Head-Fi.org › Forums › Equipment Forums › Headphone Amps (full-size) › Ray Samuels Emmeline HR-2 Impressions and Review (The Director's Cut)
New Posts  All Forums:Forum Nav:

Ray Samuels Emmeline HR-2 Impressions and Review (The Director's Cut)

post #1 of 26
Thread Starter 
The Director's Cut
After re-reading through my original HR-2 Impressions and Review thread (http://www4.head-fi.org/forums/showt...0&pagenumber=1), it's clear that it needed a little editing to make it more useful to people and easier to digest in one sitting, so I set about cutting it down to a more manageable size.

Still, even after editing, this is an epic, so pour yourself a cup of coffee and get settled!

Sony 555ES SACD player with full sacdmods.com mod package---> Virtual Dynamics Reference ICs--->Emmeline HR2 (with AD797s)--->Sony MDR-R10 headphones

"Rock"/”Pop”-- some alternative rock, some classic rock, some punk, some funk, some electronic, some 60's soul, some singer-songwriters, some folk, some blues, and some country. Expanding into jazz and classical. I currently have a collection of around 1200 CD/SACDs/DVD-As (although thousands more have cycled through it), almost all are rock/pop. I have maybe 40 jazz discs, and 20 classical.

Headphone listening and music appreciation are not things I typically do as a background activity while doing something else. When I listen, most often you’ll find me stretched out in the big comfy chair with lights dimmed and eyes closed, cat in the lap, focusing solely on the music (which will be playing nice and loud). I feel this “listening style” affects the way I evaluate equipment and helps determine those sonic attributes that are most critical at this level of concentration/relaxation.

You can’t have unnatural grain, hash, etching or stridency in the upper frequencies—you’ll be especially aware of them and tire out too easily from listening fatigue. OTOH, you can’t have something that’s too dark, polite, hazy or unfocused because you'll get bored too easily. Imaging and soundstage (and things associated with them) also become crucially important, as you’re trying to let your brain actually “picture” the performance. Instrument separation, the sense of “air” and space around each instrument, and the recreation of the ambience of the room in which it was recorded, also increase in importance. Thus, I am biased in favor of components that enhance my particular listening experience, which is largely influenced by my listening style.

Web site: http://www.raysamuelsaudio.com/new.html#hr2

Price: $875

This review is divided into several parts. Parts One and Two constitute my first impressions of the Emmeline HR-2, which were assembled from listening notes I took on Day 1 and Day 2 after receiving the amp. Part Three is my essay on "What I Learned About Headphone Amps", and Part Four is a formal review of the amp, written after several weeks of critical listening. Together, they form a sort of real-time interactive review, with each Part separated into individual posts within this thread.

Very spartan but nice looking little unit. The casework is very simple and no-frills, but it doesn't look "cheap" and feels very solid and well constructed, with seams that fit together quite well. It won't win any beauty contests-- this is primarily a functional product like the Headroom gear or the Corda gear, but it is surprisingly sturdy and solid.

It also looks bigger to me in the pictures than it does in real life. It's not tiny, but I was expecting something larger for some reason.
Dimensions in inches:
* Main Chassis Dimensions: 6 x 4.5 x 1.5
* Power Supply Dimensions: 6 x 4.5 x 2.5

The Emmeline has a very simple functional design, just two inputs, a headphone jack and a volume pot (which has a very nice firm action, BTW). There is one red LED that comes on when the unit is plugged in that isn't annoyingly bright. However, one quirk of this unit is the lack of an on/off switch-- it's always "on" so long as the unit is plugged in.

The power supply is equally deep and wide as the amp itself, but slightly taller and about twice as heavy. I have a bone to pick with the power supply-- the IEC connection is on one end of the unit and the umbillical cord that connects to the headamp itself is on the other (the umbillical is not a detachable cord, BTW). This means you have some cord management problems, with either the power cord itself sticking out front and doubling back on itself to go behind your rack, or you've got the umbillical cord tangled up in front. Either way, you've got cords sticking out and laying all over your shelf. This probably means decreased WAF for the Emmeline I would think if that's of concern to you. It would be nice if both cords could emerge from the same side of the unit, but Ray confirms that it is not possible for design reasons, fair enough.

Overall, the Emmeline gives you the impression that it values function over form, and that the worth of this unit lies in the sound it makes, and the parts on the inside, which are what really matter in the end. I am informed by people who know about these things and who looked it over in the other Emmeline thread (http://www4.head-fi.org/forums/showt...0&pagenumber=1)
that parts quality is relatively high and given what is actually in these smallish cases, it is value-packed for an $875 unit.

No glaring faults immediately apparent to me. This is a quality product competing with other amps I've owned in the general price/quality range of this $875 amp (Earmax Pro, Berning MicroZOTL, Headroom MOH, all manner of Melos's, as well as my current amp, Denon AVR 5800). Now I'm not saying whether I think it's "better" or "worse" than any of those in any one way or another-- it's waaaaay too soon to make that kind of judgement. I am saying that I've heard enough already to be convinced it is certainly in their same class generally.

This amp likes to party, it likes to get up and boogie, it's got rhythym and its funky. The Emmeline had my head bobbin' all night long and playing air drums with total abandon. This thing delivers punchy, powerful drum hits that sound full and thumpin' and very real. Overall, it produces powerful bass, probably the strongest bass I've ever gotten out of my R10's but I can't state that with certainty.

At first blush, for me the Emmeline HR2 is shaping up to be the "hot rod" or "muscle car" of the headamp world (or at least that portion of it I've heard, anyway ). I can see this amp really turning on people looking for a truly hard-rockin' amp-- this thing is telling my R10s that it's power supply is literally bottomless, as far as they need to be concerned! This amp could be for the guy who imagines the singular goal in obtaining an amp is to pump up the juice... period. Does this "hot rod" brute have finesse, too? Is that real muscle and sinew, or just pumped-up steroids? Only time will tell. I was having too much fun with rock and electronica CDs tonight to put on the Joni Mitchell.

(EDIT: Ray has since confirmed to me that the HR-2 does indeed have more juice than most headamps. This is due to it's fantastic power supply, its clean and very robust. Ray does not like to spotlight this particular attribute of the amp too much, but I'm convinced it's one of the key features that sets this amp apart. The R10s are real power hogs, and the HR-2 is easily up to the task!)

