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Rockhopper M^3 - The Review

post #1 of 523
Thread Starter 

Well, my M^3 came today, and I probably would have hugged the mailman if he weren't so creepy looking.

UPDATE - 2/19/09 - Some updated info/removing of outdated bits.

UPDATE - 1/12/09 - OPAs are here, see page 2 for full review. Yeah, they're good.

UPDATE - 1/10/09 - Check here http://www.head-fi.org/forums/f5/fun...5/#post5268011 for a detailed review of the Sigma-11.

UPDATE - 1/8/09 - OPA627 for the ground and OPA637s for left/right channels ordered...I'll let everyone know how the op amp upgrade changes things.

UPDATE - 1/6/09 - Brand new pictures added, this will be the last batch as I think they cover anything that anyone would want to look at regarding the M3.

UPDATE - New pictures added.

UPDATE - Rockhopper Sigma-11 power supply is on its way. I was going to buy it eventually, may as well make things easier and get the one that Stephen had for sale.

Stephen at Rockhopper did a great job building this thing and getting it to me - at the last minute, right after I ordered it (at 10pm at
night) he installed a locking Neutrik 1/4 jack at my request and it got mailed the next day. It arrived well packed and all.

Design: The case is a very simple black brushed aluminum affair roughly the size of a sideways toaster. The front/rear panels are 1/8" thick and match the dimensions of the case and doesn't protrude, which saves space. Dimensions are 6x9x3.5 inches. On the front is a nice quality clear/orange clicky push button like the sort you find on a coffee machine or something (see Stephen's website for why he likes orange). There's a super sexy Sato solid aluminum tuning knob mounted on an alps 27 Blue Velvet potentiometer. In the center is the requested Neutrik jack, which is a deal breaker for me, I just like how they look. Not like his stock ones don't have Neutrik hardware, but it's the silver non locking variety with the hex screwed on front. Anyone building amps should probably just use these, they look sweet.
On the back is a small power connector for either the included Elpac wall wart, or the optional ($200) sigma-11 external power supply which I eventually bought. Nice teflon and gold RCA jacks in the back, and that's all.
Stephen only uses name brand parts, and all listening was done with AD8610 opamps (until I added 627/637s, keep reading the thread).
In all the amp has a hefty feel, it is not portable, but its case is not burdened with undue weight and the power supply is separate, so it's easy to move around. It'd be no trouble to cart it around in a backpack with less effort than a tube amp, but its not all that portable. It will never fit into my Pelican case, that's for sure. It's going to need its own Pelican 1400.

First Impressions:
The amp is not all the way burned in, but I'm working on it. As usual, I have about 20 flac songs that I consider to be the highest quality recordings, as well as a 96/24 Linn SACD sampler converted to 96/24 flac, and a few other assorted 96/24 recordings. Everything from some electronic stuff like Bjork, Flaming Lips, Kaskade, Tiesto, to some more classic rock stuff, Queen, Bob Dylan, and of course standard classical music and jazz.
The first thing you will notice with the M3 is effortless power. It is a musclebound toy with three op amps providing voltage gain and six transistors providing current gain, a three channel design with an active ground. A long bank of caps keep those transistors fed. Just in general, if you cracked open this amp and a competing amp, you'd be surprised how much is going on inside the M3. More is not necessarily better, but the M3 is an impressive design and represents a true value.

Soundstage: It is as wide as it's ever going to be. The active ground keeps the signal very clean and the two separate channels are very well defined. You can easily pinpoint where everything is. The amp has power and precision. The sound is very revealing, I know what all my bad recordings are, and this doesn't spare them from being identified, especially with HD650s on board. However, electronic and rap music that sounds lifeless on tubes sounds ideal on the M3. Rock music that was cluttered and muddy on my 336SE sounds crisp but often overwhelming on the M3 - as the treble and mids are generous. Some recordings will be fatiguing but this is not a fatiguing amp overall, as I will get to.

Highs: I don't feel that this amp rolls off treble, as often my most treble heavy recordings really assault you. It doesn't seem to exaggerate them, but it is nothing like the 336SE, which has a very warm and tubey treble range that dies off at the top of the high end. Most recordings are easy to listen to, but there are always a few you will want to turn down. Its treble is not as psycho as my CMOY with a fresh battery and the OPA627s going (*shudder*). Most tracks are light and airy and reasonable in how the treble sounds. Really distorted electronic stuff will impress you but make your ears bleed if you go too loud.

