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Note: I will update this article and my balanced impressions once I get a DAC that has balanced TRS/XLR output.
- Source: Spotify Premium, YouTube (videos and movies).
- Headphones Used: HD600, HD58X, HIFIMAN DEVA, AKG K702, SHP9500, Oppo PM-3, HD560S, AKG K240M. More to come!
- DAC paired: DragonFly Red, iFi Zen. More to come!
- Playlist: Here! I also listened to quite a bit on Soundcloud. In total, roughly 12-15 hours of music listening before sitting down to give my impressions. Keep in mind not every song gets added to the playlist; only ones that I like.
One thing to remember about Tube Hybrids right off the bat is that they’re still mostly going to sound like Solid State amps. Tube Amp vs. Solid State.
There is a hint of warmth, but by and large, I wouldn’t start pitching tents thinking you’re going to be completely blown away or anything (no pun intended).
You won’t, and that’s just the reality of it. Anyone who tells you otherwise is LYING.
The real difference between a tube amp vs. a regular amp like the Zen or K5 Pro comes with a lot of time spent. In other words, sit down with the tube amp for a few days, and then switch over to a solid-state or vice versa.
You can immediately hear the difference.
The Tube amp sounds like it has a warm blanket over top, but it may cause you to make a weird face when you switch from a Zen to the Tubes, sort of like this:
It’s almost trying to lull you to sleep, sort of like what happens when you watch the Television and get brainwashed by propaganda.
Then, you get used to it, and in the case of Television, lash out at anyone who has an alternative worldview from you!
I’ve talked about this concept a lot (the mind getting used to a stimulus) over the last year or so and it pretty much applies to any listening situation – headphones especially.
Speaking of headphones, I primarily used the HD600 with the TA-20 for a few reasons:
- Because I felt like it.
- It’s almost dead neutral aside from the mid-range coloration around 3kHz.
- I’ve owned it since 2016 so it’s easy to garner impressions and determine how Amps & DACS sound.
- It’s made for tubes.
iFi Zen & Zen V2
I guess I’ll just take this time out to tell you that Dead & Gone by DRAMA is one of the best songs I’ve ever heard in my entire life. It’s a song that’s been on repeat for me for the better part of the last year. There’s just something about it. A lot of songs I listen to get old after a few plays, but Dead & Gone speaks to my soul in few ways that music can do.
“Love is for lovers and old men, who know when to fold. Go home, bet nobody told ya you should find someone when you’re dumb and young. You better find someone to trust when you’re dumb and young.”
Not only is it recorded almost flawlessly, but everything about it is perfect; the musicianship, the bass line, the vocals, the lyrics, her voice, the drums, the melody, the rhythm, the breakdown.
It’s truly sublime in every sense of the word. What makes it so replayable is its message; a timeless look at love, patience, and your ultimate mortality. The clock is always ticking, unfortunately.
The marriage of a good amp, DAC, headphone, and source is to me what it’s all about; source being of the utmost importance. You can have the best gear on the planet, but if the source is shit your experience will be, too.
Nevertheless, the difference between the Zen and TA-20, at least with the DragonFly Red DAC, is very minuscule when going back and forth in real-time.
This is to be expected as the Fly is very open, airy, and spacious. Whatever warmth the TA-20 possesses is likely balanced out by the Fly. That said, I can still hear a subtle difference in warmth going from the TA-20 to the Zen.
The Zen is a tad more detailed and crisp. You can sense the TA-20’s sheen of relaxation over the sound. It’s like putting a warm blanket over top, but the blanket isn’t terribly thick or anything.
It ain’t DUMMY THICC that’s for sure. It’s very subtle.
While the HD600 may be a bit punchier through the Zen, it’s a tad less so from the TA-20. Just ever so slightly.
DF Red vs. iFi Zen (DAC) into the TA-20
This comparison involved switching back and forth between the DF Red as the DAC vs. the Zen as the DAC. I used this 3.5mm to RCA for the Red > TA-20 (great quality cable!), and this Monoprice RCA to RCA from Zen > TA-20.
Monoprice offers a lifetime warranty for their products and I can see why. I’ve had the cable since 2016 and it’s incredibly rugged if a bit stiff. Definitely keep that in mind.
One of the top reviewers mentions this on amazon and I think it’s worth noting that the longer cable is definitely more ideal. I haven’t had any issues but I don’t use it every day.
