HeadRoom Bi-Amped Audiophile Desktop
by John Crossett
||"Full and rich.
There was almost none of the exaggerated left/right soundstage I expected to hear with a pair
of speakers so close to my ears. The soundstage wasnt overly deep or wide, but within
its boundaries there was a magnificent sense of air and space." "The bass was
surprisingly strong and deep for a system featuring speakers that use a small woofer that is
only specified to 75Hz." "Instruments like electric or acoustic guitar, cello,
violin and especially piano were colored only by the tone and timbre of the instrument itself,
the HeadRoom system adding little or nothing of its own."
comprises a preamp, power supply for the preamp, a pair of power amps, stands and speakers
that take up little more than one square foot of desktop space, yet it can all be configured
in various ways to satisfy your listening needs." "In another of the intelligent
moves HeadRoom made in the design of this system, the Ultra Desktop Amp, Desktop Power Supply
and Desktop Bi-Amp Amplifiers sit firmly one atop another via grooves in the rubber surround
on the tops. Smart. This allows the amps and power supply to nestle snuggly inside the special
stands HeadRoom created, which means that there is no wasted desktop space."
||"One of the first
things I found was that despite the fact that this is meant to be a desktop system, speaker
placement and adjustment are as vitally important as what I lavished on speakers used in my
main system. Get it wrong and youll still achieve good sound, but not great sound."
"Buying the system complete means that its a simple matter of placing everything on
your desk and hooking it all up. I had the review system up and playing in less than an
||"No, its not
inexpensive, but audiophile systems seldom are." "This system is the current
standard bearer for delivering musical enjoyment to deskbound audiophiles. If I had the money,
it wouldn't be leaving my desktop -- and I might not be leaving my desk!"
How much time do you spend in front of a
computer each day? I spend far more time than I ever thought I would or would really want
to. But because the computer has become such an important aspect of our lives, Im
willing to bet that many of us are spending much of our precious time sitting in front of
our computer screens -- and mostly in silence. Until now Ive used headphones for
listening to music when writing, sending e-mail or just surfing. While this kind of
listening is enjoyable, it isnt always the most comfortable way to spend long
periods of time.
Thus HeadRoom saw a need for a system that would include
headphone listening when you seek privacy, and also a system that would adhere to the
traditional way most audiophiles listen -- with well-designed, good-sounding speakers. You
may be wondering about the feasibility of placing a pair of honest-to-goodness
audiophile-approved loudspeakers on your desk. Both desktop space limitations and
sound-integration issues are problems that need to be overcome for such a system to be
viable. Fortunately HeadRoom thought of a solution for both of those problems. The
Bi-Amped Audiophile Desktop System ($5860.80 USD for the complete system as tested) was
created to offer the potential for truly excellent sound while requiring only a small
amount of desktop real estate. This system comprises a preamp, power supply for the
preamp, a pair of power amps, stands and speakers that take up little more than one square
foot of desktop space, yet it can all be configured in various ways to satisfy your
Parts is parts -- or what makes up this system
At the very heart of this system is the HeadRoom
Ultra Desktop amp ($1599) at a tiny 6 1/4"W x 3 "1/3H x 6 1/4"D and
about 2 pounds. The name is a bit misleading. The Ultra Desktop Amp is really a headphone
amp or stereo preamp. Features include both 1/4" and 1/8" headphone jacks, a
rear-mounted output switch, a brightness switch, a crossfeed switch and a gain switch. Of
course, there is also a large volume-control knob. The output switch lets you cut off
signal to the speakers when you want to use headphones. The brightness switch is to
compensate for what HeadRoom calls "the slight warming action of the processor."
You get a choice of two different filters; the first boosts signals above 3kHz while the
second starts that boost an octave earlier. I tried both, and while I could hear a slight
difference, I found that the middle off position was best for my situation. The crossfeed
switch is a HeadRoom feature that feeds a bit of each channel's signal to the opposite
channel, thereby opening up the sound so it doesn't seem to be coming from between your
ears when listening to headphones (it does nothing for speaker listening). The gain switch
offers three different settings, mainly useful for headphones, as many headphones'
impedance and sensitivity require the amp to output more power. When using the Harbeth
speakers, I left it in the low-gain position, as this allowed me to run the volume control
at around the 10:00 position.
