Blutarsky and I got together for a mini-meet two weekends ago, and we wanted to write up our thoughts on the various equipment we listened to. We mostly listened to portable amps with a variety of headphones, and to both Apogee DAC products - the USB/SPDIF mini-DAC and firewire Duet, used as headphones amps via 1/4" out, and as a source to an HE60/HEV70.
If we didn't discuss something or some combo in our dialog, we either didn't do listen to that combo or we didn't think it was remarkable enough to discuss. Without notes on other things, we may not be able to answer your questions about things we haven't reported on. Sorry.
Primary Source: iMod with portable V-Cap dock, using barqy made silk insulated silver interconnects.
Amps used with Primary Source (iMod): RSA Predator, Headamp Pico, TTVJ Portable Millet Hybrid, iBasso D2 Viper, iBasso D2 Boa, Meier Headsix, Headstage Lyrix Total Pro, Penguinamp Caffeine Pro (I totally zotzed out and didn't bring Micro Stack from my bedside rig).
Headphones tested with portable amps: KSC35, KSC-75 recabled with Canare L4E5C 605 cable to a switchcraft 3.5mm, D2000 APS V2 cable, AKG K240 600ohm Monitor, Proline 2500, Yamaha HP-1, Grado HP-2 JGSUWBR, Grado PS-1.
Alternate source: Macbook Pro 15" with Apogee Duet Firewire set for 24/96, and Apogee Mini-DAC Optical set for 24/96 and USB DAC set for 24/48 - only tested with Grado HP-2, and Denon D2000 as Headphone Amp, and HE70/HE60 with both Apogees used as a DAC only.
So, here begins our dialog, with our thoughts of various portable amps and headphones with iMod and portable V-Cap dock, HE60/HEV70 combo and two different Apogee DAC's:
Larry (HPA): The first amp we grabbed to listen to was the TTVJ Portable Millet Hybird. I've always felt this amp doesn't get the attention it deserves, and it basically sounds like a great desktop amp that happens to run on batteries and fit in a camera bag or fanny pack to take with you. And, it certainly doesn't look out of place strapped to my iMod and portable V-Caps dock. I would have to say that the TTVJ Portable Millett Hybrid was my favorite with HP-1000 and PS-1, also great with everything else, including D2000, PL2500, AKG240, Yamaha HP-1. It really filled in the mids on the Proline 2500, but never overdid it with any of the full size headphones. However, the gain is a little too high to effectively use it with my very sensitive custom IEM like Livewires or Freq Show, although it sounds good with them.
Scott (Blutarsky): Yeah, this amplifier blew my mind regarding its synergy with my High end Grados. It easily outperformed my EC-01 desktop tube amp and incredibly was competitive with my Zana Deux for musicality if not reference. Although we did not do a direct comparison between the TTVJ and the ZD (we will try that a later time to confirm my impressions), I cannot overstate how surprised I was by this little beauty; I’ll be buying one asap. I absolutely was loathe to sell my predator (fundage casualty for Zana Deux) but I liked the TTVJ Millet Hybrid even over the predator with the PS-1/HP-2 combo. This also was very good with my Westone ES-2 customs.
Larry: I felt the Predator (used as an amp only) was in second place to the TTVJ in terms of musicality and immersion, and first in micro-detail detail. It was above the Pico with everything except my Freq Show customs, which had better synergy with Pico than Predator and sounded better.
Scott: Agreed, but I was very surprised by the Pico and its synergy with my ES-2s - again I remember how much I loved the Hornet-M and Predator with my Westies (ES-2) and pretty much am an RSA house sound fanboy, but I have to give the nod to the PICO with the ES-2.
Larry: The D2 Viper (with THS4032 in main amp, and LM6172 in ground channel and tuned for IEM) was really nice with my IEM, and also nice with everything else. However, the PL2500 which were thin sounding with the D2, with recessed mids and some coldness to the sound.
If we had been able to swap the opamps to the LM6172 in the main amp and THS4032 in the ground channel, the sound would have been closer to the Predator and TTVJ, richer and warmer. So with PL2500 we switched to the D2 Boa which sounds similar to that opamp combo in the Viper. This clearly fixed the thin mids on the PL2500, but not as well as the TTVJ portable millet hybrid or Predator.
