Bryston BHA-1 Fully Balanced Headphone Amplifier
Bryston BHA-1 Fully Balanced Headphone Amplifier ($1395)
You know Bryston? The 35 year old company is based in Peterborough, Ontario, just northeast of Toronto, and they have over 150 dealers in North America. The BHA-1 may be their very first headphone amp, but it's a Class A, fully-balanced, fully-discrete design. Incredibly, Bryston may be the only major high-end audio company currently making a serious headphone amp, but I guess it's only a matter of time before Ayre, Mark Levinson, Rowland, Naim, Audio Research, Conrad-Johnson, Rouge Audio, VAC, etc. wake up and join the fray.
Ins and Outs
The nicely-finished, brushed aluminum faceplate (silver or black) is 17 inches wide, 2.7 high, and the chassis is 11.1 inches deep. The feature set is more generous than most. You get singled-ended (RCA) and balanced (XLR) inputs, plus balanced XLR outputs so the BHA-1 can be used as a stereo preamp with a separate amp to drive speakers. The rear panel also has connections for a 12 volt/50mA trigger control to remotely turn the BHA-1 on or off. The front panel has 1/4 inch, four pin XLR balanced, and left/right three-pin XLR balanced headphone outputs. Bryston claims you can hook up headphones to all three outputs at the same time, no problem. There's also a gain switch (14 or 20 dB), and stereo balance control. Maximum power output is rated at 2 watts into 32 ohms, and output impedance is 2 ohms. Each BHA-1 is fully QC-ed and gets a 100 hour burn-in before it leaves the factory.
Step Right Up
The BHA-1 is a highly transparent device and a synergistic match with all of my full-size headphones: Hifiman HE-6 and HE-500, Audeze LCD-2 and LCD-3, Sennheiser HD 700, Grado RS-1 and Beyerdynamic T-90 full-size headphones. The BHA-1 was definitely quiet enough to use with IEMs, but the sound was uptight and uninviting, so I stuck with full-size headphones for my listening tests. MSRP is $1,395.
I ran the Hifiman and Audeze headphones balanced and the others with the single-ended connection. I started with high-resolution, 192 kHz/24-bit Chesky Records files, including David Chesky's soon to be released New York Rags solo piano album. The nine-foot Yamaha grand's explosive dynamics were given free reign, and since I was present at the recording session just a few weeks ago I knew what to expect. This 100 percent dynamically uncompressed recording can show the limitations of lesser gear, but the BHA-1 with any of the headphones was spot-on. The B & K binaural microphone "head" was within a few feet of the piano, so the stereo picture is spread wide. The BHA-1 with the LCD-3 easily captured the visceral power of the instrument. The BHA-1 not only nailed the sound of Chesky's spirited piano, it also revealed the sound of the hall the instrument was in, and that the amp was considerably more transparent than my Hifiman EF-6 headphone amp with the LCD 3. Switching over to the HE-6 headphones the sound was leaner and "faster" sounding over the BHA-1, but richer with the EF-6. The BHA-1 couldn't push the notoriously insensitive HE-6 to ear busting levels as easily as the EF-6 could. Even so, the HE-6/BHA-1 combo was more vivid, transparent, and had superior soundstage depth. The EF-6 is the more potent amp, but isn't as pure and true as the BHA-1.