ECP Audio - DSHA-1, L-2, Black Diamond

Discussion in 'High-end Audio Forum' started by radio_head, Apr 24, 2013.
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  1. When I got into this hobby (I've been lurking for quite a bit longer than I've been a member) I was looking for a way to enjoy my music even more than I already was.  In the years since, I've found ways to do that - headphones with oodles of resolution, amps with sound stage that goes on for miles, and speakers that could blow the dress off a girl (or adventurous guy.)  
    But all that doesn't make someone stick around a hobbyist forum(s).  If its just about getting some gear and getting out, then that's exactly what a person does.  However, if it is about more than that - if it is about the people, then you can find yourself sticking around.  In the past few years I've met in person or interacted online with some very cool people - both users and vendors.  
    However, I had never thought to start a thread on a product - be it headphone, amp, DAC, whatever.  Usually when I like a product, I find a way of letting the people I think would care know about it and then go on my merry way.  This is mainly because I am and have always been averse to hype - I had a relative who was run over by a hype train as a child -  I do not do threads with exclamation points after every sentence and hyperbole dressed as impressions.  I was always afraid if I started a thread it would devolve into that (at best - at worst flaming or cable debates) and did not want to be indirectly responsible for such a thing as an OP.  
    I am making an exception for ECP.  There are a few reasons for this.
    1)  The products have been out for a while and I have had most for long enough that any honeymoon that may have existed is over.
    2)  Doug, the man behind the operation, is seriously awesome.  I've forum-stalked him for a while, long before he started a commercial venture, and I always found his posts, particularly those concerned with DIY, helpful and informative, not to mention easy to follow.  In my interactions with him since, this has carried over in our correspondence about harmonic distortion and how dreamy Rob Lowe is.
    3)  Doug's customers are a pretty mellow bunch.  Doug himself, both in marketing, posting style, and outlook - very much embodies the "understated elegance" (borrowed n_Maher's perfect description) of his amps.  His customers however are the same way.  Despite some very happy customers, you will find almost no posts about his products - his customers are not a hype-y bunch.  So, at least with the existing customer base, I don't expect this thread to spiral into a incoherent mess of platitudes, emoticons, and "this is the album I'm listening to now!"s.  If anyone buys an ECP product because of this thread an starts an appreciation thread I am quitting Head-Fi permanently.
    4) Doug is having a ridiculous moving sale right now.  At these prices, he's giving them away (in exchange for money.) I think at least one of his amps would appeal to many users here depending on gear and preferences.  At the sale prices, I'd call them a no-brainer for HP1K users who want what could be one of the best work rigs assemble-able.
    Doug (Head-Fi user Dsavitsk) has been a long-standing upstanding member of the DIY community here and elsewhere on the web (one that unfortunately seems to have stagnated lately.)  His current DIY project is the Torpedo though he's had a few others that you can read about here.  He started ECP Audio with a nickel in his pocket and a dream in his heart, a dream some deemed 'impossible'.  When doctors later confirmed that hearts do not in fact dream, he decided to build amplifiers instead, a broken man.
    His name is Doug.  And here are his amps:
    The DSHA-1: This is a solid state amp?
    This is ECP's solid state amp. Pictured is the version with the external PS, but there is a also a cheaper version with this instead.  
    I have a tumultuous relationship with Solid State dynamic amps.  I've owned or tried most of the more pricey offerings, and they almost always fail to live up to my favorite tube amps in at least one of the following regards: 
    1) Micro-Detail
    2) Soundstage
    3) Lack of bite
    Disclaimer- if you "know" that an amp's topology cannot possibly affect one of these criteria, please write your comment down, put it in an envelope, address it to me, and then take a long hard look at what it says about yourself that you are unable to see something on the internet without being so intent to prove its wrongness that you are willing to write a letter (which nobody does) to a stranger to "educate" them about it.  
    I have tried a lot of solid state amps out and never found one that could hold up to a good tube amp (particularly a DHT one) in these categories.   Sure, they extend better and are usually quicker, but I do not like feeling I'm listening to music in an elevator and I don't like the edge I sometimes hear with solid state (not to be confused with edge that's in the recording in the first place in which case you're just up a creek.)  The detail I perceived with amps like the Balancing Act compared to any solid state amp I'd heard was enough to make any audition or ownership short-lived.
