Disclaimer: Loaner sample from a friend/owner of the amp.
Bakoon of Japan came up with this very interesting take at a headphone amplifier. First of all, why the difficult name? To show that only die-hard Bakoon fans and owners can refer to it as the HDA-5210mk3. Other people would be excused to refer to it simply as the Bakoon headphone amplifier.
The pricing of $2,120 clearly shows the playing level that its creator intended it to be at. The two different outputs labeled “Current” and “Voltage” indicates that it may have something unique hidden inside the enclosure. Availability seems to be limited as this Bakoon, different from the south Korean made Bakoon amps, is hand built in Japan. And questions such as “Where can I buy one” is one that I can’t help to answer either. A friend of mine happens to be buddies with some Audio distributor in Australia and that is how he got the amplifier, which I then got the privilege of keeping for some weeks to listen and evaluate.
Though no amplifier can be labeled as perfect, the Bakoon is quite a brilliant amp. At this price range, all amps sound vastly spacious so that alone is not going to impress me at this price range. However, hooking up the Bakoon to the Fostex HP-A8′s analog out, the drop in resolution compared to the Fostex’s internal headphone amp is the least I’ve heard so far. As you know, any DAC’s internal amp, though may be weak in power, enjoys the benefit of the shortest signal path from the DAC circuitry. Any external amp requires a longer signal path and there is bound to be drops in resolution. Compared to the Burson Soloist/Conductor/Soloist SL or the RSA Dark Star, all solid state amplifiers, the Bakoon has the least noticeable drop in signal quality, and that shows that there are some serious thing going on inside of that misterious looking Bakoon.
Talking of the looks, the build quality actually gives a strong impression that the builder is someone who is so confident of the sound quality of his amplifier, he doesn’t really care to make a positive impression on the outside. The build is very solid and has no traces of cheapness, but it does look pretty quirky. The sort of quirky look that oozes from a typical genius designer with his/her own quirky habits and aesthetics taste. In a nutshell, it is no eye candy, but I would never mistake it for a cheap amplifier.
Back to sound impressions. The Fostex’s built in amp may still be the most resolving channel if you want to hear everything the HP-A8 DAC outputs, but when it comes to musical enjoyment, the Bakoon trounces it by quite a big margin. Well it’s an integrated amp from a $2,000 DAC/Amp compared to a $2,000 stand alone amp. Different league. Wide spacious soundstage on the Bakoon, stronger bass impact, better dynamics and dynamic range, better fundamentals, bass, midrange, I can go on and on. Even with Fostex’s own TH-900 and TH-600 headphones, I still go for the Bakoon (as a matter of fact, for some strange reason pairing the Fostex headphones to the HP-A8 was just an “it’s alright” moment for me, nothing impressive there). And given the minimal drop in resolution from Bakoon’s amp, I guess I can say “Bye bye, miserable Fostex HP-A8 headphone out”!
The amplifier is unlike most of Japanese amps I’ve listened to (I did think that it was going to be similar to the majority of Japanese amps I’ve listened to: mellow and slow). No, the Bakoon is quite fast, very dynamic, strong bass impact, and overall very lively. There is no mellowness, not even the slightest. The background is very dark, but the presence of grain in the sound masks the black background (usually amps with dark backgrounds are relatively free of grain). It’s quite analog sounding, despite the slight v-shaped tonality.
Between the Current and Voltage output options, I was mostly using the Current option as it gives a clearer and bigger sound than the voltage option. I wish there was some sort of a manual that explains what difference in schematics the two different ports are wired from, but I’ve been unsuccessful in trying to find that out. Between the low and high current gain level, this is not an amplifier for sensitive headphones and IEMs. Not because of the noise level, but the fact that the Bakoon leaks sound even at the minimum volume control level. I think it has something to do with the circuit design, rather than some fault in setting the gain level.
A review is worthless without a frame of reference, so here goes.
I did compare the Bakoon to the RSA Dark Star, a high end solid state headphone amp from Ray Samuels which have earned my praise so much, and the Burson Soloist SL which is the latest iteration of the Burson Soloist circuitry (slightly different sound than the original Soloist and Conductor, plus and minuses, more on that on the Soloist SL review). Every amp is different and clearly has different signatures and specialties. The Bakoon was noticeably the v-shaped one in this bunch, though not extremely so. The Dark Star the most linear. The Burson a slight bottom up tonality, and Bakoon’s own SCA-7511mk3 power amplifier (with a built in headphone out) the most heavily bottom up tonality.
All of these amps (I’m using the non SL Soloist for the HE-6) can drive the HE-6 well, but the winner goes to the Bakoon power amp as it drove the HE-6 most effortlessly, and with a beefy low end to help add some meat into the HE-6′s bass section. The Dark Star is the cleanest sounding amp of the bunch: clean not in a sense of sterile (oh no, it has a good body and musicality), but clean as in the most grainless, blackest background amp of the bunch. It’s also the most linear sounding.
The Burson Soloist is the most fun sounding of the bunch: bottom up tonality, but with a faster speed than Bakoon’s power amp. The narrowest soundstage of the four, but the best layering and three dimensionality. The Bakoon headphone amp has a great bass impact, super spacious soundstage and with a good depth (though layering was a bit flat), some grain in the sound, but the best resolution out of all the amps here. It makes quite a lively all rounder amp, and it is the one amp that makes me really go from “Gosh that TH-900 should be priced around $1,500″ to “I wish I have $2,000 to spend on a Fostex TH-900″. It was the best amp for the Fostex TH-900, period.
It’s an extremely nice solid state headphone amp, but it didn’t really make me want to ask for an extra credit limit from the bank so I can go out and buy one. Personal preference, I guess. I’ve heard and seen pictures about the Korean Bakoon which would be priced higher, runs out of battery power, and is a mass-produced product. Maybe I’ll get to play around with one, one day.