Audiophile gear goes in one of two directions. In one corner you have the old guard gear that costs as much as a Honda Fit and stuff that costs $20 and sounds fine until you spend $20 more and notice that the audio quality is slightly better. This dichotomy in gear can be frustrating to newbies and silly to people who just don’t care.
I’m a fan of good audio and I like to try new stuff. The $300 xDuoo TA-10R headphone amp popped up on Drop not long ago and I decided to give it a try. This product comes from the audiophile underworld, a source of endless interesting permutations of prosumer audio gear that is supposed to add incremental improvements to your gear. Because many of the major players in audio abandoned the computer market, companies like xDuoo stepped in to produce cheapish tube-driven speaker and headphone amps that include multiple inputs including a USB connection that lets you listen, in theory, to lossless audio from your PC or Mac.
What is xDuoo TA-10R?
The xDuoo TA-10R is a tube-driven headphone amp that costs about $300 and includes USB, aux, optical, and coaxial audio inputs. You switch between the inputs by tapping the volume button. It has balance and standard output jacks for headphones and includes a single 12AU7 pre-amp tube. The system can be used to power headphones or speakers and offers 2,000 milliwatt outputs via a AK4493 digital-to-analogue converter chip and XMOS XU208 USB chip. It outputs “24-bit, 384-kilohertz PCM decoding; 32-bit, 384-kilohertz DXD decoding; and DSD decoding up to DSD256.”
This is a mouthful, obviously, but it basically means you can turn these things up very loud and still get good audio quality and these can, in theory, play back lossless audio via Apple Music or another, similar service at full fidelity.
To use the gear you simply plug in your system via USB or standard audio Line In. The You can see the port layout below.
You can also output directly to speakers via the Line Out. I have mine set up via both headphone out via my Mac mini and USB, so that I can use either the Mac mini’s audio conversion system or, when I need better quality, the TA-10Rs. The TA-10R appears as a USB audio device on your machine without any drivers although they do supply a Windows driver on the website.
Is the xDuoo TA-10R good?
In a word, yes. The audio quality is clean and clear and nearly noiseless. I used a Schitt Magni pre-amp for a long time which simply sat in-line and boosted the signal to a pair of Audeze LCD-X headphones. That worked fine for a long time although I wasn’t getting the quality boost associated with a USB-connected digital-to-analogue converter. I unplugged the Schitt and added this box. It immediately showed up on my machine as an audio source and I plugged in my headphones. The result was a clean, clear signal with an interesting amount of depth and warmth that was definitely missing from the Magni.
The xDuoo TA-10R is what I would call bottomless. You can turn it all the way up without distortion, an important consideration in audiophile-quality sound files and streaming, and everything sounds crisp from low volumes to high. I listened to a few favorites, including my go-to Fleetwood Mac songs (they had loads of detail in their recordings that traditional hardware couldn’t pick out) and found everything working wonderfully. Swapping inputs was super easy and I often found the device defaulting to USB exactly when I needed it.
The amp as also noiseless. I connected it to a direct power source after I noticed a little noise in the signal but once I made that change things worked fine. A line conditioner is probably a good idea for this gear but there is literally no reason to go that far with a $300 DAC. I often take devices like this off of the grounding pin because my house wiring a mess so it was a simple fix.
I’m honestly quite pleased with this headphone amp. There are loads of reviews of this amp out that go into actual in-depth analysis of the electronics but that’s not why we’re here. In short, this will improve your audio experience immensely even with standard headphones and speakers. I think of this as a sort of entry-level guitar amp — it sounds great out of the box, it’s good enough for beginners and will serve you even as you dive down the full audiophile rabbit hole and feel you need to add two tubes instead of one.
Tube amps are, to be fair, a gimmick but a very pleasant one. I good tube amp can truly change the quality of your audio but, as we must recall, the technology is old and analog and the “feeling” and “warmth” it gives is subjective at best. Audio is audio and even a $10,000 amp and $100,000 speakers will give you little more than the ability to play loud music louder.
I love this little tube amp and welcome it to my sound chain. It’s not perfect, but it works well and it adds a dimension to my computer audio that was definitely missing. And, at $300, it’s well worth the money.