Scott: The $59 Caffeine Pro was better with ES2 than Lyrix, and as good as the Lyrix with Grados (better than the D2 with the wrong opamps). The budget amp of the mini-meet for sure! Just goes to prove that you don’t always get better or more enjoyable sound with each dollar spent. My biggest recommendation for the students / budget conscious out there goes to the Caffeine Pro.
Larry: Good cookies by the way. So, here was a surprise to me in an unlikely comparison. The D2000 vs Grado HP-2. The D2000 were surprisingly good through all of this, with similar frequency response, detail and power to the Grado HP-2, with the biggest discernible difference being the size of the soundstage - which was a little more recessed with D2000 (3rd row) and more upfront and forward with HP-2 (on stage). Rock music I thought we agreed that the HP-2 was clearly better because they are slightly faster, but we disagreed on the Jazz.
Scott: Yeah, I felt the HP-2 was still superior with Jazz but Larry felt the D2000 handled Jazz better solely due to sound-staging improvements. Switching to classic rock like Led Zeppelin the D2000 I felt the D2K began to shine, but it was the PS-1 that handed the classic Rock the best.
Larry: I agree, the PS-1 and HP-2 handled classic rock better, but I was surprised at how well the D2000 did with Led Zeppelin “Kashmir” vs when we tried We the Kings “Secret Valentine” which didn’t sound as good. It seems to be in the mastering of the old classic rock groups like AC/DC, Led Zep, Molly Hatchett, Kiss, Aerosmith etc, that I find certain headphones simply shine. I like that the D2000 to throw up a soundstage with Jazz and Classical, and still come forward with classic rock. I have also found that I liked Darth Beyer standard cup with classic rock like Led Zep, where they would excel too, but I think those are too recessed for my tastes with other music. Certainly individual tastes account for much of our impressions, and those of the readers will vary too. I wish we had the Darths for this meet, to compare with the D2000, since both are rock headphones that present a less forward soundstage.
Scott: We can try that at a later date, maybe at the Colorado Front range meet this weekend…..<shameless plug>
Larry: We've mentioned the Grado PS-1 and HP-2 a few times, so lets dig into those headphones a little deeper.
Scott: Okay, just don't hurt them.
Larry: Almost every time I have heard the PS-1 (twice) I thought they were dark and boomy vs the HP-2, and would vastly prefer the HP-2 over them. However, driving the PS-1 with the TTVJ Portable Millet Hybrid made me want some PS-1 badly - not badly enough to trade my HE60/HEV70 for them. There is some wicked synergy going on with the TTVJ and PS-1 that could make them sing like never before.
Scott: I am a big fan of the PS-1 and my Zana Deux combo but agree that the PS-1 were the best I ever heard them coming from the iMod/Vcap doc and amp’d by the TTVJ Millet Hybrid. I really have no explanation for this synergy but I really need to isolate what it is regarding this amp that makes the PS-1 sing like this. Just incredibly musical and fun. You should have seen the look on Larry’s face!
Larry: Yeah, the experience was life changing, I dare say I liked the PS-1 with TTVJ Portable Millett Hybrid more than my Edition 9, and last week I would have bet a million dollars that would never happen. It also breaks my heart that so many of our favorite headphones are out of production, hard to find, and so dang expensive. Every headphone audiophile should have a PS-1, HP-2, R10 or HE60/HE90 laying around - we should see which presidential candidate would support legislation to bring these headphones back.
Larry: Now, speaking of something that I thought would never happen. I didn't expect to like the AKG K240 600 Ohm monitor - I bought them to mod them, except that they used to be Stevie Wonder''s (and still smell like his hair gel ). If you thought the Caffeine Pro was the sleeper of the amps, these AKG were the sleeper of the headphones. They were actually very clear detailed and neutral, without any flavor of it's own (similar to the Grado HP-2 in neutrality), but clearly lacking in bass vs the other headphones we heard today. The bass would go low, and was audible and present, but lacked the impact of the PS-1, HP-2 or D2000. Now this would be a good time to Seque into the next topic, the Sennheiser HE60 Baby Orpheus electrostatics.
Scott: Agreed. Wow those were Stevie Wonder’s AKG K240s? I just thought they smelled like your hair gel! Seriously. These were a big surprise to me as well, this was my first foray into AKG phones and even during a short listen I can see why this sound signature is popular. If I wasn’t such a basshead…. I definitely agree with Larry concerning the reference quality these phones had, I regret not plugging them into my Zana Deux for a listen.
