Cavalli Audio Liquid Lightning

General Information

Electrostatic Headphone Amp
Heard for the first time at CanJam@RMAF, the Liquid Lightning is the second offering from Cavalli Audio.

Liquid Sound from Solid State
400V Rails
Bias - Jack #1 580V / Jack #2 500V or 540V
TKD Quad Fader Volume Control
Custom Piezo switch, RCore Transformer
Custom Stax Configuration Output Jacks

Latest reviews

Pros: Sound quality, price (relative to current offerings)
Cons: A few, non-audio. Read within
Disclaimer / Financial Interests

None. I must admit though, I tried cajoling a discount out of Alex, but to no avail. That guy’s tough. Must be my bashing of the Christmas tree lighting on the LF, I reckon. Anyway, no discount, so I begrudgingly forked over full retail.

Reviewing the LL started off as a somewhat difficult proposition, given that its arrival more or less coincided with that of another component – the Stax SR-009 – and hence I’d have two new unknowns (to these ears, as it were) to evaluate. Add the fact that this would be my first foray into the electrostatic world and you can understand my concerns about properly attributing characteristics to not only each component in part, but the system as a whole. The only helping aspect was that also had a Woo Audio WEE, fed by my Resolution Audio C50 speaker amp, to provide context and help identify traits pertaining to the headphone itself, in an effort to remove such from the amp evaluation.

I had been a happy LF user for about 6 months, having arrived to it through a string of amps that included, in order, Elekit TU-882, SPL Phonitor, Woo Audio WA22, Red Wine Audio Audez’e Edition, Leben CS-300X. None of these amps struck the most pleasing balance to my ears, except the LF, when properly tubed. You can read my LF review here for in-depth notes and why it ended up as my dynamic amp of choice. Headphone wise, I started off with HD 800, then proceeded through the Audez’e chain beginning with LCD-2 rev.1, rev.2 and finally LCD-3 (pre and post RMA)

Unboxing / Build / Physical

Packaging is top-notch, with foam inserts securely holding the LL in place with generous padding. A much improved job over the LF. The LL arrived without the slightest hint of shipping trauma.

The LL is considerably larger and heftier than the LF. So much so, that I had trouble placing it on the intended shelf in my rack because of its depth – 14”. Since the power connector is centrally located on its rear panel and I have a 3-pole audio rack, the cord interfered with the rear pole and I had to rearrange components so that I could place the LL on the top shelf.

Unlike the LF, which is powder coated, the LL is anodized. I did read Alex’s explanation on the fit and finish of the LF, and, while I had no problem with its respective coating, the LL has a more traditional finish, one that would presumably fit the look and feel of more components. Much to my delight, there are only 2 LEDs on the LL. Much to my chagrin, their colors are mismatched. While both are blue, the power LED has a purplish hue, but the operation indicator below the volume knob is a deeper blue. Nevertheless, they’re only 2, compared to the 11 on the LF. Whew!

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The casework of the LL also feels sturdier, more mature if you will. It shows it’s no longer a first commercial offering. Likewise for its overall presentation – refreshingly clean and discreet, LED hues notwithstanding – it can comfortably fit with the best. There are a couple issues though, one of them being the rattling of the volume shaft (which disappears once the amp is all warmed up). Alex says this one’s on purpose, given that the actual volume pot is closer to the inputs and the shaft has to cross a forest of heat sinks. Once hot on the inside, due to metal expansion said rattling is no longer an issue. The other issue I found was a rattling of the top of the case against the front panel. However, if your head-fi user name is not Solude and aren’t inclined to use it as a percussion instrument, it likely won’t be an issue for you, just as it isn’t for me. Still, a narrow strip of felt or rubber lining the inside of the top cover where it meets the front panel mount should mitigate this.
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Source: Resolution Audio Cantata Music Center (USB via Pont Neuf from a Mac Mini, running BitPerfect and iTunes, playing back Apple Lossless files.)
Headphone: Stax SR-009
Cables: Q Audio interconnects, Shunyata Research Venom 3 power cables.
Power: Furman IT Reference 7i Discrete Symmetrical AC Power Isolation

In the rack:
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Material used:
Patricia Barber / Café Blue, Modern Cool
Bombay Dub Orchestra / eponymous album
Kraftwerk / Techno Pop (remaster from “Der Katalog” german box set)
Peter Gabriel / Secret World Live
Arne Domnerus Group / Jazz at the Pawnshop (K2 HD, 24kt gold disc source)
Emiliana Torrini / Me and Armini
Frank Sinatra / Only the Lonely (The Capitol Years 21-CD UK box set)
First impression

The LL came with 100 hours, according to Alex. While the sound was rather decent out of the box, it lacked the wow factor I had experienced with the LF, and ultimately came to expect from the LL. The sound stage felt a bit cramped, and vocals a tad warm and pushed forward when compared to the WEE setup. What I did appreciate though was excellent dynamics at all volume levels – since I generally listen to relatively low volume, this aspect was very important to me. In rest, there were no complaints, so I let it burn in over the next few days.
130 hours

I hadn’t listened to the LL since my first session, so gradual brain adaptation can be ruled out. The LL had underwent a significant leap quality wise, with everything falling exactly into their intended places. The bass is extended and plenty (even for an electrostat), detailed time-domain envelope presentation is unlike I’ve heard before – of note is the opening of “Company” from Patricia Barber’s “Modern Cool”, where the bass drum has very discernible attack on the kick and highly resolved reverb and decay. This opening sequence sounded very tactile on my LF/LCD-3, but never with such degree of reveal, whereas on the WEE combo the bass, while still detailed to a point, didn’t have the extension and quantity of the LL. To reuse the word “tactile,” such is how I perceive vocals through the LL/SR-009 – the most life-like I’ve ever heard short of actually being there. There’s every bit of vibrance, resonance, breath and air that I’d expect from a live performance. On Sinatra's "What's New" from "Only the Lonely", the ending of the second verse ("you haven't changed a bit") conveys tremendous emotion, and the exhaust on the "t" almost makes me picture him breathing it out into the microphone. I haven't heard it rendered this eloquent on any setup hitherto. 
Highs are very fast and detailed, but not harsh – the rallentando on Bombay Dub Orchestra’s “The Berber of Seville” renders the most detailed cymbal riding I’ve heard of that recording. 
200 hours
The LL is currently burning in. Once it has reached 200 hours, I will update this segment of my review. I would expect it to settle in some more, but in my opinion it has already reached a very high sound quality. 

The 200 hour follow-up is part of a larger comparison post, here:


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