Around back is the analog input-selector switch,
which chooses between the two sets of RCA single-ended input jacks, and the digital input
selector switch to choose among optical, coaxial and USB digital inputs. Below this is a
source selector that chooses between digital or analog inputs. There are the input jacks
for the digital connections and finally the 15V DC power input jack that connects to the
outboard power supply.
Inside is the Max DAC, at the heart of which is
an Analog Devices AD1896 192KHz stereo asynchronous sample-rate converter. The rest of the
Max DAC is made up of all the premium audiophile parts. For powering the Ultra Desktop Amp
youll want the Desktop Power Supply ($399), which also clocks in at the same size as
the Ultra Desktop Amp but weighs in at a more robust 3 pounds. Due to the small size of
the Ultra Desktop Amp, placing the power supply inside it would severely compromise its
performance, so HeadRoom offers you either a wall-wart power supply or the Desktop Power
Supply, which provides cleaner power. It connects to the Ultra Desktop Amp via a five-pin
To power anything but headphones you need one of
the amps HeadRoom has designed for this type of system. There are multiple choices
available depending on need and budget. There's a single stereo power amp ($899), 45Wpc
into 4 ohms; a pair of monoblocks that deliver a whopping 150W into 4 ohms ($1599 per
pair); or, going whole hog, there are the biamp models with 50wpc at 4 ohms ($1699). The
last amps are the ones I received for this review. The speakers HeadRoom provided are
biwireable, and the biamp amps have two separate pairs of speaker binding posts just for
that purpose -- the other models have only one set of binding posts. Besides, 50Wpc is
more than enough, given how close Im supposed be sitting. Out front are the green
LED to indicate that power is on, and two red LEDs for amp temperature and over current --
neither of which ever came on during the review period, and I ran the amps 24/7 and hard
enough to give them a chance to overload. Then there is the output switch that enables or
disables the signal from reaching the speakers.
In another of the intelligent moves HeadRoom made
in the design of this system, the Ultra Desktop Amp, Desktop Power Supply and Desktop
Bi-Amped Amplifiers sit firmly one atop another via grooves in the rubber surround on the
tops. Smart. This allows the amps and power supply to nestle snugly inside the special
stands HeadRoom created ($499 per pair), which means that there is no wasted desktop
space. The stands are sturdy and fully adjustable, up and down, forward and back. I found
them perfectly designed for their intended use. They also have a rubber coating top and
bottom to ensure that the speakers and stands stay where they're placed.
Finally, HeadRoom sent along a pair of Harbeth
HL-P3ES-4 biwireable speakers ($1995 per pair). At 7 3/4"W by 12"H by 7
1/2"D, they are just the right size -- not too big and not too small. At 13 pounds,
they arent too light or too heavy either. Their frequency response is said to be
75Hz-20kHz, +/- 3dB and they have a 6-ohm nominal impedance. Sensitivity is rated at
83dB/W/m. The power recommendation is 25 to 120Wpc. The HL-P3ES-4 uses a 4 3/8"
polymer-cone woofer and a 3/4" aluminum-dome tweeter that is covered by a gold mesh
screen for protection. The cabinets are made of real cherry wood, not veneered MDF. Thus
they look as good as they sound.
To top everything off, HeadRoom also sells all
the cables you'll need to connect everything. HeadRoom recommends DiMarzio interconnects
($99 per 4 1/2' pair) and speaker cable ($179 per 5' pair; two pairs are needed for the
biamp system). HeadRoom also sells assorted coaxial, optical and USB cables if you
dont have any already. For this review, I added to the Desktop System an Oppo
DV-983H universal player connected to the HeadRoom Desktop amp with an Analysis Plus Black
Buying the system complete means that its a
simple matter of placing everything on your desk and hooking it all up. I had the review
system up and playing in less than an hour. Let me tell you, it's much more fun
listening to music than setting up equipment!
I began my listening time with the HeadRoom
Bi-Amped Audiophile Desktop System using the included pair of Harbeth HL-P3ES-4
loudspeakers. Let me state right up front that this is absolutely one fun system both to
use and listen to. The feeling of sitting at my computer and being totally enveloped in
sound was intoxicating. But one of the first things I found was that despite the fact that
this is meant to be a desktop system, speaker placement and adjustment are as vitally
important as what I lavished on speakers used in my main system. Get it wrong and
youll still achieve good sound, but not great sound. Spend a little time making sure
all is correctly positioned and the sound will astonish you with its quality. This is
where those custom-designed and -made HeadRoom stands begin to pay dividends. Their
adjustability in both height and tilt make sure you can set your speakers of choice in the
position for best sound.
