Alpha Design Labs
Feeling High End Audio Again
This past CES was very different for me for a lot of reasons. First, for the first time I was the only Stereo Times writer who showed up and covered the show. With the proliferation of other shows now on the horizon many of our guys are being stretched to the point that it just makes more since to cover a show that is more localized than coming to a city as expensive as Las Vegas. With Axpona being in my hometown of Chicago just a few months later you’re probably wondering why I wouldn’t have sat out this show too? Well, let’s just say that spending a few days in Las Vegas in the middle of a Chicago winter sounded like a good idea… and my girlfriend was in complete agreement. Second, 2014 was a year that saw me write only one review, and that was of a powercord designed for digital components. I wasn’t really “feeling” audio high-end last year and I began to realize that my subscription copies of TAS and Stereophile were just piling up in stacks right along with the UTNE Reader and Jazziz magazine. And third, with not just all the new shows but also all the new web-zines clamoring for the same gear for review it has become more and more difficult to get products in for review. I could have settled for just reviewing some of the junk that some companies solicit me with on a weekly basis but I knew I wouldn’t enjoy that and it wouldn’t be very interesting to our readership. So for most of 2014, I took a pass.
I decided to attend this year’s CES in hopes of coming across something that would re-engage my love of high-end products. You see, while there is a proliferation of stuff available out there, at the other end of the spectrum there are a lot of products out there that I was struggling to look at, listen to and then not bust out laughing when the sales rep told me with a straight face just how expensive that product was. I mean, for those of you who attend audio shows or demos at your local dealer, think of how many times you’ve walked into a room, heard a nice piece of music and then had the person representing the AC line conditioner step up and inform you that his product was priced at more than $10,000! My guess is that your first response was probably not, “Wow! What a bargain.” It was probably more along the lines of, “You’ve got to be shitting me!” I also began ponder other things about the current state of high-end audio such as, “How many different turntables can VPI possibly build?” “How long before there’s an audio show in Moline, Illinois?” and “Why are there so many companies making headphones?”
It was that last question which really nagged at me while I was at CES. There were hundreds of different types of headphones available in every color and style imaginable. Another thing that was in abundance was headphone amplifier/DAC units. It appears that while I’ve been worrying about the bad and grotesquely overpriced direction of many audio components, computer-based audio has grabbed a massive piece of the audiophile marketplace. And quite frankly, all I can say to that is, “thank God!”
I enjoyed listening to dozens of headphones at CES, both at the showrooms in the Venetian and over at the Las Vegas Convention Center, where you could find headphones made by companies like Beats, Monster cable, and Klipsch, just to name a few. But it wasn’t until I stopped by the Venetian and came across the beautifully built Alpha Design Labs H128 headphones that I started to entertain the thought of reviewing a pair of headphones. The professionally stylish looks of the ADLs made me immediately assume an equally stylish price as well. But I was pleasantly surprised to find out that at $458.00 they were reasonably priced as well. And in the brief moment I got to listen to them, I knew I had to get them in for a review. After a brief discussion with the easy-going Raymond Li of RLI Distribution, the U.S. distributor for ADL (parent company of Furutech), he agreed to send me not only the H128 headphones but also the GT40a USB DAC/Headphone amplifier ($529.00) that the headphones were being demoed with. For the first time in a long time, I was excited about audio components coming to my house.
Let me begin with my immediate attraction to the ADL gear. It is gorgeous. The H128 headphones are constructed with a sturdy aluminum headband that is covered with a soft and cushy “leatherette” sleeve that felt extra nice on my baldhead. Solid plastic arms come down from the headband and connect to the earpieces. The earpieces (probably not the technical term) are a closed-back “circumaural” design using Furutech designed diaphragms, a 40mm extra-large, cryo-treated magnet and PEEK trembler film. The 1.3 meter IHP-35X Alpha-OCC headphone cable is connected to the headphone via a Furutech mini XLR and at the other end of the cable is a FT-735 3.5mm stereo connector. The headphones that drew my attention at CES were finished with lovely soft silver plastic and luxurious-looking brown leatherette. The pair that I was sent for review were finished with dark grey plastic on the arms and navy-blue on the earpieces with black leatherette on the earcups and headband. This was very handsome as well, but I am partial to the silver and brown.
