If you think about it, almost all of high-end audio can be viewed as a balancing act. It’s been said that, armed with enough cubic dollars, almost anyone could eventually produce great-sounding components. The hard part, really, is figuring out ways to produce components that sound fantastic, yet that don’t cost the proverbial arm and a leg. For headphone enthusiasts, the quest for equipment that offers maximum bang for our buck sis even keener, since one of the unspoken rules of our “sport” is that we’re trying to achieve sonic greatness while holding expenditures within reasonable bounds.
While Playback has covered a number of headphone amps that offer good value for money, the three models referenced below have particularly impressed us with their ability to deliver true affordable excellence.
What it is: The Australian-made Burson Audio HA-160 is a precision-crafted, carefully thought out, solid-state headphone amplifier priced at $695. The Burson provides one single-ended stereo analog input (via RCA jacks) and two ¼-inch phone jack-type headphone outputs—each optimized for a different impedance range of headphone.
What’s the Draw? There are at least three aspects to the Burson’s appeal, the first of which would be build quality. If you look closely at this product, both inside and out, you’ll see a level of attention to detail that is almost unheard of at this price point. Let me supply just a few bullet point examples to show what I mean. The HA-160 features:
Second, and setting construction details aside, the real draw here is perhaps the best sound quality we’ve heard from any headphone amp priced below the four-figure range. The sonic qualities of this amp are wonderfully well balanced, combining neutral voicing, very good levels of resolution/subtlety/nuance, and enough power to drive anything we’ve tried, including extremely power-hungry planar magnetic headphones.
Many listeners will find the sound of the HA-160 so compelling that they’ll feel no need to look further, which means it represents a point of diminishing returns of sorts (you can, if you want to push a point, get even better sound quality, but it will cost you a significant pile of cash).
Finally, let us mention a third, not-so-obvious aspect of the HA-160 story. Should you wish to up the performance ante of the HA-160 without blowing a ton of moolah, try using the amp in conjunction with Burson’s own AB-160 RCA buffer module. There is a certain synergy between the products that can help unlock even higher levels of resolution and transparency. For a review of the AB-160, follow this link: http://www.avguide.com/review/burson-audio-ab-160-rca-audio-buffer-stage-playback-44).
Playback review pending.
Preliminary blog: http://www.avguide.com/blog/first-look-listen-centrance-dacmini-cx-dacheadphone-amplifier
What it is: The CEntrance DACmini CX is versatile high resolution DAC (192kHz/24-bit resolution for S/PDIF and Toslink inputs, 96kHz/24-bit resolution for USB input) plus a pure class A headphone amplifier—all for $795. Note, too, that depending on the factory options (or “mods” as CEntrance would call them) that you choose, the DACmini can also be configured as a minimalist stereo preamplifier. The DACmini comes with self-loading plug’n’play drivers for PC and Mac-based systems, plus a free download for CEntrance’s cool, proprietary UD (“universal driver”) ASIO driver, for those whose music software will support use of an ASIO driver.