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The Pinnacle of The Electrostatic Sound

Saturday, December 31, 2016

EAN Audiophile Review!
MartinLogan ElectroMotion
EM-ESL Electrostatic Speakers


©Everything Audio Network

Brevis...
Price $2,499 per pair
Likes; exquisite ML sound, price
Dislikes: you can’t dislike this speaker
Wow Factor: a “best buy” electrostatic
Info: ElectroMotion EM-ESL

by John Gatski
  It is no secret that I am a big fan of MartinLogan electrostatic speakers. I own a pair of the Montis and have reviewed it and the the ML flagship: the Neolith. Electrostatic speakers, set up correctly, relay a vast sense of sonic space that is addictive in the world of hi-fi listening.
  Over the last few years MartinLogan has been able to take advantages of its newer electrostatic technology advances in bass woofer (powered and passive) and digital crossovers to bring their electrostatic speakers down to affordable levels. the case in point is the MartinLogan ElectroMotion EM-ESL reviewed here, priced at a shocking $2,499 per pair!

Electrostat’s rule
  To you electrostatic newbies, electrostatic technology has been around for years. These speakers produce audio by electrically charging the steel perforated stator with an audio signal. Because of the low-mass of the electrostatic-panel driver and its dipole radiation properties, the driver’s essential audio character has been one of a vast stereo image with a fast, accurate tone in the midrange and treble — without multiple drivers and complex crossovers.

  I quickly realized that the under-$2,500 EM-ESL electrostatics sound nearly as good as my $10,000 Montis. In my room, those live-like drum cymbal brushes and upper-register piano notes emerged in a wide, deep soundstage — but not exaggerated.

  In the early years of electrostatics, bass performance did not match the upper band, but over the years, developments in driver efficiency, powered woofers, etc., has provided bass performance that now precisely matches the speed of the electrostatic  driver.
  The EM-ESL is a result of all ML’s continual progress in making electrostatic speakers. And it offers an upscale, sonic presentation for small-to-medium rooms at a ridiculously low per pair price under $2,500.

Features
  The EM-ESL is built with a full-sized, 34-inch tall, curvilinear XStat electrostatic transducer that offers performance that is comparable to their upscale models. The MicroPerf transducer is mounted on a radical aluminum and composite AirFrame similar to those found on MartinLogan's flagship products. According to ML, AirFrame technology “rigidifies” the electrostatic panel without obstructing the playable surface area or interfering with ambience-enriching dipole sound radiation. At the same time, the AirFrame is said to provide electrical and acoustical isolation, minimizing intermodulated distortion caused by vibration and resonance. 


The MartinLogan electrostatic Curvilinear panel

  Employed in most ML electrostatic designs, the MicroPerf design optimizes the individual holes of the EM-ESL's electrostatic panel. The MicroPerf design substantially increases diaphragm radiating area, compared to the early ML generations, without compromising structural integrity. The resulting increase in output capability and efficiency allows the EM-ESL's panel to project extended bandwidth and dynamics.
  Like every other modern ML electrostatic, the company's patented CLS™ (Curvilinear Line Source) technology enables construction of electrostatic panels as cylindrical sections and, most importantly, the horizontal curvature of the panel solves the problem of obtaining good high-frequency dispersion from a large radiating surface. And that is obvious when listening through ML speakers; I monitored off axis with EM-ESL and did not hear significant HF roll off.



  To balance out the wonderfully, airy spectrum of midrange and high-end sound, the EM-ESL supplies low frequencies via an 8-inch, high-excursion,  audiophile-grade, doped-fiber cone woofer — custom designed by MartinLogan's in-house engineering team. Via the front-firing woofer, augmented by a bottom-mounted, flared port, that can reach nearly 40 Hz. Which is plenty low for most kinds of music.
  Overall, specs include a 42 Hz to 22 kHz frequency response (plus. minus 3 dB), 91 dB sensitivity (91 dB/2.83 volts/meter), 500 Hz crossover. Recommended power is 200 watts or higher. The EM-ESL measures 52.1 inches tall x 9-inches wide x 16.3-inches deep at the woofer box. Weight is a very light 35 pounds, easy to unbox and set up solo. The frame and woofer box come in satin black and gloss black finishes.
  MartinLogan also offers the EM-ESLX, which nets an additional woofer, and 6-inches more of panel surface. It is priced at $3,999 per pair

The set up
  I Installed the MartinLogan EM-ESL in my audiophile listening room: about eight feet apart, six feet from the side walls, and three feet from back walls. I angled them in slightly, per the manual. Since electrostatics radiate from both sides, the wall behind the speaker is a vital part of the sound. Close proximity to the front wall allows for necessary reflections to make the electrostatic radiate its sound properly.
  Since my floor is a solid concrete slab with a bit of carpet in the speaker mount area, I did not attach the supplied spikes. My own RTA bass response measurements was quite clean in the bass frequencies — down - 2dB at 45 Hz.


The 8-inch woofer gets a boost from bottom-mount port


  Since electrostatic speakers need current, a pair of wall-wart DC adapters come standard with the speakers. Just plug then into wall. outlet. And the bottom-mounted speaker terminals offered plenty of space to plug in my Wireworld Eclipse premium speaker cables.
  Two amp options powered the review speakers: the Rogue Audio Medusa tube/digital hybrid, a perfect match for electrostatics with its precision transient performance and signature linear frequency response. The other amp was a Pass Labs X350.8 high-power MOSFET output stereo amp — with its velvet, analog finesse and tubelike smoothness.
  Other components used in the review process, included an Oppo BDP-105 universal player, Mytek Digital Brooklyn DAC/preamp, an Oppo HA-1 DAC/Headphone Amplifier, Rogue Audio RP-5 preamplifier, Coda High Current preamplifier, ASUS Android tablet with USB Audio Player Pro (super hi-res material), and a VPI Player turntable.
  All analog and digital cables were Wireworld Eclipse, and I used Essential Sound Products Essence II component power cables.
  For speakers, I compared the EM-ESLs to my MartinLogan Montis, a larger panel electrostatic with a powered 10-inch subwoofer. Other speakers in the test included Legacy Audio Studio HD ribbon tweeter monitors, Westlake LC8.1 stand speakers, and a pair of Pass Labs SR2 tower speakers.

