In 2009 two headphone enthusiasts founded Audeze with the lofty ambition to make the best cans on the planet. Manufacturing planar magnetic headphones of the highest quality the firm has, in just six years, established itself as a beacon amongst both monitoring professionals and consumer audiophiles. Their range includes the standard-setting LCD-2 (£799) and more recent flagship LCD-3 (£1,599), argued by many to be the best headphone ever created. Two additions to the Audeze line-up have just been unveiled, each priced at a more accessible £599. First is the EL-8, a planar magnetic ‘phone available in both open- and closed-back variants that offers a relatively affordable opportunity to experience some of technology from the firm’s more expensive planars. Second and perhaps more interesting is the Deckard, a combined headphone amp and DAC that represents the maker’s ambitious maiden voyage into the electronics market. Boasting what on paper are highly spec’d Class A amplifier and DAC sections, the Deckard certainly promises much for the asking price.
All hands on deck(ard)
Unboxing the Deckard it quickly becomes evident that this is a product from a high-end manufacturer. It was designed by Audeze in collaboration with BMW DesignworksUSA and has a premium look and feel to it despite being made in China. Machined from 4mm thick brushed aluminium, its crisp lines and exposed heatsinks are extremely tactile, perhaps too tactile! The user manual warns to take care when handling the unit to avoid injury on its sharp edges. If it is placed in a busy area such as a desktop and you are of a clumsy disposition then you may wish to keep a pack of sticking plasters to hand! A high quality USB 2.0 cable is supplied with the product, along with a CD-ROM containing the obligatory drivers for Windows (support for Mac is native).
As well as a USB input and single-ended and analogue preamp outputs the Deckard also has single-ended analogue inputs. This allows the built-in DAC to be bypassed and the headphone amp and/or preamp driven using an external analogue source of your choosing, so you don’t have to discard your incumbent DAC. One could criticize the absence of optical and coaxial inputs, however given the Deckard’s price point and its other functions you cannot complain too much. For better or worse, USB now appears to be ‘where it’s at’ with computer audio. The front of the unit is equipped with a 1/4” headphone jack, input toggle switch (USB/RCA), gain toggle switch (low/mid/high), and a reassuringly hefty volume knob.
The engine room
The Deckard, cryptically named after the central character in the film Blade Runner, serves three useful roles: headphone amp; preamp (to drive active monitors or conventional power amps); and DAC. It operates in Class A for all of its four Watt drive capability, but this is a maximum for low impedance headphones and decreases for higher impedance designs. It will comfortably drive models with impedances from 20 Ohms through 300 Ohms. Its DAC accepts all sample rates from 44.1kHz through 384kHz at bit depths of 16- through 32-bit, although the maximum rate on Windows is limited to 192kHz/24-bit (384kHz/32-bit is supported on Mac OS 10.6.4 and above). No DSD capability is provided, so users must use software to convert DSD content into PCM. As Class A amps tend to generate substantial heat, Audeze recommends leaving a one inch clearance around the chassis for adequate ventilation. How warm the Deckard gets depends on the headphones it is paired with (it runs only lukewarm with my Sennheiser HD600). With a quoted power consumption of <19W the amp is very economical for a Class A design.
While the Deckard is understandably voiced with the maker’s own headphones in mind, Audeze insists that its high power, low distortion and tonal neutrality can “drive any headphone to best effect”. The following impressions were formed with Deckard driving a pair of Sennheiser HD600, my preferred reference ‘phone for component evaluation. The Gain toggle switch is a very useful feature that caters for headphones with different impedances and SPL sensitivities. The ‘High’ position feeds the full unattenuated signal to the volume pot, while the ‘Mid’ and ‘Low’ positions reduce the signal by -10dB and -20dB respectively, increasing its usable range. Audeze recommend the ‘Mid’ position for its own headphones, and this worked well with my HD600. The paperwork says that the Deckard has been “burned-in at the factory and is ready for use”, and I can confirm that it sounds excellent straight out of the box. Also, from switch-on it doesn’t take long to reach thermal stability (around 10 minutes), meaning you need not accommodate appreciable warm-up time into your listening session.
My first impression was of an exceptionally quiet noise floor. Low-level detail resolution is very impressive, as sounds emerge cleanly from an inky black background. The volume pot tracks incredibly accurately and remains transparent and channel-balanced even at whisper-quiet levels. True sonic transparency and clarity are difficult feats to achieve, many audio products present music behind a veil that distances the listener from the performance. Others attempt to fake it with a small lift in the upper mids and lower treble which, despite sounding revealing at lower levels, often ‘glares’ when you turn up the wick, becoming strident and fatiguing. The Deckard is guilty of neither and has a smooth and flowing quality whilst remaining open and clear. It also seems so devoid of tonal colouration that I struggled to find fault in any of its timbres. Highs are extended, airy and shimmer with a smooth and grainless decay. They neither lack in definition nor are they characterized by etching or sibilance. Mids are portrayed with a natural lifelike presence and exhibit neither thinness nor bloat. Lows are delivered with sufficient grip and speed to avoid smearing of timing. Spatially, the Deckard renders an expansive soundstage with intelligible width and depth. Its ability to separate and layer sounds places instruments into their own respective spaces instead of flattening them into a lifeless 2D image.
The acid test for any audio component is its ability to make the listener suspend belief and focus on the music and not the character of the playback chain, the Deckard carries this off admirably. For completeness I should qualify that my impressions were formed using the Deckard as a ‘one-box solution’. Its built-in DAC handled my assortment of hi-res content (including DSD-to-PCM conversions) without a single hiccup, with all of the pleasing characteristics noted above becoming even more seductive as the resolution of the source material increased. While I am sure that higher performance could be obtained from its amp by feeding it with a pricier external DAC, the Deckard’s attraction for many will be its convenience as a ‘one-box solution’. The marriage of the Deckard’s amp and DAC is more than one of mere convenience in my opinion, they have excellent synergy and deliver a remarkable price-to-performance ratio.
Audeze’s entrance into the headphone amp and DAC market with the multipurpose Deckard was an ambitious venture, but it is one that has paid off. The premium planar magnetic headphone maker has succeeded in producing a high-quality, ultra low-distortion Class A headphone amp that offers a highly resolute, neutral and spacious sound that should be compatible with the vast majority of headphones. It is equipped with an excellent DAC, has increased utility with the provision of preamp outs, and is available at a very reasonable price. What’s not to like?
Ancillaries used during testing
Hardware & OS: Mac Mini 2010, Mac OS 10.6.8.
Software: Audirvana Plus 1.5.12, iTunes 11.4.
Headphones: Sennheiser HD600.
Type: Single-ended Class A
SNR: 106dB A-Weighting
THD+N: 0.00045% at 1kHz, 2VRMS A-Weighting
Frequency Response: 5Hz to 100kHz, -1dB
Line Out Impedance: 50 Ohms
Gain: Low - 0dB, Mid - 10dB, High - 20dB
SNR: 106dB A-Weighting
THD+N: Less than 0.1%, 20Hz-20kHz, 4W with 20 ohm load
Frequency Response: 5Hz to 100kHz, -1dB
Output Impedance: 3 Ohms
Output Power: 4W at 20 Ohms
Sample Rates: 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz, 96kHz, 176.4kHz, 192kHz, 384kHz, 16- to 32-bit
System Support: Windows XP/Vista/7/8 up to 192kHz/24-bit (USB 2.0 driver requires installation), Native support for Mac OS 10.6.4 and above up to 384kHz/32-bit
Input Voltage (EU model): AC230V: 210V-230V
Power Consumption: <19W
Dimensions: 155 x 46 x 257mm (WxHxD)
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