Everything until this point has sort of been excused for being a little bit less than you would expect because the sound was a priority. Now we get to the sound quality section and this is basically going to be an attestation to its level of performance! While listening to this amp I set it up mainly in a simple desktop configuration with my iMac running Roon, USB into the Yulong ADA1 DAC then its line out going to the Elemental. I did play around with stuff like using my Cayin i5 line out into its 3.5mm input and even going completely overboard and trying it out with the £7,000 COS D1 DAC but I think the Yulong is the sort of system this amp will be used in, even if that is a tad more expensive. Now the Yulong (review coming soon) is marketed as both a DAC and capable headphone amp and at 3x the price, adding a considerably cheap headphone amp would not really be expected to increase the performance. That being said it really does. I find the sound maybe more refined without the Watson but it certainly is not near as exciting or spacious sounding. My HD800s go from boring with the ADA1 to engaging with the HD800s.
The second big nod to what the designers have achieved would be how good it sounds with the HD800s. I am obsessed with getting the best sound out of these cans and am very picky as to what comes before them in my audio chain. I often find very capable amps still can’t do this justice. Why it is so impressive is that we not only have a great control of the drivers here but also a real synergy! They state they used a wide range of flagship headphones when designing this including the HD800 and others such as Beyerdynamic T1/T5p, Audeze LCD-X, Grado PS1000e, Mr Speakers Ether and Fostex TH900. I have only tried with the T5p and Sennheisers but can certainly hear they tried to make them work with these headphones! I should give a quick mention to what will be the result should you desire to give some POWER to IEMs. There is a big positive and negative here. The positive is there is a lack of noise but sadly the high gain as I have already mentioned means we have very little movement on the pot to adjust volume, making finding the perfect listening levels difficult.
The amps most standout points when it comes to sonics would be its slightly thinner treble tone that does account for it being a more excitable product and beyond that, it is full sounding with a spread out soundstage. It can also easily be categorised as your traditional warm valve based piece of electronics, just with the injection of energy. The bass is thick and firm, I wouldn’t say it is that woolly, soft type of low end you get with some tube amps. It really compliments the HD800, which is not known for copious amounts of bass and the combination has a really hard hitting low end! The midrange seems to edge towards clarity which makes sense as the treble is airy and exciting. I find the treble to be the weakest area, sometimes making tssh like notes and feeling just a bit feeble. It’s no tragedy don’t get me wrong, as I said it still plays well with my Sennheiser’s which can easily sound unlistenable if the treble gets too out of hand.
If you like a more laid back sound this may not be the amp for you. The ADA1, for example, is much more composed, with a more grainless sound. The Watson in comparison is more forward across the board, with big dynamics and plenty of space. That more in your face sound does come with plenty of speed and the lack of background noise allows this to do a very impressive job of allowing the DACs qualities shine through. It’s no Questyle CMA800R in terms of transparency but then it’s not almost two grand either!
Value x Value
This is an absolutely fantastic product. I am fully behind the cost cutting to get this sounding great yet remain very affordable. My quickest fixes would be simple stuff like giving this less gain, putting RCAs round the back and adding stickier feet so plugging in headphones doesn’t send this sliding all over the desk.
As for the sound, it hits the spot. It is engaging, synergises well with my headphones and has endless supplies of power for whatever technology of headphones you use. At €259 I doubt you will outdo this in terms of sheer performance and for that reason I have no restraint in giving this our Great Value award!