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Review & Loan Program: New Graham Slee Beta Novo Headphone Amp (discreet)

post #1 of 73
Thread Starter 
I have owned several of Graham Slee headphone amps like the Green Solo and two Voyagers. Thus I have kept in touch w/ Graham and I took him up on his offer to audition his latest headphone amp, the Novo.

The Novo is a discrete headphone amp by Graham Slee. It has an MSRP of 200 BP, which roughly translates to $400. Interestingly enough Graham will also offer this amp as a kit for 120 BP or about $240 so DIYers should have fun not only building it but the more advance/adventurous will have fun tweaking it to achieve their own sound signature.

So Graham sent me two Beta Novo’s in early August. At the time he was in negotiations w/ the case manufacturer to make sure the gaps and overhangs were done better, thus the beta units have slight imperfections in the order of ½ to 1 mm in the front and rear panels. I understand this issue has been resolved. The units I received in August were also being tweaked and Graham had designed the board for a couple of configurations and selection of components.

Roughly a couple of weeks after he had sent me the Beta Novo’s the final configuration had been achieved, and Graham shipped me 6 resistors and 2 caps for each amp. I then proceeded to incorporate the tweaks, and one of the amps has about 260 hours of burn-in and the other about 160 hours. HeadphoneAddict and vorlon1 will use these two units respectively as the first two out 9 Head-Fiers who will be reviewing the Beta Novo’s and providing feedback. I hope each of them can continue the burn-in process to at least 350-400 hours before they post their review.

The Beta Novos have to comply w/ the RoHS and other various environmental regulations in GB (just like in other countries). Thus Graham is utilizing a switching psu.. Graham believes switching psu’s are at best a compromise and has provided a grounding post on the back of the Beta Novo, for which I included a 3 foot long cable to be used for grounding by the 9 reviewers. The “compromise” arises due to switching psus have a residual current that can be felt by a lightly running your fingers on the casing. When doing so you will feel a “tingling vibration” which is eliminated by using the cable I included and grounding the Beta Novo. BTW if you feed the Beta Novo using a source that is grounded you will not need to use the cable I included to ground the Beta Novo since it will be grounded via the source. Note: There is also the option of purchasing an upgraded PSU1 directly from Graham or one of his dealers.

The Beta Novo also incorporates a pass through rca set. This can be a useful feature for those who do not want to constantly plug and unplug cables from their amps to feed a second amp.

Here are a couple of pictures, please click on the thumbnail to view the full size picture.

So, how did we get to this loan/review program? Well, when I had the two Beta Novo’s in my hand I thought that setting up a loan program w/ a few Head-Fiers would be fun. I first contacted Jude and asked for his approval to do so and he graciously agreed. Next I contacted a few Head-Fiers who had done various reviews, and had a higher head count. After a few PM exchanges there were 9 and those are being sent the amps. The guidelines are:

1. Keep the amp for no more than 10 days for an in-home test.
2. Write your impressions in this thread. Your comments do not have to be very extensive, a paragraph or so would be sufficient. However feel free to write as much as you see fit.
3. Please no pictures of the amp's internal components.
4. No modifications.
5. Ship it to the next person in your list using US Postal Service Priority with delivery confirmation and $400 insurance.
6. Upon the day you ship the amp to the next person in line I would ask you send a PM w/ the delivery confirmation and insurance numbers to both the next reviewer and myself.

To facilitate the review and to reduce the transit time I split the reviewers in two groups, East and West. Here they are:

East List
1. Vorlon1 – Miami, FL
2. nikongod – Teaneck, NJ
3. SacdLover – Newark, OH
4. Skylab – River Forest, IL

West List
1.HeadphoneAddict – Colorado Springs, CO
2.jp11801 – East Bay, CA
3.blessingx – Estero, CA
4.jamato8 – Santa Rosa, CA
5.GradoFan2 – Dallas, TX

FYI, I handed a Beta Novo to vorlon1 yesterday and tomorrow I plan on sending a Beta Novo to HeadphoneAddict via the US Postal Service. If you do the math and allowing 3 to 4 days of travel time this reviews will take up to 10 weeks. I look forward to their impressions and I will add mine at the end, I do this because I in no way form or shape want to influence the outcome of their individual reviews.

I would hope that we allow the reviewers to post their impressions and value their comments and time for what they are. Please no attacks on them or their gear; they are doing this for free and as a benefit to all of us. I certainly wish that only the reviewers were able to post here, similar to what ASR did in one of his loan programs.

