Cavalli Audio Liquid Carbon

General Information

The Liquid Carbon is a lightweight, fully balanced amplifier designed for those looking for the Cavalli Audio signature sound in a transportable, no-compromise topology.
The Liquid Carbon boasts a powerful fully discrete circuit with a low noise-floor, perfectly suitable for IEMs, and full-size headphones alike. With an output impedance under 1 ohm, user-selectable fully balanced, or single-ended operation, and 1.5W of power on tap, this amplifier flexibly fits into any audio setup. Additionally, it utilizes a universal SMPS for easy connection to almost any AC power source in the world.

While the size of the Carbon is much smaller than its larger brethren, no compromise has been made in the design of this amplifier. Components are always carefully chosen, but not boutique.

The Carbon has a choice array of both input and output options to maximize its plug-and-play ability -- across nearly any source or headphone configuration. For the instances where the Carbon does not have a jack, adaptors are readily available to fit your need.

Latest reviews


Member of the Trade: Acorn Audio
Pros: Very pleasing sound signature, sturdy and smart design, balanced, small form factor, low power consumption
Cons: Limited availability that has now ended except on the used market, some first run units have hum audible with sensitive IEMs, medium-low raw wattage
Cavalli Audio will not sell the Liquid Carbon headphone amp anymore, with the second and final run ending a month ago, but I hope the following is useful to those looking to pick one up on the used market.

