The Do-It-All DAC/AMP
4-pin XLR headphone out
6.35mm headphone out
Current price (sale?)
Cons: No included USB cable
I got the Cocktail Audio HA500H (terrible name) from HiFiHeaven.net (https://hifiheaven.net/shop/Cocktai…eamp-Asynchronous-USB-DAC-Black?search=ha500h if you want to buy one) for a slight discount in exchange for this review. In no way, shape, or form will any of my reviews ever be impacted by a discount or free stuff. I will continue to be my usual sarcastic self. I picked the HA500H (I’m just going to call this the 500 from now on – I’d call it the HA, but it would be like I was laughing like The Joker the entire review and I would get committed) up because it does all the things. What does “All The Things” mean Hawk? Well, the 500 has aptX Bluetooth, MQA Decode, Asynchronous USB, 2x Sabre³² ES9018K2M DACs (1 per channel), 2x ECC82 TUBES (that glow and you can change the color and act as a preamp or pre-out), a solid state OP Amp (which works as a Pre-amp or pre-out for) with solid-state transistors, a 12V trigger input and output, 4-pin XLR headphone output, 6.35mm headphone output, RCA Output, XLR output, COAX input, TOSLINK input, I’S input, an imprudence switch (gain basically), a remote control, a 5” LCD screen with moving needles, and a toroidal power transformer. Oh, and in addition to MQA, it can support DSD64/128/256, and up to 384KHz PCM Hi-Res Audio.
So…yeah…all the things – probably even some I’m forgetting about. Name another product that has all of that. I certainly can’t think of any and I’ve looked. Oh, and it’s built like a tank and will likely break my desk (yeah, I’m not kidding, look at the pics – way bigger than it looks.) It’s normally $2,500, and quite frankly is priced where it should be considering what it offers – it makes the Questyle CMA Fifteen look like a ripoff if you compare the features. HiFiHeaven is selling it heavily discounted though right now ($1,100 off), probably because no one has ever heard of it – I hadn’t even heard of it until I was randomly wandering through MQA’s website looking for MQA decoder DAC/AMPs and came across it. Well, I am hoping this review will change that because it’s really cool.
Build Quality / Design / Specs (2/2):
The build quality of the 500 is insane – and it stays cool/quiet the whole time I’ve been using it. It looks to be made from ~1/16th of an inch thick aluminum and there is certainly no Topping-esque lightweight build quality here. There are hex screws all along the top and beveled edges so you don’t cut yourself on your expensive toy. Also, it looks like you can remove the top if you need/want to access the tubes and swap them out. There are two dials and 6 buttons on the front. The one on the right controls the volume and has nice little clicks as you spin it slowly – pushing it in mutes it. Each click = one point of volume change – unless you spin it fast and then it changes the volume quickly, which is a really nice feature if you forgot to turn down the volume before switching headphones. The weight is 15 lbs – this is very heavy, and it takes up a TON of my desk space – over a foot long and almost a foot wide. I tried it down below and didn’t like it, so I moved it back up and put a headphone stand on top (I could fit two if I wanted.) Look at the size of it compared to the Burson Conductor 3X Performance (3XP.) Quality takes space I guess, check out the image on HiFiHeaven.net of it with the lid off and you’ll see why it’s so big.
The screen is functional and will show you the left and right dB levels – it will also show your input on the upper left, the Tube status/impedance on the top middle portion, and the output on the upper right. It doesn’t show you if you’re using MQA or artwork like the screen on the Naim Unity HE will – missed opportunity there. The second knob on the left (you probably thought I forgot about it) allows you to select the input. Pushing it in does nothing until you push the SETUP button below it. That allows you to change all sorts of things. You can change the balanced/unbalanced volume levels, the Line Out volume, the DAC filters on PCM and DSD, the tube color (Red/Green/Blue On or Off), the Headphone Max Volume, the LCD brightness, and whether it’s on/off, the VU meter type, BT pairing, and the firmware version. There are also 4 other high-quality buttons (good click, metal.) One turns the tubes on/off; one changes between line out and headphones; one changes between high and low impedance; and the last one changes between balanced and unbalanced. It took me a minute to realize that in order to use headphones, I had to hit the Line Out button to switch to headphones, then hit the balanced button to switch to XLR4. To switch to my Audioengine speakers, I had to turn them on, then hit the Line Out button and the UN-B button to switch to unbalanced (RCA instead of XLR) and that was it. Once I figured it out, it makes a lot of sense – though it is less convenient than say… powering balanced and unbalanced all at once like most DAC/AMPs.
