Review: OPPO Digital HA-2SE Portable Headphone DAC/Amp

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Design

The OPPO Digital HA-2SE portable headphone DAC/Amp with a tablet and in-ear monitors
The OPPO HA-2SE portable headphone DAC/Amp is compatible with PC/Mac computers, smartphones, tablets, media/MP3 players, and practically any audio source streaming through a 3.5 mm cable. Stanley Goodner/Lifewire

If you enjoy high-quality music reproduction, then OPPO Digital should be a name to familiarize with. While the company doesn’t have an expansive product catalog (yet), what it does offer – such as its PM series of planar magnetic headphones or portable Wi-Fi speakers – is geared more towards audio enthusiasts and audiophiles. But OPPO Digital may be best-known for its HA-2 portable headphone DAC/Amp, which has been met with emphatic acclaim and rave reviews. We took the opportunity to check out the newer, second-generation HA-2SE to see what we have been missing out on.

When given only a cursory glance, the OPPO Digital HA-2SE portable headphone DAC/Amp could be mistaken for a little black book, or possibly an older-model iPhone wrapped within a black protein leather case. The device is slim, holds nicely in the hand, and certainly looks like a precise piece of electronic equipment. The machined-aluminum exterior is accentuated by beveled edges and a satin finish. Combined with slightly raised switches/buttons and clearly-printed lettering, the HA-2SE expresses classy sophistication. Some of us are fond of and drawn to (and aren’t afraid to admit it) such design aesthetics that deliberately meld together style and substance.

Aside from the three switches (mode, gain, and bass boost) and single button, the only other moving part on the OPPO HA-2SE is a nicely-textured volume knob, which also turns the unit on/off. A firm, clockwise turn of the knob delivers a satisfying click, while a nearby green LED ignites to indicate active power. The knob’s resistance is smooth and uniform, feeling neither loose nor tight through rotations. Although evenly-spaced numbers mark the barrel, some might miss a lack of line or arrow to use as a reference point when adjusting volume levels. The other switches on the unit also click neatly and cleanly, exhibiting zero rattling sound within the metal casing.

The OPPO HA-2SE headphone DAC/Amp comes with everything you need, except for a possibly nice carrying case for the unit and its accessories. You get a fast wall charger and USB cable (3-foot length), as well as a USB-to-Lightning cable, USB-to-Micro USB cable, and a 3.5 mm audio cable (all 3-inch lengths). There’s even a pair of silicone bands included, allowing you to strap the HA-2SE to the back of your smartphone – they’re large enough to accommodate "phablets" like the Galaxy Note or iPhone Plus series – which is only convenient if you don’t mind parts of your screen being covered. But the bands do help with carrying, so you’re not left juggling two separate devices joined by a short cable and connected to headphones.

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Connectivity

The OPPO Digital HA-2SE portable headphone DAC/Amp connected to a tablet
The OPPO HA-2SE headphone DAC/Amp projects a wide musical soundstage and open atmosphere. Stanley Goodner/Lifewire

The OPPO HA-2SE portable headphone DAC/Amp is compatible with PC/Mac computers, smartphones, tablets, media/MP3 players, and practically any audio source that can stream through a 3.5 mm cable. So it’s worth giving the included user guide a once-through to familiarize with the various configurations for input/output. Depending on which device you plan to pair along with the OPPO HA-2SE, you’ll choose from one of the included connection cables. And while compatible tablets and smartphones (e.g. any iPhone, iPod, iPad, or non-iOS mobile device that supports USB OTG) are plug-and-play, desktops/laptops may require additional drivers (PC/Windows OS) and/or manual selection of the HA-2SE as the sound output device.

Underneath the aluminum and leather lies a 3,000 mAh rechargeable battery, listed as being able to last up to 13 hours for analog sources (via 3.5 mm audio cable) and seven for digital (via USB). Throughout our testing – across a variety of audio devices and volume levels – we were able to achieve a total playtime satisfactorily close to these values, even when factoring in some human error. And in a pinch, the OPPO HA-2SE can double as a battery to power mobile devices (yet another reason to give the user guide a look). There’s no need to turn the unit on either; just press-hold the battery/charge button for five seconds until the blue LED lights up.

Although the ability to power other devices can be convenient, we feel that such duty is best left to a dedicated USB battery pack. A fully-charged OPPO HA-2SE delivers an average of 1,570 mAh (the rest is consumed as part of the transfer process) worth of usable energy when operating as a battery. While that’s enough to bring a basic smartphone from zero to full, it’s a terribly inefficient way of doing so. There are extremely affordable USB battery packs that can deliver at least 2-4 times more energy while having a total volume/size that’s not much more than the HA-2SE. So this DAC/Amp is best-used as a DAC/Amp, for sure.

As with your typical USB power bank, the OPPO HA-2SE headphone DAC/Amp sports a 4-LED indicator system that displays an estimate of the remaining battery life left. A push of the battery/charge button activates the corresponding series of glowing green dots, with each one representing a 25 percent threshold. But unlike your typical power bank’s LED system, the one in the HA-2SE is actually quite accurate and consistent (only when used as a DAC/Amp and not a battery). When streaming music via digital/USB, the first LED disappears after about two hours of use, while the remaining three deliver approximately 91 minutes each (give or take eight or so minutes). The last LED glows red when there is roughly 30 minutes of playtime left.

