Pros: Functional versatility, highly tube-rollable, inexpensive price, very good overall sound
Cons: Lacks some clarity & speed/agility
published on January 12, 2014
- download a printable 6-page PDF version of this review (right-click the link & save target, or just tap for mobile devices)
- download a printable 7-page PDF version of the notes that were written for this review. The notes should be considered a supplement and not a replacement for this review (as the review is not straight from the notes).
(photo note: case pictured below is the optional hard case sold separately on Garage1217's Web site)
I found out about Garage1217 several months ago, through a Head-Fier who listed "Project Starlight" in his signature which piqued my curiosity and got me on Google to find out what that was. It was the "Project Ember" on their site that really caught my eye though, largely in part to its intriguing specs. I finally asked Garage1217 about a review sample several weeks ago, which they generously provided. Thanks goes out to them for providing the review sample.
Note: the time duration for all listening for this review was just about 2 weeks. Not quite as long as what I'm typically used to (most of my past reviews have been of equipment that I owned and were done over months), so I wasn't able to get as familiar as I would've liked with the amp and the set of tubes that I received with it. My listening impressions should not be seen as finalized and are likely subject to change.
- Source component: NAD T533 (DVD player)
- Analog interconnects: Emotiva X-Series RCA (2 pairs: 1 from source to Gilmore Lite, 1 from Gilmore Lite's loop output to Project Ember)
- Headphone amplifier: HeadAmp Gilmore Lite w/ DPS (as a point of contrast)
- Headphones: AKG K712, Audio-Technica ATH-AD2000 & ATH-AD2000X, Sennheiser HD598
Set of tubes used with the amp included:
- stock 6N1P gold grid
- RCA 12AU7A cleartop
- Russian Voskhod 12AX7VKA
- GE Smoked Glass 6DJ8
- GE 6BZ7 (mine, not received from Garage1217)
- Boards of Canada - Tomorrow's Harvest
- Carlos Kleiber & VPO - Beethoven 5 & 7
- Half Moon Run - Dark Eyes
- Julia Fischer - Bach Concertos, Paganini: 24 Caprices
- Katy Perry - Prism
- Massive Attack - Mezzanine
- OSI - Fire Make Thunder
- Phantogram - Eyelid Movies
- Sarah Jarosz - Build Me Up From Bones
- The Civil Wars - The Civil Wars
- The Crystal Method - Tweekend
- The Devin Townsend Project - Deconstruction
- Trivium - Shogun
- Yggdrasil - Prose Edda
Foreword & Garage1217
Before getting into the review proper, I'd like to share why the Project Ember caught my interest, particularly when I'm not usually a fan of tube or hybrid amps in general (I'm just wary of the fragility of tubes and don't really like their aesthetic; I vastly prefer flat & sleek designs when it comes to audio equipment):
- Advertised features & specifications, particularly the power output chart, which showed that it was fully capable of driving any dynamic or planar magnetic headphones from 32 all the way up to 600 Ohms.
- Garage1217's Web site, which consisted mostly of tech-speak, as opposed to marketing-speak with superlative adjectives to describe sound quality.
- Attractively-low price at a relatively inexpensive $325 for the built version, which I needed as I'm not a DIY-er and can't solder to save my life.
- It was American-made and -supported. I always like to support American businesses whenever I can, particularly small ones.
- Eye-catching aesthetics, specifically the clear plexiglass top, though I didn't like the open-frame-style chassis because I saw it as a dust trap.
And as a brief note on Garage1217, I want to add that my experience with them was top-notch. Customer interaction is always a major factor for me in deciding where to spend my money and I'm happy to report that Jeremy @ Garage1217 was a pleasure to deal with. He was courteous, patient, and took the time to answer all of the questions that I had, usually in very extensive e-mails. His level of accessibility & communication was simply excellent and it was clear that not only was he knowledgeable, he was also very customer-focused. He reminded me of why I prefer to support American businesses; there was simply no way that any international business could've come close to matching everything he offered from the beginning all the way to end, which included taking care of return shipping procedures.
