JDS Labs Element II Review

JDS Labs have revised their Element line and today we are taking an in-depth look at the new Element II.

Aesthetics and Build Quality:

The original Element was always a great looking DAC/Amp with plenty of people loving it’s look and functionality. A well machined aluminium chassis with a large central volume knob with light illuminating the ring, it’s classy.

On the back you have RCA inputs and outputs so it can be used as a DAC/Pre-amp for speakers, or as an amp only when paired with a different external DAC. You also have the gain button and power button (which also switches between headamp and pre-amp). On the front you have the headphone output socket, that is it. JDS Labs have packed in plenty of functionality into an attractive package, it really does look great when sat on a desk.

The new Element II has a better DAC section which now supports higher resolution bitrates, along with other enhanced specs. The amp section is based on the one in the Atom, which we all know is super clean with low output impedance. Gain is set at 1x and 4.73x, which should fit most peoples needs.

Sound:

Well the Element II, just like the original, is designed to power your headphones to their maximum potential without colouring the sound. It can be used with sensitive IEM’s, right up to most planar headphones without missing a beat, it is clean and exceptionally well controlled. The Element II is not a bright sounding DAC/Amp, instead it will let you hear the true signature of the headphones you are plugging in to it. Having such low output impedance means even the most sensitive IEM’s won’t have their sound signature altered.

The Element II perfectly demonstrates that neutral is not boring, and it allows you to pick the headphones to suit your needs rather than picking the amp for your headphones. The Element II also looks superb when on a simple desk, it is clean and minimalist and is all the DAC/Amp you really need for most headphones. I for one, appreciate that the Element II is not trying to wow you with colouration, nor is it analytical to the point of sounding cold and artificial.

Conclusion:

If you are looking for a clean and neat setup, that also sounds clean and detailed, you cannot go wrong with the Element II. Just don’t expect it to flatter you with a warm and analogue sound, it will reveal the true sound signature of your headphones instead.

 

Build Quality: 5/5

Features: 4/5

Sound Quality: 5/5

Value: 4/5

Best DACs & Headphone Amps 2020: USB, Portable, Desktop

Whether you want to use them with your TV, computer, laptop, smartphone or hifi system. We’ve gathered our picks for the best DACs and headphone amplifiers that you can buy!

Our pick of the Best DAC and Headphone Amplifier for all budgets and uses:

Not to be overlooked, a good quality DAC and amp can do wonders to any setup. We have seen huge growth in interest towards DACs and amps, so it makes sense that we put together our favourite headphone amplifiers and DACs to help make that decision easier.

Whether you want to use them with your TV, computer, laptop, smartphone or hifi system. We’ve gathered our picks for the best DACs and headphone amplifiers that you can buy!

 

BEST DAC / AMP UNDER £100

1. Shanling UP2 – £79.99

shanling up2
Shanling UP2

The Shanling UP2 is the perfect way to bring added power and audio quality to your smartphone, tablet or computer. Using Bluetooth, the UP2 will connect wirelessly to your phone – or any Bluetooth compatible audio device – and thanks to the on board dedicated headphone amplifier and high quality Sabre DAC chip – you’ll be able to get high fidelity audio wherever you go.

READ MORE: Shanling UP2 Portable Bluetooth DAC & Headphone Amplifier Review

 

BEST DAC / AMP UNDER £200

2. JDS Labs Atom – £129.99

jds atom
JDS Labs Atom

JDS Labs has mastered the art of making high quality amplifiers and DACs at affordable prices – and the Atom is their most impressive yet. For just over £100, the Atom desktop headphone amplifier will drive any headphone you throw at it and will bring improved soundstage, depth and dynamics to your setup. All in a neat and tidy desktop design.

READ MORE: JDS Labs Atom Desktop Headphone Amplifier Review

 

3. Periodic Audio Ni (Nickel) – £199

periodic audio nickel
Periodic Audio Nickel

This one’s for the purists out there. On the outside, the Periodic Audio Ni seems like a very simple and basic headphone amplifier – plug it into your source and you’ll soon see that it most definitely isn’t simple or basic. This amp brings added power, punch and improved dynamics to whichever device it gets used with. Those that really appreciate good sound will love the Nickel.

MORE INFO: Periodic Audio Ni (Nickel) Portable Headphone Amplifier Review

 

BEST DAC / AMP UNDER £500

4. iFi Audio xDSD – £399

ifi audio xdsd
iFi Audio xDSD

The xDSD from iFi Audio is a portable amplifier and DAC that can connect to your audio source wirelessly. So if you like to use your phone, but want to plug in some high quality headphones – then the xDSD will allow you to get the most from them, without adding more cables. The xDSD will take over the amp and DAC roles, so you will know that you’re getting the best sound no matter the source device.

MORE INFO: iFi Audio xDSD Portable Bluetooth DAC & Headphone Amplifier Review

 

5. JDS Labs Element II – £399

jds labs element ii
JDS Labs Element II

If it is a desktop option you need, then the JDS Labs Element II will not only bring an audio upgrade – it will look great too. Beautifully designed with a simple yet striking look – the Element II will fit into any setup. Historically, JDS Labs has been known for their functional design and great sound – now with the Element II, they have shown that they can make great looking equipment too.

