Oppo HA-2 Headphone DAC Review
About to buy a dedicated music player? There may be another way.
What is the Oppo HA-2?When I reviewed Sony's ZX1 Walkman a few months ago, I received an impressive demonstration of what the state of play in portable audio is. The Sony has a headphone amp that has been designed to sound as good as it can and not because it needs to be crammed into whatever form factor that the marketing team has selected this year. It has headroom, clarity and refinement that knocks most smartphones into the middle of next week.
The news wasn't all good though. The Sony is built on an Android 4 platform and next to a 2015 era smartphone, it feels old and slow to use. The small display and slightly less than perfectly responsive touchscreen aren't the biggest sacrifices going in comparison to the performance but when you then consider that the Sony is an extra unit you need to have space for about your person on the move, it doesn't make for the perfect solution. Smartphones have the interface that is up to the job of making a great audio player and depending on the model you choose, they have the storage too but that authority that the Sony has with headphones is hard to overlook. What if there was a way to impart the same headphone ability to a smartphone though?
If you'd ask me about what brand was most likely to square this circle, I probably wouldn't have gone for Oppo. But then again maybe I should. Last year Oppo launched the incredible PM-1 headphones that represents one of the very best headphones I've listened to. They also released a seriously capable headphone amplifier to drive them, the HA-1. Now, the HA-1 has sired the portable HA-2. This is directly compatible with iOS and Android devices and promises to bring the headphone performance they lack. Does it work though?
What is the design of the HA-2?The Oppo is a portable headphone amp and digital to analogue converter. This is a category that has been growing in size and importance over the last few years. As smartphones get thinner lighter and give more of their internal capacity over to a battery that can handle the rapacious power consumption, the ability of modern smartphones to make decent fist of headphones that are anything over true portable types is increasingly variable. However, as both iOS and Android offers a connection that allows for an external audio to be connected to them, it has fallen to audio manufacturers to find a way round the problem.
Judged against the competition though, Oppo has still gone the extra mile on the HA-2. The 'conventional' way of building such a product is to look at a DAC chip that supports being used to directly connect to a headphone output and drive the contraption from the voltage on the output of the smartphone. The Oppo studiously ignores this method and does something entirely different. The HA-2 is built around an ESS Sabre DAC - in this case the ES9018 K2M model which is designed for use in a mobile application. This is the partnered with a dedicated headphone output that uses hand selected components including discrete transistors to give you a 'proper' headphone amplifier, albeit a very compact one.
Compact or not, the power consumption of a device like this would be curtains for any reasonable battery life on your phone if it was asked to power it directly. To this end the HA-2 is effectively built around a 3000 mAh lithium polymer rechargeable battery. This provides all the power that the Oppo needs to strut its stuff but also allows it to act as a battery bank for your mobile turning it from the killer of battery life into a potential saviour. Thirty minutes on charge will give the HA-2 about 70% charge and ninety will charge it completely. The only catch is the the micro USB connection can't supply this power so the phone needs to use the larger USB A fitting that doesn't work for audio on Android.
All this is then wrapped in a chassis that is - entirely deliberately I suspect - the same size and shape as a mobile phone. Aesthetically the Oppo makes a few nods to the phone aesthetic too. The chassis is aluminium with rounded corners and the controls such as they are, live down the side of it. This is with the honourable exception of the volume knob - and it is a knob - that lives on the top of the HA-2 and integrates with the power switch.
So far so good but what has generally made Oppo products stand out is their aggressive specification. The HA-2 is no exception in this regard. The list of sampling rates decoded is pretty much 'everything.' PCM is covered up to and including 32/384kHz and the HA-2 then goes on to support DSD 64, 128 and 256. This is definably state of the art as it stands. This decoding is then available via a micro USB connection that supports direct connection of a Mac or PC and Android via OTG. There is then a USB A connection for direct access of an iOS device (either via Lightning or the older connector) and a 3.5mm analogue connection that can function as an input or output depending on how you select it.
What's good about the HA-2?The only product that comes close to this specification is the Chord Hugo and you can buy five HA-2s and have change to spare for the price of one of those. It has been a number of years since I was involved in the manufacture of product and I won't pretend I was ever truly hands on even then. Even so, assuming that Oppo has to produce the HA-2 at a price that allows the dealer to make some money doing so, I honestly don't know how they make any money themselves.
The super keen pricing means that unlike the Hugo, the HA-2 is a device that when added to the price of a suitable smartphone- contract or straight purchase - it is directly competitive with dedicated audio players. When you then add that the HA-2 can also act as your backup battery, you have a device that makes a great deal of sense.
While the straight laced spec part of the HA-2 is all perfectly sound, it doesn't cover the emotional angle that the Oppo is a gorgeous piece of equipment. It sits in the hand nicely and the materials used in the construction are all top notch. There is a sense that Oppo has leveraged their experience making smartphones (because they do) to ensure that the HA-2 matches the experience you get from a premium smartphone. Adding the rotary volume control is a little touch of genius to finish this off. I went on at length in a recent podcast that the aspect I miss the most from older products is the mechanical feel. In a tiny way, this helps to deal with that. It has little benefit over a button system (other than marginally better fine control but it feels excellent to use and adds a touch of character to the HA-2.
