Matching Headphones, Cables and Amplifiers:
Harder Than It Should Be!
PART ONE (OF TWO): AFFORDABLE AMPS
Part Two is in the Headphone Amps (full-size) Forum
In this lengthy post—you have been forewarned—I am sharing the results of my search for the right cables and amps for four very different headphones: the Grado PS1000, the Sennheiser HD800, the Audeze LCD3 and the HiFiMAN HE-6. Having lived with them for a few years now, I have come to appreciate the unique talent each headphone possesses that the others do not, at least not nearly to the same degree. It was surprisingly hard for me to find the right cables and amplifiers for these headphones: one size clearly does not fit all. This is especially true with picky audiophiles of which I confess to be one. After many false trails which dealt a rather severe blow to my pocket book, I gave up on matching the same cable and amp to all these headphones.
AFFORDABLE AMPS—Focusing on relatively affordable amps first (less than $1,000 each) I settled on the following combinations:
(1) PS1000—Black Widow—MAD Ear+ HD
(2) Sennheiser HD800—Copper Venom—Red Wine Audio Corvina
(3) Audeze LCD3—Silver Poison or Silver Widow—Vioelectric V200 or Schiit Mjolnir
(4) HiFiMAN HE-6—Copper Venom—Vioelectric V181 or Sophia Electric Baby Amplifier.
NOTES: the Denon LA7000 (Lawton modified), Fostex TH-900, LA-900 (Lawton modified), Oppo PM-1 and HiFiMAN HE-560 also produced excellent sound with above amps. However, I have spent less than a few months listening to these headphones so they were not included in this discussion.
VERSATILE AMPS—I was unable to select just one of the affordable amps above to drive all my favorite headphones optimally. I was more successful at a much higher price where I found versatile amps, that could each perform equally well with all headphones with only minor sonic compromises. The Woo WA5, EAR HP-4, Bakoon HPA-21 and HeadAmp GS-X Mark 2 belong to a small list of elite amps with the required and rare versatility. If the power-ogre HE-6 does not belong on your stable of thoroughbreds, then this list expands to include more amps. I have not exhausted the list of all available cables and amps out there—far from it—but I hope to have included some of your favorites.
CAVEAT EMPTOR—The source, amplifier, cable and headphones are all links in the sonic chain. It is hard to isolate the "sound" of an individual link and harder still to predict how it would performs in a different system. I am merely reporting here what I heard when I assembled these gears in my systems. Your results may differ. For the record, I am strictly a consumer and audio hobbyist with no business or commercial link with any of the manufacturers, reps or vendors of the gears discussed here. They were all purchased (new or used) for my personal use. All comments, positive, negative or otherwise are neither an endorsement nor an indictment of the gear, but simply my opinions biased by my sonic preference and musical taste. I hope that my experience is helpful to your own pursuit of sonic Nirvana. Finally, if you are interested only in end results, you can skip the rest of the discussion. For more details on the search process and equipment performance, please read on.
THE IMPERFECT WORLD OF AUDIO
If you dabble in Audio long enough you know this: audio components are not perfect, far from it, high prices, manufacturers’ hyperbolae or owner's bias notwithstanding. So, selecting the right combination of cable and amplifier for your favorite pair of headphones is not a simple matter of assembling the most neutral, most transparent, most expensive , or even the highest-quality product. Rather it is a difficult balancing act of matching the strengths and weaknesses of each link in the chain to achieve the desired sound for the system. This matching was even trickier than I just described as some components can and did behave unexpectedly (differently from its sonic signature) as links in the chain. Though the characteristic sound of each component is usually a good starting point, the end result could still surprise you.
THE METHOD TO MY MADNESS
THE ROUND ROBIN—My approach was embarrassingly simplistic. First, I used the frequency responses of the headphones as initial guide to steer me toward potential cables and amps to test. Second, I tried to uncover the sonic signature of each component. I listened to the same music through each pair of headphones with as many combinations of cables and amps as feasible. Eventually, the inherent sound of each component, its sonic fingerprint if you will, emerged. (Cables can make a difference and they are getting to be so darn expensive they might as well be considered components—yes Virginia, you can hear the cables with these headphones.) Third, by matching components to preserve their strengths and compensate for their weaknesses, I arrived at a combination that met my sonic goals. Finally, I used my stereo system (details at the end) and my memory of live music in various concert halls as the ultimate sonic reference for each headphone system. There were surprises along the way: a component can behave unpredictably, i.e. against type. Fortunately, that was rare. The reward of discovering the sonic personality of each component, but most of all, the sonic bliss of a great combination made the tedium of this lengthy process tolerable. One thing I tried to guard myself against: being blinded by a dogmatic belief in the alleged superiority of specific designs or their sonic stereotypes. I tried my best to rely only the actual performance.
