For the past 2 weeks, I have had the privilege and pleasure of auditioning not just one Viva Egoista but two. The bigger Egoista 845 as its name implies is based on 845 tubes known for their dynamic punch and linearity while the more petite but still large Egoista 2A3 is based on tubes known more for their warm and pleasing midrange tone. Since its introduction last year, somehow the Egoista 845, handcrafted by a boutique Italian manufacturer of bespoke audio products, has shot to the top of many people’s list to drive their dynamic headphones despite its summit-fi price of nearly $12,000. Since The High End show in Munich and then Newport this past May, the buzz surrounding this amp has only grown louder. One brief review by Scot Hull just a few weeks ago made the bold claim that the Egoista 845 “may well be the best-sounding amplifier on the market.” Heady words for sure from a seasoned reviewer and consistent with the opinion of others but it is what he said afterward that caught my attention. Despite the “Hulk-like grip and power” of the big Egoista, it was the smaller Egoista 2A3 that he liked better – “this is the only product that had me reaching for my wallet.” I knew I had to hear these amps for myself.
As the owner of a Stax SR-009 and HeadAmp Blue Hawaii SE (BHSE), I have enjoyed many magical evenings listening to this pairing that many have claimed as one of the best headphone systems in the world. Having recently been exposed to the revised LCD-3F, HE-1000 and Abyss 1266 after nearly a year of isolation in my cocoon of ignorant Stax bliss, I was forced to admit what was once unthinkable, that my SR-009’s reign had possibly ended. What is most intriguing to me about this trio of headphones is not that any one of these phones is better than my Stax in one area or another but rather that these dynamic headphones have different but complementary strengths and as a collective whole, this trifecta presents a formidable “no compromise” solution for just about any type of music thrown at it. Imagine having at your disposal the incomparable lush and sultry mids of the LCD-3F, the effortless transparency and airiness of the HE-1000 that rivals the SR-009 and the majestic bass presence and soundstage of the Abyss 1266. And most intriguing of all was the prospect that maybe this collection of elite headphones could conveniently be driven to brilliance by a single amp although I knew it would require a very special amp.
I have heard each of these headphones now with several fine amplifiers, specifically the Woo WA5, Liquid Gold, HeadAmp GS-X Mk2 and Ragnarok. Based on opinions enthusiastically offered on Head-Fi and elsewhere, I also placed on my “to audition list” the Auralic Taurus Mk2, Moon Neo 430HA, Woo 234, Apex Pinnacle, Eddie Current 2A3 Mk IV and 445. There are others but as I stated above, the amp that seems to have rocketed to the top of many people’s list recently is the Viva Egoista. I thought to myself “why not start at the top?”
After a few inquiries, I was directed to Dan Muzquiz, a Viva dealer in southern California who kindly directed me to Alan Fong of Syncopation in Stockton, California who now carries the Viva line and is based closer to my home nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills. He happened to have in his immediate possession the Egoista 2A3, the exact same amp that had graced the Munich show in early May and the Newport show a few weeks later. The amazing thing, perhaps due to luck and timing but more likely due to Alan just being a super nice guy, this amp was personally delivered to my home by Alan himself within 48 hours of contact. Shortly after, he also delivered the bigger Egoista 845 courtesy of Bob Clarke of Profundo based in Round Rock, TX. He further presented me with an elite assortment of headphones to audition including the LCD-2, LCD-3F and HE-1000 to go along with the Abyss 1266 that I borrowed from The Cable Co. Of course, this was all compared against my Stax SR-009/BHSE.
I will not go into the details of the topology of the Egoista 845 except to say that this SET tube amp puts out 15 watts of zero negative feedback pure class A power. For more specifics, I will refer you to Viva’s website and Frank Iacone’s excellent review here on Head-Fi. The interesting thing about the more recently released Egoista 2A3 is that it is so new there is no spec sheet available. As of this writing, there is no mention of this amp on Viva’s website. The only thing my dealers have been able to tell me is that I have a production unit and that it puts out a healthy 4 watts but at what output impedance is uncertain. I have e-mailed Viva for more information but thus far, I have not received a response. I have been told that the Egoista’s designer and Viva’s founder, Amedeo Schembri, is a perfectionist and meticulous in every way, to the extent that he has researched all possible tube combinations with his amps and that both Egoistas are already mated with their ideal complement of tubes. In other words, there is no need to tube roll. Sounds good to me.
