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Reviewer: Ryan Clarin
Sources: iPod 3rd generation, Sony D-25S portable CD player, Meridian G07, Meridian G08
Amplification: RSA Emmeline The Hornet [on review], RSA Emmeline SR-71, RSA Emmeline HR-2, Eddie Current EC-01 [on review], PS Audio GCHA [on review]
Cables: BPT IC-SL, Grover URs, Cardas mini-to-mini, Ted's EarCandy mini-to-mini, VH Audio Airsine w/ Oyaide Rhodiums, BPT L-10
Power: BPT PPC passive strip w/ Oyaide Rhodium outlets, Oyaide Rhodium outlet in wall
Review component retail: $350
Portable - 'tis a dirty word that budget-tight high school and college kids embrace while seasoned yet prudish HeadFi fanatics look down upon it in utter disdain and with considerable malcontent. The youngsters hoping to maximize fidelity and musical enjoyment from their iPods and portable CD players are the main crowd for the portable market. More - ahem, serious audiophiles comprise a lesser part of the portable demographic, probably in part due to a belief that portable players and amplifiers cannot match the fidelity, resolution and drive of their top-end players and Class A/tubed headphone amps. How much musical satisfaction can one really derive from a device as apparently inferior as an iPod? Who the hell would pay money for a little amplifier box which could prove an exercise in futility considering the source it's being asked to amplify? Is there any possible way that I could achieve close to the musical satisfaction I obtain from my more ambitious home rig?
The short answer is yes. I use my iPod pretty frequently when I commute or work out, fly out of town and so forth. The headphone output is decent enough but the internal amp leaves a lot to be desired, suffering noise, anemic bass and shelved-down dynamics. However, bypass the internal amp through the line out, hook up a decent amp and bass drive and dynamics improve and the noise floor drops. On the flip side, this does not match the soundstage and overall extension of my Meridian. Then again, the Meridian isn't exactly portable - nor are the Eddie Current or PS Audio headphone amps that happen to be in the review bin as well. There is plenty of musical satisfaction to be derived when listening to one's favorite music while on the morning commute or just basking in the surroundings of what nature has to offer. It is easy to confuse fidelity with musical enjoyment. Once you get past that notion, it is much easier to be musically happy with portable music and all the advantages it brings to the table - ease of access, transportability and low budget.
The Ray Samuels Emmeline SR-71 really changed a lot of people's minds about the art of portable audio. Up until that point, there were the HeadRoom amps which offered good sound and crossfeed at great prices. In the DIY world, open sharing of designs like the Cmoy and Mint on the Headwize forums allowed anyone with a budget to create or commission one of these tiny portable amps. In fact, commercial devices such as the PocketDock and Ram Din were created to allow users to utilize the iPod's line-out option. When portable duties come a'knocking, I use a DIY version called the TurboDock with my iPod and amp. The level of fidelity reached with lossless files such as AIFF or Apple Lossless comes relatively close to the real deal.
The Emmeline SR-71 was the first amp I ever bought. Little did I realize at the time that it truly should be considered hi-end. Other users were not only equally smitten with how well it drove their favorite cans from portable players but were amazed by how well things sounded over dedicated home-based systems to boot. The SR-71 had a scalability that conveyed the message - this was truly a neutral, transparent amp. It would not hold back whatever you hooked it up to. This was recently reaffirmed by a Stereophile review.
When coming over to Ray's place to demo his SR-71 as I did, not only does he invite you to hear it with your own budget source but he also hooks it up to his resident high resolution system. He then lets you compare it with his dearer offerings for differences some may find to be subtle at best. I bought the darn thing on the spot. The SR-71 was the catalyst into my HiFi foray and at the time revealed some key points of interest that I would take with me henceforth:
I had that SR-71 for quite a while and eventually upgraded to a Jolida 100a tubed CD player. The sound took on a different presentation and meaning. However, I had a chance to purchase Ray's HR-2 model -- a home-based unit with an external power supply -- at a ridiculously low price so I sold off the SR-71 to help fund the purchase. The HR-2 widened and deepened the soundstage, had a bit more bass drive and was tonally richer and fuller than the SR-71, aided in part by its fantastic power supply. Even with the eventual Meridian G07 upgrade that would take place soon thereafter, I missed the SR-71 from time to time. Its portability allowed access to music that could be taken anywhere. That door would remain closed to me for a bit.
