For the last year Oppo have blown away the market perception that planar headphones are really cumbersome heavy rocks on our head that sound great but need a nuclear plant to drive them. The PM-1, PM-2 and the now released PM-3 closed planar have all got a trademark light, easy to drive consumer signature that struck the right note with quite a few people. However Oppo is also a gadget company with quite a significant legacy in quite a wide range of products and the HA-1 DAC/AMP last year was a cracking example of that expertise. Here was a desktop DAC/AMP for a relatively sane price but with a ton of features and a professional appearance that was light years ahead of many other similar products in the market. So it really should not have been a surprise to me when they recently came out with the HA-2, which is Oppo’s new small portable DAC/AMP aimed squarely at the ‘on the go’ audiophile who wants a bit more than simply decoding and amping. In reality when they announced it though it caught my imagination right away. Priced at $299, with a slew of interesting features and a quality looking modern design it one of the stand out mobile gadgets on the market right now. Most importantly it also sounds pretty darn good.
The HA-2 is a portable amp designed around mobile phone sensibilities. The form factor is designed to suit those with mobile phone like devices or modern slim line DAP’s with an array of features to ensure you get the most out of the majority of devices you might care to own as a source. As such it fits very neatly underneath your average everyday touchscreen mobile phone such as an iPhone or a Sony Z series or a Samsung S series phone and is more in line with the budget FiiO E18 and the amp only Cayin C5 in terms of aesthetics and stacking than the more traditional lines of the Theorem 720 or the International from ALO. It weighs in at 175g which is minimal for a device of this type and capability and certainly a lot more svelte than the classy but bulkier Celsus Companion One. Unlike the Cayin C5 the HA-2 2 has zero flex in the solid aluminium shell and instead of coming with any sort of carry case like the classy leather pouch of the Companion One, the HA-2 is instead deliciously wrapped in a leather stitched finish. Gone are the days of the velvet throwaway pouches and with great relief. It certainly makes the HA-2 stand out a bit more but it also has the added benefit of making it a bit more durable in terms of possible scratching and knocks when placing in your pocket, bag or desktop as well as stacking on your phone or DAP. No more 3m blister pads here which were frankly costing me a small fortune for stacking purposes.
Jack Be Nimble
In an odd way the HA-2, much like the Shanling M3, reminds me of a blown up cigarette lighter with the volume pot strategically placed on the far left side (logo facing up). The pot itself, unlike Cayin or FiiO, does not have any metal type barrier to prevent accidental movement but nevertheless the on/off resistance is solid and confident and very smooth in operation. To the side of the pot on the front panel you have two jacks but with no less than 4 functions. The first jack is the traditional headphone 3.5mm jack, a no brainer there marked out by the normal black headphone icon. Beside the headphone output jack is a rather more complex jack for audio in and line out marked by the letters “AB” under the line out label and “C” under the audio in label.
To understand how this all works at the front you have to go to the back of the Oppo HA-2 to access the source selector switch which is has three setting labels, A, B and C. When the Source Selector is set to “C”, the front jack acts as a line in to an audio source, such as the AK100/120. When the Source Selector switch is set to “A” or “B”, the same jack becomes a line-out for the HA-2 USB DAC. So why A or B at the back if the jack at the front does the same thing? Well that’s because the HA-2 has two different USB inputs, a USB A and Micro USB both of which cater to specific devices. The USB A port is for connectivity to iOS devices such as an iPod or iPad or for charging a mobile device using the rather useful power bank function inside the HA-2. The USB Micro-B port is for OTG and connecting to a MAC or PC and for charging the HA-2’s own battery. Got all that? Right then let’s move on!
Due to the leather wrap the HA-2 side functionality is all housed on the right. There you will find the low/high gain switch, the bass boost switch, the battery/power bank check button and a row of 5 LED lights. The first four LED lights in green indicate HA-2’s actual internal battery level and the fifth LED light, which is a slight distance to the first four and in blue, indicates if the HA-2 is in power bank mode. At the back, as discussed it the source selector switch and the 2 USB ports.
The HA-2 has a number of features that for the price I think sets it apart from a few of the competitors in a similar price bracket. It functions primarily as a DAC/AMP but the connectivity is on the same level as the Companion One minus the wireless feature. It can work with PC’s, Macs, Android and later generation iOS devices such as the iPhone, iPod and iPad.
The DAC chip housed inside the HA-2 is the ESS Sabre32 Reference ES9018K2M DAC chip which is the same DAC chip used by Celsus in the Companion One and it is a pretty good one at that used by the likes of Ibasso in their DX90 and Resonessence Labs in their Concero HP also. To quote from my own review of the Companion One regarding the ES9018K2M chip:
“The ES9018K2M DAC, if well implemented, punches way above its weight, relatively cheaper to source and uses less power than its bigger and more illustrious sibling the ES9018 making it ideal for the Companion One’s on the go profile”
The same also can be said for the HA-2 portability prowess especially for decoding capabilities which can churn through a ton of codecs from MP3 right up to DSD256 or DSDX4 with excellent low noise and distortion levels. The ES9018 if you remember is the chip Oppo used in the excellent HA-1 one also so their experience with the Sabre ESS series is already there. I have to say though that despite the HA-2 and the Companion One sharing similar DAC’s they do not quite share a similar tonality.
