Frequency Response –
Testing Methodology: RMAA via Startech External Sound Card
As one would expect, the L30 offers a linear frequency response through the audible spectrum. This is ideal, indicating that the source introduces minimal colouration on its own, enabling the qualities of the attached earphone or headphone to shine through. Due to the quality of my sound card, I am unable to reliably test other measures such as distortion and cross-talk so they will be used as a personal reference only. Qualities here can impact the sound in subjective listening.
Output Impedance & Hiss –
Testing Methodology: SPL volume matched comparison through an inline splitter to THX789 + Khadas tone board to Campfire Audio Andromeda
I am delighted to report that the L30 introduces no hiss on the Campfire Audio Andromeda nor the original Solaris which is likely the most hiss sensitive in-ear I have on hand up until 50% volume – at which point the volume will likely perforate your ear drums. In addition, there was minimal deviation in sound signature from the THX789, which offers a 1-ohm output impedance. In fact, the L30 outdoes the pricier source here with a lower 0.1-ohm impedance which is even lower than the Atom’s 0.6 ohm figure. On especially source sensitive low-impedance monitors such as the CFA Ara with its mechanical crossover, the L30 provided a slightly smoother and more balanced sound. The Andro was also affected in a similar fashion but to a lesser degree, in line iwth its impedance curve that dictates that lower impedance sources will create a slightly bassier sound. This makes the L30 perfect for sensitive, low impedance in-ears in addition to planar magnetic headphones – especially in conjunction with its high current output. Another aspect of the L30 that greatly aids use with sensitive monitors is its essentially non-existent channel imbalance at the lowest volumes. This means the dial is fully usable right down to near silence where even the Atom and THX789 introduce some imbalance at lower volume settings – of course, the output of the DAC can be adjusted to compensate for this.
Driving Power –
The L30 offers loads of driving power on paper and 3 gain settings which makes it a bit more flexible than the Atom and Magni 3. In particular, the low-gain setting provides an ideal range for sensitive IEMs while the high-gain setting offers a lot more headroom for most headphones. Admittedly, I didn’t find myself using the 0dB middle gain setting, however, it is handy for gear that falls between these two extremes such as portable headphones or less sensitive in-ears like the Final E5000. Volume was never an issue for me. Though not the hardest headphone to drive, listening through the Audeze LCD-1 (16-ohm, 99dB) I only required 20% of volume dial in high-gain, no doubt higher volume listeners or those with less sensitive gear will be served here well too. Sonically, the high current delivery works well in tandem with a very low OI. Of course, synergy is still a factor and enthusiasts will be able to refer to the impedance curve of their particular headphones to see how the OI will affect the sound. These factors contribute to a well-damped sound with a tight, controlled bass albeit not quite as much depth as larger amplifiers subjectively speaking.
Testing Methodology: SPL volume matched AB with Audeze LCD-1 connected to in-line splitter between THX 789 and Topping L30 both connected to Khadas tone board with RCA splitters.
The L30 offers a linear, balanced and slightly energetic presentation that is a pleasure to listen to. In this respect, it provides contrast to the slightly warmer Schiit amp while the Atom offers a slightly flatter sound yet, subjectively speaking that is. Of course these are all amplifiers with a low-output impedance and plenty of driving power so the differences are not hugely noticeable unless under scrutiny. Still, there are appreciable differences that users can take into account when purchasing. My comments below will be in comparison to the THX789 since this is a popular reference for many buyers and the amplifier I am most familiar with personally.
As compared to the THX 789, the L30 offers a slightly more linear low-end that is expressed in a smoother manner. Whether due to the higher power output or other reasons, the THX789 offers just a bit more bass extension and slam at the very bottom. This produces a slightly thicker and bolder note presentation with more texture and a more aggressive attack alongside strong dynamics. The L30 is a bit flatter in terms of dynamics but also a touch more natural in its note presentation. It has a more even sub-bass to mid-bass transition that isn’t quite as textured or hard-hitting but also a more accurate note timbre, the low-end showcasing subjectively greater balance. Both are very articulate and well-controlled here, the L30 having slightly quicker decay and a hair more definition in the mid-bass due to the slightly smaller note size. Both I would also characterise to offer a neutral tone, neither really adding much colouration into the presentation, the THX789 sounding a bit more weighted.
The midrange presentation is also very similar between both amplifiers, being transparent and accurate. Both are neutrally toned, linear and even; a given when taking the measurements into account. The THX789 has a slightly more stable and planted vocal presentation. Vocals occupy a stronger centre image while and the L30 is just slightly more laid-back in terms of positioning. I would attribute this to an uptick of density within the upper-midrange on the Topping, that also creates a slightly smoother and fuller sounding presentation. Its midrange is coherent with fully-resolved notes. The L30 is a touch more articulate too but slightly less open sounding due to its density. It does not offer quite the same dimensional as the pricier THX789 but remains a coherent performer.
