Are headphone amps effect devices? – Earmax Pro in comparison to Corda and X-Cans...
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JaZZ

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Are headphone amps effect devices? –
Earmax Pro in comparison to Corda and X-Cans...



As a happy owner of a Corda HA-1 (and a X-Cans as reserve) I actually could have laid myself back and enjoyed the music. But unfortunately I am too long and deep in this forum not to fancy a sonic alternative which also should mean a step upstairs in quality. As a result of several advices I have zeroed in on the Earmax Pro, which is comparatively low priced in Europe, hoping especially to exhaust the full potential of the HD 600. And I was curious about tube sound, which by virtue of the hybrid design my X-Cans provides only rudimentary.

The way to my Earmax Pro wasn't free from barriers. I ordered it at HiFi Belzer in Germany at the price of € (= $) 530.– plus the equivalent of $ 40 customs duty. I wanted one in ocean blue... «Yes, it's in stock», Mister Belzer told me after inquiry at the distributor. But it was an error, as turned out later. On the same day I transferred the money (cash before delivery is the usual mode of payment), I received an e-mail from him with the advice that the distributor had erred, there's actually no device in stock. I had to be patient for a couple of weeks, because the manufacturer (Brocksieper) unfortunately be occupied by a huge 110-volt-series for the US market... Thanks to the initiative of mister Belzer, Brocksieper finally agreed to push my order between, and so my very personal Earmax arrived at me after bearable four weeks or so of waiting.

The first impression was promising; but I knew that I had to allow the device a certain burn-in period first. So I got it play during the night and the following working time. The change of sound actually wasn't huge; but then, after 30, 40 hours, the sound began to become more and more sleek...


Headphones used:


Sennheiser HD 600, modified

(foam pad removed [the temporarily covering of the central plastic ring is cancelled], self-built cable made of 100 0.05-mm magnet wires per conductor)

Etymotic ER-4X, modified
(foam tip from a noise protection plug, filter tip flush with the foam plug and protected by a nylon gauze)


Reference amps:

Meier Audio Corda Headamp-1
Musical Fidelity X-Cans
Direct connexion (via 1-kOhm potentiometer) to DAC line out


A remark to the ER-4X: this designation is adapted from Don Wilson; he used it for the unavailable version with serial resistors of 50 ohms instead of 100 ohms (S) and 20 ohms (P). They're placed in the stereo plug of the Fixup replacement cord and are said to provide better sound than placed nearby the transducers as in the stock cable. I can't reproduce that, because there are too many variables involved: impedance change, cable change, placement of resistors, new stock filters... Until recently I've used home-brewed filters (in default of reserve stock filters): empty filter tubes stuffed with foam – a passable way, but with the original ones the ER-4 sound better: more acoustic pressure in the highest frequencies, fresher, clearer sound, which I didn't exactly achieve with my foam filters despite all my tuning work: either the treble was too loud or the upper treble was underrepresented. Anyway, I've cottoned on to that sound with its mellow treble. As regards the balance of the new 50-ohms variant, I'm highly pleased with it. The slight «S» leanness has given way to a total neutrality, so even orchestra tutti never sound shrill, nevertheless the treble is represented prominently.


Please note that my valuations apply to my ears, my way of listening and my device chain. Another source and different cables might be reflected in a somewhat different weighting if not a different consequence of the several characteristics. – The essence of my experiences in keywords:

Direct connexion to DAC (Theta Pro Basic II) via 1-kOhm-Potentiometer
Direct, detailed, contoured, unspectacular, slight tendency to dryness

X-Cans
Extended, contoured, dynamic-lively, wholehearted, but accurate and musical bass, slightly accentuated, fresh, accurate highs with a trace of metallic overtone, tendency to overly contour at the expense of spaciness

Corda HA-1
Very clear, very fast, vivid, accurate, lean, inconspicuous bass, sometimes a bit shrill, tendency to glassy-metallic overtone, spacy

Earmax Pro
Full, deep-reaching, but fairly accurate bass, warm, nevertheless very transparent, upper mids and highs discrete, extreme highs in turn somewhat pronounced, very sleek, noble polish, liquid, mellow, nevertheless vivid and very (sometimes overly) spacy


