Today was not a good day. Chinese factory activity shrank at a rate not seen in six years. With the recent devaluation of China’s currency, the yuan, this pushed global markets into something of a tailspin -- whether the markings on that tail are Malaysian in origin remains to be seen -- with the US Dow Jones industrial average dropping over 500 points in a single trading session for the first time since 2011. North Korea got uppity with their southern neighbor by lobbing some artillery across the demilitarized zone. In his attempt to wreak horror on a train in northern France, a Moroccan man with a Kalashnikov was thwarted by three American servicemen who subdued him with a healthy dollop of freedom. During a post-work jog, I passed four people who won’t have a roof over them when, later this evening, they fall asleep on the sidewalk. And, because I’m physically incompetent, I hit my finger with a hammer.
For many audiophiles, I suspect that such news, in tandem with the drudgery that most of us slog through daily to pay bills, save for retirement, and have a bit left over to spend on the things we like, is merely wearisome. But context is everything. Something like 750 million people on this planet have no access to clean water, and 2.5 billion people can’t rely on adequate sanitation. We have it awfully good. Some days, I can’t help but question most of my life choices and come to the conclusion that I’ve gotten it all wrong.
It’s days like today when, confronted with a fancy new amplifier or imposing loudspeakers in for review, I realize I would much rather watch something on Netflix, or listen to music on my smartphone while running an errand I’ve postponed until the last possible moment. In such times of existential need, I’ve found that I reflexively and consistently turn to three products. They’re not the best, necessarily, but they’re my absolute favorites.
I bought a pair of NAD Viso HP50 headphones about a year ago, and they may be my single most favorite audio component. Ever. I wear them for hours on end as I work. At home, I take phone calls through them so I can multitask. When I climb into bed and want to sneak in an episode of a TV show on my iPhone, more often than not I’ll reach for the NADs instead of my Shure SE535 in-ear monitors. I think the NADs sound better. Designer Paul Barton may be better known for his work with loudspeakers, but man -- the Viso HP50s sound sensational. They’re revealing and, most important, they’re some of the most perfectly voiced transducers I’ve ever heard. I know there’s no consensus on what a “textbook” frequency response graph for over-ear headphones should look like, but I would respectfully nominate these little guys for consideration. They’re also comfortable and reasonably priced: $299 USD.
The Viso HP50s aren’t perfect. Their relatively low price seems to have been partly made possible by the copious amount of plastics used in their construction -- this makes them surprisingly light, but they don’t feel quite as upscale as, say, Bowers & Wilkins’s P5 Series 2s. The squarish headband of my sample of the NADs, which makes me look ridiculous, has been redesigned to have a continuous curve. Good thing -- Bose will win a Product of the Year award before I wear my bright-red Visos in public. Hand on heart, I don’t go anywhere overnight without them, and I have no interest in moving up to something more expensive and more luxurious. Day to day, the Viso HP50s provide everything I need.
I discovered another gem when I requested a sample of the Oppo Digital HA-2 portable DAC-headphone amplifier ($299). Yes, it sounds quite good. It’s also thoughtfully compatible with both iOS and Android devices, as well as USB Type-A so it can be used with a computer. Then it gets fairly interesting. There’s a gain switch on the side to tailor the HA-2’s output level to a given headphone’s demands, as well as a bass-boost switch. While I generally find that the latter’s Beats by Dr. Dre effect does more harm to the music than good, many listeners will no doubt fancy it. And it’s got a large enough battery that it can charge my iPhone 6 faster than I can by plugging the phone directly into a power outlet. Nor does the HA-2 automatically charge any device plugged into its USB port -- that’s up to the user. This is helpful in instances when you want several hours of listening out of the thing, but also need a 10% shot of juice to get you through the rest of the day.
The Oppo HA-2’s build quality is exceptional, and its slender aluminum case has chamfered edges buffed to a highly reflective finish, to accent the subtler brushed finish of its other metal surfaces. But most of the HA-2 is clad in genuine black leather, with classy contrast stitching for a stylish look. And because its dimensions are almost identical to my iPhone’s, I actually use the thing on the go. In public. Where non-audiophiles abound. Laying a phone atop the HA-2 and connecting them with a supershort wire isn’t ideal, but to my mind it’s a hell of a lot better than lugging around a bulky Astell&Kern player or PonoPlayer. The Oppo HA-2 has been carefully designed to be useful, attractive, and unobtrusive -- precisely what anyone would want in a device designed for mobile use.
Finally, Tidal. I made use of the 60-day free subscription Linn Products provides with the purchase of their silly-convenient Majik DSM integrated amplifier and network music player, which I reviewed last month. Tidal was my first foray into streaming audio. My experience was marked by trepidation and skepticism, but having now just seen Tidal show up for the first time on my credit-card bill, I’m in no rush to cancel my subscription. While I believe Jay-Z has royally cocked up his music service -- perhaps fatally so -- with a variety of marketing and public relations missteps, it pains me to say that I’m a huge fan of Tidal. When I feel adventurous, I use it to venture into musical genres new to me. One day last week, I wanted to destroy something beautiful. I cued up Rob Zombie’s “Dragula” at home on Wi-Fi, downloaded it for offline listening, and headed out for a few hours. And with a ton of curated playlists to suit different tastes, moods, and musical eras -- “Underground Hip-Hop: 2000-2010” is epic -- I can listen to something “just right,” in CD-quality sound, whenever and wherever I may be.
Right now, I’m listening to Dead Prez’s “Hip-Hop” streamed from Tidal, routed through the Oppo HA-2, and into my NAD Viso HP50s. I couldn’t be happier. As for the rest of the world, here’s hoping tomorrow brings better news. Note to self: Learn to swing a hammer.
. . . Hans Wetzel