Germany's autobahn highway system has no speed limits, and I sometimes wonder if it's a coincidence that so many of the world's best headphones -- Ultrasone, Sennheiser, and Beyerdynamic -- all hail from there. The Germans passion for technical excellence knows no bounds, so when Beyerdynamic sent over its new amp, the A 2 ($1,699) and flagship T 1 headphones ($1,399) I was eager to check them out. The T 1 isn't new, and while I've always liked it, I didn't love it. Maybe the A 2 would make the magic happen. They also sent the more affordable A 20 amp ($679); both amps were designed and made in Germany.
The company has been on a roll lately, itsis the best on-ear headphone I've heard, beating out the , , and Bowers & Wilkins P5. Beyerdynamics' ($119) are also tops. So Beyerdynamic doesn't just make superb high-end headphone gear; their more-affordable stuff is damn good.
The two low-profile amps are elegantly understated designs, but only the A 2's glass top reveals a sprinkling of orange glowing LEDs that remind me of tubes (the A 20 has a metal top). The A 2 has two pairs of stereo RCA inputs and two 6.3mm headphone jacks; the A 20 has a single set of stereo inputs and two 6.3mm headphone jacks.
The A 2's impedance selector switch optimizes performance for either low-impedance (under 100 ohm) or high-impedance (over 100 ohm) headphones (the A 20 doesn't have the switch). Unfortunately, the switch is mounted on the A 2's bottom panel, so you have to pick up the amp to change the impedance setting. I imagine that most folks considering buying an A 2 would likely have more than a couple of high-end headphones, some low impedance, some high impedance, so it would have been nicer to have the switch in a more convenient position.
With my 15-year old 300-ohm Sennheiser HD 580 headphones, the sound from the A 2 was awfully good. This headphone can sound dull and blah with a lot of amps, but here with the A 2, their sound was beautifully transparent and detailed, and the soundstage was wide open. Switching over to the much newer 150-ohm Sennheiser HD-700, the sound was more immediate and brighter in tone. The 600-ohm Beyerdynamic T 1's sound was even more vivid in its presentation, with more three-dimensional body than either of the Sennheisers. The T 1 sounds more -- for lack of a better word -- "organic" and less like reproduced sound. There's oodles of resolution, matched with tonal warmth, and that's an irresistible combination. I used a DCS Puccini CD/SACD player for all of these listening tests.
As for low-impedance full-size headphones, the first one I tried was the new 45-ohm Shure SRH1540, this is a much warmer and richer sounding headphone than the aforementioned ones, so the A 2 sounded more like a tube amp. My old 32-ohm Grado RS-1 headphones also proved a great pairing with the A 2; the sound was beautifully balanced and clear. Ditto for the 46-ohm Westone ES60 in-ear headphones.
When I compared the A 2 with one of my reference headphone amps, the Hifiman EF6, there was a marked difference in transparency. The EF6 was no slouch, but the A 2 better illustrated what makes the T 1 so special. There's no false "detail" or edge to the sound -- it just sounds right. Then I played the Audeze LCD-X headphones on the EF6, and T 1 headphones on the A 2 amp, and the Beyerdynamic combination was definitely clearer than the LCD X/EF6. Frankly, I was surprised -- the LCD X is a high-resolution champ, but the synergy between the T 1 and A2 was clear. With the LCD X and T 1 headphones, the EF6 had a fuller, more dynamic sound, but the A 2's bass was better defined, less boomy than the EF6's.
I also spent some time listening to the T 1 headphones with my old Schiit Audio Valhalla tube headphone amp. They sounded sweet together, not as pure as the A 2/T 1 combo, but the Valhalla added more warmth and body to the sound, which I liked.
One significant downside to the A 2 is power: it's not powerful enough to drive my Abyss AB-1266 and Hifiman HE-6 headphones, but to be fair, those two are especially-demanding designs. Few high-end amps can play nice with those two headphones.
The A 20 amp was a step down in resolution from the A 2, but the basic character of the Beyerdynamic sound was present. The A 20 is good, but the A 2 is great, even though there's no difference in power between the two amps.
Note: If you have something to get off your chest about the audio or music business, or maybe a wish list of products that need to be invented, write a 400-to-600-word piece, and you could be the. Send your copy to TheAudiophiliac (at) hotmail-dot-com, and paste the text into the copy of the email (don't attach files, please), and please understand that your copy will be edited. The winning article will post in late June or early July. The deadline for entries is Friday, June 20, 2014.