So now that you know what they look like, let me tell you how they feel. Simply put these are some of the most comfortable headphones I’ve ever worn. The padded leatherette earcups snuggle to your ears and as I mentioned earlier, they felt great even on my follically-challenged dome. Because they are built so substantially, they may be a bit on the bulky side to some, especially if you like to where headphones while you’re commuting. Also, for those who, like me, wear headphones with their smart phones, bear in mind that these headphones do not come with a mic cable. But frankly, I don’t believe these headphones were designed with frequent commuting or running along jogging paths in mind. For those purposes ADL makes a splendid earphone as well. The H128s were made for long nights of curling up with a laptop or tablet and enjoying your music download library, which I did plenty of. I’ll come back to that in a bit.
GT40a USB DAC/Headphone Amp
Like the H128 headphones, the GT40a DAC/headphone amp is an extremely well built device. It is fairly diminutive in size (approx. 6” x 2” x 4”) and lightweight (1.4 lbs.) but is built for long-term use. The chassis is made of a high-quality aluminum and has a nicely machined knob for volume control. On the left side of the unit’s faceplate, under the ADL logo are two lighted switched: one to indicate the power is on and the other to select between using the USB or analog inputs. Next to these switches is something that I think is a very thoughtful design element; a clip signal indicator. When this light comes on it tells you to adjust the recording attenuation to 12, 6, or 0dB. Near the center of the faceplate is a 6.3mm headphone jack and finally the volume knob.
The rear of this unit really shows off its flexibility. There you will find a USB digital input/output connector as well as a pair of gold-plated, Teflon-insulated RCA connectors for analog input and output. Additionally, there are two selector switches: one for using the analog input as either a “phono” or “line” level input and the other for switching the phono input from moving coil (MC) to moving magnet (MM). And of course there’s a connector for the external power supply and a ground connector for the phono.
Internally, the GT40a utilizes a high-performance 24bit/192kHz VIA VT1736 USB chip and 24bit/192kHz Cirrus Logic CS4270” DAC/ADC chip. It also uses an ADC IC chip for Hi-res recordings through the unit’s analog input. The headphone amp is a Maxim MAX9722A which seems to provide plenty power for the H128s. More on that in a bit.
Getting Into Music
Overall, the GT40a DAC and H128 headphones are thoughtfully designed and attractively built products. Considering that they come from a company like Furutech, this is hardly a surprise. Of course, good looks and solid construction don’t always dictate musical enjoyment. So I was really hopeful that these products would stand up to my elevated expectations for music playback. My present reference system sounds better now than it ever has at any point in my audiophile life. So these little components would have to really be special in order to satisfy me, even though their price tags are relatively modest. Bear in mind also that these products represent my first real foray in computer audio. In this case we’re talking about my iTunes library on an HP Envy PC feeding the USB input on the GT40a and the H128 headphones into its headphones jack. My iTunes downloads are all converted to WAV files. That’s it. That’s the system that is responsible for providing me with all-consuming sound. There was no myriad of cables to deal with. Only my computer desk was needed and no actual floor space was taken up. And best of all, using the H128’s 3m long cable meant that I could still curl up on my favorite sofa, dim the lights and comfortably enjoy music.
During my first serious listening session I must have listened to nearly 200 songs. But I made note of a few that stuck with me as particularly interesting experiences. The first of many live jazz recordings I listened to was drummer Lenny White’s Lenny White Live [BFM Jazz]. This entire recording is great but my favorite track is, “Pic Pocket.” The song starts out with bassist Victor Bailey and of course Lenny White himself laying down a classic jazz riff that is the foundation for the song. This kind of song really shows off the best attributes of the H128 by not allowing the bass or kick drum to dominate your ears. On lesser headphones a song like this would have you scrambling to adjust the volume for fear of blowing out the drivers. The musicality of the rest of the performers are handled well also by both the H128 and the GT40a, particularly Mark Ledford’s trumpet and Donald Blackman and “Baby Fingers” herself, Patrice Rushen’s keyboard work. You hear deep into their performances in a non-fatiguing way.
