Cayin iHA-6 / iDAC-6 headphone amp and DAC – a review

I’d venture to say that not too many people have heard of Cayin except maybe those audiophiles located in East Asia. Personally, I hadn’t heard too much about them either – it’s hard to keep tabs on the scene these days. I feel like with the advent of the internet, audio has entered a kind of renaissance. New products and companies spring into existence in a constant bid to bring musical enjoyment to more and more people across the globe.

Now, while Schiit is the 800 lb. gorilla n the entry-level market, competition gets ever more fierce as you move up in price, well, up to a point. Cayin’s latest entry into the world of head-fi is the iHA-6 / iDAC-6 stack. Retailing at $999 each, they’re not for the budding audiophile, but seemingly targeted at those who’ve been around the block a few times and are starting to settle down. Are they deserving of some long-term attention? Let’s find out.

Description

Clad entirely in aluminum, the pair make a stylish statement on a desktop. The proportions are squarish and the edges in the casework are fairly abrupt (though not as roughly finished as, say, the review sample of the Airist Audio Heron 5). The stack is hefty too with weight clocking in at around 20 lbs for the pair. The lettering on both units seem to be laser engraved – a nice touch that unfortunately makes it hard to read in overhead lighting. On more than one occasion, I had to put a hand over the top edge of the faceplate to make the words legible.

The amp is a push-pull, fully differential and discrete design. Volume is controlled by a potentiometer. It offers both balanced and single-ended inputs and the ability to switch between the two via push button on the front. You can also select between high or low current modes as well as high or low gain. High current mode is meant for planar magnetic headphones vs. the low current setting which is meant for ‘phones with dynamic drivers that, according to conventional wisdom, thrive more on voltage swing. Note that there’s less overall power available in high current mode than there is in low current mode (1100 mW vs. 2200 mW @ 32 ohms, single-ended output). Three outputs grace the frontage: two combo 3-pin XLR / 1/4 in. jacks and a single 4-pin XLR jack. The left combo jack when used with a single-ended plug is marked for low-impedance headphones, the right one for your high-impedance cans. A larger button on the left turns on the amp and lights up with a white halo when powered on.

The DAC is based on the Asahi Kasei Microdevices’  AK4490 and includes both a tube and solid-state analog output stage, although you can only switch between the two on-the-fly when using the single-ended outputs. Balanced output always has the tubes in the circuit. The case gets pretty toasty once the DAC has been turned on for a few hours – it’s probably best to stack the DAC on top of the amp to let the heat dissipate more effectively. From left to right on the front: a power button similar to the one on the amp, three smaller push buttons underneath a monochrome LED display that allow you to select the digital input, analog output stage, and variable or fixed output. The knob allows you to adjust the volume when in preamp mode and, with a long push, select the various digital filters native to the AKM chip as well as phase inversion. The rear panel sports inputs for balanced AES/EBU, coax SPDIF, Toslink, and USB and both balanced and single-ended outputs.

In all, it’s a tidy, both amp and DAC sport an elegant design that crams a lot features into minimal space.

Operation

The amp is fairly straightforward to operate. Once you push the power button, it takes a few seconds before the relays click in and it’s ready for music. When switching gain or current modes, there’s a brief break in the music as relays click into place.

The DAC is much the same way – except for one annoyance: the relays aren’t quite snappy enough when used with the USB input so it chops off about the first second of the music when you first play a track. Windows drivers were curiously missing from the flashy USB keys included with the DAC, so I had to download them using a link supplied by Andy Kong, founder of Cayin. After installing them on my Windows 10 machine, everything worked without a hitch. Linux (as always) didn’t require any drivers. Note that if you switch digital filters, invert the phase, or swap in/out the tube buffer, there’s a brief moment of silence as the DAC reconfigures itself.

For this review, I mainly used the USB and AES/EBU digital inputs, with a PC or my Ayre C-5xeMP serving as a transport, respectively. I tested different sample rates as well as DSD functionality using the USB input. For some reason, I wasn’t able to output a sample rate higher than 48 kHz from the disc spinner when using DVD-Audio discs that I burned myself from HDtracks material, so I stuck with compact discs for that setup.

Now a word on the digital filters. These all come prepackaged with the AK4490 chip – fast rolloff (F), slow rolloff (S), short delay fast rolloff (SDF), short delay slow rolloff (SDS), and super slow rolloff (SS). The F, SDF, and SDS filters had too much treble energy for my taste and I felt unnaturally emphasized transients and sibilants. The SS filter went too far in the other direction, imparting a slightly hazy quality across the audio band. I ended up doing most of my listening with the SR filter engaged.

Sound – iHA-6

Given the multifaceted nature of the amp’s capabilities, I started off with the amp in the ‘Low Current’ setting and plugged in my LCD-XC’s. As I went through some test tracks, I was slightly underwhelmed by what I heard. The amp sounded polite and the bass was a touch woolly. The overall presentation lacked verve, punch, and resolution.

