I feel this tube amp + DAC lends me some imagined audiophile credence but it’s also the best thing I added to my desk this year

One of my favourite desktop additions over the years has been my high-end audio setup. It’s reasonably high-end, anyways, which I only mention because you can spend about as much money as you would like/can afford to on high-end audio equipment. I’m sure that £50,000 speaker is accurate down to an infinitesimally minute level, but no, my £500 setup suits me perfectly well, and is practically everything I felt I could want in PC audio equipment.

Until this Drop + xDuoo TA-84 OTL Tube Amp/DAC came across my desk for review.

Including everything you need to convert and boost your PC audio, this $349 DAC and amp uses the more traditional method of cathode amplification via tubes for quality tune playback. Installed in it, quite visibly, are two ECC-82 tubes for the preamp and two EL-84 pentodes for the amp. You can buy amps with a whole lot more tubes than that, but for driving headphones on the desktop this is plenty suitable for my needs. 

Using tubes for amplification means this kit differs significantly from the Schiit Magni and Modi DAC/amp stack I usually employ for desktop duty, which is a solid-state setup. Where the Schiit uses transistors, the TA-84 uses tubes.

Drop claims it delivers a certain “analog richness” to tube amplification, and that you can expect some degree of “sagging harmonic character.” I’m not sure I entirely picked up on that last bit, but I can say there’s something characteristic of tube amplification that’s missing in a solid-state setup. At least at this cheaper price point where there are sure to be variances in quality.

In terms of audio quality, the TA-84 is right up there with my previous setup, though they differ slightly in tone. I don’t claim perfect ears but I do spend a lot of my time comparing gaming headsets and listening to my collection of FLAC music files, and switching between the two during playback of the same track, I find the tube DAC/amp delivers a more overdriven, warmer profile than the Schiit pair. There’s admittedly not much in it, but the xDuoo draws out more of the lower-end through the Sennheiser HD 650 cans I have hooked up to it than I’d usually expect.

Schiit meet xDuoo. The Schiit setup is far more practical in size, and it doesn’t get half as warm, though there’s something about the tubes that make you feel all fuzzy inside. (Image credit: Future)

Is that tube tone a good thing? I’d argue, as someone very used to the HD 650’s proclivity to deliver detailed high-ends while lacking a bit of oomph in the bass department, it’s a very welcome change. Though I can see why, technically, it’s actually not as desirable as the more neutral-sounding Schiit pair. I’m finding myself leaning towards the tube profile at the moment regardless, as I’ve the option of either amp for now and it’s a bit of a novelty to hear these headphones a little bit differently.

I do stress, however, the differences are minimal. Both setups sound sufficiently detailed with the audio tracks I’m providing them through Tidal’s Max/FLAC audio files and those in my own FLAC library. Yet I’m finding some new joy in trying to listen to the differences between this tube amp and my solid-state one, whether they’re all that pronounced or not.

Look but don’t touch. (Image credit: Future)

More so it’s the novelty of a traditional tube setup that endears me to the TA-84. The warm glow of the four tubes from the corner of my desk while I listen to tunes inspires that feeling of listening to music as a hobby, like you might with a record player. Turning on your tube amp and slapping some quality headphones on your head is a good way to spend an evening, and you don’t have to always be finding something else do to while you listen.

I’ve started to really come to appreciate just doing nothing but listening to high quality audio. And I know that sounds just so pretentious, but high-end audio is so much better experienced than it is described to you. 

So for keeping me hooked on high-end audio and for bringing something new to the table with my stalwart pair of HD 650s, the TA-84 Amp/DAC is my personal pick for gear of the year.

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