Although the Desktop Amp I received—outfitted with the “Home” Class A amp module and “Home” DAC—sits right in the middle of HeadRoom’s extensive line of headphone-oriented gear, the product exudes top-quality construction and high-end sensibility. The Desktop Amp can be driven by two separate analog sources, or digitally via a choice of coax, TosLink, or USB connector. In order to equalize test conditions, I used one of the analog inputs for most listening, with a link to my PC’s mini-jack via a HeadRoom-supplied KimberKable interconnect. As for the Desktop Amp’s outputs, there is one set of RCAs on the back, but the unit’s raison d’être is clearly its dual headphone jacks—¼" and mini—up-front.
The Desktop Amp is necessarily a slave to its genre. As such, it delivers the prototypical headphone experience, complete with central cranium imaging and a lack of the deepest bass. However, one listen to the Mary Guathier track through this amp and either the HeadRoom-supplied AKG k701 or my own reference Sennheiser HD600 headphones made the system’s refinement apparent. Unlike every speaker in this survey, the HeadRoom system exhibits an analog gentleness to its sound—without sacrificing detail. Listening fatigue is nil, since edges are naturally rounded. Rhythms through the Desktop Amp are terrific, which adds to the desire that washed over me to simply listen and listen.
And things notably improved from there when I switched to the Desktop Amp’s USB input. This option, unavailable on any speaker in this survey since none possesses an internal DAC, bypasses the PC’s DAC in favor of the Amp’s decidedly superior circuit. In this mode, bass is even tighter, highs extend further, and music simply opens up.
The Desktop Amp includes a “Crossfeed” switch intended to mitigate the music-in-the-center-of-your-head phenomenon. Some HeadRoom aficionados swear by this feature, but in my tests it was only mildly successful. With the circuit engaged, images did indeed move forward a smidge—Gauthier and Thompson now seemed to be singing from my frontal lobes— but there certainly was no illusion of listening to an actual speaker in open space. Further, the circuit added the slightest touch of noise to an otherwise crystalline sonic landscape. For this reason, I slightly preferred listening with Crossfeed turned off. The Desktop Amp had an advantage over others in this survey, thanks to its ritzy Kimber interconnect. So I suspended my “minimal tweaking” rule long enough to test the amp with generic cable. Sure enough, the cheaper wire added a measure of grunge to the sound, but not enough to mask the HeadRoom’s manifest virtues. Presumably, all the speakers tested would sound better with superior cable, but their complicated wiring schemes render the question academic.
In sum, if your idea of ideal PC listening involves headphones, it’s hard to imagine a better experience than that delivered by the Desktop Amp.
Although this survey did not reveal a “perfect” PC speaker system (does such a thing exist?), it demonstrates that worthy options abound. The Acoustic Energy Aego M delivers solid, nearly vice-free performance at a very attractive price. For only slightly more, the Altec FX-6021 raises the stakes even higher, making it the clear value champ of this survey. If you are willing to sacrifice some high-end extension for superior bass, rhythms, and soundstaging—and if you have adequate space and financial resources—the Ferguson-Hill FH007/FH008 should top your list of candidates. Needless to say, any of these options will blow away the PC speakers you are likely using today.