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2012 Head-Fi Holiday Gift Guide (Amps & Other Gear)





There is a lot of other gear discussed by Head-Fi'ers other than headphones, including amps to power those headphones, digital-to-analog converters (DACs), other source components to feed the amps that power those headphones, other audio accessories, and occasionally even loudspeakers for when we don't feel like listening to headphones.










Desktop Headphone Amplifiers

At the 2011 CanJam at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, I plugged the Audeze LCD-3 into the solid state Apex HiFi Audio Butte ($495), www.ttvjaudio.com, and smiled big. Physically, the Butte is unimposing. Aesthetically, it's unassuming. Sonically, it drove the LCD-3 beautifully and transparently, allowing the new Audeze flagship do its thing, unembellished, unencumbered.

Several Head-Fi'ers were gathered 'round it at one point, toward the end of the show, and every single one of us walked away impressed by the combo. Knowing that the LCD-3 was in my immediate future, I knew the Butte had to be, too, so I ordered one on the spot.

“Right away I found this amp to be neutral and smooth.  Transparency and midrange clarity are delivered in spades with the Butte.  These are the major strengths of the Butte.  The midrange is where a lot of the magic happens for many of us and I found the Butte’s midrange to be natural and uncolored.  You can push this amp without any significant edginess/harshness at the top or bloat at the bottom.  There is no chance of amp-induced fatigue here.”

Head-Fi member/reviewer John White (WNBC)








Another affordable desktop amp I use and recommend is the Schiit Audio Valhalla ($349), www.schiit.com, which is a Class-A, single-ended triode amp. It's an affordable trip into beautiful tube sound, and with good flexibility, supporting headphones with nominal impedance of 32-600 ohms.

“Here is what the Valhalla is: an outstanding sounding headphone amp for the money.  It’s dynamic, essentially transparent, and essentially neutral.”

Head-Fi member/reviewer skylab








This year, I picked up another amplifier from Schiit called the Schiit Audio Mjolnir ($749), named after Thor's hammer--a great name for an amp with eight times the output power, eight times lower distortion, and less noise than their entry-level Asgard amp. Using a circuit design I admittedly know nothing about called a Circlotron-type topology, with high-voltage JFET inputs and MOSFET outputs, the Mjolnir is balanced only--so do not buy this amp unless you have headphones wired for balanced, or have plans to wire some headphones for balanced operation.

The Mjolnir is awesome. It's very powerful, yet exceptionally quiet (in terms of background noise). With 8W RMS per channel, it'll drive pretty much any headphone (not including electrostats, of course). Though it'll drive just about anything, what I have plugged into it pretty much all the time are a variety of planar magnetic headphones. My favorite headphone to pair with the Mjolnir so far is the Audeze LCD-3, the pair of them making for a forceful, highly resolving, world-class powerhouse of a system.







  In the context of the Sennheiser HD 800 (which itself is priced at around $1500), we have to adjust the definition of "affordable" a bit. With that in mind, the best affordable tube amp I've used with the HD 800 happens to be the Ray Samuels Audio Raptor ($1175), www.raysamuelsaudio.com. This is a glorious pairing, and I've brought it with me to two CanJam at RMAF events to let others hear it, too.  







One of the best tube amps I've heard, in a variety of rigs, is the Woo Audio WA 5 LE (starting at $2500), www.wooaudio.com, a two-chassis, single-ended triode, transformer-coupled, Class-A headphone amp that uses the venerable 300B tube. I personally love the sound of a great 300B amp, and the WA 5 LE is a great 300B amp. Though I don't have one yet, that may have to change. As is customary with Woo, the WA 5 LE uses point-to-point wiring.

“It generates an alternate place. A place with grand authority. A place you can visit and stay if you want. There is no ear fatigue even after long 4-5 hour listening runs. Just a big place where the sound stage goes off into infinity.”

Head-Fi member/reviewer Redcarmoose





One of the most acclaimed cost-no-object high-end amps on Head-Fi has been the Eddie Current Balancing Act ($3950), www.eddiecurrent.com, a fully-balanced tube headphone amp and preamp that also uses 300B tubes. Many seasoned Head-Fi'ers consider the Balancing Act one of the best amps available at any price, and my experience with it (at shows) makes it obvious why. At the 2011 CanJam at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, I heard the Balancing Act paired with the Audeze LCD-2 for the first time, and that rig was simply out of this world.

The Balancing Act is also one of the most beautiful headphone amps on the market, and wouldn't be fairly described as simply retro. The chassis lines, the old-fashioned control knobs and indicator lamp--combined with the prominently placed vacuum tubes--result in a look that is very completely from another era. Simply using "retro" doesn't fully capture just how much of a visual trip back in time the Balancing Act is. Simply gorgeous.








While we're on the subject of gorgeous amps--and returning to solid state--the SPL (Sound Performance Lab) Phonitor (around $2150), spl.info, might very well be the best-looking solid state headphone amplifier on the market. Fortunately, it has the performance to match, being one of only a couple of solid state amplifiers I've used that I feel matches well with the HD 800.

