjoyed its rich midrange presentation, and in the right system it might actually be preferable to current (and more analytical) designs .
Now, Arcam turns their attention to the headphone workd. Frankly, I'm surprised it took this long. The company seems very aware of industry trendsthey've been doing relatively affordable USB DACs for a while now, as well as various wireless widgets like the miniBlink Bluetooth streamer. They even have an add-on DAC/amp/charging case for the iPhone 6/6S which I'd totally use if I was an iPhone guy. Yet somehow, despite all these personal audio offerings, a dedicated headphone amp wasn't in the cards until recently. Now, Arcam joins other notable audio firms such as Pass Labs, Bryston, and Simaudio in putting their amplifier expertise to work in the headphone space.
Arcam's rHead ($599) is a compact, straight-forward headphone ampno DAC option or preamp outputs involvedboasting the same no-nonsense engineering as the larger and more expensive Arcam home components. At roughly 8 inches wide, 5 inches deep, and less than 2 inches tall, the rHead should fit into just about any audio system. It helps that both RCA and XLR inputs are featured, with a rear panel switch to select between the two. Up front, the 1/4" and 1/8" jacks eliminate the need for adapters. Aside from that rear panel input selection switch, the main user interaction is a shiny volume knob which doubles as a power switch when turned far enoughlike I said, very straight-forward.
Internally, multiple low noise power supplies use extensive filtration for clean results. Yes, that wall-wart can be replaced with a linear power supply, but Arcam designer John Dawson is confident it won't make much difference. I took him up on that challenge and will discuss the results shortly.
The rHead sports fully discrete amplification which is said to operate in pure class-A for the vast majority of situations, switching to class AB only at deafening volumes. Maximum output is 2 full Watts per channel at 16 ohms, and 1.1 Watts into the more common 32 ohm load. 300 ohm loads see 130mW and, more importantly, over 6Vrms of voltage swing. Output impedance is less than 0.5 Ohms for maximum compatibility with various headphones and in-ear monitors.
Tyll was quite enamored with the beastly Simaudio 430HA. I don't quite love the sound signature as much as he does, but I wholeheartedly agree with his praise of the volume control solution. It's a joy to use. Arcam does something fairly similar here as well. While the expensive Simaudio borrows tech from their even costlier Evolution series, Arcam references the volume solution from their A49 integrated, which is pricey in its own right. Described as an "ultra-linear resistor-ladder analog volume control", it imbues the rHead with essentially perfect channel matching even at low levels, along with very low distortion and crosstalk. This volume control is direct coupled to the discrete power amplifiers which use a fixed gain of just 3. This gives very low residual noise, and ensures just about any headphone is well served without the need for adjustable gain switches. Volume adjustment spans a range of 80dB in precise 1dB steps and, unlike my reference Violectric V281, there's no noise to be heard during adjustment.
Build quality is rather high on this little amp. You won't find a single exposed screw anywhere on the die-case metal enclosure. Access is theoretically possible via 4 screws hidden on bottom, which happen to go through the "vibration damped non-slip rubber base". I say "theoretically" because the base on my review unit seems to be solidly attached via some industrial fastening substance. I'm not comfortable pushing my luck on devices I don't own so I left it alone. My one complaint is that the base isn't actually all that rubbery feeling. It does slide around a bit on my rack, and more so when stacked on top of a metal enclosure like a CD player or DAC. The usual rubber "feet" used by most components seem more effective. Not a big deal, but when the literature specifically mentions "non-slip", one can't help but have certain expectations.
Other than that, a very solid look and feel on this little device. But how is the sound?