I already have a DAC/AMP with the exactly same chip. It is one of the cleanest and most vivid sounding chips in the market. Tonality, imaging and emphasis are mostly about the amp and other components used (Head over here to know how a change in OP-Amp affects the sound) and the TR-Amp uses one of the best TI amp which delivers very good transparency and clarity. I have been working around a few DAC/AMPs and this little thing really leaves a mark. After working on the Burson Playmate I was not sure what these small sized DAC/AMPs are capable of but after working on the TR-Amp I am amazed how good this lower mid range DAC/Amp sounds with its bare minimum customizability.
The TR-Amp with its flagship grade components has excellent clarity and details with top notch notes presentation. It is just right on the money. The tuning is aptly balanced without emphasizing any part of the spectrum. The tonality and timber are very natural, more natural than the Playmate (with NE5532 opamp). It is a very clean and neat sounding device. Pair it with anything without worrying about any coloration.
The best part of the TR-Amp is how neutral it is, it has no influence on the amount of lower end body and thump the headphone or earphone will deliver, if the head gear has it in it, it will deliver exactly what it has. There no coloration what so ever. The sub-bass feels very extended with exact amount of emphasis. The mid bass has the required amount of emphasis and delivers a nice slam with good amount of body. The upper bass is as equally under control while delivering plenty of details. The decay speed is exceptionally balanced, it is not unnaturally fast or slow. The best part is the admireable layering and separation it has in between the notes. It delivers cleaner and better textured notes compared to the Hip DAC or Sound Blaster E5.
Most of the DACs have a flavor for the lower region, the Playmate is on the drier side and the Hip DAC is slightly on the boomier side. TR-Amp on the other had has no influence of its own, it doesn’t boost or suppress the lower end in any manner. If you are unhappy with the bass, try using equalizers but they do not have a lot of effect here, it responds less than the Playmate.
It does not have extra emphasis on any part of the spectrum but the mid range is a little less emphasized. Notes are slightly pushed back giving it a mild V shaped sound signature. It takes a couple of songs to adjust to the signature and after while when the delicacies of the mid range are discovered it is much easier to forget about it.
The vocal region is slightly recessed and suits headphones with a bit forward mid range. There is plenty of texture and details to enjoy and let it be male or female vocals, both have nice depth and finish with very good amount of texture and appropriate amount of sharpness.
Instruments have very good definition and accuracy. The delivery is effortless with clean and precise imaging. Very good clarity and transparency along with accurate decay speed makes things enjoyable and engaging. Notes have appropriate body, the finishing is accurate and with very good control over the notes. It has right amount of sharpness without getting energetic or sibilant. The ability of details retrieval is admirable, if the headphone is decent, not a single detail will be missed. The upper mid can feel a bit less comfortable with headphone which are prone to sibilance. Pairing it with dry sounding head gears might produce a little less desirable sound too.
Earmen have played it safe with the TR-Amp’s treble region. It is on the drier side without any exaggeration while maintaining good amount relevance. It can hardly be called musical as the dryness takes a chunk of the juiciness away. The presentation is very neutral and doesn’t have any coloration and will match headphones with excessive treble energy by delivering a more tolerable sound.
The energy is slightly lacking and the presentation is not very energetic or tingly. It kind of feels like the instruments are playing without required amount of juice. The directional cues are not as vivid as the Playmate. Notes are good with sharpness. Details are very good but don’t come out with equally good enthusiasm. The treble extension is nothing to complain about and the bigger than average stage size gives it nice resolution and imaging. It has good amount of space and air between instruments.
STAGE AND IMAGING:-
What is a good DAC/Amp without proper staging and imaging? All the hard work can be ruined if the stage and imaging is not good. Thankfully the TR-Amp delivers a very cohesive imaging with a nicely rounded stage. It has excellent depth, height and width. All the parts of the spectrum have the right amount of stage presence.
Imaging is excellent with very good presence out of the head, only the bass and some part of vocals are placed inside while most of the instruments are placed well outside the head giving a nice hollow graphic projection. Unlike the playmate with stock NE5532 op-amps which was excellent with details but marred by bad treble stage presentation the TR-Amp delivers an evenly spread stage with much better notes distribution. It doesn’t feel clumsy or horrid. Layering is of top class with fantastic background and foreground separation.
Is the stage size huge? No, the stage is fairly bigger than what is expected from a device of this size and is exceptionally rounded but compared to the Playmate with V6 vivid chips the TR-Amp’s stage is smaller.
VS IFI HIP DAC ($150):-
The Hip DAC has a similar theory only one input and similar number of outputs but it has an extra bass and a high gain (power match) button and comes with a 4.4mm pentaconn balanced out along with the usual 3.5mm port which can be used as balanced. It has a smaller and lighter body at only 14mm thickness and 125g weight. It houses a 2200mah battery with a 12 hrs playback time which can get as low as 7 hours under high gain and balanced output. It has equally good codec support as it uses Burr Brown chip which delivers more or less similar amount of power when driven out of the balanced port.
On paper it sounds excellent but the reality is slightly farfetched. It delivers very good driving power while the amount of micro details is slightly lacking. Instruments don’t have the contrast and lack the agility too. It has a slight inclination towards bass, those like warmer sound with less emphasized treble region might prefer it but for the purists the TR-Amp excels in most of the critical criterions. Critical listener will find the treble not as transparent as it should be. The stage size of the Hip DAC is more conical, it gets smaller as it goes further from the head and the lack of depth is not very satisfying.
Both have nearly similar amount of hiss with sensitive IEMs with the Hip DAC edging the TR-Amp with slightly more noise.
VS BURSON PLAYMATE with V6 vivid Op-Amps ($349 + $260):-
The pairing is excellent for critical listening. The desktop DAC/Amp uses the same DAC chip and a slightly different TI AMP delivering nearly 5 times more power. Another advantage it has over the TR-Amp is the availability of MIC socket.
It sounds much more resolving and mature with better composure and calmness. I love the way it sounds slightly lush in the mid range with melting vocals with fantastic texture. The lower end is more or less similar to the TR-Amps while the treble region is much livelier with better extended feel and juicier notes presentation. The stage size is Equally tall with slightly narrow width but much deeper feel. It barely has a foot wrong but the TR-Amp has crispier notes presentation.
It is really tough to write about something this transparent and having a basic approach to sound. There is no way to get a bad tuning out of the TR-Amp, it just doesn’t give that option to the user. While writing the review section an expression got heavy on me – “it is exactly what the headphone has”. I am surprised to see such a tiny device with this kind of clarity and transparency. It barely has anything of its own to print on the head gear. It nearly perfectly exposes the head/earphone’s sound signature. If you can live with a slight bit of dryness with the treble region (which is barely felt) the TR-amp is excellent with head headphones and earphones which are not power hungry.
If you are in the market for an excellent sounding DAC/Amp to drive your moderately power hungry headphones or earphones, you do not need to think twice while picking the TR-amp off the shelf.