Comparative review (longish): head-to-head(moretto)
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daycart1

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Here it is finally: a comparative review of the Antique Sound Labs MG Head OTL and the Moretto HAP-03. These compete directly as entry-level ($275-350 or so shipped), tubed headphone amps.

1. Cosmetics and Build Quality

I don't have a digital camera, so I hope folks can check the photos in the sticky thread at the top of this forum or in KD's photo gallery.

I think both are good at this price and, as one would expect, similar in overall quality The faceplates have the same gold lettering over black The headphone jacks, on/off switches, gold plated RCA jacks, and event the rubber feet appear to be identical. The remainder of the MG H is painted black, the Moretto has a chrome finish, which I prefer.

The MG H is a bigger and heavier amp with two big transformers behind the tubes. The Moretto's appearance is cloned from the Earmax: the amp is tiny and connected to a separate power source (a little bigger than the amp) by a cord with locking terminations. The amp can sit on top of its power source for an attractive double-decker effect or you can put the power source on another shelf to emphasize the amps diminutive dimensions. The MG H has a boring black screen/cover for the tubes which I never use--the Moretto has an odd little "rack" for the tubes to fit through--I've also removed that.

The MG H's bigger EL84's give off a better tube glow in the dark. Laugh if you want--but I like that! The Moretto has dazzlingly bright blue LEDs on both cabinets. In the daytime, I like them better than the MG H's boring little red LED, but in the dark they are so bright they overwhelm the tube glow!

On the whole, I prefer the looks of the Moretto, but this is obviously very subjective.

2. Functions and Features

The MG H comes stock with one 12AX7 (Sovtek) and two EL84 (Ei) tubes. The Moretto comes with 1 12AU7 (Ei) and 2 6DJ8 (Sovtek). For those interested in tube rolling, my impression from surfing Ebay and Audiogon is that good EL84s tend to be more expensive than the other tubes.....

The MG H has a detachable power cord, while the Moretto's is captive.

The MG H has a mini input jack along with the RCAs, the Moretto has the RCAs only. Neither has outputs to enable preamp functioning.

The MG H has a volume pot on the front faceplate which works well except for having clicking steps. The Moretto's continuous and smooth pot is on top along with the headphone jack.

Finally (and making a reviewer's job hard) is that the MG H has two headphone jacks: one marked O(utput) T(ransformer) L(ess), the other marked Headphone. There is also a toggle switch with the two positions labelled OTL and Trans(former).

On the whole, the MG H is more versatile, though the extra features might not help everyone out. The main functional difference is that the MG H will drive some low impedence cans decently (my Grado 325, for example) while the Moretto needs a special adaptor. I did all my comparative listening with Sennheiser HD 600, which are by all accounts very good with both these amps.

3. Critical listening setup.

I used a variety of CDs and LPs emphasizing instrumental timbres and excellent voices: small jazz combos, solo piano, chamber music, and large orchestral works. I also did a small amount of listening to various things on radio and to some heavy metal and pop on CD.

The amps were placed next to each other on a shelf so that I could do some fairly quick A/Bing by just transferring the interconnects and the headphone. For some sessions, I used separate IC's for each amp and put my HD600s on one and the HD580s on the other. Then switched ICs and cans, etc..

The Moretto was brand new; the MG H had a previous owner, but was still not completely broken in. Before doing critical listening I let them burn in for about 50 hours, but I think they are still both improving as I write. Finally, tubes.......

4. Tubes

Ah, tubes....very important here. I confess that I didn't have the patience or interest to break in stock tubes so I started with the following setup for the Moretto: NOS Amperex A-frame 6DJ8 and NOS RCA 5963 (a near 12AU7 substitute) in the middle. For the MG H, I'm using new JJ Tesla EL84s and a variety of middle tubes--mostly an NOS RCA 7025 (a "super premium" version of the 12AX7). The most expensive of these were actually the new production JJs for the MG H. More on rolling below.

5. Sound

Let me start by saying just once that I am reporting what I heard and that others might hear the same setups differently.

The sonic comparison of these two amps is very complicated because of differences among tubes and because of the four different ways to plug cans into the head (two headphone jacks and the toggle switch). It is probably possible to get rather different sounds from each amp and find a tube combo that would completely reverse the sounds! (not that I took it quite that far). I will, however, cut to the chase and make a broad generalization which mostly held throughout my listening. Before mentioning the differences I heard, I'd like to re-emphasize that the amps generally sound alike!

