All about the NuPrime HPA-9 Headphone amplifier and analogue preamp
The NuPrime HPA-9 is an interesting and original hifi component by any standard. While NuPrime might be seen as a digitally oriented specialist, the HPA-9 is a pure analogue design and a very accomplished one at that.
According to NuPrime, the primary focus of the HPA-9’s performance is that of Class A analogue headphone amplifier. While appearing similar the headphone section of the DAC-10H the configuration of the front panel is quite different with two conventional 6.3mm jacks but also a 3.5mm output. There is a gain switch on the lower front which toggles between high and low output to allow use with a broad range of headphones.
All three outputs can run at the same time. Both the input selection and volume are controlled manually with the two front panel knobs. There is no remote control – hey, you are tied to this product by a headphone cable – why would you want a remote?
There are 3 analogue inputs on the rear – two standard line inputs to connect products such as a DAC. And a 3rd which is a phono stage so you can connect a turntable directly. There are also two sets of RCA outputs, which like the headphone outputs, are continually active. This allows bi-amping.
Unlike the DAC-10H, the HPA-9 makes the choice not to include a DAC. There are good reasons for this. Firstly, the rate of progress on the digital front is rapid – the HPA-9 is designed for a long life and you may well move through a selection of digital front ends over time while retaining your preamplifier. We’re also starting to see great improvements in the quality of personal music players – the quality of output is much better but they still face constraints when it comes to driving full sized headphones – the HPA-9 directly addresses this.
The HPA-9 is a genuine Class A device and does run warm – warmer than the matching power amplifiers but by no means hot. That said this is not a product you want to stack other boxes on top of. Like other models in this range, there is a generously proportioned toroidal transformer inside.
So it’s really 3 components in one. Let’s look at the performance of the constituent parts.
First up – it’s an extraordinarily good headphone amplifier. We really appreciate the inclusion of a dedicated 3.5mm socket as many series headphones and in ear monitors now have this as the only option. We thought the new Sonus faber Pryma headphones were seriously good on the iPod but the HPA-9 takes them to a whole other level. Likewise with the wonderful NuForce Primo 8 in-ears. This is a great feature as more and more people are investing in really good portable options and it makes sense to be able to be able to use them without adaptors at home. There is enough driving ability with this amplifier to run any headphones you’d care to connect.
The description from NuPrime claims ‘low temporal distortion’ and while this may be a little hard to define, I suspect there is very little phase shift anywhere in the listening range – the HPA-9 is remarkably open and easy to listen to – there’s the wonderful double of being ultra smooth but also delivering massive amounts of detail. The frequency response spec – 0hz to 200kHz – takes wide bandwith to the extreme and I strongly suspect a lot of what we her is tied to this.
As a line level preamplifier, the HPA-9 is everything we could want – transparent, with a vanishingly low noise floor. You can draw a direct line of comparison with one of our NuForce favorites – the HAP-100 preamplifier.But having enjoyed a lot of time with both in our home system, the NuPrime is much better in detail and dynamics, with far superior bass performance. There is a sense of scale with the NuPrime which is comparable with far more costly preamplifiers from the very best analogue designers.
Most people underestimate the importance of preamplifier performance in a system – but for many years (and with many different brands) we have found that the perceived impact a preamplifier can make is often greater than that made by upgrading power amplifiers. Not only will you gain in terms of quality, but the better dynamics conferred by a quality preamplifier can often make and existing power amplifier sound much ‘bigger’ for want of a better word. A good preamplifier drives and controls a power amplifier.
The HPA-9 is a real eye opener – the abundance of detail it extracts, the clarity and lack of background hash and the sheer wealth of music it produces are unequalled at anything even starting to approach its most affordable price – anyone with an NZ built pre and power combination should be taking notice right now.
If there is one word to apply to this preamplifier it is ‘transparent’ – it just lets much more music through. While it is neither large or feature festooned, it’s all about music. We know of plenty of preamplifiers from $1000 to $4000 that will literally be blown out of the water by this baby. Even if we just used it as a headphone amplifier the HPA-9 is special in more ways than we can innumerate.
Connect it between the DAC-9 and one or two STA-9s and there is an immediate and palpable improvement (in fact given the choice and price equivalence of the STA-9 and the HPA-9 I consider the qualitative improvement the preamp brings to be better value than the quantitative upgrade of the power amplifier.)
The third part of the equation with this component is the phono input. I’ll admit that our expectations of phono stage performance are set seriously high. This coloured my initial assessment of the HPA-9 and what I should have done was a comparison with a very good MM equipped turntable and ‘value-for-money’ phono stage
Someone in Norway has done just that –
‘Tested a HPA-9 as RIAA with Pro-Ject Turntable/Ortofon 2M Blue pick-up plugged in to a IDA-16 with AudioVector SR3 Avant Garde speakers today. WOW, it outperformed Pro-Ject’s top RIAA Phono Box RS by a mile!
It was tested at the Norwegian distributor of NuPrime who also has imported Pro-Ject for 15 years.
Switched between both RIAA,s many times and was really blown away everytime, HPA-9 had a open and lively sound with “PRAT” as NAIM call it.
Pro-Ject sounded flat and boring in direct comparison. They gonna sell HPA-9 as a RIAA with a bonus.’
Given the extremely high performance of the HPA-9 both as a headphone amplifier and preamp it may be that you do want to go further on the phono front – in our estimation there is you have to immediately get up to the Dynavector P75Mk3 to do any better and it’s almost ironic that the superb line level inputs on the HPA-9 make this doubly obvious.
To hear the HPA-9 performing at its full potential, think about the connections – although it challenges conventional thinking, the NuPrime will clearly show you the value of both interconnecting and mains cables. And it’s the power cable I’d recommend first – when we first heard the new KLEI gPower2 AC cable from Keith Eichmann, it was in this setting. Good as the HPA-9 is with the standard mains cable, the effect is transformational – the sound staging is vastly more spacious and open, the improvement in detail can only be understood when heard. This is not due to any weakness in the power supply section of the HPA-9, but rather the inherent transparency of this preamplifier allows these effect to be easily heard. It makes an already excellent preamplifier into something considerably better again.
If you had a $3000 plus preamplifier you wouldn’t think twice about spending good money at the very least on interconnects (and it wouldn’t take too many minutes to convince you of the blue of better mains cables). My argument is that given the performance of the HPA-9 is equal to and quite possibly better than many of these more costly models, you’ll get just as much or more out of cables – even if they cost as much or even substantially more than the NuPrime.
You can also take advantage of the HPA-9s dual RCA outputs for bi-amping – these are identical and both active so you can run two stereo power amplifiers without any signal degrading adaptors. We’ve come to the conclusion that the matching STA-9 power amplifiers sound best in this configuration – this gives you a very high quality, compact and powerful separates system with 240 watts per channel.
So – want a first class headphone amplifier with 2 line level inputs and a great little phono stage? – nothing beats the NuPrime HPA-9. Want a simple analogue preamplifier that has exceptional bandwidth and ultra-low noise – again, there is nothing like the HPA-9 at this price.
NuPrime HPA-9 NZ$1100 including GST and delivery. Enquire now.