The Phonitor also has the best, most comprehensive, tonally neutral crossfeed I've yet used. Its crossfeed flexibility puts the Phonitor at the forefront of headphone imaging coherence and accuracy, and it's an amp I may have to add to one of my reference systems. (We discussed the SPL Phonitor in Episode 009 of Head-Fi TV.)

“...things just sound less congested on the Phonitor. I suspect it’s the pitch black background that does it—even noisy recordings where you can hear the room and environment in which they were born still manage to pop in a vibrant way I've not experienced before.”

Head-Fi member/reviewer metalsonata








Another fantastic solid state headphone amp--and my current personal reference amp to use with the HiFiMAN HE-500, Audeze LCD-2 and LCD-3--is the fully balanced Ray Samuels Audio Apache ($2995), www.raysamuelsaudio.com. (The Apache is also a preamp.) Though it works well with a great number of headphones, driving those particular planar magnetic models seems to be the Apache's forte--like it was made especially for them.

“The Apache is, as I define it, completely transparent, to a degree I have not heard before in a headphone amp. No grain, no noise, no haze – just a completely wide open window to the music. I hesitate to even call it a window. The Apache put me IN the music in a way no other headphone amp has.”

Head-Fi member/reviewer skylab








I recently picked up a new amp from ALO Audio called the ALO Audio Pan Am (starting at $599), and, truth be told, I wasn't sure which category it belonged to. On the one hand, it's a small desktop amp, especially if you buy its optional power supply upgrade called The Gateway ($149). However, if you buy The Passport ($199), which is an optional rechargeable battery power supply for the Pan Am, then it becomes portable, or at least transportable, with 10 hours of battery life per charge.

But wait! The category confusion doesn't end there, because the hybrid (tube and solid state) Pan Am also has within it a very nice little 24/96-capable USB DAC--I kid you not.

So it's a tube/solid state desktop amp with a DAC that, with an optional battery supply, becomes portable. And it brings exactly what you'd expect from a good hybrid circuit headphone amp, which is versatility, and--if you tube it right (try the Siemens tube upgrade option--you'll thank me) you'll tilt its sound a bit more toward its tube side, with improved harmonic richness and warmth. Which headphone to plug into it? Pretty much anything. I've been enjoying it with the Sennheiser HD 598, Audeze LCD-2 and HiFiMAN HE-500, just to name a few.








A Classic, High-End, Fully-Balanced Amp & DAC Combo

HeadRoom BUDA + UDAC Package ($2679 as a system; or, individually, $1699 for the Balanced Ultra Desktop Amp, and $1199 for the Ultra Desktop DAC)
Desktop, fully-balanced headphone amplifier and DAC combo

HeadRoom has been a part of several personal headphone hi-fi milestones in my life. Back before Head-Fi.org even existed, I won a HeadRoom-sponsored contest that supplied me with my first high-end headphone rig (HeadRoom Max headphone amplifier and Sennheiser HD 600 headphone). Soon after I started Head-Fi.org, HeadRoom was the first company to offer sponsorship support. And when I was still of the mind that computer audio wasn't worth my time, Tyll Hertsens (founder of HeadRoom and now of InnerFidelity) stopped by my office with one of HeadRoom's first high-end USB DAC products, which convinced me to delve into computer audio (and from which I've not looked back).

Over 11 years after having won that rig, HeadRoom still has it goin' on! The latest BUDA + UDAC combo is an outstanding rig, and can drive most any headphone beautifully, authoritatively. Their early roots in the USB DAC game have proved fruitful, and their latest DAC is now engineered around the ESS9018 SABRE DAC/processor. The result is an ultra-resolving DAC that has impressed me whenever I've heard it in meet conditions (and which I really should spend time with in my personal systems).

As for HeadRoom's amps, there are few companies who can claim deeper roots in headphone amp design and engineering than HeadRoom. From HeadRoom's description of the BUDA:

" The Balanced Ultra Desktop Amp incorporates our best Max electronics modules employing Burr-Brown OPA627 within buffer and summing stages plus a Walter Jung Diamond Buffer-based discrete component output power amp stage lovingly hot-rodded and tweaked by HeadRoom audio engineers. All active amp stages are fully biased into power-hungry Class-A operation, resulting in spectacularly smooth, intensely high-definition natural sound reproduction."

And that is the hallmark of HeadRoom's amps, in my experience: An ease and naturalness that only the best solid state amps, or good tube amps, tend to exhibit.

If you know the people at HeadRoom, you know they have an intense passion for what they do (and loads of fun doing it), and it shows in their products. That passion is part of what makes HeadRoom one of the legendary marks in our space.

(I still have that HeadRoom Max I won in the contest, by the way; and still, more than ten years later, it is an impressive piece.)










