Oppo HA-2SE DAC & Headphone Amp Review
If it ain't broke – fix it a little bit anyway
What is the Oppo HA-2SE?The Oppo HA-2SE is a portable USB DAC that allows for the decoding of various digital signals to a choice of fixed or variable analogue outputs. The growth in this sector of the market has been considerable over the last few years and the decision by Apple to remove the headphone socket of the iPhone 7 – something that will inevitably be aped by at least some other mobile phone producers – means that the demand for these devices is likely to be fairly strong going forward. The advantages of boosting your phone's performance are considerable. You can retain the cutting edge interface of your modern phone rather than the more varible quality efforts of dedicated audio players and when not in use, it can be stuffed away in a bag or pocket.
The more observant of you will note that the HA-2SE bears more than a slight resemblance to the Oppo HA-2 that I looked at back in 2015 – that is to say, it looks almost identical. In the time since the Oppo has broken cover, we've seen the stupendously capable Chord Mojo go on sale and more recently Audioquest has beefed up their Dragonfly range to work better with mobile devices. At the same time, dedicated audio players and audio orientated phones have also tried to carve out their segment in the market. Oppo has clearly felt that the HA-2 needed a boost but does the HA-2SE move the game on and keep Oppo as a key player in the market?
SpecificationsThe Oppo is built around one of the many versions of the ESS Sabre DAC – a chipset family that has been expanding to occupy niches in the market with extraordinary efficiency. The SE model moves to a newer version – the ES9028-Q2M. This is designed for mobile use and is more compact and energy efficient than the older model. The formats that the HA-2SE supports are identical to the HA-2 but this is not so much a sign of weakness as it is that that original version supported all the formats that a mobile DAC was ever likely to encounter – and indeed a few that it is fairly unlikely to.
The digital input is still a USB connection split into a micro type A which allows for connection to a computer and an Android device via an OTG cable and a standard type A connection that allows for connection of an iDevice via appropriate adapter. Selection between these is carried out by a physical switch on the lower edge of the unit – Oppo it seems, doesn't have much faith in auto sensing. The last input is an analogue one and makes use of the line output connection on the top edge of the chassis. Selecting the analogue connection turns it into a fixed level input which is then output via the variable headphone output only.
Connecting the DAC to a USB connection on a PC will require you to download a driver from the Oppo website – and this driver seems to be the same as the one required for the original HA-2 as I haven't had to change the existing driver installed on my laptop. Connecting a Mac or a mobile device, be it iOS or Android does not require a driver and the HA-2SE can handle formats up to including DSD connected in such a way.
As well as the DAC chip itself being changed, the major revision to the HA-2SE can be found in the output stage. Based on feedback from the original HA-2 and tests undertaken by Oppo themselves, the components that make up this section of the unit have been revised. This in part stems from the requirements of sensitive in-ear monitor units. While the original HA-2 has sufficient grunt to handle full size headphones including the company's own planar designs, the performance with IEMs – that didn't need anything like as much actual power to drive – wasn't as accomplished as devices like the Chord Mojo which had paid attention to the performance with the device running at lower levels.
DesignSave for the addition of an 'SE' on the model number, the HA-2SE looks identical to the original HA-2. This might be seen to be somewhat lacking in ambition but in reality there was little point in Oppo messing around too much with the design of the HA-2. Put simply, the Oppo is both elegant and extremely clever.
The elegance should be pretty much self explanatory from the pictures. The HA-2SE is utterly non derivative and manages to feel like a special piece of equipment. The controls are well thought out and logically arranged – although the SE is still missing an at- a-glance sample rate indicator that would be useful at times. The details are also brilliant. I love the leather binding effect and having used the original HA-2 for a considerable length of time, it also appears to be very hard wearing. The rotary volume control feels fantastic and offers excellent fine adjustment. Oppo has also been careful to place it in such a way that it seems to be very resistant to snagging or 'pocket adjustment.'
There's real cleverness here too. The shape of the HA-2SE makes it more pocket friendly than the Chord Mojo – or even arguably the Audioquest Dragonfly – as it simply sits flat against the rear of most phones and is much the same size. As the controls are along the edges, there is no real need to get to the 'front' while it is against a phone or other device. Across the time when I have had access to both the original HA-2 and the Chord Mojo, I frequently picked the Oppo over the technically superior Chord because it was easier to carry about for the day. The build quality is also excellent and the device feels well worth the asking price.
The Oppo also retains one feature that is superbly useful for people looking to streamline the clutter on their person. Unique (as far as I know), to the HA-2 (and thus, HA-2SE) is the ability to stop using it as a DAC and switch it over to operating as an external battery for a phone or tablet. This will obviously kill the Oppo's battery life at a rate of knots but given the choice between listening to another song or being able to phone for a taxi from the station at midnight, I know which one I'd choose. The 3000 mAh lithium polymer battery can provide enough charge to give my smartphone a 20% boost in about 30 mins and Oppo quotes the life when being used to power the unit listening to USB at seven hours.