All was not lost, however.

I’ve read that planar magnetic headphones thrive on an amp that can deliver gobs of current. With that in mind, I pushed the button to switch the iHA-6 into ‘High Current’ operation and – voilà – the amp launched into high-performance mode.

One highlight of the iHA-6’s performance was its solid grip on spatial layering and imaging. On “How Loud The Heart Gets” from Lucius’ debut album, Wildewoman (CD, Mom+Pop, MP120-2), the iHA-6 faithfully conveyed the sense of space generated from the interplay between the plucked strings and the percussion during the introduction. Images were fairly dimensional and well-delineated. There was a convincing notion of depth to the presentation. Vocals possessed a decent amount of inner detail without edginess. The iHA-6 displayed a similar character when I fed it “White Knuckles” from Tegan and Sara’s latest foray into retro 80’s synth-pop Love You To Death (CD, Vapor/Warner Bros., 553726-2). The opening measures in this track have the main vocals shadowed in the distance by a processed version pitched lower and set back in the soundscape. The Cayin handily resolved this perspective and exhibited a smooth quality to its delivery that never overemphasized the sometimes hot treble balance of the album.

Another strength of the iHA-6 lay in its precise, clean, and even-handed rendition of the audible frequency spectrum. Cueing up “Heartbroken, In Disrepair” from Dan Auerbach’s solo effort Keep It Hid (CD, Nonesuch 517241-2), the Cayin served up a smooth vocals with decent rhythmic drive. I felt that it didn’t quite retrieve all the detail from Auerbach’s performance, but it more than made up for that with a fairly tight and punchy portrayal of the drums and good body to the fuzzed guitar riffs. The same degree of control and finesse served the amp well on acoustic fare. “I’m Old Fashioned” from Blue Train (24/192 AIFF, HDTracks) came through clean and textured, with good heft in the bass line and ample inner detail to piano and brass instruments. Murray Perahia’s stunning performance of the final movement to Schumann’s sole piano concerto (CD, Sony Classical, SK 64577) was emotionally engaging and rendered with a good degree of transparency, dynamics, and air.

I tried the amp in fully balanced mode and didn’t note too many changes. Perhaps there was a smidge more depth to its presentation along with slightly more dimension to the images even as it retained its precise and composed character.

Sound – iDAC-6

The Cayin iDAC-6 exhibited an unshakable poise in reproducing all the formats I threw at it – whether ‘Redbook’ PCM, high-res PCM, or DSD. Images were clean and distinct and the presentation was smooth and non-fatiguing. This DAC would be at home in a resolving headphone or two-channel setup. One thing to note is that the balanced output will always have the tubes in the playback chain, no matter how many times you push the ‘Timbre’ button.

Cayin seems to have a keen understanding of how to map out the spatial relationships from a recording. The iDAC-6 spun an excellent rendition of “Third Eye” from Florence + the Machine’s latest album How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful (24/96 AIFF, HDTracks). It deftly layered the instruments in the soundscape and images were well defined and stable. This also served it well on orchestral fare. Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3 ‘Organ’ (DSF/SACD, Telarc, SACD-60634) possessed realistic scale. The DAC captured the ambiance of the church that served as the recording space without having it intrude on the main performance. Massed strings and brasses were rendered with a preciseness that never veered into analytical territory. The Cayin remained firm in its resolve during the thunderous finale.

That same composure and even-handed treatment of the audible frequency spectrum continued to serve it well on some more delicate fare. On a high-res copy of “The Girl From Ipanema” from Getz/Gilberto (24/96 AIFF, HDTracks), possessed clarity and transparency in spades. It never overreached into a more analytical approach to its presentation, rather the music seemed to be so cleanly rendered that it was hard not to be summarily impressed. Here I experimented a little bit by switching between the solid state and tubed output stages. The latter kept the evenness of tone and traded slightly denser images for less overall resolution. It wasn’t the typical ‘tube sound’ that some glassheads might crave and solid-state proponents might call into question the slightly softer quality. Still, it’s nice that it’s there for a change of pace.

Comparisons

I compared the iHA-6 to my current solid state reference, the HeadAmp GS-1. It was fairly difficult to tell the two apart as both exhibited equal amounts of grip in the lower registers and displayed a fine knack for precise imaging. I still thought the GS-1 edged out the iHA-6 in ultimate clarity and transparency and sounded just a tad more visceral in the bass but it was an incredibly close call. Next to the Sonett 2, the iHA-6 again proved itself to be an imaging champ, but the Sonett offered up a more organic presentation with denser timbre to instruments and vocals. Still, going back and forth between the solid state Cayin and the tubed Sonett 2, I could see a case for having both on hand, depending on mood.