With my time with both Egoistas and each headphone I paired with them, all listening was done in my quiet and controlled listening room and all other components of my audio chain were kept constant. My chain is as follows: Linux-based Audiophile Vortexbox with linear PS > SOtM USB card with linear PS > AudioQuest Diamond USB cable > PS Audio DirectStream DAC with Pike’s Peak firmware> Cardas Clear interconnects. Each amp was connected to the wall by a Virtual Dynamics Nite II power cord.
As for my testing methodology, I listened to the LCD-2 exclusively for the first evening while the first Egoista was settling in and while it sounded very good, as you might expect, it sounded similar to but was easily bested by the LCD-3F in resolution and transparency and so the LCD-3F was the only Audeze headphone I listened to moving forward. During my first week of listening, I listened to the Egoista 2A3 exclusively. I saved the Egoista 845 for the second week. During my time with the Egoistas, I had access to both an Auralic Taurus Mk II and Moon Neo 430HA and while I especially liked the 430HA for its warmth and dynamics, these amps only served to highlight how much I prefer the liquidity of tubes. To each his own but please pass the syrup. During this time, I also had access to a Chord Hugo and the internal DAC on the Moon Neo 430HA and while the Chord Hugo seemed a match for my DirectStream in smoothness, the DirectStream had a slight but noticeable edge in detail retrieval and resolution. Some have suggested that the Egoistas dance especially well with Viva’s Numerico DAC. The TotalDac d1, Bricasti M1and MSB Analog have also been suggested as worthy partners but that review will have to come at a later time.
With respect to the three headphones, I dedicated an exclusive evening of listening with each headphone paired with each Egoista. This turned out to be very helpful as it gave me not only a solid sense of the sonic character of each headphone but also my physical comfort level wearing each headphone for up to 4 hours at a time. After each headphone had its turn with an Egoista, I then went to direct A/B/C comparisons with the three headphones noting the perceived strengths and weaknesses of each relative to the other and which headphone I preferred best for a certain track. Once I had spent a week with each Egoista, I then began directly comparing the two amps against each other. On a few occasions, I had friends and family over for relaxed listening sessions. Not all were discerning audiophiles but all had an opinion.
EGOISTA 2A3 vs. 845
I love the tone and delicacy of 2A3 tubes and I knew I would love this Egoista. During my week with the Egoista 2A3, its seductive character quickly became apparent and was very addictive. I found it hard to stop listening and before I knew it, it was often well past my bedtime. I found I could listen to this amp for hours without fatigue regardless of genre as it was always so smooth and engaging. What surprised me is that this amp also has plenty of dynamics, well beyond what I was expecting and easily drove all three headphones authoritatively including the insensitive Abyss. I enjoyed my audition with a Woo WA5 earlier this year and it was previously my favorite amp with the Abyss. The Egoista 2A3 reminds me of the Woo except the Egoista has more kick. I expected this would be a superb amp for vocals in intimate venues but it also excelled with large orchestral works and energetic EDM and rock. Frequently I found myself thinking “why bother with the bigger 845 when this one has plenty of punch?”
