REVIEW: The DNA Sonett Amplifier - A Musical Discovery for the Westone ES3X Custom IEM, versus the HeadAmp Pico DAC/Amp
Sep 10, 2009 at 4:46 AM Thread Starter Post #1 of 60

Rdr. Seraphim

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UPDATE 02/12/2009: Tube Rolling the DNA Sonett Amplifier (See additions in BLUE below)

[size=x-small]INTRODUCTION: LOVE THE ONE YOU’RE WITH[/size]
We’ve all heard how easily the Westone ES3X is to drive, what with measurements like a 56 ohm impedance, and 124db sensitivity. It’s good to go with iPhones, iPods, and other MP3 players like the iRiver, and more upscale portable amplifiers from RSA, HeadAmp, iBasso, as well as a host of other combinations. With the ES3X, it’s easy to “Love the one you’re with.”

The Pico is a reasonably detailed, extended, and warm sounding amplifier that has garnered a significant following on Head-fi. Moreover, it has become a key ingredient in my portable/travel system. The Pico can be used as a desktop amp too. However, the star in the ‘lil “black box” is the DAC, which easily outpaces the amp in overall sound quality. When used as a DAC--the op-amp functioning as a buffer--sound quality ratchets up. There are gains in resolution, definition and “air.” It’s an easy upgrade for getting well beyond your computer’s DAC, or whatever is in your pocket at the moment.

[size=x-small]BUT IS IT WORTH A LONG TERM RELATIONSHIP? [/size]
So, some of you might be asking if the rig you’re using extracts all the music, all the bits, nuance, notes, air and ambience the ES3X is capable of reproducing. Is this all it has to offer? Does it get any better than this? Can these babies play with the big boys? And, as an alternative to buying yet another IEM, or headphone, at the same or higher cost, what improvements can I expect from a reference desktop system?

[size=x-small]SECOND THOUGHTS. IT’S GOOD, BUT MAYBE IT’S GREENER, OVER YONDER[/size]
As good as the Pico is, I’ve always felt something was missing. Sometimes complex musical passages can be challenging for the Pico, sounding congested, the instruments running together, lacking differentiation. It’s not volume related since it occurs during high, moderate and low levels. The sound is similar to the distortion created by over-saturated tape. (Remember that stuff?) Instrumentation becomes blurry, fuzzy, out of focus. The effect with the Pico is actually pretty gentle. The Pico in most cases is pretty full sounding, but sometimes, it gets thin, wispy, gasping for air, like someone out of breath, or a train running out of steam, if for just the briefest of moments. Most of the time things go along pretty well and it would be easy to leave well enough alone, but for that itch, that little bit of curiosity. What about over there? What about that other amp?

[size=x-small]HELLO: MY NAME IS RDR. SERAPHIM AND I’M AN AUDIOPHOOL[/size]
What about that other amp?

First a little bit about my philosophy of listening. I primarily rely on my ears to determine a component’s musicality. For me, listening is an organic process that involves a mix of knowledge and wisdom. I use my multiplicity of technical backgrounds to help put things together, and my experience to extract the last iota possible from the gear.

Many years of audio have moved me left of center when it comes to the subjectivity vs. objectivity debate. I like to experience my music equipment. Like a musical instrument, I like to turn its knobs, look at its receptacles, feel its quality, plug it in, and turn it on. Specifications are nice when they substantiate the overall musical experience, positive or negative. However, I have had to admit on more than one occasion that not everything I heard could be explained by empirical data or measurements.

So, despite my statistical and technical backgrounds, my primary consideration with audio equipment is listening to music, for enjoyment. I also have a religious background. So, “mystery” for me is easy to accept. And like a good Bordeaux, I like amplifiers that can reproduce complex, full bodied, yet distinct, differentiated, and dynamic music.

I listen mostly to classical music--that’s what I was raised on, and received musical training for (vocalist). But I also enjoy listening to a variety of musical genre’s, including latin which I’m currently listening to (Marta Gomez, Entre Cada Palabra, Chesky JD301). Chesky Records specializes in live recordings, full of natural acoustics, whether in a studio or otherwise. On the Entre Cada Palabra CD, the hall has a lively, but warm surrounding. The acoustic decay enhances an already warm, intimate vocalist, with the instruments filling in the corners. The flute on several of the songs is sometimes sonorous, creating a deep ringing that loads the room.

[size=x-small]SO, WHAT ABOUT THAT OTHER AMP?[/size]
In an earlier post I hinted at my quest for an amplifier that would take the ES3X to the next level. I also wanted something that could be used as my primary listening station for evaluation, music and just plain fun.

My requirements were few, but specific:

1.) SET - single ended triode - I’ve always loved the direct sound of SET, for it’s simple design, velvety midrange, and spacious sound-staging;

2.) Class A - has always sounded so much more open and cohesive to me;

3.) Cool - “How can you use terms like tubes and cool in the same sentence?” you ask? Well, I guess it’s a matter of degree (pun intended :). But keep reading, because I found a wonderful compromise!

4.) Reliable - It needs to last a long time, be carefree, provide consistent performance, and have a good pedigree. Once it’s up and running, I don’t want to keep tinkering with it; (Ok, maybe just a little. See THE AFTERMATH: WINDING DOWN below.)

5.) Quiet - due to the high sensitivity of the ES3X it needs to match or exceed the Pico’s noise floor (quiet background);

6.) Adaptable - it’s ability to perform well with different headphones (even though the first headset I always put in these ears for playing music, now, is the ES3X). I hope to use it as the bedrock for future evaluation, and it needs to sound decent with different vendor’s products and sound musical, for the music’s sake;

7.) Good looking - I’m an aesthetic romantic. I prefer retro looks when I can get it.

