Our attraction to smaller, boutique companies continues as we now review a headphone amplifier from a relatively unknown company based in Sweden. 

Mattias Stridbeck is the man behind the brand, but it all started in the 1960’s when his father would build speakers. He was very successful too; building thousands in his career at ‘Stridbeck Hi-Fi’. That was then though, now the company works with several other outfits in Sweden before the final product is assembled, tested and given the go ahead in Harmony’s own office. The majority of companies will work in this way, it’s arguably becoming the most efficient way to work in this day and age!

Mattias has a design philosophy which goes as follows:

“Create good design solutions from a technical perspective while keeping the listener in mind. The music must be reproduced as faithfully as possible.

Music is a language. For it to be easy to absorb it must be rendered neutrally, dynamically and as clearly as possible.”

This philosophy is built into his products by design whether that be through component choice or circuit layout. He even goes as far as choosing the most sonically neutral volume pots and designing his own voltage regulation system! Within my discussions with Mattias one thing really stood out to me, he is NOT an audiophile, he is an engineer who simply wants to make great quality audio components for a good value cost to the customer.

Before we go into the product specs and details, I’m going to tell you a little about where it has come from. 

The initial headphone amp from Harmony was called the Ear 90. Mattias was approached by another company about this product and after some discussion and a few months passing there were plans for a new flagship headphone amplifier called the Ear 909. This initial unit bared a lot of the same parts and technologies as existing Harmony products, the amp board was the same as the balanced version of the Ear 90 and the much improved power supply came from the Pre 906. This was only the start though…

In 2009 the power supply was completely redesigned (as was the amplifier board in 909 by this point) for both the Pre and the Ear. The PCB designs in Harmony’s devices are very well thought out and Mattias actually describes the PSU’s as ‘lavish’ and I can tell you, it works. I will confess I don’t fully understand each and every aspect of the design but behind each decision there is reasoning, and the reasoning is logical. The effort behind the PSU has a profound effect on the SQ which I will obviously speak about later. 

There are two versions available of the Ear 909, one having Balanced input with balanced bypass output and the other with one balanced and one unbalanced input with a selector is placed on the product rear. The version we have here has both the balanced and single ended inputs on the back of the product but for this review it was the balanced inputs that were used predominantly because the performance was superior to the single ended one, it would certainly be my recommended method of connection and use of this product.

Specifications

Lets start with the basics: the 909 measures up at a width of 335 mm, height of 90 mm, depth of 285 mm and it weighs in at 4 kg. That certainly isn’t light when you consider the chassis is a pretty lightweight anodized Aluminium, flanked by wood panels. The chassis doesn’t account for much of the weight unlike with something like the COS products we have recently reviewed which have super thick chassis’. Oh, by the way, those wooden panels are either Cherry, Oak or Elm depending on preference and availability.

The output voltage from 909 is 8V RMS and 3W into 20 Ohm or 650 mW into 100 Ohm and the maximum peak output current is 1A. This will not be constant and is over the top in reality but this is what Mattias says was needed for the system as a whole. Finally, input impedance is 20K Ohm and output impedance is ~ 0 Ohm. These are pretty promising stats, but as we always say, numbers are hardly ever the full story!

It is worth mentioning here that there is a gain switch on the front of the amp which operates at 0, 3 and 6 db increases at their respective notches although middle is lowest, bottom is medium and top the highest, a little weird if you ask me! This gain alteration is always handy on an amp as it can really give you the most freedom of travel with the volume knob to find exactly how loud you want to listen. For example with the Beyer T5p I would use the lowest gain setting but with something like the ZMF Blackwood I would be on the highest setting.

The 909 costs 19500 Swedish krona which translates to approximately £1750 GBP including shipping. Which in today’s frankly ridiculously priced personal audio market is pretty reasonable if you ask me, but I will give a better idea of actual value after we’ve looked a bit closer at the SQ.

Design and Build

Now as much as I love this product, it isn’t exactly a work of art, it’s a little bland looking. I really don’t mind this though, it’s bold and consistent through the range of products. Believe me, if the only thing you’ve ever seen regarding this brand is this review I guarantee you would be able to pick their other products out in a packed HiFi store. The wooden flanks are lovely and beautifully finished, not overly polished and shiny. This is definitely a functional looking product, if you want a blingy showpiece this is clearly not for you aesthetically. The aluminium main body is absolutely fine for its purpose but could be a little thicker as there is a very small flex to it. Because of the simplicity of the design the whole product really does feel like it’s been built excellently well, the volume knob is sturdy and all of the connector’s front and back feel well executed. The faceplate is clear and completely functional but there really isn’t much more to say about the design than that, it does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s a headphone amplifier, and it doesn’t try to dress it up.

People will quite quickly decide whether they like the look of the Harmony range, but remember, these fancy chassis and shapes cost money, and can quickly add a considerable amount to the cost of an amplifier. Always think about what it is you’re paying for.

 

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Josh Coleby
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