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Head-Fi Buying Guide (Desktop Amps & DACs)

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Grace Design m920  

Written by Ethan Opolion (third_eye)


The symbiotic combination of clarity and musicality have always been a hallmark of Grace Design products and the new Grace m920 High Resolution Monitoring System follows in this great tradition. Now in its fourth generation, the m920 comes on the heels of the highly popular m903 and adds some meaningful new features, most notably a new 32-bit/384kHz Sabre ES9018-2M DAC which supports DSD64 and DSD128 playback via DoP.


The m920 can be used as the central hub in a desktop headphone or combination headphone/studio monitor audiophile system. It is a high-resolution DAC, headphone amplifier, and preamp, but what really sets it apart from much of the competition is the spectacular user configurability of the unit. For example, outputs (headphone out, Line 1, Line 2) can be toggled--and volume independently controlled--via remote control. Additionally, the user can set the volume level upon powering up the device for each of the 3 outputs. 


The m920 has fantastic build quality and ergonomics. It feels and handles like a premium product should, with a beautiful brushed aluminum that is similar to the all-familiar Apple products. All of the functions and LED readouts have clear labels indicating the status of the unit. And with this release, the user has multiple options for remote control, including the use of Logitech Harmony remotes, Apple's remote, and Grace’s own remote control unit.


The introduction of the Sabre ES9018 provides an increased level of resolution compared to the already highly resolving m903. The unit also has a useful digital filter response with three settings: fast, slow, and minimum phase. I found that different types of music (and recordings) might benefit from each of these settings, but for the most part the minimum phase setting provided the best overall tonal balance.


For $1895, the Grace m920 is an amazing piece of gear and should be on a very short list of components designed to offer this level of flexibility, ergonomics, and sound quality. It is equally a fantastic all-in-one solution with ideal synergy for low-impedance headphones, but can also serve as a state of the art DAC for use in other applications.

TYPE: DAC, headphone amp, preamp 
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PRICE: $1895 
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URL: www.gracedesign.com
TYPE: Desktop DAC and headphone amplifier
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PRICE: $1199 
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URL: www.oppodigital.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


OPPO's first foray into headphones with its planar magnetic OPPO PM-1 has been a resounding success. It was also a remarkable stretch for a company known among audio and home theater enthusiats for their high-performance / high-value universal disc players (Blu-ray/DVD/DVD-A/CD/SACD). With so much experience in digital component design and manufacturing, though, developing a DAC / headphone amp combo would certainly seem to be more in their wheelhouse (than a headphone), and perhaps it was. It was far from a walk in the park, though, as OPPO wanted to develop and craft a DAC/amp combo that the pickiest of high-end headphone enthusiats (maybe most especially OPPO PM-1 owners) would be thrilled with. They held off release dates. They scrapped and started over when necessary. They wanted it right. And the end product--the OPPO HA-1--was the imperssive result.


When the production HA-1 arrived at Head-Fi HQ, we were immediately struck by its fantastic build quality. Usually, when I train our cameras on a component to photograph it, I can spot (under the scrutiny of studio flashes and a good macro lens) imperfections in construction--surface scratches and nicks, minor (and occasionally major) seams not perfectly lining up along their entire lengths, dented corners, etc. With the HA-1, I literally could not find a single flaw anywhere on its beautifully built outer chassis. Even the included wireless remote control is built to similar standards of fit and finish.


Within the HA-1's impressive chassis is a DAC capable of decoding up to 24-bit/384kHz PCM and DSD up to 12MHz (DSD256), based on the ESS ES9018 SABRE DAC chip. Digital inputs include AES/EBU (XLR), S/PDIF (coaxial RCA), TOSLink optical, and async mode USB. There's also wireless connectivity via Bluetooth, which I love, which includes aptX support. The HA-1 is also Apple "MFi" certified, so using it as an iDevice DAC is as easy as plugging your iPhone, iPad or iPod directly into the conveniently located front panel USB jack, with no additional adapters (or Camera Connection Kit) needed.


The HA-1's headphone amp is a discrete Class-A design (so the HA-1 runs quite warm), with all of the discrete parts hand-picked and hand-matched. The amp is also a fully balanced design, and is quite powerful. From its 4-pin XLR balanced headphone output, the HA-1 is rated to deliver an impressive nominal output of 2000mW into 32Ω, and 800mW into 600Ω. Its 1/4" (6.35mm) single-ended headphone output is rated for nominal output of 500mW into 32Ω, and 200mW into 600Ω. The balanced headphone output's rated output impedance is 0.5Ω, and the single-ended headphone output at 0.7Ω, both being impressively low.


The HA-1 can also double as a stereo preamp--a role made easier with a "Home Theater Bypass" mode that bypasses the HA-1's volume control, with both RCA and XLR outputs.


The HA-1's volume control uses an analog potentiometer, to avoid re-digitizing the audio signal to adjust volume. This volume control is connected to a motor, allowing for remote control. In addition to the included wireless remote, the HA-1 can also be controlled by a smartphone app (available for iOS and Android) that includes all the same functionality as the wireless remote. (I have not tried either of these apps yet.)


One of the most striking features of the HA-1 is its 4.3" front panel color display, which is also the heart of the HA-1's user interface. This display panel offers several different screens that you can keep on display (or that you can turn off completely), including a screen that shows you system status, there's one that shows which source you're using, another screen that simply shows your volume level, an 18-band frequency spectrum meter, and a VU meter.


So by now it's obvious that the OPPO HA-1 is a very full-featured, very well-built component. But how does it sound? Thankfully, very good, in either the role of DAC or headphone amp (although overwhelmingly most of my use of it has been as a DAC/headphone amp, which is what all the following comments apply to). Other than the PM-1 (which I'll get back to in a minute), the first headphone I tried with the OPPO HA-1 is Sennheiser's flagship HD 800--still one of my favorite headphones--to see if this was a synergistic pairing. In my experience with the HD 800, there's no good guessing about whether or not the HD 800 is going to synergize well with a particular amp--to find out, you have to actually try it yourself, or talk to someone who's tried the same combo. I'm thrilled to report that the HA-1 sounds excellent with the HD 800. The bottom fills out nicely, and there's good detail throughout with the HD800. Overall, as far as solid state amps go, the HDVD 800 by Sennheiser has the edge, and remains my favorite solid state amp for the HD 800--it just fleshes out more detail than just about anything else I've tried with the HD800, including this HA-1. That said, the HA-1 is still very much one of the better solid state pairings I've tried with the picky German flagship. (With the HD 800, I use the HA-1 in its normal gain mode.)


