HeadRoom Desktop D/A headphone amplifier Page 2

Still. Although I fed the Desktop with digital signals at sampling rates of 48kHz and 96kHz—and heard it sound better for it—I had no way of knowing if it was locking on to input or downconverting it. But does it matter whether a tree falls in 44.1kHz or 96kHz, as long as I hear it as better? Perhaps not. The Desktop's lack of a front-panel display isn't a deal-breaker for me, but I do wish it had one.

Let's dance, little schoolgirl
The Grace m902 is a natural comparison for the pimped-out Desktop. They're within striking distance in price ($1700 vs $2095), they both allow analog input (one pair of RCAs on the Grace), analog output (one pair each of balanced and single-ended for the m902), and accept and convert a variety of digital signals. And yes, each is a very good headphone amplifier.

The Grace has heft and cosmetics that pretty much scream "high-end," with a big LED display, the aforementioned digital lock display, and beveled anodized top and bottom plates. It looks and feels like a piece of pro audio gear. In comparison, the HeadRoom, with its droopy, organic vibe, looks sort of plain, in a black Lab sort of way. Not homely, just not fancy.

That plainness translates directly to the user interface. The HeadRoom Desktop has 11 switches in addition to its volume pot. Need to choose between digital and analog or select a particular digital or analog input? You need to do that on the rear, so keep that accessible. Everything else, including selecting the preamp's output, takes place on the front panel. That sounds messy, but the switches are all of high quality and simple to use.

The same can't be said for the Grace's sophisticated multifunction volume control, which I find nonintuitive and frustrating in the extreme. I admire the cleverness of its designer—in fact, I frequently invoke the name of the Deity when I attempt to use it—but I can't say I like it. Then again, I'm pretty much a caveman and most of you are probably a lot more sophisticated than I am, so your experience of the Grace's interface may be more positive. However, the m902 does have a rotary source selection simple enough that even I could manipulate it successfully every time.

But looks don't last, cookin' do—how'd the HeadRoom and Grace compare as DACs? First, the HeadRoom's mini USB input completely smoked the Grace's. Feeding my Apple G5 into the Grace via the USB produced a sound that reminded me of the sound of my old germanium-transistor–driven Mike Matthews effects pedals: hard and fuzzy around the edges. The Desktop had more body, sounded clearer, and had some of that floaty air on top that better digital sound possesses.

However, my G5 sounded better through both DACs when I switched to TosLink, which has never been my preferred digital connection. Go figure. With the TosLink connection, I think the differences between the two processors became more apparent: the Grace was detailed and crisp, the HeadRoom big and warm.

I don't want to sink to the old analytical vs musical cliché, because it wasn't that clear-cut. I enjoyed and heard deep, deep into music through the Grace, but it wasn't particularly seductive. Well, gee—it is designed to be an analytical tool for recording engineers, and it shares certain characteristics with other products we audiophiles have borrowed from the pro world, including Wilson Audio Specialties' original WATT/Puppy loudspeakers.

In other words, I felt the Grace m902 was better at letting me hear differences between choices than it was at sucking me deep into performances. For example, with Trading With the Enemy, the Grace accentuated the tonal separation between the instrumental voices, even similar ones such as Steve Berlin's baritone sax and Craig Flory's bass clarinet. Compared to the HeadRoom Desktop, the m902 also dried out the acoustic a bit. That combination of dryness and separation made the music seem more emotionally remote—or perhaps it kept me from submerging myself within it, if there's a difference. And with the Desktop, the band's rhythm and drive were more, well, rhythmically driven.

The Grace vividly revealed the age of the Bennett-Grumiaux Mozart flute quartet's master tape. The tape hiss and other noises seemed quite separate from the musical signal, which made them much harder to ignore. The noise was still there through the Desktop, but, as our analog brethren so frequently preach, it wasn't so annoying that it would force me to forgo the pleasure of this intensely moving performance.

Which DAC you'll prefer will, I imagine, partly depend on how you intend to use it. I can understand the need for a device that allows you to nail a sonic wart at 300 paces, although I monitored JA's engineering and mixing of male choir Cantus's forthcoming album, There Lies the Home, through the Desktop and detected quite a few anomalies deep in the mix that had escaped both JA and music director Erik Lichte, who were using Benchmark and Metric Halo headphone amps (although, in all fairness, that was my job; JA and EL were focusing on theirs).

In my case, the question of preference was nailed shut when I compared the HeadRoom and Grace as preamps in my big rig, using high-resolution DAD recordings such as the New Music Consort's Pulse (New World/Classic DAD 1002), which is high-energy, ultra-high-precision percussion music. Here, the tonal differences between the two really revealed themselves. You'd think that percussion would be cruel to a component I've described as warm-sounding, wouldn't you? I did.

Wrong again. It proved deadly to the component I've described as analytical. The wash of the huge gongs, the ringing harmonics of struck tones, and the overall clang and crash unmasked the Grace's slightly hard signature while accentuating the Desktop's tonal integrity. Pulse sounded like the music it is through the HeadRoom, even if it is a bunch of banging and crashing.

Tell your mama and your papa
Do I think the fully loaded HeadRoom Desktop is that much better than the Grace m902 that it justifies a price difference of $400—or even $500, considering the street price of the Grace is about $100 lower? Well, it would be for me. I happen to prefer its sound, the same way I prefer the sound of my Sennheiser HD-600 headphones to Grado RS-1s. That's called preference—and it has less to do with which is better than with which fits better with the user's quirks. If, for example, you don't share my preference for the sound of Sennheisers over Grados (many don't), you probably wouldn't agree with my preference of the HeadRoom over the Grace.

Your use priorities might not match mine either. I participate in one or two serious recording projects each year, so a desktop media director is lot more important to me than a prosumer studio tool. Heck, for most headphone users, neither amp could possibly be worth what it costs.

But I think HeadRoom's pimped-out Desktop is. It packs a heck of a lot of usability into a pretty small package—a small, relatively affordable package, when you get right down to it. It's a hi-rez DAC, a digital switching station, a preamp, and a headphone amplifier rolled into one. It wasn't all that long ago that you could have spent multiples of its $2095 price to get all of that at the same level of quality. I'm amazed at just how much hi-fi HeadRoom's fully loaded Desktop places on my desktop.

2020 Gilkerson Drive
Bozeman, MT 59715
(800) 828-8184