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Desktop Amps item created by WNBC, Oct 3, 2011
My full review here:
Pros - Very Well balanced, Forgiving, Non Fatiguing, Good Sound-Stage Depth, Powerful, Neutral but fun, Bass Impact and slam, Small physical footprint
Cons - Lacks detail compared to Burson, Bass rolloff below 40hz, Sound bleeding from other inputs, Volume pot sensitive for some IEMs
A Little Information
First I would like to thank Todd The Vinyl Junkie for giving me the opportunity to review this unit. I would also like to mention that I am always honest with my reviews. If I don’t like a product I will let you know, I won’t hold back any criticism. So I hope that this review will be helpful to anyone considering the purchase of the APEX Butte headphone amplifier.
I would say that I’ve first heard about APEX audio earlier this year and I’ve been interested in hearing some of their products. Unfortunately most of their products were just way out of my price range. I believe this is one of the reasons that they produced the Butte. The Butte is effectively a very good entry product in their line to showcase the APEX name brand and their products in my opinion. So how well has it done this? You’ll have to read to the end to find out for yourself. For testing this headphone amplifier I used the following:
Lossless Music, Some 24/96
Music Streamer II+
Burson 160 (For Comparison)
Build and What’s included
So whats included? Well honestly not a whole lot, I would like to point out though that the packaging was very good and I can’t see it getting damaged in transport. The only thing included was the amp itself and the wall wart that goes with it. Simple and to the point I suppose, however I keep thinking about the fact that it uses a wall wart when most things in this price range would have some pretty hefty transformers in the unit itself. I suppose though that the sound quality will tell all.
So how is built? Well, I’d have to say its built pretty solidly. The case is made of good metal and I believe the front panel is made of wood but don’t quote me on that. The knobs and buttons could feel a little more solid though. They are not bad but they are not like a Burson either. It is a very small, low profile case and that might work extremely well for those with smaller desk or spaces.
Connectivity and Power
One other thing to note is that unlike most amplifiers this one has two separate inputs, however that's where some of the troubles start. One of the inputs is a set of RCA inputs and the other input is a 3.5mm jack for connecting things like iPods I suppose. As others have mentioned there is bleed over from the other inputs when they are not selected. I don’t hear any noise when the other one is off and I don’t get any buzzing or weird noises like others have reported though. This problem does make the two inputs a little less useful if you start having ground issues or one of your sources need to remain powered on. I’d still count it as a plus as many of us have more then one source for our amps.
How much power does it have to drive those hungry headphones of yours? Well 750mW into 33 Ohms according to the official site and I believe it, I never had to go past 11 O’clock with my 702s. Well, I would say it likely has more power then you’ll ever need for conventional headphones, the only ones you might have problems with are some like the HE-6 or K1000s but for general use it has more then enough power. In fact it might be a little too powerful for in ear monitors, I felt that when using IEMs that the attenuator was a little too touchy.
The first thing I noticed when I started listening was how much impact bass notes hit with. I feel that the bass with this amp is rather odd. It almost sounds like it starts rolling off just ever so slightly below about 40Hz as another user has also observed. However even with this slight roll off of lower frequency it has more impact then a lot of other amps I’ve heard. It tends to really kick and punch out those notes, doing so with a decent, but not amazing amount of detail.
Another thing I noticed is how neutral and uncolored it sounded. Its one of the most neutral amps I’ve heard and yet not exactly a what goes in comes out kind of deal either. It has a very smooth sound that tends to make poor recordings sound a little better due to its forgiving nature. No one frequency seemed to stick out from the rest, everything blended together very coherently.
One thing this amp does lack in my opinion is detail. Maybe its bit harsh to compare it right up against the Burson but it seems fair to me, both being near the same price range and both being solid state. The Butte tends to be smooth sounding as mentioned but I find that this is so at the cost of detail. The detail is present but seems to take a backstage to things rather then presenting it to you in a proper manner. This seems to hold true across the frequency spectrum.
The smoothness I mentioned earlier also gives this amp a euphoric “Fun” sound.. I don’t know how they accomplished to both be neutral and fun at the same time but apparently its possible. If you listen to a lot of trance or anything that you might zone out on, this would be a very fun listen. It sort of just lets you transport yourself into the music.
The Butte definitely does sound-stage well, but different from a lot of amps. It has a pretty good width to the sound-stage but where it really shines is depth. It has a really accurate and large sound-stage depth for a amp in this price. I would go so far as to say that the depth is larger and more well controlled then the Burson however the width is not as wide or controlled as the Burson, so it has its trade offs.
Transparency is very good and you can clearly distinguish different instruments. You can really notice this when there is natural reverb, you can distantly and clearly hear the separation from the actual singing and the reverb of the singer. The transparency is truly great.
You will never have to worry about fatigue with this amp. The treble is very mellow and a little laid back which means you’ll never have your ears pierced by screechy highs or peaks in the frequency. Honestly this has almost a tube like sound to the upper frequencies very musical, but well extended.
