In a world with so many options and ever decreasing levels of distortion one has to ask what separates the many acceptable solid state amplifiers from the truly great! There's a dozen designs that all push the lower limits of measurable distortion, all of which falls far below our human threshold of hearing.
To explore that concept I figured it would be worthwhile to start by having a set standard for absolute greatness, and I'm happy to say the Bricasti M3 with Headphone is exactly that for me. After years of reviewing and Hi-Fi show demo's, press exclusive listens it is the only product offering that long awaited greatness I've been hunting for! With a truly amazing solid-state amplifier and top of the line DAC in tow I feel fully equipped to explore and discover what separates solid state amplification. In the entry level market segment. I'll be primarily reviewing the Topping L30 Linear with comparisons to SMSL SP200 and the JDS Labs ATOM.
Some factors at play will be;
- Gain Stage & Options
- Total Power Output
- Build Quality
- Sound Quality
Each of the products in this review are well manufactured, no sharp or sloppy seams in the chassis, good action on the knobs and switches alongside sturdy input and output jacks.
SP200 is the heaviest and most robust, however it houses a portion of it's PSU within it self. Atom and L30 both have external switching power supply units so their considerably lighter. From a build stand point I enjoy having an internally housed PSU so I'm able to just use a PWC-143 IEC C13 connector. The PWC-143 IEC C13 is the trapezoidal "computer power cable" connector I'm confident most all of us are familiar with.
I also like that SP 200 has dual 3 XLR input and 4pin XLR output despite technically being a single end'd amplifier. Bonus points there, how ever sadly SP 200 falls short in one crucial area...Volume Pot or volume knob!
The potentiometer and attached knob on SP200 are... soft and flimsy. Honestly there's as much precision when adjusting the volume either. Matching was a bit hard as I usually couldn't get SP200 dialed in to L30 and Atom... rather I had to set SP200 and adjust the other two to match it.
The undisputed champion however for Knob Feel in this review has to be Topping L30. Good weight and a buttery smoothness with just the right amount of resistance make L30's knob feel just right. Tho L30 has another advantage when it comes to volume adjustments in it's three different gain stages.
Build quality is good, I found no deficiencies with how L30 is built and operated. Each of the switches have good action and all the input and output jacks are solid without any wiggle.
JDS Labs Atom is the lightest and it sits kinda in a unique spot for a few reasons. Firstly, it's volume pot isn't as nice as L30 but it's a step up from SP 200. Also the Power switch is built into the Vol Pot! While not every one will enjoy this as I do, I found it's resistance for an "on switch" to be good. I experienced no issues with accident power cycling. I also liked the feel of Atom's buttons more so than the metal switches on the other two units. So functionally it has a different feel and operation to it which some may enjoy more.
Sadly tho in some systems or stacks I found Atom to weigh too little, so much that it was often at the mercy of heavier RCA Inputs that needed a slight angle in their routing. Power and Gain Stage
Power and Gain are as follows for each amplifier;
- SP 200
- 3W x2 into 32ohms
- 440 x2 mW into 300 ohms
- 220 x2 mW into 600 ohms
- With Two Gain Stages at
- +6dB (Low-gain)
- +18dB (High-gain)
- JDS Labs Atom
- 1W into 32ohms
- 502 mW into 150 ohms
- 125 mW into 600 ohms
- Two Gain Stages at;
- Topping L30
- 2.3W x2 into 32ohms
- 280 x2 mW into 300 ohms
- Three Gain Stages at
- -9 dB
- 0 dB
- + 9 dB
Overall I feel only L30 has enough suitable options for gain to cover the widest variety of headphones. Atom does better with lower impedance headphones and SP 200 excels with lower sensitivity and/or higher impedance headphones. But neither of these amps provide correct amplification for as many loads as L30 does. Correct being neither to little power nor too much gain for the given load and source material being listened to.
The listening chain for this review was as follows;
- jRiver Network Output into;
- Network input Bricasti M3 [Direct Stream DAC] output into;
- SP 200 via XLR
- L30 via RCA
- JDS Labs Atom via RCA
- Network input Bricasti M3 [Direct Stream DAC] output into;
- Pistol Annies - Lemon Drop
- Picked for the Audeze LCD 2 PreFazor
- System of a Down - Mind (Vinyl Re-Issue)
- Picked for Dan Clark Audio Aeon 2 Closed
- Alice in Chains - Rotten Apple
- Picked for HD 600
- Rob Wasserman: Duets - Ballad of Runaway Horse Sung by Jennifer Warnes
- Picked for Ether CX
- Lisa Hannigan - Sea Saw
- Picked for AKG K501
To establish my base point I did some listening with my 2012 PreFazor LCD 2.2, I chose this headphone as it's a bit more demanding from an amplification stand point than most newer modern Planar magnetic headphones in it's price bracket. Additionally it's shining quality is a powerful, clean and detailed low frequency presentation. Tho when under driven it's bass quality diminishes.