THE COST LIMITS—Unless your last name is Gates or Buffet—Warren that is—money is always an object. So in this search, I limited myself to a cable of less than $500 each and an amplifier retailing for less than $1,000. I was willing spend up to $5,000 for a single amp if it could accommodate ALL of my headphones. Not being endowed with an abundance of patience, I limited my choices to only new and currently available models at the time of this search—i.e., out-of-stock or discontinued items were outside of my consideration. DIY items were also out. (I did my fair share of assembling Heathkits and Dynakits in my high-school days eons ago and prefer to leave them behind—the DYI kits and the high-school days, both.)
SOURCE & MUSIC—For the sake of space and time, I left out of this discussion the source selection. For this entire search, I limited my transport/DAC to the PS Audio PerfectWave Mark II or the Oppo 95/105 for SACD. The vast number of sources and DACs was just too unwieldy to handle. Of course they can really affect the final result. So, I assume that your digital source and DAC are of a quality commensurate with the headphones discussed here. I used my turntables as source (see Equipment List at the end) to compare the sound of the headphone matched systems with my home stereo’s. For music I used three recordings that I am intimately familiar with: Alison Krauss superb SACD Now That I've Found You, Strunz and Farah guitar fireworks CD Americas and Fritz Reiner Scheherazade (Living Stereo SACD). This admittedly limited musical library does span a wide musical range and helped shorten the listening sessions to a tolerable length. Even so, after over twelve months of this ordeal, I don't think I was quite the same.
ADVANCED APOLOGIES—In the rather lengthy discussion to follow—you have been warned for the second time—I will share with you the sonic characters of each component and the successful systems I found. I will not linger on components that either did not meet my expectations or that mesh poorly in a specific combination as I take no pleasure in bashing my own gears that may also be your favorites. However, I will be frank so I am bound to step on some toes. If that happens: my apologies. Please remember that my main goal here is to share with you the positive results that may save you time and money in your own sonic pursuit. Enough digression. Let's get on with the matched systems and their sounds.
GRADO PS1000 + BLACK WIDOW OCC + MAD EAR+ HD
PS1000 SONIC SIGNATURE—The PS1000 was by a wide margin the hardest headphones for me to work with and that included the Sennheiser HD800 and the HiFiMAN HE-6. There were many obvious things to love about the PS1000. The sound-stage was large (second only to the Sennheiser HD800) with excellent center image. The bass has limited depth (nothing below 50Hz or so) but tremendous impact thanks to a upper-bass emphasis (around 100Hz). The mid-range was beautifully rounded and well-articulated without ever being analytical or sterile. It was not particularly transparent but the image was sufficiently recessed for that not to be a problem. Like all Grados, the PS1000 can play loud even with low-power amps. Alas, the PS1000 weaknesses were not subtle either. The U-shaped tonal balance was a long way from neutral and took some getting-use-to. I must say it was unique and great fun to listen to if you could put up with that reedy, raspy and sometimes piercing trebles that made female voices and violins (my favorites) thoroughly un-enjoyable. On poor recordings, shrieking banshees came to mind several times. The Grado GS1000 has similar sonic character but is more forgiving.
NOTES: (1) The large ear-pads on the PS1000 were comfortable and help with the soundstage. Wearing the PS1000S for any length of time, however, was uncomfortable because the heavy weight (about 450 grams) and limited adjustment. It may be simply too big for some people. (2) For years, the Grados come in a "pizza box," which is OK with inexpensive models, but totally unacceptable with the PS1000 and its steep price tag. Sure, great sound is what counts (like great food in a restaurant), but the whole experience is also important. In contrast, the Oppo PM-1 has the best packaging and presentation of any headphones I know, and at any price, and that includes the LCD3, HE-6, HD800 and Stax 007. There was plenty of sculptured foam padding, sleek inner box, heavy-duty outer box, protective cloth bag, travel pouch, piano-finish presentation box and sleek headphone stand. All that for $1,000! The packaging for the $1,200 Oppo HA-1 amp is equally impressive. Come on, Grado, time to step up!
