Sub-$500 Closed-Back Headphones: AKG K551, V-MODA M100, Spider Audio Moonlight, Mr. Speakers Mad Dogs, Alpha Design Labs H118, Focal Spirit Pro
The Vinyl Grouch: LENNON
Review: Vitus Audio RS-100 Amplifier and RD-100 DAC/Pre, Entry-Level Summit-Fi
First Listen: Magnepan 3.7
Review: Audioengine B2 Bluetooth Speaker, Peachtree Audio Deepblue2, and Audioengine A5+ with B1 Bluetooth Music Receiver
Market and Value
High-End Audio, as a market segment, is a weird and fickle beast. It’s not really even a single market at all, but rather an odd agglomeration of (not unrelated) segments, including consumer electronics, one-off artisanal “bespoke” audio jewelry, and everything in between. Home theater, personal audio, “traditional stereo”, as well as vinyl, high-res computer audio, analog tape — all of that is in there, and a lot more besides, all stewing around. Ebbing and flowing. Expanding and contracting. Peeking and poking at each other.
Taken in that larger context, high-end headphones are a relative newcomer. Sure, a great pile of stuff has been made and sold over the past several decades, but to view it as a serious profit center, one worth heavy cross-vertical investment, well that’s new. You can thank Beats by Dre for that. And as the hi-fi market marks a shift from two-channel stereo and home theater, and toward things “personal audio”, it’s really only natural that what was once a market adjacency draws many curious, thoughtful eyes. Especially from those fancy, bespoke, super-high-end audio companies.
This is, I think, how we get $5,500 headphones like the Abyss Headphones AB-1266.
Abyss is not an established headphone brand. In fact, aside from the AB-1266, there’s really no other products on offer (at least not yet). No, Abyss is more like a test shot. It comes from JPS Labs, an established high-end audio cable manufacturer selling speaker cables and interconnects priced in the many-thousands-of-dollars bracket. That is, JPS Labs is a hi-fi company, not a head-fi company. Did someone just say “market adjacencies”? Yes, that creaking sound is coming from the Gates Between, slowing banging open. I’ve said it before, but I suspect that we’ll be seeing a lot more of this in the coming years.
By all rights, these headphones are crazy-expensive. $5,500 is a lot of money. Especially in personal audio. In the land of hi-fi, however, this is something less impressive, which is a shame and something worthy of an essay all in itself, but put that aside. But while they are expensive, it’s worth noting that they’re not the most expensive headphones ever made. That’s probably the Sennheiser Orpheus: each of the 300 units made cost a healthy $16k, but that did include the amp required to drive them. Finding an Orpheus system today would mean a trip through eBay and a donation of something well north of $20k. Ouch. Many would argue that the Stax 009 headphone ($4,450) and a Headamp Blue Hawaii ($4,980) might give the old Orpheus a run for its money; that pairing is considered by many to be the best that your money can currently buy. Also ouch. And set squarely against these electrostatic wunderkinder, at least from the perspective of price, is the planar-magnetic Abyss, which arrived here with the Cavalli Audio Liquid Gold ($4,000).
No, none of these systems are going to fall under any interesting sense of “affordable”.
So, before we go much further, I need to flutter my hands at the issue of pricing. Let me first say that whether or not you or I are able to afford such loftily priced pieces is not relevant to whether the product is viable as a product. My wallet being a market barometer would be a rather large conceit. Also, the fact that you or I are not the target market does not in any way influence whether or not such a target exists. Again, another that would be another conceit. It’s also important to note and remember that pricing isn’t usually an effort to gouge anyone personally. A lot of things go into price-setting, and that calculation is complex — and rightfully so. Ultimately, what makes a product viable is whether or not the price it can be sold at is supported by the market. That doesn’t mean that the product can (or should) be priced lower, however. The vendor that operates at a loss is typically not a vendor long. Again, it’s worth noting all this, way out here, first, before the villagers start randomly picking up torches and pitchforks and storming the Bastille.
No matter where you fall on the economic scale, chances are, you have to balance performance with cost — and if you don’t have to (because you’re rich like Mitt Romney), chances are quite good that you will anyway, which also happens to be one of the reasons you no longer have to. That equation, the balance between performance and cost, is something I call value.
