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Review and Measurements of Rega Ear Headphone Amp

amirm

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#1
This is a review and detailed measurements of the Rega Ear Headphone Amplifier. It is on kind loan from a member. The Ear costs USD $395 from Amazon including Prime shipping. From the bit of research I did, seems like the Rega Ear was released back in 2013/2014.

It doesn't take much to get me to dislike the look of any audio device. The Rega Ear does everything to push me there:
Rega Ear Headphone Amplifier Audio Review.jpg

While the enclosure is metal the front panel is the cheap plexiglass that was maybe in fashion back in 1970s. The silver buttons add insult to injury as do the easy smudges you get on it. All of this is strange as I consider Rega at the lower tier of "high-end" audio electronics.

The back panel doesn't change the impression either, neither does the AC adapter which had its case already starting to fall apart:

Rega Ear Headphone Amplifier Back Panel Audio Review.jpg


At least put some bling in there with gold RCA connectors or something at this price.

Now, from design point of view, an AC power supply is a good thing for amplifiers because you can convert its output to both positive and negative DC supply you need for proper, dc-coupled amplifier. The "high" 24 volt output bodes well for handling high impedance headphones as they need more voltage than they need current. Rated current output though is only 0.34 amps. This does the opposite, giving us doubt that the Rega Ear can properly drive low impedance headphones which need current to sign.

Some design choices are shocking here. Gain is fixed at whopping 28 db! I could barely turn up the volume control when listening with my Hifiman HE-400i. You had to make micro adjustment to get the level you wanted. I doubt that you will go above 12:00 o'clock position for any headphone.

Headphone Amplifier Measurements
I set the input at 2 volts and adjusted the volume for unity gain (2 volt output). This is what we get:

Rega Ear Headphone Amplifier Audio Measurements.png


Distortion at 0.0025% beats the 0.003% specification which is good. What is not so good in this day and age is the 92 dB SINAD:
Best Standalone Headphone Amplifiers.png


Distortion products are well under -100 dB so noise must be the contributor for somewhat low SINAD results which is the sum of distortion+noise.

The spec for signal to noise ratio is at max output level so I cranked up the volume control there right before the amplifier clips:

Rega Ear Headphone Amplifier SNR Audio Measurements.png


Again, the spec is met.

I am running a more realistic signal to noise ratio at much reduced output voltage of just 50 millivolts. Idea is that with headphone listening, most of the time noise is a problem with sensitive IEMs so might as well measure SNR at levels that may be used there. Using that metric, we get this:
Rega Ear Headphone Amplifier SNR 50 mv Audio Measurements.png


So quite a bit lower as it normally is. This is the third device I have tested this way so I started to put them in a graph:

Best Standalone Headphone Amplifiers Noise Ratings.png


Even though an analog control is used, channel consistency relative to volume control position was very good:
Rega Ear Headphone Amplifier Channel Balance Audio Measurements.png


Using the Hifiman HE-400i, by the time I could hear the channel imbalance, there was no volume left. Of course this will be different with a sensitive IEM.

Output impedance is comfortably low:

Rega Ear Headphone Amplifier Output Impedance Audio Measurements.png


What is left is our two most important measurements: power versus distortion at 300 ohm (emphasizing voltage delivery) and 33 ohm (emphasizing current delivery). First, 300 ohm:
Rega Ear Headphone Amplifier Power at 300 Ohm Audio Measurements.png


We have healthy amount of power at 90 milliwatts. Something was strange though: one channel was jumping up and down almost 10 dB during measurements as indicated by the "T" symbol (analyzer giving up on getting a stable reading). I played around with grounding and it made no difference. I researched and saw one other report of this problem in subjective listening. Looking at the spectrum, there was low frequency noise that would jump up and down at lower input levels. Seems like a design issue. I saw some references to power supply voltage being managed somehow based on output drive??? If so, that mechanism could be causing problems.

With 33 ohm, output was much more stable:

Rega Ear Headphone Amplifier Power at 33 Ohm Audio Measurements.png


Here, as we have seen with some other headphone amplifiers (e.g. Schiit Magni) there is sudden rise in distortion and then clipping occurs later. This indicates distortion is not well managed even when the amp is operating within the power capacity of the power supply. Allowing that initial distortion, we get to a decent power value of 461 milliwatts. The curve though in both instances is quite a bit worse than our reference Massdrop THX AAA 789. They are in completely different class across the spectrum but especially at max volume.

Listening Tests
As usual I started my testing with Sennheiser HD-650 headphones. I was greeted with tons and tons of power with superb bass and dynamics. The sensation of subwoofer in your ear was very much drive, driving the HD-650s easily into levels that was just too loud -- even for me. :)

Switching to Hifiman HE-400i was a let down. Bass got distorted almost immediately. The more you turned up the volume, the worst it got. In no case did it create the great sensation of bass that I am used to hearing with HE-400i with higher performance headphone amplifiers that have more power and less distortion. As such, I don't recommend using the Rega Ear for low impedance headphones.

