The Mapletree Ear 4/Ear+ DIY Headphone Amps - A Review
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Nick Dangerous

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It is a shame that Grado headphones have such a bad rap around here. "Too bright" is the usual complaint. "Too uncomfortable" is another. While I agree that they could be a bit more comfortable, they equal the performance of the Sennheiser HD-600 when paired with the right amp. Here are the two newest, most affordable tube amps that make this possible:



The Mapletree Ear 4 and Ear+ headphone amps/preamps

The Ear 4 retails for $275 as a do-it-yourself kit, and the Ear+ is an upgraded version of the same for $50 more. Everything is included in the kit... wire, tubes, even the solder! All you need is a $13 soldering iron, an inexpensive multimeter, and a little patience.

Mapletree Audio Design offers a lot for the money with these products. Both amps are extremely attractive (pictures do not do them justice), double as preamps, and have the best documentation/instruction manuals in the industry. Color PDF files of the entire assembly manual are available for download if you want to take a preview of what you might be in for. Lloyd also provides excellent service, helping to troubleshoot problems along the way. It's obvious that MAD goes out of its way for its customers, setting a high standard for others to follow.

Both amps are similar in design. The Ear 4 is half the height of the Ear+ and sports four tubes instead of three. The extra tube is for DC rectification whereas the Ear+ uses diodes in its place. Some designers favor tube rectification for its softer sounding character whereas others favor diodes for speed and detail.

Physically, the Ear+ is a behemoth. It is twice as tall and weighs at least three times as much as its little brother. Big iron makes the difference. The size of the output transformers in the Ear+ dwarf the ones in the Ear 4. Is bigger better? Let's find out...

The Trials - Grado RS-1, Sennheiser HD-600 w/Clou blue, Grado SR-325, Audio Technica W100

The Ear 4 and Ear+ are rated for headphones with impedances from 32 to 300 ohms. Predictably, certain headphones performed better than others.

Round one - Grado RS-1

I really like the look of Grado headphones. Coolness on a stick. The woody appearance of the RS-1 has a funky retro attitude but still "look the business". At a retail price of $695, I expect nothing less.

I started out by plugging the RS-1 into the Ear 4 and firing up "Official Chemical" by The Dub Pistols. This track is a dynamic combination of drum kicks and lyrics. Other than wanting a bit more instrument separation in the higher frequencies, the RS-1 delivered excitement with the Ear 4. I did notice that bass kicks lacked that last ounce of slam. Otherwise, the presentation was excellent. The soundstage was wider than I expected... in your face, front and center. Rock on.

Next, I switched to the Ear+ and replayed the track. Instant improvement! Big soundstage. Cymbals were crisp but stopped short of accentuating the bright character of the RS-1. Bass drums remained fast and tight. Vocals were "clear and near". Oh yeah! Grados hadn't sounded this good since I plugged them into a Melos SHA-1.

Time for a new track, this time a professionally recorded Wynton Marsalis CD Toddathan brought to the recent Head-Fi meeting. The emphasis on solo instruments such as the trumpet, cymbals, and the percussive piano chords provided an excellent way to measure focus, depth, and impact of transients.

I switched back to the Ear 4 with the RS-1 plugged into the headphone jack. I was starting to notice a pattern. Nice decay on cymbal brushes, solid energy with the trumpets, a wide soundstage... but a tiny bit blurred in the highs.

The Ear+ resolved this issue and had noticeably better focus throughout the frequency spectrum. Bass notes were noticeably more defined and impactful. Wynton's hesitations between breaths became obvious, as did the drums dancing in space. The Ear+ kicked up the overall excitement again.

Verdict: The Ear+ and RS-1 were made for each other.

Round Two - Sennheiser HD-600 w/Clou blue

Ah yes, the Sennheiser HD-600. The goliath. King of the hill. Monster of performance. No review is complete without these... right? Here we go.

I decided to return to the Wynton Marsalis CD due to its high fidelity and purity of individual instruments. Few CD's make the soundstage float in space like this one.

Grabbing the Clou by its nuclear blue jacket, I plugged the HD-600 into the Ear 4. Not bad, but after being accustomed to the Senn's abilities, it was clear that the highs and lows could do with a bit more extension and detail. Time to switch to the Ear +.

Again, the Ear+ made many improvements: Authoritative bass, more details, clear highs. However, unlike with the Grados, the entire presentation failed to excite me. The midrange sounded recessed and distant, even more than is supposedly typical of the HD-600.

To illustrate the Grado/Sennheiser difference, I unplugged with HD-600 from the Ear+ and replaced it with a Grado SR-325, replaying the same Wynton Marsalis track for comparison's sake.

Moving back to Grados was an immediate and huge improvement over the Senns. I wasn't hallucinating. Those same drums could now KICK, cymbal brushes whooshed like a metallic waterfall, and trumpets were loud and live.

Verdict: I love my HD-600's, but the Ear+ is better suited with Grados.