Products that can perform at a similar level but do so at varying costs have unequal value. My wife, bless her heart, is a real stickler on this point. Low value products are not keepers. But value does not equal cost. They’re very different. And sometimes — not always — performance does correlate with cost. That is, sometimes the expensive stuff is just plain better, and hitting that level of performance entails a hefty expenditure. It happens. I mean, it’s awesome when that gets turned on its head, but sometimes it just doesn’t.
All of this is a crushingly long way to go to say this: the Abyss AB-1266 paired with the Cavalli Liquid Gold amp is, in many of ways that matter, the best headphone system you can buy. Yes, it is expensive. But no, the fact is that you will not find a personal audio system on the market that bests them at what they do best.
How I got here
I’m going to have back up a couple of steps to get to the actual beginning in this particular drama, so let me do that now.
I first heard the Abyss headphones at RMAF this past year, fronted by Woo Audio‘s massive flagship WA-234 mono block headphone amps, the Taurus from Auralic, and by a new-to-me company, Cavalli Audio. Quite the trifecta, there. The result of that flash-fry was a deep respect for true, awe-inspiring bass, a first for me in all things headphones. Quite frankly, I’d never heard anything like — and still haven’t, at least, not with headphones. It was enough to make me reach out, rather blindly, to Joe Skubinski. Joe’s the guy behind JPS and Abyss. Anyway, I didn’t really place much stock in my ability to land a pair of $5,500 headphones, especially not one that was so hot off the printing press (as it were). Joe was very kind, and very kindly, put me off. I thought it was pretty much done at that point, but out of the blue, Joe reached out right after CES and said he’d be sending me a pair. I might have jumped up and down a little bit when I got that email. And then he suggested I try out a Cavalli Audio Liquid Gold headphone amp along with it. He’d even arrange it. You know. Just so I could get the full impact. That email was met with quite a bit more than jumping up and down. A two-fer! I was, about to test drive a headphone system that retailed for about $10k. Jubilant was about where my head was at. That is audio winning.
I then, like most human beings, began to gloat. Just a little. To folks I thought would be impressed. Braggart, that’s me. And that’s when I first relearned a bit about The Troubles With Expensive Personal Audio Gear.
What caught me by surprise was the negativity coming from a few head-fi’ers. And most interesting was the huge ribbon of envy that wrapped around those comments. Hence the opener, above.
What I want to do in this review is give my observations of these two superlative, and in many ways incredible, pieces of audio gear. I’m going to take them one at a time and bring them back together and provide impressions at each stage. I’m not going to bother with the companies behind them, or even delve too much into the subtleties or mechanics — that’s all available elsewhere, and in far greater detail. Instead, I’m just going to weigh in with my thoughts, my opinions and judgments, and that’ll be that.
In short, I found a lot to love about both of these components, both separately and together. Neither is perfect. In fact, I have serious issues with both. But, even with that said, these two components, especially (but not necessarily) together, constitute an assault on audio’s high-end that is unprecedented and unmatched.
Heady words for heady gear.
Cavalli Audio Liquid Gold
So, about this amplifier. I’m hoping no one is going to be offended when I call it a beast. A lot of that has to do with the look and feel, but a matte-black finish is going to evoke all manner of imagery around terms like ‘functional’, ‘brutal’, and ‘efficient’ in pretty much the same way that a 9mm Glock does. It’s manly. Understated. Like a commando.
I will note that keeping it looking it just came out of the box is a bit of a chore. Fingernails leave marks (that rub off), and if you’re a big fan of doing your head-fi with a bucket of fried foods, be aware that fingerprints are gonna stand out like fake blood on a “vintage” Kent State sweatshirt.
The top grill is more open than not, providing sneak peaks for the nosy and a lot of ventilation — important, as the center of that plate gets to a rather toasty 120°F (+40° from ambient, as measured by my trusty Thermapen).
From the front, you’re not faced with a lot of (pesky) options. There are three headphone jacks, front and just left-of-center, but that first-glance might warrant a double take. The two left-most jacks of the three are dedicated left-and-right channel jacks and both take a 3-pin XLR. But … in the center of each of these is a “regular” tip-and-ring ¼” phono plug jack for two single-ended headphones to swing from. Next to those, off to the right, is another jack, this one a 4-pin balanced connector. We’ll get back to balanced vs not, later.
