Oppo’s thoughtful new HA-2SE DAC/headphone amplifier brings lush and percussive sound to your iPhone 7 (or 6 / 6s). Their earlier HA-2 was great and the new version is even better. I recently spent time auditioning and using the $299 HA-2SE and was impressed by its intelligent design and packaging, and its bulletproof operation. I thought the sound was a valuable improvement over what is available directly from an iPhone, either the Lightning-to-headphone adaptor in the case of the iPhone 7 (see the first of this series), or via Bluetooth.
Oppo built its reputation a dozen years ago by launching “play anything” disc players at a fraction of the price of the big names like Denon or Pioneer. By “play anything” I mean that these machines could play Super Audio CDs (SACDs), DVD-Audio discs, traditional video DVDs, and later Blu-ray discs. I know from personal experience in the design of Boston Acoustics’ Avidea 770 system that this is really challenging, because the different disc technologies require everything from different disc controllers to different laser light wavelengths to different decoding chip sets, not to mention dealing with MANY dozens of technology licensing companies like Dolby or Fraunhofer IIS or the DVD Consortium.
So when I saw that Oppo was making a high-end-but-reasonably-priced headphone amplifier and digital-to-analog convertor (DAC) for computers and smartphones, a device that could play FLAC, Ogg-Vorbis, DSD and various other audio formats and have a variety of connection options, I knew it would be a great performer and would be well thought out. I was not disappointed. I believe the earlier HA-2 and new HA-2SE hold particular relevance for the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus since these new phones lack headphone jacks.
What’s in the box is worth talking about…
Consumers these days are used to getting all sorts of stuff in the box whenever they buy electronic products. Besides the engaging safety documents and instructions in 275 world languages, you often get a bunch of cables of which you need one and the rest go in a drawer. I’m partially joking of course, because it is very thoughtful of manufacturers to include a wealth of connectors and doodads so I’ll be guaranteed to success in hooking up the device.
Oppo, too, included a bunch of wires, but a short lesson in “how you connect a DAC headphone amp to your phone” to appreciate what they’ve done that competitors have not. I’ll explain this with the iPhone in mind, but it’s the same for an Android phone. First, some terminology. When you charge or sync an iPhone, you use a cable with a USB-A plug (a metal rectangular plug about a half-inch across) at its “source” end that goes into the USB-A receptacle on your computer or wall charger. The destination end of a cable has a “male” (it identifies this way) Lightning connector that plugs into the Lightning receptacle on the phone. These Lightning charger cables are pretty common — if you have an iPhone you probably have a few of these cables.
With most DAC headphone amp products, you can’t use this cable; here’s why. The DACs also depend on a USB cable to hook to their source, which most classically is a computer. Such a DAC, as with the FiiO Q1 which I’ll be reviewing separately, requires a cable with a USB-A plug at its source to go into the USB-A receptacle at the computer. At the destination end of the cable is a USB Micro-B plug to insert in the receptacle on the DAC. This exact same cable is what most non-Apple products use as a charging and syncing cable.
So, where’s the problem?
The problem arises when you try to take a DAC headphone amp and hook it to your phone directly. You have two “destination” devices, and the standard cables leave you trying to put two USB-A plugs together.
Most DAC amp products leave you with one way out, to use an extra adapter, and guess what, Apple sells its version of this adapter for $29. It’s bummer finding out that you bought a nifty new FiiO Q1 for $69 and now need a $29 Apple adapter. Apple’s adapter is called the Lightning to USB Camera Adapter (there’s a $39 version as well) and enables you to hook a digital camera to your iPad to transfer photos. (To be clear, there are cheaper adapters as well, such as a <$10 one I got from Shenzhen on eBay.)
This adaptor essentially puts a USB-A receptacle on your iPhone or iPad. Now you can plug in all sorts of USB-connected devices directly into the iPhone kind of like it’s the computer now. For most DACs, you connect DAC to regular USB cable to adapter cable to iPhone. It’s a pleasure to carrying all this around for mobile listening. Seriously, I commute to work on public transportation, listening all the time, so avoiding a lot of extra wire is important to me.
How the Oppo HA-2SE succeeds in simplifying all this
Oppo solves this mess by putting a USB-A receptacle jack on the HA-2SE itself. In effect, they are using the USB jack backwards. While it has the receptacle jack, the Oppo is destination. You can just use a regular old Lightning charger cable that you use now for charging. The Oppo is essentially acting like a sound dock for your phone. In the box, Oppo thoughtfully includes an itty-bitty USB-A to Lightning cable so you don’t end up with a lot of bulk. They include the comparable little wire to use with an Android phone.
