Oppo’s recent achievement in the audio universe has not gone unnoticed. I am almost certain they’ve made most other audio brands duck and run for cover, give up their lunch money and require a hall monitor to escort them safely to and from the restroom. These guys don’t mess around.

The HA-1: In “A Class” of its own

Never before have I come across a DAC and amplifier combination that has as much to offer as this HA-1 from Oppo. Balanced output USB DACs in the $1000-1500 price tier are not at all common, even more rare to find one that doubles as a moderately powerful Class A amplifier with DSD capabilities for only $1199. I can dedicate a full report just to the objective, factual information regarding what the HA-1 is capable of, but I won’t and will draw clear lines between what I feel to be important objective information, as well as my subjective opinions:

The build quality on this machine is nothing short of stellar. At a hefty 13lbs, the unit feels incredibly heavy and solid. One thing that I noted immediately was that mesh heat-vent window on the top of the unit. I am not so sure this was a good idea, as it will allow dust to settle into the innards of the product and make it near impossible for me to clean if need be. I recommend you find some type of dust-proof material to set on top of it. As it turns out, this amp can run fairly hot after being active for a while. In the image below, you can see dust particles annoyingly attached to the inner surface of the perforations on the grill vent. These are so hard to clean properly and near unavoidable.

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Fully Balanced XLR 4pin outputs along with a purified and true balanced signal from the Saber 9018 allow for raw, unbridled bass weight that is almost perfectly suited for usage with the PM-1 (Oppo’s recent Planar Magnetic headphone release). The use of balanced components allows for a slight noise reduction and in my experience tends to add a bit of bass weight. The interesting fact here is that Oppo did not go the lazy route. They made a complete balanced signal from start to finish; even the non-balanced output is derived from the balanced components inside. What does that mean? It means the HA-1 is one of very few fully balanced DAC/Amp combos available. Oppo claims the balanced output pushes 4 times the power (double the voltage) of the single ended output.

The 9018 DAC chip

The Saber 9018 DAC is a raw and pure chip most of the time, usually offering a more clinical and reference flavored candy bar for your ears to enjoy. Musicality and warmth are generally not terms that go along with the 9018. In the case of the Burson Conductor SL, which uses the exact same 9018 chip, the sound is indeed raw and pure, yet through the Oppo HA-1 the sound is a bit colored and less sterile. Burson has implemented the 9018 better than Oppo, as switching up between the two instantly show cases more depth and clarity on the Burson Conductor SL while retaining that pristine, uncolored clarity The HA-1 lags behind a bit and it is very clear that the core tonality of the HA-1 is not based off of the 9018 DAC, it is more of a collection and sum of all the rest of its parts with the 9018 being the minority. How do I know this? Well, pretty much every other DAC that uses the 9018 is sterile and clinical, yet the 9018 is noticeably more colored through the HA-1.

The 1793 DAC in the Burson side by side with the HA-1 using the 9018 sound near indistinguishable. The only real difference is that the Burson Conductor SL has the edge in stage depth; also that it has less width presence than the HA-1. The 1973 chip is not as clear or dynamic as the 9018 with the Burson Conductor SL, so I found it very cool that headphones with smaller soundstages really made the HA-1 and the 1793- Burson sound identical. I failed blind a/b testing a few times, attempting to differentiate which amp was the Burson and which was the HA-1.

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Using Foobar2000, a freeware music program that caters to audiophiles, the user can set single keystroke hot-keys to swap between outputs. While using a typical stereo splitter interconnect that lets me plug one ¼ headphone adapter into two sources, I was able to swap between the track playing through the Burson and the Oppo with a single press of any key I desire on my keyboard. It became wildly obvious that the HA-1 suffered a bit from a lack of spaciousness in the depth of field of the stereo imaging, which is plentiful in the Burson. Sound stage width is a serious issue with the Burson and more than abundant in the HA-1, which has a much more well formed presentation with better separation qualities from left to right. While using the 1793 inside the Burson, the HA-1 sounded identical in almost every way. So much so I couldn’t tell which source I was listening to with blind testing. However, when the 9018 was inside the Burson, I could easily tell which was superior and which wasn’t. The HA-1 falls short compared to the Burson using the same 9018, but the HA-1 still retained better stage width and separation qualities.

I spoke to Oppo on the DAC implmentation and this is what they had to say regarding the implementation:

HA-1 is our fourth generation of the ESS Sabre DAC implementation (First: BDP-83SE, Second: BPD-95; Third: BDP-105). The implementation of the ES9108 Sabre Reference DAC chip in the HA-1 reflects the experience and skill of the OPPO designer in mastering this excellent component. The original Sabre DAC reference design board provided by ESS is very “pure” and measures well. We successfully carried out the reference implementation in the BDP-83SE and BDP-95 Blu-ray player design. Some audiophile users and reviewers comment on early Sabre DAC implementations as although very detailed, however “too analytical”.

