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When I returned from the Munich HighEnd 2013 show where Bakoon had made a splash enlarged by soundkaos' resourceful Martin Gateley who built them a wonderful temporary exhibit on the open ground floor, Klutz Design's first Swedish buyer of the HPA-21 had published his forum review. In it he compared the Bakoon to his Bryston BHA-1. He concluded that the latter would have to be relegated to those rare occasions when he forgets to recharge the HPA-21. Seeing how the Bryston is a well-known quantity, that was a useful data point. HPA-21 = end-of-the-road headfi amp.

Outside the soundkaos/Bakoon room in Munich with three LCD-3/HPA-21 listening stations

Prior to the show Trafomatic Audio's Sasa Cokic and compadre Mica Despotovich had announced themselves for a brief visit to Switzerland to deliver a custom phono stage to a client. We thus spent one afternoon in Villeneuve. Sasa's fave cans are the Sennheiser HD800. Hooked up to the HPA-21, I asked him which mode he preferred. Sasa favored voltage drive. To him it was more 'musical'. To my ears it's fuzzier, softer and gentler. But perhaps that's closer to the tube sound Sasa works with every day. The point is, folks could respond to what I view as the advantages of current-mode effect in different ways. Having both options really is a great idea.

Here's what Polish contributor Wojciech Pacuła has to say on the subject. The HPA-21 is the result of the incredible popularity of the AMP-11R used as headphone amp. Although its 6.3mm port would seem nothing but a convenience addition to its speaker outputs, many users including this writer began to treat this integrated amplifier as a very serious headphone amp. In this the machine wasn't alone. The Leben CS-300 integrated had gained similar popularity for headfi use before. My custom version of the Leben in fact had been my long-term reference headphone amp.

Now I listened to the HPA-21 for almost four weeks non-stop. With the usual breaks to sleep, work and family life, I otherwise sat around wearing headphones even whilst writing. During these four weeks a few things in my system changed. With each change I became more and more convinced that the HPA-21 was one of the very best if not the ultimate headphone amp I knew regardless of price, technology or country of origin. At a single aural glance this Korean clearly showed each single change I made in my system.

If you remember my original review of the AMP-11R, you'll know that I found it to combine unheard-of purity with outstanding resolution which together threw open a window of unbelievable width. It was a stunning accomplishment. Now I revisited this effect by connecting my headphones to the HPA-21's voltage output. I thought that relaxing its requirements for the output section over the AMP-11R by not having to drive speakers whilst increasing the stability of its supply voltage with batteries had pushed things even further. Although this improvement wasn't large, I had an even clearer insight into the signal. This was one of the cleanest least colored sounds I'd ever heard from headphones.

All others including my beloved tubed Leben seemed tinted, voiced and somehow manipulated by comparison. And here I'm not talking about failed competitors but the very best of the crop like the Leben CS300 XS, the SPL Phonitor 2730, the Tonstudiotechnik Funk LAP-2.V3, the Ear Stream Sonic Pearl or the Phasemation EPA-007. Only the last one would come close on selectivity. The saturated Leben perhaps communicates better and has superior across-the-band fullness and a very natural bass. Yet none—and here I repeat, none of them—approached the Bakoon's current mode.

I listened to all my headfi amps on hand over a proper period, with various CDs, headphones, sources and cables. When I finally had to describe what I heard and returned to my Leben, I discovered in it something new which by contrast became even more addictive. After a few days back in its power, I felt ashamed that I had doubted it even for a moment. That said the Korean Bakoon HPA-21 became the first machine I listened to after which I had no need to return to the Leben. My custom version of the CS-300XS remains a wonderful piece of audio engineering. It's my beloved trinket with a ¼” hole if you will. I won't ever give it away.

Except that with the Bakoon I no longer had any need to analyze what I heard. This is probably a transitional state until I encounter something even better to change my mind and discover weaknesses in the Bakoon. At the moment however I don't see any. There of course have to be. There's no absolute sound. I still remember how the Siltech cables dethroned my Acrolink interconnects which I'd thought to be perfect. I'm painfully aware that the same thing will one day happen to me with the HPA-21 when I shall be amazed that I didn't hear it sooner.

