Apex High Fi Audio Teton Headphone Amplifier

Average User Rating:
4.75/5,
  1. buffer
    5.0/5,
    "The best headphone amp I have ever heard - supremely enjoyable"
    Pros - Clarity, soundstage, separation of instruments, realism, punchy, vocals, acoustics, highlights instrumentation
    Cons - Price, single ended, somewhat picky about headphones that match best
    I recently had the pleasure of listening to the Apex Teton supplied by TTVJ audio. Todd is an extremely good guy and placed no pressure on me to write a review. But I felt compelled to do so because I found the Apex Teton to be an exceptional headphone amplifier. For those who may not have read my prior viewpoints on headphone amps I will repeat myself. If working correctly, it is my belief that most headphone amps sound about the same, give or take 5%. Obviously that's not a scientific judgment, just my way of saying that I have compared many amps, some expensive and some cheaper, and I don't often feel that one amp is worth thousands more than another.
     
    In regards to the Teton, I'm not going to make wild claims about its performance. I will only say that it is significantly better than other amps I have listened to. And while I did not do direct comparisons (cause I didn't feel I needed to), I do feel I could have identified it in a blind test. That statement may irritate some given I did not make an attempt, but my point is that the Teton did some things differently, at least to my hearing. I'll describe what I heard and try to pinpoint the sonic characteristics that set this unit apart from others.
     
    But first, let me start with a few of the negatives I perceived. The unit is heavy, and the weight Is not evenly distributed. I sometimes take my equipment to others to listen critically. I appreciate that the unit is well built, so I am not criticizing it for its weight, only pointing out that it ain't so easy to lug around. The second thing I disliked, is the lack of balanced inputs, outputs, and 4 pin XLR headphone connectors. The amp is a single ended design, so I get it. I'm not asking for a change to the design. In fact, I know they have a more expensive unit that does have a balanced capability. But for the price, it is frustrating not to have the opportunity to plug some of my finest headphones into the device without adapters. I do know some headphone amps are single ended designs and provide XLR connectors in addition to single ended, though I am unsure if that would compromise sound quality. Again, I have high expectations for the price, I should point out that I do not own the unit, so I have little to complain about until I actually purchase one. More on that decision later...
     
    So what's the other thing that disturbed me? I have many headphones, and a great many work well with the amp, but some, including rather highly esteemed, not so well. And it wasn't based upon price. More likely, it's probably about impedance matching. I don't know, but I can say that the unit wasn't really universally great with every headphone of mine though it never really sounds bad, just less than special with some headphones. I did change tubes and that did make a difference in many cases.
     
    So let's talk more about the sound. With the initial tubes I tried (which were Todd's personal favorites) ...sorry, I did not document them, the amp sounded great. It was crystal clear. I felt that the sound was impactful, and full bodied. Vocals were exceptional and I would characterize the sound as slightly mechanical or analytical, but oddly, very musically engaging despite that description. Instruments on CDs I have heard many times before, popped. The soundstage was rather wide and it felt like each instrument had a spotlight shining on it. The bass was excellent in quality. Certainly not overly abundant in quantity, but just the right amount in my opinion. It was balanced sounding, tonally. The bass went deep and it was tuneful, and not dry.
     
    The midrange was spectacular. The instruments had a realistic sound. I was beginning to notice a couple of other things. If your headphone has a flaw, it becomes very obvious. Also, I felt that the amp tended to, regardless of headphone I used, bring the headphone's sound more towards neutrality. I recognize that some may find my last two statements a bit contrary, but what can I say? That was my impression. I also felt that the amp added an almost electrostatic quality to headphones. It wasn't so much about the texture sounding electrostatic, but the amp added a clarity and pureness that I associate with my Stax SR-009. Vocals were natural, but somehow seemed more solid, fuller, and more differentiated. Mind you, this differentiation was not done through smoke and mirrors.  The sound was not overly rich or congested. I did not feel that there was an emphasis in lower mids which can sometimes create an unpleasant, congested, or unnatural fullness to vocals. No, this was about body, clarity, air, space, and separation of instruments in the soundstage that extended beyond the width of my head.  I thought there was good dimensionality to the instrumentation and reasonably good depth, but I wouldn't say that the depth was as outstanding as I expected from a tube amp – certainly not a match for the other positive traits I heard. I wouldn't describe the sound as overly forward, but somehow it gave the pleasing effect that an intimate sound has. Truly, a fantastic trick to pull off.
     
