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Only Solid State Amp I've heard that Sounds Like a Hybrid: The Texture and Warmth of Tubes, but Control, Power and Precision of the Very Best of SS!

A Review On: Cavalli Audio Liquid Gold

Cavalli Audio Liquid Gold

Rated # 76 in Desktop Amps
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Review Details:
Audio Quality
Design
Quality
Value
mikemercer
Posted · Updated · 5988 Views · 27 Comments

Pros: Outstandingly Musical and Easy to Listen to for Hours. Fully Balanced (w/ 1/4" capability as well). Built Like a Br__house. Looks Fantastic

Cons: Sorry, None. It's too heavy? I can't even say that. This isn't Pandering either.

When I finally got to sit down with Alex Cavalli and hear his Liquid Lightning and Liquid Gold I had unreasonable expectations. I love a combination of tubes and solid state in my reference systems. The sonic pairing of the body and warmth of tubes with the speed and precision of solid state, when executed properly (or just the right complementary components) have delivered some of my favorite, most musically transparent listening sessions of my life, period. I'm talkin' from six-seven foot speaker towers and amps the size of lobster traps to the smallest of portable solutions: I'm a music freakin' addict. And while I don't always understand people who aren't as deeply into music as my friends and I are (which is obsessive I'm sure, to say the least, but...)  I don't necessarily have a a definitive answer for my preference either: Why I always prefer, when available, the combination of tubes and solid state in systems. My in-room stereo system has always had a combination of tubes and solid state - it sounds right. It sounds more natural to me. So, knowing that Dr. Cavalli had the Liquid Lightning at CanJam at RMAF last year, I wanted to hear that before anything else on his tables, but a couple were busy having fun with it, tube-rolling with someone working for Alex. So he asked if I wanted to hear the Liquid Gold. No! C'mon, of course I will! I had my trusty Audeze LCD3's with me in their road case, and he had the powerful Abyss headphones and LCD-3's as well. Unfortunately I only had a WyWires prototype cable with me that was terminated 1/4" - I forgot my Moon Audio Silver Dragon cable with adapter system in California! What can I say, I'm a dumb a__. Luckily Alex got a pair of Moon Audio cables (don't remember which ones - I think they were Black Dragon) with a 4-pin XLR, and I was cookin'. Now, the tubes are inside the enclosure/chassis of my E.A.R HP4 and 868 pre-amp, and I didn't know anything technically regarding the Liquid Gold. All I knew was that a couple of good friends, here and elsewhere, told me to give it a shot. And please pardon the pun: A freakin' shot in the arm is exactly what it was!

 

I thought it was a hybrid amplifier. I assumed there were a couple of tubes hiding in that brushed-black finished hood. It was modern beauty, simple and elegant. I loved it within 5 minutes. Now, having done this for twenty plus years, I also know you can't judge anything (or at least I can't) entirely on a first impression. The Liquid Glass sounded terrific too by the way, I shouldn't minimize that. Even Alex Cavalli told me "you were really lost in it there for a lil' bit". He was right. But when I heard the Liquid Gold was a differential solid state amp, I had to hear it again. Alex was gracious in getting a review unit out to me as soon as the guy before me sent it back. Now, I feel obligated to tell you that loving another expensive desktop reference amplifier was actually something I was trying to avoid! I got my dream gear last year: My E.A.R HP4 and ALO Studio Six (and been through lots of tube-rolling) - and admittedly I got industry accommodation pricing on those, but they're still expensive for me! Loving the LAu (Liquid Gold) has been a blessing and a curse. It's a blessing because it transports me elsewhere when I'm listening to it. This happens with most of the headphones in my collection, my two favorite DACs right now, and my analog front-end in the home office/Sonic Satori Personal Audio Lab! I'm thankful for the RCA unbalanced inputs for that. My Unison Research Simply Phono tube phonostage has single-ended outputs. Since it's been installed and running everyday (since late February) it continues to break-in and wow me. I've used the following associated gear during my time with the Cavalli Audio Liquid Gold Thus far:

 

 

Sources:

MacBook Pro Retina SSD running Amarra, Audirvana, MOG and Spotify Premium +

McIntosh D100 DAC (w/ balanced and SE input)

Mytek Digital Stereo192-DSD DAC

 

VPI Traveler turntable w/ 2MBlue Ortofon cartridge +

Unison Research Simply Phono tube phonostage

 

Headphones:

Audeze LCD-3, X, and XC (balanced)

Audio Technica AD900X (SE)

B&O H6 (SE)

Grado 325i (SE)

Mr. Speakers Alpha Dogs v1 (SE) & Mad Dogs (balanced)

Sennheiser HD800's (balanced)

 

Cables:

for the Audeze's:

Double Helix Molecule w/ Fusion 4-pin XLR

Double Helix Complement 2 prototype (dual XLR) - Silver Peptide (pure OCC Silver litz cable)

Moon Audio Silver Dragon with adapter system (4-pin XLR)

WyWires 4-pin XLR 

 

for Sennheiser HD800's:

Cardas Audio/Headroom FatPipe Dual-XLR

Double Helix Complement 2 prototype (dual XLR) - Silver Peptide (pure OCC Silver litz cable)

w/ Sennheiser adapters from Double Helix

 

ALL other headphones have stock cables

System wired with Nordost Heimdall 2, from USB to analog interconnects.

 

 

 

This suckers' got juice for days. It's also, as I stated above, as solidly built as any other solid state headphone amp I've spent time with. It also comes with a nice dust-cover. A very nice choice, especially for places like my office, which is an older addition on the house, and while the dedicated power is great, the people driving up and down the dirt paths at the nearby winery fields tends to leave a layer of dust sooner than I'd like it after I dust. Thank you Dr. Cavalli for that nice touch. It's the little things... The great thing about this amplifier however is far from anything little. It's the LAu's huge and powerful sound that shot through all the cans mentioned above and performed beautifully whether mated with my McIntosh D100 or Mytek Stereo192-DSD DAC. It also sounded as soulful as I've heard in a headphone amp when playing artists like Joni Mitchell , Dusty Springfield, or Ani DiFranco on vinyl. It actually reminds me of my E.A.R HP4 in that way, and indescribable way. How can you quantify soul? I'm not sure I can, but those two amps ooze it. The Liquid Gold also seems to play nicer with a wider variety of headphones than other reference amps I have, which can, at times, be more finicky when pairing them with different styles of cans. Now, out of all the headphones I tried with the LAu, my three favorites were my Audeze LCD-X, XC, and Sennheiser HD800. Using these headphones with the LAu reminded me of why I got so deeply into personal audio in the first place: The immediacy and fluidity of the sound, the power, the realistic dB levels, the dynamics and soundstaging brought me back to listening to giant loudspeaker systems with Harry Pearson at The Absolute Sound! Everything is huge, and I don't mean exaggerated, so perhaps I should say things seemed life-like in size and scope. There is also a textural quality, and sort of roundedness to the sound of this amp, the dimensionality (that is: the presence of space between sound/instruments in the soundstage) in my system was sublimely executed. It continues to be so - as I'm listening right now, to Recondite's new LP: Hinterland - via Audeze LCD-X's/Wywires 4-pin XLR cables, and McIntosh D100 DAC, MacBook/Amarra rig and it's breathtaking. This album is a drivy, kick drum-heavy atmospheric underground tech-house monster. It's also recorded beautifully. I can't stay still as I type this. I'm moving around in my office chair like I'm sitting on something near a Funktion One speaker stack in a club bangin' away. My heart and my body have to follow the beat. This is, what I believe Hp (Harry Pearson) used to refer to as the "twinkle dust factor" or "TDF" as they used to call it at The Absolute Sound until the mid-nineties. The sound transcends the system, and I'm caught up in this flowing, meditative sort of head-bobbin', body-moving rhythm that only special components like this grant me! It's like being at DC-10 in Ibiza at 9:00AM and Damian Lazarus of Crosstown Rebels is gettin' nasty on the 1's and 2's...

 

Using Digital front-end:

 