We have developed special ways to address this concern and the innovative use of the ES9018 DAC chip is among the techniques we apply to the HA-1 design. We also developed our custom-made capacitors to improve the sound of the Sabre DAC. Although we cannot disclose and explain all our design secrets, but please be assured that each design consideration in the HA-1 has very valid reason behind it. We went beyond the reference design in order to balance the raw benchmark performance and actual listening results. We believe we achieved this design goal quite well with the HA-1

Recommendations: If you own a Sennheiser HD800 or similar spacious headphone, you might want to opt for the HA-1, as the larger width and good separation qualities will accentuate the natural presentation the headphones offer. However, if you have a more intimate headphone, perhaps something more like the Beyerdynamic T1, Audeze XC or the Hifiman HE500/HE560, you will probably enjoy the Burson more.

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Sub-Frequencies

Clearly, this amp is set up to be as well rounded as possible. Articulation tends to lead to a refined sound, which this amp is only just capable of touching on. That is a good thing, so don’t take that as something to avoid. This is a “can do it all” amplifier without much to complain about. With regard to bass in general, the experience is still top tier for the price range in terms of clarity, however the texture seems to stay the same; a bit soft around the edges but still solid for the most part. On a flat neutral EQ setting, the HA-1 offers entry level moderate quantity on the low end and I find myself always wanting my software bass booster active at +5dB. Anymore than that and it seems to lose a bit of focus and control. Pushing it to +10dB probably isn’t the best idea but surprisingly the HA-1 handled it well without over emphasizing and chaos ensuing. It handles Foobar2000s ‘RealBassExciter’ better than any other DAC I have ever used in any price tier. Typically, beyond the +5dB frontier, every other DAC I’ve ever experienced loses that control factor and the bass becomes watery and flabby, almost puttering like a car running out of gas. The only other DAC that comes close would be the Apex Glacier. Despite that DAC having a lot less clarity than the HA-1, it was still able to remain solid up to certain points of bass boosting, all be it still beyond what most other DACs were capable of.

Summed up, this amp is not for bass purists, but will be able to handle the likes of the Sennheiser HD800 low end nicely while adding a bit of coloration. If you want reference and purity in the bare sense of the word, the 9018 in the Burson is what you should be after. If you want a more musical approach that is more rounded, the HA-1 is for you. Bass heads will enjoy the Oppo much more, as it is capable of more quantity without feeling overly thin, warped or stretched beyond that +5dB mine field horizon.

Recommendations: The Audeze XC, LCD3, Oppo PM1 and Stax 007 ( when using the HA-1 as a pure DAC out to my Woo Audio GES ) the Bass is exceptionally well tailored for fun and musicality, but retains very good ( not excellent ) bass quality. Headphones with a less reference and clinical sound will pair very well with the HA-1 . However, sets like the HD-800, AKG K812, Beyerdynamic T1 and MrSpeakers Alpha Dog will benefit more on the low end from more bass purity than what the HA-1 can offer.

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The Oppo PM-1 Headphone is by far the best meshing of any headphones I currently have or have yet heard with the HA-1. No doubt, Oppo has purposely tailored the HA-1 to combo with the PM-1 to the best of it’s abilities…and it certainly does just that. The experience is simply fantastic in every way. As any audio junkie is aware of, it is immensely difficult to find that perfect combination of components that click together perfectly. Once achieved, the experience is nothing short of sublime, everything accentuates everything else. This is what Hifi is all about, what a fantastic combination of headphone and amplifier in this PM-1+HA-1 pairing. The Lawton Denon D7000 also paired incredibly well with the HA-1, these are two headphones never to skip over if you own the HA-1.

Click on next page for vocal and mid range impressions…

Comments

17 Responses

  1. vick_85

    Hi Michael
    I need your advice…

    I’m in the market for a new dac/amp combo
    I’ve been using a Burson HA 160D for nearly 5 years and am looking to upgrade.

    I would like my new dac/amp to have greater resolution, deeper bass, weightier and punchier bass(when required), more open sound and greater detail retrieval but not sound too analytical/cold.

    Things I will use the dac/amp for
    1) listen to music. source pc> jRiver along with Jplay ASIO.
    2) watch blurays on my Pc. As long as its a good movie I watch it, it can be a period drama or a summer blockbuster or an Indie no one has heard of so the dac/amp should do well with movies.
    3) playstation connected to monitor and sound channeld through dac amp.
    4) netflix

    I listen to a lot of rock and classic rock plus the regular mainstream music pop, rap, r&b, edm, some jazz.

    Most of my music is 16/44 and some of it is in 24/48 or 24/92 format if the recording is available.

    I don’t like an in your face aggressive kind of sound because I have my headphones on for 4-5 hours a day and I don’t like the sensation of having my ears fried by the end of the session.

    Headphones I own: hd650, mdr Z7, lcd2 fazor, V moda M100 with xl pads, Shure Se846 and senn IE80
    Future buys: PM1 and AQ Nighthawk.
    Possible future buy: HD 800S depends on the reviews.

    Should I go for the conductor virtuoso ESS9018/PCM1793 or the ha1?

    Burson has the more powerful amp along with the option of swapping dac modules whereas the oppo has a balanced headphone jack along with the ability to accept bluetooth stream and iDevices without any additional devices. Its such a difficult choice.

