It’s easy to get the high-end wrong. It’s not just about the bling, the big tickets or the inch-thick front panel. It’s also about the sound. In fact, in many respects it should only be about the sound; sumptuous finishes are academic if the end result sounds terrible. So, if it’s only about the bling for you… move on, because these two little devices from Epiphany Acoustics turn on the charm from inside out.
This represents the cutting edge of the new paradigm in audio. Small, cheap, yet surprisingly well-built basic boxes at very attractive prices. Sumptuous ¬finish or design-team aesthetics be damned… this is an electronics engineer making a thing to sell direct, with none of the nonsense usually entailed in the selling of a thing. So, instead of spending hundreds on a USB converter from a big name, you get something the size of a box of matches, designed by an engineer blogger known as NwAvGuy. In this USB-powered E-DAC, the DAC itself is a ES9023 ‘Sabre’ chip by ESS driven by a TE7022L UAC1 engine, capable of working to 24-bit precision with sample rates of 44.1, 48 and 96kHz. It takes a standard adaptive USB output from a computer, but includes on-board reclocking. All for £99.99.
This passes via minijack to the EHP-02 (there’s an optional 02D version with built-in USB DAC), a wall-plug powered headphone ampli¬fier that takes a line level mini-jack input, feeds to a headphone minijack output and has a tiny gain boost and a manual volume knob. You can tell this is price conscious stuff because the power LED is red, not trendy – and more expensive – blue. This too comes to an almighty £99.99.
Best of all, the amplifier can be battery driven. The battery holds a charge well and gives you hours of on the move listening. Some have questioned the need for a battery drive (the amp is not small enough to be truly transportable), but those people have never sat on a long train journey, playing music while they work off a laptop. Yes, the battery does mean some of the more punishment-grade headphone loads are best left at home, but the amp does extend good headphone listening to more than the desktop.
The designer is an outspoken critic of all things audiophile, so many of the things audiophiles seek in a DAC or headphone amp are conspicuous by their absence. Asynchronous USB? Don’t be silly! Fancy gold terminals – pah! Any power supply upgrades… not while he draws breath. Exotic wires – are you joking? Perhaps on this last one he might want to reconsider, because the giveaway minijack to minijack cable supplied failed almost immediately.
From an audiophile perspective though, there are two sides to this; the side that looks at these devices in context (irrespective of cost) and the priceconscious side. The two converge to form an enormous ‘Wow!’ Separate the two devices first. What we have here is an excellent DAC for the money; it realistically ticks the DAC box neatly. OK, in absolute terms it does sound a touch thin and very slightly grainy in the presence region on incredibly pure tones like polyphonic early music voices, but not by a substantial amount and the moment you factor the price into the equation, any criticisms disappear altogether. In other words, you have to go looking for glaring faults to find minor idiosyncrasies, and this is commonly known as ‘nit-picking’.
The headphone amplifier simply does the job of amplifying the E-DAC’s signal without prejudice. It has a useful amount of gain (although headphones like the HiFiMAN do pose something of a challenge to all headphone amps, the O2 is one of those rare lower priced models that had no problems coping with crazy impedances) and it has a enjoyable sense of immediacy to the presentation that is highly alluring. Once again in absolute terms, the bass performance on the Lehmann was more tight and controlled, but given we are talking an almost 20-fold price differential, that’s the sort of thing one can easily overlook. Especially as the O2 has a big powerful bass instead; use this with a pair of Beats and play some Skrillex at a good lick and you could dubstep your own neck off.
As a pairing, the two work very well together. There is a clear commonality to the designs that work in partnership. They also cancel each other out somewhat, but in a good way; the light touch of the DAC balances out the bass bloom of the amplifier. The two do require a very sensitive hand on the volume control; not because the amp will clip, but the pairing does seem to make a distinct sweet-spot on the volume dial that changes with each passing track. This is a good sign because it shows the two track the dynamic range of each recording well, but it’s a pain and other systems have similar levels of resolution and don’t require the safe-cracker approach to volume. But once again, this would be nit-picking at any price, but for £200, I feel churlish even mentioning it.