HiFiMAN Prelude

Hifiman Prelude is one of Hifiman’s latest ventures into high-power headphone amplification. This class A beast clocks in at 2499 USD, and as of today, is the only non-electrostatic standalone amplifier in Hifiman’s lineup.

Introduction to the HiFiMAN Prelude Review

In June of 2023, Hifiman announced the acquisition of another audio manufacturer – Goldenwave. Ever since, it seems like they have truly been making the most out of that fact, with Serenade and Prelude both being quite popular among headphone users, whether we’re talking about high or low power requirements. If you’ve read Paweł’s impressions of the Serenade, you’ll know it’s a pretty great device, and the Prelude seems like the perfect pairing. We now have a DAC/AMP and a standalone amplifier in Hifiman’s Goldenwave line-up, and it leads me to wonder – what is next? Maybe a DAC? A new DAP? My curiosity wouldn’t be so intense if Serenade and Prelude were mediocre in any respect, but seeing what Hifiman has going on right now, I’m at the edge of my seat.

I’ve been curious about Hifiman’s desktop solutions ever since I acquired my first decent desktop DAC/AMP – the EF400. I was astounded by the sound quality and the power output, and together with a reasonable price tag, the EF400 was hard to say no to. However, despite the amazing sound, it had some drawbacks in terms of design, and I couldn’t wait for Hifiman to fix them. Sometime later, we got the EF600 (check out my video about it!), which was a notable improvement over the previous generation, and then the Serenade, which is undoubtedly the best of the bunch as of today. Hifiman’s desktop lineup was missing something – if you didn’t feel like shelling out 15 thousand dollars for the EF1000, there was no way to drive the Susvara. Of course, the Serenade is a pretty adequate solution, but still, the mighty Susvara requires more than that. And here we are today – the issue seems to be no more ever since the reviewed Hifiman Prelude came out. And even though 2500 USD is no small amount, the bang-for-buck factor is pretty amazing here. 

Packaging

Hifiman Prelude review

The packaging follows Hifiman’s recent design language – if you have unboxed any of Hifiman’s desktop amps or headphones, you’ll immediately recognize what I’m talking about. A cardboard box with a long, narrow sticker depicting what is inside. It’s a minimalistic approach, befitting of the Prelude’s toned-down design. The inside of the box is filled with high-quality foam, that ensures no damage during shipping, even if the courier’s first name is Zlatan and the last name is Ibrahimovic. The whole package’s weight is around 7 kilograms, as listed on Hifiman’s website, with more than 90 percent of that being the Prelude of course. Oddly enough, the box depicts a different value – 8.5 kilograms. We may never know the truth…

Hifiman’s current approach to package design is something that I’m a fan of. As nice as it is to have a premium unboxing experience, sometimes it’s simply not necessary, and it hardly makes sense to design a more expensive packaging solution for a beast of an amp like the reviewed Hifiman Prelude. Your amplifier is secure in a box that despite the amp’s size doesn’t baffle with its dimensions, and you can be sure that each of the 2500 dollars you paid for the device goes towards the actual product, not the fancy packaging, or a lack thereof. The same approach has been taken when it comes to accessories – the only useful thing inside the box apart from the amp itself is a generic power cable. And that’s it in terms of the unboxing.

Design and Build Quality

After seeing the EF600, which seems like a twisted fantasy, the Hifiman Prelude’s design seems tame in comparison. After all, it’s fully blacked out, with no flashy colors or weird shapes. Or a headphone stand. The device, however, is very elegant for its footprint on the desk. As elegant as a 7-kilogram (or 8.5 as per some sources) amplifier can be, of course. It’s made of high-quality materials and seems like the sturdiest thing the guys at Hifiman have made. Ever. This design seems as utilitarian in nature as the packaging solution – it isn’t any more flashy than it needs to be and makes every displayed part of the Prelude useful, ultimately reiterating that convenience is a big part of the equation for Hifiman, apart from the weight of course. It’s a pretty unwieldy piece of equipment – not that it was ever supposed to be “wieldy” – and takes up significant space on any piece of furniture you decide to set it on – the dimensions are 330 x 56 x 260mm. Thankfully, it doesn’t have any tubes, so you can put anything you want on top. I’ve put the Serenade on top of it and so far nothing has exploded or overheated.

