When something from Japan turns up on my doorstep it is always met with excitement and curiosity because they are a nation crazed by tech, audio and headphones. Unfortunately for myself and fellow Brits the Japanese can be greedy and keep a lot of their products for their market only, but every now and again a company seek worldwide domination and that’s how they fall into my hands. Aurorasound are one of those companies and they have got themselves a distributor in the UK, Pure Sound, www.puresound.info, to be precise (they can be ordered directly here). They have already found success as well with their VIDA phono stage doing well in European publications. There were a few different products of theirs that caught my eye (such as their modified HiFace products) but none more than the £1999.95 HEADA, a fully balanced desktop headphone amplifier with an aluminium and wood chassis, gorgeous.
What Can It Do:
The HEADA oozes simplicity with function, it does everything I consider myself to need from an amplifier and does so without any trouble. It comes with three headphone outputs, which I have actually used all at once if that interests you (sharing is caring) although doesn’t make much sense too unless all your headphones are similar impedance. You get a standard unbalanced ¼ inch headphone jack to start with but that isn’t what this amp is about, it is a balanced device and that’s how it should be used, with the manual even telling you how to balance your headphones. For balanced you get both a 4 pin XLR and a pair of 3 pin XLR which comes down to what cables you have, I prefer using the pair of 3 pins because it offers the upmost separation between channels which is always a good thing but I have also happily used the 4 pin XLR out for headphones I don’t have a necessary cable for.
Your inputs are selectable with a switch on the front so you can switch between an XLR or RCA (input 1) and an RCA connection (input 2). You also get a gain switch, which isn’t essential for a desktop amp but is still so welcome, especially for someone like me who still likes to use low impedance cans and custom IEMs at home. There is also an RCA output on the back that works as straight signal but I have not used that.
Aurorasound really emphasise the fact that this is a balanced amp and both channels are completely isolated, so there is no interference between channels. Straight from the attenuator the channels split to a channel dedicated output buffer, then to the Headphone protection and then to the individual XLR outputs and, when using my Double Helix Complement3 Cables and a balanced DAC such as the NAD M51, both left and right channels are separate from source to driver, now that’s balanced done properly.
For the amplification section it actually uses four modules that use a combination of transistor and JFETs. It is able to put out quite a hearty 2 watts per channel at 40 ohms and 800mW at 600 ohms so it is no slouch in terms of power. It is also worth adding that the power output is halved when using the single ended output.
Built To Please:
When building this amp it is apparent that they focussed making this amp please all your senses, minus smell. They wanted it to look good, feel good and naturally sound good and they have spent time in all these areas.
Now starting with the aesthetics the combination of wood and aluminium is stunning and it is nice for a wooden amp to actually look the part, unlike the Tisbury Audio TA-1, which had a very similar design but lacked the quality of this. That being said when testing this out with Josh, he did notice that the aluminium faceplate sits slightly to the right side of the wooden cabinet and there is actually a gap on the left side, a bit frustrating on a product just shy of 2 grand. Other than that text is clear and easy to read and maybe the logo is just a little on the retro side. It is also worth noting that the design of this matches nicely with the other Aurorasound models, notably the VIDA.
Feel wise the switches all have a nice click too them which is cool but the main star is the awesome volume pot. The volume pot is actually Japanese, from a brand called Tokyo Ko-On Denpa which is mainly used for pro audio and recording equipment. Behind the chunky and smooth metal pot is actually quite a technical design. It uses a large conductive-plastic potentiometer which allows a very smooth decibel curve, perfect L/R balance and very accurate volume control at low level listening. After some longer use periods I do find the amp to get a little warm on the aluminium faceplate, perhaps even what could be considered hot and this can also be felt on the pot, nothing that I mind but something worth bearing in mind.
Lastly you can see that components were used for sound quality, obviously that includes the pot but when you then turn the amp around and look at all the connections, both the XLRs and RCAs are all Rhodium, known for the utmost conductivity. Then you have the feet, which are infused with a brass anti vibration insulator just top the product off.
My current desktop amp that I use as a reference, the Questyle CMA800R has one glaring problem, noise floor with lower impedance stuff and IEMs. You just can’t use a large range of headphones with it. An amp doesn’t have to have that that problem, the Violetric V200 with its many gain settings does very well and the Graham Slee Solo Ultra Linear does even better with its smart headphone output. Well this has two gain settings, so nowhere near what the Violetric had but it has gain nonetheless, now I can’t actually find what the gain settings are in terms of how much they differ but I have found them rather effective. With anything that likes a bit of power, such as the 300 ohm Sennheiser HD800 and HD580s and planars like HiFiMAN HE-500 and my ZMF Headphones, I find the high gain to be the one to go for. This is of course expected from a desktop amp that can put out around 2W per channel to the planars and they are both great pairings on top of that, but it is when I switch to low gain and plug in my modified Beyer Dynamic T5ps with a Double Helix Molecule SE balanced cable when I do a double take.
