Review: Cavalli Liquid Lightning
I am not affiliated with Cavalli Audio (Cavalli). I derive no fiscal or other benefit or gain in exchange for writing this review of the Cavalli Audio Liquid Lightning (CLL). In exchange for my agreement to transport the amplifier to the Head-Fi Fall NYC Meet in White Plains, NY and provide them with feedback for the purposes of product improvement, Cavalli mailed the amplifier to me to audition for several weeks. The writing of this review was not a condition for my having the amplifier, and I am writing this as a service to those who have asked me about the amplifier.
I first had the opportunity to meet Dr. Alex Cavalli and Mr. Brian Kurtz in Denver, Colorado for CanJam@RMAF 2011. Not having listened to any Cavalli equipment prior to the event, I went to their booth with an open mind. Despite the myriad equipment available at their table, the kindness and hospitality the two showed me was what struck me as truly extraordinary. Soon after, I was sent the prototype CLL to take to a meet, and to use for a couple of weeks before returning it. Cavalli asked for my feedback, to be used for product improvement in the hopes of making the final production model better than the current prototype, but a few Head-Fi-ers requested impressions. So here we are.
The burning question you might be asking is, “Who the hell is this ‘sridhar3’ guy anyway? Out of everyone to pick, why did they send *him* the amplifier for review? He’s a nobody!” All of these are salient points. I’m neither a highly-experienced “professional reviewer”, nor do I have “golden ears”. My credibility on Head-Fi is next to nothing. What I do have, however, is honesty. Not everybody appreciates honesty as a virtue, and being the purveyor of truth gets me into trouble more often than not. The gentlemen of Cavalli, however, viewed my honesty as a means by which to get constructive feedback, which could then be used to better their product. During my time with the amplifier, I’ve done my best to provide them honest feedback, and I will also do my best to present Head-Fi with an honest review.
Caveat Emptor: This review is not going to be of the same quality as those of the more prolific reviewers on Head-Fi, so potential readers, please be warned. If you’re not interested in my opinions, you can feel free to stop reading at any time.
If I had to describe the design principles of the CLL in one word, that word would be “minimalistic”. As quite the contrast to the wonderful-sounding Cavalli Liquid Fire (which I found to be a gaudy eyesore), the CLL has an understated elegance to it. A pure black chassis, two blue LEDs (one piezoelectric LED switch for powering the unit on, and one under the volume control to indicate the unit is receiving power and is in standby), a blue stepped volume potentiometer and blue silkscreened lettering. I suggested white lettering and LEDs, which is being taken into consideration. At any rate, no plexiglas windows, no glowing tubes, no dozen LEDs lighting up the room like the damn sun. The only other casework is in the form of ventilation holes in the top panel, oriented to form a “yin yang” type design, similar to the Liquid Fire. There are two Stax jacks, which can be biased as the user chooses (Pro bias, normal bias, HE90). On the back of the unit, the final production version will include a standard IEC power plug, and balanced (XLR) and unbalanced (RCA) inputs.
The chassis is big. Measuring in at approximately 17.0” x 14.25” x 3.5” (43 cm x 36 cm x 9 cm), it dwarfs every other audio component I own (though it’s a one-box solution, and is smaller than the HeadAmp BHSE). There are no plans to make it smaller when it goes into production either, as it needs to house a rather large power supply to support the high-voltage rails. In short, I hope you have a big desk/table or a vertical rack. Even with its enormous size however, it’s not particularly hefty weight-wise. The Liquid Fire, which weighs in at approximately 8.5 lb (3.9 kg), is proof that an amp need not weigh a ton in order to sound good. The CLL, with a similar design principle, weighs around 12 lb (5.4 kg), and is light enough for me to carry around under my arm (I’m by no means a strong person). So, you don’t need to have Herculean strength to lift/carry/move it.
Not being an electrical engineer by trade, I can’t really say much about the circuit design. What I will say is, it’s solid state, and it’s not an eXStatA. The design goals of this amplifier were vastly different from the design goals of the eXStatA, resulting in different circuit topologies. As far as heat management goes, the amplifier got warm to the touch, but never truly hot, even after prolonged listening sessions.