The case in which the electronics are housed is made of a single piece of thick aluminum, which, I assume, accounts for a lot of reviewed Hifiman Prelude’s weight. This thing is a real tank, not allowing any creaks or bends to happen while using it. The buttons have a nice tactile feeling to them, the potentiometer is very smooth, and whatever you connect to the Prelude seems to click in nicely, overall making for a very comfortable user experience. There is one thing that needs to be addressed, however – it heats up like crazy. I don’t think the heating bill will be too high this winter, as the Prelude keeps the entire place warm by itself. On the sides of the tested Hifiman Prelude, there are 45-degree cutouts, which I assume play a role in heat dissipation. And it does dissipate indeed, which is good news in practice – it lessens the risk of components overheating. Overall, this thing’s dimensions play into its intended use case quite well – it can afford to be huge and heavy because it was never supposed to be a portable little device for IEM listening on the go – it’s made to challenge the most demanding headphones out there, and trust me, it deserves its own space.

Tech

This thing is quite impressive in terms of the technology it packs. Let’s start with the basics. On the back of the device, apart from the power connector of course, are 4 sets of outputs. XLR balanced and RCA single-ended inputs, as well as XLR balanced and RCA single-ended preamp outputs. I don’t want to make any crazy assumptions here, but I think you can use this thing as a preamplifier. Be wary of the headphone inputs though – there are no standard single-ended connections here. Yes, you do have dual 6.35mm single-ended outputs, but that requires the use of two 6.35mm jacks, which may be unexpected to some. Apart from that, there are dual 3-pin XLR connectors for left and right channel balanced output, a 4-pin XLR, which I’ve been using most of the time, and a 4.4mm balanced output as well. The front also sports three buttons – input, output, and gain switches.

If you know me, you know that I love when desktop DACs and amplifiers have built-in screens. I don’t want to sound like an iPad kid here, I just think it plays a huge role in increasing ease of use. The Prelude’s OLED screen indicates current input, output, and gain in a simple way, without a need to navigate through a menu or a settings list. Those tend to get too complicated for my monkey brain at times. It’s nothing more and nothing less than you may need to operate the device, which, as you probably know by now, seems to be the leading thought behind the Prelude’s design. Apart from the switches, the only thing needed to operate the amplifier is of course the volume knob. 

Hifiman claims the potentiometer to be from ALPS’ line-up. While I am not an expert on potentiometers, I know a thing or two about keyboards, and ALPS has made quite a few decent keyboard switches, so there is always a positive ring to that name. The potentiometer on the Hifiman Prelude is indeed of high quality – the operation is linear and very smooth. No matter the volume, I haven’t noticed any channel imbalance, and it’s something I’m very sensitive to. Channel balance seems to be of obvious importance to the user, yet not every manufacturer of things with a knob seems to recognize that. It’s a shame on one hand, but on the other, it makes one appreciate the Prelude even more, furthering the impression of solidness surrounding it.

Reviewed Hifiman Prelude sports a significant power output. It provides headphones with 10 watts of class A power at 32 ohms, and 6 watts at 64 ohms. That’s more than double the amount the Serenade provides, which helps justify keeping both on your desk. The headphone circuit of the Prelude is fully balanced. As the manufacturer states on the website, Hifiman Prelude makes use of MOSFETs to provide a high current output in fully balanced class A. The Prelude also has a fully independent preamp section with a class A output structure. Reading all of that makes me realize I need to brush up on my puny electronics knowledge. Be that as it may, the power the Prelude delivers doesn’t require an engineering degree to be fully appreciated. I consider this amplifier to be a great match for the Susvara, with less power-hungry headphones like the HE1000SE, Meze Elite, and Empyrean II being driven as effortlessly as it is possible.

Sound of the reviewed HiFiMAN Prelude

Hifiman prelude review with susvara

During the assessment of the tested Hifiman Prelude’s sound, I used the Susvara for most of my testing. After all, it’s a headphone that serves as a benchmark for all powerful headphone (and sometimes even stereo) amplifiers out there. If you’ve ever been at an audio show, whenever a manufacturer displays a heavy-duty headamp, which pair of headphones is it paired with? You know it – the Susvara. This headphone allowed the amp to shine with all its might, putting every milliwatt of the 6W@64Ohm output through its paces. For my testing, I’ve also used a Hifiman Serenade, since those two make for a pretty amazing pair, and seem to be tailor-made for each other even in terms of visual design.

Overall, the sound signature carried by the reviewed Hifiman Prelude is very natural, without any razor sharpness, but with plenty of speed, with very quick attack and decay. This kind of sound is a perfect match for most headphones out there. Have you ever heard a pair of headphones that sounds too natural? Me neither. And that leads me to another point about the Prelude’s sonic performance – nothing seems overdone or too flashy, yet you can fully appreciate your gear’s dynamic and technical prowess. It’s kept fully natural but doesn’t fail to impress, at the same time refraining from altering your headphones’ sound too much. Still, the technical aspects of the sound will receive a push, thanks to the humongous power output. 