Mids: I really figured this amp would be colder than this. However, paired with HD650s, which have been called all sorts of epithets like muddy, veiled, warm, whatever - there's none of that. They basically balance out. The design of the M3 was meant to handle a lot of impedances. I think with the sigma-11 it could deliver the current that low impedance cans need probably a bit better, but the HD650s do fine and many other impressions I have read say that the sigma-11 doesn't impact the sound greatly in a lot of setups.
For some songs the extreme bass definition and range of bass frequencies can start intruding in the midrange slightly. And harsh stuff like Marilyn Manson this amp does not "warm up". But because of the amp's power, it can drive the HD650s without fatiguing you.
Taking a sample song - Yeah Yeah Yeah Song by Flaming Lips - a good reference because of how varied it is, and how well it is mastered - sound is considerably more aggressive and forward than the Darkvoice - treble definition is greater. The sound is so precise that it might wear some people out. This amp could do well with warmer genres of music and warm headphones, evening them out.
I do think that for songs that aren't inherently extremely harsh, crisp, digital-sounding this amp captures 95% of the midrange naturalness and warmth of the DV336SE. The midrange is a tiny bit juicier and thicker on the DV but just as pleasurable listening to this solid state machine.
Overall, things are just tighter and less wooly with most of the smoothness of the DV on the M3 - I think I will prefer the M3 for most listening.

Lows: Good lord, this thing is powerful. Pretty much every song's bass is represented more physically and the HD650s are performing more like a closed headphone but with the same soundstage as before. It simply is delivering the bass that weaker amplifiers are leaving out. You do not get much bass with a CMOY, really. And while the bass is often there with the 336SE, it is not with the same laser precision. The bass is tuneful, rich, and does not make silly strained or unhappy noises (like the CMOY when it's trying to do bass at half battery with 627s in it). Don't get me wrong, this amp doesn't deliver unnatural, ghetto bass - but it does give you what you've been missing. As I said, with electronic or bass beats or even just good bassy instrumentation, you will benefit a lot with solid state.

Feel/fatigue/general personality: The CMOY sucked so bad that I actually ordered this while on vacation. It probably gave me ear cancer. Big boy ops like 627s are more than its puny circuitry can handle. The sound had the precise and pretty signature 627s had, but at a terrible cost. The sound had a raw quality that just led to serious volume cranking and ear unhappiness. With a powerful amp like the M3, you can represent the same power that you get from turning up a weaker amp, at a lower SPL. You just don't have to push it as hard to get what you want, or push your ears as hard to hear what you want.
Overall, this amp has a very neutral sound that doesn't slack on any front. Some songs have fatiguing, overpowered midrange and treble, and occasionally midbass will be overwhelming - but this thing comes close to the "liquid mids" of tubes while properly doing justice to many genres of music - pretty much any "new" music - that tubes totally ruin for me. There's just a lot of stuff that I won't listen to on the 336SE cuz it tubes up my sound. The 336 is nearly as powerful as the M3, but it's like listening through a folded up sweater sometimes.
The M3 has soundstage, savage power, the ability to restore bass that you normally only hear on a full-size speaker setup, and is still more delicate and less fatiguing than I would have expected. It's a hard sell to people that really love tubes, but give it a try as it can do things that tubes are reluctant to do. There are some really awesome tube setups, but the M3 is only $375. It sounds like it should cost over $1000. It is probably a better value than the Darkvoice 336SE or other competitors, as I do not think it is being sold on a large profit margin. It will give you listening pleasure and it does have the "wow factor" I was looking for, and it is a better design than most solid state setups. Replacing the CMOY was like moving from Poptart to Toaster Strudel - softer, crispier, infinitely more delicious, and you could enjoy it all day...vs. a starchy, dull morning punishment full of sourness.

Can it handle the HD650s?
It's a good match. But more importantly, it doesn't scar your ears in doing it. I can take a pretty generous volume and produce what I'm looking for without getting too tired on the M3. As you continue to crank it up you can feed a sweet spot where the HD650s get serious energy and really light up from this thing.

Should you buy one?
Duh! Where else can you get a reference quality headphone amp for $375? And if it cost $1000, as long as it was marketed by the usual vendors, it'd still sell sounding like it does (which is damned good). It isn't a budget design, it is a no holds barred design and is usually enjoyed with a separate power supply. But people like Stephen are awesome and put in tons of hours at minimal profit so we that fail at DIY can own one of these.
I don't think solid state haters would hate this thing.

Long live M3 and death to blue LEDs...

Update as we close in on the 2 month mark -
I am very happy with the M3. With the separate PS, all silver DIY cabling, good power conditioning, and the 627/637 combo for the op amps, the amp is on fire. The sound is furious and will wake you up, I definitely prefer it to my 336SE even though there's little bad to say about Mr. Tubey. Bass is relentless but it's in the background and tightly controlled, it never pokes its head into my midrange and highs, it stays where it's supposed to be. The HD650 has a crap ton of good quality bass. If you think it doesn't, search for "resonance test" on the iTunes store and have a listen. The midrange is really super clean at this point, it isn't harsh like my 770s and the treble is right where it needs to be, it's 100% there but it doesn't sandpaper my ears like the 770s do. This amp fuses with the HD650 like they're mating.
post #2 of 523
Just curious, since you said that it sounds like a 1 grand amp, which 1 grand amp have you heard?
post #3 of 523
Thread Starter 
I guess it's been a while since I heard a very expensive headphone amp. Back when I was into speakers I heard some grados plugged into a tube amp from a high end American brand at dB audio in Missoula, MT...all I remember is that it was way out of my price range. It did make an impression though, the same sort of impression as when I first heard Krell at Thirsty Ear in Bozeman.

