This is the story about doing the impossible. This is a story about overcoming the Friend Zone.
I received the OPPO HA-1 headphone amp ($1199) and PM-1 headphones ($1099) for review along with a pretty large shipment of other review gear. I unboxed everything immediately and tried it all out. “Not bad,” my notes read. “The HA-1 is a really nifty Swiss Army knife.”
And it seriously is. This headphone amp will handle everything from mp3s to quad DSD. It’ll work with pretty much any source you want: hook it up to a computer, use it as an external DAC for your iDevice, set it up as a Bluetooth receiver, even use it as a stereo pre-amp in your home system. The build quality is super solid, and the software pleasantly non-glitchy. I found it a snap to set up and use, its front screen making it stupid-easy to select the source.
The PM-1 headphones were equally strong as workhorses. These planar headphones have it all over much of the competition when it comes to build quality, comfort, and durability. The (second generation) padded headband and cups made it possible for me to listen for hours without discomfort. The cups also swivel to fold flat when sitting on a desktop, making a nicely compact package. I am really remarkably clumsy, and headphones take a beating around me, but these held up beautifully. I love the small details to their build, too, my favorite being the tiny textured dot just under the “L” on the left side of the headphones: I am the queen of putting on headphones backwards, even the ones where it should be inherently obvious which way is the right way ’round. With the PM-1s, which are essentially identical from either side, that little dot saved me a lot of consternation.
During the first month or so that I had the OPPO set up, I put it though its paces pretty well. For a while the HA-1 lived on my husband’s desk as a back-up for his own headphone amp, which had recently kicked the bucket. Then the amp and headphones moved out to the front room, where I used to it to watch TV, listened to every different type of digital file I could think of… and, I’m ashamed to say, kind of ignored it otherwise.
I basically treated this gear like the best guy friend in a John Hughes film. Solidly Just Friends. It worked beautifully – and I found it boring. Sure, it could do everything I needed it to, play whatever file format I wanted, sure it worked every time… But I found other gear more exciting, more dynamic. If I were Molly Ringwald, the OPPO was Duckie Dale, left singing Otis Redding while I went chasing the rich guy from the other side of the tracks. It’s not that it wasn’t good, mind; some day that HA-1 was going to meet the right girl, someone who really appreciated it for what it was, and they would be perfect for each other.
This was a problem. Because while it’s bad enough when you’re giving the “but I love you so much AS A FRIEND” talk to some perfectly nice person, it’s even more awkward when you’re trying to figure out how to write a review of something that’s perfectly nice and not obviously flawed, but just doesn’t ring your bells. “It’s pretty good, I guess” does not really make for scintillating reading. It turns out my solution to this was to procrastinate. And procrastinate.
I don’t really recommend this as a sustainable course of action. It tends to make certain editors grumpy, not to mention that after a while the feeling of an incomplete project hanging over one’s head loses whatever pleasant frisson it once had and starts to feel a bit Sword-of-Damocles-esque. This time, though, I got lucky. I had an epiphany. Even better, I had a Ry Cooder-fueled epiphany (which usually involves less drinking than a Warren Zevon-fueled epiphany).
I can’t remember what train of thought led me to fire up the HA-1, plug in the PM-1s, and queue up Ry Cooder’s Chavez Ravine. It must have been a fairly perverse train line of reasoning, though, because I bought Chavez Ravine nearly five years ago and had only listened to it all the way through a handful of times; it had just never grabbed me. It’s a concept album about the demolition of a Mexican-American community in Los Angeles, first to build a housing development, and finally to build Dodger Stadium. So basically, I decided to queue up an album I’d never entirely cottoned to, on gear I couldn’t quite get excited about. And it was magic.
