Headstage: The Arrow Amplifier
I think it was in 2008 that I discovered about the existence of a new amplifier called the Headstage Arrow. At that time, Robert of Headphonia has made a name through his Penguin amplifiers, which was one of the best Cmoy builds around. At his website, he posted a draft of an amplifier that was still in the design stage, called the Arrow. Back then, I don’t remember ever seeing a design as sleek and as slim as the Arrow, as this was before the release of the new generation TTVJ, ALO Rx, and Pico Slim amps. It took a while for Robert to get the amplifier on the market, and I think there were revision and changes along the way, but finally, the Headstage Arrow amplifier is here. I believe Robert has made a few batches of shipment earlier this year, but it took my friend Neob roughly six months of waiting from the time he ordered it in July to the time he received it in December. The poor guy only had his amplifier for a week before I ruthlessly took it from his hand for the purpose of this review. ( Just kidding, he generously offered to ship the amp to me so I can take a look at it.)
The first impression that I had when I received this amp was “Wow, that thing is small!” Yes, I’ve written reviews of the the Pico Slim and RSA Shadow, both of them quite smaller than the Arrow, but this one is very thin. The Arrow was so thin, that it makes amplifiers like the ALO Rx and the TTVJ Slim looks big. The finishing quality is among the best I’ve seen in portable amps. The paint job is flawless and very smooth, and the “Headstage” lettering looks very good on the black enclosure. On the front side you’ve got an input, two outputs (that can drive two headphones simultaneously), and a volume control. On the other side you’ve got the USB port for charging, and toggle switches for bass boost, crossfeed, gain, and impedance settings. The design is very simplistic and yet very logical. I think everyone is not going to have any problems using the amplifier for the first time.
Going by the functions, every one of them works nicely as they’re supposed to. The bass boost is probably the one I use the most, as it adds a significant body and impact on the bottom end without any noticeable distortions. Without the bass boost on, the Headstage doesn’t really lack bass. But once I’ve tried the bass boost on, I almost constantly left it on the 1st level boost, even when I’m listening to headphones such as the HD650. The 2nd level boost is also nice, but I would reserve it only for the true bassheads who want the bass a little on the excessive levels. The crossfeed works very similarly as the Meier crossfeed (either on the Meier amps or on my Grace m902). As always, a good crossfeed “bridges” the left and right sound, creating a better integration of the two separate soundstages without adding too much distortions in the signal. Yes, there is some noticeable drop in the signal purity when you turn on the crossfeed, but so it is with the Meier Concerto and the Grace m902 though on lesser degrees on those desktop amps. But the Headstage is a portable, and as always, I would have a bigger level of tolerance with portables. The gain is quite monstrous, and I mostly left it on the lowest gain setting, at which the Headstage is able to drive both the HD650 and HD800 (even simultaneously) to higher than comfortable listening levels. It’s nice to have the higher gain available, just in case you’re dealing with a weak source. But as with all amplifiers, noise levels is lowest at the low gain, which results in a blacker background on the music. The impedance setting is a nice addition, and something that I have never seen implemented on portable amplifiers. However, throughout my listening with various headphones and IEMs, I find the default setting (at “O”) to be best.
The best demonstration of the Headstage’s power is when I plugged in both the HD650 and the HD800 simultaneously and heard no drop in the sound quality or impact level. Now, when you plug in two headphones with different impedance ratings (say a HD650 with a ATH M-50), there will be a change in the sound output. I suspect that this is because the headphone outputs are connected in parallel without a separate buffer for each output. Hence the effective impedance of the headphone changes, and you will feel a difference when you plug in two headphones of a different impedance at the same time. However, with the same impedance ratings (in this case I’m using a HD650 and HD800, both at 300 Ohms), I don’t notice any changes in the sound.
Perhaps the analog ALPS volume control comes out as a surprising element to this otherwise hi-tech amplifier in this age of digital volume controls and stepped attenuators. There is a slight channel imbalance that occurs at low volume listening with sensitive IEMs like the JH or UM Customs. This may be an issue for people who specifically listens to sensitive IEMs at low volume levels. But otherwise, I don’t think the problem is too big of a deal, and especially not if you use headphones. The gain level is also a little too high with sensitive IEMs, and it can be a problem if your source has a high output level. With the HM-602 and the custom IEMs, I have a very limited range of volume control with the Headstage, even at the lowest gain setting. I can still tune the volume quite well from really quite to loud levels, but I have to turn the knob very carefully. Personally, I think it’s not a big issue, but I felt that I need to mention that fact as some people listen to their music at much lower volumes than I do.
Sound-wise, the Headstage is quite a straightforward amp. Some people like straightforward amps, and some other like amps with some flavorings added into into the sound. During the short time that I had with the Arrow amp, I find the combination of the Headstage with the Hifiman HM-602 to be best. The HM-602 has a really good DAC section that betters many entry level desktop DACs, but I have always felt that it lacks the oomph factor. Power level is a bit on a low side with the HM-602, especially when you’re coming from a bigger DAP like the HM-801. Paired with the Headstage Arrow with the Whiplash Audio TWAg interconnect, the sound gains a lot of oomph factor, and the improvements on the bass (even without boost) is very noticeable. The HM-602 has one of the best sense of ambiance and micro details among many of the different sources I’ve tried. But when listening direct from the headphone out, those beautiful subtleties require careful listening session to hear. With the Headstage amp, the ambiance just jumps at you. The combination not only rival desktop set ups, but it actually betters many entry to mid level desktop set ups, and that’s not an exaggeration.
When I’m pairing with a regular Ipod, the Headstage sounds a little dry and flat. I do miss the colorings of the other portable amps like the sweet mids of the TTVJ Slim, or the open and spacious sound of the ALO Rx. But I can’t really blame this on the Headstage, as the dry sound is mostly a factor of the Ipod’s digital to analog section. The sound quality is definitely good, but it’s still second-tier when compared to the popular favorites such as the TTVJ, ALO Rx, iQube, or the Pico. One thing that I’m quite sure is that everyone will love the size, functions, power output, and the friendly $265 price tag of the Arrow. Oh, did I mention that it doesn’t come with a power button? The amp automatically turns itself on when it detects signal at the inputs, and turns itself off after one minute of silence.
I think there is going to be a very long waiting list for this Headstage amp.
The Arrow amp can be purchased at Robert’s website (www.headphonia.com) for $265.00 including free worldwide shipping.
Gears used for review:
Headphones: Sennheiser HD800, HD650, JHAudio JH16Pro, Audio Technica M-50, AIAIAI TMA-1, V-Jays, Ultimate Ears UE700
Amplifiers: Headstage Arrow
Source: Hifiman HM-602, Ipod Classic 120GB