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Garage1217 Project Polaris

Rating:
4.5/5,
  1. snapacap
    How I Became an Audiophile.
    Written by snapacap
    Published Feb 2, 2017
    5.0/5,
    Pros - adjustable settings, power, looks, choices!
    Cons - switches are literal jumper caps
    Holy Crap! A 5 star review from Snapacap?!? What is this????? 
     
    Anyway,
    I would like to thank the community here at head-fi. The helpful people over at the HD600 impressions thread recommended this amp to me. I simply asked for something more powerful than a Fiio e10 for an incoming pair of HD600s, and the list was extensive. I decided to get the Project Polaris based on two factors. I wanted a tube sound, but I also didn't want to have to deal with tubes, and the Polaris came with adjustable settings that aren't the most common in the world of amps.
     
    Looks:
    Look at it.

     
     
    Options of your choice:
     
    Alright, now that you have seen it, I will add that Garage 1217 gives a variety of color options for the LED, and it can also be toggles off and on with a jumper cap. You can also adjust the brightness with a tiny screwdriver in the hole just above the LED jumper. Also, the LED can be manually changed out for another color if one desires variety in their life.
     
    The acrylic plates can be swaped for sharp-looking CNC aluminum ones at additional cost, but I like how the light spreads through the clear acrylic.
     
    The most interesting choice you have is mellow and aggressive bandwidth options. The Aggressive setting is referring to a steeper bandwidth adjustment setting which, when adjusted to a lower setting, results in a more mellow sound. The mellow option does the same thing, but not as steeply, resulting is a lesser mellow sound. There are nice graphs on the Garage1217 website if you all are interested. Clearly I got the aggressive option.
    This page on the bottom: http://garage1217.com/garage1217_diy_tube_headphone_amplifiers_015.htm
     
    Last you can choose a black, or silver volume knob.
     
    I just love how many options there are for the Polaris. You can make it truly yours, match your setup, or just get creative!
     
    Also, they give you a sticker! [​IMG]
    001.jpg
     
     
    Adjustable settings
     
    saltjumper2.jpg
     
     
    There are some nice settings on the Project Polaris that really made this amp more than what I expected it to be.
    one note: I wish there were switches that didn't make me nervous to bend pins every time I want to change them. I do not like jumper caps.
     
    First, as I said before, there are bandwidth settings. They are labeled "High BW" "Mid BW" "Low BW", as all other settings are abbrevitated similarly. You also adjust these separately for either channel, as with all the other settings. The bandwidth setting does not make a huge difference in sound, but is more of a fine tune sort of thing. The difference is notable, but not dramatic. Sometimes it can roll off the upper-highs enough to get an extra level of grain in vocals. This is useful for sure.
     
    Next there is Resistance adjustability. I find this to be more for making sure the headphone takes well to the amp. Low resistance Headphones seem to have a much different opinion of resistance than HD600s. 
     
    Lastly, and most importantly, there is Gain Adjustment galore! this is where the rubber meets the road for the Project Polaris. There are three basic gain settings, multiplied by two with an attenuation module in the back corner of the amp labeled "Not" and "ot" . The gain adjustability is by far my favorite feature, and will be very important to sound.
     
    I should mention there is also an RCA line out. More features is better!
     
    Sound
     
    The sound of the Project Polaris is what finally made me admit to myself that I am indeed an audiophile. When the Polaris arrived, I plugged it in real quick and shoved the HD600 cable into it, and was disappointed. I thought I had spent $250 on a small amount of extension increase, and dry sound. Luckily, I rubbed enough brain cells together to try the various settings. This is when my mind got blown. I put the gain setting from 'Low G' to 'Mid G' and my jaw hit the floor. A simple gain increase took the HD600 from being another pretty good headphone to being king of the castle. I spent the next couple hours plugging in all the things, and playing with all the settings. I ended up liking the HD600 the most of my collection with the Polaris. Honestly, I still sit and listen to music with this combo and actually have to vocally express how good some things sound to myself, alone, in my room. Clearly I have a problem. 'Mid' settings all around for the HD600 is the magic setting for me.
     
    What is odd is that the cheaper the headphones are, the more they seem to gain from the Project Polaris. My HD558 gained a significant amount of clarity and extension from the amp. The Superlux 668b smoothed out quite a bit as well.
     