    Treble was stupendous. Clear, natural, but not overly bright or splashy. Texture was good. The decay struck me as very natural. Not slow, and not unnaturally quick either. Though if I had to choose I would say it was on the quick and rhythmic side, not the slow side.. I was mightily impressed.
     
    Many of the comments on the head-fi forum I felt were spot on. As much as I liked the unit, my friends were less fond of it... until I switched to the stock tubes. Todd provided the stock as well as an alternate set of tubes that he preferred, and I had started with the tubes he recommended. Switching to the stock tubes created a less mechanical sound and I found that the amp worked better with a wider array of headphones. I also felt the sound may have been slightly warmer, richer, and the bass may have been a touch more plump. The difference wasn't night and day. It didn't sound like a different amp. But it was noticeable. I should also say that there were several days between listening sessions with the different tubes so my impression of the differences may be off. My two audiophile friends also came to the same conclusions, and I did not bias them. Basically, the lesson here is that I enjoyed the unit with stock tubes. Extra expenditure would not be necessary for me to be completely satisfied.  And while my friends preferred the stock tubes, my taste actually leaned towards Todd's taste in tubes because when the match with headphones was good, I felt the sound with the alternate set of tubes simply could not be beat.
     
    To summarize, what did I find special? The clarity, the impact (generated more from mids than midbass, though midbass was excellent), the excellent quality bass and treble, the purity of sound and natural decay. Above all, the soundstage width and the separation between instruments. Incidentally, I was also impressed by vocals, acoustic guitars and drum hits. But the unit performed great for orchestral, jazz, rock, and classic rock. I think all genres are treated well by this amplifier. The sense of realism is fantastic.
     
    I am now listening to the Pass Labs HPA1, another truly fantastic amplifier. But in my mind, the Teton separates itself from other amplifiers, making them sound ordinary. For example, the Pass soundstage and separation is good but more traditional. If I had unlimited funds I'd own both. I do think the Pass may be more universal in terms of working with a wide array of headphones. But when the Teton is at its best there is very little that would compare favorably. I feel the Teton exudes quality, and for what it is in terms of design, it is probably as fine an example as money can buy. But that does bring me to an admission. I own several headphone amps including a Grado, an Oppo HA1, Bryston, Microzotl 2, a GSX-mk2, and a Cavalli liquid carbon. Those are fine headphone amps, but I haven't heard other similarly priced amps like Luxman, EAR HP4, Cavalli LAu., Woo Audio 5, or EC 445. I already miss the Teton, but I'm not sure any amp is worth the price when you consider bigger differences may be had by use of different headphones. I'd certainly like to try out some of the other amps, but I can tell you I would be perfectly happy with the Teton and I may still purchase one. Time will tell.  At the beginning, I mentioned that I felt all amps were about the same plus or minus 5%. Well, if that's the case, the Teton is definitely a '+5 percenter'. Perhaps the most telling point I can make is that I let some folks who are not audiophiles, who don't know prices and don't care about headphone amps listen and compare.  Each of them recognized the excellence and superiority of the Apex Teton.
     
    Edit (6/22/16) - Folks asked me to be more specific on the headphones I tried with the Teton.  What did I like and What didn't I like?
     