On paper, this sounds like a perfect match for the Susvara, right? Well, the task of finding a perfect pairing for the Sus seems like a separate hobby in itself, so it’s hard to call anything on the market a “perfect match”, but served this way, that 6000 USD monster doesn’t leave much to be desired.

BASS

The bass response presented by the reviewed Hifiman Prelude is very, very authoritative, even among the pickiest headphones in the world. While the quantity of the bass doesn’t seem to be changed drastically, the quality of it is another story. Every technical aspect of the bass seems to have made a step or two in the right direction. Drivers with a more relaxed, soft bass response suddenly pick themselves up by their bootstraps, leaving the listener with a snappier, more well-put-together representation of the lower registries. The lowest drum hits in songs such as “Song For The Dead” (who doesn’t love that drum intro?) each strike the eardrum with a respectable, yet not overbearing amount of power, keeping things clean no matter the instrumental chaos ensuing on the soundstage. Music pieces with extensive drum sequences, such as the aforementioned Queens Of The Stone Age hit, show exactly what it means for your headphones to receive a huge boost in power output. 

There is a sort of balance achieved by tested Hifiman Prelude in its bass presentation. The more bassy instrumental sequences hit with authority and power, yet not enough to take away from how natural the timbre is. That performance has been consistent with every headphone I’ve plugged into the Prelude. Despite the enhancement of tactility and tangibility of the bass, the air is allowed to flow through the stage, making for a spacious and cohesive presentation of live performances involving lots of low-registry-instrumentalism. Aficionados of jazz derived from the Far East will surely appreciate CASIOPEA’s live performance of “Domino Line” at Chuo Kaikan Hall from 1982. This song includes two amazing solos – drum and bass guitar – served in a live performance form. Is there a better benchmark for assessing the bass-staging combo? Not that I know of. During the solo sequences, a flurry of different textures appears, and it is all reproduced faithfully, with a perfect mix of grace and iron authority.

MIDRANGE

You wouldn’t expect the midrange to display the boost in dynamics the most efficiently, right? Me neither, I’d rather bet my dollar on the bass to do that. The midrange is no afterthought when it comes to reviewed Hifiman Prelude’s performance though. It displays the naturality of the sound beautifully. Especially female vocals, such as Agnes Obel, Sarah Blasko, and Weyes Blood provide the listener with a very natural experience, bringing the vocalist a step closer. This may be a good or bad thing, I’m a bit scared of women personally. But to each their own! No matter your approach to the subject, it’s undeniable that a natural presentation is something the Hifiman Prelude is very good at. The midrange, as served by the Class A behemoth, is once again a masterclass in balance, providing a mix of smoothness and effortlessly displayed textures and detail.

Sometimes I enjoy musical pieces in which there is a lot going on in terms of the variety and quantity of the instruments. One such piece is “The End Of You Too” by Metronomy. The whole arrangement carries some folk undertones, that, whether you like them or not, require a natural sound signature to display their character faithfully. And that’s exactly what you get with the Hifiman Prelude. While it is a challenge to name them all, every instrument in Metronomy’s 2008 song is presented as realistically as it needs to be, each getting its own space on expansive stages broadened by the multi-watt class A performance. This is also one of the reasons why I consider the Serenade to be such a good pairing for the Prelude – the smooth richness of the R-2R DAC ties in perfectly with the Prelude’s sound.

TREBLE

Those afraid of a metallic or tinny treble can read on without worry. Here, the story presents itself similarly as it did with the bass response – the treble is a healthy mix of tactility and sparkle without being too flashy or overdone. And once again, the “Song For The Dead” comes to mind – at the beginning, with the cymbal hits there comes a certain tactile sensation presented on a black background. It’s another situation where the air qualities of the sound displayed by the Prelude come to attention in their full glory. Headphones like the Empyrean II produced a lively, realistic, and airy treble response, despite not boasting the sharpest presentation of sound at their price range. Clearly, they scale well with proper amplification, and the Hifiman Prelude doesn’t fail to provide just that.

Hifiman Prelude’s treble can be described as, well, natural of course. I know that you’ve probably had enough of me spamming that word throughout the review, but I can’t seem to think of a single better word to describe the sound signature the Prelude carries. The amount of detail the treble carries is quite a spectacle, and it seems like the presentation of sound owes a lot of that to the increase in dynamics. Whether you’re thinking of the highest registries a human can hear or just some higher-pitched instruments – the Prelude doesn’t lose its footing when it comes to properly displaying attack and decay. That statement is appropriate when it comes to both the highest and the lowest registries.

