The now enormous headphone revolution began intensifying within the high-end audio world a few years back. Almost by surprise to some and it is now marching to an outstanding pace in audio society. Head-fi as the prime leading working model is followed by quite few dedicated headphone high-quality listening sites. Head-fi started as an enthusiastic discussion board and idea grew into one of the most interesting recent movements in high-end audio society. And funny enough it's based firmly on headphone listening.
Many great things came from this quiet revolution. Friendly meetings, group tests, borderless connections etc. Most importantly, the new breed of audio designers came into life. Small boutique manufacturers, that serves the specific and general needs of "can" listening became the new fresh wind breezing through the established grounds. With the advancement of social medias and one globally connected world the good or bad word spreads around in no time. This gives a unique benefit of protecting the customers from frauds and boosting the honest one-man or small team handcraft ventures. There are few dozen of such audio designers and companies that make their living based only on headphone market oriented products.
Large following and ever increasing interest in headphone listening connects people to music in much broader way. The communication between manufacturers and end customers become a real interaction, that helps build stronger tides and evoke products that are desired and ready to sell once going into production. Another most important thing that transcended all the mentioned is a new breed of audiophiles and music lovers coming into high-end society. I speak about younger crowd, which finally got in touch with music in best possible and often uncluttered way. With the globalization impact, prices of high quality audio products were cut down not only to half, but sometimes even to 1/10th of what we once paid. A good thing is that actual quality didn't suffer with the mass production, but as the market showed, for example with affordable DAC units (digital to analog converters) manufacturers are brining each year the better sound, increased performance and as a rule lower prices.
It was, and remains to this day, never a better time to be in high fidelity audio. Being an audiophile presently feels great and right as high performance gear finally becomes available to the masses and younger generation. These days even on entry level you'll receive the performance, that once you need to pay few times more. Its almost funny how for example products like i-Fi brings the roughly $2500 valued performance to the $350 price range in the eyes of this writer.
LAB12 HPA With
Stratos is passionate not only about headphones, but also about the tubes and his first product materialized in an OTL headphone amplifier. HPA extend its use as a preamplifier with one line stage and offers two analog inputs. Additionally digital audio can be fed directly via USB input. This makes HPA a versatile device with headphone amplifier, line preamplifier and DAC under one chassis. Every LAB12 HPA comes as and handcrafted device with a choice of luxury car paint finishes. This gives an extra stylish feeling and unique appearance. The main point as with many recent devices is quick and clutter free operation.
Both Folk Singer and Sings The Blues show the capability of any component without fail. Especially with headphones, were all the room acoustic problems are removed and the sense of energy should reach out to you directly. The three dimensional presence of Muddy Waters is quickly smitten with an amplifier or preamplifier of lesser potency. He was a large man of huge presence and portraying his "mojo" is not an easy task. Many preamplifiers and amplifiers are easily brought to the knees with the lightning strike of his vocal power. But, this album is not just about energy. Delicate subtle playing of the very young Buddy Guy is another highlight. His guitar virtuoso was already put at spot quite early of his career and if you want to experience the true expert playing with all the little nuances of blues guitar this is an album to behold for its purity and directness.
LAB12 HPA’s ability to create an illusion of portraying those two legendary artists was very good. I often write that when high-end products are designed in right way, there is an instant ‘click’. It either connects you to the music or fails. Of course things can get more subtle and elaborate, but some components share the ability to ignite the interaction between listener and performer more than others. HPA is on the positive side of those two. HPA’s OTL nature brought familiar insights with both AKG 701 and Beyerdynamic T-1 headphones. The AKG K-701 can quickly become tiresome and un-involving, but with HPA it draws you into music with ease. The unforgiving nature of T-1 quickly reveals the flaws of any headphone amplifier. This is further quickly highlighted with Franz Schubert, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Gerald Moore album. This recording from Deutsche Grammophon might come as simple at the quick glens, but the interplay and quality of recording sets the standard for the generations to com. HPA ability to recreate this duo was spot on. Sense of space and atmosphere were of intimate nature and i could immerse into the music without over thinking.
The speed of the vocal, regardless of genre, was in favor of HPA. Of note is that cables that may highlight micro and macro dynamics and add a bit of a bloom works best with HPA. LAB 12 HPA is very open, lifelike and airy, with the inherited OTL nature of the unit opening up a bit darkish nature of Sennheisers. HPA also guides AKG studio-like character and make them a bit easier to enjoy. In my opinion, solid-state headphones amplifiers might give a bit more linear feeling across the frequency range, yet the HPA’s OTL impact brings that feeling of directness. And to conclude with voices. Opera vocals are on the heavenly side.
Three In One
It was the same with HPA. With the LessLossDFPC Reference under review the difference and benefit was instantly evident. The dynamic impact and the nature of transients changed at once with the DFPC Reference inserted. The LessLoss Firewall has the unique ability to lessen the digitalis effect of DACs. It brings about a more natural and stable presentation to the music. The same thing happened when used with HPA internal DAC. The edginess was reduced at once while keeping the dynamics intact. The LessLoss combination showed that the HPA has a "hidden" potency that can be evoked with the right combination of power cord/filter.
One feature that repeatedly came up in my notes was flexibility and ability to bring life even to more entry level headphones like AKG-K701 and lower series of Sennheiser HD line. This makes HPA a versatile headphone amplifier for those who enjoy the larger collection of different headphones. It shows that Stratos took their time with LAB12's HPA and designed something that brings joy to his personal listening and translated to others as well. Their HPA is unique enough in its design and appearance that it will draw not only many dedicated headphone listeners, but also music lovers.