Aside from the DAC section talks, I find the headphone out section to be incredible. The PRaT on this thing is incredible, the bass section extremely punchy, fast, and well controlled. The E10’s amplifier out, even with the bass boost on, only delivers a bigger bass quantity, but nowhere close to the punch and control of the HeadStreamer’s. The E17 is much better than the E10 in this regard, but it was also not quite a match to the HeadStreamer. The E17’s bass is very punchy, slightly more than the HeadStreamer, but lacks detail and articulation on the lower lows, and the speed falls behind the HeadStreamer though just a little.
The overall signature of the HeadStreamer’s headphone out is more forward and less dark than the E10. It has a bit too much treble, just a bit, for my personal taste, but all of you know that I have a strong bias toward a dark sound. Frankly speaking I think the tonal balance is quite all right. Pair it with dark sounding headphones like the Philips Fidelio L1, the AKG K550, and the Sennheiser HD650, the HeadStreamer does a good job of making them more lively. The effect is like waking up the sleeping driver inside the HD650. Not only does I get a faster and livelier HD650, but the HeadStreamer helps tremendously with aiding the HD650’s tendency to lack detail on the low end.
I had read some comments about the HeadStreamer’s out being quite weak, and I did find that quite puzzling at first, as I can’t seem to get enough loudness even with a Fidelio L1. However, I discovered that it was mostly due to confusion over which digital volume control to use. On OSX at least you have two different volume control, one from the music player you use, and another from OSX’s built in volume control (the volume up/down button on your keyboard).
After I got over the confusion with the volume control, I absolutely find the headphone out on the HeadStreamer to be awesome. Punchy, fast, impactful bass that I can’t get with the Fiios. The question here is what sort of a sound signature do you prefer? The Fiios are darker and more relaxed, (though the E17 actually have a very punchy bass, more than the HeadStreamer’s), fuller on the mids and lows, smoother and have better layering. The HeadStreamer more forward, less dark, faster pace, better bass speed and articulation.
The Digital Volume Control
The lack of onboard volume control may be unusual, but from my point of view it’s a good design decision as it eliminates the most common problem with potentiometer: low volume channel imbalance. This factor has always been a problem as almost all analog volume controls suffer from a degree of channel imbalance that affected a lot of IEMs and sensitive headphones.
With no analog potentiometer, there is no problem with channel imbalance as the volume is controlled exclusively in the digital domain. Some people may argue against the use of digital volume control as a cause of jitter, but still in view of the “damage” done by an analog potentiometer, I’d take a digital volume control over an analog one, any day of the week.
At the end I am not too thrilled about the HeadStreamer. Partly this may be due to my preference of a darker, laid back sound signature. But another side of it is that I keep on feeling the lack of a black background and a more three dimensional soundstage depth that I get with the Fiio E10 and E17. Lately I’ve been all about a grainless sound (mainly because I tend to listen with Senns that always have grain in their sound — even the HD800), and so I’ve been using the Centrance Dacport LX and the KingRex UD384 as my DACs both of which are very clean and grain free. The Fiio DACs happen to be grainless as well, and it makes music sound so much smoother on my ears.
I do realize that the HeadStreamer is a better recommendation for people listening to fast paced music. The PRaT is much better than either Fiios, the forward presentation tend to carry the energy of fast paced music better, the bass detail and articulation being much better than the Fiios. With “sleepy” headphones like the HD650, the HeadStreamer can make a big difference, it’s almost like injecting adrenaline to the HD650’s drivers. It’s definitely a good DAC, and if you feel that fast-paced and forward sounding presentation is your thing, you should give the HeadStreamer a try.
Gear used for review:
Macbook Air, HRT HeadStreamer, Fiio E10, E17, AKG K550, Philips Fidelio L1, Alessandro MS-Pro, Sennheiser HD650, HD580, Superlux HD661, Shure SE215, JHAudio JH5Pro, Etymotics ER4P.