Operation, Functionality, & Handling
Garage1217 advertises the Project Ember as having selectable gain (2 settings: Lo & Hi) & output resistance (3 settings: 0.1, 35, & 120 Ohms), and if that weren't enough, compatibility with a wide array of 6V & 12V dual triode tubes, plus auto biasing and pre-amp output, which made it probably the most functionally versatile amp that I've ever come across. I kept the amp configured to low gain though and never needed to set it to high gain, even for the AKG K712, as there was always enough headroom on the volume pot for those headphones whether using the 6V tubes or the 12-volt 12AX7VKA, or even the 12AU7A. The only reason I'd think anyone would need to use the high gain setting would be for even-more-inefficient headphones like the AKG K1000 or HiFiMan HE-6. I'd imagine the low gain would be sufficient for most other headphones, including those up to 300 Ohms (which is typical of Sennheiser & Beyerdynamic models).
Individual Tube Assessments
The sound of the Project Ember varied with each tube so I decided to break down each one:
- Stock 6N1P gold grid (w/ primarily Med output resistance but also Lo)
This stock default tube for the Project Ember was overall very good-sounding with a nicely filled-out mid-range, decent bass with good quantity & quality, and no obvious detriments in treble. Compared to the other tubes, specifically the 6BZ7, it was a touch more passive/laid-back- and spatial-sounding. Essentially a good, basic all-rounder for my set of headphones and it functionally drove the K712 well enough too, but only in terms of volume. The K712 sounded somewhat "dead" on the 6N1P but significantly more alive on the Russian Voskhod 12AX7VKA (more on that in that tube's assessment).
- RCA 12AU7A cleartop (w/ primarily Lo output resistance but also Med)
This was provided to me as an effective low-gain tube for low-impedance sensitive headphones, and as expected it provided good volume-control precision for the Audio-Technica AD2K/AD2KX. It had the least amount of tube hiss too, which was nice, as all of the other tubes had somewhat distracting hiss on the AD2K. This tube had a proportionately moderate amount of bass, mid-bass, & mid-range overall that particularly helped to offset the HD598's relative treble tilt, but it worked nicely with the AD2K/AD2KX as well and made them sound more powerful (with more bass force & impact), heavier, & "meaner". It essentially turned the AD2K into more of a bass-growling monster on metal music as opposed to a percussive speedfreak (which is the AD2K's characteristic on the Gilmore Lite). I wouldn't recommend this tube for any inefficient headphones though, even with the amp's high-gain setting available, as the K712 sounded weak, wimpy, & dull when driven by this tube. For general purposes, I'd be inclined to say that a 12AU7 is a great inexpensive type of tube to have on hand for sensitive headphones, and this specific RCA-issue tube sounded very good indeed.
The only major fault of the RCA 12AU7 was its inability to audibly match the blistering speed & agility of the Gilmore Lite when used with the AD2K, but otherwise it was very good with the AD2KX and HD598, specifically with its open 3D-like soundstage, tonal depth (especially in the mid-bass), and more powerful bass.
- Russian Voskhod 12AX7VKA (w/ only Med output resistance)
The 12AX7VKA had it all over the other tubes when it came to driving specifically the K712. Not that the K712 sounded bad on the stock 6N1P, 6DJ8, and 6BZ7; it sounded very good indeed on those tubes with only slight noticeable variations in the mid-range, bass, & soundstaging. There was very little to fault with those three tubes when used with the K712, they all sounded really good, and if I hadn't had the 12AX7VKA, I wouldn't have complained. But the 12AX7VKA clearly took the K712 to another level that was enough of a sonic improvement that it was apparent that every other tube, including the Gilmore Lite, under-drove the K712. On the 12AX7VKA, the K712 simply sounded more dynamic in the musical sense, properly ranging from "piano" (p) to "forte" (f) and everything on the scale in-between. On the other tubes, the K712 sounded more like it went from only "mezzo-piano" (mp) to "mezzo-forte" (mf). The K712 also sounded substantially more physical and immediate/direct on this tube, with simply more of a "presence factor" almost like that of an Audeze headphone. It also developed the most powerful bass on this tube while retaining an open, expansive soundstage at the same time that didn't detract from the headphone's innate "separated" sound. But the most obvious sign that the 12AX7VKA was the only tube that properly drove the K712 was the effect as volume was turned up—it proportionately increased treble, mid-range, and bass simultaneously, while none of the other tubes did that and actually seemed to subtract bass as volume was turned up.
This tube was clearly the best one for the K712 specifically, and I'd imagine that it'd also be good-to-great for other inefficient headphones as well, specifically the HD800, Audeze LCD-2/LCD-3, and likely the HiFiMan HE-400/HE-500 too (not that I've heard the HE-500 though, just a guess on that). Another possible similar high-gain tube that Project Ember owners or buyers might want to look into is a Tung-Sol 12AX7, which I read might be a further sonic improvement over the 12AX7VKA.