[size=small]WHERE DO WE BEGIN?[/size]
So, where to start. I PM’d Headphoneaddict (HPA) for his recommendations on the Woo 6. His response was positive. Duh! What was I thinking? All the high-end guys have as a minimum--or so it seems--one or more of Woo’s products, fully accessorized too (they call these configurations, “maxxed out”)! I looked over the Woo Web site (Woo Audio High-End Tube Amplifiers - The Sound of Excellence), set up various configurations in my out-basket and reviewed the damages. Nice, but everyone has one. And it looks so, well, modern. Except for that Sophia Princess 274B! Just look at that figure! Yeow!

I also noticed that Bluto had the Eddie Current ZDT (Eddie Current-vaccum tube and custom amplifiers). Now looky at those couple of tubey’s! Yeah! I gotta have those! They look HOT! HPA asked in the ZDT thread, “Why do the 6C33C-B’s run so hot?” Well, “It’s a HOT tube! No matter which way you cook these, Class A or AB, those babies run HOT!”

Bluto and I shared a couple of thoughts about the ZDT in the ES3X thread--about having a headphone amp and an amp for his high efficiency speakers too. Simplicity. That’s kinda appealing.

And I really like that Gotham City, Batman retro look of the ZDT.

Note: It’s always dark in Gotham City, except when the night sky is ablaze with the Bat signal! Then all hell breaks loose! BAM! BOP! Whoosh! Wham! Remember the old TV series?

Ultimately, I just didn’t think I could handle those hot tubes. Some things you look at and never, almost never, touch!

More research turned up a couple of meet threads that mentioned this new kid on the block, the DNA Sonett, a new headphone amplifier by Donald North of Donald North Audio. Uncle Erik had positive comments about Donald’s amp, and even mentioned his preference for Donald’s (DNA) or Craig’s (Eddie Current) designs, that Donald’s was an easy recommendation. Nice chap that Uncle Erik.

Most all the commentary on the Sonett was positive. For a first product introduction, I’d say that’s pretty good, since many of the comparisons were made directly with the ZDT. Wha? Yes, the ZDT! High praise indeed! Especially considering that the Sonett is half its price!

[size=x-small]DESCRIPTION[/size]
The Sonett’s design is fairly simple. A 5AR4 rectifier (good start, familiar), a 6H30 dual triode running Class A (tilting head, raised eyebrows), zero feedback, (yeah!), custom transformer coupled output (just like most good tube designs--and a few good SS models too), a single knob on the front panel for volume (via a decent Alps Blue Velvet potentiometer), a switch for matching IEC compatible headphones (shouldn’t that read IEM? :wink:, and a quarter inch headphone jack.

bgey5p


ODDS AND ENDS
There are only two switches on the Sonett, the AC On/Off switch in the back, and the IEC/Low impedance switch on the front. Regarding the impedance IEC/Low switch, it makes a difference. I left it in the Low position throughout my review, occasionally flipping into IEC (120 ohm) mode to verify what I was hearing. With the ES3X in IEC mode, the midrange is emphasized, projecting vocals forward, the soundstage narrows, and everything becoming more front and center (e.g. top of the head stage). In the Low setting, the sound is more even, the soundstage taking on more realistic dimensions of the recorded venue, vast for symphonies, spacious yet intimate on solo recordings, and rock and roll, well, it’s “what it is.” So, give it a try with your own cans. I’d recommended whichever setting provides the broadest, deepest soundstage.

Depending on the recording, I found the most comfortable volume setting between 4 and 5 which is close to the middle of the potentiometer’s range. This is also the most linear, balanced position in a pot, making the volume control imminently useable.

On the back there’s an IEC AC receptacle and what looks like high quality gold plated RCA inputs (Tiffany’s?). Everything is clearly labeled. For the most part, just plug ‘er in and spin a black or silver disk, or stream some bits, and music comes out. That’s pretty much all there is to it!

Like the Ford Model T, the DNA Sonett comes in any color you could want or hope for, as long as it’s Blue. Donald found the color in “...a catalogue.” It’s a pretty unique hue of blue, and I find it quite attractive. From an industrial design perspective, the DNA Sonett reminds me of a piece of art that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It looks playful, not stodgy, sterile or bland black. Unexpectedly, the volume knob looks like something from a laboratory, like a Leica microscope or a micrometer, beckoning, “...turn me!” It’s reasonably smooth, with just the right amount of resistance for precise, infinite adjustments. The whole thing is hand built, tested, tuned, and burned-in by the master himself. When Donald was ready for the second half of the bill, he tempered my enthusiasm with, “It will be burning-in over the weekend.” Drat. More waiting.

ml22vw


Don’t expect next day delivery after you submit your order. In fact, make plans for a vacation with the family, or keep busy with work. Of course, if you’re like me, you want a high quality product, not a rush to market clone. The Sonett is unique in headphoneampdom, both in appearance, circuit design and sound (more on that later).

cd6s71


NOTE: Donald is now working with a company that specializes in electronic assembly to help build the Sonett. Their workmanship is top notch, e.g. performing the hand wiring on a $15,000 tube preamp for another company. Donald still does much of the mechanical work, in addition to the final inspection, testing, listening and packing.

So, maybe throughput will improve, while maintaining that one-of-a-kind, hand built workmanship.

