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Project Ember review

Discussion in 'Headphone Amps (full-size)' started by amish, Dec 13, 2014.
  1. Amish
    I reluctantly sold my Ember today and have this last weekend to enjoy it. I thought I would like to get my thoughts down on this amp while it is fresh in my mind...literally listening to it as I type. I'm no writer so this should be interesting...
    This amp has been with me for 6 months now and I am sad to see it go but I know it will continue to bring joy to someone else and that makes it okay.
    Most of my audio amp experience is with solid state and the Ember was my first jump into the tube world. Maybe not a true jump due to it being a hybrid but it ultimately provided an experience I won't soon forget and I know I will buy another tube amp eventually.
    My Ember arrived with a JJ 12au7 tube which I found to be uninspiring. I quickly started rolling other tubes and immediately discovered just how great or fair this Ember could sound based on the tube rolled. The proper tube is a must for sure.
    I used the following tubes with the Ember:
    JJ 12au7
    Westinghouse black plate 12au7
    Tungsol 12ax7
    1959 Telefunken 12AT7
    1960 Telefunken 12AT7 Tektronix
    1961 Telefunken 12AT7
    1950's era Amperex Bugle Boy Holland 6DJ8 ECC88 Large D Getter GOLD PIN
    1964 Amperex Holland treble clef logo Bugle Boy 12ax7
    Polytronics Lab 12ax7 (Amperex Holland)
    1968 SIEMENS ECC88 6DJ8
    Vintage Raytheon 12AT7
    I eventually settled on the 1964 Amperex Holland treble clef logo Bugle Boy 12ax7 & 1959 Telefunken 12AT7.
    For the sake of this review I will focus on the 12AX7 Bugle Boy. I'll list my equipment at the end of this short review.
    Some people might not appreciate the open design but I for one really love the look. It is a beautiful amp. The perfect size for a desk or end table. This amp is built well with quality throughout it's construction. Frans & Jeremy did an amazing job on the design; simply a beautiful amp.
    One of the things that really attracted me to this amp were the features.
    Auto bias; for a new tube roller this was a god-send, being able to roll 6v and 12v tubes by just popping them in. Perfect. Output resistance settings; 0.1, 35, and 120 Ohm, selectable gain, pre-amp output, able to power 16 to 600 Ohm headphones, the supercharger, and the ability to bypass the input capacitor. Also let's not forget the power! 2.4 watts (depending on headphones and amp settings.) There are more features but these alone had me excited.
    All in all quite a few tuning options that many amps in this price range just don't offer.
    I remember the first time I fired it up; I was worried it would not have the oomph I was looking for to power my cans. At the time I was using a Harman/Kardon 3490 with it's AKM DACs and 5 watts to the headphones. I was pretty happy with this setup but I was disappointed with the performance when using my Audeze LCD2 cans. I was searching for an amp that could really bring the LCD2 to life.
    At start up I was a little underwhelmed. The JJ12AU7 tube that shipped with the Ember didn't sound all that much different from my HK amp and I immediately had buyers remorse. I quickly tossed in a Westinghouse black plate 12AU7 and was rewarded with a instant improvement. And so the tube rolling began. It's amazing just how different each tube could sound and over the course of a month I fell in love with the vintage bugle boys and Telefunken tubes. The Telefunken having a more warm lush 3d sound with a slight roll off in bass and treble; while the bugle boy has a more open/airy 3d, detailed sound with cleaner, crisper highs and deeper but tight lows. Other tubes just don't compare in my experience.
    I won't go into all the music I tested but I will say that I tend to enjoy 70's folk, classic rock, metal, jazz, pop, female vocals and almost everything in between. No matter what I sent to the amp; be it Fleetwood Mac, Sarah Brightman, Pink Floyd, Tool, or electronic; this amp just delivered. Every nuance in the music came through wonderfully. Bass that is shockingly deep for a tube amp yet controlled, and accurate. The bass is never boomy. A mid-range and treble that just sounds so airy! Never bright or harsh and vocals do seem slightly recessed but ever so slight.
         Music through this amp and of course the LCD2 provides a very 3d like effect, and a very spacious sound stage. Music comes alive, pulling me in and sending me into a state of nirvana. Instruments are easily located front to back; left to right. I Can close my eyes and hear exactly where they are and the size of the room they are playing in comes through nicely. Not to repeat myself but this amp and headphones really provide a wide open sound stage. It's just incredible. I hear things in the music I never noticed before such as the pick on a string, the sliding of fingers, clicking of buttons on a sax, subtle details in the music, lips of the vocalist smacking. The timbre of the music is excellent, attack and decay seem really well done as I can hear the full body of the instruments sound. I could go on and on but in the end I will just say the sound is full bodied, detailed but lush if that makes any sense. I hear more into the music than I ever have before via headphones.
