Topping L30 Headphone Amplifier Review
Rafael Todes is charmed by this dinky little budget headphone amplifier…
L30 Headphone Amplifier
The affordable headphone amplifier market is a crowded place, so making your mark in this jostled field is no mean feat. Having spent a few weeks living with it, I believe that the little Topping L30 deserves its place amongst the front runners.
Topping is a Chinese Company, established in 2008 and based in Guangzhou. It makes a range of products from DACs to headphone amps of the portable and desktop varieties, Class D power amplifiers, preamps and power supplies. Having created quite a buzz on forums and groups, it has recently been taken on in the UK by Electromod distribution.
This US$139 headphone amp is of diminutive proportions. It’s approximately the volume of four packs of cards, and has a pair of RCA inputs and a pair of RCA outputs that could drive a power amplifier, should you want to put together a bedside system without another preamplifier in the chain. The black acrylic front panel looks elegant but loves to show fingerprints; it has two toggle switches, the first offering a choice of Preamp, Headphone amplifier and power off. The second switch deals with the gain, with three positions – -9dB, 0dB and +9dB – giving enough welly to drive the most inefficient headphones.
The L30 is designed for one pair of headphones only, but still has a beefy linear power supply rather than a switching type. Inside, it uses two TPA6120A2 chips with what’s called a Nested Feedback Composite Amplifier (NFCA) – as found in the Topping A90, a more expensive bigger brother. This negative feedback mechanism gives a jaw-dropping claimed total harmonic distortion figure of 0.00007%. Power output is put at 3.5W into a 16 ohm load, which is impressive stuff for something of this size and price.
I started the audition period using my tried and trusted Sennheiser HD800S headphones, and the first thing I noticed was how effortlessly the Topping L30 drove this notoriously difficult load. The sound is really clean, with a solidity that comes from a low distortion design. Playing my old stalwart, the Simon Rattle recording of Haydn’s 88th Symphony streamed in hi-res from a Chord Dave and dCS Network bridge, I was struck by how decent the results were. I heard a fine soundstage, good detail and an extremely coherent overall musical picture.
Changing to a Graham Slee Solo Ultra Linear headphone amp – which retails at £670, so is an unfair but nevertheless interesting comparison – showed the areas where the Topping holds things back. The more expensive design was larger in scale and more full-bodied. There was a greater sense of space and richer orchestral details, particularly in the midrange. Interestingly though, this improvement really didn’t justify it costing over five times the price of the Topping. The latter still beguiled me with its taut and detailed sound with fine bass control.
Snarky Puppy's Shofukan showed the Topping at its best. The way it portrayed percussion – the razor sharpness of the attack of stick on skin – was quite a thing to hear. Bass control was excellent, the L30 painting its sonic textures brilliantly. I really liked the sense of timing and swing that it brought to this track; the only thing I missed was some midrange warmth.
I then changed to another pair of headphones, a design that I really rate in the budget sector; the Samson SR850 costs around £30 but sounds anything but. It proved a fine match for the Topping. Indeed things seemed louder and more dynamic due to it being an easier load and of higher sensitivity, yet it retained the fabulous bass performance of my expensive reference headphones. The refinement of the Sennheiser was missing to a greater degree in the Haydn piece with the Samson, but it proved a great pairing for rock and jazz with a lively and immersive sound.
Despite the crowded nature of the headphone amp market, I believe that Topping has a winner with the L30. It oozes value-for-money, is well designed, versatile and easy to use. Sure, it has its limitations when put up against more expensive gear, but realistically its performance is hard to beat for the money. Thoroughly recommended, if you need something with a great price/performance ratio.
Gifted violinist Rafael is one quarter of the Allegri String Quartet, playing second fiddle. Once a member of the CBSO under Sir Simon Rattle, he now teaches at London’s Junior Royal Academy. A long-time audiophile, he’s still on a quest for the perfect sound.
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