Originally Posted by podeschi
Pls rank and compare the ear, cavalli and ALO headamps. Pros and cons. Thx
This is TOUGH.
I usually don't compare products, especially reference-quality amps like these, as they're so different in design philosophy, execution, and overall musical presentation.
You see, for me, there is no such thing as "best" in audio, which I recently shared on my Twitter feed April 11th (with surprisingly positive responses) last Friday - because no matter what something may do on a bench, or a dummy-head, or even to a person - we're ALL reacting to an art-form. Music is art - just like there is no "best" band in my opinion, there is no best amplifier. That amplifier is reproducing music, so in fact one art-form is connecting you to another one. How can that be positively quantified? Sure, I know all about testing, but you get my meaning here...
Also, because I don't want this to seem like a cop-out, coming from the school of Harry Pearson and The Absolute Sound magazine - my mentor and dear old friend, and who's teachings I carry with me everyday - I think judging each component on its own merit in the system is important, because we're never only hearing the amp, or the headphones, or the cables, etc... That's also why I often say this "" performed this way in my system, or the music sounded this way with the "" in the system. We're always reacting to systems - not just the one thing. I know this way flies in the face of the objectivists - but it's how I feel about the audio arts - I'm a music addict, I need it all the time, and so my favorite systems sound like no system at all. They just get outta the way of the music and provide me with a grand conduit to my favorite tunes.
All that said - I'm comfortable breaking down some pros and cons of these three amps for you - but just know that all three are what I consider to be state-of-the-art in personal audio desktop/headphone amplification today (crazy, as the E.A.R is over ten years old, but that just shows how far ahead of the game Tim DeParavicini was):
OK - so, pros and cons of the ALO Studio Six, E.A.R HP4, and Cavalli Audio Liquid Gold (I also hate to get off-topic here - but hey its been asked right?):
Pros of the ALO Studio Six: has a particular advantage for those seeking to change the signature of their headphone amp now and again - with its tube-rolling capabilities, you can keep tinkering with this amp and discover differences! I've had mine for over a year now, and thanks to Ken Ball and @Currawong - I've had all sorts of different listening experiences due to tube-rolling. The S6 also has four headphone outputs - which may not seem like a big deal to the average user - but for me, a reviewer, its a dream. I just plug the cans into the same source and swap em on my head to judge sonic differentials. This also comes in handy if you wanna get down with a couple of friends and have your own silent rave! NO JOKE - my wifey and her friend Gina have danced in my office many times - the three of us rockin' cans - to the Studio Six! I also love the textural quality of the sound of the S6 in my system - especially w/ the McIntosh D100 DAC! It's silky, far from muddy, and also capable of reproducing the emotive impact of the music. If I only owned the Studio Six as my top reference I'd still be ecstatic. It's a terrific amp, and on certain occasions I've preferred it to anything else.
Cons of the ALO Studio Six: No balanced input or output. This amp is terrific as-is, but I would LOVE to hear this thing balanced, which would change the damn design I know - but there have been many times recently where I choose balanced output as (depending on the resolution and power of the amp) I seem to gain dimensionality in balanced mode.
Pros of the E.A.R HP4: It's also a tube-rollers paradise, utilizing 4 6SL7s. I've finally found a favorite combo (2 NOS vintage GE tubes and 2 NOS vintage RCA). It can also drive two low-impedance and two high-impedance cans at once with no strain. It's built like a Brick____house - and in all chrome it's very easy on the eyes for anyone, audio freak or no. But the bottom-line on the HP4 - which even with an industry accommodation price was a huge purchase for me: There's something magical about its sound. I know I sound like a dirty hippy - but with the right cans and associated equipment, it still feels like this amp cuts straight through to the music like no other, in terms of what I've called "emotive transference". The E.A.R still comes out ahead in my heart - but not necessarily in my ears all the time now. It's still got magic, but the Liquid Gold is close on its tail now. But I should stress it's still got a leg up in the sparkle department. Someday I'll tell the story of what @warrenpchi said/thought when he came over to hear the HP4 and S6 next to each other for the first time. It was one of those times when one is great, but... Tim DeParavicini not only loves music, and is a world-reknown engineer - its his work in the studio world that impresses me the most - and why I wanted to hear E.A.R in the first place years ago and fell in love with it! He's re-built tape machines for everyone from The Beatles to Pink Floyd and others - re-designed and built all sorts of studio gear for serious musicians. His stuff usually has a sweet, body-movin', toe-tappin' kind of quality. His 868 tube pre-amp brought my in-room stereo system to crazy new heights sonically!