What's not so good about the HA-2?Against this tsunami of positivity, there isn't much to be said against the Oppo really. I don't feel that the indicators for charge status are desperately clear and there is no clear information on the sample rate the DAC is receiving. While the materials used are rather lovely, there is no full protective cover for the design. The charging facility also isn't perfect but the only real catch is the the micro USB connection can't supply this power so the phone needs to use the larger USB A fitting that doesn't work for audio on Android.
As you can see, in design terms at least, I am clutching at straws. This is a clear statement of intent that Oppo wants a significant share of this market and will issue a swift kicking to anyone that wants to take them on.
Whilst the specs of the HA-2 are all perfectly sound, they don't cover the emotional angle that the Oppo is also a gorgeous piece of equipment.
How was the HA-2 tested?The Oppo was initially tested with a Lenovo T530 ThinkPad using Foobar to get a handle on the performance as a DAC/Headphone Amp. It was the connected to my Google Nexus 5 and Motorola Moto X via OTG cable and iPad 3 via standard Apple cable. This allowed testing of Tidal and lossless and high res material via the Hiby Music ap. Headphones and earphones used included the Noble 6, Audiofly AF140, the Audio Technica ATH MSR-7 and the Focal Spirit Classic. Material used included lossless and high res FLAC, DSD and services such as Spotify and Tidal.
How does the HA-2 sound with a laptop?The HA-2 needs a dedicated USB driver from the Oppo website and like a number of these drivers, it set my antivirus into attack dog mode. Once installed though, the HA-2 shows a great many positive traits from the off. I am happy to admit I have listened to a few products that use the ESS Sabre DAC and found them to be weirdly clinical and a little unforgiving but this is as much down to the implementation as any traits of the DAC itself and the HA-2 is entirely free of this sterility.
What is has in spades is serious grunt. The headphone output of the ThinkPad is far from shabby - it is one of the many reasons I like them - but the Oppo is a serious leap forward. There is an effortlessness driving full size headphones that even when carefully level matched with the ThinkPad gives the HA-2 the upper hand. It'll go fearsomely loud too if you don't ascribe any particular value to your hearing.
Neither is this just brute force. The HA-2 has an ability with digital decoding that is very much a high end thing. Like the Chord Hugo or Furutech ADL Cruise, the HA-2 is effortlessly vivid and free of any sign of harshness or that slightly synthetic effect that can plague cymbals and other high frequency sounds. The performance with bog standard CD type 16/44.1kHz files is extremely good and the better quality file - either through mastering or sample rate or both - you throw at it, the better it gets.
In presentation terms the Oppo is not unlike my Naim equipment in that there is an impressive sense of low level drive and power and a slightly 'dark' tonal balance that partly emphasises this. This means that if you want to luxuriate in an immense midrange, this might not be the product for you as the midrange is detailed and tonally accurate but doesn't have the same lushness that some products can bring to the performance. The performance feels more European than Far Eastern and this is slightly unusual although from my perspective, far from unwelcome.
What does the HA-2 sound like with mobile devices?With an OTG cable present, the HA-2 connected without issue to my Motorola Moto X and Google Nexus 5. As the Oppo has no physical switch between USB 1 and USB 2 modes, it presumably detects the USB status of the connected device and works with it. The good news is that all sound including those from third party music and video apps can be routed via the Oppo and they all sound good.
Does it sound as good as the Sony? This is a tricky comparison to make as it went back to Sony HQ some time ago but I'm inclined to give the win to the Oppo and the connected device. There is the same effortlessness to the performance with more demanding headphones that the ZX1 has but the Oppo additionally has a little more punch and attack. When you then take into account that the interface you are controlling the HA-2 with can take advantage of being on a newer, slicker version of Android or indeed on iOS - both of which have larger, clearer screens - it starts to show an advantage in control terms too. You still have two units to listen to music but the Oppo can be bagged away when not needed.
The performance with the Nexus 5 is especially illuminating though. The Google/LG phone has many strengths but it has a truly terrible headphone output, both limited in power and sounding oddly flat even when you do use sensitive headphones. With both Tidal and the unexpectedly excellent HibyMusic app and the Oppo connected though, the Nexus is transformed into a mighty performer. The HA-2 essentially removes any need to care about what a phone manufacturer has done with their headphone amp this time around and instead simply use it as an interface and transport.
The HA-2 has an ability with digital decoding that is very much a high end thing.
- Tremendous specification
- Beautifully built
- Powerful and engaging sound
- Some limitations to charging on the go
- Slightly bulky
- Limited information from the unit
Oppo HA-2 Headphone DAC ReviewThe Oppo is not an entirely mainstream product. For the most part, people are content to use the headphone output of their smartphone and be done with it. Spending £260 on a product to boost that performance is a fairly unusual thing to do. This being said though, the market that the Oppo partially targets - the dedicated audio player one - is small but seems to be on the upward trend and this is priced at a level that makes is a noteworthy alternative.
Where the Oppo is unquestionably going to make an impact is that this is a crushingly competent piece of equipment for the asking price. Unlike the dedicated audio players, the Oppo can provide the same boost to a computer and does so while looking and feeling fantastic, offering a truly killer specification and providing trickle charge functionality for your portable device. If you have a smartphone you like and have been looking at a dedicated portable audio player, this is a halfway house you need to try first.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £260.00
Ease of Use9
Value for Money9
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