Very well balanced
Good sound stage depth
Neutral but fun
Bass Impact and slam
Small physical footprint
Lacks detail when compared to Burson
Slight bass roll off below 40Hz
Sound bleeding from multi inputs
Sound-Stage width not as controlled as Burson
Volume Pot too sensitive for some IEMs
This amp does a lot of things very right in my opinion. For the price I don’t think there are any amps that I’ve heard that can compete. I’ll admit I was skeptical of how this would sound seeing the wall wart and no large capacitors inside (looking at Tyll’s pictures) but wow was I impressed. It has a very different sound from the Burson 160 amp that I have and some my like it and some might not. Its more fun sounding, then the Burson yet at the same time retains extreme neutrality. Its not quite as revealing as the Burson but that can be good on poorer recordings, this is why its such a forgiving amp. Besides some slight roll off below 40Hz, the neutrality is something to be admired, not to mention the amount of impact bass notes can hit with, truly astounding. The impact is rivaled only by much more expensive amps such as some of the Eddie Current stuff. I’ve not heard a ton of amps but I’ve heard quite a few and this stacks up well against a lot of them I’ve heard, its very unassuming from the size of this unit.
Its not all peaches in cream however there are a few things I would really like to be resolved in the next version or in a update to the production units. I would love to see the multiple inputs fixed. As it stands if you want to leave two devices plugged into it you will definitely hear them even when that input is not selected. I would also like to see a hi and low gain switch on the front for more control over the volume when using IEMs. But all said and done this is magnificent amp and gets a 5/5 from me!
Pros - Transparency and clarity in the midrange. Price-to-peformance, small form factor (office use / travel), and the power to drive most cans.
Cons - Synergy between Butte with one’s sources and headphones will significantly influence one’s experience
APEX HI-FI BUTTE REVIEW
(a) Apex HI-FI Butte – Loaner from Todd at TTVJ
(b) Foobar2000 > W4S DAC-2
(c) Hifiman HM-601 portable player
(d) Marantz SACD SA-8003 player
(e) Sansui TU-717 receiver
(f) Headphones: LCD-2 (60 ohm, 95 dB) w/ Norse Audio Norn cable, Fischer Audio FA-011 (160 ohm, 98 dB), Hifiman RE-262 IEM (150 ohm, 95 dB), Fostex T50RP (50 ohm, 98 dB)
Fewer frills lead to lower bills. This is your blue collar amp, it pushes sound with no shortcuts and little compromise. The Butte has a solid build, no cheap plastic feel here. This little champ can be easily tucked away on a night stand or corner of a work desk. Volume control is smooth. The headphone input will hold your ¼” TRS connector tight.
Right away I found this amp to be neutral and smooth. Transparency and midrange clarity are delivered in spades with the Butte. These are the major strengths of the Butte. The midrange is where a lot of the magic happens for many of us and I found the Butte’s midrange to be natural and uncolored. You can push this amp without any significant edginess/harshness at the top or bloat at the bottom. There is no chance of amp-induced fatigue here. In general, with all of my headphones and IEM I found the bass to be tight and controlled. There is fairly good low-end weight and impact, but these are not the strengths of this amp. The ability to convey inner detail as well as resolution at the high frequency range is a bit lower than some other amps I’ve used but nothing to make me wince, especially at this price point. Above all, I found that the source and headphones can significantly make the Butte listening experience go from one that is laid back to one in which you are bobbing your head (discussed later).
I found the soundstage to have a pleasant width and appropriate depth. Describing soundstage and layering can be difficult and subjective but to me it was adequate. I didn’t get the impression the instruments were on top of each other or too far away.
Driving Power (with DAC-2 as source):
LCD-2 --- low (9 o’clock), normal (12 o’clock), very loud (3 o’clock), insane (6 o’clock)
Fischer FA-011 --- low (9 o’clock), normal (12 o’clock), very loud (3 o’clock), insane (6 o’clock)
Fostex T50rp --- low (9 o’clock), normal (12 o’clock), loud (3 o’clock), very loud (6 o’clock)
Hifiman RE-262 --- low (9 o’clock), normal (12 o’clock), very loud (3 o’clock) , insane (6 o’clock)
Favorite Butte + Headphone combos (with DAC-2 as source):
1. RE-262, Best synergy was heard here. I felt this combo presented the dynamics and toe tapping experience that I didn’t have with the headphones. Wonderful soundstage, not too wide, not too deep, just right. RE-262 is a forward IEM yet the Butte kept the instruments and vocals properly spaced rather than pushing the sound far into one’s head. The timbre of pianos, cymbals and saxophones were on point. The articulation of vocals was fantastic. More than adequate weight through the low end. The Butte displayed all of the detail this IEM could provide. I've never heard this IEM sound so good.
2. LCD-2, a solid pairing. Would I buy the Butte if the LCD-2 was my only headphone and DAC-2 the main source? Probably not. The combination by no means sounded terrible but I felt that the LCD-2 was always at the tipping point of going from a pleasant listening experience to "wow, I forgot the time" type of experience. Simply, I wanted a bit more attack. And to be honest, in this hobby we are paying good money for ear-gasms whereas others who are not so fanatic could very well live with this combo for a long time. Spoiler alert. However, when I used a different source I did achieve the PRAT I was looking for with the LCD-2 and Apex Butte (discussed later).
