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REVIEW & COMPARISON: Project Sunrise II and Bellari HA540

  1. Passingthrough
    I was asked in another thread to report how I liked the Project Sunrise II ($250) headphone amp and to compare to the Bellari HA-540 ($300) amp.
    I have had the Bellari for a while and wanted to try the Sunrise II after hearing about it on some other forums.  I also appreciate that the Sunrise designer is very analytical in his focus, conducting performance tests and publishing the charts for the amp.  I know there is some irony in wanting an amp with a tube in it to have low distortion numbers, etc.,  but my feeling is that I should be the only one allowed to inject harmonics or distortion via my choice of tube.
    About the Amps
    Design Similarities
    ·         Single ended Class A amp
    ·         Zero feedback
    ·         OTL
    ·         Use a single dual triode tube (12AX7 et al)

    Sunrise II
    Headphone Impedance: 
    32 Ohms – 300 Ohms
    16 Ohms – 2000 Ohms
    Output Impedance:
    5 Ohm or 68 Ohm (Selectable)
    16 Ohm
    Frequency Response:
    10Hz – 150KHz (-0.5dB) w/ 32 Ohm load
    5Hz – 30kHz
    Power Supply:
    24VDC (0.55A cont, 0.8A peak)
    15VDC (0.2A)
    Max Power Output:
    Up to 900mW (32 Ohm headphones, 5 Ohm output resistance)
    Up to 500 mW  (@16 Ohms)
     > 0.013% (dependent on tube)
    0.05% @ 1kHz
    Stock Tube:
    Reflector 6N23P (Russia)
    Ruby 12AX7 (China)

    Sunrise II

    (Not Shared By The Other Amp)

    1. Line Out
    2. “Easy Bias” LED’s
    3. 6V or 12V Selectable
    4. 5Ohm or 68Ohm Selectable
    5. Option to bypass Input Caps
    6. Dedicated Heater Power Supply
    7. (Minor) LED light under tube that can be set to any color (free night light with each amp purchased!)
    1. 2nd Line In
    2. 2nd output jack (1/4 and 3.5mm)
    3. Auto-Bias Circuit (probable)

    Packaging & Presentation
    Both very basic like you’d expect in this price range.  An amp in a box.  In terms of product documentation, the Bellari has one sheet of text which is adequate because there’s not much to say.  The Sunrise II has a 7 page color guide with graphical call-outs to illustrate the configurable options plus a page listing about 75 compatible tube type ID’s.  There are another 9 pages labeled “Assembly Guide” that were not applicable for me since I bought it built from the amp designer’s company.
    This is completely subjective of course.  I would normally prefer a closed case, but in this case I do think  the Sunrise open air chassis looks better in comparison and has better build quality.   My specific Bellari has powdercoated labels that are misaligned and IMO it’s pretty plain looking.  The thick acrylic case on the Sunrise is laser cut and does not look cheap like I thought it might.  The tolerances on it are pretty impressive actually (the large power caps *just* fit into their cutouts with no room for variance).   One clear nod to the Sunrise is the knurled aluminum potentiometer.    
    The Bellari is a black box, literally and figuratively.   You plug it in, connect a source and headphones, and music comes out.
    As the feature list above shows, the Sunrise has additional options and is designed to be somewhat configurable to best match your headphones and preferences.  Some of these configuration options allow it to work with a huge number of tubes, making it a veritable tube-rolling machine.
    To begin using the Sunrise, you must first bias the amp.  I believe the HA540 likely has an auto-bias circuit for its 12V tube.  Setting the bias on the Sunrise is pretty easy to do without a multimeter using clever onboard LED’s that indicate either High or Low bias for each channel.  Turn a trimmer using small screwdriver (there are small cutouts in the case top to access these) to either raise or lower the bias until the LED goes out, which tells you that your amp is now dialed in.   I mistakenly assumed this was optional so emailed Sunrise when a couple of tubes I tried would not work in the unit, and was informed that the Sunrise’s protection circuit won’t allow the amp to run if the bias is too far out of range (BTW, I heard back from support very quickly – even thought it was a Saturday afternoon).   After adjusting the amp’s bias after each tube change, it was smooth sailing. 
    You must also set the voltage depending on the type of tube you’re using – either 6V or 12V.  Getting it wrong won’t hurt anything but you’ll get no sound.
    Optionally, you can also change the output impedance from 5 Ohm to 68 Ohm and move a jumper to bypass the input capacitors. 
    Finally, after turning on the Sunrise there is a mandatory lesson on the virtue of patience as there’s a 15 second delay until the protection circuit does its thing and sound makes it through.

