Pros: Detail, clarity, imaging, little to no grain in the treble.
Cons: No preamp out
It seems that it’s a good time to be shopping around for headphone amps, with many wonderful new offerings coming from different manufacturers. Known until now for DIY designs, Alex Cavalli has entered the commercial fray with the Liquid Fire, a hybrid amp that aims to deliver the musical richness and timbre of tubes with the speed and clarity of a solid state design.
So how does it measure up? From my listening so far, extremely well. For the purposes of this review, it replaced the Stacker II hybrid amp (a DIY design from Cavalli) in my chain. Transport was a Squeezebox Touch which fed either a Rega DAC or Assemblage DAC 2.7. A quad of Siemens E88CC tubes have been swapped in, replacing the JJ Tesla stock tubes. The Siemens tubes have a little over 50 hours on them, and they seem to add some weight to the bass and mids, which is a personal preference of mine. The Liquid Fire itself has around 175 hours on it now. Headphones used were either my older LCD-2 from around the time of the first production run, or my newer “rev 2” LCD-2.
One interesting feature to the Liquid Fire is that upon start up from stand by, there are delay circuits built in that first turn on the heater supply and let it warm up for about 20 seconds, then warm up the output. Both delays have indicator lights that let you know when the process is complete. Just one of the examples of how much of a stickler for detail and perfection Alex is.
Immediately after plugging my headphones in, my first impression was that there was a brightness and clarity that wasn’t ever present in my other amp. Alex’s instructions suggest 150 hours of burn in on the amp itself before critically listening, and I have to say I don’t know if the sense of it being “overly bright” eventually faded as I got used to the sound signature or as the amp continued to burn in. Maybe it was both. At any rate, the sound that I am presented with now has excellent extension both into the bass and into the treble, with little to no extra sibilance and grain on the higher end.
The other aspect I was struck by quickly was the level of detail and clarity present, along with about a dead silent noise floor. The sound had the speed and tight tolerances of solid state, handling even heavily congested passages with little effort. Project Pitchfork’s “I Live Your Dream”, for instance, can be a congested nightmare of a piece, but the Liquid Fire was able to portray the different instruments and sounds clearly and even managed to have some space around the voices. I tend to listen to some material that is a little dense, like Japanese rock and soundtracks, but the Liquid Fire again is able to isolate and detail the sounds within the pieces without losing the sense of a cohesive sound for the entire song.
While the soundstage isn’t the widest or most expansive I’ve heard, it also doesn’t strike me as artificial or forced. It has a decent amount of lateral width from left to right, and good imaging that help reinforce the staging. From front to back, the field doesn’t seem quite as deep, but the vocals and background on most songs are still projected a little outside of the head. It’s as if you were able to get the sense of putting on headphones and being surrounded by a cloud of sound around you. It often sounded like the music was coming from within the room, and not just being thrown directly at my ears.
On the detailed level, I was very impressed with the way the Liquid Fire handled the impact and resonance of guitars and piano. From Olomana’s “Kanaka Waiwai” slack key guitar to Alice in Chains’ “Would” from their Unplugged album really seemed to let me hear the impact on the strum and the resonance of the strings as the sound decayed. The imaging of the Liquid Fire also helps here as it keep details like tambourines or light cymbals from getting lost, making it possible to pick out the sound more easily.
Tonally, I found the Liquid Fire to have a smooth and rich tone to the entire register, and especially to the mids and vocals. This comes without anything sticking out too far within the presentation, so choral pieces such as Mozart’s Requiem, for instance, come forward with presence and richness without any particular vocal section becoming overwhelming in sound. There is also a good sense of air, so songs with a good dynamic ebb and build really seem to have the opportunity to breathe and come to life.
Overall, I have found the Liquid Fire to be a wonderful amp with a very balanced presentation and character. It’s neutral and transparent, but without sacrificing weight and emotional connection to the music. It does have a tendency to reveal your library, warts and all, so if there is a poorly recorded or encoded song somewhere in there, you’ll be sure to notice it. It will, however, allow the right material to shine and really lets you listen to the differences in both the material and sources that you throw at it. It’s not a cheap amp, so it’s hard to really gauge bang for your buck in this hobby of diminishing returns, but the Liquid Fire manages to do a lot right without adding anything negative, and does so in what seems to me to be a natural and well rounded way. If you’re in the market for a headphone amp in this price range, you really should do yourself a favor and check this amp out.