Here is the bottom line: Both amps have a smooth sound that begs to be called "tubey". Instruments and voices have very nice colors, tonality, or timbres. The MG H tends to produce a sound that is denser, more forward, and heavy in the bass. Reversing adjectives, the Moretto's sound tends to be airier, with more definition, and a broader perspective and soundstage. The MG H often seemed to locate most of the music at the side of and even slightly behind my ears, while the Moretto put the music slightly in front of my ears.

With the MG H, some tubes that had excellent midranges and smooth slightly rolled off highs (the way I like it) produced muddy bass. Very low piano notes did not have clear attacks, and some runs of low notes blurred together into a wave of sound. It was hard to separate string basses and tubas in orchestral works. I found that this situation could be improved considerably by using the "Headphone" jack instead of the OTL jack. In the worst cases, it helped even more to flip the toggle switch to "trans". In general using the "headphone" and "trans" combo is too recessed and constricted, but turning the volume up fixed that on the recordings and tube combos that overemphasized bass.

In general, my favorite listening position was with the "headphone" jack and the switch on OTL. Rolling the middle tube makes a big difference, as others have reported. I was able to find some tubes, one in particular, that brought the bass under control very nicely. If fact using this tube (an ECC801S, variant of a 12AT7 (yes that is a T and not an X)), I was just as happy with the OTL jack/OTL switch combo, which is usually the most forward and bass heavy. By the way, Joe Lau has said that any 12A*7 tube is OK for the middle (thanks for the heads up there, Nick D).

It occurred to me that all my rolling with the MG H produced a sound rather similar to the sound I found quickly with the Moretto. My stopping place (as of now!) has the MG H still sounding a little more forward (though not behind me) and dense; the Moretto a little more refined and recessed. I'm just beginning to work with a Bugle Boy 12AU7 for the middle....

6. Subjective Recommendations

I have a hypothesis. I conjecture that the many MG H fans enjoy a lush midrange, but also heavy bass. This could be a general preference or a preference based on music selection. If the bass is a little fuzzy on the recording (as in much pop music) then the MG H will bring it forward nicely without compromise. Or if a recording is bass light, the MG H can compensate competently.

An example: I love to listen to old jazz recordings, many of which wre pretty crudely recorded. These recordings suffer most at the frequency extremes and for much jazz music hearing a solid bass line is essential. Much of my collection of Charlie Parker records (originally on Dial and Savoy) sound wonderful with the MG H. With more neutral equipment (e.g. the MicroZotl), the string bass and low piano notes are too obscured.

Lush midrange is also the Moretto's strongest suit in my opinion. But I can easily understand how some might hear the MG H's presentation of female vocals as more intimate and convincing. I think the Moretto tends to balance low, mid, and high frequencies more naturally. When I had a tube that made the bass on the MG H sound right to me, then the treble stuck me as a little brittle and harsh, though just a little.

Let me emphasize again, though, that your own results will vary according to the idiosyncracies of the tubes you have used.

Final thoughts: The big picture is that these amps are very similar in all respects!! If you like one, I can guarantee that you'll like the other almost as much. Those preferring an all out, lush, tubey, forward, intimate, bassy presentation might find the MG H more to their liking. Those preferring more air, separation, and tonal balance in an amp that is still on the lush side might find the Moretto more to their liking.

It might be relevant that the Moretto seems to cost less these days from its Ebay distributor than the MG H. And I think that very nice tubes for the Moretto will be less expensive than tubes of similar quality for the MG H. But against this, ASL has been producing quality budget stuff for some time now and there is already of body of tuberolling lore, DIY mod suggestions, etc. available for it.

I think this review has gone on about long enough... If there is any interest, I'll post a followup with specific tube information and listening notes on particular recordings.

I'd also be very happy to answer specific questions.

7. Associated Equipment and Music

See my sig for the equipment

1 Liszt Transcendental Etudes, Lazar Berman, MHS Records
2. Countdown to Extinction, Megadeth, CD
3. Led Zeppelin, The Complete Box Set, CD
4. Bruckner Symphonies 7 and 9, Barenboim/Chicago, DG LP
5. Charlie Parker on Dial (6 LPs)
6. Ella and Louis, Verve LP
7. Cannibal Corpse (I forgot the details, my son insisted that I try this) CD
8. Affection, Lisa Stansfield, CD
9. The Chronic, Dr. Dre, CD
10. Franck Piano Quintet, Julliard Quartet, Columbia LP
11.Brahms Violin Sonatas, Isaac Stern, Columbia LP
12. A bunch of other stuff that I listened to for fun without taking notes.
 
