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REVIEW: Cavalli Audio Liquid Fire Headphone Amplifier

post #1 of 49
Thread Starter 

REVIEW: Cavalli Audio Liquid Fire Headphone Amplifier

 

 

DISCLAIMERS/FINANCIAL INTERESTS

 

None. Unit was purchased at close to full retail price from a dealer.

 

 

PREFACE

 

I am not a reviewer per se. Many a member on these forums is able to articulate the substance of a device much better than I. I don’t even enjoy testing equipment, taking notes, making sense of it all. All I want is the best sound within my budget, and then move on actually enjoying the music. My target amps were Woo Audio WA22, Red Wine Audio Audez’e Edition, Cavalli Audio Liquid Fire and Leben CS-300XS. Since there weren’t too many direct comparisons between these, I realized the only way for me to put this issue to rest was to get two of each at a time, dispose of the lesser and proceed with the next until all of them have been auditioned.

 

For all the amps tested, premium tubes were used for critical listening.

 

 

UNBOXING

 

The amp came single-boxed with decent, but not the best padding known to this member. I have no reason to believe it to be deficient, as the amp arrived unscathed. But then again, the box did not appear to have been dropped by UPS like others before it, in order to objectively ascertain the shock absorbency of the packaging.

 

 

BUILD/PHYSICAL

 

I knew, based on the specs I had read, to expect a unit of diminutive proportions. However, in real life it sizes just right; not too large and not too small. Venting is plenty, and, seeing how this amp runs rather hot, is certainly needed. Cavalli Audio recommends at least 6 inches of clearance. A very thoughtful aspect was the inclusion of a fitted dust cover, in light of said venting of the top plate, and a dummy ¼” load for burning in the amplifier.

 

 

SET-UP

 

Olive O4HD music server (16/44 FLAC) > Wireworld Supernova 6 TOSLINK (1 meter) > Wyred 4 Sound DAC-2 > Wireworld Eclipse 6 RCA Interconnects (1 meter) > Cavalli Audio Liquid Fire > Q Audio headphone cable (9 ft.) > Audez’e LCD-2 Rev. 2.

 

All applicable power cables were Shunyata Research Venom 3 (1.5 meters), plugged into a 1,000 VA CyberPower Pure Sine UPS. I’m not a big believer in aftermarket power cables, but I listed them in case they help provide further context.

 

Tubes used in the LF for this review are a matched quad NOS Siemens gold pin (W. Germany)

 

Albums used:

  1. Domnerus Group / Jazz at the Pawnshop – K2 HD Mastering, 24k gold Ultimate Disc Collector’s Edition
  2. Diana Krall / All for You
  3. Kraftwerk / Techno Pop – remaster from “Der Katalog” german box set
  4. Emiliana Torrini / Me And Armini
  5. Gino Vannelli / Powerful People
  6.  

 

FIRST IMPRESSION

 

At first sight I wasn’t overly attracted to the way it looked; even less so once I turned it on and counted eleven (11) LEDs on the unit – 8 internal, and three external. I can certainly appreciate the role of visual feedback for function confirmation, etc., but I found 11 to be a bit overkill. Ghastly was a word that came to mind at that time. The external LEDs came across as offensive in their brightness as they had transcended their intended functionality as visual feedback devices and started acting as miniature light projectors.  I have less bright nightlights, let put it this way.

 

Then I recalled how this amp is the first commercial venture of a well-respected DIY architect, and all started to make sense, given my background in programming – debug. The internal LEDs serve as indicators for things such as triode matching, the front panel LEDs annunciate the status of the output circuitry, etc. Again, valuable debug information to a tinkerer. Seeing how I’m not one, I came to understand why it was done this way and to try and live with it.

 

With 6 Phillips screws at the bottom of the unit to remove in order to gain access to the tubes, the Liquid Fire is not the easiest for tube rolling; that distinction would have to go to Woo Audio’s WA22. Since I do not yet have the Leben, I cannot comment on that one for now.

