Having been seduced by the magic of balanced amplification (Lightning first struck here!), I recently succumbed to this little temptation from Headroom, the people who first pioneered the idea of balanced headphone amplification.
Out of all of Headroom’s balanced amplifiers, I have always been drawn to the Balanced Desktop amp. A small form factor with a built in DAC providing true balanced output proved to be a quite an appealing idea. Imagine the possibilities, balanced amplification compact enough to fit on the office desktop or bedside table.
Who says lightning never strikes the same place twice. An opportunity to acquire the Balanced Desktop together with a Desktop Power Supply at an attractive deal was an opportunity too tempting to be passed.
My Balanced Desktop was specified with the Home Module, Home DAC and a stepped attenuator.
A compact unit, the Balanced Desktop measures a space saving 6”x 6” x 3 1/3”. Finished in matt black, the unit presents quite a workman-like façade. No audio jewellery here.
In case you have forgotten, Headroom saw it fit to put this little reminder on the top corner of the amp.
An unusual detail is the two urethane bezels, one fitted around the front panel and the second around the back plate of the unit.
Each bezel is designed with a curved ‘foot’ molded underneath and a corresponding ‘slot’ on the top of the bezel. This allows the unit to sit alone, or stack securely on top of the optional Desktop Power Supply. The ‘foot’ fits exactly into the ‘slot’ of the unit below, providing a stable way to couple both units easily.
The faceplate looks relatively clean with two Neutrik combo jacks. This allows the option of connecting either one pair of balanced headphones or two single-ended headphones.
A crossfeed switch and a 3 way gain switch are the only two other switches visible from the front.
The stepped attenuator provides volume control over 24 discrete steps. Together with the 3 way gain switch, you should be able to find a comfortable volume range. A stepped attenuator will provide the most precise volume balance without the sonic degradations unavoidable with regular volume pots over time. The tactile feel when you turn the volume knob is a nice touch although I wished the knob was bigger.
It is around the back that things get busy. Provisions are made for a digital signal to be accepted through coaxial, USB or optical inputs. A toggle selects between the 3 inputs. The DAC then converts incoming digital signals into a balanced headphone output. A pair each of single ended and balanced inputs completes the input choices.
I am a firm believer in the sonic benefits of a robust power supply and this, unfortunately, made the optional Desktop Power Supply a 'mandatory' upgrade for me. Housed in the same black case as the amp, it is connected by an umbilical terminated with with five pin DIN connectors. The Desktop comes with a supplied Astrodyne switching power supply as standard.
Once the units are hooked up and powered up, the Headroom logo on the top left face of each unit reveals a discreet green LED. This green glow lets you know both units are powered and ready to go.
As my interests lie largely in the balanced arena, this family of balanced cans were pressed into duty:
Sennheiser HD580/Cardas, HD600/Cardas, HD600/Equinox, HD650/Equinox, HD650/RAL
Beyerdynamic DT880 (05) APS V2, DT770/80
Denon D2000 APS V3
AKG K701 original cable with XLR termination, K701 APS V3
As I am planning to use this amp utilizing the internal DAC, all initial listening was done using a digital signal supplied by a Denon A11 sent through either a Kimber Illuminati D60 coaxial cable or Stereovox HDXV.
I will continue testing the unit through its analog XLR inputs after I have put in some hours of use.
As the amp has only had no more than 65 hours of burn-in, I will be updating my comments as I go along. Any changes, if any, will be duly noted.
Out of the box, the amp was sounded bright with an anemic low end. Not what I had expected, bringing out feelings of buyer's remorse. Thankfully, the sound settled in right after 40 hours of use, with the highs mellowing out and the bass filling out nicely.
At this stage, the sound of the Balanced Desktop can best be described as iron-fisted solid state. The details are nicely presented, with an articulate midrange and tight, textured bass.
Of the cans I tried, the Sennheiser HD650/Equinox/Stereovox really came alive when paired with the Balanced Desktop. This pairing had the most synergistic coupling that complemented the sonic signatures of each one beautifully.
Veil? What veil? The sound provided a clear sonic view, much like looking through a very clean window. Lest someone thinks that I mean cold, the presentation is anything but. It provided a solid soundstage that was both stable and deep.
Muddy, intrusive bass? What muddy, intrusive bass? The amp’s iron-fisted control of the HD650 drivers really tightened the bass and allowed me to clearly hear the different bass notes.
The APS Denon D2000 also put in a stellar performance and could possibly be the best closed can I have tried to date. It provided a lively and energetic performance with good, articulate bass. Not as open sounding as the best open cans but excellent for a closed.
Downsides? If anything, I do miss the tube-like bloom that I get with the Apache. The Apache also presented a more tactile bass presentation.
However, that is not actually a fair comparison as it compares the DAC inside the Desktop compared to the analog signals from the Marantz SA11S1. A fairer comparison can be made when I compare both amps using the same balanced analog connection from the Marantz and Cambridge Audio 840C. Look out for Round Two!
At this point, I am very pleased with the Balanced Desktop.
The amp definitely settled in after some burn-in and provides a sweet, coherent sound. The flexibility of the DAC allows the amp to be used with a variety of sources and also provides the ability to make a simple transition from a single-ended to balanced rig just by getting balanced cabled headphones. Together with the available SE and balanced analog inputs, the amp provides more options than a Swiss Army knife.
Let’s see what further running in will bring to the table.
Small form factor
DAC that can accept a digital signal from a variety of sources to be output as balanced
Ability to drive both single ended and balanced headphones
Too many switches placed at the back. Can be difficult to access if rack mounted.
Crossfeed dulls sound
Difference in gain settings not consistent. Change from medium to high gain > Change from low to medium.