Pros: Neutral and transparent sound from Apex
Cons: Best performance requires a somewhat expensive outboard power supply
Todd The Vinyl Junkie offered me the opportunity to review the latest offering from Apex, the “Arête” headphone amp. Which of course I jumped at – it looks like a nice design, and I had thought very highly of the Apex Peak I reviewed last year.
The Arête is really as much small pre-amp as it is headphone amp. It has three line inputs and a line output on the rear, as well as the ¼” single-ended headphone out on the front. The chassis is nice enough looking and well but not over built:
The Arête, by today’s standards, is not a ultra-high-powered headphone amp, although it has plenty of power for the overwhelming majority of headphones. The published specs are:
Max output level into 150 ohms @ 1kHz: 7.4V RMS / 21V P-P / 360mW
Max output level into 33 ohms @ 1kHz: 4.7V RMS / 13V P-P / 670mW
Peak output current: 220mA
(Further information can be found here: https://www.ttvjaudio.com/store/comersus_viewItem.asp?idProduct=717)
The Arête worked well with the Beyer T1, but likely only because the T1 is very, very efficient/sensitive. It likely isn’t outputting more than 100 mW or so into 600 ohms. There was plenty of power for the LCD-2, IMHO, but the Arête was not even close to powerful enough to do justice to the HE-6. They sounded thin and brittle compared to more powerful amps. The Arête is not going to do well with high impedance headphones unless they are also of reasonably high sensitivity, and ultra-low sensitivity ortho/planar headphones also need not apply. A headphone of reasonably high sensitivity, like 90 db/mw in the low impedance range, and high 90’s in the high impedances, is likely going to work best, in order to provide nice headroom. I am a fairly low volume listener, tending to listen mostly in the 70 dBA range – I calibrate my listening levels to 80 dBA peak.
The primary defining trait of the Arête is one of being very transparent and very neutral – within its power abilities, comes very close to being a straight wire with gain. It was very easy to discern the differences between sources though a given set of headphones with the Arête. The sound was unfailingly clean, and never harsh, but neither is there any prettying up of untidy recordings. In fact, using an iPod on shuffle (via the Pure digital dock and my AVA DAC), the change from one song to another could sometimes be very jarring due to the differences in the recording quality between the tracks. Nice. If you want a very neutral, straight line reading of your music, with very little editorializing and good clarity, the Arête is a good choice. But don’t be upset if bad recordings sound…well…bad. Don’t shoot the messenger!
On the flipside, good recordings were highly enjoyable. Listening to Joanna Newsom’s “Cosmia” from “Ys” was an absolute pleasure. The very lush strings and Newsom’s plucked harp were set in contrast to her squeaky but very emotive soprano – exactly as they should be. It was super enjoyable.
The Arete also delivered all of the power of Yes at full throttle in the driving “Madman at the Screens”, the third part of the phenomenal new “Fly From Here” suite. Chris Squire’s driving bass line which propels the piece was very nimble, well defined, and full via the Arete.
The T1 sounded very good with the Arête. This combination formed a very open window into the music which was very wideband and dynamic. The soundstage was very wide, deep, and well defined. It was not quite as deep or holographic as I get from any of my 4 top-tier tube amps, however. Whether this is real, or a coloration of the tube amps, I cannot be 100% sure, but soundstage depth and 3D realism, while good with the Arête, is not this amps strong suit, and if you are a soundstage freak, I wouldn’t put this amp at the very top of my list. It’s not a slouch, but there are better in this regard. I still marginally prefer the T1 with the Woo WA22 and the Trafomatic Experience Head-one, but neither of these amps is as strictly neutral as the Arête (the WA22 is very lush; the Head-One is very close to dead neutral with just a small amount of tube lushness in the midband).
With the HD-800 it was a different story, for me personally. I don’t really like the HD-800’s high-frequency sonic signature, and as such, the Arête’s neutrality laid bare the HD-800’s 6 kHz treble peak, and I didn’t really enjoy the pairing. I much prefer the HD-800 on the WA22. The WA-22 is coloring the HD-800, for sure, but in a way that they need to be colored, IMO.
The LCD-2, on the other hand, again sounded GREAT with the Arête (I’m talking here about “rev-1” LCD-2’s). The Arête seemed up to the job of powering them with no real problems. The combo here did a very fine job, and I think the pairing is synergistic. This would be a fine SS amp choice for LCD-2 owners. The clean and neutral presentation benefitted the LCD-2, which themselves are very clean and neutral. Since the LCD-2 have a remarkably flat response aside from a slightly shelved-down treble, they have nothing to “hide”, and the Arête lets you enjoy their presentation unfettered. Songs like “Blackest Eyes” from Porcupine Tree’s “In Absentia” which feature both melodic and frenetic sequences were very well served. Ditto the Ultrasone Edition 8 and JVC DX-1000 – the amps neutrality served these headphone very well, and I enjoyed them both very much with the Arête.
Unfortunately I did not have another well known stand-alone solid-state headphone amp with which to directly compare the Arête. The Arête delivered competitive (though a bit different) sound to my Trafomatic Head-One tube headphone amp, which is similarly priced to the Arête with Volcano (see below). I don’t believe in making “value” judgments about products beyond comparing other products of similar price, and based on that, the Arête does seem competitively priced. For many, $1,500 for the Arête/Volcano is a lot of money to spend on a headphone amp, and you can get excellent performance that is very close to this level from amps half this price. Nonetheless, the Arête delivers a competitive performance in its price class, IMO.
I received the Arête with the standard power supply, and the “Volcano” option. ALL of my comments about the sound made above were with the Volcano. I tried the Arête with the stock PS, but the sound with the Volcano was significantly better. While the Arête is still a nice amp with the stock PS, I would very strongly encourage people to consider the Arête and Volcano as one “product” (my experience was the same with the Peak). There is a definite increase in the sense of dynamic ease as well as the transparency.
The Arête provided a very clean, clear, open, and neutral sound. It’s not a massive powerhouse, nor is it an amp to be used if you want to “pretty up” the sound. But if you want an amp that will give you a wide open window to the music you are feeding it, and you have reasonably efficient headphones (or maybe better stated, you are not trying to use it with the most power-hungry of headphones), the Arête will deliver the sonic goods. With those characteristics in mind, I can recommend it. For me personally, it wasn’t a great sonic match for the HD-800, and wasn’t powerful enough for the crazy-power-hungry HifiMan HE-6. But with the T1, Ultrasone Edition 8, JVC DX-1000, and LCD-2 it was terrific.