|All In Your Head
May 2006Original Electronics Master Headphone Amplifier
by S. Andrea Sundaram
A few years ago, a friend of mine who works in a violin shop told me about some excellent violins she had encountered from a maker in China. Most of the violins that come out of China are junk, but these could compete with some of the best of modern European production. While there are millions of highly skilled craftsman in China, violin making is not only about exacting craftsmanship, but artistry too. Art and the perception of artistic value are cultural constructs. The perception of what is pleasing is based upon the collection of previous experiences of the observer. Someone who has grown up in China is likely to prefer a different violin sound to that preferred by someone who has grown up in Germany. It is, therefore, not surprising that a number of famous East Asian violinists have chosen to play Chinese instruments. However, to hear a Chinese violin praised by someone who plays one made in 19th-century France is quite a different matter.
High-end-audio products bear some similarities to musical instruments. For the production of either, engineering knowledge can take the design most of the way, but artistry is what separates the great products from the mediocre masses. The value of audio products, like that of musical instruments, is ultimately measured not by electronic equipment, but by human perception. As such, audio designers must understand the experiences and expectations of their intended audiences.
Original Electronics is a wholly Chinese company. Both its chairman and chief designer graduated from prestigious Chinese universities and worked in Chinese industry before starting their company in 1999. Even so, their website expresses an appreciation of Western culture and suggests that their designs strive for a Euro-American sound.
Unlike many other Far Eastern companies, Original has never produced OEM products, but has instead concentrated on their home market. They introduced China's first 20-bit HDCD player in 1999, and have since marketed other players, including one that supports DVD-Audio. They have also produced one digital power amplifier. As stated on the company's website, Original's name derives from the desire to "bring people the playback of music creation in its original expression."
The subject of this review is a new product for Original Electronics: a dedicated headphone amplifier that employs separate class-AB amplification circuits for each channel and includes a substantial external power supply. The inclusion of a serious power supply with a toroidal transformer is a significant feature at the Master's $198 USD price; the competition of which I am aware all ask you to fork over extra hundreds if you want a power supply that's more than a wall wart. The US distributor, AAA Audio, is currently setting up a dealer network. In the meantime, it is possible to purchase components directly from them.
The Master headphone amplifier is approximately the size of a hardcover novel at 6"W x 2"H x 9"D, and it weighs, I would guess, about 3 pounds. The sides of the unit are anodized aluminum, with top and bottom being made of a shiny acrylic into which "Original Electronics Master Phones Amplifier" is engraved. The volume knob does not extend out very far from the front face, so must be turned with fingertips. It is a reasonably precise pot from ALPS, but I found its rotation to be a bit sticky, as though the contacts were getting hung up on something.
The only other features on the front panel are the single flush-mounted 1/4" headphone jack and a small red LED that indicates power. Around back are two good-quality RCA jacks, a very thin toggle switch for power, and the 5-pin connector for the power supply. I can't imagine why the power-supply connector has five pins -- unless for a future upgrade to separate transformers for the two channels. Up close, the unit looks rather like a project box, albeit one that is very well executed. From a little farther away, the black acrylic lends the Master an elegant, modern appearance reminiscent of a J.A. Michell creation. While it might not be audio jewelry, the Master headphone amp isn't a piece of equipment that must be tucked away out of sight. Its size and understated appearance let it slip into any audio rack alongside a variety of components.
The aforementioned power supply measures 3 1/2"W x 2"H x 8 1/2"D, weighs a few pounds, and is enclosed in an extruded-aluminum chassis. It has a captive power cord that runs to the amplifier on one end and an IEC receptacle on the other. I did experiment briefly with a Shunyata Snakebite power cord, which brought about subtle improvement in spatiality and a reduced noise floor. However, all of the comments in this review are based on using the unit with the stock power cord.
The construction of the Master did not allow me to have a look inside at the circuit and parts, but the Original Electronics website states that the amplifier employs Wima and Nichicon capacitors and two NE5532 operational amplifiers. Because the unit has separate amplification circuits for left and right channels, I would assume that the op-amps are being run in a differential configuration (each is a two-channel unit).
Output power is stated as greater than 100mV at a nominal 300-ohm load. Frequency response is from 5Hz-20kHz, with a signal-to-noise ratio of 100dB and distortion of less than 0.0015% (at unspecified output). Input sensitivity is 1.45V, and I found the Master to have a reasonable volume range with all sources. Typical of good solid-state designs, the output impedance ranges from 32-300 ohms, and the Master had no trouble controlling the sometimes-obstinate Sennheiser HD 600 headphones.