    The DSHA-1, like the Liquid Gold, excels in these areas (well, two out of three.)  There is zero bite/glare/harshness/sharpness or whatever you semanticians (semanticysts?  semantologist?) call it these days.  It also has quite a bit of low level-detail, though not to the extent of my previous (significantly more expensive and less practical) tube references.  Sound stage is not on the level of the Liquid Gold but is better than most, and since I'd primarily use this anyway with less soundstagey headphones (CIEMs up to HD800's) I'd be willing to not spend the extra ~4K on the LAu to get that.  
    When I first heard this amp, I thought it sounded the most like a good tube amp I had heard from Solid State.  Apparently there is good reason for this.  This is what an anonymous (you know who you are) fellow (unbiased) DIY admirer had to say about it:
    The DSHA-1 is unique in that it essentially uses tube topology output stage but in place of a tube it uses a mosfet... so it couples a mosfet to an output transformer.  You get the linearity of a FET and the "charm" of the transformer coupled tube amps.  I suspect there are not many amps designed this way and for no good reason other than very few people have enough intrinsic knowledge of transformers to pull it off well. That and FETs could in theory drive massive currents themselves (unlike tubes) so most designers would not go to the expense or hassle of trying to do this.
    Per Doug's own article, this design goes through "piles of MOSFETs, Zener Diodes, etc to find sets that are very closely matched" - this alone could explain why some companies don't bother - if you're trying to sell a lot of amps, you find a way to design an amp that can be built quickly and economically.  
    Not everything about the tube sound is roses for everybody though.  Along with the benefits of sounding more like a DHT SET, it does seem to me to have a little softness to the edges.  I wouldn't equate this with blurring of details or lack of clarity, but it isn't razor sharp like I would classify some amps (the GS-X as an example).  
    The DSHA-1 also makes a choice with regards to gain.  This amp (in what I would call ECP's signature) is dead quiet.  With no music playing, there is no hiss at any volume (except maybe ear-bleeding attenuation with sensitve IEMs.)  I have never come across an amp that I would consider optimal for every headphone from IEM to K1K/HE-6.  The DSHA-1 is no exception.  With stock gain, I would say it excels from CIEMs to my Tari modded HD800's, with Tari modded HD800's being right at the edge of its "recommended" range.
    Per Doug, for those looking to run their LCD-X or Hifimans to headbanger levels, one can use the jumpers on the inside (or have Doug set them) to change the Input transformers from 1:2 to 1:4 for double the gain.  The high Z swich can also add gain of of to 6dB depending on load.  There is of course a trade-off there as well, as it would likely have more gain than I would want with headphones like the HP1000's and definitely customs, so stock it stays.
    It's already become mantra at this point with those who know about it, but this amp is serious business with Grados.  To the extent that I'm not certain I'd rather have another amp for them, at least not with that footprint.  There is no noise floor, the background is blacker than the end of the Sopranos. Grados and headphones like the TH900 have always been synonymous in amping terms for me so I would surmise it would offer similar performance but sold mine before I bought the DSHA. This amp has also lately become my go-to for CIEMS (JH13FP, UERMs) and has quite a bit of play with them while being more seductive than any portable I've tried (unfortunately its not portable, so this is only a solution at home or work.)  
    Grain Macro Shot- L-2 and DSHA-1
    As always, looks are subjective.  One man's garbage is Lamar Odom's wife another man's treasure.  I will say the tolerances on this amp are superb.  When trying to get the top plate off for pictures (Doug sends a special grill tool to avoid damaging the amp) it was hard because wiggling wasn't really an option - there was no wiggle room so you have to lift straight up.  Doug has a professional furniture company do the woodwork and you can tell every aspect of the amp was thought out. The internals, from layout to implementation, are also lovely.  Top shelf components all around, from the Lundahl input transformers to the Cinemag OPTs.  
    The one annoyance (and this applies with the L-2 as well) is how the amp connects to the PS if using the external PS version:
    If you expect to set them on the same table, you have to either run the umbilical in the back, leaving the power switch and IEC socket on the front to twist back and plug in like above, or (seen below with the L-2:)
    Run the umbilical from back of amp to front of PS, leaving power switch on back of PS.  I think there was a review on innerfidelity that mentions the same thing.  My solution is either to run it on multiple shelves (at home) where this issue is mitigated, or (at work) to keep the amp on the desk with the PS behind it, closer to an outlet (back to front umbilical run, power cord to socket. No bending the power cable or umbilical.)  Only downside to this is the power switch is not right next to you.  Did I mention the amp and PS can be right next to each other with zero hum?
    A note on the DSHA-1 - it has only one set of inputs, XLR, and only one out, also XLR (single 4 pin.)  Doug does offer adapters at both ends for those with sources that only do RCA or headphones with 1/4" jacks.  In the case of CIEMs, I run Doug's 1/4" adapter -> TRS/1/8" adapter-> CIEMs.