The audition
  To get things started, I played my 24/192 dub of the DMP SACD: Warren BernhardtSo Real, and focused my listening on the title cut. The “So Real“ track is perfect for sorting out how well loudspeakers can relay a natural sense of sonic space. Its hi-res presentation of Steinway piano, bass and drums provides an-almost live stereo image with incredible air around the drum cymbals and snare. The piano rings out those Steinway harmonics like a bell. Even mediocre speakers are graced by this recording, but exceptional speakers like the ML EM-ESLs are something else.
  With the Rogue audio powering the EM-ESLs, I quickly realized that the under-$2,500 electrostatics sound nearly as good as my $10,000 Montis. In my room, those live-like drum cymbal brushes and upper-register piano notes emerged in a wide, deep soundstage — but not exaggerated. Just more expansive.
  And the eight-inch easily handled the essential kick drum and up-right bass. In fact, for this recording the bass from the EM-ESL was just slightly less impactful than the active 10-inch woofer in the Montis. The Montis’ were a lot more money, and they contain a bigger, powered woofer. To be this close is amazing!
  Switching to The Bach Solo Cello SuitesJanos Starker SACD (Mercury Living Presence), again, the EM-ESL shined — fluid bow-to-cello strings harmonics with a complex depth that I would not expect for this price. I also heard that bit of room reverb and Mr. Starker’s ever-present breathing and the minute bits of background chair squeak that permeate the playback. So much dimension with this smaller electrostatic.


Slim, sleek, and the EM-ESL's superb sound!

  For small rooms that have ample back wall and side wall distance, I quickly came to the conclusion that a pair of EM-ESL’s are all the speaker many audiophiles would ever need. Sit down in your chair, dim the lights, pop the cork on the merlot, and let that hi-res music play. And did i mention that these speakers are under $2,500.
 For a sampling of Pop music, I played the David BowieThe Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust SACD. On the song “Rock and Roll Suicide,” the intro acoustic guitar/Bowie solo vocal emerges as big as life with a rich fullness on Bowie’s 6-string.

As far as EAN is concerned, the EM-ESLs are a best buy hi-fi audiophile speaker. With this much electrostatic performance, relative low price and compact size, the speaker is a no-brainer. They also get an EAN Stellar Sound and a 2016 Product of The Year nod in the Audiophile Speaker category.

  Listening to the 24-bit hi-res version of Daft Punk’s "Get Lucky" hit, the Neo-Disco drum and electric rhythm guitar, courtesy of Nile Rodgers’ Fender Strat playing, was muscular enough with a solid kick drum performance and a generously spaced stereo image. Vocals were perfectly balanced without any of the tradition crossover/driver artifacts you hear on  middle-of-the-pack conventional speakers.
  I don’t like ultra-velocity Heavy Metal and ultra dense Pop on electrostatic speakers in my listening room, and the EM-ESL were no different.The dipole radiation of all the heavy guitar haze, at least in my room, is too much when you turn it up. I prefer recordings that are less dense.
  That does not mean that loud recordings can’t sound good. Big band and brass sound quite good at over 90 dB peaks. I played the classic 1970s LP, the Cadillac Mack and The Detroit 4 audiophile pressing (trombone, bass, drums and piano). With the best buy VPI Player TT and Ortophon Red cartridge pressed into service through the Rogue Audio’ RP-5 phono stage, those meaty trombone runs magnified the recording’s powerful — fully fleshed without a hint of strain or blare. (I was surprised that the LP was in that good of shape).

  This demo track also impressed me through the EM-ESL tandem: a crisp acoustic guitar sound with a deep width-of-space impression that never sounds false — just more magnified. It is hard to go back to conventional speakers when listening to this acoustic piece.

  And on the 1979 Three Blind Mice reissue of the Bingo Miki and The Inner-Galaxy OrchestraMontreau Cyclone (XRCD), the power of the horns was apparent via the ML’s.” On the cut “Cyclone From The East,” the chorus of horns and solo saxophone were immensely dynamic with a full, dimensional brass persona. No thin and reedy here.
  To further showcase, the stereo image awe of an electrostatic, I played a hi-res home recording that I made in 2013. Using a matched pair of Audio-Technica instrument microphones and playing a custom Taylor dreadnaught guitar, I made a 24/384 demo track that has a broad, bold stereo image with a width and depth that really exposes the percussive guitar picking detail.
  As with my Montis playback of the track, this demo track also impressed me through the EM-ESL tandem: a crisp acoustic guitar sound with a deep width-of-space impression that never sounds false — just more magnified. It is hard to go back to conventional speakers when listening to this track.

The verdict
  Overall, I had zero complaints with MartinLogan EM-ESL pair. They have that classic, electrostatic sound spread and are balanced nicely with the single 8-inch subwoofer. Hi-res music is impressive through the ESLs, but your old CDs and records will sound pretty special as well. For an apartment or townhouse, or a secondary audiophile listening suite, I would not hesitate to buy a pair.  You can even use them in a home cinema configuration with ML's center, surrounds and subwoofer.
  As far as EAN is concerned, the EM-ESLs are a best buy hi-fi audiophile speaker. With this much performance, relative low price and compact size, the speaker is a no-brainer. They also receive an EAN Stellar Sound and a 2016 Product of The Year nod in the Audiophile Speaker category.

   John Gatski has been evaluating consumer, audiophile, home cinema and professional audio gear since 1988. In 1995, he created Pro Audio Review, and he has written for Audio, LaserviewsEnjoy The MusicThe Audiophile Voice, High Performance ReviewRadio World and TV TechnologyEverything Audio Network is based in Kensington, Md. Articles on this site are the copyright of the ©Everything Audio Network. Any unauthorized use, via print or Internet, without written permission is prohibited. John Gatski can be reached via everything.audio@verizon.net


Friday, December 30, 2016

Audiophile DAC Review!
Benchmark DAC3-HGC
D/A, Preamplifier, HP Amp

The DAC3 is firmly In The Better Hi-Res D/A Camp

Brevis...
Price: $2,195
Likes: super accurate conversion
Dislikes: doesn't look any different
Wow Factor: time to trade in your DAC2 
Info: Benchmark DAC3-HGC

by John Gatski
  The DAC2-HGC is the most-read review we have ever done on EAN, which is a testament to its audio quality and feature list, as one of the premium DACs on the market. Over time, however, new competitors came on the scene and have given Benchmark a run in their subjective audio performance.
  With the new Benchmark DAC3 Series, Benchmark is firmly back in the top tier of DACs — at any price. Equipped with the new ESS ES9028PRO 32-bit chip, the $2,195 DAC3-HGC, reviewed here, is the epitome of accuracy and neutral sonic character.
  The Benchmark DACs have always had fantastic specs, but this one has eked out even better S/N and flatter frequency response. The new chip’s THD compensation feature also helps project a cleaner bass and a more open, revealing soundstage that is as close to music as you can get. Gone is that “overwarmth” I often heard from the previous ESS Sabre-chip DACs. Via line out or headphone amp, you can hear the difference through the DAC3.
  Officially, the Benchmark web site lists the following DAC3 upgrades over the DAC2:
•Active 2nd Harmonic Compensation;
•Active 3rd Harmonic Compensation;
•Lower THD+N;
•Lower passband ripple;
•Improved frequency response;
•Faster PLL lock times;
•Faster switching between input signals.
  The last item on the upgrade list features a near instantaneous input source switching with out that little segment of phase-incoherent audio that typically occurs when switching between digital sources.

