I typically don’t bother with EQ tweaks. One benefit of being primarily a headphone user is that I can easily switch between various models to suit my mood – a feat not easily accomplished with loudspeakers. If I want something warm and forgiving, the early-model Audeze LCD-2 usually does the trick. When I’m in the mood for extreme resolution, I reach for The Kennerton Audio Thekk, noting that Sennheiser’s venerable HD800 is always ready to give a second opinion. On other occasions, I opt for the Meze Empyrean, the AKG K812, Ultimate Ears Reference Monitor or Sony’s MDR-Z1R.
However, if I found myself limited to a single pair of headphones (as most people are), I’d most likely tap Roon’s excellent parametric EQ functionality to tweak the sound to my liking. It won’t turn an HD800 into an LCD-2 or vice versa, but it certainly helps tame or enhance either model to fit my particular mood. This isn’t just a Roon thing. Most decent playback software applications have some form of EQ, either integrated or available via a plugin.
But what of those who don’t actually use a computer for playback but still want in on the EQ action? There are plenty out there still spinning silver discs from dedicated transports, which obviously precludes them from software EQ. But one needn’t use a Windows or Mac device to join the modern file-based (or streaming) playback scene. As I survey my gear collection, I find dedicated transports such as the Cayin iDAP-6 and Resonessence Labs Fluvius – neither of which feature any built-in EQ options. Ditto the Nativ Vita and Euphony Summus music servers when using their standard playback engines rather than any optional Roon endpoint modes. These and many other excellent transports/streamers/etc., have no provisions for any sort of sound adjustment.
That leaves us with dedicated hardware EQ devices, which are few and far between. Various models from DEQX and miniDSP take aim at room correction, which is great for speaker listeners but fundamentally incompatible with headphone enthusiasts. Our kind needs something like old-school knobs to fiddle with: Schiit’s affordable little Loki or the considerably more expensive Accuphase DG-58, the latter replacing knobs with a stylus/touchscreen to “draw in” the adjustments. Between those two extremes, there really isn’t a ton out there for the headphone crowd.
Wyred4Sound’s íntimo ($1499US) is not exactly a dedicated EQ solution. Rather, it’s a full-featured DAC with integrated Class A headphone amp with a hardware-based 3-band EQ that can be applied to any one of its three digital input types: USB, coaxial and TOSLINK. That means íntimo makes EQ adjustments possible regardless of one’s digital transport choice. Alongside the EQ comes balance control, phase inversion as well as selectable gain and output impedance adjustments. Features that sum to a highly customizable listening experience.
While those unique sonic adjustments initially captured my attention, íntimo’s base DAC/pre/headphone amp functionality proved formidable enough to justify its existence even when used as a more traditional offering, sans EQ. One glance at the enclosure design tells us that íntimo is unique in its execution: 1) My review unit was bronze but copper and stainless steel are also available; 2) curvy, asymmetrical chassis design 3) chunky side-mounted heatsink and 4) top-mounted capacitive touch controls. More traditional design elements include an LCD display, generously-proportioned volume knob plus 3.5mm and 6.35mm headphone outputs. Despite these familiar aspects, placed on my audio shelf with other gear, íntimo brings to mind a concept car amidst a sea of production vehicles – similar in various fundamentals, yet totally unique.
Around back, íntimo has a less radical look. We get USB plus a pair each of TOSLINK and coaxial inputs, along with a single set of RCA outputs. Wyred4Sound founder/CEO EJ Sarmento says we may end up seeing a balanced version down the road – which I speculate would incorporate XLR line-out as well as balanced headphone connection(s) on the front – but it remains to be seen whether Sarmento can shoehorn the necessary components into the same chassis. Either way, the price will increase accordingly. The original “base” model already has everything needed for the majority of listeners.
íntimo’s interior is an interesting mash-up consisting of new design mixed with some evolved concepts previously seen in other Wyred4Sound products. The DAC itself is based around a 32-bit ESS chip which Wyred 4 Sound isn’t naming to avoid the spec wars (but it’s a good one). Rather than use the integrated ESS digital-domain volume, íntimo instead taps the firm’s proprietary Vari-Lock GCMS (Gain Control Module System) first seen in their popular STP preamp series. This means a digitally-controlled resistor ladder solution that doesn’t throw away bits and offers precision level-matching, offering up to 4V output to drive speaker amps directly should one so choose.
The USB input is XMOS-based and very closely related to the one found in their spectacular 10th Anniversary DAC. That gives us fully optimized galvanic isolation with clocking on the DAC side of the isolation barrier for optimum signal integrity. Whilst legacy S/PDIF inputs tap out at 24-bit/192kHz, USB goes up to 32-bit/384kHz and DSD256.
