Trade-offs, Pros & Cons and difficult decisions.
Edited by Zkadoush - 8/13/14 at 6:09pm
When you finally have all the money to go and buy yourself a top-tier Amp, the difficulty to find the right Amp can soon take the juice out of your enthusiasm.
"To have all the money" - in my case - means 3K (I have another amount set aside for a Benchmark DAC2 D, Benchmark AHB2 and a pair of Benchmark SMS1s, if reviews for the monitors prove favorable and once more specs are provided). That rules out the most expensive flagship Amps, like Cavalli, Ray Samuels, Apex and Crayon, and leaves you with a fabulous bunch of Amps below the 3K mark, like the Auralic Taurus, Questyle CMA800R (or two), Headamp GS-XMkII, RedWine Cassabria & Bellina, and of course the mighty Violectric V281.
The reality is that no Amp is absolutely perfect, in the sense that no Amp will do everything perfectly, so basically you have to work your way through a maze of trade-offs and pros and cons until you reach a conclusion and hit the buy button. Besides that, most of these Amps are relatively esoteric pieces of gear that aren't at the hifi shop around the corner, and many don't even exist before you place an order with a juicy deposit. So, not only do the real-life limitations and vicissitudes of design, implementation, cost and manufacturer's business strategies make your final decision harder, but also real-life availability conspire to rob you of your initial enthusiasm. Then there's of course the new flagship released in the midst of you having managed to narrow it down to a well reasoned shortlist, and there you go again, back into the maze of trade-offs and your checklist.
I was initially impressed and enthusiastic about the Sennheiser HDVD 800. It includes an apparently decent D/A converter - no digital specs whatsoever provided by Sennheiser - and a fabulous match for my HD 800s. Then a couple of more conscientious and knowledgeable head-fiers drop the truth on me: the SE ouput of the Sennheiser has a 16Ohm output impedance, and the balanced output triples it! As much as I love my HD 800s above every other headphone, I still own a K702, a Q701 - that I want to upgrade for balanced mode - as well as the remote hope to find a decently imaging magnetic-planar headphone in the future (the Audeze LCD-X is the only planar-magnetic headphone I find enjoyable at all). Bad for the great match to my HD 800s, good for the further decantation of my shortlist. Talk about of trade-offs!
I do fancy the awesome build quality of the Taurus and its dead silent and pitch black background, but the presentation I get from the SE output is something I just simply can't come to terms with. This is most likely due to me being used to the more up close presentation of my V100 than anything else, but I get the feeling that some instruments, or even parts of instruments - being a drummer/percussionist I tend to focus on percussive cues - are drastically more distant. For example, the hi-hat of some tracks - and I'm talking about very good recordings - sounds as if it was being played at a different front to back localization than the drums. My guess is that what I perceive as an airier presentation of the Taurus is more instrument separation, and thus spatial cues are differently presented by the Auralic in comparison to my Violectric. Nevertheless, I sat there for nearly 2 hours and couldn't get used to it, pretty much the way your brain struggles with a new pair glasses the first week. The balanced output is a different story, it appears more coherent and more pleasantly and convincingly spacious than the SE output, and I could certainly live with it. But that's only half the Amp for the whole price.
I can't say much about the other contenders on my shortlist as I have no chance to audition any of them. But if I have to follow the trade-off balance and the pros and cons on my checklist, the V281 takes the lead in overall measured performance, features and functionality. Questyle and Headamp are a tie in build quality, although the CMA800R takes the lead in measured performance. They are also a relative tie in a matter of functionality, but since I'm looking for a Headamp and not really for a Preamp - despite both CMA800R and GS-XMkII including that functionality -, the dual mono CMA800R pair would probably score the highest in sheer SQ, which is what I'm out for.
The few dealers here in Auckland, New Zealand, that have serious Headamps (Audio Reference, Reference Audio (really!), NZAudio, Soundline and especially Computer Lounge) do have Headamp (Computer Lounge) and Violectric (NZAudio), but are currently not bringing in the GS-XMkII (which has a extra long waiting time), and anything above the V100. (Perhaps not so few dealers considering Auckland is dwarfed by any larger American city.) Nobody has even heard of Questyle yet, but I have insisted on the great reviews they have already earned, and shared the links in the hope that someone will take the leap. The other more far-fetched - if not outright ridiculous - option would be to grab a cheap $300 ticket to Australia to visit some friends in Melbourne and drive to Addicted to Audio, who are dead serious about their head-fi gear, and perhaps more likely to have the V281 and the CMA800R in store in the relatively near future.
Anyhow, I took my chances with the V100 without ever listening to it, and based only on measured performance and impressions of fellow head-fiers, and needless to say, it was an absolute bullseye. I could well do the same with the V281, but I can't help but wish for Fried to release a standalone balanced V281 (or V282) with better measured performance than the V181 and without the V220 in the same box. Such an Amp, along with the announced downsized version of the V800 DAC, or a pair of CMA800Rs with a couple of pre-gain settings; or a GS-XMkII with a SNR as good as the Taurus or the V281 would be my bullseye(s) right now. But as I began writing, it's a game of trade-offs and pros and cons, and I'll have to play by the rules no matter how arbitrary and unfriendly they appear to my hard earned bucks.