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POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 10
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meier audio

Corda HA-2 headphone amplifier

as reviewed by Carlo Flores

 

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CARLO FLORE'S SYSTEM:

LOUDSPEAKERS
Joseph Grado Signature HP-1, Stax Electret SR-34, Sennheiser HD580, Grado Labs SR-60.

ELECTRONICS
DIY hybrid headphone amplifier, Conrad-Johnson Sonographe SA-250 power amplifier, modified Antique Sound Labs MG Head DT, modified JMT Audio CHA-47.

SOURCES
AudioNote 2.1x CD player modified Audiocom Super Clock II, Sony CE-7775 SACD carousel, modified Harman/Kardon A-310 tuner.

CABLES
Tara Labs Air 3 and Master Generation interconnects, Cardas Audio Neutral Reference interconnect,  Cardas Audio Sennheiser cable, Tek-Line PC5W and PC12W power cords, DIY power cords.

ACCESSORIES
Monster Cable HTS-2500 isolation transformer, mass damping, Vibrapods, BDR cones, and DIY rollerblocks.

 

Most mid-priced headphone amps offer only adequacy. Listeners can pick their priority—if you want soundstage, certain amps will get you there, while other amps offer punch and upfront dynamics. If you want smooth and forgiving sound, you can find that, too, but you can't have it all. Many manufacturers ditch any semblance of neutrality, instead focusing on "musicality." These amps are usually stopgaps. Owners swap tubes, op-amps, and cables for sonic balance, yet rarely do they find long term satisfaction. At least I don't. It’s easy to add coloration, harder to compensate for it. Mid-priced amps are supposed to be adequate and colored because the Audio Gods said so. The Meier Corda HA-2 is an exception, and at $649 even exceptional, simply because it doesn't do more than it should. The Meier is not my favorite dynamic amp, but the parts cost on my reference amp add up to the HA-2's retail cost.

The Corda HA-2 is the headphone amp for the listener that believes dynamics, punch, and pace make music. Headphones value intimacy over soundstage. Foot tappers should try headphones, while eyes-closed listeners should stick with speakers. My basic needs from a headphone amp include black backgrounds, linearity, and separation. Get that foundation right, add flavor, if wanted, and I'll be a fan. However, many mid-piced amps lack the basics, while a few high-priced amps ignore them, and headphones sound handcuffed. What the HA-2 does NOT offer is mush instead of impact, transients in fog, exaggerated top end, and over the top (or recessed) mid-bass.

Dirty, raw rock and roll plays unfettered and bare through the Meier. The Kinks’ Kontreversy is low on recording quality but great in music, and with this particular amp there's nothing in the way. While the SACD issue of The Rolling Stones' Out of Our Heads is washed out, Brian Jones' guitar lacks character on many mid-priced amps. On the Meier he is immediate and groovy. I hear Mick almost doing Otis Redding justice, with Keith rocking out on the right. There is excellent separation between performers, without the veil or exaggeration of other amps. The Meier won't mask recording flaws, but who cares when the music comes through? Dr. Meier's is one of the few that understands this. His amp has a stark sound that does justice to many recordings.

However, I am biased. I want an amp that sweetens the sound, because when done right—without the veil—acoustic instruments and female voice are seductive, full, palpable, and, um, real-er. Joni Mitchell's Blue is alright with the Meier. She's not etched or strained, but she's not Joni either. The E.A.R. HP4 (retail price five times that of the HA-2) placed Joni on my lap, hot breath in my ear, with me wanting to unzip. Digital needs help. Tube-ify me, give me some "texture," I don't care. The line is fine. Many amps can't resolve and separate like the Meier, but many amps outperform the HA-2 on woodsy/thick sounding instruments, on strings, and female vocals. For example, The Sugden Headmaster can sound downright pretty in the middle when it wants to. The Headroom Max can make a lot of recordings moody yet colorful, excellent characteristics for this listener. That realness (coloration, if you like), along with the separation, black background, and linearity I require might be too much to ask for $649. The Meier doesn't do more than it should, making it exceptional for its price, but does not do enough to be my reference.

