It’s been over a year since Apple killed the headphone jack, but many of us are still in mourning. Some are even considering switching to Android for no reason other than that one major manufacturer is still including a decent analog output in their device. Luckily, there’s no need to ditch the iPhone just for a headphone jack and audiophile quality audio; recently, we have been looking into the best ways to elevate the Apple user’s portable music expertise to audiophile standards. This week, we’re taking a look at one of the most portable DAC/amps on the market, the Oppo HA-2SE. Though it’s a great option for those who prioritize portability, we find that pocketability is not without some compromises.
Oppo may be most widely known for their high-end blu-ray players and smartphones, but they’re also an audiophile brand. Their portable planar magnetic headphones and desktop amplifiers are regularly discussed in the audiophile community, but perhaps their most interesting product was the HA-2, an iOS-compatible portable headphone DAC and amplifier with a clean aluminum design, wrapped in leather for an “executive” look. The HA-2 was, unfortunately, not ideal for some users, who reported noise when it was used with high-sensitivity in-ear headphones. This year, Oppo updated the HA-2 with the HA-2SE.
The “SE” in the HA-2SE’s name stands for “Special Edition.” It’s identical to its predecessor except, according to Oppo, for an updated DAC chip and lower noise floor for better compatibility with sensitive IEMs. The device is beautifully designed; its all-aluminum body is just slightly thicker than an iPhone, with polished chamfering around all exposed edges and a real leather sleeve around the rest. Inside, alongside all its electronics, Oppo has crammed a 3000 mAh battery. Though the HA-2SE’s looks are complemented by the luxury leather wrap, the material adds about two millimetres of width to the HA-2SE on either side. We would have happily traded this opulence for a slightly thicker housing and higher-capacity battery. In addition, we found that the polished edges of the HA-2SE didn’t hold up well to long-term use as well as we would have liked; the metal is relatively soft and collected small scratches over time.
The HA-2SE is a versatile device, though it does not afford the user as many options as the RHA Dacamp L1 we recently reviewed. The HA-2SE has three input options: a full-size USB port for iOS input (and mobile device charging), a micro USB port for PC, Mac, and Android input, and a standard 3.5mm analog jack for Line In. The ports are labeled A, B, and C respectively, and are selected using a small slider located on the bottom of the device. Located on the side of the HA-2SE are a two-position gain switch, bass boost switch, and a button to check battery level and toggle power bank mode. Four green LEDs indicate battery level, and a fifth blue LED indicates when power bank mode is activated. Though it’s possible to play music while the HA-2SE charges a mobile device, this will obviously reduce its battery dramatically. The HA-2SE does not support pass-through charging; it’s our understanding that it can be harmful to the battery.
Included with the HA-2SE is everything you need to use the HA-2SE with almost any portable source. In the box are short USB-A to Lightning cable, micro USB OTG cable, 3.5mm analog cable, and two silicone bands. The HA-2SE has an additional trick up its sleeve — Oppo includes a special charger and charging cable that can take advantage of the company’s proprietary “VOOC” charging system. With a crazy four amp output, this charger can bring the HA-2SE from zero to 100% charge in just 90 minutes but, unfortunately, can only be used with Oppo devices. Of course, the HA-2SE will also charge using any normal micro USB charger, just not as quickly.
The HA-2SE comes with nice specs for a device in this price range. It uses the modern ESS Sabre32 Reference ES9028-Q2M DAC and supports high-res audio up to 32-bit/384khz PCM and, if you’re into this kind of thing, DSD up to DSD256. Its Class-AB amplifier has an advertised power of 300 mW into 16 ohm, 220 mW into 32 Ohm, and 30 mW into 300 ohm headphones with two gain settings. Inside is also a 3000 mAh battery, all in a package that’s just slightly thicker than an iPhone, and weighs just 175 grams. In regular use we found — unsurprisingly — that the HA-2SE’s battery life can vary greatly depending on how hard you’re pushing the amp, whether the DAC is active, and whether power bank mode is activated. Oppo advertises 13 hours of juice when using the amp only but much less when the DAC is in use. We mostly used the HA-2SE connected to the iPhone’s Lightning port; on low gain at reasonable volumes, we got around the promised 7 hours of life.
It’s at this point that we would normally report that the HA-2SE is easy to use but, unfortunately, its release has not been without issues. It was released in early 2017, and we had planned a review close to that launch. We rushed to buy one, but soon afterwards found that our unit seemed to disconnect from iOS on its own, requiring us to unplug and re-insert the Lightning cable each time. The resets were not random — for us, at least, they would happen any time we moved from a no-service area back to an area with cell coverage. Many others in the enthusiast community reported similar problems, but could only speculate about the cause. Months passed, until eventually Oppo sent us a different, longer replacement cable; it seemed to fix the problem for us, but not for others. Reason dictates that this isn’t affecting all users, but with no official statement from Oppo, we can’t guarantee this won’t happen to you. On the upside, if this issue is solved with a new cable, we don’t think that should deter new buyers — we just wish Oppo was more responsive about the matter.
Once we received our replacement cable, we found the HA-2AE to be a great companion for the iPhone. Mounted to the iPhone, it’s extremely pocketable, although users will still have to cope with elastic bands covering part of the screen. Volume can be adjusted with the HA-2SE’s volume pot or, since it’s an MFi device, you can leave the volume knob at maximum and only change volume on the iPhone without any loss of quality. When switching gain, the HA-2SE temporarily mutes, then slowly raises it so you can make sure not to blow out your ears or headphones. The HA-2SE sounds essentially transparent to our ears compared to other portable devices and our Macbook’s headphone output. Its bass boost switch instantly adds some low-end body, but it can make music sound a little unnaturally boomy — we like the uncolored sound of the HA-2SE, so we tend to leave it off. The HA-2SE isn’t the most powerful portable amp out there, but it offers far more clean power than the Apple Lightning Adapter. When paired with full-size headphones (25 ohm impedance, 94dB/mW sensitivity) and high-impedance IEMs, we had to almost max out the amplifier on low gain to achieve a normal listening volume, but on high gain the HA-2SE drove them well at about 50% volume with plenty of headroom to spare. With very sensitive IEMs, the HA-2SE is dead silent and drove them with ease. As a bonus, it works nicely with both PC and Mac without drivers.
As we head into the wireless future, some of us are still searching for a perfect solution for portable wired audio. The Oppo HA-2SE will, for many people, be that solution. It’s extremely thin and well-built, it has MFi certification, includes a a clean-sounding DAC and amplifier with a decent amount of power, and can charge the iPhone on the go. Some might need a bigger battery, more power, or more input options, but all of these will be a direct tradeoff with room in your pocket. We have to temper our recommendation in light of the now-resolved cable issue that we and other iOS users have experienced, but for an ultra-portable DAC/amp combo to pair with an iPhone, the HA-2SE is hard to beat.
Company and Price