Saturday, December 26, 2015

Superlux HA3D Headphone Amplifier Review

I'd like to tell you that I had read a lot of excellent reviews about this thing and was biased in favor of it. Greatly, in fact. Somebody who I really respect recommended it to me and the review I'm writing wasn't even imaginable when I bought this and switched it on.

Setups Compared 

iPad Mini Retina -> Superlux HA3D -> HD 650

Asus STX -> Superlux HA3D -> HD 650 / 598

Asus E1 Muses -> Project Ember 1.0 -> HD 650

Setups From Memory

Asus STX -> Project Ember 1.0 -> HD 650

Sounds close to the E1 Muses / Garage1217 pairing. Maybe a bit different. But not that far. Both are pretty good. But again, they are in different price brackets. And honestly I don't believe even an iPhone DAC is a limitation.

iPad Mini Retina -> FiiO E12 -> HD 650 

Asus STX -> HD 650

iPad Mini Retina -> HD 650

MacBook Air Early 2014 -> HD 650


Superlux HA3D disappoints. However, It trounces the Fiio E12 in terms of transparency, resolution, clarity and details. But it still loses out to the Fiio E12 in producing a smooth and non-rough sound. 

Between the Fiio E12 and Superlux, it comes down to preference. However, the Superlux is technically superior and far more powerful, in fact way too powerful.

Actually, details are excellent. It may even compete if not beat the Ember in detailing, at least partially, not sure though. Didn't test long enough. However, I would any day take the STX amp over the Superlux as both are neutral and transparent and detailed, but the STX is smoother, less rough and more enjoyable.

The Superlux, It has enough gain and does go very very loud. So loud that it is infact a con as there is nearly no travel available with the volume pot. 


There is a certain roughness to the sound. There isn't any grain in the conventional manner. But the sound is a little rough and coarse. It doesn't have the smoothness of my AVI speakers or the other setups I have ever heard. 

Even my hybrid tube amp sounds cleaner and smoother in comparison. The sound signature isn't that different but my other amps are cleaner and much more refined. Even the Asus STX jack. The Fiio E12 of course isn't better than the Superlux except for the fact that it is smooth, but not very clean either, and definitely not more refined than the Superlux. Not sure which is more refined between the Fiio and Superlux, didn't test the Fiio again.

There is no distorting in the form of crackling but it just doesn't seem to be able play the HD 650 with any smoothness or refinement. I say this primarily because of the certain roughness I heard. The bass slam and stuff is just fine.

HA3D has a completely black background. And that is one thing that goes in its favor. 

However, with the exception of a MacBook Air or iPad Mini Retina not being loud enough to power a HD 650, I even preferred those setups to the HA3D if all you want is very soft volume levels. 

And yes I tried several hours of burn in on and off my ears. I tried to get used to it. I took breaks and came back. Nothing helped.

I even tried the HD 598 which sounded absurd out of these, perhaps due to an impedance mismatch issue. Since the Superlux has a 200 ohm headphone out impedance.


The midrange is a little recessed. Not too bad. But definitely recessed. And it isn't involving. It is clinical. And I say that as a bad thing. I have tried the headphone jack of Asus STX and FiiO E12, neither is anywhere near as loud, but both are better in this regard. Either is more engaging. And even AVI speakers are far better than this in this regard. In fact, I like clinical and analytical, but this isn't that good compared to other setups I have, trust me!

The Fiio is in the same league as the Superlux actually, with both having their strengths and weaknesses. The STX is better than both.


The highs are slightly harsh. And they don't sound that natural. Just rough. Again, I know I am emphasizing this, and I believe I may be overdoing it. Because in this price bracket it may be very good actually, but I have no idea whether that is or isn't so. The roughness isn't that over emphasized, but that is one of the only drawbacks this HA has.


The bass is tight and good. No major issues here. 


The sound stage isn't as good as Ember, but no major issues here either.


The biggest plus is it manages to totally unveil the HD 650. Maybe better than most/all setups I have heard, by a small but audible margin. However, at the same time it does make it sound rough, coarse and sorta unclean and very slightly harsh, which is absolutely unlike the HD 650 is meant to behave. 

It is built like a tank. And I mean it when I say it. 

It isn't very heavy. It is portable, not pocketable but transportable. It runs on 2 AA batteries. 

It can power 3 headphones at once each with their own volume controls. 