I'm unable to create a ranking list for the team-play with the Etys. Depending on music and recording, one or another amp sounds the best. If I had to set one at the bottom, it would probably be the Earmax. And at the same time I would do it injustice with that, for with several recordings its noble, glistening sound rich of contrasts and space is highly disarming. Nevertheless, in co-operation with the Etys, it often sounds (to my ears) a trace too sleek and spheric, one thing that actually doesn't compromise its dynamic excellence, but on and off the authenticity of the reproduction. Nevertheless it's able to stir with every kind of music and doesn't mask the least detail. Its most ear-catching property is its spaciness. Which at the same time is its handicap, because it often comes too much to the fore – one thing that can't be said from the upper mids and the treble. On the other hand, the music is out-flowing from it with a «liquidity» like from no other amp. In the worst case (with extreme recordings) it appears like coated with frosting... (Maybe someone has an advice which tubes could lead these properties towards a favorable direction?)
Whereas with the HD 600 it's a different story. In spite of its slight dark coloration which actually doesn't meet the Sennheiser's own balance, this combination is the most stirring, foot-tapping provoking one... And I wonder that a tube amp is in the same league as the Corda regarding vividity. Drumbeats have virtually the same attack and punch, and percussion sounds tremendously fast and realistic (John Scofield: «Überjam»). One thing that pleases me the most is the metallic shine of cymbals. With no other amp steel sounds like steel in such a manner. That doesn't mean that the Earmax is coating music with a metallic film: quite the opposite, the other instruments sound pleasingly soft or contoured, too, as required by the recording. Generally the Earmax has a great sense for contrasts with the HD 600. So it seems that cymbals in orchestra eruptions are twinkling clearer than with the other amps (John Harbison: «Viola Concerto»). And its reproduction of space is very generous, without exaggerating in the same measure as with the Etys.

Surprisingly impressive is the performance of the «aged» X-Cans. It's fun to listen to its punchy, musical bass, its clear mids and its fresh, accurate highs. With it the Etys sound most contoured, sparkling and colorful. Well, on and off arises the wish for somewhat rounder reproduction, on behalf of a plausible space simulation, specially with jazz (Dave Holland Quartet: «Dream of the Elders») and orchestral works, but that doesn't harm the always enjoyable sound, which barely ever gets annoying or shrill, despite the favoring of the treble. And despite the fact that the highs tend to be coolish (one thing that doesn't bother me at all) I'd classify the X-Cans overall as slightly at the warm side.
With the HD 600 it seems to form an ideal alliance: it freshens its discrete treble in a convenient manner, the music gets a high degree of contour, and the timbres of the instruments are very clear and realistic. A lively presentation! Just a tiny hitch: the upper treble appears a trace too sharp-edged, though with its delicate metallic shimmering, on the other hand, it sounds by all means pleasing and musical. But it hinders an absolute authenticity of the space simulation. Nevertheless, even a such created slightly artificial soundscape has its charm. The music always sounds interesting and colorful, without appearing colored therefore.

From the beginning the Corda catches attention with its speed. Its clarity is unbeaten – but perhaps it isn't exactly the truth. Here and there a certain shrillness or artificiality can emerge – so with muted trumpets (Christoph Schweizer: «Normal Garden»; highly recommendable contemporary jazz) or strings in high registers (The Verve: «Bitter Sweet Symphony») –, which may get the sound, although generally very agreeable, slightly tilt towards annoying. Nevertheless it regales with an enormous transient speed and transparency which accommodates very well to orchestral music (John Harbison), the more so as the treble is enjoyably smooth, despite its accuracy and extension, from which benefits the spaciness. With the Etys as well as the HD 600 the Corda displays its characteristic in a similar manner. Is greatest weakness is its bass. Not that it would bother me in any way: it sounds lean, unobtrusive and subordinates itself to the entireness of the music. Maybe a bit too much: sometimes I miss the «singing» of the bass keys (Dave Holland) which the X-Cans provides, e.g., there is a tiny lack – at least in co-operation with the HD 600 – of authority and musicality. But don't take this too seriously: it depends on the recordings. With most of them, the bass reproduction is absolutely satisfying, extends to very low frequencies. The mids are very first class. Regarding accuracy, cleanness and dynamic they're hard to beat. The treble is clear in the same way, but seems to smooth a bit the last finenesses (unevennesses) in the upper end – which creates a very slight glassy-metallic overtone, but mostly a greatly transparent, attractive sound and never gives the impression to abstract information.

Finally, remains the direct connexion to the Theta DAC line out. I still falter if I definitely should see it as the «original sound», which all amps have to match with – which is, objectively, actually the case. Especially when I look at the Etys, how they respond to serial resistors, that is to say with just a change of balance, but not quality, so I finally have to concede that this sound represents the very «truth» in my chain. And it's really not bad at all! Concerning accuracy and balance this connexion variant ranks on the top. With the ER-4s it's present at the top of my preference list, just the mentioned hint of dryness, especially with the HD 600 which some recordings display at certain moments and requires some cut-backs on elegance and fascination (which are important to me) made me search for an amp, from which I expected in secret – I confess – a small contribution in form of transfiguring sound effects. Concretely: some more brilliance. Of course not necessarily the Grado dose...