When I pitted the iDAC-6 against my Ayre QB-9 DSD and Ayre C-5xeMP, I noted that the Cayin’s overall tonal balance was remarkably similar to that of the Ayre sources. Yet the Ayre painted a more realistic portrayal with more fleshed-out images – even with the Cayin’s tubed output stage engaged. Both had excellent amounts of clarity and resolution, but it was easier to suspend disbelief while listening to the Ayre and simply flow with the music. Relative to the Ayre sources, the Cayin couldn’t quite shake off the last trace of artifice that made me think I was listening to an excellent reproduction.

Conclusions

Cayin’s latest foray into head-fi is definitely worthy of your consideration if you’re looking for sound that’s athletic and dynamic with a precisely defined soundscape. Though it’s not inexpensive, I think it’s a good value for the price paid. I wouldn’t be surprised if it gets you off the audiophile equipment treadmill and wanting to buy more music. If that is indeed the case, the Cayin then becomes truly priceless.

Associated Equipment

Headphones – Audeze LCD-XC, Sennheiser HD 600

Loudspeakers – Vandersteen 3A Signatures

Amplification – Ayre Acoustics AX-5 Twenty, Donald North Audio Sonett 2, HeadAmp GS-1 w/ Dynalo+ modules

Sources – Ayre Acoustics C-5xeMP, Ayre Acoustics QB-9 DSD

Cabling – Blue Jeans BJC Twelve speaker cable, Blue Jeans LC-1 unbalanced and 1800F balanced interconnects

Power – Bryston BIT-15, ZeroSurge 8R15W-I

Archiving SACDs – an update

A while back I wrote about a way to archive your SACDs onto your computer using disc players based off a specific MediaTek chipset. I’m happy to report that the actual process is much simpler than the posts I referenced. Here is the ten step process that I used for my Oppo BDP-103:

  1. Prepared the USB stick according to the directions in this post
  2. Downloaded ISO2DSD from Sonore
  3. Connected the player to the local network using wired Ethernet
  4. Powered up the player with the USB stick in the front port
  5. Entered setup menu and disabled autoplay and noted the IP address of the player on the LAN
  6. Inserted SACD into player
  7. Started ISO2DSD and selected ‘Server Input’ and changed ‘Output Mode’ to Sony DSF
  8. Changed IP address to the one from Step 5
  9. Clicked on ‘Execute’
  10. Sat back and relaxed as the SACD was archived to individual DSF files

At this point, you can pack the DSF files into a FLAC container for use with the DSD over PCM (DoP) protocol. This seems to be the only way to play them on an external DAC for Mac and Linux users. Sonore made another handy utility, called DSD2FLAC just for this express purpose.

Windows users can download foobar2000 components to decode the DSF files directly. You can find them here.

Happy archiving and listening!

Schiit Audio Modi Multibit DAC – a review

Schiit Audio – thy name is sacred in the halls of head-fidom these days. I have to believe that their efforts are in the same spirit of the test pilots during the first days of the nascent U.S. space program. (The Right Stuff, anyone?) That is, they push the outside edge of the envelope in terms of both price and performance. Their latest sonic assault on the high-end is a multibit DAC based around a 16-bit Analog Devices precision R-2R DAC. Let’s see what you get for your hard-earned money.

Description

The Modi is stylish and small. Clad in aluminum and steel, the footprint occupies about the same area as a Beatrix Potter book. To keep costs low, you stick the rubber feet on yourself. The power (linear in nature) is supplied by a wall wart. This is value with a capital V.

A single push button allows you to switch among the three different digital inputs – USB, optical, or coax which is indicated by a very bright white LED. A lone toggle switch in the back turns the entire unit on or off.

It’s a simple design and it works.

According to Schiit, one interesting ‘feature’ is that the digital oversampling filter is bypassed for all incoming material with a 176.4 or 192 kHz sampling frequency. In this regard, the Modi Multibit becomes a non-oversampling DAC [1], with only the analog reconstruction filter in the output chain preventing the high-frequency images from being passed on to downstream electronics.

Operation

When using the USB input, drivers are necessary for Windows – versions 7, 8, and 10 are fully supported. Linux is plug and play. Unfortunately, my Mac bit the dust a few months back so I couldn’t test it on that platform.

Note that even though the DAC will accept PCM data up to 24 bits, it actually rounds off the last eight bits in practice. Usually dither is added to the signal before this step in order to reduce the quantization noise that is subsequently produced. However, if there was any to be heard, I couldn’t detect it. One note – I don’t listen to any of my systems at earbleed levels, so your experience in this regard may be different.

Throughout this review period, I generally left the Modi Multibit powered up. If I did have to power it down for some reason, such as when switching from the speaker to a headphone system, then it seemed to take the DAC about 24 hours for its character to fully stabilize.