Features
  The Benchmark DAC3-HGC supports up to 24/192 PCM and 2.8MHz sampling DSD via  the DoP protocol. The new Benchmark DAC3 series is nearly the spitting image of the DAC2, which had its aesthetic design origins in the original DAC1 series of mid-2000s. The half rack, silver or black, with its series of status lights, headphone jacks and volume control. 
  Familiar Benchmark features include the sample rate and word-length indicators, which are based on specific LED arrays. Around back are two SPDIF coax digital inputs, two optical TOSlink inputs, a single USB 1/USB 2 input, two pairs of analog unbalanced inputs, two sets of analog unbalanced outputs and one set of balanced outputs.

New ESS chip brings a more-defined audio character to DAC3

  Included is a remote control, which switches inputs, controls the volume and enables bypass mode. The new DAC3 models, the DAC3-HGC and the line out-only DAC3-L ($1,995 with remote), both receive the upgraded signal path via the new ESS chip.
 The key to the Benchmark’s more-refined sound, especially in the air I hear around transient sounds, plus an even cleaner bass response is the new ESS chip and the same advanced employed Hybrid Gain Control (analog/digital) volume control that was employed in the DAC2. John Siau, Benchmark VP and chief product designer, said the DAC3 HGC’s “High-Headroom DSP” keeps the audio smooth — without affecting the accuracy of the signal in the DAC.

Taming the “overs”
  The DAC3 can handle signals as high as +3.5 dBFS, offering smoother-sounding performance on maxed digital recordings. According to Siau, most digital systems clip signals that exceed 0 dBFS. For years, he explained, the 0 dBFS digital audio limitation seemed reasonable, as 0 dBFS is the highest sinusoidal signal level that can be represented in a digital system. However, real-world measurements and math equations show that PCM digital systems can have inter-sample peaks that may reach levels slightly higher than +3 dBFS — though the individual samples never exceed 0 dBFS.

  Though audible improvements in DACs these days are mostly subtle, Benchmark delivers a new, audibly superior version over the DAC2, plus added a few ergonomic upgrades, such as faster source switching. It does not look any different, but it certainly sounds different.

  These inter-sample overs, however, create problems with the PCM interpolation filter, a key component of 24-bit DAC performance. Siau said the inter-sample overs cause distortion components that are audibly non-musical and harsh under subjective testing.   

Linear volume control is key
  To achieve linear volume control, the DAC3-HGC utilizes the same circuit, first implemented with the DAC2. It combines active analog gain control, passive low-impedance attenuators, a 32-bit digital gain control and a servo-driven volume control. All inputs are controlled by the rotary volume control, and the volume control moves in response to commands from the remote control.
  According to Benchmark, “analog inputs are never converted to digital, and digital inputs never pass through an analog potentiometer.” The digital inputs are controlled in 32-bit DSP, said to achieve optimal L/R balance, and precise stereo imaging, while avoiding any source of noise and distortion.


  Benchmark also believes its unique passive output attenuators are key to the DAC3's performance, providing distortion-free gain reduction — without reducing the dynamic range of the converter. The attenuators are said to optimize the gain staging between the DAC3-HGC and the power amplifier. This optimization is essential for maximizing the dynamic range of the entire playback system, Siau noted.
  Four balanced outputs are summed in balanced low-impedance I/V converters to form each of the two balanced output channels. National Semiconductor LME49860 op-amps (which can easily handle low impedance loads) are used throughout the audio path. An Alps motorized gain control is used to control the volume.

Sophisticated DSP
  As with the DAC2, the digital processing path consists of a Burr-Brown SRC4392 Digital Audio transceiver, and a Xilinx FPGA running custom Benchmark firmware. The DSP functions include Benchmark's UltraLock2(TM) jitter attenuation system, asynchronous upsampling, automatic de-emphasis, PCM and DSD filters, DoP decoding (for DSD playback), word-length detection and sample rate detection. The DAC3-HGC uses distributed voltage regulation. Each critical circuit has dedicated low-noise voltage regulators. The circuit board has six layers of copper and includes 3-dimensional shielding for critical signals.
  For jitter suppression, Benchmark relies on its UltraLock Jitter Attenuation and asynchronous USB2 input. According to Benchmark, the USB input uses an asynchronous USB transport mode to eliminate the computer and the USB connection as a source of jitter.

  When the Benchmark DAC2 first came out there were just a couple of DACs with word length (bit indicator) indication. Benchmark has since added the feature to all the Benchmark D/As. 

  The USB input operates either in a USB 2.0 mode that supports sample rates up to 192 kHz, or it can operate in a driverless USB Audio 1.1 mode — which supports sample rates up to 96 kHz. The USB input mode is switchable from the remote, or from the front panel. The USB 2.0 mode does not require driver installation on Apple Mac systems. A driver package is included to provide USB 2.0 support on Windows systems.
  As per the DAC2, the DAC3-HGC has a host of audiophile-focused functions: the SPDIF digital pass-through output, analog pass-through, sample rate and word length indicators and its DSD-over-PCM (DoP) compatibility — for playing DSD files.
  The DAC3‘s front panel contains two low-impedance, load-handling headphone jacks, audio mute/dim switch, polarity switch, power switch, and motorized volume control. An assortment of input indicators and the sample rate and word-length indicators complete the front section.
  When the Benchmark DAC2 first came out there were just a couple of DACs with word length (bit indicator) indication. Benchmark has since added the feature to all the Benchmark DACs. In my opinion, the bit status light or display on a DAC is key to show that bit-transparency is maintained from the audio player computer to the DAC.
  The DAC3‘s sample rate/word length indicator section contains 16-bit and 24-bit LEDs for word-length verification, and 44.1/48 kHz LEDs and 2X/4X LEDs for sample rate status. Thus, if your incoming signal is 24-bit/96 kHz sampling, the indicators show the 24-bit LED, the 48 kHz LED and the 2X LED (48 kHz x 2 equals 96 kHz). A 24-bit/192 kHz audio file lights the 24-bit LED, the 48 kHz LED and the 4X LED (48 kHz x 4 equals 192 kHz). DSD signals are indicated by simultaneous lighting of the 2X and 4X LEDs.


  The DAC’s back panel contains plenty of I/O. Ports include a two TOSlink and two coax inputs, one USB input, two sets of analog inputs, two sets of analog unbalanced outputs and one set of balanced XLR outputs. Digital input number four doubles as the digital pass-through (accomplished by moving an internal jumper). There is no analog balanced input or AES/EBU XLR digital input.
  The remote control duplicates all front panel functions including input switching, volume, dim/mute, and polarity controls. The classy remote is made of aluminum and has a nice feel; the buttons are easy to operate. The motorized volume control makes minimal noise as its servo operates. When you turn on the DAC3, the servo goes through its self-check and will move for a few seconds, before stopping at the last setting. When you push the mute/dim button from either the remote or front panel, it will lower the level. Hit it again  and it goes to the previous volume position.