What’s really neat about the TA-20 is that it has 2 pairs of slots which make it possible to quickly switch back and forth between the 2. I love the fact that I can just press the button and switch which DAC is doing the conversion.
As expected, the DragonFly Red into the TA-20 is just a smidgen more open and cool sounding vs. the ever so slightly warmer Zen into the TA-20.
Keep in mind this is an incredibly subtle distinction, but still noticeable. Both combos sound fantastic.
The Zen + TA-20 is for caviar snobs drinking scotch, while the DF Red + TA-20 is for sterile, OCD peeps who like to clean their apartment way more than necessary. Sort of like Sara Goldfarb in Requiem for a Dream.
You’ll notice that the former is a bit more laid back and syrupy sounding, but it’s not over the top. I think the combo provides some really nice enjoyment and warmth to the experience. You will also feel that the sound is pushed back a tad more, while the Red + TA is a little more aggressive and forward. It’s more exact. More clinical, wide, spacious, etc. Insert word salad here ___________.
More of the same applies here.
For this, I used the Zen into the S.M.S.L via RCA to RCA, and the DragonFly Red into the TA-20 with the 3.5mm to RCA mentioned above.
Pretty much the exact same sentiments above still hold true: the sound out of the TA-20 is slightly warmer, pushed back, and smoothed over sounding vs. the somewhat crisper, more sterile SH-9.
DON’T OVERTHINK IT!!
FiiO K5 Pro
The sound of the TA-20 is incredibly similar to that of the K5 Pro. Do keep in mind the K5 Pro is not entirely neutral at 1.2 Ohm Output Impedance.
In fact, in my eyes, it’s not really close to being neutral though some would argue that the difference between something with less than 0.5 or lower is not that noticeable. To me, it’s pretty noticeable.
The K5 Pro has an ever-so-subtle sheen of warmth over top, but still retains most of the great qualities about a neutral DAC without sounding sterile or cold. This is one of the many reasons I love to recommend it.
It’s an extremely versatile combo Amp/DAC that sounds fantastic.
The performance of the TA-20 and K5 Pro is almost negligible in my mind.
The K5 performs just as well at a fraction of the price you’ll pay for a TA-20 plus whatever DAC you go with.
Of course, the TA-20’s value lies in its ability to run balanced as well as its dual pairs of auxiliary inputs and 1 set of outputs, so in no way am I trying to knock it. Ask yourself honestly, “Will I utilize the features of the TA-20?” If so, buy it.
I’m just saying that from a performance standpoint out of the single-ended jack, there’s nothing to get all that excited about. Sounds good, but it’s not going to perform miracles like Smokey Robinson.
Furthermore, in my eyes, there’s almost no reason to buy a tube hybrid amp as it doesn’t make much sense. If you want tubes, get tubes. Something like a Bottlehead Crack is a true tube amp. To me, hybrids are a waste of time (and money).
That’s not to say the TA-20 is bad. I really like it, but I’m speaking from experience here: I would never personally invest in it given everything I’ve heard, so I’m not going to recommend it to you.
Put another way, if the sound of the Zen is roughly similar to that of the TA-20, and you can also use the Zen balanced, then what’s the point in buying a TA-20?
There is no point. Built incredibly well, looks cool on your desk, blah blah blah.
But it’s not necessary.
Keep in mind that my experience at the time of this article spans exactly 50 Amps & DACS, so I’m not just saying this. There’s a reason behind it.
I’m not here to shill products, I’m here to give my honest opinions and make known aspects of this hobby that I don’t particularly care for.
The Amp/DAC wankfest is certainly one of those things and stands head and shoulders above the rest of the trivial crap that people shouldn’t concern themselves with (remember, this is ultimately about music and your enjoyment of it, not gear).
If you’re familiar with my YouTube channel or this blog, you’ll know I’ve talked about it for the better part of the last 2-3 years. I’m not going to get into it much more here.
Is listening to music through a TA-20 enjoyable?
Certainly, but I wouldn’t pay $400 for it + have to invest in a DAC as well.
So what do I recommend?
As stated above, if you need something balanced, go with the Zen.
If not, get a K5 Pro.
Well, that’s about it for today my friend! I hope you’ve enjoyed this xDuoo TA-20 Review and came away with some valuable insight.
Questions? Comments? Requests? Did I miss the mark on something? Please let me know down below or Contact me!!
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What do you think of the TA-20? Does it seem like a sound investment? I would love to hear your thoughts. Until next time…
All the best and God bless,