Sound – filter in

What I found with the Modi Multibit was that its personality depended a bit on whether or not the oversampling filter was engaged. With the Schiit filter in play, the DAC produced chest thumping bass with a good amount of tonal color through the midrange and treble. This served it well on the speaker system during “Shake It Out” from Florence + the Machine’s second studio album, Ceremonials (CD, Republic, B0016297-02) . Welch’s vocals sounded clean and the bass line was incredibly tight. The inexpensive DACs that I’ve had in my system, like the AudioQuest DragonFly v1.2 or Meridian Explorer 2 usually sounded good from headphones, but a little thin and hard on speakers. Not so here. The Modi acquitted itself quite well.

Cueing up “Girl from Ipanema” from Getz/Gilberto (CD, Verve, V6-8545), the Modi’s clarity was on full display. Cymbal strikes sounded well-defined, though somewhat less brassy than I’m used to. Stan Getz’ solo sounded precise and the tenor sax was reproduced with decent body. Neto’s bass line was clean and textured, but Astrud’s vocal timbre came across a little paler than necessary to fully suspend disbelief. I also couldn’t shake the feeling that the Modi was a bit uptight. It wasn’t a strained quality per se – it just didn’t seem to uncork the music and let it flow freely. Switching in “Al Vaiven de mi Carreta” from Afrocubism (CD, Nonesuch, 525993-2) , I noticed that the Modi had a tendency to favor attack vs. tone on plucked guitar. Vocals once again took on a touch of artifice. I suppose this is why you pay more money to move up the line of Schiit DACs.

The Modi Multibit exhibited competence with “Jupiter” from Holst’s The Planets (CD, London, 289 460 606-2). The Modi largely captured the power and dynanism of the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal. Images of massed strings and brass instruments were rendered with respectable dimensionality and scale. However, the timbres of those instruments still seemed a touch off and lacked the last bit of finesse, flow, and air. Schiit’s DAC turned in a similar performance on Schumann’s Konzertstück, Op. 134 from Complete works for Piano & Orchestra (CD, Sony Classical, SK 64577). Although it lit the piano and strings with adequate midrange color, I couldn’t get a sense of Perahia and the orchestra inside the Philharmonie Berlin. Instead, it sounded as if the entire recording were done in an overdamped studio. The Modi Multibit just couldn’t muster up that last iota of refinement to catapult it into loftier territory.

Or could it?

Sound – filter out

I was intrigued about the possibility of bypassing Schiit’s custom oversampling filter entirely and hearing what the results would be. I downloaded a 24 bit / 96 kHz copy of Kind of Blue from HDTracks to complement the 24 bit / 192 kHz version that I already had on my hard drive. I focused most of my listening on “Freddie Freeloader” as the piano has a short solo during the opening minutes of the track, which I usually find to be a good test for these sorts of comparisons. I wasn’t disappointed. With the filter out of the playback chain, I could immediately sense a greater sense of ease to the Modi’s presentation. Bill Evans’ turn on the keyboard in particular was more coherent and easier to follow. The horns sounded more relaxed and less forward in the mix. Although the instrumental timbres still came across a touch lean to be considered realistic, it was easy to hear that the Modi had moved up a notch in terms of performance.

Comparisons

The Modi Multibit couldn’t match the Ayre QB-9 DSD’s sense of timbral correctness, nor its sense of organic flow and coherence – at least with the oversampling filter engaged. However, once that was out of the equation, the Modi almost matched the Ayre in the flow and coherence department but still sounded a shade leaner in terms of tonal color and timbre. I was truly surprised at how close the Modi Multibit could get in terms of feeling like I was listening to the more expensive DAC.

The AudioQuest DragonFly v 1.2 and Meridian Explorer 2 have since left my possession, but I recently picked up a HeadAmp Pico amp / DAC off the used market. The Pico is nowhere near as diminutive as the DragonFly, but in my opinion it sounds much better with the Audeze LCD-XC. The onboard DAC utilizes a Wolfson WM8740 chip in conjunction with an asynchronous sample rate converter (an Analog Devices AD 1896). Everything is converted to 44.1 kHz /  48 kHz, so it’s not ideal for high-resolution sources, but neither is the Modi Multibit. In this case, I plugged the Schiit DAC into the Pico’s amp section directly and did a head-to-head. I felt that the Pico’s onboard DAC held a slight edge over the Modi in terms of emotional engagement and flow. The Modi sounded a bit hyper and forced by comparison. However,  the Modi held the advantage in terms of resolution, as it was a touch more clean sounding and transparent. In the end, I’m sticking with the Pico, but I can see how one could just as easily pick the Modi based on personal taste.

Conclusions

The Modi Multibit is a good DAC and Schiit Audio should be commended for making it affordable to us mere mortals. Yet for all the talk of bit-perfect digital filters and precision DAC chips on their website, I couldn’t help but feel that those technologies aren’t the panacea many of their fans make them out to be. Nevertheless, the Schiit Modi Multibit earns a recommendation, particularly if you’re just starting to test the high fidelity waters. My guess is that after hearing the Modi, it will be the first step of a long journey.