    Reply
    • 24bit

      I think you already have it right with the 160D in that tier, still what I recommend to most asking for amps/dacs in that price range and its one of my favorites. The Virtuoso is noticeably better than the HA-1, which in turn is noticeably better than the 160D. You’ll hate me for this, but I say stick with the 160D unless you are willing to pay for something like a Schiit Mjolnir that is a little bit better, but lacking the yumminess of the 160D. You will lose too much of the Burson sound if you step away from Burson lineup.

      If you want a relaxed sound signature that isn’t so forward or engaging, then go to head fi right now and buy this dudes used Heron 5 amplifier by Airist Audio. If the sale thread is still there, he is selling at $699, the Heron 5 is $2000 mspr new. The amp is hyper smooth and if you jump on it, you’ll have everything you want in an amp, then you can drop a few hundred in a dac and save nearly a thousand dollars. My review of it is due soon, its a great amp that meshes well with moderate to relaxed sounding headphones.

      If you go 9018 in most Dacs, you get a neutral tone. Oppo is a bit warmer on their 9018 in the HA-1, but their 1793’s are very musical and enjoyable. I don’t think you need to go as high as the Virtuoso, you should start as the Conductor series and see if you like them first, then move upwards. Or skip it all and try to score that Heron 5 for $699

      Reply
      • vick_85

        Thank You for the swift reply.

        I really like the 160D because its simply a brilliant piece of kit, plus it and the HD650 for me are a match made in heaven.

        I’ve heard good things about the heron. Thanks for the heads up on the brilliant deal. The heron is still up for grabs lets see if I can work out a deal with the seller.

  2. Cotnijoe

    Im a little late to the party, but im a bit confused about your opinions about headphone pairing with the HA-1. You seen to say k812 user will be disappointed with the midrange… But will feel right at home with thr HA-1 because of treble and soundstage. Seems like a similar love hate relation with the HD800. Could you summarize your thoughts on how the HA-1 matched with those two?

    Reply
    • 24bit

      The K812’s sound signature is accentuated by the HA-1, firm low end, plentiful mids and a good treble experience. These K812 core qualities are mirrored in the HA-1’s sound signature. The HD800 is not accentuated at all by the HA-1, due to the more recessed sound signature the HD800 has. The K812 and the HA-1 are a better fit. If you don’t care so much about the relaxed presentation type of the HD800, then the HA-1 is probably the best all around Dac+Amp combo available in the price range for it. You can get a nice colored tone out of the 1793, or a raw and clinical one with the 9018. But there are certainly better pairings for the HD800 than the HA-1.

      The HA-1 pushes the limits of what the K812 is capable of, but the HD800 exceeds the potential of the HA-1’s sound quality. The HD800 will scale up a bit and over the head of the HA-1. This won’t happen with the K812, the HA-1 maxes out the clarity potential of the K812 in my opinion.

      Reply
      • Cotnijoe

        Thanks for the reply. So what would your conclusion be for the K812 with the 1793 burson vs HA-1?

      • 24bit

        I think the burson 1793 is the wisest choice if you want a very musical sound in tone, but with that you will get a noticeable downgrade in staging depth of field. The HA1 is just the swiss army knife of dacs/amps so for input and output needs you really can’t go wrong here. It has almost everything one would need. No need to go more expensive, as mentioned. I think the HA1 and the Burson are stretching the limits of the K812’s clarity, so either will be the brick wall for the headphone on that front.

        I’d sacrifice the super musical and colored tone of the Burson 1793 for the usefulness of the HA1. Balanced in and out, standard, USB thumb drive, RCA in and out, Optical, Bluetooth input, remote control, digital face all in the HA1…you just can’t beat that. It is relatively future proof so I would opt for the HA-1 because it sounds more like the 1793 Burson than it does the 9018 Burson. It is a good middle ground headphone amp and dac that wont color it up too much, also wont decolor it too much to make it sound super neutral and boring.

  3. Chimname

    Excellent review! It really gave me a good idea of whether the HA-1 was for me or not. I would have liked if there were more comparisons to other dac/amps around the price range other then the Conductor SL (I’m particularly interested in the Yulong DA8), but the review is detailed enough as it is. Thanks!

    Reply
    • 24bit

      Thank you!

      The Conductor SL was the best sounding dac in the price tier that I’ve heard or tested, I don’t think the Yulong was up to par with it. I am not a writer who likes to talk about gear that I don’t have on hand to make direct comparisons about inside the actual review. Working off memory isn’t a credible way to review to me but I can safely say the Yulong DA8 is not as good as the Burson as my memory recalls. In pure clarity, I don’t recall the dac being something I immediately wanted to buy and it was incredibly colored. As Oppo did, the 9018 sabers best qualities were ignored and masked with some other components to make the sound less pure. Was it a good product? Hell ya, but I don’t feel comfortable talking about it with great detail or directly comparing without actually having it, so I apologize for that. :)

      Reply
      • headfonics

        Good call, we already asked Audio-GD if they would kindly send us a sample for comparison as they seem to share common characteristics. If we get it we will review it.

    • 24bit

      I’ve had some quality control issues in the past, we also did reach out to them for a review unit so hopefully that comes to fruition in the near future.

      Reply

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