I own this headphone amp and use it every day at work. It has great sound quality with some unique features. I previously reviewed it and compared with other amps here.
Earlier this year I loaned this amp to Amir to measure for Audio Science Review, here. Amir does a great service to the audiophile community, I’ve met him in person and he’s a good guy with industry experience and a knowledgeable audiophile. However, we are all human with different opinions, and even objective measurements can be misleading.
Take SNR (signal:noise ratio) and SINAD (Signal over Noise and Distortion) for example. These are typically measured at a device’s full scale output, as this usually gives the highest number. But with headphone amps, we don’t listen at full volume. Their max output level is around 2-4 Vrms, sometimes more. This is far too loud for average listening levels; it would be painful or cause hearing damage. We typically listen with average levels around 70 or 80 dB SPL, which, perceptually, most people would describe as medium-loud. Most headphones reach this level with a voltage around 50 mV.
For example, consider the Matrix Audio Element, which Amir recently reviewed. It is one of the best DACs he’s ever measured, with a SINAD of 120 dB. However, its 50 mV SINAD is only 81 dB.
For comparison, The Corda Jazz measured about 87 dB SINAD at full output, and 90 dB at 50 mV output.
This illustrates an important point. We start with 2 devices. One has a SINAD of only 87 dB, which seems low. The other has a SINAD of 120 dB, which is the best he’s ever measured. Objective measurements tell us one is better! However, that is highly misleading because when you measure the output at levels we actually use, the exact opposite happens. The Jazz is actually 9 dB better than the Matrix. That’s a 65% drop in noise & distortion, which is a significant, audible improvement.
In short, the max SINAD measurement is correct, but misleading because it describes conditions that nobody actually uses when listening. The 50 mV SINAD is a better measurement because it represents actual listening conditions. But virtually nobody measures this; Amir (much to his credit) is the only person I know of who does this. Furthermore, the large variance between these two belies their similarity: as in the above example, the devices measuring the highest peak SINAD often do not measure the highest 50 mV SINAD, which proves how important it is to understand the measurements we make and their relevance to what we hear.
Enough said about this. Next I’ll talk about how the way an amp is designed affects this. If you don’t care about engineering details just skip to the conclusion.
Lesson learned: an amplifier’s SNR or SINAD can be quite different at 50 mV than it is at full output. How does this happen? The conventional amplifier has its internal gain-feedback loop set to whatever fixed gain ratio produces the desired maximum output, and the volume control is a potentiometer (variable resistor) that attenuates this. This “fixed gain with attenuation” means the noise level is relatively constant (based on the gain ratio, which is fixed), so as you turn the volume down, you reduce the SNR and SINAD at the same time.
This is easily seen with the Matrix. Full output is 3.9 V, so 50 mV is 38 dB quieter. And its 81 dB 50 mV SINAD is 39 dB less than 120 dB. What a coincidence: turn the volume down by 38 dB and SINAD drops by 39 dB! They have a virtually perfect 1:1 relationship. Not a coincidence; that’s by design.
So what’s happening with the Jazz? Its SINAD actually gets better at lower volumes. The Jazz is designed differently from typical amps. It does not use fixed gain with separate attenuation, but instead it uses variable gain to set the attenuation you need, obviating any need for separate attenuation.
The Jazz volume control changes the resistors in its internal gain-feedback loop. At low volumes, it has less gain and more negative feedback (wider bandwidth, lower noise and distortion). As you turn up the volume, you are increasing the gain (reducing negative feedback). [Incidentally, this means it must be inverting, for its gain-feedback loop to have less than unity gain. But its final fixed-gain stage is also inverting, so overall it does not invert.] Finally, this volume control is not a potentiometer; there is no potentiometer in the signal path.
This means the Jazz produces its best sound quality at the low to medium levels we actually use for listening. It also means the Jazz has perfect channel balance at every volume setting. Another observation from Amir’s measurements is that the Jazz is not current limited. It puts out 10x more power into 30 ohms, than 300 ohms.
Amir didn’t like the Jazz in his review, mainly because of its limited output power. One of the limitations of the Jazz’s unique volume control is that the resistors in the gain-feedback loop can only handle limited voltages. If you turn up the volume too high, it produces huge amounts of audible distortion due to input stage voltage clipping. The Jazz maximum output level before the onset of this clipping & distortion is about 3.7 V. That equates to 116 dB SPL with Sennheiser HD-580 and 120 dB on Audeze LCD-2. This is more than loud enough for me. Anyone listening this loud risks damaging his hearing. In fact, with the LCD-2 headphones I use the Jazz in low gain mode which is 16 dB quieter than this.
In summary, the Jazz is an amp that Amir’s measurements show has perfectly flat frequency response, perfect channel balance at all volume settings, less than 1 ohm output impedance (not current limited), and SINAD among the best he’s ever measured, at actual listening levels (50 mV). Yet he doesn’t recommend this amp because of its limited output voltage. At the same time, he does recommend amps like the Matrix, which have higher output power, but inferior measurements at the levels we actually listen. Amir is correct that exceeding an amp’s power limits creates audible distortion, thus is the most likely way listeners will hear distortion from an amp. However, if the limits are high enough (as with the Jazz), we won’t exceed them.
Put differently: it makes no sense to sacrifice sound quality at the moderate volume levels we actually use, in order to gain more power that we can’t use without damaging our hearing.