I asked Donald for a description of the amplifier, his general design philosophy, choice of tubes, and circuit topology. His very words are below:

“The Sonett is a single ended triode amplifier using the 6H30 dual triode transformer loaded for audio amplification. Triodes are naturally low distortion voltage amplifiers when loaded by a high impedance, which transformers do very well. The 6H30 was selected based on its excellent balance of gain, current drive, low noise, and most importantly, sound quality.

The 6H30 is DC heated to minimize hum. The high voltage power supply is tube rectified using the 5AR4 and choke filtering. The audio circuitry uses no coupling capacitors or feedback and is hand wired point to point. The output transformers are custom made in the USA for the Sonett.

Selectable on the output are 2 different output impedances: 120 ohms following the IEC standard and a low 28 ohms. Some high end headphones are designed and tuned around the 120 ohm IEC output, while others are meant for low impedance drive. Listeners can switch real time and choose which sounds best to them with their particular headphones.”


We exchanged a few emails and telephone calls, and I submitted my down payment. I finalized payment around the fourth week, and on the fifth week FedEx delivered a compact box on our front doorstep. What was in it was anything but modern. This is as simple and uncluttered as an amp could possibly look.

Technical descriptions aside, how does it sound?

[size=x-small]THE HILLS ARE ALIVE, WITH THE SOUND OF MUSIC [/size]
First, a description of the setup.

While headphone’s are not new to me (see my profile), I have only recently returned to the hobby. I’ve learned a few things over the years dabbling with “bigger rigs,” and how to set them up so that they sound the very best. Below is a list of ancillary equipment that I used in conjunction with the DNA Sonett.

Power Supply:
• Just a 15A circuit, terminated via an Oyaide SWO-XXX receptacle

Power Conditioning:
• Balanced Power Technologies, BP-3.5 Signature Plus

• Richard Gray RGPC 400 plugged into the BP-3.5 Signature Plus

NOTE: All devices with AC requirements were plugged into the BPT. Digital and analogue devices were separated via individual receptacles on the BPT for electrical isolation.

Power Cables:
• BPT L-9C between the Oyaide SWO-XXX AC outlet and the BP-3.5 Signature Plus

• Harmonic Technology Fantasy AC-10 from the BP-3.5 Signature Plus to the DNA Sonett

Isolation and Vibration Control:
• 2 sets of Marigo Labs VXi Mystery Feet, one set under the Sonett headphone amplifier; the second set under the solid maple cutting board (I removed the translucent rubbery feet--too wobbly!)

• Various solid brass Mapleshade Heavyfeet (Triplepoints and Micropoint) positioned in key locations for vibration control

• Herbie’s Audio Lab UltraSonic Rx-30 (on the 5AR4)

• Herbie’s Audio Lab UltraSonic 9 (on the 6H30)

Interconnect:
• ALO Jumbo Cryo X inserted between the Pico AMP/Dac and Sonett

USB Cable:
• Kimber High Speed Mini Bus USB Cable between the iMac G5 and the Pico Amp/DAC

Contact Enhancement:
• Caig DeoxIT D100L (Red) - used on all non-AU contacts, including non-AU tube pins

• Caig DeoxIT Gold GX100L-UV - used on all AU contacts, including AU tube pins (where applicable), mini jacks, 1/4” jack

Media:
All media was lossless, FLAC, AIFF, WAV, 16/44, 24/88 or 24/96

NOTE: The Pico is an up-sampling DAC. Everything fed to it is up-sampled to 24/96

The whole system was burned in for a minimum of 100 hours before “serious” listening. To accelerate conditioning, I looped tracks 7, 8 and 9 on the “XLO Reference Recordings Test and Burn-In CD.” It also includes some wonderful musical scores for those interested in yet another sampler.

My own protocol for listening, for pleasure or otherwise, includes a minimum one hour warm-up for all the equipment, except the Pico, which remains turned on 24x7. The Pico is unplugged, sans AC, when listening to music.

[size=x-small]THE SOUND OF MUSIC, AFTER THE INTERMISSION[/size]
If you’ve ever been moved to tears when listening to music, either live or at home, you’ll empathize with my first listening session with the DNA Sonett. The emotional connection with the music was visceral, organic, fundamental, in a way that the Pico just could not communicate. Every aspect of the aural presentation was illuminated, a bright flashlight peering into the recesses of the soundstage, and onto the audience (on live recordings). The recorded venue was clear, and unambiguous. Using my mind’s eye, I could distinguish each player across the soundstage, as well as their relative positioning with the other members in the orchestra, left, right, front, back. In other words, I was hearing more of the music and venue.

I’ve been mostly doing “big rig” stuff, so much of my auditory memory is based on music systems I’ve had the most exposure to. If I had to compare the DNA Sonett with another high-end amplifier’s signature, it would be the Lamm 1.1 mono’s. This is a solid state behemoth, with a 6922 driver (the 6H30’s first cousin). Similarly, the Sonett is honest with whatever music is passed through it. Dynamics, transients, responsiveness, speed, transparency, timbre, resolution, and harmonic integrity are all present with the the Sonett.

The Sonett was unflappable, even under some pretty demanding pieces (e.g. Dimitri Shostikovich / Symphony No. 4 in C Minor, Op. 43, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Bernard Haitink, Conductor). At time’s I wondered if the ES3X could keep up. No worries. Everything remained clear, distinct, unconfused. If anything, the ES3X drivers were locked in the vice-like grip of the Sonett’s 6H30, moving only as dictated by the music.

