Everyone has a new way of attacking the entry level audio market. JDS is doing that with their Atom line-up, Schiit Audio with their schiity sounding Modi, Magni, Vali and Fulla, Drop is working hard on their upcoming AAA One. Companies from the East are doing the same, as both SMSL and Topping have released multiple entry-levels devices and they still do that on a monthly basis. At some point in their life time, any audio manufacturer will be trickling down technology from their flagship units.
The success of the nested-feedback Topping A90 headphone amplifier is undeniably high. If you went past worldwide politics and you’ve opened your mind, then I will tell you that A90 competes with the best solid-state headphone amplifiers ever made at any price point. Don’t believe me? Try it for yourself, but when you do that, forget where it was made. A90 is still about on the same level with my $3000 Benchmark HPA4 with very minor differences and that says a lot about its performance and how high I’m ranking it. It was only a matter of time when Topping would start trickling down technology from that one, that time is now and I’m presenting you the newest and the smallest L30 headphone amplifier that is carrying a lot of tech from its bigger sibling.
Unboxing a tiny amp
It came double boxed and carefully packaged with tons of black foam for protection. All Topping units came this way and L30 was no exception. I forgot how small their E30 DAC was, L30 is positioned as a complementary headphone amp for that unit, it is so freaking small…
Inside the box you’ll find the amp itself, an external power supply which is about as heavy as the amp itself - I have a small premonition about this one, but more on that in the Tech Specs section. There is also a small headphone adapter (3.5mm to 6.35mm), a warranty card that doubles as a product catalog. In typical Topping fashion, its user manual contains actual measurements performed by a flagship APx555B audio analyzer. I’m not sure why other publications would measure the Topping units again, because you’ll be seeing the same ones from the manual. I respect Topping for putting these in here and I’m also glad that Topping is not using marketing nonsensical snake-oil terms as others are doing.
Design & Build Quality
Simply put, L30 follows the same footprints with their E30 DAC, it has absolutely the same case, same weight and shape. It is surrounded by an aluminum case, you can have it in matte silver or matte black if you want.
I personally find it good looking and due to the fact that it is about the size of an external 2.5” HDD drive, you can integrate it even in a Mickey Mouse Hi-Fi setup. You can’t really go smaller than this and if desktop space is important to you, it should fit those requirements really well.
As with their other units, there isn’t a single visible screw on any side, they moved all those on the back for a much cleaner minimalist look. I like the way the glass sheet from the front panel is somehow unified with the rest of the case, it doesn’t have an LCD screen on the front, so the WAF factor is clearly very high in this one.
Controls & Connectivity
L30 is a simple and straightforward device, it’s only a tiny headphone amp in the end, right? On its front panel you can spot a Preamp/Headphone Amp/Off switch, a gain switch with -9 dB, 0 dB and +9 dB gain positions. I personally love that unity gain and I wish all headphone amp manufacturers would offer a unity gain (0 dB) for the cleanest possible signal. There is also a single 6.35mm (1/4”) headphone jack and a volume wheel on the right. It’s a single ended unit, so not XLR jacks on its front or back plate.
On the back there is a single RCA input and since it can also work as a Preamp - there is an RCA output and a 15V AC input as well.
Under the hood of L30
Before I tell more about the L30, I want to have your attention of that enormous external power supply, I’ve had a gut feeling and I’m glad that I followed it. Imagine my reacting when I have opened that heavy-duty external PS and a huge laminated core single phase transformer was sitting in there! That is right folks! No BS switching power-supplies in here, no cutting corners and that makes me extremely happy. I can’t stand switching power supplies, especially in amplifier designs that can limit dynamics and hurt the transient response quite a lot.
Moving on to the unit itself, the power that is gets from that transformer which is already passively conditioned, will pass another cleaning stage through some voltage regulators and filtering caps.
Probably the most important thing to know is that L30 uses absolutely the same Nested Feedback Composite Amplifier (NFCA) topology of its bigger brother A90. As I have explained in my A90 review, it exhibits a higher gain, higher slew rates and much lower distortion. A composite op-amp is placed at the input and the output of another op-amp, in this case it was the (in)famous TPA6120A2 that Topping used. The composite op-amp is basically enhancing the performance of TPA6120A2 with the help of negative feedback. The good part is that a circuit like this brings the best of both worlds with excellent DC and AC characteristics, the feedback loop will also remove noise within the circuit but the bad part is that feedback loop reduces the overall gain of the circuit, weakening the signal at the output. I don’t know how Topping dealt with the overall gain and power output, because clearly L30 is not lacking at all in terms of power output and gain. Instead of using four TPA6129A2 chips in a fully balanced configuration, L30 is using only two of those for a single ended signal.
