For many audiophiles, myself included, our headphones are our primary means of listening to music. Sure, there’s nothing like a well-placed, well-balanced pair of speakers – but in modern living environments, achieving a balanced between sound stage and a rooms aesthetics is often impossible. Naturally, however, headphones don’t suffer from inaccurate positioning – and some, particularly higher end open back models, are designed to replicate a perfectly placed pair of speakers to insure the stereo image is as realistic as possible.
Just like any quality pair of speakers, decent headphones require a decent amplifier to get the best from them. Venture into the world of higher-end, ‘audiophile-grade’ headphones, and your iPod’s headphone output simply won’t cut it. Enter Rega’s ‘Ear’ – a tiny, slimline amplifier designed to get the best sound possible from your favourite phones.
The Ear is designed to aesthetically match other components in Rega’s range, such as the TTPSU and the Fono phono stage. Its tiny casing contains an amplifier which benefits from a surface-mount PCB layout based on the Brio-R amplifier, a low-noise power supply, and polyester film capacitors for the best possible sound quality.
It’s packaging is simple – packaged in a similar box to the TTPSU, with a cardboard insert to hold things in place, and the external power supply contained within its own small box. No interconnects are provided (no surprise there), but you do get some basic documentation, not that you’ll need it.
While the Ear certainly feels like a well-made product, its front panel is a high-gloss plastic and feels rather cheap in comparison to the rest of the unit. It features rega’s usual small square buttons for power and mute, a volume control, and a quarter inch headphone jack. The rear panel, also plastic, features an input for the external power supply, a pair of RCA inputs, and an output link. The ear is designed to be connected to the line level output of your amplifier or preamplifier, and the output link allows you to pass the signal to a recording device if desired.
The rest of the casing is aluminium, and solid, too. There’s tiny rubber feet underneath which grip well on most surfaces, keeping the ear in place on your rack. The RCA jacks are also high quality, with no flexing when pressing on tight cables.
The volume control gives me cause for concern. It feels stiff to turn, and in operation a scratching sound can at times be heard through the headphones when the control is operated. There’s also a slight channel imbalance at lower levels, leading me to believe the potentiometer used doesn’t have the greatest tracking ability. Given the Ear’s £200 price tag and minimalist design, Rega could’ve used a better pot here – indeed, I’ve seen many similarly priced integrated amps with better volume controls.
In terms of sound, the Ear is on the warm side of neutral. Right of the bat you’ll notice the unusually high noise floor. If you use sensitive headphones, it rather ruins the listening experience especially during quiet musical passages.
Never the less, the ear’s sound was one that i found to be quite likeable. Its touch of warmth makes it particularly forgiven with lesser quality recordings, or low resolution files streamed from a computer or iDevice. During my listening tests with the ear, I spent a good deal of time streaming mp3s via AirPlay from a Yamaha CD-N301 with great results. It’s got tons of power on tap, too – so if your’e headphones are sensitive or easy to drive, you won’t be using much of that volume scale.
Halestorm’s Live In Philly is the perfect album to demonstrate the ear. The amp had no problem uncovering low-level details, such as the buzzing from the guitar amps or the occasional screams from the audience. It also did an impressive job of conveying the 3-dimensional sound stage, placing members of the audience right behind you and creating quite the stereo image in the process. Bass was powerful and well-controlled, particularly during the introduction to ‘Bet You Wish You Had Me Back’ – an intro with a pounding bass drum and bass guitar that, on some systems, can be overpowering – not here.
Gentler recordings such as ‘The Morning Light’ from Rikky James’ Debut album New Beginnings demonstrate the Ear’s more laid back approach to music. The acoustic guitars are rendered well, with Rikky’s voice positioned centrally in the sound stage. However – with such a simple arrangement comes that background hiss. It’s ever present, cutting through quiet passages of music.
The hiss is also prevalent during Queen’s ‘These Are The Days Of Our Lives’, a track that, ends with the drums fading to silence accompanied by a gentle reverb. The volume of the track itself is able to disguise the hiss – and, until that point, the track is a pleasant listen (though it could use a touch more emotion, which is certainly no fault of the track itself).
The Ear isn’t particularly forgiving with bright recordings, either – Switch to some classic rock, such as Poison’s ‘Nothin’ But A Good Time’, and the somewhat bright highs take over rendering the performance harsh in places. It’s a song that deserves to be played loud – but the ear holds back, preventing you inching that volume just a little further.
In summary – sure, the ear is a great little amp – but it does have its flaws. For one, there’s that background noise – it’s a constant irritation that’s always there, and for me overrides the Ear’s otherwise enjoyable performance. It may be less of a problem for those of you with less sensitive headphones – only an audition will tell.
There are a couple of build quality issues, too – the main one being a volume control. Whichever component Rega is using simply should not have made it into a product at this price point. If you’re in the market for a headphone amp, and you have £200 to spend, the Ear is a worthy contender – but book an audition first.