disclaimer: I’d like to thank Steven at Xtenik for providing the Oriolus BA300s for review. Since I have a couple of Sony DAPs that the BA300s is targetted toward, it seems like a natural fit to review this little tube amp. If you have a ZX300, I recommend you follow up with Xtenik here or for more information, the Oriolus corporation here.
The BA300s is kind of an odd quadrupling down on a single market. First, it is an analog tube amp with balanced only with no options for single ended input or output. While this makes the circuit design cleaner and requires fewer parts, it also cuts off the larger end of the market by not having the option for single ended. Secondly, its only input and output is 4.4mm TRRRS connectors and the only cable provided is a male to male 4.4mm. Very few DAPs outside of Sony and a few modular types sport the 4.4mm outputs to utilize this (Even Oriolus own DAP doesn’t have a 4.4 output), and even fewer headphone and in-ears ship with the 4.4mm jack as standard. There is a reason for all this though, the BA300s is targeted at Sony DAPs and in particular the NWZX300. Why? Simple, Sony uses a digital amplifier in its DAPs so the problems that are often associated with passing a signal from an analog amp to another analog amp are avoided, and tubes have a warming softening effect on what sometimes gets called the cold sterile sound of digital amplification. So I had two questions going in, does it do enough for the ZX300 and WM1A to really be worth spending the $400 or so US to purchase it and how well does it pair with things outside its target market. Read on, the results may surprise you.
Unboxing / Packaging:
The little amp comes well packed in a black book fold box with a slipcover over the exterior. On the front of the slipcover is a large photo of the amp with the name and model, specs are on the reverse and the side has a pair of QR codes with the designers image in the center. The left one is a Baidu link while the right takes you to Weibo. Admittedly my Chinese skills are basically non-existent so beyond that, I am not much help. Inside the box, a warranty card, manual, and a pad designed to sit between amp and player rest on top.
The BA300s is roughly the same size as the Shanling M2s for those familiar with it. For those who are not, 5 inches tall, 2 1/4 inches wide and 3/4 of an inch thick. Weight is just under 6 ounces. The shell is solid aluminum with a window in the front panel. Otherwise the device is slick on the front and rear. The sides have finger grooves at the top and bottom, but are otherwise slick. The 4.4mm input and output jacks are found on the top of the unit with the power switch centered between the two. A micro-USB port on the bottom left of the unit handles charging responsibilities and an LED indicator to the right of the port shows charging status. Overall, its a very simple device externally. Removing the faceplate is accomplished by removing two small screws on the bottom that allow for lifting the front panel off the unit. this exposes the electronics, tubes, and battery (more later on that).
The BA300s is a very simple design, it is a pure +3dB amp with no volume pot in the path. It is designed to use with the headphone out of the source device so volume control is handled by the input device and not at the amp. Output power is rated at 350mW (32Ω Load) with a SNR of -111dB. (Roughly the same output power as the nano iDSD BL for comparison sake). The heart of the Ba300s is a pair of 6N16B tubes. These are a Soviet era design similar to the 6021 but not pin compatible. 6N16B are dual triode tubes were originally designed for aircraft use and have several features that make them a good choice for portable gear. They operate at low voltage and minimal heater current so battery life is prolonged, They were made to withstand shock and are rated for a 10,000+ hour service life. Mu is roughly 25 so these fall into a class of low gain, high drive current tubes so while usually seen in pre-amps stages and tube buffers (Cayin idac-6), they are a good choice here for driver tubes in this application.
The battery in the BA300s is a 4000mAh rated lithium polymer cell and should be easy to replace when and if the day comes as two small star screws hold the face plate on, and the battery is attached via a quick-connect rather than being soldered to the board. I’m happy to see a design that will allow the end-user to replace a battery as far too commonly today this is not the case. The pack takes roughly 3 hours to charge using the Micro-USB charge port and standard charger. I found the circuitry was not designed to utilize a 2.1 Amp charger and would continue to draw the same current as when a standard charger was used so no need for specialty wall-warts. Once charged, average battery life was a bit over 6 hours so the amp will last most of a work day on a single charge. A word of caution here, this amp should not be used while charging as doing so produces an audible hum.
Sound and Synergy:
First off, the BA300s is going to add warmth to whatever you attach it to. If you are looking for a dead neutral amp, this is not it (in fairness tubes rarely are). If you want something that adds musicality though, the BA300s does in a big way when paired with the right DAP. It is about as organic and analog a sound as I have heard in a portable. Sound is very natural and flowing with good slam and really good mids. I found the BA300s pushes the mid-bass and lower-mids slightly forward which adds a nice warmth to the overall without detracting from the details. Because of that warmth, pairing is best with headphones that are a bit cool or at least not overly warm.
