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Mini-Review: HeadAmp KGSS vs Blue Hawaii SE

post #1 of 130
Thread Starter 

Intro

 

This mini-review can be considered as a sort of add-on to my previous review of the Audeze LCD-2 among other headphones, linked here: http://www.head-fi.org/forum/thread/548875/review-audeze-lcd-2-hifiman-he-6-stax-sr-507-stax-oii-mki-bhse-et-al. This mini-review also references the Notes files from that review, specifically the OII/BHSE vs LCD-2/GS-X section. Reading of that section may be beneficial to assist with understanding some parts of this mini-review.

Posting in a new separate thread to make this thread easier to find, this is just a comparison of the HeadAmp-built KGSS (recently discontinued, earlier this year) vs the Blue Hawaii SE (BHSE), done for my own personal benefit to decide which amp to keep, as I don't intend on keeping both amps long-term.

Standard disclaimer applies here as well: though I've owned the BHSE for just over 2 years now and have listened to it very frequently over that time, the KGSS has been in my possession for just about a couple of weeks as I write this. Hence, the impressions below are not necessarily final and may change for me at a later point in time. I won't be writing anything further about the amps though from this point forward.

 

And here's a pic showing the amps stacked (with power disconnected, of course): http://www.head-fi.org/image/id/1655248/width/1000/height/800

Equipment Setup

Same as posted in the above-linked review, except the analog interconnects changed to Blue Jeans Belden 1800F XLR type, to use both of the amps solely in balanced mode. I prefer balanced mode on my BHSE to help counteract its low gain (just my specific amp, as when I ordered it I requested a Normal-bias Stax jack).

 

Tubes on BHSE were the stock Mullard EL34s.

All listening was done with just the Stax OII MKI.

Evaluation Music

Alison Krauss & Union Station - Paper Airplane - "Paper Airplane", "Dimming of the Day"
Massive Attack - Mezzanine - "Angel", "Teardrop", "Inertia Creeps"
Megadeth - Countdown To Extinction [MFSL] - "Sweating Bullets"
Symphony X - Paradise Lost - "The Walls of Babylon"

Carlos Kleiber & VPO - Beethoven Symphonies 5 & 7 - "Symphony No.5 in C minor - III. Allegro" & "IV. Allegro"
Julia Fischer - Bach Concertos - "Violin Concerto No.1 in A minor - II. Andante", "Violin Concerto No.2 in E - II. Adagio"

Assessment

There was really only one question for me personally between the KGSS and BHSE: which amp did I want to keep after hearing and comparing them?

I still haven't decided, mostly in part because the decision was made trickier after hearing the amps. But before I continue with the sound comparison, I should add my motivations for either amp:

KGSS:
+ solid-state (I'm averse to tubes in general, the BHSE is an exception of course)
+ single-chassis design (also averse to dual-chassis setups)
+ less AC power consumption & hence a bit cooler than BHSE at full temperature (because who wouldn't want to save on their energy bill, right?)
+ more conducive to stacking with my HeadAmp GS-X (for a simultaneous electrostatic/dynamic setup)
+ less expensive

BHSE:
+ Amazing sound quality (as in, 11/10 good)
+ Um yeah, that's pretty much it - the KGSS defeats it on just about every other point

Comparison

So when the KGSS is more up my alley from points of view excluding sound performance and the BHSE can defeat it on sonic merit alone, that leads to the obvious question: "How exactly does the BHSE sound better?"

I want to state first that the BHSE has ruined me forever. Forever I tell you, because it's the single most amazing thing I've ever heard, anywhere. Words simply do not do this amp justice. It really just needs to be heard and experienced for yourself, and then maybe one could understand where I'm trying to come from. It offers an otherworldly, 11/10, totally surreal listening experience that transcends space and time. And no, I don't think I'm overpraising the amp either - it really is that good.

How close is the KGSS? Pretty close I'd say for most intents & purposes - it's essentially the same sound, or type of sound, if you will. Anyone who's heard the KGSS should have a really good idea of what to expect from the BHSE - it doesn't radically differ from the KGSS in any major aspects. And the KGSS is a very good amp on its own - the fact that I was bowled over by it after 2 years with the BHSE should speak to its quality. I didn't even notice a single difference at first when I first set up the KGSS and used it for background (non-critical) listening.