As it often goes, you really don’t know what you’re missing until something else comes along and shows you what you’re missing. In March of this year at the SoCal CanJam, I was privileged to experience an SR-009 paired with a “one off” DHT tube amp designed and built by Frank Cooter. This amp was based on 845 output tubes and was my first experience with this tube on headphones. This experience was mesmerizing and took the SR-009 to heights not previously reached by my BHSE. When it came time to listen to the Egoista 845, even with all of my preconceived expectations about its power and grip, I was unable to prepare myself for the visceral onslaught that would occur and this is with the volume knob barely at the 10:00 setting. Yet this power was so masterfully controlled that whatever I listened to was palpably authoritative when it needed to be yet instantly tender and delicate when the call arose. Equally evident was the air and space it created resulting in enthralling detail and definition across its audible frequency range. I tend to get skeptical when a reviewer says they hear things they had never previously heard but I challenge you to say that this doesn’t happen with this amp after listening for even a few minutes. If you have a highly resolving DAC, it will present those details in their fullest glory yet maintain the smoothness and liquidity that even the most dynamic solid state amps can only hope for. It lacks the sultry midrange that is the calling card of the Egoista 2A3 yet the mids remain full and nuanced.
ABYSS 1266 vs HE-1000 vs LCD-3F
Which headphone is best? Despite how new the HE-1000 is, there are already many detailed opinions offered here on Head-Fi on how these 3 headphones compare but in the end, at this level of head-fi, “better or worse” comes down to nothing more than personal preference. I have found this to be no different with these headphones on the Egoistas. On any given evening that I was listening to either the LCD-3F, Abyss 1266 or HE-1000 with either of the Egoistas, I found myself not wanting for anything. Whether it was a complex orchestral piece, four string quartet, chamber choir, solo Spanish guitar, jazz ensemble, pop, rock, EDM, male or female vocals, my experience with each headphone paired with either Egoista was transfixing. Each of these components is TOTL for good reason. Does that mean each performance was perfect and that I didn’t have my preferences? It was only after I compared these headphones side by side with each Egoista that certain weaknesses became apparent and my preferences became clearer but if someone told me I had to live with any of these combinations, I would not complain. Ultimately, what my experience proved to me is that even the finest amps in the world will not significantly alter the sonic attributes of a particular headphone. The Egoista will not make you love the LCD-3F if you didn’t love it before. The Egoista will not transform a Beats Solo into an Abyss. What these amps will do is make the headphones you love sound their best while imparting a bit of their unique flavor.
Based on previous experience with each of these headphones on other amps, I was expecting a specific headphone to top the other two with each amp but I was surprised by which headphone consistently pleased me the best. With the Egoista 2A3, I was expecting the LCD-3F with its voluptuous midrange to rise to the top and with the Egoista 845, I was convinced the Abyss would be the one to stand tallest and in truth, both excelled, but for me, I have to give a slight edge to the HE-1000 as my favorite headphone for both Egoistas. It proved to be a jack of all trades and a master of enough of them that if I have to own just one of these three headphones, this one will be it.
As a Stax SR-009 owner, few would be surprised to know that I value transparency as this is the SR-009s forte and of the three dynamic headphones, the HE-1000 is the most transparent. I believed, however, that the HE-1000 is not as transparent as my SR-009 but rather a passable substitute and since this, for me, is the HE-1000’s main appeal, I looked at the HE-1000 as somewhat of step backward. What I wasn’t prepared to experience, however, was how well the HE-1000 would scale with the Egoistas and in this sense, both Egoistas are game changers.
…WITH THE EGOISTA 2A3
As expected, the LCD-3F mated to the 2A3 sounds sublime with vocals. The Fazor elements do well to enhance transparency and open up the treble while never sounding bright. The bass is full bodied with good presence and without sounding bloated although definition could be better. The LCD-3 has the reputation of being a relaxed and laid back headphone and the 2A3 only promotes this reputation further. Could this pairing sound “too tubey” for some? Yes, this pairing can sound too closed in for some types of music and can also come across as overly smooth at the expense of detail. If you are wearing your “analytical” hat while listening, you will likely prefer the other two headphones but if your intention is to “just chill,” you will probably love this combination.
With the HE-1000 on the 2A3, the mids become nicely full bodied with just enough euphonic sweetness, and while not quite as evocative as the mids on the LCD-3F, it retains all of its clarity, detail and speed. In fact, when I A/B the two, the LCD-3F sounds quite veiled in comparison. This dark nature of the LCD-3 makes for many hours of fatigue-free listening especially with this Egoista but it is this same prized attribute that makes the LCD-3F seem lackluster when compared against the other two. Every time I switch from the LCD-3F to the HE-1000 or vice versa, in almost every instance, I prefer the HE-1000. The HE-1000 has the ability to be laid back and relaxed yet also airy and detailed.
