Portable Headphone Amplification Revisited – CanJam SoCal 2016

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Fancy headphones and slick DAPs weren’t the only thing on display at this year’s Los Angeles CanJam. There were plenty of portable amplifiers bringing their secret sauce to the audio chain recipe as well.

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Long time player in the portable personal audio amp game (by headphone market terms at least), ALO had some new updates to their evolving product line. Now in revision 5, the tube-based, single-ended Continental ($699) brings a simple solution to the sonic equation. In/out, low/high, volume knob.

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While the company’s “New Rx” ($299) may share some of the same small footprint and straightforward styling, the Continental v5 runs more akin to the flagship Dual Mono ($1,495). Both were designed in partnership with long-time tube & battery designer Vinnie Rossi, and both share the same 6111 Phillips tube in the gain stage. ALO owner Ken Ball says the glass was originally made for use in missiles, providing both reliability and durability during use. Its safe to say that he likes the tube in its new application. Although not officially verified, Ken has purchased enough inventory to the point where he is pretty sure he owns a majority of the remaining supply in the world. More information on the Dual Mono and Rx is available from our coverage here: [http://audio-head.com/the-alo-audio-rx-continental-dual-mono-canjam-socal-2015/]

ALO also had their sister IEM brand Campfire Audio in tow alongside their amplifier and cable offerings. Rumor mill swirls around the campfire these days, but no new additions to the 3 tier lineup just yet. More information is available on the Campfire Audio IEMs from our coverage here: [http://audio-head.com/alos-campfire-audio-iems-t-h-e-show-newport-2015/]

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Not necessarily known for a giant presence in the headphone space, Emotiva made one of their first appearances at the Jam with a new portable DAC/Amp to show off. The USB stick/dongle approach from the company is called the Ego and comes in “Little” and “Big” sizes. The Little Ego ($169) is a straight shot USB to headphone amplifier, but the Big Ego ($219) offers a little more connectivity in the way of a line and digital output (optical). Specs run pretty sexy for the size and price – 32/384 silicone with 3 switchable filters. The now nearly-required asynchonous and high-resolution-easy-computer-solve box is checked firmly, even with DSDs subtle absence (wouldn’t be the [first snub this year] by a major manufacturer).

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The desktop variant from Emotiva is the Stealth DC-1 ($499). A step up with pre amp capabilities and remote, the unit’s appearance seems closely aligned with the Benchmark DAC series category. The ins and outs prove to contain some peculiar choices however, as the front panel offers up two 3.5mm options, but no full size or balanced headphone connections even though a balanced line out is available via the back panel. Even with the unusual output options, $500 bucks is hard to beat in this size and feature class. Spec download from the company site:

“The Stealth DC-1 uses dual independent AD1955 differential D/A converters, each operated in their highest quality internal differential monaural mode, for the lowest possible noise and distortion, followed by professional-grade LM4562 op-amps in the analog section for maximum fidelity. An advanced switchable asynchronous sample rate converter (ASRC) re-clocks the data at the same sample rate as the incoming signal, to dramatically reduce jitter…Built on high-quality 4-layer FR4 PC boards, using the highest quality parts, including an oversized toroidal power supply with multiple stages of linear regulation…”

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Woo continued to impress with their finalized version of WA8 ($1799 Black/Sliver, $1899 Gold). The two or three tube selection portable amplifier continues the company’s heavy construct for their products. More movable than mobile, the hefty unit feels solid in the hand and on the desk, just the the rest of Woo’s full size tube headphone amplifiers. Dual headphone outputs (including a 3.5mm dedicated for IEMs) compliment the SABRE 9018 digital section.

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The amplifier ships with a padded pelican carrying case, but Woo also had this svelte custom leather pouch on display at the show that hadn’t been shown before. You can check out our full unboxing of the original prototype packaging below along with a walkthrough around the device.

You can check out the Audio-Head YouTube channel [here] for even more video reviews and unboxings of the very same products we review on this site.

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Known mostly for their budget-conscious universal fit IEMs, RHA pulled out a secret device from behind their show table. A early prototype with no price and no launch date called the DACAMPM1 should provide some interesting companionship to their product line when ready. A 4 pin mini XLR for balanced headphones graces the side of this amplifier along with the expected 3.5mm jack.

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Along the perimeter you will find two level gain and tonality controls for fine tuning your sound. The prototype at the show offered a third click of the gain wheel for replenishing charge back into your phone from the device’s on-board battery.

  • Alan R. Christilaw

    I can’t wait for a neural net that connects right to the brain stem. School will be a five minute download and we can live out our lives in whatever virtual reality we choose. Until then I would want a longer strap so I could carry the Woo like you would a man purse. Or strap the other arm with a power supply, all for toasty armpits raise your hands! I’ve been after Emotiva to concoct a balanced amp ala. the Oppo HA-1. They would have all the sales the could muster.

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