Subtle, sublime recordings are rendered with musical grandeur. The Dvorak Cellokonzert, Mstislav Rostropovich, Cello, Herbert von Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker (Deutsche Grammophon Polydor International 447 413-2) was absolutely breathtaking on the Sonett/ES3X combination. The viola is so well integrated on this recording, yet individual. Mstislav’s performance is exceptional, a master of the instrument, so much so that you’d think he was playing the violin!

Recording quality is readily apparent when played over the Sonett/ES3X combination. Naturally recorded music (e.g. from Dorian, Reference Recordings, Chesky, et al.) can be almost mystical in presentation, pulling you in. Hearing the venue of the recording stimulates the senses to listen more attentively to the music. Even poorly recorded music, but excellent performances, can still can still draw you in.

For example, some of the recordings recently released by High Definition Tape Transfers (www.highdeftapetransfers.com), while excellent, are sometimes plagued by distortion (e.g. too hot levels and over-saturated tape), and other anomalies prevalent when using tape. Personally, I don’t think you’ll mind these issues beause the performances will keep you glued to your seat!

Sometimes words get in the way with emotions running so high. Normal adjectives failed to describe the music played through the Sonett, and I found myself critiquing the performance itself. As I listened to more music, I sometimes found myself so emotionally involved, that I forgot to take notes.

From a frequency response perspective, bass goes deeper, with more of the fundamental present than is evident with the Pico. Bass has depth, weight, and density as well as texture. The bass drum in the orchestra has many timbrel colors, and the Sonett/ES3X render these with startling clarity. We normally associate clarity with the midrange and treble regions. Rarely, do we get to see into the mid-bass and low bass regions with such definition and pitch. What a revelation!

The treble region is extended, airy. Upper regions are well integrated with the music, in balance, in context, with solid, unwavering image specificity. Stringed instruments were silky smooth, velvety. The difference between period instruments and modern, were easy to distinguish. Brushes on cymbals and the stroke across lathed cymbal surfaces were plainly evident, like the “zing” in a live concert. Mind you, I’m talking about music that I have heard many times before, and is well known, and familiar to me.

The Sonett has--at least to these ears--a reference midrange. Vocals, not just women’s, but male vocals too, are greatly improved over the Pico. This I believe, has to do with the Sonett’s ability to reproduce the “space” in a recording. Song of Songs by Stile Antico (harmonia mundi usa, HMU 807489), the motets span the sixteenth and early seventeeth centuries. Sometimes I could swear I was hearing the ambient acoustic of the hall outside the confines of the IEMs themselves. Wonderfully, the ES3X is sibilant free, important for the reproduction of the human voice. And the Sonett is even and level, throughout this range, neither emphasizing nor de-emphasizing. So, there is never any confusion over the leading or trailing edge of words starting or ending with the letters normally associated with vocal sibilance, e.g. s, f, c, v, etc.

The Anonymous 4, American Angels, Songs of Hope, Redemption, & Glory (harmonia mundi usa, HMU 907326), is a great collection of traditional songs. Each of the members’ voices are easily distinguished by their timbrel signature.

The Sonett is a high resolution amplifier, but not at the expense of being lean, or analytical. It serves the music. Its ability to illumine the recorded venue means that it is able to reproduce the character and atmosphere of the recording. Listening to “Pleasures of Their Company,” Kathleen Battle, Christopher Parkening (EMI CDC-7 47196 2), Kathleen Battle’s vocals are wrapped in three-dimensional attire, i.e. ambient space. Christopher Parkening’s technique is clearly discernible, like his master, Andres Segovia.

The Sonett renders contrasting bright and dark musical colors with purity and distinction. The piano and violin/viola on Alina, by Arvo Pärt (ECM) paints a contrast between the blackness of the background and their acoustic decay, which seems to go on forever. The effect is to cause one to enter deeply into the music in three-dimensional reality, and mystical transcendence. You can hear the violin shifting left and slightly right of center, moving as the performer sways to the playing of the notes.

The Pico, in comparison, is more two-dimensional, flat, like pencil graphite on paper.

Note: A. E. Abbott’s “Flatland,” describes life associated with two-dimensional space, its limitations. A great read.

Please note that I am not disparaging the Pico. Rather, it is a testament to what can be accomplished in such a small, portable package. Ultimately, what the Pico does best is provide a taste of what’s possible, pointing the way upward to better desktop and reference amplifiers, like Justin’s own HeadAmp line, the Sonett, and others.

I listen mostly to Classical, but sometimes I like to “get down!” One of my favorites from my teen years is “Tommy,” by The Who. I like the Smithereens version (KOCH Records) as much or better than the original. The KOCH version I have was downloaded in 24/96 from HDtracks (HDtracks high resolution audiophile music downloads), and the dynamics are outstanding. The frequency response of the 6H30 response is, like, DC to light (or something like that). If you wanna talk speed, the Sonett goes 0-60 at the speed of light. So does the ES3X. They stop on a dime, making listening to Rock and Roll a serious rush! The Smithereens version of “Tommy” shows off the synergy of the Sonett/ES3X combination with nary a hint of distress. I suspect that this has something to do with the 6H30 tube, and its ability to swing 2 - 3 amps, and 4 watts maximum plate dissipation, per triode side, all this from a 9 pin mini tube! Like my wife’s dad would say, “That’ll shoot your socks off!”

[size=x-small]WINDING IT UP[/size]
Going back to my original quest, finding an amplifier capable of taking the ES3X to the next level, my decision to move in a different direction than the mainstream, conventional choices on Head-fi, was rewarded with a real musical treat!