 

BEST DAC / AMP UNDER £1000

6. iFi Audio Micro iDSD BL – £599

ifi audio micro idsd bl
iFi Audio Micro iDSD BL

For the ultimate amp and DAC solution, look no further. The 2 Burr-Brown DAC chips provide a solid foundation for the custom op-amps, which help to deliver an impressive amount of fidelity and power. Using sensitive IEMs? This amp/DAC handles these superbly, with no noise or distortion. Whether used on a desktop or on the move – the iFi Audio Micro iDSD BL does it all… really well. 

MORE INFO: iFi Audio Micro iDSD BL Portable DAC & Headphone Amplifier

 

Have We Missed Anything Out?

Please feel free to leave a comment below and let us know…

Periodic Audio Ni (Nickel) Headphone Amplifier Review

The new Ni from Periodic is a compact little headphone amp, simply plug it in between your source and headphones and let the results speak for themselves.

Periodic Ni (Nickel) Review

Aesthetics and Build Quality:

The Ni is about the size of a 9v battery, and looks very plain. All black but with the company branding in white on it along with white arrows showing the input/output sockets; sitting between these sockets is an LED. On the other end you have a micro-USB for charging, and that is it, no buttons or switches, just a block with sockets on it.

The build quality is superb, it may be made out of polycarbonate, but it sure is well put together. Tolerances are incredibly tight and the housing is very well put together, along with the fact that the 3.5mm sockets are tight and of very high quality. All of this put together makes the Ni a solid little amp that should easily be up to the task of daily use.

Features:

The Ni does not have an on/off switch or volume control, the sockets sense when a source and headphone are connected and power the amp on. Volume is controlled by the source, and the Ni has a fixed gain of 6.5dB. It will supply 150 mW into 50 Ohms, 250 mW into 32 Ohms, and 270 mW into 16 Ohms. This makes it suitable for most headphones that are used for portable use, and some harder to drive models too.

The battery charges from flat to full in only 30 minutes, and you can expect around 9hrs of battery life from a single charge. The input impedance is very high which means it almost totally bypasses the internal amp of your source. The sockets are TRRS so when you are using it with a mobile phone, mic and controls will still pass through to the phone. The Ni is also engineered to be nearly completely RF and noise interference free.

 

Sound:

Well Periodic have put a lot of thought into this tiny little amp, so you would hope the results pay off.

Well rest assured all that work didn’t go to waste, the Ni does exactly what it sets out to do without fault. Phone outputs are usually pretty poor, and this little amp really does bring an improvement, and not just in terms of volume.

 

It goes beyond that and you get a nice quiet background with very low noise, alongside an increased sense of control and responsiveness. Lows sound tighter and more articulate, the midrange sounds better separated and airy, along with effortless extension up top. Of course, a lot of this will depend on the headphones you plug in, but with the Ni you can use a wide range of earphones to headphones and get the same quality performance that a phone simple cannot give on its own.

 

The Ni doesn’t inject a signature of its own, it does not have any additional bells or whistles, it purely amplifies the signal. But it does so in a very clean and precise manner that is perfect for those with low powered sources or poor headphone outputs.

 

Conclusion:

If you are looking for a boost in power, or a step up from your phone’s headphones output, the Ni is the perfect solution for on the go use. With great battery life, quick charging time and excellent sound quality, what’s not to love?

 

Sound:  5/5

Features: 3/5

Build: 4/5

Value: 4/5

Do You Need A Headphone Amplifier?

Hey everyone, John here. Not sure whether to buy a headphone amp? This video will not only help you understand what a headphone amp is, we will inform you of the benefits of adding an amp to your existing setup, or buying an amp with your new headphones.

Do I Need A Headphone Amplifier?

What is a headphone amplifier?

Simply put, every device that allows you to plug in headphones has an amp built in. The amp takes the audio signal and boosts it, allowing us to hear sound through the headphones. Amps don’t only boost volume; they can add and improve qualities like soundstage and separation. Adding an amp to a setup can also bring extra warmth or clarity. This all depends on the quality of the amp and how it has been designed.

The reality is that most people won’t need an external headphone amp. That’s not to say that they wouldn’t benefit from one, though. Smartphones are now a very common music source, and with the technology getting better and better, they do a decent job of delivering good quality sound to most portable headphones and earphones.

JDS Labs Objective 2

There are plenty of headphones designed to be used with mobile phones and other low powered portable devices. These headphones generally have a low impedance of up to 32ohm, and high sensitivity of around 100db, so they are very easy to drive and are more likely to go louder. Remember though: not only do amps add extra power but they can also improve the quality of the sound. So, once you start looking at higher quality headphones, improving your amp will start to make more sense as you will want to get the most out of them. No matter how good your headphones are, the sound quality will be limited by how good the amp is.

 

Choosing a headphone amp

If you’ve decided to go for a headphone amp, you now need to decide which one to go for. There are many to choose from, and they go for anything between £20 to £2000 and more. Amps can be split into two main groups: portable and desktop.

If you want to add some power to your phone or laptop, then you will want to look for a portable amp. These amps can be charged, and will run off batteries, making them ideal for using on the move. They are also small in size, and there are some out there (like the iFi Audio xCAN) which can connect to the source wirelessly using Bluetooth.

iFi xCAN

 If you only use your headphones at home, or intend to use headphones that are particularly hard to drive, then you will probably want to go for a desktop amp as they are generally more powerful. Not only are they more powerful, they also tend to have a larger amount of inputs and outputs, making them very versatile. They will need to be plugged it at all times, so will need a power socket to work.

