I was sent the review loaner Peak/Volcano set-up from Todd The Vinyl Junkie. This system has been making the rounds to quite a few head-fiers for evaluation and comment, and I was happy to be able to take part in that, since I had heard from some folks that it did a good job driving the Audez’e LCD-2.
I spent time listening to the P/V as a headphone amp, using the LCD-2, the HiFiMan HE-5LE, and the Beyer T1. I compared it to the WooAudio WA2 driving the T1, and to the Leben CS300X driving the LCD-2 and HE-5LE. I also listened to the P/V as a preamp, driving Dynaudio BM5E powered monitors. Sources were either my Audio By VanAlstine tube-hybrid DAC, or the Yulong D100 DAC.
The P/V is a tube-solid-state hybrid, using a single 6SN7 type tube for gain, and using solid state devices for output. The “Peak” comes with an outboard power supply, but I used it only with the “Volcano” upgraded power supply. The review loaner was supplied with re-issue/current production Tung-Sol branded 6SN7’s, which I don’t really like, so I did not use them. I used a 1960’s era “real” Tung-Sol 6SN7WGT, and later a Mullard ECC32 (after checking that the P/V can safely use such a tube, which I was informed it can). I slightly preferred the ECC32, for reasons I will outline below, but the sound was excellent using both.
The P/V is a very fine sounding amp. I think the most appealing part about it is that to a significant degree it actually manages to pull off the Holy Grail trick for a hybrid amp – it has a touch of tube midrange magic, but still has solid-state-like treble extension and bass control. The P/V is very slightly lush in the mids, but not in a colored way. It is also, regardless of tube choice, just a touch forward in the treble. There is a treble presence that I think is just a little on the hot side of strictly neutral, or at least a little “spotlit”. The treble quality is excellent, though – clean and very transparent, and seemingly limitless in extension.
The treble balance contributes to what is outstanding soundstaging – the soundstage is very well defined, with excellent image specificity and lateral image placement. The soundstage seemed to have slightly better definition than the Leben, although the Leben’s soundstage was deeper and a little more holographic. I preferred the treble from the Mullard ECC32, which came across as just a little more natural than it did with the Tung-Sol 6SN7WGT.
Bass impact was outstanding. The amp is very neutral through the bass. Depth is outstanding, and the bass is there when called for, but there is no added bass weight. It’s not an amp to buy if you want extra bass, but the bass that is there is really outstanding.
The bass performance also contributes to an overall sense of very strong dynamics. The P/V can be really explosive when the music calls for it. It is also a very powerful amp – It drove the HE-5LE with great ease, and those are the hardest headphones to drive that I own. The driving Piano in Ben Folds Five’s “Fair” was reproduced incredibly cleanly.
And yes, those mids. Especially via the ECC32, the midrange was very nice. I prefer the mids on the Leben, which are just a little more organic and natural sounding to me, but we’re talking about levels of awesomeness here – both amps excel.
In fact, in general, that is how I felt about the comparisons. While there were ways in which I marginally preferred either the P/V or the Leben on certain tracks, or in certain situations, overall both are of such high quality that it was really difficult to say that one is “better”. They are DIFFERENT, though. The Leben is more the “organic, gets the music right” sort of amp, and the P/V is more the “here is what you are listening to” sort of amp. But don’t misunderstand – the P/V is not what I would all call clinical or unmusical – far from it (nor is the Leben gooey or overly romantic – FAR from it). This is just a good way for me to try to express a difference between two outstanding amps.
I also enjoyed the P/V as a pre-amp. The amp mutes the pre-amp outs whenever headphones are plugged in, which is a nice touch. The amp has basically the same sonic attributes as a preamp as it does a headphone amp. While it was definitely outclassed by my Cart SLP-05 as a preamp, the Cary is more than 3x the price of the P/V, and the SLP-05’s headphone amp is disappointingly bad. The more interesting preamp comparison was in my office system, where the P/V replaced the identically priced Ray Samuels The Stealth. The Stealth is more romantic and tubey than the P/V for sure. I liked both, but they are really very different.
I wish I had room to buy the P/V – I liked it that much. But I absolutely do not – I have way too many amps around here as it is! Still, the P/V is really impressive, and while it’s undeniably expensive, you get a lot of performance for your money. As such, I definitely recommend it – the P/V clearly belongs in the upper echelon of headphone amplifiers.
Edited by Skylab - 11/4/10 at 9:35am