To the far left is the touch-sensitive on-off switch, with three glowing white LEDs when you’re all powered up and ready to go. Good to know: the soft-start feature that takes the amp from power-up to ready-to-play is about 2 minutes long. The standby mode is shown with a single white LED. Touch the button, and a second row of LEDs light up, first orange and then white. Again, three whites and you’re ready for tunes.
The knob is center-right. It’s a bit of a blunt tool — it’s a knob, nothing more. It makes the loudies louder and the softies softer. To the right of the knob is a recessed trough wherein hide a pair of toggle switches. The toggles themselves are only just barely flush with the faceplate — clearly, these are here for convenience but not for casual fiddling. Of the two, the left gives hi-low (+12dB or +18dB) gain settings and the right selects the inputs. Which makes this a good time to flip the unit around.
On the back, there are three inputs. One set for single-ended/RCA and two sets for your balanced inputs, via XLR. Aside from the power switch and power IEC, that’s all she wrote.
The “magic” happens on the inside: 3 watts into 32Ω and 9 watts into 50Ω. And in case you were wondering, yes, that’s a lot for a headphone amplifier.
An aside about cables
Staring at those output jacks on the Liquid Gold got the hamster all excited, spinning around on his wheel. The question I had, somewhat naturally, was whether or not the balanced delivery would actually matter. That is, matter in a practical way, and not just the theoretical. I mean, sure, I’m down with the noise-cancellation value of balanced connections, and I’m also down with an increase in power delivery and control. I’m all about power delivery and control. But like with most things audiophile, reality tends to fall a bit short of the hyperbole. That said, how can I know if I don’t try it?
Turns out, my pair of Audeze LCD-3 headphones came with balanced cables, which was good news. The Oppo PM-1 did not, until the HA-1 showed up. My Alpha Dogs did not — I had to order a set. My HD-800s were pretty much out of luck, at least until my WyWires RED cable showed up. But none of these cables were like what was staring at me from the front of the Liquid Gold — all of those cables were the “standard” 4-pin jobs. None were running individual balanced cables, one per driver.
Yes, I know, overkill. But what I wanted to do was level the playing field. I wanted to control the variables — especially if there was a greater impact running headphones from balanced jacks from the Liquid Gold (there is). And further, to learn if there was even more impact not just running the headphones balanced, but using the dedicated left+right 3-pin jacks (there is).
So, I got a set for my Sennheiser HD-800, for the Audeze LCD headphones, and for the Abyss headphones, too. Again, just controlling the variables.
I used a variety of headphones with the Liquid Gold. I’ll get to the individual discussions shortly, but there are some over-arching notes to make.
First, the Liquid Gold does not sound like a solid state amplifier. Or a tube amplifier, for that matter. That is, there isn’t a ready-to-hand classifier to anchor my notes around. No, it’s not a “hybrid sound”, whatever that might be. There isn’t a roll-off, or any softness or looseness in the bass or treble, no mid-range “push” (classical/stereotypical “tube sound”). There also isn’t any “scooping”, or exaggeration in the bass or hardness/glare in the treble (classical/stereotypical “solid-state sound”). I say this because it’s still surprising to me how far those rough characterizations will take you.
About the detail retrieval — I found it to be very good but not best-in-class. The noise-floor is also very good but not best-in-class, and I suspect that the two are related. The more sensitive the headphones used, the more likely it is that this is an issue. That is, IEMs are not invited to play. Not that you would. But, yes, I did. Because that’s how I roll.
With middling sensitivity headphones like those from Audeze, the noise floor was invisible. With a wickedly detailed headphone like the HD-800, the extension was extraordinary. With bass monster headphones like the Abyss, it was like watching Baryshnikov dance. Yeah. If you have no idea who Baryshnikov was, Google is your friend.
The sound, if amps can be said to have a sound, is “warm”. Not warm, as in “masking” or “smoothing” but more as in “Class A” vs “Class Not-A”. There’s a fullness to the presentation, a density, that’s completely natural and comes with a separation that is unforced. There’s “air” where air is supposed to be. No more. No less. Which is to say that those looking for an analytical detail retrieval system should look elsewhere, because the Liquid Gold isn’t like that. This is different.