As amps can bring their own character to the overall sound quality, it’s worth making sure you choose wisely and pick an amp that will compliment your headphones. For example, if your headphones have a warm or bassy sound then it’s a good idea to go for a neutral or bright sounding amp. This also works the other way around; a warm sounding amp will complement bright headphones and help to balance the sound out.

 

Get in touch!

If you have any questions about choosing the right amplifier then please feel free to comment below! We’ll be happy to offer advice on this.

 

JDS Labs Atom Review

The Atom is the new amp to beat for its price, it is simple yet has all the features you could need from a budget, neutral headphone amplifier.

Review: The JDS Labs Atom

 

Aesthetics and Build Quality:

The Atom is sort of built to be the new Objective2, and it sure looks better from an aesthetic point of view. The Atom is very simplistic, yet the curved edges make it look quite premium for the price. The overall finish and attention to detail is excellent, and it looks really neat sat on a desk.

 

The build quality is really good, it may not have a nice CNC machined chassis but everything is well finished and put together. The push buttons, volume control, inputs and outputs all feel great. I have no complaints about the build quality whatsoever.

 

 

 

Features:

The Atom incorporates everything the Objective2 should have had. Rear power socket and RCA inputs, front gain and input switch along with a ¼” headphone output. On the back you have both RCA and 3.5mm inputs, along with RCA outputs so you can use the Atom as a pre-amp when you don’t have headphones plugged in.

 

 

 

Sound:

As I have said the Atom was conceived as the next generation Objective2, so is it worthy of that title? In short, Yes, it is.

 

First off, we have the fact that the Atom is more powerful, nearly twice as powerful at 32 Ohms, so it can drive a wider range of headphones. But with this could come more noise, luckily the Atom shares the same black background and pure reference sound of the Objective2. The output impedance remains less than 1Ohm, so there are no issues using sensitive IEM’s with the Atom.

 

It is really difficult to describe the Atom, as it really doesn’t anything apart from amplify the sound. It doesn’t add its own character, and this is what JDS Labs were aiming for. Feed it with a good source and you have an excellent system on a budget. Either the EL or OL DAC would be the perfect partner for the Atom.

 

Lets just face the fact that the Atom does a lot right for the price, and I personally cannot pick any flaws in the design or sound of this little amp. I do not think anything comes close if you are looking for a neutral, uncoloured headphone amp under £200.

 

 

 

Conclusion:

The Atom sets a new standard when it comes to budget headphone amps, it has a clean and reference sound, with plenty of power on tap, it does justice to most headphones. All neatly wrapped up in a well-thought-out chassis, the Atom really is hard to beat.

iFi xCAN Review

The newly released xCAN from iFi Audio is a pocket-sized powerhouse with both wired and wireless connections, along with balanced output.

Review: The iFi xCAN

 

Aesthetics and Build Quality:

The xCAN is built much the same as the xDSD, with a metal housing that is a bit of a fingerprint magnet and a plastic rear cap where the Bluetooth circuitry is located. The xCAN looks superb in person with a great size and shape.

 

The build quality is superb and the volume control does not stick out, meaning it is well protected and all the sockets are tight. Everything just feels very solid.

iFi xCAN front

 

Features:

Unlike the xDSD, the xCAN only have analogue inputs along with Bluetooth capability. You get a regular 3.5mm line-input, along with a 2.5mm TRRS balanced line-input. Outputs are the same, one 3.5mm and one 2.5mm TRRS balanced.

 

The xCAN has the XBass II and 3D+ adjustments. The XBass II is a completely analogue bass correction curve and can be switched to boost low frequencies or to correct the presence region, or both. The 3D+ is also an analogue circuit that aims to correct the holographic soundstage, making headphones sounds less like the music is coming from inside your head.

 

The volume knob changes colour depending on the volume, starting at blue for low volume going up to red at full output. The xCAN delivers more power from its balanced output as you would expect, so it is recommended to use balanced if you can.

 

 

iFi xCAN back

Sound:

 

Well, as the xCAN is mainly an amplifier, the quality of sound will largely depend on what you are feeding it. But feed it with a high-quality source and it will do its job of amplifying the signal without adding too much flavour. The xCAN is neutral and detailed. It may be a tiny bit on the smoother side so as to prevent it from sounding overly analytical, but it is not coloured to my ears.

 

When using it with Bluetooth you are relying on both devices; when using an AptX-enabled device, you get excellent audio quality. I really don’t know how iFi do it, but you really do not lose much in terms of sound quality when using this with an AptX device.

 

The xCANs dual mono amplification stage really is impressive, hiss free with sensitive IEM’s yet at a push it can power the Beyerdynamic T1 2nd Gen with good results (Volume on red). Not that anyone would buy this solely for use with the T1 I don’t think, but it is still a very impressive feat from this tiny amp.

 

 

The XBass is a really handy boost for when out and about in noisy environments or just for slightly brighter sounding headphones. The 3D+ works wonders for more closed in sounding headphones giving you a more realistic soundstage. The ability to choose between bass and presence on the XBass setting is actually really handy and allows you a little finer tuning than a standard bass boost.

 

iFi xCAN Powered On

 

Conclusion:

The xCAN has all you need from a portable amp, perfect size, good battery life and easy to use. Add to that excellent Bluetooth implementation, balanced circuitry and overall sound quality is the only portable amp you will ever need. Another superb product from iFi that has our seal of approval.