The set up
  I deployed the DAC3-HGC into my audiophile system, which consisted of MartinLogan Montis speakers, Pass Labs X350.8 amp, and Benchmark’s ultra-quiet AHB2 bipolar output amplifier. I used the DAC3 as a preamp, and as a DAC through my Rogue Audio RP-5 tube preamp.
  Sources included an TASCAM DA-3000 hi-res player/recorder, Oppo BDP-105, an ASUS Android tablet with USB Audio Player Pro in the bit perfect mode, connected by USB 2.0; and a Macbook Pro laptop using Audirvana Plus.
  Other DACs on hand for comparison included the Mytek Digital Brooklyn, a Benchmark DAC2-DX, the recently reviewed Bryston BDA-3, and the older Mytek Stereo 192-DSD
  All analog, digital, and speaker cables were from the Wireworld Eclipse series. Power cords and power strip were courtesy of Essential Sound Products. For headphone listening, I used the AKG K702 Anniversary, the AKG K812, and the Oppo PM-1 and Shure SRH-1540.

The audition
  With all the gear set up, I popped in a USB stick full of hi-res music and played it through the TASCAM DA-3000, which was connected to the DAC3 via the SPDIF coax.
  First up, was a 24/192 dub of the Anthony WilsonOur Gang SACD. This 2001 DSD-direct Groove Note Recording, is a simple jazz trio (jazz guitar, drums and organ), which has a sparse, minimalist hi-res feel — featuring a warm Gibson guitar/tube amp tone, the girthy sound of classic Hammond B3 organ and close mic’d drums with great air around the cymbals.
  It takes accurate-sounding electronics to get this recording right. Components that are not clean on the bottom end make the recording sound midbass-heavy and the treble articulation gets lost — even with accurate speakers.
  As good as the old DAC2 sounded, over time I found that it sounded a little warm in the bass that translated to a slight fatness in the  midbass, depending on the recording’s bass presentation. Later, I found other ESS Sabre DAC chip-equipped D/As did the same. They exhibited a plump slowness in the more audible midbass. To my ears, it was a character of the 9018 chip. This warming was almost DSD-like.

The Anthony Wilson Trio title cut’s kick drum, and the midbass organ imprint was leaner, tighter and clearer. This allows the articulation of the air around the guitar notes and the cymbals to emerge to a proper balance.

  However, with this new ESS chip that low-end “over warmth” is gone. The Anthony Wilson Trio title cut’s kick drum, and the midbass organ imprint was leaner, tighter and clearer. This allows the articulation of the air around the guitar notes and the cymbals to emerge to a proper balance.
  I immediately noticed the improvement when A/B’ing the DAC3 and the DAC2. And it was confirmed by headphones, as well as line output through the preamp/amp path. I don’t know what ESS did in its new chip, or whether Benchmark tweaked the analog; or it is a combination of the two, but the emerging audio detail was more balanced than the DAC2.
  And that is really the essence of the sonic improvement of the DAC3; the precision and air inherent in good recordings is noticeably improved with the DAC3. All my reference Pop and Jazz ensemble, piano recordings, acoustic guitar and nylon classical guitar recordings sound more dimensional and alive. 


You know exactly what bit depth your music is with the DAC3

  I dubbed one of the Three Blind Mice classic albums that had been transferred to SACD, The Tsuyoshi Yamamoto Trio - Midnight Sugar. The 24/192 PCM dub includes the title track, which is an 11-minute slow burn to a faster tempo of stand up bass, a very percussive piano and drums.
  This 1974 analog tape, audiophile recording blends the right amount of space between the instruments with a potent piano velocity on the upper register notes. The DAC3 relayed a perfect blend of the instruments and serves up the piano note tinkle with plenty of attack, but no harshness.
  And the clickiness of the stand-up bass string plucks is gorgeous and airy, but not overpowering — a great balance of the low-end and the high-end. On the headphones, I could really hear the difference of this cut over older DACs like the Mytek Stereo 192 - DSD, which was harder edged and thinner sounding. Or the $900 Resonessence Concero, which also contains an older ESS chip.

Benchmark's best D/A
  I clearly heard audible difference when comparing the DAC2 and other older-generation D/As, additional A/B listening with more current DACs, with the levels carefully matched, the differences are harder to hear. Versus the stellar, do-it-all Mytek Brooklyn DAC (also an ESS chip), the results were very close, as was the case with the AKM-equipped Bryston BDA-3. The Brooklyn is about the same price; the Bryston is about $1,500 more. These are among the new-generation DACs that all give top-notch performance. For some audiophiles, the choices may come down to features and connections.

With the DAC3’s super fast PLL and switching relays, the DAC3 is pretty much an A/B switch. And the analog sources switch faster as well.

  By the way, one other area of improvement for the DAC3 is its switching speed from one digital source to another. When switching from say USB to SPDIF or TOSlink, most DACs have a few second ramp-up period where the newly-switched-in audio sounds phasey and inaccurate before the sound stabilizes. It was always hard to accurately discern real differences when A/B listening through the DACs because the new sources always sounded different than the previous source. With the DAC3’s super fast PLL and switching relays, the DAC3 is pretty much an A/B switch. And the analog sources switch faster as well.

CD player, computer or smart phone: they all work with DAC3

  Considering the audible bump in performance over the DAC2, the only real downside to the Benchmark is the fact it looks the same as the DAC2 (and DAC1). No upgraded look to the front panel. Also, the DAC3 does not offer the higher, native sample rates of PCM and DSD.  (up to 384/PCM and 4X DSD) that other DACs offer.
  I predict, however, that most audiophile listeners and existing Benchmark customers looking to upgrade their DACs will not care that 24/192 and 2.8MHz DSD are the max for the DAC3. After all, there are precious few PCM recordings beyond 192. And most computer programs will downsample the music to the DAC’s highest rate so it can be played. I played plenty of 2L 24/352 recordings through the DAC3 at 192 using Audirvana Plus. The quality was first rate.

The verdict
  As with the original DAC1 and DAC2, Benchmark proves it can take advantage of the latest DAC chip technology and notch up the performance of its latest version D/A, the DAC3.
  Though audible improvements in DACs these days are mostly subtle, Benchmark delivers a new, audibly superior version over the DAC2, plus added a few ergonomic upgrades, such as faster source switching. It does not look any different, but it certainly sounds different.
  Although it came out late in the year, the DAC3 was worth waiting for, and it receives the EAN Stellar Sound Award and a last-minute slide into the Everything Audio Network Product-of-The-Year Award in the DAC category.