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andrzejpw

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Wow! Nice review! So, which one are you keeping?
 
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daycart1

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Quote:

Originally posted by andrzejpw
Wow! Nice review! So, which one are you keeping?


I replied to your PM, but your mailbox is full. I think the Moretto probably suits me better for classical music, but my main amp is the Zotl, so I have the others for rolling fun and other music. So I might want to keep the MG Head for my old jazz collection
Of course, I'd like to keep both, but I could use the funds for ICs and the like.....
 
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andrzejpw

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wait, so your not keeping the moretto?

<stretches out hand, hoping to grab it>



Seriously, I really love older jazz. But I also love radiohead, coldplay, system of a down, etc. Then theres classical!

Any help?
 
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Jim R

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Nice review - thanks.

You mentioned the Zotl just briefly. Could you compare these briefly to your Zotl? Is the Zotl in a different league (or at least 2x better considering the price)? Just curious.
 
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daycart1

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Quote:

Originally posted by Jim R
Nice review - thanks.

You mentioned the Zotl just briefly. Could you compare these briefly to your Zotl? Is the Zotl in a different league (or at least 2x better considering the price)? Just curious.


=========
Compared to the reviewed amps, I'd use these adjectives for the Zotl:

Smooth, neutral, detailed. I suppose it sounds on the warm side of neutral, but does not have the prominent "tubeyness" of the others.

The Zotl can be more versatile since a) it can be run with an upgraded power source: car battery (yeah, right..); b) it has speaker outputs for VERY small efficient speakers; c) it easily handles cans of any impedence.

As for value, that depends on your wallet. Some spend thousands on interconnects for a 1% improvement in sound.... The Zotl DOES sound better, but I couldn't say "twice as good".
 
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daycart1

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Well, just for fun now I'm breaking in the original, stock Moretto tubes. I'll post results on this thread later.
 
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Hirsch

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daycart1, great review! I'm curious to hear what you think of the stock tubes.
 
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daycart1

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Thanks, Hirsch. Say, are you really thinking of getting a battery for your Zotl? I think it would be a fair amount of work, but I can't help thinking it might revolutionize the already ethereal (
) sound.
 
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Hirsch

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I've been contemplating it, but haven't done much. I did inquire at one electronics company, but they couldn't provide a battery that would come close to what Berning recommends for the ZOTL. If I found an interesting battery/charger setup, I'd probably do it.
 
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darkclouds

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daycart1, great review. I've been waiting for this for awhile now :)

By the way, it's nice to see you like the ZOTL. If you ever decide to go with the battery power route, be sure to let us know about the adventure.
 
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daycart1

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OK, I've got about 50 hours of break in on these now. They sound pretty good! My initial impression is that they put the listener a few rows farther back in the concert hall and the highs are slightly brittle to my ears compared with the old tubes.

More later when I've listened to some of the music I was using for the comparison with the MG H. Then the next item is to try a current production "middle tube" I have for the Head--the Electro-Harmonics, which is supposed to be pretty good....

-----
Thanks for the kind words, Darkclouds. And how is your big ASL integrated sounding to you?
 
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daycart1

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Now I've done a fairly careful listen to the stock Moretto tubes with most of the music (and some different stuff) listed in a post above. I'm getting the same results, here is a summary:

1. These tubes take longer to warm up than my favorite tubes.
2. The highs are more "brittle" (but then I don't like a lot of top end except for big climaxes or for rock guitar).
3. The bass is somewhat less defined.
4. It is hard for me to separate effects on the soundstage from the effects listed in 1-3, but I still think the result is to move the listener back a couple more rows.


I'm afraid I don't have the stock tubes for the MG Head to do a comparison, but I do have current production tubes which I think constitute an upgrade: matched JJ power tubes and an electroharmonix middle tube.

Doing the Head-to-head showdown with these tubes vs. the stock Moretto, I find the differences between the amps harder to judge: The Moretto loses some of its main advantage (bass definition) and drops a little of its advantage in resolution. The Head gains some ground in bass power and the overall "forwardness" of the presentation, especially in OTL mode.

By the way, I've done some more listening to the Head with the Grado 325s. They definitely prefer the "headphone" jack to the "otl" for definition of detail. The bass slam might be a little less in headphone mode, but this can be remedies by turning up the volume a little.

Overall: Even with stock tubes, I think I prefer the Moretto for classical and well recorded jazz. The Head sounds better with poorly recorded material and perhaps, depending on your taste, with vocals.

 
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