Firestone Audio Bobby Balanced Headphone Amplifier

Firestone Audio Bobby Balanced Headphone Amplifier (MSRP $799)
I have to confess that Firestone Audio was never really on my radar. I knew the name, sure, and I even knew some of the products like Spitfire and Fubar. They seemed well liked and a good value but nothing ever really struck me as being a "must see" attraction. That changed recently when they moved upscale and launched the Tobby DAC and matching Bobby headphone amp. I got a hold of both and already covered the Tobby at HeadFi—it's a very impressive DAC at $1100, especially over USB. The matching Bobby amp has an MSRP of $799 but I've seen it go for as low as $599 some places.

Design
Bobby is deceptively large. It's pretty normal in width at around 9 inches, and height is also pretty standard at just under 3 inches. But depth is 13 inches, which may not sound like much but is far deeper than most other headphone amps. Not so deep that it won't fit on a rack, but after plugging in interconnects and AC cable you might not have much room to work with. Weight is on the heavy side too and the whole thing seems pretty substantial. There's a bit of venting on the sides and the device runs somewhat warm but not overly so, probably due to the large enclosure soaking up heat.

Firestone did a great job on the front panel which I find attractive and highly functional. The LCD display shows volume, input, and operation mode. The volume knob spins freely which reflects the digital volume control scheme. Push the knob to mute. There are two headphone jacks which both accept a 1/4" plug for simultaneous headphone listening. One side is for low impedance, the other for high, with a twist that I'll discuss shortly. Balanced mode is achieved by connecting dual 3-pin XLR plugs. Over on the far left is a power on/off button which is actually more like standby. A nearby LED blazes brightly indicating power status, as if the large LCD display being on or off wasn't enough. Around the back things are quite straight forward: XLR and RCA inputs, a IEC power receptacle, and a hardware on/off switch. Pretty simple.

FirestoneAudio_Bobby_Photo_Inside

Sliding off the top cover reveals the Bobby as a fully balanced design just as advertised. A rather large Ring Core brand toroidal transformer mates with dedicated voltage regulation and stiffening caps for each channel, and the separation continues from there on out. Quad OPA604 mono opamps biased into Class A drive a buffer of eight output transistors, with volume being handled digitally by a pair of Texas Instruments PGA2311 stereo volume controllers. Opamps are socketed but Firestone provided no info about swapping so I decided to leave them alone. Maximum output is a healthy 1500mW into 32 Ohms, down to 80mW at 600 Ohms.

FirestoneAudio_Bobby_Photo_OutputStage

Bobby's balanced output electronics.

Remember the twist I mentioned earlier? Here we go: the two headphone jacks are labeled as "low" and "high" impedance, or use both for balanced operation. Sounds simple enough, right? However, the "low impedance" jack has an output impedance of 227 Ohms, while the "high impedance" output measures 10.5 Ohms. Output impedance in balanced mode is 20.2 Ohms. The Firestone rep explained it like so: They feel low impedance cans like Grados and such sound best from the "low" jack (which has higher output impedance). And they feel higher impedance cans, like the 250 Ohm beyerdynamic models, sound best from the "high" jack (which has the lower output impedance). This puts us in a somewhat counter-intuitive position where the "low" and "high" markings actually refer to the impedance of the recommended headphone, and not the output impedance of that particular jack.

In Use—Odds and Ends
The LCD display gets flanked by three small buttons. The top button labelled "source" is the most obvious, toggling between XLR and RCA inputs. The LCD will tell you which mode is selected and also reflects balanced mode or single ended output.

The middle button is labelled "stage" which remains somewhat confusing despite my best investigative efforts. Default mode is "normal" which means on board voltage stabilization remains active. Pressing the button switches to "high" mode, which apparently deactivates stabilization in order to swing more voltage. I chatted back and forth with Firestone but the difference between modes seemed to get lost in translation. Ultimately I couldn't discern any audible difference between the two modes anyway so I stopped trying to figure it out.

The last button is "gain" which is somewhat misleading but actually kind of cool. It doesn't technically change the gain at all; what it does is adjust the way volume gets cycled. In default "low" mode, turning the knob (which has very slight notches) results in one volume step up or down per "click". Each step equals a .5dB adjustment. Further pressing of the gain button cycles through the other modes, where the steps jump by increasingly large intervals—1dB for medium, 2dB for high.

I really like this feature! The volume range goes from -60dB to +45dB, which is a lot of ground to cover in half decibel steps. The gain settings mean I can dial in sensitive IEMs just right, but am not stuck with those small increments when using larger cans. And since the volume knob has a great feel to it, and volume tracks perfectly even at low volumes, the overall user experience is very satisfying. True balanced amp designs require 4-gang balanced potentiometers which can get real pricey, so it appears the choice of dual PGA2311 volume controllers was a good one.

