Before I get into the sound characteristics of this amplifier I want to talk about its features.
One important feature is that it functions as a Preamplifier separately from its duty as a headphone amplifier. Whatever is hooked to the RCA Output terminals at the back gets the same variable level signal as the headphones. There is a single Input, so there are no switches regarding that.
The other two features of the amplifier are controlled by switches at the front. The first switch turns on a Crossfeed function and the second switch engages a Filter, both change the sound but in different ways.
Personally I think there are advantages in having these options, but I do not always choose to use them.
For the purest, just the bare music presentation one can have both functions off. There is nothing missing and for cluttered, dynamic music it sounds better this way. Engaging only the Filter makes the sound brighter; it seems to enhance mainly the high frequencies. It does not sound unnatural, however with very bright recordings or headphones it is better to have the filter off.
When the Crossfeed function is turned On I also like to turn the Filter On. This is because the Crossfeed enhances the Bass and makes everything lack brightness, the Filter corrects this. What’s left is what I would describe as a holographic-like sound. Especially with vocals it seems to add space and realism, as if the music was performed right in the room. Sometimes I get an eerie sensation that what I am hearing is actually out there. Voices are especially convincing and full-bodied.
Now about the sound character of The Max. What this amp is not is harsh or bright-sounding like many other solid-state amplifiers can be at times. I’ve never felt listener fatigue no matter what the music is.
I would say there is a laid-back or mellow presentation of music, a bit romantic and tube-like, however there is no lack of detail or speed. As far as detail is concerned I have not heard an amplifier which brought out more depth in the music, especially in the higher frequencies. There is a refinement there, what some people call micro-detail retrieval, which probably gives the sense of reality to the sound recording.
I have owned and loved other headphone amplifiers: The Micro by Headroom, Musical fidelity X-Cans (V1 - with tube and op-amp upgrades) and Antique Sound Labs’ all triode MG-Head DT (also with upgraded tubes). While each had a unique sound signature and excelled at doing something well with the right headphones, none were as refined as The Max, or created the realistic sound space I mentioned.
My impressions are using the Sennheiser HD600, with a Cardass cable. They are not super-fancy, overpriced headphones. Yet I feel they do everything an audiophile headphone should do and are enough to exercise the full potential of this amplifier. Many would agree that their sound signature is a bit on the Dark side, and that they are not as “fast” as some other headphones. I believe they are a good match for the Headroom precisely because it was designed with them in mind. It brings out their strengths of smooth, full-bodied midrange, delicate highs and lush bass, while adding believable space to music reproduction.
Now switching to different headphones, the ATH-W1000
These are the red wooden, closed headphones by the Japanese company Audio Technica. They are another favorite headphone. What I love about them, besides their great looks, is the amount of detail they seem to generate and being great with vocals. Right from the start they seem too bright compared to the Sennheisers, even with The Max. I switched the Filter off, while leaving the Crossfeed engaged, that solved the issue. Remember that the function of the filter is to add brightness when it is needed. I prefer having the Crossfeed engaged most of the time; it just makes the music more enjoyable. Some people may critique this as adding something extra to the music, which is unnatural and impure. I say let the ears decide what sounds good and what doesn’t.
Edited by 2-i - 12/22/12 at 8:17pm