  John Gatski has been evaluating consumer, audiophile, home cinema and professional audio gear since 1988. In 1995, he created Pro Audio Review, and he has written for Audio, LaserviewsEnjoy The MusicThe Audiophile Voice, High Performance ReviewRadio World and TV TechnologyEverything Audio Network is based in Kensington, Md. Articles on this site are the copyright of the ©Everything Audio Network. Any unauthorized use, via print or Internet, without written permission is prohibited. John Gatski can be reached via everything.audio@verizon.net






Tuesday, December 27, 2016

EAN Headphone Review!
Price-Busting AKG K182 Nets
Great Sound For Multiple Uses

©Everything Audio Network

Brevis...
Price: $174 retail ($99 street)
Likes: spacious soundstage, price
Dislikes: where is noise-cancel version?
Wow Factor: serious HPs for under $100

by John Gatski
  I am am a big fan of AKG headphones. I use the K702 and the L812 as reference hi-fi and home recording studio headphones — always impressed with the spacious imaging and detail transient and a tighter bass. A few months ago, I discovered these low as $99 street price AKG K182 HPs a few months ago. Designed for a variety of uses and (musicians, home recording and portable hi-res monitoring, I have found the K182, a kind of mini low cost version K812.
  It features the 3D Axis folding mechanism for easy, reduced-size storage, is quite comfortable and best of all, its audio performance will impress your ears, especially for $120. It has quite a bit of the K812’s impressive imaging and the sound is accurate enough to real hi-res listening.

  In the home recording rig, the K182s worked well for tracking and editing. I did several DSD acoustic guitar recording projects and loved the spatial cues of the K182. And they are really comfortable.

 The headphones sport a detachable cable, replaceable ear pads. Rated frequency response is 10 Hz to 28 kHz. (Expect tight tolerance response from about 60 Hz to 20 kHz). Max input power is 500 mW and. Impedance is 32 ohms, which makes it fairly easy to drive. It comes standard with 1/8th-inch termination and a screw on 1/4-inch adapter. Cable is a generous 8.9 inches long.
  One of the coolest K182 features is a simple, embossed-onto-each-earpad grill “R” and L” designations. So you know immediately which cup goes where. I have sampled many a headphone that the designated R/L sides are ill-marked. It is really a problem on HPs with dual wires. On the K182, however, the big ole’ “L or R” cannot be missed.

The test drive
  I plugged the AKG 182s into my iBasso DX-80 hi-res player, TASCAM DR-100 Mk-II hi-res recorder player and the Myth Digital Brooklyn DAC to see how it handled hi-res audio. What I heard was not cheap dumbed down sound. Fantastic imaging, tight bass and a sizzle-less top-end.

3D foldback means less storage space needed

  I found the AKG HPs a perfect travel mate for my iBasso DX-80’s premium DSD and PCM playback on the go. The headphones were easy to stow in my computer bang and the relative sound isolation of the close-back design allowed me to hear good music at noisy airport lounges. As with most non-noise canceling phones, it could not handle the high SPL of the 23rd row window seat on American Airlines. But accurate HP listening on a plane is damn near impossible.
  In the home recording rig, the K182s worked well for tracking and editing. I did several DSD acoustic guitar recording projects and loved the spatial cues of the K182. And they are really comfortable. They are not as accurate as my $1,200 K702 Anniversary HPs, but they offer a lot of the essential soundstage and clean bass/solid midrange. I like em better than the old Sony MDR-7506/MDR-7509 HPs that are so popular.

The verdict
  As my carry around, do-it-all, low-cost serious headphones, the AKG K182 is a penny pinching-alternative to carrying my bulkier AKG or professional Shures around my expensive ‘phones. In fact, I like them so much that I am giving them a 2016 EAN Product of The Year Award in the Budget Audio category. Come to think of it, I have a a slew of new hi-res portables coming; Hmm, I need another pair of K182s...

 John Gatski has been evaluating consumer, audiophile, home cinema and professional audio gear since 1988. In 1995, he created Pro Audio Review, and he has written for Audio, LaserviewsEnjoy The MusicThe Audiophile Voice, High Performance ReviewRadio World and TV TechnologyEverything Audio Network is based in Kensington, Md. Articles on this site are the copyright of the ©Everything Audio Network. Any unauthorized use, via print or Internet, without written permission is prohibited. John Gatski can be reached via everything.audio@verizon.net

Monday, December 26, 2016

Home Recording Review!
Mojave Audio MA-1000
Multi-Pattern Tube Microphone:
“A Vintage-Modern Masterpiece”

©Everything Audio Network

Brevis...
Price: $2,500
Likes: Sounds great on any instrument
Dislikes: I would not dare complain
Wow Factor: the best of the old and the new

by John Gatski
  David Royer is a brilliant microphone designer who has parlayed his experience into designing industry standards, such as the Royer R21 ribbon microphone and the classic tube persons via the versatile MA-3000 multi-pattern condenser of his other mic company, Mojave Audio.
  With the release of the Mojave Audio MA-1000, Royer has made another significant microphone that gives that classic vintage “body” of a large diaphragm condenser, yet has enough detail, depth and low noise to to be used on a transient-rich, hi-resolution 24-bit or DSD jazz recording.
  Like the original Telefunken L251 it is based on, the MA-1000 is good on every kind of instrument imaginable: vocals, acoustic guitar, piano, overheads, horns, violin, a whole orchestra. Its sonic ease and accuracy, plus listenability, make it one of the best new microphones in years. It is not one of those import cheapie mics that flood the USA market, but it is a serious, assembled-in-USA mic, I believe, worthy of a $2,500 investment.

Features
  The MA-1000 is based on the classic L251 condenser microphone, utilizing an original, new old-stock, 5840 tube with a custom-designed transformer built by Coast Magnetics. The mic’s modern bling includes three polar patterns: cardioid, omni and figure 8, and features a pad and a bass roll-off for up close work.  The unit comes with a suspension microphone mount, a case, the power supply and a cable. The polar patterns are adjusted via the power supply-mounted controls.
  Royer said he had an L251-influenced design in his head for a long time, and decided, based on customer interest, to produce one with his own unique twist. “When I decided to revisit the Telefunken ELAM 251, I checked out several available copies of the original AKG CK-12 capsule until I found one that I was happy with,” Royer explained.    
  The MA-1000 is based on the classic L251 condenser microphone, utilizing an original, new old-stock, 5840 tube with a custom-designed transformer built by Coast Magnetics. The mic’s modern bling includes three polar patterns: cardioid, omni and figure 8, and features a pad and a bass roll-off for up close work. 

  The Chinese-made capsule is faithful to the original CK-12 and is 3-microns thick, according to Royer, and he is pleased with the quality consistency. “The Chinese factories that are manufacturing copies of Neumann and AKG capsules have, in several cases, redesigned them somewhat to simplify the manufacturing process,” he noted.
  Royer chose not to follow other mic companies in designing Telefunken L251 clones with the 6072 tube. “I decided to design the electronics, more or less, to follow the design of the German-market ‘251, using an AC701 tube, rather than using a 6072. I frown on the design of the L251 and the C-12 with the 6072 tube for technical reasons. I have used the 5840 and several other subminiature tubes in circuits, adapted from various Neumann, AKG and other tube microphone designs, for thirty years now, and they are well proven.”


