For the headphone listener looking to take the pursuit of better sound out into the street or onto public transport, the first port of call is often a digital audio player (DAP) which more often than not will sound superior to a smartphone. The most common recipients of this first cash drop are iBasso, Cowon, FiiO, Sony, Pioneer, Onkyo, HiFiMAN, Pono and product category leader Astell&Kern.
A few minor exceptions aside, one weakness common to nearly all DAPs is their output power. Users of (custom) in-ear monitors might not notice but users of thirstier, full-size headphones often complain of a lack of robustness with SPLs and/or a thinning of tonal mass, even when tapping the DAP’s balanced output (should it present).
Gear Patrol’s assessment of Sony’s NW-ZX2 isn’t a one off: “Unfortunately for Sony, reviewers, including the team at CNET, find the NWZ-ZX2 struggles with the kind of power-hungry headphones many audiophiles prefer.”
In the case of the Sony player, its users are compensated by a 30+ hour battery life which is streets ahead of (most of) the competition. Many rivals struggle to best 10 hours between charges.
This shortfall on raw power has given rise to a lively trade in portable headphone amplifiers. That means another cash drop. Some add-on amps are small, others are large. Uniting them all is the ongoing question: how best to physically attach amplifier to DAP?
And whilst Astell&Kern offer screw-on solutions for ‘3’ series models that maintains their products’ high-end look and feel, this is very much the exception. For players like the Sony, Pioneer, Onkyo, the rule is rubber bands. And rubber bands are an agricultural (read: ugly) hack that often obscure so much screen real estate that the host DAP’s UI is rendered unusable.
Why not use the DAP as is, with headphones that play nicely with its lower power output, instead of surrendering practicality in the name of more grunt?
In the past twelve months, we’ve seen a handful of manufacturers attempt to solve the ‘strap on’ amplifier (and DAC) problems with some innovative solutions.
Chord Electronics will soon offer a digital connector extender for the Mojo. FiiO now sell swappable screw-on amplifier modules for their X7 DAP.
Smartphones might not sound as good as a dedicated player but runtimes are longer and gapless playback is a given.
For the iPhoner or Droid-er looking for better sound the AudioQuest DragonFly Black and Red, both of which are now iOS and Android compatible, should be the first port of investigative call. BYO Lightning adapter or OTG USB cable.
The Chord Mojo sounds better is more powerful than either DragonFly but strapping it to one’s phone brings us back to rubber bands.
Elsewhere, CEntrance have extended their Glove A1 exoskeletal approach with the iPhone 6/6S-compatible Skÿn. This DAC-amplifier-as-iPhone-case idea was more recently picked up by Arcam in the form of their MusicBoost device, which again is restricted to iPhone 6 and 6S (no Plus sizes!).
OPPO Digital’s grunty HA-2 DAC/amplifier also calls for rubber banded strap on; and for as long as it has been on the market there has been talk of a forthcoming iPhone dock/pouch/sleeve/case. The idea? Slide the HA-2 onto its digital connector and the iPhone (6 or 6S) onto a neighbouring Lightning nub so that both devices sit side-by-side. Look Ma, no rubber bands!
Furthermore, connector cable loops would no longer challenge the HA-2/iPhone combo’s pocket-ability. The digital audio link up would be routed inside the dock’s base.
Did I mention that no rubber bands would be required?
That was March 2015.
By the time I enquired as to the HA-2 dock’s progress at RMAF 2015 in October, OPPO Digital mainman Jason Liao had seemingly cooled on the idea. Reading between the lines, Apple’s MFi certification had become a hurdle not worth jumping.
MFi is the abbreviation of Made for iPod, Made for iPhone and Made for iPad. Any device pulling ones and zeroes directly from an iDevice’s Lightning port without the intervention of Apple’s own dongle should be certified by Cupertino.
Most manufacturers play it by the book – Audeze’s Cipher cable is fully MFi-certified – but even a cursory web search reveals manufacturers offering Lightning-connector products where the promotional talk conveniently glosses over proper MFi certification.
One such product is the “HA-2 Dock for iPhone 6/6s”, recently acquired by yours truly. The
I’m not at liberty to reveal the identity of the manufacturer nor my source. A clear absence of ‘OPPO Digital’ or any other company’s branding denies us the supporting evidence required for accusatory finger pointing. Our only clue is found on the box’s back where it reads “Assembled in China”.
I’m reliably informed that a only handful of these HA-2 docks have been produced so good luck finding one for yourself.
Being the owner of a Plus-sized iPhone this product is surplus to my own requirements. It therefore becomes, by default, the next product to be given away by DAR to one lucky reader.
To enter the prize draw, any interested party should snap a photo of their HA-2 and iPhone 6/6s in use at an unusual place. The more unusual the better. To prevent the re-cycling of old photos the word ‘DAR’ must feature somewhere in the photo. Write it on a piece of paper if you have to. No Photoshopping it in after the fact.
Your photo should be uploaded to any reputable image hosting service and then linked to in the comments section below. Explanations of where and how the photo was shot are encouraged. The best photo, as judged by me, wins the prize.
Cooling the jets of any would be prankster, submissions that involve nudity or toilets (or both) will be rendered invalid.
This prize giveaway is open to residents of countries whose main currency is the Euro, a Dollar or the Yen.
Entries close 5pm GMT on Sunday 31st July.
Further information: #nope