That said, technically M3's headphone amp is only "$500" I say that in quotes as it's unavailable separate from the DAC. Thus it does not exist separate of M3 and has a unique relationship of being built to function directly with/from M3. That said, I didn't find any of the "entry" level amps to match M3h's staging, detail or overall presentation.
But that's no knock again'st them as again M3's Headphone Amp is built specifically to and for M3's unique balanced topology. Still tho I will admit as of lately I have not really enjoyed my LCD 2 PreFazor as I feel when it's under-driven it's not really better than the the current production Audeze LCD 2 Classic Open with Vegan Pads.
However on a truly top of the line amplifier the legacy LCD 2 Prefazor out performs it's replacement!
Still before focusing on how the budget amps compare to one another, allow me to take a moment to examine a single transformative benefit that the top of the line solid state implementation brought to one of my favorite headphones!
"Lemon Drop" by the Pistols Annies features one of the best recorded Kick Drums I've heard. The sheer impact and weight captured and mixed into the track is stunning. LCD 2 PreFazor's appeal to me is it's powerfully realistic WEIGHTY low end and on a lot of amplifiers and systems it's some what lacking.
So when I'm listening to a track and honing in on the low frequencies I'm focused on two things;
- Composed of Body and how the Attack and decay of the envelope are presented
- Both how much texture is discernible both in the sustain and release of lower frequencies
With amplification that can allow the driver to fully recreate that wave form as M3h does, the PreFazor LCD 2 proves it's worth and provides a realistic immersive low end response.
As a whole, each of the budget amps lacked the cohesion and overall level of micro-detail and discernment M3h brought. There were many occasions where M3h resolved just an extra few moments of sound on the tail end of both vocalists, drum kits, brass instruments and more. The presence of these added final moments are the kind of nuance top of the line amplification brings to most quality transducers or headphones.
Moving on, readers of my content in the past may remember my frustrations with the JDS Labs Atom and my own Pre Fazor LCD 2. For this review I chose only to compare L30 and SP200 again'st Atom with my HD600 and my AKG K501. I found ATOM had NO subjective advantages over L30 with planar magnetic headphones. Given how close the two are in price I felt it's exclusion to be justified.
What I like about "Rotten Apple" as a track is the tone of the guitars. There's a very bluesy feel to both the 6 string lead, back up and bass guitar tracks. With some amplifiers there's a noticeably dry fatigue that can be present on these guitar mixs, additionally the vocals feature some over-dubbing to create both a unique tone and texture. I can't say there's only one lead vocalist as I hear two distinct voices in the mix. I also enjoy the overall position of the bass and drums within the mix with the drums placed distinctly back in the mix and often panning from left to right.
For low frequencies I found L30 had both the best detail and most defined attack. SP200 and Atom where both rounder in the sense that there was some exaggeration on both the decay and sustain of those low frequencies.
The kick drums and bass guitar also had way to much body on both SP200 and Atom for my tastes, enough that these instruments lacked a sense of impact, impact that was present on HD600 with L30.
Regarding the mid-range frequencies I will admit I enjoyed Atom's softer presentation. It help de-emphasis the slight bit of shout HD 600 has and really maximized the natural tonality of the headphone. However this also made it difficult to discern or hear the distinction between the two over-dubbed voices in "Rotten Apple." SP 200 some how overemphasized them enough that the harshness really took away from the "bluesy" feel of the vocal track. There was too much rasp and emphasis on breath without sufficient body from their chest.
I found Topping L30 to yet again perform best here as well, it maintained excellent body without sacrificing tone or discernment.
At the top end I'll admit SP 200 took the lead. It presented high hats with excellent extension, that slightly more defined release helped create a more convincing sense of width and space within the track. Tho there was sometimes a slight clash between the harsh shout and emphasized breathing in vocals again'st the drums. Topping L30, while not having quite as much extension, proved it self far more cohesive having better nuance! Yes at times it was not as extended, but created a more cohesive space despite not having as much perceived width. I also felt ATOM had this strength as well.
Despite costing almost twice as much I was a bit disappointed to find SP200 didn't really prove it self advantageous over the Topping L30... an the JDS Labs Atom while respectable, didn't quite keep up with L30 either. For users of 300 Ohm Dynamic Headphones I'd strongly recommend spending the extra $39 for Topping L30 over something like the JDS Labs Atom.
Lisa Hannigan's "I Don't Know" has both her rich vocals layered atop an excellent performance of strings and brass. Double Bass, Guitar and Violin are all present here alongside a well mic'd drum kit. The double bass in particular can sound distant and thin when there's not enough voltage present to drive K501 properly.
The AKG K501 has both 120 ohm resistance and a lower sensitivity of 94 dB/mW, this combination makes K501 a bit more difficult to drive compared to a lot of more modern headphones. I ran L30 on it's +0 setting, SP200 on Low Gain and Atom on it's High Gain setting.