    The L-2: This is a tube amp?
    This is ECP's tube amp. (Only comes with external PS.)  It is definitely not your average tube amp, and definitely doesn't hew to the stereotype.
    The L-2 is a parafeed "spud" amp.  I'm not going to waste valuable typing space with something I don't fully understand the import of, so I'll let Doug do it for me.
    ECP seems to design amps that utterly defy convention.  (Okay, the word 'utterly' thrown in there is probably hype.)  While the DSHA had some of the best qualities of your typical SET, the L-2 as a tube amp has some of the best qualities of a solid state design.  After turning it on and letting it sit for a couple minutes, I plugged in my most sensitive headphones (UERMs) into them and put on the Zombies Odessey and the Oracle like any non-cannibal would.  There was some grain.  "Darnit," I thought, not daring to swear in front of myself.  "I guess this isn't as good for sensitive headphones as the DSHA."  I cycled through some more modern recordings and after a while noticed I was hearing no hiss hum or buzz as Doug would say.  I went back to the same recording.  Yeah.  Looks like I was blaming something on the amp when it was the recording, even though I've listened to the album more times than my accountant can count on some very nice systems.  
    So, yes, it is very true to source, and from subsequent listening (I've only listened analytically so far, haven't listened for "pleasure" yet) this extended further than just grain.  The micro-detail was maybe even better than the DSHA, and the soundstage has (so far) seemed more filled out.  It doesn't quite have the extension of the DSHA, but (again a curveball to me) it seemed to be punchier.  So far (liable to change) the L-2 has been my poison of choice with rock and funk (yes, I can break it down to the Meter's Rejuvenation or Ohio Player's Fire with the best of them) while the DSHA has been my choice for Classical and Jazz.  
    Better yet, the L-2 is also more optimal for the HD800.  Actually, I'd add this to the list (only a couple amps long really) of amps I love with the Tari modded HD800.  They are quite hard to get right - the HD800's are a combination of uber-resolving and on-again-off-again headache-inducingly bright that can dissuade the unworthy semi-audiophiles.  Eddie Current is my usual solution for this, and I haven't heard much else out there that did resolution really well while not slowly building pressure in my temples.  The L-2 with Tari-modded HD800's is definitely one of the few. 
    I do think the HD800 can go even further than where the L-2 takes it - I have very high hopes for the Leviathan in particular which has been proclaimed to have "the best resolution for the HD800" by one user and is heralded as "a really expensive amp" by another.  We shall see.  For it's footprint, and with it's set-it-and-forget it nature, the L-2 is among my favorite.  
    The jury is still out with orthos, I'm running some further tests.  I cannot confirm nor deny whether they involve listening to Celine Dion and crying in the shower.
    Nits to pick- other than the same umbilical deal as the DSHA-1, the L-2 top has to be taken off to put the tubes in or take them off.  This involves using a hex screwdriver and the included grill thingie.  If this were an amp meant for rolling this would be a big deal, but as it's really more of a set-and-forget use-the-tubes-it-came-with amp, spending 2 minutes every 10,000 hours or so doesn't seem like a very big deal.  Build is same as the DSHA-1 - I can't believe this amp's parts quality (yes those are v-caps) without making you buy some premium upgrade package shenanigans for an extra thousand.  ECP does it right the first time around.
    This amp is also not one for those hooked on euphonics.  There are plenty of tube amps out there that I would call "romantic," "euphonic," or "love syrup"y, but this is not remotely one of them.  No, its not dry and clinical either, but a person should know what they're getting into.  If you want real lush sound, this is definitely not the amp for you.  If you want to hear all the nuances in Hartman's presentation of Lush Life though, well, this may be a contender.
    The L-2 has balanced ins, 1/4" out, so you'd need to use an adapter to drive balanced headphones.  ECP amps come double-boxed, with the inner box perfectly plucked of foam where your stuff needs to go.
    The L-2 is a classy amp.  It has a very wrinkled forehead and a mustache.  From its mouth you can tell its angry though.

