The HP-A Deluxe
The headphone clearly resembles a Grado model but in reality I think the yokes, driver and cable are the only remaining stock parts. In reality they are a basically constructed headphone, able to remove and replace most parts yourself. This adds to the lifespan for obvious reasons, i.e. pads die, get new ones. Sadly the cable is fixed still and I would have loved to have seen mini XLR connectors at use here, even if it bumped up the cost. Material choices have left this very light as well making for a pleasant experience when wearing. The Alacantra headband is similar to what Sennheiser use on their Momentum has a nice feel to it while not being very padded. Because the capsule-like housings are made of carbon fibre though they basically have no weight to them so the headband does not need to be over plumped. The pads however do feel a bit odd. the HP-A seems to have considerably more clamping than the prototype model I have and therefore the unreleased proto is a lot comfier. It certainly seems to be identical pads so doubt that is the reason. Grado pads have always seemed odd to me, from what they use on the entry level models all the way to the weird cone pads on the PS1000 which I have owned. These are bigger than that of the cheaper models use and are a thick foam covered in a non permeable material. While the headphones are effortlessly light the pads do feel a little cheap and tight on my ears and get a irritating after a while. Obviously you can experiment with your own pads and I would like some that are truly circumaural, while not negatively affecting the sound.
“What is not written is how the headphones came into fruition. We wanted a product that would be more accessible than our speakers, something of not great cost BUT had to promote the advantages of our chosen medium (Carbon Fibre) and our ‘sound’. This is the more Beth part and I could ramble for many days, however the spherical enclosure for a loudspeaker is understood to be the least refracting and diffracting enclosure type (Dr H Olsen research 1950’s, referenced today in all acoustics establishments). How do we then take a sound that has no forward firing first reflection/moment and incorporate that into a headphone?
In a nutshell the HP-A has a more open and less reflected sound. Their spatiality is unmatched at the price point (approx. £400) and with no synthetic processing. Their weigh and fit through the headband and earpads should be physically transparent without any detrimental ‘feeling’ thus altering your enjoyment of the musical piece. As per our speakers, with a discrete first moment, the first reflection no longer aids the listener to the physical location of the driver and with the headphone we wanted more than an on-ear result, we wanted a decoupling from the head, as if the listener had speakers either see of them rather than attached – we feel we have achieved our goals.
What was not so easy was the driver performance, as I said earlier the headphones had to draw people into our web so the driver had to be subtle but defined.”
In terms of the desired feeling they are after, I would say that the prototype delivers this much better but regardless I still never have that feeling of not wearing something when I have pads touching my ears, even when they are as ludicrously light as these.
When it comes to the carbon fibre weave of this headphone I am truly astonished. I probably shouldn’t be considering DBA’s pedigree in working with this material but when you look at the shoddy finish of JH Audio’s Roxanne case that is covered in blemishes due to the tight windows you have when working with Carbon Fiber you still have to raise your hats at the effort here. Absolutely flawless! The only thing I find a touch tacky is the demand better audio logo is simply a sticker. Obviously the other perk to using such a material is that these are surely one of the strongest made headphones out there.
While I have already had a swipe at the lack of removable cables I think the disappointment is furthered by the simplistic Alessandro stock cable. When it is obvious how much difference a cable can make, to be locked into a stock cable from $99 is a bit sad. Fortunately the cable has no real problems other than looking a bit bland and is very thick and sturdy. Also worth noting is that it has a 3.5mm jack meaning the included adapter is needed for most desktop amps. Obviously with both my reference amps being balanced, I have been unable to use them in this configuration as well which is a shame.
What is not a shame is the how bloody good these headphones are. I have never actually heard the Alessandro line of Grados but have always found traditional Grado’s a bit too grainy and aggressive for me. Daniel told me Alessandro are known for being more listenable headphones as a start point and it is obvious that this is the case for this vs all the Grados I have tried.
Of the two DBA’s I have the HP-A is a balanced and smooth model while the higher end version is flat and very airy! Without doubt the HP-A is the easier to like, and the more consumer orientated model but the top specced rendition is a headphone that I feel can compete with the best. I say more consumer orientated but it still doesn’t stray into Meze 99 territory for just being a safe and loveable signature. That does mean that this may not appeal to extremely casual listeners who could see this as a bit bland in comparison but in the same breath, leaves this an obvious technical step up.
Focussing more on the model that you can actually buy, it is truly a very good headphone, and we mean strikingly good, it is a true hidden gem and we don’t say things like this often! When models like Audeze’s EL-8 are going for more money and turning over sale after sale it just annoys me because they just are not near the level that the HP-A Deluxe offers. Listening to them, they give me a hard job because there is not a long to moan about, (which is oh so rare for us) they just play well, with amazing balance. Add in a great sense of openness and you have yourself a mighty headphone that combines a high level of detail and the right counter of smoothness, leaving no grain or peaky-ness.
If I had to pick out the biggest flaw it would be the sub bass, which if you know anything about open backed headphones shouldn’t come as a surprise, getting heft down there is pretty hard and only some of real big buck models manage it half decently. In reality it is not a concern, they sound magnificently open and closing them up to get some bass would be counterproductive in most ways, or at least that is my opinion.
Without the rumble gifted by a deep extension the bass takes on the persona of a lightweight boxer. Nimble and tight punches are thrown in rapid succession. The bass is the area that may leave people unsatisfied but if you want a precise and unobtrusive low end that will leave the rest of the sound clear and up front then this does it just right. I fall into the latter category and love how the bass handles itself.
The midrange and treble are forward and clean with a rather effortlessly great timbre. They are presented in an honest manner but not an overdone one. It is a close presentation but never does the treble get hot or the midrange get fatiguing. The sound could be heard as a little bit on the whispy side, not exactly thin but it doesn’t have the texture and layering of my ZMF Blackwoods. The real glory is the balance though, that makes nothing sound out of place and show detail leagues beyond the price point.
While I think the sound quality is way above what the price tag suggests, it will fall short of the top tier headphones in a few ways. While very detailed and clear, it does not quite have that speed and transparency factor of something like the HD800 which will keep everything separated at all costs. It also does not have the scalability factor, not a bad thing if you have a more value based system but capping how far you can go with a more expensive system. I really have grasped at straws trying to find stuff to not be super excited about because other than these gripes I have mentioned which on the grand scheme are very minute, this is just WOW. It cannot be compared to the usual headphones at this price range, it is much more 3 dimensional and open, has more clarity and just does without the small frequency response flaws we are used to.
This marvel of a headphone really is astonishing that it is so hidden, a Google search yields no results and there seems to be no reviews about. But aside from the lack of awareness, Demand Better Audio have done just that and created a lovely sounding piece, easily ahead of its humble price tag. The use of carbon fibre is a great touch even if these do look a bit bulky on your head and while the comfort without doubt could be improved with some bigger pads the overall package does not exactly hold back what is a great headphone. Also possessing the mystery prototype, it is also certain that there is more in the brains of Daniel and Natanya when it comes to headphones and while they have mentioned they are happy to just mod for now, perhaps one day they will have their own design from the ground up, like Mr. Speakers is now doing with the Ether line up! I can happily give this headphone our Great Value award!