    Sound Quality (aka “What Actually Matters”)
    The Setup:
    For my comparison testing I tried to keep everything constant:  same source (FLAC from the non-tube line out of a TubeDac-11), same tube (I used my favorite tube from my earlier Bellari tube rolling:  a 1960 Siemens 12AT7), same headphones (AKG Q701).
    My Sunrise configuration was 5 Ohm output impedance and bypassed input caps.  I went with the low output impedance because my Q701’s are only 60 Ohm and I believe it’s generally best if the amp impedance is significantly less than the headphone to ensure adequate damping and control (side note: there’s a good article about this on the Objective O2 guy’s blog).
    My Expected Result:
    My initial guess was that most likely I wouldn’t be able to hear much of a difference between the two amps when using the same tube, thinking the tube’s sound would prevail over differences between the amps .  I imagined having to get my wife to do swaps between them while I wasn’t looking to even be sure I could tell a difference.
    My Actual Result:
    It turns out that my expected result was wrong – I found it pretty easy to tell the amps apart.
    To cut to the chase, from the first track I was shaking my head in disbelief at how good the Sunrise sounded.  The HA540 sounds fine in my system and if I didn’t have the Sunrise I would be content listening to it.  But I found the Sunrise to be a step up, with more clarity and separation, and a larger soundstage.  I guess I’d describe the Sunrise as more engaging, sounding more three dimensional and the HA540 as sounding a bit more flat. 
    I’m not a fan of reviews with a long list of “impressions per song” but I will give one example.  A track I used is one I also used as a reference for tube rolling on the Bellari so I know it well (a Cowboy Junkies live recording).  When I first heard it on the Sunrise I was shocked to realize I just heard some guy coughing off to stage left (on the HA540 this was more muddled with the drum riff) and later when Margo does something funny on stage, the ripple of laughter through the audience is noticeably more clear and distinct. 
    Bottom line is that the Sunrise II is a really well designed little amp that sounds fantastic in my setup.
    Happy Listening!
    (edited chart above to add info from another headfier that the HA540 probably has an auto-biasing circuit since it runs just 12V - a nice convenience over the Sunrise)
  2. kstuart
    FYI, the "aesthetics" and "presentation" aspects started about 30 years ago, when high end manufacturers realized that they could sell a majority of their production to the New Rich, who had little significant interest in music, and none whatsoever in sound quality.   (For example, I have a friend who fits that description, and has two $20,000 systems with polished wood speakers and beautiful solid metal boxes, that he never listens to.)
    Professional reviewers in magazines are those who can write an entertaining article.  Someone who knows more about the content, but can't write very well, could never get that job.  (This is illustrated perfectly by the fact that music reviewers rate popular music almost entirely by the quality of the lyrics - since that is what they know best.)
    Concerning the sound quality, your comparison is not valid, because you are using a tube in the HA540 that it was not designed for.   There is a myth that has been passed along in various Forums for about a dozen years, that various tubes differ from 12AX7 "only in gain".  Actually, the 12AT7 has much lower plate resistance, and needs about three times the plate current - and thats just for starters.
    A good analogy is car wheels.  If the fenders are not tight around the tires, then you can - for example - replace 13-inch wheels with 16-inch wheels.  If you enjoy the result, great. However, it would not be correct to then compare that car with another one that has factory-supplied 16-inch wheels, and say that the first one does not handle as well as the second one.  It would not be valid, because the first one's handling was not designed for 16-inch wheels.
    This should made even clearer by the fact that the Sunrise designers feel compelled to force you to readjust their amp when you change tubes.   Clearly the same requirement applies for the roughly similar circuit (OTL, Class A, zero feedback) in the HA540.
    The fact that exotic vintage 12AT7s cost about a third as much as the popular 12AX7s is enticing, but tube types are not interchangeable - especially not when the amp does not have the "tinkerer" adjustments of the Sunrise.   As someone stated in another Forum:
    At this point, you  might be considering comparing the two amps with one 12AX7, and while that might have some validity, it also doesn't prove anything, because these amps clearly do better with some specific tubes and not as well with others.   I have had almost exactly the same reaction you describe above, when changing the tube in the HA540 to a different one - all the adjectives you used also fit my reaction.
    But you have established that the Sunrise seems to be a compelling choice for those interested in the full DIY electronics hobby of changing internal aspects of audio components (as opposed to just changing entire components like headphones).
  3. Passingthrough
    My comparison is valid for my ears and my setup, no more and no less.  I used the tube I had already picked as my best sounding tube in the HA540.  Others have also found they prefer the 12AT7 in the HA540.  You should try one -- who knows, maybe you will prefer it slightly also.  But of course YMMV.
    Yes, you're right that of course the HA540 should also be biased for each specific tube used, but I did not see bias pads for doing this on the HA540.
    Just to clarify, there is no changing of audio components or any sort of DIY aspect.  It's just a few jumpers that extend from the edge of the case so you can reach them.  Not much harder than flipping a power switch even if you've never used a jumper before.
    I never said I was trying to prove anything.  As I said, these were my impressions in my system and with my configuration.   I could have also said "with my ears" but I assumed it was clear I was just sharing my personal impressions.  I have no idea if you would feel the same way in your system, your tube, and your ears.
  4. elwappo99
    Very good comparison. I see these amps a lot, but they don't get a ton of attention! Keep up the good work!
  5. mauroj
    Great comparison. I would love to hear your thoughts with a variety of tubes such as the 12AX7, 5751, 12AU7, 12AY7. I have tried all of these in my Bellari and enjoyed all of them. However the 12 AX7 is way too bright in my opinion. I don't understand why kstuart  is so defensive. All of these tubes are acceptable in the Bellari because it does have a self biasing circuit, not to mention the SQ will be a completely subjective thing. He should lighten up a little and just enjoy what he has. In my HA540, the best sounding tube so far has been a toss up between a GE 5751 and a Westinghouse 12AT7. Keep up the good work guys.
  6. FireLion
    If I could get one of these for $95 should I?
  7. FireLion
    Would you ever sell the sunrise?

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