The HA-1 has proven very versatile, driving everything that I've plugged into it, including the Abyss AB-1266 and the HiFiMAN HE-6. Yes, those. In its high-gain mode, I've found the HA-1 to have very good drive, even with the HE-6, able to drive it well past any volume level I'd ever listen at. In terms of its sonic qualities with the HE-6, it's a good pairing, but not as smooth as the best pairings I've heard with the HE-6, which include the Cavalli Audio Liquid Gold and Ray Samuels Audio Dark Star. With the Abyss AB-1266, the HA-1 matches up with greater synergy than with the HE-6. Again, it's still not at the same level as the Liquid Gold or Dark Star with the Abyss, but still a good pairing that I love listening to. Keep in mind that both the Liquid Gold and Dark Star are far more expensive than the HA-1 and neither has a built-in DAC. If you have either or both of these headphones, would I recommend you try the HA-1 with them? Without hesitation. (With both the HE-6 and the AB-1266, I use the HA-1 in its high gain mode.)


In addition to the HD 800, the three headphones I've enjoyed the most through the HA-1 so far have been the new HiFiMAN HE-560, the Audeze LCD-X, and OPPO's own PM-1--admittedly, these are three headphones I've found easy to enjoy out of a lot of good amps. Through these headphones, the HA-1 absolutely shines, driving them all easily, and allowing them to to do what they do best, without taking anything away, or adding anything untoward. I won't go into a lot of discussion here about its performance with the LCD-X and HE-560 beyond saying that HA-1 works great with both. (With the LCD-X, I use the HA-1 in its normal gain mode; for the HE-560, I use high gain.)


Focusing on OPPO's own PM-1 now, I will say this: the two go hand in hand. Obviously, I don't think this was a coincidence. Though I'm sure OPPO designed their PM-1 to sound good with other amps (and it does), and the HA-1 to sound good with other headphones (and it does), it seems they made extra sure that as an OPPO system, the HA-1 and PM-1 were matched up perfectly, and they are. The smoothed high-end of the PM-1 seems to have just a little more presence through the HA-1, which I find a bit odd considering that I don't find the other headphones I've mentioned treble tipped-up by the HA-1. I'll chalk this one up to synergy, plain and simple--and these two OPPO pieces have a lot of it. If you own one of the two OPPO pieces, I strongly suggest you search out an opportunity to try pairing it with the other.


One thing I want to mention is that the HA-1 is a very quiet amp with all of the above headphones--dead quiet actually. However, with sensitive IEMs, I can hear low-level noise from the HA-1. It's very low, but it's there, so it's not as dead quiet with IEMs as the Benchmark DAC2 HGC. It's also a little higher in level than the Schiit Audio Ragnarok with the same IEMs tested. I can't imagine too many HA-1 owners are going to be using sensitive IEMs with it, but I thought I should mention this.


Other than that, I literally have no complaints about the OPPO HA-1. For what it is, and for its price, it's absolutely fantastic. You an OPPO-quality hi-res DAC that is feature-packed beyond any DAC I can think of at this price--that just happens to also come with a powerful, fully balanced, discrete Class-A headphone amp, and that can serve as a system preamp.

I expected great digital from OPPO, as they've done digital for years. However, as they did with their PM-1 as a first headphone, they've hit a big ol' home run with their first serious headphone amp. OPPO's on fire right now, and I can't wait to see what else they'll be coming out with in the future.


"I felt performance was spot-on for what Oppo are asking, especially considering the wealth of features included. It would best suit someone who wants to use the variety of features, such as with a pair of active speakers as well as headphones. With a pair of, say, the inexpensive but good quality Emotiva active speakers and headphones of choice it would make a great complete rig. "

-Currawong (Amos Barnett)
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

Sennheiser HDVA 600 and HDVD 800

Written by Jude Mansilla


Since its release in 2009, one of the rites of passage for new Sennheiser HD 800 owners is finding an amp that can synergize well with the phenomenal--but very picky--HD 800. It's a scene I've seen played out at many meets: The HD 800 owner toting his silver, ring-drivered wonder of a headphone around the room, the HD 800's cable coiled around his hand, his eyes scanning the amps brought by other attendees, plugging his HD 800 in, pondering, unplugging, moving on to the next amp. I went through the same thing, and found that only a few of the many amps I have were able to truly satisfy me and my HD 800. What we hear when the match is bad is most commonly a brighter, colder sound; and if it's real bad, it can be downright harsh. What we hear when the match is great is organic, ridiculously detailed, big sweeping vistas of sound so satisfying that most who get there will tell you it was worth the effort.


But what if Sennheiser themselves provided the answer? I think Sennheiser understood their flagship headphone to be a picky one, and decided to craft their own pairing for it--an amp designed, engineered, and manufactured by the HD 800's home team. Yes, Axel Grell was involved. And his team came up with not just one mate for the HD 800, but two: The Sennheiser HDVA 600, and the Sennheiser HDVD 800. The HDVA 600 and HDVD 800 are essentially the same, their amp sections identical to one another. The only difference--a big difference, really--is that the HDVD 800 adds a very nice 24-bit/192kHz DAC to the package (which we'll get to in just a minute).


The headphone amplifier in the HDVA 600 and HDVD 800 is a fully balanced design, necessitating four separate amplifier sections--two amp sections for the left channel, two amps sections for the right. That is, for each channel, one of the amp sections is driving the signal, and the other driving the inverted signal. Given the fully balanced design (again, necessitating four total amp channels), volume is controlled with a high-end ALPS quad potentiometer. And, even though it's a fully balanced design, Sennheiser did include provisions for unbalanced inputs, too.


