Cayin iDAC-6 and iHA-6: A Dynamic Duo Page 3

Cayin_iDAC6iHA6_Photo_iHA6Glory

iHA-6 Balanced Headphone Amp ($999)
The matching iHA-6 headphone amplifier is built to a similar level of excellence, using an enclosure that generally matches the iDAC-6 while also having a bit of its own character. It's a relatively straight-forward design—again, no redundant features like pre-amp outs or digital inputs since the DAC already handles those—which nonetheless has a lot to offer as far as pure headphone amps go. We get XLR and RCA inputs around back, while the front panel serves up a plethora of outputs. There's a 4-pin XLR for balanced operation, as well as dual 3-pin XLR jacks if you prefer that style of balanced termination (which I don't). The latter jacks also double as single-ended outputs, with one labeled "Low" and the other "High". Three buttons to the left of the jacks allow selection of input as well as toggling low/high gain and low/high current. Add in a power button and a volume knob (which has an excellent feel to it when turned) and that's all we need. As I said, pretty straight forward.

Cayin_iDAC6iHA6_Photo_RearPanels

This is a fully balanced design using all discrete components (with one exception that I'll discuss shortly) and delivering far more juice than its modest size might initially suggest. The single-ended output tops out at a healthy 2,200mW at 32 ohms, while the balanced out delivers 7,000mW into the same load. That's extremely potent by any standard, right up there with heavy hitters like the Simaudio 430HA and Violectric V281. A look at the guts shows a beefy power supply using an in-house designed, shielded toroidal transformer flanked by over 40,000uF worth of filter capacitors. An Alps brand 4-gang volume pot attests to the "true" balanced nature of the design, though I do see opamps in the circuit to allow balanced output when using single-ended inputs or vice versa. As with many balanced amps such as the previously mentioned V281 or the Firestone Audio Bobby I reviewed some time ago, it's generally best to stick with the same format coming in and out, avoiding extra conversion stages. The Cayin does a pretty good job of minimizing loss here but a small degree of sonic penalty is inevitable.

Cayin_iDAC6iHA6_Photo_iHA6Internal

While I'm on the topic, I will say this amp is best enjoyed in balanced mode. The SE outputs are plenty powerful for most headphones but let's examine other aspects: the "Low" jack has a 10 ohm output impedance, while the "High" jack is 120 ohms. Neither of these is ideal for low impedance dynamic headphones such as Grado, Ultrasone, or Audio Technica. And multi-driver balanced armature IEMs are also out, unless you favor unpredictable frequency response changes. Balanced mode gives a 0.3 ohm output impedance which is far more appropriate for a variety of cans. So, ultimately the 1/4" jacks are not as useful except with a handful of headphones—higher impedance models from Sennheiser and beyerdynamic, or planar magnetic models which don't really care so much about a higher output impedance. The 120 ohm output is particularly unnecessary in my book, being only good for some experimentation with the HD800.

The balanced output, however, is quite capable with any headphone you throw at it. And I do mean ANY headphone, including the dreaded HiFiMAN HE-6. Unless you're one of those people who insist on using a speaker amp with it, you won't find much more power for the HE-6 than what the little Cayin has on tap. It's actually kind of funny to see big amps like the Luxman P-1u and the Woo Audio WA22 which can't drive the HE-6 well at all, and then along comes the compact iHA-6 and outdoes them by a huge margin.

Power is not the only thing this amp is good for—it can do finesse too. I actually had surprisingly good results with several custom IEMs from Noble, JH Audio, and Westone, using the XLR output of course. There's not much play in the volume knob but that can be remedied by setting the DAC output to a lower level. Once I set the DAC to around 20 (out of 32 total) I had plenty of room to dial in ideal levels on the amp. And the sound quality was excellent, really letting the unique signature of each IEM flow through—this amp has very little coloration of its own. There was a very faint, almost imperceptible background hiss that I could just make out if I really listened for it. I've heard far worse even from dedicated portable amps and DAPs which are supposedly intended for use with IEMs. So the fact that Cayin got this powerhouse amp to near silence is impressive. I admit to being more sensitive than most on this issue yet even I wouldn't hesitate to use this amp with IEMs on a regular basis.

