If Arcam ever produce a pair of headphones then Paul Rigby wants a finders fee for the name, ‘rEars’. In the meantime, he reviews the headphone amplifier that will power this drawing board project, the rHead
The rHead arrives in the now oh-so-familiar black chassis that is used for all of the ‘r’ series of products. This brick-sized, black aluminium chassis sits upon a rubberised baseplate and features a XLR and a RCA set of inputs on the rear which also sees the connection for the external 12V power supply, alongside the power switch. And that’s it. The rear isn’t exact a made gras…and neither is the front which features a mini (3.5mm) and full-size (6.35mm) headphone socket, a power light and a resistive ladder, silver volume knob with a standby/mute at the beginning of its travel.
A Class A design, the rHead will click into Class B during difficult loads but I never reached that point during tests and I’m not sure that you will either.
And thats it, really. The simplicity of the rHead is one of its design highlights. Low footprint and simple to use, you feel that the design budget has been used on sound quality. Well, that’s the impression you have. So, let’s see if that is the case then.
Plugging my Sennheiser HD800 headphones into the rHead I began the sound test by playing Japan’s Five Song EP and the track, I Second That Emotion and was impressed by the breadth of the soundstage which seemed, in addition, packed with activity. The Arcam provided a busy musical front for the ears to feast upon. This ‘busy’ aspect of the Arcam was achieved by the pulling back of the lead vocal into the mix, producing a true ‘band’ performance. Some amplifiers push the lead vocal right at you. This effect gives the sound a 3D aspect which does have its own attractions but what the Arcam does is pull that vocal backwards. Hence, David Sylvain stood shoulder to shoulder with the rest of the group. The benefit of this was to enhance the harmonies, making them pleasing and sweet in tone but also to prevent the vocal from masking or smearing its adjacent frequencies. This enabled the more subtle frequencies to be easily heard. Hence, I could hear a touch more of the low key synth effects and the rhythm guitar.
This ‘spot the instrument’ game was also enhanced by the focused nature of the Arcam. The accuracy of the presentation produced enhanced the transient performance of the drums which offered impressive impact and pace in terms of rooting the song and pushing it along at a steady speed. Similarly, the electric piano was poppy and sprightly while the cymbals had a shine that improved their importance within the overall mix. Secondary percussive effects such as the wooden block was also heard and gone in a jiffy while the bass guitar provided a welcome precision. The bass guitar could have easily bloomed underneath the general mix becoming indistinct. Not here. The Arcam added new personality and character in the bass guitar which improved the overall layering of the music.
Next up was vocal jazz and the Speakers Corner edition of Joe Williams’ Me and the Blues with the orchestra under the direction of Jimmy Jones and Oliver Nelson.
Right from the off, the low noise aspect of the Arcam was at the forefront as the distance between the vocalist and the backing orchestra was evident by a distinct space. More to the point, it was also evident that the orchestra was playing in a grand space while Williams was in a slightly more restricted space situation. While Williams featured his own reverb the orchestra bathed in far more, giving an intriguing spacial contrast.
The instrumental separation between the orchestral instruments on the track I’m Sticking With You, Baby, provided an easy going, light yet relaxed demeanour. The cymbals, positioned way over to the left and offering fragility and delicacy within the treble band, offered space to the brass section which eased into the song with a sense of swagger and ‘cool’ while the piano detail was easily heard, despite sitting at the base of the mix.
Finally the drums themselves provided punch but also a sense of freedom. Drums can often sound claustrophobic but not here, the extra space around the drums strikes gave the song an open expanse that just added to the fun nature of the presentation.
Balanced in tone, the Arcam is not as warm as a valve-based head amp nor does it give you the often brittle nature of the standard solid state amp. The Arcam treads a more neutral yet lively middle path that is wholesome in terms of its content but never lacks life and vigour. The Arcam rHead, it also has to be said, provides cracking value for money. It challenges designed at twice the price. If you are in the market for a relatively low cost headphone amplifier, this design demands a demo.
ARCAM rHEAD HEADPHONE AMPLIFIER
Tel: 01223 203200
GOOD: airy mids, easy to use, value for money, neutral presentation, precision, detail
BAD: nothing at the price
REFERENCE SYSTEM USED
Origin Live Sovereign turntable
Origin Live Enterprise 12” arm
Transfiguration Proteus cartridge
Leema Essentials CD player
Astell & Kern AK120 (Red Wine modified)
Icon Audio PS3 phonostage
Aesthetix Calypso pre-amp
Vertex AQ/Tellurium Q cabling
Harmonic Resolution Systems Noise Reduction Components
All vinyl was cleaned using an Audio Desk’s Ultrasonic Pro Vinyl Cleaner