• iCube V3—Portable Headphone Amp/DAC. ($799)
A little over a year ago, Drew Baird of Moon Audio opened my eyes to the joys of the beautifully made iCube-series portable amps and amp/DACs from the Dutch firm Qables. Now Qables is offering an all-new and improved amp/DAC called the iCube V3 ($799), which is said to provide both a better (class D) amplifier and significant improved DAC vis-à-vis the earlier iCube V2.
The gist of things is that the V3 provides both a USB (16-bit/48 kHz) DAC input, as well as higher resolution (24-bit/192 kHz) Toslink and coaxial digital DAC inputs, plus a standard analog input. In turn, the V3 offers and improved amplifier section driven by a higher capacity battery than in the original V2. What words can’t easily convey, though, is the fine German camera-like fit and finish that the iCube displays; to hold one in your hand is to covet the darned thing. Honest.
• Dark Star—2-chassis, fully balanced, high-output desktop headphone amp. ($2995)
• SR-71B—Fully balanced, portable headphone amplifier. ($650)
If you ever meet Ray Samuels at a show, or take the opportunity to visit RSA’s website, you may well be struck, as I have been, by the man’s passion for the entire sport of headphone-based audio, and by his seemingly limitless creativity.
At last year’s Can Jam RMAF even, Ray was exhibiting a “breadboard”-level prototype of—check this out—a fully balanced portable headphone amplifier capable of driving even the most notoriously power-hungry headphones (e.g., the HiFiMAN HE-6’s). This is a stronger claim than you might think, since the fact is that many (perhaps even most) full-size desktop headphone amps have a hard time driving ‘phones like the HE-6 to their full potential. Nevertheless, Ray Samuels found a way to pull off this feat, and the result is the now finished Blackbird SR-71B fully balanced portable headphone amp ($650). This pint-sized powerhouse is not only powerful, but also very refined and it manages to deliver a wonderfully expressive, lively sound. Playback returned from Can Jam with a review sample of the SR-71B in hand, so a full review will be forthcoming fairly soon.
But for some audiophile’s there is nothing quite like a great desktop headphone amplifier, and with power-hungry ‘phones in mind Ray Samuels has recently created his fully balanced and extremely powerful new Dark Star headphone amplifier ($2995). Naturally, the amp provides both balanced and single-ended outputs and features switch-selectable gain setting of 11 (which is about as high as some amps ever go) or 21 (which is enough gain to more or less pin your ears back no matter how power hungry your ‘phones might be). To borrow a line from Spiderman, though, let’s acknowledge that with great power comes great responsibility. Samuels somewhat sheepishly admitted that, when turning the volume waaaay up on the Dark Star during a particularly exuberant listening session, he had actually managed to fry the drivers of his personal pair of HiFiMAN HE-6’s. Important safety tip: Feel free to enjoy the massive power the Dark Star provides, but treat that big ol’ volume control knob with the respect it deserves (and don’t hurt yourself, OK?).
• Asgard—Single-ended, class A JFET/MOSFET-powered desktop headphone amplifier. ($249)
• Valhalla—(Triode) Tube-powered, no feedback, desktop headphone amplifier optimized for high-impedance (300-600 ohm) headphones. ($349)
• Lear—High-output (6 Wpc at 32 Ohm, 4 Wpc at 40 Ohms) desktop headphone amplifier. ($449).
• Bifrost modular DAC. ($349 with coax/TOSLINK inputs, $449 with standard plus USB inputs).