Today I was buying an amp.
Not just any amp, a tube amp...a "one and only/ the best i could get/ ducks nuts/ infecting home visitors into instant audiophile zombies" amp.
I narrowed the field of available goods in Australia down to the Valhalla, WA6, and the new Pan Am.
Let me begin by saying that im not a professional audio expert by any means, so the opinions below reflect only my personal experiences with these three beasts side by side, with a vast array of music both in genres, and vast in their audio quality and file types.
Also worth noting the Pan Am has a DAC, so to keep the results even i tested all units via the LOD on my iphone 4S, thus bypassing any DAC other than the one built into the phone. Same tracks used with each amp, tested with both top end Grado (open) and some DT770 250ohm.
Il try to keep it short as i can, in doing so i may inadvertently offend some overly protective owners of any of these fine amps. So in advance i apologize. Im sure should we get to know eachother we would find some common ground and perhaps become the best of friends. However i may think your amp is crap compared to others in its price point, and thats ok because a) Its an amp, and b) I wont judge you personally for any of your retail related decisions.
So here we go
First off I started with the Woo WA6, again im going to be rather quick.
-warm but pleasantly detailed, a nice surprise
-mids are rich vocals are stunning
-bass is very well represented, i was VERY surprised here as i immediately assumed there would be no comparison with ANY of these amps to my solid state amps with bass boost a' la C421 etc etc. Not the case, bass was very nice, especially in the upper bass region. No need for any boosting here.
-sound stage... Personally i think this has a LOT more to do with your cans then your amp, but i talked myself into believing theres something in it, if there is indeed some form of amp related soundstaging difference, than the WA6 was great (especially with the Grados rather than 770). Jokes aside very nice amp, and i was almost sold before i had even begun!
The pudding on top for me may be a double edge sword for others pending graphs. No sibilance. Literally none. It actually annoyed me that even with these Grados i was given for the testing when i asked "which headphones are your most sibilant ear piercing bastards", there was nothing. Frustrated i threw everything at it. Poor recordings of Rosemary Clooney, a vinyl rip of putting on the ritz, the highest notes i could find sung by Emilliana Torini, mid 90's Techno 'build ups', Queens' Bicycle, a White Stripes guitar solo, and finally Bach Toccata. Nada.
I thought it must be rolling off some high frequency to achieve this, and it might should someone have a graph...However even with the DT770 and velour pads i could still get all the detail i got from any of the other amps without the sibilance. Call it witchcraft, call it Woodoo.
The sacrificial virgin lamb:
-Even at high gain i was comfortably at 2:30-3:00 on the dial. Sure it was loud, but it was normal hooligan enjoyment levels, and there was not much room for more if you are deafer than I. I did max it out for a sec, and there is a big step from 3 to full bore- still at low gain i imagine this would be rather useless. Especially disappointing when looking at this thing on paper! It reads like a monster.
Next the viking born Schiister, the Valhalla.
-also guttless like the WA6, perhaps more so- however i was using the WA6 on high gain for most of the time.
-got incredibly HOT, much much much hotter than any of the others.
The goods on this one for me were the looks, most attractive of the three. Plus i really wanted to like it. I like the makers and their comedic advertising and friendly posts, i like the vibe, i like the name. I just didnt like the product. At all.
Sacrificial screaming burning goat:
moot point. I struggled to like it.
Last the all singling all dancing headfonia multi-praised Pan Am.
-small, tiny, cute, convenient, semi "portable" (no ones going anywhere but on vacation with this thing, even with the optional re-named bumbag. But who cares how does it sound?)
-detailed (stock tubes only tested)
-great bass, best subbass of the lot, richest total bass of the lot, perhaps best sub bass of any amp anywhere.
-mids are warm and present, just not as golden as the WA6- however i wouldnt go as far as to say this lacks any mids at all. They just got beat by the Woo-tang on this one thing.
-POWER, on LOW GAIN, this thing ****s (pardon the pun) on the others. I dont know what they are like on paper, but after today im less likely to care about "on paper" ever again.
-tight detailed high end, very clever sound
The cherry on top for this amp is the whole sonic-shebang. The guys at headphonia werent lying, it awesome. Better still when you roll the tubes. I couldnt even begin to fathom it with the russian tubes that are reported to improve it so many fold! Oh and a note on those tubes, ALO has them for $9 a PAIR!!!! According to me, you only need the amp, the passport, and the cheeky russian twins to enjoy this amp to its fullest. If you dont already have them an LOD, and a USB cable might pop into it to. Theres the rub. I didnt buy ANY amp today- why you ask??