Many users had issues with the SR-71 though. It was a bit too bulky to be the ideal portable amp and many saw it as overkill with portable sources because of its neutrality and transparency. Those qualities only seemed to magnify the differences between portable and dedicated players. Even though battery power and the simple yet effective power supply were probably a huge part to its success, the SR-71 ate batteries to add costs. Even with rechargeables, the hassle could get a bit cumbersome. There is also the panache factor that many audiophiles adhere to - show off good sound with good looks. Having the SR-71 wrapped in wires and adaptors hooked up to the Jolida and Meridian was a bit un-panachoid. The absence of a gain switch also meant too much gain for inner-ear monitors or too little for loud high impedance listeners. Despite its stellar sound and build quality, these thoughts resonated throughout HeadFi for quite some time. It appeared users felt compelled to eventually swap out their SR-71s for other portable amps that included additional options, among those the SuperMacro series developed by Dr. Xin.
This brings us to Mr. Samuels' latest portable concoction, the Emmeline Hornet. The Hornet is a single 9-volt, op-amp based amplifier that sports a 3-way gain switch and an AC input that allows the user to power the Hornet through an included AC adaptor when at home. The unit also boasts an internal rechargeable circuit that is powered by the same AC adaptor. It trickle-charges the Ni-MH battery to full capacity and will shut off when fully charged. Listening during recharge is possible. Due to its single 9-volt battery, the Hornet weighs about half of what the SR-71 did and does the same shrinking for the physical dimensions. When comparing the two, the SR-71 looks bulky and menacing, the Hornet leaner and cuter. The amplifier circuit itself is quite simplistic, adhering to a philosophy which Ray practices throughout his line.
The power supply features a huge 15,000microfarad filter capacitor with 3 rectifying diodes for regulation. A single op-amp is used to drive both channels and was chosen based on sound, technical specs and drive. According to Mr. Samuels, once he saw the chip's performance data, "it was crying out to be used." Sonically, Ray was taken aback by its old-school, vinyl-like sound, "how the voices and solos are placed more forward while increasing depth of the performers and instruments behind them." Ray also took keen note of a special midrange texture that was reminiscent of tube amps, with bass drive that "could kick serious butt". A buffer is used to increase output of the chip, which Mr. Samuels claims is "6 times more powerful than anything else on the market". As with the SR-71, the chips are painted over with red polish. Every cook is entitled to their secret sauce - as well as protection from the whole Grado RA-1 cloning fiasco.
Build quality is wonderful, expected by now from anything out of Ray Samuels' household. Beautiful gold silk screening is baked at the right temperature to ensure that no letters will rub off, checked by Ray himself with acetone. The front knob, input and output terminals are evenly spaced apart. The gain switch is on the back and juts out just a bit, requiring a fine nail to flick it. When asked why the switch isn't longer to allow easier access for gain switching, Ray explained that "when you are on the go and using sensitive inner ear monitors (such as my own 122dB/mw Shure E5s for example), you could go deaf if the switch were to be accidentally flipped from low to high gain." Two lug nuts can be twisted off to open up the back plate and access the battery bay. A silk-screened warning on the back of the battery drawer advises not to use non-rechargeable batteries with the included AC adaptor/recharger.
I had a couple of functional issues with the unit I purchased, serial #001 and thus first off the press. A few kinks remained to be sorted out. If my headphone or mini moved while listening, the connection would come in and out. This was a bit annoying considering that as a portable, it's natural that things move yet music would cut in and out along with it. Ray explained that the jacks used, even though heavy-duty rugged types, were not consistent with their measured specifications. He gladly changed out mine as well as all future production and I have not had any issues. As I turn the volume knob, I still hear a slight static through my headphones. Ray explained that this is just the pot wiping against the resistors and should not be a concern.
