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MATCHING HEADPHONES, CABLES AND AMPLIFIERS: HARDER THAN IT SHOULD BE (Part 2 of 2)

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Matching Headphones, Cables and Amplifiers:
Harder Than It Should Be (
Part 2 of 2)

Part one (Affordable Amps) is in the Headphones (full-size) Forum

 

 

 

SUMMARY (for Part One & Part Two)

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 that each headphone possesses while 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 of 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.

 

Note: 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 range where I found versatile amps, that could 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 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 EMPTORThe 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 perform 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 hereThey were all purchased (new or used) for my personal useAll 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 this post.  For more details on the search process and equipment performance, please read on.    

 

++++++++++       Part one is posted in the Headphones (full-size) Forum)      +++++++++++

 

 

                                             PART TWO

 

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 excellent sound to all 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 absolutely optimal for all headphones. Second caveat:  the HE-6 hunger for power will severely limit your selection of a single amp for all your favorite headphones.   Third caveat:  getting optimal sound for all headphones requires a great amplifier and that will cost you ($3,000-$5,000 or more).  NOTE: though not specifically discussed here, I also tested the Denon LA7000, Fostex TH-900, Fostex LA-900 (Lawton modified), Grado GS1000 and the Ultrasone 8 and 10, all moderately sensitive headphones.  

 

VERSATILE SOLID-STATE AMPLIFIERS

If the HE-6 is among your favorite headphones, you choice of amp is rather limited. You need clean power, and a lot of it.    Among SS amps, the HiFiMAN EF-6 ($1600) was built by HiFiMAN specifically to drive the HE-6, and drive them it did.  The overall sound quality was good but there was enough hardness left in the HE-6 (typical old transistor sound) to keep the EF-6 out of contention. I had high hopes with the powerful solid-state RS Dark Star, which can play the HE-6 loud enough to give any masochist the most satisfying case of ear-damage.  The sound with the LCD3 was also very dynamic and more opened than usual.  Unfortunately I found the Dark Star to be a total mismatch with the HD800 and PS1000—hard sound with unbearable sibilance.

 

Burson Soloist ($1,000)—The Soloist has a clean mid-range with good transients and solid bass.  Though this amp did not quite make the cut with demanding cans like the PS10000 and the HD800, it is so popular I feel compelled to say a few words about it.  For the original version of this amp/DAC, the Burson Audio HA-160D, I will only say that it is a competent amp, but with a rather hard and two-dimensional sound that I did not care for.  The Burson Soloist (and similarly the Conductor with added DAC) fared better.   This newer version of the Burson amp had a lot of punch and enough power to drive popular orthodynamic headphones.  The focus and center image was an improvement over the older model but the Soloist still lacked the air and sound-stage that is at the core of live music.   The Soloist sounded a little flat and bright with the HD800 and PD1000 but was not a bad match for the LCD3 and HE-6—though you still have to put up with a remnant of the dark and muffled sound with the LCD3 and the glare with the HE-6.  The Soloist did well enough to be an acceptable amp for all your headphones if you are on a budget and willing to accept some sonic compromises.

 

 

 

 

Bryston BHA-1 ($1,400)—Among the many SS designs that I have tried, the Bryston BHA-1 was among the few capable of delivering a clean sound through the PS1000.  The trebles were still bright but thankfully free of shrieking banshees, no small feat in itself.  The bass was tighter than usual for the PS1000. However, this amp sounded strangely dull in the mid-range, perhaps due to the U-shape sound of the PS1000.  The Bryston fared better with the HD800 though, once again, the mid-range was a little recessed and the sound deficient in presence and details.  For this very reason, the Bryston was easy to live with, and forgiving of poor recordings.  The bass was very tight but lacked impact, rather surprising for a SS amp.   With the LCD3, the Bryston delivered a solid bass and dynamic sound.  Alas, the dark, muffled sound of the Audeze was still there in spades and, once again, I find myself wishing for more clarity and a little less caramel topping.  A reticent mid-range seemed to be the characteristic of this amp.  The Bryston surprisingly did not have enough oomph to play the HE-6 loud.  At moderate volume (3-5 o'clock on high-gain setting), the Bryston/HE-6 combo delivered a smooth mid-range with a solid bass but the recessed image and poor details resulted in a laid-back, polite sound that was not my cup of tea.

