aa oppoOne thing becomes crystal clear to people like me who listen to lots of test gear; never buy audio equipment you haven’t listened to first. If you buy on-line without listening and trying you’re taking a big punt on getting what you want.

Example: I expected a great deal from Oppo’s $499 HA2 headphone amplifier while I expected nothing out of the ordinary from the brand’s $599 PM3 headphones. But using them was revealing.

The theory of headphone amplifiers is that they clean up the audio from phones, computers, tablets and portables and whack in lots more power, making the music sweeter and clearer. You’d assume they’re all much the same.

The HA2 is beautifully built and beautifully finished. About the size and weight of a phone, it sat in my top pocket comfortably along with my little hi-res audio player and its rotary knob volume control, doubling as an on/off switch, is easy to find and adjust.

aa chordBut it performs quite differently to, say, the Chord Mojo. The Oppo improved sound quality from my phone noticeably, but from the laptop it increased the bass response so markedly that the music started sounding muddy and the highs became indistinct. From the hi-res portable it made little difference except to play the music louder. All this music was recorded in FLAC at CD quality.

The Mojo costs nearly twice as much as the Oppo and the improvement it makes from the laptop is quite stunning. But it has its problems. I couldn’t try it with my phone or a tablet, or even my hi-res portable, because I didn’t have the right cables. The only cable Mojo supplies hooked into the laptop and nothing else.

Lesson: not only do these two units have totally different effects on the music from a laptop, something that only listening reveals, but if you buy the Mojo you’ll have to go to the shop to buy a suitable cable for your other equipment, and don’t assume the 3.5 mm input is for a conventional audio cable – it’s a digital coaxial plug and good luck finding one of those. These are points you’d likely miss if you read the puff and clicked on ‘buy’. And you’d likely get pretty annoyed about it.

The Oppo may be out-performed by the Mojo but it’s a lot cheaper and has far superior connectivity. It’s supplied with cables that connect phones, laptops, iPads and portables.

aa sonySony’s basic $399 PHA1A headphone amp is also supplied with a good range of cables (although nothing with a lightning connection) and it improves the laptop sound a little but did nothing noticeable for the hi-res portable except to make it louder. It makes you wonder if you really need a headphone amplifier.

Oppo also sent over a pair of PM3 headphones, their entry-level model at $599. That’s a substantial price for headphones but it looks better when you consider these have trickle-down tech from the $1699 PM1s, among the best headphones I’ve listened to.

I tried them with and without the various headphone amplifiers and they performed brilliantly however I did it. Precise, detailed, highly defined and fast, with a delicacy that is compellingly moreish. Start playing your faves and you won’t get away anytime soon.

I kept feeling the hair on the back of my neck rising, I kept closing my eyes and smiling. So I started scrolling through the music on my portable to get to Zoe Keating and kept seeing tracks I wanted to hear through the PM3s. Every one was as exciting as the first time I’d heard it. I took me all afternoon to get to Zoe and the live version of ‘Optimist’ I was aiming at, and it was a revelation.

The PM3s are supremely comfortable despite being a tad heavy, although Oppo claims they’re the lightest planar magnetic headphones made. Planar magnetic? The diaphragm is very thin giving the music airiness and lightning fast response. And the closed back means no music leakage on the bus.

They remind me of my Stax electrostatics that I worshipped until they fell to bits. At the end of the PM3 test session I took the only realistic option available. Instead of sending them back to Oppo I kept them and sent money instead.

Published February 2016

 

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