This is not what I would describe as a particularly "warm" amp. But it's certainly not icy cold either. The Emmeline has a very rich and reverberant quality to it. If you find the CD3000 and other closed phones to be too "reverberant" you might object to this amp, because it enhances that effect. It retrieves a lot of ambient noise associated with the production of loud sounds in live acoustical space. This is adding to the impact of those sounds in my ear. It's a lot like the effect you get at a live rock show, with that very electric penetrating sound you can feel, combined with the ambience that the shape and acoustics of the venue imposes. Anyway, this is a very "vivid" and dimensional sound. Sounds very "live" and "real". Bye for now...

Here are some more impressions after a further 8 hours with the Emmeline.
This is the first review I've written of a product that I did not purchase for myself. The first one where a manufacturer specifically sent me a product for my review here on Head-Fi. It's also the first review of the Emmeline HR-2 on this board (maybe anywhere?), and no one here seems to have owned or even heard one. What if I didn't like it?

That first review can be a tough one, especially if it's mostly negative. I don't know Ray Samuels except through the exchange of a few e-mails, he seems like a nice guy, and I certainly bear neither him nor his business any ill-will. What if I have to report my displeasure with his "child"?

Anyway, luckily, the Emmeline has laid all those fears to rest, this review should be a pleasure to write.

These days when I audition a new component, my challenge to that piece of gear is simple-- "show me something different, that I've never heard before". Even if I cycle that component out of my system, I want to have experienced something unique to that product that forever alters the criteria I use to grade and select other products in the future. Not all audio products I've tried have given me this consciousness expansion. I think it's a very hard thing to do. "Seen it before and seen it better". Out it goes just like that.

On that score alone, I think the Emmeline will succeed handily. As I type (and continue to listen), it is expanding my consciousness to new qualities (many not even fully identified yet), in sound reproduction that I haven't been so aware of before. Given time I'll try to pinpoint what those things really are.

Other products that have had this sort of "epiphany" effect on me, in no particular order:

1. Hearing the new formats (DVD-A/SACD) for the first time. (Wow-- Redbook CDs SUCK!)

2. Hearing a tube amp for the first time. (Wow, so *that's* what all the fuss with tubes is about!)

3. Hearing the Sony R10s for the first time. (So *that's* how far you can take a headphone)

4. Hearing the Sony CD3000s for the first time (Wait a minute, so the HD600s *aren't* the pinnacle of headphone sound. Set me off auditioning a lot of new phones.)

5. Hearing the Virtual Dynamics cables for the first time. (So *that's* how much a cable swap can improve my system's sound)

6. Hearing my PSB Stratus Goldi's for the first time. (So that's what a *good* speaker sounds like)

7. Listening to the jack on my Denon AVR-5800 for the first time. (So-- it's a myth that all headphone jacks on all non-headamps suck. This is my current headamp, my frame of reference, and the one I'll be comparing the Emmeline to in the actual review. I've talked in various places here about the Denon, but I think it will be necessary to review it more formally here, because as it turns out, the Denon and the Emmeline are a study in contrasts, and really show how different designs can sound so unlike one another, yet each be deeply satisfying in its own right. So, more on that comparison later.)

These are a bit random as they are transcribed from my notes.

I can confirm the bass performance of the Emmeline with my R10s is just outstanding. It shows me a sheer depth to the bass at the lowest frequency levels that I didn't know the R10 was capable of (R10 has excellent bass quality and quantity, but it does not go as low as some of the other better phones).

DRUMS! Let me re-iterate what I said before-- drums through the Emmeline really go SNAP!!!! THUMP!!! THWAK!!!! The R10s and the CD3Ks IMO, really do the drum sound better than other headphones, and the Emmeline really brings that quality to the fore. This is very fun to listen to.

However, while we're on drums, let's talk cymbals. I have noticed a slight tendency for hard cymball hits to sound somewhat splashy from time to time. I don't know yet whether I will feel the amp is just letting me hear how the splashy cymbal was actually recorded, or whether that is an artifact of the amp itself. I've only noticed this splashiness a few times on certain CDs. Can't draw any conclusions yet but I'll be keeping an ear out.

The Emmeline is just great with electric guitars, and other amplified, electric instruments. There's something very "electrical", "charged", and "alive" sounding about chiming or crunchy electric guitars, for example, that really gives them extra cajones, and a sense of real "presence". You get the feeling it's in the room with you it comes through so loud and clear. Very impressive.

On the downside, I wonder whether that extra "electricity" and extra attack, and generally lively balance of the Emmeline may come to be a cause of listening fatigue over time. All I can tell you for now is that I've been listening at 3-4 hour clips with hour breaks between, and I have not yet become fatigued and I like to listen LOUD! In fact, I've found the Emmeline to be so "musical" (I know a very vague almost useless term), that it sucks me in to songs I normally skip. It definitely never ever lets you get bored, that's for sure. It's been a riveting experience so far, this Emmeline really just demands your attention.

I'd say soundstage size is about "average" in terms of height compared to the other high-quality amps I've heard, but soundstage width is impressive. The HR-2 has a real "wide-screen" quality to it, much like the R10s themselves, with a soundstage that looks roughly like this:



With some other amps, the R10s reproduce a more rounded soundstage that extends further behind the head, and has large-ish blobs on the right and left that extend over and below the band produced by the Emmeline. It could be argued that the Emmeline's soundstage is more naturally shaped, and that's a possibility. Nevertheless, ever so slightly "closed-in" sounding compared some tube amps I've known.

OTOH, soundstage *depth* is really quite impressive. Sounds have body and presence and really sound like events that are actually occurring in space. Some people would call this quality "airy", but that's not to be confused with light-weight ethereal and floaty sound. The Emmeline speaks boldly but gives you plenty of air around each instrument.

Finally, I'm already starting to speculate if the Emmeline might not be the perfect amp to "wake up" the drab and woolly HD600. Someone with a pair will have to try it soon to see for sure.

Oh yeah, I also speculate that if you feed this amp doo-doo its gonna smack your head down and stick your nose into that doo-doo-- "bad dog, bad dog". Bad CDPs need not apply. MP3 players need not apply. But of course, I'd tell you that no matter what the topic of discussion was!

