A few months ago, I saw the Head-Fi announcement by TTVJ introducing the new Apex Teton, an OTL headphone amp designed and built by Pete Millett and sold by Todd Green. Although at the time I was the happy owner of both an ECP Audio L-2 and an Eddie Current Super 7 and not in the market for a new headphone amp, the Teton product announcement grabbed my interest. The amp uses the same tube complement as the Singlepower Extreme, an amp that gave me a lot of listening pleasure years ago. My Singlepower Extreme failed after a few years, thanks to notoriously bad Singlepower build quality, but I never quite forgot how musical an amp it was before it failed. The Apex Teton uses the same input tube (6SN7) and output tube (6080) as the Singlepower Extreme, but adds tube rectification.
I put my name on Todd's loaner list -- thinking the hurdle rate for me to shell out $5K for a headphone amp was pretty high -- and received the amp for two weeks in early December. Live and in person, the Teton has exceptional parts and built quality. Everything from the sheer heft of the amp, to the metal tube sockets, to a volume control with zero channel imbalance at even the lowest volumes -- it really exudes quality. It also looks better in person than in pictures. I normally wouldn't care how much an amp weighs, but in this case, one apparent benefit is that the amp only gets warm to the touch -- not hot like most other OTL tube amps -- after hours of use.
Before describing how the amp sounds, here is a little background about my previous experience with headphone amps. Since getting involved in this hobby about 8 years ago, I have owned nine headphone amps, five tube amps and four solid state amps. Of those amps, only three struck me on first listen as definite "keepers" -- the Singlepower Extreme, the Eddie Current Super 7, and the ECP L-2. Others, including the Luxman P-1u, the Woo 22, and the DNA Sonett, just didn't cut in it my book. Not that they were bad, but they were not exceptional. So that is the reveal of what I have owned before.
My assumption before receiving the Teton was that other amps might sound different than the Super 7 or the L-2, but they probably wouldn't sound all that much better. I was wrong. The Teton on first listen trumps every other amp I have owned or heard, and not by a small margin. Without getting into pablum about "veils being lifted", etc. -- the Teton is an absolutely beautiful sounding amp, offering a front row perspective, incredible detail and tone, amazing spatial cues, the most expansive soundstage of any amp I have heard, impressive speed that results in great rhythmic drive, and it accomplishes all this without sounding bright or fatiguing. I still have a great deal of respect for the Super 7 and the L-2, but the Teton is a lot better sounding than both -- more musical, natural, enveloping, and detailed.
The claim I sometimes hear about OTL amps like the Teton is that they allow the listener to hear the tubes rather than the transformers. For example, with the Woo 22, a transformer-coupled balanced amp, I did not find that tube rolling made a night and day difference in how the amp sounded. Swapping tubes in the Woo 22 resulted in fairly subtle changes. The Eddie Current Super 7 is certainly more amenable to tube rolling than the 22, but it does not sound like a completely different amp as a result of tube rolling. Different sounding? Yes. Like a completely different amp? No. In contrast, tube rolling has a profound impact on the sound of the Apex Teton, as if it is a chameleon capable of fully "channelling" the tubes you roll into it. And each of its three tubes -- the input tube, the output tube, and the rectifier -- has a substantial effect on the character of the amp. As an example, with a Mullard U52, a Chatham 5998, and a Tung Sol BGRP 6F8G, the amp is lightening fast, clean and incisive -- sort of like a Pass Labs preamp or amp. This is a good tube complement to use with the LCD-2/3/X. In contrast, roll in a Mullard 5AR4, a Bendix 6080, and a Chelmer CV181, and you end up with a warm sounding amp with a lot of midrange bloom -- sort of like the Conrad Johnson or McIntosh house sound.