Cons of the E.A.R HP4: Balanced input (which gives ya a lil' boost in the gain over SE - which is nice) but no balanced output! While that's a con, there's a reason for it: Nobody was using balanced headphones when Tim DeParavicini designed the damn thing. That's also a testament to his engineering and feel for design. The thing is 11+ years old and it's still at the top-level tier in headphone amplifiers. That's crazy. Other than that I don't have any cons - aside from the fact that changing tubes out takes alot of time and that seems like a pain in the a__ sometimes. You have to remove the chassis cover to change the tubes out. So when I'm tube-rolling with the thing, I keep the cover off the whole time.
Pros of the Cavalli Audio Liquid Gold: Well, I've been falling in love with this amplifier more and more since it got installed in my system two months ago! I just scribed a review of the amp here on Head-Fi before my other reviews for Part-Time Audiophile and Audio360.org are published. This amplifier means bizness. It's got enormous power dynamically, despite what it might say on a white paper - this thing is a musical beast. It also plays well with others, as stated in my review here on Head-Fi, with regards to different styles of cans. I saw some people were complaining of noise with higher impedance cans - or cans plugged-in via SE (as Alex Cavalli smartly chose to use the Neutrik connectors that accept XLR and 1/4" on the faceplate) - but I experimented w/ my Audio Technica AD900X via SE thanks to the request of a fellow Head-Fier. While I heard a slight hiss when there was no music playing, when I pumped up the tunes it became inaudible - and also, as said in my review - coming from the stereo world that's sometimes an unfortunate part of the equation: a lil' noise when there's no music playing. I don't really care if the thing scours for satellites while I'm not listening to music. I care when the music's ON! So no complaint there. The volume knob is also smooth and makes it a pleasure to dial things in just right. I honestly like the feel of a sturdy knob - OMFG - look how that reads - seriously though: AS its the little things that often show you if the people behind a product give a s___. This amps' transient attack is ferocious, like lightning (hence the name for his other amp - Liquid Lightning) but not harsh on the ears. The LAu is as musically dynamic as any solid state amp I've experienced, including high-end, in-room stereo power. It's glued itself to my ears like the HP4 did when I first heard it. And it keeps getting better!
Cons of the Cavalli Audio Liquid Gold: I don't have much! I'd love more outputs, but I believe he's remedied that with a new version. Looks like it include dedicated SE output and balanced, and more of them. Other than that - a medium gain setting would be NICE. I don't mind low and high, but I dig that about ALO portables - the 3-level gain switch. Sometimes the medium is just the ticket: No noise and plenty of power still. Aside of that - I have no qualms about the LAu. Except, maybe, that now I have to figure out a way to buy it!! ;)
I also wanna tell you why I don't necessarily think of any of these amps as being "better" than another. I've been seeking three top reference headphone amplifiers for the Sonic Satori Personal Audio Lab (where I do all my reviews for various publications). I've ended up with more, w/ the McIntosh D100 pre/DAC/Hphone amp and the Burson Conductor! But there is a method to this madness, and I know it may not translate to many to of you younger than me. You see, when I worked for Harry Pearson at The Absolute Sound I was always amazed that he managed to keep THREE listening rooms intact, and all stuffed with contemporary and modern audio gear. All systems were terrific at all times, but some served difference purposes:
Room 3 was the big room (with Genesis 1 7-foot towers or Nola Grand References, Wilsons, etc.)
Room 2 was the smallest room - but my favorite, as it was rectangular, except for these slight angles at the end of the room (right and left) where the windows were.
With the right acoustic treatment it's one of my favorite listening rooms for stripped-down, singer/songwriter stuff and ambient music
Room 1 was the video room - which later became the multi-channel DSD/SACD Rm (yeah, hoe far ahead was he) - with 5 huge Magnepans for the speakers and all Edge
Audio power. It was amazing it is musical scope and stage. I remember listening in that room, imagining I was in a concert hall, or an underground rave, depending on the music.
So I'm trying to amass the same type of varying reference systems for the SS Audio Lab, including great portable stuff too.
So far - All three of these amps, IMO, represent the current state-of-the-art in musical performance. That's also why I don't see things as "best"
It's music we're listening to after-all, right??
Edited by mikemercer - 4/13/14 at 7:35pm