CABLES–The Grado PS1000 was positively allergic to silver, whether it's silver coating or pure silver. Sure, its slightly bloated bass benefited from more tightness and speed with silver cables but, oh those wretched trebles! The sound seemed to physically pierce through your ear drums. I cringed every time Alison Krauss hit a high note. The guitar rift on Atlanta cut sounded like it was played on a mandolin with ultra-thin metal strings. I found that large OCC wires can help tame these piercing trebles. Unfortunately, with the tiny cable holes through these cans, my selection was limited to relatively small wires. I ended up with 24 AWG stranded Litz OCC copper wires (Black Widow by Toxic Cables). I think larger (22 AWG) OCC wires used in the Copper Venom (also from Toxic Cables) would have performed even better.
AMPLIFIERS— Most solid-state (SS) amplifiers I tried with the PS1000 failed, and fail ungracefully they did. The Schiit Mjolnir, Burson HA-160D and Soloist pumped so much treble energy into the PS1000 that they were practically un-listenable. Even the ultra-clean, smooth sounding and usually dependable Vioelectric V200 (single-ended) was unable to tame the PS1000 treble to my satisfaction. The balanced Vioelectric V181 fared no better. The Bryston BHA-1 was among the few SS amps capable of delivering a clean and smooth sound through the PS1000. The treble was still a little bright but thankfully free of screeching banshees, no small feat in itself. The Bryston, however, sounded oddly dull perhaps due to the suck-out in the middle of the U-shape sound of the PS1000. For SS amps, I had to go well beyond my affordable price range to find amplifiers that work optimally with the PS1000. The HeadAmp GS-X Mk2 and the Bakoon HPA-21 were two SS amps I found that matched well with the PS1000, producing beautiful sound with punchy bass, smooth, airy and well-articulated mid-range with plenty of inner details, and smooth trebles. There were two surprises on my search of amplifiers for the PS1000.
The first surprise was how bad the PS1000 sounded with many hybrid amps. The liquid mid-range was all but gone, replaced by a raspy, harsh sound with these usually reliable amps: Apex Peak/Volcano, Cavalli Liquid Fire and the Red Wine Audio Corvina/Bellina. The Eddie Current Super 7 fared better but still retained enough harshness to be ultimately rejected. The best tube/hybrid amps for pairing with the PS1000 that I found were the Woo WA5 (LE) and the EAR HP-4. With these superb amps, the brightness (sibilance and harshness) was reduced to a very low level though not entirely eliminated. (I was told but cannot verify that excellent sound was also achieved with the combination of the PS1000 and Apex Pinnacle).
The second surprise, a real shocker, was how well the unassuming little tube amp, the MAD Ear+ HD ($750; Mapletree Audio Design) performed with the Grado. The combination PS1000/Black widow /MAD Ear+ HD was simply magical: punchy bass, liquid mid-range with very natural focus, good center image, and smooth treble from which all banshees were banished. The PS1000 lost a bit of its sound-stage and inner details but the overall sound was eminently musical. With hind sight, these results should not be surprising as the MAD Ear+ HD has a forward mid-range and limited extension into both frequency ends, characteristics that perfectly compensate for the voicing of the PS1000.
SENNHEISER HD800 + COPPER VENOM OCC + RED WINE AUDIO CORVINA
HD800 SONIC SIGNATURE—The HD800 is the second hardest pair of headphones for me to work with. It is exceedingly picky about amp and cable. The HD800's strengths are many and quite obvious. It is a very neutral and transparent headphone that will take on the sonic character of the amp driving it. The mid-range is totally uncolored, open and airy with fine details, articulation and presence. The fast transient attack and moderately slow decay contribute to this quality. The HD800 has the biggest sound-stage of any headphones I own, with generous depth and width, especially with a balanced connection. It also images with pinpoint accuracy, allowing you to locate the position of various instruments within an orchestra, quite a feat for a headphone. It is a near-perfect choice for large symphonic music. These superlative attributes make its weaknesses all the more irritating. While very deep, the bass is often over-taut with the limited volume thus delivering a less than impressive impact. The HD800 is mercilessly accurate and not very forgiving of poor source and amp. It has a tendency toward sibilance and stridency when paired with low-quality solid-state amps. The tonal balance is slightly tilted up toward the high frequencies (but not U shape like the PS1000), often exacerbating sibilance in poor recordings. The HD800 can often sound analytical, cold and uninvolving. I agree with this frequent criticism but would submit that this is largely a function of associated components. The right cable and amp must address these shortcomings without interfering with the positive attributes.
