Review written by Anthony Nguyen (@Antdroid)
Check out his blog, Audio Discourse here.
This set of impressions will take a look at my week-long experience with the $6000 Bakoon AMP-13R and how it fares with a variety of gear, most notably the Hifiman Susvara. This speaker amp with headphone output became a very hyped and sought after amp pairing for the Susvara and other high end planars after stellar reviews by 6Moons and Hifi Knights, among others, and with my more recent purchase of the Hifiman Susvara, I got curious and wanted to find out myself.
Lucky for me, my friends over at Headphones.com recently became retailers of Bakoon gear and offered me up a chance to demo this amplifier. These things usually never end well for my wallet, but it was worth checking out what many deem the best planar pairing is.
Bakoon International is a global extension of the original Bakoon company from Japan. The Korean-based Bakoon International shares resources and development with its Japanese counterparts, but develop their own unique designs and gears that are sold through a global marketplace, whereas the normal Bakoon gear is more or less found only in the local Japanese market.
The AMP-13R is a 25 Watt speaker amplifier that is the next generation of the 11R and 12R before it. This current model changes the design completely, while still retains a very small form factor and a very unique visual presentation. The amplifier features 2 RCA inputs as well as the Bakoon SATRI-LINK BNC inputs for pairing with their DACs. The back of the amp also features a unique looking set of speaker terminals that looks quite exotic at first, but behave normally as long as you use banana plugs or spade connectors. I am not sure if banana pins or bare speaker wire will work with these terminals.
The amplifier is a sleek all-metal chassis that is very small and thin. Its only 230mm square, or about 9 inches square. This is approximately the same size as a Chord Hugo TT or MScaler, or an RME ADI-2 DAC that is twice as deep.
The first thing many will notice is the “legs” of this unit. Instead of traditional leg posts, or rubber feet, Bakoon uses what looks like random sizes and placements of gears on the bottom of the amp. This makes it look very much like an art piece as well as a functional amplifier. In actuality, these gears are actually metal extensions of the power transformer and various heat sinks to dissipate the heat in such a small form factor. It’s a very clever design and one that looks great as well.
The Bakoon AMP-13R is a 25 Watt speaker amp, but it also doubles as a headphone amplifier, and from what I have gathered, the headphone output is a direct link to the speaker amplifier without any compromises. There are two gain levels available through some combinations of volume knob presses and turns before turning on the amplifier. There’s approximately a 15 decibel gain between low and high gain modes, and I verified this through my own set of test tone measurements.
In my usage, I primarily stuck to low gain, as I did not need to go further with my headphones or speakers. High gain is available though, and some users have said they like the results with the hard to drive Susvara with it, but I have lower listening volumes and low gain suffices for me.
For my listening tests, I paired the 13R with the Chord Qutest using 2V output, though I also had used 3V as well, but found 2V worked fine, and would rather let the amp doing the amping. I used the Hifiman Susvara as my primary listening medium, but also spent a good amount of time with the Sennheiser HD600 and a few In-Ear Monitors like the Hidition Viento and the Kiwi Ears Orchestra.
For speaker listening, I only tried this with a pair of IK Micro Monitors. These are powered speakers and since the Bakoon AMP-13R does not have a preamp or line-out terminal, I had to get a bit crafty and used a speaker to RCA line-level converter and attenuator typically used for car stereos. With this method, and the attenuation brought down to just about 15%, I was able to get noise-free output to my powered monitors.
In all cases, the Bakoon AMP-13R presents a very, very robust and refined sound that I would classify as slightly warm, smooth, and highly detailed. It has a wonderful combination of a typical Class A amplifier warmth, the smoothness of a quality tube amplifier, and the incisiveness and resolution of a transparent amp. I am quite happy with the results on this thing.
I spent a lot of time comparing this AMP-13R with my current daily driver amplifier, the Audiolab 6000A Play. This British-designed amp has a very neutral and open-soundstage presentation that I found to extend well in both subbass regions and in the upper octaves, though still coming off with a sweet and musical presentation. I love it for its price point and solid playback capabilities with my headphones and speakers.