So, how does the Emmeline sound with more mellow acoustic music? Does it have finnesse and delicacy? Still don't know! I'll have to exhaust my harder-edged CDs first and that may take a while, I'm having too much fun! There's a lot of music I want to revisit in the coming weeks. See-- I left you with a cliffhanger and everything.

Well, that's all I've got so far, and I don't expect to comment further until I write the review in a couple weeks. So far my impressions may end up being longer than the actual review.

Op-Amp (IC) Rolling
Quick update. Just as I was getting prepared to write up my review, Ray e-mailed me that he had some amazing new ICs (op-amps) for the Emmeline from Burr-Brown (didn't state which model). According to Ray, these are very premium quality ICs with a cost of $23 a piece (apparently, that's expensive for this sort of part). Ray says "they're worth every penny" and that he was "shocked with the sound that (he) was hearing" after installing them in the HR-2.

As I reported earlier, Ray said the Emmeline is a great amp for people who love to IC-roll, and that IC swaps are especially audible in the HR-2 given his amp's simple design. He says the effect is akin to the effect of tube-swapping in a tube amp, which to me means it's very noticeable.

He is sending me a pair of the new Burr-Brown ICs (should arrive next week) for me to install in the Emmeline. This means I will be putting off my review until I've had a chance to receive, install, and digest the new ICs. See you later!

OK, the OPA627B's have 3 and a half solid days of continuous burn-in on them. Time for some quick impressions. I really liked the HR-2 before I put in the OPA627Bs and I really liked it afterward. This is still essentially the same amp, but with some differences in shading and emphasis.

IMO, so far the OPA627s are a little "thinner" and "leaner" sounding than the AD797s, moving you back a couple rows in the soundstage.

Tonal balance is shifted *slightly* upward in my system relative to more "neutral" sounding (at least to me) AD797.

With the OPAs, I have to strain my ears a *little* to make out what the singer is singing, where the AD's put the vocals front and center.

The OPA's do not have the great bass of the AD's. Maybe some people would find the ADs bass "bloated" or over-emphasized. But for me, once deprived of it, I want it back.

The OPAs have a seductive smooothness to the sound, banishing hash and grit that is very appealing. I love the top end-- it seems to go on for weeks, but it's not at all "bright" or shrill, a neat trick.

With the OPA627s female vocals and strings are to die for. Yum yum. Sweet, and clear. OTOH, I think this is a sort of *enhancement* rather than the "absolute truth" if you follow me. With the 627's the top end is just breathtakingly open, with a smoothness I've only heard with tubes before (note that the 797s were not "dark" to begin with). But you pay for that with a slightly softer, sort of gauzy midrange and softer bass relative to the AD797.

However, I'm also starting to wonder if the top-end extension I perceive with the 627's is a sort of illusion created by having less bass info to provide contrast, and by slightly rolling the highs. How else can it get that kind of smoothness to the sound, coupled with such apparent extension? Not sure if I'm explaining properly...

Overall, the OPAs, despite the sweet top-end, are more "forgiving" (or "less exciting" depending on your perspective) than the ADs. I could see some people saying the OPAs are "more refined" than the AD797 and others saying the OPAs are "too polite" relative to the AD797.

So far, I'd say you could easily be pleased with either chip, and I don't feel it's a case of one being clearly better than the other. Personal preferences and system matching would affect which route you go. The HR-2 is a very enjoyable amp with either IC.

I'm going to keep listening to the new OPAs today, and sometime over the weekend, I'm going to put the AD797s back and write up some final comments and make my own personal choice about which IC I like better.

AD797s For Me, Please!
Well, this morning I popped the AD797s back into the Emmeline. Reaction was almost instant. Ahhhhhhhhh..... that's better! Yes--the HR-2's got it's mojo back!

Good in their way as the OPA627s were, they just didn't seem to have the AD797's je ne sais quoi, and seemed to sap the HR-2 of it's essential "Emmelinity" if you will. My personal enjoyment of the music went down slightly when I put the OPAs in, shot back up after putting the 797s back. They have much more "presence" in the middle than the OPAs, better tonal balance and appreciably better bass. I would say that I personally prefer the 797s by a fair margin. But again, YMMV, as your associated gear (and your ears) will be different than mine.

Maybe if I'd been shipped the Emmeline with the OPAs to begin with, that combo would sound "right" to me, and the ADs would sound "off". For my money, though, Ray got it right the first time around.

If you will permit me a potentially sexist analogy, I would suggest that the OPAs make the HR-2 sound more "feminine", where the ADs are more "masculine". The OPAs are softer, more forgiving, delicate and refined, with a silky high-end. The ADs are more muscular, more full and clear sounding, and more aggressive.

I'm exaggerating the differences here to make my point clearer, but, if I had to make general recomendations, I would guess that your choice of AD797 or OPA627 would depend on which types of music you listen to most:

OPA627: Acoustic music, orchestral music, strings, horns, female vocals, etc..

AD797: Amplified electric music: Rock 'n Roll, Pop, Electronica/Dance, R&B, Rap, Blues, Country, etc... Anything with drums!

Of course, if you're already in it for $875, why not spend an extra $50 or so to get yourself a pair of OPA627s, and do the comparison yourself! If nothing else, you'll have fun IC-rolling. If you don't like the OPAs, you can probably sell them here to a DIY-er and not lose too much of your investment.

OK, now that my IC-rolling adventure is over, I'm gonna work on that review! Cheers.

After about 3 weeks of continuous listening, and after going through dozens and dozens of CDs, I’m now confident I’m ready to write the review, so here it is!

Ha-ha, made you look! No, actually here it *isn’t*. The actual review is in Part Four in a post down below. This is Part Three, dedicated to distilling what I’ve learned so far about headphone amps. This information cost me thousands and thousands of dollars, and I wanted to do something with it, so I decided to pass it on to you! For free! If nothing else, it will help provide the background to the Emmeline Review, and give you a sense of where I’m coming from, and a glimpse at one Head-Fier’s journey so far through the world of headphone amplifiers, which I hope will be entertaining for some of you. If not, feel free to skip ahead at your level of interest. Sections/topics are clearly marked in BOLD.