NOTES: Though not exactly light at a little less than 400 grams, the HD800 is comfortable to wear. The ear-cups do not seal completely allowing some air circulation and minimizing heat and perspiration. It is also quite a looker, in a high-tech sort of way, so I softened its lines just a little with a paint job by ColorWare :-)
CABLES—From the seemingly endless combinations I tried, I found that, just like the case of the PS1000, pure silver and silver-coated copper wires did not work well with the HD800. They reinforced both the positives and negatives: the sound became lightning fast, with over-etched details. The bass, while still deep, was overly taut which robbed a lot of impact from of the sound. The HD800 voice was further tilted upward with reinforced sibilance and edginess. OCC (Ohno Continuous Casting) copper cables, especially the Copper Venom from Toxic Cables (OCC copper; 22 AWG rectangular wires; cryogenic treatment) with 4-pin XLR were a better match for the HD800. With the appropriate amp, these cables help reduce the sibilance and stridency, adds a slight warmth to the midrange while leaving the delicate details and huge soundstage largely unaffected.
Copper Venom from Toxic Cables: OCC copper; 22 AWG rectangular wires; cryogenic treatment; 4-pin XLR
AMPLIFIERS—Most solid-state (SS) amplifiers I paired with the HD800 (with the exception of the HeadAmp GS-X Mk2 and the Bakoon HA-21) reinforced the trouble with the treble–sorry Star Trek fans—though the bass impact clearly improved. The Schiit Mjolnir produced an exciting sound with all kinds of fireworks but the sound was a little grainy. The combination proved to be fatiguing in the long run. In contrast, the Burson Soloist delivered excellent sound almost free of sibilance and stridency but sounded somewhat bass-shy and two-dimensional with much reduced soundstage. The Vioelectric V200 was one of the few happy exceptions for affordable SS amp. Its ultra-smooth midrange served the HD800 well though I still detected a hint of edginess in the sound. I had high hopes for the combination HD800 and MAD Ear+ HD but its performance turned out to be only fair. While the HD800 sibilance was dramatically reduced, also gone was the dynamic sound mostly because the soft bass, which was deficient in punch. Finally, when the HD800 re-cabled with the Copper Venom was hooked up to the Red Wine Audio Corvina (balanced tube-hybrid), what I've got was...pure magic! The wonderfully wide sound stage and articulated details remained but sibilance and harshness all but evaporated. The bass, still plenty fast and deep, became fuller, with significantly more impact. The HD800 is not power-hungry so other high-quality tube/hybrid amps (above the $1000 price range I set) would also work as well.
AUDEZE LCD3 + SILVER WIDOW + VIOELECTRIC V200 or SCHIIT MJOLNIR
LCD3 SONIC SIGNATURE
The LCD3 is among the best sounding headphones money can buy. They are not as demanding of cables and amps as the ridiculously power-hungry HE-6 or the exasperating PS1000. For all their positive attributes of which there are many—seamless, neutral sound across the audible range; smooth and forgiving trebles; best bass in the business; intimate "you-are-there" image—to my ears the Audeze LCD3 still suffer from a few annoying shortcomings: a “dark” sound with diminished inner details and constricted soundstage, and worst of all, a honky overtone (for want of a better word) in the midrange. I was not able to completely eliminate these colorations.
The LCD3 sound coherent, seamless across the entire audible range. That is the great strength of orthodynamic design. Then there is the bass. If you are a bass-head, this is the headphone for you. This bass is sufficiently extended and taut to also satisfy lovers of Jazz and organ music. The LCD’s transients are exceptional, in attacks and decays, allowing many details to emerge in spite of a pervasive coloration in the sound. I would call the LCDs the Princes of Amber (with apologies to Roger Zelazny). They have a dark, caramel-coated sound that is very seductive but colored nevertheless. While the sound remains largely neutral, it is not completely transparent due to this ubiquitous veiling of inner details. Some LCD devoted fans would vehemently—but I hope not violently—object to this statement. But while I do enjoy this “dark” sound a lot, all I had to do was to switch to any other pair of headphones discussed here, and any doubt about loss of transparency and details evaporated.