3. T50RP (bass-heavy mod), almost on par with LCD-2. In fact, the excellent transparency of this amp made the Butte + T50 pairing better than that with my Schiit Lyr. To my ear, the Lyr can be a bit more lush in the mids and low end which causes my modded T50RP to bloat a bit at loud volumes. The Butte is leaner in the mid bass in comparison to Schiit Lyr. These characteristics of the Butte may in fact benefit individuals with bass-heavy headphones.
4. FA-011, the best way to describe the sound of this combination was thin and dry. When pushed to moderately loud volumes there was more treble energy in these headphones than I could take. If you’ve heard this headphone under properly amped conditions you know this is a “fun, liquid, v-shaped” headphone. So while I can’t offer an explanation for the results I found the least amount of synergy in this pairing.
Favorite Butte + Source combos (with various headphones):
1. Marantz SACD player – this combination was the clear winner of the two week experience! The Butte made me a believer rather than just a tester at this point. I saved the different source combinations for the very end but I wish I had started here. I could easily be content with my CD player, LCD-2, and the Apex Butte. Throw away my computer + DAC-2 and live happily ever after, that was how good it was. The LCD-2 came alive during this pairing, especially in getting across the treble details. Details in the top-end were now dancing through the LCD-2. The midrange became even more palpable with no cost to clarity and articulation. The focus was now better and imaging stabilized. The attack transients now had my full attention, which was my main complaint with the DAC-2 combo. The dynamics + impact missing with the DAC-2 combo were present in the CD player + Butte. All of this was completely unexpected because I slightly prefer the DAC-2 + Lyr over the CD player + Lyr. For this reason I waited until the end to test difference sources, I figured it wouldn’t matter because the DAC-2 would always be better even via USB. We could try and dissect the reasons why but it was pure joy to hear the Butte behind a solid CD player. I would think that those who primarily listen to speakers and just want to throw a small headphone amp into the mix should seriously consider the Butte. Of note, the FA-011 sounded better now but still not great. LCD-2, RE-262, and T50 were thoroughly enjoyed with Marantz + Butte.
2. W4S DAC-2 – my experience with this combo is detailed above. The experience overall was good but not amazing. Side by side with the Lyr and my headphones, I would choose the Lyr due to better synergy between DAC-2 + Lyr than DAC-2 + Butte. I am believing the output power of the source is really determining my experience with the Butte. The Marantz and W4S DAC-2 (unbalanced mode) have similar reported output voltage but I don’t know if the DAC-2 specs are RMS or peak.
3. Sansui TU-717 – I enjoyed this a lot and contemplated for a while whether it should rank 2[sup]nd[/sup] or 3[sup]rd[/sup]. I imagine if the 717 had auxiliary inputs this would go 2[sup]nd[/sup] because there was a tad more dynamics than with the DAC-2 + Butte. As a testament to the neutrality and transparency of the Butte the sound I heard was exactly as if I was listening to the radio through speakers.
4. Hifiman HM-601 – last but not least. The small form factor of the Butte combined with a portable DAP may be a selling point to many. I did not use the Butte’s 2[sup]nd[/sup] input (stereo mini) but rather the line out of the 601 to the analog inputs of Butte via a Blue Jeans Cable 1/8” TRS to RCA cable. The warmth of the 601 did color the sound a little bit. In comparison to the other sources there was a small hit to soundstage and image focus, not by any fault of the Butte. A small reduction in resolution was mainly due to source rather than Butte. While I would not buy the $499 Butte purely for use with my $249 DAP I could see how on vacation or work travel I would be very content with the combination.
I primarily use tube amps so the Apex Butte loaner was an opportunity to hear the other side. The Butte is a solid state amp that can deliver clean, transparent sound at a price that may rival higher-end SS amps. If the LCD-2 is your main headphone and you already own the Schiit Lyr you’ll probably find that the Lyr provides a bit more dynamics and punch. However, the world doesn't revolve around the LCD-2 so I can see how people who do not prefer tube associated warmth and mid bass weightiness would flock to the more neutral Apex Butte. I am now a fan of the Apex sound and when I do get a solid state amp to complement my tube amp I will strongly consider the Apex line of products. As the reviews for this amp do start to come out it will be interesting to hear the opinions of those individuals with a more diverse set of headphones than myself.
Transparency and clarity in the midrange. Price-to-peformance, small form factor (office use / travel), and the power to drive most cans make the Butte a versatile amp for the office or home.
Synergy between Butte with one’s sources and headphones will significantly influence one’s experience.
First full review of gear after about a year into this world of better sound so take my comments with a grain or two of salt but I know what I hear, I hear what I hear, you may hear something different than me, but hear this, y’all come back now, you hear? But really, keep in mind I mainly use tube amps which can be very different than their SS brethren which may color my expectations. With that said, SS amps are a breath of fresh air that I will continue to explore.
Conflicts of interest and financial disclosure: would love some but none in reality
Thank you to Todd over at TTVJ for allowing me to enjoy this little amp for 2 weeks
Close-up of T50s