This is a review of the Earmen CH-Amp streaming headphone amplifier stack. It is a matching set of different components, comprising a streamer, a DAC, and a headphone amplifier, there is a separate power supply that drives all the elements. The various boxes share the same form factor, and they are immaculately and well-presented. The package is singularly greater than the sum of its parts.
The CH-Amp package itself comprises the headphone amplifier and a linear power supply unit that can drive the Tradutto DAC and the Staccato streamer. The CH-Amp has two RCA line level inputs as well as a 4.4mm balanced input that can take a feed from the Tradutto, or other DAC with balanced output.
Output from the CH-Amp to the rear is to a left/right RCA or 4.4mm balanced output, making it a decent preamplifier option on a very small footprint. Of course, there are two headphone outputs at the front: a 6.35mm headphone jack and a balanced headphone output.
There is a very compact but high-quality metal remote control that manages the CH-Amp and the Tradutto if you have both. The Streaming Staccato is controlled with an iOS or Android App. The CH-Amp does have the usual volume controls on the front as well as input control and there is a gain switch on the front too.
Out of the Box
The CH-Amp stack has the power supply in it with the power lead, the remote control and a bunch of various cables that are needed. There are four interconnects to power the other components, although only three are needed which panicked me a fraction.
The Earmen CH-Amp, as well as the Staccato and the Tradutto, are CNC milled from solid aluminium blocks and their weight reflects the quality engineering on show. Each component has a set of soft rubber feet on each corner giving the stack a solid base to work from and they have their name stylishly milled onto the topside of the chassis. The brushed matt black finish does attract fingerprints and cumulative scratches seem possible, but a soft cloth is always handy here. In respect of the buttons, they are all solid, comforting, and give a good response when needed. The volume control on the CH-Amp, which also acts as the Power On/Off, is small but clicks along nicely. The full specification is here for the CH-Amp. There are manuals accompanying each component, that are short but effective, it is all very intuitive though.
The CH-Amp stack has a modest 150×150 mm footprint. The PSU is 60mm tall and the CH-Amp itself is just 30mm high as are the Tradutto and Staccato. The 4 units stack, with their feet 17.5cm tall. It is a satisfying setup and, on a desktop, very pretty indeed.
The Earmen CH-Amp is £1389, the Earmen Tradutto DAC is £749, and the Earmen Staccato Streamer is £999, making this stack an imposing £3137.
SCV Distribution has the whole lot on offer for £2,999, in the UK. The link is here.
Fortunately, the arrival of the Earmen CH-Amp stack has crossed over generously in timing with the Meze Audio 109 Pro open-backed headphones being here at HF&MS. I also have the impressive Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro and a pair of Focal Radiance headphones.
The stack is a joy to look at, sleek in brushed matt black and the small footprint affords it desktop status, with the, until now, peerless Chord Hugo 2 taking a back seat for a couple of weeks. The solid rubber feet on the components mean you can remove headphones and add them without having to steady the stack, this firm footing is great. I have the Staccato wired with some shielded Atlas Ethernet cable. The PSU providing all the power removes the need for loads of plugs and this is greatly appreciated and makes for further ease on the desktop.
Access to the gain switch, source inputs, volume etc. is simple. With the Meze Audio 109 Pro, and the other headphones, I have not needed to put the gain on high, the system seems to be equally comfortable driving the 109s at 40 Ohms or the DT990s at a more challenging 250 Ohms.
The dB meter display on the front of the CH-Amp is a bit small but it is nice to have, I’m finding the bars are barely seen as I’m listening relatively quietly generally. It is only when you crank it up do you see the left-right dB bars jumping about.
One feature I like is that when you pull out the headphone jack the CH-Amp switches to 0 volume, this is a nice touch if you are swapping headphones around and stops you from blowing your ears off. This happens too when I disconnect a pair of Sendy Apollo balanced headphones. The clatter of the relays when you do this is quite satisfying. It does not go so far as to pause the music that is being received by the Staccato.
The only sort of practical annoyance is I would quite like the stack to all come ON when the PSU is fired up, but this does not happen for me. It feels like this should happen as the PSU feeds all three components but when firing up the PSU, you do need to turn on each component separately.
First in the stack, and new to HF&MS, is the Staccato streamer. It is basic but effective so full marks here. It has an ON button, only. After a bit of red flashing, there is a glowing blue LED to indicate it is connected to the network. The Staccato can be wired or wireless, wireless setup is in the Earmen Stream App, after 2 goes I was in easily.
The Staccato, in my view, is a study of design and simplicity over needless modern screen fanciness. Inputs as well as LAN are a USB-A connection, to a local library (see below) for example. You’ll need the matching Tradutto if you want a laptop USB-B relationship.
Outputs from the Staccato are digital only to a TOS Link and a Coax output. I have gone with TOS Link as it is handier and cleaner for me. The Staccato features Tidal and Spotify Connect and Bluetooth. There is no hint of Roon or Airplay, Chromecast etc. The Staccato in conjunction with the App is a study in everyday excellence where Qobuz, Tidal, Deezer and all the usual internet accounts can be interfaced and streamed to the Staccato. I have hooked up my Seagate SSD drive to the USB A at the back. It has my WAV Naim Unitiserve backup and it works a treat, through the App, the output is clear and clean. I can feel a matching storage option coming from Earmen with a few TBs of storage to complement the stack!