    The Black Diamond: Trannies - the Final Frontier
    Up to this point, we've been dealing with conventional amps implemented somewhat unconventionally.  
    The Black Diamond is something else entirely though.  When people ask "what's the best amp for the HD800" for the millionth time, one of the first things established other than budget and willingness to sell organs is "solid state or tube?"  No one ever asks "or transformer" - until now.  (How's that for advertising guys?)  Doug goes through it in his articles, but the gist of it is that 1) The Black Diamond successfully uses transformers without suffering potential issues in this application and that 2) That acrylic one he had pictures of was really cool and I want one now.
    Per some of my early impressions:
    I almost don't want to say how this amp sounds to me, because I don't want to start the mantra of "what a transformer amp sounds like."  Like anything else though, I expect it to come down to implementation.  So here's how this implementation struck me.
    First, noise.  This is also a very quiet amp (if you get an ECP and its loud its a knockoff.)  Lots of speed and great dynamics, low-level detail is roughly on par with the DSHA.  It is more in focus though, with sharper edges - I could see either one being preference for different people.  Personally, I enjoy both.  This amp kicks with acoustic guitar, I'm not certain why.  From Nick Drake to Baden Powell to Tommy Emmanuel, everything about the tone and timbre of the guitar music I listen to is just perfect.  Folk music in general is awesome, from Joni Mitchell to Jackson Franke to Alexi Murdoch.  
    This feels like it puts out more power than the DSHA or L-2.  I don't think it actually does if you look at the numbers, but it handles what it has well.  It is also very transparent to its source - from Modi to Mytek to Invicta, all are easily identifiable fairly quickly (though some find the Mytek a harrowing experience.)  
    This amp attracts people.  I've had it in my work rig for a couple months and it is like flies to dead bodies.  This amp has to date interested about 7-10 different co-workers in Audiophilia.  I used to have to grow weird facial hair to get this kind of attention.  
    I actually like the BD with the LCD-3.  I haven't really pushed it as its been primarily at my work rig and the Audeze are open, but the Audeze already have a seductive, full-bodied nature to them - the BD just keeps it in focus.  It works well down to CIEMs, though its not quite as quiet as the DSHA-1.  I think some of this may be related to some proto considerations though, including the pot - when not using the pot for attenuation it goes away.
    Nits with this unit are pretty much all related to it being a proto that Doug made himself with lasers.  But I'm not going to complain because... he has lasers.
    I seriously hope ECP decides to produce this amp - its just so different.  Even if it didn't sound as good as it did I'd want it on the market, but this thing is far from just a pretty phase.  As far as amps go, it's had the most time of any in my stable in the last month, and that's including my BHSE.  It would be interesting to transformer roll - to hear the different sounds you get with different transformers.  I'm sure Doug did plenty of that while working on the protos, this one came with some Sweeede Lundahls.

    People sometimes ask me what "ECP" stands for.  It stands for innovation.  It stands for craftsmanship and care of construction and inspired design.  But most of all, I have no idea because I never bothered asking.
    Picture set 1 2 3
    omniweltall, fuens, Maxvla and 2 others like this.
  2. MuppetFace
    Nice thread! ECP and Doug deserve more exposure.
    Totally agree with you on the Black Diamond btw. I've got the other prototype (Doug made two), and it's really a fantastic sounding amp.
  3. Steve Eddy
    Full disclosure: I did the CAD drawings for the metal work but have no financial interest in ECP, was just a favor for a friend.
  4. DefQon
    Use of good trannies in the Black Diamond looks nice. Build quality looks great but yeah what do you expect for a $2k+ amp ?
  5. All the ECP amps are under 2K for the duration of the sale.  Build quality was in reference to internal parts as well as external build - the ECP amps use nicer parts in key areas (caps, transformers) than amps that are significantly more expensive.  I can't think of another headphone amp company that uses amorphous core transformers now that I think about it, though I know Eddie Current is/was experimenting with it for the Leviathan (which will be 5K+ more than the ECP amps are now.)  Another industry member stated that if he were to design an amp like the L-2, he would charge much more for it.  I'd say they're a good value and have a very low price:cost ratio within this industry.
    As for the looks, as I mentioned I can say its well put together but I won't say everyone will like it.  
    Steve Eddy/the Audio Guild is also working on a transformer based amplifier.  Seeing how he did the CAD drawings for Doug's metalwork (where did I read that?) and judging from his care taken with Q I'm sure his amp will have great build quality too.  
  6. DefQon
    Sounds pretty good for under $2k.
  7. Currawong Contributor
    I have to say, that I enjoyed reading through the entire review while dead tired after 12 hours of work says much about how a good review it is. I've pondered taking an interest in one or another of these amps for a while and I'm glad someone has taken the time to write a good review of them.
  8. xzobinx
    Nice review Tari. I was interested in the dsha when you mentioned it a while ago but the price tag and balance output turned me off. With the current sale might need to take another look.
  9. Yes, this price tag is definitely not for everyone in the hobby which is why I ultimately but it in the High-End section.  At its sale price I can't think of another SS amp I'd rather have, unless I had orthos/K1K in mind.  The adapter makes the output a non-issue to me, unless you need to drive multiple headphones at once.  
    Its a differential amp, which means the PS is out of the signal path - that means the necessity of a fancy external PS is less of an issue.  Therefore (and this has been backed up from listening as I originally bought the DSHA without the external PS box) I really wouldn't consider it a compromise to get it with the wart.  It comes off maybe slightly warmer with it and it sounds a bit cleaner with the external PS, but it doesn't seem to affect much else.  That's good news as it really saves you money.  
    And of course, as ECP is a boutique company, they can do custom work - so if you order without the external PS because you don't want to spend more than $1600 at the time and have money down the line to spring for it, you can send it in and Doug will retrofit it to the amp.
  10. smial1966
    Doug made a 220-240VAC DHSA-1 for me last year and jumped thru hoops to comply with the strict European Union regulations - use of lead free solder being one such requirement. He's a genuinely lovely guy to deal with and the DHSA-1 combines the best of solid state to sound 'tube' like but without the euphonics associated with thermionic gear.

