Hardcore audiophiles are generally immune to sticker shock for high-end audio gear like $50,000 speaker-based rigs. But now you can get the same level of sound for a lot less if you build a sound system around headphones. The Desktop Balanced Amp is the flagship model in HeadRoom’s compact Desktop line. It ain’t cheap, but it gives you truly face-melting sound when paired with a set of high-end balanced headphones.
The basic idea behind balanced headphones and amps is reducing system noise and RF interference by eliminating what’s essentially a grounding problem in normal headphones. The other benefit of a fully balanced system is that separate amp drives each channel of the headphones, with plenty of headroom to spare.
If you have a set of Sennheiser HD600 or 650′s, you can order a balanced Cardas Audio cable from HeadRoom and swap out the original detachable cables yourself. But if you use headphones that don’t have detachable cables, like AKG K701′s, you’ll have to send them to HeadRoom for recabling with a balanced Cardas Audio cable — at a cost of about $300.
Along with the amp, you get an Astrodyne power supply, which provides a strong supply of juice and switchable input voltage without you having to shell out for HeadRoom’s pricey dedicated power supply.
The Desktop Balanced Amp’s matte black body has rubber edges, so it won’t slide around your desk. Its footprint is just 6 by 6 inches, and it’s only about 2.6 inches high. All the chrome-plated switches are large and easy to flip, though it would be much nicer if they were on the front instead of the rear of the unit.
The amp has two balanced Neutrik inputs on the front, and in the center of each mono input is an unbalanced stereo quarter-inch jack. That means you can use the amp with either a single balanced set or two unbalanced sets of headphones — nice!
My review unit had the Balanced DAC option, which gives you coaxial and optical digital inputs as well as a USB mini-port so you can use the DBA as an external audio board for your computer. I consider this option absolutely necessary since I have a lot of digital music in Apple Lossless format on my PC, though it does add an extra $299 to the price.
On the back, the power switch and analog balanced/unbalanced input switch are all the way on the right. On the left, there are switches for analog/digital input and digital input (optical, coax, or USB). In between are all the inputs, including digital coax, optical, USB mini, balanced XLR, unbalanced RCA, and 15V power input.
I directly compared the Desktop Balanced Amp with its cheaper sibling, the regular ol’ Desktop Amp, and I tested with my balanced AKGs as well as my unbalanced pair. I admit was initially surprised that I could even hear a difference between test rigs, though I had a lot of help from the AKG K701s’ incredible detail and sparkling clarity.
The differences between the balanced and unbalanced headphones on the Balanced Amp were apparent, though not overwhelming. Testing in a very quiet room I could hear less system noise with the balanced set, particularly noticeable in classical music with wide dynamic range and intermittent silences, like Bartok’s Piano Concertos.
The sound was glorious with both sets of cans — impressive soundstaging for headphones, rich, deep, and accurate bottom, with amazing extension in the highs. The mids aren’t honky; they’re perfect, with an ear-opening amount of detail.
When I A-B’d the Balanced Amp and the unbalanced Desktop Amp, I noticed a more dramatic difference. The Balanced Amp paired with the balanced headphones is definitely the quietest setup here. The sound has more life to it; everything from acoustic jazz and Brazilian music to classical and classic rock sounds more spacious, and you can hear each separate instrument with exquisite detail.
Finally, I tested both amps with the same set of unbalanced headphones. This is where I had the toughest time hearing a difference. Basically, if you’re going to spend the money on the Balanced Amp, you’re better off with balanced headphones along with it.
If pristine detail, ink-black silences, and sonic transparency are your thing, this should be on your wish list. Of course, if you know you’d be happy with something a lot lower-end, check out HeadRoom’s $150 pocket-size Total BitHead headphone amp.