These are just my own personal opinions/biases/experiences, which are not exhaustive, so take these comments for what they are worth…

Several years ago, when I first seriously embarked on this headphone odyssey, I purchased a Headroom Home (old version) for my Sennheiser HD580s, which I’d already had for years. I selected Headroom only because I saw their ads in Stereophile, and theirs were the only “headphone amps” I was aware even existed. Well, I didn’t take to the Home at all, and didn’t find that it sounded any better than the jack on my Marantz AV9000 HT pre/pro. So, I stepped up to the HD600s and ordered the Maxed Out Home (old version). I didn’t really find the MOH to be satisfactory either. That’s when I discovered Headwize, and came to realize there were a number of other headphone amps out there, many of them tubed (of course there was nothing like the selection we have today!).

I’d never owned any tube gear before and had basically written off tubes as being hopelessly antiquated technology listened to by old codgers with scratchy old mono LPs and ancient Victrolas. However, since I found that the “best” (or certainly most expensive) solid state headamp then available (MOH) didn’t impress me, I’d try a tube amp just to see what would happen if I went in the complete opposite direction. Besides, I figured in a headamp application, you don’t need hundreds of watts of brute force-- in fact you don’t even need a single watt-- so why not try some flea-powered tubes?

So I sold the MOH and purchased an Earmax. Boy, I could tell that it did a lot of things right, and I was instantly seduced by the enchanting tube sound, but it clipped horribly with the HD600s when it was turned up to even a reasonable listening level. IMO, the standard Earmax (which was allegedly designed specifically for the HD600) is completely worthless, and can’t drive any load let alone the HD600. So, back it went and I got the higher-powered Earmax Pro as a replacement. This was much better with the HD600s, with very strong bass, and a very tubey signature, but I found that the EMP was unable to drive the Etymotic ER4S without clipping as the Earmax had done with the HD600. Consequently, IMO, the EMP is probably unqualified to drive anything other than the HD600s to the kind of volume levels I prefer (relatively loud).

Anyway, after discovering the joys of tube-rolling, I was able to bring up the EMP to a level sonically where I was very pleased with it powering the HD600, and used this set-up for a while. Eventually, though, I fell out of love with the HD600, and knew that if I swapped headphones, I probably couldn’t rely on the EMP to be able to drive the new cans.

My next amp was a relatively obscure product by the name of the Berning MicroZOTL, which is still one of the few lower-priced tubed headamps out there able to confidently drive any headphone load, and in fact actually has enough power to drive undemanding speakers. The ZOTL was clean as could be, if a bit polite, and a hair on the bland side with the HD600. But when paired with the Sony CD3000, it made beautiful music. I still think this is a great combo (as do a number of other folks here), and continue to recommend the ZOTL as a companion for the marvelous CD3000. So, in the end, the ZOTL was much more versatile than the EMP, and really shone with the CD3000. I owned the ZOTL for as long as I owned the CD3000.

After falling for the CD3K, I decided it was time to stop screwing around, and when the chance arose I pounced on a used pair of the then relatively undocumented Sony MDR-R10s. I quickly realized that I now possessed a headphone that shamed everything that was upstream of it, including the ZOTL and my source. This set off a round of source upgrades, and led to my selling the ZOTL to purchase a Melos SHA-Gold, the bigger brother of the more common SHA-1 owned by many on this site. I loved the Melos SHA-Gold with my R10s, and quickly upgraded to a SHA-Maestro, the all-out version of the Gold. Let me tell you, the Melos Maestro with NOS Siemens Gold Pin 6922s was one hell of a combo with the R10s. I also continue to highly recommend all the Melos amps at any price level you can afford. This is another one of those rare amps that is perfectly happy driving any headphone, any impedence. This means you can hang onto the Melos while you continue to audition headphones, knowing that you have a world-class amp (at its price point) to tell you how good those new cans truly are.

And so I was happy for quite a while until one day a few months ago, on a lark, I stuck my R10s into the headphone jack on my Denon AVR-58000 HT receiver, Denon’s top-of-the-line showcase product. To my utter disbelief, I could not deny that the jack on my Denon was equivalent to the Melos Maestro in a number of important ways, better in a few, and not as good in some others. On balance, after listening to the Denon’s jack I could no longer justify hanging on to the Melos Maestro, given that I could be equally happy with either one. This experience just confirmed two separate realizations that had been percolating in my mind for some time:

1. A headphone amp is nothing but a limited-function pre-amp.

2. It’s a myth that “all jacks on all non-headphone amps suck”.

Over the course of going through 8 separate headamps in my system, I've concluded (to my own satisfaction, anyway) that what is marketed as a “headamp” is nothing but a limited-function pre-amp by another name. Look at the functionality of a basic pre-amp vs. a headamp-- you have audio inputs, a volume control, a source selecter, and a headphone jack. If it's a good pre-amp, chances are it will make a good head-amp and vice versa. Many of the most cherished “headamps" are actually pre-amps. In fact, Ray Samuels, designer of the HR-2 is primarily known as a maker of high-quality pre-amps.

IMO as a layman, there's really not much special voodoo in what we call a "headamp" vs. what we call a "pre-amp" (outside of crossfeed in some units, and the ability to drive tough loads like the HD600). If you already have a component that has a top-quality pre-amp section and it has a headphone jack, why spend all that money on a separate box that recreates the exact same functionality? The amount of power required to drive cans is very low, not really more than a good active pre-amp generates in the process of just being a pre-amp. IMO, adding a $300 “headamp” to your $1200 pre-amp with headphone jack, *could* end up being a waste—you may have to get a $700-$1000 headamp to have sound/parts quality equivalent to your existing pre-amp.

I realize these comments/opinions/theories/"revelations" are very general in nature, and there are no doubt many exceptions to any of the "rules" I've come up with.

That said, my particular experience has also led me to conclude that it’s a myth that the headphone jack on your audio component automatically sucks by default.

I've never seen much focus or attention paid to the entire topic of headphone jacks in other non-headamp products, except to repeat the usual mantra about them being sub-par, which in most instances, I can see being a pretty reasonable assumption. After all, "good headphone jack" is going to be on the feature priority list at number 2113. The receiver has an awful lot of jobs to do, there's a ton of technology crammed in there that make up the bulk of the cost. Whereas a dedicated headamp is made for one purpose only-- to provide good, clean headphone sound. But that's not to condemn all receivers, as I've heard at least 2 exceptions to the “rule”, the Marantz AV9000 and Denon 5800 (granted at very high price-points).