The Master took the place of my own Musical Fidelity X-Can v3 being fed from the record-out jacks of my Graaf Venticinque integrated amplifier. The source selector on the Graaf integrated is purely mechanical, and it can function even when the amp is not on. Sources were a Mel Audio Rechav CD player and a Michell Tecnodec turntable with modified Rega RB-300 tonearm and Shure V-15X cartridge running through the Trigon Vanguard II phono stage with Volcano II battery power supply.
I tried the Master amplifier with four very different pairs of headphones: Sennheiser HD 600s, Ultrasone PROline 2500s, Shure E3Cs, and Grado SR-60s. About 70% of my listening was done with the Ultrasones and 25% with the Sennheisers; I did just a little experimentation with the Grados and Shures. I let the Master burn-in for about a week at moderate levels with the Sennheisers connected before doing any serious listening.
I thought that I would start my listening with something light, just to get a quick sense of the Master's character, so I pulled out Paul Simon's Still Crazy After All These Years [Warner Brothers 255591-2]. This album doesn't have inspiring sonics, nor does it have the nasties that plague many digital transfers of this era. The first few tracks went by pleasantly enough, but with nothing remarkable with which to start my listening notes. On "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover," however, I was shocked at the impact of the kick drum in the beginning vamp, and that was with the Grado SR-60s, not noted for their bass abilities.
I immediately switched to the HD 600s to hear whether the Master could keep the same punch with high-impedance 'phones. In the hi-fi sense, things just got better, becoming clearer and just as impactful, although I would have to say that the Grados are more suited to this type of music.
No need to start off slowly then. It was time to start pulling out other recordings to hear what the Master could do down low. From acoustic bass in jazz, to bass drums and timpani in classical, to bizarre synthesized sounds in the few electronica albums I own, this amp was certainly the master of low frequencies. Bass notes were not only deep and powerful, but clean and articulate, retaining their tonal character. I am not a bass fiend, but I had never experienced such palpable bass from headphones before.
Once I got over how good the bass was, which actually took a couple of days, I was able to move on to other aspects of musical reproduction. One of my favorite test discs for both soundstaging and violent dynamic swings is the Sibelius Violin Concerto on the BIS label [BIS 300500]. Being possessed of abnormally acute hearing, I was cautious as I approached the sforzando in the first movement. Although not quite as dramatic as through a good amp-and-speaker combination, the abrupt loudness retained its startle factor. The dynamic contrast was all the more apparent with the Master's extremely low noise floor. With no music playing and the volume cranked all the way up, I heard not a whisper, even with the Shure E3Cs, which exhibit substantial hiss with other amplifiers.
Soundstaging can be a tricky concept with headphones. One of the primary reasons I like the Ultrasone 'phones is their ability to give a more speaker-like sense of space without the unnatural (to my ears) frequency shifts associated with cross-feed circuits. The Master brought out the very best in the Ultrasones' ability to throw a wide, outside-the-head soundscape. Not only was the left-right dimension continuous, but I could hear some of the depth in the recording. The sense of depth was, to be sure, not as profound as with a good pair of speakers; nonetheless, it was a feat rarely achieved in headphone listening. While some designers blend the left and right signals in order to produce a coherent image, it seems that having well-separated channels does a better job -- just as with power amplifiers. Although not quite as speaker-like as with the Ultrasones, the Sennheiser HD 600s also produced a very wide and well-defined sonic image while driven by the Master.
With classical recordings that possess great ambience, I felt as though I was midway back in the hall, the center image decidedly out in front of me. Although many audiophiles prefer the front-row seats, most symphonic-music lovers would prefer to be farther back, so that the sound from the various sections of the orchestra has a chance to blend. The Master put me in one of these high-priced seats, where I can rarely afford to sit when I attend concerts. Perhaps as a consequence of this midhall perspective, fine detail did not pop out as much as it can with other headphone amplifiers. Most of the time, I was able to hear some of that inner detail when I listened very carefully, so I would not characterize the Master as unresolving. It just had a different perspective on the musical event. Some listeners will choose headphones specifically because they want to hear all of the detail laid bare. For those people, the Master might not be a good choice. As for me, I spent many happy hours immersed in sound, feeling as if I were actually sitting in a concert hall.
Piano is one of the hardest instruments for any audio system to reproduce. On the Classic Records reissue of Liszt's Todtentanz [LSC-2541], Byron Janis's piano sounded both percussive and tonal, with quick attacks and a good sense of the harmonic structure of the instrument. It seemed as if the Master was putting slightly more emphasis on the higher overtones than on the fundamental pitch. I found this spectral abnormality with most recordings once I started listening for it. Perhaps this push toward the upper harmonics results from the large-hall feeling of the Master. The higher frequencies do tend to carry better in a large venue, and the brain simply fills in the attenuated lower frequencies. I am just not accustomed to hearing such a perspective through headphones, so I didn't know quite what to make of it. When I was not listening for this characteristic, it generally didn't call attention to itself.