I found the synergy good between the WM1A which tends to be slightly bright and a little thinner on the low end than I like. The BA300s gave it more body in the low end and bit of warmth where it needed it, but did push mids slightly more forward. With the WM1a already doing so a bit, this could occasionally become quite noticeable. The EQ on the WM1A is good enough to allow for tinkering and removing that extra mid presence, but be aware that you may want to. The other nice thing about the pairing of the WM1A and the BA300s is notably increased output power. The primary knock on the Sony players with their digital amplification stage is that their output power simply cannot rival that of most analog DAPs. By adding the BA300s, the WM1A becomes useful with a broader range of headphones which is much appreciated.
Much as I wish I had a WM1Z on hand, I have not been inclined to spend the $3k to do so.
Unsurprisingly, the best pairing was with the Son y NWZX300, its intended target. The size is a near match although the BA300s is a bit thicker by comparison and the sides on the DAP are a bit more rounded off than the amp. Nitpicking for sure as the two are quite literally made for each other. I find the mids to be a bit thin on the 300 and pairing it with the BA300s brings those same mids to the forefront without getting edgy or out of balance. Output power is improved dramatically as well with the relatively anemic 200mW @ 16Ω rated ZX300 (balanced) being upped to 350mW @ 32Ω. Pay particular attention to the Ohms in the above as the reality is that the ZX300 is closer to 100mW at 32Ω so this is quite a leap and puts it in the same class as the WM1A in output power. If you wanted a WM1A with better output and a more organic and smoother sound, the combination of ZX300 and BA300s may well be exactly what you were hoping for.
I bought a couple of 2.5 to 4.4mm cables to be able to test other balanced daps. If you need one, I highly recommend Dyson Audio as build is great and price is more than reasonable (If he doesn’t have them listed on the page, email him).
First off, know that most of these daps have analog output stages so do show increased noise when paired with the BA300s. On some it wasn’t enough to be noteworthy, on others it was. This Amp was really designed with Sony in mind and any pairing outside that is an experiment.
What I found is kind of expected after learning the character of the BA300s. The Sabre based DAPs that often get accused of being overly clinical and dry benefited most by the warming and smoothing of the sound while the warmer sounding DAPs sometimes sounded like they got a double dose of that some smoothing and warmth. I found the pairing of the little Pioneer quite good as the noise floor is low enough on the 300R to not be over powering when paired to the BA300s. What was more common was that pairings were very source dependent. Something sounded good on the Opus#1S, AK70mk2, and Shangling M3s while others were overly warm and got a bit fuzzy at times.
The other pairing that I found to be quite good was the Hiby R6 Pro. With its ESS dacs and somewhat clinical presentation, the BA300s really turned it into a more lush and musical beast. I had more or less written off the R6 Pro as I have been eyeballing the DX220 or Cayin N6ii but now have to reconsider it after a friend loaned me his for this test.
Pairings of headphones was also a bit of an experiment. Some things became a bit too relaxed, while others the added body and warmth really brought to life. I found it best to start with models that were not overly mid-forward as the bloom from the amp tended to overpower. Models with a slightly recessed mids and a slightly bright signature benefitted most. Bass punch was also typically improved slightly so models that are bass forward or loose in the bass will be very much so when paired to the BA300s.
I borrowed a pair of the Oriolus Finschi in-ears to see how well the amp paired with them, knowing that Oriolus had targeted a single DAP, it would be interesting to know if they targeted a single model of in-ear as well. The Finschi is a bit mid forward to begin with and to my ear, not a great pairing with the ZX300 and BA300s as the mids began to dominate the rest of the signature.
Thoughts / Conclusion:
So, bottom line, should you consider buying the BA300s? Simple answer, if you own a Sony DAP with balanced outputs, then yes, if not, maybe not so much. Those with the ZX300 will really appreciate what the BA300s does for its sound signature. It is much more lush, thick, and smooth sounding and makes the somewhat sterile at times (speaking from personal experience) sound signature much more organic. I came away thinking I’ll likely not listen to my ZX300 much in the future without it paired to this amp, it makes that much of a difference.
Pros: Adds smooth, organic, lush sound to ZX300 sound signature and improves power considerably.
Cons: Kind of a one trick pony designed to be paired to Sony DAPs.