 


 

 

 

Selected: Bakoon HPA-21 ($2,900)—This diminutive amp (in size only, not in price) was a very pleasant surprise.  It truly excelled with the PS1000 and HD800, providing more vivid details than any other amps I auditioned with perhaps the exception of the GS-X Mark 2.  All that without any trouble in the trebles.  While the HeadAmp GS-X Mk2 was silky smooth, the Bakoon was warm and vividly detailed.  A touch of brightness remained with the PS1000, but the tight focus, spot-on center image and palpable presence and big sound stage were so good that the vestige of brightness was easily forgotten.   And then there was the bass:  slightly boosted to a tremendous impact!  With the HD800, there was added weight in the bass as well but with tight control and impressive impact.  With the LCD3, the Bakoon produced a very seductive, liquid mid-range and highly resolved details with just a hint of the dark, euphonic coloration remaining.  I still wished for more air and bigger sound stage.  The bass was punchier than with the HD800 but not the last words in tightness.  With the HE-6, the Bakoon was simply superb.  I found that unlike other headphones, which preferred the Bakoon's Current Output, the HE-6 sounded better through the Voltage Output.  The mid-range was seductively rendered, at once warm and open, with plenty of vivid details and spacious sound-stage.  The sound was remarkably free of the hardness often heard with other amps. There was plenty of bass with the HE-6, but once again, I wished for a tad more impact here—this was real surprise for a SS design; perhaps a bigger power supply is needed. The Bakoon HPA-21 is a great choice for the PS1000 and LCD3 and among the very best with the HD-800 and the impossibly insensitive HE-6. But if thunderous bass is your priority, this may not be the amp for you.

 

NOTE:  The gain on the Bakoon was too high for the HD800 even at the low setting.  I reduced the gain from my Oppo 105 or PS Audio PerfectWave Mark II by about ¼ to minimize sound leak in the Off position (considered "normal" with the unusual design of the Bakoon) and achieve fine volume-adjustment. But the reduced gain was insufficient to drive other "sensitive" headphones like the Grado PS1000 and the Fostex TH-900. I had to fiddle with the gain a-gain.  Very annoying, especially at $2,900! 

 

 

 

Selected: HeadAmp GS-X Mk2 (~$3,000)This was the best solid-state amp I had the pleasure of using.  A word to the wise:  the GS-X Mark 2 has a delicate, silky smooth sonic signature that may not be to everyone's liking.   I loved it.  With the most difficult headphones extant, the PS1000, the GS-X Mark 2 managed to do the near-impossible.  The sound was detailed, very clean and oh so smooth—never analytical or sterile—with a mere hint of harshness left. The center image receded a few rows back, but the focus was tight with plenty of air within a spacious sound-stage. The bass had slight bloom that helped produce a big slam.  With the HD800, the GS-X Mark 2 reprised the same outstanding performance in focus, center image and presence.  Most important of all, the sibilance was completely eradicated:  the sound was sweet, with feather-light details. The bass with the HD800 was deeper, tighter but leaner than with the PS1000, resulting in a more nimble but slightly less thunderous slam.  But that sound-stage! It was hard to believe that it could come from a pair of headphones.  With the LCD3, the "dark" caramel sound was completely resolved into a clear, smooth and open midrange with just a slightly dark, muffled overtone (resonance?) in the background. The focus remained tight.  The center image was front stage which gave the LCD3 sound the "you-are-there" quality that many love. The bass was strong and tight, so some may miss the huge slam of the usually over-ripe LCD’s bass.  It was with the HE-6, however, that the GS-X Mark2 really left the competition in the dust.  Gone were the hardness in the mid-range, replaced by a smooth but well-articulated sound with silky transient and plenty of details.  The focus, center image and sound-stage were the best I ever heard from the HE-6 endowing the sound with the presence and air of live music. The bass was tight and solid with tremendous impact. The GS-X Mark 2 consistently delivered the best or near the best performance for all headphones I tested here.

Note :  I have also listened to two other excellent SS amps, the GS-1 (sold-out) and the Beta22 (DIY), but did not discuss them here as they are not accessible to everyone as new production units. You can find either unit in the resale market or build the Beta22 yourself if you have the skills and inclination. 