 

Let me emphasize the location of the screws on the Liquid Fire: at the bottom of the unit - while the Red Wine Audio Audez’e Edition also requires the removal of 6 screws for tube access, they are located on the sides, thus increasing the risk of cosmetic blemishes should the screwdriver slip. With the Liquid Fire, this risk is somewhat mitigated from a strictly visual point.

 

Aurally, the amp sounded competent right off the box. After all, it had already been burned in for 50 hours at the factory. I placed it more or less in the neighborhood of the Red Wine Audio Audez’e Edition, which is to say good, if a bit on the clinical side.

 

There was nothing offensive in the sound output; bass was present but still left me wanting for more, mids were smooth, nevertheless veiled to a degree, whereas the highs, while not harsh, could have used a bit of refinement. This wine needed to breathe a little more, pondered I.

 

 

36-HOUR FOLLOW-UP

 

By now the Siemens tubes have benefited from some burn-in time as well, and everything started to come into a very promising synergy – the soundstage became discernibly wider and deeper, the bass shipment had just arrived but still needed to clear customs – I could hear it coming but wasn’t here quite yet. Highs, on the other hand, had graduated and cymbals started to sound like they should.

 

48-HOUR FOLLOW-UP

 

This amp has definitely grown on me.

 

Visually, all the complaints have vanished. Just like a rash one tries to not scratch and eventually goes away, I am no longer bothered by the LEDs. Either this, or my retinas developed dead pixels where the LEDs had shone.

 

The aural presentation is constantly evolving, maturing slowly in an utterly positive direction. Everything is becoming clearer, tighter and better sounding.

 

96-HOUR FOLLOW-UP

 

The velvety presentation of the tube input stage is nothing short of dramatic, the solid state stage outputting it with mathematical precision. All of the sudden, the meaning of Cavalli’s logo (Yin-Yang of tube and solid state) became all-too-evident.

 

On Emiliana Torrini’s “Birds” the LCD-2 rendered sub-sonic vibrations. At least these ears couldn’t “hear”, only “feel” vibrations. I’ve never experienced this before, and at first I thought there was something wrong.

 

“Jazz at the Pawnshop” sounded stellar, as expected. Of note is that it sounded very similar to the Red Wine Audio Audez’e Edition, with only a touch less highs. If anything, it had a more euphonic rendition of the material.

 

Kraftwerk’s “Musique Non Stop” was rendered with an effortless transition from punchy percussion to minute background detail. Nothing was lost in the process, and nothing was relegated to the background by virtue of levels difference.

 

Diana Krall’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” retained all the intricate aspects of her voice, just like a tube amp should, the piano was superbly rendered, and the minute amount of overdrive on the guitar was faithfully reproduced.

 

The organ sound on Gino Vannelli’s “Lady” retained its signature sound, a subdued creaminess I could only hear on tube amps.

 

 

CONCLUSION

 

My enthrallment with the Liquid Fire is a bit ironic, actually. While I do maintain an open mind before listening to anything, in the back of my mind getting the Liquid Fire was mostly for the purpose of ruling it out. Yet, it came out on top, compared to the amps tested thus far: Woo Audio’s WA22 and Red Wine Audio Audez’e Edition.

 

My WA22 was used in a balanced configuration, with top-notch tubes (think TS BGRP et al) and was bested by the Liquid Fire hands-down in the speed, precision and extension departments. The WA22 excels at smoothing over shortcomings in the recording material – its lush sound will make it a pleasure to listen to almost anything through it.

 

The RWA AE, for which I had high hopes, ended up last on my preference list not because it lacks quality, but mostly because it pulls no punches in regards to exposing weaknesses in the source material. The RWA AE has fabulous dynamics, great bass, clean and crisp mids, some of the best highs I’ve heard on the LCD-2…. as long as your source material is up for that. With average material it just sounds average.

