2015 InnerFidelity Holiday Gift Guide Bob Katz


Supreme Sound Lycan Headphone Amp/Preamp: No Frills, All Thrills
I haven't done a formal review, but definitely want to recommend this goodie, which actually fits in your Xmas stocking!

The Lycan Headphone Amp/Preamp is made by Supreme Sound, Australia, a division of Burson Audio. It's a detailed, clean and powerful headphone amp at the bargain price of $249 USD to $299. At $249 it comes with a basic IC opamp, the NE5532, which to my ears does not produce a very focused sound in the Lycan circuit (despite the 5532's good reputation). However, at $299, Lycan comes with the version 5 discrete Opamp, which really brings their circuit to life. The discrete opamp is such a good performer that this choice is a no brainer, so I would have to say "skip it" if you can't go for the additional $50.

It's plug and play, no assembly required except to insert the opamps in their sockets. Just insert the power coax, two RCA connectors, your cans and go! However, it does not have a case and is quite delicate with exposed parts, so if you're a cat lover, you're gonna need to cage it (the amp, silly). The volume control is flimsy, as would be expected at this price. If you're handy mechano-electrically, I suggest putting the Lycan in your own box and replacing the volume control with the next gift in this guide. I found the stock Lycan to be quite detailed, yet warm and deep, with reasonable separation. Separation is probably its weakest link, but still it throws a good stereo image and compares favorably with powerful "fancy looking" headphone amps costing well over $1000, which makes it quite a bargain. The only thing I have which beats the Lycan is my self-built AMB M3. To my ears, Lycan is just as powerful, clearer, tighter, more dynamic and detailed than my far-more-expensive Burson Soloist, which was quite a surprise. Tonally, the Lycan is nice, open but not harsh, with accurate tonality, unbeatable at 3 times the price.

TentLabs Volume Control: Improved Separation, Lower Distortion

If your mate is going to put Lycan in a case, then add this Tentlabs passive, precision volume control (€ 197,52) to their Christmas stocking, his reward will be better sound than the cheap pot included in the Lycan, and better separation, with 64 precision 1 dB steps. Again, he must be handy with a drill and soldering iron, but this comes assembled and all you have to do solder input/output and drill mounting holes and a hole for the display. If you don't want the input selection, you can solder directly to the RCA jacks or purchase a special version without the jacks. Use a separate 5 to 9 volt AC or DC supply. It has a 5 volt regulator on board.

You can purchase a new or surplus case from Ebay, mount the Lycan along with this volume board. Remove the original Lycan pot, but first decipher which pins are input, output and ground. Be aware there is no Lycan schematic and you'll surely void its warranty, so you better know your gozintas from your gozoutas! I can help you with that chore if you have any doubts: post in the comments section when you get your units. Use short lead lengths to and from the Lycan to avoid capacitive losses. Anyone with reasonable soldering and drilling skills should be able to assemble this on Christmas day, barring nasty looks from the little elves.

Caveat: I have not tried this product but the company has a great DIY reputation. So, buy if you're handy and don't mind a small gamble for potentially big sonic rewards. A bargain at 197.52 EU, currently equivalent to $209, plus shipping and external power supply.

Enigma Acoustics Dharma D1000 Headphones

I've been drooling over the Enigmacoustics Dharma ($1190) since Tyll introduced them to me at Big Sound 2015. The electrostatic tweeter seems to exceed the transparency of any Audeze except perhaps the LCD-4. This is without EQ, because with EQ I can seriously extend the high end of my LCD-X. My audition time with the Dharma was sadly brief but long enough to recommend these for any serious phone-o-phile. The price/performance ratio can't be beat; a big-ticket item, but at $1190 it's a bargain compared to the Planar-Magnetic competition. If you can afford these for your lucky mate, he or she will find themselves in Dharma-Nirvana for years to come. Can someone please gift me a Christmas Dharma?

