SMSL’s 9-series DAC and AMP combo have been some of their most popular product releases, resonating with buyers for their combination of clean audio and sleek, modern design. We recently reviewed their SU-9 DAC and SH-9 AMP and came away very impressed by the well-rounded package on offer.
The company is now addressing other markets, introducing the VMV A1 class-A amplifier. With a whopping 2x15W (4ohm) of output power, the A1 is suitable for both headphones and bookshelf speakers. All of this is delivered in a stylish aluminium shell reminiscent of their source devices with high-res colour display showcased front and centre.
SMSL are also updating their Bluetooth amplifier in the form of the DA9 that offers an upgrade across the board from the DA8 before it. Built around BT5.0, the DA9 also supports RCA and XLR and offers 150W of output power into a 2ohm load. Despite this, it retains a stunning 111dB SNR. 8 eQ modes, a subwoofer preamp output and colour display complete a versatile high-spec package.
The VMV A1 and DA9 are available on Apos Audio (VMV A1/DA9) for $659.99 USD and $249.99 USD respectively at the time of writing.
Topping has achieved very frequent recommendation recently with their chart-topping source designs and reasonable pricing. Perhaps more impressively, the company demonstrated that they were able to scale their high-end technologies down to their more affordable models without sacrificing much performance.
The D30 Pro and A30 Pro matching DAC/AMP combo continue their winning streak of products. Both carry the design scheme of the 90-series with a rounded faceplate and larger volume dial. The D30 Pro offers a Quad DAC setup with unconventional 4x CS43198 chips promising fantastic SNR. Meanwhile, the A30 Pro uses Topping’s signature NFCA module alongside balanced input like the A90. It offers a whopping 6W of power output alongside a 0.1ohm output impedance.
The A30 Pro (Apos Audio – HiFiGO) retails for $349.99 USD while the D30 Pro (Apos Audio – HiFiGO) retails for $399.99 USD at launch. Apos Audio is selling the 30-series through their ensemble program offering additional savings. For $759.99, Apos are able to provide both sources alongside a balanced XLR cable, representing almost $70 USD savings overall.
Few competitors create as well-rounded a package as the Blessing 2, this is a balanced and refined earphone that punches well above its asking price.
If you frequent any kind of audio for a, you will be well acquainted by now with Chinese cult-hit Moondrop. For the company has achieved huge renown in a very short time, no small feat, with their excellent VDSF tuning based on the coveted diffuse field neutral curve. The Starfield assumed such a tuning, that permit surprising refinement at a reasonable price. However, though tonality impressed, the quality of the driver did leave me wanting. The Blessing 2 looks like a fine solution, assuming a very similar tuning realised through an elaborate 5-driver hybrid setup. The Blessing 2 implements 3D printing for physical band and low-pass filtering used in conjunction with electronic RC filtering to deliver a phase-coherent 3-way setup and very specific control over the frequency response. That’s a load of engineering for a midrange IEM.
The Blessing 2 retails for $319 USD. You can read more about it and purchase one for yourself on HiFiGO and Apos Audio.
I would like to thank Nappoler from HiFiGO very much for his quick communication and for providing me with the Blessing 2 for the purpose of review. All words are my own and there is no monetary incentive for a positive review. I paid a slightly reduced cost for the earphones in return for honest evaluation and will attempt to be as objective as possible.
Impedance: 22 ohms @ 1 kHz (+/- 15%)
Drivers: 1 Dynamic Driver & 4 Balanced Armatures on each side
Frequency Response: 9 Hz – 37 kHz
Effective Frequency Response: 20 Hz – 20 kHz
Treble Driver: Knowles SWFK
Midrange Driver: Softears D-MID-A
Bass Driver: 10mm Paper Cone Diaphragm Coil
Quality Control Range: +/- 1 dB @ 1 kHz
Sensitivity: 117 dB/Vrms @ 1 kHz
THD: <1% @ 1 kHz
Interface: 0.78 mm – 2 pin
The Pitch –
Hybrid Acoustic and Electronic Filters
The Blessing 2 implement physical band-pass filtering that isolates one pair of the BA drivers to exclusively cover the midrange frequencies. The BA drivers are a custom 2 in one unit from Soft Ears Japan tuned to their specifications. Similarly, Moondrop use a physical low-pass filter to limit the DD to bass under 400Hz in addition to controlling pressurization. An electronic RC filter is also utilised to reinforce this. SFWK tweeters provide extended high-frequencies and special attention was given to unite the sensitivities of all drivers acoustically rather than electronically for a phase-coherent design.