Enter the big fat long dead stinking well loved scarificial boar
You think "oh yeah this is $599 (pan am), well worth it! the WA6 is $699" **Australian prices***
Then you realize you need a decent power supply as the included wall wart sounds average at best and really should only bes used for charging. Even if you dont get the portable Passport, and opt for the Gateway which reportedly doesnt sound as good, to save $50- your still another $150-$200 in the hole. So now we have $798/$800 on a tiny little amp with a BIG personality. Whats that? You need some cables with that? Sure they are $100-$130 each, and why not?
So i looked on the Pan Am site before heading out today and saw the bundle deals (click "buy together" in red below the amp pic when entering the pan am page). These bundles are great value! The discounts are HUGE! BUT (and theres a big unpleasant one), even with these EPIC savings you still have to spend at least
-$739(plus shipping plus taxes) for an amp with a power supply without any cables!
Campare this to the WA6 Australian price of $699, and the Valhalla price of $400 odd and its a bit glum. Get shipping and taxes from ALO to Australia For the super savings bundle of the "buy together" tab and pay a minimum (goes up depending on shipping method) of $817 for the amp and power supply alone.
Buy the whole stack fully loaded with cables extra russian tubes and fast shipping:
$1041.96 Thats a full $301 more than the WA6 at FULL RETAIL, let alone heavily discounted in a bundle. Rest assured the discount is heavy-
without the discount the same bundle including: amp, gateway, passport, lod, cable, and bag $1352.95 shipped +$9 for the russian tubes.
So you do save quite a bit in the bundle price, but its still $1000 USD or more for an amp the size of a large pack of cigarettes with 2 tubes in it. Unfortunately the VERY KIND and accommodating forum sponsor and Australian supplier of the ALO Pan Am couldnt match their bundle rates. They did come as close as they could without loosing out (hats off to them, many thanks), but it was $85 more than buying online shipped door to door. Its seems ALO need to recalculate their figures.
Sure you get a perfectly ok DAC with it, but its not THAT good, not when you can buy a Woo WA6, a shmic after market cable, and an ODAC at FULL RETAIL with included power supplies without having to pay $128 shipping, nor wait 2-5 days for it to arrive for $489 LESS... It also has a more substantial presence on the desk, sure its larger, but its tangible value, not "take my word for it theres a wolfson of some description in this thing" The Pan Am, as small as it is also doesnt have the fit and finish you expect paying that much money. The black is just flat old powder coat black. The Silver is metal flake glitter, which i like, but in a gordy spray paint kinda way. It doesnt look or feel expensive by any stretch, and it doesnt even come with rubber feet.
All that being said. If i had so much money that $489 plus a lesser quality dac didnt matter, id still buy the Pan Am. Cause i love the bass, i like that its small, and i could look like a right wanker sitting at a cafe with glowing tubes no power cord and HUGE cans on while sipping a short maciatto and reading the paper... Is this really a good thing?
Seriously though, Ken- Dont make the Pan Am affordable, you dont have to mate, just make it comprable to the second most expensive amp in its field besides yours (as a complete powered unit). Also and this is none of my business really, but its a fair call... Perhaps wholesale the bundle too, that way Australian stores can match your direct prices and we wont have to rely on shipping arriving, or products getting damaged in the mail. Plus we get the added benefit of their fantastic service and deep knowledge base. One last note, if possible please supply Australian cords to the Australian market. Its illegal here to use OS cords, insurance wont cover you if your house burns down with one in it even if it was not the fault of the amp.
All that aside if i were able to throw away an extra $400-$500 i prefer ALO's offering, ugly casing and finish, no feet, expensive but mandatory extras and all. For me it just sounded and felt right.
In the end i bought no amp. Im over the idea for the meantime. I came home thinking ill save $85 and buy online from ALO, but then i thought about the Woo6 and ODAC saving. Then i thought about the total cost of any of these solutions VS the sonic gains when compared even to a small portable solid state amp of any description. Sure they both sound better, but being that most "very good amps" can be had for $120-$200, am i spending the extra money on bling and some form of sound improvement? Just how much of a sound improvement? $800-$1100 worth? Not sure.
When/if the Pan Am comes down in price to properly represent what it is, ill buy one. Ill buy it knowing its a little overpriced and i dont need it, but i want it anyway. If the Pan Am doesnt considerably drop i MAY eventually cave in for a Woo and separate DAC as an anniversary+birthday present from the wife and oldies.
Until then, desktop ampless, and at the desk pantsless,