How much more music is available in the ES3X? It may be a matter of what priority you ascribe to attaining that “n-th” degree, but it is clearly there, “for anyone with ears to hear.” For me “the devil is in the details,” which the Sonett presents in startling clarity. I dare say to do better, you’d have to play the music yourself! There’s no guessing about what the instruments are, how they are being played, where they are on the soundstage, how many musicians there are. Equally important, you hear the intention of the performers, the intonation of the vocalist, from a whisper to a shout, or a scream, purposely on and off key (e.g. Temptation, Holly Cole, Blue Note,1995). Hearing all that the recording offers enables us to enter into the musical/emotional connection so often missing when listening to audio equipment. The Sonett created this connection beyond my expectations, or experienced in any another music-making headphone machine.

For me, the DNA Sonett and ES3X is a heavenly pairing. I choked back tears on my first listening session. The connection with the music was immediate, full of emotional impact. I think Donald North has a winner with the Sonett. Simplicity of operation, robust engineering, and understated art all wrapped in one little blue package! That it’s maybe the audiophile bargain in top tier headphone amplifiers is icing on the cake! If you get the chance at a meet, have a listen!

[size=x-small]THE AFTERMATH: WINDING DOWN[/size]
It seems that the 6H30 is an ideal tube for headphone amplification and I suspect other’s will try their hand with this tube. Donald’s design and implementation is about as conservative as one could hope for. Paraphrasing, Donald emphasized that his circuit design fundamentally, and simply provided the appropriate venue for the 6H30 to exhibit its audio characteristics, which to these ears sounds like, “nothing,” nothing but the music, that is.

The 6H30 has a life expectancy of 10,000 hours, so reliability should be very good. And these are comparatively cool running tubes, unlike those massive and HOT 6C33C-B’s! Donald’s design uses zero feedback and it sounds like it. The application of copious amounts of negative feedback works wonders for reducing distortion, and improving linearity, but it’s effect on sound quality is anything but subjective. To these ears, the more feedback present in a circuit the more sterile and restrained the music. The Sonett was just the opposite, sounding free, lively and unfettered. The music simply flowed.

NOISE
As much as I tried, I could hear no noise from the DNA Sonett, even with the ES3X! There was no hiss or hum, even at full volume, sans what was present in the recording itself! The DNA Sonett is dead quiet, a remarkable achievement in a tube design.

TUBE ROLLING
During one conversation with Donald, I asked about the high-end 6H30P-DR version of the tube used by BAT, Cary, LAMM, et al. Donald indicated he actually measures each of his tubes for all critical operating parameters including transconductance, and plate resistance, going through several tubes before settling on only the best for his circuit design. He has a special jig just for that purpose. Like so many things in life, most tube production is made on the same production line and sorted into bins according to performance. Only the best end up as DR designated tubes. While not using the DR version of the 6H30, Donald tries to match tubes to his circuit using a similar process. The result is that he goes through a lot of tubes. He hopes to try the DR version at some point in the near future. I’d like to try one too, but bear in mind that these gems are becoming rare, and sell for $100 or more. Tube Depot gets $159 for each one. The Sovtek version Donald uses fluctuates, but $20 buys a replacement at TubeDepot. The Sovtek is really pretty musical tube to start out with. And you can always upgrade to the DR version as funds permit.

NOTE: The DR version of the 6H30 is “in the mail.” And I’m looking at options for the 5AR4 (not the Sophia Princess as that would require design changes to the power supply). Again, Donald uses a very conservative approach to preserve tube longevity.

ENTER THE 6H30P-DR
Ah, tube rolling. It makes a difference. I just received the DR version of the 6H30 and I gotta say, the difference is not subtle. Stay tuned to this space for more impressions.

ywfd6h


UPDATE: 02/12/2010

Below are my observations of NOS tube-rolling the Sonett, starting with the 6H30, and then the 5AR4.


INSERT THE 6H30-DR
Swapping out the stock Sovtek 6H30 for the NOS DR version improved resolution, balance and dynamics. The already liquid midrange was even more fleshed out, not in level, but weight (support) and detail, readily apparent on male and female vocals, massed strings, and acoustic ensembles. Image outlines were better delineated, rendering an improved 3D image.

Comments about the ES3X having an emphasized midrange may be true, at least for a given amp. Pairing the ES3X with the Sonett and the NOS 6H30-DR, the extremes are more even with the midrange.

The improved resolution at the top end of the midrange provided more information about the timbrel characteristics of the instruments. For example, brushes on cymbals revealed better delineation of the characteristics of the metal and the lathing process. It was easier to distinguish between the “zing” and “zang,” “ting” and “tang.”

Similarly, bass was more in keeping with the midrange, that is, more “level,” or even. The mid-bass timbrel quality is improved, e.g. the lower registers of the viola, plucked bass, and the impact of kick-drum. Low bass on the ES3X (20Hz - 50Hz) has always been full of color (like a good subwoofer) with excellent definition and impact.

Overall, the improvements in the frequency extremes are better integrated with the whole, matching the level and resolution of the midrange.

My guess is that if we were to measure the overall frequency response (FR) with either of these tubes in the circuit, things would look pretty similar if not identical. What a static FR curve fails to communicate, however, is how it performs in real life, under real world, dynamic loads. While a single driver, crossover-less transducer design presents a more linear “restive” load to the outputs of an amplifier, the multiple crossover points of the ES3X represents a more varied, complex impedance, with the potential for significant variation on FR.

With the ES3X and other custom IEMs, we are physically coupled to the transducer. Variations in FR are more readily apparent and smallish aberrations in FR, especially with multi-crossover designs (e.g. the ES3X and JH13) are magnified. The ES3X are deceptively easy to drive, while at the same time, it is more sensitive to amplifier loading. I suspect that to hear what the ES3X (or other high-end IEMs, e.g. the JH13) are fully capable of, to achieve the best possible sound quality, requires a well designed desktop amplifier. Most portable DAPs and amps have insufficient power supplies and drivers when compared with their full sized desktop counterparts.

