British HiFi Heritage Arrives in the Headphone World With Arcam's rHead Page 2


The Setup When reviewing any component, I normally go to great lengths to place it with corresponding gear that makes sense for that particular product. That's one reason I like to keep so much equipment handy—much to my wife's chagrin. The way I see it, evaluating a flagship headphone should also involve a high-end source and top quality amplification. In other words, a system representative of one likely to be assembled in the real world. On the flip side, a $200 headphone should not be reviewed using a dCS DAC and an Apex Pinnacle amp. That's just not fair. For that, I'd use a more modest system, revealing enough to get to the heart of the headphone without giving it an unrealistic advantage.

With the rHead, I actually didn't have to assemble a system at all. Instead, I worked it into my existing speaker rig, which seems to me like something Arcam would expect from their target market. Not that it can't be used in a dedicated headphone setup, but rather that Arcam fans are more likely to already own a speaker-based system, and might be interested in dipping their toes into the headphone scene for the first time.

That's not to say my system is by any means low quality. It starts with a Panamax 5510 Pro balanced power conditioner—mainly for protection though I do feel it lowers the noise floor a bit (likely due to eliminating ground loop issues). Sources include an older (but still quite good) custom made CAPS V3 Zuma music server with linear power supply, as well as an Oppo BDP-93 universal spinner. These feed into a Matrix Audio X-Sabre DAC, then over to an Anthem MRX-310 processor which drives a NuPrime ST-10 amplifier, and finally out to a pair of Usher Mini One Diamond speakers. It's a great sounding rig, very honest and revealing without breaking the bank by an absurd amount. What it doesn't do is handle headphones very well—the Anthem has a headphone jack which gets the job done for casual listening, but isn't capable of bringing out the best in my favorite headphones.

Enter the rHead. Since I use RCA interconnects for the speaker system, I can tap the XLR outs from the X-Sabre without impacting the chain. Slip the Arcam into the mix, select XLR via the rear panel switch, and I'm off to the races. I don't even have to power up the Anthem processor at all. Most components in this rig went for something like $1,000 to $1,500 when new, with the speakers being quite a bit more and the Oppo being less. That's certainly more than the $599 Arcam, but keep in mind the age factor. Everything in this system has been around for 2-4 years, so used prices would be right in line with a new rHead—making for a nicely balanced real-world system.

The Sound
The rHead is not one of those flashy amps that jump out at you from the very first moment you hear it. There's not the same sense of excitement or "bite" I sometime experience when auditioning a new amp. Which is actually a good thing in the long run—amps that immediately stand out as being vividly expressive tend to become fatiguing after a while. That's really not what I'm after. No, the Arcam exhibits a quiet confidence, with a natural sound that only gets better as time goes by. The more I listen, the more I want to forsake my various responsibilities and just keep listening all day. That's always a good sign.

I'd call the signature both neutral and natural, with a great balance between detail retrieval and musicality. I particularly like the way Arcam handles the critical upper midrange and high frequency spectrum—this is about as nuanced an amp as I've heard without spending crazy money. Imaging and soundstage, though obviously very different from what I normally experience from the speaker side of this system, are also top-of-class. This is a seriously satisfying headphone amp with no apologies needed for price or size.

The Arcam was able to properly drive nearly every headphone in my collection with ease. From low impedance dynamic designs like Fostex and Grado, to planar magnetic cans like HE-1000 and LCD-3, higher impedance Sennheiser and beyerdynamic models, and even sensitive in-ear monitors, the rHead was happy to oblige. Only two significant outliers surfaced during all my listening: the stubborn HiFiMAN HE-6 (which is not unexpected in the least), and an extremely sensitive armature-based in-ear monitor prototype (which shall remain unnamed due to not being a commercial product just yet).

The HE-6 sounded bright and thin, as is almost always the case when not being driven by a beastly amp. There's just not enough juice here to do it justice—again, no surprise at all. The ultra-sensitive IEM actually did fine with quiet recordings, which describes much of my classical and jazz collection. The problem came when playing louder modern tracks, where I found the lowest volume setting was still too loud for my taste. Due to the design of this volume solution, it doesn't keep tapering off to infinity as a standard potentiometer would. There's a lowest possible setting, and below that it drops off to silence. Shaving a few more dB off the incoming signal using a DAC with onboard volume capabilities should solve that problem. The DAC I was using at the time didn't have that luxury and I didn't bother exploring any further just for a single IEM that isn't even available for purchase.