Bluetooth connection to my Pixel 6 Pro has been flawless, though Tidal Connect or the App on the iPad is preferred by myself for everyday use.
The Tradutto DAC takes the digital output from the Staccato through a fully balanced architecture featuring an ESS Sabre ES9038K2M DAC that can process audio to 32bit/768kHz or DSD512. A full review of the excellent Tradutto is on HF&MS here.
Meze Audio 109 Pro
…this is probably the best I have heard these … headphones in the short time I have had them
The majority of my listening to the latest Meze Audio 109 Pros was on a Chord Hugo 2 and then latterly the CH-Amp stack. The 109 Pro are clean and fast and dynamic and a pure open-backed delight. The sound presentation is dynamic and maybe, now I listen more, more forward in the head in the Ch-Amp stack. It is a fine performer and the space and clean open presentation noted in the Tradutto review are further enhanced in this immersive headphone experience. You will spot a theme in the following assessments of this headphone amplifier stack with different headphones, but I am fairly clear this is probably the best I have heard these Meze Audio 109 Pro headphones in the short time I have had them.
Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro
…they are sounding better than ever…
These modestly priced, Amazon purchased, Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro as quite simply my everyday headphones for many reasons, not least their comfort, long single-ended cable and apparently flat frequency profile. Again, they are sounding better than ever, with all respect to the Chord Hugo 2, there is simply more here, though I believe both desktop solutions are at the top rung of desktop audiophile quality. On Stan Getz’s Girl From Ipanema (Tidal Masters 24-bit, 48kHz), the guitar is so gentle and articulate and Astrud Gilberto’s vocal is dreamy. There is a musicality here and an ‘I’ll just do one more’ feeling going on here as I realise how good this stack is. It is likely the vocals I’m enjoying so much, the organisation of the midrange, in tracks like All Too Well (Tidal Masters 24-bit, 48kHz) is what is keeping me so incredibly engaged.
…this CH-Amp stack has been the best I’ve heard these headphones driven for a long while…
These, now slightly ‘getting-on-a-bit’, Focal Radiance headphones have Focal’s 40mm Aluminium/Magnesium M-shaped driver that offers long listening and exceptional attention to detail. I have to say, straight up, this CH-Amp stack has been the best I’ve heard these headphones driven for a long while. I am getting a full dynamic performance that feels as natural as I’ve heard for ages, and it is delightful. The best example of this is the stripped-out opening track called Glory (Tidal FLAC 16-bit, 44.1kHz) by Sault on their new album 11. The track is incredibly raw, very natural and punchy, the Radiance headphones cope easily. I have previously found the Radiance headphones to be sometimes thick and too bass-weighted but here, with plenty of energy and drive behind them, they are very natural indeed.
Again, fortunately, I stumbled across Bill Evan’s Nardis (Tidal FLAC 16-bit, 44.1kHz) in my Tidal Daily Discovery where the bustling snare and double bass feel soft, precise, and very real. My Daily Discovery features on the same day the best track from Revolver, after Elanor Rigby, their pre-Sgt. Pepper’s experiment Tomorrow Never Knows (Tidal Masters 24-bit, 48kHz). If you’re ever after an incredible channel separation journey this is your track, this was the first outlier that pointed towards the future direction of the Beatles as they transitioned from their singles career to albums.
I am obligated now to put on some guitar music to check out soundstage separation in cluttered productions; for me, this is the uplifting Helplessness Blues (Tidal Masters 24-bit, 48kHz) by Fleet Foxes, for others, it is Led Zeppelin’s Gallows Pole (Tidal FLAC 16-bit, 44.1kHz), for a few, it is Burn it to the Ground (Tidal FLAC 16-bit, 44.1kHz) by Nickleback. Not unsurprisingly, again, the CH-Amp stack performs admirably with these Radiance headphones and space and organisation come through in a strong soundstage. The playlist I’ve used for this review is here.
If this is near your budget, this is your headphone nirvana.
I will always maintain the most immersive, value-for-money and direct route to high-end audio is through headphones. To this, I will also argue a dedicated headphone amplifier, over that added into a box serving another primary function (like an integrated amplifier), will improve your headphone investment every time. Here, with this Earmen CH-Amp, we have a dedicated headphone amplifier with its own dedicated power supply and a tailored DAC, not to mention a matching, reliable and effective streamer. If this is near your budget, this is your headphone nirvana.
This amplifier has the space, articulation, and musicality to satisfy…
If you’re looking for a step up in headphone sound, there are many products to get you on those headphone amplifier audiophile rungs. If you are impatient, like me, this is the way to bound up to the top step with a reliable streamer, a clean, fast detailed DAC, and an impressive, dedicated, powerful headphone amplifier. This amplifier has the space, articulation, and musicality to satisfy all music genres. And I want one, it is an Editor’s Pick.
The metal remote
WiFi is useful
The PSU woke up the CH-Amp, Tradutto and Staccato.
VU Meter too sensitive
Matching 2TB storage solution?
Full details are on the company’s site.
In the UK, go to SCV Distribution.