Once the system was set up properly -- with the
speakers a bit less than two feet from my chair -- the soundfield generated by the
HeadRoom electronics and Harbeth speakers was full and rich. There was almost none of the
exaggerated left/right soundstage I expected to hear with a pair of speakers so close to
my ears. The soundstage wasnt overly deep or wide, but within its boundaries there
was a magnificent sense of air and space. As I thought, given the size of the Harbeths
(each about the size of a shoe box), the images produced were a tad smaller than normal.
However, those images were consistent across the spectrum and still offered a full sense
The bass was surprisingly strong and deep for a
system featuring speakers that use a small woofer that is only specified to 75Hz. The
opening lines of "Come Together" from the Across the Universe soundtrack
album (Innerscope B0010271-2) offered plenty of deep bass. The HeadRoom/Harbeth system
passed this test with flying colors. The HeadRoom amps definitely had the guts to reach as
deep as the speakers could go. They had enough grunt to make the Harbeths sound almost
full range. Even so, the very deepest bass simply wasnt there, but the
Harbeths powerful midbass could still cause my insides to rumble with its power.
Plus, the Desktop Bi-Amped Amplifiers not only seemed far more powerful than I thought,
they delivered their power with a clarity and sense of detail that caught me by surprise.
Should more bass be desired, HeadRoom suggests adding a subwoofer if space permits. I
Given Harbeth's history as the maker of portable
monitors for live recordings, I expected the midrange of this system to show me what makes
minimonitors special to so many audiophiles. I wasnt disappointed. Vocals of every
stripe were easily produced in a manner that made each distinct. The HeadRoom electronics
stayed clear, clean and neutral, with nothing added to mar the sound. This system could
make female singers as diverse as Maria Muldaur and Emmylou Harris sound not only
different but also totally themselves. Mudaurs latest album, Yes We Can
(Telarc CD 83672), and the song "War" offered up her mature, deep,
Southern-blues style, while Harriss "Moon Song" from All I Intended To
Be (Nonesuch 480444-2) showed that even in middle age she still sings like the
proverbial angel. Male voices came shining through without the slightest hint of added
chestiness. Roy Orbisons powerful voice from his album Black and White Nights
on the CD layer of the SACD (Image Entertainment 1D277008DVD) demonstrated that even
before his death his voice still possessed that youthful vigor and supple tone that made
identifying it easy.
Instruments like electric or acoustic guitar,
cello, violin and especially piano were colored only by the tone and timbre of the
instrument itself, the HeadRoom system adding little or nothing of its own. Since this is
a complete system, each component is well matched to the others, creating a perfect storm
of desktop listening pleasure. The Red Book layer of the latest in the ongoing series of Mozarts
Complete Sonatas for Violin and Fortepiano Vol. 6 (Channel Classics CCS SA 26208) with
Rachel Podger and Gary Cooper was particularly beautiful. Podgers violin was all
string, bow, resin and body, while Coopers fortepiano was clearly separated from and
behind Podgers violin. It was also a much larger stringed percussion instrument. I
could almost see the hammers beating on the strings as Cooper pressed the individual keys.
I found the treble to be on equal footing with
the balance of the sonic spectrum presented by this system. Smooth, extended, and sweet,
it made any well-recorded jazz sound especially impressive. Struck cymbals had both the
sharp initial strike of wood on bronze seamlessly melded with harmonic information that
wafted off into a black background.
Tone and timbre were very nearly spot-on, with
just a hint of solid-state thinness marring an otherwise realistic presentation.
Another aspect that stood out was that the
Audiophile Desktop System could smooth out the rough edges caused, I think, by the added
jitter of USB-based sources, which is a testament to the Analog Devices DAC HeadRoom
chose to use. After much varied and diverse listening, I found that this system
wasnt designed for any particular musical genre. It handled whatever I threw at it
with aplomb, from rock to jazz through to rap and classical. About the only people who
will be disappointed by this system based around speakers are true bass heads and,
as noted, they can add a subwoofer if they so choose.
