Two tests in one review this week, as we are reviewing the Fostex HP-A3 DAC along with the Fostex TH-7 hi-fi headphones, awarded with the Diapason d’or label and praised by its users. This digital to analog converter is the entry level of the Japanese brand and this set of headphones is the second one from the HT series.
The Fostex HP-A3 USB DAC can handle PCM audio signals up to 24 bits and 96 kHz via its USB and optical S/PDIF inputs. The USB controller works in isochronous mode and does not require the use of a specific driver. The Fostex HP-A3 is completely plug and play. It is powered via its USB port and is fitted with an S/PDIF output and two analog outputs (one headphones and one line). In order to avoid putting a strain on the power supply, the Fostex HP-A3 USB DAC is equipped with an output selector in order to pick one or the other. This DAC was made for people who want to improve their computer’s audio performances with CD quality audio files and music streaming platforms or enhance the sound of their CD player.
The Fostex TH-7 headphones set is a semi-closed supra-aural model, fitted with 0.15″ diameter transducers. Its technical performances are standard. It has a sensitivity of 98 dB /mW and an impedance of 70 Ohms. The announced bandwidth ranges from 20 Hz to 20 kHz.
A closer look
The HP-A3 Fostex DAC adopts an old school design, very 80s, with its angular steel casing and multiple buttons (push buttons, potentiometer, diodes). In other words, it doesn’t fit in with modern aesthetics, which was probably a conscious choice from Fostex, but this is not what we are really focusing our attention on. A good thing is that this compact DAC is rather heavy, which is always a good sign when talking about audio material. We used this DAC with several computers and not once have we encountered the slightest issue.
The Fostex TH-7 headphones set looks the part for its price range as it is almost all plastic. The feeling is not unpleasant, though. The headband and earpieces are covered with synthetic leather which actually feels pretty nice. The headband is largely expandable and will fit any head size. The cable is plastic coated and fitted with a 3.5 mm mini-jack connector. These headphones are not bad to wear and don’t put too much pressure on your head or ears. It’s a good thing for long listening sessions, not so much if you are planning on going for a run with it.
Results after listening
There is a common signature with these two products: a rhythmic and effervescent listening experience. The Fostex HP-A3 USB DAC seduces with its exploration of the medium range and the energy it conveys. One may find it a little short in the lower frequency range and a bit dry in the upper end of the sound spectrum. Ideally, you should use a set of headphones with a physiological balance, meaning generous bass and a slight sharpness in the treble. The same goes with speakers. The headphones output was conclusive with various sets of headphones: the Fostex TH-7 of course, but also with a set of Sennheiser PX-100, Koss PortaPro, HiFiMAN HE-500 or Ora ïto Gïotto (although the latter sounded a little harsh).
In a nutshell, this DAC is punchy and explores the medium range particularly well.
The Fostex TH-7 headphones are easy to listen to. Their tonal balance is soft with a slight sharpness in the high frequencies (~ 8 kHz), which enhances the flow of any compressed recording. The sound insulation is correct and it is possible to use this pair of headphones as you are walking around, especially given that its sonority favours good sound intelligibility in loud surroundings. This type of balance can be a little tiresome with certain types of music, which is why we focused our listening on more ?aggressive? tracks. Stromae’s Papaoutai is delivered with great consistency, the very high frequencies are actually pretty impressive. Knife Party’s Bonefire (out of the Breaking Bad original soundtrack) sounds like fireworks, almost too much for our ears. With classical music, the Fostex TH-7 offers spectacular instrument placement. The same goes for jazz. These comments are applicable when these headphones are paired up with the Fostex HP-A3 DAC, Fostex HP-P1 or Graham Slee Bitzie.
Listening to certain films confirmed that the headphones’ rising tonal balance is well suited to this type of support, particularly for dialogue delivery (for example, original US versions where high frequencies are in the background).
We can choose the Fostex HP-A3 DAC for its dynamic qualities and enjoy a good integration of various frequency ranges which can result in a great experience with certain types of music (electronic, jazz). It would be best to avoid using this DAC if you like very low bass and a sharp treble. As for the headphones, comfortable through the whole sound spectrum, they can be efficiently paired up with any smartphone or tablet and will bring a coherent sound balance. If you want to use them along with a DAC, they can be paired up with a Fostex model (by definition peaceful in the higher frequencies) or an Arcam DAC. It might be better to avoid this model if you are looking for a more linear and dry experience. For such a price, the Fostex TH-7 hi-fi headphones are a really good deal.