Output power was halved, but at 3.5 Watts in 16 Ohms and about 280mW in 300 Ohms, plus a voltage swing of 26 V peak-to-peak, L30 feels more like Goliath than like a David to me. Output impedance is impressively low, at just 0.1 Ohms, you can be sure that damping factor is unaffected at all and you can basically drive highest sensitivity headphones with great results.
Okay folks, let’s do some music listening.
I. Preliminary Impressions & Tonality
After three days of listening, I am having absolutely the same feelings I’ve had with Topping A90, with Benchmark HPA4 and with Sparkos Labs Aries. L30 is a colorless amplifier type, that is not adding anything into the mix and doesn’t withdraw anything from there as well. All those entry level THX-based amplifiers are more or less the same, with the exception that those are having a drier midrange with a less emotional performance. NFCA amps, including the L30 are more natural sounding, especially the midrange feels a bit fuller, meatier and much closer to a real performance. I’ve grown-up listening to a lot of recordings of my father, like The Beatles, Deep Purple, Scorpions and Queen, that were listened and re-listened hundreds of times. If there would be a deviation in their tonality, I would spot that right away. Bottom line is that L30 follows the footsteps of A90 by offering a super clean sound, without leaning towards a clinical side, L30 is still natural and engaging sounding, unlike entry-level THD designs. I’m actually very surprised by the performance I am hearing out of the little guy.
The craziest part is that transparency and detail are at the highest levels possible. I’m serious, it will put on a plate everything is there to hear, all the good and all the bad. I’ve thrown everything at it: high-sensitivity IEMs, portable headphones, desktop planars, you name it. In return, L30 always sounded snappy, engaging, with a faster pace and in a clean and transparent way. Yes, I’ve toe-tapped and yes, I’ve smiled listening again to the old-rock tunes of my pops, the magic is still in here and I’m amazed experiencing all this at the price of an entry-level interconnect cable.
II. The Bad / Output power
I will slightly alter my reviewing process as I want to mention all the bad parts of this unit before going forward. When you put the little one driving heaviest loads as Audeze LCD-4, Hifiman Susvara and Arya headphones, then I’m here to say that it was good sounding, but not great sounding. The power output and power storing in those electrolytic caps are the culprits in here. There are few older albums with a super high dynamic range (-13 to -15 DR), like those first albums of Beatles and Deep Purple, Sotho Blue by Abdullah Ibrahim is also an excellent example. With such recordings, I was fully maxed out on the highest gain and I still wanted a bit more volume with Audeze LCD-4. Do note that I’ve fed it a stronger signal than usual, Matrix Audio Element X offers 2.3 V Rms of power on the RCA out instead of the standard 2V and yet I wanted to raise the volume a bit higher. With such heavy loads, the little L30 will be struggling in offering you tons of headroom or effortless presentations. Swapping the Element X with something like a Topping D90 or E30, worsened the outcome as the volume dropped by another 1.2 dB. L30 will struggle with heavy loads, especially when a higher dynamic range track starts playing.
With all that said, the rest of the gang were driven at close to their maximum potential. Kennerton Wodan, Magni and Gjallarhorn, Focal Clear and Quad ERA-1 sounded almost the same as they did on the single ended output of the Topping A90. Those didn’t need more volume as 12 O’clock position in the medium gain was pretty loud with any of those. Turns out, L30 is more than capable driving high-end desktop headphones. If are worrying about driving high-impedance dynamic headphones, you shouldn’t, as L30 would be slapping those membranes until they turn red.
III. Resolution & Transparency
Resolution is the second name of L30 and transparency its surname. When it comes to things like these, you can’t get better than this at any price point. I’m going as far and say that the little L30 sounds a bit more detailed and transparent that both SMSL SP200 ($265) and Drop THX-AAA-789 ($299). If you care for the smallest nuances in your music, for that ultimate transparency, then L30 will offer them to you until everything else would sound muddy by comparison. It didn’t went through all the stages of Kübler-Ross curve of change as I did with A90, I already knew what to expect and L30 delivered on all those promises.