    One of my favorite things about the sound is that instead of being like every other solid state amp, the Project Polaris as a bit of a tubey quality. There is a slight hollowish tube-like sound compared to my Fiio e10, LG V20, etc... The power of this amp more than enough to make this pleasant. I had found the Bravo Ocean to be too hollow in its tubey nature. I think I found a nice middle ground with the Project Polaris. I get the fun part of tube amplification sound I like, while not having to deal with tubes. Fantastic!
     
    Not every headphone is a perfect match for the Project Polaris. I find I like my HD700 more on the Fiio e10 for example.
     
    Some Headphones can sound like more than one pair by adjusting setting around. My SHP9500 has significant difference in sound signature to my ears with adjustment. Sometimes they are more rumble, and Bassy, while others they gain soundstage air, and become tighter.
     
    This amp has power in spades. Anything I throw at it is more than powered well.
     
    I Freakin love the Project Polaris amp.
     
     
    Conclusion:
     
    This amp has opened the door to the never ending world of audio hardware like nothing else has. I can say that I am more than pleased with how this amp performs, and recommend it highly. Having just enough sonic flair while not having to deal with tubes is a pure joy. Some of the larger companies should take notes. Adjustability is important. That is the feature that simply takes this amp to the next level. I feel like a mad scientist while toggling around all the settings, looking for the next maniacal creation to hear all my music in a different way than before.
     
    I need more music to try on this beauty. I like recommendations in any genre. Thank you!
     
    I forgot to do this earlier:
    Recommended song: Trouble - Avicii
      SpiderNhan likes this.
    1. View previous replies...
    2. ch0nk
      I have an LG V20 and HD650. Does the V20 -> Polaris -> HD650 sound good? I'm worried that sound quality will suffer since I'm double amping.
      ch0nk, Mar 17, 2017
    3. snapacap
      @ch0nk I don't have an HD650 currently on hand, so I tested with my HD600. I find the V20 -> Polaris combo to be a bit brighter, and a little less bass punch than my Fiio e10 -> Polaris combo. There was no noticeable loss in detail or clarity. Perhaps a bit more grainy?  I honestly think this is not the fault of double-amping, as running the Headphone out (also double amping) of the Fiio e10 does not yield similar results to the V20. In fact, the Headphone out on the Fiio did the opposite of the V20.
      Conclusively, double-amping is not likely going to be a problem. Preference in sound signature is the real factor here. You can always play with the settings on the Polaris to your liking.
      snapacap, Mar 17, 2017
    4. ch0nk
      Thanks! Very helpful.
      ch0nk, Mar 17, 2017
  2. Asr
    G1217's new solid-state amp
    Written by Asr
    Published Sep 22, 2014
    4.0/5,
    Pros - Functional versatility, inexpensive price, very good overall sound
    Cons - Lacks some clarity & speed/agility
    published on September 22, 2014
     
    _DSC4061a.jpg
    (click any photo in this review for a larger version)
     
    Intro
     
    I first heard about Garage1217's Project Polaris (just "Polaris" from here on out, for the sake of brevity) directly from them back when I did a review of their Project Ember earlier this year. The Polaris was finally released back in late July, and once again Garage1217 was generous enough to provide a loaner review sample, which I was able to spend approximately 2 weeks with. Normally I would've preferred spending more time with the amp to get to know its intricacies better, but personal circumstances got in the way a bit and prevented me from doing further critical listening. So the proverbial "grains of salt" disclaimer certainly applies to this review, and my opinions could certainly change later given more listening time (if I decide to re-acquire the amp).
     
    Operation, Functionality, & Handling
     
    The Polaris was probably one of the most (if not THE most) physically compact AC-powered amps that I've ever seen (the dimensions are on Garage1217's Web site), and with Garage1217's trademark styling complete with the plexiglass top, it looked positively cool as well. And like the Project Ember before it, the Polaris sacrificed nothing in terms of functionality—in fact, it had even more functionality! With jumper-based settings to modify input attenuation, bandwidth, output resistance, and gain (and even to "turn off" the LED), the Polaris was by far also the most feature-packed amp that I've ever seen!
     
    _DSC4064a.jpg The plethora of customization options possible was certainly amazing but in actuality, I found myself not using most of them and only modified the output resistance to suit whichever headphones I was using—low R for my sensitive headphones; med R for the AKG K712. Much like in my experience with the Ember, I never needed (or wanted) to use high gain or high R for the AKG K712. I'd imagine high gain and high R to be useful primarily for those who have extremely inefficient or extra high-impedance headphones, like the HiFiMan HE-6 (83.5 dB/mW) or Beyerdynamic T1 (600 Ohms) as just two examples, respectively.
     
