REVIEW: Apex Arête Headphone Amplifier
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Skylab

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Starting Up
 
Todd The Vinyl Junkie offered me the opportunity to review the latest offering from Apex, the “Arête” headphone amp.  Which of course I jumped at – it looks like a nice design, and I had thought very highly of the Apex Peak I reviewed last year.
 
The Arête is really as much small pre-amp as it is headphone amp.  It has three line inputs and a line output on the rear, as well as the ¼” single-ended headphone out on the front.  The chassis is nice enough looking and well but not over built:
 


 
 
The Arête, by today’s standards, is not a ultra-high-powered headphone amp, although it has plenty of power for the overwhelming majority of headphones.  The published specs are:
 
[size=10.0pt]Max output level into 150 ohms @ 1kHz: 7.4V RMS / 21V P-P / 360mW
Max output level into 33 ohms @ 1kHz:  4.7V RMS / 13V P-P / 670mW
Peak output current: 220mA[/size]
 
(Further information can be found here: https://www.ttvjaudio.com/store/comersus_viewItem.asp?idProduct=717)
 
 
 
[size=10.0pt]The Arête worked well with the Beyer T1, but likely only because the T1 is very, very efficient/sensitive.  It likely isn’t outputting more than 100 mW or so into 600 ohms.  There was plenty of power for the LCD-2, IMHO, but the Arête was not even close to powerful enough to do justice to the HE-6.  They sounded thin and brittle compared to more powerful amps.  The Arête is not going to do well with high impedance headphones unless they are also of reasonably high sensitivity, and ultra-low sensitivity ortho/planar headphones also need not apply.  A headphone of reasonably high sensitivity, like 90 db/mw in the low impedance range, and high 90’s in the high impedances, is likely going to work best, in order to provide nice headroom.  I am a fairly low volume listener, tending to listen mostly in the 70 dBA range – I calibrate my listening levels to 80 dBA peak.[/size]
 
 
Listening Up
 
The primary defining trait of the Arête is one of being very transparent and very neutral – within its power abilities, comes very close to being a straight wire with gain.  It was very easy to discern the differences between sources though a given set of headphones with the Arête.  The sound was unfailingly clean, and never harsh, but neither is there any prettying up of untidy recordings.  In fact, using an iPod on shuffle (via the Pure digital dock and my AVA DAC), the change from one song to another could sometimes be very jarring due to the differences in the recording quality between the tracks.  Nice. If you want a very neutral, straight line reading of your music, with very little editorializing and good clarity, the Arête is a good choice.  But don’t be upset if bad recordings sound…well…bad.  Don’t shoot the messenger!
 
On the flipside, good recordings were highly enjoyable.  Listening to Joanna Newsom’s “Cosmia” from “Ys” was an absolute pleasure.  The very lush strings and Newsom’s plucked harp were set in contrast to her squeaky but very emotive soprano – exactly as they should be.  It was super enjoyable.
 
The Arete also delivered all of the power of Yes at full throttle in the driving “Madman at the Screens”, the third part of the phenomenal new “Fly From Here” suite.  Chris Squire’s driving bass line which propels the piece was very nimble, well defined, and full via the Arete.
 
The T1 sounded very good with the Arête.  This combination formed a very open window into the music which was very wideband and dynamic.  The soundstage was very wide, deep, and well defined.  It was not quite as deep or holographic as I get from any of my 4 top-tier tube amps, however.  Whether this is real, or a coloration of the tube amps, I cannot be 100% sure, but soundstage depth and 3D realism, while good with the Arête, is not this amps strong suit, and if you are a soundstage freak, I wouldn’t put this amp at the very top of your list.  It’s not a slouch, but there are better in this regard.  I still marginally prefer the T1 with the Woo WA22 and the Trafomatic Experience Head-one, but neither of these amps is as strictly neutral as the Arête (the WA22 is very lush; the Head-One is very close to dead neutral with just a small amount of tube lushness in the midband).
 
With the HD-800 it was a different story, for me personally.  I don’t really like the HD-800’s high-frequency sonic signature, and as such, the Arête’s neutrality laid bare the HD-800’s 6 kHz treble peak, and I didn’t really enjoy the pairing.  I much prefer the HD-800 on the WA22.  The WA-22 is coloring the HD-800, for sure, but in a way that they need to be colored, IMO.
 
The LCD-2, on the other hand, again sounded GREAT with the Arête (I’m talking here about “rev-1” LCD-2’s).  The Arête seemed up to the job of powering them with no real problems.  The combo here did a very fine job, and I think the pairing is synergistic.  This would be a fine SS amp choice for LCD-2 owners.  The clean and neutral presentation benefitted the LCD-2, which themselves are very clean and neutral.  Since the LCD-2 have a remarkably flat response aside from a slightly shelved-down treble, they have nothing to “hide”, and the Arête lets you enjoy their presentation unfettered.   Songs like “Blackest Eyes” from Porcupine Tree’s “In Absentia” which feature both melodic and frenetic sequences were very well served.    Ditto the Ultrasone Edition 8 and JVC DX-1000 – the amp's neutrality served these headphone very well, and I enjoyed them both very much with the Arête. 
 
