Monday, 29 October 2012

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Bryston BHA-1 Balanced Headphone Amplifier

Hi all,

I finally received and hooked up this wonderful piece of kit 2 days ago and this is my first 24 hours review.

First of all, why the change from Musical Fidelity M1 HPA headphone amp?

I blame it on the Kuala Lumpur International AV show held in July this year. For this year event, I didnt have anything in mind to purchase. Just attended the show to look around and support a few fellow hifi friends who was show casing their set up. However, it was written in the star that I was to catch a glimpse of this unit on demo from the local supplier. I have several times listened to Bryston set up several times and it has its own merit. But when I saw this headphone amp, I said to myself, I have to try it, especially that it was paired with Grado PS1000 Smile

My my was a jaw dropping experience. As soon as I put on the cans, I was instantly disconnected from the busy surrounding and my mind just focussed on how this unit can deliver such a lively, detailed and natural sound. Such beautiful presentation. But, is it the amp or PS1000 giving me this experience. So, I told myself, I have to try it with my Alessandro Grado MS Pro. Unfortunately, I can only attend 1 day of this 3 days event. So, I guess I have to pay the dealer a visit after the show. And only this week in Oct I have the time to do it Smile

I went to the dealer's shop (AV Designs) with a good hifi buddy of mine from Indonesia. The shop is actually in the same office building as mine and requested a demo on this unit again.

Both James and Low were there and they were very accommodating despite I didnt arrange for an appointment first. I was there for 2 reasons actually. One is to demo this amp again. And the other is to check out their sale on various items. I can see at one corner number of boxes of AV amps, BD players and speakers ready to find a new home at a much discounted price. And I have to admit that I did not leave this shop just with this Bryston amp. The sale on the items was just too good to be passed.

James and Low initially explained a bit on the unit as I had questions on those multiple headphone outputs. Frankly speaking, I never knew there were balanced headphones.

However, just to reconfirm the experience I had in the show, I tested it with the PS1000 cans first. Sure enough, I was not dreaming during the AV show. In fact, it sounded even more natural this time. After discussing with them on some technical queries and commercial of course Smile...I told them that I would need to test the amp with my cans. They fully agree and did not hesitate to invite us to their shop the next day. So, I popped in again the next day with my Alessandro Grado. Part of me hoping that it will not sound as good with my cans to avoid me parting with about RM X380 and ditch my MF M1 HPA. And.... I lost the battle and succumbed to luscious Bryston Smile. It still delivered such a lively and non-exhaustive listening session. And now the unit is hooked up to my system.


This unit is built like a tank, a typical Bryston feature. I opted for the all black unit to match the rest of my black MF set up. The dimension L x W x H is 17 x 11 x 2.425 and weighs 5.3 kg. The volume and balance knobs are sturdily fitted and has the right amount of friction to gradually increase the volume in a smaller scale. Thw power, input and gain switch however are of an old school electrical switch which I dont particularly fond of but the MF M1 HPA uses the same switch too. On the rear, the RCA connection is of gold plated. The power supply connection is IEC and comes with a basic power cord with a UK 3 pin plug. The front fascia is a mix of modern and vintage look and for some might even say it looks a bit industrial. The blue LED power indicator is also soft to the eyes.

Its a Class A amp but does not run really hot. In fact, my Class A/B M6i runs hotter.

Inputs and Outputs

There are 3 inputs available:

1. Single ended RCA

2. 3.5 mm stereo jack

3. XLR Balanced

The unit can drive 3 headphones at one time but with different output connection:

1. 1/4 stereo jack

2. Stereo Balanced output (4 pin XLR)

3. 3 pin Balanced Output

NOTE: there is also high and low gain switch to match your headphones.

I am limited to use the RCA input and 1/4 stereo output.

The Set Up

I hooked up the unit via the tape loop on my MF M6i integrated amp using QED RCA Signature series IC and QED Qonduit power cable.

Sources are:

1. MF CDT via M1 DAC with Siltech XLR cabling throughout

2. MF M1 CLiC with Siltech IC

3. Clearaudio Concept TT via MF M1 ViNL

Gain was set to low.

Headphones are:

1. Alessandro Grado MS Pro

2. B&O P5 (courtesy of my Indonesian buddy)

The Tracks

1. Girl from Ipanema (Stan Getz/Gilberto) - FLAC

2. My Hero (Foo Fighters) - MP3 48kHz 320 kbps

3. Time to Say Goodbye (Andrea Bocelli) - CD

4. Hotel California (The Eagles) - FLAC

Out of the Box Performance

I was so excited with the purchase that I put aside the ‘run in’ principle. Hooked it up and immediately put on the cans and fired up Foo Fighters. Even out of the box, this amp delivered a very powerful yet subtle bass from the drummings on this track. Very detailed presentation in which the 'overlapping' drum beats can be heard on each note. After listening to this track, I went out for dinner and let it run in for 3 hours. In fact, the dealer did mention to me I can actually enjoy the high SQ even fresh out of the box.

The Listening Session

After 4 hours of running in, I started to run my playlist above. First up was Girl from Ipanema. The vocals on this track was somehow elevated and created a personal space to me. ONce the music came, it gave me a different experience compared to playing Foo Fighters. A very relaxing sensation kicked in due to ambience delivered by this unit. However, maybe because its FLAC file, the volume seems a bit lower compared to playing Foo Fighters. I tried switching the gain to high. It did increase the volume level up a notch but I loose the subtlety that I was enjoying. So I wswitched back to low and increase the volume to about 10 o' clock. Previously it was at 9 o' clock. With power output rated at 1 W into 32 ohm, it can easily drive my cans.

Next up was Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman. This track has always been one of my favourite track for reviewing as I measure the performace of the unit tested against Andrea's and Sarah's vocals. Both of their vocals compliment each other to have a balanced tone (high and low pitch). And sure enough the Bryston delivered this flawlessly. This was one part of where the MF M1 HPA having difficulty to deliver the balance for this track.

I then went back to a FLAC file Hotel California. Listening to slow rock and in this live performance by the Eagles is even much more soothing. The live ambience was delivered by the Bryston through my cans that made me feel that I was at the concert and audience are supplied with a personalised headphones. The drums and guitars on this track was so refine and detailed out that you can here every single strumming and plucking the Eagles. This was one track that I repeated thrice just because it sounded too good to be true that I had to confirm and reconfirm the statement I made above. And each time, the Bryston just keep presenting a lively experience.

I went through all the tracks again using the P5 headphones. Unfortunately, the pair didnt give me the same satisfaction. This made me further believe that just like speakers needs to match the amp, headphones are the same. I am not saying the P5 are not good headphones but it just didnt rhyme nicely with the Bryston. A bit on the harsh side.

So there you go. A solid performer this amp is.

Is it worth the price? I strongly believe so.

Will I let go of my MF M1 HPA? Not so soon. It will do some office duties first.

Will I recommend this amp for head-fi-ers? Definitely with a word of caution. Demo it before purchase with your own cans.

But now I am curious how would a balanced headphone sounds like????? Will there be another quest for a new pair of cans after the Alessandro?