Last month saw a newcomer to the Subjective Review offices; a hitherto unknown streamer, the X35 from Nova Fidelity. The X35 contained lots of mouth watering goodies for the completist amongst us. Power in spades, wi-fi or ethernet connectivity, crazy amounts of storage possible, Deezer, Tidal MQA, Amazon or Spotify HD, CD ripping, DAB radio, FM radio, Phono preamp and recorder, Headphone amp, DSD capable DAC, analogue amp, speaker amp, preamp; it’s mind boggling what they’ve put in it. To my delight it all turned out to be well made and most importantly, sounding really decent. decent enough to make me think that perhaps it was time to start getting rid of some of the real estate on my ever expanding hifi unit.
Nova Fidelity are being distributed through SCV in the UK. If they can do a streamer this good, what else are they capable of? Naturally, my email, almost automatically, got back in touch with Matt Esau retail sales manager of SCV distribution, and we exchanged ideas as to the next product to which we could introduce our readership.
6 weeks later and I am ready to unveil the next in what is likely to be a mini series of Nova Fidelity audio gear. Ladies and (mostly) gents, I bring you the HA500H. H stands for headphone. In fact this is a Dac with analogue in and preamp out, as well as a headphone amp. First of all, let us tell you what this is not. It isn’t a speaker amp, streamer, recorder thing; it is designed as a bolt on to the X35 , for those who wish to start squeezing; for those who to start extracting the last drop of the streamer’s capabilities and take it to another level and aren’t afraid to splash out a hefty wad to get their Meze Empyrean, Focal Utopia or HifiMan Susvara working to their full potential.
As you’d expect; for £2199, there’s a little something to tempt you to part with your cash. Nova Fidelity are offering to distinct sound signatures under one hood. Not content with the usual filter adjustments or eq options, Nova have gone one further by offering a solid state, or tube sound with the switch of a button and the patience to wait 3 seconds for the transformation to take place. There are not too many of these hybrids available in the marketplace. I’m scratching my head to think of one, come to mind! Cayin have pitched their stake on the DAP market with a dual mode N8 that costs a fortune and now have an N3 with solid state/tube in one little box at $500. Of course, what we have here, is a larger experience altogether…
Different strokes for different folks. Some like it hot. Driving, punchy, black backgrounds. These are adjectives synonymous with solid state lovers. Warm, lush, creamy. Likewise these words capture some of the ingredients which put a fellow music lover into the camp of the tube output stage fans. And never the twain shall meet. No one can agree! If 1 of the folks says tubes rule, there follows a 1000 reasons why it doesn’t perform technically as well as solid state. If the solid state buffs start dismissing the tube sound as a relic from the dark ages, then their technology is accused of putting a digital “‘brick wall” to the music which sucks the life from it. What if there is music that benefits from either tube or solid state, dependent on the harshness of the recording, or perhaps even the nuances of one’s mood on any particular day? What if you have a closed headphone which benefits from both the need for the partner to watch TV while you are doing something much more fun, but in the same room? Could this be a solid state choice, compared to the edginess of the HE-6?
Could it be you have 2 headphones because they complement each other? One perhaps being a bass monster (Abyss) the other being a detail monster (HD800)? There is an inherent difference between the 2 within the confines of this box, of that I can assure you. A quick press on the control panel and we are presented with the softer, more coloured sound of the Tubes. Switch back and we are reminded of the dynamic sound of the solid state circuitry. Could there be a place for both in your musical tastes? If there exists that possibility, then here is a solution.
The dual solid state/tube option is the first audio product I’ve had the opportunity to spend a decent amount of time with. I wonder if, like me, you’ll spend time listening to your favourite stuff and endlessly cycling between tube and solid state, just to see if that particular track sounds better in it’s tube clothing? Nova have offered yet more ways to waste even more of our precious leisure time! Maybe with so many of us now working from home, there are a few more moments to be snatched, what with the commuting going from 1 hour to 10 feet across the apartment…..
What else can I tell you about the HA500H? It has a small remote from which everything can be tweaked. The front panel has a few more buttons, and given we are talking headphone amp are likely to be in much closer proximity than your standard hifi gear. The Nova can almost instantly switch between tube and solid state. There is a low or high impedance setting. The only headphone that the HA500H had a problem with driving was the AKGK1000 Bass Heavy. If you have something like this you know already that we are talking stupid amounts of power; a full size integrated or power amplifier will do nicely, thank you. There are some headphone amps that run it; Benchmark Dac/Amps can be fiddled with internally to push the AKGs hard. Thankfully there are very few of you out there who have this unique beast of a headphone. Another famously hard to drive Headphone, the HiFiMan HE-6, is around in rather more plentiful supply. I happen to have 1 of those too. How did this fare? Tube was the way forward. 76 volume(from 100) was as much as I could go to. High impedance, of course, was the setting.
The usual abundance of input options are available, I suspect Nova have done much research in attempting to please every potential punter by offering everything they could think of. Toslink, Coaxial, AES/EBU, USB, HDMI, Analogue in both balanced and unbalanced, even bluetooth is here. Outputs are RCA or XLR and can be tweaked to fixed or variable output depending on whether you go for integrated or power amp as the end stage. As much as time permitted I tried as many variants as I could; all worked as they should without the need of too much shouting or making threatening gestures with a claw hammer, as expected from my experiences with the MUCH more fiddly X35 and it’s 130 page instruction manual.
The build quality is without fault, as befits a product of this price. A brushed black metal interface has an understated finish. A decent sized 5″ display can be configured with a variety of options, such as analogue or digital output display. We are catered for balanced or unbalanced outputs from the front of the 500. The balanced has twice the power and a superior signal to noise ratio than it’s 6.35″ neighbour. The frequency response, as expected, goes so low and so high only aliens could really be able to tell you what those bits are either end sound like. It’s there if you ever become one.
Thus ends part 2 of my adventures in hi-fi with South Korea. I hoped you enjoyed it as much as me, and stay tuned for more musings, mutterings and mumblings from deep within the Darkest Devon offices of Subjective Review.