  Another key MA-1000 design element is the output transformer, and Royer dug up an old prototype to polish for the new mic. “As for my choice of an output transformer, the transformer that I chose for the MA-1000 is one that I had prototyped twenty years ago, but had not used commercially until now. We tried several different transformers in prototype microphones and, while other transformers worked perfectly well, the one that ultimately was chosen was the pick of the crop.”
  There are a lot of L251 style-capsule derivatives on the market, but this one is one of the best (along with the ADK TC-251 which first used this particular capsule). Some of them are faithful to the vintage tone; others are pretenders that are thoroughly modern with a bit too much zing for my taste. The MA-1000’s sonic character is quite clean and accurate, with just enough warmth to keep everything sweet — without excessive bloat in the midbass and midrange.
  In fact, look at the factory frequency response graph: the cardioid response is amazingly flat for a large diaphragm mic, maybe 2 dB variation max in the midrange and lower treble. Almost dead flat to 1,000 Hz and the 12 kHz to 20 kHz has less roll off than many other large mics on the market. This is one, clean-response, large diaphragm mic.

The set up
  In setting up the one review sample that I could get my hands on,  I mated it with two microphone preamps: the all-tube, USA-made, D.W. Fearn VT-1 single-channel unit and the the  USA-made, True Engineering P2, one the cleanest mic preamps I have ever used (now only made in an eight-channel model). In individual recording sessions, I connected the mic to the preamps using Wireworld premium professional XLR cable and then ran an additional Wireworld cable to the Benchmark ADC1 A/D converter. The converter was linked to a TASCAM DA-3000 in dual mono mode, and  set to 24 bit/192 PCM recording mode.
  The True P2 is a clean-as-a-whistle, very neutral mic pre that excels on transient-rich instruments. The VT-1 has that classic tube body with a rich, smooth body. There is hardly a modern tube pre that can touch when it comes to voice overs, vocalists and choirs.

The audition
  First up was a piano session with the P2 pre and the MA-1000.. I recorded my Yamaha U1 upright professional piano, using a mic boom with the MA-1000 mounted over the piano’s open top cover. Big mics on pianos need careful placement because of proximity effect if too close. By positioning the mic about 12 inches from the top, I obtained a good balance of bass and high-end, though the U1’s don’t have much low bass. I recorded in both omni and cardioid.
Note the tightness of the cardioid response

  I played several songs with both high- and low-register emphasis on the piano to give the MA-1000 a workout. In particular, I wanted to hear if the mid- and upper-frequency were hyped. I went back to the playback and listened through my AKG K702 headphones. Wow! The piano sounded dynamic, clean, and most important: smooth in the transients of the high-register.
  The accuracy of high-octave note playing was particularly impressive. No harsh note projection, but a very accurate rendering of the U1. The recording sounded accurately bright as Yamahas do, but no extra emphasis that can make treble focused pianos sound too sharp. The combination of the mic pickup and the accurate recording path allowed me to hear the natural room reflections and bits of reverb decay from inside of the piano. And this was with one mic, I would love to hear stereo with a pair of MA-1000s.
  The omni mode revealed more of the room reverb from the left side of the room near a set of steps that I did not like. It was just the nature of the room setup; the cardioid sounded better to my ears.

Acoustic guitar nirvana
  I moved from piano to acoustic guitar. I have used various L251 derivative mics over the years and have found them suitable for acoustic guitar, but depending on the make, they often required careful placement, use of the bass roll-off, and sometimes some EQ to tame the bass emphasis — especially on dreadnaughts.
  This is where the MA-1000 really shines. If you look at the bass response, it is essential flat to 20 Hz, offering amazing bass clarity for a big condenser. Mounting the MA-1000 a foot away from my Martin J-40 jumbo at the 12th fret, I set the pattern mode to cardioid and recorded a number of finger- and flat-picked runs. The J40 is not as boomy as a dreadnaught, but some big condensers add bottom-end emphasis that makes it seem muddier-sounding than it really is.


Tube power supply for MA-1000

  Not the Mojave. The Martin’s prominent midbass was clean and balanced on the recordings, while the midrange and lower treble, as picked with phosphor bronze strings, were absolutely perfect. The MA-1000‘s even frequency response allowed the true sound of the Martin to emerge without adding any presence crispness, which is an all-too-frequent character of many modern mics. I could not have been happier as I listened to the Martin tracks playback.
  Ditto on the Manuel Rodriguez solid cedar/Indian Rosewood classical guitar. Intricate plucks and chords were picked up with nothing added. That bit of upper-fret extra percussiveness that I hear from the guitar’s G and B string notes was relayed clearly by the MA-1000. It was not diminished or over emphasized. It sounded just as it does as it is played.

The jazz box and MA-1000
  Switching to electric Jazz guitar, I recorded my Gibson L5 CES Custom jazz guitar, played through a 1974 Princeton Reverb amp. The result was the best recorded sound I have ever heard this rig through a microphone! That warmth, expressive L5 humbucker tone, combined with the extra creamy character of the Princeton 6V6 tube, push-pull circuit, came through without any bass bloat. It is a tricky amp to record — without some adjusting of EQ or rolling off the bass in the recording chain, But with the Mojave, I just dialed back the Fender’s bass roll-off pot a few ticks to get the clean, warm sound that I wanted. 


The MA-1000 is a perfect match for the DW Fearn VT-1

  I had no drum cymbals to record, but I did have some castanets and tambourines that I gave a work out before the MA-1000. Based on the response graph, I assumed the top end would sound good, but it is really refreshing to hear how smooth and linear the presence range and beyond is via the Mojave. No hard, crisp punchiness on the tambourine. It sounds like a tambourine, and I am sure drum cymbals will get the same treatment.

Getting vocal
  Okay-okay, it is a big mic after all and don’t they get used for voice recording? Yes, they do, and so does the MA-1000. I am no real singer, but I sang a few tunes, plus read some narration, as recorded in 24-bit. This time I used the DW Fearn VT-1 as the mic preamp. At a distance of about eight inches, the Mojave again shows its true color, or lack of color. With the bass roll-off switched off, the vocal spectrum is even — without midbass emphasis or any over-sibilance, which distracts from the true essence of the voice.
  Royer has made another significant microphone that gives that classic vintage “body” of a large diaphragm condenser, yet has enough detail, depth and low noise to to be used on a transient-rich, hi-resolution 24-bit or DSD jazz recording.

  And the Mojave picked up the little bits of the room reverb and decay that mixes with the voice. This is a great mic for hi-res recording because of its ability to capture that detail. In fact, its ability to find the inner-detail of transient sounds on the strings and piano remind me of the really good, small instrument mics, only the MA-1000 has a bigger, smoother soundfield. Coupling it with the VT-1 augmented that tube signature, but not overly fat or "slow" in its character. I was impressed! I want one of these mics. Actually, I want two for a stereo pair.

