In many ways, the Essence One confounded my sonic expectations. It was disappointing with the phones with which I thought it would mate perfectly and soared with the phones I thought would break its back. This, folks, is why we actually need to listen to this stuff.
Most of this column is dedicated to two hi-fi products for the massesnot from Lvov, via Vladimir Lamm, of Lamm Industries; or from Leningrad, via Victor Khomenko, of Balanced Audio Technologies; nor from any other Soviet-born audio hero. (Neither Vladimir nor Victor is on the list of "Name of Russia" contenders for greatest Russian of all time.) Nor from any consumer audio company, but from the world of professional audio. An Iron Curtain almost separates the two.
In his July 2005 "The Fifth Element" column, John Marks enthusiastically wrote about the Benchmark Media Systems DAC1 D/A processor and headphone amplifier. Comparing its sound playing CDs with that of a three-times-more-expensive Marantz SA-14 SACD player, he concluded that the DAC 1's "Red Book" performance was at least as good as that of the Marantz, being "slightly more articulate in the musical line, and slightly more detailed in spatial nuances, particularly the localization of individual images in space, and in soundstage depth."
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.
I have built up a large collection of CDs since the medium's launch more than a quarter century ago, along with a modest number of SACDs and a small number of DVD-As. But I find these days that, unless I'm getting down to some serious listening and can give the music my uninterrupted attention, I use iTunes to feed computer files to my high-end rig (footnote 1). I've mostly been using the superb-sounding combination of dCS Puccini U-Clock and Puccini player/DAC that I reviewed last December to take a USB feed from a Mac mini, but I've also been using the Bel Canto USB Link 24/96 and Stello U2 USB-S/PDIF converters, particularly for headphone listening, when I use one of those two format converters with a Benchmark DAC1 D/A headphone amplifier.
Back in March, I wrote a reviewlet of Channel Islands Audio's VHP•1 headphone amplifier for the Stereophile eNewsletter. (What—you aren't receiving that free download yet? Well, log on to www.stereophile.com and opt in.) The VHP•1 has continued to enchant me—reason enough to examine it in greater detail, I reckoned. But the real reason I returned to the VHP•1 ($349) is that CIA's Dusty Vawter recently sent me his new VAC•1 ($159), a replacement power supply for the VHP•1's stock wall-wart supply. Could a new power supply really offer a substantial improvement in performance?
Emotiva is always full of surprises. They first made their name with a series of high-performance/high-value power amps and home theater surround processors, and their Airmotiv 4 speaker knocked me for a loop last year. The little speaker set a new standard for affordable desktop speakers, and Airmotiv 4 became my go-to reference. Now they've done it again with the XDA-2. The beautifully finished, full-size (17 x 2.25 x 14 inch) $399 component boasts a generous assortment of inputs and outputs. Getting acquainted with the sound with my Hifiman HE-400 headphones was a treat for my ears.
Looking at all of the high-end headphones and headphone accessories available today, it's difficult to even remember how barren the head-fi landscape was in the early 1990s. Back then, headphones got no respect, except for exotic, expensive electrostatic models, yet most of the world listened to music through headphones all the time, mostly through crappy cans connected to portable players. (Well, maybe it wasn't that different a landscape.)
Editor's Note: Again I am so very pleased to welcome another new contributor to InnerFidelity's growing cadre of writers. Skylab is a long time member of Head-Fi (profile here) and has contributed numerous laudable gear reviews there. He'll be focussing his efforts here at InnerFidelity primarily on headphone amp reviews. I can't tell you how pleasing it is to find myself feeling more and more surrounded by a talented team of qualified reviewers. I'm stoked ... and humbled. I feel like I'm going to have to step up my game to keep up with these guys. Okay, I'll shut up now and let you get on with Skylab's review. Welcome aboard, mate!
Germany's Lake People refreshes their entire lineup of G-series headphone amps, with a focus shifted towards home users rather than just studios. I check out the lowest and the highest cost models in the series to see how they compare.
With just a few phone calls and emails, I've managed to get my hands on the amazing Stax SR-009 headphones, and some of the world's best electrostatic headphone amps and the gear to make use of them, and set them up my demo room for a week of comparative listening.
Meier amps are designed in Germany, but built in China by Shanling. This no doubt has contributed to a strong value for the money. And the subject of this review, the "Rock" home headphone amp, is clearly targeted at people who are looking for value--the Rock is the smallest home (non-portable) headphone amp Meier has ever made, and also the least expensive, at $240 USD, or EUR 220 (in the EU). That actually makes it LESS expensive than any of Meier's current line-up of portable headphone amps!
My good buddy Todd the Vinyl Junkie (TTVJ) had donned his Hawaiian shirt in my honor my little visit to sample his new Pete Millett designed FET output amp.
It was a lovely 35 mile motorcycle jaunt on the interstate through flooded pastureland to Three Forks, Montana; and lovelier still to hear the Arête when I arrived at TTVJ HQ. Let's have a quick look at this new product ....
I have to admit I didn't quite understand the logic of making an AC powered device for iPods, iPhones or iPads, so I asked NuForce's Jason Lim about the iDo's raison d'être. He explained it was designed for people who bring their Apple devices to work and want the best possible sound, but don't have access to music on their computers.