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Desktop Amps item created by sachu, Apr 21, 2011
Pros - Fast, deep, wide and natural
Cons - A bit pricey, too many LEDs
None. Unit was purchased at close to full retail price from a dealer.
I am not a reviewer per se. Many a member on these forums is able to articulate the substance of a device much better than I. I don’t even enjoy testing equipment, taking notes, making sense of it all. All I want is the best sound within my budget, and then move on actually enjoying the music. My target amps were Woo Audio WA22, Red Wine Audio Audez’e Edition, Cavalli Audio Liquid Fire and Leben CS-300XS. Since there weren’t too many direct comparisons between these, I realized the only way for me to put this issue to rest was to get two of each at a time, dispose of the lesser and proceed with the next until all of them have been auditioned.
For all the amps tested, premium tubes were used for critical listening.
The amp came single-boxed with decent, but not the best padding known to this member. I have no reason to believe it to be deficient, as the amp arrived unscathed. But then again, the box did not appear to have been dropped by UPS like others before it, in order to objectively ascertain the shock absorbency of the packaging.
I knew, based on the specs I had read, to expect a unit of diminutive proportions. However, in real life it sizes just right; not too large and not too small. Venting is plenty, and, seeing how this amp runs rather hot, is certainly needed. Cavalli Audio recommends at least 6 inches of clearance. A very thoughtful aspect was the inclusion of a fitted dust cover, in light of said venting of the top plate, and a dummy ¼” load for burning in the amplifier.
Olive O4HD music server (16/44 FLAC) > Wireworld Supernova 6 TOSLINK (1 meter) > Wyred 4 Sound DAC-2 > Wireworld Eclipse 6 RCA Interconnects (1 meter) > Cavalli Audio Liquid Fire > Q Audio headphone cable (9 ft.) > Audez’e LCD-2 Rev. 2.
All applicable power cables were Shunyata Research Venom 3 (1.5 meters), plugged into a 1,000 VA CyberPower Pure Sine UPS. I’m not a big believer in aftermarket power cables, but I listed them in case they help provide further context.
Tubes used in the LF for this review are a matched quad NOS Siemens gold pin (W. Germany)
Domnerus Group / Jazz at the Pawnshop – K2 HD Mastering, 24k gold Ultimate Disc Collector’s Edition
Diana Krall / All for You
Kraftwerk / Techno Pop – remaster from “Der Katalog” german box set
Emiliana Torrini / Me And Armini
Gino Vannelli / Powerful People
At first sight I wasn’t overly attracted to the way it looked; even less so once I turned it on and counted eleven (11) LEDs on the unit – 8 internal, and three external. I can certainly appreciate the role of visual feedback for function confirmation, etc., but I found 11 to be a bit overkill. Ghastly was a word that came to mind at that time. The external LEDs came across as offensive in their brightness as they had transcended their intended functionality as visual feedback devices and started acting as miniature light projectors. I have less bright nightlights, let put it this way.
Then I recalled how this amp is the first commercial venture of a well-respected DIY architect, and all started to make sense, given my background in programming – debug. The internal LEDs serve as indicators for things such as triode matching, the front panel LEDs annunciate the status of the output circuitry, etc. Again, valuable debug information to a tinkerer. Seeing how I’m not one, I came to understand why it was done this way and to try and live with it.
With 6 Phillips screws at the bottom of the unit to remove in order to gain access to the tubes, the Liquid Fire is not the easiest for tube rolling; that distinction would have to go to Woo Audio’s WA22. Since I do not yet have the Leben, I cannot comment on that one for now.
Let me emphasize the location of the screws on the Liquid Fire: at the bottom of the unit - while the Red Wine Audio Audez’e Edition also requires the removal of 6 screws for tube access, they are located on the sides, thus increasing the risk of cosmetic blemishes should the screwdriver slip. With the Liquid Fire, this risk is somewhat mitigated from a strictly visual point.
Aurally, the amp sounded competent right off the box. After all, it had already been burned in for 50 hours at the factory. I placed it more or less in the neighborhood of the Red Wine Audio Audez’e Edition, which is to say good, if a bit on the clinical side.
There was nothing offensive in the sound output; bass was present but still left me wanting for more, mids were smooth, nevertheless veiled to a degree, whereas the highs, while not harsh, could have used a bit of refinement. This wine needed to breathe a little more, pondered I.
By now the Siemens tubes have benefited from some burn-in time as well, and everything started to come into a very promising synergy – the soundstage became discernibly wider and deeper, the bass shipment had just arrived but still needed to clear customs – I could hear it coming but wasn’t here quite yet. Highs, on the other hand, had graduated and cymbals started to sound like they should.
This amp has definitely grown on me.
Visually, all the complaints have vanished. Just like a rash one tries to not scratch and eventually goes away, I am no longer bothered by the LEDs. Either this, or my retinas developed dead pixels where the LEDs had shone.
