HeadRoom Desktop D/A headphone amplifier Follow-Up, November 2006

Wes Phillips returned to the HeadRoom Desktop in November 2006 (Vol.29 No.11):

When I reviewed HeadRoom's maxed-out headphone amplifier and DAC in the April 2006 Stereophile, I commented that I'd be following up in a few months with some notes on the "plain" Desktop unit, sans the Max amplifier module ($499), Max DAC option ($399), and Alps volume control ($199). Indeed, I was "hard at work" listening to a basic Desktop with the Home amplifier module (a $199 upgrade from the Standard module that comes stock in the $599 Desktop).

Then HeadRoom's Tyll Hertsens called me to repossess all the HeadRoom gear in the house. Well, not all—he told me I could keep the outboard power supplies. "What's up?" I whined.

"We're going to slap new amp modules in them, and we'll need all the review units we can get for Home Entertainment 2006, but I promise you you'll get them back as soon as that's over." And shortly after I got back from LA and HE2006, a HeadRoom Desktop and a Micro DAC arrived from Blue Sky country—Montana. I plugged them in on my desk, um, top, warmed them up, and began to listen to music on the AKG 701 headphones I reviewed in August. Within minutes, I had the 'phones off and my telephone's headset on.

"Okay, what did you do?" I asked Hertsens.

"Well, we only made a few changes in the output buffer. We're using the same Burr-Brown 2134 op-amps we were before, only now we're feeding the Home's output current amplifier through our version of Walt Jung's highly regarded Diamond Buffer discrete transistor design. If you really need the audio porn, we're forcing all the active circuits into class-A bias using constant-current sources. We're using 1% metal, thin-film resistors, and all the caps in the signal chain are polyphenylenesulfide."

"Wow," I said. "That must jack up the price some."

My hand to God, I could hear him smirk. "Actually, we dropped the price of the Home amplifier module from $199 to $99."

Wowsers—a high-end audio company that actually charges less for an upgrade.

Homing In: I think it was the phenomenal presence on Sangam, by Charles Lloyd, Zakir Hussain, and Eric Harland (CD, ECM 1976), that I first responded to. It's a live recording, and the first thing you're aware of is the sense of space—the huge, warm, live acoustic of Santa Barbara's Lobero Theatre—followed by the assertive attack of Hussain's tabla. When Lloyd's alto sax entered a few seconds into the song, that's when I knew the new Home module was different; it had a liquidity I'd not experienced with the older version.

Eric Harland's hi-hat cymbals also had an incisive sizzle that was wondrously detailed, a quality that keeps me from calling the Home "sweet." The module was easy to listen to but didn't sweeten things up a bit. And my gosh, did the Home reproduce Harland's bass drum with power and sweep.

Did I mention that the new Home swung, too? I'm not sure it actually had better pace than the older module, but it had more of all the little details that contribute to pace, so I might just be noticing the big stuff more. However, swing it did.

When the recording offers epic scope and grandeur, as does Donald Runnicles and the Atlanta Symphony's performance of the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde (paired with Strauss's Four Last Songs and Death and Transfiguration on Telarc CD-80661), the Home really brought it on. The orchestral crescendos and those soaring horn runs just swelled and swelled and swelled, leaving me not so much adrift on a sea of harmony as surfing on the lip of a harmonic tsunami. Oh, the Home did BIG most impressively.

That that sweep and power were the direct result of the lower noise floor in the new Home was very evident when I listened to Valentin Silvestrov's Requiem for Larissa (CD, ECM New Series 1778), a work that is not so much music as it is silence interrupted by fragments of melody, partial phrases from the Latin Mass for the Dead, and staccato instrumental outbursts. The contrast between silence and music is tragically vast—it sounds as if Silvestrov is trying to not remember his wife, Larissa Bondarenko—or perhaps, in a narrative that echoes John Crowley's short story "Snow," it is his protest at the way memories fade with time and become disembodied.

The Home's clarity and grainless musicality allowed me to hear deep into the silence at the core of Requiem for Larissa, so that when Silvestrov unleashed the choral tuttis and ffff orchestral passages, they sounded huge—and the music gained power that transformed personal despair into a defiant howl against mortality. It was great art granted its full power by great hi-fi.

HeadRoom Home vs Cayin HA-1A: In the June 2006 Stereophile, Sam Tellig raved about Cayin Audio's HA-1A tubed headphone amp/2Wpc integrated amp ($749). I happened to have one on hand, so I thought I'd compare the HeadRoom Desktop/Home to it. Obviously, the HA-1A is a tad more versatile, if you have a pair of speakers that can be driven by only a few watts, and I'd be remiss in failing to mention how much less it costs per pound: the 15-lb HA-1A seems like a lot of amp compared to the just-under-a-pound Desktop/Home.

In performance, however, they were worthy competitors. The HA-1A had tube three-dimensionality going for it. The Silvestrov Requiem sounded rounder and huskier—voices had a particularly expressive nacressence, and the bass was big and bold.

Bass had more definition through the Home, however, especially in its bottommost octave—but even more so in the room sound that supported it. Maybe it was thermionic roar, or maybe it was just the benefit of the HeadRoom's smaller real estate of surface-mount components, but I could hear deeper into the recording with the Home.

Yet the HA-1A has a siren's call that's hard to ignore. It's fun to listen to. The differences in performance between the two weren't immense, but they may be profound for many listeners—especially those bitten by the tube bug.

Homeward Bound: At $698 plus $399 for the external power supply (which shouldn't be considered an accessory), the HeadRoom Desktop/Home is not an impulse buy. But it's a solidly built, beautifully performing headphone amp. It has worthy competition at its price point, but it offers convenience, immense musicality, and stone-dead interstitial silence. Despite my newly instituted clean-desk policy, it has earned a place on my desktop. Perhaps it deserves a place on yours as well.—Wes Phillips

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