Other details include a metal chassis to help protect against signal scatter and vibration. The chassis, by the way, is beautifully finished--the entire surface of the HDVD 800 we have is absolutely flawless. The control knobs are turned from solid metal, with buttery smooth mechanisms behind them. Also, Sennheiser is so proud of the work they've done inside that they include a glass window on the top of the chassis through which to admire the well-turned-out internals, subtly lit by an LED.


The HDVD 600 has one set each of balanced and unbalanced analog inputs (XLR and RCA, respectively), and one set of balanced analog outputs (XLR). The HDVD has the same inputs/output, but adds the following digital inputs for the DAC: Toslink (optical), coaxial (RCA), AES/EBU (XLR), and USB. With both the HDVA 600 and HDVD 800, gain of the unbalanced input (RCA) can be adjusted.


Late 2012, Sennheiser sent me a very pre-production prototype of the HDVA 600, and it was a bit rough around the edges--looked like it had been around the block...several times. Its chassis finish was good, but not great. Its control knobs weren't anything like the production units' controls are now. And the sound with the Sennheiser HD 800 was very good, but not spectacular. Then, a little while ago, Sennheiser sent me a production-version HDVD 800, and, in every possible way--from the refinement of finish and control feel to the sound--it was (and is) spectacular.


The production Sennheiser HDVD 800 I have here elevates the performance of the HD 800, and inspired me to take the photo accompanying this piece. The results are a sort of combination of the sweetness of some OTL (output transformerless) tube amps I've tried with the HD 800, and the electrostatic-like microscopy the HD 800 is capable of, but without any hint of edginess as a penalty for the detail. It's certainly not the only great companion for the HD 800, but it is a great companion for the HD 800.


Remember, the HDVA 600 and HDVA 800 have the same amp design, so, assuming you have a good source feeding the HDVA 600, you can likely expect similar results. Which brings me to the HDVD 800's DAC. So far, I've only used the HDVD 800's DAC as a source for its own amp section--that is, I haven't yet tried to assess its performance with other amps. What I have done, though, is plugged other DACs into the HDVD 800, and the HDVD 800's internal DAC compares very favorably. I haven't used an external DAC with the HDVD 800 yet that compels me to give up the all-in-one solution the HDVD 800 is.


If you're wondering how the HDVA 600 and HDVA 800 will do driving other headphones, the answer is very good, especially with other high-impedance headphones. I've had great results with the Sennheiser HD 600 and HD 650, and also with my vintage 400Ω AKG K 340, which is just about as picky as the HD 800. That said, here's what I'll say: The amps in the HDVA 600 and HDVA 800 were built for one thing, as far as I'm concerned, and that's the Sennheiser HD 800.


Again, the HDVA 600 and HDVA 800 beautifully elevate the performance of Sennheiser's flagship HD 800. And the Sennheiser HD 800 rite of passage has been simplified.


"Overall I'm happy with how the HDVD 800 is making my HD 800 and LCD-2 sound. As an amp it sounds wonderful, and the fit and finish goes well with the HD 800. They look and sound like they belong together."

Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

TYPE: Headphone amplifier, and USB DAC / headphone amplifier, respectively
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PRICE: $1,439.95 and $1,799.95, respectively
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URL: www.sennheiser.com
Questyle CMA800i  
TYPE: Integrated DAC, headphone amp, and preamp
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PRICE: $1999
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URL: en.questyleaudio.com

Excerpted from the Questyle CMA800i review by John Grandberg (project86)


Say you're an audio designer and you want to offer a really high quality all-in-one device. You can't make it huge so you've got to pack everything in a reasonably sized enclosure. A superb DAC is an absolute must - you've already got a reference caliber DAC in your stable (Questyle CAS192D), so you end up using that as a reference and packing in as much of that technology as possible. Since this is Head-Fi, you're extremely concerned about the headphone amp quality as well. The usual simplistic opamp output or voltage divider from the speaker amp simply won't do. Luckily you already have an exceptional headphone amp in your lineup (Questyle CMA800R), so again you try to cram most of that design in this magical box as well. This leaves you with very little room for anything else. You make sure the preamp section is up to snuff, with analog volume control via motorized potentiometer so a remote can be included. You provide a reasonable amount of inputs and outputs - as many as will be allowed given your size constraints. And that's pretty much all we need right? (And maybe the ability to incorporate speakers, too.)


The product in question does exist. It's called the CMA800i from Questyle Audio Engineering. Maybe I'm just overly concerned with semantics, but for some reason I'm really intrigued with what Questyle has going on here. It's essentially a modern integrated amplifier with a focus on digital inputs rather than analog, but it swaps out the speaker amplification for a very potent headphone stage based on the highly regarded CMA800R headphone amp. The DAC stage is based on their CAS192D which again is known for being extremely high quality. The logic here is that most of us are primarily concerned with headphone amplification and wish to build a system around that aspect. And yet we may want to add speakers to the mix at some point as well. The CMA800i makes a fantastic preamp for dedicated amplifiers or active speaker systems, and fits right in at the heart of a semi-complex system in a way that most DACs can't - even those modern DACs with volume control on board.


The Questyle CMA800i is a very clever device. Whether we consider it a cutting edge integrated with a focus on digital inputs and headphone amplification, or just call it an all-in-one headphone amp/DAC/preamp device like so many others on the market, the end result is the same - a versatile device with exceptional sound that can take a central role in most any audio system. When I recall how much I like the individual Questyle flagship components, and then consider how close the CMA800i comes to that level of performance, for much less cash... it's an easy recommendation for anyone seeking extreme levels of accuracy and refinement. It even does some things better, like playing well with sensitive IEMs.


There's a lot of competition in this space. The BMC PureDAC is excellent and costs a bit less, and then there's the Benchmark DAC 2 and Grace Design M920, and probably others that I'm missing. Unfortunately I didn't have any of those here for direct comparisons. I will say the BMC falls on the warmer, smoother, more "analog" side of the spectrum, making it a very different animal than the CMA800i. Still, I don't recall any of these knocking me out in ways the Questyle does not. Most others tend to start as a DAC and then add a headphone out as a sort of bonus - Questyle starts with a genuine high-end amp, avoiding that "afterthought" syndrome. 