L30 is simply an achromatic sounding amplifier, it’s extended in the FR and it’s is super linear top to bottom. Nothing really stands out and yet everything is exactly at its right place. Since bass or midrange are not elevated at all, it might sound like a boring amp at first, but the more I listened to it, the more I started appreciating its honesty and uncolored sound. I mean, it is still the sole reason I’m still using that Benchmark HPA4 daily, right? Please don’t confuse a super-detailed, linear and transparent amplifier with clinical, boring, bright or soulless sounding, because that is not the case in here. Bright or clinical is one thing, but not interfering with your music is something else my friends. L30 will still awake emotions, will move your body and will make you smile. I’m writing this as I’m pouring my second glass of bourbon while listening to Hey Lawdy Mama from Hoodoo Man Blues.
IV. Noise Floor & IEM Pairings
I am feeling like I’ve listened to this amp previously multiple times already. Oh wait! That is because it sounds exactly like a single ended only Topping A90, now it makes sense.
You know that cause-and-effect diagram (also known as Ishikawa diagram)? It works with audio too. The lowest possible noise floor is the cause and a see-through transparency that followed is the effect. I already mentioned an immaculate resolution and detail than even expensive amplifiers might envy about and it’s time to check what is causing that.
Topping measured its noise floor at 0.9 micro-Volts on the high gain and 0.7 micro-Volts on the low and mid gain. However, AP555x audio analyzer is still adding its own noise in there too so the actual measurements are even lower than that. As a small detour, my $3000 Benchmark HPA4 has it at 2.4 micro-Volts at maximum volume…Do I need to tell you more about the noise floor of L30? I can’t differentiate both amps as far as noise goes, they both are sounding as clean as possible and the only limiting factor in here is our hearing, not the gear that I am testing.
As you can imagine, any IEMs I’ve tried with it, be it Meze Rai Penta or FiiO FA9 and FH7, they all worked as a charm with the little guy. I didn’t spot any hums, any buzzes, any hissing, just a pitch-black performance on both the low and mid gain position on any volume level. L30 is an extremely IEM friendly amp, it works as magic with them and I don’t see a point of buying anything costlier than this. Due to its close to zero output impedance and inaudible noise floor, you will be testing the limits of your IEMs. You don’t need expensive DAPs or amplifiers anymore to do that, as L30 is rejecting that noise like no other amp.
V. Transient Response
As its bigger brother, L30 is a speedy sounding amplifier and that is a natural phenomenon when noise is going out of the picture and nothing stays in the way of the audio signal. L30 can be also considered as a sleeper type headphone amp - its small and it will lower your expectations once you look at it, but after pressing play, keep your hands on the chair handles, close your eyes and prepare for a fast ride. L30 is a fast puncher, with notes decaying in the same fashion, but don’t expect a world class slam in the ear-drums, as for that more brute force and output power will be needed.
I want to clarify that only with Audeze LCD-4 and Hifiman Arya I’ve felt a lesser kick and impact, but with everything else like Kennerton Wodan, Focal Clear and Quad ERA-1 it was punching like a natural boxer and it was keeping up with demanding music.
All those lazy sounding portables like Meze 99 Classics and Sennheiser Momentum 2 started running faster as if someone spook them from behind. It changed them…in a good way, I’m still spotting the naturalness in both, but their laziness is gone forever.
VI. Soundstage & Depth
Besides the limited headroom I’ve experienced with difficult loads and the weaker slam with high-end planar-magnetics, the left to right soundstage size did also take a hit. I can explain why that is happening: a reference true balanced-DAC will be offering a close to zero channel crosstalk on its balanced outputs and a less impressive number with much higher channel crosstalk on its RCA outputs. The small soundstage I’m experiencing is not only the fault of the little L30, but also of the DAC that feeds it.
Of course, the damage is not that big, I’m exaggerating a little, but it’s there - especially with open-back headphones the width of the stage was shrinking in size compared to all-balanced solid-state amps. However, it is far from up-front or closed-in sounding, there is still plenty of room in there, plenty of air is still moving left to right and vice versa. I was listening to Hoodoo Man Blues all day long, I can’t have enough of it and the best part that fascinated me is that in 1965 when this record hit the shelves, audio engineers were not mastering music to sound good with headphones, headphone listening came much later on. Only today, mastering engineers are making sure their music is sounding great on speakers and headphones alike. That record was mastered to sound great only with speakers and as a direct result there isn’t a centered stage, everything is happening on the far right or on the far left, except for the voice. The recording itself is directly increasing the left to right soundstage and that works as magic with L30 and with any headphones that are attaching to it. Try it for yourself, it’s an amazing blues album!