· Transport: Laptop (Foobar2000, WASAPI)
· Bridge: Audiophilleo1 USB-to-S/PDIF converter
· DAC: Cary Xciter DAC (AKM4399)
· Amp: Cavalli Liquid Lightning
· Headphones: Stax SR-009
· Classic rock: The Eagles, The Beatles, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Billy Joel, Electric Light Orchestra, AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Queen, Journey
· Progressive rock: The Mars Volta
· Grunge rock: Soundgarden, Audioslave
· Alternative rock: Radiohead, Broken Bells, The Black Keys, The Good The Bad & The Queen, The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather, Muse, Modest Mouse, Cake, Smashing Pumpkins, The Flaming Lips
· Jazz: Thelonious Monk, Clifford Brown, Max Roach, Oscar Peterson, The Seatbelts
· Big-band: Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Brian Setzer Orchestra, Count Basie Orchestra
· Fusion: Shakti, The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Tabla Beat Science, Bond, Santana
· Contemporary R&B: 112, Usher, Lauryn Hill
· Rap/hip-hop: The Roots, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Black Star, Reflection Eternal, DJ Hi-Tek, Little Brother, Lupe Fiasco, Outkast, Immortal Technique
· Classical: Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Holst, Rachmaninoff
· Folk: Rodrigo y Gabriela, Simon & Garfunkel
· Female vocals: Diana Krall, Patricia Barber, Norah Jones, Sarah Brightman, Fiona Apple, Adele, Amy Winehouse, Janelle Monae
· Pop: Michael Jackson
· Techno/Trance/Lounge: Buddha Bar, Armin van Buuren, Daft Punk
· OST: The Dark Knight, Inception, Game of Thrones, Tron: Legacy, The Nightmare Before Christmas
· Basically anything that’s not death metal or country.
Here we are, then. The meat of the review. But, first, let’s get one thing out of the way. The common denominator gnawing at everybody’s brain is, “Is the CLL better than the BHSE?” I’m going to be honest here: I’m tired of hearing this question. When you’re dealing with TOTL gear at this price range, most equipment is going to perform well with regards to the fundamental aspects of sound reproduction. Differences in the way these pieces of equipment sound are not going to be unequivocally “better” or “worse”, but simply *different*. Sometimes, these differences are subtle, and other times they are not. I hate to break it to you, but if you’re in the market for a DAC or amplifier in the $1k-5k range, or the $5k-10k range, diminishing returns are very much at work, and you’re going to have a hard time finding a general consensus opinion on what is the “best” available. This is where it becomes the responsibility of the individual buyer to get out there and audition the equipment. If possible, try it before you buy it, either at a meet/shop, or via an in-home trial. I do not recommend blind buys at this price range.
The sound signature of the CLL is warm and smooth, akin to what is considered “classic tube sound”. This was clearly one of the design goals of the CLL, to render a “liquid” quality in the sound. In the past, I’ve been (mis)led to believe that warmth and smoothness are synonymous with a loss of detail. With the CLL, I can’t say this was the case. Details were present and accounted for, and I didn’t find anything to be missing when I was critically listening to familiar tracks. Music was organic, musical and emotional, but the amp didn’t gloss over my recordings either. It was certainly more forgiving than the other setups I’ve heard, and I was able to listen to some of my more poorly-recorded music (which tends to be sibilant) without nearly as much ear fatigue. Soundstage was good but not amazing. PRaT, speed, attack/decay were all excellent. Highs, mids and lows were all well-represented, and I didn’t find the amp to be either dark or bright.
It wasn’t until I went back to my stopgap setup (Virtue TWO.2 -> Woo WEE), however, that I realized what I had lost. Within minutes of listening, I realized that the setup had sucked all the life and soul, body and weight out of the music. The emotion, the musicality had vanished completely. The recordings sounded boring by comparison. The foot-tapping and head-bobbing, the “fun factor” is what had vanished. Without question, this is the aspect of the CLL I missed the most when I returned it to Cavalli.
