Compact and very capable, great-sounding and with a good range of digital input flexibility
The boom in the sales of headphones has seen the hi-fi industry undergoing two changes: one is the large number of companies getting into the personal audio market with their own range of headphones, and the other is the appearance of a large number of headphone amplifiers designed to drive high–quality phones, either on the move or at home.
Y’see, for all those who’ll have you believe that Apple can do no wrong, and that the sound from an iPod, iPad or iPhone driving a reasonable pair of cans can see off even the most exotic of high-end audio systems, decent headphones sound better when they’re driven well, and frankly most portable devices are pretty rubbish at getting the best out of them.
Add to that the number of people listening to music on their computers, and it’s hardly a surprise that the market is suddenly bursting with headphone amplifiers in all shapes and sizes, from little pocketable devices designed to take a line input and boost it up to fully loaded mains-powered models such as the £1100 Oppo HA-1, complete with onboard digital-to-analogue conversion for any format you care to throw at it and balanced outputs to drive the company’s PM-1 luxury headphones.
Somewhere in between those two extremes is the new HA-P50 from TEAC, a combined DAC/headphone amp designed to be used with portable devices and computers, powered by a rechargeable battery and able to handle formats up to 24-bit/96kHz, even from iOS devices (thanks to a free TEAC HR Audio Player app, a version of which is also available for use on computers).
It may be a bit chunkier than some of its portable headphone amp rivals, and it’s definitely more expensive than many, at £300, but then the TEAC does a lot more than your average line-in-headphones-out pocket amplifier (although it will also do just that if you happen to have a device unable to deliver a digital output).
To the rear of the unit are both a standard A-type USB input and a Micro USB, selected via a slider switch: the Type A is designed for use with portable and personal devices using their standard link cable, and as well as Android devices will interface digitally with current models of iPhone, iPad/iPad Air/iPad mini, iPod Touch and iPod nano without the need for any adapters.
The Micro USB allows the TEAC to be used with PCs and Mac computers via a cable supplied in the box – there’s also a separate USB cable to connect to the 5V DC input for charging – and a third position on the selector switch accesses the front mounted auto-sensing 3.5mm analogue/optical digital input, located between the 3.5mm headphone output and the chunky metal volume control and on/off switch.
Completing the control and socket line-up is a hi/lo gain switch, while the package also includes a pair of rubber straps to allow the unit to be strapped to your (phone-sized) portable device of choice – oh, alright then, they’re heavy-duty TEAC-branded black rubber bands.
The HA=P50 is powered from its internal 2100mAh lithium-ion rechargeable battery, said to be good for eight hours’ use, and as well as charging from a computer, can be juiced up using an optional fast charger/main adapter, the PS-P515U. To preserve battery life, there’s an auto-off power-saving system, which will shot down the amp if there’s no signal for 30 minutes, or if a headphone jack hasn’t been plugged in for the same amount of time.
The battery can also be replaced when it eventually begins to lose its ability to hold charge, but this requires some disassembly and reassembly on the part of the user, so it’s hardly an ‘on the fly’ operation.
The casework is solid and well finished, and I particularly like the feel of the milled on/of/volume control, and the ‘wings’ extending out from the side panels to the front and rear to protect the controls from accidental movement when the TEAC is in a pocket or bag.
Combine that with the automatic power-saving, and there’s no chance of fishing the amp out to discover it been turned on automatically and exhausted its battery.
As already mentioned, there are smaller and lighter portable headphones out there – the HA-P50 is 12.6cm long complete with those ‘wings’, 6.4cm wide and just over 2cm thick, and weighs 210g –, but it’s not exactly a chore to lug around with you, and the trade-off is that reassuring sense of solidity and being built to last.
Inside, the TEAC uses a Burr-Brown PCM5102 DAC, and its amplifier section is capable of delivering 160mW per channel into a 32ohm headphone load, and handling impedances of 8-600ohm.
I’ve been using the TEAC with a variety of external hardware, including Windows and Mac computers, a range of iOS devices, and the optical digital and headphone outputs on a CD player, and with headphones ranging from the B&W P3 via B&O H6 and Focal Spirit Professional to Oppo PM-1. Music has included everything from low-bitrate Internet radio to 24kHz/96Hz downloads, and from singer-songwriters and bands through to large-scale classical works.
In other words, a pretty solid workout.
However hard I pushed the TEAC, it worked really rather well. The way it opens up the sound makes it clear that this amplifier is a definite, and very obvious step up from the built-in audio stages in computers and personal devices: the bass is more forceful, but at the same time better-defined, and the midband and treble also benefit from this opening up.
In fact, the all-round dynamic ability here gives greater insight into all kinds of recordings: rhythms drive better, instruments have better texture and impact, and the sense of space and ambience in recordings is brought out much more clearly.
Indeed, the TEAC just makes recordings sound more real: switch back to the unassisted device and the feeling is one of the recording closing in and becoming rather more constrained; return to the TEAC running on battery power – there’s just a slight sense of graininess to the sound when the amp is running on DC input from computer or an external charger – and the sound simply breathes more freely.
That’s as true with snarly guitars as it is with bell-like sopranos, and as apparent with a solo instrument as with a full orchestra. The best way to describe it is in terms of the difference between an amplifier with just about enough power to drive a pair of speakers, and one with power to spare and a better grip on the drivers. That kind of improved control is just what’s going on here, but a few millimetres from the listener’s ear, not across the room.
The volume control here is beautifully weighted and progressive in its action – some devices of this kind have limited adjustment, and tend to be rather ‘all or nothing’ – and while I’m not convinced of the merits of strapping the amp to my iPhone, as this makes a rather bulky, cumbersome package, the very portable TEAC would work well in a bag or pocket on the end of an Apple Lightning cable, and with a pair of headphones with a decently long cable.
That way you could hide the amp away, and just control things from the iDevice.
On which subject the HR Audio Player app provided for this amp works well on both computers and iThings – I had no problems getting my iPad to play 24/96 FLACs through the amp using it, and has a clear, logical interface as well as sounding pretty good.
As a travelling companion for the serious headphone listener, the TEAC has much to commend it, with only that eight-hour battery life flagging up a note of caution for the real long-haul merchants (although it should be possible to find power either from a mains socket or a laptop to charge it up on the go).
But it’s also well worth considering as a desktop DAC/headphone amp, provided you remember to keep it charged up.
With a good balance of flexibility, performance and build quality, the TEAC HA-P50 is a near-perfect piece of miniature, precision-engineered hi-fi – just what desktop/portable audio should be all about.
DAC/Headphone amplifier | £300
Digital inputs USB-A (iOS compatible), Micro USB (for computers), optical 3.5mm mini-Toslink
Analogue input 3.5mm stereo
Analogue output Headphones on 3.5mm socket
Other connections 5V DC input for charging
Maximum resolution 24-bit/96kHz (with HR Audio Player app)
Accessories supplied USB-A to Micro USB cable, USB charging cable, straps for attachment to iPhone, etc
Dimensions (WxHxD) 6.8×2.3×12.6cm (including guards)
Written by Andrew Everard