I have 3 headphone DAC/AMP setups in my home for listening to my LCD-2's...one on each floor. 2 of them are what I think are very high value rigs offering performance well above their relatively modest price tags. They are:
Schiit Bifrost>Schiit Lyr (Mullard ECC88)
Audio-GD NFB-12>Bottlehead S.E.X
The latter amp was not built by me...sadly, I'm all thumbs. It was built and modded by Head-Fier NikonGod and he described his extra mods thusly..."The amp has the stock circuit, with upgraded transformers, upgraded resistors throughout (KOA speer=kiwame) and a few upgraded caps (Russian Teflon). The speaker taps are hooked up to the outputs of the transformer directly, but should not be used for speakers."
For the test/review, both amps were sourced by a Virtue Audio Piano CD Player used as a transport. The Optical out was connected to the bifrost while the Coax was sending bits to the NFB-12. Interconnects between the DAC's and the Amps were AudioQuest Lapis. All listening was done though LCD-2, rev1's using the 8-conductor Norse Audio cables. The Lyr is Single Ended only so I used the matching Norse 8-conductor adaptor to convert from 4-pin balanced to 1/4". I used the Bottlehead's speaker taps via a 4-pin pigtail that Ari included when I bought it.
The Schiit Bifrost and Lyr were purchased directly from Schiit for $449 each and I spent another $80 on the Mullards. Total of $978.
The NFB-12 I bought used from the Head-Fi forums for $200...the same as the retail price. The Bottlehead was a bargain at $400 built...that's $135 less than the kit costs. New, the combo would have cost $539 + $200 + build labor estimated at $250. That's $989.
Doesn't get much closer. Yes, there were upgrades to the Bottlehead...but I also paid way less than full retail.
OK on to the impressions. I chose music with which I am keenly familiar. Listening notes begin now...
**(NOTE: the order in which I listened to the system is swapped each track so as to eliminate one system getting a consistent advantage or disadvantage from being 1st)**
Track one: Alison Krause and Union Station, Paper
Schiit combo: wonderful detail resolution...the clarity is super sharp. Her voice is almost sibilant. Nothing euphoric about the sound. Great attack on the guitar. Nothing more or less than the recording.
Bottlehead/AGD: voice is somehow more sibilant yet warmer as well. The guitar plucks are not as sharp, but seem to ring more. Seems like there's more authority to the bass, but this isn't exactly bass heavy music, so we'll see.
Track 2: Sade, Somebody Already Broke my Heart.
BH/AGD: Forward. Bass lines are deep and powerful. Strong attack on rim shots...almost too much. Ms. Adu's voice is already lush and warm and the amp/DAD do nothing to cool her down. At my normal listening levels, there is no audible clipping despite the dynamic track.
Schiit: more laid back soundstage...less 'in your face'. Voice seems less reverb-y. Bass is more controlled. That gives an initial feeling of being bass light, but the more I listen, it feels more right. It's must of what makes it feel more laid back...that the bass isn't of prominent. Her voice is more evident without searching thru the bass for it. the rim shots don't hit as hard, but it seems ther is more detail in them...like I can hear the decay better. More detail.
Track 3: Bonnie Raitt, I Can't Make You Love Me
Schiit: I love Bonnie's slightly raspy voice. Somehow she is silky yet rough at the same time. The drums are subtle snare brushes and the piano I'd gold. The Lyr had struggled on this track when I compared it to the Woo 6SE through the same DAC in the past...it made her voice take on more of an edge than the Woo. While I think this combo (with better tubes than before) is better, there's still a hint of that edge. I don't think it's making the recording harsher, I just don't think it's making it lush and euphoric.
BH/AGD: there just isn't as much detail resolution as with the Schiit, but it's more pleasant to listen to on this somewhat edgy recording. The bass is more bloomy and the lower registers of her voice become more prominent. More accurate? Probably not, but more fun.
Track 4: CSN, The Lee Shore
BH/AGD: Long a favorite and one I have used for evaluating gear for years, I know this track backwards and forwards. I expected the BH to shine on this track and it is. Lush, wide, beautiful presentation. The guitar riffs have me tapping my toes.
Schiit: as I said, there's nothing in this track that I haven't heard, but this was a new way of hearing some of it. The voices...those intricate harmonies for which CSN is known...we're clearer and more precise. The instruments and the voices, while not necessarily wider, we're more precisely placed. Again, not as euphoric and tubey, but detailed and true.
Track 5: the Commitments, Try a Little Tenderness
Schiit: no one will ever confuse this with a super warm recording, but when it comes to detail and pure slam, not much can beat it. Horns layered over a great rhythm section and fronted by in-your-face vocals make it a test for any amp. The Schiit combo did a wonderful job of handling all that. The width of the soundstage was as big as I've heard with the LCD-2's. I got chills down my spine twice as the full ensemble came together and the backup girls kicked in. That said, I always felt a little distant...like I was seeing them from the middle of the room of tables, rather than from the front row as I have felt with some of the best loudspeaker rigs.
BH/AGD: I expected that front row experience from the tubier sounding bass bloomier BH...and perhaps it's because of this expectation that this was the most disappointing track on this rig. I was really looking forward to the more organic sounding rig to really shire. But it didn't. The bass wasn't as deep, reinforcing my feeling that the BH is really more about bloomy lower midbass than really delving the deepest frequencies. The other big disappointment came from the horns...the trumpets sounded like plastic toys.
Track 6: Mozart Violin Sonata in F major K376, Hillary
Hahn and Natalie Zhu
it deftly handled the pace and detail while conveying a real sense of the space. Ms. Hahn has never been accused of offering up emotional readings, but she sounded very warm and melodic while maintaining that impeccable speed and detail.
Schiit: oh the detail. Wow. It's like I'm hearing the bow as it touches the strings. The piano strikes are crisp and clean. No warm colorization, but all the detail all the music in all it's glory. The separation between Ms. Hahn and Ms. Zhu is more evident and the room seems larger yet less echo-y. I didn't notice the sound of the pedal steps from the other setup, but they were here in spades with the Schiit, lending to the feeling of being there.
Track 7: Ricky Lee Jones, Dat Dere
Schiit: another long time demo track on which I never expected to hear something new...yet this time I did. In the intro, you hear a baby interacting with Ms. jones, yet this time I heard a 3rd person chatting with the baby. As to the music, the ring of the guitar strings is beautiful in its slow decay and the upright bass, sax and the Ms. Jones' unique voice are all impeccably rendered.
BH/AGD: the 3rd person is certainly still there now that I know to listen for them, but not in such a way that I'd have noticed them. Another warmer presentation but this tome the upright bass really sounds too boomy and forward. So much so that it precludes hearing the res of the lovely layers.
In the end, I enjoy both combinations. The Schiit Bifrost/Lyr combo is clearly the more detailed, accurate and true rig while the NFB-12/Bottlehead SEX set up was warm and lush and tubey with all its euphoric errors and glorious coloration. The Schitt, while not being bass-light, is not going what I'd call bassy either. It digs deep, but is free from the bloat that some might confuse with bass.
Which one you prefer will be a matter of preference. As for me, I'm glad I have both...being a Gemini, I can't have just one sound in the house.
Pictures to follow when I have some time to take them.
Edited by leesure - 11/10/11 at 7:57am