I realize these are both relatively expensive pieces of equipment. I agree that it is unlikely that a $500 receiver is going to have a great pre-amp section and headphone jack. I am certain, however, that it's safe to assume that, in general, the better the quality the receiver, the better the quality of its headphone jack.

However, in my mind, these insights do NOT apply to jacks on CDPs/DVD players. Even if you have a $1000 DVD player, by expecting a good headphone jack, you’re also asking your DVD-player to act as good pre-amp. Now while I assert that a headamp = a pre-amp, I’m NOT saying that a CDP = a pre-amp! Nope, even I can tell those are two totally different beasts! So, no, it’s unlikely that the headphone jack on your $1000 DVD player is going to be as good as a $300 dedicated headamp.

Anyway, long story short, it turns out the pre-amp section of my Denon AVR-5800 is fantastic, and the headphone jack plugs straight into that, so it sounds just great driving my Sony R10s. Here I was going to stay for a long time until I was in a position to purchase for my R10s an amp such as the Cary CAD300SEI, or some other over-the-top piece like that. And some day, I'm sure I will!

But in the meantime, Jude contacted me about doing this review of the much more sensibly priced Emmeline HR-2, and I thought—why not? I’ll give it a spin, and so here we are... almost, but not quite at the actual review.

Here at last is the review I’ve been promising. Please assume all comments refer to the HR-2 equipped with the original AD797 op-amps. Rather than repeat things I’ve already said in my Initial Impressions, this review will focus on completing the picture, and putting those observations into context.

The first thing I want to do is respond to some of the things I stated in my Initial Impressions, about which I have either changed my opinion somewhat or simply have more to say.

1. “The Emmeline has a very rich and reverberant quality to it. If you find the CD3000 and other closed phones to be too "reverberant" you might object to this amp, because it enhances that effect. It retrieves a lot of ambient noise associated with the production of loud sounds in live acoustical space. This is adding to the impact of those sounds in my ear.”

I should have avoided the use of the word “reverb”; that’s misleading. What I was reacting to here turned out to be the excellent imaging capability of the Emmeline, coupled with the sheer sense of “presence” that sounds have throughout the spectrum. I’ll go into more detail later.

2. “I have noticed a slight tendency for hard cymbal hits to sound somewhat splashy from time to time. I don't know yet whether I will feel the amp is just letting me hear how the splashy cymbal was actually recorded, or whether that is an artifact of the amp itself. I've only noticed this splashiness a few times on certain CDs. Can't draw any conclusions yet but I'll be keeping an ear out.”

The HR-2 is very open-sounding for a solid state device, with an amzing top-end that can have real bite when fed accordingly. This amp has a sort of “unfettered” quality to it, allowing splashy cymbals to come through loud and clear, but not distorted. Once I adjusted to this presentation, I came to really appreciate the highs of the Emmeline, and found it to be very realistic, and definitely not “rolled off”, that’s for damn sure.

3. “On the downside, I wonder whether that extra "electricity" and extra attack, and generally lively balance of the Emmeline may come to be a cause of listening fatigue over time. All I can tell you for now is that I've been listening at 3-4 hour clips with hour breaks between, and I have not yet become fatigued and I like to listen LOUD!”

In all my hours and hours of listening, I have never become fatigued listening to the Emmeline. On the contrary, the HR-2 makes me want to keep my phones on longer!

OK—on with the review already!

The Emmeline proved to be a slippery little sucker to get a solid hold on because it has a habit of switching off the analytical part of my brain, and sucking me into whatever I happened to be listening to, which speaks very highly of the amp. Also, it tends to sound very different with different recordings, making it hard to predict which of my CDs would sound optimal through the Emmeline. Time and again I was surprised at which CDs sounded better than I’d ever heard them before and which ones I’d heard done better by other amps. There seemed to be little pattern I could easily detect.

If you like a hazy, breezy, floaty, soft, rolled, or polite sound, this is not the amp for you (although adding the OPA627s might help). This is a very dynamic, nimble and fast amp, with amazing rhythm, timing and pace. It’s not warm, sweet, or romantic like a tube amp. While it doesn't have the peculiar "magic" of a tube amp, this is solid state done right, maximizing all those things that solid state does better than tubes. This amp has extremely high bandwidth, and is very full-resolution. I think this has the potential to be off-putting at first depending on what amp you’re coming from, but once you go through the psychological burn-in process, you may be seduced by it as I was, and find your old amp suddenly sounds “un-involving” and “veiled”.

If I had to estimate, I would say that 7 out of 10 of my CD/SACDs/DVD-As sounded better than I’d ever heard them before through the HR-2, with 3 out of 7 sounding significantly better. On the remaining 3 out of 10 CDs, I felt I had heard them sound better on other amps. Still, 7 out of 10 is a pretty darn good batting average! But it is not the case in my experience, with my set-up, that the Emmeline simply slew everything I threw at it, or that it was so good it was clearly superior to anything I’d ever heard before on everything. Compared to other amps in the same general class/category that I’ve owned such as the Berning MicroZOTL, Headroom MOH, Earmax Pro, my Denon, and several Melos’s, I think the Emmeline has the edge for me in terms of pure musical enjoyment out of my R10s. But I don’t want to over-state the distance between the Emmeline and those other amps, and lead the reader to think it’s some huge gulf. Those are all great amps in their own right, with their own special strengths.

In short, the Emmeline competes very well with these other amps, and in some ways, I feel outpaces them handily. Its $875 price tag is an excellent value. I expect the HR-2 will satisfy a wide variety of headphone geeks, sound great with a wide variety of cans, and provide plenty of enjoyment to listeners of all music styles.

Over time, I came to feel that the Emmeline was simply more faithful to the source recording of almost any amp I’ve heard, most of the time. I believe that the Emmeline with AD797s is giving it to me exactly as it is, for better or worse. Each disc sounded very distinct, with the differences in recording quality and mastering quality being highlighted more than any other amp I’ve owned. As I have said in the past, a good source is a must with this amp. My source is a $1200 DVD-A player, nothing to sneeze at, but my impression from the Emmeline is that it would let an even better source shine through even more.