 

 

 

 

VERSATILE TUBE/HYBRID AMPLIFIERS

Among tube/hybrid the RWA Corvina/Bellina, Cavalli Liquid Fire, Apex Peak/Volcano Eddie Current Super 7 all delivered good performances with sensitive headphones.  With the PS1000, however, some harshness/edginess still marred the otherwise highly musical sound of these amps.  With some of them, I also noticed a vestige of the "dark" sound of the LCDs. 

Apex Peak/Volcano ($1,300/$750)—The Apex Peak/Volcano was an excellent match for orthodynamic cans such as the Audeze and HiFiMAN, producing clean and dynamic sound with power to spare even for the HE-6.  The sound with all headphones, while not always smooth and trouble-free, was consistently musical and enjoyable thanks largely to an open mid-range, clean transients and excellent sound-stage.  With the PS1000, the sound was a touch bright. Mid-range was smooth with clean transients but voices sounded slightly raspy with some thinness in the high frequencies.   The focus, center image and sound-stage were naturally rendered.  The bass was tight, with good impact if a bit light-weight.   The same flaws re-surfaced with the HD800 but to a much lesser degree.   A slight sibilance marred the otherwise excellent mid-range, focus, center image and sound-stage.  The bass was deep but perhaps a little tight and thus a little short on volume and impact.  The overall sound was clean, effortless and very engaging.  The pairing with LCD3 was highly successful.  While the focus was less precise and some of the in-your-face center image was lost, the overall presentation of the music was more natural with added depth and width to the sound-stage.  Most important of all, the dark sound nearly disappeared, pushed back into a distant background. The bass was tight, dynamic but lacking the visceral impact expected from the LCD3.  The sound with the HE-6 was excellent overall with a very clean mid-ange and just a touch of glare at very high volume (beyond 1 o'clock).  The center image was slightly recessed (several rows back) but the Apex Peak/Volcano had a firm grip on the focus and threw a decent sound-stage for the oft constricted LCD3.  The bass was solid and dynamic if not exceptionally punchy.  If you are looking for an relatively affordable amp that can drive all your orthodynamic headphones including the power-hungry HE-6, you can do far worse than the Apex Peak/Volcano.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cavalli  Liquid Fire ($2,750)—The Cavalli Liquid Fire was a poor match for the PS1000, a great match for the HD-800, and a good pairing with the LCD3.  It had insufficient power to drive the HE-6 above moderate volume.  With the PS1000, the sound still had enough brightness and sibilance remaining to keep the Cavalli out of the running with this Grado.  The focus, center image and sound-stage were also slightly below par.  The bass was a little bloated compared to what you can get from other pairings.  In contrast, the Cavalli LF was a great match for the HD800.  The focus, center image and sound-stage were excellent and so was the bass quality, though I could use a little more weight and impact.  Overall, the sound with the HD800 was clean, smooth, detailed (but not at all bright or sibilant) with a solid and dynamic bass support.  With the LCD3, the sound was open and clean, with  only a hint of the dark veil remaining.  Some of the sharp focus and forward imaging of the LCD3 was reduced, not necessarily a bad thing if you prefer a natural presentation as opposed to the in-your-face (ear-drums) sound.  Unfortunately, the bass volume and impact was slightly reduced as well.   While the sound with the HE-6 was excellent, free of the hardness and glare that often plagued the sound of these cans, the Cavalli just did not have enough power to play the HE-6 to anything beyond moderate level.  A real pity!  

 

 

 

 

 

 