It has a good many forms of inputs and outputs and even accepts XLR input. 

It also runs on DC electricity. I tried it on both by the way. Batteries sounded better to me but not 100% sure there, might be placebo, not sure.


Lower impedance phones like the HD 598 sound even worse compared to what I described above. And 32 ohm / IEMs will probably blow up even with the volume at the lowest setting. 

It is very very loud. So loud that I would consider it a con. 

I agree it has its own unique USPs that no other amp especially at this price range, has. 

However, sound quality is something where it underperforms. Especially when you compare it side by side to better stuff, including the STX headphone jack that may not be a big upgrade over it but is certainly far more enjoyable. 


I'm sending my unit back to Partly because I already have 3 SS amps and one hybrid amp, and I have no intention of adding just another SS amp to my stable. Under $99, it may be very good/okay, not sure, but I don't need it right now and I don't love it enough to add it to my stable. 

I'm glad I have that privilege without losing much money that I spent. 


Other setups sound far closer to each other than to this one. The other setups above are not identical but given a similar volume and all that, they aren't night and day from each other. 

This unit is a significant step lower than the others (maybe except the Fiio E12)

It may be able to compete under USD 100, especially for those who want to go loud with difficult to get volume out of headphones. But it surely doesn't do neither of my headphones justice. 

And I'm a believer in the fact that most transparent DACs are kinda indistinguishable. Most amps are sorta close unless there is a sound signature difference or unless one is poorly designed. Cables don't make a difference. 

If you want to get the most our of your headphones, a FiiO E12 isn't very good but it definitely makes the HD 650 loud enough and is far smoother. Not as clean or transparent as this, but smoother and more musical. And of course there are probably several better amps than this like O2 and many others perhaps, not heard the O2 though, so no idea whether the Superlux is better or worse.

I'd say between the Fiio E12 and Superlux, it comes down to preference. The Superlux is technically better but doesn't have Fiio's smoothness or musicality. However, when it comes to the Asus STX, it is definitely a step up from the Superlux. And when talking of Project Ember or Muses, then there isn't even a comparison.


Home HiFi

Asus Essence One Muses Edition 
Asus Essence STX 

Headphone Amps Project Ember Hybrid Tube Amp 
Asus Essence One Muses Edition 
Asus Essence STX
Fiio E12

HD 650
HD 598

Philips SHE3590BK


Home HiFi
Aktimate Mini+
Aktimate Micro
Swan H5
Swan M50 2.1
Swan M10 2.0
Audioengine A5

Asus DX

Headphone Amps
Bravo Ocean
Fiio E11
Fiio E5

Sennheiser RS 170
Sennheiser HDR 180 with TX 170
HD 439
Pioneer SE-A 1000

Soundmagic E80S
Monster Turbine 
Soundmagic PL50
Sennheiser CX500
And many more!

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Sennheiser HD 650 v/s HD 598 Review

I love both HD 650 and HD 598. And I'm here to show you the real picture of both these headphones, and to a lesser extent the HD 800. This is a NO BS comparison cum review and I know Head-Fi is going to screen in agony as I write this.

I have owned and used HD 650 and HD 598 quite a bit. I have also owned and sold HD 439, HDR 180, RS 170, Pioneer SE A-1000, Monster Turbine IEMs, Soundmagic PL50, Soundmagic E80s and numerous others.

I have tried but not owned HD 800, LCD2, K701/702 (not sure which one it was) and HD 518.

Headphone Amps Owned:

Bravo Ocean
Garage1217 Project Ember with numerous tubes/settings (HD 650, HD 598, HD 800)
Asus Essence One Muses Edition (DAC cum AMP) (HD 650, HD 598, HD 800)
Asus Essence STX (HD 650, HD 598)
iPhone 5s/iPad Air/iPad Mini Retina (HD 650, HD 598)
MacBook Air Early 2014 (HD 650, HD 598)

Headphone Amps Tried:

Lehmann BCL

DACs Owned:

Asus Essence STX (HD 650, HD 598)
Asus Essence One Muses Edition (DAC cum AMP) (HD 650, HD 598, HD 800)
iPhone 5s/iPad Air/iPad Mini Retina (HD 650, HD 598)
MacBook Air Early 2014 (HD 650, HD 598)

DACs Tried:

Gamma22 DIY DAC

Busting The Famous HD 650 Myth - Is It Really Hard To Drive?

