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Here's a three way headphone amp comparison I did last spring for Headwize. It may help people out who are trying to imaginewhat the ss vs. tube thing might mean to their listening experience.


Here’s the stream-of-consciousness transcript of my listening notes from a lost headphone weekend. I need to get this done/posted before the Cary 300sei shows up, or I’ll lose what little’s left of my mind.

Warning: This is a LONG MOTHER OF A POST. Take a bathroom break before you start. (I’ve been reading too much Gizmo Rosenburg!)

Note: all this gear is thoroughly broken in. Warmed up with signal for one hour before listening. Source is CAL Delta transport, Apogee Wyde Eye digital IC, Alpha II D/A, Nordost Blue Heaven IC to phone amps.

2/10 /01
12:30pm – Phtographed accumulated gear. I must be nuts!

1pm – Started with Creek OBH11 and Grado 200’s listening to Appalachian Journey. Clean, clear – why did I venture off on this quest? Switched to Senn 600’s – smoother, more fine detail – less brash and forward. ( A relief.)

Looking at 15 CDs selected for the test, decide to simplify. No vinyl. No swapping tubes around initially. Maybe later.

Moved to my new favorite “If I could only use one disc to evaluate everything” disc: Chesky’s An Introduction to SACD – dual layer – regular CD and SACD versions of 12 cuts, 12 artists from Livingston Taylor & solo guitar with help from Carly Simon through Christy Baron and Rebecca Pidgeon, McCoy Tyner, Clark Terry on out to David Chesky’s “Resurrection” (everything and the kitchen sink – choir, orchestra – talk about complex sound!)

So back to the Creek and Senns. The first time through I’ll explain what each cut is. After that, just the number.

1) Christy Baron – clear, detailed, decent extension on upright bass. Cymbals, voice clear. Whole thing slightly thin and ethereal. Informing, not inspiring. No toe-tapping, chair-dancing.

2) David Johansen & the Harry Smiths – thin. No guts or sense of space.

3) Livingston Taylor – All head tone and guitar harmonics. Carly’s “tone” is missing.

4) Couldn’t listen to it.

5) Paquito D’Rivera – Reeds and brass all run together. Percussion lacks drive.
6) McCoy Tyner – Flat, harmonically thin and bland.

7) Carla Lother – body-less piano. Voice not “grounded”.

Stopping to switch to MG Head. Notes getting repetitive. . . . bored.

MG HEAD and SENNS – back to start

1) Holy S$&T! Singing is produced by air – breath – moving past vocal cords and out through the singer’s mouth. I knew that, but now I KNOW it. These musicians are having FUN! Tough to take notes bouncing around in chair drumming on note pad.
2) David J’s voice has great texture. Uses “gravel” and shouty style to great effect. Can just imagine him in a juke joint.
3) Liv’s voice fills out a bit. Stil nasal – but I’ve heard him live, unamplified, and that’s his voice. Sounds like he switched to a much better guitar. Carly’s voice hast that gorgeous, sultry honeyed tone. Liv’s picking technique has blossomed, and you can hear him smile.
4) Dave’s True Story (no, not mine!) Couldn’t listen to this before. Singer’s voice has an edge to it. Without body support it’s hard to take. Now it’s listenable. Drums, sax and trumpets have realistic timbre.
Much harder to move along through the disc now. Keep “just listening.”

5) Switched back to Grados. Very rhythmically alive, more front of hall perspective. Brightness of phones is eased by tubes (all Mullard.) Exciting sound, but tough to relax into.
6) Really nice bass and sax! Boppin’ with the Grados!
7) Head/grados better than Creek/Senns here, but halfway through the “shouty” forward upper mids - vocals and piano – are fatiguing. Back to Senns. Oh. She’s got a breathy, complex voice and is backing herself. This was lost over the Grados and was just annoying. Impact from upright bass, guitar runs and piano power chords remain distinct as they really get rolling. Love to see them live.
8) John Faddis – low key big band cut. Opens like a wind ensemble. Wow. Harmonically and timbrally rich as Ben Jerry’s ice cream, but each part remains distinct.
9) The Conga Kings – toe tappin’, head swayin’ rhythmic drive. Upright bass and whole battalion of percussion. Not my cup of tea, but holds my interest. Great test of PRAT. Switched to Grados. The bass went away! Blurrier transients.
11) Terry Clark – Startled by Terry clearing his throat during piano intro.

Berning Micro ZOTL
1) More fine detail than ever, body still there, but everything is more tightly defined. Rhytms are taut.
2) The jangle of the guitars is more distince now. You can hear Johansen’s voice slap off the walls – a sound booth – not the same room as the musicians.
3) Liv is picking near bridge for greater zip and attack. Can clearly hear difference between wound and plain strings.
4) Perspective closer than Head. Song swings rhythmically. Vocal micro-dynamics are spectacular.
5) Incredible detail. Lightning fast transients. I’m sure someone who knows saxophones and trumpets well could tell one brand from another with this combination.
6) More of the same. I need to swap to warmer 12AT7. (300B sound has taken over my brain!)
Sunday – ZOTL warmed up overnight with Telefunken 12AT7’s.

5) This is where I baled Saturday. Now I’m drawn into the burnished brass and reeds. The percussion hs more heft and more speed. (These two don’t usually travel together.) Puts rhythms on a stronger footing.
6)Great warm tone on sax and bass, fine detail and touch on drums.
7) Same emotional reaction as with Head. More information, musicall rendered, makes it even more appealing.

And so on. Same emotional involvement as the Head, enhanced a notch further by greater speed, clarity, detail that comes with either fan-Freakin’-tastic output transformers, or the elimination of them altogether. What many people think of as “tube sound” is really mediocre transformer sound. The MG Head succeeds by going single-ended and staying simple with quality parts. The trannies probably aren’t great. For the money, how could they be?

The ZOTL succeeds through brilliant engineering and high quality parts sold direct to demonstrate the value of the patented then a design. Gizmo’s right:: this sucker would be $1,500 plus through a dealer. Then again, the Head would $500-$600. . .

The Head can be appreciated through a portable CD player. It gets better with a better source. I wouldn’t bother with the ZOTL unless I had a really good source. The subtle gains would be lost, and you might hear what your souce is doing wrong more than you care to.

Phew! Made it all the way through, did you? Please et me know whether or not you found it useful/entertaining/(other).