I bought an Audeze LCD 2 (rev 2) primarily to use with my Yamaha Clavinova piano. I found that these headphones provided the most natural rendition and timbre of the piano during my many hours of regular playing. However, it seemed crazy to have invested so much in a pair of headphones and not be able to listen to other music as well. So I ventured down the path of researching the best headphone amplifier for the job. During my research, there was one amplifier, reasonably priced, that kept coming up again and again. This was the Violectric V200. For almost any other amplifier I found both positive and negative reviews, but I could not find one bad word said about the Violectric. This, therefore, became the top of the list choice for me.
Finding this amplifier in the UK is actually quite difficult, and I really did want the option of auditioning before I bought it. I stumbled across a great UK specialist called Item Audio. They offered to let me audition free whatever cables, amps and headphones I wanted in the comfort of my own home. They were incredibly knowledgeable and I described my own listening preferences (I have a Lexicon MC-12, feeding Bryston power amplifiers and Kef Reference 4.2 speakers for stereo). This helped them suggest an amplifier equally worthy of audition with the LCD2 - the Burson Soloist, a fairly recent release. I was over the moon such a service existed and the very next day I received a courier delivery of the two amplifiers plus Grado PS1000 reference headphones for good measure!
For those not so familiar with my main speaker set-up choices, the sound the Lexicon/Bryston combination provide is extremely neutral. Some might argue a little clinical/analytical. The Kef Reference 4.2s are also revealing and fairly neutral but with a slightly punchy bass and smooth treble. I do not like equipment that has reviews which state "coloured" sound, and am particularly fearful when I see taglines such as "warm". So then you might find my choice of the Audeze a little odd. As a child I had incredibly over-sensitive high pitched hearing, able to hear the fluorescent light tubes in shopping centres. Although I can't hear them anymore, I still have remarkably good treble extension hearing. I found that with headphones that had brighter signatures such as the Sennheiser HD800, that "all" I could hear was the treble, and I was so distracted by it, that the rest of the range became over-shadowed. I found with my digital piano, that I was hearing all of key/hammer sound (the Clavinova's simulate this), and not the actual string tone itself! With the Audeze, it felt most like I was hearing a real piano without any frequency range distracting from another. I should add though that treble is a very important frequency range for me. For example when I sit on conference calls (as I do a lot for my day job), that I often struggle to hear what someone is saying if the treble isn't clear enough. My auditory cues in determining what someone is saying comes from higher up the frequency range than others who seem better able to cope focusing on mid-range.
As I had already decided in my mind that I was after the V200, I set this one up first, although I left both on to warm-up from their cold overnight journey. At first I connected my Audeze headphones and started working my way through my SACD collection (from an Oppo BDP95) and some CDs (via Sonos into MDAC). I tried some of the common SACD favourites like Diana Krall, and perhaps not so common favourites such as (jazz pianist). I also have some SHM SACDs which still enthral and impress with their re-mastering of 70s music such as Pink Caravan. I was immediately impressed with what I heard. I was greeted with a soothing clear rendition of everything I threw at it. I could immediately understand why people saw this as a "go-to" combination. Defined and clear bass. Textured mid-range. Clear but not overly bright treble. I could easily close my eyes and lose myself in the music. The "only" negative I was aware of was a slightly closed soundstage. By that I mean that I felt I was hugging the musicians which was both intimate and mildly disturbing at the same time. But this was a long standing criticism of the Audeze headphones and therefore I assumed this characteristic was simply related to the phones rather than the amplifier.
So having already thought, the V200 was great and it couldn't get much better, I switched over to the Soloist. The Soloist "looks" more expensive. It has a much more solid and substantial cabinet. The Soloist was created with headphones like the Audeze as a consideration and includes features like a stepped output level (Low, Medium and High) so that you can obtain a power output (and volume range) that is applicable to the type of headphone in use. It is missing the balanced inputs and favour of a pre-amp output stage instead. I would have preferred the former to partner nicely with the MDAC. The Soloist like other Burson headphone amplifiers has a stepped volume control, which has both advantages and disadvantages. It provides a purer signal path, however, it means you are restricted into specific volume settings and is more prone to problems (some have found contact sprays help on the 160D for example). Starting my way through the same music choices, I was immediately hit by both similarities and differences in equal measure. For example, the mid-range tonality was remarkably similar between the two amplifiers. The texture was there in the mid-range making vocals sound "live" as if they were singing just for you. The bass was more extended. I dare not say pushed as it still felt absolutely natural, but there was more bass presence and I was able to hear marginally more texture in the lowest registers. The treble was more open and slightly more detailed and perhaps slightly more refined. Once again, it didn't feel pushed or accentuated. It gave high-hats and snares that bit more sparkle. Subjectively, it also seemed to open the soundstage and I felt like I had a bit more breathing room between myself and the musicians.
I then proceeded to swap as quickly as I could between the amplifiers and confirmed over and over what I had heard and found. I also gave the Grado's a try. The Grado's helped me confirm my analysis between the two amplifiers, as the same characteristics were evident on both. However I used the medium output setting on the Burson instead of the high for the Audeze. One thing that the Grado’s did confirm for me was that for my ears, the Audeze are the best headphone. I found the Grado's overly bright. Knowing how highly regarded these headphones are, I did also connect them to my Yamaha piano, and in a similar way to the HD800's I found I was distracted by too much high-end treble "mechanical" sound of the piano obscuring the sound from the string.
I had therefore, surprisingly, settled on the Burson, and as a final test, I wondered how similar headphone and speaker listening was between them. I set the main speakers on at the same time as the headphone amplifier at a suitable volume on each that one didn't over-power or intrude on the other. I was stunned. The musical signature of the Audeze and Burson, or the Lexicon/Bryston/Kef combination was practically identical. I kept lifting off and putting on the headphones in almost disbelief that I had replicated what I loved about my speaker set-up on my headphone set-up...but there it was...mission accomplished!
Item Audio then collected all of the demo equipment and replaced it with a brand new Burson Soloist which has had daily listening ever since. The new Soloist DID need burn-in, but it was only about 6-8 hours before all of what I recalled from the demo model was there. The manual goes out of its way to state that burn-in is required for this unit. I was a bit surprised as I have often been a person who dismissed this concept, but I did notice it with the Burson.
I hope this helps others at least decide models they should audition before purchase and not do , as I almost did, jump straight into the V200 based on reading online. The price of the Soloist (£799) is a bit more than the V200 (£725) but in the same ball-park. While I am sure I would have been very happy with the V200 as well, for my ears, I found one better.
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