My Schiit Asgard 2 had served me very well from when I purchased it in mid-2013 to earlier this spring, when I found that it made my ZMF Vibro Mk. I sound a bit too stuffy – an overabundance of warmth due to both headphone and amp being of warm sound signatures. I then opted for a more neutral Schiit Magni 2, which fared far better as a pairing. Even later, when I was using a ZMF Omni as a daily driver and had sold the Asgard, I missed some aspects of its warm sound signature. I thought back to my favourite two pairings of the Sennheiser HD600 and the Hifiman HE-400i with the Asgard, the latter being especially pleasing to my ears, and missed its abilities. It was with this mindset, of wanting character rather than neutrality, that I began searching for a Cavalli Liquid Carbon on the used market.
I wasn’t aware before my search began, but Cavalli Audio and Dr. Alex Cavalli’s designs were incredibly well-regarded in the audio community. The Liquid Carbon was made as a way for the small Texan company to thank their staunch supporters, offering their house sound in a small and affordable offering that had balanced input and output options. From what I have gathered, its popularity exploded due to demos at meets and conventions because of its compact form factor and sound quality. A second run was started, this being the final one, and the original price of $599 was bumped up to $799 due to releasing it again with the original pricing not being viable for Cavalli. To sweeten the deal, the company offered brand T-shirts and an Audioquest NRG-X3 power cable – of which neither Cavalli nor I will make any claim of improvements in sound quality. Finally, they also included a full license of Sonic Studio’s Amarra Hifi Music Player software.
Seeing the long wait ahead, and my own limited budget, I found a used one from the first run with the serial number 00202. I was, honestly, awed by the fact that the warranty was transferable and I contacted Cavalli CEO Warren Chi to have it done. He asked if I had any impressions of the unit, and boy did I ever. 
Specifications (From Cavalli Audio’s website, of the second run models)
Gain: 1X (0db) and 3X (10db), hot switchable from front panel to adjust for different headphones
Maximum Power: ~1.5W into 50R
Inputs: 1 x XLR  (Bal); 1 x  RCA; 1 x 3.5mm - front panel selectable; RCA and 3.5mm are the same input.
Outputs: 1 x 4-Pin XLR; 1 x TRS, 1 x RSA.
THD: 0.004% at 1kHz/500mW (4VRMS) into 32 ohms (resistive)
Input Impedance: ~10k
Output Impedance: ~0.12 ohm balanced, ~0.08 ohm single-ended
Size: 5" (W) x 7" (D) x 1.75" (H);12.7 cm (W) x 17.8 cm (D) x 4.5 cm (H)
Weight: 1 lb, 7 oz (0.7kg)
Stand-Offs:  Adhesive rubber feet 
Cavalli, thankfully, didn’t opt for a glossy finish on the back and sides of the Liquid Carbon. The matte black is still a dust magnet, but you won’t see fingerprints adorning it. The front panel, however, is not quite glossy but still susceptible to the aforementioned problems. I found the unit to feel hefty yet light in my hands, which along with its small size makes it really useful for a nomadic person such as myself. It felt solid and premium.
The volume knob turns in a very measured and smooth manner and has a brushed metallic feel to it. It does not produce any undesirable noise when adjusted. The front panel is also home to a SE ¼ pin output as well as two balanced connections. I have read that someone damaged their amp by having headphones plugged into the balanced output while simultaneously having another set plugged into the SE output so please do not make the same mistake. The gain switch is a small button on the side of the volume knob and is red when activated. Finally, the far right button is an input selector. The back panel consists of one pair of RCA inputs, inputs for balanced Neutrik XLR connectors and a 3.5mm input. The power cable was not a wall wart, as was the case with the Schiit Magni 2, but rather an 85-265vac/1a connector for a full-sized power cable.
The original run did not come with rubber feet, which I feel are sorely needed for this unit. I bought my own from a third-party seller on eBay. The second run did, however, have rubber feet included.
Overall, a sturdy and handsome piece of audio technology that would find an easy home on any desk. I also, personally, like the Cavalli Audio logo’s design and it being emblazoned on the top. The font used throughout the model is also unique and interesting.
Schiit Wyrd > Schiit Gungnir USB Version 2 > Cavalli Liquid Carbon > ZMF Omni/Hifiman HE-500/Fostex TH-X00/VE Monk Plus
Now to the main event – the reason why I blind bought this amp. The Cavalli house sound is widely praised but has been, by far, out of my financial reach because the very next amp in terms of price (ascending price) is the Liquid Crimson, which costs $2,999. As you can well imagine, the promise of the Cavalli house sound being present in a $599/$799 priced unit was a curiousity creator.
Upon plugging in, my first reaction was along the lines of “this is definitely not trying to be transparent.” I had grown accustomed to the Magni 2 and was hearing a more refined version of the musical warmth I had once known so well over the period of several years with the Asgard 2. Do not let the description of it not sounding very neutral throw you off, this is still very much a solid state amp and music sounds as it should without any unnecessary changes. My ZMF Omni, which was now plugged in for the first time using a balanced output, felt more controlled. The T50RP mod is quite power hungry, and although the pure wattage of the Liquid Carbon is not substantially higher than the Magni 2, it did a far better job at refining the sound and keeping the bass in check. Suddenly, my music had gone through a transformation not so dissimilar to when I switched to the Schiit Gungnir in terms of presentation and control. A sense that my audio chain had morphed into a well-oiled machine was prevalent as the days and weeks passed since I first put it all together.