- GE Smoked Glass 6DJ8 (w/ primarily Med output resistance but also Lo)
This tube was an excellent all-rounder that paired up very well with every headphone, improving on the 6N1P specifically at driving the K712, making it sound a bit more lively and with more mid-range presence. The only notable detraction with this tube was its amount of hiss, which was quite noticeable on the AD2K/X and HD598, but nothing that was too distracting once music was playing. The 6DJ8 had a very noticeable mid-range & mid-bass presence that really made everything sound filled-out, weighted, heavy, & powerful, but not ponderous or inert, while maintaining a clear 3D soundstage that had as much depth as width. Granted, it didn't have a "huge" soundstage, but it was large enough that it was a clear improvement over the Gilmore Lite, which had a very 2D-flat, compressed soundstage (with nearly zero 3D depth).
If this tube was indicative of 6DJ8-type tubes in general, then I'd highly recommend one for every Project Ember owner or buyer. It was a fantastic tube that worked particularly well with vocals (male & female), plus the instruments that generally make up pop, rock, metal, & electronic music—i.e., bass guitars, overdriven guitars, and synthesized & acoustic bass.
- NOS GE 6BZ7 (w/ primarily Med output resistance but also Lo)
I still had this tube as a leftover from a Schiit Lyr (in which it's used as the stock tube) that I previously owned, so of course I had to try it out in the Project Ember. It was another good all-rounder, but I'd slot its overall performance between the stock 6N1P and 6DJ8. It wasn't as wide- & spacious-sounding as the stock 6N1P and had more of an upfront, closed-in presentation. Like the 6DJ8, the 6BZ7 also sounded good with male & female vocals, and had particularly strong & forceful bass (with maybe just a tad bit more quantity than the 6DJ8, but I wasn't completely sure on that), but it didn't seem to be as clear-sounding as the 6DJ8, and definitely not as spatial (with particularly less 3D depth).
Since 6BZ7-type tubes are inexpensive, they're probably worth trying for those who don't mind amassing a collection of tubes, but I'd probably recommend against them for those who'd prefer having just a limited set of purpose-driven tubes.
Overall Tube & Amp Assessment
I found the 12AU7, 12AX7VKA, and 6DJ8 to be the stand-out tubes in the set, each with its own purpose: the 12AU7 for both Audio-Technicas, the 12AX7VKA for the K712, and the 6DJ8 as an alternative for general-purpose use with all of the headphones. The other two tubes, the stock 6N1P and my own GE 6BZ7, didn't really offer much sonically compared to the other three. If I was selecting the most preferential tubes for my own purposes for my own Project Ember, I'd definitely want to get a 12AU7 and 6DJ8 again (probably an Amperex Orange Globe 6DJ8 in addition to the GE Smoked Glass to compare them), and likely the 12AX7VKA as well but I'd want to try a Tung-Sol 12AX7 too for comparison.
Being able to sample a variety of tubes in the Project Ember was extremely helpful and allowed me to gauge its overall level of performance, which seemed to be very good at any level. Though the Gilmore Lite did beat it in two specific aspects, which were clarity and speed/agility, I'd say that the Project Ember generally eclipsed the Gilmore Lite largely in part due to its soundstaging, richer tonal balance (the Gilmore Lite can be considered to have a "thin/light" tonal balance), & mid-range qualities that were consistent regardless of which tube was used.
The Project Ember probably won't amp every headphone to its full sonic potential, even via tube-rolling, but at $325, does that matter? How many other amps can functionally drive headphones spanning the gamut from low-impedance sensitive types all the way up to the most inefficient planar magnetics? When every aspect of the Project Ember is considered, from the vendor's level of service & support (in the USA, no less), to its inexpensive $325 (USD, built) price, to everything about it technically, and the sonic possibilities through tube rolling, it's amazingly unprecedented. I'd call it the premier absolute must-buy headphone amp for almost everyone! Of course there are better-sounding amps available, most of which cost a lot more, but for those who just want an amp that can drive any set of dynamic-type headphones, the Project Ember is the clear solution.
And even if the Project Ember is over your budget, Garage1217 makes a few other amps that are even more inexpensive, down to the (built L1) $160 Project Starlight!