I kept urgently waving at my husband and hissing, “You have to listen to this!” I was utterly enthralled by “Don’t Call Me Red,” a dramatic track that frequently shifts in tone and musical style as Cooder tells the story of Frank Wilkinson, a member of the Housing Authority who was accused of Un-American Activities, and whose firing helped clear the way for the stadium. Ry takes on the voice of Wilkinson, as back-up singers intone, “Red cloud/ over Chavez Ravine…” over trumpet and bongoes. It sounds like a hot mess, but it’s truly magnificent. This is the man who brought us Buena Vista Social Club, remember. But I might not ever have noticed how great it was without the good graces of the OPPO, which brought a smooth musicality and ease of listening to the proceedings.
After I’d listened to Chavez Ravine all the way through a couple of times, I got to wondering about that smooth musicality, and decided to give one of my favorite albums a shot. I consider The Mekons’ 1989 masterpiece, Rock n’ Roll, to be one of the best albums to come out of the late 80s. It has its limitations, however; on some systems, its production values can make for hard going. This can particularly be an issue on my favorite track on the album, “Heaven and Back” (which was, as an aside, inexplicably left off of the initial American release of the album – luckily it’s there in its full glory on the re-release). The track opens with a soaring fiddle intro from Susie Honeyman that can either be invigorating or leave your eardrums bleeding, depending on the balance of the system. I had a hunch the HA-1 and PM-1s would do right by me on this, though, and I was correct in my assumption. The fiddle was appropriately forward and ear-catching, but not painful, and when Jon Langford belted out the opening lines (“She had been misplaced by the government / All our friends are under attack…”) I threw my first in the air and startled the dog.
I was beginning to have just the smallest inkling that I’d seriously underestimated this rig for enjoyable listening, and decided to put it through a new in-depth audition, running through a number of different albums to more thoroughly investigate its strengths and weaknesses. What I learned is that this is a glorious rig for pop. On a track like Lorde’s cover of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” or any given selection from Tori Amos’s Unrepentant Geraldines, it absolutely excels: everything sounds crisp, well-rounded, and detailed without straying into anything too scintillatingly etched. The bass doesn’t dig deep, but it feels like it does, with a pleasing sense of roundedness. Folk and folk rock fared similarly well, as did the brass and woodwinds in small jazz ensembles. Piano was more of a challenge: the vocals on Mose Allison’s rendition of “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me” were superb, but the piano sounded a little blunted, without quite as much attack and follow-through as I would like.
Similarly, the simple piano and strings of Rachel’s Music for Egon Schiele were smooth and entrancing, with a nice velvety background, but there was some texture missing on the draw of the bow across cello strings, and occasionally the presentation struck me as a bit veiled. I was forced to conclude that whatever was making 1980s-era Mekons a little bit more smooth and listenable was also possibly contributing to a little bit of blunting of the transients on some of the other material I was digging out.
Still, I couldn’t stop listening. My initial “it’s pretty good” was rapidly replaced with, “This is PRETTY GOOD.” I found myself revisiting a lot of old favorites: a little Rasputina here, a little Elvis Costello there… And I could listen for hours with a remarkable lack of fatigue.
I did try out several other sets of headphones with the HA-1. It did a really nice job of driving the Audeze LCD-3s, giving a good sense of power on tap and excising the sluggishness that I’ve experienced with these ‘phones on other amplifiers. The MrSpeakers Alpha Dog Prime headphones were also a decent match, although having re-tuned them for tube amplification not too long ago, I found that in turn they were a little lean with the HA-1. I kept coming back to the PM-1s, though; it’s inescapably obvious that they were designed with the HA-1 in mind, and they mesh so well that I felt the two together were greater than the sum of their parts.
So… Is it love? Did I finally turn around and notice the Nice Guy Who’s Been There All Along? There was definitely something straying toward a When Harry Met Sally moment, especially sitting there in the dark with Ry Cooder and some steel guitar.
Just as there are some albums you can own for years before they finally grab you, it turns out there’s some gear that will quietly insinuate itself until you suddenly realize you don’t know what you did before you had it. OPPO has put together one such system with the combination of the HA-1 and PM-1s. Over and over, I find myself reaching for the ease of the OPPO system over others in my stable, rediscovering music I haven’t listened to in ages. If you’re looking for a reliable, consistent companion, I might have this friend you should meet.