AUDIO GD HE-9 REVIEW

MSRP: $2399USD

  • TONAL BALANCE / NEUTRALITY 97%
  • PERFORMANCE FOR THE PRICE 94%
  • FEATURES / FUNCTIONALITY 92%
  • SOUND FIDELITY 96%
  • MUSICALITY 69%
  • BUILD QUALITY 90%

PROS

  • Heavy Duty Build
  • Ultra transparency
  • Excellent resolution
  • Endlessly powerful
  • Great balance
  • Wonderful bass response

CONS

  • Lacks musicality

INTRO 

Finally… I got to purchase my long sought after solid state amplifier – The HE-9! I have been looking at this amplifier for ever and can’t think of a piece of gear that I wanted more. I have had experience with the Audio-GD 28 and loved how it reacted to planar bass. Well here we are now…let’s see how it turned out for me.

 SPECS

Outstanding specs

  • S/N >130 DB(input short,XLR mode)
  • THD <0.0008%
  • LOW GAIN +10DB
  • HIGH GAIN +20DB (XLR)
  • BALANCED HEADPHONE AMP OUTPUT POWER

 40 ohm:   9000MW
100 ohm: 3800MW
300 ohm: 1250MW
600 ohm:   630MW

  • SINGLE ENDED HEADPHONE AMPLIFER

40 ohm:   2500MW
100 ohm: 1050MW
300 ohm: 350MW
600 ohm:   175MW

  • HEADPHONE OUTPUT IMPEDANCE 1 ohm
  • INPUT IMPEDANCE 94k @ XLR

FULL DETAILS HERE

BUILD/DESIGN

The HE-9 is the largest headphone amplifier to enter my place by a long shot. If you are considering using this amplifier on your desktop you may really need to give some hard thought about that as only a temporary home for it. It begs to be set up in a racking system. I use a mid-sized dining table as a desk and usually have plenty of space for multiple items but my desk met its match with the HE-9.  This freaking thing is HUGE. This beast is very heavy without the hollowness of the Phonitor SPL X.

It has tons of little bolts and screws all over its multi-part chassis that can be an eyesore to the aesthetically picky. I personally think that by now and after all of these years Kingwa would start using a new chassis but honestly if you are like me all you care about is that the choices made produced a wonderful end result sonically. Okay I am lying. In 2017 (fine it was made in 2016) I expect the design to keep up with the times like the gorgeous Holo DAC. In the end though everything is forgivable if it functions properly and sounds good.

FUNCTIONS/FEATURES

The HE-9 is only being used with the XLR inputs because I only want to give it the best I have. There are several input choices that are all selectable at the push of a button as well as output choices since the HE-9 is mostly a preamp. As is to be expected from this site, I used the HE-9 exclusively as a headphone amplifier which is how it will be judged.

Apart from the extra power that comes from using the 4pin balanced jack, differences between single ended and balanced are negligible at best. I primarily used the 4pin balanced jack  of the amplifier but was also able to play two headphones at the same time without a loss of fidelity.

The remote is a handy feature that enables simple volume control and source selection. It must be pointed at the face of the unit and not to the side of it to work properly.

The volume control is not my favorite aspect because it clicks and the turning of the knob has what feels like notches of resistance. The good thing is though is that you have plenty play in the volume knob that prohibits accidentally cranking the volume up to loud. That is very tough to do. That is a wonderful thing with all of the power on tap because the HE-9 has power for days. HE-6 owners should be perking up in their seats at the sight of an HE-9 for sale on the forums, as rare as it may appear or emailing Kingwa about how to get one.

SOUND

  •   BASS EXTENSION 100%
  • BASS BALANCE 99%
  • MIDRANGE BALANCE 94%
  • TREBLE BALANCE 98%
  • TREBLE EXTENSION 97%
  •   BASS CONTROL 98%
  • TONE DENSITY (BODY , OPPOSITE OF THINNESS) 68%
  • MACRO DYNAMICS (SOFTS TO LOUDS) 92%
  • MICRO DYNAMICS (SMALL GRADATIONS OF VOLUME) 78%
  • SOUND STAGE WIDTH 95%
  • SOUND STAGE DEPTH 95%
  • BLACKNESS OF BACKGROUND 99%

Lets jump right in….After all you are not here to read a poem are ya?

BASS

The bass of the HE-9 has flawless extension. I’d imagine it can pick up a whale humming in his sleep. The control is excellent. The HE-9 has good focus and a decent amount of body with every headphone tested. In fact let me be blunt…I can’t say I have heard better quality bass from any amplifier to date. You must know though that the level of engagement from the bass produced different results based on the headphone used. The short story there is that if you have a planar magnetic headphone the HE-9 cracks it’s fingers, stretches, and let’s you have it. This thing loves planars but is finicky with higher impedance dynamic cans, or at least the Eikon and HD650. Texture is great regardless as well as resolution and clarity down low. There is definitely that solid state dryness thing going on but I don’t mind that in the bass section. 