I would say that the Liquid Carbon is not an analytical amplifier as is the likes of the Schiit Mjolnir 2, which offers superior resolution. What the Carbon is, however, is the provider of a smooth and syrupy audio experience that does not lose out on much of its detail and texture. All my praise for the Asgard 2 had much to do with how it warmed up the mids and made vocals and acoustic instrument sound genuinely live and organic. The disadvantage of the Asgard, in this regard, was that when faced with a warmly-tuned headphone, it stumbled and led to the sound becoming boomy with too much bleeding of the mids and bass. The Liquid Carbon also toasts the mids to a light golden-brown but does not overdo it, leading to the backing tracks in songs sounding far more measured with no hectic detractions. The warmth is in no way overbearing, but rather to the exact sweet spot where it feels pleasing to the ears without making it incompatible with headphones – making the Liquid Carbon enhance the sound of headphones rather than being picky about pairings.
The Omni’s performance on the Liquid Carbon is the one I have spent the most time with, and the one that impressed me the most. Zach’s T50RP mod, which the Vibro also is, took a great liking to the Carbon – through balanced output. The strengths of the Omni were amplified, no pun intended, as the authentic acoustic instrument recreation became just a touch more vibrant and lively. The bass, of which the Omni has a large amount, became punchier than it previously was and seemed to dive just a tiny bit deeper. The forwarded mids were a delight, with vocals sounding breathtaking and not cold at all – even with overly processed genres such as electropop.
The Fostex TH-X00 (with the standard non-removable ¼ cable) saw benefits to its lower mids, with male vocals and harmonies becoming a lot more pronounced. The largest benefit was to the bass, of which the TH-X00 has the deepest I have heard on any headphone. A/B’ing it between the Carbon and Magni 2 also showed that the highs, to my ears, were slightly less strident on the former. The W-shaped sound signature sounds like it has slightly melted, leading to less stark peaks and more to an overall effort at musicality.
The Hifiman HE-500, also with balanced output, saw as large an amount of benefit that the Omni did. The soundstages of both the Omni and HE-500, both of which are quite vast (especially the Omni, being semi-closed as it is) are spread a touch further by the Carbon. Instrument separation on the HE-500 benefits greatly from the Carbon, with an understated power taking over to lend weight to each musical note you hear – be it from acoustic or electronic instruments. This pairing is my new favourite of all the headphones I have owned, overthrowing the Asgard 2 + Hifiman HE-400i reign. A/B’ing it with the Magni 2, which powers it as needed in terms of volume, the HE-500 took a great liking to the Carbon’s gentle simmering nature. The sound has far more body, to put it simply.
The 64-ohm VE Monk Plus has additions to its sound made by the Liquid Carbon too – with the already excellent soundstage opening up further and a more acute low-end opening up. With portable devices, I tend to use foam on the earbuds – but the Carbon adds enough body and warmth that I can’t help but prefer the Monk to be bare.
What the Liquid Carbon does is take a light to all your headphone pairings without disturbing the balance that the manufacturers worked to achieve. Sound becomes more punchy and warm, particularly in the mids. However, the disadvantage of this choice of presentation is that the sound feels “candy-coated” compared to more analytical amps that prioritize neutral resolution. This is not the amp to use if you want to hear every note come out at you with the impact of a whip cracking. The Liquid Carbon is, rather, an overall effort to add a certain character to your audio chain – without resorting to the likes of a tube amplifier.
It should also be noted that I do hear a very slight hum if I plug the likes of my Shozy Zero or Zero Audio Carbo Tenore into the SE output jack. This is a known power-related problem with the first run of Liquid Carbons that related to the use of sensitive IEMs, a problem that has apparently been remedied in the second run. It does not bother me so because I use higher impedance headphones, particularly power-hungry planar magnetics. I do not hear it with the VE Monk Plus, so that further lessens any worry.
If you are going to use the Liquid Carbon, I would highly recommend using the balanced output if you can. It provides far more power than the SE output. I would also generally recommend making greater use of the volume knob rather than the gain switch. Low-gain offers a greater soundstage and less distortion in the sound. The 3x/10 dB high-gain, however, is a very good pairing with the ZMF Omni when I want to listen to electronic genres that require ampler and more controlled bass – times I care about impact over the aforementioned qualities.
I have to commend Dr. Cavalli and Warren Chi for coming up with the Liquid Carbon, an affordable and compact slice of their impact on the audio industry. Their product takes all the detail my Schiit Gungnir emits and wraps it gently in a blanket of musicality, warmth and pleasurable listening. Most importantly, there is a home to all genres and headphones with the Liquid Carbon – its sound signature is not a bad match with anything I have tried. Ultimately, I hope they come out with another offering that is competitively priced and offers stellar sound and build quality in the future. 
Thanks for reading. You can follow me at:

