Topping EHA5 Headphone Amp Review
John Pickford plugs into this super value electrostatic headphone amplifier…
EHA5 Headphone Amplifier
AUD $699 RRP
Headphone listening is more popular than ever, yet electrostatic designs remain an esoteric proposition for most. This is primarily due to cost, as not only are the best designs expensive, but they require dedicated power – you can't simply plug them into the headphone socket on your amplifier.
Chinese manufacturer Topping seeks to change this state of affairs with its new EHA5, a dedicated electrostatic headphone amp – sometimes called an energiser – retailing at a modest $699 (or less if you shop around). A pair of Stax SR-L300s were used for the purposes of this review.
The EHA5 is a small box design – around half the width of a traditional hi-fi amplifier – built into an aluminium chassis with an attractive matt-black finish. A Stax-compatible 5-pin headphone output is situated at the centre of the front panel with a volume control to the right. Two switches appear on the left of the unit, the first being the power switch, which also allows the selection of balanced input and output (via either XLR or quarter-inch TRS combo connectors) or single-ended RCA on the rear panel. Also on the back panel is a 12 volt trigger section that facilitates the amp being connected to other Topping amps for simplified operation. Plus there's a USB interface specifically for firmware updates, which sits adjacent to the power socket for the 15V wall-wart power supply.
The second front-panel switch is for low or high gain operation; the higher option is better suited to more insensitive electrostatic designs. The higher gain works well with the SR-L300s, although the volume control needs to be dialled up past the mid-position for a decent level – around 2 or 3 o'clock seems normal in most situations. Upon power-up, the box emits a lovely warm, orange glow reminiscent of thermionic devices. However, there are no tubes inside the box, merely a pair of LEDs providing the valve-like light.
Used in conjunction with my Chord Qutest DAC streaming Qobuz, the Stax/Topping combo offers an entirely different listening experience from any dynamic headphones I have heard. Its trip-hammer transient response delivers the sort of openness, delicacy and subtlety that even my reference, twice-as-expensive Air Motion Transformer (AMT) headphones struggle to achieve.
Blur's latest album, The Ballad of Darren, is a great modern pop recording full of atmosphere, which this system replays with fantastic focus and transparency. Ambient cues, such as the layered reverb and slap-back echo on lead vocals, make for a sublime rendition of the opening track. Then St. Charles Square sees the band in more familiar Parklife territory, complete with a shouted 'oi' during the intro. However, a subtle snigger preceding it is a revelation previously unheard outside the electrostatic headphone experience. The panned electric guitars and wide-stereo drums replay with superior spatial definition, making the AMT phones sound shut-in by comparison.
While the electrostatics do a fine job of expressing much of the slam and drive of harder rock tracks, it's with more beautifully recorded music that this system shines brightest. The delicate acoustic backing of Norah Jones' Come Away With Me showcases the precise placement and spacing of instruments, while the expressiveness of the vocal performance reveals a tangible level of realism and emotional engagement that evades all but the very best systems.
Staying with recordings released on the Blue Note label, Herbie Hancock's Maiden Voyage is a classic mid-sixties jazz recording from master engineer Rudy Van Gelder's New Jersey studio. The composer's piano sits centre stage flanked by Freddie Hubbard's trumpet in the left speaker and George Coleman's tenor sax to the right. Despite the much-maligned piano sound, this system brings out the best of it in terms of clarity, along with the musical separation of the brass and woodwind; stereo soundstaging is superb.
The problem with electrostatic headphone and amplifier packages is that they're typically prohibitively expensive, but Topping's wallet-friendly EHA5 amplifier takes some of the sting out of the buying experience. Paired with Stax's relatively affordable SR-L300 electrostatic headphones, the result is a clean, sweet sound with an unrivalled level of timbral resolution, accuracy and musical coherence. Well worth an audition.
A professional recording engineer since 1985, John strives for the ultimate in sound quality both in the studio and at home. With a passion for vintage equipment, as well as cutting edge technology, he has written for various British hi-fi and pro-audio magazines over the years.
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