I’m going to be brief here, reflecting the brevity of my listening time with the electrostatic competitors. The HeadAmp BHSE was incredibly neutral, had no warmth, and had a slightly wider and deeper soundstage than the CLL. I’m not going to say that the BHSE was more detailed than the CLL, but I will say that detail was more forward in the BHSE, to an unnatural extent at times. The Woo WES had good soundstage and detail resolution as well, but was too bright to my ears. Most of the people at the Fall NYC Meet who had the chance to hear both amps stated that they preferred the CLL’s sound to that of the WES. I haven’t heard the Woo GES, HeadAmp KGSS, Headamp Aristaeus, KGSSHV, Sennheiser HE90/HEV90 or T2DIY, so I can’t comment on those. The Eddie Current Electra and Electra SE are in the pipeline, but I don’t think anybody’s heard them yet. I personally liked the SR-009 with the CLL better than with the BHSE, but the O2Mk1 with the BHSE represented an excellent combination.
The Schiit Lyr (Siemens & Halske CCa) with HiFiMan HE-6, despite being a great-sounding setup, simply could not compete with the electrostatic setup, and was bested in every regard.
“Is the CLL better than the BHSE?” I can’t say. Variation in personal taste is the only consideration that can be utilized in order to truthfully answer this question. Personally, I like both amplifiers, as they represent two different (and complementary) sound signatures to me. What I do know is that the CLL represents excellent value at a lower price than the competing TOTL electrostatic designs. The CLL is priced at $4250, well below the stock HeadAmp BHSE at $4995 (or with the Alps RK50 at $5995) and the stock Woo WES at $4990 (or $7730 with all available Woo-offered upgrades). And those prices do not take into consideration the cost of additional EL-34, 6SL7, 5AR4 and 12AU7 tubes, which, as I understand, can have a significant effect on improving the sound quality of the BHSE and WES. The CLL doesn’t have costly upgrade options, and it doesn’t need expensive NOS tubes to sound great.
The other thing to keep in mind is that the unit I had on loan was a preliminary prototype. Cavalli is building several more prototypes, with a number of tweaks aimed at shoring up the supposed “shortcomings” of the amp, based on listener feedback. I truly expect that the finished product will sound better than what I had a chance to listen to, and such a prospect is, to me, quite thrilling. I’ve always felt that being receptive to customer concerns and putting time and effort into improving an already-great product, with hopes of making it even better, are essential to successful customer-centric business, and Dr. Cavalli is making sure that this happens.
So, should you buy this amp? I cannot recommend a *blind* purchase of this amp, simply due to the staggering cost. What I can recommend, however, is that you listen to this amp for yourself. I understand that the HeadAmp BHSE has been around for a long time, and has come to be accepted as the electrostatic “gold standard”, but please do try to put aside personal biases and give it a fair shake. You might like what you hear, and if you value musicality and emotional resonance with music, you owe it to yourself to hear it. Just be honest with yourself, and let your ears do the deciding, rather than taking Head-Fi reviews and propaganda as gospel, and basing purchasing decisions on hearsay.
Overall, I enjoyed my time with the CLL very much, and I was sad to see it go. It did nothing wrong and most everything right. It had an element of emotion and musicality that I felt simply didn’t exist with the BHSE. Don’t get me wrong, the BHSE is a great-sounding amp that has certainly withstood the test of time, and I already have one on pre-order. But these two amps are really quite different in what they do for me. Different enough, in fact, that I’ll likely end up eventually owning both. Ultimately, the Cavalli Liquid Lightning receives my seal of approval, and my unequivocal recommendation.
The Cavalli Liquid Lightning is currently up for pre-order via the website (http://www.cavalliaudio.com). A deposit of $2125 is made upon placing an order. Delivery is projected to take place in April/May of 2012.
Also, a special thanks to everyone who reviewed this article and provided useful suggestions.
Edited by sridhar3 - 12/9/11 at 8:56pm