    I might not be the best at describing what I am hearing but that is the best way I can explain it. The bottom line is I love the sound from this amp and how well the LCD2 works with it.
    Coming from the HK amp I can say that it is a night a day difference. The HK by comparison with it's forward mid-range, (in fact everything seems to be placed in the center of my forehead. All instruments bunched together) flat and uninspiring, closed sound, leaves me totally not enjoying myself. Bass is fairly deep and punchy but the frequencies tend to blend together too much and so much detail is lost. Poor timbre compared to the Ember.
    Now the reason I bring up my thoughts on the HK's sound signature via headphones is because before I owned the Ember I actually thought the HK sounded good. It's always sounded good as a speaker amp but via the headphones the amp fails to impress at all. But back then I was quite pleased. That was until the Ember showed up and was properly burned in. Using an A/B switch box I can swap between amps on the fly and once the volume is matched as best as my ears can tell, the Ember completely trashes the HK. It's really quite sad as the HK as a speaker amp is quite lovely.
    Did I experience any issues with the Ember amp? Well yes and no. Depends on how one looks at it but the open design (which I love) is a real dust magnet. If I leave the amp uncovered then it has to be cleaned much too often. That might not be a real issue and of course it only has to do with my laziness.
    The main issue I have with this amp is it just lacks a bit of power for my tastes. Let me explain. The amp pushes right around 2 watts at my LCD's 50 Ohm and that really is plenty of power but I feel the amp struggles slightly if turned up too loud say slightly past the 12 o'clock position. I know it's not the cans because the HK powers them louder and yet remains clean (though un-detailed and flat) while the Ember starts to break down a bit. This will be a non-issue for anyone but the guys like me that like ear damaging loudness. The Ember never comes apart but the SQ does suffer at this gain level so I never put it past the 10-11 o'clock position and let me be frank; at this position the amp is LOUD and clean! Sounds beautiful in every way.
    The last complaint is not really about the amp itself but some of the high gain tubes I run such as the 12AX7's. Some of these (mainly the Amperex) are very sensitive to EMF. If I have a cell phone near the amp for example I will occasionally get some static. It is usually quick to come and go but it does bother me. My solution was to place the amp away from other electronics; especially wireless devices and my desk top computer. Or swapping in a 12AU7 or 12AT7 which do not seem to be as sensitive. I think having an amp that is open such as the Ember that it is more prone to outside interference. Isolating the amp helps greatly though.
    At this price range I do not think anyone could go wrong. This little amp has more than enough power for the average user, has a load of features that other amps in it's price range do not offer and produces music in a beautiful and articulate way. At around $365 shipped it is very hard to beat. Being able to roll so many different tubes is just fantastic. With the right tube for you this amp will sing.
    So ends my review of the Project Ember. It has been a real pleasure owning this amp and I will miss it. It's provided me with a good understanding of the differences between hybrid tube and solid state amps. To be honest I am afraid I will not find such a lovely sound in my next solid state amp (which is what I'm replacing the Ember with) and I will be forced to seek out yet another tube amp. I can only hope that my next amp sounds as good. (I do hope for an even better sounding amp though)
    Equipment used in my review:
    Garage1217 Project Ember
    MHDT Labs Pagoda dac
    Rotel RDV-1092 CD player
    Schiit preamp
    Analysis Plus Oval One interconnects (DAC to Amp)
    Blue Jeans Cables Belden 1694A Coaxial digital (CD player to DAC)
    Maze Audio Reference3 8 guage power cords (Amp and DAC)
    Audeze LCD-2 Rev2F
    Norne Audio Vanquish Series OCC Litz 7-core, modified Type 6 Headphone Cable (SE)
    Belkin PureAV PF30 power conditioner
  2. J&J
    Along with Schiit Amps the G1217 Amps are amazing SQ for the price. I have the Ember + super charger option which allows me to use a wider selection of 6/12 V tubes The 12 bh7 tubes needs sc and is a great tube for mid-range presentation esp voice. For my Hifiman hps I prefer the G1217 SS Polaris not that the Ember is lacking for my Planars but the SS squeaks out more detail
  3. iancraig10
    What a nice review. Thank you. I use both the Ember and the Polaris and for me, the biggest problem is at the opposite end. Low impedance headphones are not best imo on either. For low impedance cans, if I want to use an amp, I use a Neco amp with a Little Pinkie power supply. I love the power supplies since they are so quiet and well made by Mike in Scotland.

