ecp audio Black Diamond

Schopenhauer

500+ Head-Fier
Pros: The intimate and engaging signature should draw you in, while the purity of its design shouldn’t pull you back out by encouraging obsessive fidgeting.
Cons: At the same time, the purity of the design could be a mark against it if you’re looking for a component to serve as the central hub of a hi-fi system.
I Background, gear used and manifesto
I first got interested in the ECP Black Diamond around the time of its release. I was in the market for a “flagship” amp but still didn’t know what type of headphones I preferred: Dynamic, Planar or Electrostatic. While I’ve yet to hear an electrostat, I’ve found so far that I prefer the planars to dynamics. When I subsequently opted to go full-planar (for home listening, at least) I somehow lost sight of the Black Diamond. Reading recently that it was a good match with the LCD-3, and finding a great deal for a third-hand model, I decided to take the plunge.
 
Before moving on I should point out that I don’t own the LCD-3. The headphones I’ve used when evaluating the Black Diamond have been the LCD-2.2 and the Alpha Dog. I’ve used the HRT microStreamer as a DAC. I don’t claim to be able to discern great differences among DACs because I haven’t yet developed the skills required for telling them apart. The microStreamer also served as a DAC for the Gustard H10, which will function in this review as the comparison amp to the Black Diamond. All relevant listening with the H10 was done with the +6dB pregain enabled. My music preferences, which can be found in my profile, will have to suffice for giving some impression of what I listened to since I don’t as yet have a set playlist of test tracks.
 
I should also point out that I don’t really know what I’m doing. This is the first “real” review I’ve attempted and I don’t yet have a feel for the form. I’m lucky enough to have money to spend on the audio gear I want, so I don’t really have the extra for measuring devices. I think providing measurements is an important contribution to our hobby but I leave it to others.
 
My focus is subjective phenomenal experience. Now, my using the word “subjective” doesn’t entail that I take my impressions to be subjective. Rather, I take myself to be giving a description of what anyone would hear if similarly positioned. I accomplish this by giving a description of what I hear. And no, that doesn’t mean I think I hear everything. What I mean is that I’m a human being equipped with the auditory capacities that are natural to our species. 
 
In other words, my review is subjective because it is grounded in first-personal experience. This experience, however, needn’t be understood as available necessarily to only a single person. You should, if you take up and listen, hear what I hear to the extent that I hear it. For that reason, what I have to say should, I hope, be of some use to everyone. All of that is contingent on my not being wrong, which of course, I could be.
 
II TL;DR, or my vague impressions of the Black Diamond
I have an overall impression of a slightly forward sound presentation, probably as a result of its intimate character. It’s this character that keeps the amp from coming across as aggressive. I’m not aware of any measurements for this amp but I’d say it strikes me as relatively neutral across the audible range. While it won’t win the coveted Blue Whale Award for Plankton Retrieval, the amp still furnishes enough detail to make for intelligent listening. The dynamism and the subtle timing cues contribute to the integrity of individual sounds and, if the music provides it, thereby make complex imaging possible.
 
III Ecce ampo
I don’t really know how to talk about a component by itself. Indeed, you don’t listen to, say, your amp and only your amp but your amp as it drives your headphones (and, I suppose, as it amplifies your source). Therefore, for the rest of the review I’m going to talk about the Black Diamond as it compares with Gustard’s H10 and as it pairs with specific headphones.
 
Comparison with the H10
I have said that in the thread dedicated to the Gustard H10 that it can go toe to toe with the Black Diamond. I mean that not as an insult to the Black Diamond but as a compliment to the H10. The ironfisted control the H10 has over planar drivers is astounding.
 
Similarities aside, the H10 doesn’t offer as pure an experience as does the Black Diamond. It’s as though Doug Savitsky meant the Black Diamond to be a resting place, or a stopping point, in your relation to the gear. Turn it on, plug in your headphones, set your volume and you’re done. The rest is music. No tube-rolling, no adjusting pregain, no EQing or tweaking the stereo image. You can finally stop fidgeting with your gear and simply listen.
 
Of course one might respond: “That’s all well and good but sound quality is the most important factor when evaluating an amp; so if the H10 matches the Black Diamond’s sound quality, then call it as it is.” But that would ignore large swathes of our interactions with audio gear, however, and would shows a limit in one’s aesthetic sensibility. It isn’t shallow to say, for example, that it matters how an amp looks. There is an elegance to how the design of the Black Diamond allows one to access the music. The design itself is a work of art.
 
