Better tube amp than I'd expected
I had been looking for portable and natural sounding dac/amp setup that would be a notch better than my trusty Chord Mojo in the bedroom, and I thought my Drop THX AAA 789 + Denafrips Ares r2r dac would just be a bit much in terms of their size to sit on the nightstand. For the longest time, I was eyeing the La Figaro 337 Dark Voice amp, but frankly I wasn't particularly impressed by the built quality of the La Figaro 339 which I owned, despite being fairly happy with it's sound quality. I had challenges with the smells, hot to touch surfaces, and weird tube issues initially.
The xDuoo TA-20 was delayed in delivery, which I was ok given the current affairs with the pandemic around the world, and I didn't opened it up for a week after arrival due to the poor timing with lots of distractions. When I finally got time to listen to the amp, a couple of the JJ Electronics gold pin tubes tha I ordered had arrived, so I got to try out those also.
The first dac I had paired the amp with was the SMSL SU-8 (v2), and I was quite surprised by the enjoyable listening experience after sampling through several tracks of different genres, including "First Love" by Hikaru Utada, an excellent vocal track, "Time" by Hans Zimmer, a track in the Inception movie, and "Cities in Dust" by Siouxsie and the Banshees. I had the Mr. Speakers Ether CX on in the middle composing new documents, and I had to pause to what I was hearing. Is it really that good I thought? The imaging and clarity of the music was fantastic.
During the course of a few days, I tried other dac and headphone combinations to see what worked well for me. The list included the Denafrips Ares R2R dac, Topping D50, and the Focal Clear. It was also evident the stock Chinese tubes sounded very differently than the JJs I had sourced separately.
Here is a summary of my experience:
• The SMSL SU-8 combo with the amp produced neutral, clean sound with excellent imaging and separation
• The Topping D50 was more forward sounding than the SMSL but seem to be an equally competent dac
• The Denafrips Ares matched very well with the THX AAA 789 didn't perform well with the xDuoo amp. I had registered more noise artifacts and less imaging compare to others
• The Ether CX headphone with the setup is sweet and smooth; as usual I have to listen more intently to find all the music but was rewarded as such
• The Focal Clear matches very well with the SMSL and the amp. As expected with the Clear, the sound signature was quite more dynamic and the music is pushed toward the listener in a 'more emotional' delivery
• I prefer the Chinese tubes than the JJ in terms of the sound signature despite being of poorer quality by visual inspection. The Chinese tubes sounded more airy and open while the JJs are tighter and more punchy--including more lower end
• The amp never got hot; at most it got warm but never too hot to the touch
I wound up leaving the SMSL+xDuoo setup in my study because of all the work from home hours. I'm thinking the quality and the availability of tube amps is now at this price point, which is fantastic. It does offer a good experience into the world of tube amps, particularly if one wishes to try different tubes to experiment. The key thing though is that xDuoo has produced a solid amp that can competently drive the two sample headphones I used (Ether CX @ 23 ohm and Clear @ 55ohm) and is a product of excellent musicality.
• tidal usb --> dac 32bit/192k (smsl/topping/denafrips) balanced out --> xduoo
• ether cx required more power to register similar loudness level despite lower impedance (~52-55 volume vs ~50-52 for clear)
• corpse cable on the ether, stock cable on the clear
Would recommend to a friend.