Neutral has become a more subjective term over the years as more minds contribute to different curves simulating different acoustic environments. Most famous are the Diffuse and newer Harman curve, both have their share of fans and critics. Moondrop’s first IEMs traced the Harman Curve incredibly well, a selling point for the company and sound foundation for developing their own curve called virtual diffuse sound field (VDSF). Similar to its name, this is Moondrop’s appropriation of the diffuse-field neutral curve, not the Harman Curve. Comparatively, they’ve toned down the highs and upped the bass which is, to my ear, a combination between the two aforementioned curves. Though both diffuse-field and Harman are considered by most critics not to showcase great balance, the VDSF curve is a refined and mostly natural-sounding tuning that is a very effective mashup.
Moondrop always package their products professionally and the Blessing 2 is no exception. The outer sleeve houses specifications and Moondrop’s famous anime splash art. Inside is a clean grey box adorned with Moondrop’s logo. Opening the box reveals the carrying case and separate card box with additional accessories. The earphones are protected within a foam inlet inside the zippered case, it has a nice textured vinyl exterior in svelte grey and ample interior space for the earphones and a small DAP too.
The box contains the rest of the accessories, a 6n OFC Litz cable, airline adapter, papers and 6 pairs of silicone ear tips. The tips have an interesting design, the bore fits exactly onto the Blessing 2’s nozzles but the size of the sound output has been reduced likely to slightly attenuate high frequencies and create a more balanced sound.
The Blessing 2 is a very attractive earphone to my eye, an impression enhanced by a certain amount of customisability on the user’s end. The 3D printed shells are as you’d expect; perfectly smooth, seamless and unibody, they’re also resin-filled for a nice quality heft in the hand. Meanwhile, the transparent design showcases the acoustics inside and driver setup, you can study them for hours. This is topped with CNC machined faceplates with a brushed finish. Buyers are able to order wooden variants and custom artwork for an additional $30, or choose from 8 set options provided by Moondrop.
The cable too inspires confidence, I’ve personally had a great experience here. Up top, they utilise a standard 0.78mm 2-pin connector with wide aftermarket support. It’s a 4-core braided unit with soft, smooth jacket and very supple feel, the cable is slightly thin but feels well anchored at all terminations. There’s also zero memory so the cable isn’t too tangle-prone, and it conducts minimal microphonic noise. The well-relieved right angle plug and metal Moondrop y-split cover add a premium feel while the pre-moulded ear guides provide a comfortable and stable fit. I personally enjoy the contrast created between the copper cable and silver housings.
Fit & Isolation –
If there’s one thing that may polarise about the Blessing 2’s design, it’s likely the fit. They are ergonomic in their design for sure, but definitely also on the larger side. They aren’t ridiculously proportioned nor do any design decisions come at the cost of ergonomics. This is a rounded, smooth and generally comfortable design with well-angled nozzles that promote a deeper, more stable fit and strong seal. I didn’t experience any hotspot formation, albeit due to the size, they don’t disappear in the ear. Those with smaller than average ears may experience difficulties due to the height of the earphone as the tops lock-in somewhat to the anti-helix area.
With the right tips, they achieve a deep and comfortable fit. In turn, though reasonably large and quite wide, the fit is lower-profile, hugging the contours of the ear. You can’t sleep on them due to the width but wind noise is not too bad despite the presence of a faceplate vent. Similarly, isolation is well above average and easily suitable for commute and public transport. You would benefit from a fully-sealed design in especially noisy areas such as the metro or air travel, but the Blessing 2 is passable here too, especially with foam tips.