But like the black slave said to Maximus, not yet. Right now I don't feel the need to analyze anything. With the Sennheiser HD800 this amp was supremely natural. It was of course also most differentiated, selective and resolved but none of these traits 'popped out' to vie for attention. The main achievement for me was the perfect balance between resolution and selectivity. The first quality is essentially infinite. The more the better. There's no such thing as too much resolution, too much differentiation. It simply becomes a partial virtue in the absence of proper tone but nonetheless remains the driving force to hear the natural and normal aural cues that resemble what we hear live.

How resolution portrays the difference between very small subdued sounds becomes selectivity. This ability to separate closely spaced or overlaid sounds is often confused with detail but is really an action whose measure must maintain proper balance. One can go overboard with excess selectivity. That destroys the illusion of live performers and leaves in its wake merely cheesy hifi. Here the Bakoon achieved a very rare balance. Its selectivity was very high but the various sounds didn't convince on their mere strength of isolated separation. In turn resolution was so unique that it felt smooth and silky despite the enormous wealth of raw information and detail it laid bare. Together these two factors produced far greater insight than any other machine to transcend the efforts of analysis and make it all easefully obvious instead.

Despite its high selectivity—which in the wrong hands could have gone the wrong way—the HPA-21 was a joy with any CD no matter its pressing or mastering quality. They all were musically digestible. I heard a lot of previously unheard elements. But the real key to success wasn't the raw data extraction but the perfect harmony of color, space, imaging, solidity and tangibility. For a long time I listened to older recordings, particularly voices recorded in large churches. With their long decay times it's easy to miss things yet the HPA-21 brought them all to the surface. Whilst some recordings were more pleasing than others, none became unlistenable for their greater truth. When I ultimately decided that I'd rather not listen to some of these oldies it never was about the sound but rather the quality of the music.

The same was true with electronica and Rock, even the new releases of Daft Punk and OMD. I compared the Japanese CD version of Random Access Memories to its Naim 24/96 FLAC counterpart and clearly preferred the CD. Earlier Naim 24/96 or 24/192 versions had always had more detail but the stock box versions the better color saturation and palpability. Hence I preferred listening to the discs. The Bakoon showed these differences as though in passing. Dead obvious without making a fuss. This was a different quality because usually hifi emphasizes such differences and has us stop to notice them. The Bakoon just walked on by.

Conclusion. My above comments focused primarily on the HD800. The reason was simple. This combination was remarkable. I'm fully aware of the relative strengths and weaknesses of this German top model but its assets are far more important to me. The HPA-21 had me rediscover them all and even discover new ones. The amp played well with all the cans in my collection but the higher their impedance the better. My least favorite combo was the beyerdynamic DT-770 Pro 32Ω Limited Edition. A completely separate chapter were the planar HifiMan HE-6. I'm aware that many Bakoon users love the HPA-21 with the Audez'e planars. Here I can only say that after the Phasemation EPA-007 in balanced mode, the HPA-21 was only the second amp with which Fang Bian's top headphones finally sounded right. One day I'll come back to the Bakoon and the HE-6. For now I'll simply say that they were even more accurate and defined than the Sennheiser HD800. Their perspective was different too. Voices and instruments were closer to involve less of the recorded acoustic environment. The bass didn't extend as low either but had excellent definition.

The Korean amp simply killed me with the HD800. I had never heard them as good safe perhaps with the Leben. Yet in this juxtaposition the Japanese was clearly colored and at times I had to switch in its 'bass boost' tone control to compensate for the lack of a given recording. The Bakoon never required any such compensation however. I never felt a lack of anything. I thus was most impressed. I'd never heard the Sennheisers this perfect before.

Wrap. With Wojciech's 2nd opinion confirming my own findings albeit with different comparators and listening biases to further expand context, an award really was the only logical conclusion. Wojciech felt the same and granted his own Red Fingerprint award for his Polish pages. Now it felt a bit silly to issue two awards. I originally suggested to simply consider his as shared between our two publications and quipped that perhaps that turned it into a blue fingerprint. Wojciech loved the idea. Obviously this distinction is going to be pretty rare. Both of our magazines will have to review the same item and independently reach for an award. For now this one's the very first of its kind. Congratulations Akira Nagai and Soo-In Chae!

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