The T5p are a 32 ohm headphone that I would say are fairly sensitive. In fact it is one of my biggest caveats with the T5p because they need good amplification but a lot of the time that comes at the cost of a messy background. So you imagine my surprise when matched with the HEADA I do not get a single bit of background noise and, on low gain, am allowed to actually use as much of the volume pot as I do with my HD800 on high gain, with very accurate and precise control over the volume. That’s only the start of the surprises though because you’re also left oogling at how good they are sounding, I have always known they upscale well but this is just intense. These have a gone from being a fairly polarising headphone to something that I want to show off to everyone. They are delivering powerful sub-bass with a CD rip of Macklemore, Ryan Lewis and Mary Lambert’s “Same Love” and then straight after that showing off amazing space and scale with some Bach in DSD.
So this can clearly deliver with top tier high and low impedance dynamic and planars so the last natural test is with a custom in ear monitor. Out comes the Hidition Viento-R, balanced of course (using a Double Helix Cable Ultrashort), that is what this amp’s about at the end of the day. These are sensitive and even with portable amps such as the Alo RX MK3-B, you get a hiss fest, in fact only with a few amps such as the Vorzuge Pure that has a very low power output can I enjoy these earphones hiss free. So how the hell does the HEADA manage a dead silent background with them? I really don’t know, I’m still recovering from the shock. This amp really is dead quiet with every single headphone, earphone or earbud I have used it with.
Let’s Listen Some More:
I have found this amp to have a fairly delicate tone; it is certainly lighter than my Questyle CMA800R and my Yulong A28 for that matter. It is fast and elegant, almost like a butterfly in its movement. This alone makes it very particular in headphone pairing, it loves a thicker sounding planar for example such as the HiFiMAN HE-500 ans ZMF Headphone’s but my reference Sennheiser HD800 can lack some body, although it is far from being bad or polarising.
In fact it doesn’t really have anything that I would say is a bad pairing, ok maybe the Oppo PM-2, it’s just a very clean amp, and that benefits some headphones more than others. The only negative effects you will ever find are and overbearing sense of honesty to a recording, something I get with my HD800s, T5ps and Viento-Rs and when has that been a bad thing!
I spend quite a bit of time debating whether this amps treble is slightly bright, I normally end up deciding that it’s not but just has a lot of treble energy and is generally a detailed amp with a lot of clarity. I find the treble to be a little thin but never splashy and always keeps instruments under a microscope. Decay is quick, which keeps things sounding both real and also stops it sounding aggressive. Moving into the midrange I hear a little bump in the higher mids, offering help to that clear sound and also aiding the great sense of clarity. However it is a range in which I also sense a touch of grain, it is mostly notable with female vocal tracks. It isn’t a horrible or unnatural hump, male vocals and lower mids can in odd scenarios sound just a touch wispy and the midrange is airy in general but I wouldn’t say the bump is unwelcome.
Onto the bass and it is solid and fluid, certainly thicker than the midrange and treble and blossoming into a very powerful sub-bass, generating even the more bass light headphones such as the T5p and Lear LCM-5 CIEMs a very capable bass. It takes great power and technicalities to allow headphones to do what they may not even have known they were capable in terms of bass. I’m back on the topic of the T5p but I have seen so many people dismiss them online for having no bass and being too bright etc, but with this amp they don’t change signature, they just display more control and a rumble to the bass when the track calls for it.
Soundstage is very neat and realistic, never seeming like something I would want to call huge but always accurate, cohesive and natural. Maybe it’s not huge because it’s not trying to over emphasize anything, the centre image is great and you have fast tracking left and right where everything is really well isolated from everything else and obviously that black background helps the image be painted so clearly.
Wrapping up we have an analytical and fast amp, with its main problem being a bit of grain in the upper registers. The grain can easily be overlooked when listening to an unbelievable precise and delicate sound with some very easy details on show. The soft, thin, wispy presentation can sometimes take a bit of getting used to but when you realise how well it allows soundstage layering and instrument separation you can get used to it, unless the headphones or DAC is just too thin to compliment.
All In All:
I love using this amp; it is golden with planar’s and low impedance headphones (and some high impedance ones such as the Sennheiser HD580) and it sound is very close to faultless in its chosen signature. Because of all this and with its simplicity in use and great versatility I come very close to putting it on our Pride of Place but when looking at the 2 grand price tag and comparing it to the cheaper Questyle CMA800R, which offers a completely different sound signature (less analytical, thicker and much better with impedance Sennheisers and still great with planars) I just don’t quite think it quite makes it. That being said it certainly had me and Josh debating and I am happy to award it a Good Buy Award! Aurorasound have made a great amp and I can’t wait to check out some more of their stuff!