The Abyss proved to be a very close 2nd as my favorite headphone with the 2A3 and could easily be classified as my co-favorite. For classical music on the 2A3, I actually prefer it to the HE-1000 because the transients are sharper, the attack has more bite and decay seems more natural. If Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor was the only track I used to compare these headphones, the Abyss would be the runaway winner but with almost every other genre, the HE-1000’s smoother and more immersive presentation is more to my liking.
…WITH THE EGOISTA 845
The LCD-3F sounds even better on the 845 compared to the 2A3 as it benefits from the 845’s more forward attributes. This pairing sounds wonderful with no real faults and deserves to be in the discussion as an ideal headphone for the 845 but once again, under direct comparison with either the HE-1000 or Abyss, its star does not shine as brightly. Even with the Fazor enhancement, it just sounds too veiled against either the HE-1000 or Abyss. This difference becomes even starker when compared with the Stax SR-009.
The 845 and the Abyss proved to be the dynamic duo I expected it to be. Thunderous bass slam and extension. Easily the largest soundstage of the three with excellent air that leads to crisp and sparkly detail and pinpoint placement. If you’re looking to make the best first impression on someone with a headphone system, this would be the pairing to use as it can sound the grandest of the three, as thoroughly engaging as my 2-channel setup. Unfortunately, with more time spent with this combination and with more critical listening, the Abyss’ shortcomings on the 845 are exposed and become all the more apparent when you compare it side by side with the HE-1000. While the details presented by the Abyss are sharp and prominent, they are not always well resolved and can sometimes appear muddy and incoherent, especially in the upper-bass and midrange. It’s as if the Abyss fleshes out details from a track using a blunt instrument – there is plenty of meat at the compromise of texture and nuance. While this is perhaps an exaggeration, the best analogy I can think of is the Abyss will tell you that you are drinking fine Champagne while the HE-1000 will tell you very eloquently that you are drinking a rare 2002 vintage of Piper-Heidsieck Champagne. Moreover, the 845 seems to also bring out a sparkle in the treble of the Abyss that I find myself sensitive to as it can be fatiguing with certain tracks. It is not as bad as what I have more routinely experienced with the Abyss on solid state amps but it is all the more noticeable as I switch to it from either the HE-1000 or LCD-3F. My SR-009s are known to have a bright treble as well although the BHSE tames this nicely. I was hoping the 845 would do the same. I will note that this is much more attenuated on the 2A3 and one of the reasons why I really enjoy that pairing.
As for the HE-1000 on the 845, I simply was not expecting it to scale or “synergize” as well as it did with this amp. On every other amp I have heard with the HE-1000, it never quite stood out for me because I always liked my Stax better. On the 845, this pairing now surpasses my SR-009/BHSE. I believe the SR-009 is still the more transparent and neutral transducer but on the 845, the details retrieved by the HE-1000, especially in the treble, take on a pleasingly ethereal quality, similar to what I heard with the SR-009 on Frank Cooter’s 845 amp and this slight coloration for me is a more than acceptable tradeoff. Bass is the one area where I knew the HE-1000 is convincingly better than my SR-009s but on the 845, it almost approaches the levels of the Abyss and surpasses the LCD-3F. The Abyss bass has a more visceral physical presence but the HE-1000 equals it in extension and surpasses it in detail and texture. I liken it to a subwoofer with a 15 inch driver vs one with a 12 inch driver. One hits you in the gut with mass while the other with speed and finesse and while its ideal to have some measure of both, for me it is preferable to have a greater proportion of the latter. Also surprisingly, the HE-1000 matches the Abyss in dynamics providing every bit its range even though the Abyss remains the king of soundstage and air. Where it was easier to fault the attack and leading edge of the HE-1000 as too soft on the 2A3, on the 845, the bite is almost perfect although the Abyss still wins here. While the HE-1000 loses a little of that sultry midrange texture that comes with the 2A3, it remains full bodied and smooth on the 845, much more so than the Abyss. Overall, a very dynamic yet cohesive and well balanced presentation.