The difference is a contrast when switching between even the highly regarded Pico DAC/Amp, and the reference level DNA Sonett. Everything that I have already noted in the review, is even more apparent after inserting the NOS 6H30-DR version of the tube.

Having acclimated to the Sonett with the NOS 6H30-DR for an extended period of time, then swapping back in the stock version left me feeling flat. The midrange was overemphasized, not “honky” as turning up the midrange, as much as turning down the bass and treble controls on an equalizer. Overall, the impression left me feeling dried out, lifeless, threadbare, two dimensional. Back in went the 6H30-DR!

The 6H30-DR version can be an expensive upgrade fetching over $120/each at some sites. The improvement, however, to me was akin to a component upgrade. My tertiary approach for listening to music (resolution, balance and musicality) was greatly enhanced with the NOS 6H30-DR. Grab these while they’re still around!


INSERT IN THE NOS MULLARD GZ34
I discovered the benefits of clean power via isolation transformers in the early 80’s while employed with one of the worlds largest chip manufacturers. We identified constraints in the audio chain while mastering CD’s in the lab. Noise and distortion products (THD) out of the power outlets were clearly visible on our scopes, the Audio Precision One, and audible in our laboratory setting, especially when used in conjunction with computers. We needed to clean things up. In went some rather robust (1.8KW) Topaz isolation transformers. Voila! Clean sound! Not just clean sound, music!

Since that experience (lesson), isolation transformers have been the basis for powering all of my music system components. (See THE HILLS ARE ALIVE, WITH THE SOUND OF MUSIC for a description of my setup.)

So, what’s all the fuss about clean power and the NOS Mullard GZ34? Most amplifiers are comprised of a power supply and an amplifier. Without a clean, robust, stiff power supply, the amplifier cannot faithfully reproduce --“pause”-- music. In everyday use our amplifiers need to be highly stable with sufficient current and voltage capabilities into difficult loads. This is true in high-end loudspeakers as well as high-end headphones (or IEMs).

I queued Arvo Pärt’s (ECM) Alina, “Spiegel im Spiegel.” Sound emanated from deep space, a bell-like piano emanates from the apparent sound of the recording venue. I hesitate to call it blackness because, the noise floor with the Mullard was lowered to the extent that I could actually hear the hall itself. This is an emotional piece that resonates from within and without the reproduction chain. With the Mullard in place, the piano starts as if from “outside.” When the violin begins, like a whisper, but clear and defined, there is no question or thought of when it begins or ends, the increased resolution eliminating auditory ambiguity. The harmonic “twing” of the piano strings from the upward release of the sustain pedal was readily apparent. Resolution. Air. Definition. Depth. Three-dimensionality. More being “there, there.”

Dynamic headroom on the Sonett is improved. The music is more dynamic, fluid, and expressive. The snap of drumstick striking the snare on Lyle Lovett’s album, I Love Everybody, “I Think You Know What I Mean” is more explosive. Vocals are better defined, nuanced, and three dimensional.

“The Amazing Journey” from Tommy (by The Who) performed by The Smithereen’s, exhibits improved extension and clarity. The origin of the drumstick on cymbals and the resulting shimmer has improved definition and impact.

Musical clues that define the recorded venue, acoustic decay, fingers sliding on guitar strings, plucking, picking, brushes on snares, pages turned during a performance, the breath of the vocalists, are clearly more evident.

All of my observations about the 6H30-DR were even more enhanced with the NOS Mullard 5AR4. Substituting both tubes in combination is without a question a significant upgrade for the Sonett, and I highly recommend that you consider these for improved musical enjoyment.



CONCLUSIONS ON NOS TUBE SUBSTITUTIONS ON THE DNA SONETT
The combination of the NOS Mullard GZ34 and the NOS 6H30-DR, moves the DNA Sonett several rungs up the ladder. With the NOS substitutions, what started out as a great sounding amplifier is moved, in my estimation, into the reference category. With the NOS substitutions, the DNA Sonett exhibits increased transient response, resolution, balance, and musicality.

These upgrades may seem out of proportion (at nearly 25% of the overall cost of the Sonett), but the direction they take the Sonett is transformative. Thankfully, both these options are long term players. The 6H30 triode is rated for 10,000 hours (and I was fortunate to be able to purchase a matched pair). The Mullard GZ34 has been known to last literally decades! From everything I can determine about the build quality of the DNA Sonett, it’s a good compliment to these long lived NOS tubes, and yet another feather in Donald’s hat by sticking to fundamental, conservative engineering.


THOUGHTS ON, “DOES IT LIKE SOUND SOLID STATE OR TUBES?”
I’ve heard a number of “reference” systems, and owned my share of audio equipment with that moniker. These have included solid state and tube designs, including every link in the chain from source to output. Personally, I always end up with tubes whether it be the CDP, DAC, phono preamp, preamp, or amplifier.

Primary characteristics that I listen for in a music system are resolution, balance and musicality; resolution as the ability for a music system to reproduce every nuance of the recording; balance in its ability to recreate the spectral presentation of the recording, with special importance--for me--on the midrange; and musicality for its ability to recreate the dynamism of the performance, and which conveys the emotional intent of the composer/performer.

