As a headphone enthusiast, I often find myself on the defensive. Fellow audiophiles want to know what misfortune drove me to use headphones for the majority of my listening, and which speakers I would use if I had a “proper” setup. Unintended condescension aside, I realize that high-end headphones remain something of a niche within a niche – and a lot of people just don’t quite “get it”.
Admittedly, I do know a few people who legitimately dislike the presentation headphones offer, and I can totally respect that perspective. Different strokes and all that. Still, in many cases, a person’s dislike of headphones may stem from a previous experience in which a sub-optimalgr setup contributed to the lack of enjoyment. This is a situation I encounter on a fairly regular basis, and it’s rather easy to diagnose – and to fix.
The scenario goes like so: 1) traditional audiophile gets his or her hands on a well-regarded pair of headphones; 2) S/he auditions them in a high-end system but finds the results underwhelming; 3) Traditional audiophile, therefore, concludes that they just aren’t cut out for headphone listening, and that’s that. Done deal.
Or is it? Nine times out of ten, when I ask about system specifics I’m given a list of expensive gear that seems really impressive…for driving speakers. The missing link is almost always proper headphone amplification. These very same people, who may have gone through a dozen or more expensive speaker amps on their quest for sonic speaker bliss, tend to completely overlook the amplification aspect of their headphone experiment. It baffles me how people can be so picky about amplification quality in the speaker realm yet ignore it for headphones. Is it any wonder that they find themselves unimpressed with the result when running from an afterthought headphone output?
Part of the problem is the ubiquity of the headphone jack these days. Yes, your DAC probably has a headphone output. Your preamp may also have one, and/or your integrated amp – if that’s what you run. We’ll call these ‘integrated outputs’. We hear them drive headphones to rather loud levels, but – crucially – this is not to be confused with driving them to their full potential.
This is the hardware I invariably hear about when speaker enthusiasts unsuccessfully venture into headphone territory. And these options simply don’t cut it when it comes to realising the full potential of high-end headphones from Audeze, Sennheiser, AKG, HiFiMAN, Focal, etc. While I have no qualms about running the ubiquitous $79 Grado SR60 from an integrated solution, the $3,999 Audeze LCD-4 is quite a different story. For the high-end Californian cans – and others like them – we need proper amplification.
Whilst a seemingly endless amount of choices exist in the headphone amplification world, the one I find myself recommending most universally these days is the RNHP Precision Headphone Amplifier ($499 USD) from Rupert Neve Designs. It simply beats all comers at what I’ll call bandwidth. I mean that not in the technical sense but universal appeal. As we will see, the RNHP covers a very broad range of use cases. True, we can probably find a scenario where the listener is better served by a gruntier amp, or a silky tube design, or some very specific and complementary voicing. But as an all-rounder, the RNHP reigns supreme. Let’s dive into the specifics.
I suspect most folks browsing audio forums will be at least generally familiar with the name Rupert Neve. If not, the Neve Design website provides a fascinating overview. While there are many notable figures on both the audiophile and pro audio sides of the aisle, I can’t think of many others with over six decades of design experience under their belts.
Neve and his mixing consoles even play a starring role in the documentary Sound City. To quote Dave Grohl: “Rupert Neve is a fucking genius.”
I also encountered a spectacular Neve 88R console at Skywalker Sound, helmed by Grammy Award winner Leslie Ann Jones. That particular console has played a part in the creation of many award-winning projects in film and music, including several that I use as references.
Here’s the man himself talking about the challenge of driving headphones properly:
Clearly, this is not a me-too product designed by a junior engineer. Neve is still very much involved in the nitty-gritty of making exceptional audio hardware.
Our publisher first caught the RNHP at RMAF/CanJam 2016 where its backstory was fleshed out, feature set summarised and tech specs nailed down:
Quoting Darko’s companion piece: “The RNHP is a simple as they come: three line-level inputs (XLR/TRS, RCA and 3.5mm) feed a single 6.4mm headphone socket. Output impedance clocks in at a vanishingly low 0.08 Ohms – AOK for those custom IEMs. The circuit is a Class A/B but biased into Class A with output power rated at ~350mW into 44 Ohms.”