Portable Headphone Amplifiers

It seems there are infinite choices now, when it comes to portable headphone amplifiers. The portable amp I'm most impressed by at the moment is ALO Audio's Rx MK3-B ($649), www.aloaudio.com, which is a fully-balanced, portable beast of an amp, and the first to challenge the Ray Samuels Audio SR-71B ($650), www.raysamuelsaudio.com, in terms of the ability to authoritatively drive any dynamic headphone, up to and including the HiFiMAN HE-6.

In addition to its revealing sound signature, and having extraordinary driving power for a portable amp, the Rx MK3-B adds a very well implemented bass control. I don't know the exact specs of this bass control yet, but it was extremely effective and refined (it was great for giving thinner-sounding headphones more low-frequency body), and it seemed to only affect bass, pretty much leaving the mids alone.

“The power of this amp is unbelievable. I think one should take full advantage of it with full-sized cans; especially the hard-to-drive ones.”

Head-Fi member/reviewer AnakChan








The Practical Devices' XM6 (starting at $395), www.practicaldevices.com, is one of my go-to portable amp/USB DAC combos. Its list of features is almost too long to list here, but includes adjustable crossfeed, bass boost, treble boost, output impedance adjustment, adjustable gain, media control dial, and more. The USB DAC section is also very good for something of this size (I ordered the Wolfson WM8741 upgrade option). We discussed the Practical Devices XM6 in Episode 002 of Head-Fi TV.)

“I love this amp--it goes with me to work every day, and I use it at home if I'm away from my 'main rig' for whatever reason. If you've done your research, checked out the competition, have cash to spare, and love lots of features, go for it.”

Head-Fi member/reviewer Metalsonata




    If you're in need of even more affordable portable amp/DAC solutions, make sure to check out the offerings from iBasso (www.ibasso.com), and FiiO (www.fiio.com.cn), both of which offer a strong selection of outstanding value-priced portable amps and amp/DAC combos. Though my experience with iBasso and FiiO products is currently limited, I expect to have more to say about some of FiiO's products in a future Buying Guide update.  







In a search for more good affordable portable amps, I picked up the Hippo Cricri ($128) from Jaben in Singapore. The Cricri is a diminutive, lightweight headphone amp with a built-in rechargeable battery (good for up to 30 hours per charge). The Cricri is clad in a scratch-resistant chassis, and feels very well built for its size, and for the price. For an amp so affordable, I was surprised to find it equipped with a bass boost circuit, as well as adjustable gain.

If you're looking for an amp to lash to your phone, you may want to skip the Cricri, as I've found it's rather susceptible to radio noise and interference when lashed to my phones. It has, however, worked perfectly fine with my iPod Touch, which is what it's rubber-banded to now.

The sound signature of the Cricri as a straight amp (with no bass boost applied) is detailed, and better than I expected from this little $128 pocket amp. For me, though, where I've had fun is playing with the Cricri's bass boost switch, trying it with headphones that I sometimes wish had a bit more body. The AKG K 550, for example, is a headphone I have fun listening to out of the Cricri with its bass-boost activated, as is the Shure SRH440. If you're looking for an affordable portable amp, put the Cricri on your list to consider. If you're looking for the same, and have some headphones you think would benefit from its bass boost, then definitely give the Hippo Cricri a look.

(Also make sure to see the In-Ear Headphones section to see some of my favorite portable amps for driving in-ear monitors specifically.)


Comments (18)

I look at thses as if they were a unicorn: Beautifull, mythical, powerfull, and i probably will never have one 8(.
hHAhHAha The same here bro!, where can i buy em?im in finland and retailers may not have em, gotta order some from somewhere.
FiiO E6 as better than nothing and something for 100e ?
I feel like my ears aren't good enough to fully enjoy $2000 headphones through a $3000 amp. My HD 650s through a schiit magni/modi will have to do.
This guide is useless, there are no budget or even mid-range solutions included.
I agree, this is only a gift guide for the wealthy. I don't spend this kind of money on myself, let alone anyone else.
I'm glad someone likes the distortion-box that is the RSA Apache.
The Hippo Cricri looks nice.
for budget list tey are basically telling you to go to fiio or ibasso or otherwise to buy ibasso
edit to post " or otherwise to buy the hippo cri cri
Schiit magni would be a good budget amp.
Fiio E11, Electric Avenues PA2V2, and cMoyBB are also good.
A bit lacking guide, no nuforce, o2 amp, or other good stuff that isn't expensive.
I saw raptor at 1175usd...
same problem as you do Pruikki, there isnt any headphone only retailers, so getting amps/dacs is veeryy difficult here and expensive as well...-_-
For some reasons i think i really want the Pan Amp.. :|
Well i went for the "entry level" Asgard, and im satisfied, so dont need to go any further till im rich or something....
i wonder where fiio is...
yea no budjet amps is a little dissapointing Jude :/. Still though good to hear about the ultra Combo that is the pan am! Although I like mah Odac and Indeed G3 combo as well
Plus I want a WA Tube one day :D
im wid fiio. made me very happy being my first portable amp i hardly ever know the E06 is even in my pocket, great amplification for its tiny size. £15 brand new on ebay, normally £20 to £30 :)
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