Tangent's META42 headphone amplifier Review
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kelly

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Disclaimer: As always, this is purely a subjective review. The contents herein reflect my opinion alone and do not represent opinions of HeadFi, its sponsors, its moderators, nor do they represent Tangent or other DIY designers or builders. Moreover, the opinions were reached by subjective means only without the aid of any measurements. As with any review, please add a grain of salt and assume every statement to mean, “in my system”, “to my ears” and “in my opinion.”

Tangent's META42 Review

A strong component of HeadFi is its DIY (do-it-yourself) community. Here, some of the coolest people on the internet can point you toward good headphone amp designs, help you decide on tools, review chips and components and help you get through any trouble you have with one. I have the utmost respect and reverence for these guys.

This review is really about two things. One is the design--the META42. The META42 is a collaborative effort between several of the real personalities on HeadFi--Morsel, Eric343, Tangent and Apheared, with (from what I gather) a great deal of help in choosing parts from ppl. The second thing is that this is also a review of Tangent's specific implementation of the META42 design which he's graciously loaned to me for the purpose of review.

You see, while these projects are designed around DIY, not everyone is interested in spending the time to research and assemble the amps. As such, a few people have taken up building them for others. Since they get to order parts in higher volumes, the cost comes down a little for them, they scrape by on minimal overhead and profit and the customer ends up getting one hell of a deal on something built for them--and often with many of the options left up to the customer. To me, this is a killer value.

Tangent's been a real proponent for the META42 design. Beyond being a major part of the design and offering pre-built units, he's also put together an incredible web site. Visit that at http://www.tangentsoft.net/audio. I'll let you guys cruise over there for the pictures too since he offers a couple of different cases.

This particular META42 is a home model and is configured roughly like this:
Wima MKS-2 6.8uF/50V and Panasonic FC 1000uF/25V capacitors
Vishay Dale CMF series resistors
EL2002 buffers (1 deep), EL2001 as vground
Linkwitz 2 position crossfeed filter circuit
Hammond 1455 4x2x6.25" aluminum case
Switchcraft 1/4" jack
Cardas RCA input jacks
ELPAC Power Series external wallwart power supply

OPAMPS:
One of the big questions with the META42 seems to be opamps. Luckily, Tangent's amp shipped with the AD843 adn he sent me the OPA627 to try out. Additionally I had already acquired my on AD8620 for when I get around to building my own META42.

The OPA627 (from Burr-Brown, acquired by Texas Instruments) is the opamp of the Headroom Cosmic and probably to no one's surprise the amp takes on a bit of the Cosmic's personality with this opamp in place. That is--solid bass with good impact, a very tight clean sound and not as open and airy in the high frequencies as other amps. I'd say if you like the sound you've heard from the Max and Cosmic and want to try something similar in a DIY amp, give this a try.

The AD8620 (by Analog Devices) is the new hotness. Everyone is talking about it and it has pretty killer specs. This is the opamp for me and luckily it's the one I'd already ordered. To my ears the 8620 has better texture and smooth dileneation of sound than the OPA627, but I can see where people might have preferences for either of them here.

The AD843 (also from Analog Devices) to me is kind of the middle of the road opamp between the 8620 and OPA627. A lot of people might say the AD843 sounds cleaner while the 8620 sounds a bit more airy. In my view, the differences between the 843 and 8620 have been exagerated--at least as far as I can tell in this amp. The differences were very subtle.

Other opamps? The ones I've used here are good for the wallwart version of the META42. I'm told most of these draw more current than you might want to use for battery use (remember the Cosmic uses a pack of D cells and a DC->DC converter to run OPA627s "portably"). From what the DIY forum people are saying, the AD823 is the opamp of choice for battery operation--I've not gotten to hear one myself, nor any META42 running on batteries yet.

For me, I stuck with the AD8620 for the long haul and my opinions from here out are based on the amplifier with that opamp plugged in.

I know by now a lot of you are wondering if the META42 is all hype. It's really easy to get caught up in a whirlwind of hype on internet forums and skepticism is probably a healthy mechanism to have active, here. Mine was definitely on when I received the META42. When I plugged it in, though, all that disipated and I was literally blown away. For its price point, this is a truly excellent amplifier.