While using my Audeze LCD-X + Wywires cable the sound was nothing short of hypnotic. Recondite's kick and wavy bass on "Leafs" bumped so fluidly I couldn't help myself: I had to get up, grab the Sennheiser HD800s, Double Helix Cables Complement OCC Silver litz prototype (dual-XLR) and grab my wife. She put on the headphones and danced next to me like the time we spent in Ibiza I mentioned above. And we're both rockin headphones! Realize this is something I never imagined a few years ago. Admittedly we've done this before: had our own silent rave in my home office, but this could possibly be the closest I've felt to dancing in a club. The momentum of the sound is so powerful, so enrapturing, I couldn't sit down anymore. Now if that's not an indication of the magic of this amplifier than I'/m not sure what is! I'm not sure what else could possibly trounce that feeling. This may seem like a cop-out. But wholeheartedly: It isn't often that I feel that compelled to actually get up and move to the music via my digital front end. I mean I've also had wonderful listening sessions in the chair, who hasn't? But this sound grabbed me do deeply in the gut I had to cut loose and get my wifey dancing with me. She's been sick for so long, I knew this sound would get her moving. That also beats my musings about the soundstage and the tonality and all that: Alexandra has been battling a still un-diagnosed auto-immune disease for a year. The most she can do is work in the garden to get some relief from the pain. But music, played on the right system, can get her movin'. The Liquid Gold and Audeze LCD-3's (what she was wearing, as I rocked the LCD-X) had us entranced. Sorry, but f___ audiophile vernacular right now. This is what it's all about for me. Take that as subjective garbage if you want. Me, I'm havin' a blast dancing with my wifey right now, rockin' the Liquid Gold and Audeze's...

 

 

I also tested the single-ended outputs of the LAu. I love the fact that he chose to use the dual Neutrik outputs that accommodate XLR and 1/4", as well as the 4-pin output. I believe he's also added additional outputs on an updated version of the amplifier. For the 1/4" output I chose Grado 325i's, B&O H6, and, thanks to the suggestion of a fellow Head-Fier (will post user name ASAP) my Audio Technica AD900X. Some people expressed concern over a hiss in the amplifier with different impedance's, and so a few asked me to try other cans than my top two references (Audeze and Sennheiser) and this particular user asked me to try the 900X because people reported hearing awful noise with it on the LAu. I'm not sure if it's because I've got clean power in my home office, or if the Nordost Quantum power products I have underneath the whole system kept the noise level down - but while I heard a slight hiss with the 900X with no signal playing, the moment I fed a signal through the amp it became inaudible. So that issue didn't bother me. I also came up in the home stereo era, so a lil noise when no music was playing was sometimes part of the game unfortunately. As I said in my response in the thread regarding the reported noise with the 900X and LAu: I'm not concerned with the noise or the performance of the amplifier on a bench or when there's no music being pumped through it. I care when the music plays! And with the music pumpin', the AD900X was airy, dynamic, and magnificently spacious. The Grado's were fantastic with singer/songwriter stuff, rock-n-roll, and even ambient electronic. The B&O H6's displayed extension in the lower frequency extremes with the Liquid Gold that I've never experienced before with those headphones. When playing albums like Shlohmo's Bad Vibes on the H6's the bass was far more impressive, with regard to detail and transparency as well, than I've given these cans credit for in the past. Nothing like the power and clarity of a new amp to show you what your cans can really do! By the way: I used high gain for the Audeze's, HD800's, 900X and Grados. Low gain on the others.

 

 

 

Using Analog Front-End:

 

Man, playing underground dance music on this rig was scrumptious. Especially with the Audeze LCD-XC's and Double Helix Cables Complement OCC litz prototype cable (dual XLR) and the Wywires 4-pin XLR cables! The HD800 was also thumping and smooth as silk. One of my favorite albums to listen to on this rig was Nosaj Thing's Home LP on 12". The sound was liquid and wide-open at the same time. Like water spreading out evenly over a sheet of glass. The audible ripples moved seamlessly, it was aw-inspiring. One of my favorite tracks on the record is "Glue" a track that's got terrific depth of field on a killer sound system. There are these synth stabs and pads that are seemingly triggered all over the soundstage. It's like sonic popcorn going off occasionally in this black background. The sound is captivating. I've heard systems that aren't resolving clog up the dimensionality of this effect. No such worry with the Liquid Gold. There was tons of room, tons of space, and the elements all had space to breath and exist apart sonically, while remaining within the musical composition, keeping the rhythm flowing. For a change of pace I pulled out my James Blake 7" UK single pressing of "Limit to Your Love". The man does things with the Roland TB-303 on this track that truly boggle my mind. This track has become well-known for its bottom-end power in the two-channel audiophile space. Listening to it on LCD-X and XC's was like hearing some of the most musically engaging two-channel in-room systems I've heard: Especially when they pressurize the room nicely. The weight and velocity of the 303 wobblies in the bass-line were over-powering, but not aggressively so. There was a smoothness and continuous-ness to the bass that made it resplendent. I couldn't get enough. It slammed with authority and control. What a sonic treat.

