“Darn these Confederate batteries!”For some however, no compromise is acceptable; great sound quality just has to be paramount. A lump in the trousers causes no embarrassment in such cases. So who exactly is trying to get these big things in our pants? There's a wide selection of portable bits and bobs as we all know; with the more static listener, there's known to be an entry or 'low' end of the market and a high end. Portable devices, by the nature of who they're generally aimed at, are mostly built around price and convenience; some of them only accepting MP3s or similarly lossy file formats. Apple's recent impact on the portable audio market is well known, and although their products have a fair reputation for out-of-the-box audio quality, it's very difficult to satisfy all scrumpers. Due to the success of Apple's fruits, other manufacturers deem it worthwhile designing ways to improve the sound quality of these devices.
It’s well known that a low-cost cable can be attached to a 30-pin connection which provides a line-out signal; a signal which bypasses the internal amp of the iDevice, to be fed into an external amplifier. This can give sound quality a boost, certainly where less sensitive headphones are involved. Line-out lightning connectors for newer devices are available via Apple, but they ain’t giving them away.However, this cuts little ice with those who strive for their jive - Apple's DAC is still doing the conversion to analogue. Perhaps understandably, Apple would not have such a marketable product if all components were as high-spec as possible, and the DAC is no exception. It’s to get the job done adequately. Apple has been protective in the past when aftermarket manufacturers wanted to get in between their rind and pips; indeed a hefty royalty has been required should anyone want their product to truly interface with the iDevice's software. This has affected the price of available gadgets greatly; hopefully this is changing. Fostex's HPP1 is one example of a DAC which will decode music on an iDevice, but here we will compare two high-end arrangements provided by Cypher Labs and Just Audio.
..The Theorem 720 with iPod TouchOn one side we have the new Theorem 720 from Cypher Labs; an all-in one solution providing both digital-to-analogue conversion and amplification. On the other, we have the Cypher Labs Solo -R, with separate amplification provided by Just Audio's A-Class AHA-120. How do these compare, and is the extra bulk of a separate amp (and extra connections) worth it? The headphones I used for this are at a similar level - the effortless Beyerdynamic T1. Being a semi-open headphone, these are not the first choice for portable use but are excellent for judging the subtle differences in sound quality between high-end rigs, and for illustrating how powerful the amps are. The Theorem 720 blew me away with its accuracy and power, but the latter depends on the mastering of the recording. For instance Aha's 'Take On Me' (what better to test this against the AHA-120?) was blisteringly loud, but Queen's 'Another One Busts the Dust' needed more headroom. Of course, the T1 headphones are rated at 600 Ohms with 102 dB sensitivity, so the bar's unrealistically high for portable power requirements. It gives a good comparative impression though. Bass was present and under good control. The mids had great detail and strength, and the highs were crisp and clean. Soundstage and separation were very immersive, and I was very impressed with what I heard. However, specialist interconnects such as those supplied by ALO Audio were not used, just the standard 30-pin to Micro-B USB connection provided with the Cypher Labs unit. It’s not hard to imagine that a plethora of high quality interconnects will be available soon for the Theorem.
..Just Audio AHA-120 with the Solo –R and iPod TouchSo then I popped on the T1s with the same 30-pin iPod - now with a Cypherlabs Solo -R, and the Just Audio AHA-120 headphone amp. There was an ALO Audio interconnect between the iPod and Solo -R, and an iBasso 3.5mm to 3.5mm between the Solo -R and AHA-120. This rig has a slight advantage here. The bass was a little more present, but by no means excessive. Mids were more recessed than with the Theorem, and high frequencies not so clinically accurate. The soundstage was a little narrower too. But for all that, I far prefer the Solo -R/AHA-120 combo as it sounds so effortless and natural. The difference is like that of spandex and silk. Spandex is functional, comfortable and easily cared for. Silk on the other hand reqiuires a little more TLC and is expensive. But all that trouble seems unimportant when hitting the town with my silk shirt on - the pleasure of wearing ultra-stylish, comfortable and cool fabrics makes all that seem unimportant. And so it is with the Solo -R/AHA-120. Even the sound of fingernails scraping the surface of a blackboard would create a large smile across my face when heard through this rig.