Aside from those two, everything else played flawlessly. If forced to whittle the list down to best pairings, I found a few particularly pleasing matches. First, my Noble Audio K10 custom IEM. Volume wasn't an issue at all, and I actually ran the volume knob around 12 o'clock for most music. This combo had a liquid, flowing feel to it, with an inky black background contributing to superb detail retrieval. My initial impression when playing some Jacintha followed by Art Tatum was one of a very slight leanness, but switching over to the punchy indie-pop of Malasian artist Yuna or the weighty prog metal of Ayreon told a different story. The rHead can do exceptionally full bass impact when called upon to do so. It's just so neutral that it doesn't add artificial warmth like some of my other amps. This is not a problem at all with the K10 or other similarly voiced IEMs, but an already thin sounding Etymotic ER4 or similar might not be an ideal match—unless you're very much prepared for that type of sound (I now some people who love it). Again, this is just honesty rather than some shortcoming on Arcam's part.

My next favorite would be the venerable Sennheiser HD650. This classic set of cans is known to scale well with better gear, and its current street price of around $350 is not prohibitive. (Remember when these went for $599 new?) The rHead drives the high-impedance Senn with precision, removing the "veil" I hear from less synergistic amp pairings. I was struck by the clarity of various woodwinds played by multi-instrumentalist Yusef Lateef on the 1991 OJC issue of Eastern Sounds—my favorite version of what is arguably his best work. The HD650 isn't the best with really deep bass reproduction, and the Arcam, not being an overly warm amp, will not help matters in that area. Still, the combo is punchy and solid, showing a vice-like grip on Avishai Cohen's 70's era Fender Jazz bass guitar to name just one example of many. If you value articulation over slam, this is a killer combo for under a grand. And it's always good to revisit the HD650 from an excellent amp to remind me just how much detail they can tease out of a good recording, while keeping their signature sense of ease.

Lastly, my Audeze LCD-2 sounded delightful paired with the Arcam. This is an older, pre-Fazor version, but not so old that it has the foamy headband. I believe we called these the LCD-2.2 at one point—I sure wish Audeze kept better track of their revisions. Anyway, the articulate Arcam and the thick, rich Audeze meet somewhat in the middle, the resulting sound being the best I've heard on this pair of cans in quite some time. The Arcam does what it can to sidestep the somewhat flat presentation inherent in this particular version, while playing to its strengths: growling sub-bass snarl and a creamy midrange that almost makes me forget about the lack of soundstage. While not the most powerful amp in the world, the rHead drives the big Audeze planars with an authority I associate with amps sporting four-figure price tags. Overall a very engaging combo.

To the more "traditional" audiophile out there reading this, I know what you're thinking: that little wall-wart has got to go. Surely it's holding back the potential of this otherwise well-executed design, right? I was thinking along those same lines, which is why I specifically asked the designer about it. Though he didn't think it would really help, he nonetheless encouraged me try a linear power supply as part of my evaluation. So I asked around until I found a friend willing to loan me a compatible unit—the Teddy12/2 from highly-regarded PSU designer Teddy Pardo.

Looking at this beefy unit as it surpassed the rHead in both size and weight, it was hard to keep expectations in check. If nothing else, deeper, more palpable bass impact was sure to follow. And yet...I didn't really notice a change. True, the Pardo PSU did give spectacular sound, but to my surprise that same result continued when I went back to stock. Over and over, I thought to myself "maybe this time I'll spot the difference". Yet time after time, I failed to do so. Switching between the two required more effort than I would have liked, so perhaps there really is some appreciable difference in there somewhere...but after much listening I'm not convinced. This speaks very highly of Arcam's ability to design a compact and efficient amp.

As I returned the Linear PSU, its owner suggested it may have been the power conditioner in my system at play. Perhaps by providing squeaky clean balanced power, it somehow gave the wall-wart an unfair advantage that wouldn't exist under normal circumstances. He offered to extend the loan of the Teddy unit, but at that point I was done with excruciating comparisons. His theory sounds perfectly reasonable, but so too did the idea of a big heavy linear power supply making an obvious difference—and that turned out not to be true. The thing is, I've heard clear improvements using power supply upgrades on my other gear, even with this same conditioner in the mix. So I'm going to stick to my original conclusion—the rHead doesn't respond to expensive power supply upgrades, so you probably shouldn't bother (and this is a good thing). But if you must, be sure to keep expectations very much in check.