Meridian Prime and Meridian Prime Power Supply

Written by Jude Mansilla


Say "digital audio," and a few companies come to my mind immediately--Meridian is usually the first. You can imagine, then, why I was so excited when I found out earlier this year that Meridian was entering our space with the Meridian Explorer, their pocket-sized USB DAC and headphone amp. Their affordable little Explorer has become one of my favorite USB DAC/amps for on-the-go use. However, as well received as the Explorer has been, it might have seemed to some that perhaps Meridian was just dipping their toes in our water with it, as Meridian isn't exactly known for making components that most would consider affordable.


As it turns out, though, Meridian already had more planned, and recently launched something that is more in line with what the Meridian aficionados among us would probably have expected from Meridian entering the world of Head-Fi--something more high-end, something very Meridian, something called the Meridian Prime Headphone Amplifier. The Meridian Prime is certainly more than just a headphone amplifier--it's a Meridian DAC with a Meridian headphone amp, housed in an elegant, compact desktop chassis.


As with the immensely popular Chord Hugo, the Meridian Prime eschews use of just an off-the-shelf single-chip DAC solution in favor of more custom-developed technologies. The Meridian Prime uses custom-coded computationally-intensive, Meridian-developed DSP code for things like Apodising, upsampling, filtering, matched dither, etc. So much of what makes a Merician component a Meridian component are the custom-coded digital technologies they put into it.


The Meridian Prime is 24-bit / 192kHz capable, including 88.2 and 176.4, with its dual oscillators (based on those found in Meridian's flagship Reference Series components). The Prime's USB input (its only digital input) is async, and upsamples 44.1/48kHz sources to 88.2/96kHz prior to the DAC. The Prime also uses Meridian's Apodising filter, which, among other things, is designed to eliminate digital pre-ringing, for more natural sound. Their Apodising filter was first introduced in what was then their flagship 808.2, and is thought by many to be one of the key reasons for the many plaudits hurled in the direction of Meridian's flagship players.


The headphone outputs on the front panel consist of two 1/4" stereo outputs and one 3.5mm (mini plug) jack. Each of the 1/4" stereo jacks is rated for maximum output of 3V RMS off load, THD below 0.002%, power output 250mW up to 42Ω, with output impedance <100mΩ (or less than 0.1Ω). The 3.5mm jack is rated for maximum output of 3V RMS off load, THD below 0.002%, with output impedance of 2.2Ω. The 3.5mm jack is intended for use with in-ears and other sensitive headphones.


I've found its built-in headphone amp to have good driving power and very low noise floor, and suitable for most of my headphones, from my most sensitive in-ears to mildly challenging over-ears. My favorite headphone pairings with the Prime so far have been the Audeze LCD-X and the HiFiMAN HE-560, two phenomenal interpretations on neutral'ish sounding high-end heapdhones, and both of which sound fantastic with the Prime. As for harder-to-drive headphones like the Abyss AB-1266 and the HiFiMAN HE-6, the Prime can drive them in a pinch, but if either of those is your main headphone, consider pairing the Prime as a DAC with a monster-powerful separate headphone amp (that is, consider the Ray Samuels Audio Dark Star, HiFiMAN EF-6, Cavalli Audio Liquid Gold, or Schiit Audio Ragnarok, as a few good possibilities).


In terms of its sound signature--whether used as a DAC to drive other amps, or as a DAC/amp combo--the Prime is pure Meridian, which is to say it is, for my preferences, a wonderful combination of superb resolution that isn't at all compromised by the ease and smoothness that I've come to expect from Meridian since falling in love with the venerable Meridian 508.24 many years ago. Feed well-recorded high-resolution recordings to the Prime, and it only gets better, with fantastic inner detail and timbral richness.With the little Meridian, you won't think you're listening to your high-end turntable, but, true to Meridian high-end form, the Prime is digital that even diehard analog lovers can love.


If you want to elevate the performance of the Meridian Prime to something more approaching statement-level Meridian, give serious consideration to the optional reference-quality, high-current Meridian Prime Power Supply, the design of which is based on the linear power supplies developed for Meridian's flagship 800 Reference Series. It's a fantastic power supply that does its work on both the mains power and USB. With the Meridian Prime Power Supply, you'll have the biggest taste of Meridian's flagship series you can get in under a square foot of desk space.

If you haven't figured it out by now, I am absolutely thrilled that there's a Meridian DAC/amp combo that sounds like a Meridian player in a compact chassis on my desk.


TYPE: DAC/headphone amp 
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PRICE: $2000.00 and $1250.00, respectively
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URL: www.meridian-audio.com
Schiit Audio Ragnarok

Details about the Schiit Audio Ragnarok can be found in the Summit-Fi section of the guide.


Click here to check it out.

Fostex HP-A8C

Written by Jude Mansilla


Fostex took the high-end portable audio world by storm last year with their HP-P1 portable iDevice DAC/amp combo. Now they're coming after your home and office rigs, too, with a new high-end desktop DAC/amp combo called the Fostex HP-A8C. Whereas the HP-P1 sports a rather utilitarian appearance, Fostex--like they did with their new flagship TH-900 headphone--has gone for straight-up gorgeous aesthetics with the HP- A8C. This is their flagship audiophile component, and it looks the part. With its black front panel covered with glass, and its edge-trimmed buttons and knobs, the HP-A8C's look reminds me of a modernized take on the classic McIntosh Labs style.


The HP-A8C's digital inputs include USB, AES/EBU, coaxial, and optical (x2), as well as a set of analog (RCA) inputs. With its AKM AK4399 32-bit DAC chip, the HP-A8C can decode up to 32/192 from all inputs, and DSD via USB or an SD card (DSD via USB is currently only via beta firmware). There's also user-selectable 2X or 4X upsampling, and user-selectable sharp-roll-of or minimum-delay digital filter settings. The Fostex HP- A8C's analog output is single-ended only.