References

  1. See Modi Multibit specs and Bifrost Multibit FAQ – What’s this about a non-oversampling (NOS) mode?

Associated Equipment

Headphones – Audeze LCD-XC

Loudspeakers – Vandersteen 3A Signatures

Amplification – Ayre Acoustics AX-5 Twenty, Donald North Audio Sonett 2, HeadAmp GS-1 w/ Dynalo+ modules

Sources – Ayre Acoustics C-5xeMP, Ayre Acoustics QB-9 DSD, Oppo BDP-103

Cabling – Blue Jeans BJC Twelve speaker cable, Blue Jeans LC-1 unbalanced and 1800F balanced interconnects

Power – Bryston BIT-15, ZeroSurge 8R15W-I

Archiving SACDs with an Oppo or Pioneer player

UPDATE – I’ve outlined my setup and the steps I use to archive SACDs in a new post, which can be found here.

If you’re like me and have more than a few SACDs laying around, chances are you’ve been wondering if there’s an easy way to archive them. The answer is, of course, no (thanks Sony!) unless you were lucky enough to own a PlayStation 3 and didn’t update its firmware in, oh, ever. Fortunately, I came across a promising alternate path on the Computer Audiophile forums. This involves using a Blu-ray player based on the Mediatek MT8580 (e.g. Oppo BDP-103 / 105) or MT8560 chipsets (e.g. Pioneer BDP-160 / 170. Apparently, the process loads a minimalist Linux-based system onto the player in order to interface with the chipset and works in conjunction with a Windows-based program in order to stream the SACD data across your local area network to a target folder on a PC. Gory details can be found in the following relevant posts – links here, here, and here.

I haven’t tried the process yet, but it seems to work for some forum members – and I plan on updating this post or making an entirely new one when I do give SACD ripping with my Oppo the old college try. Hopefully, it works for you.

Parlor tricks and the Streisand effect

About four months ago, two blog posts made by Dr. Mark Waldrep of AIX Records caused a minor stir among the audiophile cognoscenti. The focus of those posts is the ever contentious topic of system cabling. In this case, dubious sales practices were observed by both Waldrep himself as well as a blog reader during a Nordost power cord demo at AXPONA. They’ve since been taken down due to the threat of legal action from Nordost’s legal team, but I found one of the only places (possibly the only) that preserved the original content. Whether you’re a believer or a skeptic, I think it’s worthy of reading and ruminating about. Now without further ado…

Real HD-Audio: Nordost demo parts I & II

Capital Audiofest 2016

I loved going to the Capital Audiofest (CAF) in 2013 and that feeling didn’t change this year. Gary Gill, the show’s organizer, is always gracious and magnanimous and open to ideas. I don’t doubt Gary’s enthusiasm for all things audio.

On the two-channel side of the house, I thought the Volti / BorderPatrol / Triode Wire Labs room sounded exceptionally good. Volti was demoing their new lower-cost horn loaded speaker, the Rival, alongside BorderPatrol’s S20 (with a gain knob for volume control). Their top of the line, non-oversampling, filterless DAC-1 and a CEC transport provided the tunes. All the electronics were wired up with Triode Wire Labs current stock. The sound was dynamic and instantly engaging. Midrange and treble were finely textured and never harsh or piercing. Bass was surprisingly tight and tuneful, given the tiny room they were working with. Just an all-out stellar performance and easily the best sound at the show.

The Voice That Is put together an outstanding room as well. Speakers were the TIDAL Diacero G2, with matching TIDAL electronics and a Bricasti DAC serving as the source. Music was stored on an Aurender server. The sound was clean and relaxed. Nothing about the frequency range really stood out – a good thing at a show! – implying a system that was carefully set up with a well-balanced in component choice.

I also attended a lecture by Klaus Bunge of Odyssey Audio on “Doing Away with the Bullshit in the High-End Industry” which somehow got derailed into a discussion of the relative merits of vinyl vs. digital. I found myself in the silent minority of audiophiles that don’t have a vinyl setup and never intend to. (Yes I grew up listening to cassettes and then compact discs.) Curiously, I also haven’t gotten on the streaming / music server bandwagon either – I still see the merits of physical media. Eventually, Klaus dug up some good nuggets on system building and speaker placement which made sitting through the format griping worthwhile.

One somewhat low note was a Mytek’s rep explanation of / sales pitch for MQA. I get the feeling that not too many audiophiles understand that it’s essentially a lossy compression scheme for high-res audio. All the talk of timing errors and better sound, etc. is all a ruse, a canard. Rather, MQA satisfies two industry requirements. The first is that you get to claim you’re streaming full high-res audio and the second is you simultaneously remove the ability for the end user to get access and copy the real goods. Clever that.

