Review: Aurorasound HEADA Headphone Amplifier

Aurorasound Inc. was founded in 2010 in Yokohama, Japan. Shinobu Karaki is President and oversees all technical design. He spent nearly three decades working for Texas Instruments, Japan, Digital Audio Division. In addition, Karaki-san is a musician, guitar teacher and audiophile. The company maintains a small stable of components, both tubed and solid state, the latter group includes the well reviewed VIDA phono amplifier. Alfred Kainz of High-End Electronics is their US distributor—a thank you to Alfred for the review unit. Today, it’s their HEADA (US$2990) balanced drive headphone amplifier under review. Prior to designing the HEADA amp, Aurorasound also designed and sold DIY headphone amps under the Otomatsu DIY brand. It’s been 5 years since they first released the HEADA.

The HEADA is a dedicated, discrete balanced drive headphone amp. To be clear, it does have one pair of balanced inputs but they are there for convenience as they actually share a channel with a pair of RCA (Rhodium plugs) inputs. Take a look at the photo below; there are two input channels—Input 1 has both the XLR and RCA inputs. While you are not gaining benefits of running fully balanced, you do get the excellent channel separation, output (Balanced: 2000mWx2/40ohm – 800mWx2/600ohm), and lower distortion from the single 4-pin and stereo pair of 3-pin (less common today than 5 years ago) balanced outputs. The one single-ended output delivers 1 watt into 40 ohms and 240mW into 600 ohms. There’s no preamp functionality, though Aurorasound did provide a through-output, so we can send the line level signal out to another preamp or amplifier with volume control. An interesting addition. I did test the through-put, running out to my OTO SE integrated amp, and found it worked fine.

The amp has the nicely weighted volume knob on the left and to the right of that you’ll find the input and gain switches. Next, the array of outputs for single-ended, 4-pin balanced and dual 3-pin balanced headphone connections. Finally, the Aurorasound badge and power switch complete the face plate. As you see, it is simple in its design—the brushed aluminum and furniture quality wood chassis is handsome. The build quality is very fine. Understated and retro. I dig it.

The HEADA’s internal works also received special attention, and include some vintage components. I asked Karaki-san via email if he’d comment on the amps design/features. Here are his unedited comments:

HEADA uses discrete transistor circuit, that are NEC and TOSHIBA small signal audio grade, made in 1970-1980.  It was golden age of analog audio. Noise performance, frequency range, linearity are superb.  But those transistors are already discontinued due to everything changed to digital. Currently those kind of small transistors are made in China, like vacuum tube history. Aurorasound has large amount of these made in Japan -good transistors in stock. Film capacitor are WIMA, Germany.  Volume is Tokyo-Ko-On-Dempa,  resistors are TAKMAN, toggle switches are NKK. Connectors are Neutrik. Wood body is special handmade furniture craftsman in Shizuoka prefecture of Japan. All parts are carefully selected. HEADA is analog in and analog out, no DAC, no digital.

Image courtesy of Aurorasound

Karaki-san’s additional comments regarding the HEADA being dedicated vs. the many headamp/DAC combo’s available today:

This is most advantage than other headphone amp, because digital trend changing every year, like DSD, higher sampling clock, MQA… If HEADA has DAC+AMP, life cycle of HEADA will be short, and customer lose his money.

Makes sense. While the hybrid DAC/amps provide high value and convenience in some cases, they are perhaps less likely to reside on the rack long term. The HEADA is a dedicated amplifier, and $3000 is no small sum, but the amp does offer fantastic performance for the serious headphone enthusiast.

I logged hundreds of hours with the HEADA. Working from home during the day I usually have time to wrap my melon in the Nighthawks, LCD-XC’s or HD600’s and listen, so I was able to balance more relaxed listening against the more focused, analytical sessions. For the first 5 weeks I used the Holo Audio Cyan DAC as my digital source (see review), along with my Clearaudio Concept table with the Satisfy black tonearm and Soundsmith Carmen MKII cartridge. Aurorasound’s VIDA Prima (their entry level phono pre) served the tiny signals to the HEADA. About three weeks back, the Border Patrol DAC SE replaced the Cyan. You’ve probably read some about the BP DAC—that’s my kind of converter.