But that recording is largely instrumental. I needed to know how well these products could handle a unique vocalist like say, Mr. Kurt Elling. I listened to his fabulous Live In Chicago [Blue Note] and my favorite track “Night Dream” about a dozen times. Kurt Elling is legendary for his vocal range and unrivaled scatting abilities. This ADL pair rendered all of the subtle nuances of his vocals on this song exceptionally well. Elling’s voice floats back of forth effortlessly between high-pitched passages and deep bass tones. Not only did the H128 not add any edge to the higher octaves but they almost sounded just a bit softened compared to my highly resolved reference headphones, the similarly priced Aedle VK-1 ($480) from France. Actually, these two headphones represent the classic trade off of most audio components. Where the Aedle has slightly more extended highs than the ADL, the ADL handles the midrange and low end about as well as any headphones I’ve heard, and some full range speakers as well.
A recording that really tells you a lot about the abilities of your gear is French music icon, Michel Jonasz’s La Fabuleuse Histoire De Mister Swing [WEA]. Track 10 of this live recording, “Le Temps Passe” is a heavily synthesized ballad with some bass chords that are so deep that even Dante Alighieri would say, “Damn! That’s deep.” Kept an eye on the clip signal indicator on the GT40a but it didn’t flinch. Instead, the sonic presentation was musical and powerful even at high listening levels. This little combo really allows the listener to get into the recordings without being overwhelmed by sonic bombasts.
After stepping away from reviewing most of last year, spending time with this pair from has gotten my juices flowing. Listening to these products have been a satisfying experience and knowing that one can gain so much musical joy for so little money makes me hopeful for the future of high-end audio. And make no mistake, the Alpha Design Labs H128 headphones and GT40a USB headphone amp/DAC are high-end components. After all, high-end doesn’t necessarily mean high priced, it also means high quality of design, build, and music reproduction. This is what high-end audio is all about. Highly recommended.
Acoustic Design: Dynamic closed-back
Driver: 40mm diameter special high-flux magnet
Sensitivity: 98dB SPL (1mW) at 1 KHz
Frequency response: 20Hz ~ 20kHz
Input Power: 200mW (Max.)
Rated Impedance: 68 Ohm @ 1KHz
Ear pad: Leatherette
Head Band Pressure: 4.5 N Approx.
Connector: Nonmagnetic rhodium-plated stereo α (Alpha) mini-XLR socket
Weight: 280g (9.84oz) Approx. (without cable) 320g (11.2 oz) Approx. (with cable)
Price: $458.00 USD
GT40α USB DAC Specifications
USB & Analog Playback and Record multimedia audio system
Connectivity: USB B Interface, Analog input/output RCA jack
USB Playback Resolution: 24bits/192kHz (Max)
USB Recording Resolution: 24bits/192kHz (Max) supports 44.1/48 /88.2 /96/176.4 /192 (kHz)
Frequency response: 20Hz ~ 20kHz (+/-0.5 dB)
SN ratio: >90dB (A-wtd) / Line Output
Line Output Level: 5 Vrms
Line Input Level: MC 0.4mV / MM 4.0mV / Line 2Vrms
Headphone Output Level: 1% THD 1kHz (Max.)
94mW(16 ohm),110mW(32 ohm), 98.6mW (56 ohm), 23mW (300 ohm)
Power Supply AC Adaptor Rating: Erp step2 compliant, 2Wire AC Input Type, Class II, AC/DC Switching Adaptor output DC 15V / 0.8A / 12W
Dimensions: 150 (W) x 111 (D) x 57 (H) mm
Weight: 650g Approx.
GT40a Windows driver supports Win XP, Win 7 and Win 8 (not Win Vista)
Furutech Co., LTD.
3F, 7-11-1 Nishi-Gotanda, Shinagawa-ku
1330 Route 206 S. #103-300
Skillman, NJ 08558
Phone: +1 (609) 672-1758