Unfortunately, it seemed that CanMania (CAF’s headphone related b-side) didn’t get too much traction this year. Nevertheless, there were some sweet sounds coming from the likes of Linear Tube Audio, HeadAmp, and Mytek Digital. ModWright showed up with a new headphone amp, which I somehow overlooked. Some news out of HeadAmp – they’re thinking of possibly offering the GS-1 again, this time with a balanced output in addition to the single-ended jack (but with single-ended input only). It also seems that there’s a new electrostatic headphone amp in the works. It’ll be Justin Wilson’s own design that’s a no-holds-barred assault on the state of the art, placing it above the venerable Blue Hawaii SE in both performance and price. They’ve also relaunched their website with a more modern design.

Next year the CAF will be held in the fall. Hope to see you there in November!

Head-Fi mini-meet impressions – June 26, 2016

The D.C. area Head-Fi’ers are one active bunch! This meet featured a number of interesting setups. I used my Audeze LCD-XC’s to glean these impressions.

First up was Simaudio’s Moon 230HAD. This is the little brother to the 430HAD, which I recently reviewed. The verdict? The 230HAD more than held its own against the 430HAD in a single-ended output / input configuration. It displayed the same poise and ease that I found so addicting with the 430HAD, but at a fraction of the cost. Yet my opinion of the onboard DAC hasn’t really changed – it’s fine sounding but I feel it’s somewhat constraining the performance of the 230HAD as a whole. The good news is that it can be bypassed.

Next, I had a chance to listen to the Eddie Current Black Widow, single chassis version. This was in a system with a Theta transport and Schiit Yggdrasil DAC. Out of the single-ended jack, I felt that the Black Widow disappeared in this setup, offering what basically amounted to a direct connection between the headphones and DAC. I think Eddie Current is going to be very busy building these amps for the foreseeable future.

Finally, the Metrum Acoustics Pavane made an appearance, courtesy of Linear Tube Audio / Urban Hi-Fi, probably best known in the Head-Fi community for their microZOTL 2.0 amp. I wired my own HeadAmp GS-1 (post forthcoming) to the DAC and spun up a few tracks. The sound was organic with an ease to the presentation not unlike the Simaudio headphone amps. This was my first up-close experience with a filterless DAC and it did not disappoint. Well, mostly – I thought I heard a slight masking of the overtones produced from cymbal strikes. But I’d like to caution that this was under meet conditions and I didn’t have time to do an A/B with my QB-9 DSD.

The only real disappointment was that a pair of dead tubes knocked out the right channel of a Blue Hawaii SE electrostatic headphone amp. The sound out of the left earcup of the STAX SR-007’s was pretty damn good though!

Simaudio Moon Neo 430HAD headphone amplifier / DAC

There are reviews out there of uber-priced components that jump from superlative to superlative. The hyperbole can be numbing and over time calcify into jadedness. Yet there are those moments where everything’s clicking in a system. They cut through that hard-boiled shell and turn you back into the awestruck budding audiophile. Maybe you’re lucky and you’re reminded of this feeling every time you turn on your gear and cue up a track. It was how I felt after I dropped the Simaudio Moon Neo 430HAD into my headphone system.

Description

The 430HAD is a serious piece of audio equipment clad in masculine black steel. It’s more portly than the previous size champ, the Airist Audio Heron 5, and not likely to be unassuming when placed on a desk. It’s quite hefty too. Since its dimensions largely match the rest of the Neo series, this implies a homebound presence where it can be stacked with the rest of its siblings into a tower of Simaudio power. Case edges are rounded over and panels are finished in differing textures / materials to provide a little tactile and visual variety. Overall, the design and workmanship of the amp itself befits the price tag. The one weakness is the remote – it’s made of cheap plastic, feels rather flimsy, and the buttons are pretty small. Admittedly, I’d rather have most of the effort go to the circuitry powering the headphones than a fancy remote.

The front panel is tastefully laid out. The large, sculpted volume knob and tiny silver buttons have high quality actions and feel. The volume knob spins smoothly and freely – no potentiometer here! Instead, the input signal is attenuated in the analog domain using a DAC in current steering mode. Neat. To the left of the volume knob is a 1/4 inch headphone socket. Above that is a 1/8 inch input for connection to the analog out of a media player. Hidden behind a sliding transparent panel are the balanced headphone outputs – a single 4-pin XLR and a pair of 3-pin XLR jacks which sit on the right flank of a large segmented red LED display. The silver buttons above that display select the gain, power up / down the amp from standby, select the active input from the rear panel, activate the custom crossfeed filter, mute audio output, or select the media player input for amplification.

The rear panel sports all manner of inputs and outputs. For the optional digital section, you have a choice of optical (Toslink), SPDIF (two unbalanced coax inputs), and USB. Analog inputs include two pairs of unbalanced RCA and a single pair of XLR jacks. Analog outputs are all unbalanced, with a fixed and variable line level out. Curiously, there is no balanced output which seems a little out of place since all the amplifiers in the Neo line are fully balanced, like the 430HAD. An IEC inlet allows you to swap power cables to your heart’s content (and perhaps your spouse’s consternation) with a co-located power rocker switch allowing you to truly shut down all the internals.