Conclusions
The Rega Ear is from a respected higher-end brand of audio electronics. From the point of view measurements, the Ear fails to match our state-of-the-art reference products at the same or much lower prices. The JDS Labs Atom for example will outperform it in every regard at costs 1/4 as much. Sadly you don't get fancy case either so there is nothing to hang your hat on.

Subjectively, with high impedance headphones, the Rega Ear performs very well. It may have more momentary power reserve than steady state measurements show. So if you can get a cheap used one for this type of application, it will be an enjoyable product. But if you want to buy a headphone and be done with it, regardless of what headphone you will use with it in the future, you better pass on the Ear.

Needless to say, I can't recommend the Rega Ear. There are just other better options out there today.

------------
As always, questions, comments, recommendations, etc. are welcome.

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#2
Thank you Amir! The design does make it look and feel rather cheap even though it really isn't. The plastic is such an odd choice. I got the impressions from subjective listening that it was somehow boosting bass, I didn't do any a/b testing to confirm it though. I feel like I also recall there being a bit of grittiness to the sound at lower volumes which I would imagine is the distortion rearing it's ugly head. It definitely was capable in my limited use of it to achieve high volumes that is for sure. I was able to snag this unit for $200 second hand.
 

graz_lag

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#3
The funniest thing of all this to me is that when I browse our European Craigslist' sites, I smile too much in reading listings : On Sale Here Is My Audiophile grade ... Audio GD, Fostex, Marantz, NAD (my former M51 included), NuForce, NuPrime, Rega, Schiit, Sony, Wyred4Sound, among maaaaany others badly beaten here ! :D
The poor owners, if they knew ... So the question is : is it better to be Ignorant and Happy rather than Aware and Upset ? ;)
 

daftcombo

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#4
The funniest thing of all this to me is that when I browse our European Craigslist' sites, I smile too much in reading listings : On Sale Here Is My Audiophile grade ... Audio GD, Fostex, Marantz, NAD (my former M51 included), NuForce, NuPrime, Rega, Schiit, Sony, Wyred4Sound, among maaaaany others badly beaten here ! :D
The poor owners, if they knew ... So the question is : is it better to be Ignorant and Happy rather than Aware and Upset ? ;)
If it's on sale, it's for a reason.

Thanks Amir for this review.
 
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#5
The funniest thing of all this to me is that when I browse our European Craigslist' sites, I smile too much in reading listings
I too have experienced the amusement of some of the ads out there. I no longer assume anything until I see the measurements.

So the question is : is it better to be Ignorant and Happy rather than Aware and Upset ? ;)
I used to be one of those unenlightened folks. Honestly, it's a relief for me when I see Amir's reviews because regardless of the outcome it gives me closure basically. Before discovering this site I stressed a lot about whether the amp or dac I had was good, now with the information here I can know. So in a way it produces some pain to know the gear I spent my hard earned cash on is nowhere near as good as people or the manufacturer claims but on the other hand I no longer have to guess which ultimately makes me feel better. At the end of the day the lessor gear will be sold off and I might lose some on the deal as a whole but I've come away learning things from it.
 

graz_lag

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#6
If it's on sale, it's for a reason.

Thanks Amir for this review.
Maybe ... Except that until few minutes ago there were no doubts abt. the audiophile cut of a Rega amplifier ...
The problem is that Rega is not alone, unfortunately for many of us ...
 

graz_lag

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#7
I too have experienced the amusement of some of the ads out there. I no longer assume anything until I see the measurements.


I used to be one of those unenlightened folks. Honestly, it's a relief for me when I see Amir's reviews because regardless of the outcome it gives me closure basically. Before discovering this site I stressed a lot about whether the amp or dac I had was good, now with the information here I can know. So in a way it produces some pain to know the gear I spent my hard earned cash on is nowhere near as good as people or the manufacturer claims but on the other hand I no longer have to guess which ultimately makes me feel better. At the end of the day the lessor gear will be sold off and I might lose some on the deal as a whole but I've come away learning things from it.
Indeed, an open mind to learn is the thing that saves us, money - they come an go, from one of our pockets to the other ...
 
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#8
It would be very interesting to see how Naim product reviews. When one reads What HiFi, they extensively talk about pace, rhythm, and timing of product. I'm guessing that's marketing-speak for good or bad design to the Brits - I don't know... they always included Rega product in that discussion too but now we see it's tests poorly. Anyone have insight into the whole "pace and rhythm" mantra?
 