A sweet, informative review.
Would you say the MJ2 with tubes (if so, which ones?) is more analytical and more resolving than the LC? In other words, is the LC warmer sounding than the MJ2 with  tubes? Thanks for your great reviews, by the way :)
@econaut yes, I would say that. I'm not sure which tubes however, but Schiit amps tend to be more analytical and have less of that slightly glossed-over sound. Whether or not it's warmer, I can't say because I haven't actually heard the MJ2. Thanks man, cheers.


Headphoneus Supremus
Pros: Surprisingly good for an amp of this size
Cons: No preamp out
I can confirm the LC drives the HD800 S just fine (balanced) with no perceived lacking of power or dynamics! 
My DAC is the Schiit Gungnir Multibit. 
I've been doing some back to back comparing of the Liquid Carbon to the Schiit Mjolnir 2, using the same track, "Whiplash" from the movie soundtrack of the same title. 
This track has great dynamics and a lot of instrumentation going on so to me it's a good demo track.
The LC sounds very nice! Smooth and almost tube like, with more extended low bass than the MJ2 (running Amperex Orange Globes tubes). Solid state will always have a bit more super low end bass than tubes but vocals always a bit more hollow than tubes and the LC is no exception to this rule. 
The vocals, soundstage and micro details are the areas where I notice differences between the LC and the MJ2. These are a bit more loose and undefined with the LC than the MJ2. On the MJ2, I can more easily hear and pick out each instrument in the line up in the above track. It seems the soundstage and details are a bit more laid back on LC and I have to struggle more to pick out each instrument. It's still quite an involving sound on the LC though, and don't get me wrong, the details are there, just more sort of laid back. 
Some of this difference may be attributable to the solid state vs. tubes sound. Tubes give a more rich mid range, which in turn is probably yielding better details in the mids and making it easier for me to pick out each horn instrument in the track with the MJ2 than the LC. 
I was maybe going to sell one of these amps if there was a clear choice for which one to keep, but there isn't a clear choice so I guess I'm stuck keeping both! (First world problems, I know).  I'll likely use the LC when I want to listen Solid State and the MJ2 for tubes. It's easy enough to swap them since the LC is so light and small, it can just sit atop of the MJ2 when the MJ2 is off not in use. Same power cable and XLR ins from the DAC can be used for each amp.