But it's when I started critical listening that I started picking up on the slightly less-than-stellar aspects of the KGSS, and the more I noticed them, the harder they became to overlook. The KGSS' weak points include:

- Semi-flabby, semi-undefined bass
- Lack of truly deep-sounding bass & mid-bass for that really low, really full ooze-like factor
- Congestion of multiple densely-packed layers
- Relative inability to produce very loud volumes without some type of negative side-effect (distortion, congestion, or just simply not being that loud)
- Similar to above, relative failure to get instantly loud or instantly quiet (as in, time reaction)
- Limited dynamic range - not as loud or as quiet as BHSE
- Relative inability to produce low volume and maintain clarity at the same time
- Limited soundstage depth & width - too closed-in, forward, and stuffy. Orchestra on classical CDs not spread out enough and instruments in back not far away enough.
- Loss in scale as a result of the limited soundstage depth/width (orchestra not as big-sounding)
- Loss of some clarity

Overall, to me the KGSS made the OII sound more like a step towards the Audeze LCD-2, and by that I don't mean anything good. Refer to my LCD-2 review (linked at the top) to see the points where I criticized the LCD-2 vs the OII.

My #1 favorite track on the OII/BHSE, Julia Fischer's "Violin Concerto No.2 in E - II. Adagio" from Bach Concertos, just wasn't the same on the KGSS. It was still very well done, but just not the same - the KGSS lost part of the violin's intensity and all of the track's slight radiating-heat quality. There was also some loss in detail that negatively affected the violin - volume modulation, bow speed modulation, bow pressure, E-string tinting, etc.

To put it the other way, the BHSE can be seen as having these advantages over the KGSS:
+ Very clear, very defined, and truly deep-sounding bass & mid-bass
+ No congestion of layers regardless of music complexity
+ Ability to produce very loud or really quiet volumes, instantly if necessary
+ An extra layer of "dimension" to the soundstage for a truer 3D experience - everything from far left to wide out to far right (or near left/right, as the case might be). Literal air sweeping across the soundstage as well for that expansive feeling to accurately reproduce concert hall acoustics, if on the recording.
+ Ability to produce convincing scale (small vs big instrument sounds leaping out of the soundtrack, w/ large sections sounding like a huge mass or alternately single instruments/voices sounding small)
+ More clarity
+ Ability to reproduce volume intensity* (at either loud or quiet levels)
+ Ability to reproduce a sense of supreme directness to a voice or acoustic instrument
+ Ability to reproduce a "radiating heat" quality from the combined presence of musician & instrument, as if every instrument itself is like a heat source on an infrared image, if the sonic image could be paralleled to a visual image

Going back to the Julia Fischer track, it exemplifies extremely well so many of these qualities and I highly recommend it for any owner of the Stax OII MKI regardless of amp, even if not the BHSE or KGSS. The best way I can describe the BHSE experience is that it puts that track on a higher plane of existence - higher than anything & everything else I've heard (see my profile for equipment I've heard/owned). Fischer's violin is hair-raisingly intense and the orchestra around her so alive on the OII/BHSE - no other headphones I've heard get remotely close.

* IMO, louder volumes can't deliver much impact if they're not also intense! And the OII/BHSE can produce intensely loud - whether it's Eva Cassidy rising in volume on a sad song or an orchestra unleashing Beethoven's fury, for example.

Recommendation

If anyone is thinking "Well I simply must have the BHSE now if it's that awesome!" at this point, I'd have to call for a change in thinking.

Keep in mind that my BHSE experience is limited to my ears alone, on my system, and I can't speak for anyone else who'll inevitably be using a different system. IMO, the performance of something like the BHSE is highly dependent on the source component and I happen to love my source, the Plinius CD-101, as well. It's really the total system, not just the OII/BHSE, that gets the 11/10 rating from me.

So my recommendation for anyone thinking about the BHSE is to factor in a really good source to go with it, if you haven't already done so. And by really good source, I really don't mean anything cheap - good sources tend to cost serious money, and really good sources tend to cost even more. Not that something expensive is necessarily good though - but typically good stuff is expensive, that's just how it goes.

The KGSS would make for a better investment on less than high-end sources and if that describes yours, that'd be my recommendation instead. Not that the KGSS is bad, it's a great amp - amazing, even. On my 10 scale, I'd rate it maybe 9.5/10. But if the KGSS is amazing, then I'd call the BHSE even more amazing. Amazing-er. Amazing + 1. 11/10! So good it'll make you laugh and cry! And I mean that literally!

Let me put it this way: sonic perception is not only subjective, it's also extremely hard to describe with the written word, or words at all. And when I listen to the OII/BHSE, there are simply no words that can describe it. You need to listen, and when you listen, and close your eyes, the real world disappears and the music takes over, and then the only thing you're left with is an emotional, soul-stirring experience that just doesn't leave you when you're done listening. No, it changes you on the inside forever. It's something like that.

 

 

Post #6,695

 

Mod note: This thread was locked by request.

post #2 of 130

Excellent review as usual ASR! I thought you said you wouldn't review equipment / write reviews any longer? I must have read that a long time ago or you've changed your mind (a very good thing!)