Enjoy and if you have any questions please PM me. Thanks.
post #2 of 73
I am writing up my review and should be finished evaluating it by tomorrow, after my Denon D2000 return this afternoon from APureSound and I try them. I'm not sure the markl loaner MD5000 will be here before Friday, so I will add that to my review when it comes in.

According to mrarroyo the NOVO needed 100 more hours of burn-in (coulda fooled me) which will be completed tonight, but I am already excited about this amp. I only have two amps in the house (out of like 20) that can outperform it and they are both $1250 amps! And even then the difference, although noticeable, is not huge.
post #3 of 73

Review Grahm Slee Entheos Series NOVO

Not sure what the postal service's problem is, but they decided to deliver the NOVO to me overnight, so I received it Thursday the 25th!

The Novo has an MSRP of $400 plus S&H and will include a universal switching wall wart (SMPS). The units are RoHS compliant. There is the option of purchasing an upgraded PSU1 directly from Graham or one of his dealers. On the back there are two sets of RCA’s. The second is a pass through which I think it is convenient especially for those on a budget and have a source with just one set of rca outputs. It might be of interest for those who are into building kits and tweaking that Graham will be offering the Novo in a kit form for 120 BP (roughly $240). Finally, there is a ground post on the back panel. Mrarroyo and other testers felt it removes the nastiness inherent w/ switching power supplies. I will be testing it tomorrow with a Sigma 11 PSU, and also with the stock wallwart plugged into a Travagans Black 24v in/out power conditioner. Right now, my whole rig is plugged into a Belkin 6-outlet home theater power conditioner.

Throughout my time with the NOVO, I did some comparisons with several other headphone amplifiers - I tried my CD-5001 headphone out, NuForce Icon ($250), Apogee mini-DAC headphone out ($1095), Dark Voice 336i (with JAC CRC RCA 5692/JAN CRC RCA 6AS7G) $420 with tubes and Fitz Mod, Single Power Square Wave XL with the Blackgates upgrade (MSRP $1250), and Woo WA6 maxed with Pseudo Dual Power Supply (RCA 6DE7/Sophia Princess) (MSRP $1250 with mods/tube upgrades). Headphones used during my time with the NOVO included RS-1, Edition 9, HD600, Denon D2000, AKG K240M, Yamaha HP-1 orthodynamic, MS-1, Livewires custom IEM, Freq Show IEM and Klipsch Image X10 IEM.

Anyway, I hooked it up right away to my Apogee mini-DAC line out using my best interconnects, ALO SXC and anti-cables (which I just posted a review about). Then I grabbed my HD600 with APS V3 cable and I listened to it for a couple of hours right away. My preliminary thoughts/1st impression were that this is a very good sounding amp. It's actually surprising how good and close all these amps can be to each other with a good source and headphones, but there are differences that can identify each amp by their sonic signature.

Upon arrival, The NOVO had 240 of the recommended 350-400 hours on it for burn-in. It did improve between 240 and 330 hours, so it may sound even better at 400-500 hours (recommended 350-400 hours). But, I have not heard much in the way of changes since the 330 hour milestone last night. Right out of the box I thought it sounded almost exactly like my Dark Voice 336i which I paid $420 shipped after adding in the tubes and Fitz mod. That is a very good amp, which I still own even though I bought a superior Woo WA6 to replace it 6 months ago. I just can't bring myself to part with the 336i, being my first real home amp (and the fact that I have another $450+ worth of tubes for it stashed away). As the NOVO matures it has put just a little more distance between itself and the Dark Voice as it improves, and the remainder of the review was done with 330-355 hours on it.

In doing further comparisons, I found the NOVO also has more detail and separation and crispness than my Nuforce Icon headphone out, and this was pretty easy to hear the differences (I've always said the Nuforce headphone out isn't quite as good as it's speaker out that I use to drive stats). The NOVO is fairly forward in it's sound, but it's not quite as forward as the headphone out of the Apogee mini-DAC. So I believe I like it slightly more than the Apogee headphone out, just like I prefer my 336i. As I said before, the Novo, the DV336i with good tubes and the Apogee mini-DAC headphone out are all very close to each other in sound - my preferences can easily change depending on the music or headphones.

