When it’s time to lose the wires, I really choose only one of two earphones: AirPods, and Flares Pro/Flares Gold. The former are easy, have great bass and decent sound stage, and take a licking well enough. Apple hit it out of the ball park. But Flares Pro/Gold, are almost perfectly engineered. I say almost, because their wireless DAC, while nailing range and signal quality, hisses. Fortunately, the earphones aren’t sensitive enough to pick it out. But if you want to attach that damn fine Bluetooth DAC to another earphone, you’ll hear it. While this sounds like a backhanded compliment, it’s not. Flare Audio perfectly connected the parts of their Flares Pro/Gold. They came to market with a disruptive design and nailed just about everything. Do I prefer listening to Flares Gold/Pro over AirPods? Yes. But when practicality trumps absolute quality, I’ll choose AirPods every single time. What I’ll never choose is FiiO’s FB1. Ugly, bad-sounding, and poorly made, it belies the quality generally represented by the FiiO name.
My favourite DAC to listen to is LinnenberG’s Vivace. Gosh, what a gem. Subtle high-end stereo cues, and power, clarity, and compatibility. It’s unassuming design is fresh and generally utilitarian. If your amp is up to it, it is part of a powerhouse HiFi system. Scaling things down a bit, and including with it a headphone amp, AudioEngine’s D1 wins my heart. Bus-powered, nearly noise-free, and lush, this USB DAC/headphone amp powers beyond its asking price, and is powerful enough to stand toe to toe with a bunch of the big boys. Fine, fine machine. But you probably know me as Mr. Mojo. I even had mine modified for balanced output. Yep. Chord’s Mojo has served three years as my reference DAC. Several weeks ago, however, Spectra X supplanted it. It tests almost as well, but costs less, works easy with an iPad or iPhone, and is more powerful than either, all whilst staying compact and unassuming. Spectra X: you’ve changed my world.
Portable headphone amps:
While the portable headphone amp world seems to be drying up, pairing any of its top dogs to high-quality DACs will net you an unbeatable compact system. And the best amp of that sort I’ve ever tested is the Vorzüge VORZAMP DUO II. The only thing it sort of lets slide is channel separation. Everything else is gold. And the Portaphile Micro is hot on its tail. The former gets better battery life, and is finished and built nicer. But signature-wise, it’s got it in spades. But the most interesting, and frankly addictive portable amp I’ve tried, is only barely portable. It’s Phatlab’s Phantasy. Great valve sound, super construction and interface, and a futuristic face that’s to die for, it’s got it where it counts. Alas, it’s not the best for driving my favourite portable headphones and earphones. If it was, I reckon that even the DUO II would feel the subjective heat of eroding loyalties.
Finally, let’s talk mods. While Ryuzoh’s MOJO Kai (added 2,5mm balanced output among other upgrades), is something of a dream, it’s Mezzo HiFi’s MS-AK100 that defines ‘transformative’. Why? Simple: the original AK100 was a poor DAP. It had good format support, got numerous firmware updates over the years, and, when the right headphones were plugged in, sounded good. But when you were listening to earphones or sensitive headphones, you’d hear lots of hiss, and you’d get hit with lots of high-pass and other filter-style artefacts. Along came Mezzo HiFi and that player became gold. Wow: no noise, balanced line output, hybrid attenuation, and upgraded DAC chip. What level of crazy is that? No mod I’ve come across attempted half the things Mezzo achieved with ease.
But in the end, what most impressed me was you: by and large, Headfonia readers ask the right questions, understand the market, and keep their editors in check. It’s been a great learning experience. And it’s been humbling to work with and under one of the industry’s true gentlemen: Lieven. He has put up with a few big and numerous small misses of mine and allowed me a wonderful platform through it all. Many thanks, Lieven. I really appreciate all you and Mike have done to make Headfonia one of the world’s premier headphone sites, and I thank you for giving me the opportunity to play a part in it.
Thank you Headfonia.
Well done, Headfonia, well done.