Pros: Excellent sound from an affordable solid state amp
Cons: Would be better if there was one model with a "Caliente" switch; I don't like wall warts
I received a PM from Oriel Mendelovitz, who is the founder of Purity Audio, asking me if I would like to review his K.I.C.A.S. headphone amp. It looked to be an attractively made amp, and being a discreet design and not using op-amps, it seemed to be value-priced, so I decided to give it a listen. Information can be found here: Purity Audio
The amp is pretty simple – one set of RCA inputs, one ¼ headphone output. It lives in an attractive but not overly fancy metal black case. It uses an outboard “wall wart” power supply, which, all things being equal, I prefer not to see. But the amp is really excellent sounding, and so I ended up being able to forget all about that small issue.
Oriel specifically asked me to use a high end source to test the KICAS. So I used my Denon SACD player in addition to my normal iMod >VCap dock set-up. I also briefly used my analog rig. Headphones used were primarily the Denon D5000, with short stints with all of my other home headphones (see sig).
First, a glamour shot:
The short story here is that the KICAS sounds TERRIFIC. It’s incredibly enjoyable to listen to. It’s highly transparent, very detailed without being bright, and really eminently musical. The mids are nice and lush but still VERY transparent. The midrange on this amp is actually a real joy. I was very impressed. It may be important to note that my KICAS was the “Caliente” version, which is supposedly “tube-like” in its voicing. I don’t think it quite sounds like a tube amp, but it definitely has a really enjoyable midrange presentation. Female vocals were incredibly well served. Sharon den Adel’s haunting vocals from Within Temptation’s “”Jillian” were spine-tingling.
That album also has some very deep bass on it, and the KICAS really DOES kick ass down deep. It has very controlled, VERY deep bass. I mean really wicked deep bass. Honestly, no amp I have ever heard rivaled the bass I could get from the D5000’s like the KICAS. It bettered even the Blue Circle SBH and Meier Audio Opera in this regard! I was stunned. The CONTROL that the KICAS exerted over the D5000 and DX1000 was really something to hear. Highly impressive.
On top, the amp is detailed but not at all bright. It may lack just the tiniest bit of top end air and extension versus the Blue Circle SBH, but this never detracted from the music at all, and in some cases I am sure would be a benefit. The KICAS was clean as a whistle too, with no treble grain. The cool instrumentation at the beginning of Jerry Garcia and David Grisman’s take on “Sitting Here in Limbo” was very well rendered.
The soundstaging was very good, but here it was not the equal of the SBH. The soundstage was enjoyable, stable, and believable, but it wasn’t as deep or wide as the SBH or my better tube amps. Nonetheless, it was engaging and convincing. That is wasn’t better than my amps costing 2-3 times as much is no embarrassment! Its soundstaging was certainly quite good. This is where perhaps the extra money does buy better performance.
In addition to the SBH, I also compared it to the Travagan’s White, While the White is very good indeed, has more features and is $100 less in price, The KICAS delivers better sound. The KICAS simply sounds “higher end”, in all of the good ways – more detailed AND smoother, and with an overall higher level of transparency and musicality. This isn’t to take away from the White – it’s a very nice little headamp and has a nice built-in DAC. But the KICAS Caliente is a level above.
In spite of the maker’s description of the Caliente as tube-like in its sound, I found it only a touch warm of neutral, and this was very welcome, and never at the expense of transparency or believability. I basically consider the amp to be neutral, but it certainly isn’t bright. Anyone with slightly bright headphones would be wise to get the Caliente version – if you have super-warm headphones already, I would advise sticking with the regular KICAS.
While the KICAS has plenty of gain, it did not have so much that the volume control was unusable, like many amps, and I found this to be a huge plus. I could actually use the first half of the volume control. It has no issue driving any of my headphones though, including the 600 ohm Beyers.
So what do we have here? We have a $399 solid state home headphone amp that proves once and for all that you can get a good home amp for not much more (or in some cases less!) than a portable amp, that delivers much better performance, and in fact delivers performance that rivals much more expensive amps. The KICAS Caliente is incredibly easy to recommend, and in fact, is such an easy recommendation it’s hard to be enthusiastic enough about it. This level of performance for the money is really a pleasure. Nice job, Purity Audio!
UPDATE: auditioning of KICAS non-Caliente (regular) version
Oriel at Purity Audio was nice enough to send me a regular KICAS (non-Caliente version) to audition. The plan was to compare it to the Caliente side-by-side, but this was not to be, as unfortunately I loaned my Caliente to another head-fier who has vanished with my amp
I did spend some time listening to the regular KICAS, though, and from memory I will say that I was quite surprised that it sounds much more similar to the Caliente than I expected. The regular KICAS is still very smooth, nicely detailed, with an a very neutral, even sound. It is neither bright, nor bass-deficient. Just as I found the Caliente not to be overly warm, I do not find the KICAS to be overly lean, or even lean at all. It's smooth and pleasant to listen to.
In almost every way the KICAS and Caliente sound very, very similar. Without being able to do a direct comparison it's almost impossible to define exactly how much difference there is, as I am certain that the difference between the two is quite subtle. If one has slightly lean headphones, it makes sense to get the Caliente, and conversely the regular KICAS would be the way to go if one has warm-ish headphones. But in neither case is either Purity Audio amp so colored that matching is all that critical. I enjoyed both versions with all the headphones I tried.