(EDIT: since this review, I've upgraded to a sacdmods modified Sony 555ES SACDP, an amazing source which is able to really come through loud and clear with the HR-2. The HR-2 really rewards upstream gear swaps and upgrades, so it's very "transparent".)

It’s a little back-assward to pick an amp, then pick a source, but I would avoid any source that’s known to be “bright”, “sibilant”, strident or hashy. The Emmeline does not provide you with any “veil” or “fog” to protect your ears, and does not hold you at arm’s length from the sound to admire it from a safe distance. A high-quality source is required to prevent the potential for listening fatigue. You have been warned!

For interconnects, I would avoid using anything with silver conductors to hook up the Emmeline, unless it is peculiarly mellow for a silver cable. Nice, fat, copper cable is probably best bet to maximize the Emmeline sound. This amp sounds fabulous with my Virtual Dynamics Reference ICs. The basic sound of the HR-2 goes hand-in-hand with the Virtual Dynamics signature sound.

Then there is the issue of fancy power cables. As I reported earlier in this thread, Ray Samuels is a bit skeptical about the need for fancy power cables given the high-quality of the HR-2s power supply. Indeed, I found that swapping the HR-2's power cord did make a nice incremental improvement, a worth-while upgrade but not as dramatic as I've experienced with some other components. After trying a Zu Cable BoK and a Virtual Dynamics Power 1, I ended up with the KAS Audio Primus for the HR-2 which is a near ideal match, IMO. (http://www.kasaudio.com/home.asp). The Primus is a $750 "list price" cable that I got for about $170 on an audiogon auction.

I predict the HR-2 will sound great with any headphone. It gives me the feeling that it has power to burn; I doubt there is any phone out there shy of the K1000 it could not drive. That, of course, is just idle speculation, as I don’t happen to have any other cans on hand besides my Sony R10s. That said, I'm going to go ahead and speculate on 3 likely candidates as partners for the HR-2 that I have owned previously:

1. Sennheiser HD600. If you are searching for a high-resolution amp to “wake up” those HD600s from their (and your) slumber, put this at the top of your short list. IMO, the wooly HD600 could really use some extra “kick” to open them up, and I suspect the Emmeline is just the amp for the job. Hopefully, after the Chicago meet, Members with HD600s can confirm performance with HR-2. An upgraded headphone cable would also be mandatory, methinks.

2. Sony CD3000. If you are on the borderline in thinking your CD3K’s have “too much” up top, or if they cause you listening fatigue on your current amp, the fullness of the Emmeline might push them over the edge for you. OTOH, if you just don’t understand what all the fuss is about with regard to the CD3000’s so-called “jacked-up” treble, I think the HR-2 would make them a fabulous companion. The sheer openness and resolution of the CD3000s combined with the sheer open-ness and resolution of the HR-2 should take you to dizzying heights, and leave you agog. This set-up is not for the faint of heart, methinks.

3. Audio-Technica ATH-W2002 (and presumably the W1000). This should be another outstanding combination. I just bet the bass performance of the W2002 with DADs combined with the sheer heft and slam of the HR-2 would leave bassheads cross-eyed and painless. The fullness in the middle of the Emmeline should also help boost the W2002’s midrange performance. I imagine this would be a great combo, too.

If I had to pick one word to describe the HR-2, it would be “vivid”. Plugging your cans into the Emmeline HR-2 is like plugging into your own musical world. The HR-2 is best enjoyed with eyes closed. You are transported and taken away, and your spirit physically enters the world of the recording. The Emmeline really puts on a show for you. I said this before, but this amp has a very “live” sound. You are in the room with the musicians. No, I mean they’re really there, actually playing for you-- go ahead, reach out and shake their hands! The HR-2 has a “holographic” quality that I just love, and is very addicting. Tone and timbre in my system are excellent, it sounds just like real life.

Some of today’s solid state dedicated headphone amps come with a crossfeed circuit that allows the amp to slightly blend the left and right channels. The effect of this manipulation of the signal is to try to close the gap in the middle of the soundstage that most headphones have. In a way, this is sort of “cheating” to compensate for an inherent weakness in the headphone experience. Yes, crossfeed is a nice extra feature to have, so long as it can be defeated, and removed from the signal path if you desire. Purists of course scoff at the idea of adulterating the signal, “ruining” stereo separation, and adding extra components to the signal path. In any case, I think crossfeed can be a good feature for the right headphones, but there’s a trade-off, as in all things audio!

One of the best features of the Sony MDR-R10 is its absolutely astounding soundstaging capabilities. With the R10s (and to a lesser extent the CD3000), crossfeed is not nearly as crucial to obtaining good imaging. In fact, next to the R10, other cans have no soundstage. This is partly due to their incredible high-resolution, the shape of the enclosures (designed by computer), and the fact that the Sony’s drivers are canted slightly outward so the drivers face your ears more like speaker cones in front of you. The net effect of all this is to provide what I thought was a seamless soundstage from right to left without any gap in the middle whatsoever. Then I got the HR-2.

One of the HR-2’s biggest strengths (and major hot-button for me) is its amazing soundstaging capabilities. Not necessarily in terms of absolute soundstage size from left to right or up and down, but in terms of the way it makes two separate channels strapped to two separate ears able to complete the illusion of a single, connected, integrated seamless image. This is one realistic and well-shaped soundstage that has amazing depth to it and incredible ability to localize sounds. The HR-2 facilitates my imagining of the soundstage and where each musician is standing in the room. It’s really something to “see”. There is absolutely zero gap in the middle of the soundstage with my R10s.

The Emmeline’s ability to create this seamless soundstage I imagine will pay off with other cans as well. In my mind, it makes the potential objection to the HR-2 that “it doesn’t have crossfeed” not nearly so significant. Anyway, I wouldn’t be put off from the Emmeline due to its lack of this somewhat controversial feature.

The more I listened to the HR-2, the more I felt I was hearing the music and the mixes as the artist intended for the first time. I have a weakness for well-recorded rock/pop with great “production values”, and very carefully constructed mixes. I enjoy it when a skilled record-maker uses the tools of his trade to mess with my mind, scare the bejesus out of me, or make me feel like I’m generally stoned and disoriented. I love “trippy” music or albums that have been “psychedelicized” by canny artists/producers, and feel that this type of music is especially suited to headphones.