Highs are also presented in an accurate and linear fashion, and similar to the rest of the sound, I hear a slightly smoother note presentation when compared to the THX amp. The lower-treble especially, delivers accurate positioning but percussion and strings have a shade less attack and crispness. In turn, there’s slightly enhanced smoothness and a good amount of texture similar to that on the THX789. However, take note that changes here are not large enough in magnitude to skew the instrument timbre or body. Fine detail retrieval is strong as well, noticeably lower than the THX789 and Atom but still ahead of the Magni to my ears. The THX789 offers an appreciable jump in resolution, especially with regards to sparkle and micro-detail that come across clearer and cleaner.
In terms of soundstage presentation, the L30 gets good marks on soundstage expansion. It isn’t as wide as the THX 789 but well-rounded and ahead of the Atom and Magni 3 in terms of raw overall expansion. The imaging performance is also good, albeit not as stable as the THX 789 or Atom and this is especially noticeable with regards to the midrange. The THX789 offers the more organised and coherent presentation, the L30 trading some centre-image solidity for a more layered sound. Still, directional cues come across cleanly and it also portrays a convincing sense of distance if not the most multi-dimensional presentation.
JDS Labs Atom ($99): The Atom offers an additional 3.5mm input and automatically switches to pre-amp functionality when headphones are removed. However, its build is drastically cheaper, all-plastic and generally quite poor. The Atom offers 1W of power into a 16 ohm load so noticeably less than the L30, giving it less headroom for high-impedance headphones. I didn’t find this limiting with my gear on hand, albeit you do notice a slightly more controlled and authoritarian sub-bass on the more powerful sources. The L30 doesn’t offer the same step up as the THX789 but it is a bit tighter in the sub-bass with a little more definition. The Atom’s midrange more resembles the THX789 being a touch more stable in presentation with a bit more openness. The top-end tells a similar story, being flatter with a slightly sharper note attack albeit similar in terms of resolution. The Atom has a smaller soundstage but more coherent imaging.
Schiit Magni 3 ($99): The Magni 3 also offers a metal build, it feels little tankier but also less refined in its finish. The Magni 3 also offers pre-amp, however, there is no switch to turn it on or off. It has a warmer and slightly bigger bass. There’s a good extension but a bit more on the L30 alongside better control and definition. The Magni 3 offers a slightly punchier and more textured mid-bass by comparison. The midrange presentation is most similar of the 3 to the L30, having a bit more body due to the bass and some warmth permeating here as well, so it is not quite as clean and transparent as the L30. The lower-treble is a touch more energetic, albeit with a bit of graininess seeping in. The L30 has better fine detail retrieval and a more controlled presentation overall. The L30 offers a larger soundstage with more accurate imaging.
THX 789 ($299): At three times the price, the THX 789 does not provide much improvement in performance, however, it does offer much more versatility with its balanced inputs and outputs in addition to around double the output power. As aforementioned, the THX789 offers a deeper and more solid sub-bass, a bolder bass note and more aggressive note attack. It is more dynamic and harder-hitting. The midrange is more coherent with a bit more body and a slightly more forward vocal range. The top-end is more linear and offers greater resolving power, coming across as a bit more textured and refined overall with more micro-detail. The THX789 has a larger soundstage, especially width and its imaging is more coherent with more accurate localisation.
Having been invested in this hobby for over a decade now, I am certainly acquainted with Topping but have surprisingly never tested their products for myself. With the L30, I think that must change as this is one of the most well-rounded entry-level sources I’ve come across. The power output is easily sufficient for less efficient headphones and even high-impedance models, sacrificing just a little sub-bass authority to the much larger THX789. Furthermore, it offers a strong experience for sensitive IEMs with its very low noise floor, minimal channel imbalance through the volume range and sub 1-ohm output impedance. Its build and design also outclass immediate competitors too which makes it nicer to use on a daily basis with no sharp edges and a really high-quality weighted dial. In subjective listening, the L30 also delivers parity with class-leaders. It offers, to my ears, a slightly smoother note attack in general and not the widest soundstage but good note texture and coherence in terms of imaging. I can still see some springing for the Atom for the flattest possible sound, however, you do sacrifice some driving power and it’s a large step down in build quality on top. Though the L30 isn’t an especially feature-rich amplifier, it absolutely nails the fundamentals making it an easy and versatile recommendation from me.
The L30 is available from Apos Audio (International) for $139.99 USD at the time of writing. I am not personally affiliated with Topping or Apos Audio and receive no earnings from purchases through this link.