44 Arcam rHead cIf you use headphones a lot I’m about to give you some compelling reasons to get a proper headphone amplifier. I’m not talking about the rechargeable portables you take with your headphones and music player on flights, in my experience some of these do little more than increase volume, I’m talking about a mains power unit for home.

I’m frequently buried under my headphones at home. Given that I can’t afford Focal Grand Utopias or even Sopras (and they’re only $31k), my Oppo PM3 headphones give me the best sound quality I can afford at home. For detailed listening, for inspiration, for wow moments and for shivers down the spine they can’t be beat. I always tell my wife I’m hard at work testing audio gear.

All the action in headphone amplifiers lately has been with portables but frankly these, especially the good ones that genuinely improve sound quality, are not terribly portable. First, they’re heavy. Second, they’re large, substantially larger than the phone or player you’ll plug them into. And third, while your player may go for 20 or 30 hours between charges these usually last around eight to ten. Mostly, though, they present one more piece of carry-on, one more step in setting up, one more cable to get tangled up in and one more item on the tray table. So while flying I’m happy to listen to my tiny, high def player unassisted. But at home an extra piece of hardware is a one-time set up for a full-time benefit, far more practical.

44 Arcam rHead bPhones, computers, pretty much anything with a 3.5 mm minijack is likely set up for earbuds rather than headphones and headphone amps pump lots more power. Good headphones, like good speakers, love power. A headphone amp also has a far better engineered plug. The only problem is that they ain’t cheap making the cost/benefit analysis marginal. Thus when Arcam announced its little rHead mains power headphone amplifier for $895 I was busting to try one.

The rHead is a very simple device. There are only two inputs, unbalanced using RCA plugs and balanced using the familiar three-pin XLR plugs. And there are only two outputs – one for headphones with a 3.5 mm plug and one for a 6.3 mm plug. Apart from that there’s a switch on the back to flip between the balanced input and the unbalanced input, an on and off switch and, at the front, a volume control – a clever one moving in one dB steps to give adjustment that’s nicely linear but not really relevant until half-way around.

44 Arcam rHead aTo get most phones, computers, tablets or music players hooked in you’ll need a 3.5 mm mini-jack to RCA cable and one is not supplied. I found a pretty dodgy one at the bottom of my ‘Pertaining to Stereo’ box and the set-up took seconds. The little Sony is always set on shuffle and the track that it happened to pick on turn-on was The New Radicals You Get What You Give, not a test track but familiar enough. Immediately I was aware of bass that as well as being more generous was a lot more controlled. It punched instead of rolled, vital and full of energy. It was exciting. And then towards the end of the track it dawned on me that I had understood every word that was being sung, a first for this track.

I put on Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man that starts off with a mountain of bass. It was richer and better defined than I’m used to and the decay of every drum beat was suddenly obvious and genuinely involving. My laptop always struggles with the big transients in Midnight Oil’s U S Forces but with the rHead the guitars were electrifying every time they crashed in.

Excitement is a reliable measure of sound quality. When a track gets you punching the air, jiggling your feet and grinning like a loon it’s all working. If a track you’d normally scan suddenly holds you all the way through because it sounds so good, because you’re getting more detail, more definition, more pure pleasure, well $895 starts looking pretty damn good.

Published November 2016

 

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