ES9018K2M DAC Kit


Excuse me for suggesting that you stuff those stockings with DIY stuff. If you've got industrious teenagers, this is a no-brainer project that'll keep 'em off the texting for a week or two. Even if you do not have a tinkerer in the house, you deserve to let your audiophile friends know they can save thousands of dollars (literally) and get great sonic rewards by building their own DAC from a kit!

The DIYINHK deluxe kit, with LED PCB and XMOS USB board is $169.90. Add three power supplies for about $180 from DIYNHK, a power transformer from Digikey, and a case from Ebay and you can build a state-of-the-art DAC for literally a fraction of the cost of a commercial product. Soldering time should be only a few hours, but figure several days to drill holes and mount components in the case.

Jim Tavegia's picture

I have the RS-120 Sennheiser's on my night stand and use them just about every night and really like them. A real bargain.

I also have a pair of Koss Porta-Pros and for the money they are excellent, but I tend to use them less than my Grado 80s. Even my kids at school love the $99 Grados and are asking Santa for a pair for Christmas.

Now that my Focal Spirit Pros are broken in I really like them and they are the most expensive cans I own at $350, but my FAVs are still my 2 pair of AKG-K271s which seem to best match my 68 year old ear's reproducing ability. I will mix with the Focal's.

Jim Tavegia's picture

I should have added that for all of $99 the Shure SE-215's are a bargain for IEM. I use them often as well.

tony's picture

I own both and would own better if I could find them. I've tried and tried again many times. ( I've re-tuned my RS120s to sound nearly as good as my wired Sennheisers )

The Etymotics with the best Isolation are easy and obvious additions that can transform horrible environments into Islands of Tranquility, keep a spare pair with the Passport.

A nice collection of Rossini will delight any music lover.

Tony in Michigan

ps. a top level Phonak hearing system properly adjusted is a god send ( the Audiologist tunes them for the persons hearing curves, a bit pricy at $6,000 for one pair )

zobel's picture

I've had my HD600 for 16 years, still like new with replaced pads, and are are excellent in almost all respects, and a good value.

I've had the koss porta pros forever too. They are a great value, sound wonderful at this price point, and are very, very portable.

I also agree, and am happy to see the Sennheiser wireless recommendations. I have the RS175 and find them to be wonderful sounding and solidly built, and very highly performing as wireless cans. Great value too.

Other mentions might include;

AKG K7XX for $200 only at Massdrop.com. Maybe the best sounding AKG K7** series, and a great value. Thanks for the recommendation John Grandberg!

Sennheiser HD 380 PRO. Available for around $170, and a good shorter cable (aftermarket, Amazon) for around $26, for more portability. Very comfortable, closed, very accurate full range sound.
Highly recommended.

Thanks for the reviews Tyll.

John Grandberg's picture

Massdrop is doing some good things right now. K7XX, then Grace Design m9XX, then Fostex TH-X00, all exceptional performers and reasonably priced for what they are.

I'll have to check out the HD380 Pro one of these days.

potterpastor's picture

I used to have the HD380- The pros: Deep bass, WIDE soundstage, especially for a sealed phone, thick coil cable
The cons- Treble is a bit hot, cable not removable, can't remember mids

potterpastor's picture

Con- the 380 pro is a tight fitting, skull gripping phone

zobel's picture

To most ears they are spot on. I wouldn't want any less clamping pressure. The cable is replaceable, and nice after market cables are available in various lengths. Are you sure you are talking about the same cans? The 280 Pro had a tight clamp force, maybe you are thinking of those?

zobel's picture

and I thank you again for the heads-up on those John! I actually prefer them to my old standby HD600s. Better and more bass, and the highs are more forward with the AKGs. They too must be amped, and are a bit less forgiving than the Sen HD600, but good recordings sound more dimensional and dynamic with the K7XX. If I had to choose I would take the AKGs over the Sennheisers in this case. Never thought I would find cans to take their place, especially at such a better price through Massdrop. Thanks again John, this is the biggest upgrade to my headphone listening experience in 15 years!

