Fostex isn’t a brand that springs to mind when you think of DACs or digital preamplifiers.
But the company isn’t exactly alien to audio. Fostex was, and indeed still is, a key player in professional recording equipment.
In recent years, however, its portfolio has broadened to include active speakers and headphones.
Reading the specifications for the HP-A8, it seems Fostex has been doing its homework.
On paper, there’s nothing that puts it at a serious disadvantage against rival machines.
There’s 24-bit/192kHz support across all digital inputs: USB, two optical and one coaxial digital, all of which live on the back of the unit.
One thing we weren’t expecting to see is an SD card slot.
This isn’t a feature we see regularly – it’s actually something we’re more used to on a TV – but it does allow you to fill a high-capacity card with high-res, DSD music files and play them back through the Fostex.
Another way of enjoying DSD files off your computer is by installing the latest version of the Fostex Audio Player (downloadable from its website) for Mac or PC – provided you’re running a compatible operating system.
It’s a simple, stripped piece of playback software that does exactly what it says: you add high-res music to a playlist and take it from there.
Twin outputs on the front of the HP-A8 allow you to connect different pairs of headphones. The adjustable gain adds flexibility and compatibility with different types of cans.
Being picky, it would be good to see Bluetooth – but it isn’t a deal-breaker.
Build quality is okay, but it can’t match rivals such as the Cambridge 851D.
The switches and dials on the front feel a bit cheap, and although the display is legible enough it isn’t a patch on the green-and-black OLED on the Naim DAC-V1.
Play a DSD file of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and the Fostex starts well.
Vocals and instruments sound silky smooth, rich and refined.
There’s a good level of detail and the controlled, even tonal balance means you can just sit back and enjoy this timeless classic.
Spend more time with the Fostex though, and you discover the DAC never really gets out of first gear.
Instead of sounding punchy and playful, the HP-A8 is too polite and it doesn’t make for particularly memorable listening.
Play the Superman theme by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and the Fostex sounds more reserved than rousing.
While leading rivals inspire you to reach for your top button and run to the nearest phone booth, the Fostex barely raises an eyelid.
Strings and wind instruments, while perfectly palatable, don’t have the dynamics to excite.
We don’t want to be too down on the Fostex, though. It has sonic limitations, but it never really offends.
And with a few tweaks here and there, there’s nothing to say Fostex can’t go on to make great strides in this market.
MORE: See all our DAC reviews