With its plethora of inputs, and its digital outputs, the HP-A8C can serve as a good control center in a system. As a system's main digital source component, the HP- A8C readily steps into the duty of a flexible high-end DAC, and is fantastic sounding in that role. The HP-A8C comes with a simple wireless remote control, which comes in handy for quickly accessing the HP-A8C's many options and features.


Of course, my main interest in the HP-A8C is as a DAC/amp--as both source and amp in a high-end headphone setup, and the Fostex is near perfect for this. The HP- A8C's built-in headphone amp is an all-discrete design, with 0.5dB-step adjustable gain to make it easy to pair the HP-A8C with headphones of just about any sensitivity. It's rated to drive headphone impedances ranging from 16 ohms to 600 ohms.


Versus the Benchmark DAC2 HGC, the Fostex HP-A8C sounds a bit smoother, with a bit more fullness in the bass and mids, and more airy imaging. I won't assert that the Fostex is more accurate than the DAC2 HGC, as "precise" is the first adjective that comes to my mind with the impressive new Benchmark; but, from the standpoint of general listening, the Fostex's touch more rhythm and air is more my speed.


In terms of their sound, to my ears, the Mytek and Fostex have more in common with each other than either of them do to the Benchmark. Both the Mytek and the Fostex have nice presence, and overall sound signatures that I'd call smoother than the Benchmark's. Again, for general listening, my tastes tend toward this. I also like how both the Fostex and Mytek allow me to separately control the levels of the rear output and the headphone output.


Simply put, the Fostex HP-A8C is designed to be as uncompromising and flexible as having two very full-featured separate components (DAC and headphone amp), but in one very reasonably sized, and thoroughly gorgeous, single chassis.


I am absolutely over the moon with this Fostex flagship DAC/amp. Yes, it drives most of the over-ear headphones I have here very nicely; but pairing with the Fostex TH900 is so good that the pair have been near constant companions. This Fostex flagship dyad may be the best sounding rig here at Head-Fi HQ--and there are a lot of rigs here.

TYPE: DAC/headphone amp
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PRICE: Around $2,000
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URL: www.fostexinternational.com
Naim DAC-V1

CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v62), quality = 75

TYPE: Desktop DAC
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PRICE: $2,400.00
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URL: www.naimaudio.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


As a college student (many years ago), I worked at a hi-fi store. The highest-end brands of electronics we sold were by Linn and Naim. Some of the best audio I've heard in my lifetime was in that store; and in that store Naim was found in most of the best setups we put together.


One thing I remember fondly about the Naim elegance, inside and out, and in use. The years that have passed have enabled Naim to express their sensibilities in more technologically advanced ways, like with the cool display on the DAC-V1 that gives you a clear reading of volume level, input source, sample rate, this ridiculously thorough (and fascinating) real-time USB status display that includes detailed information about the USB feed (including real-time buffer status, under/over flow, feedback errors, and more), firmware version/status, and a host of other information and settings way too long to list here. And, in Naim style, it's very neat, easy to use.


As a digital preamp/DAC, the Naim DAC-V1 offers six digital inputs, including one async USB input (supporting up to 24-bit/384kHz), and five S/PDIF inputs supporting up to 24-bit/192kHz (1 x BNC, 2 x RCA, 2 x Toslink optical). The RCA and DIN analog outputs can (through the settings menu) be set to fixed or variable. One nice touch is that even if you fix the rear outputs, volume control is restored while headphones are plugged in.


When using USB input, the Naim DAC-V1's remote control can control the media player (depending on your media playing software) on your computer, to play/pause and to change tracks. It works very well with my Macs and iTunes. So if you want to use your computer as a source component in a loudspeaker-driving system, the DAC-V1's remote can be a godsend.


As for driving headphones on its own: when you plug headphones into its headphone out, the DAC-V1's discrete transistor, single-ended Class A preamp stage has its current drive turned up five times to meet the demands of driving headphones. And while Naim intended the DAC-V1's headphone amp to be able to drive "all headphone impedances," that doesn't necessarily mean it's ideally suited to all headphones--it met its match with the hard-to-drive HiFiMAN HE-6, pushing it to mild volume levels, but straining beyond that. The DAC-V1 had a much easier go of it with most of my standard dynamics, including the Fostex TH600 and TH900, and my more sensitive planar magnetic models, like the Audeze LCD-X. With the headphones it drives well, the DAC-V1 sounds awesome, exhibiting great impact and detail, with a smoother tonality, no edge or glare of its own. So far, my favorite headphones with it have been the Sennheiser HD 800 and HD600/650--it seems to smile very favorably on their higher nominal impedances.


With any over-ear headphone I tried with the DAC-V1, it was dead silent, in terms of noise floor. With my most sensitive in-ear monitors, however, there is very low-level hiss. I don't think in-ears were the target headphone for the Naim DAC-V1, but they can be driven with low enough noise floor to use in a pinch. Keep in mind, though, that the DAC-V1's output impedance maxes at 4.7Ω, and, while low-ish, it might have an audible effect with some headphones, maybe most obviously with certain multi-armature in-ears.


As a DAC feeding other headphone amps, the Naim DAC-V1 has so far been outstanding. In this role, the DAC-V1's performance would be best described as I described its performance with headphones it likes (above).


Naim has really created a beautiful sounding DAC in the DAC-V1. Its built-in headphone amp is certainly great when it's paired up correctly, but isn't quite as versatile a headphone driver as I'd hoped it would be. If you're looking for a desktop all-in-one--and not going to be driving relatively inefficient planar magnetic headphones--you should consider the Naim DAC-V1, especially if getting a high-end-sounding DAC in the process is something you'd value greatly.

Schiit Audio Yggdrasil

Details about the Schiit Audio Yggdrasil can be found in the Summit-Fi section of the guide.


Click here to check it out.

Benchmark DAC2 HGC
TYPE: DAC/headphone amp
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PRICE: $1,995
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URL: www.benchmarkmedia.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


The brand new Benchmark DAC2 HGC only arrived a few days before the due date for me to submit its review, so my experience with it at the time of this writing has been very limited, so this is going to be brief. I'll try to include more information about it in a future guide update.