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In some way, a compromise is offered by the HA-2—two output jacks, at 0 and 120 ohms, offer slightly different sounds. Using the 120-ohm output, the amp offers a Sennheiser-HD600-like veil. The smeared inner detail could be called warmth, but instead of realistic decay, I hear blended notes. I prefer the stark sound of the 0-ohm output, with which the HA-2 adapts itself to many headphones. The Sennheiser HD600s’ blend of strings sounds pleasing, bass full, and transients spaced out. The Grado SR-225s have a sexy, addicting effect on electric guitars, bass stays under control, and the top doesn't run away. The Grado RS-1s are exciting, with way too much top end energy. (This is exactly where these headphones err on almost every amp I've tried, so I'm not blaming the Meier.) The Meier says more about a headphone's voicing than most amps since its not looking for synergy. Rather, the transducer gets the juice it needs, and the music doesn't get fucked in the process.

When a digital source is more than adequate (by which I mean it sounds less like digital and more like music) the Meier feels at home. The amp is certainly good enough to mate with the best of sources, but that dry sound in the middle, the lack of presence, has me wishing for more, and the 120-ohm output doesn't help. My primary digital source is the Audio Note 2.1x, which features a true tube output, paper-in-oil caps, and a warm sound. With my reference amp (a self-modified amp based on the Melos Maestro), my Grado HP-1s sing, and unfortunately, the Meier just doesn't get there. During the review period, I also listened to the Sony XA777ES, along with Sony R10 headphones. This combination yielded well defined, immediate, and involving sound, with the balance of a great system, with the HA-2. Reinserting the E.A.R. HP4, the normal amp for this otherwise Sony system, brought even more to the table—decay of notes, a well-defined soundstage and a little sexiness. Dave Clark, Senior Editor of Positive Feedback, and the owner of two excellent sources (the Cary 306/200 and Sony XA777ES), bought the HA-2 review piece. I doubt Dave will buy another amp any time soon. (Agreed, this is by far the best I have ever heard in terms of headphone amplifiers. You can take what Carlo is saying and multiply it times two for me, but then again I have no where near the experience Carlo has with headphones so you can take that with a grain of salt! - Dave Clark).

A three-position (off, kind of on, full on) Cross-feed switch is on the HA-2’s front panel. A pair of gold-plated RCA jacks are on the back panel, along with a one-piece IEC socket/power switch. The chassis measures approximately 6 1/2" x 6 3/8" (not counting the volume knob and RCA jacks. There is no tape or preamp out (if needed, see Meier Audio's Prehead at the manufacturer's website). The usability of the HA-2 is excellent. Dr. Meier didn't include excess when incorporating features. You get what you absolutely need, and the amp doesn't get in the way.

Dr. Meier's Cross-feed is similar to Headroom's Cross-feed (mentioned in PFO's Headroom Max review), but Meier's sounds much better. The Beatles’ Rubber Soul offered subtle sound cues. Guitars sounded a little fuller, cymbals light but interesting. The effectiveness of the cross-feed circuit peaks at badly mastered recordings, especially stereo mixes from mono masters, while its effect on stereo recordings is insignificant. I'm uncomfortable with the delay/channel-mix concept of Cross-feed, and preferred down-mixing stereo-from-mono back to mono using my PC.   Cross-feed selectability on the HA-2 greatly increases usability. Coupled with the 120-ohm output's flavor, HA-2 owners can experiment to their heart's delight.

At $649, the Meier Corda HA-2 has no competition. Due to its features and usability, it is the mid-priced amp to build a system around. Because the HA-2 only needs help, not compensation, it embodies "less is more." If price/performance rules, the Meier is king. I wanted more, and paid more. For many others, the search for a headphone amp will end here. Carlo Flores

 

Corda HA-2 headphone amplifier
Retail: $615

Meier Audio
web address: http://home.t-online.de/home/meier-audio

 

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