In a recent column, I complained about the rapid growth in the number of lookalike headphone amps that are little more than a DAC-amp chip stuffed into an extruded-aluminum box. The Aurender Flow ($1295 USD) is the exact opposite: a product that represents a major rethinking of what people -- specifically, audiophiles -- need in a headphone amp.
I’m writing this review on a sleek, highly portable Hewlett-Packard Spectre laptop equipped with a modestly sized solid-state drive (SSD) that makes me wish I’d spent the money on a bigger drive. Despite my efforts to move my storage-intensive audio and video files to an external drive, my SSD has just 2.2 gigabytes of space left. Yet thanks to the Flow, I can now use this overstuffed computer to access my entire collection of digital music files, and I can add more music without worrying I’ll run out of space.
Oppo Digital PM-3 measurements can be found by clicking this link.
In just one year, Oppo Digital has become one of the biggest names in audiophile headphones. The new PM-3 closed-back headphones ($399 USD) follow on the impact Oppo made with its other models, the PM-1 ($1099) and PM-2 ($699). Not only is the PM-3 the least expensive model Oppo has made, it’s their first closed-back model, which opens it up to a much wider audience. Closed-back headphones provide some degree of isolation from sounds around you, so you get less noise and more music. I’d guess closed-back headphones outsell open-back models by 100 to 1.
Torque Audio t402v measurements can be found by clicking this link.
It’s a good thing most headphones are relatively inexpensive, because they’re the riskiest purchase an audio enthusiast can make. Headphones vary greatly in tonal quality -- more than speakers do, at least according to my ears and my measurement gear. Listeners’ opinions of headphones also seem to vary more than do their opinions of gear in other audio categories. Yet it’s rare to be able to listen to headphones before you buy. Sometimes you can check them out at a headphone meet or hi-fi show, but for the most part you have to rely on reviews written by people who may or may not share your taste in music and/or sound.
NuForce, the California-based audio brand best known for their proprietary class-D power amplifiers, was recently acquired by Optoma Technology, known to many as a major maker of DLP projectors. Also recently, the high-end division of NuForce was spun off as a new company, NuPrime, which will manufacture more expensive products, such as the amplifiers based on NuForce’s high-end, class-D amplifier modules with Cross Matrix Array (CMA) capacitor boards.
NuForce itself will continue to manufacture less costly products, but gone from their product line are many of the very small models -- e.g., the Icon integrated amplifiers -- which were popular for use with desktop systems. However, NuForce continues to offer compact stereo and home-theater components, and high-quality earphones. Thankfully, my favorite NuForce product, the DDA-100 Direct Digital integrated amplifier (discontinued), now lives on as the DDA120, which adds some key new features and a slight increase in price, from $549 to $699 USD.
Phiaton MS 100 BA measurements can be found by clicking this link.
The new MS 100 BAs -- Phiaton’s first earphones with balanced-armature drivers -- make me wonder once again why there’s not more controversy or disagreement about balanced armatures. Look at all the stuff audiophiles do disagree about: tubes vs. transistors, the benefits (or lack thereof) of high-resolution audio, whether or not cables make a difference. Well, the audible difference between using balanced-armature and conventional dynamic drivers in earphones is much more significant than the differences you’d hear in any of the pairings just mentioned.
Marshall Headphones Mode EQ measurements can be found by clicking this link.
How many new consumer-audio brands have emerged in the last seven years or so? I doubt anyone’s counted, but I bet the number has at least doubled, and perhaps tripled. With so many new marques emerging, the entry of the legendary guitar-amp brand Marshall Amplification into consumer audio didn’t get as much attention as it probably would have 15 years ago. That’s sad, because it deserves better.
Having established, over the past 40 years, an excellent reputation for manufacturing affordable yet high-quality audio gear, NAD has recently gained the attention of audiophiles with their Masters Series models, most of them priced at a few thousand dollars -- relatively expensive for NAD models, but not when compared to gear from many specialty-audio makers. And, like other NAD products, the Masters Series models have already become known among audiophiles for providing excellent performance and value, even at their higher prices.
Recently, my attention has been captured by some Direct Digital integrated amplifier-DACs: NAD’s Masters Series M2 and C 390DD. My own budget reference, the NuForce DDA-100, is of similar design. Each of these models sounds fantastic for its price, and I like the idea of keeping the signal entirely in the digital domain, right up until the speaker outputs.
When NAD announced the newest power amplifiers in their top line, the Masters Series, I was surprised to learn that they would be class-D amps with conventional analog inputs, not Direct Digital designs. Also offered are the matching Masters Series M12 stereo digital preamplifier-DAC and M17 surround processor, but these link to the new Masters Series power amps only via analog RCA or XLR connections.
Traditionally, headphone amps have been afterthoughts -- relatively low-cost circuits built into receivers, computers, portable media players, etc. After all, even with relatively insensitive headphones, the amp usually needs to put out no more than 50mW -- 0.05W -- to drive headphones to loud volumes with no audible distortion. But with headphones’ recent surge in popularity, and the concomitant growth in the number of hardcore headphone enthusiasts, many manufacturers have been putting serious design effort and resources into their headphone amps.
Oppo Digital PM-2 measurements can be found by clicking this link.
Luxury has never much appealed to me. The word can mean an indulgence, something inessential. Both latter terms are anathema to me, which is probably why my audio-reviewing beat has largely been gear that scores highly on the scale of performance per dollar spent. S. Andrea Sundaram recently reviewed Oppo Digital’s PM-1 headphones ($1099 USD), and was so taken with them that they ended up being named a SoundStage! Product of the Year. Andrea not only has discerning ears; he’s a fastidious critic. When it was suggested that I review Oppo’s PM-2, a model for which nearly identical sound quality is claimed (provided the synthetic earpads are used for both models) for a price $400 lower ($699), I jumped.