One might think that the Master would be a bright-sounding component as a consequence, but, if anything, I would suggest that the highest highs are subdued. Only with recordings that I know to be bright did I experience any tendency toward shrillness or edginess while listening with the Master.
At its roughly $200 asking price, the Original Master has some well-regarded competition from firms like Creek and HeadRoom, as well as a number of other smaller manufacturers. However, many readers will be familiar with the sound of the Musical Fidelity X-Can v3 ($399), either from owning one, auditioning one, or reading countless reviews on the thing, so it seemed a good point of comparison, even if it's more expensive.
First, with respect to build quality, the Musical Fidelity amp looks like a much more expensive piece of kit than the Master. The volume knob has a wonderfully silky feel and is easily grasped between thumb and two fingers. Furthermore, we all acknowledge that blue LEDs are more sophisticated-looking than red. However, if you look more closely at the construction, particularly the seams on the corners, you will appreciate the great care taken in the assembly of the Master.
Build quality and appearance are important in any product, but this publication is called SoundStage! not Industrial Design, so you probably want to know how the two amps compare sonically. Either amp was capable of driving all four pairs of headphones, but the X-Can v3 exhibited a preference for the Sennheisers, perhaps because of their higher impedance. With the Shure E3C, I could detect some hum at all volume levels, and a bit of hiss with the volume cranked all the way up. Certainly the X-Can v3 isn't noisy, but with the Master, there is absolutely no noise, no matter your headphone sensitivity.
Bass with the X-Can v3 is satisfying, but it possesses neither the authority nor the depth heard through the Master. The X-Can v3's lower octaves are said to benefit greatly from Musical Fidelity's separate X-PSU, but the addition of that component would put the setup at quadruple the price of the Master. Even with that addition, I'm not sure that the X-Can v3 can make up the distance between itself and the Master in terms of speed and articulation in the bass range.
The tubes in the Musical Fidelity amp made their presence known with liquidity and slight bloom through the middle frequencies, where the Master was a bit drier. The X-Can v3 seemed to reach further into the highest octaves than did the Master, leaving more air around and between instruments, but neither amplifier produced the sublime openness of the very best designs.
Macrodynamics, the large swings in volume, were comparable between the two amplifiers, but microdynamics, the more subtle shifts, were more apparent with the X-Can v3. We return, then, to the issue of perspective. Subtle dynamic contrasts seem much larger when the performer is playing or singing right in your ear, as compared to when she, or he, is twenty rows away from you. Even with recordings that do not have a vast sense of space, the Master portrays the musicians as being farther away than does the X-Can v3. In absolute terms, I felt that the Musical Fidelity amp may have the slight edge with respect to dynamic nuance.
The one clear advantage the X-Can v3 possessed over the Master was the fullness of harmonic textures. Where the Master seemed to de-emphasize some of the lower harmonics, the X-Can v3 may have actually added to them, producing a richer tonal palette. Pianos sounded more like pianos, and clarinets had tone as well as reediness. Brass instruments retained their bite, but sounded as though they were made from thicker stock. Jerry Douglas's Dobro on Alison Krauss's New Favorite [DIV 001LP] displayed all of its harmonic glory through the X-Can v3, but was a bit thin-sounding through the Master. Krauss's voice had more support, as if she were a few years older, through the X-Can v3 than through the Master. True, with the X-Can v3 she was now inside my head rather than in front of me, but I can't say that I minded being that close to her!
Overall, the Original Master competes handily with the X-Can v3 -- and at half the price.
In the past five to ten years, as headphone jacks have disappeared from most serious preamplifiers and integrateds, a plethora of dedicated headphone amplifiers have come in to take their place. Many models, up and down the price spectrum, are equipped with additional features such as built-in DACs and USB connectivity. But, for those who wish to keep their listening systems and computers completely separate and don't want to pay for features they won't use, there is still a market for a truly dedicated headphone amplifier, and there are plenty of them from which to choose.
The Original Electronics Master has a lot of competition, therefore, but it is still able to stand out. It handles all types of music well and is particularly adept at creating the sense of a large concert hall necessary for the enjoyment of massive symphonic works. Its bass is stunning in so many ways. With the Master you may discover a whole new kind of headphone sound that brings you closer to the goal of hearing a concert at home.
...S. Andrea Sundaram
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