To put things succinctly: the RNHP is a clean, clear sounding amplifier with an excellent sense of drive. A quality I find lacking in many integrated outputs. I’m talking sonic oomph – delivering the real grunt of a Gibson or the finesse of a Fender. While the headphone output on the average DAC can often be fairly neutral in a polite sort of way, it’s unlikely to have the same fleshed-out tonality as the RHNP. When I listen to heavier favorites like Shai Hulud’s Misanthropy Pure or Winds of Creation by ultra-technical Polish metal band Decapitated, most DAC/amp units fall short in delivering an adequately visceral experience. And yet the RNHP nails it.
This isn’t about a pleasing midrange coloration, or boosted lows, or anything so simple as that. We’re talking proper drive. The integrated solution in a Benchmark or Mytek DAC might do just fine with Norah Jones, but how does it cope playing some Necrophagist? Or if we switch gears to busier electro, how well does it unravel MDK’s frenetic Astral Badass, or capture the aggressively-moody synthwave of Carpenter Brut? Neve’s little wonder digs deep into real-world titles like these, delivering a satisfyingly-saturated performance with plenty of body and weight.
Lest you think the Neve is solely for headbangers, take a look at the front panel again. The word “Precision” reminds us of Neve’s studio roots. Leave any preconceived notions about studio-oriented gear sounding cold, clinical, or boring at the door – the RNHP is none of those. On the contrary, I’d call it somewhat organic and natural sounding, with excellent detail retrieval and convincing timbre. When I listen to a playlist featuring interesting male vocalists – Smog, Dustin Kensrue, Pedro the Lion and Jesse Winchester – I want to hear the nuances that render each voice unique. Rupert Neve’s headphone amp fleshes out these differences to a far greater degree than the majority of integrated outputs.
To put it in terms that a speaker aficionado might better relate to – the RNHP is the sonic equivalent of adding an excellent linestage to your system rather than going DAC direct. Yes, running an amp straight from the outputs of a quality DAC can sound wonderfully detailed and crisp. But in many cases – particularly with low-to-moderate-volume listening – there’s a sense of the presentation being washed out, sterilized, lacking in dynamic gusto. Those same underwhelming qualities can show up when tapping the headphone output on some of my favorite DACs whose presentation as standalone DACs I otherwise love. And, as with a speaker-based setup, the differences between the RNHP and integrated outputs becomes more pronounced when we move to better headphones.
I’ve already mentioned Benchmark and Mytek devices. In my experience, their integrated outputs sound very good but still don’t do justice to the best headphones out there. The Benchmark is an interesting case. Not too long ago, the company penned a lengthy post claiming their built-in headphone amp section was pretty much as good as it gets. It supposedly beat stand-alone units costing several thousand dollars. According to Benchmark, there would be no need for customers to spend extra cash on an outboard amplifier. Benchmark also claimed balanced outputs were essentially pointless for headphones. Fast forward to 2018, and we find Benchmark with a new flagship headphone amplifier at $2,995 which sports – you guessed it – a 4-pin balanced XLR headphone output.
Manufacturers are now realizing that external amps might be the way to go for best results. Could the general attitude toward reference-calibre headphone listening be starting to shift?
I rate the Exogal Comet Plus as one of my favorite DACs in the sub-$4k space, but its headphone output doesn’t offer the same level of sonic excellence. It makes the Audeze LCD series sound dull and uninvolving, whilst Sennheiser’s HD800 sounds far too wiry and thin. The older Sennheiser HD650 fares better but still lacks dynamic contrasts. Putting the $499 RHNP between Exogal and headphone extracted a fuller measure of performance from the Exogal. I noted a substantial improvement that even casual headphone users would quickly identify.
Another example of RNHP-induced improvements came via the superb Oppo UDP-205, I reviewed in these pages in ModWright form. The built-in headphone amplifier (which the ModWright upgrades don’t touch) is plenty enjoyable. With the right headphones – easier loads – the Oppo delivers a decent performance. Good enough for casual-to-moderate users? Absolutely. But for headphone geeks who want to juice the best from their high-end headphones, the RNHP unlocks a good amount of additional performance.
This is doubly true for the modded OPPO where external amplification can take advantage of the reworked tube/transformer analog stage. This combo has kept me up late on more than one occasion, using a closed-back headphone like the Sony Z1R to meander through the back catalog of artists like Khruangbin, Face To Face, and Thievery Corporation. Again, the integrated headphone output is plenty good, but the Neve raises the bar considerably.