The unit needed a lot of burn-in time. Samuels warned that at least 300 hours would be needed. While I do believe in burn-in, 300 hours for a mere portable left me skeptical. At first, the soundstage was compressed and narrow. There was a forward and aggressive edginess to the sound. My 50 hours of workout then clearly weren't enough. During this time, Ray let me borrow his own Hornet that had 300 hours on it. I was startled by the difference. Gone was the grain and edginess, the soundstage blossomed outwards and bass was noticeably tighter and more linear. The unit still had a bit of forwardness but nowhere near as much as mine - plus there was increased depth behind the soloist. Ray explained that a big part of this burn-in requirement is due to the huge filter capacitor's dielectric. After clocking 350 hours on my baby, I was happy with what I heard by way of comparison to Ray's loaner and returned the latter.
Let's compare the Hornet with the more established SR-71 for a baseline reference. Music was an eclectic set of vocal and instrumental jazz, rock and some classical. The first noticeable difference had the Hornet place the soloist more forward while the SR-71 cast a more distanced perspective. Vocalists and instrumental solos with the Hornet were pretty much in your face as was the grunt and electricity of the guitar. This remained consistent with all my headphones, including the Shure IEMs, Grados and Sennheisers. There was a sense of depth behind the soloist but not as apparent as over the SR-71. It was a bit easier to hear the ambiance and air around the performers through the SR-71. Mr. Samuels explained that the Hornet will cut better through ambient noise during portable use and Rock fans should benefit from the Hornet's "bang bang" signature.
The SR-71 seems to allow more of the soundstage to bloom and expand though the Hornet's soundstage expanded much farther when hooked up to my Meridian yet retained the forwardness of the soloists. When the source improves, the performers around the soloist gain in depth and separation heightens.
Where the Hornet wins is timbre. I am a stickler for timbre and value it highly. The Hornet especially in the midrange has a sweetness that is quite addicting. Vocalists appear to have more guts and lower chest resonance while remaining tender and caressing at the same time. This transferred well to alto saxophone. The instrument gains bottom end support to its lower harmonics while this sweetness overlays the upper midrange harmonics for a very life-like tone. The SR-71 is drier, colder and more analytical. The SR-71's road of neutrality takes a minor right into euphony with the Hornet.
The Hornet also appears to have more brute drive than the SR-71. The SR-71 seems more demure, refined and laid-back whereas the Hornet simply wants to kick butt. The bass is more impactful and delivers more weight and slam. The sweet texture extends into the bass regions, something I noticed as well with the HR-2's AD797 op-amps. The HR-2 has deep, impactful bass with a nice texture, something the Hornet seems to share. Overall, the amp is fast and transients never feel like they are bottled up. The music has a sense of forward propulsion and can rock out.
The majority of my listening was over my iPod loaded with Apple Lossless and AIFF files, using the TurboDock line out device through a Cardas mini-to-mini interconnect. Shure's E5c 122dB inner-ear monitors are the most sensitive headphone devices currently on the market, something made even more apparent by going directly inside the ear canal. On the recommended low gain setting, the Hornet exhibits no noise until cranked to the max. Then a bit of hiss comes through, which is to be expected. This blackground created a vivid picture that let micro details shine. The Hornet/Shure E5 combo was a match made in heaven that none of the other amps present could match. With the EC-01, noise is already present at the lowest volume setting. Mechanical noise can be heard through the GCHA at its lowest gain setting while the HR-2's gain is simply too high. My RS-1s sounded great as well, its highs smoothed out while retaining bass slam and impact as well as its sweet midrange. The HP-1000s were a bit too smooth and warm with the Hornet, becoming a tad lifeless. The Sennheiser HD600s and 650s had a great headstage but a bit narrower than they did over the SR-71, with less focus and precision. This was consistent as well when using the Sennheisers with the EC-01, GCH and HR-2.