Burson Fun V6 Vivid Review

The Fun with V6 Vivid op-amps packs a punch, with most headphones you won’t need to crank the volume up much to get good listening levels.

Burson Fun V6 Vivid

 

Burson have created an incredibly powerful headphone amp, in a small desktop friendly housing. The sound is simply sublime, helped by its dual mono, Class A topology which is fully discreet if used with V6 op-amps.

 

Burson Fun V6 Vivid

 

Aesthetics and Build Quality:

The Fun, much like the Play, has a more industrial look with a matte black aluminium enclosure with minimal markings. It is definitely not the most luxurious looking amp, but it is what is inside that counts. On the front you have the 6.3mm headphone out, 3.5mm analogue input, and 3.5mm microphone input, and the microphone input is a pass through to the back plate. On the back you have the 3.5mm microphone pass through output, along with RCA inputs and outputs.

 

 

Build quality is excellent; you get a sturdy metal chassis with a metal volume knob too. There are rubber feet on the bottom, and all the inputs and outputs feel excellent. You can take the top of the case off easily to roll op-amps, and you can even install it into a PC tower.

 

Burson Audio Fun V6 Vivid

 

Features:

The Fun is mainly a headphone amp, using Class A dual mono circuitry for maximum sound quality. It also features fully discreet components if purchased with the V6 series of op-amps. If not, you can always install them in at a later date.

 

The Fun is incredibly powerful for its size, powering all but the most power-hungry headphones out there. It also features RCA outputs to be used as a pre-amp- this feature makes it a perfect match with the Bang power amplifier.

 

There is a microphone pass through which doesn’t touch the internal components but tidies up the cables on your desk if used with gaming headphones.

 

Burson Audio Fun V6 Vivid

Sound:

The Fun with V6 Vivid op-amps packs a punch. With most headphones, you won’t need to crank the volume up much to get good listening levels. What is noticeable here is the sheer clarity of the amp: it is focused and controlled, yet the lows hit with incredible authority and power. The midrange is detailed and airy, but not upfront and intimate as some people prefer.  The treble has tons of sparkle and extension, but it never comes across as bright or harsh. The V6 Vivid op-amps make this amp a lot of fun to listen to, and it is incredibly engaging, but it never sounds like there are peaks and dips added to the frequency response to make it this way.

 

This amp is balanced with maybe a hint of added body and sparkle, the soundstage is wide and the separation is superb. There is air between instruments, and the dynamism is really impressive.

 

Conclusion:

If you’re looking for a powerhouse of a headphone amp, a great pre-amp or just something engaging and enjoyable to listen to, the Fun with V6 op-amps should be high on your list. What it does for the price is truly incredible. We highly advise you to come down to our demo room to test it out, especially with the new Sennheiser HD820.

Review- The iFi Audio xDSD

iFi have managed to pack a lot into a small device, and it works in perfect harmony.

iFi xDSD

 

The xDSD is tiny but packed full of tech; a must have for the audiophile who listens on the go.

 

Aesthetics and Build Quality:

The xDSD is a lovely little thing, with a shiny gunmetal finish and matte black backplate it is neat and tidy. The finish is a bit of a fingerprint magnet though, so be sure to give it a wipe down from time to time. On the back you have the inputs, on the front you have the volume knob/on-off switch, xBass and 3D+ button, and the 3.5mm headphone output.

 

iFi xDSD

 

Build quality wise it is a solid unit; the mostly metal construction should help it to survive day to day use along with holding up to the occasional knock that is bound to happen. All the sockets are tight and the buttons all feel sturdy. The volume knob is flush with the main body, meaning there won’t be additional stress added to it.

 

 

Features:

The xDSD accepts all sorts of inputs, you have the main USB input for using with a mobile phone (camera connection kit requires for iOS devices). On the back there is also the 3.5mm coaxial/TOSLINK combo S/PDIF input for DAP’s and CD players. Internally you have Bluetooth connection, allowing you to transmit Bluetooth audio from your device to the xDSD, it supports the regular Bluetooth protocols along with AptX, in the future it would be nice to see it support LDAC.

 

On the back you have a micro-USB port that is for charging only, along with a filter switch. This changes the digital filter from Measure to Listen. The differences between the 2 filters modes is subtle, so play around and see which you prefer. To my ears the Measure is a little more neutral, the Listen is a little more forgiving and better for extended listening.

 

iFI xDSD

 

The 3.5mm socket on the back can be set as a line-out so you can use the xDSD as a DAC for your hifi system or to connect to a different amplifier. Overall for the size of the device, iFi have managed to pack a lot in.

 

The volume knob has a clear centre that changes colour depending on the volume, starting at blue (low) and going up to red (high). Next to this are LED indicators, showing what input is being used and the bitrate, along with showing if the 3D+ and xBass+ settings are in use.

 

 

 

Sound:

So how does the xDSD sound, well first off, I will say that it pairs equally well with IEM’s as it does with most full-size headphones. It will power most headphones, but may not be the best match for low sensitivity headphones, with 500mw@16 Ohms it really can pack a punch for its size.

 

The xDSD has superb audio quality though, as with most iFi products it is clean as a whistle but with a hint of smoothness to it, this prevents the xDSD from sounding too sterile. There is excellent definition to the sound, with great separation and everything is in its right place. The noise floor is low, you will only notice a tiny bit of noise with extremely sensitive IEM’s.

