Lear is the house brand of Hong Kong personal audio retailer, Forever Source Digital. Based in Hong Kong but also now having a head quarters in Japan, they have an amazing line up of products. You have the LCM series which is there Custom Monitor line which as and amazing reference sounding earphone at the top with the LCM-5. You then have the FSM line up which is the amp line up with a really nice range of different models, with different design intended for different sound signatures so you will easily be able to find one too suit you perfectly! They also have cables; make a custom tips for IEMs and re shell them so they have a lot going on as a company!
Their newest product to joining the ranks was in the amps section and it is a new revision to the previous flagship, the FSM-02 so welcome the FSM-02 V2. It is very similar to the original FSM-02 just with a much more aesthetically pleasing case and a few internal tweaks.
This can be bought off of Lears website for 2888 HKD which is 250 pounds and you will have to pay and additional 200 HKD to have them shipped to the UK so it would come to 270 pounds all in.
On opening the iPhone like box and taking the amp its self out, the first accessory you are greeted by is a pair of rubber bands, one white and one black. These are the most traditional items to use when making an amp and music player stack, they will hold the two devices together well but I find them to get in the way personally and use a different method. However you may still use them as a preferred method and a nice touch nonetheless. I said I use a different method and that is Velcro. Well they have decided two throw in two strips of 3m dual lock which is like a sturdy version Velcro, it is real great stuff. All you do is stick one side to the amp and the other two your MP3 player, iPod or smartphone and then the two devices will snap together and not have rubber bands getting in the way of the screen! This is the first amp I have ever received that bundles this and it is great too see them offering two methods to allow you to ergonomically use the amp in a portable rig!
You also get two cables with the amp. One is just a standard, nothing fancy 3.5mm male to male cable for using a analog aux connection for the amp. Considering some of the custom cables that Lear make I would have liked to see a nicer included cable, would have been a nice touch but at least you get one so you can get up and running instantly. I guess an apple LOD would be great too as it is made with the iPod Classic in mind and most people own a iDevice and probably plan on using the amp with one. You also get a USB to mini USB cable for charging the amp.
Lastly you get another really cool and innovative addition to the amp. Both op-amps in the amp are interchangeable and they are very aware that some users will do a lot of rolling and therefore will want to be opening up the amps a lot and want to do it quickly. They include two spare screws but unlike the conventional flush screws that need a screwdriver to open that come installed in the amp, you can swap in the included screws that you can quickly twist open with your fingers. They do add a bit more profile to the amp as they stick out a little bit but I think that is a super handy and unique way of getting the amp open quickly and frequently!
Design and Features:
The amp comes in black and silver with mine being in silver and looks very nice to the eye. Unlike most amps and the MK1 version of this amp, the standard box look is gone with this amp and we now have round edges on it which gives it a very nice feel in your hand, maybe when your handling them amp in general or navigating through music on whatever source your using with the amp.
The amp its self has so much going on, it really is mind blowing. To start with this is just an amp, no digital (DAC) section, this will simply amplify and analog signal be it from the line out or headphone out of a device to the one 3.5mm input that it has. First of all I want to talk about the outputs because it actually has 2. It has 2 outputs but it is not just a glorified splitter (although you can use two different headphones simultaneously with this) because both outputs are for different purposes. On is the standard amplification stage output, designed for great neutrality and a crystal clear sound and the other is a Class A output that is designed for a warm tube amp like sound. Because the Class A ouput will use more battery you also have the option to have just the normal amp turned on or both amp sections turned on.
You then have hardware EQ switch. You first have to turn the EQ on as this adds the EQ op amp into the circuit (if you do not want EQ just switch it to bypass). You then have a 0, 1, 2 setting. 0 means nothing and if EQ is on, no sound will come out, it is made for use with the bypass switch only. 1 means you get a bass boost and 2 is a treble boost. The bass boost really adds a nice fullness to the sound and gives a good low end thump to the earphone. The area in the frequency that gets the boost is deep enough to make the earphones get a over emphasized sub woofer effect but also not too near the mids to affect them too negatively. The decay gets a bit longer and the body bigger and the boost roughly 3-5 decibels. The treble boost really adds some sparkle and a sense of clarity. However it does feel like you get a drop in bass. I personally prefer the sound with the EQ bypass on but if I was using an earphone needing some treble like the Sony MH1c it is great to have the treble boost and the same applies to if I am using an earphone that could do with some more bass like the Musical Fidelity EB-50. It is also worth mentioning it is much better than any digital EQ that your iPhone might have.