In addition to portable use, I made sure to give the Hornet time in my reference system hooked up to the Meridian G07 and G08 with all of my headphones. I found the Hornet and HR-2 to be close in timbre, both having a similar textural sweetness. The HR-2 had a noticeable edge with bass drive, dynamics and extension up top, with an overall more open soundstage and increased depth and separation. The HR-2 showed a higher level of system transparency, making differences between various recordings more apparent.
That is not to say the Hornet is colored per se, just that it seemed to impose its sonic signature more dominantly than the HR-2 as well as the SR-71 and other home amps I compared it to. When I switched out the iPod for my vintage Sony D-25S portable CD player, a vast improvement in sound occurred. The Hornet's soundstage became even more open with the Meridian again, with the performers surrounding the soloists stepping back a few feet for an enhanced sense of depth. Vertical and horizontal expansion were also evident and comparable to the other amps but the Hornet lacked their final bit of transparency and openness. The PS Audio GCHA exhibited an airy image precision and attention to the fine micro-details such as reverberant sound reflections. Those turned into a huge billowy soundstage which neither the Hornet nor the SR-71 could match.
The tubed Eddie Current EC-01 is effortless at capturing so much more spatial information than any of the solid-state amps I currently have, including the Hornet. The Hornet gets the timbre right but those beefy power supplies and more powerful output stages of the HR-2, EC-01 and GCHA give them an advantage in the soundstage department.
The one area where the Hornet was clearly left behind was in the treble. The Hornet did not have the treble extension, air, natural sparkle, clarity or definition that the big boys brought to the table. Brushed snare drum was a big indicator. You should experience a feathery type of feel and sound when the snare drum is played with brushes, something the HR-2, EC-01 and GCHA all portrayed while the Hornet sounded muted and smeared by comparison.
The GCHA was as focused as a surgeon's tool, highlighting each brush sound with the utmost clarity while never being harsh or offensive. The Hornet seemed to miss the memo. The same went for the HR-2 and EC-0. The tubes offered more air and the solid-stater gave more precision and focus while the Hornet simply lagged behind. The SR-71 proved more comparable to the bigger amps here.
At the end of the day, however, I cannot bring the Meridian or the other amps with me on my morning commute or to work out. If I were to try wearing my Grados or Senns out in public, I could regret it. Even the SR-71 is way too heavy and bulky to be used while on the go. This is where the Hornet trumps all. iPod and Hornet fit snugly into a little camera bag right into a coat pocket. The sonic signature of the Hornet also makes it more suitable with portable sources and in noisier environments. The SR-71 is a tad too neutral. It reminds us how these portable sources simply can't cut it next to the Meridians, Naims or Wadias waiting at home. The Hornet, on the other hand, injected life, sweetness, texture, dynamics and bass drive to my portable rig which I haven't enjoyed for quite some time.
Couple that with a gain switch that allows me to use my Shure E5s without hiss and the internal recharging circuit - I am still on my first battery after all these months and get at least 15 hours of use per charge (the SR-71 did 4-6 hours on one charge). I can heartily recommend the Hornet for portable duties. Like I said previously, I bought the first one off the line and have been very happy since. At $350, you get an extremely tiny package that simply performs. There are cheaper options through the DIY world but many times, those lack the build quality and support of someone like Mr. Samuels who goes beyond the call of duty for customer service.
While other home-based amps may represent a better value if you are planning on a dedicated home rig or to gain that extra percent especially in the treble, the Hornet's flexibility as a portable and home unit does allow the listener to stretch the dollar to satisfy both needs with exceptional drive and sweet timbre. To all you naysayers who feel that portable audio is an exercise in futility, get over it and realize that musical satisfaction and enjoyment can be easily achieved by taking your favorite music wherever and whenever it pleases you. That's not a "I would listen to my big rig if I just had the time" whining but actual enjoyment of music listening when you actually do have the time - on a park bench during lunch, during your subway commute coming from or going to work, on the exercise bike or climber... the opportunities are far more endless once you have a portable headphone rig to actually realize its utter usefulness.
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