To these ears, the Sonett and the ES3X sound more like the musical instruments they reproduce. Maybe that’s a “cop-out” to some, but related to my musical predisposition, the Sonett and ES3X combination conveys more about the music than whether it’s “tubey” or solid state.

SOURCES
I used the Pico Amp/DAC as a buffer/DAC. What’s the difference? The Pico output (via ALO’s Jumbo Cryo X mini - RCA) fed the RCA input on the Sonett. In this configuration, the impedance loading on the Pico is closer to optimal. The primary variable in the circuit is the volume control, which I set near maximum, on low gain. There may well be some coloration, but I believe it to be minimal. To me, the Pico sounds much better used this way. I’m currently researching other DAC options, including the Pico DAC only version, various models from Wavelength Audio, Weiss, and Berkley Audio Design. My only question about using the DAC only Pico is whether it will accommodate my Harmonic Technology Magic Link Two’s. These use the Furutech RCA connectors which need some clearance for proper insertion.

VIBRATION CONTROL, ISOLATION AND DAMPENING
If you want to hear what your preamp, amp, or CDP is fully capable of, or desirous of hearing your system’s ultimate resolution, try the Marigo Mystery Feet (www.marigoaudio.com). These may very well represent the state of the art in isolation via constrained layer dampening.

je72qs


Ditto for Herbie’s tube damping rings. It’s amazing what a difference it made on the JJ supplied 5AR4!
(www.herbiesaudiolab.home.att.net)

TWEAKING
Donald’s design looks to be one of the best available options for tweaking! There’s lots of room in the ‘lil blue box for some special caps, if that’s your “thing.” I’ll probably leave well enough alone (for now), except for some NOS tube rolling. However, I’ve already heard from folks that are experiencing some “eargasmic” experiences with silver wire, special Jensen caps, etc. There’s even some talk about replacing the stock transformers with “Silver Rocks” variants! Yikes!

Note: See Dick Olsher's take on the Siler Rick Transformer Potentiometer Audio Consulting's Silver Rock Transformer Potentiometer by Dick Olsher

WHAT'S NEXT
...is to try out other headphones, IEMs, and DACs.

This space left intentionally blank.
 
Sep 10, 2009 at 1:06 PM Post #5 of 60

Rdr. Seraphim

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Quote:

Originally Posted by HeadphoneAddict /img/forum/go_quote.gif
Nice review - I had to read it again just to see if you changed anything from the other day.
tongue.gif



Kept most of it the same, and added a couple of references to some more music. Found the double "and" reference you noted (Thank you
smile.gif
).

I was just trying to figure out how to post pictures, and size them appropriately. (Not to mention normal life interruptions, and last minute gotcha's!)
 
Sep 10, 2009 at 1:55 PM Post #6 of 60

qusp

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great review!! really very involved, yet concise (a hard thing to accomplish) I think this is one of the first reviews of this type, where IEMs are being used as a reference component of true quality. I mean HA does this as part of his reviews, but not specifically . I totally agree that IEMs of this pedigree (mine included
wink.gif
) do scale well with high quality amplification and source (wait till you get yourself a new dac) my rig from this point forward is being built around my JH13 moreso than my other fullsize headphones. the only thing that is a slightly different paradigm is the soundstage with IEMs. with customs there is most certainly a convincing soundstage, perhaps not quite as deep as fullsize headphones, but certainly as wide and tall; the resolution and accuracy within that soundstage is sublime though.

I checked out the audio consulting silver rocks out of interest sakes, because I had toyed with the idea of using one of the copper versions for a pre/pot on my buffalo32 OMG!! the silver version is pretty insanely priced!!!

a great review of what seems like a great pairing; people may call us crazy for going about our rigs driving IEMs, but little do they know
wink.gif
 
Sep 10, 2009 at 4:08 PM Post #7 of 60

Frihed89

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Initially, this amp had me really interested because it had a number of desirable features. But why on earth did he, specifically, choose this triode? What does it do so well that another small triode couldn't have replaced it.

I wonder if Donald, by any chance, backed himself into a corner where he had no other real option. It's also hard to find a lot information about this tube. Unless you read Russian, tubes.ru was about all I could find.

Unless the Russian stock is unbelievably variable electrically, I can't imagine the need to screen the tubes. Caps, resistors, diodes, and don't forget transformers, OK. But screening tubes? This suggests to me, the optimal operating point of the tube is very unforgiving.

What I am asking is: why this tube?
 
Sep 10, 2009 at 4:26 PM Post #8 of 60

Rdr. Seraphim

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Quote:

Originally Posted by qusp /img/forum/go_quote.gif
great review!! really very involved, yet concise (a hard thing to accomplish) I think this is one of the first reviews of this type, where IEMs are being used as a reference component of true quality. I mean HA does this as part of his reviews, but not specifically . I totally agree that IEMs of this pedigree (mine included
wink.gif
) do scale well with high quality amplification and source (wait till you get yourself a new dac) my rig from this point forward is being built around my JH13 moreso than my other fullsize headphones. the only thing that is a slightly different paradigm is the soundstage with IEMs. with customs there is most certainly a convincing soundstage, perhaps not quite as deep as fullsize headphones, but certainly as wide and tall; the resolution and accuracy within that soundstage is sublime though.

I checked out the audio consulting silver rocks out of interest sakes, because I had toyed with the idea of using one of the copper versions for a pre/pot on my buffalo32 OMG!! the silver version is pretty insanely priced!!!

a great review of what seems like a great pairing; people may call us crazy for going about our rigs driving IEMs, but little do they know
wink.gif



For whatever reason our hobby seems to have a portable focus. Maybe it's because we are all so mobile now days, and we can easily take high quality music reproduction with us. That's Ok if that's your focus. However, there's so MUCH MORE available in these IEMs, and it would be sad if we stopped there. However, we're not likely gonna carry our ZDT's, Woo's, and DNA's around with us
wink_face.gif
.

