Gadgets HP-A3_003

Published on March 17th, 2015 | by Greg


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.

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About the Author

Greg dreamed up the idea for the Truly Network while living in Hawaii, which began with a single site called TrulyObscure. In 2010, when advertisers and readers were requesting coverage beyond the scope of that site, TrulyNet was launched, reaching a broader audience over a variety of niche sites. Formerly the head technology correspondent for the Des Moines Register at age 16, he has since lived and worked in five states and two countries, helping a list of organizations and companies that includes the United States Census Bureau, TripAdvisor, Events Photo Group, Berlitz, and Computer Geeks. He also served as the Content Strategy Manager for HearPlanet, a multi-platform app that has reached over a million users and has been featured in the New York Times, Hemispheres Magazine, National Geographic Adventure, Fox Business News, PC Magazine, and even Apple’s own iPhone ads. Greg has written as a restaurant critic and feature journalist for a number of national and international publications, including City Weekend Magazine, Red Egg Magazine, the Newton Daily News, Capital Change Magazine, and an arm of China Daily, Beijing Weekend. In addition, he has served as a consulting editor for the Foreign Language Press of Beijing, as well as a writer and editor for the George Washington University Hatchet, the school newspaper of his alma mater. Originally from Iowa, Greg is currently living in the West Village of Manhattan.

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