Red Wine Audio Bellina HPA ($2,500 + Balanced output + High-resolution DAC)—The RWA Bellina was a great match with the HD800 and LCD3.  The Bellina/PS1000 pairing was also very good except for a raspy mid-range and metallic transients in the high frequencies (through either the NOS or High-resolution DAC).  The sound was excellent with the HE-6 but with only enough power for a moderate listening level.  With the PS1000, the sound had enough remaining brightness and sibilance to almost keep the Bellina out of the running if not for the outstanding focus, imaging, presence and air in the sound, and the excellent bass with both weight and impact.  The Bellina, like the Corvina discussed previously, was of course an outstanding match for the HD800.  The focus, center image and sound-stage were outstanding.  The bass was very taut which may have robbed some weight and impact from the sound.  Still the overall sound was among the best that could be extracted from the HD800.  With the LCD3, the sound was also excellent, with unfortunately a bit of the darkness still not lifted.  Some of the sharp focus and forward imaging of the LCD3 was slightly reduced and replaced with a more natural presentation of the music.  The ample bass volume and very dynamic contrast resulted in truly thunderous bass slams.   With the HE-6, the sound was also excellent, free of the hardness and glare.  Once again, the bass was very tight robbing some weight and impact from the sound.  Alas, the RWA Bellina ran out of steam beyond moderate level.  Overall, the RWA Bellina is a very good choice as a single amp as long as you listen to the HE-6 only at a moderately loud level.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eddie Current Super 7 ($1,600)—The Super 7 (I used seven 6SN7) consistently delivered consistently smooth mid-range, and surprisingly for a tube design, taut, well-controlled and very dynamic bass.  With the PS1000, there was still some brightness left that made the sound a little raspy but the mid-range was smooth and clean if slightly grainy.  The focus, center image and sound-stage were all excellent.  Pairing with the HD800 was even more successful.  The sound was smooth, relaxed, sibilance-free and thoroughly enjoyable.   The pin-point focus and front-stage center image produced outstanding presence and air within a huge sound-stage.  The bass was very tight and a little over-damped with slightly diminished weight and impact—another surprise with a tube amp.  Overall, the Super 7/HD800 pairing was very successful delivering a smooth and dynamic sound free of brightness and sibilance that was very easy to live with.  The pairings with orthodynamics were good if a little less successful due to remnants of colorations inherent to the LCD3 and HE-6.  With the LCD3, some of the dark, muffled sound remained.  While the focus, center image and sound-stage were excellent, a little presence and air were missing compared to the very best amps.  The bass as usual had plenty of volume and weight and benefitted greatly from the added tightness.  With the HE6, some of the hardness/glare in the sound remained.  The focus and center image became more precise with better presence and air to the sound.  The sound-stage improved with the LCD3 but remained smaller than with the PS1000 or the HD800.  The  EC Super 7 could play the HE-6 very loud with the volume at 2-3 o’clock. This is an amp that can drive most of the headphones out there with good sound and most important of all with sufficient power, not bad at all for its relatively moderate price.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