I've had a Benchmark DAC1 before (one of first-generation ones). I liked it. I certainly didn't love it. I felt it rather cold, sometimes harsh. I've got the Benchmark DAC1 PRE here now (which is a much more recent edition of the DAC1 than I had), and I feel it an improvement over the DAC1 one I had--while it's still more on the analytical side, to these ears, I haven't felt the inclination to call the DAC1 PRE harsh. I'm only bringing this up to erase any preconceived notions you may have if you similarly found the DAC1 not to your tastes.


The brand new DAC2 HGC sounds to these ears to be as darn near technically perfect as any DAC I've had in my systems, and it's so far been an absolute pleasure to listen to. It is so revealing of details that I sometimes feel distracted by it, and suspect it's something I should just get used to, and learn to appreciate. Is it analytical sounding? Well, yes, but not in the cold analytical sense. The DAC2 HGC is analytical, to my ears, only in the sense that I feel sometimes like information, details, nuances are being thrust at me more than I'm used to. What I'm hearing from the DAC2 HGC is very impressive, very attention-grabbing. I'm looking forward to spending more time with it, to further flesh out my feelings about it.


Using my most sensitive custom in-ears, I can also say that, in terms of background noise, it's one of the quietest headphone amps I have here (perhaps the quietest).


The DAC2 HGC has a nice feature set, including a digital volume control to control all digital inputs, and an analog volume control for the analog inputs. There are five total digital inputs (and its USB 2.0 input is async), two sets of analog inputs, three sets of analog outputs (the analog outputs are both single-ended and balanced), and two headphone outputs (the left one mutes the rear analog outputs).


I can say for sure that a DAC2 HGC will be a part of one my reference systems here.

Woo Audio WA7 Fireflies
TYPE: USB DAC / tube headphone amplifier
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PRICE: $999.00
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URL: www.wooaudio.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


If we nominated Head-Fi products of the year, the Woo Audio WA7 Fireflies would certainly be one of my nominees. I first saw the WA7 Fireflies at 2012's CanJam @ RMAF, and assumed the diminutive component was a mini system that was more flash than dash. At best, I thought it might be a good system for something so small, designed as an ultra-stylish compromise piece for those who simply didn't have room for a more serious rig. Others at the meet listened to it before I did, and many whose opinions I respect were coming up to me saying things like "Did you hear that thing at Woo's exhibit?" and "Man, you have got to hear that little Woo amp!"


Packed into that little five-inch cube is a 32-bit/192kHz DAC (with one async USB input, and one set of analog stereo RCA inputs that also serve as the DAC's analog output, selectable with a switch). Also packed into that five-inch cube is a vacuum tube headphone amplifier that is a pure tube design--no semiconductors used in the entire signal path.


Okay, this is the part where I reveal the wee bit of Woo sleight of hand: The WA7 Fireflies comes with a largish linear external power supply to provide clean power to the WA7. The power supply is in a simple black chassis, and comes with enough cable to hide it away. Still, there's a lot going on in the WA7, and a lot of power coming out of it. With the two 6C45 driver/power tubes, the WA7's class-A, single-ended tube amp outputs up to one full watt at 32Ω. When it comes to headphones, the WA7 can drive just about anything, its transformer-coupled outputs switchable to accommodate both low-impedance and high-impedance headphones (for headphones of nominal impedances ranging from 8Ω to 600Ω).


Its ability to drive the big, tough headphones is fantastic; but what impresses me even more than that is the pure tube WA7's ability to drive sensitive IEMs, and to do so against one of the lowest noise floors I've heard (or not heard) in any tube amp. Even with IEMs, turning the volume knob way up when no music's playing shows you just how quiet a tube circuit the WA7 Fireflies has.


Whether driving a sensitive IEM or a planar magnetic toughie, the WA7 is perfectly comfortable--from delicate to explosive, and everything in between. Given how much detail I'm hearing, I have the utmost confidence in the WA7 DAC stage's ability to impressively feed that little wonder of a tube amp. I couldn't have been more wrong with my initial assumptions. The Woo Audio WA7 Fireflies is a giant performer, not just for its size, but even compared to components of similar functionality of any size.


"The WA7 has sounded exceptional with every headphone that I’ve plugged into it from low impedance headphones to high impedance headphones. The WA7 is a beautiful piece of machinery that should not be overlooked by those wanting a high-quality tube amp that works with low impedance headphones as well as it works with high impedance headphones."

Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

Lavry Engineering LavryBlack DA11

Written by Jude Mansilla


Lavry Engineering sent me a LavryBlack DA11 years ago to demo, and I was so impressed I ended up buying it. When I finally tired of carrying it to my office and back, I picked up a second one.


Lavry gear is used in some of the most prestigious recording and mastering studios in the world, and using the DA11 reflects that, in terms of its no-frills aesthetics, utilitarian operation and, most importantly, in its transparency and sonic performance. The DA11 also has a very unique feature called PIC (Playback Image Control), which allows left-right manipulation of each stereo channel in the digital domain, with minimal to no effect on tonal balance. For headphone users, this means PIC can be used as digital crossfeed, and I use it frequently, especially when listening to stereo recordings with heavily exaggerated left-right panning.


The DA11's inputs include XLR, USB, RCA (coaxial) and optical (Toslink) digital inputs, and accepts input sample rates between 30kHz and 200kHz (though the USB input is limited to 96kHz). Analog output is fully balanced, but the DA11 comes with nice Neutrik adapters for those who need single-ended outputs. It also has a discrete headphone output, which is actually quite good.


My two Lavry DA11's--having served as my primary DACs for quite some time-- have finally taken back seats to the Fostex HP-A8C, Mytek Digital STEREO192-DSD, and Benchmark DAC2 HGC in my reference rigs. The Fostex, Mytek, and Benchmark are more future proof, all supporting up to 32-bit/192kHz via USB, and all also supporting DSD via USB (the Fostex's DSD-via-USB still only with beta firmware at the time of this writing).


Still, the DA11's PIC feature keeps the DA11 in the roster, though I do admit I'm hoping to see a DA11 successor from Lavry.

TYPE: DAC/headphone amp
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PRICE: $1,480.00
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URL: www.lavryengineering.com
ALO Audio Studio Six

Details about the ALO Audio Studio Six can be found in the Summit-Fi section of the guide.