 

iFi xDSD

 

The xDSD steers clear of sounding too digital, the bass is controlled with only a slight hint of added body. The midrange is clean and insightful handling everything with ease. The highs are detailed and extended but without a hint of glare, overall it is a well balanced and detailed DAC/Amp.

 

What surprised me here is the Bluetooth quality, the sound quality is very consistent, no matter what input is used. The added convenience of going wireless is handy, and knowing that you don’t lose out on a lot of sound quality makes it ever better.

 

 

Conclusion:

iFi have managed to pack a lot into a small device, and it works in perfect harmony. Unfortunately, there is a tiny bit of background noise with extremely sensitive IEM’s. Overall however the xDSD is clean, detailed and easy to listen to. Nothing stands out, and the feature set is excellent for the price. A must have for the audiophile on the go.

Sennheiser HDV 820 Headphone Amplifier / DAC Review

The HDV 820 is all about musical enjoyment, just sit back and enjoy the effortless sound of your headphones.

HDV 820

Sennheiser HDV 820 Headphone Amplifier / DAC Review

Sennheisers new HDV 820 is a smooth, powerful and versatile DAC/Amp that is all about musical enjoyment and flexibilty.

Pros:

  • Smooth effortless sound
  • Detail retrieval
  • Versatility

Cons:

  • A little pricey for some

 

Aesthetics and Build Quality:

Sennheiser have gone away from the silver colour scheme with their latest products, opting instead for a matte black finish. In my opinion the products look a lot sleeker now, and the matte black aluminum casing of the HDV 820 looks superb. The LED status lighting is white and perfectly blends with the whole look.

The build quality is as you would expect from Sennheiser, flawless. The casing is superbly finished and put together, all the sockets are tight and have no play in them. I could not find a single fault with the build and finish of the HDV 820.

HDV 820

Features:

The HDV 820 can be used as a pure amp, pre-amp and also as a DAC/Amp. It has balanced and unbalanced inputs and outputs and supports DSD playback.

On the front panel you have a 6.3mm/3 pin XLR combo single ended headphone out, a balanced 4-pin XLR output and a pair of 4.4mm balanced pentaconn outputs. You also have the power button, source select knob and volume knob.

On the back you have the balanced analogue inputs and outputs, single ended analogue input, gain knob, and finally the optical, coaxial and USB digital inputs.

It is a very versatile unit that can be fitted into any system.

HDV 820

Sound:

The HDV 820 is plenty powerful for most headphones out there, and even does a decent job at driving the HiFiMan HE-6. It is no wonder that it pairs wonderfully with Sennheisers own HD800, bringing out plenty of body, dynamic punch and detail without becoming shouty. The HD800 sound smooth and effortless when paired with the HDV 820, a pairing that is revealing with heaps of detail but never brash or too in your face.

The highlights of the HD800 are accentuated by the HDV 820, offering one of the airiest and widest soundstages of any headphone, orchestral passages are simply sublime. The HDV 820 has no trouble with separating more complex tracks, offering up a textured and well layered sound.

The HDV 820 is not the most neutral and analytical sounding unit out there, it does have a certain smoothness to it but without taking away detail. It won’t become fatiguing to listen to, and is the perfect companion to the HD800.

HDV 820

Conclusion:

The HDV 820 is powerful and versatile making itself at home in any system. It pairs well with many different headphones and has a slightly smoother more laid back sound than some of the other more neutral amps. The HDV 820 is all about musical enjoyment, just sit back and enjoy the effortless sound of your headphones.

Questyle CMA400i DAC / Headphone Amplifier Review

The Questyle CM400i proves that neutrality really works when it comes to an all in one desktop device. One that works well with sensitive IEM’s all the way up to full size planar magnetic headphones.

CMA400i

Questyle CMA400i DAC/Headphone Amplifier Review

The Questyle CM400i proves that neutrality really works when it comes to an all in one desktop device. One that works well with sensitive IEM’s all the way up to full size planar magnetic headphones.

Pros:

  • Neutrality
  • Detail
  • Power

    Cons:

  • May sound clinical to some
  • No analogue inputs

    Aesthetics and Build Quality:

    The CMA400i is a sleek, matte black DAC/Amp which looks very professional and understated. There are orange LED’s on the front along with the outputs and volume knob; the inputs are on the back. It looks superb, but if you want to change the looks up a little you can buy an optional clear top cover to show off the internals. You can also get an optional desk stand that stands the CMA400i upright to save space.

    The CMA400i has a solid CNC machined aluminium shell and feels extremly well built. All the connectors are solid, the buttons precise and the volume control is super smooth. Questyle have made a superbly built unit here, with no flaws in the finish whatsoever.

    Features:

    The CMA400i is a DAC/Amp, and does not have any analogue inputs, for that you will need the CMA600i which offers a pair of RCA analogue inputs.

    The CMA400i has 2 coaxial inputs, 1 optical input and a USB input, so it can be used with a wide range of devices. On the back you have outputs that can be used as line-outputs to an external amplifier or pre-amp output to powered speakers. You get a pair of balanced XLR outputs and a pair of RCA outputs, along with a spdif digital output (USB to spdif converter use).