How does the rHead compare to the competition? Is the Arcam pedigree worth anything in this context? No punches pulled here—I went straight to the Wall-of-Fame-winning Lake People G109P to test the Arcam's capabilities. I can think of many similarly priced alternatives which make the rHead look good without question—Lehmann Audio Rhinelander, Burson Soloist SL, and Woo Audio WA7 just to name a few—but that's not really the point. I wanted to challenge the newcomer with my favorite amp in this price range.

The G109P and rHead are very well matched in most aspects. Inputs are the same, both have dual headphone outs, both are roughly similar in size with the Brit being wider and the German being deeper. Lake People brings more power to the table as well as an internal linear power supply. Arcam sports a more refined volume control and somewhat more attractive aesthetics.

On sound, they aren't massively different either. Both are generally neutral though in comparison the G109P seems a tad warmer and more smooth, while the Arcam digs deeper in terms of detail retrieval and imaging. If you look at my favorite rHead pairings above, those tend to be warmer headphones, complimented very well by Arcam's articulate top end. The G109 seems a better match with HD800, HE500, all manner of Grado, and other cans that can be somewhat bright. Not to say the Arcam doesn't work with those but given the choice each amp has its particular strengths. This could ultimately be considered a tie, and both amps remain very highly recommended in the $500-750 price bracket.

The Arcam rHead is an exciting product for several reasons. First, and most obvious, are its sonic properties, which I find quite satisfying across the board. It's a clean, neutral sound with excellent resolution that avoids any faux-HiFi shenanigans. This comes in a well built, attractive, and relatively compact presentation suitable for integration into most any system. That's already a good start.

The second portion of my excitement comes from seeing a classic audio brand apply themselves so successfully to a dedicated headphone amp. Not a multi-purpose DAC or integrated amp with a decent headphone stage, as so many seem to be releasing these days, but a genuine headphone amplifier. This lends credibility to the headphone world and, if all goes well, should encourage others to follow suite. Within the next few years I'd love to see similar options from the likes of NAD, Rotel, Marantz, Parasound, etc. More competition, more choice, more retail space carved out for headphone gear in dedicated audio shops and maybe even big-box stores like Best Buy.

Lastly, and probably key to the whole thing, is the price being very reasonable for such a competant amp. It's great to see reference caliber models from Pass Labs and Simaudio but their $3,500+ price tags make them off-limits for many audiophiles. Even the Bryston headphone amp (which is roughly half as much) is still pretty steep for a lot of people. At $599, the Arcam is an excellent amp priced within reach of most buyers, while not being so cheap as to require compromise in quality. Is it on the level of the Pass Labs HPA-1, which I absolutely adore? No, but the Arcam might be a more "important" amp in the long run.

With Lake People soon refreshing their lineup and thus doing away with the G109, it seems appropriate to retire that model and place the Arcam rHead on the Wall of Fame. Arcam's first dedicated headphone product is a clear winner, and sets a very high bar for others to follow—just like their A60 integrated did all those years ago.

Arcam home page and rHead product page.

The West Wing
Stirling House, Waterbeach
Cambridge CB25 9PB, UK

norsemen's picture


You gave an award to IHA-6 too now this one. When will you update the wall of fame?

John Grandberg's picture
Tyll will be working on that in the next few days. The Icon and Lake People amps are being retired - Icon changed the design/raised the price, while G109 is soon to be discontinued. So the Cayin and Arcam fit those price slots nicely.
tony's picture

Where is Audio Research Corp.?, Conrad-Johnson?, etc.

It doesn't help that "new" headphone designs don't need Amplifier Power ( Chord Mojo doesn't even have an Amplifier section).

Still they are very late, all things considered.

Jerry Harvey just addressed Google Talks, he described how his in-ear-monitor business ( in 2003, I think ) increased 1,000% when he started selling to Audiophile owner's of iPods. He says he can't keep up with the demand for "Universal" fit designs, he only builds high-performance stuff, nothing for the ear-bud folks. His stuff is "Pricy"!, he speaks of Astel & Kern gear too, he's talking about $5,000 systems, for god's sake.

