Just like a conventional power amplifier, a headphone amplifier is only half of an amplifier/speaker system. And just as with loudspeakers, the combination of the two parts, speaker and amplifier, should ideally form a synergistic whole. This synergy, or lack or it, between amplifier and transducer form the basis of much of the overall sonic personality of a system. And while I was not able to assemble any combination of Gemini 2000 and headphones that sounded even remotely sub-par, some headphones did prove to be especially good pairings with the Gemini 2000.
I’ve owned a pair of Grado RS-1 headphones ever since Joe Grado sent me a pair over fifteen years ago. I’ve gone through three sets of foam ear-cups, and in all that time, listening to more headphone amplifiers than I can remember, I’ve never heard them sound better than when connected to the Gemini 2000. I should mention that I was driving them in balanced mode, thanks in large part to an adapter made by Drew Baird of Moon Audio.
With many headphone amplifiers the Grado RS-1 can sound midrange-centric—lacking in bass drive and top-end air. Coupled to the Gemini 2000 the RS-1s had some serious bass extension. The Grados also had a larger and more precisely located soundstage than I’d heard before. I also noticed more upper-frequency extension and air around every instrument. If you are a Grado guy or gal and want to hear your RS-1s at their best, you really need to hear the Gemini/Grado combination.
The Audeze LCD-2 also proved to be an excellent combination with the Gemini 2000. The soundstage was especially large (which is something the LCD-2s usually do well) and within that space the physical location and size of each instrument came through with a level of specificity and detail that I’ve rarely experienced. To say the sound from the LCD-2/Gemini combo was seductive is an understatement. Only the pressure on the sides of my head from the LCD-2’s rather forceful headband after three+ hours of listening made me take breaks; otherwise I could remain tethered to this combo for days.
Most headphone mavens respect but don’t actually enjoy listening to AKG K-701 headphones. The expression “dry as a desert” definitely applies to these rather matter-of-fact-sounding headphones when attached to most headphone amplifiers. And while I can’t tell you that the Gemini turned the AKG’s cold, dry personality into warm and inviting, the Gemini did make the K-701s sound far more musical and involving than other pairings I’ve tried. The Gemini didn’t warm up the K-701’s bass, but instead gave the midrange a more natural and less hard and splitchy character. And while I wouldn’t be so foolish as to recommend getting the Gemini solely for the purpose of driving a pair of K-701s, if you have pair of K-701s that you’ve never enjoyed much, the Gemini 2000 could change all that.
The Oppo PM-1 headphones were specifically engineered to be efficient and sufficiently sensitive that they would not “need” to be coupled to a beefy high-performance headphone amplifier to sound their best. But even the PM-1 headphones garnered some additional fidelity and finesse when attached to the Gemini 2000. The soundstage was noticeably larger than what I heard through my iPod touch, MacPro portable, or even the Astell&Kern AK100 (original version). The Gemini also propelled the PM-1’s stellar imaging and low-level detail to a higher level than I’ve heard with any portable device, so far.
At the end of the review period I set up an A/B test to compare the Gemini 2000’s single-ended output with that of the Resonessence Labs Herus portable DAC/headphone amplifier (one of my 2014 Golden Ear Award winners). The signal from the single-ended headphone outputs was connected to an adapter that transformed the 1/4" stereo connection to a pair of single-ended RCA female connectors. Then a 1m length of cable connected the adapter to an input on a Wyred4Sound mPre, which was connected to a pair of Wyred4Sound mAMPs driving Audience Clair Audient 1+1 speakers. After matching gain levels via a 1kHz test tone from the AudioTest app I was ready for some rapid/switch A/B comparisons.
After several hours of A/B comparisons I had to conclude that in this setup the differences in sound between the Gemini and the Herus were so slight that I reliably heard an improvement in image specificity and low-level detail through the Gemini only when I used my own high-resolution live recordings. With the commercial releases the differences were not obvious enough for me to tell which DAC was which. I suspect the differences between the two DACs would be more pronounced if there hadn’t been additional adapters, an additional volume control (on the mPRE), and the additional meter length of cable in the system.
The question of whether a component is a great value or not is often a case of personal rather than universal financial considerations. Obviously some readers will consider a $2000 DAC/headphone amplifier to be well beyond the price range of what they personally consider a high-value proposition. But for some audiophiles the Gemini 2000’s combination of features, capabilities, and high performance will be exactly what they’ve been looking for, at a price that is quite reasonable when you consider the cost of a stand-alone premium headphone amplifier, such as the Bryston BHP-1, which when combined with a high- performance DSD-capable DAC can run well above $2000.
Although Auralic calls the Gemini 2000 a “lifestyle product” I think this does the Gemini a disservice. “Lifestyle” implies that features and ergonomics were put ahead of sonics, and if my experience with the Gemini 2000 is any indication of its performance capabilities, it didn’t perform like any lifestyle product I’ve used in the past. No, the Gemini is a high- performance, high-end, DAC/headphone amplifier that will be at home in even the most sonically pristine computer-audio system, which makes it the best lifestyle desktop product I’ve ever heard.
SPECS & PRICING
Frequency response: 20Hz–20kHz, +/- 0.1dB
Dynamic range: 124dB
Output power: Class A 2000mW maximum
Audio inputs: One optical TosLink, one USB host for Android device, one USB 2.0 in asynchronous mode
Data interface: One SDXC card reader, support up to 2TB
Headphone outputs: One balanced 4-pin XLR, one 6.35mm stereo phone jack
Supported digital formats: All PCM from 44.1kS/s to 384kS/s in 32-bit, DSD 64 (2.8224MHz) and DSD 128 (5.6448MHz)
Dimensions: 14cm x 29cm x 14cm
Weight: 2.8 kg
AURALIC NORTH AMERICA INC.
12208 NE 104th Street
Vancouver, WA 98682