But in this case, with any my full size headphones I now like the NOVO (now having 355 hours on it) slightly more than the Dark Voice 336i or the Apogee's headphone out (and certainly above the NuForce). As the NOVO has matured it has become smoother and more refined, taking on the same rich mids as my 336i amp but with smoother highs than my 336i. The NOVO's bass also filled in during burn-in and at the same time developed more control; providing more impact than the Apogee, and better control than the 336i or the other lesser amps. It is also more transparent and powerful than my Meier Headfive, which I tend to think of as a very nice warm sounding compact SS amp that is only slightly below my Travagans Red. While the Headfive runs out of steam at loud volumes with the Grado RS-1, the NOVO still has plenty of power in reserve.

During burn-in it seemed to become less forward, and closer to the Single Power or WA6 soundstage. Out of the box the soundstage was a bit smaller and more compressed than the Square Wave or Woo WA6, which are more expansive, immersive and less forward (but still bigger than the Nuforce and CD5001 headphone out). Somehow the Apogee manages to be more forward but wider at the same time. As the NOVO matures the soundstage has widened as well, although it is still not as wide and expansive as my Single Power or Woo WA6 it is very acceptable. Otherwise detail and frequency balance in the NOVO seem spot on, and it seems to be a fast amp as well.

It is also very quiet with no noise when used with any of my full size headphones and my Klipsch Image X10, and I have only listened with the ground wire grounded. With my very sensitive custom IEM (Livewires and Freq Show), there is very good low volume channel balance for quiet listening, like when falling asleep. But with or without interconnects going into the amp there is a little bit of hiss heard as I go past 10-11 o'clock on the volume knob (at which point the volume knob fell off - fixed with a hex wrench). Upon reconnecting the interconnects that 11 o'clock volume setting had the music playing as loud as I would ever listen to it. So the hiss would never come close to intruding into the music, even between songs. As a reference point, with my highly sensitive custom IEM plugged into my Single Power Square Wave XL, I don't hear any hiss till 2 o'clock (ear damaging/earphone killing volume levels) and the max hiss is less than with the NOVO. Nevertheless, the NOVO's hiss level with IEM is negligible in contrast to the music volume levels. And, it sounds very nice and enjoyable with all my custom IEM and Klipsch Image X10 (my portable USB DAC amps all seem to be quieter than my desktop amps - big surprise).

I have not been able to directly compare it to my Travagans Red (MSRP $190 + $50 opamp upgrade). But previously I've compared the headphone out of the CD5001 vs Nuforce and Apogee's and Travagans Red (stock and with AD743 or OPA627). During that comparison I felt the Red was better than the Nuforce or CD5001, and almost as good as the Apogee HP out. But with the AD743 opamps I felt the Red was pretty close in performance to the Apogee headphone out. Based on those findings, I can conclude that the NOVO would be a little above the Red as well, since it is slightly ahead of the Apogee. Interestingly, the Apogee is less forward with high impedance headphones like HD600 and AKG K240M than it is with my low impedance phones like D2000, RS-1 and Edition 9. The NOVO seems to be less affected by impedance, and handles them all well. I have tried some classical, jazz, electronic (infected mushroom), new age and hip hop music and it handles all genre pretty well now too.

Listening to the Denon D2000 last night, I switched from the NOVO after 20 minutes of listening of Jack Johnson, and I found that I didn't enjoy the headphone out of the Apogee mini-DAC as much as I used to (the whole reason I bought my Woo WA6 and Single Power in the first place). The change in sound left the Apogee's mids being forced into my head, while the mids with the NOVO just flowed. I had to switch back to the NOVO after just a few minutes. Meanwhile, there is no sudden shock to my ears when switching to my Single Power Square Wave XL or to my WA6 after a long session with the NOVO, although I can readily hear the extra refinement and spaciousness with those two amps - but at $1250 each (with upgrades) they'd better be an improvement. Still, the fact that this $400 amplifier with 350+ hours on it can come within shooting distance of these higher-end amps is quite remarkable.