    At first I had the input attenuation disabled, but I found that enabling it became helpful for my sensitive low-impedance headphones. The bandwidth settings were also cool for novelty, but because I wanted the most treble possible for all of my headphones, I just left it at high, since the lower settings reduced treble quantity. I'm sure that users with a greater variety of headphones would get much more use out of the customization options though, especially those who have a collection consisting of low-impedance efficient dynamic headphones, high-impedance inefficient dynamic headphones, and planar magnetic headphones.
     
    Sonic Assessment
     
    I'll start with an admission: I went into this review hoping that the Polaris would sonically hands-down beat the HeadAmp Gilmore Lite, because I really, really wanted to buy the Polaris for a few reasons, not the least of which was that I could buy it and sell the GL, and then come out ahead with some money left over. And I kinda just wanted a newer amp than the GL, which first came out in 2005. Unfortunately, the Polaris did not hands-down beat the GL—but when all is said and done, I'd say the two amps were nearly close to even and each had their clear pros & cons. The GL ended up as the obvious winner when it came to pure sonic speed (as in impulse response) & agility and overall clarity throughout the frequency spectrum, while the Polaris was much better at soundstaging & spatials and achieved a more natural-sounding mid-range as well. But since most people in 2014 probably don't own a Gilmore Lite anymore, any further comparisons to it would probably seem irrelevant, so I'll stop there with the GL comparison.
     
    With the exception of the original Schiit Asgard, I haven't heard many of the under-$500 solid-state AC-powered amps in the market, especially recently, so I can't really say how the Polaris stacks up against any other currently available amps. But I've heard plenty of other solid-state AC-powered amps over the years, most of them more expensive than the Polaris (all the way up to the $3K USD HeadAmp GS-X MK2), and most recently the Micromega MyZic, which I had last year and retails for the same price, so I can sort of take a stab at how the Polaris might live up to most people's expectations.
     
    I think most people who haven’t had a dedicated headphone amp before would be sufficiently impressed by the Polaris, and even those who’ve had more expensive amps might find it hard to dislike for its functional versatility. But before I get into its sound, I should also add that so many things depend on the source that you use, so I also recommend investing into a proper source, whether an external DAC for computer users, or a disc player for CD listeners—just don't connect this amp to a headphone jack, make sure it's plugged into something that has analog RCA outputs for best results.
     
    _DSC4069a.jpg Starting with its relative sonic flaws, I thought the Polaris lacked some clarity and speed/agility (which I have to reiterate, as that sorely stuck out compared to the Gilmore Lite), and it wasn't the best sonic match for the Audio-Technica AD2000 as a result. But the Polaris was also clearly the mostly superior amp in every other aspect—it was much more balanced-sounding, with a more filled-out mid-range that added significantly more presence to elements like bass guitars and male vocals, along with a more powerful bass in general. The GL had leaner, faster bass, with much more of a quick "spring" to it, but the Polaris had more bass depth & force, which made it more satisfying with electronic music in general. The Polaris also had a much more 3D-ish soundstage as it generally sounded "bigger" (in terms of spatials) from left to right and front to back. I found many instances on my recordings where the GL didn't catch any spatial cues at all, especially reverb, but were clearly heard on the Polaris.
     
    Headphone Compatibility
     
    There are primarily two factors when it comes to matching headphones with amps: (1) How will the headphones sound? (2) Will they be driven properly? With the Polaris' high power output capability, factor #2 is mostly irrelevant. It has enough power (current and voltage) for most dynamic-type headphones on the market, and I could tell that it was fully capable of manhandling my Audio-Technica AD2000 just as well as the HeadAmp Gilmore Lite, which was no small feat. (Not every amp I've had has properly driven the AD2000.)
     
    The sonic matching is naturally much more tricky, and more nebulous too. I can only really say that I thought it wasn't a great match with the AD2000, as the AD2000 was slightly robbed of its awesome speed & agility. And the AKG K712 didn't sound quite as dynamic & expansive as I remembered it on the Project Ember—in fact, I'd be more inclined to recommend the Ember for K712 owners. Other than that, I can't think of any other sub-optimal headphone matchings.
     