Operation

If you don’t have the onboard DAC option installed, operation is pretty straightforward – flip the rocker switch in the back to ‘on’ and press the ‘Standby’ button on the front face plate to take the amp out of hibernation. Those with aftermarket power cords take note, the housing may make it difficult to access the rocker switch. You might have to flip it on before you insert your power cord.

I tried the onboard DAC option with Linux / ALSA and it worked flawlessly with PCM files out of the box. Windows users will need to download a driver.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to test DSD functionality with the onboard DAC over USB. My stereo setup also precluded me from trying the 430HAD as a preamp since my integrated amp (an Ayre AX-5 Twenty) doesn’t have a traditional preamp section that can be separated from a power amp section.

A word of caution to those with sensitive headphones – the Neo 430HAD is not the quietest of amplifiers. On the LCD-XC’s I could barely detect a low level hiss when inserting the balanced connector. The even more sensitive NAD VISO HP50’s picked up the hiss as well through its single-ended connection. This may or may not be a problem depending on how loud you like your music. However, headphones like the HD 600 and HD 800 S were absolutely quiet at the volume levels that I’m comfortable listening at.

Listening

This is where things get interesting. The source I usually use for headphone listening these days is the Ayre QB-9 DSD and it has both balanced and single-ended outputs. Given that the 430HAD is fully balanced, it made sense to wire everything up with balanced cables, even the headphones. Of course, that would be something of a cheat so I also listened to the other three possible combinations of inputs / outputs to get a bearing on how much this aspect might affect the resultant sound quality (and it does). Throw the onboard DAC into the mix as well as the crossfeed circuit and things really get hairy. So please keep in mind that the bulk of the impressions I’m going to lay out will be in the fully balanced configuration with the crossfeed circuit set to off, the onboard DAC bypassed by the Ayre QB-9 DSD, and the Audeze LCD-XC’s connected via 4-pin XLR. However, I will state what I think are the differences between this setup and others towards the end of this section.

As I played track after track on the 430HAD several adjectives popped into my head – graceful, powerful, warm, natural. It masterfully walked the tightrope between musical warmth and inner detail, macrodynamic contrast and touch. While listening to the Moon, I got the sense of a live event happening before me, rather than a superb reproduction of a recording.

I usually like to to lead off with “I’m Old Fashioned” from Blue Train (CD, Blue Note 53428), this time taken from the late 90’s Blue Note CD reissue. The 430 HAD didn’t disappoint. Coltrane’s sax was reproduced with a bell-like glow that contained a marvelous blend of tone and inner detail. This continued with Fuller’s trombone and Drew’s piano solo, whose notes had such realistic timbre and expressiveness that I felt wholly engaged, yet relaxed. Kelly’s closing trumpet solo seemed to be placed in a real space with air to spare. Chambers’ bass sounded round and weighty, but perhaps just a hair overdone. The brushed snare didn’t seem to be as fleshed out or present in the mix as I’m used to, though I could’ve been distracted by the lovely handling of the brass and piano. However, I still felt this rendition was one of the finest I’ve heard – whether on headphones or speakers.

Spatial resolution was another of the 430HAD’s strong suits. “Al vaivén de mi carreta” from Afrocubism (CD, World Circuit / Nonesuch 525993-2) possessed realistic depth and exquisite layering. Vocals floated in space in front of the pulsing beats of the hand drums and the chanting guitars. The Moon certainly had the refinement to portray the attack of each plucked guitar string counterbalanced with a pure reproduction of the subsequent tone. An almost-spooky realistic reproduction of the impact and dynamics of meaty palms striking drumheads that wafted back and forth within the soundstage anchored the mix. In and of itself this kind of performance was amazing, yet the Moon pulled it all off so effortlessly that it was all the more impressive.

This amp was no slouch on classical music either. It easily conveyed the scale and dynamics of “Jupiter” from Holst’s The Planets (CD, Decca London 289 460 606-2) as well as tenderly captured the drama and sweeping emotion of Rachmaninoff’s final movement from his Piano Concerto No. 2 (CD, Chesky CD2). With regard to the former, the Neo barely broke a sweat telegraphing the bold confidence of the Orchestre symphonique de Montreal. The images it laid down were huge with convincingly real timbre. On the latter, Wild’s stunning skill at the keyboard and the London Royal Philharmonic’s massed strings flowed forth with a warmth and grace that belied the seemingly limitless reserves of power the Neo had on tap. In both instances, I felt I could pinpoint the performers in their own distinct space without losing the sense that they were part of a greater whole. The Neo easily plowed the electrons into my LCD-XC’s as the pipe organ thundered its opening chords during the finale of Saint-Saens’ Symphony No. 3 (CD layer, Telarc SACD-60634). The soundscape was deep and reverberation from the basses was plentiful, but not overbearing. Simply excellent.