 

 

Then I had to check things out with softer, singer/songwriter material. I wanted to feel the emotive capabilities of the amp in the system. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say I wanted to test if the amp, playing music that gets to me emotionally, would help make that magical connection. I grabbed my LCD-X and Double Helix dual-XLR cable for this one. The first thing I had to hear was Ani DiFranco's "Hearse" of What Side Are You On? on 12". This record is a wonderfully stripped-down, splendid showcase of DiFranco's poetic and musical talents. "Hearse" has become our song: Alexandra and me. It's a drop-dead gorgeous love song. It's got everything you need in a great love song: A Big heart; through minimal elements. There's plenty of space between the notes, allowing for my mind to wonder, considering great memories, and not-so-great ones, while listening to the song at the same time. It's beautiful. Honestly, and you can call me a lil' b____ for admitting it: But sometimes I tear up listening to this song. But only with a resolute system that's also got soul - that intangible thing I mentioned above: The sparkle in the system that connects you so deeply to the music you forget about analog vs. digital, and technical specifications and all the BS, and it's just you and the music left. With my trusty Audeze LCD-X, the Liquid Gold pulled off, perhaps, the most emotively charged presentation of Ani DiFranco's "Hearse" that I've ever heard (I haven't heard her do this one live yet). Again, there I was, calling in the wifey. She put on the LCD-3's (via Wywires 4-pin XLR cables) and we both sat there, eventually laughing through tears - as we watched each other start to lose it, we laughed our asses off. It was an awesome moment. You don't get much better than that.  I had equally engrossing experiences using Mr. Speakers Alpha Dogs (via single-ended- I need a balanced cable for these suckers) and Mad Dogs (balanced). In fact there wasn't a headphone mentioned above that didn't marry well to the Cavalli Liquid Gold. That's another knotch for the LAu: As mentioned above - it plays well with others! From DAC or phonostage - to various musical genres! It just goes about its business and does its job better than almost every other amplifier I've heard. Perhaps the most musically engaging of them all actually - but I'm still figuring that out!

 

Overall, I can't find a single thing to gripe about with the Cavalli Audio Liquid Gold. And for the objectivists: Sorry, we just experience things differently. I'm a music addict, no-joke. I need it on all the time. Especially if the TV's not on or I'm not reading something. Yeah I'm OCD, mixed with a bunch of other weirdness believe me. But I love music. I can say that with all of my heart. With the Liquid Gold, listening to music was (and is: I'm listening to it right now - back to Recondite's Hinterland LP through Audeze LCD-X's) as pleasurable and exciting as it gets for me outside of the dance-club. As a matter of fact, at times I thought I was in the dance club listening to this work of audio art! If you wanna hear the bleeding edge of solid-state in personal audio, check out the Cavalli Liquid Gold. I mentioned that loving this amplifier was a blessing, and a curse above, but I never mentioned why it's also a curse. It's a curse because I have to figure out a way to buy it now!

 

 

 

