Yulong caught my eye quite a while back because well, for a long time I wanted a balanced headphone amplifier and one of the cheapest offerings has always been from Yulong. Recently they released another fully balanced amplifier but at a much cheaper price and I fortunatley managed to get hold of a unit. Now the price even came as a surprise for me because I hadn’t seriously looked at how much it went for until after I had burned the unit in and although I knew it was cheap, I didn’t think it was that cheap, I didn’t think it was £375 cheap. Now for what it offers in terms of outputs this is very impressively priced and I only know of a few other units such as the Firestone Bobby that get close to the price (and still 100 bones more). Now with cheaper amps, lets just say under 500 pounds, single ended is the norm and so is amplifiers that are a bit small and don’t feel a look the part, there is nothing like giving the illusion something is more expensive than it looks. So why does balanced benefit over single ended? As this is my first look at a balanced piece and will be most of yours first balanced amplifier if they choose to get it, lets have a little further look into the technology. Well the concept is quite simple in that your separating both channels from one another. With single ended you have a right channel, a left channel and then they share a common ground but when you go balanced both the right and left channel have their own individual ground, which has a few benefits including lower noise and more power.
Now too take advantage you will of course need to have your headphone cable with a balanced termination. Now there are a range of different balanced terminations from some smaller, more portable ones such as the Kobiconn connector and a TRRS 3.5mm jack and then you move up the bigger desktop connectors. Any desktop amp I have seen uses XLR connectors, in either 3 or 4 pin configurations, if it is 4 pin then there will be just one socket and if it is 3 pin there will be two. Now all balanced connectors can be converted into one another if you have multiple balanced amps with different connectors, for example you may have your portable headphones terminated with the pocket friendly Kobiconn jack but for home use you can have someone such as Double Helix Cables make a tiny Kobiconn to 4pin XLR adapter jack. To make your headphones balanced is pretty easy in most cases. If you have a removable cable you can just buy a new cable with the balanced termination you desire (or have the cable you already owned re-terminated). If the headphones are hardwired then you will have to send them to be modified (unless you feel up to it yourself, with valuable headphones I will always choose to let the experts do it) to either hardwire a new cable with a balanced termination or in some cases you can even have your headphone to be modified with removable cables (like Double Helix Cables have done with my Beyerdynamic T5p). It is worth mentioning that not all headphones can be balanced, the headphone needs to have either cables entering both channels or if it enters just one channel then it needs to do so with a 4 pin mini XLR, nothing else like a 2.5mm jack or even a 3 pin mini XLR will cut it. That should give you a basic idea if you’re completely new to this but now lets talk about the amp at hand.
Lets just start with the different outputs that the A28 has because it doesn’t sack off in the slightest. Too start with it just has a simple 4 pin XLR jack that locks in and has a little release button, this just a standard Neutrik jack that is nice and robust but pretty standard in what it does. The other two jacks you have are where things really start to get cool. The other two jacks look the same and they are Neutrik Combo-Jacks. They are a pair of 3 pin XLR connectors that work as you should expect but in the middle of each jack, Neutrik have mounted a 6.5mm jack. Yulong have not stopped there though and have implemented the two single ended 6.5mm jacks differently with one of them being designated for low impedance headphones and the other for high impedance. The other perk of this is that the amp is capable of running 3 headphones at once, two single ended and one balanced although they are all off the same volume control so music listening with your friends is very viable. The option too choose between the two types of balanced is also very handy because while 4 pin XLR seems more practical, running headphones through the 3 pin XLRs does allow better isolation of the two channels and it can’t be bad having one connector per driver and the general consensus seems to say it is the better option to use. On the front panel we also have a button that powers on the device as well as illuminating a bright green light that is a happy change to the usual blue. The volume pot is a Taiwanese Alpha 4-gang that feels chunky and turn smoothly but would be nice if it was stepped. On the back with have the power supply connector that is just the standard and a pair of balanced XLR inputs and a pair of unbalanced RCA inputs. The amp can turn the unbalanced inputs into a balanced signal via an OPA1632 and output op-amps are OPA 2604 after Yulong tried a fair few.
The design of this is pretty simple, it looks okay and does not really offend but it does not wow you or really excite you in how it looks but as I have said before its overall size and presence makes it feel like a true desktop component, pricier than it is. It does have a few things I would say are easy improvements such as the four bulky screws on the faceplate that could be elsewhere, the shiny finish looks just a bit tacky compared to the matte of my other desktop gear and the Neutrik 4 pin XLR output has a black square around it that looks out of place on the silver amp I have. Other than that it is pretty simple, it is a block of metal with some inputs and outputs and seems to be tightly strung together with no imperfections in the finish. It has 4 metal feet, one in each corner and they look similar to what my Questyle have but are a bit flatter and not as tall but they do the job in keeping it elevated and look more hifi than rubber feet of my Rein X3-DAC. The jacks are flush, in fact the 4 pin jack is actually raised and I would have preferred to have seen the jacks protected by a little bit of recession but it is not likely to become a problem.