In terms of solid sate, the LC is a more fun listen than the Schiit LISST solid state tubes as the LISST's tend to have a bit of a grainy sound. If I had to choose just one of these amps it would have to be the MJ2 as I just find the details better on it and I generally prefer the tube sound (even though the LC sounds quite tube like).  
That said, I'm really quite impressed with what Cavalli was able to put into the Liquid Crystal for such a small and light package remember, it's transportable! Now I wonder what some of his larger desktop amps sound like!
One final note: I find the Cavalli business model of charging in full (non-refundable), months before providing the actual product, a real pain. I purchased my Liquid Carbon used and got the amp at the same time I paid for it. 
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CanJam@RMAF 2015 Karting Champion
Pros: Wonderful sound, transportable, inexpensive
Cons: Ummm....may not be enough power for everyone?
Not too long ago, I was a lowly noob looking for my first headphones.  I waded through the murky waters of terminology I couldn’t understand and brands I’d never heard of before.  Over time, some patterns started to emerge and I started getting an idea of what the community considered bad (I’m looking at you, Beats) and what they considered good.
Of course Head-fi is a very diverse community so I rarely saw a product or brand that everyone could agree on.  But one brand name that was always spoken of with respect was Cavalli Audio.  The Liquid Gold was arguably one of the pinnacles of summit-fi audio.  Even if nobody could agree that it was “the best”, the fact that people argued about it at all says a lot. 
Time passed and I became educated, as we are all wont to do.  My ideas of what was considered sane pricing for audiophile equipment changed, but Cavalli amps were always out of my price range and thus off my radar.  Owning a Liquid amp of any kind was as far away as owning a $30,000 Sennheiser Orpheus.  Until one day, this little fellow was announced.
The Liquid Carbon is a small transportable, solid-state, balanced amplifier that was designed to be an entry point into the Cavalli “house sound” at a reasonable price.  The limited first run of 500 units is selling for $599.  While this is still quite pricey in some ways, it’s less than one quarter the cost of Cavalli’s next cheapest amplifier.  It’s a full 90% cheaper than the Liquid Gold was when it was released!
Obviously, many people were excited right away at the prospect of Cavalli sound and quality in an affordable package.  Then CanJam SoCal 2015 happened and people got to hear it for the first time, including myself.  It was pretty unanimous that this was a great sounding product and a bargain at the asking price. 
Pre-orders went on sale and hundreds were reserved on the first day, just based on impressions from CanJam!  But production would take four months and people have been ravenous for any more impressions on the unit.
I spoke with Dr. Cavalli after Canjam about using his amp in an upcoming project for Head-fi (more on that to come) and he graciously provided me with a pre-production unit to use until my final unit is ready.  I’ve been using it for some time now and, due to popular demand, I’m here to give you a preview of this wonderful little device.  While I don’t have a ton of experience with different amps, I’m going to do my best to deliver those sweet, sweet impressions that we all need so badly.
The Boring Stuff
The unit I have, as I mentioned, is a pre-production unit so a description of its physical properties is not going to be particularly helpful.  Suffice it to say, the unit is very small and light and is indeed quite transportable.  It also looks very classy in matte black with a laser-engraved logo.
On the front panel are outputs for XLR and Kobicon/RSA balanced connections as well as ¼” TRS single-ended.  There is a power switch, a gain switch and an input selection switch.  The final unit will also have LED’s to indicate… stuff.  The back panel has the power cord input, XLR balanced inputs, and single ended inputs via RCA or 1/8” TRS.
Do note that purchased units will not come with a power cord.  These are intended to be high-end audiophile units and those folks tend to be picky about their cabling.  Dr. Cavalli can keep the price lower by not offering a cable that many folks wouldn’t use anyways, so it seems like a win/win to me.
The Good Stuff!
Okay, whew, glad we got all that out of the way.  Now we can get to the juicy bits, namely how it sounds.  To sum up my thoughts in one trite sound bite: it feels transparent and detailed like a solid state, while imparting some of that warmth and euphonic tone of a tube amp.
The amp is very transparent in that is has a wonderful black background as well as the speed to provide enough detail to satisfy my planar-magnetic headphones.  I did the IEM test at one point:  I plugged in my Noble 4 CIEM and, with no music playing, cranked the volume until I could hear some hiss.  It was apparent at about 12:00 on the knob.  However, it should be noted that normal listening volume with the IEM’s was at about 7:10 on the knob (with 7:00 being the starting point).  12:00 is absurdly, damagingly loud with a sensitive IEM.  So you can imagine that at normal volumes it’s just dead silent.
I also found it transparent in another way:  the soundstage.  While it wasn’t the widest soundstage of all my amps (the NFB-28 is notably wider), it has a wonderful sense of front-to-back depth that the Audio-GD lacked completely.  I never noticed that the NFB-28 felt unnaturally wide and flat until I compared it to the LC.  In fact, the Liquid Carbon has a very proportioned soundstage between the X and the Z axes giving it a very spherical presentation.  Something about that nice shape makes it just feel natural, which in turn adds to the feeling of the amp just getting out of the way.
Now tonally, I’m going to say that it doesn’t actually sound perfectly “flat” to me.  It’s got an added weight to the bass and a bit of a laid back treble.  Neither of these effects are particularly overstated, but they’re certainly noticeable in a direct comparison with other amps.  Slight as the warmth is, this can certainly affect the pairing with some headphones, so it’s worth keeping in mind.
Interestingly, I find that it also has some of the euphonic characteristics of my tube amp, the Garage1217 Project Solstice.  The bass and mids have just a bit of bloom, not in that “not enough power and control” sort of way, but in that “what has two thumbs and loves that tube sound” kind of way.  I know it’s a weird thing to say that this solid state amp sounds tubey, but there it is. 
The warmth and euphony that this provides is wonderful; it gives the amp an effortless, fatigue free sound that you can just listen to for hours on end.  When combined with the transparency and detail mentioned earlier, it makes for a potent cocktail of audiophile bliss.  If this is the Cavalli house sound that people are raving about, I can certainly see why!
Some Nerdy Stuff
I’m also going to touch on something here that I’ve discussed previously on Head-fi but is worth restating.  The amp uses something called a phase splitter to convert the single-ended input into a balanced signal before sending into the actual amping circuits.  Now, I don’t claim to have a clue what that means from a technical perspective.  But the intention, as I understand it, is to make it so that a single-ended input signal benefits from the fully balanced amplification circuits.
I tested this myself to see what the big deal is.  I plugged my balanced DAC, the Theta DS Pro Basic II, into the Liquid Carbon both via balanced XLR and single-ended RCA.  Then I used the handy button on the front of the unit to swap back and forth between inputs.  They sound virtually identical.  Since the labeling of the button is a bit unclear to me (probably more a failing of mine than anything else), I actually lose track of which I’m listening to because they sound exactly the same.  I have to unplug one of the connectors from the back to tell.  It’s as close as I’m going to get to a blind test and the LC beat me every time. 
To be clear, the phase splitter makes it so the SE input sounds as good as the balanced input, all other things equal.  It’s a very interesting feat and it opens up all kinds of possibilities for DAC pairings when you’re not limited to balanced DAC’s for the best sound.
One last caveat:  I haven’t tested this with any other DAC’s as the Theta is my only balanced one.  It’s possible that the Theta just sounds the same balanced and SE, and all the phase splitter is doing is matching the volume.  I think more testing is in order and I look forward to seeing what happens when the greater community gets their hands on the LC.
The End (for Now)
I hope this brief preview gives you a better idea of what to expect when the Liquid Carbon is released in a few agonizingly long weeks.  It pulls off a wonderful trick of being linear and detailed, yet musical and euphonic at the same time. While it sounds oddly schizophrenic on paper, it actually adds up to a synergy that works effortlessly. It’s a sound that doesn’t leave you wanting for more detail, yet never fails to be musical.  This could very well become the mid-fi amp to have for audiophiles who want it all at a reasonable price.
Equipment used in this preview includes:  Theta DS Pro Basic II, Audio-GD DAC-19 10th Anniversary Edition, Audio-GD DI-2014, Garage1217 Project Solstice, Schiit SYS, Hifiman HE-560, Noble 4C, ZMF Blackwood, ZMF x Vibro, Oppo PM-3.  Source was my PC running Foobar to play a variety of MP3’s and FLAC’s in genres including rock, metal, djent, trance, dance, psybient, trip-hop, jazz, hip hop, and a sprinkling of classical.
Tried the Liquid Carbon starting with the original prototypes back at SoCal and tried it again in San Fran. Alex has done an A+ job with this. It has more than enough power. 
Awesome review man, really enjoyed it!
Very enjoyable review StilHeart.  I'm going to have to get one of these now. 


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