REVIEW: Cavalli Audio Liquid Fire Headphone Amplifier
None. Unit was purchased at close to full retail price from a dealer.
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.
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.
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.
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)
- Domnerus Group / Jazz at the Pawnshop – K2 HD Mastering, 24k gold Ultimate Disc Collector’s Edition
- Diana Krall / All for You
- Kraftwerk / Techno Pop – remaster from “Der Katalog” german box set
- Emiliana Torrini / Me And Armini
- Gino Vannelli / Powerful People
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In a separate post, later.