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RE: Which balanced amp/?

Some useful info:

There are several "balanced" headphone amps on the market, but basically there are two types to choose from.

My DNA Sonett, for example is of the first type. It has true, differential balance output by way of a single center tapped output transformer while using a single active amplification stage. The benefits of this type of balanced-drive design include better channel separation (less crosstalk between channels/better isolation of back EMF between channels) for less overall distortion.

The second (and most expensive!) type of balanced amp uses a differential output stage with two separate active devices (one per channel, of course). This type of balanced-drive headphone amp provides all of the sonic benefits of the first type but, in addition (because of the dual active devices), you'll also get a doubling of the slew rate and voltage swing power for faster transients and better dynamics. In other words, the benefits of balanced-drive are fully realized here for a cleaner and more powerful sound with the lowest possible distortion.

Be aware that a true balanced-drive amp does not need to have balanced XLR INPUTS (as well as balanced XLR outputs), as some might claim. MY (early model) DNA Sonett uses single-ended RCA inputs and dual 3-pin XLR outputs, for example.

Perhaps the most famous FULLY balanced headphone amp (called "The Blockhead" now discontinued) was made by balanced headphone pioneer Tyl Hertsens (former owner of Headroom Corp.). Essentially, it was a dual mono headphone amp joined in the middle to make one stereo amp. It had balanced inputs as well as balanced outputs for use in a fully balanced system. This is why it was once more common to see balanced headphone amps made with dual 3-pin XLR output jacks for connection to matching balanced headphone cables - mostly because Headroom's balanced amp designs used dual 3-pin XLR outputs and matching dual 3-pin XLR headphone cables. Nowadays, it is more common to see balanced headphone amps using single 4-pin XLR jacks that do the same job just as effectively while saving on cost, space, and complexity. You almost never see balanced headphone amps with dual 3-pin XLR outs any more as single 4-pin has become the new standard.

Balanced amplification is worth pursuing for that last bit of hifi performance but it must be admitted that there are many fine sounding headphone amps that are NOT balanced-drive designs. A pleasing tonal balance might be more important to you than the best detail resolution and the most ear-popping dynamics, so choose accordingly.

Try to attend a Can-Jam so that you can audition several different types of headphone amps before buying, if at all possible. Follow your ears.

Edits: 03/07/16 03/07/16 03/07/16 03/07/16

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