All that is Audiophile BS!

It isn't hard to drive.

It sounds just fine out of an iPhone or MacBook Air but the volume just isn't there. Also, the inbuilt DAC is as good as it gets. But iDevices don't have the voltage or current to drive a phone like HD 650 sufficiently. So even at low volume there is clipping resulting in audible and measurable issues.

At very low volumes you're okay but there is still clipping as there is no reserve. You definitely don't need to change the DAC.

All you need to do is get a powerful amplifier (read powerful, not expensive): that is powerful and transparent, to provide enough clean power. Something like a Superflux HA3D or Objective2 is more than enough. A FiiO E12 isn't enough and it also colors the sound audibly, so I won't recommend that.

As long as you can a good enough amp that is transparent, a HD 650 will sound as good as it gets. Unless of course you're talking of coloring the sound, tubes, placebo, volume changes, clipping etc.

An Asus STX headphone jack is way more than enough to drive HD 650 to its full potential. An O2/ODAC should audibly be similar as well. And so will other expensive systems like Benchmark 1 and Violectric amps. Everything else is either color/distortion, clipping or plain placebo!

Audiophile AMP Myth Busted!

Audiophiles feel an amp is supposed to change/affect the sound. Wrong!

It is supposed to be a wire with gain, to amplify the signal, i.e. make it louder.

I accept most amps in the market do color the sound, but that isn't what an amp should ideally do. And a lot of non sense out there is plain placebo. Whether you like it or not.

Color = Distortion. Period!

As long as you have the correct amp for a headphone (this isn't synergy but there is a measurable science behind this), and you're not clipping and of course the amp must be audibly transparent, all of those amps will sound the same.

To get the volume equal you need to use a Millimeter. Doing it by ear or by a sound level measuring device is non sense.

As far as the HD 650/600/800 are concerned, all the below amps should sound more or less the same, if not absolutely identical:

Benchmark 1
Vioelectric neutral amps

Although there is more to this than merely output impedance, but a good rule of thumb is that for a dynamic headphone, if your amp's impedance is less than 1/8th that of your phone, you'll be fine.

The STX has an impedance of 10.7 ohm. So phones that are 80-100 ohm or more will be just fine.

HD 598 is 50 ohm I think. So technically there will be a sound signature change with slightly more bass and slightly less treble, and audibly so. But thankfully I have tried a HD 598 with it and it is fabulous indeed. Not as much as the HD 650 of course. :D

O2 and a Benchmark 1 have impedances below 1 ohm. So they can pretty much run any phone out there.

And this rule doesn't apply to planar phones like LCD2.

And then of course there are some exceptions that require too much voltage/current like HE6, K1000 etc.

The STX and O2 are fine for HE6 as far as measurements are concerned. From what I've read by other science people, that is. For K1000 - No!

Transparent = Transparent wrt the audible domain

If two amps are audibly transparent, they will sound the same minus placebo, irrespective of one being better or vice Verma.

If one is colored/warm/bright etc, of course there will be a difference. But a very slight one. These differences get exaggerated out of promotion. Even a colored one may often be difficult to tell apart in a Double A/B Blind Test.

Audiophile DAC Myth Busted!

Transparent = Transparent = iPhone/ ODAC / STX / AEX / MacBook = Same

Colored = Distortion = Slight Difference = Muses/ Android phones (I jus got heard Moto G 2014 though)

Colored DACs may sound slightly different. But that is distortion. Not hi fidelity. That is not how a DAC is supposed to be.

A DAC isn't supposed to have a sound. If it is audibly transparent, it sounds the same. End of story!

An iPhone DAC is good enough for any application in the world. It is that flat and transparent.

HD 650 v/s HD 598

A HD 650 sounds better than a HD 598 even out of a MacBook Air. But the MBA amp isn't powerful enough to do justice to it let alone making it loud enough. It is okay though, but not ideal. But it is 100% transparent and clean.

An STX or O2/ODAC or Superlux HA3D/iPhone is as good as it gets.

Everything else is either placebo or color, and it is mostly placebo.

I have been a victim of this placebo thing for years as well. No more!

If you have enough volume without color/clipping (this is hard to say without measurements) you're doing great!

The HD 598 is great.

But the HD 650 is a small but clearly audible jump across the board. With the only drawback being that it is a bit darker but nevertheless more natural and refined.