Unfortunately I did not have another well known stand-alone solid-state headphone amp with which to directly compare the Arête.  The Arête delivered competitive (though a bit different) sound to my Trafomatic Head-One tube headphone amp, which is similarly priced to the Arête with Volcano (see below).    I don’t believe in making “value” judgments about products beyond comparing other products of similar price, and based on that, the Arête does seem competitively priced.  For many, $1,500 for the Arête/Volcano is a lot of money to spend on a headphone amp, and you can get excellent performance that is very close to this level from amps half this price.  Nonetheless, the Arête delivers a competitive performance in its price class, IMO.
 
 
Powering Up
 
I received the Arête with the standard power supply, and the “Volcano” option.  ALL of my comments about the sound made above were with the Volcano.  I tried the Arête with the stock PS, but the sound with the Volcano was significantly better.  While the Arête is still a nice amp with the stock PS, I would very strongly encourage people to consider the Arête and Volcano as one “product” (my experience was the same with the Peak).  There is a definite increase in the sense of dynamic ease as well as the transparency.
 
 
Summing Up
 
The Arête provided a very clean, clear, open, and neutral sound.  It’s not a massive powerhouse, nor is it an amp to be used if you want to “pretty up” the sound.  But if you want an amp that will give you a wide open window to the music you are feeding it, and you have reasonably efficient headphones (or maybe better stated, you are not trying to use it with the most power-hungry of headphones), the Arête will deliver the sonic goods.  With those characteristics in mind, I can recommend it.  For me personally, it wasn’t a great sonic match for the HD-800, and wasn’t powerful enough for the crazy-power-hungry HifiMan HE-6.  But with the T1, Ultrasone Edition 8, JVC DX-1000, and LCD-2 it was terrific.
 
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Frank I

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Very nice write up  rob. Well written and I enjoyed the read. I gather this amp is not too strong with the stock power supply and kind of pricey with the more expensive power supply. How does it compare to the vintage amps in Sound quality?
 
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Skylab

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Thanks Frank!!!!
 
Regarding my vintage receivers, I think the Arete is slightly cleaner and more transparent than they are.  On the other hand, all of my vintage receivers offer more power from their headphone outs than the Arete does.  This is only really relevant with a handful of headphones. 
 
I won't get into the question of comparing the value of each of those, as they are so very different things - the person buying the Arete, in addition to the amp itself, gets a warranty and great support behind it.  When you buy a vintage amp, you're on your own.  I love the vintage stuff, but it's not for everyone, of course, as you know all to well, my friend

 
 
 
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TheWuss

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Thanks for the review, Rob! 
I have a Peak/Volcano on the way.  Glad to hear the sibling amp is a nice addition to Todd/Pete's line...
 
and...
Joanna Newsom!  Woot!

 
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KevinWolff

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I'm in my second month with the Peak/Volcano and I love it. When I heard about the Arete I thought maybe I could have gotten a better value if I got it instead. But now I know I wouldn't be as happy without the tube rolling capability.
 

 
Quote:
Thanks for the review, Rob! 
I have a Peak/Volcano on the way.  Glad to hear the sibling amp is a nice addition to Todd/Pete's line...
 
and...
Joanna Newsom!  Woot!


 
 
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achristilaw

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Yeah, you nailed it Rob...you might have a Future in this reviewer thingee
. Not everyone is into the higher power, ear-speaker needs. Also, not everyone wants to hide the signal from the actual (read:TUBES). I love my restored Marantz 2285B...but it offers a slight glare and a hint of glaze (and congestion), that the Arete does not. And importantly the Marantz doesn't like my Grado's, the Arete sparkles here! The 580/6XX is at home as well! You CAN have a ton o' tone without tubes.....  Highly recommended!
 
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Syan25

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Nice review!
 
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Yes, thanks Rob!  Nice review, as always!
 
In his review of the Peak/Volcano, Tom Martin was impressed with the Peak's "astonishing resolution."   
 
Would you say that the detail offered by the Arete is as impressive as that of the Peak?  
 
It seems so, given your comments regarding the Arete's transparency, but I think of transparency as a superset of resolving power. (In other words, I believe resolution can be high in the absence of transparency, but not the other way around.)
 
Thanks!
 
Mike
 
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Skylab

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Indeed, I think the Arête has excellent resolution, and I felt the same way about the Peak.
 
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Quote:
Indeed, I think the Arête has excellent resolution, and I felt the same way about the Peak.

Thanks Rob!   
 
I'm looking forward to your review (if you happen to do so) of Jan Meier's forthcoming Concerto successor - the Corda Classic (due in Oktober).  Counting the chickens before they've hatched, I hope you'll be able to remember the sound of the Arete well enough to compare them - given that I suspect the Corda Classic will also be exceptionally resolving, neutral, and transparent.

Source:  http://www.meier-audio.homepage.t-online.de/
 
 
Mike
 
 
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Skylab

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Do you prefer Arete over Peak ?

Nope. I prefer the Peak. I like to have that little tube lushness, myself, and I like the ability with the Peak to tailor the sound via tube rolling. I also think it is the slightly better amp overall...BUT...this is going from memory. I did not have the Peak around anymore to compare.
 
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Great review Rob, thanks.
 
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The Peak offers transparency because of it's resolution, not in spite of it. With the right signal you have fairy plums dancing in the noggin. The Arete is cut from the same family cloth and practices on the same field (my Football nod). Pete and Todd have made the right choice of solid-state staging and a mating of/to output circuit. Sonically it ranks with the best of Solid-State.....(IMO). 
 
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