    On the front you have the 4-pin balanced XLR output, a standard 6.3mm singled ended output and a 2.5mm balanced output. This covers the most common single ended and balanced connectors. You have the volume knob and also 2 buttons, one to switch between inputs and one to switch between Amp mode (for headphone and pre-amp use), or DAC mode (DAC mode switches the outputs on the back to line-outputs).

    On the bottom you have gain switches, for standard or low gain, this means it can be used with a wide variety of headphones and IEM’s (standard is roghly 2.47x and low is roughly 1.1x)

    CMA400i

Sound:

The CMA400i as a pure DAC is superb, it is one of the more detailed and neutral DACs out there not adding any sweetness to the sound. The separation is one of its strong points, and its ability to show up fine detail is also excellent. The DAC won’t smooth over imperfections in recordings, it is very revealing and presents the recording to you as it should be.

Going on to the amp section this is also a more neutral and revealing amplifier, one that could be used in a reference system. The CMA400i could sound cold and clinical to those that are used to smoother sounding amps, however it is not. It is revealing and will show up flaws in the recording, and it will let you hear the real sound of your headphones of choice.

The sound is tight, controlled and detailed, there is no added warmth so careful system matching is a must. The CMA400i is powerful enough for most full size headphones, yet also has a low gain option which can be used in conjuction with sensitive IEM’s and it has a 2.5mm balanced output. The resolution and detail of the sound is superb for the price, you will hear details you have not heard before.

CMA400i

Conclusion:

For an all in one unit the CMA400i is remarkably clean, crisp and detailed. It has excellent control and balance throughout the frequency range and is a great reference setup for testing headphones. It also makes a great desktop setup for most headphones, especially those that lean towards a smoother, warmer sound. Pairing the CMA400i with the Audeze LCD-2 for example really shows what they are capable of with a fun and punchy but not bloated sound. However pairing with the Sennheiser HD800 is perhaps a little too clinical for some tastes.

Shanling UP Portable DAC / Amplifier Review

The Shanling UP is a superb High Resolution DAC/Amp for portable use, if you have some good headphones, you are not hearing their full potential out of a phone. This will change that, the UP with give you the clarity, detail and soundstage that your phone simply cannot.

Shanling UP DAC

Shanling UP Portable Headphone USB DAC and Amplifier

Up your portable audio game with the Shanling UP, with excellent detail retrieval and a wide soundstage, a must have for the audiophile on the go.

Pros:

  • Clarity
  • Size
  • Value for money

Cons:

  • None for the price

Shanling UP DAC

Aesthetics, Build Quality and Accessories

The Shanling UP is a tiny little device, the size of a memory stick, with a glossy black front and matter black rear. It has a USB tybe C socket on the top and a 3.5mm headphone jack output on the bottom, on the front an LED will light up telling you the device is on and what sample rate is playing. It is so simplistic and elegant it will fit into any system with ease.

The build quality is excellent with the glass front and the rest of the body being aluminium. Both sockets feel tight, and there is nothing on it to go wrong.

Accessory wise all you get is various cables, which is all that is needed. You get a lightning to USB C, USB C to USB C, Micro USB to USB C and a regular USB to USB C cable, so it covers most phones and PC use.

Ease of use

The UP does not have an internal battery, it just plugs into your device and runs as a DAC/Amp. It should work with most android devices that support OTG accessories, iPhones with lightning port and also PC’s. With the new Windows 10 creators update you no longer need to install drivers.

The devices has no buttons, thus you control the volume level via your phone or PC, I had no issues getting it to work with a Samsung phone, and a regular Windows 10 PC. It is recommended you use the Hiby music app when using the UP.

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READ MORE: NuForce uDAC5 Portable Headphone DAC/Amp Review

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Shanling UP DAC

Sound Quality

The UP is so clean, so clear it is hard to go wrong for the price. I am a DAP user, and don’t use my phone for music as I like having files stored locally. But the trend to not want to carry an extra device nowadays has grown and also Apple did away with the headphone jack so the market for portable DAC/Amps is booming.

There are plenty out there, but few that offer full DSD support and an ES9018 DAC chip for this price. The Shanling UP may only be able to output 35mW @32 Ohms, but it gets loud and driver easy to medium hard to drive headphones.

From IEM’s to portable full-size headphones you will be guaranteed to get much cleaner and better separated sound with the UP.

  • Bass

The bass is tight and controlled, with precise kick and good body to back it up, the bass notes also decay as they should.

  • Mids

There is no added body to the lows, this means the midrange is allowed to shine and it does, with vocals coming across clean with excellent detail retrieval. There is also plenty of air around notes which allows you to pinpoint each and every part of the recording.

  • Treble

The treble is well extended without any harsh metallic tone to it, what is best about the highs is their imaging, the placement within the soundstage is critical and this little device has managed to get it spot on.

Shanling UP DAC

Conclusion

The Shanling UP is a superb High Resolution DAC/Amp for portable use, if you have some good headphones, you are not hearing their full potential out of a phone. This will change that, the UP with give you the clarity, detail and soundstage that your phone simply cannot.

Even being used with a PC there is a substantial upgrade from the on-board audio, so this can be used on your morning commute with your phone, then plug it into your PC at work and enjoy the same quality of music.

Shanling H1 Portable Headphone Amplifier Review – A Brawny Baby

We’ve been treated to a few of Shanling’s products lately; as well as the excellent M1 and M2S players, this little amp promises to give brands like Fiio a run for their money!