The worst shortcoming of the LCD for me though was the honky sound in the midrange. You can crudely imitate this coloration by cupping your hands over your mouth while talking—it’s like a muffled echo. I guess this coloration stems from a relative hump in the lower mid-range. For those of you old enough to remember, the early Magnepans, highly respected dipolar speakers for 30 odd years and still in production, suffered from the same colorations derisively called the "credit-card sound." It’s long gone now from the current speaker models, which replaced the membrane-magnet design currently used in orthodynamic headphones with the more advanced ribbon and quasi-ribbon design. Overall, the stock LCD2—and less so the LCD3—has a balanced, intimate, powerful but "dark", caramel-coated sound that many find seductive. But completely seduced by the Dark Side of the Force, I was not.
NOTES: I never could understand why so many on HeadFi went gaga over the look and build of the LCD3. While the wood trim is a very nice touch, the design and construction of the arms and sliding rods are amateurish at best—come on, plain, unfinished screws and lock-washers on a $2000 gear? By the way, due to the weird angle of the slide, you can accidentally hold these cans by the wooden cups under the pivoting arms. Don't! You’d get your fingers smashed when you put the headphones over your ears. The LCD3 ear-pads, however, are a thing of beauty, taking most of the massive weight of these headphones off your neck.
Do not attempt this maneuver at home! It should be done only by highly-skilled professionals.
CABLES—As I said before, the LCD3 are not overly fussy about cables. They get along with OFC, UPC and OCC copper wires alike. Silver-coated (UPC or OCC) copper cables, however, added just the right amount of welcoming sparkles to the sound and were better choices than naked copper. Still the level of improvement that the Silver Widow cable brought to the LCD came as a shock to me (Toxic Cables; OCC silver with up to 1% gold; 8 Litz wires; surface and cryogenic treatment; silver-pin connectors to headphones and amp). Though not entirely eliminated, the "honky" sound in the LCD was much reduced by the Silver Widow—I achieved far less success with other silver cables. The second biggest improvement to my ears was with the LCD ripe bass, which was noticeably tighter with the Silver Widow than with any other cables I tried. Consequently, the dynamic impact with the Silver Widow was far more apparent. Also, with better-controlled bass, some of the dark veil over the audible range was finally lifted: the LCD inner details became clearer and better articulated; the soundstage also expanded a little. The Silver Widow retained most of the LCD's intimate, front-row image, a trademark sound that makes these headphones such a joy to listen to with Jazz and vocals. With the expanded soundstage of the Silver Widow, the center-image receded a few rows back and added a better perspective and more enjoyment to orchestral and symphonic music. While some rock aficionados may miss the factory ripe bass, I don't. I found the now tighter and less ponderous bass, clearer inner details, bigger soundstage and more dynamic contrast most welcome improvements with the LCD/Silver Widow.
Silver Widow from Toxic Cables: OCC Silver; eight 25.5 AWG Litz wires; up to 1% gold; cryogenic treatment; 4-silver-pin XLR connector
AMPLIFIERS—In general, I found clean and powerful SS amps to be the best matches for the LCD3. Inexpensive tube/hybrid amps like the MAD Ear+ HD or the SE Baby Amp totally failed to compensate for the honky and dark sound of the LCD3 though the LCD/Baby Amp produced excellent bass impact. The combination LCD3/Silver Widow/V200 produced smooth, detailed sound with just the right blend of immediacy and perspective. Though single-ended, the V200 had power to spare and was capable of playing the LCD loud enough to satisfy even punk-rock fans (for photo, please see the nearly identical V181 in next section). I achieved almost the same improvements with the balanced SS V181: thunderous bass but with more of honky and dark sound. The Schiit Mjolnir made the LCD really sparkle. It was less satisfying with large-scale music and ultimately proved to be fatiguing in long sessions. Overall, I would be happy with many choices of cables and amps but I found the LCD-3/Silver Widow/V200 system to be the most sonically balanced and musically rewarding.
HIFIMAN HE-6 + COPPER VENOM + VIOELECTRIC V181 or SOPHIA ELECTRIC BABY AMP
HE-6 SONIC SIGNATURE
The HiFiMAN HE-6 is a creature of extremes. Its strengths are obvious: seamless, balanced and energetic sound with palpable presence, large sound stage and high-impact bass. Its weaknesses are equally obvious: diffused center focus; annoying—make it very annoying—hardness in the upper midrange and sometimes fatiguing sound. Most of all: a ridiculous power demand (opposite of the HD800).