Once I felt I had a handle on the Audiophile
Desktop Systems sound via the Harbeth speakers, I moved on to headphones. Since
HeadRoom has made its name on headphone listening, I expected this to be the real strength
of this system, and again I wasnt disappointed. I tried to use as many different
headphones as I could to give the Desktop electronics a full workout. I lined up AKG
K701s, Beyerdynamic DT 770s, and Audio Technica ATH-AD700s. These gave me three completely
different sonic perspectives from which to judge the agility of the HeadRoom system. It
was now that both the gain and crossfeed switches played a major role in tailoring things.
I used the crossfeed circuit for all my headphone listening, as I found during the review
period that it helped me enjoy my headphone time to the fullest. The gain switch was a
godsend. Both the AKG and Beyerdynamic headphones needed the switch to be set to either
the medium or high positions, as both crave power to come alive. The Audio-Technica
'phones are nowhere near as demanding, so the low-gain setting worked just fine for these
highly sensitive headphones.
I found that with headphones that emphasize the
bass, such as the closed-backed Beyerdynamic DT 700s, the HeadRoom system offered full,
deep, powerful, clean low frequencies. When I listened to the AKG K701s, the bass
didnt seem to go as deep but was more detailed, textured and clear. (Actually it did
go as low. It was just that the bass of the K701s was more an equal part of the sonic
spectrum than that of the DT 770s.) The Audio-Technica ATH-AD700s were light, airy and
sweet, but they lacked the bass kick of the others. Voices were a bit dark and heavy via
the DT 770s, nigh-on perfect through both the K701s and the 'AD700s. Highs were a bit
closed in via the DT 700s, wide open with the K701s and just a bit thin via the 'AD700s.
All of this was just what experience has taught me to expect from these headphones,
proving that the HeadRoom system didnt add any colorations of its own to the sound.
Soundstaging isnt a strong point of
headphone listening, but the HeadRoom System let each headphone I listened to portray
soundstaging to its fullest, thanks to that crossfeed circuit. Image placement was
excellent no matter what set of headphones I used. Soundstage size varied, though,
depending on the kind of headphone I used. The open-backed AKG and Audio-Technica
headphones offered a wider portrayal than the closed-backed Beyerdynamic 'phones.
Comparisons? To what? The HeadRoom Bi-Amped
Audiophile Desktop System is unique in its design and makeup. By not forcing you to
be tethered to your desk by a headphone cable and keeping itself small in footprint, it
opens up the notion of working at your desk or anywhere in your office and still being
able to hear music. But sit at your desk and it places you in the sweet spot, thanks to
those neat, innovative adjustable speaker stands. Because this is where you will be
spending most of your time, the HeadRoom system makes sure that this position offers the
best sound. Plus, the system's versatility gives you multiple input options that allow you
to listen to any source you wish.
I will say that my listening to the system via
headphones beat the pants off any of the portable HeadRoom amps like the Total BitHead or
Portable Micro Amp with DAC that Ive been using. There was simply more clean power
behind each note, and a better sense of how each note was created and played, together
with how each one related to the rest to create a piece of music.
As a speaker-based audio system, I could never
get my bedroom audio system to offer sound as cohesive and integrated as that at my desk.
Finding another all-in-one solution this versatile will be difficult indeed -- though I
have no doubt the success HeadRoom will enjoy with this system will draw others into the
field. But as of now this system stands alone.
The HeadRoom Bi-Amped Audiophile Desktop System
lives up to its name. It truly is a system approach with multiple input options for
sources that have audiophile sound quality and appeal. No, its not inexpensive, but
audiophile systems seldom are. However, if you find that you spend a good portion of your
time parked in front of a computer screen and seek the solace that only top-quality
musical reproduction brings, then this system becomes a very real option -- and the only
one at this point in time. By giving you the choice of audiophile quality listening either
via speakers or headphones you get the best of both worlds wrapped up in a neat
This system is the current standard bearer for
delivering musical enjoyment to deskbound audiophiles. If I had the money, it wouldn't be
leaving my desktop -- and I might not be leaving my desk!
|HeadRoom Bi-Amped Audiophile Desktop
Price: $5860 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor; 30-day initial-purchase guarantee.
2020 Gilkerson Drive
Bozeman, MT 59715
Phone: (800) 828-8184