Click here to check it out.

CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v62), quality = 90
Sony UDA-1  
TYPE: DAC & headphone amplifier
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PRICE: $799.99
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URL: sony.com

Every once in a while, a piece of gear will catch us all off guard with it's performance, or value proposition, or some combination thereof. 2014 has already seen more than its fair share of such surprises with stunners like the Astell&Kern AK240, Chord Hugo, Blue Mo-Fi, etc. And now, into that fray, comes a fantastic DAC and headphone amplifier from Sony.




That's right, I said Sony. Yes, I'm being serious. Stop laughing.


If you're shocked by that, because you expected to see a more Head-Fi-centric brand like Cavalli, CEntrance or Schiit, then join the club. I certainly never saw this coming. In fact, I largely ignored the UDA-1 when it was launched earlier in 2014. And it was only by pure chance that I auditioned this at a press event in CanJam 2014, where I finally took notice of it.


So what makes the Sony UDA-1 so special?


For starters, it's a 32-bit 192 kHz DAC capable of processing the lowliest of MP3s to the most regal of DSD (5.6 Mhz) and everything in between... using any one of three included digital input methods (USB, coaxial and optical). As a component in Sony's new HiRes Audio strategy, it can also post-process your music using their new DSEE (Digital Sound Enhancement Engine) which, I must admit, actually sounds pretty good. It outputs clean, fixed-gain analog at 2V into your choice of headphone amps, but it also sports it's own built-in headphone amplifier capable of delivering 170mW/channel into 300 Ohms (1% THD). Not in the mood for headphones? The UDA-1 can drive speakers too, outputting 20 Watts/channel RMS into 4 Ohms. It even comes with a remote control so you can use The Force on its motorized volume pot. And you get all of this for - wait for it - under $800 ($799 USD).





But hold on, we still haven't gotten around to what makes the UDA-1 truly special. What makes the UDA-1 a brilliant piece of kit - and thus worthy of a place in this guide - is that it sounds amazing. Unbelievably good. Very, very OMGWTFBBQ.




As just a DAC, the UDA-1 achieves that elusive, Goldilocks-esque balance that lies at the crossroad between detail and refinement, offering us 85%-90% of the detail found in a Mytek Stereo 192-DSD, with none of the occasional glare or harshness that can occasionally accompany such an uber level of detail.


As a DAC and headphone amp, the UDA-1 is clean, quiet, surprisingly neutral, remarkably transparent, and refreshingly natural. It's a solid state amp of course, but it offers us a very organic and textured presentation that sounds more like a hybrid. With headphone after headphone - including Audeze's LCD-X, Denon's D7000, and even Sony's new MDR-Z7 - the UDA-1 drove them all effortlessly. It even pierced the HD 650's veil to a degree that I did not expect. In short, it simply makes music sound like music.


I didn't think I'd be saying the following anytime soon... but the Sony UDA-1's price-vs-performance ratio, incredible feature set, and magical sound practically demands it of me... 


Sony is back! :)



Schiit Audio Modi 2 Uber and Magni 2 Uber 

Written by Jude Mansilla


At less than $300 for the pair of them, each essentially built for the other--and performing as well as they do as a system--I couldn't bring myself to separate the Schiit Modi 2 Uber and Magni 2 Uber for this guide.


The Modi 2 Uber has asynchronous USB 2.0, Toslink SPDIF, and coaxial SPDIF inputs, and can support up to 24/192 via all of those inputs. The DAC chip inside is the AKM4396. It has single-ended analog output via a pair of RCA jacks. My first-gen Modi (and the current Modi 2 non-Uber) support up to 24/96, and have only USB input.

As a DAC that has had tremendous attention paid to its measured performance as well as its sound, the Modi 2 Uber reads like a DAC that couldn't possibly be priced at $149.


The Magni 2 Uber might be even more ridiculous (and I mean that entirely as a compliment). For 149 bucks, one expects a simple opamp-based design (not that there's necessarily anything wrong with such amps), but the Magni 2 Uber's topology is described by Schiit thusly: "Fully discrete FET/bipolar, constant feedback through audio band, complementary VAS drive, Class AB, DC coupled throughout." I can't think of another fully discrete amp at its price point, other than Schiit's own Magni 2 (non-Uber version), which I haven't yet heard, and that goes for even less at $99!


The Magni 2 Uber has single-ended input via a pair of RCA jacks, and also has a preamp output that's controlled by the volume pot, and switched via the headphone jack. I intend to eventually use these preamp outs to feed active studio monitors (loudspeakers). My original Magni (and the newer Magni 2 non-Uber) do not have the preamp outs.


What does the Magni 2 Uber drive? So far, everything I've thrown at it. Rated at a maximum 1.5W into 32 ohms--and with a very low noise floor--I've driven several headphones, from my most sensitive IEMs to some harder-to-drive planars. With my most sensitive in-ears, I get a rather loud pop during both plug insertion and extraction, but, once in, the Magni 2 Uber is dead silent, even with my FitEar MH334 custom, which seems to be able to touch just about any amp's noise floor.


The Magni 2 Uber's versatility is helped by two gain settings, switchable via a rear-mounted switch. Also, its output impedance is only <0.2Ω, so that's a non-issue.

I've only used the Modi 2 Uber and Magni 2 Uber together as a stack, so I haven't yet compared each separately to other DACs and amps, but I can say emphatically that together they're a DAC/amp combo that represents the best DAC/amp combo I've heard for anywhere near $298, which is just an insanely low price for how great this stack of Schiit sounds.


Compared to the first-generation Modi/Magni stack I have, the Modi 2 Uber / Magni 2 Uber combo is richer sounding--the first-gen stack kept me plenty happy, but, in direct comparison, sounds less authoritative and more clinical to me. Using the ultra-transparent HiFiMAN HE1000 to compare them, the newer "2 Uber" stack provides more resolution and refinement, and, again, richer tone. If you spent almost all you had on the $3000 HE1000, and had only $300 left to spend on the rest of your system, here it is.