This is where I reach into the cliché bag and pull out something like “it sounds like music”, in case you’re keeping track. Put a pin in here; we’ll get back to this.
In the meantime, let’s dig in.
I’m still not really sure why I bought these headphones, to be honest. I guess someone told me they were “the best”, and I went off and ordered a pair. I got them, used them, but never warmed up to the sound. To be fair, they’re extraordinary in their own right — for example, they’re the only headphone I’ve ever used that had better detail retrieval than my old pair of AKG K-701 headphones, another can I never warmed up to. But as for wanting to listen to them? Well, let’s just say I don’t reach for my HD-800s when I want to check out a new album. Ever. For me, the HD-800 are a tool and nothing more.
The closest I ever came to liking these headphones, instead of respecting them, was with the HP4 amplifier from E.A.R. That pairing was extraordinary; it took me way past mere “liking” and forces the imagination to conjure up all manner of synonyms for the word ‘synergy’. But I think it’s a mistake to classify these headphones as “tube cans”. They’re not — or rather, not just. There is something that tubes do that the HD-800 seem to like (better impedance matching, maybe), but whatever it is, I can’t imagine that this the only good way to use them.
Take the Liquid Gold, for example.
This pairing was also exceptional, and this is really where I turned the corner with the HD-800, moving from respect to admiration, perhaps. I’m not taking them to meet my family or anything, but if I had something against tube amps, the Liquid Gold would be an excellent place to look to make the HD-800s up a step. Several steps, actually.
The first step was presence. Given the healthy output of the amp into moderate loads (no idea what it might be into the 300Ω that the HD-800 is looking for), I’m wondering if I haven’t been starving them all this time. It wasn’t so much that they “came alive” as “breathed a sigh of relief” — music through this pairing took on an ease that was not just pleasurable but rates up there with the best I’ve heard out of these headphones.
Slam — something that means a lot of things to a lot of people, and which I’m using here only to roughly characterize the gestalt of the bass — was kickin’. If you know anything about the HD-800, you know that their bass performance is not their strong suit. Well, now you know why — folks have not been using them with a Liquid Gold. While not on a par with the Abyss (but nothing is, more on that in Part 2), the headphones feel complete in terms of frequency response. Huzzah!
Here was the fun thing — I swapped in two sets of balanced cables on the HD-800 late in the process. The first was the RED cable from WyWires. This cable was part supercharger, part power washer. About that first bit, it was a bit like stomping the gas on a muscle car — the car (aka, frequency response) settled back on to the rear wheels (aka, the bass). There was no loss, per se, which brings me to that second bit about clarity. My silly “Cricket Test” proved revelatory (if you’ll pardon the hyperbole). I’ve talked about the “Roadhouses and Automobiles” track as sitting me squarely in the middle of a field, on a porch, whatever. Somewhere outside. You know, because of all the bugs. But with this pairing, I suddenly got the feeling that what the mixing engineer was going for was not a late night, bourbon soaked, longing-for-the-road paean, but instead, yet another in a very long string of bittersweet goodbyes said to a sleeping house just before the old musician climbed into a cab to catch yet another early flight. Having my attention dawn to the dawn chirping of the birds, and not just the crickets, shifted the view. [Sniff]. Swapping over to the dual-cable 3-pin Double Helix Complement² cables traded in a bit of the ultra transparency for a bit of welcome warmth and 3D depth, but maintained that squat-and-thrust change to the Sennheiser’s low-end. Greg Brown’s aching “Who Killed Cock Robin” is an exercise in resonance and control — there’s enough texture in his voice to sand down a table. Played through the Liquid Gold, into the HD-800 with the Complement², I was gobsmacked at the sheer immensity of the presence in this track. I had visions of being filled up by a shivering, shattering Grace, and when the paralysis passed, I had to put the headphones down, step back, and take several deep, shuddering breaths. It’s really too bad I don’t smoke.