Mostly large and heavy design, Note presentation can sound unorthodox relative to competitors
The HEDDphone offers summit-fi performance at high-end pricing, I applaud HEDD for perfectly balancing long-term listenability and huge resolving power in their modern masterpiece.
When it comes to premium products, story often precedes performance and Heinz Electrodynamic Designs (HEDD) has such a wonderful inception. Founder and CTO Klaus Heinz is more than a successful entrepreneur, he’s a physicist who designed and built the first commercial units of Oskar Heil’s Air Motion Transformer under ADAM Audio – where it has been a staple in their high-end studio monitors to the current day.
We’ve seen this technology pop up in other speakers such as the Kanto TUK and many of oBravo’s ultra-premium designs. By freeing up his focus from expanding ADAM’s line-up, Klaus was able to further his innovations at HEDD with his son Dr. Knop, where the team was inspired to build the HEDDphone. There’s been a lot of noise surrounding this model recently, not only due to its pricing, but also since it represents a world first in two regards – the first headphone sporting an AMT driver, and the first full-range AMT driver design. In fact, the full-range nature of the driver here has netted it another name, the variable velocity transformer (VVT) representing an evolutionary step in geometry over the tweeters built before. The HEDDphone is a true statement product, yet also a piece of innovation at a price point that remains attainable to a wide range of enthusiasts.
The HEDDphone is available for $1899 USD. You can read more about the HEDDphone and its technologies and treat yourself to a set on HEDD’s website here.
I would like to thank Klaus from HEDD very much for his quick communication and for providing me with the HEDDphone for the purpose of review. All words are my own and there is no monetary incentive for a positive review. Despite receiving the earphones free of cost, I will attempt to be as objective as possible in my evaluation.
Klaus has extensive experience with Oskar Heil’s (1908-1994) air motion transformer designs under his previous company Adam Audio. This driver type was adopted and is desirable due to the velocity of the sound output. Traditional speaker designs, including DD, Estat and Planar drivers operate like a piston and therefore, move sound at the same velocity as the diaphragm itself. AMT drivers differ in that they employ pleated mylar folds that permit the driver to accelerate sound output up to four times higher in an accordian-like fashion. This is significant since it results in a higher efficiency driver, substantially faster transient response and higher fine detail retrieval and resolution. When considering the full-range implementation utilised within the HEDDphone itself, the AMT driver also poses benefits for bass response due to its space-efficient pleated design that means the effective surface area of the driver is up to five times higher than what may otherwise be permitted in a headphone design. You can read more about the AMT driver and its benefits here and here.
The AMT to VVT Evolution
AMT drivers are conventionally able to extend down to 650Hz and are, therefore, mostly implemented for their ability to provide accurate high frequency reproduction as tweeters. Headphone design presents different challenges than studio montitors, but also some desirable traits such as a more efficient seal aiding bass reproduction. HEDD have approached this by altering the geometry of the AMT driver folds. Rather than sporting consistent width, the VVT driver features larger and deeper ripples for the low-end and smaller for highs. In so doing, the VVT driver is able to reproduce a full-range frequency response, alow greater flexibility over the desired sound signature and still uphold the desirable characteristics of a traditional AMT driver. Though the HEDDphone is not truly the first headphone using AMT technology, it is the first to solely use an AMT driver (others such as oBravo’s HAMT range being hybrids).
Like many at this price, the HEDDphone comes in an enormous hard box that reinforces its premium status. Within is a card information page providing insight into AMT technology and usage instructions. The HEDDphone itself is snugged within a laser cut foam inlet with the cable in a separate hard box below. No other accessories are included such as a pouch or case, nor balanced cable. Still, perhaps especially at this price point, many headphones do not include these accessories as they are not intended for portable use – though I would say it would be a reasonable expectation for them to include a balanced cable. HEDD sell their OEM balanced cable at an additional $189 USD. It should also be noted that though the HEDDphone uses mini-XLR connectors, the wiring pattern is reversed so cables for other headphones will have inverted phase. This should not be audible to the vast majority though the OEM HEDD cables are most recommended for this headphone as a result.
