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 trends—they'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_rHead_Photo_Rear

Rear panel of the Arcam rHead.

Design
Arcam's rHead ($599) is a compact, straight-forward headphone amp—no DAC option or preamp outputs involved—boasting 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 enough—like 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.

Arcam_rHead_Photo_Inside

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?

COMPANY INFO
Arcam
The West Wing
Stirling House, Waterbeach
Cambridge CB25 9PB, UK
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
norsemen's picture

John,

You gave an award to IHA-6 too now this one. When will you update the wall of fame?

John Grandberg's picture
Tyll will be working on that in the next few days. The Icon and Lake People amps are being retired - Icon changed the design/raised the price, while G109 is soon to be discontinued. So the Cayin and Arcam fit those price slots nicely.
tony's picture

Where is Audio Research Corp.?, Conrad-Johnson?, etc.

It doesn't help that "new" headphone designs don't need Amplifier Power ( Chord Mojo doesn't even have an Amplifier section).

Still they are very late, all things considered.

Jerry Harvey just addressed Google Talks, he described how his in-ear-monitor business ( in 2003, I think ) increased 1,000% when he started selling to Audiophile owner's of iPods. He says he can't keep up with the demand for "Universal" fit designs, he only builds high-performance stuff, nothing for the ear-bud folks. His stuff is "Pricy"!, he speaks of Astel & Kern gear too, he's talking about $5,000 systems, for god's sake.

I suspect all these outfit's Amp designs are too-late. Headphones like Focal's new designs are super efficient, joker's last Audio-technica in-ear review device is astonishingly efficient, the "new" generation of Audiophiles will have a Phone with an "Audiophile" DAC and a HD download ability ( LG's V20 quad DAC phone is just being released ). High quality DACs can now be built with super efficient DAC chips.

Headphone Amps are the past. Can we have a glimpse of the future? I'll be reading you when you pull the curtains back.

I figure this Innerfidelty group will be the first to give a "useful" description of the next Generation of product releases.

The future: look out, here it comes.

Tony in Michigan

John Grandberg's picture

Believe me Tony, I'm always on the hunt for game-changing gear to review. Unfortunately it's a lot easier for companies to make promises than actually deliver on them, so a lot of this stuff ends up being rather disappointing in real world use.

My latest was the Bragi Dash wireless "smart earphones" which had lots of promise but didn't work out so well in practice. At $300 there's no way I can recommend them over wires IEMs costing even a fraction of that price. Plus, I can add the $99 Noble Audio BTS to any IEM and make it Bluetooth - and it will still sound great!

As for Jerry Harvey, of course business picked up when the iPod launched. Why wound't it? I'm sure the same could be said by Westone and Etymotic and other IEM makers of that time. Not sure what that has to do with "the future" though. Jerry can make some great IEMs but let's not forget his JH-3A debacle.... sometimes the drive for a paradigm shift just doesn't pan out.

Bottom line is the vast majority of audiophiles will continue using traditional wired headphones for quite some time. And that means traditional headphone amps like this will always have a place. While the Chord Mojo doesn't "need" external amplification, let's not kid ourselves.... its Class A biased output stage made from 6 small transistors in parallel certainly does count as an onboard "amplifier", even if the overall design is unique.

I figure this Arcam is a step in the right direction though. Perhaps one day they'll stuff these same guts into their higher-end integrated amps, giving much better performance than is usually available in that context. Planar magnetic and many traditional dynamic headphones will continue to need quality amplification despite advances in efficiency on some headphone models.

tony's picture

Well, ok, I'll have to subscribe to Tidal, instead of buying more CDs, I'm ok with that, my CD library is already getting far too Space demanding.

Sure, Audiophiles ( like me ) will still have wired Sennheisers ( maybe Focal ) and my lovely Schiit Asgard 2 ( or perhaps a Felikes Tube Rolling Amp ) but I'm active and travel, I'll want a nice portable ability ( a phone and Etymotic ) plus I need the LG Tone bluetooth connect to my phone for communications.

DIY Audiophiles will still exist, ( although we're older and dying off ). DIY Remote control Model Airplanes still exist with younger lads taking it up, Ham Radio is still around but mostly its old geezers (like me ), DIY Woodworking is Huge and getting bigger, much bigger, Harley Motorcycles is getting Huge. Now, a Global distribution system for 100% of the Worlds Music is about to become available, I presume thru Audiophile Phones like LG's V20.

5 years from now we'll look back and say: wow!

Tony in Michigan

silverarrows5's picture

Greetings John,

Gonna review the IFI-AUDIO PRO Series anytime soon?

http://ifi-audio.com/portfolio-view/pro-ican/

Cheers,

John Grandberg's picture
I have one here and will be writing it up soon.
Chiumeister's picture

At this price and as good as the 430HA, that's incredible.

John Grandberg's picture
I didn't say it was just as good as the 430. I said the volume control design has a lot of similarities, in terms of design as well as heritage (both came from another more expensive model in the lineup). I don't love the 430 quite as much as Tyll but I still think it's an excellent amp. This little Arcam is also excellent but not on the same level, unless we're talking value where it may have the edge.
uhhmike's picture

hows this compare to the tisbury ca1? theyre not available anymore. im looking for a neutral SS amp to pair with two planars i have, and one lean towards the warmer side, but both are neutrally tuned. do you think this amp would pair good w/ a slightly warm pair of cans? does it sound similar to CA1 amp by tisbury? just curious