The HEADA is a superb headphone amp that balances attributes we expect from a top tier solid state amplifier with talents often assigned to tube amps. Like the HoloAudio Azure headphone amp I previously reviewed for TM, it delivers exceedingly low distortion, high bandwidth, and a very low noise floor. Run them balanced, and you get a wide stage, excellent image specificity, real drive, and impressive scale. Yet these amps are each of a different character. In both cases, moving from the single-ended outputs to the 4-pin balanced output reveals the real potential of the amps and headphones.

A few more comparisons to the HoloAudio Azure:

The Azure has a more digital black background, where I heard the HEADA as more analog and organic. The noise floor is lower in the Azure. The HEADA better recreates the imagined stage. With the Azure, the voices and instruments float up out of the void—there is no stage. The HEADA’s sound is sophisticated, and more mid-centric—which is to say that alongside its excellent bandwidth and resolution, the focus remains on the voices and instruments. We expect this kind of performance from the best amps. It has more power than the Azure, so will likely drive most headphones. The Sennheiser HD600 are 300 ohm—my highest impedance cans—and the HEADA didn’t blink at driving them to uncomfortable levels, and with plenty on reserve. I used the high gain setting for the Sennheiser and listened to my other ‘phones with the amps gain switch set to low. In this case, I had plenty of play on the volume with the low impedance headphones. I typically kept the volume around 9 o’clock.

The HEADA has near SET like immediacy and great stage depth and dimension. Though it does offer good tonal weight and color, it’s not over-saturated. It was also transparent to upstream changes like adding the Border Patrol DAC. Setting the HEADA next to my Euphoria 45 tube headphone amp (using the single-ended outputs on both) offers no surprises. The HEADA doesn’t deliver the same natural tone and dimension, though its in the neighborhood, and balances that with incredible low end performance, scale, and speed. There’s one other thing… This is something I’m just now getting around to testing—higher output power for headphones. The HEADA’s balanced output delivers 2w @40ohms, which means my Nighthawks (25ohm – 100db) or the LCD-XC (20ohm – 95db) are being juiced. Lit up. Scale and dynamics are so very good…something else my 45 tube (near 1w @32ohms) amp can’t compete with. There’s always a compromise.

The Euphoria 45 amp very slightly blurs the image, when set up against the HEADA, which feels more real and coherent to me. The Euphoria is softer on transients and high frequencies sound more natural. The HEADA certainly stands out from the solid state headamps I’ve spent time with and leans more toward a character we might associate with tube amps. Warmth. That doesn’t do it justice, though. If I’m honest, I had a few moments when the HEADA challenged my perspective on solid state amps—a good thing. It was so quiet, resolving and fast, and yet maintained great image solidity and satisfying tonal weight, mass, and color. I had a lot of fun with this amp.

I’m reviewing my notes, and there’s a mess of words dedicated to “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over” from Jeff Buckley’s 1994 release, Grace. Love that tune. Drummer Matt Johnson’s (more recently touring with St.Vincent) performance on Grace is great, and he stands out on this track in particular. For me, it’s that loping 6/8 feel, and the push/pull tension he creates in the pocket. The HEADA had me focused on the space between beats, and Johnson’s fills felt elastic. Way cool. Momentum and drive combined with nuance and a low center of gravity leads to more visceral, thrilling playback. This is less of an abstract, clinical, and solely intellectual experience like wading into the mass of people, pushing toward the stage to watch the band up close versus sitting up on the balcony. Sometimes you gotta get some on you, ya?

The HEADA is a top tier headphone amp. Its carefully crafted sound deftly balances the intellectual listening experience with a more corporeal sound. If its particular talents overlap with your listening preferences, then I recommend getting your ears on it. I would consider it a long term partner.

Thanks for listening.

Aurorasound HEADA Headphone Amplifier
Price: $2,990

Company Information

Aurorasound Inc.
805 Yokohama-shi
Asahi-ku, Kanaga-cho 76-4 Rogjamman III-102
Phone: 045-953-6708

US Distributor

highend-electronics, Inc.
Alfred Kainz
19593 Roanoke Road
Apple Valley, CA 92307
Phone: 760-490-2410