 

The Liquid Fire does everything just right – though a bit, and I mean a tiny, barely-there sliver of difference less stellar than the RWA AE on exceptional source material, it is the better of it with everything else. The sound has just the proper amount of tube lushness, just the right amount of solid state precision and detail, and just the right amount of glossing over sonic blemishes.

 

 

PENDING FOLLOW-UP

 

In a separate post, later.

post #2 of 49

Nice review Nick, Now I want the Liquid Fire and the WA22!    Can't wait until you get the Leben and put it to the test.    Did you use the stock tubes in the LF or change them out for something else?

post #3 of 49
Thread Starter 

I used a matched quad of Siemens E88CC gold pin.
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by WarriorAnt View Post
Did you use the stock tubes in the LF or change them out for something else?


 

post #4 of 49

Great review Nick!  Did you try out the LF/LCD combo handle with any folk or classical music yet?  I should be hearing them this week, but I'd like to hear your thoughts...

post #5 of 49
Thread Starter 

I've never heard Three Hours (from Five Leaves Left) sound so mesmerizing before, if it helps. The spacial definition of the opening congas, overlaid with Nick's impeccable guitar playing (the D minor tonality on this song has a very pensive mood about it) is about the best I've heard lately. From memory though, circa 2 years ago, the HD800 + SPL Phonitor gave it a more airy rendition, but this one is much more intimate.

 

A more obscure folk piece, by Shawn Philips' ("She Was Waitin' For Her Mother At The Station In Torino And You Know I Love You Baby But It's Gettin Late" from "Second Contribution") gives a whole new new dimension to folk music. His haunting vocals are rendered with all the proper throatiness, bass and mids as I've come to like. Percussion and bass line are very tight, extended and pleasant.

 

Another underrated gem is Sting's "If On A Winter's Night". The sound is faithfully reproduced to give the small setting feeling, and instruments are well defined and separated. Just a pleasure to listen.

 

Classical music sounds good as well, from the little audition I've done so far on such material. One of my favorites, Beethoven's Symphony No. 4 in B Flat Major (Riccardo Muti conducting the Philadelphia Philharmonic in 1988) has good dynamics and imaging. No complaints, but then again, it's nothing like being there live.

 

Reason I've not auditioned too much classical music on this setup is that I'm in the process of converting all my library from physical CDs to FLAC, and given all the extra tagging that goes with said type of muic I've left all the hundreds of classical CDs for last, save for a few.


Edited by mwilson - 10/25/11 at 7:20pm
post #6 of 49
Thread Starter 

Duplicate post, sorry

post #7 of 49
Quote:
Originally Posted by mwilson View Post

REVIEW: Cavalli Audio Liquid Fire Headphone Amplifier

 

 

DISCLAIMERS/FINANCIAL INTERESTS

 

None. Unit was purchased at close to full retail price from a dealer.

 

Great Review, I agree, but your Liquid Fire will only keep getting better as time goes by.

 

I love how my HE6's, HD-800's and even my K-701's (in that order) sound with the LF, and I am looking forward to getting the LCD-3 plugged into this amp and of-course comparing my WA5LE also.

post #8 of 49

Great!  I will pre-order mine now!

post #9 of 49

I've been lurking around these boards for some time, but never felt the need to register and post until now. Being interested in a higher-end amp for my home rig, I immediately jumped to read this review but must say, it's about the most hollow and useless that I've seen in a long time. Sure, it's been broken down in fancy paragraphs, but come on. The reviewer goes on about those leds like that's the main point of this amp. And when it comes to actual listening impressions we've been offered what, 5 sample songs with hardly a sentence worth of description for each?

 

I hope there will be a follow-up to this as promised, with more meat to the bone.

post #10 of 49

I am more impressed by the financial commitment of the OP.

'I realized the only way for me to put this issue to rest was to get two of each at a time, dispose of the lesser and proceed with the next until all of them have been auditioned'

 

Although I am not interested in the LF I still found the impressions, I would not call it a full review, interesting.