Again, I will be testing it tomorrow with a Sigma 11 PSU, and also with the stock wallwart plugged into a Travagans Black 24v in/out power conditioner. I will see if that improves the blackness of the background and dynamic range as I would expect. I don't have the Grahm Slee PSU1, but these might give us an idea of what to expect with one. They have certainly improved those areas with my Travagans Red and my Super Pro DAC707 when plugged in.
post #4 of 73
Any news on the Novo - I have pre-ordered one and would be interested to see if there is amy more feedback on this. Not least as it was being compared to amps 5 times its price!!!
post #5 of 73
You will find further impressions of the Novo on page 6 (and beyond) of the loan program's "headquarter" thread at the GSP board: GSPAudio Support Community: Beta Novo In The House
post #6 of 73
I tried both PSU, the sigma 11 and the Travagans black which is powered by the NOVO's stock PSU but gives it conditioned and reserve power.

A PSU makes a bigger difference with my Super Pro DAC707, and when driving speakers and electrostats with my Travagans Red, but I do believe I hear an improvement in a blacker background and better dynamics. It also reduced the background noise with my highly sensitive Livewires IEM.
post #7 of 73
This place makes it hard for a man to make a decision! Thought I had it narrowed down to the VHP-2, Head Direct's EF1 or Purity Audio's KICAS and now this offering at the $400 range. Headphone Addict's impressions are very intriguing. This baby has an output loop, correct?
post #8 of 73
Originally Posted by mr.khali View Post
This place makes it hard for a man to make a decision! Thought I had it narrowed down to the VHP-2, Head Direct's EF1 or Purity Audio's KICAS and now this offering at the $400 range. Headphone Addict's impressions are very intriguing. This baby has an output loop, correct?
Yes - I'm sorry to say I neglected to test the loop out.

To me this amp is a no-brainer in the $400 amp category. By 500 hours it was clearly done changing for the past 100 hours, and it was very transparent and real to me. And I was also surprised by how much power it had - for something that weighs about as much as a Big Mac it was as powerful as any headphone amp I have ever tried.

Based on how good it was next to my WA6 and Single Power that cost 3x as much, I have a hard time imagining any amp near it's price that can beat it. I would guess the similarly priced KICAS/Caliente and the Headamp Gilmore Lite discrete SS amps could possibly sound this good, but I'd doubt they are better (until I hear them of course).
post #9 of 73
PS: I shipped it to jp11801 on 10/6/08 by Priority Mail and I think he leaves on a trip tomorrow (15th) so I hope to see his or Vorlon1's comments soon.

ANOTHER EDIT - the Novo came to me with 240 hours of burn-in and 350-400 was recommended. I ran it 24/7 from the 25th till I shipped it, for a total of another 250 hours. But my review was done with 360 hours on it, and it was done changing by 400 hours with a bigger soundstage being the final changes. I shipped it out with 490 hours on it, not 500.
post #10 of 73
Thanks for the opportunity to hear this amp, its certainly a solid option for someone in this budget range.

I received the amp the other day, and raced home to get it running. I was initially surprised by its small size, but the overall layout is nice and intuitive. I hooked it all up, and grounded it to the ground lug on my power conditioner. Ii was kind of surprised that the Beta-novo (BN) did not have a power switch. Im not sure if its meant to be left running 24/7, or what. I plugged it into one of the switched outlets on my power conditioner and turned it on and off at the same time as everything else.

For this review, I used:
Melos SHA-Gold-Eargasmatron with many expensive parts and the left-channel mod.
xiang-sheng 708b OTL tube amp, the mods are pretty wicked. The amp has been completely transformed from its original self.

E-sound E5 with upgraded rectifiers and op-amps.
My DIY TT and bottlehead seduction (with c4s)

old-school grado RS-1 with a very light tan headband.
Senheiser HD-580, because everyone has one
Sony R10, because it can do cool tricks, and is very amp-picky.

First I listened to the RS-1, melos, and BN The melos/RS-1 is a combo that I can always count on to sound good and just get the music flowing. It sometimes lacks the refinement that the other combos can give, but it is certainly a musical pairing. The melos and BN both got going well and I started to notice some differences between them. the BN had slightly better bass control than the melos. The BN did lack a little of the impact in the lows compared to the melos, but it still did OK.

The night after this, I sat down for some records. I was not in a comparing mood, so I just ran the R10 & my normal turntable and went from there. The combo was pretty nice off the bat, but something was off. The R10 was getting soundstage and "sound layering" spot on but everything had a fairly flat sound compared to the very 3D sound the R10 usually gives me. In "darth-nut" terms I had a clearly focused picture, and I could tell that some things were in front of others, and where everything was, but all the people were cardboard cut-outs. that last little bit of "depth" was missing. This may sound harsh, and it is, but some amps dont even get to this point. I switched from the PSU that came with the BN to my STEPS. Problem solved. After that, I had a great night playing DJ for myself. With BOTH psu's I also noticed the quiet hiss with my low impedance headphones. It was not a real concern to me in either case, and far quieter than the melos was before I modded it. the hiss was drowned out by the softest passages, and If I wasnt listening for it could have gone unnoticed in the silent parts.