So, how does the iHA-6 sound? I could go on an on about it but I'm going to start by referring you to my review of the excellent Auralic TAURUS mkII. Why would I bring up that particular amp, which was formerly on the Wall of Fame and used as a reference by both Tyll and myself? Because the Cayin iHA-6 sounds nearly identical. Seriously. I knew I liked the Cayin right from the start but it took a while to come to the realization that I've heard this sound before. That neutral tone, the fast and clean treble, the tight, well-controlled bass response, the precision imaging... I actually had both amps running side by side for quite some time and I'm not sure I could reliably tell them apart. Keep in mind the Auralic unit sells for $1,899 which is nearly double the Cayin's price.

Let me expand on this a bit further. First of all, the TAURUS has a slightly different sound between its balanced and single-ended outputs. The 1/4" jack is more direct and lively while the XLR out seems a touch more relaxed and spacious. This gets mildly confusing but stay with me here: balanced out on the iHA-6 sounds very similar to the single-ended jack on the Auralic amp. So if you tried a TAURUS using the XLR out and wanted that same sound from a more affordable amp, this isn't quite the same thing. But the Cayin XLR out is perhaps 95% the same as the TAURUS 1/4" output—Auralic at times felt ever so slightly more airy on the top end, which was only noticeable on rare occasions. Even less often, it felt like the TAURUS kept its composure better during really complex, layered recordings. Aside from that I'd say they were identical sonic twins.

That doesn't make the TAURUS obsolete, as it still has a few benefits the Cayin can't match. It can work as a pre-amp, which is important to some users. And it has that XRL output which has a unique sound of its own. If you can do without those two aspects the iHA-6 is a very worthy substitute for a lot less cash—95% of the performance for just over 50% of the price? That's definitely appealing.

I played with the high and low gain settings and ended up just leaving it on low for all of my listening. I also couldn't tell a significant difference in the high or low current settings. Every time I thought I heard a slight change, a counterexample would present itself, so the ultimate worth of this setting eluded me. The amp seems to have plenty of drive regardless of which option is chosen so perhaps I just never really bumped up against the limits of the lower setting. If I was an HE-6 fiend and listened at far higher levels than I do, perhaps this would come into focus more readily. Regardless, I found I was able to get excellent results from every headphone in my collection. The only time this might not be a great match is when a headphone has some issue I want to "fix"—smoothing out a Grado or damping peaks in a beyerdynamic, to name just two examples. The iHA-6 has excellent control and won't exasperate an already borderline headphone. But neither will it hold back or gloss over any performance shortfalls. Just the facts, nothing more.

The fact that this is such an honest amp makes it an ideal partner for the iDAC-6. Remember those different signatures I mentioned, based on output and filtering choices? Well, the iHA-6 makes those adjustments readily apparent. More so than any other headphone amp I've heard in the $1,000 price range. So yes, the amp can be brutally honest, but that's by design. The excellent Violectric V200, big brother to the Wall of Fame G109, is not this transparent, nor is the Icon Audio HP-8 mkII which also has a spot on the Wall. Those are all great amps in their own ways but for critical listening I'd choose the Cayin every time. If lush, euphonic sound is your thing, this probably isn't the amp for you, though when paired with the iDAC-6 the result can go somewhat in that direction if the user desires.

I think that's the key here—this stack was clearly designed to work together, playing off the strengths of each component. The DAC is versatile and the amp uncompromising. As a team, they can be made to sound like a junior version of the nearly $5K Auralic Vega/Taurus stack. Or, switching things up a bit, they can beautify your music at the expense of some accuracy. It's your choice. I use different settings for the HD800, Dharma, and HE-6 than I do for the LCD-3, HD650, and Noble K10, and I love having the option to switch as needed. Add in the generous amount of inputs and format support, plus the massive power output that can drive even the most difficult of headphones, and you can see the appeal.