I’m not entirely sure how much power the 500 can put out because their website is a bit complicated. The best I can decipher is 485mW per channel at 600 ohms on high gain and 1100mW per channel at 16 ohms on high gain – on unbalanced. Cocktail Audio claims 4x as much power on the balanced headphone out, so I have to assume over 4 Watts of power output. The 3XP claims 6 Watts on balanced XLR, and at no point will I likely ever use anywhere near all of that power. I can power the JM Audio XTC-Open off 4-pin XLR on the 500 at 36/100 volume level on low gain. That’s better than the 3XP’s 50/100 on low gain for the same headphones. Obviously, there are some other factors, but I think the 500 should be able to power just about any headphones (they power my speakers easily too.) Someone send me a Susvara or HE-6 to test, k?
Lastly, the tubes do glow, which you can barely see through the vent slits on the top of the 500. Pushing the Tube button will turn on the tubes and they will glow whatever color you selected for them to glow (mine are green of course.) The output sound will also become slightly warmer in sound with more body. The tubes don’t really change a whole lot, but it’s cool to have the option and some music/headphones really benefit from the tube sound. Considering how many headphones I will end up testing from this setup, having different options is great.
This is where the 500 will take a hit. The 500 comes with 3 things – a remote, a power cable, and a BT antenna. That’s it. $2,500 and it doesn’t include a USB B to A Cable. I get not including a set of RCA cables since those usually come with the speakers you’re going to attach (like mine did.) But, in this day and age, when no one even uses USB B cables on their PRINTERS anymore, it would be good to include a USB B cable with your super expensive DAC/AMP. I had to buy one off Amazon for $6 with next-day Prime delivery – if it costs me $6, you’d think Cocktail Audio could include one for $2 at their cost. So, for the first couple of days, I could only use the 500 with Bluetooth – which I can say works perfectly well, though it prevents me from using my computer audio. In the 500’s defense, the Schiit products don’t come with any cables other than the power cable either – also annoying. If you don’t want to use a $6 cable because you believe in quality cables, the AudioQuest Pearl is one of my favorites (https://amzn.to/3XTOdVL) or you can just buy a Cinnamon because you’re a baller (https://amzn.to/3l1TE6p.)
Next problem, and really the only other problem. The remote I was sent didn’t work. I even swapped out the battery, and the remote lights up when you push a button, but there was no response on the 500. That’s sad because it’s a very functional remote unlike the Bifrost 2/64 – it’s not as nice as the all-metal Burson remote though. So, I sent it back to HiFiHeaven to have it swapped out ($9 shipping back.) If it’s just the remote, OK – if it’s the IR receiver on the 500, that’ll be a problem and I will NOT be happy about shipping this monstrosity back (or paying the ~$100 for shipping and insurance.)
The Bluetooth antenna and power cord both work at least. I’ll update this score if it’s not the remote’s fault because that will actually impact the build quality score, not the accessory score. There really aren’t any other accessories this needs, but the $500 Topping DX5 (DX5) has a better accessory package – it even includes a 6.35mm to 3.5mm adapter.
Software / Setup / Ease of Use (2/2):
Bluetooth was extremely to set up. I screwed in the antenna, went to my phone’s BT menu, clicked add device, waited for the HA500H to pop up, clicked it, and that was it. Then, I went to Tidal and hit play – I also had to turn up the volume on my phone (I thought this was a really weak system at first because it was so quiet before I realized my phone volume was at 50% automatically.) While BT won’t be my normal use from this, it’s pretty cool to have the album art on my phone below the 500 using my Pixel wireless charger.
