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Headphones

Uber-headphones and amplifiers from Germany

The Germans are at it again, and headphone-maker Beyerdynamic sent a slew of great gear to the Audiophiliac.

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Beyerdynamic T 1 headphones and A 2 amplifier Steve Guttenberg/CNET

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, its T 51p ($289) is the best on-ear headphone I've heard, beating out the Sennheiser On-Ear Momentum , V-Moda XS , and Bowers & Wilkins P5. Beyerdynamics' DX 160iE in-ears ($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.

Listening

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.

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