I mentioned that you get screws so that you can easily op amp roll and you can actually swap 3 different op amps in the FSM-02 V2. You can change the normal amplification stage op amp, the class A op amp and the EQ stage op amp. Another option is too change the entire amp board as it is modular and Lear is going to be releasing new boards soon! Here is the stock used op amps:
EQ = LME48792
Output stage = OPA2227
Class-A = JRC4556
You also have 3 step gain on this with a high, medium and low setting. This is really handy in getting a good match with your selection of headphone, however I do tend to use the low gain for most headphones and can easily get enough volume on my Sennheiser HD580s with low gain although I choose medium with them for a preferred performance. Nothing I have prompts the high gain but when I had the Beyerdynamic T1 round my house that liked the high gain option.
You charge the device with a mini USB port on the back but you can also use a 9-18 volt power supply if you decide that your going to be using it on the desktop for a while. I notice the sound gets fuller and airier when using a power supply with it.
The layout of all the switches is just amazing on the back panel. We have the Class A out put, the LED light to say whether or not your using both outputs (pink LED) or just the normal output (blue LED), then a LED light to say if it is charging (red LED). You then have the 3 step on, off, on A switch and the two DC in, one for a power supply and one for mini USB. It is neatly arranged and everything has enough space. The front panel however is not great and I find it very problematic. On the far right you have the volume pot and very close next to it you have the EQ control and then the AUX in. Considering if your using it something will be in the aux input, you will not be able to control the EQ while listening because it is snuggly stuck between the volume pot and the AUX in, it is just impossible to change the EQ setting while listening to music which is really annoying, in fact frustrating. You then have tucked next to that EQ switch its self that can be accessed but still with a bit of difficulty. The same also applies for the gains witch next to that and we finally have the headphone out. Also with my low profile LOD coming out of my iPod Classic to the AUX in, it directly covers the volume pot making that hard to use. I do not think the front panel has been smartly thought out and positioning is not great.
Size and Portability:
Portability is not quite what it used to be I guess. I once thought an iPod Classic to be a bit too bulky to ever want one and the iPod Nano was as big as you could ever want. Then I got into this hobby and things start to grow and I can see that you guys also have some rigs that are just huge, but still portable. This amp easily fulfills being portable. Its form factor sits beautifully next to the iPod Classic, perhaps the most common source and the weight is not that bad; it looks heavier than it is. It doe shave a bit more depth than some of my portable amps but in a set up with my iPod Classic, I do not think twice about sticking it in my pocket. If you your set up to be more and have an external DAC in it then I do not think the size of this will really worry you as your prepared for a rig that is going to be big. I guess I have some measurements in my head that swing an amp out side of being portable and moving to transportable, the larger Tube Amp BL-2 borderlines this (but gets to hot so size is irrelevant) and the Objective 2 is just too big. Now I also understand that you may want something just a bit slimmer like the Firestone Audio Fireye HD or GoVivbe Vest Amp or may something ultra portable like the Hippo cricri or Digizoid Zo2 in which case maybe this is not the best bet but at the end of the day this will fit in your pocket, unless your wearing skinny jeans!
Length – 4 inches
Width – 2 inches
Depth – 1 inch
Now I will mention that when using the Class A output we do get a bit of warmth to the amp but only a little glow of heat and still completely useable, not near the level of the Tube Amp BL-2. It also gets a bit hotter when using a power supply but still not a problem, not that you’ll be using a power supply on the go, will you?
We have a complete metal housing and the top layer is very thick and feels like nothing will ever go wrong. The bottom layer is however thinner and we do not have the tightest most flush finish between the two pieces of the housing. I actually asked Tatco of Lear about this and he said this is the best they can do, as they wanted to make a compromise of good build and easy opening of the amp for DIYers to really get stuck in with op amp rolling. He said the housing should still not have any real problems and he is true to his word as I have owned this amp a fair time now and used it extensively to not a single problem. It makes a slight tapping noise if you touch the bottom and there are some small gaps but I have not actually had any real trouble but it could be better for sure.