Selected: Woo WA5 ($3500 + $1200 for upgraded parts + $1500 for upgraded tubes)With the exception of the PS1000, I was able to extract some of the best sounds from all the headphones I own with the Woo WA5 (with upgraded parts and Royal-Princess tubes from Sophia Electric).  This amp typically delivered a very clean mid-range with quick but smooth transients and some of the best bass responses in the business.   The PS1000 mid-range was very clean and highly musical.  The bass was taut, dynamic, and punchy.  While lacking the immediacy of the HD800, the focus, center image and sound-stage of the PS1000 with the Woo WA5 was natural and relaxing.  It is a pity that just enough brightness and sibilance creeped in to keep this combination from the top achievement.  With the HD800, the Woo WA5 produced a truly musical sound with none of the sibilance and stridency typically associated with these headphones.  The Woo WA5 /HD800 achieved the ultimate realism thanks to a tight focus, front-row image, airy sound, and a huge sound-stage.  While a tad less punchy than the PS1000's, the HD800's bass was taut and solid with pretty amazing impacts.  It produced one of the purest and most enjoyable sounds I ever heard from any headphones.  Through the K1K output, the Woo WA5/LCD2-3 combination was also pretty amazing.  The sound was smooth, clean, open and thankfully free of the dark veil.  This beautiful midrange rested upon a solid bass foundation with perhaps the best slam in the business.  If you are a rock fan, you must check out this combination.  Impossibly, the Woo WA5 took the HE-6 to another level. The smooth mid-range had good presence thanks to a forward stage presentation and tighter focus.  This sound was remarkably free of the hardness or glare associated with the HE-6.  I save the best for last:  the bass, at once tight and plentiful, was delivered with an incredible punch that will rock you to the core.  This was truly a match made in heaven.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Selected: EAR HP-4 ($5,000)—I threw everything but the kitchen sink at this amp.  It remained unflappable and kept delivering great sound after great sound with all the headphones.  The EAR HP-4 improved the mid-range of the PS1000 significantly, though a touch of sibilance and brightness remained, but everything else sounded just right.  This sound had a palpable presence and plenty of air around the instruments and voice.  The usually loose bass of the PS1000 tightened up significantly to deliver a bigger impact.  The sound-stage was the largest I heard from the PS1000.  While still not as balanced overall as  the MAD Ear+ HD's, the PS1000's sound with the HP-4 was more sophisticated, vivid and dynamic without being fatiguing as with the Schiit Mjolnir.  The HD800/EAR HP-4 pairing delivered a sound close to perfection.  The sound was clean and smooth with plenty of well articulated details. There was a slight boost in the tight bass, which gained the much needed weight and impact.  This bass was not nearly the equal of the orthodynamic bass--what is?--but it was nimbler on its feet, better defined and equally enjoyable. The spacious sound-stage gained additional depth and layering.  The HP-4/LCD3 pairing was also excellent if not exceptional in the areas of focus, center image and sound-stage, reflecting the LCD3 tendencies toward close-up presentation more than anything else.  But, oh that bass:  taut—with tubes?—with phenomenal weight and  punch.  It is unfortunate that a remnant of the dark veil was still present keeping this pairing from reaching the ultimate performance.  The EAR HP-4 did shine the brightest with the HE-6.  Gone was the hard glare in the sound.  The HE-6 focus, usually a little imprecise, became pin-point sharp; the center image was pushed a little forward to give a greater presence to vocals.  There was also increased air around the instruments to improve the 3-D illusion within the sound-stage.  Surprisingly, while the bass was well controlled and dynamic, it was a tad less punchy than ideal.  With the volume at 1 o'clock for high listening level, there was power to spare.  Overall, the HP-4 sound was very musical, detailed and dynamic.  This sound was also so open and relaxed that I frequently forgot to focus on it and found myself simply enjoying the music.  That is the ultimate compliment I can give any audio gear.

 

 

 

 

 

 

NOTE:  I did not attempt to roll the 6SL7 tubes on the EAR HP-4.  The amp designer insisted that this amp was designed and tuned with the original tubes (Russian Tungsol?) and sounded best with them. Did anyone have a different experience?   

 

 

RECAPITULATION

The four headphone/cable/amp systems I selected covered the range of my sonic preference and musical taste.  You can achieve what best suits yours with other combinations.  My hope is that my experience can help you achieve your own goals successfully while saving a little time and money.

Affordable Amps/Cables

For PS1000—Given its U-shape voicing, the PS100 created all kinds of trebles problems for me.  I found a tube amp (MAD Ear+ HD) with forward mid-range and limited extensions into the high frequencies and an OCC Litz cable to ensure smooth transients and no harshness in the sound.  This combination produced a smooth and open sound free of sibilance or harshness, with punchy bass that was great for rock and an excellent sound-stage that could satisfy my love of orchestral music as well. 

For HD800—For the flat but slightly up-tilted sound of the HD800, I selected an OCC copper cable (Copper Venom from Toxic Cables) which effectively reduced the sibilance and added more fullness to the bass.  A balanced hybrid amp (RWA Corvina) helped ensure a rich mid-range free of sibilance supported by a full and tight. This combination is highly musical and show no sign of the analytical sound that the HD800  is prone to in less optimal system.

For LCD3—These cans worked nicely with an OCC silver cable (Silver Widow from Toxic cables), which tightened up the bass, opened up the sound-stage and added more sparkles to the sound.  A very clean SS amp, the V200 from Vioelectric, reduced the darkness in the mid-range leaving a more open but still rich sound.  The weighty but rather ponderous bass were nicely tightened for better dynamics.  The Schiit Mjolnir could replace the V200 if you need more sparkle in the sound . 

For HE-6—What I needed first and foremost was a very powerful amp that was also quiet and ultra-clean to overcome the inherent hardness and glare in sound.  A high-quality, powerful, balanced SS amp, the V181 by Vioelectric, filled this need.  For cable, OCC copper (Copper Venom from Toxic Cables) worked best to ensure that no hardness intruded into the sound while the fuller bass added more impact to the HE-6 sound.  If you prefer a more palpable presence in the mid-range and a more 3-D sound (with a slightly reduced bass punch), the Sophia Electric Baby Amplifier is an excellent choice. 