SOUNDSTAGE

Thanks to the overall dynamics of the sound being tightened, the entire stage seems to have gained some additional space, kinda like a warehouse after some tidying up. As displayed by the Prelude, if your headphones suffer from congestion or simply a smaller-than-desired soundstage, a boost in power output may come to the rescue. A/B testing the Serenade and Prelude with the Meze Empyrean II revealed that, indeed, the Hifiman Prelude seems to enhance the soundstage sonically. The scale of the sound is not lost out there somewhere, and the sources of sound don’t suddenly seem like they’re kilometers away – the Prelude highlights the spaciousness and three-dimensionality of the stage in a non-overwhelming manner, providing a slight boost where it is needed, but not huge enough to hurt the realism of the music.

SOUND OVERALL

All in all, the Hifiman Prelude seems to put naturality and realism on top of the hierarchy of proper sound reproduction. This doesn’t mean that the sound suddenly becomes laid-back or soft – quite the opposite. The Prelude keeps things exciting by providing a boost to the headphone’s dynamics all across the board, whether we’re talking about the lowest registries of the bass response, or the highest treble peaks, with every midrange-bound instrument in between. The boost isn’t too pushy or irritating though, so don’t expect to suddenly be flooded by bass or pierced by the sharpness of the treble. It’s all done in a tasteful manner. After all, the amplifier is supposed to enhance the sound, not take over the show, dismissing the headphone’s own sound signature. This is exactly what the Prelude is made for, as despite the gargantuan power output, it boasts very impressive power handling. It’s hard to think of a full-sized headphone pairing that wouldn’t go well with the Prelude unless you don’t like having a substantial amount of power on tap. If that’s the case, check out the Apple Dongle!

One particular kind of gear that doesn’t really work with the Prelude are IEMs. I don’t imagine you would buy Hifiman’s latest amp offering solely for driving in-ear monitors, but of course, I had to check. After all, there are plenty of full-size amp offerings that suit IEMs perfectly. Unfortunately, that is not the case with the Prelude. I’ve tested three pairs of IEMs that I currently have in my rotation – the Svanar, e12, and Omnium – and all suffered from excessive noise. Despite that, I have to admit, the sound signature saw some improvements – for example, the e12 sounded more open and snappy than ever, and while it’s a pretty great IEM, intense sharpness, and expansive staging aren’t how I would describe its sound signature. If it wasn’t for the noise, the Prelude would have been a great performer even with IEMs, as the gain settings provide a precise enough volume control to not blow out your eardrums when turning the knob a measly 5 degrees clockwise. But you know what they say – if my grandma had wheels, she would have been a bike.

Pairings

The DAC I’ve been doing my testing on has been the Hifiman Serenade for the most part. Its lush and smooth R-2R sound signature has been the perfect match with the Prelude’s authoritative naturality. And that’s exactly what I would recommend as a pairing with the Prelude – a DAC that doesn’t produce a razor-sharp sound, but rather something perhaps slightly warmer, richer and smoother. Offerings that come to mind are of course the bearers of the Hymalaya series chips by Hifiman – Serenade, EF600 – but also things like the Denafrips Ares II, Cayin iDAC-6 MK2 or iFi Pro iDSD Signature. There’s plenty to choose from in the world of warmer, cozier DACs, and the Prelude is eager to cooperate.

HiFiMAN Prelude review – summary

Hifiman’s very own Prelude is a great device with functionality in mind – it’s well-built and boasts a universal, elegant design language, keeping the useful things and leaving the rest behind. It’s easy to use thanks to a clear and simple interface, and, even better – easy to pair with other devices. The power output is beastly, allowing the Hifiman Prelude to drive basically any headphone in the world with authority, providing satisfying dynamics and a beautiful, natural sound signature. Is there a headphone it won’t work well with? I don’t think so. It’s worth it to try this one out with some warmer DACs – that’s when its best qualities shine the most.

The price point at which the Prelude stands – 2500 USD – is by no means low, but taking into account the performance at hand, and the fact that it can truly drive the most demanding headphones in the world, are pretty great reasons to consider it as your daily driver, or perhaps even an endgame headphone amplifier. The Hifiman Prelude is a great device and a great addition to Hifiman’s product range, and it fuels my excitement to compare it with other, just as powerful and gnarly headphone amplifiers out there.

Highly Recommended.

Big thanks to HiFiMAN for providing us with the Prelude for this review. I wasn’t paid or asked to say anything good or bad about this product, all of the above is just my personal, unbiased opinion. 

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