I also think as this was made for DIYers and so much has been done to cater for them, the amp board should surely slide in and out and not have to be taken completely out each and every time you want to swap an op amp and then fiddle around to get it back together, that’s just something I would like to see though.
Driving Power and Hiss:
This amp is said to be optimized for headphones that have 8 ohms to 600 ohms impedance. Now I will nod and agree to that rule but have to say there are exceptions. Low impedance headphones on low gain are just fine, even if they have a huge sensitivity rating such as my Lear LCM-5 you will not find a hiss and I find them to drive the high impedance headphones I have tried with such as the 300 Ohm Sennheiser HD580 (especially with the Class A output) and the 600 ohm Beyerdynamic T1 just fine. I actually very besotted with the pairing of the FSM-02 V2 and HD580, it has prompted me to start using them a fair bit again, something that has stopped since owning the HiFiMAN HE-500. They are indeed the next headphones to talk about. They are not high impedance by any means with fewer than 100 ohms but they are low sensitivity and need a lot of power, I mean a real lot. I will put it simply neither outputs on this amp to not quite cut, the Class A does not do terrible but it lacks dynamics, details and that amazing bass response that the HE-500 can pull off. This will apply for the rest of the HifiMAN range (bar the HE-300) which are all harder to drive than the HE-500, which is the easiest model in the series to drive so if you plan to use these with a planar magnetic headphone I probably would not bother.
Lear says that you can get 6 unique sounds from this one amp, with the 3 different EQ settings on both outputs I confirm this. However I am only going to completely analyze the sound we get from the standard audio out and the Class A out. Too start with I compared with the Epiphany Acoustics EHP-O2 or the Objective 2. I do this not because the Objective 2 is my best amplifier but because it is a good neutral reference and there are also a lot of owners so a comparison makes sense. I fed my Audioengine D1 into both the amps and first of all went through FLAC rip of Late Night from the new Foals album, Holy Fire. The initial and most noticeable different was the dynamics in the vocals with the Lear. It seemed to just convey a bit more emotion and have better tone and height to it. The Lear also seemed to have slightly more impact but was not as fast as the Objective 2 but we did have a more crisp treble on the Lear. For colouration the Lear has a slight tinge of warmth in comparison but I still find it too be on the same levels of transparency, maybe even being slightly better. The Lear amps sounds slightly fuller, more musical and is more of a pleasure to listen too. It does however not has as wide or airy a soundstage.
You can get a fair bit about the quality of the Lear amp from that and I do really like it. It is not over done and washed out in warmth but does have a nice tint of it that makes the sound very musical and warm and makes the bass sound very engaging. You get great vocal height; the vocals really do sound accurate and make other amps feel quite compressed in comparison. The main downside to it that it does not convey the biggest soundstage in the world.
Switching then to the Class A output we are not met with a huge difference, I certainly expected a bit more. Bass response seems to be just that little bit bigger and more aggressive and the midrange is more coloured with warmth. The soundstage is bigger, in fact the whole sound is bigger, when you switch back to the normal output it sounds delicate in comparison, delicate and small but the normal output is clearly more detailed.
Comparing to the Firestone Audio Fireye HD we get more passion and treble with the Lear, better clarity, detail and transparency as well and it makes the Fireye sound a bit boring and dull. The Fireye is smoother but just nowhere near as exciting or engaging, I would easily pick the Lear out of the two. The Fireye also has a more warm sound.
The Tube Amp BL-2 is a preferred amp too me. Much more airy soundstage, bit more treble sparkle which does leaps and bounds for clarity and detailing. It is overall less coloured without that little bit of warmth and everything is a bit tighter and faster.
The Lear amp has a lot going on without feeling gimmicky. The fact that I do not feel like everything that is on it is put there to make it look impressive while remaining rather unfunctional or full of features that people do not use. The two outputs is great, they offer just a little difference and I sometimes use one or the other depending on what headphone I use. It really is friendly to the DIYer with a lot of different things to change around to get it more suited too you. There are a few things wrong such as the positioning on the faceplate and having to get everything out of the case t change an op amp. It does a lot more right sounding good and coming as a great package. There are a lot of other amps out there but there are plenty of reasons why you would choose this one.