My one real complaint on the amp side of the combo relates to those single-ended jacks, which seem like a missed opportunity. Yes, the main draw of an amp like this will always be the balanced out, but it would be nice to have a more useful 1/4" jack for some situations. I'm specifically thinking of IEMs which pretty much universally come with single-ended cables. It doesn't really make sense to reterminate an IEM cable with a big 4-pin XLR plug... I've got just such a cable for exactly this type of testing but I know I'm the exception. Most IEM users are left with the poor impedance match of the 1/4" output which isn't in any way ideal. Same goes for users of special headphones like the Audio Technica W3000ANV which sport the signature wooden plug like all W-series woodies—there's no way I'd desecrate the cable of a limited-edition collectible headphone, so again I'd be left with an inferior result when using this amp. If Cayin could get the output impedance down on at least one of the single-ended outputs, that would be very useful.

Final Thoughts
In the end, the iDAC-6 is recommended but doesn't really fit into any of our categories on the Wall of Fame. It's a very capable DAC though, competing well with better examples from both the musical and the neutral schools of thought in this price range. I can't imagine someone being disappointed with it in their system unless perhaps they were looking for a more extreme coloration—the warm, inviting signature it can impart only goes so far, and may not be enough for someone desiring a truly dark, NOS type of sound.

The iHA-6 amp, however, does seem worthy of a Wall of Fame recommendation. It comes within inches of matching the Auralic TAURUS mkII which only recently retired from the Wall after a several year stint. Whether deliberate or not, the fact that Cayin accomplished this so well in a smaller, far less expensive component is very impressive, and thus deserving of Wall of Fame status.

COMPANY INFO
Cayin - Zhuhai Spark Electronic Equipment Co., LTD
9 Lianfa Rd, Shuanglin Zone,
Liangang Industrial Park, Zhuhai City
Guangdong Province, China
0756-3828711
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
tony's picture

Hello Mr Grandberg,

There seems to be a rather intense interest in Tube Rolling now-a-days.

Your reviewing one of these little headphone amps ( along with a box of Tubes ) would make for some fascinating journalism.

I suppose, then, that you'd be reviewing the hobby of Tube Rolling as well as one of the Amps that has the capability.

I could point at the Polish Felikes, the Woo, the various Schiit Amps, the Garage1217, the Bottlehead stuff ( that Tyll built and seems to love ).

The Garage1217 postings on Head-fi read like each triode gives the amplification a unique sound quality, almost like buying a whole different amp.

Apparently the Felikes is the latest "HOT" item.

Betcha someone would "loan" you an Amp and a box of Tubes.

Thanks for all your insight, being featured on Innerfidelty is a resume builder.

Maybe Tyll will show you how to do Video Reviews that folks with an iPhone will & can watch, it's the next big thing.

Tony in Michigan

ps. Stoddard just went on another Rant about the Newport Show

John Grandberg's picture
Cayin has just the thing in the upcoming HA-1A mk2. It's got a pair of 12AU7's driving EL84's along with the somewhat unusual (at least in my experience) 12DT5 for rectification. Very easy to roll tubes - I've got one here and have been rather enjoying myself, though I leave the 12DT5 alone for now. With the right tubes the amp is very competitive, superior in my opinion to the Woo stuff for example. I'll have more to say about it down the road.
tony's picture

Geez, Sam Telig had one of these things, back in 2006. It's been around for a loooooooong time now. How'd we miss it?

Even has a couple of Watts for speakers, ( first watt will give 86db. on a pair of Pro-Ac Tabletts).

Nice find John, good work!