No Single, Affordable Amp for All Headphones

Ultimately, I failed to find a single "affordable" (less than $1,000) amp that could drive all four pairs of headphones successfully.  This failure led me to wonder if the range of impedance and sensitivity of headphones was too wide—wider than for speakers—and that a tighter standard should be adopted.   At the middle price range, two hybrid amps came close to doing it all.  Both the Cavalli Liquid Fire and the Red Wine Audio Bellina were great matches for the HD800 and the LCD3.  Both, however, were unable to completely tame the raspy and harsh sound of the PS1000 and both ran out of steam with the HE-6 though at moderate volume both delivered highly musical sound with tight bass.  The Apex Peak/Volcano, yet another hybrid, was not the last word in mid-range purity, but was able to deliver the goods with all four pairs of headphone with power to spare.  A small degree of their inherent flaws remained in all four pairs of headphones (PS10000 brightness, HD800 sibilance, LCD3 dark veil and HE-6 hardness) but that did not keep the overall sound from being musical and highly enjoyable, and all that for $1,400.  Not bad.

Four (4) Outstanding, Versatile & Expensive Amps

If you are willing to pay the price, the four very high-quality amps below are versatile enough to accommodate all the four headphones.   While the sound may not be completely optimized for some headphones, the overall sounds of these four amps are significantly superior to those of the more affordable amps.  Quality has its price.

The GS-X Mark 2 is the best solid-state amp I found for all my headphones.   It has an open, and silky smooth sound that must be heard to be believed. The focus and imaging is very natural (neither forward nor recessed) and the sound-stage was the largest I ever heard from the HD800 and HE-6. The sound has the presence, air and layers of live music. The bass was tight and solid with tremendous impact. The greatest strength of the GS-X Mk2 is its ability to perform well with all kinds of headphones and all kinds of music. If you hear something bad, look elsewhere in the chain for the culprit.  It is to me the best SS amp for the HE-6 and the best value among versatile amps.

The Bakoon HPA-21 is the king of warm mid-range and vivid details.  This is an uncanny sound combination that I have not heard from any other SS amps.  If you like to hear rich vocals, vivid guitar transients or gorgeous violin tones, this amp is ideal for you. The excellent way the Bakoon renders female voices in particular is entrancing.  Pairings with the HD800 and HE-6 are exceptional.  The Bakoon also work well with the LCD3 and PS1000.  There was plenty of bass for Jazz and Classical, but I wish for a tad more impact with rock. If you are a bass head, this may not be the amp for you. The Bakoon's small size and battery power may make it the only choice for some of you.

The Woo WA5 is not your typical tube amp.  It delivers a very clean mid-range with smooth transients and some of the best bass responses in the business.  At once tight and hefty, this bass delivers an authoritative slam that will knock your socks off.  While the pairing with the PS1000 retains traces of sibilance, the Woo WA5 delivers great sound with outstanding presence and sound-stage with the HD800. The you-are-there focus and gonzo bass with the LCD3 must be heard to be believed.  Through its K1K output, the Woo WA5 is truly a match made in heaven for the HE-6 for all kinds of music. Exceptional pairing!

 

The EAR HP-4 produced a very musical sound that is liquid, open and highly musical.  It has a more traditional "tube sound" than the Woo WA5 (or WA5-LE).  The focus is pin-point sharp.  The center image is slightly forward with great presence for vocals.  In general, with all four headphones, there is plenty of air around the instruments and a large sound-stage to give the 3-D illusion.  While the bass is deep, tight and nimble, and perfect for Jazz and Classical music, it may not be ideal for rock where a bit more upper-bass bloom is desirable.  Overall, the sound is so open and effortless that I frequently forgot to focus on it and simply enjoyed the music. That’s the ultimate compliment I can give an audio gear.  The pairing with the HD800 is near perfect, the pairing with the HE-6 not far behind with power to spare.  The sound with the LCD3, though not the very best, was no slouch either.  Only with the PS1000 do I have a small bone to pick with the EAR HP-4.   