To set up the 500 with my computer, I went to the Cocktail Audio website and downloaded the HA500H driver software from here: https://www.cocktailaudio.com/home/sub04_04.php. Install was easy, I just extracted the file, followed the install button clicks and that was it. Easier than the DX5, and WAY easier than the 3XP. There is also no firmware available for the 500 yet, so no need to waste your time looking for it. After that, just plug the 500 in using the USB B to A cable you bought separately (grumble) and the software will connect – you can open the software from your system tray if you need to (the small up arrow in the bottom right of your taskbar on Windows.) After that, go to Tidal, select the HA500H from your Sound Output in the bottom right, click More Settings, turn on Use Exclusive Mode, turn on Passthrough MQA and you’re set. The 500 should now MQA and Tidal really well. You can also go to Volume Settings and click on the HA500H, then change the Format to 24-bit, 384KHz for the best possible quality. Super easy – just make sure the input is set to USB.
Performance / Sound (2/2):
The most important thing to note here is that yes, the Tubes do make a difference, just not a ton. They add a warmer sound to music – more bass, more reverb, bigger soundstage, and a little muddier and less crisp than the solid state, less accurate, but more fun. It’s really cool to have the option to switch between them on the fly. Those are my impressions just listening to David Guetta’s “I’m Good (Blue)” but I get the same impression on every song I listen to. The tubes add some great color and depth to The Piano Guys’ “Code Name Vivaldi” – it really helps you feel the strings more than the solid state does. But if you want that crisp accurate detail, the solid-state really shines. Michelle McLaughlin’s “Across the Burren” sounds amazing on my Beryllium JM Audio XTC-Open with the tube on and off. That’s the best part about the 500, you can pick just about any input/output and whatever sound/headphone you like more. It’s all about choice. I’ll be playing around with the settings on this thing for a long time to come – and yes, it sounds great.
How does it sound with the solid state compared to the Burson? Pretty similar, the DACs on these aren’t too far off. They’re both Sabre DACs, though they are different DACs. I admittedly prefer the sound of the 500, but I can’t say that’s because it’s not just new-toy-fallacy. The Burson sounds great also and it’s a good option if you don’t need the Tube, or you need more power, or the 500 goes back up in price and you don’t want to spend the extra Grand – just follow my guide on setting up the dang thing and buy a longer USB C cable in advance if you need it.
Comparisons / Price (2/2):
At the current sale price, which I’m not sure if that is the “normal” sale price, or just temporary, you really can’t beat the 500 for the features it offers. The only real competitor here is the 3XP at the “sale” price. The Burson doesn’t have the Tube feature, or a screen, it’s smaller and has a more annoying volume knob with no MQA decode (though it does come with a 1.5 ft USB C cable…that I had to replace also.) The Questyle CMA Fifteen is probably the closest competitor at the normal price since you can get one for close to the same price and it has MQA decode, but no screen and a bunch of LEDs, and no Tube option. I’ll be reviewing the Fifteen soon and will compare it with this (you can buy one from here if you want one: https://audio46.com/?ref=wolfhawkaudioreview.com.) Mytek has similar options without the tube and without XLR4. So, really there isn’t anything with all of the features the 500 has in this price range. If that sounds like something you want, go grab one quickly before the price goes back up.
The non-working remote and lack of USB B to A cable are frustrating niggles to an otherwise fantastic package. Both are easily fixable, but at this price (or the normal price) you shouldn’t have issues like this. The HA500H itself is just one of the best DAC/AMPs I’ve ever used – it doesn’t have Topping build quality concerns or software glitches, it’s built like a tank, it has better hardware and software than the Burson, it has the Tube option if you want to play around with that and a good solid state if you don’t. It supports just about everything, has all the inputs out outputs I could possibly want, plenty of power, and it sounds great to boot. I can wholeheartedly give this a recommendation (hopefully your remote works.)
Wolfhawk’s Rating: 9/10