Speaking of Grado: I have taken an earful of impressions with the SR 80. I really like the Grado sound in its own way, but it's anything than neutral and natural to my ears. Accentuated mids, clearly attenuated upper mids and excessive, kind of «glassy», rounded treble: I was kind of shocked by the overly brilliance when I came from listening to the Etys and the HD 600; and although I took my time to accommodate to the totally different sound and spent a fair portion of goodwill, the overly brilliance was dominating the listening session, sometimes appearing as downright reverberative, especially with the Earmax and even with the direct DAC connexion. The best variants have proven to be the Corda and the X-Cans: both leave a certain measure of contour intact, even though the percussion in John Scofield's «Überjam» was clearly by far not that accurate and punchy as with the HD 600 or the Etys. Anyway, if somebody likes a spacy sound with a built-in concert hall for classical orchestral music, even the Grado/Earmax Combo may be the first choice.

Many years of experience with construction of loudspeakers and tuning crossover networks have teached me that to omit the preamp (in favor of a passive solution, i.e. a potentiometer or a switched attenuator) is revealing the sound source in such a merciless way that the sound first of all appears immusical and dry – by all means if the loudspeaker really is reveiling and not euphonic. Only the fine-tuning of the crossover with infinite patience effects a really (now more than ever!) convincing result, which is perceived (again) as elegant and sleek. But with headphones such tuning possibilities are limited – I have exhausted them according to my mechanical and technical skills, the rest I wanted to delegate to the amp... When I remember that an amplification of the input signal, which originates from a high-level source, is needless in most cases, I ask myself, why headphone «amplifiers» don't just consist of a potentiometer with impedance transformer... And if I look at all the expenditure e.g. for a «Blockhead» to provide the best sound for the HD 600, the more I consider what that may have to be concerned with the original signal. Without any polemic motive.

Finally I'm begging for leniency for eventual bloomers – as some people might still have noticed, English isn't my mother-tongue...


JaZZ
 
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Beagle

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Very nicely articulated review/comparison. I find the X-Cans lacks transparency and definition in the bass range, even with the JJ tube upgrade. Little foggy down there.
 
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JaZZ

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Thanks, Beagle!

I can halfway reproduce your judgement of the X-Cans: the mentioned lack of transparency might originate from the treble enhancement. Indeed, to my ears, too, the other amps give the impression of more transparency, better flow, even though there's no lack of details with the X-Cans, at least in my chain. But I don't agree as regards the bass – there I have nothing to criticize at all.

Just discovered (as a correction of the above written): the Etys and the Earmax Pro are a phantastic match! Maybe I have concentrated too much and too long on a too little number of CDs... or the Fixup cable needs some time to break in...
Anyway, the best matches with the ER-4X are the Earmax and the Corda.

JaZZ
 
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Beagle

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Quote:

Originally posted by JaZZ
But I don't agree as regards the bass – there I have nothing to criticize at allJaZZ


Well, I'd almost rather have someone with a different finding than my own, then I could investigate further and perhaps discover that it it me that is the problem, not the unit. If everyone agrees that a unit has a problem, then it is a confirmed piece of junk that I'm stuck with.

Is it not also frustrating to go to all the trouble of posting your comparisons and findings, only to have your time and effort completely ignored by the entire board?

This is so typical. Yet if you were part of the "clique", you would have had about 70 responses at this point. Oh well, what can you do. Perhaps you merely provided information that everyone already was aware of.

Still...
 
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The Quality Guru

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Wonderfully written review, Jazz; your efforts do not go unnoticed. I thoroughly enjoyed to hear that the X-Cans was still a decent amp despite the other competitors in its company. Also, you are good with the English language -- there were few hints towards the fact that it was not your native tongue (other than your blatently stating that it wasn't.)
 
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taoster

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thanks for the review.. i always like to read more comparisons, especially between the corda and EMP.

were the EMP using stock tubes?
 
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shivohum

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Thanks for the review, Jazz! So which, of all of these, is your favorite headphone/amp combo?
 
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bootman

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Great review Jazz!

Now, as for the question in your title:
Quote:

Are headphone amps effect devices?


Of course they are!

Heck, some of us with many amp/phones combo, (joelongwood comes to mind.
)
even like a certain combo with a particular style of music or even a particular song!
 
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Quote:

Just discovered (as a correction of the above written): the Etys and the Earmax Pro are a phantastic match! Maybe I have concentrated too much and too long on a too little number of CDs...


I totally agree! I've always thought that the etys are a little dry at times. The EMP lends them just the right amount of sweetness and lush tubiness to make them swing. Try listening to female vocals through the Etys first through an SS amp and then through the EMP--talk about the music and emotion coming through!
 