HE-6 with LCD3 Ear-Pads HE-6 with Focus-A Ear Pads
Like the LCD3, the HE-6 has a very cohesive and seamless sound. What distinguishes it from the LCD3 is the neutral tonal balance and a sense of tremendous energy emanating from the drivers. In addition, there is palpable presence to the sound unencumbered by the dark veil of the LCD3. The HE-6 may have on balance the best bass among the four pairs of headphones discussed here. This bass is as deep as that of the HE800 but punchier; it also sounds faster and tighter than the heftier but ponderous bass of the LCD3. The HE-6 has a little less impact but also none the ripe upper- bass of the LCD3. But to get the full measure of the energy and bass impact, you need plenty of power, which most amps in the market do not have. If you haven’t got a powerful amp, you haven’t heard the HE-6 yet.
There HE-6 offers a spacious soundstage within which voices and instruments are clearly delineated with pinpoint accuracy. Adding to this a neutral and transparent mid-range and an excellent transient response, and the sound of the HE-6 achieves a degree of palpability and realism that is unrivaled. The center focus, however, could be tighter for a better sense of immediacy with intimate music that the LCD3 possesses. Overall, the tonal balance, neutral midrange, large soundstage, energy and realism in the sound make the HE-6 at home with a wide range of music, from Rock to Jazz to Classical.
The HE-6’s sound has very few flaws but they are very annoying ones. There is a hardness/glare to the sound due probably to some coloration in the upper midrange or lower trebles that can very fatiguing, especially with bright cables or amps. This coloration was not easily tamed. What is required is an amp with ultra-clean midrange and trebles that also has enough power to bring the HE-6 out of its shell.
HE-6 with LCD3 lambskin ear-pads HE-6 with Focus A ear-pads
NOTES: The HE-6 is not among the best looking headphones out there. But it does have a certain charm in a geeky kind of way. What it has are excellent design and construction quality (fit and finish) —overall better than the LCD3—except in two areas. First, the cable connectors to the cans are about the worse I have ever seen. Two sets broke during a few weeks of use. Second, the HE-6 is not the most comfortable headphones to wear. The headband is too stiff, the ear-pads too hard and the cans too heavy. I replaced the ear-pads with the LCD3 lambskin ear-pads. The size was not perfect and the color was wrong (dark brown) but the discomfort was dramatically reduced. That was then. Now, my suggestion is to replace them with the new Focus (or Focus A) ear-pads made for the HE-560.
CABLES—If you own a pair of HE-6 (or the Sennheiser HD800), you owe it to yourself to try the Copper Venom cable, which is a great choice for both headphones (see cable-discussion for the HD800). I had previously tried the HE-6 with various cables. They were, in increasing order of success: silver-coated OFC, silver-coated OCC, Cardas OFC and (Ohno) OCC copper cables from various sources. While pure silver wires or silver-coated copper wires were good choices for the Audeze LCD3, they were poor matches for the HE-6/500 (exacerbated glare/hardness) and a nightmare with the HD800 (excessive stridency and sibilance). The HiFiMAN HE-6 fared better with many OFC and OCC copper wires. So I had hoped but was not prepared for the shocking improvement I experienced with the Copper Venom. What this cable achieved with the HE-6 was dramatic: the glare and hardness vanished from the midrange. The HE-6 also sounded more relaxed in a way I never heard it before through other cables. The Copper Venom also added a touch more bloom to the HE-6 bass without sacrificing its tightness, the strength of these headphones. If you can live with midrange hardness—I myself cannot—the Silver Widow is also a good choice as it adds a ton of speed, focus and excitement to the HE-6 sound.
Copper Venom from Toxic Cables: OCC copper; 22 AWG rectangular wires; cryogenic treatment; 4-pin XLR
AMPLIFIERS—Very powerful but smooth amplifier is an absolute must for the HE-6. Many SS amps I tried passed the first criterion only to fail the second. The reverse was generally true of many tube amps I tried. Among affordable SS amps, the Vioelectric 181 (balanced SS) emerged as a clear winner. The V200, while cleaner sounding, fell short on power at very high volume. With the powerful, balanced V181, the HE-6 re-cabled with Copper Venom produced a thunderous bass that easily matched and sometimes surpassed that of the Audeze LCD3—and that’s saying something. The HE-6 center image also gained a measure of much needed focus. The center image is not nearly as forward as that of the LCD3 but is more natural and easier to live with in the long run compared to the intimate image of the LCD. The soundstage, often the bane of many headphones, was wide, easily better than that of the LCD3 and superseded only by the PS1000 and the impossibly spacious HD800. The HE-6/Copper Venom/V181 system offered sufficient depth and width to create a believable 3-D illusion.
