Now, I have known Todd since 2002 or 2003 when he was at Headroom toting amps across the country for the benefit of crazed Head-Fi members. And while I have bought equipment from him over the years, as well as from Headroom, our relationship has been strictly business. Well, with the exception of the fact that we are both ex-pat Michiganders, albeit Todd is a “Upper” (pronounced “yooper”).
While discussing my audio equipment frustrations, Todd graciously offer to add my name to the loaner list for his new Apex Peak/Volcano. Now, when somebody offers you a number one slot to try out Pete Millett-desinged tube gear, its awfully hard to say “no”, especially when you lost your tube virginity to a Wheatfield amp courtesy of Headroom’s World of Headphones Tour (and Todd). Well, ignorance was bliss!
The amp arrived over a week ago, complete with a host of goodies to try out with the stock unit. And it arrived in a crate big enough to hold a mess of rock band groupies! Unfortunately, Todd forgot to pack them along. But he did remind me to “have fun” with the amp, and I have doing my best to follow orders.
For those of you that have been patiently waiting, and wading, through these paragraphs to find out how the blasted thing sounds, hold on a bit, as we are almost there. First, I need to describe my current system so you have some idea of my perspective. My system resides in my somewhat small living room, is positioned along a long wall, and throws across the short side of the room. Its not an ideal arrangement, but it works better than it sounds, and it creates an intimate atmosphere for my Rega Jura speakers (which have an extremely high WAF rating BTW). Amplification is courtesy of a Rega Mira3 integrated amplifier, with the pre-amplifier section bypaseed so the unit is acting strictly as an amplifier.
Pre-amplification is courtesy of a custom Mapletree Audio EAR++ III that Dr. Peppard built for me several years ago. The EAR++ III is also a headphone amplifier, so I will try to give comparisons of the two units as both pre-amplifiers and headphone amplifiers. My sources are quite modest. I am using a Sony CE595 CDP that I had hoped to have modified by TRL, but alas, it has remained stock, yet it still serves me quite well. I am also a fan of radio, and have Arcam tuner, but am also auditioning an HD tuner at present. We are blessed to have a great jazz NPR station locally, so I try to take advantage of it whenever possible. So, all in all, its what I would call a reasonable “mid-fi”system, but one that has not been tinkered with for a few years. Remember, ignorance was bliss!
Now, finally, on to my initial impressions. Let’s begin with the Peak as a pre-amplifier. In short, you would have to be dead not to be able to hear the differences between the Peak, the EAR++ III, and the Mira3 as a fully integrated amplifier. While none of them are offensive in any way shape or form, I would say that all three pieces of equipment are true to their technology and price points. And my wife, with the “golden ears”, seems to have confirmed this when I asked for her opinions.
Using an Ella Ffitzgerald CD with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra accompanying her as a test CD, the Mira3 offered a nice tight bass, but it always seems to exhibit the same presentation that pushed me to bring tubes back into the house (I owned a Jolida 302B before the Mira3 and EAR). I always feel the need to turn up the volume to hear any details in the music, and this almost always seems to lead to listener fatigue after a couple of hours.
On to the EAR++ III. True to form for a point-to-point tube amp, the EAR has a wonderful mid-range that is rich and smooth, but not syrupy. Bass is nice, but I would not say it is the emphasis of the amp’s signature sound. The soundstage is reasonable, and give you the feeling of a “mid-hall” perspective. With the EAR acting as a pre-amplifier, music nicely blends into the background, and I could listen all day long with a smile on my face.
Now, on to the Peak. Well, I initially pulled the EAR out of the system and replaced it with the Peak without all of the goodies that Todd shipped. Who knew my speakers could sound that good? My god, the bass with there in spades, and tight as a drum. The mid range was quite nice, but the soundstage was what totally blew me away. My wife’s comments reconfirmed my initial comments. The voices and instruments sounded 3-dimensional, almost holographic. Each instrument was clear and well defined. You felt like you were sitting in the front row of a concert hall, or in the recording booth of a studio.
As the wife is out of the house now, I am listening to The Blind Boys of Alabama’s Atomic Bomb (and the the volume is just a wee bit louder ). Its a great album, and a great test for most things bass. And if The Blind Boys of Alabama will pardon the expression, I think think their CD could raise the dead with the Peak acting as my pre-amplifier! I have ample bass, but its not bloated.
I know many people hate the term PRAT, and even though Rega is known for it, I never easily found it in my system. Well, the Peak certainly changed that. But rather than use the term PRAT, I would say that the Peak is extremely engaging, evident by my frequent toe-tapping. This initially had me worried, as I was concerned that I would find this presentation quite fatiguing. However, after being in the dining room (which is adjacent to my living room) and listening to music for several days while I worked on a project, I did not find that to be the case. The amp is not as laid back as the EAR++ III, but the details that I kept hearing were quite enjoyable. If I had a party or was in a mellow mood, I would probably choose the EAR. If I wanted to be engaged, the Peak would certainly be my choice; it makes good recordings sound great. It won't work miracles on marginal recordings, but they sound no worse for the wear.
Now, I know everybody wants to know about “the goodies”. To be honest, I have been so impressed with the improvement in sound with the introduction of the stock Peak, that all of the goodies seem like icing on the cake. If I had the unit for a bit more time, and the wife was out of the house a bit more, I might be able to give a better impression (come to think of it, she is working late tomorrow night ). Also, the amount of time it takes to power down, change gear, and power back up really makes quick comparisons quite challenging. And, while my system is quite enjoyable, it is not going to easily showcase some of the differences as a higher end system should. So, since I know that some of the others on the loaner list have some nice rigs, I am going to let them give more detailed answers about “the goodies”.
I know that I have not yet addressed the Peak as a headphone amp, but having been taken by its strengths as a pre-amplifier, I have not spent as much time with my headphones. However, my initial reactions to the Peak as a headphone amp are similar to my comments above, but the differences between the EAR++ III and the Peak are not quite not as pronounced, and this may be more of a factor of my Sennheiser HD-600’s than of the amps. As I still have a few more days with the Peak, I am hoping to do a bit more listening through my Sennheisers and Ety ER-4’s, so look for more impressions to come. Stay tuned...