But the problem with these types of recordings is that they are all extremely complex, composed of literally dozens of tracks, instruments, and vocals. The ability to resolve all of that information and present it all in a coherent, well-proportioned fashion so it sounds like actual *music* is no mean feat. With the HR-2, you get to hear these carefully-constructed tracks as they were meant to be heard. It’s almost like hearing your favorite music mixed and mastered properly for the first time. Effects and sounds that are supposed to produce a certain effect in the listener, actually do. Moods that are supposed to be inspired by the music are actually created. Albums you thought too busy and overproduced, make perfect sense when they’re all held together correctly and given the proper presentation as they are through the HR-2.

The Emmeline experience brings me much closer than ever before to replicating the sound of a great speaker system in a real room through the more limited medium of headphones. The HR-2 makes all those scattered tracks, instruments, and sounds cohere into a whole that can be quite awe-inspiring with the right material. I’d call this quality “musicality”. Yeah, saying that a component is “musical” is just about the most vague and useless comment you can make, but there you go. Bottom line is that tracks I used to skip on some CDs I now listen to all the way through. The Emmeline makes it all so appealing, so real, and well, “musical”. In short, the Emmeline reminds you of just how amazing and mysterious the pure experience of sound can be.

One of the most bizarre attributes of the HR-2 is its seeming suppression of the sound of tape hiss on analog recordings. Where does it go? With The Emmeline, I am much less aware that I’m listening to a recording, and feel more like I’m witnessing an event. Somehow, in the Emmeline’s presentation of this amazing soundfield, tape hiss becomes much less pronounced. It’s like the amp is pulling so much information off the master tape that the small matter of tape hiss is muted somewhat in relation to the music which is blooming all over the place.

I suspect this all has to do with the Emmeline’s fantastic ability to distinguish between loud and soft sounds. It doesn’t compact everything into a narrow band, shoring off dynamic peaks and boosting low-level info to a similar plane as the music. I also believe that the ability to play soft sounds soft and loud sounds loud contributes to the sense that everything has been mixed and mastered correctly that I spoke of a moment ago. I think this quality of being able to accurately portray subtle shadings in volume can be as important to good sound reproduction as the ability to reveal subtle shades of tone and timbre, yet is often overlooked.

In any case, when you hear this amp, you’ll see that suppression of tape hiss does not mean the amp is truncating sound or has a high noise floor. With the AD797 this amp extends forever in all directions, is dead quiet, very detailed and extremely “vivid”.

I’ve really enjoyed my time with the Ray Samuels Emmeline HR-2. I think this amp represents an excellent value at $875. The HR-2 performs well on all styles of music, and should appeal to a broad spectrum of headphone enthusiasts. In particular, with the AD797 chip set, I can see lovers of rock ‘n roll, and all rhythm-based music gravitating toward this amp. This amp can rock harder than you can, I’m pretty sure of that. But the HR-2 is not all about brute force. Its pure resolution will bring out all the subtle sounds and tones of acoustic-based music, providing a rich, realistic environment that you can close your eyes and dissolve into.

After listening to so many amps in the $1000 range, I became convinced that to have a truly epiphanous experience with a headphone amp would require stepping up to something in a whole different class altogether (like the Cary 300SEI). I wanted the same sort of experience with an amp that I'd had with that list of components I spoke of earlier.

To a large extent, I got that with the Emmeline. It's almost like when you listen to it, you say to yourself, "so *that's* what a headphone amplifier is *supposed* to do". I really doubt that anyone who purchases an Emmeline will come back here and start a thread called "headphone amps do nothing."

But its ridiculously low price (if you can consider $875 "ridiculously low") almost works against it in my case. After all, I had steeled myself to the fact that I would have to save up the $2K or so get a used Cary CAD300SEI ($4K retail). I need to somehow spend some quality time with the Cary in my home. I still do love the tube sound, too.

I am going to see if I can twist Ray's arm to let me hang on to it for a little while longer! (OK, a lot while longer ). Sadly, I'm not in a position right now to purchase, and I have to keep reminding myself that I am supposed to be saving up for the Cary. I can tell you, though, it will be a sad, sad day around here when I must pack up the HR-2 and ship it back.

Post Script
Just a quick post script.

At the April 26-27 2003 Head-Fi meet in Chicago, the Emmeline HR-2 made its official debut. Reaction was favorable. The two amps that Ray had for sale at the show both sold to two new happy owners. You can find many comments on the HR-2 from Chicago meet attendees here: http://www4.head-fi.org/forums/show...;threadid=32643

Show attendees confirmed that the HR-2 demands a great source. Ray was showing it with his Meridian 508 24-bit player, a top piece of digital gear. I can only imagine how that must have sounded with the R10's and the Emmeline.

Now that others have had the chance to hear the amp, and have confirmed my belief that this is indeed a GOOD amp, I, too have decided to purchase. It just pairs so incredibly well with my R10s, I've never heard them sound better. At the price of this amp, it would be foolish and wasteful of me to pass it up.

I am also convinced that the HR-2 is on a whole different level from my source ($1200 DVD-Audio player). I'm not really sure how close I've actually come to finding out what the limits of this amp truly are. Rather than spend crazy cash on an uber-amp like the Cary, I'm going to keep the HR-2 and plow that money where it's needed most now-- a new source.

(EDIT: As noted before, I have since upgraded to a modified Sony 555ES, which is just delicious with the HR-2!)
post #2 of 26
Thank's for your impressions, Markl. Everything written on the amp forum about Ray Samuels products is going in the same positive direction.