You will have to download drivers to get the HA-2 up and running on your PC as a DAC/AMP solution much like it’s bigger desktop sibling the HA-1 though I believe the Oppo USB driver will cater for both HA series units so luckily I didn’t have to download twice but you do need the latest build. If you had a HA-1 one from last year I advise updating your driver sets to get the HA-2 working also. No such issues for the MAC, its plug and play as usual – lucky lucky you expensive wallet envy inducing lot. From there you can opt for ASIO and WASAPI in Foobar, ASIO in jRiver for DSD native playback with minimal fuss. Sadly the HA-2 does not have any playback control features like the slightly cheaper FiiO E18 which would have been a super little bonus but then again the FiiO E18 cannot decode to the level of the HA-2 so it might be a fair trade.
For both iOS and Android devices the HA-2 was a very simple plug in, select A for iOS or B for Android on the HA-2 source selector switch on the rear and away you go. Devices such as IPhone 4, 5 & the new 6 as well as Samsung’s S3/4/5 and my own Sony Z Ultra will pair and work seamlessly with the HA-2. So to also the iPad and iTouch range (usually 3rd gen onwards). Your device will pick it up right away if one of the more recent generation devices and play within the usual bit limits of iOS and Android. If you want PCM level decoding you will need to download a few extra apps such as Onkyo HF or USB Audio Recorder Pro to bypass that limitation. The HA-2 also comes packed with a micro USB OTG cable and USB A to lightning cable to facilitate both connections much like the Celsus Companion One but having the edge over the far more expensive Aurender Flow which required the camera connection kit to get iOS connectivity.
The Oppo HA-2 amp section is by no means a blockbusting planar king but there is plenty of decent power and dexterity for both IEM’s and headphones up to around 300ohms. After all it is geared primarily for an on the go user so 9 times out of 10 it is likely to be an earphone or portable headphone stuck into the HA-2. Headphones such as Oppo’s own PM range should drive just fine and dandy with no issues form the HA-2. IEM’s, though by no means a completely noiseless experience, have plenty of control and detail. On low gain, IEM’s are very comfortable with the driving power of the HA-2 but high gain is perhaps too high of a noise floor especially for sensitive earphones such as the Westone W4 which couldn’t get a completely noise free zero point. Best to keep high gain for headphone usage or earphones with a very low sensitivity rating if you must.
Cleverly though the HA-2 uses a mix of analog and digital to produce a very fine level of detail and control on volume depending on the usage of the HA-2. It is not a straight forward case of the DAC decoding the amp and pot controlling the line signal to the output and level of gain required. Both Android and iOS devices allow software mapping from the device itself to the HA-2 DAC for very precise volume control when combined with the HA-2 analog pot. Think of it like a digital preamp of sorts from source to amp. Certainly an advantage for high sensitivity IEM’s that might not benefit from the more sweeping nature of analog only amplification. Note on Android though this option is only available currently with USB Audio Player Pro. Stock digital audio out apps will default to the HA-2 DAC and analog amp for the pot control.
All Things Battery Related
As is becoming increasingly common in convergence audiophile gadgets the HA-2 comes packed with a rather handy power bank function and a fairly decent internal battery. I am starting to accumulate these featured devices at quite a rapid rate with the FiiO E18, the Cayin C5, the Companion One, Creative E5 and the Theorem 720 to name but a few so I can almost produce a nifty little comparison table as per below to give you the standards in terms of internal battery life and what functions they carry relating to power banking:
|Brand||Battery Size||Rated Life||Power bank||Charge Cycle|
|Oppo HA-2||3000mAh||7 – 13 hours||Yes||1.5 hours|
|Cayin C5||1000mAh||10 – 12 hours||Yes||4 hours|
|Cypher Labs Theorem 720||8700mAh||18-20 hours +||Yes||3-4 hours|
|FiiO E18||3500mAh||12-25 hours||Yes||4 hours|
|Celsus Companion One||6000mAh||8 – 10 hours||No||8 hours|
|Creative E5||3200mAh||8-17 hours||Yes||4 hours|
While FiiO is still best value in terms of pure numbers the HA-2 is really not that far behind considering the resolving and amp power is a bit higher than the E18. The Oppo surprisingly packs a slightly smaller rated battery than the 3500mAh packed inside the much cheaper E18 but clearly takes the first prize when it comes to charge recycle time with the VOOC charge system which is unheard of at just 1.5 hours recycle time.
The Cayin C5 has the smallest internal battery of the lot but doesn’t have an internal DAC to juice up either thus lightening the load. Having said that the power bank capabilities of the C5 is not really up to the E18 or the HA-2 given its rather paltry rating of 1000mAh. The Creative E5 has a similar battery rating also and in a similar range as the both the Companion One and HA-2 for power when using features such as BT but on paper can jump a bit when used as an amp only. Note though the decoding prowess of the E5 is much lower than the HA-2 at 24/196 and the power bank option only works with Android devices.
The Theorem 720 is indeed class leading in terms of size and rated life but given its price and dimensions I would have been seriously disappointed if it did not. The Companion One has no power bank feature (a rare thing that it actually doesn’t do) however the numbers it churns out are nothing spectacular compared to the HA-2 considering its 6000mAh is double the size of the HA-2 and both can decode at similar levels and similar amping power. The wireless solution inside the Companion One would though account for the higher rated battery over the HA-2 but that charging time of 8 hours is snail like compared to average of 4 hours for the other 3 and the almost freakish 1.5 hours for the HA-2 (75% in just 30 mins which is full of win for impatient lil’ ol’ me).
Page 2: Sound Impressions