Larry: Switching to the HE60 I was struck by the contrast to the HP-2. These were etherial, airy, transparent, light and detailed - vs HP-2 which were upfront, punchy, heavy and detailed. Bass could be heard very well with HE60, but felt very well with HP-2. This is interesting because I just found a post from 2004 where someone else had the same thing to say as us about the baby orpheus vs HP-2! http://www.head-fi.org/forums/f45/colorado-springs-7-13-08-mini-meet-report-apogee-mini-dac-vs-duet-shootout-he60-hev70-vs-hp-1000-vs-ps-1-more-346721/f4/top...30/#post750182 This is cool, bringing up the “hear the bass vs feel the bass” in regards to the body and presence of instruments in the battle between stats vs dynamics (until I hear an O2 or HE90 I wont say “all” stats). That is a similar contrast that I have used between my HE60 and Edition 9, "etherial vs visceral" like what we heard with HE60 vs HP-2. We didn’t listen to Edition 9 this time, but the two of us have done so in the past a couple of times together.
To my ears the HP-2 would be somewhat in the middle between the HE60 and the Edition 9 – and the HP-2 should take that as a compliment, being a little less impactful or visceral but a little less dark by adding some crispness and lightness to the sound. On the other hand, the Edition 9 have a bigger soundstage like the HE60, with an open and big image, while the HP-2 remain forward most the time. The “shock” of going from HP-2 to HE60 is less than jumping from Edition 9 to HE60. Listening to any single one of them will satisfy most anyone. But listen to Edition 9 for a while and then switch to the HE60, and you are stuck by the contrast - the angelic singing in the light, albeit with less substance and bass. Listen to the HE60 for a while, and switch to the Edition 9, and you are struck by the substance and bass and maybe even a little darkness. Switching between the HE60 and HP-2 didn’t smack you in the head with the change, while the HE60 and Edition 9 seem to be 180 degrees apart.
Scott: No argument there, but you sure got a little long-winded there. For me the terms ethereal and visceral sum up the main difference between the HE60 and the HP2. You could fall in love with either phone and be happy forever. The differentiator for me is my “current” need to feel the music. I can’t comment on the Ed 9 and the HE60 because we I didn’t compare them…. I’m just wondering how I’m gonna get that Stevie Wonder hair gel smell off my HP2’s?
Larry: Hair gel? Tough it out. Now, in order to do the listening of the HE60 above, we used the APOGEE MINI-DAC and APOGEE DUET as a DAC feeding the HEV70 amp. Initially the main reason for the mini-meet was to compare the two Apogee products, and I bought the HE60/HEV70 to wring the most out of the DACs that we could possibly hear. We used a custom DIY breakout to RCA cable for the Duet, and a barqy made silver plated copper mini-RCA from the 1/8" line out. We also tried some home made DIY silver cable rca-rca interconnects, with neutrik XLR-RCA adapters from the mini-DAC.
The Duet really surprised me! Now I don't think my mini-DAC was at the top of its game because I did not bring the Sigma 11 PSU that I think makes the mini-DAC sound better. I had the Apogee mini-DAC stock PSU, and a Radio Shack $89 regulated PSU, but there was very little difference between the two - the stock PSU was 99% of the better one, not enough to put a label on the difference. Likewise, the Apogee Duet sounded like 98% of the mini-DAC (stock PSU), where the mini-DAC had the slightest bit of additional substance to the music that would lend the slightest bit of extra transparency or realism to the music. There was a certain Je' ne sais quoi about the mini-DAC that made it ever so slightly better, but nothing I could get a grip on, and nothing that would make me unhappy if the Duet was my only source DAC. Both Apogees were clearly ahead of any of the portable DAC/Amps I have heard in terms of realism, timbre and tone, ambience and micro-detail, and even ahead of my other desktop DAC/Amps found in my profile as well. I know there is better out there, I just haven't heard them yet.
Scott: I agree completely, the mini-DAC just had a little extra something we could not describe. That said I may not be able to distinguish the two even 5/10 tries. But I have to give the nod to the mini-DAC; when I knew it was on I felt like I preferred it by a hair over the Duet. At less than half the mini DAC price, the duet is a screaming value. I am going to test against my Stello DA100 in the near future.