    Headphones I tried included: HE-1000, Ether-C, Ether, McIntosh MHP1000, AKG 812, Focal Studio Pro, variations of the Superlux, the Telefunken Hancock, Senn HD800, Beyer Dynamic T1 Gen 1, Audeze LCD-x, Audeze Sine, Grado GH1, Dharma D1000, HE-6, Pioneer HRM-7, Yamaha MT220, Fostex TH600, Audio Zenith, and probably a few I am forgetting.  I was disappointed with the HE1000.  When I changed to the stock tubes, it was better, but never quite what I hoped for.  I thought the HD800 was good, but I must admit, for whatever reason, I wasn't as impressed with the combo as others seem to be.  I did not care for the Audeze LCD-x either.  But it wasn't the amps fought.  The X had a warm and less than crystal clear sound.  Not bad, but not my favorite.  I thought the Beyer Dynamic T1 really benefited.  I think the AKG 812 scaled up extremely well.  I liked the Grado, but I sensed a certain opaqueness (gray background in the upper mids) ....hard to describe, and it was subtle.  The Grado Gh1 was good, but not great.  The Dharma was pretty darn good, but that's one of my favorite headphones anyway.  I also LOVED the Telefunken Hancock with the amp, but it tends to be more midrange centric and not so great on other amps.  I thought the McIntosh did not go well.  It's a bit bright to start with and I just didn't care for the vocals and brightness it exhibited with the Teton.  The Ethers were ok, but didn't really impress me.  I did  like the Audio Zenith (similar to the Oppo PM1).  The Beyer Dynamic DT150 also went pretty good witht he amp.  Hope that helps.  All in all, the T1 and the AKG 812 really stood out, along with the Telefunken Hancock (but I imagine that choice would be controversial because it isn't a megabuck headphone). I didn't listen too long, but the TH600 also sounded pretty good.  I'm not a fan of a "V" shaped sound, but I think the Teton filled the mids in nicely ...still V shaped, but well controlled and pleasant.  Grado 325i also sounded better than usual as the vocals were more full bodied.  I was also really surprised that the HE-6 sounded respectable.  Heck, I was surprised I could even turn it up loud without clipping.  The HE-6 was actually a good listen, though I'm pretty sure if you primarily listen to the HE-6 you might want to try more powerful amps.  Oh, I almost forgot.  The HE400i and the 400s sounded pretty good.  The 400s is a little anemic, as was the Audeze Sine in the bass department, but a very nice sound for those headphones, overall.
  2. hop ham
    4.5/5,
    "One of the best amps I've heard so far"
    I was fortunate enough to be the first on Todd's Teton loaner list. Here is my take on the Teton. Conclusion is at the end if you want to jump down. 
     

     
    Headphones: I tried the Teton with LCD-X, HD800, HE-500, and FitEar ToGo 334. I used the LCD-X the most because I had them for only a few weeks and it has hogged the Teton. Most of my impressions will be based on using the LCD-X unless otherwise noted.
     
    Sources: Linn Klimax Renew DS. I only tried my Ayre QB-9 for a few minutes so I'm not going to comment on that.
     
    Tubes: The Teton came with a few extra tubes to roll but I only tried what I believe was the stock tubes (except I used the Sylvania 6SN7GT and I think the Tung Sol is stock). I'm sure others will comment on how the amp responds to tube rolling. 
     

     
    Music: I listened mostly to indie rock and electronic, with some R&B/rap, ambient, and acoustic music.
     
    Hardware/Build:
    As I was unpacking it, the first thing I realized was how beastly the thing is. Solid, heavy, nice sturdy chasis. The volume pot has a nice feel to it. Look-wise I really like it and it's a bonus for me that the power supply and amp section is all in one chasis. It isn't huge, not tall (with the tubes), not that deep, and not crazy wide. It does heat up my personal space somewhat. There are 4 blue LEDs on the front and they aren't blindingly bright. I assume they are similar to other TTVJ amps. The switches on the front have a nice click to them. The large volume knob travels very smooth and is very easy to get the right volume - it's sensitive (with my headphones) and responds nicely and as expected with small adjustments/movement. I have to admit that over time I really enjoyed the volume control. It feels like quality and is well implemented and surprisingly became one of my favorite things about this amp. 
     

     
    It is unbalanced. Has 3 unbalanced inputs and one unbalance headphone jack. I like the headphone jack - plugs slide in and out in a nice easy manner. One set of loop outs. I like how simple the front panel controls are. Left knob is for Standby or On. Middle knob is input selector. Right knob is for IEM, Unbalanced, or Preamp mode. More on the IEM mode later. I did not use it as a preamp and I probably wouldn't for the lack of a remote (I'm lazy and I have a serviceable preamp with remote in my speaker rig). I really like that there is a standby switch and that it is in the front. I like to keep my primary gear in standby mode if possible since I listen to it every day. All in all, the build is high quality and makes you feel like you have a statement product. 
     

     
    Sound:
    The first thing I noticed about the Teton is how detailed and resolving it is. I was able to hear things in recordings that I haven't heard before. The nuances in voices and instruments were all there without invading my attention too much. It was a clear notch above the resolving capabilities of my Eddie Current Balancing Act (ECBA) but not by magnitudes. It has great extension on both ends - the best I've heard other than the Pinnacle. The edges seem sharp (not in a bad way) and clearly articulated. The highs especially seemed to soar. The bass is very tight and controlled and seems to go as deep as possible. 
     