The Baby Amplifier from Sophia Electric was another nice, affordable surprise. I did cheat a little here as I bought my unit with upgraded caps throughout and with two resistor arrays to put across the binding post, raising the price above $1,000. However, I did not have the amp "tuned" for the HE-6 to keep the price down closer to my limit. It was an excellent investment though as the sound of the Baby amplifier with the HE-6 was eminently listenable. The tonal balance remained neutral but the mid-range is slightly liquid and without hardness or glare. The Baby Amp added a little bloom in the bass that remained tight, with added impact. Interestingly, the HE-6/Baby (tube) Amp pairing has more energy in the sound than the HE-6/V181 (SS) pairing. Go figure!
IS THERE A VERSATILE AMP FOR ALL FOUR HEADPHONES?
The short answer is yes, with a few caveats. First caveat: there are amplifiers out there that can deliver very good sound to all above headphones including the fussy PS1000 and HD800 and have enough power to drive the least efficient one—the HE-6, what else—but the sound quality will not be optimal for all headphones. Second caveat: If you do not need to satisfy the insatiable appetite of the HE-6 for power then you have a wider selection of a single amp for all your favorite headphones including the finicky PS1000 and HD800. Though not specifically discussed here, I also tested the Denon LA7000, the Fostex TH-900, the Fostex LA-900 (Lawton modified) and the Ultrasone 8 and 10 among sensitive headphones. Third caveat: getting optimal sound for all headphones requires a great amplifier and that will cost you ($3,000-$5,000 or more).
TO BE CONTINUED (PART TWO)...
Oppos 105/95/ 83-SE playing SACD and CD
Burson Audio HA-160D
PS Audio Perfectwave transport and DAC;
Burson Audio HA-160D; Burson Soloist
HeadAmp GS-1 (discontinued; on loan); GS-X Mk2
Beta22 (DIY; on loan)
Cavalli Liquid Fire
HiFiMAN EF5; HiFiMAN EF2A; HiFiMAN EF6
MAD Ear+ HD
Melos SHA-Gold (discontinued)
Red Wine Audio Corvina/Bellina
Sophia Electric Baby Amplifier
Vioelectric V181 and V200 (sold)
Woo WA5-LE; WA5
Cables: 6 to 8-ft long cable with XLR 4-pin Neutrik connector for balanced amp and 1 to 2-ft adaptor with Neutrik XLR-to-1/4-inch Furutech plug for single-ended amp
Copper Venom cables (rectangular OCC copper wires) for HD800 and for HE-6
Silver Poison cable and Silver Widow (pure OCC silver wires with up to 1% gold) for LCD3; all pure silver connectors; adapter for HE-6
Silver-coated OCC copper cables for HD800, LCD3 and HE-6/50-
Silver-coated UPC cables for HD 800, LCD3 and HE-6/500
Cardas (UPC) cables for HD 800, LCD3 and HE-6/500
OCC copper cables for HD 800, LCD3 and HE-6/500
Black Dragon V2 cable for HD800 with mini-XLR connector for balanced and SE adapters
4-pin XLR to 1/4-inch plug Adapters for PS1000, HD800, LCD3 and HE-6
Other Headphones used in comparison:
Beyerdynamic T1 (Sold)
Grado HP-1000; GS1000, HP-2 (Sold)
Denon LA7000 (Lawton Modified)
Fostex TH-900; Fostex LA-900 (Lawton Modified)
Stax 007 Mark I; Stax 009
Ultrasone Edition 8 Limited; Ultrasone Edition 10
STEREO SYSTEM (sonic reference):
Source: Avid Acutus turntable; SME-V tonearm; Lyra Titan cartridge
SME30/2 turntable; SME-V tonearm; Koetsu Urushi cartridge
Preamp: Jeff Rowland Consummate
Amps: Jeff Rowland Model 7 (balanced mono pair);
Balance Audio Technology VK75 (Tube mono amps; Pair)
Ampzilla 2000 Edition Mark II
Speakers: Wilson Audio Watts/Puppies 8 (upgraded); Magnepans 3.7
Edited by Justin_Time - 8/7/14 at 7:22pm