 

 

LAST WORDS (promised)

I often switch from one pair of headphones to another depending on my mood and the music I listen to at the time.  I hope I will never be forced to make Sophie’s Choice.  I love the HD800 for its neutral, wide open and well-articulated sound supported by a deep bass foundation, with the right cable and amp of course as this is one pair of fussy headphones.  I also love the much-maligned HE-6 for its excellent tonal balance, realistic imaging, large sound stage and tight-bass impact, qualities that remained largely undiscovered without the right amp that can pump into it the high-quality juice that it craves.  The LCD3 does many things exceedingly well—seamless sound across the audible range, pin-point center image—so I am willing to put up with the dark but euphonic coloration that remains to some degree with most amplifiers. The LCD3 center image places you right in the middle of the stage, an experience that I really relish with vocals and Jazz.  Least neutral of all is the PS1000.  But once you’ve tamed the over-enthusiastic trebles there nothing more musically involving than these headphones.  Sure, the frequency responses look like a two-humped camel but you soon forget all about it as you become immersed in the beautiful music that the PS1000 can makes when it is right. 

Overall, I find the new crop of affordable headphones to be vastly superior in every way (transparency, speed, impact, sound-stage, focus, imaging…) to the ones from just a decade ago.  And the trend continues if the excellent performance of the HE-560 is any indication.  I do not kid myself, though.  Headphones are still far from perfect.  The "sound in the middle of your forehead" is becoming less objectionable but is still there and without the intrusion of further digital manipulation may just be an inherent artifact of the headphone experience.

And with that, Good Bye!  

 

______________________________________

EQUIPMENT LIST: 

Source/DAC: 

Oppos 105/95/ 83-SE playing SACD and CD

Wadia 121

Burson Audio HA-160D

PS Audio Perfectwave Transport and DAC;

 

Amps tested: 

Burson Audio HA-160D; Burson Soloist

HeadAmp  GS-1  (discontinued; on loan); GS-X Mk2

Beta22 (DIY; on loan)

Bakoon HPA-21

Bryston BHA-1

Cavalli Liquid Fire

EAR HP-4

HiFiMAN EF5; HiFiMAN EF2A; HiFiMAN EF6

MAD Ear+ HD

Melos SHA-Gold (discontinued)

Oppo HA-1

Red Wine Audio Corvina/Bellina

Schiit Mjolnir

Sophia Electric Baby Amplifier

Stax SRM-007tii

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)

Oppo PM-1 

Sennheiser HD-600/580

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 

 

MISCELLANEOUS: MIT speaker cables; Audioquest and Tara Lab interconnects; power cords from Tara Lab, Shunyata and Audience; interconnects, speaker cables and power cords from Wireworld; Tice Power Block/Titan and Shunyata power conditioner


Edited by Justin_Time - 8/9/14 at 9:12am
post #2 of 5

Subbed for a later read.

post #3 of 5

Before I comment on the opinions expressed in this review, I have to commend the exceptionally well chosen wording and phrasing of this article. It made for a very coherent read; somewhat a rarity these days.

 

After reading your first article, I find myself enjoying the second. It sounds like your taste in music and headphones are very similar. In-fact, having extensive listening sessions to most of the gear (save the cables and Grados) you have written about in both articles, I find myself in a state of dejavu. I will revisit my interest in the WA5 and be on the keen look-out for an EAR-HP4.

 

Bravo

post #4 of 5

Very well done....thank you, sir.

post #5 of 5
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by Show View Post
 

Before I comment on the opinions expressed in this review, I have to commend the exceptionally well chosen wording and phrasing of this article. It made for a very coherent read; somewhat a rarity these days.

 

After reading your first article, I find myself enjoying the second. It sounds like your taste in music and headphones are very similar. In-fact, having extensive listening sessions to most of the gear (save the cables and Grados) you have written about in both articles, I find myself in a state of dejavu. I will revisit my interest in the WA5 and be on the keen look-out for an EAR-HP4.

 

Bravo

Thank you!

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Head-Fi.org › Forums › Equipment Forums › Headphone Amps (full-size) › MATCHING HEADPHONES, CABLES AND AMPLIFIERS: HARDER THAN IT SHOULD BE (Part 2 of 2)