I had the opportunity to borrow a Ray Samuels Audio “The Protector” headphone amp, and I thought I could say a few things before returning it.
The amp has the same great build as always from Ray. The size is the same as the Predator. It has an unbalanced input on the rear, with balanced AND unbalanced headphone outputs on the front. This amp has the ability to split the unbalanced input signal and turn it into a balanced one.
Having a balanced output means that there are ultimately 4 signals, each finally driven with their own amp. Per ear, one of the two signals is 180 degrees out of phase from the other. By doing this, the drivers are both pushed in one direction and pulled in the other. (With unbalanced, the second lead only serves as a ground.) The point of balanced systems is to reduce noise and channel separation by not using a shared ground, and also to improve driver control (DETAIL) by working the speakers from both directions.
My test system is the HeadRoom Ultra Micro DAC feeding the Protector with the balanced Whiplash Audio TWag IEM cable I was also lent. Now, I went into this thinking that I might not even hear the difference or feel that it was a difficult one to pick out. It took about a minute of listening for me to realize the difference, and a quick switch back to my unbalanced TWag and ALO Rx amp confirmed it. Further flipping through different recordings and genres drove it home.
Versus the unbalanced output of my Rx, the balanced output of the Protector brings my JH13’s an absolutely dead silent background, an improved soundstage, and improved detail! Since I’m extremely picky about hiss, I would say the Rx has a barely audible hiss. The Protector has an absolutely black background. Channel pans and effects seem even more vivd somehow. The biggest thing to notice, though, is the gobs of detail with everything! The Rx is no slouch here at all, but with the Protector, instruments like the violin, clarinet, and cymbals have amazing realism. Up close, well-recorded voices and instruments are especially eerie because of how real they sound. I haven’t really tried, but I bet the benefits of high resolution files become more apparent with detail like this. Hearing some of my dnbradio.com set in 128kbps mp3 was a laughable experience. I could hear all those mp3 artifacts clear as day.
As I wait for my JH3A, I really wanted to take a moment to see what improvements the Protector brought. I resisted the Protector because I knew an amp with a balanced INPUT or something would supersede it. Well, I was right, but it turned out to be something unexpected. The active crossover of the JH3A should bring very real improvements considerably above and beyond the Protector, and my wait should be nearly over.
Let me give a big thank you to Jude of Head-Fi.org for letting me borrow the amp and cable!
And for a little disclaimer, I did build Ray’s website for him and think he’s a great guy and amp manufacturer, but I do not let these things color my judgements of this product review or any other.
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