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JaZZ

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Thanks for all the replies!


Quality Guru...

…yes, sometimes I can hardly understand the side blows against the X-Cans. While I still appreciate its colorful sound, which admittedly isn’t perfect.


taoster...

...yes, there are (still) the stock tubes in my EMP... after the two weeks I own it. Could you give me an advice on which replacement tubes are the best and how exactly they change the sound? I already have made a note of Sylvania Gold 6201 or 6922 and Telefunken E88CC. But they seem to be partly hard to find...


shivohum...

...my favorite combo... hmmm... it seems to be the EMP/ER-4X, just occasionally (out of curiosity) I’m switching to the Corda. The music is so wonderfully free of any disturbing factor, balanced, lively, authentic, musical, flowing, transparent, stirring… virtually perfect, just music. After replacing the HD 600's stock cable by my own one and until I got the Fixup cable for the ER-4, the HD 600 closed in the Etys; since the change (= from 107 to 57 ohms) and at last inserting the new stock filters the hierarchy is reestablished...


bootman…
Quote:

«some of us with many amp/phones combo even like a certain combo with a particular style of music or even a particular song!»


…I fear this could also happen to me… but I’m fairly optimistic that my ER4/EMP or HD 600/EMP preference will persist.


Kubernetes…
Quote:

«I've always thought that the etys are a little dry at times. The EMP lends them just the right amount of sweetness and lush tubiness to make them swing.»


That’s interesting. So Vertigo, e.g., says they’re a bit too glossy for his taste: «...they provide too much of a smoothening effect across the entire sound spectrum... I practically don't hear sibilance, instruments that should have a slight edge to them like cymbals or string instruments lack that edge or bite...» Between these extremes I feel exactly in the middle: for me, the ER-4s are ideally balanced: they don’t shine too much, but are’nt dry at all. But notice that mine are slightly modified. If you use the stock foamies, I could reproduce your judgement; but if you have attained it with the silicon tips, I would be amazed. (Btw: Is the Cosmic on the dry side?)
At last I know now what is meant with the famous «sweetness» of tubes…


JaZZ
 
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taoster

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JaZZ, i havent tried rolling with the Sylvania Gold and Telefunken either.. hence my signature shopping list.. you can get them from the link found at my signature..

i am currently using some Mullard and Amperex and even those offer significant improvement over stock. the stock tubes must go ASAP imo
 
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daycart1

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1. I'm interested in the direct connection to source that Jazz describes. I've been experimenting with phono stage--headphone amp connection (skipping my integrated), but don't have a definite opinion yet on how much it helps.

2. As many have noted, the x-cans are wonderfully tweakable. The bass is improved with the x-psu (expensive unless you have additional xponents), an upgrade wallwart, and (see recent posts) opamp rolling, not to mention tuberolling.

3. The earmax pro seems fine out of box!
 
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JaZZ

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taoster...
Quote:

«I am currently using some Mullard and Amperex and even those offer significant improvement over stock.»


...what does «improvement» mean? Which aspects of the sound change in which direction? «Even those» is meaning that the mentioned Sylvania and Telefunken would sound better?

Actually I feel like arrived at home with the EMP and the ER-4X/HD 600... but curiosity is human...
Quote:

«The stock tubes must go ASAP imo.»


What does that mean (in German)?


daycart...
Quote:

«I'm interested in the direct connection to source that Jazz describes. I've been experimenting with phono stage--headphone amp connection (skipping my integrated), but don't have a definite opinion yet on how much it helps.»


«As direct as possible» – this slogan which I follow uncompromisingly with loudpeakers obviously doesn't unconditionally work with headphones, according to my recent experience. I clearly prefer an amp to the direct DAC connection. (I'm almost ashamed for that...)
Quote:

«As many have noted, the x-cans are wonderfully tweakable. The bass is improved with the x-psu...»


The X-PSU is no longer available, AFAIK.
Quote:

«The earmax pro seems fine out of box!»


I agree. Of course that must not mean that taoster's tuberolling makes no sense. But there's surely no exigent need for it.


JaZZ
 
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taoster

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Quote:

Originally posted by JaZZ
...what does «improvement» mean? Which aspects of the sound change in which direction? «Even those» is meaning that the mentioned Sylvania and Telefunken would sound better?


it's been awhile since i heard the stock tubes but from memory everything sounded a little better. larger soundstage, tighter bass, better range.. it just sounds better overall to my ears..

i got the mid-priced mullard and amperex to see how much it would affect sound and to my ears its not a preference change but an overall improvement. The Sylvania and Telefunken has been very well recommended with the EMP along with the amperex bungle boys 6dj8s.
 
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