The headphone amp that makes grown men weep

A quirky Japanese amplifier that produces breathtaking sound

Audio-Technica HA5050H, £5,000
Audio-Technica HA5050H, £5,000 | Image: Hugh Threlfall

One of the delights of technology is that, by and large, it gets progressively better. You don’t get that with, say, literature or art or cheese, which all struggle to be as good as in the past (objections on the back of a postcard). But in tech, the latest is usually the best ever. For the geekishly curious, this endless journey towards perfection makes it a sublime pleasure wringing the ultimate quality from the latest kit. So geeks, join me, and non-geeks, indulge me, in reflecting on the qualities of a £5,000 headphone amplifier from Japan’s Audio-Technica.

The dinky (33cm wide) but dense (11kg) HA5050H is made primarily for the discerning Japanese audiophile market and has a quirkily Japanese aura, from the gold-coloured fascia with fake-wood trim, to the retro twin VU meters, to the hybrid valve and transistor innards, to the arguably over-complicated functionality – I have no idea what many of the machine’s features are. But don’t be distracted by the rarefied complications of the HA5050H. With just a basic setup, it makes music sound breathtakingly, tear-jerkingly wonderful. I have forced uninterested people to listen to it and watched their astonishment. “It’s the most realistic sound I’ve ever heard,” has been the typical reaction. 

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I took music from sites like HDTracks.com recorded in 24-bit quality or in binaural stereo, then fed it raw to the HA5050H via USB from my Mac. I then played it through Audio‑Technica’s £1,990 ATH-ADX5000 headphones, although I don’t doubt that another per cent or so of marvellousness could be extracted with more costly cans – say, Audeze’s £3,599 LCD-4 or Focal’s Utopia. And maybe it would be possible to garotte another 0.5 per cent of magic from the music with an even more expensive headphone amp – say, the $7,000 Wells Audio Headtrip II, or the $37,950 MSB Select. But that can be for another day.

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