The verdict
   I can’t think of a better vintage/modern tube mic than the Mojave MA-1000. There are loads of classic mics made in China and elsewhere that range from adequate to good, to some very good ones. This Mojave large-diaphragm condenser may be the champion in combining the old-school tube character with a linear, detailed modern flavor that allows for recording in hi-res. It is clean, low noise and extra versatile in its intended uses. Like the original Telefunken and AKG C12, I am sure the MA-1000 will be used for scores of instruments and vocal applications.
  If you like tube microphones, vintage or otherwise, you have to audition the Mojave MA-1000. It receives an EAN Stellar Sound Award and also is our condenser microphone selection for the Everything Audio Network 2016 Product Of The Year in the Home Recording category. 

  John Gatski has been evaluating consumer, audiophile, home cinema and professional audio gear since 1988. In 1995, he created Pro Audio Review, and he has written for Audio, LaserviewsEnjoy The MusicThe Audiophile Voice, High Performance ReviewRadio World and TV TechnologyEverything Audio Network is based in Kensington, Md. Articles on this site are the copyright of the ©Everything Audio Network. Any unauthorized use, via print or Internet, without written permission is prohibited. John Gatski can be reached via everything.audio@verizon.net

Monday, December 19, 2016

Audiophile Review!
Pass Labs HPA-1
Headphone Amplifier

One Of The Best HPAs In The Audiophile World!

Brevis
Price: $3,500
Likes: de-luscious HP audio 
Dislikes: lacks a remote control
Wow Factor: an HPA reference point
More info: Pass Labs HPA-1

by John Gatski
  Right out of the box, it was such a pleasure to review the new Pass Labs HPA-1 Class A MOSFET headphone amplifier. A long time coming, the Pass HP amp's audio character is akin to the “super class A” Pass XS amplifier design — with a generously open soundstage, rich, smooth transient response and deep-bass performance.
  Couple its sonic output with its ability to drive any single-ended headphone, and you have one of the best headphone amps available — anywhere at any price. The fact that it is only $3,500 makes it a genuine bargain. 

Features
  The Pass Labs HPA-1 features a custom, low-noise toroidal power transformer, feeding a discrete, low-noise regulated power supply for the audio circuits. According to Pass, “the importance of the power supply is often overlooked (in designing audio products) but plays a large part in overall performance of the amplifier,” even at the lower power required for driving headphones
  The HPA-1’s amplifier circuits are low-feedback, wide-bandwidth discreet designs employing a JFET input stage and a MOSFET output stage, biased into a Class A-biased, direct-coupled output stage. The HPA-1 can drive headphones from 15 to 600 Ohm loads, including the rising tide of planar magnetic headphones.

Everything Audio is totally sold on the Pass HPA-1. As a high-end, audiophile headphone amplifier/line preamp, it is a bargain. It takes headphone listening, especially with hi-res material and the newer ultra-accurate D/A converters, to a higher level.

  This elegant, simple preamp exudes class with its machined casing, large volume control and simple chassis lines. Beautiful simplicity as I call it. The Pass HPA-1 is elegantly simple to operate as well. The brushed aluminum front panel includes one single-ended, 1/4-inch HP input, a large volume knob, and switches for two inputs. Around back are a set of variable unbalanced RCA output jacks for line-stage use, two sets of RCA inputs and the master power button. That is it.
  Spec-wise, the HPA-1 distortion is rated at less than .005% (THD+Noise, 1V out); bandwidth is listed at 10 Hz to 100 kHz (-1 dB). Output power is rated at 3,500mW at 20 Ohms and and 200 MW at 300 Ohms. The overall gain is 8 dB. Input impedance is 250 Ohms and output impedance is 2 Ohms.
  The HPA-1 amp measures 11 inches wide, 13-inches deep and 4.5-inches tall. It weighs about 14 pounds. There is no remote control. This is, indeed, a purist HP amp/preamp.

A new design
  Pass Designer Jam Somasundram explained that the Pass Labs HPA  design presented him with a conflicting set of requirements, as headphones have impedance's that vary between 15 and 600 ohms, and that Pass wanted the HP amp to also be used as a quality line preamp.
  “To get around this obstacle,” he explained. “We had to design in high supply rails and have the ability to supply a fair amount of current. So the basic design follows a small power amplifier but has to meet the requirements of a preamp — with relatively low noise and distortion.”
 I am impressed with what I hear with the Pass HPA-1. Amazingly life-like, detailed, open, musical soundstage with a smooth, easy-to-listen character, and it can drive any headphone.

  Somasundram noted that to get the headphone amp to handle a wide range of headphone loads and to offer excellent performance as a high-quality line preamp, the HPA-1 was created from a brand new Pass Labs design that includes the aforementioned JFET input stage, bipolar current mirror and MOSFET output stage — operating in the high-current and high-voltage drive path.
  To succeed with his design, Somasundram said the power supply was key. “We had to develop a custom transformer that incorporated a Faraday shield and Mu metal band around the circumference to meet noise requirements,” he added. “It is rated for more than three times of what is needed by the circuit. It took us seven prototypes to get to the final design.”
  The HPA-1 power supply has in excess of 40,000uF of capacitance and uses a discreet regulator. The only place that an integrated circuit was used in the design was the servo that controls the offset, which is not directly in the signal path, according to Somasundram.
  The HPA-1 is controlled by a custom-programmed processor. The unit mutes itself for 20 seconds before turning on (the LED flashes during the mute state), then the LED stops flashing and stays on. In the event of power interruption, the unit will go through the mute cycle on resumption of power (to avoid any thump or clicks), then return to the settings in place before the loss of power.
  Somasundram said he was not obsessed with specs for the HPA-1 design, but was focused on the ultimate listening enjoyment and the ability to handle any type of headphone that audiophiles wanted to use. The design testing was primarily done with simple test equipment and Pass engineer listening panels.
  Somasundram noted: “We only did formal noise and distortion tests after the design was complete and, in this case, both the subjective and measured results were in agreement. The danger in designing audio equipment is trusting your test equipment too much, while trying to obtain lower distortion and noise numbers.” 
  Pass President Desmond Harrington emphasized that the HPA-1 turned out to be a really good-sounding headphone amp that is not that expensive. I heartily agree and could tell, in short order, what all the buzz was about surrounding this product.

The set up
  I linked the HPA-1 with several DACs including the Mytek Brooklynthe recently reviewed Bryston BDA-3, the Oppo HA-1 and the previous version Benchmark DAC: the DAC2-DX. For use as a line preamp, I used the same DAC sources, feeding either a  Bryston 14B SST II bipolar amp or a Rogue Audio Medusa tube/digital amp, which then drove the electrostatic MartinLogan Montis'). For turntable listening, I relied on the Rogue Audio RP-5 tube preamp's all-tube phono stage.