 

I would say I am totally not looking forward to buy a BHSE because of the size, using tubes, heat output (it feels like over 35 deg. C here in the summer time), power consumption ( such a waste when everyone is trying to save energy here, esp. in summer time).

 

But then, with my sr009 and stock 727 amp, I can now imagine that a higher dynamic range / ability to scale with loud / complex passages would not hurt at all. I wonder how much I could get there with a modded 727 or possibly KGSSHV... Your review comparing the KGSS and BHSE is a very good reference point though as I thought Spritzer may have said that the modded 727 amp is pretty similar to a KGSS (sonic wise and possibly design wise?).

post #3 of 130

Sell the KGSS. It's not worthy.

Good? Yes. Best? Nope.

post #4 of 130

You've got a BHSE, why not keep it? The KGSS is old news anyway. For me, my KGSSHV should be plenty. It has all the same advantages (no tubes to worry about, single chassis, less heat, etc) and I'm tricking it out with TOTL parts and wiring. I can't imagine that Headamp used solid silver/foam teflon wire that costs $25/ft in their KGSS.

post #5 of 130

It still wont be a BHSE.

But then my KGSSHV dont have no silver wires slathered in teflon. YMMV.

post #6 of 130

Great review, Asr, it summed up a lot of my feelings.  That's why I'm really excited to hear what the KGSSHV would sound like the BH.  I doubt it's going to sound that sonically different, but it might be a nice big step between the KGSS and the BH.

 

And I agree the O2+BH combo must be heard.  I still remember wavoman's comment about the O2 running out of the BH at a meet where he said he said he could tell how long the fingernails on a guitarist was from the sound.  Hyperbole, maybe, but it just goes to show how great that combo truly is.

 

Though I wish you had a T2 so you could compare what the jump from the BH to the T2 is tongue.gif

post #7 of 130

Does the BHSE have the stock tubes?

post #8 of 130

Great review and it mirrors my findings.  Convenience is also the reason why my BHSE is mostly neglected these days as the KGSS is just so easy to live with. 
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by arnaud View Post
Your review comparing the KGSS and BHSE is a very good reference point though as I thought Spritzer may have said that the modded 727 amp is pretty similar to a KGSS (sonic wise and possibly design wise?).

 

The 727 and KGSS share similar topologies to some extent but the 727 has more in common with KGSSHV.  Now expand this to how the amps are built and things change quite a bit since the 727 with the feedback loop cut short (i.e. non modded config) sounds nothing like the KGSS and the stock Stax PSU leaves a lot to be desired. 
 

 

post #9 of 130

Makes me really want a KGSSHV.


Edited by jaycalgary - 8/10/11 at 4:08pm
post #10 of 130
Quote:
Originally Posted by Region2 View Post

 

Though I wish you had a T2 so you could compare what the jump from the BH to the T2 is tongue.gif



^^^ That

 

I got a chance to hear the T2 at CanJam '10 and spent part of an afternoon orbiting between

Justin's Table and KG's table trying to get some sense of where the two amps fit.

It couldn't really be done considering different sources, headphones, people to talk to and

the recovery from drinking the night before. It would be very interesting to get more

valid and measured opinions of the comparison.

 

I almost tried to get on the T2 parts group buy, but when factoring in divorce it wasn't

cost effective, especially right on the heels of a BHSE purchase.. I'd agree with what's

said here of the BHSE, although I've never owned a KGSS.

 

 

post #11 of 130

Great comparison between stax amps!

post #12 of 130
Quote:
Originally Posted by spritzer View Post

The 727 and KGSS share similar topologies to some extent but the 727 has more in common with KGSSHV.  Now expand this to how the amps are built and things change quite a bit since the 727 with the feedback loop cut short (i.e. non modded config) sounds nothing like the KGSS and the stock Stax PSU leaves a lot to be desired. 

 

Let me clarify a doubt: are you working on a PS mode for the 727 amp (additionally to your mod for reinstating the feedback in the last stage) or suggesting that a KGSSHV would be the way to go simply because of the better power supply and parts in general?

post #13 of 130
Great review Asr, thanks for sharing..
post #14 of 130
Quote:
Originally Posted by arnaud View Post



 

Let me clarify a doubt: are you working on a PS mode for the 727 amp (additionally to your mod for reinstating the feedback in the last stage) or suggesting that a KGSSHV would be the way to go simply because of the better power supply and parts in general?


No way to mod the 727 PSU, no room and no way to dissipate any heat would the transformer be able to handle more current draw, which it won't.  My point was that while the amp circuits may be similar that is just a small part of the equation.

 

 

 

post #15 of 130

Great review, enjoyable read. Thanks for posting Asr.

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