    I find the Ember a bit more 'fruity' sounding than the Polaris, but I also love the relatively cleaner sound of the Polaris. The Ember is a real piece of musical fun but I do tend to return to the smoothness of the ss Polaris.

    With low impedance headphones, you get a tiny hiss from the output in both. You need bat ears to hear it, but I kind of tune in to those kinds of things, so I use them both only with higher impedance headphones. The hiss remains constant,even at zero volume so I just don't use low impedance cans on them.

    I've occasionally had phone noises burst through, but I've also had it with as stuff which is cased up. The dust is easily blown away with a puff ball that I use. I give them a good puff every weekend.

    I'm using headphones like Senn HD600 and 650, Beyer dt990, dt770 pro, akg k612 with them. (Amongst others) Put a Grado on though, and while they both sound absolutely glorious, the Grados pick out a tiny hiss along with other low impedance headphones. Grados on high output impedance sound really good. In fact, I much prefer them at higher output impedance. The bass really develops nicely and they're less edgy.
  4. Amish
    The Ember is more musical than the Polaris for sure. Depending on the tube of course. I actually found the Polaris to sound quite a bit like the Ember which IMO is a very good thing. Selling the Ember yet keeping the Polaris I think I'll be quite happy.
    The DAC being used makes a big difference too sometimes.
    I've not experienced any hiss at all. Both the Ember and Polaris are dead silent when music isn't playing. I was actually pretty impressed by this but it could be due to my power conditioners?
  5. J&J
    Yes the Ember is more tubey sounding whatever that means even if I cannot describe it I know it when I hear it but your right they have similar sound signatures 
  6. iancraig10
    It's the rich tube harmonics that make the Ember sound the way that it does.

    The hiss that I get with both is extremely low level and to hear it, it's easier to have the headphone on while you remove and put in the plug. You notice it missing when you pull the plug out. Very soft and only on low impedance headphones.
  7. oldson
    nice review
    you must like it loud! i too have the Ember and lcd-2 and at 12 o'clock there is no way i am putting them on my head!
    i would be interested to know what you replace the Ember with? i bet it will be far more expensive.
  8. oldson
    forget my last sentence i did not read your 2nd post [​IMG]
  9. Amish

    Thanks and actually the Polaris did not replace the Ember. I owned both the Ember and Polaris at the same time but sold the Ember.
    The amp that replaced the Ember is the Bryston BHA-1. I'm into my second day with this new amp. [​IMG] 
  10. oldson
    wow now that is a price jump.
    was it worth it?
  11. JoetheArachnid
    Worth noting that the Ember was originally designed by a certain F.P. de Gruijter and then marketed by Garage1217, so Frans should get at least some credit for the design. I have another amp designed by him and it's served me extremely well over the past few years.
  12. iancraig10
    Frans is an electronic wizard. He co-runs diy audio heaven with me and Javier. His designs are really well thought out and his active/passive filters are terrific as well.
  13. Amish

    The jury is still out on that one.
    And Yes I know Frans designed the amps. Sorry for not mentioning him. That is now fixed. :)
  14. Levaix
    Got to hear the Ember last night and was fairly impressed. Since you're keeping the Polaris, what would you say you like more about it? How is soundstage between the two? I also felt that bass extension and speed on the Ember weren't as good as my Purity Audio KICAS, so curious as to whether the Polaris is better in this regard as well.
  15. Amish
    The Polaris is a bit faster. Bass extension is good as well but the Ember with the right tube matches it. Of the two amps the Ember is by far my favorite. I only sold it because I could get more from it to go towards my next purchase.

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