Now pairing with headphones this does seem to be one of the cheaper amps that is pretty confident with the less efficient orthodynamics such as my HiFiMAN HE-500. Unbalanced it puts a pretty solid 800mw into 32 ohms but when you go balanced that gets boosted to a much more powerful 2.5 watts (32ohms) as well as 700mw into 300ohms so it certainly has some oomph behind it and that is apparent when listening to my HE-500s with it as it is driving them with some overhead room. As for high impedance stuff it has no problems there either and with the low impedance single ended output there is also a pretty acceptable noise floor with some more sensitive earphones and lower impedance portable headphones although it is not completely quiet.
For the amp testing, for majority of the time I used two different sources, the BMC PureDAC and the Rein Audio X3-DAC. I used a balanced XLR connection with both DACs. Now with this amp, if you are to spring for it I highly recommend making sure that you will be running your headphones balanced as that is how your going to get the most out of it. The single ended output just doesn’t quite cut it the same, especially with the less efficient headphones. The balanced output is just better, separation is airier and more obvious, soundstage is larger and the overall sound is just faster. Too be honest, if I was unable to test this in fully balanced I would be a bit disappointed at just the results of the single ended output.
The amp came across as having a thick, bodied sound with a solid mid-bass region, a slightly lower veiled midrange with a little bit of extra presence in the higher mids and a relaxed treble. The bass is certainly one of the strongest points of the amp and if you do not know and better you will be impressed by the deeper regions as well as the mid-bass but when comparing to something like the Questyle CMA800r which has a bottomless bass you do feel that this has a slight downward slope from around 80hz where things are still around, just not as textured and powerful as other, more expensive amps can manage but it still puts out a clean rumble. The mid-bass is much more pleasing, I would say it is warm but not through an elevation in the frequency range but because it just lingers a little longer in the decay and is not the snappiest bass in the world. It has a real meaty feel to it and a satisfying impact and the sense of warmth does help along the feeling of musicality. The midrange transition of the bass is probably one of the bigger flaws because the lower midrange does take a small hit and also comes off a bit congested. Because the lower mids is the most pushed back frequency range and neutrality is recovered in the higher midrange sometimes the tone feels just a bit off and is nasally in the vocals. That being said although instruments in these frequencies do not have the strongest position in the overall frequency response, it does have a warm and mellow timbre that does give another bit of musicality too the amp.
The higher midrange gets back into the mix nicely and has a clear presence. As with the amp in general it has a little extra decay and this does create a little ringing at times that can be just about audible. The treble is smooth and balanced. The tone is as I said smooth and feels just a little bit relaxed because of this combined with the mellow decay. It has some nice air in the upper registers and does not seem to hold back extension. Although it is relaxed I would not say it will calm down sibilance or subdue an over done treble, it just won’t make it worse. The soundstage is pretty impressive; the width is good and is complimented with some depth and honest height. The extra decay this amp is a result of it not being the fastest amp in the world and while it does do well most of the time, when things get layered and fast, you can feel things start to get a little congested even if the headphones can handle it. Dynamics are sometimes just a little bit weaker but the more minute details can be resolving but could do better with a bit more speed.
One thing that really has impressed me, and may well be a direct gain from being balanced is the focus of this amp, everything is rounded, held together and doesn’t crumble easily. Vocals hold their positions well and the instruments cast patterns around them. All of this is benchmarked against a much more expensive piece and compared to competitor pieces it does seem to impress me other the Graham Slee Solo Ultra Linear in terms of dynamics and impact as well as overall width of sound but it is not as resolving but at the same time more balanced. The Tube Amp BL-2 is not as powerful or as confident in the bass ranges but details are better, the pace of the amp is snappier and the treble range is clearer. Cheaper amp such as the VMV VA2 does not really warrant the comparison as the differences are obvious and the Yulong is simply better.
Now of everything I have paired it with the best it has done is with my HE-500s, the synergy is strong, they are driven with authority and this is clearly what this amp had in mind. Slightly more efficient orthodynamic headphones such as my ZMF Headphones modified Fostex T50RP pleased me more off of the portable ALO RX Mk3 which was a lot faster and more dynamic. Higher impedance stuff also didn’t seem to like this as much with Sennheiser HD580 and HD650 sounded really rather congested and slow compared to my Questyle amp where they are beasts and they even sounded more detailed and pacier off of my Tube Amp Bl-2. With my HE-500s though this amp really does impress me when I look at the price tag, it does things that even the my Questyle cant do which is no easy feat, focus is really good and it gives the headphones the space they need to really push them selves.
Driving the HiFiMAN HE-500 (and under efficient planar magentics) too a certain level has never been easy but when you get it right they really are a force too be reckoned with. At the price I was never sure it would be able to be done to a level I can really enjoy after not ideal experiences with all sorts of portable, desktop and DAC baring amps I have tried and this does it the most efficiently and pleasurably so far and for that reason I have to say I am very happy with the amp. It is also nice to have such versatility on the outputs and that’s a big positive to go along with the performance of the amp. Yulong have put together something that is very well thought out for what it does at the price and if you want to test the waters of what balanced amplification can do but have not got the big budget, then this is probably your best option.