Balanced can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. We use it regularly in a few ways, discussing how nice a knife or a tennis racquet feels in the hand. But for audiophiles, ‘balanced’ has a specific meaning, and it’s a good thing- only the most expensive equipment is truly capable of being called “fully balanced”. For most applications and most people, a minimal loss of fidelity is acceptable, as pretty much every piece of gear you can think of will utilize a transformer or do some conversion or processing.
But not the Cypher Labs AlgoRhythm Duet! It’s the first portable headphone amp that is end-to-end balanced, with a mini 4-pin input and output for serious listening as well as single-ended 3.5mm input and output options. Powered by an internal, rechargeable lithium-ion battery, you can expect between 10 and 14 hours of playtime on a single charge.
We’ve been testing out ours over the last month, after breaking it in with about 40 hours of playtime, and found it to be about the best portable headphone amp you could want, especially if you’re using in-ear monitors.
With many headphone amps, you’ll notice a hiss and some noise with most any IEM; nothing major but definitely noticeable. Here, you can plug in anything, even the most sensitive gear, and select the optimal gain (we used the low setting, -6 dB, for our tests with most monitors and bumped it up to medium or high gain for on-ears and over-ears).
The body of the Duet looks and feels fairly similar to other Cypher Labs gear, like their Theorem 720 DAC we reviewed last year. Made from aluminum, the finish is matte black and holds up well to fingerprints. The volume knob is the same as well, with a great tactile feel in use, and a little less of a profile though we do still worry about it extruding so far from the case when we throw it into a bag. The Duet is 100% analog, so we never needed to install any drivers and could use them with any platform.
We tested with a wide variety of sources, including a HiFiMan HM-700 player (review forthcoming). We also tested a selection of headphones all across the spectrum, from IEMs from Ultimate Ears and even the $1K Ultrasone’s IQs, plus sets from Bowers and Wilkins, Beyerdynamic, and many others. The trick: your equipment and your environment disappear and you can simply appreciate the music.
A bit sharper on the high end, the Duet adds plenty of full basses down low, with enough power for absolutely anything and more detail than your ears can handle. It’s fairly neutral- not particularly warm nor tilting synthetic, and so best used with similarly neutral monitors for ideal listening. And we noticed added backing and depth to most types of music, especially tracks featuring guitars and pianos, making them feel fuller and richer.
Granted, it’s bulkier than many other portable amps. And it’s fairly expensive, with the main feature being the fully-balanced capabilities that few probably require. If you already have a different portable DAC, then purchasing the CL Duet may not make sense- it’s perfect for pairing with Cypher Labs’ Algo Solo, an excellent digital convertor for anyone who uses iPods or other similar sources.
They even included a nice leather pad and bands allowing them to be fit snugly together, and it’s a match made in heaven. On its own, the Duet is an amazing portable headphone amplifier, but the size and price put it just out of our “must-have” list. Available now, online and in stores, expect to spend around $600.