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The Big Apple Rig Shootout - Which DAC and Amp is the Champ?

"Here at HiFiHeadphones we're asked regularly about what amp/DAC combo might make the best job of converting and amplifying your Apple binary music collections."
apple rig

Here at HiFiHeadphones we're asked regularly about what amp/DAC combo might make the best job of converting and amplifying your Apple binary music collections. Would it be best to get an all in one solution like the Cypherlabs Theorem or Fostex HP-P1, or get a DAC such as the Cypher Labs Algorhythm Solo with a separate amp?

Further, how does the DAC in the Fostex compare with the DAC in the Theorem if both are connected to the same amp?

The proof of the audio pudding is in shoving the thing into your ears, so here's our thoughts about how each solution compares!

Firstly, why even bother? The Apple iPod/iPhone has a headphone socket (just) so let's plug straight in right? There's nothing wrong with this, and most people find the internal DAC/Amp to be quite satisfactory when used along with their stock white earpods, or any low impedance headphone designed for portable use.

However there are those awkward types who require more power for their chosen headphones; more than the iThingy can put out. Others include those with high value in-ear headphones who will not compromise on audio quality when it comes to the digital to analogue conversion.

The wonderful full size Beyerdynamic T5p and in-ear Sennheiser IE800 were used to ascertain what might comprise the best sound and value for the average portable audiophile.

Fostex HP-P1

fostex hp-p1

The original combined dac/amp for Apple; how does it fare with the new available equipment? When tried with both the Beyerdynamic T5p and Sennheiser IE800 the Fostex HP-P1 does a splendid job. Certainly better than the on-board Apple kit, but other makers have been doing their best in the intervening years of course. With this setup, the HP-P1 filter was slightly more natural sounding so assume the filter is in postion one throughout this test. Being the first up in a comparison, there's not much to be written now but read on..

Cypher Labs Theorem 720

cypher labs theorem

With the Sennheiser IE800, the Theorem gave a much better impression of control and there seemed to be more space within the midrange region. In comparison, the HP-P1 just got a bit cluttered there and the result was a loss of detail and imaging.

The Theorem compared favourably using the Beyerdynamic T5p too - the soundstage was wider and deeper with better imaging leading to a more immersive 3D sound. The detail level appeared to be the same, but with the Theorem this was smoother and more lush sounding; the Fostex HP-P1 was a little brittle next to this.

Cypher Labs Algorythm Solo with Just Audio AHA-120

just audio aha 120

I've compared this Class A amplifier with the Theorem before; I put it as the Theorem's spandex versus Just Audio's silk. Not to say the Theorem is a slouch, but when compared to a Class A amp it sounds slightly less good! And that's the tradeoff - if you want no compromise in sound quality and wish to pick every component you will pay for it, and you will have to carry it around as well!

DACs Compared Only

For this test I decided to get a decent portable amp (Fiio E12) and compare the Line-Out features of the HP-P1 and Theorem. Things were not all that different in comparitive terms.

  • The HP-P1 had good detail but the presentation was flat with a limited soundstage; a bit on the dry side.

 

  • The Theorem had a wider soundstage but was still a little dry sounding. Detail was similar to the HP-P1 but again with more control.

 

  • The Algorythm Solo was a slight let down used in combination with the E12; soundstage was decidedly average with a flat feel to proceedings. Detail was comparitively muddy sounding.

And compared with the E12 amp (with no bass boost), the internal amp of the HP-P1 was slightly darker and more laid back, while the Theorem amp was much fuller and lusher sounding than the Theorem DAC + E12 combo.

Conclusion

The best solution in terms of sound only is the Algorythm Solo/AHA-120 pairing, but this scores lowest in terms of cost, bulk and convenience. Having to keep 3 separate battery operated devices charged is worth considering, and then there's the interconnects which add cost and lengthen the audio chain. The sound is rich and effortless - a real treat which is earned by those having to carry all that gear!

cypher labs theorem

The Cypher Labs Theorem 720 is the best all-rounder in my opinion - there's an engaging, exciting energy about the sound from the Theorem which is close to the Solo/AHA-120 combo but it swaps the silky smoothness of the AHA-120 for a more in-your-face powerful sound. Also the amp in the Theorem gives a lushness which is really attractive.

fostex hp-p1

The Fostex HP-P1 is the least impressive of the three; given that it was the first to be introduced this is no surprise. It is still a very competent and fine-sounding unit but has been surpassed since its introduction.

About Shaun Gostelow

Shaun is co-founder of hifiheadphones.co.uk and spends most of his time dealing with the business side of running the store, but still loves listening to music with headphones just the same as ever.
Follow Shaun on Google+
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