Published on March 17th, 2015 | by Greg0
Fostex HP-A3 DAC: Higher Res, Fewer Cables
Digital audio is a tricky beast- it’s everywhere, and easy to take for granted. But audiophiles tend to quiver in anger, sigh in despair, when you try to play back a low bitrate MP3 file from your cellphone. If you’ve spent over a couple of hundred dollars on headphones or speakers, then it’s a shame to render them less valuable or useful. Part of the equation is finding better source files- using FLAC or lossless audio, high-resolution or higher bitrate music. But the other part is more difficult- you need a superior method to process the digital audio as well, even from your computer.
Your speakers and headphones (and your ears) are essentially analog after all, and so your electronics need a way to translate. Because we want our devices to be as small as possible, audio quality is sacrificed- the chips and circuitry become noisier and your music loses fidelity. Separating them provides better acoustics, and that’s why you need a DAC, or digital-to-audio convertor, like the Fostex HP-A3. It’s an unusual little guy- not truly portable, but bus-powered, which means that you don’t need to worry about finding an outlet or feeding it extra cables. And it can serve as an amp in a pinch- we wouldn’t suggest using it as a primary, since it doesn’t have quite the power to really push IEMs or sensitive sets. For that, we definitely would point you towards the dedicated HP-V1 amplifier we checked out yesterday.
If you’re a potential buyer, then you might care about some of the finer points of manufacture- details like the Japanese-made quality, components like Nichicon Gold electrolytic capacitors, and the 32-bit capabilities (though it realistically maxes out at 24-bit/96kHz music decoding). The HP-A3 designed specifically for use with computers rather than smartphones, hence the USB input and lack of other input options. The look is more classic than modern, and going along with that, the front headphone output is old-school 1/4″, and though we would’ve liked to see both available, this is the superior pick over mini-jack 1/8″ if there can be only one. There are also rear digital SPDIF input and output options and stereo analog outputs as well.
Balanced and surprisingly smooth, we liked the overall output- it’s a clean-sounding DAC that really opens up on forward vocals, and is fast enough to handle rock and electronic sounds. There was no noise on any tracks that we tested, and far more headroom and space, the two major aspects that we are looking for from a digital-to-analog convertor. Tonally, it was somewhat flat- not too warm or cold- and on percussion you’ll hear an amazing difference in distinct, crystalline presence. Expect the Fostex HP-A3 DAC to be available more widely stateside soon hopefully- at the moment, it looks like many online retailers are shipping from Japan, and prices start at around $350.