Another issue with integrated headphone outputs is their picky nature. Often held back by limited power and higher-than-ideal output impedance, many open only a narrow window to proper dance partners. What utility a headphone output if the latest and greatest headphones can’t be adequately driven by it? Even with power/impedance issues overcome (hello Benchmark once again) the general signature can often fail to mesh with a good number of headphones – models which the user may very well want to run. This provides the RNHP with yet another opportunity to shine.
With the Neve added to a selection of DACs, ranging from $99 to $9,000, I’m free to use just about any headphone I choose. The RNHP imparts a lovely gestalt to power-hungry planars, whilst maintaining the utmost precision even with uber-sensitive custom in-ear monitors. Low impedance Fostex headphones? 600 ohm beyerdynamic models? The new Focal Clear which is nominally rated at 60 ohms but has a wild impedance swing into the 300+ ohm range? The RNHP won’t bat an eyelash such wayward behaviour. And its well-controlled treble presentation won’t exasperate any borderline harsh-sounding transducers. However, if your headphone does cross that line, the Neve won’t save it. No matter your headphone choice, what you’ll end up hearing is a combination of headphone capabilities and DAC character, with among the least amount of amp-editorialization I’ve ever (not) heard at ANY price.
One headphone which doesn’t pair nicely with the RNHP is the notoriously difficult HiFiMAN HE6, which demands herculean amplification to come alive. By extension, I’ll assume that HiFiMAN’s new Susvara flagship will also require more than the Neve can give. Beyond that, I did not try the JPS Labs Abyss, nor the vintage AKG K1000, but I’m fairly confident they both need more juice as well (based on past experience). And that’s pretty much it. Everything else out there seems to be fair game. A broader range of headphone compatibility than most headphone outputs hitching a ride on a DAC or other device (with exceedingly few/expensive exceptions).
There’s not much out there that will compete with what Neve offers for $499. None of the offerings from Burson Audio have the same degree of refinement. Ditto Musical Fidelity. Despite their $999 MX-HPA being the best headphone amplifier the UK firm has ever made, it sounds overly bloomy and muddy compared to the tightly-controlled Neve. Woo Audio’s WA3 is an enjoyably romantic single-ended triode design for $599. It works quite well with a few headphones and sounds mediocre-to-poor with everything else. Stepping up to the twice-the-price SE version does little to change that. Most Woo users will build their headphone system around the amp’s character. Not so the Neve: it will play nicely with pretty much anything you connect to it. The NuPrime HPA-9 ($649) puts in a sterling effort but still can’t match the Neve. Rupert Neve’s design beats it by at least a small amount in pretty much every area, and for less money too.
My former favorite headphone amplifier in this price range was the Arcam rHead at $599. In overall gestalt it sounds quite similar to the RNHP but the Arcam can’t keep up with the Neve’s tonal body and richness. Both have incredibly delicate treble, both do complex layering with ease, and both pair effortlessly with a wide variety of headphones and in-ear monitors. I still very much enjoy the Arcam but it was not really given much support here in the USA. I never once spotted it in a retail store, and online distribution was scarce. The $100 price difference marks the Neve as the goto device, but feel free to search your local area for the rHead – it remains an excellent choice if you can find it.
The wildcard in this price range is the Cavalli Tube Hybrid, available exclusively from Massdrop. This hybrid offers spectacular value at $249 but due to the nature of Massdrop’s business model, it is not always readily available. It doesn’t work so well with sensitive in-ear monitors, and can’t match the bass slam, inky background, or general spaciousness of the RNHP. Still, for headphone joy on a smaller budget, it remains a terrific choice.
The Rupert Neve Design RNHP Precision Headphone Amplifier is not a complex proposition. It’s small and relatively handsome in an unobtrusive, “studio gear” sort of way. It selection of balanced, single-ended and 3.5mm mini-jack inputs ensures maximum compatibility with just about any system. It doesn’t use an exotic power supply or internal components.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: very few built-in headphone amps will let you hear the full potential of your high-end headphones. For every good one I’ve encountered – Rogue Audio, Ayre Acoustics, Manley Labs, BMC – there are a dozen more giving us zingy treble, paper-thin tonality, or just a dry, unlikable sound in general.
Rupert Neve gives us a solution which will likely prove just as satisfying for the headphone-curious as it is for a hardcore headphone nut like me. Whichever category you find yourself in, you owe it to yourself to give the RNHP a listen. It might just become your first – or last – headphone amplifier.
Further information: Rupert Neve Designs