íntimo’s headphone stage is no afterthought but a carefully crafted aspect of the design. That large heatsink taking up most of the right-side panel? That’s for the Class-A biased, fully discrete, dual-differential headphone amp, which is similar in topology to the output stage of the 10th Anniversary DAC but optimized for higher current drive. The selectable output impedance and gain make it suitable for everything from power-thirsty full-size headphones to super-sensitive in-ear monitors. Indeed, EJ Sarmento voiced íntimo whilst (primarily) using high-end Audeze LCD-X and Sennheiser HD800S headphones plus some older Shure SRH840 studio monitors – which, in my experience, are prone to revealing even a moderately powerful amplifier’s hiss. I don’t have a pair of those to hand but my use of various IEMs showed íntimo to have a midnight-black background (no hiss!) along with superb channel tracking and a useful range of volume adjustments.
My quest for an excellent all-in-one DAC/headphone amplifier unit now stretches beyond a decade. During that time I’ve identified many compromised products but also a few standouts that do both functions admirably. I can now add íntimo to that short list, with the added bonus of those tone controls which I’ll address shortly.
Paired with a Cayin iDAP-6 transport via Audio Art cabling, íntimo sounds lush and full-bodied when playing a 24/48 version of The Temptations’ All The Time. A mixture of original pieces and interesting covers, this release sounds big and bold via the Meze Empyrean, with delectable midrange projection and authoritative tonal weight. Switching to the more open, airy sounding Kennerton Audio Thekk brings out a different take. For the unfamiliar, think Focal Utopia or Sennheiser HD800 in terms of speed and resolution but sacrificing less body. Thekk can still feel a bit edgy when paired with a bright system but íntimo played up the recording’s vocal harmonies and biting brass to just the right degree. There was no evidence of any wince-inducing sharpness.
Speaking of the classic Sennheiser HD800. The íntimo handles this headphone about as well as any all-in-one device I’ve ever encountered. Even before any EQ adjustments, íntimo “fixes” much of the cold sterility of the HD800’s sound. The incisive treble detail remains but it also feels more tonally saturated in the midrange, giving enhanced body to everything from string-instrument sonority to snare drum snap. Folks who historically find themselves on the edge with HD800, appreciating its technicalities but struggling to enjoy it during real-world listening, may just find íntimo’s bold, rich presentation tips the scales in their favor.
The above results were obtained by listening with flat EQ settings and with output impedance and gain both set to low. Switching to the melodic, somewhat meandering sound of Mon Khmer’s Birthplace EP, as relayed by the Fostex TH-X00 headphones, I found that I preferred goosing the gain to medium. It’s not just a matter of volume but forward drive; some call this ‘authority’. HiFiMAN’s difficult Susvara thrives on the high-gain setting, whilst other planar magnetic designs generally prefer medium or even low. For output impedance settings, I stuck with low for the majority of headphones, but certain 600-Ohm Beyerdynamic models such as the older DT990 and the T1 (2nd gen) flourish on the highest setting.
Perhaps my favorite pairing came not from a headphone but an in-ear monitor: the 64 Audio A18t. These $2999 custom-molded IEMs feature 18 balanced-armature drivers on each side with a complex 4-way crossover that can be difficult to properly drive regardless of their high sensitivity. Most DAPs and smartphones can power them to ear-splitting levels but it takes more robust amplification to hear what they are truly capable of – and íntimo really pulls that off.
Minor Tapes by Electronic Noise Controller offers a mixture of head-nod electro-funk and ethereal ambient tracks. Here it comes off as immersive, layered, and simplistic-yet-complex. It’s tough to get an open soundfield from tiny transducers sitting roughly an inch from one’s eardrums, but the íntimo/A18t duo is wildly successful. On several occasions I found myself looking around the room to see where a particular sound had come from only to realize it was in the recording itself. I then transitioned to a track like “Capsula” or “Parallax” for a healthy dose of retro-synth goodness. On these cuts, the íntimo made its creamy tonality and subterranean low-frequency extension plainly clear. My only complaint? The combo is so darn smooth and free from glare that I found myself listening at unhealthily-loud levels.
So far, so impressive. But we haven’t yet hit on íntimo’s unique EQ feature. After getting accustomed to its EQ neutral position, I switched gears to see how useful equalization might be. And unfortunately, I did so at the tail end of a late-night listening session, where my already-taxed brain found the control scheme nigh-impenetrable. Trying again the next day during saner hours proved that, while not completely intuitive, the system is nonetheless fairly straightforward once you get the hang of it.
Using the simplest terms, we’d call this a 3-band EQ. But that doesn’t tell the whole story since those bands are not fixed to specific points. The low frequency adjustment (labeled LF in the menu) can actually be centered around your choice of 60Hz, 70Hz, 100Hz, or 120Hz. Beyond that, we also get our pick of high or low Q, resulting in either a broad or narrow slope. Now we dial-in a boost or a cut; up to 9dB in either direction, in 1dB increments. Similarly, the midrange EQ setting gives us a choice of 700Hz, 1KHz, or 1.2KHz and the high-frequency EQ setting a choice of 7KHz, 10KHz, 11KHz or 12KHz. It takes some time to get to know the setting abbreviations seen on the LCD display.