Put simply, the Oppo is both elegant and extremely clever
How was the HA-2SE tested?The Oppo has been tested with a Lenovo T530 ThinkPad running Windows 7 and then additionally as a mobile device with a Motorolo Moto G4 and a Pioneer XDP-100R DAP. It was then tested with the Sonus faber Pryma, Oppo PM-3 and Sennheiser PXC550 headphones and Noble Dulce Bass earphones. Material used has included lossless and high res FLAC, AIFF and DSD along with compressed material from various sources. Tidal was also used including the Tidal Masters service.
Sound QualityAs we're all busy people, I shall deal with a pertinent pair of questions right from the outset that I suspect a few people will be asking. If you already own an HA-2, there is no point chopping it for an HA-2SE but with this proviso in place, there are some worthwhile improvements in the new model that might tempt new buyers.
The good news is that nothing the HA-2 did well has been lost, ameliorated or otherwise adversely altered in the change to SE spec. Listening to the splendidly eccentric Rennen by SOHN on Tidal via a pair of the PM-3 headphones, the performance is still very convincing. The Oppo has the required power and grip to take these slightly demanding headphones get the best from them. Tonality is natural and the performance is spacious and refined without ever tipping over into sounding overly smooth let alone dull.
This is also one of the more sensibly priced devices on the market that can really show some of the benefits of high res audio. Listening to the Tidal Master of Sturgill Simpson's A Sailor's Guide to Earth is a truly lovely experience on the Oppo. There is an unforced naturalness to the way it makes music that is genuinely lovely to listen to and enjoy for extended periods. Well implemented high res products don't add things to the music that shouldn't be there, they simply let it flow in a manner that suggests that nothing so base as decoding is going on.
Where the HA-2SE kicks on from the original model is if you use earphones. For the sake of clarity, the original model is far from poor in this area but the use of lower volume levels did rob the performance of some of the sheer grip that was present when using it at higher levels. The SE manages to sound that little bit more punchy and exciting than its predecessor. There is a sense that you get the same levels of grip and control at all volumes now and this makes for a more exciting listen when using the sort of volume levels that a pair of IEMs will need.
In some other regards, the HA-2SE is possibly a little too like its predecesor. At the time of the original review, I didn't really pick up on the change in performance when you switch to the high gain setting. When compared to the Chord Mojo – which does without a gain setting and instead has oodles of headroom applied in a linear fashion – the Oppo's high output setting sounds a little strained and lacking some of the superb smoothness and control of the low gain setting. If you have the choice to run the HA-2SE in the lower gain setting, do so, even if your are running it near full tilt. If you really need huge levels of gain, the Mojo remains the better bet. In comparison, the bass boost function merely seems a bit unnecessary. The bass of the HA-2 is excellent in the normal setting and somewhat exaggerated with it on. Unless your headphones or earphones are very bass shy, you are unlikely to need it.
With the gain set to low and the bass unaugmented though, the HA-2SE is a seriously accomplished piece of equipment. Like the HA-2, there is an assurance with basslines and high tempo material that is a real tonic for music that needs it. Listening to Levitation on the latest Vitalic album Voyager, the Oppo is absolutely in its element. This is a device that gets the head nodding and toes tapping. It wants nothing more than to deliver every crunching electronic note and riff with the vigour of a well sorted club system. What is most impressive is that when you listen to music that doesn't need this, very little trace of it remains. If you are a dance or rock fan though, this is going to be too good to pass up.
Where the HA-2SE kicks on from the original model is if you use earphones
- Entertaining sound
- Excellent industrial design
- Useful features
- Bass boost somewhat unsubtle
- Does best work in low gain
- No sample rate indicator
Oppo HA-2SE DAC & Headphone Amp ReviewAt the time of writing this review, only Apple has removed the headphone socket from their phones. The true worth of this category of product will only really be seen if (or as I suspect, when) other brands follow suit. To be clear, for most people, Bluetooth or other proprietary wireless devices will get the job done but a subset of people will want to keep using their existing hardware.
What the Oppo HA-2SE does is make an already tempting product that little bit better. The more even performance at lower volume levels and that very slight extra sweetness to the presentation make for a product that has considerable appeal and one that opens up a bit more of a performance advantage to new arrivals like the Audioquest Dragonfly Red. When you throw in the continued virtues of the design for use as a device on the move, you have a piece of kit that comes Highly Recommended.
Ease of Use9
Value for Money8
Our Review Ethos
To comment on what you've read here, click the Discussion tab and post a reply. Write your Oppo HA-2SE review.