    I think this adds to how fast the amp sounds, especially since the decay sounds more correct than almost all other amps I've tried. It sounds aggressive and in attack mode, rather than laid back and relaxed. But it is not aggressive in terms of overly bright (or overly anything) or too in-your-face. It sounds aggressive because it keeps pace with the most demanding music and still sounds like it can take more. Not sure if PRAT is the right term. If the music is relaxing then it can sound relaxing but it always has this 'fast' quality about it that I can't shake.
     
    I feel like the Teton is the best of solid state and tubes. It has that musical liquid flow and dynamic layering but it also has that resolution and speed of the best solid states. The layering is dynamic and integrated so that everything flows well together and retains the soul of the music. The soundstage is immersive and very large when it is called for. Even with the HD800 the large soundstage never sounded too diffuse like it can with other amps. With both the LCD-X and HD800 it sounded very 3D and holographic and it even spooked me a few times. In my opinion the space that the Teton creates is one of its best qualities. I'm not a huge soundstage freak especially when it comes at the expense of being able to easily follow and get lost in the musical flow but the Teton is doing it right.
     
    It has a very clean sound but it does not seem lean to me. I can see people with the HD800 thinking it can be somewhat lean because even though the bass sounds fully extended, accurate, and fast -  it is not prominent. I do not think the Teton is lacking throughout any frequency range but if you like your bass a bit more pronounced, perhaps you'll be able to tune it with different tubes. I think the bass was just about right, blending nicely with the rest of the spectrum. The only headphone that I felt could use a bit more bass presence was the HD800 (unmodded and with Silver Dragon cable). The stock configuration is good enough for me but I would likely try other tubes to see if I could bring out the bass just a tiny bit while keeping the response of the rest of the spectrum relatively the same. In comparison I thought the LCD-X bass sounded great.
     
    When listening to well recorded live acoustic music like The Eagle's and Alison Krauss & Union Station, it's easy to hear when Alison pulls away from the mic a bit and I can't remember hearing this effect so distinctly. The instruments sound so real, the audience sounds like an actual part of the performance (debatable whether this is a good thing for you), and the voices cut right through with detail and presence. Everything sounds like a live performance with the energy and interplay that you expect. Nothing gets lost.
     
    A few notes about the HD800 combo. The Teton won't transform it. I still have to listen to it at lower volumes than other headphones (except for PS1000) because the treble is a bit sharp. I have a Silver Dragon cable so I'm sure that doesn't help tame the treble. Before the LCD-X arrived the HD800 was my most used headphone, but I got my LCD-X a few weeks ago and I always go through a honeymoon/burn-in phase so I rarely switch to my other headphones for a while. I sometimes think the HD800 can have a plasticy type sound but other times I think it is perfect. I can pick out the differences between gear the best with them so I figured I'd use them as much as possible. With the Teton, the bass is just fine, accurate, deep but is not as an integral part of the overall sound as with my other headphones. To me this is the nature of the HD800 and it has this quality to some degree on all the other amps I tried it with. If you upgrade to a good source it will help a lot in this area. But what the Teton does really well with the HD800 is soundstaging, imaging, and resolution - which are strengths of the HD800. It creates a huge sense of space with accurate imaging and never sounded diffuse to me. On certain recordings it's almost scary the way it sounds with its holographic effect. There are times when too large of a headphone soundstage becomes distracting to me. It brings me further away from the musicality and makes me pay attention to the pieces and technicalities rather than the whole. But the soundstaging here is immersive and does not detract from the emotional connection to the music. It flows effortlessly - a phrase often used to mean probably nothing special but I'm using it anyways. When there are two voices singing at the same time (The XX is a good example) it sounds very pleasing and voices are both clear and in their own sense of space. Ambient music is also very enjoyable. There are probably people wondering if the HD800 and Teton are the ultimate combo. The HD800 never sounded better to me except maybe on the Pinnacle. But I've also heard the HD800 sound almost just as good or about even (depending on your preferences) on different amps in the same general price range.
     