You can mix and match tubes and easily end up anywhere you want along this continuum. That makes the amp tremendously fun and satisfying to use. Right now, my favorite tube complement is a Mullard U52 (which is a faster sounding rectifier than the Mullard 5AR4), an IT 6528 I purchased from Todd (which is a little more detailed than the Bendix 6080), and an RCA 6F8G (which has a little more bass than the Chelmer CV181). With this set up, the primary headphone I used with the Teton was the HD800s, which don't sound bright/lean/fatiguing in the slightest with the Teton. Set up this way, the amp offers an incredibly enveloping immersion in the music. Its center of gravity is the mid-range, which depending on the tubes used, can have either a somewhat rounded sound or monitor-like detail. With my current favorite tubes, the amp offers plenty of detail, spatial cues, and tone, with a hint of midrange bloom.
Running through a few of my personal reference recordings that I am very familiar with....Listening to "To Build A Home" by the Cinematic Orchestra, Patrick Wilson's piano sounds exquisite -- the tone and spacial cues clearly indicate he is playing an old upright piano, unlike in earlier tracks on the CD -- with natural decay of single notes and chords. On Drake's "Take Care", Rihanna literally sounds like she is whispering in you ear -- you can hear literally hear her mouth opening, singing "here's what I'll do, I'll take care of you" (if only). On Dire Straits "Brothers in Arms", Mark Knopfler's voice and guitar sounds heartbreaking. Listening to Nick Drake's "Pink Moon", I have never heard a headphone rig create such a realistic tone, of hearing sound reflected and amplified off the wood of an acoustic guitar.
Bass performance is stellar as well. Through the Teton, on well-recorded music, the HD800s deliver as much visceral bass as the LCD-2s on any other amp I have owned. On Grizzly Bear's "Two Weeks", when the kick drum is struck, you hear the resonance of the kick pedal hitting the skin of the drum. In other words, not only lots of bass quantity but also outstanding bass resolution.
My favorite stereo amp in my speaker system has been the VAC Phi 200. For those in the know, VAC has a stellar reputation for designing "beautiful" sounding amps that also happen to deliver bass that rivals Pass Labs or Mark Levinson and that last forever. The Apex Teton reminds me a lot of the VAC Phi 200, in terms of sound quality and presentation.
As a side note, I did try the Teton as a preamp as well. In that role, it is no slouch. My current preamps are a $7,500 Zesto Leto and a $2,300 Mystere ca21. As a preamp, with a Tung Sol BGRP 6SN7, I thought the Teton was on par with the Leto sonically -- the Leto has slightly deeper bass, the Teton has better midrange. It surpassed the Mystere ca21 in pretty much all respects. I suspect if Todd and Pete removed the headphone jack on the front, the Teton would be finding its way into quite a few stereo systems as a dedicated preamp.
A couple of final observations. First, I have upped my listening time quite a bit since I received the Teton. The Teton with my HD800s right now sounds better than my much more expensive speaker rig. It is so good, it motivated me to go out and buy better speakers. Second, the Teton seems to be curing my occassional insomnia. I often listen to my headphone rig while reading at night before bed. Most of the time, the music being piped through my headphones is supposed to serve as "background", to create an ambience that will allow me to read, get tired, and (eventually) nod off. The Teton sounds so good, most nights I find that it is hard to treat the music as "background", with my primary focus on reading. The Teton forces me to put down whatever I am reading, close my eyes, and listen with rapt attention to the music. My mind stops racing and I end up asleep. I have heard the Sigur Ros album "Agaetis byrjun" so many times now, that for me it became mellow music for napping. Through the Teton, the album now sounds so expansive and hypnotic, I am listening to it again with the same enjoyment I got years ago the first two dozen times I heard it.
As my time with the Apex loaner came to an end, I gladly picked up the phone to buy the amp. The amp was built and delivered within a month. Yes, the Teton is expensive at $5,000. If you are on the fence about spending that kind of money on an amp, I would recommend giving Todd a call to get on the loaner list. The Teton could well be your "end of the line" amp that will take you off the merry-go-round. If you cannot fathom ever paying $5,000 for a headphone amp -- or if it would be economically unwise to do so -- keep your name off the loaner list or cut up your credit cards before your two week trial of the Teton begins.
Edited by minimus - 2/14/14 at 10:44pm