Lastly, a quick note about balanced operation. This amp uses the dual 3-pin XLR style which is not my favorite—it makes for a rather large, unwieldy connection. On the other hand, it allows the use of Neutrik hybrid jacks that double as 1/4" single ended outputs. I prefer balanced connections to use the single 4-pin XLR style, but that would require a separate dedicated jack for 1/4" plugs. So neither way is ideal. All my balanced headphones use the 4-pin XLR style so I contacted Ted over at CablePro for some help - he sent over a sweet Freedom Series 4-pin to dual 3-pin converter to allow my cables to work with the Bobby. Thanks Ted! This makes far more sense than getting a whole new cable.

So, it looks nice and works well.... but how does it sound?

COMPANY INFO
Firestone Audio Co., Ltd.
Rm. 2, 19 F., No. 97, Sec. 4
Chongsin Rd., Taipei, 24123
Taiwan
+886 2 29753657
ARTICLE CONTENTS
Share | |
COMMENTS
tomasz's picture

Thank you for a comprehensive review. I wonder if you could tell us what kind of transistors are used in this amp.

As a small amendment I would only add that OPA2604 are dual amps not mono. 

 

Tom

John Grandberg's picture

Of course I meant OPA604... just updated. OPA2604 must have been on my mind, because I've seen them in several recent headphone amps I investigated. OPA604 doesn't seem to come up as often.

For transistors, I'll have to find my notes (which I seem to have misplaced for the time being). I recall them being MOSFETs, but don't remember the specifics. It was nothing too exotic though - just the basic tried-and-true variety.  

lithium's picture

Hi John,

This seems interesting though it seems there are too many riders attached. For ideal results you have to go balanced and impedance mismatch is also an issue. however, topnotch performance at 600$ is definitely a plus. 

How does it fare againt the yulong A18? Also in other good news the icon audio amp is now 1000$ in the US( no more dealer markup)

John Grandberg's picture

....but no amp is, especially for a three digit price. Overall I still enjoy the Bobby in single-ended mode, it's just not quite as good that way. But I'd still grab it for an HD650 in a heartbeat, as it makes an excellent combo even single ended - with room to grow later when you throw on a balanced cable. 

The Yulong Sabre A18 is definitely more on the warm side, with significantly more impactful bass (and more bass emphasis too). It's also smoother and more forgiving - Bobby is kind of ruthless. I don't really see them as competitors though, since both are good at what they do best: which happens to be very different from one another. You either like one or the other but I can't see being torn between the two. 

lithium's picture

I think there is really an opportunity in the market around this price for a well designed thoughtful product. Thanks for your thoughts. Something like the damping factor knob on the teac- HA-501 is something really interesting and perhaps others should consider something like that to make an amplifier a better fit with a range of headphones.

John Grandberg's picture

...comes really close to being perfect (on paper of course) but a few small things really annoy me. The damping factor knob is great, but how about some actual numbers to show what the choices are? Low and Med and Hi don't tell me anything. None of the marketing literature mentions it, nor does the manual. The only spec shown is "good for headphones from 16-600 ohms." Well, duh.  If it ranged from less than one up to maybe 300 ohms, with sensible steps in between, that would be ideal.

Also, what's with bragging about the fully balanced design but not providing an actual balanced output jack? Seems like a significant opportunity missed. 

lithium's picture

http://audio.teac.com/product/ha-501/

Hi John, if you go to this page and scroll down to Main features and the tab for selectable damping factor. they have a detailed table with damping factors. The lack of a balanced output is a disappointing, but I guess the designer decided to eliminate crosstalk but keep universal headphone applicability. I know disappointing but teac probably decided to go for the broader market with an $850 headphone amplifier!(totally scratching my head here). 

John Grandberg's picture

I somehow missed that part. So the output impedance knob, which they make such a big deal out of, ranges from about .5 ohms at the lowest setting to 5 ohms at the highest setting? Seems like kind of a small range for a feature like that. While I appreciate what they're trying to accomplish with it, a larger usable range would have more of an impact. 

With the exception of perhaps some multi-driver IEMs, the difference between a sub 1 ohm output and a 5 ohm output is not going to be all that massive. The Firestone Bobby, with a 10 ohm and 227 ohm outputs, at least offers some variation. Ideally I'd like Firestone to use a 1 ohm output and then maybe a 40 ohm output for flavor. 

lithium's picture

I hardly ever find something without qualifiers. But as they say the proof of the pudding is in the eating. I just fronted up for the Light harmonic geek DAC and I hope to have a good product without a massive output impedance

exvsynz's picture

Well, it really becomes an insane value when you consider the fact that both the tobby and the bobby can be purchased for 400 usd apiece here in Taiwan

tomscy2000's picture

I'm not sure whether it's only valid in Taiwan, or foreign customers can opt for this too, but FSA just announced that for about 1500 NT (~$50 USD, probably a bit more for foreign customers), users can upgrade their Bobby to become a 10W/channel speaker amp as well. If so, the Bobby becomes an even greater value. I've been contemplating getting a small speaker system; this might be a good thing to use.

cindrella's picture

Wow, A balanced headphone amplifier. It is nice see the Firestone company returning back to the field with a great invention. The design is great and the silver colour gives it a classic touch of old amplifiers. I want to buy one like this.omnitech guides!!!..

X
Enter your InnerFidelity username.
Enter the password that accompanies your username.
Loading