Let me get the comparison game out of the way since a lot of people would just want to ask where I think it ranks. To me, the META42 just completely destroys the CMOY and CHA47 (the two popular DIY designs before it) as well as the Headroom Airhead, Total Airhead, Little and Supreme, the Creek OBH-11 and the Grado RA-1.

To give it a class, let's say you had a table with a good source and the Corda Blue (Corda HA-1 with KurtW modifications), the Headroom Cosmic (with standard wallwart), a prototype PDAC from aos and Tangent's META42 all on the same table set up to be easily AB compared. Let's also say you had the Grado HP-2, Grado RS-1 and Sennheiser HD600 with Cardas cable upgrade on hand. Well, that's actually exactly what we had at the last Dallas HeadFi meet. The verdict? No clear winner. We all had different picks for different reasons but what we did all agree was this--very close race. Let's just say, as far as I'm concerned, this is a good class to be in.

To compare to more expensive amps, I found the same thing I always find, that the Max still wins out in the solid state camp in the bass and blackness departments and the Sugden Headmaster and Max still beat everything else in speed of attack. The Headmaster and Corda Blue both have better texture and ambient detail. Unfortunately I didn't have a stock Corda HA-1 on hand to compare but from memory I like the META42's texture better than that. Kurt called the META42 a midpoint between Corda and Corda Blue and in Tangent's amp, I'd say that's a description that matches.

I know to those of you who haven't heard any of these amps this is all meaningless but it had to be said for the rest of the audience. Relativism aside, let me describe this to you the best way I know how.

Some folks think headphone jacks in their components are "good enough." It's a hard case to argue because there's such a vast amount of quality difference in different components. One HeadFi'er complained that his X-Cans didn't sound any better than the headphone jack in his receiver. For me, I finally discovered a good headphone jack in the Sony XA777ES and I like it even better than my memory of the X-Cans and a lot of the other budget amps. The META42 is a different story. It's at a stage where I can firmly say that I have never heard a component's built in headphone jack sound this good.

The first thing you'd notice is a certain "openness" to the sound. Lesser amps leave a lot to be desired in dynamics and the soundstage seems to crumble under pressure. Some of this, I think, is where a lot of the argument that "Sennhseiser HD600s sound veiled" comes from. Whatever your opinion of that headphone, it certainly sounds less veiled on the META42 than it does on other amps.

You'll also start to notice detail. Layers of detail. Strumming strings don't blur together but rather articulate individually. You hear fingers and bows touching and sliding on strings and the resonance of a piano. Strings sound plucked instead of just "hit." Instruments begin to sound like themselves instead of like a keyboard.

The amplifier has a certain amount of weight to it. There's a punchy pluck to the strings and a solid knock in the drums. And the drums sound like drums. But they don't all sound like the same drum. They sound like individual drums in a kit the way they're supposed to sound with a cymbals that tings and then shimmers into a soft decay.

My fear is that those of you who have been using headphones without a good amp simply have never experience this. Let me assure you, you won't go back when you hear it this way.

For the more spent HeadFier, I have a little less positivity. It's been said that the META42 competes with multi-thousand-dollar amps. Well, in a way if you like the sound of one opamp better than the OPA627s found in the BlockHead, I guess you could say that. Otherwise, no, not really. At least, not in this particular configuration. It doesn't have that certain liquid realness that you find in the RKV and TwinHead. It doesn't have the speed of the better solid states. This isn't yet the be all end all amp, it's just a really great amp for the price of entry.

But I said "yet." For me, I have to believe that these early implementations of the META42 are just the tip of the iceberg. Already people are experimenting with stacked buffers, better buffers, discrete buffers, better regulated power supplies, Cerafine capacitors and all sorts of other tweaks. What will it be like when someone unveils a dual mono META42 with discrete components? These are the kind of questions that cannot yet be answered. From what I've heard so far, I personally have a lot of hope.