I think the H10 has greater bass presence and texture. That isn’t to say that the Black Diamond’s bass is recessed; rather, it is defined and competent. Only there’s a certain lack in the presentation I find it difficult to put into words. A slight emphasis, when compared to the Black Diamond, on the low end and a vaguely warm signature. It’s perhaps for this reason that the signature of the Black Diamond is clearer, I find, than that of the H10. Perhaps I mean that the Black Diamond’s signature is more neutral than the H10’s. It’s easier to perceive all parts of a track on the Black Diamond. It isn’t as though I find the Black Diamond to have a clearer, more realistic timbre. Both amps yield excellent timbre with all of my headphones, although it’s worth noting I think all of my headphones have excellent timbre.
 
Headphone pairings
It might be surprising to read this (and it was certainly surprising to type it), but the Alpha Dog can actually sound dark on the Black Diamond, or at least darker than it ordinarily does. By no means a bright headphone – if bright is taken pejoratively – the Alpha Dog probably wouldn’t please listeners who prefer a veiled sound. Still, I think that it can take on a warm, syrupy texture when paired with the Black Diamond, e.g. on anything by Karma Kid, without compromising the “air”-frequencies.
 
The Alpha Dog might have the vastest soundstage of any closed headphone I’ve heard. The headphone is excellent at conveying a perceived sense of distance. This makes for an interesting experience with the intimate Black Diamond. I think there could be an apparent reduction in the expanse of the Alpha Dog’s soundstage in this pairing. But that is to be expected, and is welcome in order achieve the peculiar distancing effect.
 
The Black Diamond paired with the Audeze LCD-2.2 is one of the more musical combinations I’ve heard, maintaining respectable and engaging levels of plankton without being fatiguing and without compromising the overall coherence of the music. I think Maxvla described the Black Diamond as providing one of the more intimate experiences he has had with the HD800. I would say that the LCD-2.2 also sounds intimate with the Black Diamond, at least in the following sense. “Intimacy” can name a way of relating to an object that is marked by an effortless focus on and attention to that object. Keeping your eye, as it were, on the music as a whole is easy with the Black Diamond.
 
As it happens, Maxvla also describes the Black Diamond as “lacking in ultimate air”. But I think that contributes to the Black Diamond’s being an intimate amplifier. Ultimate air is part of what you sacrifice for intimacy. One doesn’t have a Godlike, all-comprehending perspective in intimacy. Listen to Braids’ Flourish // Perish or Long Arm’s The Branches (Deluxe Edition) on the Black Diamond, but not magisterial classical works.
 
IV Closing thoughts
As I write this I don’t know whether finally I’ll keep the Black Diamond, and if so, for how long. That isn’t the way to begin summing up what has been a very positive account of the Black Diamond. I can’t in good faith, however, claim that my search for a flagship amp – whether solid state or tube – has ended when my experience is still so narrow. I certainly hope I didn’t hear the Black Diamond too early.  
 
It's worth pointing out that the Black Diamond brand new costs x4 more than the H10 ($1600 to $400). This makes the H10 a considerably greater value, I think, than the Black Diamond from the perspective of price-to-performance. This doesn't take away from the sound quality of the Black Diamond, but it does give some indication of just how good an amp the H10 is, for planars at least. 
 
Given that the H10 provides nearly the same performance as the Black Diamond at the quarter of the price, odds are I'll keep the H10 longer than the Black Diamond. I wouldn't say owning both makes either superfluous. I can say this, however: I don't think I'd like to have the Black Diamond as my only amplifier. The purity of its experience is valuable in a context in which other components are able to pick up the slack.
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Maxvla
Maxvla
Great review. I agree with the points you brought up concerning my opinions, and actually you stated it more accurately than I.
Schopenhauer
Schopenhauer
Just saw this comment earlier today. Thank you. As it happens, I think we reviewed the same unit. I thought the comprehensiveness of your review, paired with laser-focus on a single headphone, made for great and informative reading.

Maxvla

Headphoneus Supremus
Pros: Small size for this quality of sound. Lucious dense tone/texture. Intimacy unmatched with HD800s
Cons: Lack of extra inputs and outputs. Unbalanced only. Smaller soundstage. Lacks ultimate air.
http://www.head-fi.org/t/740568/top-shelf-solid-state-with-hd800s
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