2020 will be remembered as the year we’d like to forget, but when 2021 is recalled one day as the year everything bounced back, much of that will be due to groundwork laid down in the preceding 12 months. That includes the pro-audio industry—next year, when live events and concerts return, new hits rule the airwaves and the latest must-hear podcasts land in your listening queue, many of them will be created using pro-audio equipment that was introduced over the last 12 months. With that in mind, here’s the Gear of the Year for 2020.
So what was the Gear of the Year? That’s not an easy thing to determine, so rather than weigh a hot new plug-in against an arena-filling P.A. or an audio console years in development, we decided to let our readers show the way.
Product announcements have always been among the most popular stories on prosoundnetwork.com, so we dug through our Google Analytics (readership statistics), sifting through all the “new product” stories we ran 2020 (well into the triple digits!) to determine which ones were the most popular with PSN readers. With that in mind, here’s the Gear of the Year that YOU unknowingly picked—a true Top-20 for 2020.
1. YAMAHA RIVAGE PM3 AND PM5 DIGITAL MIXING SYSTEMS
This dual product launch in May was far and away the most popular product announcement of 2020 with our readers. Yamaha introduced two consoles—the PM5 and PM3—as well as a pair of DSP engines—DSPRX and DSP-RX-EX—and version 4 firmware that provides features to new and legacy Rivage systems.
Both of the new consoles feature large capacitive touchscreens that allow users to use multi-finger gestures, with the PM5 sporting three screens and the PM3 getting one. As with their predecessors, the PM5 and PM3 sport 38 faders—three bays of 12, with two masters—but each of the new control surfaces is laid out with an eye toward increased efficiency.
2. SOLID STATE LOGIC 2 AND 2+ USB AUDIO INTERFACES Solid State Logic unveiled its first personal studio-market products—the USB-powered SSL 2 (2-in/2-out) and SSL 2+ (2-in/4-out) audio interfaces—at the Winter NAMM Show. The 2+ in particular caught our readers’ eyes, with a 4K analog enhancement mode “inspired by classic SSL consoles,” monitoring and an SSL Production Pack software bundle. Offering expanded I/O for musicians collaborating, it includes two analog mic preamps, 24-bit/192 kHz AD/DA AKM converters, multiple headphone outputs with independent monitor mix, MIDI I/O, and additional unbalanced outputs for DJ mixers.
3. JBL 4349 STUDIO MONITOR
The JBL 4349 studio monitor is a compact, high-performance monitor loudspeaker built around the JBL D2415K dual 1.5-inch compression driver mated to a large format, High-Definition Imaging (HDI) horn, paired with a 12-inch cast-frame and pure-pulp cone woofer. The JBL D2415K compression driver features a pair of lightweight polymer annular diaphragms with reduced diaphragm mass, while the V-shaped geometry of the annular diaphragm reduces breakup modes, eliminates time smear and reduces distortion, according to JBL.
4. APPLE LOGIC PRO X 10.5 Apple updated Logic Pro X with a “professional” version of Live Loops, new sampling features and new and revamped beatmaking tools. Live Loops lets users arrange loops, samples and recordings on a grid to build musical ideas, which can then be further developed on Logic’s timeline. Remix FX brings effects to Live Loops that can be used in real time, while the updated Sampler augments the EXS24 plug-in with new sound shaping controls. Other new tools include Quick Sampler, Step Sequencer, Drum Synth and Drum Machine Designer.
5. AMS NEVE 8424 CONSOLE
The AMS Neve 8424 is a small-format desk based on the 80-series console range. Intended for hybrid studios, the desk provides a center point between analog outboard gear, synths and the like, and the digital world of DAW workflows, software plug-ins and session recall. As an analog mixing platform, the 8424 offers 24 DAW returns across 24 channel faders or, for larger DAW sessions, a 48-Mix mode that allows a total of 48 mono inputs with individual level and pan controls to be mixed through the stereo mix bus.