27 Comments:

Thanks for your impressions bro!  I agree, its ability to make nearly anything sound good is pretty amazeballs.
Any thoughts on how the Liquid Gold compares to the Headamp GSX-2 or a well built KGSShv? Thanks. 
Thanks @warrenpchi!! and @smial1966  - unfortunatelt I've only heard the Headamp GSX at shows, and I don't believe I've ever auditioned the KGSShv. Using my Alpha Dogs w/ the Headamp - which is what I used when I heard it - I'd say the LAu has the capacity to go further into the frequency spectrum  - both highs and lows. But, like I said: That's a first impression! I also remember the LAu breathing alot more, more dimensionality. It would be a fun A/B!! Thanks for reading  
Man, I need a pair of those Audio Technica AD900x.  
yeah, you do!! You got all the others I don't ;)
I was glad this Head-FIer (gotta look back and check his handle) asked me to try it w/ the LAu!!
WOW - doin a direct comparison w/ my Audeze LCD-X and HD800s via the LAu right now - same source, same cables (@scootermafia's Double Helix Molecule w/ Fusion balanced) and the differences are astounding! I'm finding the LCD-X's bottom end to be far more extended and ripple-like, but controlled - where the HD800 has the usual bass power, but not nearly as textural as usual. Goes to show you any can may sound different with other systems! They both sound terrific - but this has been VERY interesting... 
I know this is off topic but I could not help notice that you have a traveler. How do you like it? Have you compared it to any other TT's out there in it's price range? Ortofon 2m Black? I'm sorry but I'm looking at buying a nice TT and there's soo many options out there it's ridiculous. TTVJ has the platform, dustcover and TT for $1800 and I just got an apex peak/volcano from there so maybe a small disco. Do you think that's a good deal?
Any chance to try and see if it can drive the HE6?
Great review as always, Mike! On another note, I'm looking out for a musical yet sufficiently powerful SS headamp to drive my HD800s. Any recommendation in the $1500-$2000 price range? thanks!
Rossliew, the Questyle CMA800R has been garnering very favourable reviews and retails for $1,500. Here the reviewer talks about it's performance driving the HD800 -  http://headfonics.com/2014/04/cma800r-current-mode-headphone-amp-by-questyle/
Nice review, Mike. I do also own an EAR HP4. IMHO, it's the best I've heard with the HD800. It doens't have the juice to drive orthos, I know (I also own the HE-6 and the LCD-XC).
Which do you prefer to listen to your HD800? The EAR or the LAu? Best, Erico
smial1966 - thanks for the link. Will read up on it. Cheers
@jibzilla  - NO worries! Glad you asked! I LOVE my VPI Traveler - I was actually honored to be the first to review it for Positive Feedback two years ago (I knew Sheila Weisfeld well - the designers wife who passed - and inspired the Traveler). HERE'S A LINK to my original review of the Traveler, and, in addition, HERE'S A LINK to my follow-up review of the Traveler w/ the Gingko Audio Cloud9T base. I also own a VPI Scout - but I actually prefer the Traveler w/ the Cloud9T iso base to my Scout! I can't offer a higher recommendation for a turntable in that price range! I say go for it!! 
 
@joshuachew  - I don't have an HE6 on-hand to try with the LAu - but judging from my experience with it - I'm sure the LAu will drive it with EASE!
 
Thanks @Rossliew!!!! I really appreciate it - in that price range @smial1966 has a GREAT suggestion, from what I hear. I'd also look into Schiit Audio  - their amps always amaze me for the price! I'm sure you can find something suitable in their line for less! Just reach out and tell Jason I sent ya! HeadAmp is also doing some cool stuff these days. I'd look/listen to some Schiit Audio stuff first  - sounds like what you're looking for
 
@ericohgb  - I actually LOVE the E.A.R HP4 w/ my Audeze's! Currently I'm running 2 NOS GE tubes, and 2 NOS RCA's - it kicks ass! Here's a tip for the Audeze's (and it goes against the grain I know) use the Hi Z output! and be SURE the power amp/thru button is pushed IN! You'll notice a slight jump in gain - don't know why! I actually prefer the LAu with the HD800s with electronic, and experimental music - and the HP4 for acoustic/jazz, and that sort of thing.
 
Thanks for the feedback and interaction guys!!
I had the LG for a week and I found it to be the most ultimate headphone listening experience.
Jealous, Jealous!
Great review!
Great review, would be curious to hear which you prefer between this and the Studio Six as they both seem to be world class amps, and similarly priced too. If you could only pick one.....
iIs' certainly turning out to be precisely that @Icenine2!! The more in burns-in the better it gets - and the more addicted I get!!
Thanks @solblack !!
 
and @goldendarko  - TOUGH question, and since I was put to the fire recently on here (somebody in the Studio Six thread posed the same question, and said most reviewers would dodge the question so they don't piss people off - but... I shoot from the gut and this community is important to me):
 
So - if I could only pick one between the LAu and S6?
The Liquid Gold - and believe me, after saving for my E.A.R HP4 and Studio Six - this is NOT goin to be an easy purchase for me!!!!
 
But - with those three - I think I have a helluva reference system (or systems) for my reviews at the various sites I write for!
and that's been a goal of mine for three years - to have a top reference system for personal audio!!
Nice review! Seems like a lot of reference SS amps to choose from now, with more coming later this year (A8, for example). Looking forward to reading more comparisons b/n the likes of the the LAu, Auralic Taurus, GS-X mk.2, etc. 
May I make one suggestion?  Stop using possessives for the headphones (LCD-3s, not "LCD-3's")...minor point, but it actually makes it easier to read when you remove the possessive.
Can anyone compare this to a single or dual-mono Questyle CMA800R setup (assuming either setup is in my price range)
thanks for noticing that @kugino!! My mistake on that. GOOD point
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