I bought HD650s a short while after that but I didn't pony up for the serious hardware until recently...I guess I didn't listen to music as much because of a serious video game addiction. Then I replaced that with a bigger interest in music listening.

When I say that it sounds like a $1000 amp though, what I really mean is that this amp should cost more and its sound belies its fair price. And I know it sounds higher dollar than my Darkvoice, which at about $300 shipped, is a fair price...but I really think the Chinese made a bigger profit on it than Stephen makes on these M3s. The M3 should cost more and lots of companies charge more for amps that are simply a smaller scale, without more expensive parts, just a name.
post #4 of 523
Go m^3 love!

I love mine and have no urge to upgrade, except the power supply for mine!
post #5 of 523
Thread Starter 
Amen, I need that sigma-11, but other things need bought more right now and I wonder how big of an improvement it is. I guess I just want the sexy 2 chassis and the feeling of knowing that my M3 is eating only the finest electrons.
post #6 of 523
Aweomse review scootermafia! You're turning me towards the M^3! How does it compare to amps in its price range, based on what you've heard?
post #7 of 523
What a beast you got there scootermafia. Looks Awsome. Congrats
post #8 of 523
great review. only reinforces my decision to go with the M³. unfortunately, when i went to buy one on Rockhopper's site, they were all sold out.
post #9 of 523
Originally Posted by Shahrose View Post
great review. only reinforces my decision to go with the M³. unfortunately, when i went to buy one on Rockhopper's site, they were all sold out.
I may be mistaken but it seems he still has two for sale right now, both of them have the paypal "pay now" and do not mention being "SOLD".

Rockhopper Audio

Rockhopper Audio
post #10 of 523
The great thing about the m3 is how high it scales. With bigger heat sinks, the right choice of op amps, and a beefy enough power supply, it's a spectacular amp.
post #11 of 523
Thread Starter 
Yeah, just subscribe to the RSS feed if you have a mac, cuz then you can tell it to show up in your mail app and then you get notified whenever a new build comes up (or use some sort of pc equivalent). Kinda sucks that Stephen doesn't do built to order, but he's a human being not an amp factory.

You could almost say that the 336SE is in its price class, although it's hard to say (I did spend about the difference rolling tubes unfortunately). I think the M3 has a cleaner and more powerful sound, and that it may indeed be more amp, although the designs have little in common. I think the M3 would please more people than the 336SE. The 336SE has many design flaws and keep in mind for the $375 that Stephen asks you are getting a handmade, American made device where you know the guy that built it and with entirely high quality parts. And a warranty that would not be hard to use due to shipping issues.

Edit - I am not going to trash amps I have never heard before, but I have made my own guesses as to which amps are offering the most for the least amount of money, and I will confirm these guesses or else be disproven once I hear some more amps.
post #12 of 523
I loved the M^3 with STEPS PS that I had and agree that it is a fantastic value. But why are you trying so hard to prove to yourself that you absolutely got the best amp for the money instead of just reviewing the amp? By your own account, you have never even heard the Caliente, Lite, or GS-1. Why are they even in the conversation and why do you need to disparage them to make yourself feel good about your amp?
post #13 of 523
Originally Posted by Borat View Post
I loved the M^3 with STEPS PS that I had and agree that it is a fantastic value. But why are you trying so hard to prove to yourself that you absolutely got the best amp for the money instead of just reviewing the amp? By your own account, you have never even heard the Caliente, Lite, or GS-1. Why are they even in the conversation and why do you need to disparage them to make yourself feel good about your amp?
I feel similarly about this review. Between good gear, the final choice often comes down to listener preference, not necessarily to "specs". Also, having the most "power" on hand does not automatically translate to good "sound", in my opinion. Enjoy your great new amp, but let us also enjoy ours without having to feel inferior.
post #14 of 523
Originally Posted by DaMnEd View Post
I may be mistaken but it seems he still has two for sale right now, both of them have the paypal "pay now" and do not mention being "SOLD".

Rockhopper Audio

Rockhopper Audio
it says sold-out after you click the Pay Now button. anyways, it's no big deal, i just picked one up used on head-fi.
post #15 of 523
Thread Starter 
I just want people that are wary of buying an amp that isn't name-brand to know what a value it is. I think you get a lot of amp for the money. I don't think that there's anything wrong with its competitors, just that this probably has less markup than a more mass-produced design.

It was wrong of me to criticize amps where I have no clue how they actually sound. I will now only compare the M3 to amps I actually own or have tested, not to how other amps might sound. I do have my beliefs on what products are the best value though, and those will not change.
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