6. MILLENNIA MEDIA HV-316 MIC PREAMP Millennia Media bowed its fully remote-controllable microphone preamplifier, the HV-316. Offering 12V battery operation, the HV-316 is housed in a 10-pound, 1U aluminum chassis housing 16 channels of Millennia HV-3 microphone preamplifiers with simultaneous analog and Dante 32-bit/192 kHz Ethernet outputs. Other digital audio output options are planned, including USB and MADI. The unit is designed for high-temperature continuous operation (up to 150° F), is powered by both 12V DC and worldwide 80–264V AC, and features “pi filter” shielding on audio and digital feeds to prevent interference.
7. SHURE SLX-D DIGITAL WIRELESS SYSTEM
The Shure SLX-D, offered in single- and dual-channel models, provides operation of up to 32 channels per frequency band. Transmitters run on standard AA batteries or an optional lithium-ion rechargeable battery solution with a dual-docking charging station. For less technically inclined users, it offers Guided Frequency Setup and a Group Scan feature that sets up multiple channels by assigning frequencies to all receivers automatically via Ethernet connections, allowing a 30-plus channel system can be set up via Group Scan within a few seconds.
8. MEYER SOUND SPACEMAP GO
The Meyer Sound Spacemap Go is a free Apple iPad app for spatial sound design and mixing. Working with the company’s Galaxy Network Platform, Spacemap Go can control Galaxy processors using a single or multiple iPads as long as the units have current firmware and Compass control software. Spacemap Go is compatible with various sound design/show control programs such as QLab, so designs assembled using them can be implemented into a multichannel spatial mix using Spacemap Go’s templates for common multichannel configurations.
9. D&B AUDIOTECHNIK 44S LOUDSPEAKER
Housed in a flush-mountable cabinet, the d&b audiotechnik 44S is a two-way passive, point source installation loudspeaker with 2 x 4.5-inch neodymium LF drivers and 2 x 1.25-inch HF dome tweeters, delivering a frequency response of 90 Hz–17 kHz. The 44S features a waveguide and baffle design intended to provide horizontal dispersion down to the lower frequencies while being focused vertically, providing a 90° x 30° dispersion pattern to direct sound to specific spaces.
10. BEYERDYNAMIC TG D70 AND TG 151 MICS Beyerdynamic made two additions to its Touring Gear (TG) series. The second-generation TG D70 dynamic kickdrum mic is meant for capturing the impact of bass drums and similar low-frequency-intensive instruments, while the TG 151 instrument mic is a lean microphone with a short shaft that can be used on everything from snares and toms to brass instruments and guitar amplifiers.
11. QSC Q-SYS CORE PROCESSORS QSC’s Q-SYS Core 8 Flex and Nano audio, video and control processors provide scalable DSP processing, video routing and bridging for web conferencing, as well as third-party endpoint integration without the need for separate dedicated control processors. The 8 Flex includes onboard analog audio I/O and GPIO plus network I/O, while Nano offers network-only audio I/O processing and control.
12. TELEFUNKEN TF11 MICROPHONE Telefunken‘s TF11 is the company’s first phantom-powered large-diaphragm condenser mic. The CK12-style edge-terminated capsule is a single-membrane version of the capsule featured in the TF51, and the amplifier is a proprietary take on the FET mic amplifier similar to the M60, coupled with a custom large-format nickel-iron core transformer.
13. L-ACOUSTICS K3 LOUDSPEAKER
K3 is a compact loudspeaker from L-Acoustics that is intended as a main system to cover up to 10,000 people, or for use as outfills or delays for K1 or K2 systems. Designed as a full-range line source, K3 integrates 12-inch transducers for large-format system performance in the form factor of a 10-inch design.
14. CLEAR-COM HEADSET SANITIZATION KITS Clear-Com has sanitization kits for its CC-300, CC-400, CC-110, CC-220 and CC-26K headsets. They include replacement ear pads, pop filters, sanitizing wipes, ear sock covers and temple pads in a cloth bag. Items for each kit vary depending on the headset, and can also be purchased separately.
15. ZOOM PODTRAK P8 PODCAST STUDIO
The Zoom PodTrak P8 provides recording, editing and mixing capabilities all in one unit. Six mics, a smartphone and PC can be recorded simultaneously, each with its own fader and preamp with 70 dB of gain. A touchscreen controls monitoring, adjusting, onboard editing and more.