    ECP Audio are definitely worth considering for moderately OK (just kidding) gear. Exceptional kit made by a nice man.

  11. shipsupt
    Tari, this is making me feel pretty lucky to have a Black Diamond board to DIY!

    Done any tube rolling in the L-2??
  12. Quote:
    Get cracking you lazy layabout.
    The L-2 comes with two sets of matched tubes (~$80-100 value) , the ones I had were two different vintages but otherwise the same.  It seems to me some tube amps have a circuit that is very specific to a single tube, and others want to have some leeway to allow for rolling fun.  There are advantages and disadvantages to both.
    The L-2 is desgined for one specific tube- the 6C45π (yes, that's the pi symbol.)  This is one of those Russian "supertubes" or "miracle" tubes you hear so much about with companies like BAT or the tube used in Russian Mig's that you find in the ZD.  These have tremendous performance and linearity.  Typically the knock on them is that they are dry sounding, but this is taking a component out of the context of it's circuit.  Just like an SS amp can take output devices and make it sound terrible to awful depending on implementation (what a range), a tube can be implemented poorly or well with varying sonic results.
    In fact, on the warm/dry scale, I'd say your choice of transformers has more effect.  Nickel inputs and Nickel outputs will be warmer than running amorphous in/nickel out.
    The only issue with these "miracle" tubes that I could find (apocryphally on diyaudio) is that it is very hard to find matched sets.  Doug has confirmed that he's had cases where everything matched and ones where not a single set matched.  So trying the usual ebay scrounging is not as likely to get good results.  Luckily, the supply is plentiful, the tubes are cheap, they last forever and don't break unless you abuse them, and if you buy the tubes from Doug every pair are guaranteed matched.
    As an aside, I was wondering why I was hearing a little more warmth with the DSHA than the L-2.  Doug did mention that the DSHA-1 has 3rd order distortion (like analog tape), while the L-2, as typical of an SE tube amp, has some 2nd order.  I found some interesting stuff on harmonic perception from John Curl that, (small world) is hosted by Q-Audio. I'd definitely agree that neither bother me, even though the 3rd is odd order.  
    What was the question again?  No, I haven't tube rolled other than testing each pair I received.  
  13. dsavitsk

    Actually might be the other way around -- the dry sound is generally because of oscillation due to poor construction. Due to the very high transconductance of these tubes, they oscillate unless one takes tremendous care in the layout, and that oscillation manifests as hard/dry/edgy sound. We use surface mount (to avoid the inductive leads of through hole) stopper resistors on the grids, plate, and cathodes of the tube. We also use teflon sockets. And we bias the heaters (DC powered) above ground. Without such measures, these tubes can be very difficult to work with, which is why they have a bad reputation among a lot of DIYers.

    And thanks for all the kind words from Radio_head and everyone else.
    fuens likes this.
  14. shellylh Contributor
    I have a prototype of the DSHA and it is quite remarkable.  Also, I am also extremely impressed with Doug's customer service, knowledge, and attention to detail.   I wouldn't hesitate to recommend his products to anyone. 
  15. n_maher Contributor
    I spent a great deal of time listening to the L-2 and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.  My thoughts on that particular amp can be found here -
    Summary - Doug, and his products, are first class. 
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