Ya, the Silver Rocks are over the top, for me. BTW, Donald is happy to customize the Sonett, as long as we provide the appropriate number of greenbacks! He's fond of the Audio Note nickel/sliver output trannies. I might have to inquire with him about those, just for fun
bigsmile_face.gif
!
 
Sep 10, 2009 at 5:01 PM Post #9 of 60

Donald North

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Quote:

Originally Posted by Frihed89 /img/forum/go_quote.gif
Initially, this amp had me really interested because it had a number of desirable features. But why on earth did he, specifically, choose this triode? What does it do so well that another small triode couldn't have replaced it.

I wonder if Donald, by any chance, backed himself into a corner where he had no other real option. It's also hard to find a lot information about this tube. Unless you read Russian, tubes.ru was about all I could find.

Unless the Russian stock is unbelievably variable electrically, I can't imagine the need to screen the tubes. Caps, resistors, diodes, and don't forget transformers, OK. But screening tubes? This suggests to me, the optimal operating point of the tube is very unforgiving.

What I am asking is: why this tube?



These are good questions. I selected the 6H30 based on its combination of parameters: plate impedance and current draw for good transformer loading, gain, low noise, and overall sound quality. You can't do the same with a 12AX7, for example, due to its high plate impedance, higher noise, and low current drive.

From my observations modern production tubes have much greater variation in parameters than do capacitors, resistors, etc. Buy an Amplitrex and see for yourself. So to deliver consistent performance, I test and sort the tubes to a particular specification.
 
Sep 10, 2009 at 5:33 PM Post #10 of 60

takezo

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Quote:

Originally Posted by Donald North /img/forum/go_quote.gif

From my observations modern production tubes have much greater variation in parameters than do capacitors, resistors, etc. Buy an Amplitrex and see for yourself. So to deliver consistent performance, I test and sort the tubes to a particular specification.



hi donald, i really like the looks of your amp. very retro and minimalistic. i'm
certain it sounds great too. regarding the 6H30, can you tell us what the voltages
are at the anode, cathode plates and the grid of both sections? i'm wondering
what the optimum operating points are of this tube. and are the 6dj8 or one of
its family member substitutable directly? thanks
 
Sep 10, 2009 at 7:39 PM Post #11 of 60

Donald North

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Quote:

Originally Posted by takezo /img/forum/go_quote.gif
hi donald, i really like the looks of your amp. very retro and minimalistic. i'm
certain it sounds great too. regarding the 6H30, can you tell us what the voltages
are at the anode, cathode plates and the grid of both sections? i'm wondering
what the optimum operating points are of this tube. and are the 6dj8 or one of
its family member substitutable directly? thanks



Hi Takezo, I prefer not to publicly disclose my operating conditions of the 6H30.

The 6H30 has a plate impedance of 1400 ohms and mu/gain of 16, whereas the 6DJ8 is markedly different with plate impedance of 2600 ohms and mu of 33. So the two tubes are not direct substitutes.
 
Sep 11, 2009 at 5:36 PM Post #13 of 60

mike1127

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Like you mentioned, I also find that the Sonett helps recordings that have sound quality problems. For example, if a recording has anemic bass, the Sonett + K601 combination has enough bass heft and impact that it can rescue the recording. The Sonett + K601 combination also has a sweet midrange and smooth highs, which can rescue recordings with annoying or strange artifacts. I own many recordings which are almost unlistenable in my K1000 setup, but the Sonett + K601 can "make musical sense" of them.

I'm glad you were able to write a review using the Sonett with IEMs. I am curious how well it works in general with IEMs.
 
Sep 12, 2009 at 4:51 AM Post #14 of 60

Rdr. Seraphim

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The Sonett does much the same for the Etymotic ER4's as the ES3X. There are gains in resolution, balance and extension. The comparison between the ER4 and the ES3X remain as difficult as ever, the voicing between the two are contrasting sound signatures. (You can do a search on my posts related to the ER4S for more impressions.) Interestingly, even though the ER4S impedance is 100 ohms, I still preferred them in the LOW position. Additionally, the ER4S is much less sensitive than the ES3X, requiring considerably more volume.

The ES3X was noticeably smoother in the treble region, the ER4 seeming to take on a grainy texture with cymbals. Vocal sibilants were much more apparent with the ER4, but sometimes this can be the result of the type of ear piece used. I was limited to the triple flange and the mushroom foam inserts.

Berlioz reports very positive results with his Shure SE530's. See his thread here: http://www.head-fi.org/forums/f5/dna...ssions-440645/

So, in general, it seems that there is good synergy with IEMs.

Now, if only someone with the JH13-Pro would report their findings with the Sonett!
 
Sep 12, 2009 at 8:50 PM Post #15 of 60

achristilaw

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I have had the JH13PRO's for three days know and using the Sonett has been a revelation. The lack of noise and stability into any load makes for a great Music appreciation interlude. The JH13's do well into the Phonitor (using the dim unity gain) and some other custom amps but the "git up an' gallop" using the Sonett paints a huge smile on the fascia.

It makes Music....!

That's why the mouth is held open in making earmolds.....when you find the right amp for the Jerry Harveys that's the position your mouth resides in!!

Great review Mark!! You didn't leave a stone un-turned on this one. This amp is so wonderful with any phone and paired with a good source....... fugedaboutit!!
 

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