MIDRANGE

A lot of times I struggle with separating technical performance from the midband section even more than I do the bass so I won’t try to even if I explain them by aspect later.

The mids of the HE-9 are very even and neutral. Neutrality is the name of the game with the HE-9. Even though the bass is strong it’s neutral as is it’s transition from lows to mids. I actually consider the midrange flat with no flattery, bulges, or dips. The 9 is about as linear as it gets folks. The AGD unit, to sound perfectly neutral to my ears, would have an extremely slight but broad boost in the middle midrange from 800hz all the way to 1.5khz and I would call it perfect.

There is no such thing as too much neutrality but there is a such thing as sterility. Where the HE-9 gets it wrong for me is sustain, decay and body. Sure it’s balance is great but it flat out fails at not sounding boring by the way it handles the body of the tones played. This amplifier is 100% solid state sounding. That means that this linearity of responsiveness and how solid states handle richness, bloom, and resonance is due to how they tend to handle damping control. I am not technically proficient in these matters but as is opposed to tube amps that let bloom and nuance become expressive, the HE-9 stifles those aspects as it is the pinnacle of solid state sound. Now to be clear, I like solid state amps that give the more hifi sound of negative feedback designs but the HE-9 is over damped to my ears and even more so than some other solid states I have heard. This results in a distinct lack of emotion and realism. I have to expound because I have never heard an amplifier so technically capable  and balanced yet so disconnected from the raw essence in the music. This is the same disconnect I had with the Airist Heron 5 but to even a greater extent because this amp does so much right elsewhere  but has this, my Achilles heal, as it’s weakness.

What is absolutely excellent is it’s ‘hear through’ factor. Voices have air around them with every breath lifted off of the recording. Female voices sound pretty good on the HE-9 since from my perspective they do not have to have as much density as males to sound realistic to me. Male voices do not sound thick but flat and bodiless yet airy and clear. The upper midrange has a very good balance and never sounds shouty or peaky but has pretty much spot on presence. Though the fundamentals lack body; strings, harps, and cellos have wonderful harmonics with good detail and accuracy. 

TREBLE

The treble of the HE-9 is present and decently fast with good articulation. I do not hear snappy high hats, and solid – tangible cymbals but the presence and balance is spot on ideal for me. I have a feeling that some may want a little more treble but the HE-9 sits right at what I believe is accurate in quantity. Despite its excellent balance and resolution the AGD does not have a lot of texture and solidity in the treble. It is a little underwhelming and overly soft to my ears. Though I like non-fatiguing treble, I also like percussiveness and bite.

SOUNDSTAGE

The HE-9 has more width than depth but it has an excellent amount of both. If anyone said the HE-9 lacked soundstage my eyebrows would scrunch up in confusion followed by a high pitched “what?”. This is one of its strong attributes. It will make even some tube amps sound small and compact in comparison. I also don’t feel the soundstage is exaggerated either. Performance is optimal here.

TRANSIENT RESPONSE

Quick, and precise. The transient response of the HE-9 is excellent.  It has very quick and fast attacks. It also has a fast and slightly unnatural decay and makes some recordings sound a little dry.

TRANSPARENCY/BLACKGROUND/CLARITY

Well this is where I sigh. Everyone has different things that make or break an experience for them. The above complaints are deal breakers unfortunately. BUT HERE is where you know for a fact you have something ‘Top Of The Line’. The HE-9 is the cleanest, clearest, and blackest headphone amplifier I have ever had bottom line. YES I will use superlatives here. This has to be the cleanest most transparent amplifier on the market near it’s price range. I could only imagine how it would sound if the tones resonated and popped out from this black background with authority. 

DYNAMICS

Decent. The HE-9 has good macrodynamics. The micro dynamics are a little lacking to my ears.

RESOLUTION/DETAILS

Outstanding. The HE-9 is very resolving. The small gradations of volume are wanting but  all the details are there. I have yet to hear a more detailed amplifier.        

CONCLUSION

 

%

I think that my review of this amplifier may be just as revelatory of my particular tastes as it is of the capabilities and performance of this unit. The balance is excellent; the resolution, clarity, blackground, power, details, soundstage and on and on are very impressive. But I must have soul! Especially since I listen to lots of it. This amplifier is the Tin Man on a quest to the ‘Wizard of OZ’ to get his heart; sure it has brains but where is the heart? Still I have to score it very highly based on merit and also know that my hang up may not be yours because after plenty of discourse with Master 9 owners, I am confident the HE-9 is even better and will be a worth upgrade for them. Just not the amp for me….Your mileage may vary.

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