Pros: Astounding sound quality: richness, 3 dimensionality, and utterly lacking in grain or harshness.
Cons: Few to none. Volume steps may not be enough for some
Time certainly does move quickly. We move from one experience to another, and it may be difficult to appreciate the moment. Such has life been over the past year. Moving from Hawaii to Maryland, leaving some very good friends and reacquainting ourselves with old. This, a new position with increased responsibilities, and the trials and tribulations of being a new home owner in this economy have certainly consumed my mind and my free time. Lost in this was one of my favorite things in life, listening to music. The beauty, emotional richness, and sometimes just downright fun that listening to great music over a great system had almost been lost in the shuffle.
Then came a phone call from an old friend, asking me if I wanted to listen to his new amplifier. Now I had not been TOTALLY out of the loop, and had known that this statement piece was in the works; but being asked if I wanted to spend a couple of weeks listening to what is likely the "King of the Mountain" in headphone amplifiers certainly got my full and undivided attention.
Apex: noun. The highest point; the vertex
The new Apex line of stereo electronics is designed and built by Pete Millett, and sold by Todd Green at TTVJ. The line currently consists of the Peak, a single-ended headphone amplifier; the Volcano power supply; and the statement Pinnacle. Todd and Pete perceived a void in the marketplace, left by the fall of SinglePower. They envisioned a brand of high quality, extremely reliable, and great sounding tube headphone amplifiers that could also take their place as line preamplifiers in a 2-channel speaker system. Cosmetics were also a concern, as they knew that consumers willing to spend money on high quality audio gear also wanted "rack appeal" that would be commensurate with the price. Other equipment is also being considered, to include monoblock power amplifiers, to fully round-out the line. A new, focused, and separate brand of electronics was formed, with a goal to be the very top manufacturer of high-end headphone electronics.
The goal of all climbs is to reach the pinnacle
Approximately 2-and-a-half years ago, Todd and Pete released the TTVJ Millett 307A headphone amplifier. This outstanding amplifier has since been my reference, and I had yet to hear it eclipsed by another design. This amplifier excels in about every aspect of the musical presentation that I find important, to include a smooth, rich, and nonfatiguing sound, and the ability to work well with every dynamic headphone that I throw at it. Certainly a masterful "Jack-of-All-Trades" that has been totally free of problems and a complete joy to own. With all things, however, there is usually room for improvement, and these considerations went into the design of the Pinnacle.
The Pinnacle's most notable changes from the 307A include new and upgraded hand-wound transformers, the use of the wonderful PX4/n output tube, and a separate, outboard power supply. The power supply is hooked to the amplifier via a long umbilical, with the thought of distancing the amplifier from all possible noise that may be generated.
Also immediately evident is the radical improvement in cosmetics. The 307A always had an industrial, laboratory instrument appearance, one that many found out-of-place in a piece of that monetary value. The Pinnacle is much more refined and stately, with a custom, brushed black faceplate and silver knobs. Certainly much more befitting equipment of this caliber.
The largest functional difference is the ability of the Pinnacle to be the preamplifier centerpiece of a true high-end stereo system. Remaining the same are the plethora of input and output options available. Single-ended and balanced headphone outputs are present, with user selectability for impedance. An IEM output is available, as is a 4-pin output primarily designed for the AKG K1000 earspeakers. The rear of the amplifier has connectivity for three sources and a single preamplifier output, all of which are switchable for balanced or single-ended operation.
The pinnacle of all life is in the experience
I listened to the Apex Pinnacle via Sennheiser HD800's. The headphones have been recabled in balanced configuration with hardwired Stefan AudioArt Voice. The source was the excellent McIntosh MCD500 CD/SACD player, and connected to the Pinnacle with balanced Cardas Golden Reference or Kimber Select KS-1136 interconnects. All components were plugged into the McIntosh MPC-1500 Power Controller. I spent a majority of the time in audiophile-mode comparing the Pinnacle to my 307A, but also spent significant time just listening for enjoyment late into the night.
Beauty, richness, three-dimensionality, and palpable presence. These were the things that first struck me about the Pinnacle. The 307A and the Pinnacle are both velvety smooth, but the Pinnacle added layer upon layer of richness to the tonality, giving each image much more body. Images were bigger and more fleshed-out, yet were still very well defined in the headstage. Localization of the images was actually easier via the Pinnacle, with each instrument (in a well recorded disk) having its own sense of space and individuality.
At first, and especially in comparison to the 307A, the Pinnacle's treble seemed a little closed-in. Extended listening proved this to NOT be the case, with the shimmer of cymbals, the strike of a triangle, and the overtones of well recorded piano all being more realistic than the 307A. The overall balance of the Pinnacle is slightly more neutral than the 307A, with the latter putting a bit more emphasis in the treble region. This made the presentation of the 307A seem lighter in comparison.
With the HD800's, the bass was "perfect" in balance, weight, and definition. Admittedly, I am not a "bass head" and MUCH prefer tight, tuneful, and well-defined bass to the "boom thud thud" that others may enjoy. Creed, AC/DC, Staind, Metallica, and other hard rock sounded awesome via the Pinnacle/HD800 system, with all of the butt-kicking bass guitar riffs and kick drum slams driving the music forward with aplomb.
My main musical weakness, however, is in the beauty of female vocals. Tori Amos, Loreena McKennit, Sarah McLachlan, KT Tunstall, and Alison Krauss were sublime, with the 3-dimensional richness and utter lack of grain making for the best reproduction of these recordings in my experience.
With all mountains, there is always another one to climb
As your have likely surmised, I really love the Apex Pinnacle. One concern I have, however, is with the stepped attenuator. No, it did not give me any problems, per se, and functioned beautifully during all my listening. My concern is with it only having 23 steps of adjustability. In talking to Todd, he stated that this attenuator was selected on the basis of sound quality, and was the highest performing attenuator Pete Millett tested when designing the Pinnacle. I am an admitted audiophile and know that this piece is the State of the Art. If getting more fine adjustment of volume means giving up sound quality, I'll happily live with the limited options. But if another attenuator becomes available that sounds as good (or better), and offers finer gradations of sound level, I would suggest this be considered as an option.
After reaching the pinnacle, one has to come down
It was with much sadness that I returned to Apex Pinnacle to TTVJ. With the McIntosh MCD500 and the balanced Sennheiser HD800's, this proved to be the best sounding stereo system in my experience. Although $10,000 is a boat load of money to spend on any piece of stereo equipment, the quality and flexibility (both as a headphone amplifier and as a preamplifier) of this piece are unparalleled. For those very lucky few who get to own this slice of audiophile heaven, I salute you.