Thanks

post #11 of 49
Thread Starter 

jmor, I appreciate your candor. As stated right in the beginning, I'm not holding myself as the best person to write a review. However, the LF has been our for a while, and with the next batch only shipping in January according to Cavalli's website, I didn't see any of the usual suspects writing a review any time soon and I know *I* could have used a review in my own buying process.

 

I have every intention to follow up once the amp is at about 200 hours, with more "meat to the bone" as you put it. Until then, it was the most I felt I could accurately write without fluffing it up.

 

If any mod feels this isn't a proper review, I'd have no hard feelings if this thread were merged with the existing LF one.

post #12 of 49

It's a fine review.  I'm not sure why people think a treatise is necessary.

post #13 of 49
Quote:
Originally Posted by jmor View Post

I've been lurking around these boards for some time, but never felt the need to register and post until now. Being interested in a higher-end amp for my home rig, I immediately jumped to read this review but must say, it's about the most hollow and useless that I've seen in a long time. Sure, it's been broken down in fancy paragraphs, but come on. The reviewer goes on about those leds like that's the main point of this amp. And when it comes to actual listening impressions we've been offered what, 5 sample songs with hardly a sentence worth of description for each?

 

I hope there will be a follow-up to this as promised, with more meat to the bone.



Maybe you should check out this thread if you are interested in the Liquid Fire for your home rig*.  As this is a forum website, these are not formal reviews by professionals payed to do such.  We have day jobs (hopefully,) and many of us try to make some time to let fellow enthusiasts know our thoughts so they can make a slightly more informed decision.  It's too bad that your first post had to be negatively directed at a fellow enthusiast (we're all too few.)  Maybe your second post can be a review of your own on a higher end amp so that you can help the community by giving it the type of review that you would want to read.

 

 

 

 

*An interesting observation to note is that many users that bought the Liquid Fire seem to just be getting into higher end rigs.  Only a couple of these users are coming from having say a B22, an EC product, or other amps of the like.  You might want to check out the Canjam@RMAF thread or my LCD-3 thread where there are lots of impressions of it with the LCD-3, although they seem to focus more on the headphones than the amp.  If you are coming from the speaker world, you should know headphone riggers spend quite a bit less on their setups.  Those who do spend bigger money often go electrostatic (Stax and BHSE or the likes) so you might not find as many impressions, let alone reviews, on the higher end dynamic amps as you'd like.  

post #14 of 49
Quote:
Originally Posted by jmor View Post

I've been lurking around these boards for some time, but never felt the need to register and post until now. Being interested in a higher-end amp for my home rig, I immediately jumped to read this review but must say, it's about the most hollow and useless that I've seen in a long time. Sure, it's been broken down in fancy paragraphs, but come on. The reviewer goes on about those leds like that's the main point of this amp. And when it comes to actual listening impressions we've been offered what, 5 sample songs with hardly a sentence worth of description for each?

 

I hope there will be a follow-up to this as promised, with more meat to the bone.

Well now that you've lurked about and made this your very first post it on Head-Fi it will be interesting to read one of your first reviews should you ever desire to put in the effort from your spare time and post one. 
 

 

post #15 of 49

I came (and still have it) from a Woo WA5LE maxxed, NOS WE300B's with matched date codes (52/26) test scores of 79 and 80, NOS pair of TSRP 6SN7GT oval plate, tested off the charts and same date codes 42/09, a pair of EML 5U4G new. Is that one more high end system that someone came from?

 

Yes the high end stax headphone (009) and high end amp as you list is a very fine setup, but that's $10,000+ and you haven't even upgraded the amps internal parts or done some tube rolling.

 

One of the pluses of the Liquid Fire amp is that it seems to play very well with so many headphones, including the HE6's. Now given what Jude has said about the new LCD-3's and the Liquid Fire amp combo giving the stax 009 a run for the money at half the price, I would say if you are new to the world of high end headphones and amps the Liquid Fire is a safe bet and you could do a lot worse. But in the end it all comes down to what brings a big smile to your face and gets your toe tapping.

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