16. WAVES SHIPS KALEIDOSCOPES PLUG-IN Waves’ Kaleidoscopes plug-in creates classic analog studio effects such as 1960s phasing and tape flanging, 1970s stadium tremolo-guitar vibes and 1980s chorus sounds.
17. OUTLINE STADIA 28 LINE ARRAY SYSTEM
The Outline Stadia 28 is a medium-throw system intended for use in permanent outdoor installations. A single enclosure weighs 46.2 pounds and can reportedly reach 139 dB SPL.
18. LAB.GRUPPEN FA SERIES AMPLIFIERS Lab.gruppen‘s FA Series Energy Star-certified amplifiers are intended for commercial and industrial applications, and are offered in 2 x 60W, 2 x 120W and 2 x 240W.
19. D.W. FEARN VT-2 PREAMPLIFIER
The updated D.W. Fearn VT-2 Dual-Channel Vacuum Tube Microphone Preamplifier now features an integrated, switchable 43 dB pad, aiding patching into a master bus.
20. KEF LS50 META SPEAKER
Our Gear of the Year list concludes with the LS50, featuring KEF’s Metamaterial Absorption Technology driver array, a cone neck decoupler, offset flexible bass port, low-diffraction curved baffle and more.
We’re all likely familiar with Fiio by now. The company has achieved unanimous recognition around the globe for their products that balance features and affordability. The value offered by their source devices, in particular, was reinforced when they adopted THX’s AAA amplifier circuits that boosted efficiency and measurable performance. The Q3 is their latest portable DAC/AMP featuring this innovation. Design-wise, it clearly takes a page out of the Q1 MKII’s book with a similar albeit elongated housing.
At its heart lies an AKM AK4462 DAC chip and XMOS XUF208 usb-decoder that enables file support up to 32-bit, 768kHz alongside DSD512. With an efficient THX amp chip, the Q3 offers a whopping 19hrs of runtime. It also features a flexible 3 outputs up from the Q1 MKII’s dual outputs – with 3.5mm, 2.5mm balanced and 4.4mm balanced too. The effective pure hardware bass-boost makes a return too for those wanting a punchier listening experience.
The Q3 comes in at a reasonable $150 USD and looks to be very fully-featured considering. You can read all about the Q3 and secure pre-order for yourself on Apos Audio. Specs below:
Audio Input: USB Type C
Channel Balance: ≤0.2dB
Battery Capacity: 1800mAh
Charging Time: ≤2 hours
Native DSD Supported: 64/128/256/512
Max sampling rate supported: 32-bit/768kHz
Dimensions:: 4.1 x 2.3 x 0.49” (105 x 59 x 12.5mm)
Topping has been hitting it out of the park with their latest releases that piggybacked on their very impressive NFCA amp modules that enable excellent measurable performance. Most impressively perhaps is that the company has transplanted this technology into their affordable offerings; we recently took a look at the entry-level L30 and found it to be one of the most competitive designs on the market in its price point. What it lacked was balanced output, input flexibility and, to some extent, soundstage expansion.
The new A50s look to address this, the successor to the A50 and, as one would expect, an all-around improvement at the same price point. It brings a higher 143dB SNR as opposed to the A50’s 123dB, and THD of just 0.0007% down from 0.004%. Implementing Topping’s renowned NFCA amp modules as seen on the flagship A90 and more recent L30, the A50s offers 3.5W x2 into a 32-ohm load, leaving plenty of headroom for high-impedance headphones.
In addition, it offers the same 0.1-ohm impedance and < 0.3uVrms noise floor of the L30, promising a black background and linear signature on even the most sensitive low-impedance multi-driver earphones. The A50s is also a balanced design with 4.4mm output in addition to a traditional 1/4″ single-ended output. It doesn’t support XLR in any manifestation, however.
The A50s is shaping up to be another promising offering from the company and will be available soon at $199 USD from Apos Audio. As always, look forward to a full in-depth review on THL soon!