Larry: I want to add that when I first got the mini-DAC, the sigma 11 needed to be repaired from shipping damage and I used the stock PSU for the first week or two. Switching to the Sigma 11 the first time after I fixed it was a revelation, with more depth of space, ambience, smoothness and bass. While the Radio Shack Regulated 12-24v 4500ma PSU that I brought to this meet lends more control to my SR-Lambda when it is powering my SRD-X, we did not hear the same improvement with the Apogee this time when switching from the stock power brick. If I had known that ahead of time, I would have brought the Sigma 11 to see if the mini-DAC could pull farther ahead of the Duet. So, it will be at the CO regional meet on the 25th where we can try the Sigma 11 vs stock PSU, and borrow some more ears, but I fear the meet may be too noisy to make that determination.
Having listened to the mini-DAC with two different PSU (Duet is firewire bus powered) we looked at bit rates, and optical vs USB vs Firewire. Feeding the HEV70 from the DACs, we tried the Apogee as a 24/96 optical DAC and as a 24/48 USB DAC, using 16/44.1 ALAC (Apple lossless) ripped files, and could not appreciate a real difference between Optical and USB!! I have tried this with native 24/96 files from Linn Records and can hardly tell a difference either. I keep saying that I like the Apogee mini-DAC via USB better than the Pico as a USB DAC feeding an amp, and was truly surprised at how good it was in my first test of optical vs USB in an A/B contest.
Scott: I have to validate Larry’s findings on this one; I was surprised by the result. With optical vs USB on the mini-DAC, I never would have been able to detect which was which in this set-up.
Larry: Yeah. Some people would try to say the Apogee must not be good enough to hear the difference between optical and USB, but I am saying that the USB (with upsampling like Pico and DAC1) is so good that it is fairly indistinguishable from it's excellent optical capabilities. At home I feed it from the Coax of my Marantz with an expensive Synergistic Research digital coax cable, so I'll have to compare coax vs optical in more detail at some point too. I would have to say that if the Apogee mini-DAC is not giving you the performance that you expect, then look at your interconnects, and add a Sigma 11 PSU. There is a review online that validated the Apogee being sensitive to better quality digital interconnects, with quite audible increases in performance by switching from a cheap digital coax cable to a very well made one (which also happened to be quite expensive) - the review can be found here: apogeedac
Larry: We then moved on to listening to the headphone out jacks of the Apogee mini-DAC and Apogee Duet. Similar to our experience with the line out to HEV70/HE60, listening to the Grado HP-1000 (HP-2) was almost the same with both, and both did a respectable job reproducing the music with these headphones, without needing a separate amplifier. The difference again was maybe the same 2% of je ne sais quoi’ in depth, transparency or substance to the music, that was not a deal breaker at all for those considering a Duet for their Mac DAC source. I have a few $200-300 SS amps at my house that sound close to the Apogee HP out, but they don’t sound this good with everything I throw at them.
I have yet to hear a headphone that I like to ever sound bad through the Apogee mini-DAC headphone out, and I suspect the Duet is just as good with everything else based on how it did with the HP-2 and D2000. My other SS and tube amps may favor Grado over Sennheiser, or the Ultrasone over Grado, etc, but not these Apogees. For example, my Dark Voice 336i is tuned to sound best with my Edition 9 and good with everything else, but the Grados sound a bit bright with it. And my WA6 maxxed is tuned to sound best with Grados and still good with everything else, except the Edition 9 are a bit dark with it.
The TTVJ Portable Millet Hybrid is another one of those amps, like the Apogee, that so far sounds good with all my headphones and not bad with any (but some IEM are too sensitive to easily use with the high gain TTVJ, due to low volume channel imbalance in the volume pot.)
Scott: <Has fallen asleep on the job...> ZZZZZzzzzz... Huh, what – oh sorry <sheepish grin> I really liked the Apogee HP out both on the mini-DAC and the Duet. I would lean towards the mini-DAC HP out but would find either sufficient for enjoyable listening. Since the Duet is more (trans)portable in my opinion; it's therefore more likely to be used as a HP amp in my current transportable rig (laptop/duet/phones) - that and the fact that I actually own the Duet
Larry: Well, that about wraps up this episode of The Headphone Guys. Stay tuned for our next episode, when we hook up a 24v battery pack to the HE60/HEV70 and take it with the iMod on a stroll through downtown Colorado Springs, to see if the public thinks this headphone stuff is all it's cut out to be! PS: I had to include this photo Scott took, because it makes my nose look half as big as it really is. Plastic surgery here I come.