I suspect all these outfit's Amp designs are too-late. Headphones like Focal's new designs are super efficient, joker's last Audio-technica in-ear review device is astonishingly efficient, the "new" generation of Audiophiles will have a Phone with an "Audiophile" DAC and a HD download ability ( LG's V20 quad DAC phone is just being released ). High quality DACs can now be built with super efficient DAC chips.

Headphone Amps are the past. Can we have a glimpse of the future? I'll be reading you when you pull the curtains back.

I figure this Innerfidelty group will be the first to give a "useful" description of the next Generation of product releases.

The future: look out, here it comes.

Tony in Michigan

John Grandberg's picture

Believe me Tony, I'm always on the hunt for game-changing gear to review. Unfortunately it's a lot easier for companies to make promises than actually deliver on them, so a lot of this stuff ends up being rather disappointing in real world use.

My latest was the Bragi Dash wireless "smart earphones" which had lots of promise but didn't work out so well in practice. At $300 there's no way I can recommend them over wires IEMs costing even a fraction of that price. Plus, I can add the $99 Noble Audio BTS to any IEM and make it Bluetooth - and it will still sound great!

As for Jerry Harvey, of course business picked up when the iPod launched. Why wound't it? I'm sure the same could be said by Westone and Etymotic and other IEM makers of that time. Not sure what that has to do with "the future" though. Jerry can make some great IEMs but let's not forget his JH-3A debacle.... sometimes the drive for a paradigm shift just doesn't pan out.

Bottom line is the vast majority of audiophiles will continue using traditional wired headphones for quite some time. And that means traditional headphone amps like this will always have a place. While the Chord Mojo doesn't "need" external amplification, let's not kid ourselves.... its Class A biased output stage made from 6 small transistors in parallel certainly does count as an onboard "amplifier", even if the overall design is unique.

I figure this Arcam is a step in the right direction though. Perhaps one day they'll stuff these same guts into their higher-end integrated amps, giving much better performance than is usually available in that context. Planar magnetic and many traditional dynamic headphones will continue to need quality amplification despite advances in efficiency on some headphone models.

tony's picture

Well, ok, I'll have to subscribe to Tidal, instead of buying more CDs, I'm ok with that, my CD library is already getting far too Space demanding.

Sure, Audiophiles ( like me ) will still have wired Sennheisers ( maybe Focal ) and my lovely Schiit Asgard 2 ( or perhaps a Felikes Tube Rolling Amp ) but I'm active and travel, I'll want a nice portable ability ( a phone and Etymotic ) plus I need the LG Tone bluetooth connect to my phone for communications.

DIY Audiophiles will still exist, ( although we're older and dying off ). DIY Remote control Model Airplanes still exist with younger lads taking it up, Ham Radio is still around but mostly its old geezers (like me ), DIY Woodworking is Huge and getting bigger, much bigger, Harley Motorcycles is getting Huge. Now, a Global distribution system for 100% of the Worlds Music is about to become available, I presume thru Audiophile Phones like LG's V20.

5 years from now we'll look back and say: wow!

Tony in Michigan

silverarrows5's picture

Greetings John,

Gonna review the IFI-AUDIO PRO Series anytime soon?


John Grandberg's picture
I have one here and will be writing it up soon.
Chiumeister's picture

At this price and as good as the 430HA, that's incredible.

John Grandberg's picture
I didn't say it was just as good as the 430. I said the volume control design has a lot of similarities, in terms of design as well as heritage (both came from another more expensive model in the lineup). I don't love the 430 quite as much as Tyll but I still think it's an excellent amp. This little Arcam is also excellent but not on the same level, unless we're talking value where it may have the edge.
uhhmike's picture

hows this compare to the tisbury ca1? theyre not available anymore. im looking for a neutral SS amp to pair with two planars i have, and one lean towards the warmer side, but both are neutrally tuned. do you think this amp would pair good w/ a slightly warm pair of cans? does it sound similar to CA1 amp by tisbury? just curious

Seler's picture

If it paired so well with LCD 2.2, can we assume it will also play well with the new LCD2 Classic? Any thoughts on that?

CVGRich's picture

My understanding is the 3s do better with more power. Did you try this amp with your LCD 3's?