    Closing
     
    There's really no better way that I can think of putting it: Garage1217's Polaris is the budget solid-state amp of the year, possibly of all time! It sounded great to me for the price and I can't think of a single reason why anyone would be dissatisfied with it. I'm sure some people would like to know how it compares to the Schiit Asgard 2, the other well-known American-made solid-state amp that happens to sell for the same price. I don't know how it compares. But I can definitively say that I'd rather own the Polaris when it has way more features and doesn't have anything that the Asgard 2 doesn't, and packs even more, including significantly more power output on tap in order to drive planar magnetic headphones. I have nothing against Schiit or the Asgard 2, but the Garage1217 amp just has more*, and looks cooler! (IMO)
     
    The Polaris was simply an extremely capable amp. Actually an amazing amp, especially taking into account its relatively low cost ($250 USD) and factoring in everything else about it—all of its various functions, and the fact it's American-made (which may seem irrelevant for non-Americans, but for us Americans that's no small thing), and made by a business that provides excellent customer interaction. There's absolutely nothing bad that I can say about Garage1217!
     
    * Well technically the Asgard 2 has the advantage of being a discrete amp that runs in Class A, while the Polaris uses an op-amp and runs in Class AB, but I'm betting that the majority of headphone listeners won't care about those difference and the consequences.
     
    Equipment Setup
     
    - Source component: NAD T533 (DVD player)
    - Headphone amplifier: HeadAmp Gilmore Lite w/ DPS
    - Headphones: AKG K712, Audio-Technica ATH-AD2000, Sennheiser HD598, Creative Aurvana Live
     
    Personal Info
     
    As an FYI to put the comments on "natural" sound into the proper context, I'm a trained violinist (learned via the Suzuki method for 12 years starting at age 6, then quit lessons at 18 and have been playing on and off since, and I'm 33 as of this writing) and have had an opportunity many times to play in a symphony or chamber orchestra, plus much smaller ensembles that have included quartets and duets with a pianist. I've attended classical-music concerts as well.
     
    Evaluation Music
     
    Selected tracks from the following albums were used, not the entire albums—for most of the albums, anyway. Albums that were listened to in their entirety are marked with asterisks (*).
     
    - Anathema - Distant Satellites
    - Arch Enemy - War Eternal
    - Boards of Canada - Tomorrow's Harvest
    - Carlos Kleiber & VPO - Beethoven Symphonies No. 5 & 7
    - Diablo Swing Orchestra - Sing Along Songs for the Damned & Delirious
    - Infected Mushroom - Vicious Delicious
    - Julia Fischer - Bach Concertos *
    - Katy Perry - Prism
    - Lucius - Wildewoman *
    - Massive Attack - Mezzanine *
    - Nickel Creek - A Dotted Line *
    - Orbital - Snivilisation
    - Phantogram - Voices
    - Yggdrasil - Prose Edda
    - The Crystal Method - The Crystal Method, Tweekend
    - Thievery Corporation - Saudade *
    - Trifonic - Emergence
    - Trivium - Shogun
     
    Related Links
     
    Garage1217 Project Ember review: http://www.head-fi.org/products/garage1217-project-ember-hybrid-headphone-amplifier-preamp/reviews/10302
      HOWIE13 likes this.
    1. View previous replies...
    2. Asr
      lalala6: Sorry, I don't know of any currently-available <$500 amps that the AD2K would sound great with. I don't even know of many >$500 amps for that matter either. The best amps I've found the AD2K to sound great on, regardless of price, are the Dynalo and M3 (both DIY, the Gilmore Lite was a commercial version of the Dynalo).
       
      xaval: I have not tested a Schiit Yggdrasil, not sure where you got that from.
       
      Note to all readers: please do not ask me questions in the comments here, as I'm not going to continue monitoring this review's comments much longer (only for a few more days). Please post questions in the Amps forum instead where others can answer as well: http://www.head-fi.org/t/725896/new-from-garage1217-the-solid-state-project-polaris
      Asr, Sep 24, 2014
    3. xaval
      @Asr : From your Evaluation Music list :)
       
      hint:  Prose Edda
      xaval, Sep 24, 2014
    4. Asr
      ^ Didn't realize you were referring to my music list, I just had Schiit Audio on the brain when you mentioned that and they happen to have a DAC of the same name in the works. That album is awesome, I'm sure you already knew that though. :wink:
      Asr, Sep 27, 2014