The Neo dove comfortably into more contemporary fare. The bright nature of Florence + the Machine’s latest album How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful (CD, Republic B0023122-02) can be fatiguing on the ears, but the Neo portrayed “Third Eye” with the utmost clarity and finesse and leaving out the edge. Again, a sense of depth to the soundscape was readily apparent and timbres were spot on. Welch’s vocals have a tendency to sound a little hard – not so, here. There was an intoxicating ease that permeated throughout her performance. Hand claps sounded, well, like hand claps. Cymbals sounded brassy, with a finely textured decay and shimmer. On “Go Quietly” from the Cold War Kids’ latest album Hold My Home (CD, Downtown DWT70397), Willett’s vocals had an immediate, palpable quality. Backing vocals and instruments each occupied their own space. The drum kit possessed good body and impact, but wasn’t quite as tight as I’ve heard elsewhere. The entire track sounded free from compression when the mix turned a little dense.

The Neo 430HAD remained unflappable switching between the Audeze LCD-XC, the Sennheiser HD 600, and (briefly) the Sennheiser HD 800 and 800 S. Its superb abilities in spatial resolution, layering, and tonal purity were apparent on all of them. It let each headphone’s particular qualities shine through. I never felt that the Neo restricted the performance of any of the transducers I used.

Alternate Configurations

Now this is all well and good for those with fully balanced sources and headphones that can be connected for balanced drive. What about a single-ended setup? I won’t sugarcoat it – my experience tells me that you’ll leave some performance on the table. This was the case whether the source was connected to the balanced input and the headphones driven single-ended, or with the source single-ended and the headphones driven balanced, or both hooked up in single-ended fashion. Images were a little flatter and soundstage depth was shortened. Timbres were lighter – “sunnier” might be the apt descriptor – and the ease that I experienced before was a tad muted. The Neo never sounded strained, but the music didn’t flow as freely or gracefully as with the fully balanced system.

The onboard DAC exhibited much of the same qualities as the unbalanced configurations. It output a drier, tighter presentation with a lighter tone than the Ayre QB-9 DSD in balanced mode. The sound wasn’t as palpably immediate and I got the distinct sense of listening to a recording rather than a live event. The soundstage also collapsed inward a little further with images wanting to crowd around the center – especially evident on loudspeakers. It’s possible that the DAC module’s output stages aren’t fully balanced, given its sonic performance. In my opnion, the Moon Neo 430HAD deserves a better source than the built-in option and most should take a pass unless it’s required out of convenience.

I tried the crossfeed circuit only briefly. Once you activate it, images move a little more to the front and out. The effect is tasteful and subtle and there didn’t seem to be any obvious deleterious effects to the sound.

Comparisons

The only amp I have on hand that even remotely approaches the quality of the 430HAD is my DNA Sonett 2. When pitted against the fully balanced configuration, the Sonett 2 is hopelessly outclassed by the realistic tone, textures, and imaging of the Moon. However, when the playing field was leveled somewhat by driving both from the single-ended outputs of the QB-9 DSD (but still using balanced drive for the headphones), the Sonett 2 proved to be a worthy competitor. It still couldn’t match the Neo’s ease with dynamic contrast borne, no doubt, from its seemingly limitless power reserves, but it stood toe-to-toe with the 430HAD in terms of touch, clarity, and tone. The Sonett 2 also possessed slightly tighter bass and a more mid-hall feel to the presentation, so some might actually prefer the Sonett 2 to the Neo, again, if the source is single-ended.

Conclusions

Yes, the Moon Neo 430HAD is big, heavy, and expensive. But, in my opinion, it’s worth the inconvenience and expense. If you have the ability to keep the entire chain balanced from end to end, you’ll be privy to some of the very finest audio to be had anywhere on the planet today. Hyperbole? Not to these ears.

 

Associated Equipment

Headphones – Audeze LCD-XC, Sennheiser HD 600, Sennheiser HD 800 S

Loudspeakers – Vandersteen 3A Signatures

Amplification – Ayre Acoustics AX-5 Twenty, Donald North Audio Sonett 2

Sources – Ayre Acoustics QB-9 DSD, onboard optional DAC

Cabling – Analysis Plus Pro Oval Studio XLR, Analysis Plus Pro Power Oval, Analysis Plus Power Oval 2, Analysis Plus Power Oval Ten, Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval 8

Power – Bryston BIT-15

Kids say the darndest things…

The other night my oldest son asked my better half what she’d do “with a lot of money.” She replied, “I think I’d get a new car.” (Her current ride is about 12 years old and certainly looks it.) My son thought about what she said for a bit and said, “I think I’ll fix cars when I grow up, so you don’t need to buy a new one – I’ll just fix it for you.” Then my wife turned the tables on him in the spirit of Father’s Day and asked what he’d get me if he had “a lot of money.” My son thought a little bit less on this one and replied, “I’d get daddy some headphones so he could test them.”

I’ve trained him well.