The second little device Apos Audio graciously sent me to review is the Topping L30. As a reminder from my E30 review, I am now enrolled in Apos Audio’s affiliate program but have otherwise received no attempts from Apos to influence my opinion on the L30 or any other piece of gear.
The Topping L30 is a 139.99USD headphone amplifier in the budget, measurement-chasing category. And measure well it does! I won’t go into all the gory details here and leave that to Apos’s website where we see measured distortion numbers that approach 0 in all real-world listening situations and plenty of rated power (up to 3.5 watts per channel, in fact). Other notable features are the fact that the L30 is built around the same amplifier technology found in Topping’s top-of-the-line (top of Topping’s line, that is) A90 amplifier. The L30 offers 3 gain stages and can function as a preamplifier as well.
There really isn’t anything to complain about with the build quality. The unit is a rugged metal box with a sturdy plastic faceplate. The volume knob has a fair amount of resistance. The switches have a satisfying click when they get flipped. It has a no-nonsense industrial design which I find pleasing and is a good aesthetic match to the E30 DAC (see my review here)…which makes sense as they were conceived to stack together in the first place. One small nitpick is that the all-black model (the L30 also comes in silver) can be very hard to see in a darkened room. Let’s play a little game called “Find the L30”:
Yep, that’s my desk in a dark room lit by only monitor light and all the glowing electronic doohickeys you see. Did you find the L30? Probably. But you squinted, didn’t you? Admit it! A couple of times I did bump into things a little harder than I would have liked because I was fumbling for the L30’s pot in a room lit like that. Keep that in mind if you’re a dark-room listener or game a lot in the dark. However, that quibble aside I found the unit very easy and straightforward to use. The preamp feature is well executed too. I didn’t notice much a sonic penalty, if there was one at all, when using its preout. The preout and headphone out are also toggled with a switch on the front panel instead of having to plug or unplug headphones. That means you can leave your cans and your powered speakers/speaker amp/tube amp all plugged in at the same time and switch back and forth from the L30’s internal amp and its preout via that switch. It’s an interesting twist on that feature that some may appreciate.
The L30’s initial sonic presentation is clean and smooth. And that’s not just and initial presentation, it stays clean and smooth throughout. Even when a track gets busy, it’s clean and smooth. My experience with THX amps, which are also in this measurement-chasing game, is that they can be quite sharp and brittle in the treble. The L30 does not suffer from that issue and that helps a lot with this perception of smoothness. However, to my ear, this smoothness is too much of a good thing. Some detail and speed is sacrificed in this trade and at times the L30 sounds over-smoothed. There are a handful of situations where that over-smoothness can be a benefit – really busy and poorly recorded metal tracks were some that I found – but by-in-large I personally missed the detail and resolution that this smoothness appeared to cover over. Now, some may argue that this over-smoothness was due to DAC pairings. That is unlikely as I did the bulk of my listening with Topping’s own D10 DAC – which is a measurement champ at its price point and also has that whole ESS sharpness thing going on. I tried the Schiit Modius and SMSL SU-8 as well. The Modius was slightly smoother than the other two but this smoothness was a feature of the L30’s sound with all of the DACs.
The sound signature of the L30 is also a touch mid-forward. I detected a slight emphasis on much of the vocal frequency range. This emphasis alone isn’t necessarily good or bad and is very much up to listener preference. I have an annoying hearing sensitivity in the 1KHz range so I noticed this forwardness but didn’t have much extra trouble with shoutiness as compared to using other amps. Treble has reasonably good timbre but is also where the L30’s smoothness is the most noticeable. The bass is a mixed bag. What’s there is pleasant and not distracting, but there is also a surprising subbass roll-off. Simply put, the L30’s bass extension bottoms out before its competition does. Deep notes that I expected to hear in familiar tracks just didn’t get the oomph, authority, or control that I’m accustomed too even in this price range.
The L30’s spatial performance was reasonably good. The soundstage was wide and the imaging was coherent and it was able to maintain that width and coherence when tracks got busy. Neither feature was standard setting at the price point but nor was either feature significantly lagging. Overall, the spatial performance seems appropriate for a $140 unit.
