The X-Amp Part
A few weeks after I received the X3-DAC, Rein Audio also sent me a temporary review sample of their first headphone amplifier called the X-Amp. The X-Amp like all other of Rein’s products is designed in Europe but is made in Asia with quality components. My expectations were high as the X3-DAC was sounding so good with all my amplifiers. Did Rein Audio manage to create a killer combo?
The X-Amp Part – The Unit Itself
The Amplifier came in the same type of box as the DAC with a non-European power cable and a user manual. The very basics. Even the manual is so basic it doesn’t even explain what’s used inside the box. Turns out it’s a dual MC33078 Op Amp. The amp itself weighs about 2.3kg, more or less the same as the X3 and measures slightly different: 185 x 60 x 255mm. (More specs here)
The X-Amp looks very clean and serious and it combines well with the X3 when stapled on top of it. The lay out is very basic: A red LED (doesn’t match with the blue of the X3), an ALPS volume pot and a headphone plug in the front. A power plug and unbalanced Rhodium plated RCA inputs in the back. That actually surprised me as both Rein’s DACs have balanced outs, a strange fact? On the other hand, does a single ended amplifier really need balanced inputs? Something that has stirred up many discussions before on the world wide “I’m right and you’re wrong” web.
The X-Amp, according to Rein, is designed for headphones with a nominal impedance between 30 and 600ohms and its output impedance is 100Ω but when I read the X-Amp manual I noticed the not so impressive power specs of the amp the X-Amp : 100mW/600Ω, 170mW/250Ω and 150mW/30Ω. Of course the power battle that is going on with the current planar hype is a bit outrageous and we all know power isn’t everything, yet the numbers didn’t really give me a lot of confidence for using the X-Amp with the planars.
The X-Amp Part – The Sound
Let me first describe the overall nature of the X-Amp before I go into detail with some more specific (orthodynamic & other) headphones. I can only confirm that the amplifier sounds uncolored, clean and natural just as Rein Audio said it would, it’s not really emphasizing anything. Overall, the sound signature is more forward, slightly brighter sounding with a V-shaped sound curve. The mids are always a bit thinner sounding and have less body as the bass and highs. Treble is further extended as the bass is and it has more detail as well. It never gets harsh though. Bass never is bloated, it’s pretty tight but it’s not the deepest or punchiest. It’s not at the same level or has the same impact as the bass on the more powerful Violectric and Burson amps.
In general the sound stage of this very solid state sounding amplifier could be described as “normal”. It certainly is not the most deep or wide sounding and it has a more centered sound. Left-right separation is pretty good but 3-dimensionality wise it’s not the strongest.
As I was concerned about how the X-Amp would match with the orthos, I started listening to the LCD-2 first and then the even harder to drive HE-500. I really tried to like these headphones with the X-Amp but when you’re used to the level/power of the Violectric V200 that isn’t that straight forward. Because of my very high expectations, I’m slightly disappointed to say the X-Amp isn’t the best match for these types of headphones.
With the HE-500/HE-400/LCD-2 the matching just wasn’t there and that’s partially power output related. I couldn’t feel the music, bass was on the looser side and there wasn’t anything dynamic or musical going on with the mids. On top of that I wasn’t convinced about the level of detail either. Overall you get a more aggressive sound with medium attack. The LCD-2 performed better than the HE-500 but you won’t get them to sound the way they’re supposed to sound or could sound. With the volume button going up distortion started to come up. Most listeners probably won’t listen that loud but I’ve actually seen several people do it. The easiest to drive HE-400 pretty much got the same result as the HE-500. This might be a harsh verdict for the X-amp in regards to the heavier to drive Orthodynamics but the magic isn’t there. To me this clearly is no amp to use with Orthodynamic headphones so let’s forget about that and move on to other things. Not only other things, good things!
The X-Amp luckily shows a different face when using higher impedance headphones like the HD650 at 300 ohm. Attack is faster, bass is well defined and tight. Clarity and neutrality is what comes to mind. Detail retrieval is reasonably good but more important it is (a whole lot) more musical. Sound stage wise nothing exceptional happens and music stays more centered as I mentioned before but there is good timbre and good fast attack which makes it interesting for the rock lovers too. Linkin Park, System Of A Down, Nirvana. I really loved listening to rock music with this combination, I got that feeling again I got when I was a teenager dressed in black, listening to Nevermind wanting to smash up my whole room. I thought about it briefly but then it hit me I’m too old for that stuff nowadays. Getting the feeling was awesome however. Oh and just to be clear, the “It” in the previous sentence was my girlfriend. All joking apart though, try it with rock and listen to your favorite band or stuff like “Biffy Clyro’s Singin’ Belle” in example and you will get a very nice and lively sound. What a difference compared to the orthos!
Besides with rock music I also really enjoyed listening to classical music such as The 4 seasons by Janine Jansen and Rachmaninov’s Symphonic dances. Even commercial dance music like” Klangkarussell – Sonnentanz” and “Avicii vs Nicky Romero – I Could Be The One” can sound awesome. It all comes down to the headphone used and how you like your music.
The X-Amp likes higher impedance headphones so that excellent match with the 300Ohm Senn kind of was to be expected. But how would it work with other lower impedance headphones like Headfonia’s favorite 32ohm DT770 AE or the 16ohm Beyerdynamic Custom one Pro? The answer is it depends on the headphone. The Beyer COP with the adjustable bass settings is absolutely awesome with the X-Amp, I would even dare say the matching was even better than with the Sennheiser HD650 and that says a lot. Attack is fast and it lifts the darkness of the COP a bit while keeping the awesome bass. If this setup was portable I’d be taking it with me on the train each day.
The Beyerdynamic DT770 AE which a lot of you love didn’t turn out to be such a good headphone for the X-Amp. Bass just isn’t how it’s supposed to be on this headphone (looser) and especially the mids didn’t sound how we all love them. Of course if you feel the AE has too much bass and too thick mids, this probably is excellent to you.
The X-Amp Part – The Final Chapter
I could summarize the X-Amp like this: with the right headphones, the X-Amp is an uncolored amplifier with a brighter and more forward V-shape presentation and a “solid state” analytical sound that does well with certain types of music. You won’t get the quality and impact of the bass or mids of the solid state V200 or Burson amps however. Especially the mids are very clear but show less body. Image wise you get a more centered presentation where treble is further extended than the lows. The X-Amp never was harsh sounding, and treble is most detailed of all. As said its bass is never bloated and it is pretty tight sounding but not the most detailed, deepest or punchiest.
I especially find it a good amp for those who would want to lighten up the darker headphones we have like the HD650 or COP (but then why buy them?) or for those who prefer the sound characteristics I’ve described. I would not recommend the X-Amp for orthodynamic headphones or for headphones that already have a brighter and more forward presentation such as the Beyerdynamic T70 & T90 or the Soundmagic HP100 in example. With the right matching however this amplifier can really make you enjoy your music.
Rein Audio has an awesome online promotion going on at the moment and for only $448USD the X-Amp can be yours. In the very end however I do have to mention that the X-Amp isn’t at the same level as the X3-DAC is. It could have been a killer combination but the X3-DAC clearly is playing at a higher level as the X-Amp. The result is I’m now impatiently awaiting the release of Rein’s next headphone amp.