Another area where the HE-1000 excels is comfort and fit. Of the three headphones, it is the one I can wear with the least amount of fatigue, even for 4 hours at a time. The HD800 remains the most comfortable headphone I have ever used but this one comes close and is more comfortable than even my SR-009s. I prefer the soft velour lining on the ear pads compared to the leather on the other headphones and the weight and balance for my head (slightly larger than average) is almost perfect. I was expecting the Abyss to be the least comfortable but I actually prefer it to the LCD-3F because the clamping pressure of the Audeze against my head is too tight for my liking. Furthermore, I find the suspension system on the Abyss to be very effective which allows the weight of this headphone to distribute evenly across the top of my head. While not as comfortable as the HE-1000, I am able to wear the Abyss for prolonged periods of time without difficulty.
Do I believe these two amps represent the pinnacle of the summit? Combined, absolutely, and I wish there was some way to combine the strengths of these amps into one. I have not heard every headphone amplifier out there but as an owner or having owned a BHSE, KGSSHV and a variety of electrostatic amps and having spent time with a broad variety of top-tier dynamic amps, both tube and transistor, I cannot imagine an amp or even combination of amps that can do what both the Egoista 845 and Egoista 2A3 amps can do together. Power and authority or finesse and stunning harmonic texture, pick your poison and if one of these Egoistas is not the best at it, there’s a good chance the other is. In my book, the biggest competitor to the Egoista 845 is the Egoista 2A3 and vice versa. Which is preferable at any given moment may depend on the type of music being played or on one’s mood. Are you feeling energetic? Would you like to experience Mahler’s 8th symphony in its full glory at the Royal Albert Hall with its 1000-voice choir singing alongside that grand Mander organ? Well, then switch on the Egoista 845 and be prepared to be transported there. How about a private intimate session with Morgan James as she seduces you with her soulful and provocative rendition of “Call my name?” The Egoista 2A3 will assuredly provide you this experience. Therein lies my conundrum. Which one to choose? In truth, I would like to own both in the same way I would like to own all three of these headphones as they have unique and complementary strengths. Is this practical? No, but under what scenario would it be practical to purchase even one of these amps? The Egoista 845 lists for nearly $12,000 while the more affordable Egoista 2A3 lists for $7,500. But realistically, even those who are fortunate enough to be able to consider owning an Egoista will have to choose just one. If you insist to know that in the forest, there are tall sequoias, fragrant cedars, colorful maples and flowering dogwoods, then you should choose the 845 because it is a detail monster. If you instead prefer simply to enjoy the beauty of the forest, I suspect you will enjoy the 2A3 more. If you are looking for an end-game statement piece and you crave a “no holds barred” performance each time you slip on your headphones, then the 845 is for you. If your habits call for more intimate or relaxed and non-fatiguing listening for up to hours at a time and your preference more often is to chill rather than to be enthralled, then you owe it to yourself to seriously look at the 2A3.
As for the ultimate headphone and Egoista pairing, as before, this comes down to personal preference as each pairing will provide a tailored experience that will not suit all. I will tell you that within my household and among my friends, there is no consensus. It has been reported that Alex Rosson, CEO of Audeze, has selected the 845 to pair with his LCD-3. It has been rumored (by my Viva dealer) that Amedeo Schembri’s personal preference is the 845 with the Abyss and truth be told, before I began this exercise, I was also expecting to pair an 845 with the Abyss. As I have had time to acclimate to both Egoistas with each of these fine headphones and as my emotions from first impressions have settled, some clarity has finally set in and I have opted for the Egoista 2A3. It has just enough of the dynamics that make the 845 so special yet also that magical midrange that has become too hard to resist. As for what headphone I will pair with it, because the 2A3 comes at almost a $4,000 savings compared to the 845, I have decided to purchase both the HE-1000 and Abyss.