The jobs done by DACS' latest high-quality problem solver are essential, if not glamorous. Could the HeadMaster take charge of your studio?
I was keen to review the new British‑made DACS HeadMaster monitor controller, because for a while I've been looking for a suitable combination of D‑A converter, headphone amp and monitor controller to use both in my mastering studio and on location for classical recording sessions. The two applications have slightly differing needs, so before I delve into the details of the HeadMaster itself, I'll explain some of the limitations I've observed in my own setups over the years.
When I reviewed the Crookwood CS monitor controller a couple of years ago, I found that the D‑A converter was excellent — but I still preferred to use my high-end Stax headphone system with it (rather than the on‑board headphone amp) because, quite simply, it gave me much better results. In the mastering studio, such a complex setup is fine, but when recording on location I often end up in cramped 'control rooms' (for example, the weeny vestibule of a small church in Dorset!), and rely almost entirely on headphones for monitoring — so both the portability of the system and the quality of the headphone feed become even more critical. (Relying on the headphone outs of various recording desks I've used just doesn't reveal the kind of critical detail you need in these situations.)
Although the Crookwood‑Stax setup gave me the desired quality, I needed a less cumbersome system, so I scaled things down a little, and chose a combination of an Apogee PSX100 D‑A converter and a DACS HeadLite headphone amp. Then, having successfully miniaturised various parts of the recording chain to fit the cramped conditions, I started using the Benchmark DAC1 for monitoring. This promised to perform both the D‑A converter role of the Apogee and the headphone‑amp role of the Headlight, all in a single box, but it also provided independent gain control for whenever I was using the main monitors: this meant that I could set up and monitor the first takes with headphones, and then call musicians into the control room to listen back through the main monitors.
At first, the Benchmark seemed the ideal solution, but I discovered a couple of niggles. The Benchmark has only one gain control, serving both the headphone and main outputs, which isn't great if you want to maintain a constant monitoring level. Also, the switch on the rear to choose between the headphone and monitor outputs also includes a 'calibrated' setting, to send a full signal to the outputs (for when you use the Benchmark only for its DAC), and it's easy to see the potential for damaging and embarrassing mis‑switching when working with musicians! I also found, as did some of the musicians, that the headphone sound was full and warm, and a bit lacking in overall detail compared with the sound from the main monitor output. Thus, when the takes were played back through the monitors, pianists were delighted to hear a greater lower-register clarity in their instruments, whereas the string players were slightly disappointed to hear, for example, a slight glare when playing in a small stone‑built church, having already been happy with the sound from their cans. In short, then, when on location I couldn't always trust what I was hearing at the low end, and in terms of overall warmth when listening on headphones.
There's no doubt that the Benchmark is a great D‑A converter, but these frustrations led me to return to a two‑device setup, using the Benchmark for D‑A conversion and the DACS HeadLite as the headphone amp: I was still looking for a single box to do all this! Happily, my search brings me back to the subject of this review, because it seems that Douglas Doherty of DACS and Crispin Herrod‑Taylor of Crookwood were listening to my prayers...
The DACS HeadMaster is an imaginative combination of a headphone amp based on the DACS HeadLite and a D‑A converter from Crookwood (the same one that appears in the company's C2 and other monitor controllers), which can handle all the standard sample rates from 44.1 to 192kHz, and which automatically switches between them.
Occupying a full‑width 1U rack space, the HeadMaster comes in a very nice shade of blue (DACS equipment has sometimes drawn comment in the past for its 'creative' colour choices, but I actually thought this blue rather classy!). Two large, red knobs separately control the gain for the two main outputs on the back, and the two headphone outputs (one on the front and one on the back), and four milled aluminium buttons are used to select the input source and type (these illuminate the blue LEDs beneath them as soon as selected, not only when a viable signal is present). Between the red knobs is a toggle speaker‑selector button, and the selected choice is indicated by one of another pair of illuminated blue LEDs on the far left of the front panel.
On the rear panel there are two digital inputs (AES/EBU and S/PDIF), two analogue inputs (unbalanced on RCA and balanced on XLR), the fixed‑level monitor out on XLR, and two pairs of gain‑controlled monitor outs, on balanced TRS connectors.