Thanks,

Tony in Michigan

ps. the darn thing even has a impedance matching selector for headphones.

I wonder what the mk2 feature set will be? I'll be following along.

R-Val22's picture

I have been looking at the Sennheiser HDVD800, but after reading your review you have piqued my interest. I cannot find a dealer for the Cayin however, Could you help? And would you choose the Cayin over the Sennheiser for the HD800-S and HD700s?

John Grandberg's picture

I'm told Cayin is working on getting more local distributors (I'm assuming here that you live in North America like me) but for now there's one in Canada that has a shipment of this new stuff on the way: http://www.audionation.ca/pages/cayin-audio-br-tube-components-audionation

I don't particularly care for the HDVD800 and I'd much rather choose the Cayin stack - or any number of other combos - for the money.

tony's picture

I heard the HDVD800 driving the HD600 & HD800, at a headphone meet, I very much liked it. It has a DAC that can't be bypassed, ( no way to put an EQ between the Amp and DAC (which I need to do for my elderly hearing tapering off above 8kz.)

At the very same meet I heard a Valhalla 2 ( tubed up with super Russian tubes ) I should've bought that Amp but never got around to it.

If I don't get around to Tube Rolling I'll simply stay with the Asgard 2, for the money, it's Gold.

Tony in Michigan

R-Val22's picture

I want a balanced out so if I was to go Schiit It would be the Mjolnir2/Gungnir Multibit, but tube rolling would be a whole new hobby

tony's picture

I think you are right, tube rolling has near limitless possibilities for the exploring of sound quality.

Tony in Michigan

R-Val22's picture

What that include the Mjolnir 2/Gungnir Multibit?

John Grandberg's picture
Haven't heard those newer ones yet. I definitely like the Cayin more than original Mjolnir and Gungnir though.
tony's picture

It looks like the Pound is dropping to 1985 lows, making British gear more affordable for buyers paying with US Dollars.

Mojo buyers win.

Tony in Michigan

John Grandberg's picture
...if prices reflect the drop right away or not. Not long ago, the Dollar was doing well against the Euro, the Violectric USA distributor gave a 15% discount to account for that (still in place at the moment). Yet most imported gear remained the same price. I guess if a distributor bought high and is sitting on a mountain of gear, they don't want to sell low. Which is where small "direct to customer" situations work out better.
tony's picture

Guys like TTVJ could buy up mucho Vinyl Gear ( as in Michell Gyrodecks ) as well as LS like the LS3/5a and the like. Brit prices haven't been this low since the mid 1980s.

Gotta have "Cash on the Barrel head" to work this but it can be verrrrry profitable.

Tony in Michigan

ps. I think I'm paying .50 cents per pound wt. to container Air ship from England to DTW ( Michigan ) , J.V.Carr clears the stuff thru Customs. ( I stopped doing Audio Stuff 30 years ago, I ship Car stuff )

R-Val22's picture

Hi Mr. Granderg,I contacted audionaton and bought the Cayin combo. I have both a Win 7 and Win 10 computer and I'm having a problem installing the drivers for the dac. I followed some recommendations that were made on a thread on Head-fi and posted my current situation on there as well, but I'm hoping someone can help me out on this problem. I'm burning up not being able to hear them.

John Grandberg's picture

I missed this comment until today. I'm not sure what to suggest - I have 2 Windows machines (8.1 and 10) both working fine with the supplied drivers, as well as a MacBook and a Linux device from Aurender. All of mine work fine with no issues.

The only thing I can think to do is make sure you remove all older USB drivers. That has caused me some grief in the past when I didn't realize I had something else already installed from a different device. Or perhaps you already got it sorted by now? Again, sorry for the delay.

norsemen's picture

It was a great review to read John!

Iha-6 hasn't been listed on WoF yet. Will WoF be updated soon?

pcdvd's picture

Hi, John.
Can you please compare iDAC-6 + iHA-6 and DAC-10H?

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