Goldmund Telos HDA Headphone Amp Review

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What Does a $10,000 Headphone Amp Sound Like?

Brent Butterworth

It seems there shouldn't be all that much to a headphone amp. Even with the least-sensitive headphones you can buy, the amp needs to put out only about 1 watt of power to deliver a very high listening volume. Practically any transistor can put out that kind of power without even getting warm. It makes me wonder why any headphone amp would cost more than maybe $1,000. But when Michel Reverchon, chairman of Goldmund, told me his company was launching the Telos HDA, a $10,000 headphone amp, my reaction was wonder rather than reflexive push-back.

Goldmund is unique among high-end audio companies in numerous ways. It makes a full line of audio components, including speakers, amplifiers, preamps, surround processors, digital-to-analog converters and disc players. Its technology is much more advanced that that of typical high-end companies, combining extensive use of digital signal processing with considerable amounts of basic research into audio. Its products are meticulously constructed in its own Geneva, Switzerland factory. It embraces home theater, desktop audio and in-wall/in-ceiling sound will the same fervor as traditional two-channel systems.

I've reviewed a couple of Goldmund systems in my home, and while both were extremely expensive, both delivered exactly what the company promised: dynamic, effortless, uncolored sound. So rather than write the $10,000 headphone amp off as a mere extravagance, I asked Reverchon what was inside that would justify the price.

He explained that when his company's engineers tried other companies' high-end headphone amps with low-sensitivity headphones such as the HiFiMan HE-6, they found the amps weren't up to the task. As an experiment, they connected one of their own Telos power amplifiers to the headphones. According to Reverchon, the results weren't quite optimal, but they were far better.

The result of Goldmund's experiments is the Telos HDA, which combines the same high-bandwidth circuitry of the Telos amplifiers (a Class AB design based an amplification circuit originally used in a Tektronics oscilloscope in the late 1960s) with an output stage optimized for use with headphones.

I don't often review headphone amps, but when someone offers you a $10,000 headphone amp for review, it's hard to say no. Fortunately I had on hand the HiFiMan HE-560, one of the world's best (and least efficient) headphones, which I knew would be the perfect test for the Telos HDA.

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Goldmund Telos HDA: Features and Specs

Brent Butterworth

• USB input
• Coaxial and Toslink optical digital inputs
• Accepts digital signals up to 32-bit/384-kilohertz resolution
• Accepts DSD signals
• RCA stereo analog input
• RS-232 control input
• Internal high/low gain adjustment
• 3.9 x 11.8 x 13.8 in / 100 x 300 x 350 mm (hwd)
• 26.5 lbs / 12 kg

The Telos HDA has some nice features: its multiple inputs, and its ability to accept any commonly used uncompressed digital audio signal. Yet it's perhaps most remarkable for what it doesn't have: a balanced headphone connection, with separate ground connections for left and right channels. Personally, I'm not convinced that a balanced connection makes a big difference, but this is one of the things that many enthusiasts expect a high-end headphone amp to have.

Goldmund's website says that the Telos HDA is "upgradable to match specifically your own headphone characteristics thanks to its built-in DSP," and Reverchon mentioned to me that his company was working on this, but my review sample did not incorporate any sort of correction or compensation curve.

If you're using the USB input with a Windows PC, you'll have to load Goldmund's driver -- which I did on my Toshiba laptop, and which wasn't difficult. If you're using a Mac, Goldmund says it's already ready to go.

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Goldmund Telos HDA: Performance

Brent Butterworth

I did a couple of weeks of casual listening to the Telos HDA before I started my formal evaluation. My reaction during my first couple of hours of listening to it, captured in my original listen notes, was, "Wow, this setup sounds pretty close to perfect. I just can’t hear any coloration. It's a totally smooth presentation with a convincing portrayal of the acoustic space (real or simulated) in a recording). You kind of don’t even hear it."

Listening to drummer Franklyn Kiermyer's Further, I was struck by how detailed and present Azar Lawrence's soprano saxophone sounded on "Bilad el-Suda" and other cuts. As an occasional jazz musician for the last 30-some-odd years, I know well what a saxophone sounds like, and I was amazed to notice how much of a sense of the soprano's acoustics I got through the Telos HDA/HE-560 setup. I even got a sense of the sound coming out of the saxophone's bell, and that "snake charmer" character of the soprano came through as I've only rarely experienced from recordings.

On an even more ambient recording, "I Only Have Eyes for You" by Lester Bowie's Brass Fantasy, I loved the sense of ease I heard from the Telos HDA. The drummer's rimshots seemed to echo naturally inside a huge space (even though I know this was recorded in a Brooklyn studio). I also noticed that I could hear the click of the drumstick against the splash cymbal right before the horns start to play the melody -- a micro-detail almost no audio systems can reproduce.

On a different version of "I Only Have Eyes for You," from Holly Cole's Night, I could easily pick out that there were two shakers (or one double shaker) in the recording, another detail hard to hear with almost all audio systems. the Goldmund very close, but you can more easily pick out that it’s two shaker tracks, or a double shaker. Cole's voice sounded incredibly smooth, and the background vocals did, too.

I happened to have a Moon 430HA around for a comparison, which costs around $3,500, and to tell you the truth, I thought there was no way I'd hear a difference between a $3,500 headphone amp and a $10,000 headphone amp that I'd care about. But I did. The Telos HDA really did sound smoother in the treble and delivered a subtly more realistic sense of ambience.

There were some tracks where I preferred the 430HA's sound, though -- such as Mostly Other People Do the Killing's "Dexter, Wayne and Mobley." The Telos HDA delivered a better sense of ambience, and a more realistic sense of echo from the snare drum. Weirdly, though, the alto sax and trumpet behind the lead trumpet solo seemed someone more lifelike in tone through the Goldmund but less precise in image.

I'll also note that even in its low gain setting, the Telos HDA provided enough power to push the HE-560 to a satisfying listening level, although the volume was at full. I imagine the high gain mode would really get any headphone cranking.

In my experience with the Telos HDA, I learned a couple of things I didn't know. First, that I could actually care about the difference between a $10,000 headphone amp and a $3,500 model. And second, that for someone who has lots of money to spend on audio gear and really wants the best, spending $10,000 on a headphone amp might just make sense.