The test outing for the HeadMaster on location was highly critical: a 'cello and piano session at the Old Granary Studio in Norfolk, which has what is widely regarded as one of the best Steinway pianos in Europe, and offers a medium‑sized, slightly warm acoustic perfect for chamber music.
Setting up the microphones was a delicate task: we needed to be able to capture the full glory of that Steinway while not allowing the 'cello to be buried by it. As well as using a main pair of Sonodore microphones for the overall sound and balance, we also put a spot pair of Schoeps mics on the 'cello in case it needed a little more 'point' in places in the final mix. Setting that spot pair was not easy: they had to be close enough to the 'cello to capture a fairly isolated sound, but not so close as to lose the natural tones of the instrument or develop screechy overtones. In short, it was a good test for the headphone amp!
Up in the control room, we were using our minimalist 'front‑seat-of-an-estate‑car' setup: a SADiE LRX2 doing all mic‑pre, A‑D and capture duties, being monitored through the digitally fed HeadMaster, driving AKG headphones and a pair of ATC20 speakers via a Chord power amp.
Having got the main sound fairly swiftly, I set the spot pair, deliberately starting too far away and incrementally moving them close to the 'cello until the balance between separation and screech that I was looking for had been achieved. Throughout this process I used the headphones, reasoning that this would give me the close‑up that I needed to make the decision more easily — but given the past experiences I mentioned earlier, I was concerned that some of the musicians might react differently to the final balance as heard on the headphones and main monitors. They didn't: we did a take and invited them to come and listen to a mix that included just a touch of the spot pair. They listened first on the main speakers, and then took turns with the headphones, and all agreed that it sounded great on both.
Back in the mastering and editing studio, I put the HeadMaster to use for some fine editing and for the headphone stage of classical sweetening. Quite often, I adjust subtle parameters of reverb on headphones before using the main monitors for overall mastering decisions, and the HeadMaster once again was superb, having the edge over the Benchmark. For some recordings I'd made earlier in the Dorset church, as well as adding in the warmth that the Benchmark headphones had suggested was already there, I found that I could add some space, taking advantage of the wonderful flexibility of the HD4 algorithm in the TC Electronic 6000 reverb processor to tweak the early reflections. In fact, these were essential to get right, as they defined the 'place' of the instruments in the room, and I found this task very much easier than I have before: the clarity of the HeadMaster was a pleasant improvement on the slightly artificial bloom the Benchmark overlaid on the material, which could get in the way of such decisions as how the lower-register 'overhang' (technically speaking, you don't get this with headphones, but the effect is still the same) clouded and covered some of the essential detail of the early reflections.
Of course, this was very much a subjective test between the Benchmark and HeadMaster, purely to give a useful point of reference, and it can't be considered a proper 'shoot‑out' between the HeadMaster and the DAC1. To do that, I'd have had to set up conditions in my mastering room to test their abilities operating as monitor controller (D‑A and gain‑controlled analogue stage) and pure D‑A converters feeding a separate preamp as well.
But I can certainly say that I was not at all disappointed with the HeadMaster. To give an idea of the quality on offer, it didn't better my current main mastering setup (a DCS D‑A and Nagra preamp) in either configuration, or when fed by an analogue signal derived from the DCS, but then it comes in at almost a tenth of the price. If the current financial crisis began to hit harder and I had to start selling off equipment, while I'd hesitate to part with these much‑beloved components, I'd have no hesitation in trusting the HeadMaster to provide the material for professional mastering judgements. It is, as you'd expect, at least as good on this score as the larger Crookwood controllers, which a number of studios already trust to route more complex setups to their monitors.
As a D‑A converter and headphone amp, the HeadMaster is simply in a class of its own at this price level — which, for me, makes it something of a bargain. I trust its deliverances on location, and I now intend to rely on it exclusively for headphone duties in my mastering room. Whereas other headphone amps have come and gone and not really been missed, the HeadMaster is here to stay.
There are very few real alternatives: although the market is crowded at the sub‑£300$600 level, the quality of audio in the DACS unit is very much higher. The Grace M902 is a similar product but, with a single balanced output, costs almost twice as much. If you'd rather piece together a system to cover the functions of the HeadMaster, I've discussed some options in the main article.