Tube amps. Many people swear by them, others are not interested. Until recently, many tube based headphone amps were on the more expensive side. But in the last few years we have seen many companies (mostly China based) release very respectable products in the under $400 range. Companies like Little Dot and Darkvoice make popular amps within that price range that perform extremely well, making tube amps a compelling choice even for budget audiophiles.
The focus of this review is the Maverick Audio TubeMagic A1. You may be familiar with Maverick Audio from their first offering, the TubeMagic D1. The D1 was a combination DAC, pre-amp, and headphone amp that was very well respected. Some compared it favorably to the Cambridge DacMagic, and almost everyone agreed that it was a solid performer for the modest price. Many people were also pleasantly surprised by the great service offered by Ryan at Maverick Audio. Often times buying the budget option means sacrificing service and support; not so in this situation. Although based overseas, Ryan speaks English quite well, and is quick to respond for any questions or concerns. I had heard all this from owners of the D1, and I got to confirm it myself through my experience purchasing the A1.
The A1 is the second offering from Maverick Audio. It is a hybrid integrated amplifier consisting of a tube pre-amplifier stage and a class AB solid state output section. It can be used as an all in one integrated, a tube pre-amp only, or a tube headphone amp. The cost is $199 shipped with the included basic 6J1 tubes. I ordered my A1 with upgraded vintage NOS Tung-Sol 6AK5 tubes. This adds $40 to the price, but I figured it would be worth it to cut out any possible bottleneck that a stock tube might prove to be. The extra $40 is fairly in line with what you would pay sourcing a matched pair of vintage NOS tubes elsewhere. I’ve seen some go for cheaper but I’ve also seen some costing more, so buying them pre-installed isn’t a huge markup. Note that as I’ve been writing this, Maverick has sold out of the Tung-Sol tubes. Since then they switched to vintage Hytron tubes and then sold out of those too. At the moment they are offering Raytheon branded tubes, but I imagine they will continue to rotate through various vintage 6AK5 tubes depending on what they can get a hold of. Ultimately the end user can buy the stock version and upgrade on their own if that seems like a better option. Note that I haven’t had time to plug in the stock tubes, so this whole review is based on the Tung-Sol option. As with any tube amp, results may vary with different tubes.
I’m going to skip the rest of the details as the excellent Maverick website covers them so well. See it at www.Mav-Audio.com. There is also a thread already posted on HeadFi with several excellent reviews/impressions posted, and those have a lot of detail as well. I’ve been trying to be less long winded around here, so I won’t be duplicating the efforts of those folks.
My TubeMagic A1 shipped from Shanghai China on a Wednesday and arrived at my door on Friday. Think about that for a second. I would be very pleased if a domestic shipment arrived in just 2 days. The fact that it made it half way around the world in that same time frame is borderline unbelievable. I might have just been lucky with DHL having a particularly good week, but the bottom line is that Maverick doesn’t skimp on shipping.
The amp was well packed, with not a hint of any damage. Included in the box was the amp itself, a standard IEC power cable, a thin 1/8" to 1/8" patch cable, a 1/8" to 1/4" headphone adapter, and a nicely done quick start guide. Since I purchased the tube upgrade I also had the stock 6J1 tubes thrown in the box. The box isn’t fancy at all but it definitely got the job done; shipping tube based components is always a risky proposition, but in this case it was not a problem at all.
The A1 and D1 are labeled as part of the “Desktop Mini Series”. Don’t let that fool you; while they are very appropriately sized for a desk, they are not what I would call small. They appear to share a very similar chassis, which is quite substantial in both weight and appearance. The front has a very nice brushed glossy appearance, while the rest has a more industrial flat black look to it. The whole thing seems reminiscent of the Matrix M-Stage (version 1). It probably won’t win any beauty contests but it does look well done and is built like a tank. Even the small details such as the feel of the volume knob are very classy and give the impression of a more expensive unit.
My unit did have two minor issues. First was the problem of the rubber “feet” on bottom not quite being even. This caused it to wobble a bit. I fixed this at first by sticking a tiny piece of felt under the offending “leg”, and I’ve since filed them down to allow it to sit evenly. The second issue, also fairly minor, was found when I removed the top of the case. When putting it back together, I found that the screws did not quite want to line up as perfectly as they should. It was not so bad that I couldn’t get it closed up again, but it was a minor struggle for a while, and some of the screws had to go in at a slight angle. These two issues were at most a minor annoyance, and they were the only reminder that this is somewhat of a budget product. Ryan at Maverick claims this was a problem on early models and they should have the cases all fixed by now.
The rear of the A1 is well laid out, with nice speaker terminals that have plenty of room between them to accommodate any type of connection. I had no trouble getting some fairly bulky banana plugs to fit, and large spade lug connectors fit fine too. It looks like it would accept bare wire as well, although you probably couldn’t use anything too thick.