After this, I spent a moment testing a whole bunch of stuff.
I very briefly listened to my k240-sextets and HD-414 (with zu cable) to see that the BN did OK with high impedance loads: it did. The gain was certainly adequate for both, and the sound was overall in-line with the rest of the review. Its worth note, as I have heard other SS amps go seriously "weird' when trying to run high impedance loads.

The HD-580 & 708B came next. For this combo, I left the BN running off of the STEPS, and went from there. The differences in this comparison were VERY hard to pin down, i think I jsut out-did myself with my 708b mods. I listened with a bunch of music and the differences were extremely subtle. I thought on some pieces that the BN had slightly forward mids compared to the 708B, but not on others. In any case, the BN got the HD580 moving along well with good soundstage, and VERY good image placement. A couple VERY complex passages played through very clean and clear. The individual notes on the piano in one of my test songs were very palpable, as they should be.

overall, I give the amp high marks. I personally prefer a SLIGHTLY "tooby" sound, but this amp scored solid points for image separation, definition, and overall SQ.
post #11 of 73
Nice review nikongod. It seems that I possibly liked the "west-coast" version of the NOVO with the stock PSU better than you did, but we both liked it with an upgraded PSU, or did you still like it a good bit with the stock PSU?

I had one other PSU I forgot to try - it's a RadioShack laptop regulated PSU (80 watt 4500ma) that is switchable anywhere between 12-24v and can be had for about $90. I don't know much about the STEPS PSU. I got lucky finding my used 24v Sigma 11 for $100.

How many hours did your Beta NOVO have on it? Mine arrived with 240 hours on it and most of the changes I heard from 240-330 hours was that it became more refined, transparent and spacious with better bass control, and from 330-400 hours seemed to open up in the soundstage more, with few changes after that.
post #12 of 73
Originally Posted by HeadphoneAddict View Post
Nice review nikongod. It seems that I possibly liked the "west-coast" version of the NOVO with the stock PSU better than you did, but we both liked it with an upgraded PSU, or did you still like it a good bit with the stock PSU?
I did like it quite well with the stock PSU, but it improved quite well too with the upgrade.
I don't know much about the STEPS PSU. I got lucky finding my used 24v Sigma 11 for $100.
The quickest explanation is that the sigma 11 is the next improvement BEYOND a steps. The steps is a linear regulating psu, which is nice. The sigma is too, but it uses some extra circuitry to make the performance is better.
post #13 of 73
Thread Starter 
nikongod and HeadphoneAddict thanks for your in-depth reviews. The stock wall-wart as you have found was an exercise in meeting all the new EU environmental regulations while at the same time keeping the overall cost below the 200 BP (about $400) mark.

Graham offers the PSU1 which I as well as vorlon1 have used and it does provides a measurable and listenable improvement. However it is a costlier alternative. Overall it is good to see that a manufacturer can and has produced a discreet unit at this price range.

I am very taken by sound this unit achieves and as you have noticed I have not given my impressions so as not to "stack the deck" with the readers. I new the reviewers would put the amp through its paces and would provide blunt and honest impressions. I think at the end of the day it is the best since it would help the manufacturer make better products.

Graham has just finished tweaking the Solo into the Solo SRG. I am tempted to get one but ...

Anyways, thanks again and I look forward to the remaining reviewers coments. Hopefully Graham can squeeze a bit more performance out of the Beta Novo.

Thanks again for your time.
post #14 of 73
It would be great If this could be loaned to someone with other amps in its price range like the gilmore lite with dps to compare with
post #15 of 73
Thread Starter 
Originally Posted by donunus View Post
It would be great If this could be loaned to someone with other amps in its price range like the gilmore lite with dps to compare with
HeadphoneAddict compared the Beta Novo w/ a $420 Darkvoice Amp. Vorlon1 compared the Beta Novo w/ a Head Direct EF-1 and a Channel Island headphone amp both of which are in the same price range (waiting on vorlon1's write-up).
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