Shanling H1

Shanling H1 Portable Headphone Amplifier Review

We’ve been treated to a few of Shanling’s products lately; as well as the excellent M1 and M2S players, this little amp promises to give brands like Fiio a run for their money! The entry-level portables market has been truly cornered by Fiio in recent years, so it will be interesting to see what impact Shanling can make here.

Pros:

  • Small, handy unit
  • Thoughtfully designed volume control
  • Well constructed

Cons:

  • None

Shanling H1

Design and Appearance

The Shanling H1 amp is a small unit, being 7cm x 6cm and about 1.5cm thick; about half the size of the average mobile handset. The edges are bevelled and the unit feels good in the hand, with enough weight to feel substantial for its size, although the unit is itself not heavy.

Key Features

The main feature is the recessed knurled volume knob which is centred on one side of the amp, which is protected from accidental operation by the amp’s housing. Power/charge lights are on the top, plus there’s a gain switch and micro-USB socket on the rear for charging. That’s it! The H1 is as simple as it gets for an amp, and it’s all that’s needed.

Durability and Build Quality

The Shanling H1 headphone amp is constructed from aluminium and has a pretty solid feel about it. It will probably have no problem being dropped occasionally, but we’ve not tried this here! The volume knob has a smooth, solid feel as it’s turned and it has enough stiffness not to be operated accidentally whilst in the pocket.

Shanling H1 with M2s

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READ MORE: Oriveti New Primacy Hybrid Driver IEM Review

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Sound Quality

This amp goes loud for its size; we couldn’t resist pairing it up with a HiFiMAN HE-6 which is notoriously difficult to drive. On the low gain setting, and using an incoming line-level signal, the volume goes up to hearing damage levels with the HE-6 on some pieces. Not bad! Of course, we don’t recommend this pairing for getting the best out of the HE-6!

The H1 is designed for portable use, so was tried versus being directly connected to a cheap phone with portable earphones . The sound is faithful and quite neutral, although there is a little more thump coming through with the sub-bass. Music appears to be more relaxed and natural through the amp, where it sounds a little strained with a direct connection. Listening to this amp with a pair of SoundMAGIC E80 earphones is actually very enjoyable!

Shanling H1

Summary

Shanling’s new H1 portable amplifier is a palm-sized affair, but Fiio had better start making room anyway!

Do I Need A Headphone Amplifier? – Buying Guide

One question we get asked a lot is ‘do I need a headphone amplifier?’ This article will inform you of the benefits of adding an amplifier to your existing setup, or buying an amplifier with your new headphones.

What’s the point of a headphone amplifier?

One question we get asked a lot is ‘do I need a headphone amplifier?’ This article will inform you of the benefits of adding an amplifier to your existing setup, or buying an amplifier with your new headphones.

audeze deckard

When you’re buying some new headphones it’s always good to think about what your source will be; whether it’s an iPhone, Laptop, DAP (Digital Audio Player), your home HiFi or a bit of everything, figure out which has the lowest output and if it can drive your chosen headphone. So if you use a mobile phone as your main source and you’ve decided on some Shure SE535 earphones which are hard to drive, you will need a headphone amp to add some extra power so you can get the most from your new purchase.

There are plenty of headphones designed to be used with mobile phones and other low powered portable devices; these headphones generally have low impedance (up to 32ohm) and high sensitivity (100db and over) so they are very easy to drive. This doesn’t mean that you won’t benefit from an amp; not only do amps add extra power but they can also change the sound by improving sound stage, separation and depending on the amp add warmth or brightness.

fiio e12

Another benefit of getting a headphone amp is that some of them have EQ settings on them, so you can adjust the amount of bass you want depending on what you’re listening to.

If you have decided to go for a headphone amp you now need to decide which one to go for, there are many to choose from and they go for anything between £20 and £1500. Amps can be split into two main groups, portable and desktop. If you are going for a portable amp then you could go for something like the FiiO E12 which is powerful enough to drive most portable headphones, it is a good size and has a bass boost setting. If you require more power then you could go for the OPPO HA-2 or the Cypher Labs Picollo. Both of these amps can drive most headphones and they will also improve the sound quality, with the HA-2 being slightly warmer than the Picollo. For the harder to drive headphones there is the Cypher Labs Duet. This amp has adjustable gain settings and provides a less distorted, more accurate sound with plenty of power.

cypher labs duet

If you only use your headphones at home then you should go for a desktop amplifier as they are generally more powerful. There is a much larger range of desktop amplifiers and you really should know what headphone you will be using before choosing the amp, for example if your headphones have a warm/bassy sound then it’s a good idea to go for a brighter/detailed amplifier. This also works the other way around; a warm sounding amp will compliment bright headphones and balance the sound out.

If you have any questions about choosing the right amplifier then give us a call at Hifi Headphones on 01903 768 910 or you can send an email to support@hifiheadphones.co.uk – we will be more than happy to help.

sennheiser hdva600

Shure SRH1840 Review – Yes We Shure Can!

Close to perfect. For those who want just a little more detail without spilling over into strident territory the Shure SRH1840 is certainly worth considering.

Shure 1840

Verdict

Totally immersive – don’t forget your life jacket and emergency flares for when you inevitably get lost in there. It’s unusual for a highly esteemed brand’s flagship headphone such as the Shure SRH1840 to be going for under £500 (particularly headphones as good as this), so take advantage of Shure’s generosity!