I’ve heard complaints of a “humming” noise that a few A1 owners have experienced. My unit does seem to have a very mild hum, but it is only audible with no music playing and the volume knob cranked past around 3 o’clock. That’s the equivalent of nearly full volume. Most of my headphone amps will exhibit some type of minor noise when turned up that much, and of course it would never come up during real world usage.
The top part of the amp has some cutouts for venting, which are also handy for taking a peek at the tubes with their nice warm orange glow. Overall the unit stays fairly cool during operation. I left mine on for almost a week to burn in, and it never got more than warm to the touch. I probably wouldn’t stack anything on the top though, just in case.
After my initial inspection, I plugged in the A1 and let it run non stop for about a week. I have a few other new toys that I picked up around the same time, so I took the opportunity to burn them all in together. Electronic components tend to fail on what I call the “bath tub” curve; high incidence of failure at the start and then at the end of the designed life span. Burn in helps me uncover problems right from the start, and it also helps me avoid complaints, since so many people believe heavily that burn in majorly changes the sound.
I used my usual sources which consists of a Rotel RDV-1092 player, a QLS QA350 solid state transport, or a Dell Mini music server. As for DACs, I tried my new Hot Audio DAC Extasy and my new Matrix CUBE, as well as the Sigtone Shek D1 and Yulong D100. I did most of my listening through headphones, including the Grado RS-1, Audio Technica W2002, LiveWires Trips, Monster Turbine Pro Copper Edition, AKG K702, Unique Melody Aero customs, and Sennheiser HD600. Although I haven’t had much time to spend using it to power speakers, I did get to try it with briefly with my Insignia bookshelf speakers (heavily modified by GR Research) as well as a pair of Legacy Audio Studio HD monitors.
Some gear requires a significant amount of time, spent carefully listening, before you really start to appreciate what it has to offer. This amp is not one of those products. From the moment I plugged in my HD600, which was the first headphone I tried, I immediately liked what I heard. The main emphasis here seems to be on the lower end of the spectrum, but rest assured mids and highs are of good quality as well. When I say emphasis on the bass, I’m not referring to the somewhat bloated, muddy bass that can often accompany lower priced amps; this bass is rich, textured, and incredibly smooth, and quite well controlled at the same time.
I started rotating between the AKG, Sennheiser, Audio Technica, and Grado full size cans, and noticed that the A1 performed similarly well with all of them. It is not the most transparent sounding, but not extremely colored either, landing in a sort of sweet spot somewhere in the middle. I generally find that most of the better amps I own sound somewhat similar in the midrange section, and the defining characteristics are the lows and highs, and the way they interact with the mids. With that being said, the mids on the A1 sounded just about on par with my Matrix M-Stage, Darkvoice 337SE, and others that I consider to be high caliber. They have a nice rich tone without being too artificially sweet, and really capture the natural tonality of the music being played. Of course, the headphone amp section being pure tube, mids sound a little bit thicker and slower than a high end solid state design would. To make a ridiculous analogy: the mids bring to mind something like Nestle Quik chocolate milk. Not the powder kind that you mix at home, but the pre-made single serving bottles. It pours out almost as fast as water or regular milk, but is noticeably thicker on the way down, and does not cause as much of a splash as it lands in the glass. To translate this to the sound: the attack and decay of instruments are not as striking as they might be with an SS amp. Everything seems just slightly smoothed over. This ultimately leads to a subtle loss of realism, but also tends to be a lot more forgiving to harshness, poor recordings, sibilance, etc. So it is a compromise, but a fairly good one in my opinion.
The highs are just about what I expect from a good tube amp; smooth, musical, and just detailed enough without being too analytical or harsh. There is a bit of a graceful roll-off to the highest frequencies, which likely won’t endear fans of the Etymotic sound, but most other folks probably won’t notice. One more noticeable effect is that there is a slight loss of overall airiness to the sound. Again I return to my terrible chocolate milk analogy; this amp is more focused on being slightly thick and smooth than light and airy. A nice solid state amp like the M-Stage, although very flat and transparent on its own, sounds a bit more forward and extended in the highs when directly compared with the A1. Whether or not this is a good thing depends on the headphones, the music, and ultimately the preference of the listener.
The best part of this amp is the lows. Bass is spectacular, only inferior to some of the best and most expensive amps I’ve owned. It hits hard and deep, and seems very well controlled so it doesn’t linger too long or bleed into other frequencies. This must be at least partially due to the robust design of the power supply. In any case, I would not hesitate to recommend this amp for bassheads everywhere. It gives just enough of a perceived boost to help out a bass light headphone like the Audio Technica W2002, but not so much that it unbalances the more even models like HD600. And it seems to almost demand that you turn up the volume; not to make up for some shortcoming, but because it is so musical and analog sounding.
The soundstage is fairly convincing no matter what headphones you use. It generally has a decent width and even some depth, and is fairly accurate with regards to imaging. While not standing out as excellent, it allowed all the headphones I tried to perform at a good level of competency.