    Volume and Noise:
    No hum, no hiss, even with my highly sensitive headphones/IEMs. It's very close to completely dead quiet and this is important for me. I plugged in some of my sensitive full sized headphones to test this out further. The TH-900 and W3000Anv were dead quiet. The combination of a black silent background with a great volume control (not stepped) makes this a very versatile amp. Some people may not care too much for this but I find this to be one of the best qualities of this amp - it allows you to quickly get the perfect volume, with no background noise, no matter the sensitivity of the headphone.
     
    IEMs - FitEar ToGo 334:
    I normally don't use IEMs at home unless I really need to block out background noise. My closed headphones don't block out everything. So I was happy to see the Teton with an IEM mode. Previously it always sounded like there was a slight haze when using my IEMs in almost all my setups. Background noise is obvious straight from the DX100 and even more so from the ALO RXMK3. First thing I realized with the Teton was that it sounds dead quiet with music or no music playing. Then I realized how easy it was to get correct balance between the channels and the desired volume without fiddling with the volume knob. Sound-wise I enjoyed the bass and impact. Listening to Drake's new album when it went from quiet to loud thumping passages, I really felt those little buggers shake inside my ears. The space created was about as good as I think it gets with IEMs. I went into this review thinking I would just test out the IEM mode quickly to report how it worked in terms of noise and achieving the desired volume. I got drawn into the music and ended up using the 334s a lot. I think because it sounds somewhat neutral and fun at the same time, while being technically capable of achieving what most full size headphones can. It may sound silly to use IEMs on such an expensive big home amp but I assure you it's not. Hearing IEMs on my reference home source and the Teton rather than on my portable setup was a new discovery for me. For anyone wishing to use IEMs in their home setup, this is a great choice. I also tried the JH16 briefly and had similar thoughts.
     
    Quick comparisons:
    I never thought I'd think the ECBA is slow. I still don't think it is but the Teton is incredibly fast and clean in comparison. Things seem lively, dynamic, and in a more up-front sort of way where the ECBA seems a little more laid back. Both are extremely musical. Keep in mind the tubes I'm using with the ECBA are the EML 300B Mesh and TSRP 6SN7. I still love the ECBA but I have to give the nod to the Teton for detail/resolution and soundstaging. For me the ECBA is just as versatile as the Teton in that it sounds good with just about every headphone I own but the Teton has an added IEM mode, standby mode, and more juice. The ECBA has noticeably more pronounced bass (not better) but that probably has a lot to do with the EML Mesh tubes.  
     

     
    I had the Liquid Glass for a month and enjoyed it but I enjoyed the Teton more. I've had some issues with Cavalli but the LG was a fun amp as I was able to roll in different tubes and tailor the sound to my headphones. It's sound changes a lot based on the tubes. With that said, I would rather pay the extra money for the Teton. It just seems more true to the source but then again you probably shouldn't buy the LG to be exactly true to the source. I also didn't like the limited amount of travel on the volume knob on the LG. The Teton allows for better volume control so I can easily use my sensitive headphones and not worry about fidgeting with the knob too much. The LG will not work well with very sensitive headphones and IEMs unless you get an adaptor with resistors. The one headphone that I really thought shined with the LG was the HD800. The HE-500 was pretty good but it is on most other amps I've had or tried. The LG was not a good match with the TH900.  Since I don't have the LG anymore I won't comment much further. I also have the Liquid Fire and the Teton outclasses it easily as expected.
     
    Conclusion:
    If you're after detail and speed above all else, this is a great choice. Really extended and clean without being bright. You can hear all the little nuances in voices and instruments but it's not distracting like trying to blast hyperdetail into your brain. The natural layering and soul/flow of the music is still intact. Even in complex passages you can hear everything in its own space and imaging is accurate. The soundstage is both holographic and immense when it should. The bass is not lacking to me but it is not as prominent as with other amps and I can see this not being the best match for some depending on preference. I bet different tubes would change this.
     
    And if you own the LCD-X you should try this amp. It was my favorite combo. I really enjoyed my time with the Teton and miss it. It's not cheap and I can't afford it right now but I'll probably be saving up for it soon. Pete and Todd - thanks for bringing this to market. It deserves serious attention from anyone looking for an unbalanced dynamic amp in this price range. 
    VisceriousZERO and Rhamnetin like this.