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One more thing, What HiFi has never really liked Linn product too much yet Amir reviewed an 8-9 year old Linn design that still keeps up with current state of the art product (putting the cost discussion aside). I mention this because Linn, as a company, puts engineering first and as Amir is proving, it's all about measurements. My assumption is that the PRaT issue is just Naim (and others) marketing speak.
 

graz_lag

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One more thing, What HiFi has never really liked Linn product too much yet Amir reviewed an 8-9 year old Linn design that still keeps up with current state of the art product (putting the cost discussion aside). I mention this because Linn, as a company, puts engineering first and as Amir is proving, it's all about measurements. My assumption is that the PRaT issue is just Naim (and others) marketing speak.
Linn is from Scotland, perhaps from the wrong side of it if you look to the north from London ? :cool:
 

graz_lag

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It would be very interesting to see how Naim product reviews. When one reads What HiFi, they extensively talk about pace, rhythm, and timing of product. I'm guessing that's marketing-speak for good or bad design to the Brits - I don't know... they always included Rega product in that discussion too but now we see it's tests poorly. Anyone have insight into the whole "pace and rhythm" mantra?
I own a Naim machine ... So I am not authorized to comment it ... :)
 
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#12
I own a Naim machine ... So I am not authorized to comment it ... :)
What I do know is that each time that I've listened to Naim equipment, I've loved it. However, for some reason, I never owned it - I was always caught up in the fancy designs of MF, Linn, etc. or the machismo build of Plinius. Silliness I know....
 

anmpr1

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#16
I mention this because Linn, as a company, puts engineering first...
I can't speak to how Linn, as a company, is, today. May be on the cutting edge of tech, for all I know. However, back in the day, Linn was pretty much in to the snake oil scene. The man in charge, named Ivor, I think, had an idea that the only way a customer could reliably audition speakers was to do it with only one set in a room, at a time. The 'theory' was that the playing speaker would 'excite' other speakers in the room, passively, causing unwanted soundwaves to distort the intended signal. Thus making demos invalid. Of course, this made any quick AB comparisons between speakers impossible. I'm sure it was a dealer nightmare to put up with this 'cone of silence' protocol.

Curiously, while Linn didn't think you could AB speakers side by side, they did have a neat experiment using two turntable brands equipped with the same Kieth Monks tonearm (remember them?). The design of the KM tonearm allowed the wand/cartridge to be lifted off and placed on the other deck (the wand rode in a bed of mercury at the pivot--I'm sure the EPA would not allow that, today). Thus, a pretty quick comparison could be made with at least some sort of control. The Linn design competed against Japanese direct drives that were usually mounted with no suspension to speak of--thus being more prone to acoustic feedback in certain situations. Of course the Linn table's suspension was in essence a modification of the old AR design. Nothing new under the sun.
 

bunkbail

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#17
Amir reviewed an 8-9 year old Linn design that still keeps up with current state of the art product
Amir reviewed an upgraded Akurate streamer with their latest Katalyst DAC architecture which was introduced in 2016. It's not an "8-9 year old design", at least not on the DAC portion.
 

Timbo2

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#18
I can't speak to how Linn, as a company, is, today. May be on the cutting edge of tech, for all I know. However, back in the day, Linn was pretty much in to the snake oil scene. The man in charge, named Ivor, I think, had an idea that the only way a customer could reliably audition speakers was to do it with only one set in a room, at a time. The 'theory' was that the playing speaker would 'excite' other speakers in the room, passively, causing unwanted soundwaves to distort the intended signal. Thus making demos invalid. Of course, this made any quick AB comparisons between speakers impossible. I'm sure it was a dealer nightmare to put up with this 'cone of silence' protocol.

Curiously, while Linn didn't think you could AB speakers side by side, they did have a neat experiment using two turntable brands equipped with the same Kieth Monks tonearm (remember them?). The design of the KM tonearm allowed the wand/cartridge to be lifted off and placed on the other deck (the wand rode in a bed of mercury at the pivot--I'm sure the EPA would not allow that, today). Thus, a pretty quick comparison could be made with at least some sort of control. The Linn design competed against Japanese direct drives that were usually mounted with no suspension to speak of--thus being more prone to acoustic feedback in certain situations. Of course the Linn table's suspension was in essence a modification of the old AR design. Nothing new under the sun.
I remember that! At which point I basically got out of the audiophile game for decades.
 
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#19
Amir reviewed an upgraded Akurate streamer with their latest Katalyst DAC architecture which was introduced in 2016. It's not an "8-9 year old design", at least not on the DAC portion.
Oops - my bad - thanks for the correction. As Timbo2 states, sometimes the "snake oil" makes one turn their back on something - it did for about a decade for me - having a kid certainly made it easier to change focus but what triggered mine was buying a 6k Simaudio amp, opening it up as soon as I got home, and blew a fuse when reviewing component quality. Yes, it sounded good, but as someone who used to work with Cirrus Logic and others, I knew what I was looking at and couldn't believe some of the choices. I knew it was 100% BOM cost motivated. I felt screwed. Reputation alone is no longer the main factor in my opinion, it's why I'm curious about Naim and their statements.
 
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#20
The only thing that looks tackier and more 70s is that horrible looking silver thing it's sitting on.
 

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