The Bakoon AMP-13R takes it to another level, while retaining many of the same good qualities. Sometimes amplifiers that have a warm and smoothed over presentation can come across as either very forward, or too pronounced in the low end, or perhaps losing some of the micro-details. The 13R does not do this at all.
In various tracks from Bill Laurance’s Live at Ronnie Scott’s, I found the presentation to sound open, airy, yet warm and relaxing. It was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had with a set of headphones; this pairing with the Susvara and Qutest. While the general tonal balance between the Audiolab and Bakoon weren’t that much different, there was just a little more warmth on the low end, more likely the mid-bass region on the Bakoon, and the treble takes sweet to a whole new level. The Bakoon makes the Audiolab sound grainy.
This grain is more noticable when I changed tracks to Aoife O’Donovan tracks, whether its her solo stuff or with her bluegrass band Crooked Still. Bakoon managed to add a very nice refinement to everything played back, that made even the highest string notes or vocal peaks, sound well-controlled and mannered.
One area I did find the Susvara hitting harder, and bigger with my Audiolab 6000A amp was in the deepest subbass parts of dance music and stand-up bass notes in jazz music. Playing both amps at the same level-matched volume levels using calibrated microphones, I was able to A-B several tracks, and this probably the one area I thought the 6000A hit bigger in. That said though, bass overall, was still deep, still impactful and much more controlled with the AMP-13R. In fact, the extra warmth in the presentation made everything just a bit more engaging and intimate, while still having incredible instrument separation and an open sound in general.
I don’t find this amplifier closed-in or small by any means. It pairs very well with the Sennheiser HD600 by giving it the added warmth it needs, the more controlled treble to tame it down a tad, and a better sense of stage width and depth. These are all things I found the 6000A did to the HD600 as well, but the extra low-end presence really takes the HD600 to another level. Maybe it does scale to infinity.
Throwing in IEMs onto a 25 Watt speaker amp was something I wasn’t sure I was ready for. I was a bit nervous in fact, given that the HD600 was getting loud at under 10 on the volume scale (of 50) on low gain. But surprisingly, my Viento did not have a single shred of noise floor issues. It was dead silent. Almost too silent. This was a big surprise. I didn’t have a lot of volume play though, as getting it to about 5 or 6 was already getting close to my max of my comfort zone with IEMs, though I am a quieter listener than some others.
I did not try to lower the output voltage of the Chord Qutest down to 1V, but its something I’d consider doing if I end up buying this amp in the future.
There are a few little quirks with the Bakoon AMP-13R I’d like to mention and address before I end this review.
First off, there is no power button in the rear, and only a standby function via the volume knob or by remote. Not all amps have this extra button, but many do, so some may wonder about this. The standby function also blinks a small yellow LED too, so that can be annoying perhaps if you do not unplug the Bakoon.
The volume knob uses a stepped mute relay that makes an audible click each time the volume dial moves up 1 step. This can be heard with music on as well. With my IEMs, there is a digital-click sound that is transmitted through the IEM. It’s faintly sounding on my HD600 and not heard on the Susvara or my speakers.
While this amp works with all sorts of gear, it may not be the best for super sensitive stuff like IEMs. It works though, you just won’t have a lot of volume play unless you can lower your output volume from your DAC/Source.
It does get a bit warm. Given it’s small size and lack of vents, and all metal design, this is not a huge surprise, but it does get as warm as a typical Class AB amp, or the chassis or a tube amp. It’s pretty much the same temperature as my Linear Power Supply.
Finally, if you don’t like LED dots, well, this has a lot of them, as it tells you what input you’re using as well as what volume level you’re at. They are small though, and light up an amber/yellow color so it’s not too distracting as something that is say, green, red or blue.
The Bakoon AMP-13R is a really, really nice amp with some small minor quirks. Its got a unique look, presentation, and a big price tag, especially for those looking at it from a normal headphones amplifier view. But it hits it home with a sonic presentation that I have nothing to really criticize for. It plays the whole spectrum of music with everything at its highest marks, and is one of the few amps that really show off the Hifiman Susvara to its full potential. Heck, it even improved the sound of my trusty HD600 to levels I haven’t had before.
If you have the funds, I recommend trying this one out. It is a solid amp with a small footprint and fun design.