The aural presentation is constantly evolving, maturing slowly in an utterly positive direction. Everything is becoming clearer, tighter and better sounding.
The velvety presentation of the tube input stage is nothing short of dramatic, the solid state stage outputting it with mathematical precision. All of the sudden, the meaning of Cavalli’s logo (Yin-Yang of tube and solid state) became all-too-evident.
On Emiliana Torrini’s “Birds” the LCD-2 rendered sub-sonic vibrations. At least these ears couldn’t “hear”, only “feel” vibrations. I’ve never experienced this before, and at first I thought there was something wrong.
“Jazz at the Pawnshop” sounded stellar, as expected. Of note is that it sounded very similar to the Red Wine Audio Audez’e Edition, with only a touch less highs. If anything, it had a more euphonic rendition of the material.
Kraftwerk’s “Musique Non Stop” was rendered with an effortless transition from punchy percussion to minute background detail. Nothing was lost in the process, and nothing was relegated to the background by virtue of levels difference.
Diana Krall’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” retained all the intricate aspects of her voice, just like a tube amp should, the piano was superbly rendered, and the minute amount of overdrive on the guitar was faithfully reproduced.
The organ sound on Gino Vannelli’s “Lady” retained its signature sound, a subdued creaminess I could only hear on tube amps.
My enthrallment with the Liquid Fire is a bit ironic, actually. While I do maintain an open mind before listening to anything, in the back of my mind getting the Liquid Fire was mostly for the purpose of ruling it out. Yet, it came out on top, compared to the amps tested thus far: Woo Audio’s WA22 and Red Wine Audio Audez’e Edition.
My WA22 was used in a balanced configuration, with top-notch tubes (think TS BGRP et al) and was bested by the Liquid Fire hands-down in the speed, precision and extension departments. The WA22 excels at smoothing over shortcomings in the recording material – its lush sound will make it a pleasure to listen to almost anything through it.
The RWA AE, for which I had high hopes, ended up last on my preference list not because it lacks quality, but mostly because it pulls no punches in regards to exposing weaknesses in the source material. The RWA AE has fabulous dynamics, great bass, clean and crisp mids, some of the best highs I’ve heard on the LCD-2…. as long as your source material is up for that. With average material it just sounds average.
The Liquid Fire does everything just right – though a bit, and I mean a tiny, barely-there sliver of difference less stellar than the RWA AE on exceptional source material, it is the better of it with everything else. The sound has just the proper amount of tube lushness, just the right amount of solid state precision and detail, and just the right amount of glossing over sonic blemishes.
120 HOURS FOLLOW-UP
The LF seems to have stabilized; that is to say the rate of change in substance has slowed down beyond my ability to reasonably detect one. It had been about time, too, having been served quite a curve ball almost one week to date. Let me explain - as you may or may not recall, I was on an obsessively compulsive trip to find the best sound for my LCD-2, and have identified the following candidates within my financial reach: Woo Audio WA22, Red Wine Audio Audez'e Edition, Cavalli Audio Liquid Fire, and last but not least the Leben CS-300XS.
As luck would have it, my Leben dealer was quite local, so I went in person to pick it up. While at the dealer, he demoed the Leben using a player previously unknown to me - the Resolution Audio Cantata. I was instantly smitten by the way it sounded; to my ears it was the closest to analog that I've ever heard digital sound. Confused and further annoyed, I took his demo unit home to audition it using my own setup. That is to say, A/B-ing with the Wyred 4 Sound DAC-2, with which I was absolutely enthralled. The DAC-2 was hitherto a perfect match to my Liquid Fire; it had a fluid, organic sound, yet detailed, that it was an astounding pleasure to listen to it. That is to say, until I connected the Cantata. It was an amazing revelation to pair it with the Liquid Fire. The sound took on a whole different dimension. I knew the Liquid Fire was a great amplifier, having won out of the 4 models I had tested; nothing, however, prepared me for the sound it pushed through my phones as converted by the Cantata. The accuracy and impeccable timing of transients were the best these ears had heard. The bass was further extended from where the DAC-2 had left off, while somehow presenting it fuller and clearer at the same time. This is not intended to be a review of the Cantata; that one is in the works and will be posted within a week or so.
I wanted to chime back in this thread once the LF had stabilized. Even with the DAC-2 right before the changeover to the Cantata, the sound became holographic in a sense; I could easily distinguish minute details in the farthest depths of the soundstage. Speaking of soundstage, it is about the widest I've heard on the LCD-2. The bass was the deepest and best defined of all the 4 amps I had auditioned; mids remained a bit flat compared to the WA22, but very natural nonetheless. Highs are plenty, accurate and not in the least harsh. All in all, it retains the best performance to my preference - deep, natural bass, neutral mids, pleasant highs, without losing any bit of detail. It is one very fast amplifier that somehow still manages to capture the euphonic tonality of vacuum tubes. On Diana Krall's "Jimmy" from "Stepping Out", I had the closest-to-being-there experience of my life. Beginning with the most accurate rendition of a violoncello, where I could hear the sound of the rosin traveling across the strings as it was bowed, the sound of the bow as it stopped and reversed travel direction, the secondary vibration of the strings along the fingerboard, all the way to the visceral kick of the drum, the plucks of the bass, it was surreal. The piano had a surgical precision to its attack... I could go on and on.