While listening particularly to that double bass I felt only L30 had the right mix of body and punch. SP200 had a lot of impact and PUNCH but lacked any kind of dynamic contrast and came across as mostly a blurred kind of thud. Less like a large stringed instrument and more like some one beating on a drum sort of, granted the THUD had some weight and force behind it but not much definition.
Atom while having better definition still couldn't quite bring enough body and umph to the sound of it, L30 again proved to have the best mix of both definition and body.
Moving on into the mid-range I was shocked to say that L30 lacked a bit of discernment here. There is a distinct texture to the bowing of the Violin right after Lisa's vocals come into the mix. It's quiet but the musician sustains a single note but there's a tiny bit of vibrato that can be heard. However with K501 and L30 on +0 that slight shift in tone or the vibrato just comes off as noise? More of a sort of buzzing or humming than a discernible shift in the sustained note. SP 200 proved to be a touch better in this regard but not by much, interestingly enough I enjoy Atom the most for this portion of the track. It was a touch airy but still allowed that discernment to be evident plus that slightly smooth presentation of Atom helped the Brass Instruments maintain a proper timbre.
At the top end I found SP200 had the best extension, the drum kit in particular was more defined with more nuance and dynamic contrast.
I love this piece of music this rendition sung by Jennifer Warnes features what is essentially a duet of her voice and a double bass. However there is a plethora of smaller, quieter sounds in the background. A ever constant but quiet stringed instrument strummed rapidly, background vocalists who occasionally harmonizer with Jennifer and a cello that creeps into the track ever so quietly from time to time.
Starting with that beautiful double bass, with L30 set to -9 dB I found it performed best. Noticeably round but with acceptable definition. A good mix of body and texture, I found Atom (1.0x Gain) was too soft with too much body and SP200 (+6 dB "Low" gain) was a tad too hard with over-emphasized texture. The envelope as a whole was more even with L30 than either other amplifier for Ether CX.
Moving onto the Mid-Range I again found L30 had the best presentation, again SP 200 was a bit too hard. Some texture in both vocals and strings overshadowed finer details and Atom was a touch too soft, that big beautiful double bass simply had too much decay and I couldn't quite discern as much with it over-shadowing the mid range. I feel a lot of these advantageous may have to do with L30's lower gain output when I switched into +0 gain and volume matched I started to have similar issues with an uneven envelope and excess texture.
At the Top End I found L30 to be a touch rolled off missing some finer detail but SP 200 put emphasis on the more prominent "sssss" sounds in Jennifer's Vocals. Atom actually did the best up top!
My rip of System of a Down's "Mind" is pulled off a vinyl system I know from a ripper whose system I feel is clean enough to review with. What I like is the track is mastered much better on Vinyl than previously on CD. Dynamic Range is right at 9 dBs. I prefer to have at least 10 but for a Nu Metal band this is pretty great, I'll also add this is a track I like to listen to at an average of 86 dB's so peaks of around 90 dB's and as low as 82. Given it's a fairly quiet rip I find I usually need a touch more POWER to get the listening level I enjoy. There's also a touch of low level noise off the Vinyl it self that is sometimes masked on less resolving amplifiers.
The track it self features a hard hitting bass riff, Serj's beautiful complex and unique vocal tone, fast guitar shred and really explosive drums. That and it alternates between quiet and LOUD passages often! Just the sheer aggression of the song as a whole really makes an excellent track for testing I feel! When under-driven Aeon 2 Closed presents underwhelming dynamics and excessive bass bloat taking away from the the overall high energy aggressive feel this track has.
Starting with the bass, it's just such a nasty riff. The release of each of the low notes extends all the way out until the next strum hits, there's a metallic sharpness on some of the higher notes that really plays nicely again'st the sheer power and weight of those lowest lows.
That said, given that I enjoy this track a little louder I've got the gain of L30 set at (+0) and SP 200 still on it's low (+6) and this is one track where SP200 proves to have better definition and nuance. It maintains that power longer as each note is released, and hits HARDER at the start of each attack. L30 is in this instance the slower less defined amp. Atom again has no real say here as it's a slow soft mess when I push the volume up with this track and load.
Now regarding the vocals and guitar I did find L30 to once again take the lead. It rendered a more even mixture of Serj's rasp and the chesty depth in his voice.
On the top end I did prefer the slight lack of extension on L30, it masked enough of the rip's noise to have the same perceptive extension as SP 200 which had some issues with perceptive detail given how the more discernible noise also detracted a bit from extension and shimmer of the high hats themselves.
At only $139 I really feel Topping's L30 lands it self as the true king of entry level solid state amplifiers. It's three optional gain stages and overall power output allowed it to handle a wide range of headphones well. An while it's no giant killer nor replacement for a truly top of the line solid state amp, I feel overall L30's even presentation and detail are more than enough to allow a lovers of music to simply sit back, listen and enjoy!