The HD 650 is as good as it gets under USD 500-1000 once you take into consideration comfort, warranty, sound etc as well. Of course the LCD2 is a big jump in terms of sound, but the HD 650 is far more neutral (I'll explain soon) than a LCD2 at least, perhaps not in absolute terms. And the LCD2 is a pain to wear.

Under USD 500, HD 650/600 are undisputed kings. Beyond USD 500 it may become debatable. And of course although I have not tried the HD 700, I'm sure it should be a decent jump over the HD 650/600.

Don't compare to phones like K701/702 or DT 880. There is a reason the Sennheiser is more expensive and sought after.

The ear doesn't hear sound like a flat Frequency a Response. So no matter how you find the FR curve of the HD 650, that doesn't make it overly dark. That is probably the curve followed to an extent by the ear as well.

Of course HD 600/700/800 might be a slight touch more neutral, with HD 800 being on the bright side of neutral.

HD 650 is better than HD 598 but only where treble is truly required. HD 598 is livelier and more fun otherwise. And far better to the untrained ear. And I do agree HD 650 is slightly dark, so perhaps not for everyone. But it is possible to get used to it and even enjoy its natural sound.


HD 650 is louder than HD 598 in bass. Both are tight. Pretty tight. HD 598 is a tad tighter. HD 650 is a tad softer. Neither is bass heavy/light. HD 650 is definitely softer and with more rumble I guess.

The tightest I heard the HD 650 was with a Beta22. But it wasn't neutral. It was warm. No doubt. Far from transparent.


HD 598 is mids forward. HD 650 has magical lush mids. Need I say more? Ya, HD 650 is slightly better.


Both are great. In their different ways.

HD 650 v/s HD 800

HD 800 is slightly more detailed, refined and with more treble. But when you compare them side by side.

I compared them with Muses and Project Ember (not STX, just for those naysayers).

They are very close. HD 800 is better. But HD 650 is slightly more natural.

The difference is far less than people make it out to be.

The difference is similar like that of going from a HD 598 to a HD 650. It is there. But not night and day, irrespective of the amp/DAC.

I've even tried a Beta22/Lehmann BCL, just to shut people up. :P

If I had the money, I'd take the HD 800 in a heart beat. But I don't. And the HD 650 is close but not quite there. So it is well worth the price as well.

And although I've not tried it, the HD 800 runs just fine out of a STX. My friend has tried one with a STX and an Essence One and there wasn't much difference unless you try to start nitpicking, and there isn't much difference even then.

A FiiO or iPhone amp is of course not capable of running the HD 800 though, with the exception of FiiO desktop amps perhaps. Won't comment on that though.

But the HD 800 is definitely a superior phone and I'd definitely get it if money wasn't an object. But a HD 650 is a close rival, though in a slightly lower league.

Comparing the below setups:

Asus STX amp and DAC
Uncolored and transparent

Asus Essence One Muses Amp and DAC
Thinner, warmer, slightly looser bass but colored. Slight difference, so some people might prefer this DAC, especially with something like a HD 800

Asus Essence One Muses DAC -> Project Ember
Closer to a STX. Slightly more SS. Perhaps a slight difference. The mids may be a bit lusher and wet. But very close and I didn't do a AB test so I may be talking BS. Very close.

Asus STX DAC -> Project Ember
Again, not sure if there is a difference or not. But definitely not a huge difference.

They are all bloody close!

I wouldn't say they are exactly the same. There are differences. But they are close. And it is definitely not an easy task to rule out one better than the other based on listening, because it is a matter of taste/preference.

But according to measurements and science, STX is flat and transparent. The other setups are not.

So if you want Benchmark level fidelity, go with STX. And I can assure you the difference between those systems, even if very slightly audible, isn't huge. And often/mostly placebo. Just like I was a victim of placebo for years.

Honestly, anything over an O2/ODAC seems non sense to me.

And an STX is just as good for most people I guess, unless you're into low impedance non planar phones or IEMs.

Other Asus products like U3, U7, Muses etc are colored and technically worse.

You're fine with a ST or STX though. Not sure about STX II. Not sure whether the difference is placebo or color. But not heard it. Just read about it.

And I hope you realize non sense about cables, power leads etc is just that, non sense.

Some NO BS links that will probably help you in more research: