(From July 3, 2010)
Reviews of the Naim HeadLine headphone amplifier are hard to come by. And it’s a rare Naim dealer that stocks a $600 headphone amp that requires a $500 external power supply (minimum) to sound its best. There’s just not that much demand. But as a Naim devotee and serious headphone listener, I could not complete my search for a superior headphone amp without seeking out the HeadLine. It took a couple of months to get one on test, but it was worth it.
Like all Naim equipment, the HeadLine and NAPSC are built to military spec. There’s nothing flimsy about their aluminum chassis or the quality of their parts. The resulting performance is my new reference.
Although the HeadLine was immediately superior to everything else I’ve tried, it took a couple of days to break in. My earliest impression was that it was incredibly detailed, powerful, and smooth, but that it was revealing certain weaknesses in my digital source — an Oppo BDP-83 universal disc player (used as a transport) and a PS Audio Digilink III D-to-A converter. Specifically, all that detail came with hints of shrillness that seemed out of character for the warm-sounding nature of the PS Audio. I assumed the culprit was the Oppo, and wondered how a disc player used as a transport could make that much of a difference.
But after only one more day of listening, the HeadLine began to break in and the shrillness was gone. In its place was a musical deconstruction of every part of every track I played. Entirely new melody lines appeared — especially in upper bass regions that previously had sounded congested. Highs were sparkling and detailed without sounding etched. New voices in background vocals became apparent. Lyrics were clarified, and dialog in movies — including lines previously missed entirely — became complete.
Bass information through the HeadLine/NAPSC/Shure SRH840 combination is earth-shattering, but always correct. It is never bloated, slow, or vague. And it never appears when it’s not supposed to. Well-engineered recordings are revealed in their full glory, including recordings that I previously did not appreciate for being well-engineered — all previous headphone amps having mashed together discrete parts of the musical presentation in a manner making them sound congested, even at moderate volume.
As for sub-optimal recordings, the HeadLine makes them “listenable” in a meaningful and intelligent way. The Naim doesn’t subtract or gloss over detail to dumb these recordings down. Rather, the HeadLine enables one to hear “into” the mix to appreciate the artistic performance in spite of poor engineering. Using the HeadLine, the listener is able to come away with a clear picture of the artist’s intent and to forget about poor production values. It’s really quite extraordinary.
Needless to say, the HeadLine is allowed me to fall in love all over again with my Oppo/PS Audio front end — a $1200 combination that can’t be surpassed until one reaches the $3500 mark in a standalone CD player (as I’ve written in my earlier review of the Oppo).
Perhaps the greatest and most obvious testament to the quality of the Naim HeadLine is the amount of time I’ve spent listening to it, and the fact that I constantly look forward to listening to it again. I’ve been so anxious to play everything in my collection, that at times I’ve stood paralyzed before my CD rack trying to decide what to hear next. The Naim is that good.
And what about “Mighty Mite,” the Rega EAR? At $300 (less than a third the price of the Naim/NAPSC combination), it remains an incredible value — especially for AKGs and other ‘phones that are difficult to drive. I’m going to repurpose it, for now, in my computer system to drive my trusty old AKG K501s. Seek out the Rega if you’re looking for a great budget performer that punches out of its weight class. But if and when finances permit, I can’t imagine you will hear anything better than the Naim HeadLine. To my ears, it’s that good.