Pros - Detail, clarity, imaging, little to no grain in the treble.
Cons - No preamp out
It seems that it’s a good time to be shopping around for headphone amps, with many wonderful new offerings coming from different manufacturers. Known until now for DIY designs, Alex Cavalli has entered the commercial fray with the Liquid Fire, a hybrid amp that aims to deliver the musical richness and timbre of tubes with the speed and clarity of a solid state design.
So how does it measure up? From my listening so far, extremely well. For the purposes of this review, it replaced the Stacker II hybrid amp (a DIY design from Cavalli) in my chain. Transport was a Squeezebox Touch which fed either a Rega DAC or Assemblage DAC 2.7. A quad of Siemens E88CC tubes have been swapped in, replacing the JJ Tesla stock tubes. The Siemens tubes have a little over 50 hours on them, and they seem to add some weight to the bass and mids, which is a personal preference of mine. The Liquid Fire itself has around 175 hours on it now. Headphones used were either my older LCD-2 from around the time of the first production run, or my newer “rev 2” LCD-2.
One interesting feature to the Liquid Fire is that upon start up from stand by, there are delay circuits built in that first turn on the heater supply and let it warm up for about 20 seconds, then warm up the output. Both delays have indicator lights that let you know when the process is complete. Just one of the examples of how much of a stickler for detail and perfection Alex is.
Immediately after plugging my headphones in, my first impression was that there was a brightness and clarity that wasn’t ever present in my other amp. Alex’s instructions suggest 150 hours of burn in on the amp itself before critically listening, and I have to say I don’t know if the sense of it being “overly bright” eventually faded as I got used to the sound signature or as the amp continued to burn in. Maybe it was both. At any rate, the sound that I am presented with now has excellent extension both into the bass and into the treble, with little to no extra sibilance and grain on the higher end.
The other aspect I was struck by quickly was the level of detail and clarity present, along with about a dead silent noise floor. The sound had the speed and tight tolerances of solid state, handling even heavily congested passages with little effort. Project Pitchfork’s “I Live Your Dream”, for instance, can be a congested nightmare of a piece, but the Liquid Fire was able to portray the different instruments and sounds clearly and even managed to have some space around the voices. I tend to listen to some material that is a little dense, like Japanese rock and soundtracks, but the Liquid Fire again is able to isolate and detail the sounds within the pieces without losing the sense of a cohesive sound for the entire song.
While the soundstage isn’t the widest or most expansive I’ve heard, it also doesn’t strike me as artificial or forced. It has a decent amount of lateral width from left to right, and good imaging that help reinforce the staging. From front to back, the field doesn’t seem quite as deep, but the vocals and background on most songs are still projected a little outside of the head. It’s as if you were able to get the sense of putting on headphones and being surrounded by a cloud of sound around you. It often sounded like the music was coming from within the room, and not just being thrown directly at my ears.
On the detailed level, I was very impressed with the way the Liquid Fire handled the impact and resonance of guitars and piano. From Olomana’s “Kanaka Waiwai” slack key guitar to Alice in Chains’ “Would” from their Unplugged album really seemed to let me hear the impact on the strum and the resonance of the strings as the sound decayed. The imaging of the Liquid Fire also helps here as it keep details like tambourines or light cymbals from getting lost, making it possible to pick out the sound more easily.
Tonally, I found the Liquid Fire to have a smooth and rich tone to the entire register, and especially to the mids and vocals. This comes without anything sticking out too far within the presentation, so choral pieces such as Mozart’s Requiem, for instance, come forward with presence and richness without any particular vocal section becoming overwhelming in sound. There is also a good sense of air, so songs with a good dynamic ebb and build really seem to have the opportunity to breathe and come to life.
Overall, I have found the Liquid Fire to be a wonderful amp with a very balanced presentation and character. It’s neutral and transparent, but without sacrificing weight and emotional connection to the music. It does have a tendency to reveal your library, warts and all, so if there is a poorly recorded or encoded song somewhere in there, you’ll be sure to notice it. It will, however, allow the right material to shine and really lets you listen to the differences in both the material and sources that you throw at it. It’s not a cheap amp, so it’s hard to really gauge bang for your buck in this hobby of diminishing returns, but the Liquid Fire manages to do a lot right without adding anything negative, and does so in what seems to me to be a natural and well rounded way. If you’re in the market for a headphone amp in this price range, you really should do yourself a favor and check this amp out.