If you're looking for an entry level amplifier, this is it. If you're looking for a DIY headphone amp project, this is it. Simply put, the point of diminishing returns starts here. After this the differences get a lot more subtle as you go up from here, and those other amps I mentioned? What better term could there be for them than "obsolete." This is the new reference bar for inexpensive solid state amps. The commercial companies and other DIY designs have some catching up to do.
 
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morsel

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Thanks for your thoughtful review, Kelly. Do let us know what you think of quad stacks of EL2002 buffers. Stacked buffers are mandatory if you want uber bass.
 
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tangent

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Thanks for the review, Kelly. I have only one comment, and that's about the other manufacturers catching up: I don't think they can or will. It's not a matter of technical know-how, it's that all of us DIYers either build for ourselves or build for others for cheap. That's why I don't do this full time -- I do two amps a week at most, and it isn't likely to go up from there. I couldn't make a living at this. I don't expect Headroom or Creek or any of these other people to sell their amps for what I could build an equivalent for.

I think that all of the less-expensive amps you mentioned are fairly priced for what goes into them. It's more than parts; you can pick up the phone and talk to their sales people, then get one FedExed out for delivery tomorrow, then send it back a few weeks later if you don't like it. I'm not trying to under-cut the commercial amp makers; it's just that I'm also pricing my amps fairly for what you get: an amp you could have DIY'd yourself, if you had the time, tools, inclination, and expertise. If you lack one of those things but want a DIY'd amp, hiring me or one of my compadres is a reasonable thing to do. If you want a custom-manufactured enclosure with silkscreened lettering on the front, immediate delivery, and return privileges, commercial's the way to go.

I guess you should also consider the fact that nailing down what a "META42 is" is difficult. I thank you for making that clear in the review, Kelly. If you want a known quantity, going with a commercial amp will give you that: all amps of a type sound exactly alike. Any two META42s are likely to sound a bit different, depending on parts and build quality.
 
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Joe Bloggs

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oops
 
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tangent

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Kelly did give the configuration; see the "This particular META42 is...." bit. If you have any further questions about what is inside, ask me. I may still remember. (Kelly's had my amp for about a month now, so I might have forgotten something.
)

[size=xx-small]rest of post deleted[/size]
 
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Joe Bloggs

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I deleted my post--you can delete yours too


It's just that I still can't find where he talked about the config
 
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elnero

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Thanx for the great review Kelly. The Meta42 really does sound like the way to go for us newbies looking for the best possible solution without breaking the bank.

Phil
 
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grinch

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great review kelly! now i'm *really* wishing i didn't get screwed out of my meta42 by usps..
 
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andrzejpw

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Awesome review kelly! I have a starter for my own meta42/cosmic review.
 
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Thanks for the review. Guess I need to add a Meta42 of some sort onto my to-buy list.
 
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grinch: When I get back I expect it'll be quite easy to fix. I've been thinking about it and it really sounds like something broke off or came loose, such as a ground wire.

kelly: Fantastically Great review! Four thumbs up!*




*big toes count.
 
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Kelly

Your articulate reviews continue to impress me. What a great read, and your impressions are right on. Especially this sentence:
Quote:

This is the new reference bar for inexpensive solid state amps. The commercial companies and other DIY designs have some catching up to do.


Kudos again to Morsel, Eric343, Tangent, Apheared, and PPL.
 
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So... I'm convinced.


Are there people building these right now (contractors I mean)? Kelly mentions that the price point is very good on this amp but I still don't know what that price is. How much would someone charge for building me an all-out home version META42? I looked on tangent's website but he doesn't take quotes right now.

PS what does the "42" in META42 stand for?
 
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elnero

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From Tangents website,


Quote:

The cheapest configuration I sell is $72: a basic CMoy with an OPA2132PA in a mint tin configured for one 9V battery but without the first battery included, delivered via 3-day insured domestic shipping. (UPS, unless you request something different.)

As an exercise, I went through all the options and without straying from the path of reason was able to spend about $260 on a killer home amp, including domestic shipping. To spend more than that, you'd have to order a configuration with nonstandard options, or do things like ordering 3 or more input or output connector types.

The average quote recently has been between $110 and $160.


That said you should PM either JMT, Tangent or eric343 to find out specifics.
 
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