Six and a half hours of audio bliss (via digital/USB) is not too bad, considering it takes the OPPO HA-2SE right about 90 minutes to fast-charge to full. Users can opt to connect source devices through the 3.5 mm audio cable instead of USB, which lets this headphone DAC/Amp operate for a little over 12 hours. However, doing so bypasses the DAC (digital-to-analog converter), so you’re left using only the amplifier functionality. This can be beneficial for those who have a computer, smartphone, or tablet that packs a great DAC, but want to harness just the amplifier feature in order to boost audio output.

03
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Performance

The front end of the OPPO Digital HA-2SE portable headphone DAC/Amp
The OPPO HA-2SE headphone DAC/Amp drives music with impressive depth and dynamic range. Stanley Goodner/Lifewire

For testing, we paired the HA-2SE with a Samsung Galaxy Note 4 smartphone (US version running USB Audio Player Pro), a Lenovo S8-50 tablet, and a desktop PC (equipped with only the basic sound controller on the motherboard). We mostly stuck to using the Master & Dynamic MW60 over-ear headphones with lossless FLAC audio files (all genres of music), but did mix it up with other headphones (such as the Trinity Audio Engineering Delta IEMs), speakers (including the Libratone Zipp and Zipp Mini), and music streaming services.

The OPPO HA-2SE headphone DAC/Amp projects a wide soundstage and open atmosphere, leading to music sounding fuller, forward, and more vibrant (highs and upper-mids especially). The Galaxy Note 4 smartphone packs some pretty decent audio hardware as it is, yet it still doesn't quite compare. The ESS Sabre 9028-Q2M DAC (digital-to-analog converter) chip within the HA-2SE comes off as clearer, more defined, and more transparent, as if wiping away a wispy-thin veil that the Note 4 had left draped over voices and instruments. And it doesn’t add any white hiss to the noise floor (that we could tell with our headphones and speakers)

Prominent elements within music tracks remain faithful overall. But it’s the bounty of less obvious and/or supporting details that enjoy significant richness, realism, and space through the HA-2SE: the accompanying hit and scratch against a guitar, the way violin strings tremble under a bow, lyrics sung with breathless passion, or the percussive nature of the hammered dulcimer, to name a few. When playing the song "Patience" by Guns N’ Roses, Slash’s guitar doesn’t sound nearly as distant behind Axl Rose’s raspy-yet-tender vocals. Matisyahu’s "King Without A Crown" crescendos and bursts open with a greater amount of energy and emotion at the 52-second mark. Hip-hop tracks, such as Ghostface Killah’s "Iron Maiden," exhibit lows that are more muscular, enveloping, and musically expressive.

As the OPPO HA-2SE headphone DAC/Amp drives music with impressive depth and dynamic range, it does so without exerting influence over frequencies (as best as we could tell). While swapping up the various headphones and speakers, we observed how the HA-2SE maintains a neutral approach and leaves sonic signatures untouched. Some of us choose headphones/speakers based on particular sound profiles, so it’s great that this DAC/Amp keeps those characteristics intact. The only way the HA-2SE modifies how music sounds is when you flip the bass boost switch on. The resulting effect is enjoyably palpable, yet restrained – there’s no muddy blur or overly-tipped balance favoring the lows.

The effects and benefits from using the OPPO HA-2SE headphone DAC/Amp become more pronounced when paired with either the Lenovo tablet or desktop computer. Versus devices employing far less-capable audio hardware, music expressed through the HA-2SE sounds strikingly crisp with better separation of elements and sharper imaging. However, it’s worth noting that the quality of headphones/speakers and audio files also matter. We found that it’s harder to fully appreciate what the HA-2SE is capable of when using basic headphones (i.e. ones not particularly geared towards audio enthusiasts or audiophiles) and/or sourcing lossy/streaming music.

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The Verdict

The OPPO Digital HA-2SE portable headphone DAC/Amp connected to a Samsung Galaxy Note 4 smartphone
In a pinch, the OPPO HA-2SE can also double as a battery to power mobile devices. Stanley Goodner/Lifewire

If you love music and are interested in experiencing the most out of what you own, the OPPO Digital HA-2SE portable headphone DAC/Amp deserves to be on your short list of must-have components. Sure, it’s yet another item to pack away in a gear bag, and the cable connections eschew freedoms attained by wireless audio. But this DAC/Amp is highly pocket-portable, with hardware powerful enough to make you realize what you’ve truly been missing out on. When you desire to be transported to rich, sonic soundscapes, the HA-2SE is definitely the hot rocket you’ll want to ride.

The OPPO HA-2SE will be for many, but not all. It takes some quality – not necessarily expensive – gear and audio files in order to truly appreciate what this DAC/Amp is capable of. Otherwise, those who own and use everyday-grade headphones/speakers may end up wondering what all the fuss is about. If your headphones can’t really express hi-res detail, the OPPO HA-2SE won’t feel like it’s doing much. The other big hurdle to hop is the US$299 MSRP, which can certainly make the HA-2SE feel more like a luxury item. But if there is ever an audio upgrade to save for, this should certainly be it.

Product page: OPPO Digital HA-2SE Portable Headphone DAC/Amp

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