For full sized cans I found that I liked the K702 and HD600 more on the solid state M-Stage, while the Grado and Audio Technica models excelled with the A1, likely due to the slightly added warmth and smooth highs. Realistically both amps produced fantastic results with all headphones I tried, but they both have a different flavor. The only real drawback I can think of might be with darker headphones. If you have something like an HD650 or Darth Beyers and find them almost too dark for your tastes, this is probably not the amp for you.
The A1 is also very good with IEMs, which is not as common among tube amps. It helps that I can plug in my most sensitive models and not have an issue with hiss or hum. As I mentioned earlier, there is a very slight audible hum at nearly maximum volume, but I consider that basically irrelevant for practical usage. I was a bit concerned that the A1 might make the Monster Turbine Copper Edition sound too bassy, but that hasn’t been an issue. There is a lot of bass to be sure, but it is so well controlled that I can’t complain. The LiveWires Trips sound great, with smooth clear highs that can sometimes elude lesser amps. And the A1 really brings out a well rounded sound in the slightly bass light Unique Melody Aero customs. This truly is a versatile amp.
Speaking of versatile, when was the last time you used your headphone amp to power your speakers? I was a bit skeptical about how well this little box could make my speakers fill a room with sound. But then I remembered my love for the various T-amps I’ve owned, so I kept an open mind.
The first speakers I tried were my Insignia coaxials, which have been heavily modified by GR Research. These are listed at 8 ohms and 90dB efficiency in stock form, and I believe the new crossovers make them slightly less sensitive but overall similar to the original specs. The A1 was able to power them quite well, suitable for small to medium listening rooms. And I don’t mean “suitable” just for quiet background music. I mean loud enough and full enough for serious critical listening. When used in a near-field application, they would have all the volume you could ever want and more. In a fairly large room, bass response started to dry up a bit, and I could tell that the 20 watts from the amp wasn’t quite enough juice for them to reach their full potential. But for most rooms like a bedroom or office, this would be an excellent setup.
I then switched to the much higher end Legacy Audio Studio HD monitors, which are rated at 4ohms and 93dB efficiency. The TubeMagic A1 puts out 40 watts per channel when driving a 4 ohm load and the difference was noticeable when powering the Legacy speakers. The extra power, combined with the large 8” driver, made for some excellent bass extension, down to the mid 40hz region. These were capable of filling even a larger room with dynamic sound. They didn’t quite have all the polish and bass authority as they did when I fed them by a huge Adcom GFA-5800 rated at 400wpc at 4ohms. But the A1 did sound very similar when compared to my McIntosh MAC-1700 integrated and my old Parasound Z.Amp v2, both of which have just slightly more power than the Maverick unit. I would also put it at least on par with the Sonic Impact Super T amp and other Tripath powered amps I have tried, although they have a different sound signature. The bottom line here is that the Maverick A1 makes a great little amp for many applications, and will compete well even with larger entry level amps and integrated units. It might not have all the features like multiple inputs, but it also costs far less than most of those options, so it is a reasonable tradeoff. Obviously you won’t be using this unit to power some Magnepans or complex 4 way tower speakers, but for monitor speakers or small 2 way towers it does a great job.
I’ve heard it said that writing about music is about as difficult as dancing about architecture. I find this to be slightly exaggerated but true in a general sense. It also applies to writing about the sound produced by audio equipment; one man’s “smooth” is surely another man’s “grainy”. Suffice to say that I don’t think bass lovers will be disappointed by the sound produced by the A1. I would rate it as a very solid value when used strictly as a headphone amplifier only. The fact that it makes a great integrated amp for small rooms makes it an even better bargain. I could easily see someone using the A1 as the centerpiece of a bedroom or office system, powering both speakers and headphones. And you can even use it as a tube pre-amp, although that’s not something I had the chance to try.
The TubeMagic A1 mates very well to all of the gear I threw at it. It isn’t the most transparent or analytical sounding amp, and that might be the reason it seems happy with most sources and DACs. One of my favorite pairings was actually with the Hot Audio DAC-Extasy, which is a fairly low priced unit. The only possible mismatches I can think of would be darker headphones, which again is a very subjective word.
Ultimately the weaknesses of this amp are few. The uneven feet and tricky case screws have hopefully been taken care of by this point, but if not they are certainly not shocking in this price range. As for sound, the A1 is very well rounded. It has a great analog type sound at the expense of a little detail, and the bass is phenomenal. The only real shortcoming is in the highs, which are very smooth and satisfying, but fall short of some of the pricier amps out there. It's very difficult to reproduce the quick attack and decay in such a manner that a cymbal sounds absolutely real. At this price, something has to give, and Maverick’s choice here seems like a very good move. I’ll keep these smooth highs any day over the shimmer and glare that some amps give as a substitute for the proper highs that they can’t quite handle.
Overall I’m very satisfied with my choice to buy the Maverick A1 instead of the Schiit Valhalla. I still may try the Valhalla at some point down the road, but the A1 is so useful that it will be around my house for a long time.
Sorry for any smudges visible on the case in some of these pictures.... those are my fault. I need to learn to use gloves while handling things. There are no actual flaws in the finish of the amp.