How does it sound?
I enjoyed the Oppo HA-2SE a lot. What struck me most was that percussive sounds were more percussive, and the sound in general, particularly the upper range, was more lush (my word for a combination of detail and delicacy).
This is the end
One of my favorite rock cuts ever is The End by The Doors. I took the opportunity to compare THREE different versions of the song across the Oppo HA-2SE, the FiiO Q1, and the headphone jack on my iPhone 6. (This sounds essentially the same as the Lightning to headphone adaptor supplied with an iPhone 7). The three versions are:
- The original mix, in a DSD 192 MHz/64Fs mix, per the Acoustic Sounds website, “mastered by Doug Sax using an all-tube system. Overseen by Bruce Botnick, The Doors producer/engineer.” By design, based on what I’ve read, this version is very true to the original full length variant from The Doors’ first album.
- A slightly different stereo re-mix, from the 2008 The Future Starts Here: The Essential Doors Hits. This version positions instruments and voice the same, but is considerably more open and clear sounding. By comparison the DSD “original” is considerably darker sounding. To my ear, the readily available (i.e., streaming services) 2008 version is more appealing.
- The Apocalypse Now! Redux soundtrack version, an update of the original film mix, that is considerably different in that instruments are panned closer to center with reverberation added to give spaciousness, rather than the album mix which has instruments like percussion and bass panned to left and right to create a soundstage. I didn’t attempt to listen to a 5.1 version as would have been found in the 70mm release or later Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS releases, as that would be tricky to do meaningfully with headphones.
I also listened to the opening of the song, rather than the denser later parts, and to two sequences in particular, the entrance of percussion and bass in left channel, and Jim Morrison’s vocal entrance. In the case of the DSD version, I played if from the Onkyo HF player app, which can pass DSD program in DoP format (DSD over PCM) to products like the Oppo which are capable of decoding this stream. Comparing to just the plain old headphone jack (on phone or the Lightning adaptor in the case of iPhone 7 / 7 Plus) the sound was cleaner, and the tambourine smoother and less shrill and brittle. Frankly the 2008 “stereo re-mix” showed more of a difference. Is this because the “best quality” Rhapsody/Napster stream actually needed more help, and got it from the Oppo? I don’t think so, as the newer mix sounds better than the DSD no matter how I listen to it. I am sure some would consider this a heretical statement, but the song is plenty dark without a dull haze over the vocals in particular. I strongly believe that once the digital codec format is adequate enough to not affect sound, (256 kbps mp3 qualifies), the mix and mastering make a much bigger difference that exotic codec variants.
In the stereo remix the kick drum (timed to the bass) and tambourine enter in the left channel with more punch, clarity, but at the same time smoothness, listening through the Oppo. The bass in particular has more impact than the iPhone Lightning adaptor, or the Fiio Q1 I was auditioning, for that matter. The DSD version actually has more artificial reverb, seemingly to make up for the duller balance, in a sense reflecting the instruments panned to left channel with a reverberated version in the right channel. The Oppo was a fun tool for making these sorts of comparisons.
I should mention my listening was with the beyerdynamic T 51 i, which is a very neutral listening reproducer, an unusual quality in the age of Beats with big booming bass. I enjoyed listening with the Oppo HA-2SE, and as long as I have a jacket pocket, I enjoy using the Oppo on the go (I didn’t try its fancy rubber bands and pad that are designed to lash it to an iPhone). It’s a pleasing system to hear, one I would use long term. Did I mention, it can charge the phone as well? That’s handy when you are streaming audio over a cell connection and drawing down your battery.
You can’t use your headphone’s volume or play/pause/forward/back controls, or the microphone for that matter. Your special “made for iPhone” headphones or earbuds won’t have any special phone functions.
iPhone 7 / 7 Plus owner, this is significant
I can’t emphasize enough the significance of products like the Oppo HA-2SE now that the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus lack a headphone jack, leaving you only with the included Lightning to headphone adaptor or Bluetooth. If you are interested in good sound, and particularly if you’ve made the investment in high quality headphones or in-ear monitors, the Oppo HA-2SE is a great companion to your iPhone or Android.
© 2016 Stephen Shenefield