John Grandberg's picture
I too really enjoy them. Whenever I start to lament the situation of ever-increasing headphone prices, I go back to the K7XX to remind me what kind of quality SHOULD be attainable for $200.
Jim Tavegia's picture

Smooth and effortless and I bought them for $229 off the AKG site 2-3 years ago I guess when WP reviewed them for "StereoPhile".

riker1384's picture

The Beats Solo 2 is being offered in Black Friday sales for almost as cheap as the Noontec, and it's better imho.

Audioaddict's picture

The Flare Audio R2A should have been one of the IEM's listed. Absolutley phenomanal for the price of 279$

ubercore's picture

You may want to change the Rdio/Spotify recommendation, as Rdio has declared bankruptcy: http://www.theverge.com/2015/11/16/9746220/pandora-to-acquire-key-parts-...

John Grandberg's picture
I had already made my list before this news happened. Too bad.... not that I didn't see it coming. Rdio had something of a "MOG" quality to it - too focused on music lovers, maybe not enough on marketing. I bet Spotify is hard to compete against.
zobel's picture

Pandora is buying it. No new subscriptions taken there. NBD if Pandora will incorporate some of the better features.

I'm shocked to see that someone (John G.?) didn't list a cassette player in their list...not. But really, cassettes are making a comeback of sorts. It has even has made the news;


Makes it hard to compare CDs to VHS tapes (John G.), to DVDs, yes.
I still like the hard copy. I read newspapers, buy paper books, and prefer reality to virtual reality. I'm old school, which is understandable, since I'm old. But... may your downloads serve you well, and When you stream, may you do so merrily merrily merrily, because life is "but a dream".


John Grandberg's picture
I've spent countless hours assembling cassette mix tapes over the years. And shopping for the best sounding blank cassettes... BASF Chrome? Sony UX Pro? TDK or Maxell something or other (can't recall the specifics)? Lots of fun to be had, but alas it's probably been nearly 2 decades since I've touched one.
zobel's picture

I also spent that time making mixes on cassettes, and trying different tapes. I even had a couple wire recorders. Those are all gone now since they didn't age well, and really weren't all that great sounding to begin with. The Tascam four track cassette recorder was fun too. I had a reel to reel at that time too that I played with a lot, and it sounded much better.
I still spend countless hours making compilations on music CDRs. I just enjoy the process, and the sound is soooooo much better than the analog tape, (or the wire recorder) :-)
Can't believe people will want cassettes again after they have left the farm and been to Paris.

logscool's picture

Just curious if Bob has actually tried the DIY DAC project listed? How does it compare to some of your favorite converters?

potterpastor's picture

Does this mean you have changed your mind and now like HD 600 better than HE400S? I change likes from time to time.

poleepkwa's picture

I have to agree with this recommendation. The Sony is under appreciated. It does have limits, but its ease of use and battery life is simply fantastic.It sounds surprisingly good too. I got the RHA T20 with these and have been very pleased.

jonny564's picture

With holiday pricing on amazon the noontech hd II, Momentum on ear, urbanite, and vmoda m-80 are all around the same price. within $10 or so...gift buying is so difficult. Tyll if you read these, if you had to re-review those headphones and they were all the same price which would come out on top.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
I'd say the build quality of the other three are quite a bit better, but my guess is that only the M-80 may be better sonically. YMMV, this is a guess from memory.
Currawong's picture

I now have 1 vest and 3 jackets. Don't forget the pants too! I remember the look of shock on the face of a Sony engineer when I pulled a long headphone adaptor cable out of the one of the pockets after being asked to audition one of their DAC/amps with my headphones.

audiobill's picture

In your review of the HE400S you say, "I do find its transient response cleaner than the HD 600, thereby delivering slightly better imaging." You also say, "In fact, I found it to be modestly superior to the Sennheiser HD 600/650, delivering a more present mid-range and tighter bass." But then you recommend here the $100 more expensive HD 600. Can you please explain this apparent contradiction?