I normally have a bias against tiny desktop amps, as they tend to not sound very good when compared to bigger sized amps of the same price range. Likewise, this HD-Q7 amp from Ortofon has been in the market for a while, and yet I’ve never really had the desire to find out what it sounded like. Yep, I’ve heard way too many mediocre amps put in a fancy packaging that adds absolutely nothing to the sound quality.
A few weeks ago, a friend of Peter’s bought a HD-Q7 in Japan, hand carried it back, only to find that the amplifier doesn’t work. Peter asked me to take a look at it, and when I did, I noticed that the shop had given the wrong wallwart with the amp. They gave him a 9V DC wallwart, when the amplifier blatantly said 16V AC at the back panel. So, I begin to search for a 16V AC and found a generic 16V AC wallwart, and plugged it in. The amplifier made music, and I briefly listened to it for about 5 minutes, before I went back to doing the Superlux HA3D amplifier review. A few hours passed, and suddenly I got a black out, apparently due to short circuit. The cheap wallwart had melted from overheating after only ~5 hours of use, causing short circuit which trigggers the blackout on half the building. Luckily, nothing was damaged. I can’t have this happen for the second time, so I decided to build a good quality wallwart. The next day, I went to shop for a proper travo and a good metal box. Not long after that, I have a working power supply for the Ortofon HD-Q7.
I began to start listening to the Ortofon amp. I didn’t think that the amp was built for big, serious, headphones (what a bias, Mike!), and so I tested it with the Audio Technica M-50, the Sennheiser HD558, and the JH16Pro. To my surprise, the amplifier was very very good! It has this crystal clear sound, very refined, very smooth. It didn’t have any nasty distortions, no noticeable colorations that I can complain about. I knew then that I have a special amplifier on my hand. I continued to use it with other headphones including the HD800 and the Audez’e LCD-2 with good results. Unfortunately, the Hifiman HE-6 was way out of its driving power, but I know that the Ortofon was not designed for power hungry headphones anyway.
I use the HD-Q7 mostly for my computer set up, with the HRT Music Streamer II+ as the source. The dimension is quite compact and so it takes very little space on the desktop. The HD-Q7 is still one of the few electronics being made in Japan, and I’m quite surprised that they are able to throw in so much quality without adding the usual Japanese-made “premium” on the pricetag (it’s $367 on ALOAudio.com). Though fairly compact, the casing is quite heavy and sturdy, and so you can plug/unplug your headphones without having to hold the amplifier from toppling over. The big volume knob is very smooth and having the knob on top makes adjusting the volume much more convenient since it’s sitting on the desk. The volume control is also very sensitive. Although I don’t know what kind of volume control they’re using with the HD-Q7, I’m very amazed at the precision of the volume control. With a sensitive IEM like a JH16Pro, I have so much control over the level from dead zero level to a comfortable listening volume. There is no gap and no “jump” in the volume level, and the left/right balance is quite spot on even at minimal volumes. It may have limited gain for big full size headphones, but I believe the Ortofon amplifier is designed mostly for simple desktop set ups, and I’m getting very good sound with popular medium size headphones like the HD558 and the ATH M-50. Compared to other small size desktop amplifiers, the Ortofon takes first place in terms of sound quality and refinement levels. The background is very black and the soundstage is very good. The treble and midrange is also very special and deserves a special mention — awesome clarity, smooth, and non fatiguing. The amp is has enough forwardness forwardness to keep things engaging, and yet it’s also quite relaxed for long term listening.
The HD-Q7 doesn’t come with gobs of gain, so you need to plan your system carefully. Yes, it can drive big headphones like the HD800 or the LCD-2 (though not the Hifiman HE-6), but depending on the source line out level, you may not have enough volume to listen to music at head-banging loudness level. For instance, with the HRT Music Streamer II+, I’m listening with the Sennheiser HD800 (300 Ohm) anywhere from moderately loud at 10 O’clock to really loud levels at 1 O’clock. But playing a classical music recording with the same source and headphone, I’m playing around 3 O’clock to max volume. With a portable source, however, the signal level is often much weaker. When listening direct from an Ipod with a LOD to RCA cable, my listening level goes up to 1 O’clock to maximum volume, where with classical music, maximum volume only gets me moderate level loudness. It’s interesting that using a LOD to 1/8″ jack cable and using the 1/8″ input of the HD-Q7, I was able to get very close to the loudness level that I’m getting with the HRT Music Streamer II+. Apparently Ortofon has designed a different gain setting for the mini jack input, expecting that portable players would have a lower output level than desktop sources.
I normally don’t spend this much time talking about volume and gain levels, but I want to make the point that you need to be careful about pairing headphones with this amplifier to make sure that you can get enough loudness level for your use. If you’re planning to use the big 100+ ohm headphones (or any of the orthodynamics), then you should use desktop sources which has a higher output level than portable players. Of course, it’s a no brainer to use desktop sources if you have them, since they almost always give better sound quality, and the HD-Q7 requires AC power to run anyway. If somehow you want to use a direct Ipod source, then it’ll be best to keep the headphone output to easy to drive headphones (i.e ATH M-50, HD25-1, etc) or even better, IEMs. Anyhow, I think that the HD-Q7 is not designed for driving big full size headphones, and so it’s best to stick with medium size to IEMs.
The Ortofon HD-Q7 turns out to be one of the most special amplifiers I’ve ever encountered. The sound quality is amazing for something with this size and price point. When compared to other small desktop amps, such as the Bravo and the Audiotrak ImAmp, I think the price is a little on the high side (ALOAudio has it for $369). But for the quality of the sound, the compact size, and the first-class build quality definitely makes up for the pricetag. If I don’t need the monstrous power level of the M-Stage or the Hifiman EF-5, I would definitely choose the HD-Q7 over the two bigger amps. But for most people who don’t own power hungry cans, I think the Ortofon HD-Q7 would be a terrific amplifier for a compact desktop system.
System used for review:
Headphones: Sennheiser HD800, HD558, Audez’e LCD-2, Audio Technica M-50, JHAudio JH16Pro.
Source: HRT Music Streamer II+, Ipod Classic