Worryworts take note: Wyred 4 Sound’s EQ implementation takes place entirely in the analog domain with a setting of “0” activating full bypass. It’s a very straight-forward boost or cut to the specified area and has no impact on the rest of the spectrum – no bits are thrown away as with digital attenuation, and no intermediate A-to-D then back-to-A conversion stages.
EJ Sarmento explains his circuit like this:
“The volume control found in the íntimo is a compilation of our past products with the addition of tone controls. We use the volume knob to set a level which is then used to configure how the resistor ladder VC is programmed. Tone controls are added in when desired but bypassed when adjustments are set to ‘0’. Different filters are achieved by adjusting the resistance value through another ladder which changes the turn-over points. When adjustments are made, zero-crossing detection is used to ensure there are no audible artefacts. At the end of the day, these settings can be used to custom-tailor the sound to suit your favorite headphones, your favorite music, or lets be real….perhaps deficiencies in your hearing.”
The result is a very effective way to customize one’s listening experience. Is your favourite headphone a little bass shy (HD800 for example)? The íntimo allows you to dial in a comfortable 3-4dB LF boost using whichever frequency and Q sound best to your ears. Or perhaps you’ve the opposite problem with too much bass (hello Denon D5000)? The íntimo can sort that. Or how about the harsh treble inherent on many CD releases from the mid-to-late 1980s? Yep, íntimo can take the edge off. Midrange suckout? Not a problem either.
As Sarmento suggested, let’s consider natural age-related hearing loss, common in listeners over fifty (hello key audiophile demographic). Using íntimo to compensate for one’s diminished high-frequency abilities will produce more overt air and sparkle, far beyond that otherwise achieved via a DAC upgrade. Whatever the reason for using it, íntimo’s EQ is unique and effective.
There really isn’t much else out there doing what íntimo does. The only functionally similar device I can think of is the RME ADI-2 FS – a conceptually similar DAC/headamp selling for $1149. I no longer have the RME in-house but did spend several months with it recently so I’m fairly comfortable contrasting the two units. Each model offers a dramatically different experience and despite their similarities on paper, each will appeal to a different set of users.
Functionality is a trade-off. RME gives us balanced analog outputs in exchange for fewer digital inputs. It has knobs and tactile buttons scattered across the front panel, whilst íntimo has an organized array of capacitive buttons discreetly placed up top. While íntimo’s chassis borders on art, ADI-2 has that studio-oriented, black-box coolness. RME gives us a small but highly detailed OLED in exchange for íntimo’s simplistic large-text LCD. Their design approaches are also about as different as can be: fully discrete, Class A íntimo is heavy as a brick, while RME’s fully balanced opamp-oriented device relies on external wall-wart power and weighs next to nothing. I’d call both devices well-implemented examples of their respective design philosophies.
Used purely as a DAC I’d peg them roughly on the same level, both being extremely enjoyable though on opposite ends of the sonic spectrum. System matching would be absolutely critical in choosing one over the other. The Wyred4Sound device has a smoother, richer, more “analog” presentation, in contrast with RME’s lit-up, wiry tonality. The ADI-2 FS focuses on speed and resolution, giving a highly technical account of everything it plays. If your priorities lie with blazing transients and micro-detail extraction, the RME has you covered. If, in contrast, you find that sort of analytical listening fatiguing, and prioritize tonal density and grain-free treble, íntimo is the better choice. It still offers plenty of refinement and detail but takes the more organic route to that destination.
Where íntimo takes a dramatic lead is on headphone amplification, an area where RME does great with IEMs but is merely decent with full-size headphones. Using the 6.35mm headphone jack, in particular, seems to spotlight the analytical nature of the RME to the point where fatigue sets in fairly quickly. I could happily live with íntimo as a true all-in-one, whilst the ADI-2 would have me searching for a dedicated headphone amplifier for powering anything other than in-ear monitors.
If I were choosing based on a heavy need for the EQ portion alone, the ADI-2 might come out on top: it offers six EQ bands and a graphical frequency chart to help dial in adjustments. That makes it the more powerful EQ tool. However, I find íntimo’s richer sound signature and superior headphone output stage more to my liking.
Wyred4Sound has done a fantastic job of distilling the essence of their mighty $4500 Anniversary DAC into a more affordable all-in-one device. Whilst obviously not in that top performance tier, it still offers a healthy dose of the same house sound: organic, expressive, natural. The íntimo’s rich, grain-free presentation is sure to be a crowd-pleaser and its EQ functionality ensures a fully customizable listening experience. Nicely done.
Further information: Wyred 4 Sound