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A visit with Echo Audio and Coffman Labs

DSC00149 I got a message a couple of weeks ago from Coffman Labs PR whiz and TONEPub contributor Rob Johnson. Damon Coffman, in cooperation with Cypher Labs, was coming out with a new headphone amp. There was to be a party at Echo Audio in Portland, OR. There would be loads of headphone gear to try. There would be beer and cake. The roadshow would be on June 28th. Would Mal and I be in attendance? Heck yeah.

Portland is blessed with a number of excellent hi-fi stores, but I have a huge soft spot for Echo as the first hi-fi store that ever actually felt like home for me. When Mal and I were moving to the Pacific Northwest from Philadelphia, I suspected that the entirety our studio apartment set-up might not make the cross-country trip, so while I was out here for a job interview I stopped in at Echo. I was, admittedly, nervous; what few experiences I’d had with dealers thus far had been both minimal and alienating. Owing in part to my budget and in part to the complete dearth of hi-fi dealers in Philadelphia proper, most of my stereo purchases had been conducted via craigslist or online, and my sole experience with a dealer had been auditioning B&W standmounts in Kalamazoo, surrounded by outdoor speakers shaped like rocks and sales guys hungry for a commission. Faced with the prospect of a real Portland dealer, I had visions of Rowan Atkinson’s “Not the Nine o’Clock News” hi-fi shop sketch.

What I found instead in proprietor Kurt Doslu’s Echo Audio was an eclectic mix of gear and a warm and friendly staff. I felt immediately at home. Echo has since moved to a larger and airier space around the corner, but their commitment to fostering a community of audiophiles has only grown. Therefore, it was with unmitigated delight that Mal and I made plans to book a room at the Econolodge, plan on running some errands in the big city, and spend a couple of hours on a summer afternoon checking out the latest head-fi offerings.

David Maudlin of Cypher Labs was on hand to demonstrate the Prautes, the brainchild of Damon Coffman of Coffman Labs. This tube headphone amp ($3,900) uses four 50L6 output tubes and two 12AU7 input tubes, and features four independent inputs, as well as speaker, balanced XLR, 1/4″ and 1/8″ headphone outputs. The impedance is adjustable to five different settings: 300 ohm, 100 ohm, 32 ohm, 8 ohm, or an In-Ear Monitor setting. There is also a bass boost switch, to supply a +3dB boost with a variable roll-off point. In combination with the Impedance switch, this offers quite a bit of opportunity for fine-tuning. If you’ve seen the Coffman Labs G1-A preamp, the overall industrial design of the Prautes will be familiar, with its sculptural machined metal sides. Unlike the GI-A, however, the Prautes is available in black or silver brushed aluminum instead of the familiar painted panels. The optional tube shields are more readily removable than on its sibling, and tube dampers are included. The whole thing exudes a sort of burly beauty.

Listening to the Prautes with the Audeze LCD-3 headphones, I was struck by its exceptional tonal detail, clarity, and depth. This is a a headphone amp that provides enormous inner detail and texture, while still maintaining loads of dynamic capability and a startling amount of oomph. I found it less thick than other similar tube amps; it has a lot of drive without sounding overly warm or slow. Transients shimmered, and the adjustable bass and impedance meant that it was easy to tweak to just the right balance of power and shimmer. It’s a truly excellent piece of kit, and one that I would love to spend more time with.

While the Prautes was the ostensible star of the show, there was genuinely an extravaganza on offer. Cypher Labs also had their full line on display for demonstration, and even raffled off an AlgoRhythm Piccolo. Almost embarrassingly, Mal, who was defiantly NOT doing any work at this event (lazy bastard), won this little beauty of an analog headphone amp when his ticket was pulled from the hat.

Richard Colburn of Auralic Audio created a stir with the combination of a Taurus MKII balanced headphone amp and Vega DAC. I witnessed one attendee listen intently for a good ten or fifteen minutes, and then pull her husband over so that he could hear it, too. As well she should have; this set up offered rewarding precision and detail with the Audeze LCD-X ‘phones, although I felt like its capabilities were even more evident with the Grado PS500s. Kurt also took this opportunity to display a fine selection of new and used headphone amps in stock, including a Cavalli Audio Liquid Fire that saw a lot of use throughout the day.

The vibe at the event was, as is Echo’s wont, relaxed, fun, and full of a good mix of Echo Audio regulars, Head-Fi board readers, and folks off the street. There was a cake shaped like a headphone amp. Beer and wine flowed with, if not abandon, then with a generous hand. There was a guy named Cliff who I ended up talking to about single driver vs. concentric driver vs. electrostatic speakers for at least the length of a beer. All in all, I was reminded of the importance of dealers like Kurt Doslu, who hold a deep a commitment to bringing people, music, and gear together.

Preferably with artichoke dip.

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