VII. Frequency Response
Okay folks, this is an easy one and a quickie. L30 was revealed to me as a wire with gain, it was super transparent sounding and it was straight as a line in terms of FR. No dips, no rises, no nothing, just a long smooth line from sub-bass to upper-treble.
Sub-bass and mid-bass were rocking my world even with blues, not only with electronica. As I’ve said it multiple times, a well-designed amplifier will show everything it is capable of even with just a handful of songs. What is clear from the get-to will be forever in there. I didn’t even need to listen to my usual electronica test tracks, doing 20 Hz sweeping tones and things like that. L30 carried lots of bass information from the lowest octaves and it presented them lightning fast, decaying everything in the same fashion.
Midrange performance is one the most important aspects, at least for me it is and if I can’t find a natural tone, everything will just sound bad to me. Those entry-level THX amps are still sounding decent in here, but on a more serious note, they lack midrange density and warmth. In this regard, A90 and L30 are better as I am carried away by music much easier, voices are going deeper, string instruments sound more natural to me, there is none of that plasticky sound in here.
Treble is of course going up and up, it goes past top-octave and there is still plenty of information that will be rendered by the little one. L30 is still a wide-bandwidth amplifier, exactly like A90, I simply say that I have no objection in terms of treble performance. Its clean, extended, textured and easy going in the same time.
All in all, L30 covers our hearing range in full and even more, it simply extends from bottom to top and that is perfect by my standards.
I was quite a fan of the Topping A90, a Big fan, a Big-Big biggity-Big fan. I loved it and I raved about it. It was simply almost on the same level with my $3000 reference headphone amplifier and yet it costed exactly 6 times cheaper! How could I not be impressed by it?
I’m having the same feelings about the tiny single-ended only L30. The power output dropped in half, soundstage shrunk in size too. It already proved its value multiple times as you are getting the same wire-with-gain flavor with only $139! It worked great with IEMs, portable and desktop headphones and almost everything I’ve said in my Topping A90 review, can be said in here too, it is really that good. Considering its performance and price point, I’m happy to recommend the Topping L30 as a great sounding tiny headphone amp.
Topping L30 was provided by Apos Audio, it can be purchased from their web-store by following this link. In case you want to go with a full E30 DAC + L30 Amp stack, Apos is throwing a nicer RCA cable for free and it is lowering the price too. (Apos is offering free shipping in the USA, free 30-day returns in case you don’t like it, an extra 1 year of warranty and lowest price guarantee).
If you get one, please come back and leave a comment, I’m curious to know how it performs in your setup!
- Cute, small, sleek looking device, good build quality
- Easy integration into tiny spaces, very high WAF
- Linear frequency response and super extended on both ends
- Impressive levels of transparency and resolution
- Faster pace, good dynamics, pace, rhythm and timing
- Lacks any kind of noise and distortion on any volume level, IEM listeners rejoice!
- Full-bodied sounding most of the time, good midrange presence
- Pretty good pin-point imaging and soundstaging capabilities
- Good power output
- The King in terms of value
- Limited to single-ended inputs and outputs
- Can’t drive the hardest loads
- Limited slam with top-end headphones
- DACs: Gustard A18, Topping D90 MQA, Audiobyte HydraVox + HydraZap, Matrix Audio Element X, Flux Lab Acoustics FCN-10, Burson Conductor 3X Performance
- DAPs: Shanling M6, FiiO M15
- Headphone Amps: Topping L30, Benchmark HPA4, SparkoS Labs Aries, Flux Lab Acoustics FCN-10, LittleDot MKIII SE, xDuoo TA-30
- Integrated Amps: KECES E40
- Power Amps: KECES S125, Kinki Studio EX-M7
- IEMs: FiiO FA9, FH7, Meze Rai Penta, Rai Solo & lots of other lower tiered ones
- Portable headphones: Sennheiser Momentum 2, Meze 99 Classics
- Wireless headphones: Sony WF-1000XM3, Sennheiser Momentum 3, Master&Dynamic MW65
- Full-sized headphones: Audeze LCD-4, Erzetich Phobos, Hifiman Arya, Quad ERA-1, Focal Clear, Ollo S4X Reference, Kennerton Wodan, Magni & Gjallarhorn
- Loudspeakers: Buchardt S400
- Interconnects: QED Reference (x2), Aune AL3
- Speaker cables: Kimber PR8, Audioquest Type4
- Power Cables: Isotek EVO3 Premier (x3)
- Balanced Isolation Power Conditioners: PLiXiR Elite BAC400, KECES BP-600