Pros

  • Sound Superb
  • Comfort
  • Spares included
  • Removable cable

Cons

  • Some may find headband underpadded

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Despite the recent growth of the headphones market and the high standards attained by makers generally, it’s easy to recognise products Shure puts out; always nice to the touch as well as the ear, solidly built and sounding great. So with heavy hearts we find another predictably fantastic pair of headphones for review!

Key Features

Shure has seen fit to include some spare earpads and a spare cable with this model, as it has with the SRH1540. Spending this kind of money on headphones probably gets people searching for extra value and they won’t be disappointed here. Also a storage case is included.

Shure 1840

First Impressions

Having not long put down the SRH1540, it was surprising how light the SRH1840 still felt. These headphones are almost not even there, particularly when worn. Some would prefer more padding on the headband, but the negligible weight is borne mostly by the earpads.

Sound Quality

Warm without being bassy, crisp without being strident – Shure has really done a good job here. Things can get a little harsh with a raft of flutes playing, but that’s the nature of the sound which the SRH1840 brings out faithfully. Also an amp will be an advantage – the impedance and sensitivity of the SRH1840 is not suited to being used straight out of a portable player or phone. My Fiio X3 can power them but seem as if it is straining a bit. An E12 gave a more relaxed presentation, and the bass boost was not lost on the SRH1840, giving some added weight to proceedings. There may be a bit of a bump on the SRH1840 at the top and bottom ends of the range, but midrange is still fully represented.

Summary

Close to perfect. For those who want just a little more detail without spilling over into strident territory the Shure SRH1840 is certainly worth considering. Together with the modest price and incredible comfort, the SRH1840 is a flagship model indeed!

Score 9.5/10

Shure 1840

FiiO E18 Kunlun Portable Smartphone Amp/DAC Review

We are impressed with the sound quality and power which the Fiio E18 provides; together with the mobile DAC functinality and everything else, nothing gives better value for money.

fiio e18

Verdict

We are impressed with the sound quality and power which the Fiio E18 provides; together with the mobile DAC functinality and everything else, nothing gives better value for money. However, it would have been much better (and safer) to have that gain switch recessed, or indeed buried into the side of the unit, rather like the E12. There’s no way we would chance using the E18 with an IEM whilst out and about. Either that prominent gain button should be ripped off or the switch covered up with tape, to save our ears from a possible bashing. Similar with the track/play/pause controls on the side of the unit – these can be swithed and operated all too easily.

Pros

  • Great Value
  • Oodles of power
  • Extra functionality with smartphones

Cons

  • Gain switch and track select buttons too prominent

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The Swiss have enjoyed enormous success with their pocket knives, they are handy and can do a variety of jobs. However if wishing to hack your way through the jungle, a 3-inch blade is going to keep you busy.

Up until recently, portable headphone amps appear to have been aimed at providing a good level of power, or a lot of features. The Fiio E18 changes this, as it can accept a digital signal from a multitude of handsets as well as PC, and amplify enough to power any less-sensitive headphones up to 600 Ohms! Please check the E18 Kunlun page on Fiio’s site (http://www.fiio.cn) for exact details on compatibility.

Key Features

The E18 is a no-nonsense design like the E12, but with a few more tricks up its sleeve. DAC functionality combined with track select controls make this a versatile and useful addition to any portable set-up. Gain and bass boost controls will help get your preferred sound from a vast array of headphone models.

fiio e18

First Impressions

The track skip/back buttons on the side along with play and pause are handy, but it would have been preferable to have seen these recessed – unrequested track skips are an annoyance. Bass boost and gain switches are placed near the volume pot on the top end, and there’s little to prevent accidental operation of the gain switch. Accidental operation of the gain switch could potentially be quite damaging if wearing sensitive IEMs.

There’s a switch on the opposite end to select the source for the DAC (PC or phone) and also there’s the option of using the E18 as a power source itself; this was tried with Fiio X3 and smartphone – they both started accepting a charge, although this smartphone is not compatible with the DAC.

The outward design is not dissimilar to that of the E12 which is an amplifier only. It has been mentioned that the E12 is a little better in terms of amplifier quality, as well as more powerful. But the question everyone wants to know the answer to is ‘will it power my headphones?’ and the answer is very likely to be yes.

The E18 was tried with the AKG K240 DF (600 ohms, 88dB sensitivity) and the dial wasn’t turned all the way up – it was ear splittingly loud with room to spare! The E18 should be able to drive anything the modern world has to offer, within reason. The manuafacturer states an impedance range of 16 – 150 ohms, but there’s nothing like trying these things. So long as your recording is done well (and not extremely quiet), the E18 is enough to really blast it out.

Sound quality

The Fiio E18 was run from a PC to test DAC functionality and quality. It was up against an X3 and E12 together, which seemed like a fair match. A 600 ohm Sennhieser HD540 was used.

The E18 appeared to give better resolution; sounds were relatively flat and dull on the X3/E12 combination. I decoupled the X3/E12 rig and plugged into the X3 alone; predictably, things improved in terms of details due to fewer connections in the chain, but the relative lack of power took some of the wind out of my X3’s sails. Bass and hats were pushed back a little.

Summary

With the wants and needs of the average portable audio fan growing all the time (in part helped along by just this sort of product!) the Fiio E18 tries to tick as many boxes and cover as may bases as it can, and it does a great job of all of them.

Score: 8/10

fiio e18