For five years, Schiit Audio has been one of the coolest stories in our community, and the Modi 2 Uber and Magni 2 Uber will only strengthen our enthusiasm for this company that was founded by a couple of wily audio industry veterans. Since Schiit's launch, it's been hit after hit from them--including (on the other end of the price scale) the best sounding DAC we've yet heard at Head-Fi HQ (the Yggdrasil)--and the tiny Modi 2 Uber and Magni 2 Uber may be their biggest crowd-pleasers yet, for their performance far beyond their price.



TYPE: USB DAC and headphone amplifier, respectively
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PRICE: $149 each
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URL: www.schiit.com

Details about the HiFiMAN EF-6 can be found in the Summit-Fi section of the guide.


Click here to check it out.

Woo Audio WA 5 LE

Written by Jude Mansilla


One of the best tube amps I've heard, in a variety of rigs, is the Woo Audio WA 5 LE, 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.

TYPE: Desktop headphone amp
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PRICE: Starting at $2,500
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URL: www.wooaudio.com

Because I don't have a lot of experience with Cavalli Audio's amps--but loved what I've heard so far--I asked someone with a lot of experience with Cavalli's products to contribute to the guide. dBel84 (real name Donald) was kind enough to write the following guide entries for three of Cavalli Audio's amps. Thank you, dBel84! --Jude--

Cavalli Audio Liquid Glass (LG)
TYPE: Hybrid (tube / solid state) headphone amplifier
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PRICE: $3,950.00
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URL: www.cavalliaudio.com

Written by dBel84


The LG is a single ended hybrid headphone amplifier that can be used as a preamp for convenience. It has two inputs, a loop out and a preamp output. It is the ultimate tube rollers dream amplifier.


To best describe the sound of this amplifier is to describe the sound emanating from the tube itself. I think of it like the ultimate non feedback DHT tube amp. DHT amps are expensive, as they are designed to extract every last bit of detail out of a huge triode like the 2A3. The Liquid Glass achieves this same high level of excellence without these rare tubes because in this circuit, the tube is operating at its linear best in the audio band and it does not "see" the headphones it is driving. The reason for this is the ingenious buffer design which fools the tube into thinking there is no load and handles all the voltage swing and current demand of whatever headphone you plug into the amp.


The tube circuit auto-biases which allows many tubes to operate optimally, truly allowing you to hear subtle nuanced differences among various tubes. It can roll approximately 45 various types of tubes, the options are stupendous when you factor in manufacturers and tube dates. Hence my thinking of it as a tube rollers dream amp.


The sound is detailed with all the subtle microdynamics and air with a good solid bass heft that doesn't smear in the typical "tubey" fashion. This amp is not for those who want a warm and musical experience, rather if you want to experience what true high end tube audio sounds like, this is the amp to try. It is not overly clinical sounding because tubes do have their own sound characteristics, and it is these sound characteristics which purists strive to find. It is my personal favorite.

Cavalli Audio Liquid Gold (LAu)

Written by dBel84


I will be honest, I really didn't want this amplifier to sound as good as it does. Why? I didn't want any Cavalli product to be better than the one I had chosen as a personal reference, the Liquid Glass. It really pained me to admit to the man that he had managed to achieve what he set out to achieve, the best sounding dynamic amp I had yet heard.


The Liquid Gold is a solid state design and a true differential balanced amplifier. It has single ended inputs but these are converted through a buffered circuit into a balanced signal. This option is really for convenience as I would not recommend running this amp as either single ended input or single ended output. It works and extremely well in that mode, but to extract that ultimate performance, running it balanced will provide you with staggering accuracy, detail and a palpable sense of the music which makes for a very self-contained and intimate experience. The definition within the bass layers is further teased out, the sense of space within the music is sharp and the organic tones of both male and female vocals can raise goose bumps on your skin. The music is never fatiguing, it just immerses you in the moment.


When I initially got the amp I listened to all genres just to get a sense of what its signature was like, it really didn’t have one. The music just flowed naturally and with such detail and authority that I was occasionally pulled out of my listening coma. When I came to wanting to compare it to other amps, I found myself losing track of time. I know this is a little clichéd, but it really was that involving. Not many people have had an opportunity to hear this amp but those that have, have voiced similar experiences to mine.

TYPE: Fully balanced headphone amplifier
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PRICE: $6,450.00
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URL: www.cavalliaudio.com
Cavalli Audio Liquid Lightning MK II (LL)
TYPE: Electrostatic headphone amplifier
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PRICE: $4,850.00
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URL: www.cavalliaudio.com

Written by dBel84


Now in its MKII form, the Liquid Lightning is Cavalli Audio’s offering for the niche market of TOTL electrostatic amplifiers. It has been heralded by many people as having ultimate synergy with the Stax SR009. I have listened to this combination on many occasions and have been fortunate to have them in my own system for an extended time. During this time I arranged to meet up with a friend and compare some of the other top tier amplifiers and other top end Stax headphones including the SR007 MKI/II.


I thought the original LL sounded incredible with the SR009 but it was not optimal with the SR007. The LL MKII achieves the same level of excellence with both of these electrostatic headphones. If I had to use a single descriptor, I would say effortless. In a way that only electrostatic headphones can, music just emerges and surrounds you with an incredible soundstage and precise placement within the sound field. Bass can really dig deep without blunting the edges, no upper bass emphasis which is not uncommon in both headphones and monitor speakers, highs are sparkly clean without being bright . A very memorable listening experience and highly recommended if you enjoy the presentation offered by electrostatic headphones.


If my descriptions of these amplifiers seem to blend into one another, it is because Cavalli Audio products have a distinct naturalness to their sound. The LG and LAu vary slightly in that the LAu offers greater accuracy while the tube in the LG imparts its own delicate nuance to the sound. The amplifiers in general offer an extreme level of resolution that transcends the dynamic and electrostatic media, offering an audiophile experience that only a few manufacturers can lay claim to. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to experience all of the products Cavalli Audio has to offer and for the friendship that Alex has extended over the past decade.

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Comments (1)

The woo audio 5 LE, says starting at 2.5k.
Am I missing something? On the site I see it for 3.6k.
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