I found the L30 to be more sensitive to different driver types than most of its similarly priced competition. Overall, I think the L30 performs best with planar-magnetic-driver headphones. I’m not an engineer by trade so you’ll have to accept my Physics-II level of understanding of alternating current circuits here, but my suspicion is the amplifier topology in the L30 delivers power more efficiently when it’s driving loads that like more current (planars!) and delivers power less efficiently when its driving loads that like more voltage (dynamic drivers). My comments above about over-smoothness and bass roll-off were present on all driver types but to a noticeably lesser degree on my planars (HiFiMan Edition X V2 and Audeze LCD-2 revision 1 prefazor). My more price-appropriate Beyerdynamic DT880 600-ohm and Massdrop + Sennheiser HD6XX – both of which are a bit on the bass-light side to begin with – sounded even more thin and less authoritative on the L30 than other similarly priced amps. My biodynamic-driver based Massdrop + Fostex TH-X00 with Lawton cups suffered the most, though. On the L30 it sounded flat – not a frequency response kind of flat, but a lacking-energy-and-vigor kind of flat. It normally sounds quite lively and detailed but it did not take well to the L30. Of my dynamic-driver headphones, the Focal Elegia responded to the L30 the best. The Elegia’s slight mid-forward signature actually jived well with the L30’s similar presentation. I think the L30 would be most at home powering a planar-magnetic based headphone that has a V-shaped or bright signature and is more aggressively detailed than average. I don’t have either on hand but I hypothesize it would be a good match for the Fostex RP-driver based headphones (T?0RP, Dekoni Blue, Modhouse Argons, etc) or maybe some of the entry level HiFiMans from the HE-4?? series, particularly a warmer model like the HE-4XX from Massdrop where the headphone’s warmth may mask the L30’s bass roll-off a bit. I think in the case of the Fostex RP driver it would bring their signature back toward neutral and might smooth out some their rougher treble in some areas. The HiFiMans can tend toward brightness and sharpness at times and the L30’s smoothness might balance that out well, too. A disclaimer on these hypotheses, though: they are educated guesses, not guarantees. If anyone buys such a combo and doesn’t like it, please no hate mail.
COMPARISONS WITH OTHER AMPS
Overlapping with this review I had the exciting privilege of having several other similarly priced headphone amps on hand. I have the JDS Labs Atom amp, Monolith Liquid Spark amp, iFi Zen CAN, and Schiit Asgard 3 in my personal collection and had the Schiit Magnius and Geshelli Labs Archel 2 GMR (review here) in for review. I plan to do a full-fledged shootout post with all those amps in the near future as they’re all in the $99-199 range. Because of that future post I will not comment too much here; consider this paragraph a trailer. That said the Topping L30 is the measurement champion in this group. The Geshelli GMR, at least by Geshelli’s in-house measurement claims, essentially match the L30 in distortion, signal-to-noise ratio, and SINAD measurements but claims something close to 1/3 of the L30’s rated power output. The Atom amp and Magnius come very close to those distortion and noise measurements with the Atom also only claiming about 1/3 of the L30’s rated power and the Magnius claiming about another 1.5 watts of rated power per channel more but also costing an additional $60 and almost requiring headphones that can be powered balanced. The Zen CAN is class A and the Asgard 3 is class A/B and are both more expensive. They technically don’t compete with the L30 on distortion measurements on paper, but the truth is all of these amps in this roundup measure well beyond the levels where any red flags can be reasonably claimed. As far as sound goes, the L30 has the smoothest and arguably most mid-forward sonic presentation of these amps. Whether that is good or bad depends largely on listener preference and headphone pairings. The L30 also shares that super-clean sonic presentation with the Atom, GMR, and Magnius. However, the L30’s bass-roll off is more pronounced than the bass roll-off of any of the other amps in this set and its smoothness also can come across as it being the least detailed. Again, whether that’s a good or bad thing depends a lot on headphone pairings and listener preference. Stay tuned for the full round-up post for more details on how all these amps compare.
The Topping L30 is a well-built and affordable headphone amplifier that easily wins the measurement championship at its price point. It has an interesting twist on the preamp/headphone amp integration I haven’t seen at this price and that works well. The sonic presentation is a clean and smooth but does come at the price of some lost detail and bass that rolls off more quickly than competing headphone amplifiers. The L30 seems to be most at home powering aggressive planar-magnetic headphones. So, if measurements matter to you, you’re on a budget, and you have or are interested in playing with aggressive planar headphones in the budget range, the Topping L30 headphone amp might be for you.
Thanks for reading and enjoy the music everyone!