Most neutral, accurate headphone amp/preamp in the 300-500 range?
May 28, 2010 at 7:58 PM Thread Starter Post #1 of 6

Dev Avidon

Member of the Trade: Frost Audio
Feb 17, 2010
Long time lurker, new time poster in need of some head-fi expertise.  I'm looking for the most neutral, accurate headphone amp around 400 bucks will buy me for use in studio monitoring (primarily going to be paired with some Grado SR325is, though I may be picking up a pair of AKG 701s or Ultrasone 2500s in the near future).  I also need a decent preamp section to control an XPA-2 powering a pair of Acoustech 8025s.  Since this is going to be primarily for mixing instrument rich, highly detailed modern Jazz and Fusion, I need excellent imaging and separation and as little sound coloration as possible.  Basically I need that ever elusive "what's in the source is what you get" kind of component.  The three I was looking at were the Music Hall PH25.2, the Audio-GD C2 and the NuForce Icon HDP (I don't need the DAC as I have an Apogee Duet, but I heard really good things about this piece of gear).  I am most certainly open to other options, and do have some experience with tube rolling, so while in my experience tubes and completely uncolored sound are largely mutually exclusive, I am not adverse to having to dig through half a dozen NOS 12au7s to get the "right" sound.
Help me oh sagacious're my only hope!
May 28, 2010 at 8:33 PM Post #3 of 6
Another possibility is the Scherzo Audio Andante.   It is a superb-sounding amplifier that is powered by SLA internal batteries.  Totally black background, and plenty of power.  $390
See it here:
May 28, 2010 at 10:14 PM Post #4 of 6
Hmmm...these both look quite promising.  I was also told by a friend to add the Matrix M-Stage to my list, any thoughts from anyone on that piece?  Also, while it seems the Sheer can function as a preamp, I wasn't sure if the Scherzo could.  That said, battery powered pure DC goodness for 390?  Sounds tasty :)
May 29, 2010 at 12:00 PM Post #5 of 6
Upon further examination, no preamp stage for the Scherzo, so that alas is out.  Maybe next month just for fun
.  Also added to the list was the HiFiman EF5.  Thoughts?
May 30, 2010 at 4:54 PM Post #6 of 6
I have the M-Stage.  Neutral?  Accurate?  Yeah, I'd say so.  Since amps don't actually do anything on their own, their performance has to be taken in the context of a system - in my system the M-Stage let's the HD580s and DT880s sound like I expect them to - strengths and weaknesses.  I think that's as good as we're going to get for a definition of neutrality in the playback chain - if the load the amp is driving is within design parameters, does the entire system sound like I'd expect it to given other experiences with the headphones and source?  In my experience at least the headphones make a bigger difference than the amp, unless the amp is driving a load it's not capable of.  The exception is certain amps, mostly tube in my experience, that are voiced to sound a certain way - these are most certainly NOT neutral.  However, they might be voiced to offset weaknesses in a given headphone, giving an overall system result that might be really good, even better than using those same cans with a neutral amp.
Unfortunately, I sold my Portal Panache a few weeks before the M-Stage arrived, so all I can do is compare to my memory of the Panache, and I'm not noticing anything unexpected.  The M-Stage does have less background noise and hiss, though.  In fact, I haven't noticed any at all at normal listening levels with the M-Stage, even with no disc playing.  I don't trust my memory enough to try and nail down more detailed differences between the Panache and the M-Stage, though.
I have not spent any time using the preamp outs on the Matrix, so I can't comment on how that part works.

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