I'm about to buy the new XP-7 portable amp and don't think I will be wrong in my purchase...
post #3 of 26
mark, thanks for the review!
my XP-7 is on the way, which is said to be very similar to yours.
i wonder if you could find peace with that amp too
you sure got magnifing headphones to judge.. try to compare if you'll ever get the chance (don't forget the battery mode), and don't forget to report.
what i am asking myself is how the HR-2 compares with the other amps in its price range with other cans.. from one hand, you could probably say that the R10 are the absolut reference headphones...otoh, think about that

a lot of your expressions on the amp reminds me of the feelings i get when i listen to my relativly new CD3000, which i like very much. i believe that we got similar taste, more or less. (i'll get these R10 probably very soon after i'll hear them, as i know myself.. uncontroled young man )

i hope that modded DI/O (kinda dark)-> DH Labs Silversonics (silver cables, but i don't find them sparkling, not bright) -> XP-7 -> CD3000 combo will be nice.
what do you think?
BTW, i'll get both opamps with the XP-7, i'll post my comments after i'll get to know them both.
post #4 of 26
Markl, thanks for the excellent review. I really enjoyed reading your personal headphone history. This is the first time I have read an Emmeline review and I would like to describe just a few comments because I am wondering whether other people are hearing the same thing (or maybe my initial impressions were off). I would really like to hear more of this amp because I only heard once at the previous DC meet. I had 30 minutes with it paired up to a Sony NS-500V, Hirsch's LAT cables, and various headphones, from my HP-2's to RS-1's, to CD3k's. I A/B'ed it with my familiar Gilmore V2 amp with the same cables and matched volume levels.

From my short listening session, I found that the Emmeline sounded smooth...I think due to a smoothed transient response that really took the edge off the bright Sony NS-500V. In a lot of ways I really like this sound because it was very inviting to listen to. The amp seemed to impart a similar sonic signature with every headphone I paired with it. However, the Gilmore sounded faster and more detailed in the transients, while letting the brightness and harshness from the source through at the same time. Not saying the Gilmore is better, but perhaps it is more transparent?

Initial impressions only go so far, especially hooked up to a so-so source that I am not familiar with. So does anyone else feel that this amp rounds off transient response too much or do I need to give it another listen? I obviously do want to give it another try--hopefully at the Grado Labs meet in NY with my own source.
post #5 of 26
Canman, do you know which opamps were on?
post #6 of 26
Originally posted by AdamZuf
Canman, do you know which opamps were on?
No I don't, but it was Ray's test unit that he sent for the meet.
post #7 of 26
Thread Starter 
my XP-7 is on the way, which is said to be very similar to yours.
i wonder if you could find peace with that amp too
you sure got magnifing headphones to judge.. try to compare if you'll ever get the chance (don't forget the battery mode), and don't forget to report.
Hi Adam,
Haven't heard the XP-7, so can't comment. I do hope to get a review sample of the upcoming Emmeline 2 Stealth tube amp, though.
The amp seemed to impart a similar sonic signature with every headphone I paired with it. However, the Gilmore sounded faster and more detailed in the transients, while letting the brightness and harshness from the source through at the same time. Not saying the Gilmore is better, but perhaps it is more transparent?
Hi Canman,
Haven't heard a Gilmore, either! So I really can't comment on which is more transparent. But when compared to the other amps I've owned, I would call the HR-2 very transparent, full-sounding, and detailed, with that eerie black background that others have noted. With such a quiet background, the music really comes through for these ears.
Initial impressions only go so far, especially hooked up to a so-so source that I am not familiar with. So does anyone else feel that this amp rounds off transient response too much or do I need to give it another listen? I obviously do want to give it another try--hopefully at the Grado Labs meet in NY with my own source.
I wonder which op-amps it had? Was this the sample that was modified by Ray for a specific customer to tame the Grado highs? A lot of people found that amp to be "dark", but of course it was supposed to be. I would say that "rounded off transients" is another way of describing the extremely smooth OPA627s. For me, with the AD797s, the amp really comes to life, as I noted in my review, I sometimes questioned whether it's attack with things like electric guitars and drums might be too much for some people. So it goes to show how people hear things differently.

post #8 of 26

A copy of your review has been added to the full featured review section. I think I liked the Director's Cut better than the first one.

Having heard the XP-7 I would say that it sounds virtually the same as the HR-2 in side by side listening tests. I have hundreds of hours with the HR-2 and I could not tell which was which without looking when I listened to them.
post #9 of 26
can you tell if it works through the power supply/battery mode?
i take it as if you are using also your CD3000 to not tell the difference?

do you think that the difference between two amps (not particulaty these two), to the same ears, can be clear on R10, but not detectable on the CD3000 ?
how better would you rate the R10 in terms of resolution next to the CD3000?
(Hirsch, feel free to answer that too)
post #10 of 26
Originally posted by AdamZuf
Canman, do you know which opamps were on?
AD797. Ray sent me some other op amps to try (AD825, AD627), but the 797 is the standout of the group, IMO.
post #11 of 26
Originally posted by AdamZuf
can you tell if it works through the power supply/battery mode?
i take it as if you are using also your CD3000 to not tell the difference?

I could not tell the difference between battery and power supply. I was not able to tell any differeence between battery and power with RS-1's, HD-600's or CD3000.
post #12 of 26
is the RS XP-7 only available through TTVJ?
post #13 of 26
Hirsch, what do you feel of the Emmeline's sonic signature?

so...what do you guys think of MZ-R50->XP7->R10? on Harlem's streets?
post #14 of 26
Anyone know when Ray's new tube preamp will be available? If it is better than the HR-2, I will be all over it!
post #15 of 26
Originally posted by markl
Hi Canman,
Haven't heard a Gilmore, either! So I really can't comment on which is more transparent. But when compared to the other amps I've owned, I would call the HR-2 very transparent, full-sounding, and detailed, with that eerie black background that others have noted.
I have both and I think the Gilmore SE is more transparent, strangely enough though, it's the Gilmore SE that impresses me with it's black background more so than the HR-2. The Gilmore's background strikes me as eerie while the HR-2 really doesn't. I think it's partially a factor of the black background together with the speed of the Gilmore though, since to my ears it's faster than the HR-2. The HR-2 is a wonderful amp though and your review captures it's essence nicely!

EDIT: One other thing I found with the HR-2 with AD797s in comparision with the Gilmore and Grace amps is that it seemed to surpress some of the upper frequencies that result in bright / edgy sound. I woulld wonder if the the tape hiss was less noticeable because of this.
New Posts  All Forums:Forum Nav:
  Return Home
  Back to Forum: Headphone Amps (full-size)
Head-Fi.org › Forums › Equipment Forums › Headphone Amps (full-size) › Ray Samuels Emmeline HR-2 Impressions and Review (The Director's Cut)