Bonus Round - Audio Technica W100

The Audio Technica W100 is a beautiful headphone... which is a tragedy since it doesn't sound nearly as good as it looks. I decided to use the same Wynton Marsalis CD since it was proving to be so useful in the comparisons.

Like a jet fighter under attack, the W100 went down in flames shortly after takeoff. The Ear 4/W100 combination presented Wynton's trumpet with an overpowering emphasis, unpleasantly dominating the rest of the music. Bass was practically nonexistent. When there was enough silence to hear them, the piano and drums were nicely, but too-delicately rendered to a fault. Like I said in a review a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away... the W100 is a polite headphone for polite music. The trumpet is not a polite instrument. Thus, everything was thrown out of balance.

The Ear+ sounded better in all of the usual ways over the Ear 4, but the unbalanced nature of the W100 was still a problem. I don't like this headphone. It doesn't hold up to the smooth HD-600 or the exciting RS-1.

Verdict: W100 wins the award for "Head-Fi's Most Frustrating Headphone". No matter which amp I use, I can't seem to like it.

W100: Polite cans for polite music. I said it first and I stand by it.

Final Assessment

The Ear 4 and Ear+ are wonderful amps when coupled with low impedance headphones, but the Ear+ steals the show. Grado owners now have a tube amp to cherish without busting the budget. Heck, it sounds so good it may convert a few members of Team Sennheiser who crave something with a bit more bite. At $325, nothing can touch it.

Upgrading to the Ear+ is absolutely worth the extra $50... go for it. The bigger transformers will reward you with authoritative bass and kick ass detail. It's also a sexy amp that will get many oooohs and aaaaahs from your visiting guests. Put it somewhere conspicuous to show off that wonderful tube glow.

Lloyd has done an excellent job filling a much needed niche in the inexpensive kit tube amp market. If you own a pair of Grados and like that tube sound, the Ear+ is your amp!

Now grab your soldering iron and get to work.
 
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Ari

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Nick

What a show in Dallas ! Congrat !!!!!

Your review on Ear is just great. Made my mind...

And yes, Mr. Lloyd Peppard is working hard ! I got a email from him, at 2pm SUNDAY his time !! That's hard work !!
 
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Dusty Chalk

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It's not really a fair comparison to be playing different music amongst the different headphones, don't you think? And it doesn't convey, as well, how the amp works with the different headphones if you don't do it that way.
 
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Nick Dangerous

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Different music? All tests were done with the same Wynton Marsalis CD track except for the Beyerdynamics.

I didn't have time to test both tracks with the Beyers, but I did give the Wynton Marsalis CD another listen and found them to have very similar characteristics regardless. My opinion would be the same... the Beyers work with but are not an ideal match with either amp.
 
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joelongwood

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Quote:

Moving back to Grados was an immediate and huge improvement over the Senns. Those same drums could now KICK, cymbal brushes whooshed like a metallic waterfall, trumpets pratted with urgent clarity. It was like being in a club, rather than sounding like a headphone.


And that, in a nutshell, is why my Senns hang on the shelf, and the Grados hang on my head. Thanks for the excellent review, Nick. Nice job.
 
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Nick Dangerous

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I wasn't a fan of Grado headphones before this review. I am now.

The RS-1/Ear+ combo rivals the HD-600/MG Head OTL combo. Both are an excellent pair... it is a matter of personal taste as to which setup is "better". Even the SR-325 sounded as good as I've ever heard it at a Head-Fi meeting... giving up only a little smoothness to the RS-1's wooden enclosures.
 
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Fadamacka

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This one better be good, Nick... Just ordered one without even hearing a single note of music on it...
I'm hoping these will go well with my RS-1's. If not, i'm coming after you Nick!!


This is gonna be one long week..
 
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Fadamacka

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Come to think of it, i'm crazy! Oh well. It's too late now. I could have done worse..
*comforts himself*
 
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evilcthul

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Hey Nik,

Great review! Would you mind giving some comments about the Twinhead. I'm still dying to hear what people have to say about this amp since the Dallas meet...
 
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Sovkiller

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Hey Nick do you know if one of those match with the CD3K in a decent way do you know anybody who had tried it....
 
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I listened to the Sony 3K with the Mapletree Ear+ and the Earmax Pro at the November NYC head-fi meet at Grado labs. The 3K's sounded excellent with both; if there was a difference, perhaps the EMP had a touch more "authority" at the low end (perhaps!), but the MAD Ear+ more than held its own, particularly at half (or less) the cost. A recommended combo, IMHO.
 
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Sovkiller

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I should be in that meeting, OH man!!!!
 
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LobsterSan

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how is the pre-amp on this? good? bad? mediocre?
 
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TimSchirmer

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Man..... if i could start all over again, i'd most likely go with the RS-1/Ear 4 combo. I do love that distinct grado sound.
 
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robert

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and where, oh where, did you get a Telefunken 5751?????

Nanahachi snitched, as you've seen.

please???
 
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