A minimalist HP amp

  Source players included an Oppo BDP-105, modified  with a discrete analog output path, courtesy of Bill Thalmann at Music Technology in Springfield, Va.; a Macbook Pro computer and a Dell Venue 8/USB Audio Player Pro Android hi-res player in “bit perfect" mode. The computers were routed to various DACs via USB, whose outputs were connected to the HPA-1.
  Headphones included a pair of AKG Anniversary K702’s, AKG K812’s, Oppo PM-1 planar magnetic, Shure SRH-1840, and the pro Sony MDR-7510. For line sources, I used Wireworld Eclipse RCA cables. Essential Sound Products Essence Reference II power cords provided AC power for all components, including the Pass.

The audition
  Although it is a Class A amplifier, the Pass HPA-1's thick, aluminum housing takes a long time to feel warm, and I did not want ti listen until it was “warmed up.” Its mostly a mental thing, I like my Class A and tube gear to feel like its working warm and toasty, so I never did any listening through the HPA-1 — until at least 40 minutes after I turned it on.
  My first demo tune was “The So Real” tracks from the Warren BernhardtSo Real Jazz SACD from 2001, recorded by Tom Jung for DMP. I have played this track for reference listening hundreds of times, and I know it inside and out. The drum cymbals, and drum stick-on-snare is incredibly real sounding (pardon the pun), with a ultra-accurate brush-on-cymbal sheen and upper-register Steinway piano.
  A properly, electronics rendered  play of this track is awe-inducing with how much space you hear. Lesser gear diminishes the space, but Pass HPA-1 brings one of the deepest, widest HP listening impression I have ever heard on this track. But the musical color is not thin; in fact, it is rich and warm, like a really good tube amplifier. Although its design differs from the Pass’ super Class A Series XS amplifiers, the sonic result is very similar. A huge, but not exaggerated soundstage, with full bass lines and that “just right” harmonic smoothness.


Key to HPA-1's sound: a  hefty power supply

  That character follows the preamp out line stage as well. Coupling it with the Pass X350.8 MOSFET stereo amplifier, the amp reinforced the warmth and expanded the impressive stereo image out through the MartinLogan Montis electrostatics. Even on a solid-state, bipolar amplifier, such as the old standby Bryston 14B-SST II, the soundstage impression came through.
  Back to the headphones, I switched the music genre to Classical, and played the 2L Mozart Violin Concerto In D from my Macbook Pro and Audirvana Plus hi-res player. The music was routed through the Bryston BDA-3 DAC/Pass HP amp tandem. The DXD 24/352 recording is slight dry, but contains an extremely detailed violin tone — with full bow-to-string harmonics and an immense dynamic range when the orchestra kicks in.
A definite award winner

  Through the HPA-1 and AKG K702s, plus the Shure SRH-1840 HPs, the detail and dynamic range are intact, but some of the violin’s rough edges are tamed (compared to the outboard DAC headphone amps on the Oppo HA-1 and Benchmark DAC2. without sounding muted. It added just a tinge of audible golden glow to the violin. Again, it reminds me of the best of a tube amp stage.
  Comparing all the built-in HP stages in my DACs, they all exhibited similar, in a general sense, sonic signature with varying degrees of refinement. The Oppo, Benchmark, etc. sound very open, detailed and dynamic, but none of them have that wide-open glow of the Pass. Besides the good stuff, I even found myself listening to harder-edged sounding CDs and higher rate MP3s through the HPA-1.

Conventional or planar magnetic 
  I switched off to planar magnetic-driver Oppo PM-1 headphones, for a sampling of the Allman Brothers "Blue Sky" track — from the Eat a Peach SACD. This is quite a good 1970's’analog recording — with the clearly delineated acoustic and electric guitar layers in a nice, open mix. Via the Pass, its sound is a bit wider with an easier-to-hear acoustic rhythm guitar permeating the the track’s play. And I love the dual-electric guitar lead interplay in the long solo, On most typical headphone amps, it sounds pretty hi-res, but through the Pass, it seems to have more life.
 After about 50 various plays of different kinds of music, I came to the conclusion that the Pass HPA-1 does not sound bad on anything. The 24/96 remaster of Led Zeppelin IV’s “Stairway To Heaven?" No problem. John Paul’s Jones prominent bass line did not seem to be dragged down by the warmth of HPA-1 at all.

  After about 50 various plays of different kinds of music, I came to the conclusion that the Pass HPA-1 does not sound bad on anything. The 24/96 remaster of Led Zeppelin IV’s “Stairway To Heaven?" No problem. John Paul’s Jones prominent bass lines did not seem to be dragged down at all by the extra warmth of HPA-1.
  How about LP records? That was no problem for the Pass HP amp either. I played the original pressing of The Isao Suzuki Quartet —  Blow Up, an audiophile LP from 43 years ago, using my Clear Audio Emotion, a Benz Wood cartridge and the Rogue Audio’s RP-5 tube phono stage. Wow did Mr. Suzuki’s bowed bass cello sound impressive through the headphones and via the line stage/amp/speakers — with its a big, warm, aggressive cello bow cadence, punctuated by the ultra dynamic drum kit.

The Pass sound is music
  In recent years, Pass Labs has focused its gear designs on making music listening enjoyable with out obsessing on specs. If it has a little warmth or texture that makes audiophiles more enthusiastic about listening to music, they are happy. The XS series leans that way, so do the .8’s and now the HPA-1. In the end, listening to music that satisfies is what matters most. Do you like what you are hearing? 

Love that big volume control

  I am deeply impressed with what I hear with from the Pass HPA-1. Amazing lifelike, detailed, open, musical soundstage with a smooth, easy-to-listen character, It can drive any headphone, including my AKG’s, which often force me to push many headphone amp knobs way up the scale to get them to an average level. 
  No complaints with the HPA-1. Some may notice the lack of a remote control, but I am a knob twirler and button pusher. The lack of a remote does not bother me. I go to the rack all the time and turn up the volume (or to turn it down), so that big knob suites me just fine. The other omission is a lack of balanced circuit, but Pass engineers are working on a balanced version for those who preferred balanced headphones. Stay tuned for any news on a balanced version.

The verdict
  Considering its $3,500 price and wonderful sonic persona, I am totally sold on the Pass HPA-1. As a high-end, audiophile headphone amplifier/line preamp, it is a bargain. It takes headphone listening, especially with hi-res material and the newer ultra-accurate D/A converters, to a higher level. The HPA-1 is a no-brainer for an Everything Audio  Network Stellar Sound Award, and our only choice for EAN Product Of The Year in the Headphone Amp category.

 John Gatski has been evaluating consumer, audiophile, home cinema and professional audio gear since 1988. In 1995, he created Pro Audio Review, and he has written for Audio, Laserviews, Enjoy The Music, The Audiophile Voice, High Performance Review, Radio World and TV Technology. Everything Audio Network is based in Kensington, Md. Articles on this site are the copyright of the ©Everything Audio Network. Any unauthorized use, via print or Internet, without written permission is prohibited. John Gatski can be reached via everything.audio@verizon.net