In short, I really think I’ve done these headphones wrong. Run balanced, with this “big amp”, these headphones were a helluva lot more enjoyable than I’d been giving them credit for. Silly me. Run this way, the entire presentation just felt bigger, more dynamic, and tonally, more … balanced (and … RIMSHOT).
Audeze LCD-3 Fazor
The Audeze LCD-3, now with their “Fazor” tech, is quite possibly the best headphone currently on the market. The sound of this headphone is remarkably full-sounding, and in ways that the HD-800 just isn’t. Detail retrieval is very high, but not highlighted — perhaps “spotlighted” might be a better way to put that — and fits into an overall frequency response that showcases a high degree of finesse across the audio band. The treble is grain-free and non-fatiguing. The bass response is full and fulsome, but it’s not out of line with the rest of the presentation, but again, it is fulsome. In direct comparison to the HD-800, that bass is awesome. If you’re an EDM fan, or simply into pop, you’ll be into this bass in a big way. Sub-bass notes, like with Jem’s “Come on Closer”, drop like grenades into a closed room. This headphone is considered by many to be the pinnacle of headphone design and performance, and that determination may rest squarely on the bass performance. But to me, it’s the mid range where this headphone truly separates from the rest of the ultra-high-end — it is, in a phrase, class-leading.
What it is not, however, is a pig to drive. The new version of this headphone is 100Ω and 93dB, which means that it sits somewhere in the middle (aka, the sweet spot) in terms of difficulty to drive. In point of fact, this headphone has a reputation (to my mind, at least) for being easy and friendly — it makes just about everything it pairs with sound better. Better than they ought, perhaps, which is one of the reasons why it is almost universally loved.
Driven balanced and paired here with the Liquid Gold, I was not as overwhelmed with the improvement as I was with the HD-800. In point of fact, these headphones don’t need this much power, and having it suddenly on tap did not make them bloom in new and wholly unexpected ways. Rather, they just sounded like the amazing headphones that I already knew them to be. This kind of mirrors my reaction, driving them with the HP4 from E.A.R., actually. That said, with all that power lighting them up on this amp, several things were noticeable. One, the bass firmed up. Not just became deeper, or more powerful, or something. This is interesting and important because while the bass on the LCD-3 (or any Audeze, for that matter) is big and powerful, it does tends toward a Rubensesque voluptuousness. And as with Rubens, those curves will appeal to a wide audience. Nothing wrong with that. But here, on the Liquid Gold, it was as if that same figure had gone through some cross-fit training. Rubenesque? Maybe, still a bit, but now with a radiant sense of buff-ness. I’m struggling with a visual image here that isn’t blatantly sexist, or grotesquely overblown, because the difference, while notable, doesn’t change the character of the headphones. They’re still fulsome. They just sound a bit more grippy and muscular. Maybe I ought to just stick to that.
For the sake of completeness, I’ll note that the cable changes here between WyWires’ RED and Double Helix’ Complement² were pretty much inverted from my experience with the HD-800. In that case, I think that the Complement² were the more salubrious pairing as it seemed to fill in some of the response with more tonal goodness. Here, with the Audeze, the WyWires brought a very enjoyable sense of speed to the still-dark (though less so than pre-Fazor) Audeze LCD-3, adding just a bit to the sense of detail and transparency.
I had the occasion to host some seriously top-flight headphone amplifiers, all here at the same time, and run them against the Liquid Gold, the over-achieving Burson Conductor and the HA-1 from Oppo. These new “flagship” amps, the HP4 from E.A.R. and the GSX Mark II from HeadAmp, are considered by many to some of the finest you can buy today (and in the case of the E.A.R., one of the finest that you’ve been able to buy for the last 15 years), were all set up side-by-side with the Liquid Gold.
Of the three, I was struck by the GSX Mark II as having the quietest background. With its separate — and separable (in the sense that you can and should move it as far away from the amplifier as the umbilical will allow) power supply, this design takes up the most real estate, but that pays its dividends in terms of blackness. By comparison there, the Liquid Gold was both warmer, and with headphones with higher sensitivities, the differences in background noise were marginal, but apparent.
Of the three, I was struck by the HP4 and its timbral clarity — music played back through this transformer-coupled, tube-colored flagship amp quite simply had the highest level of organic rhythm and flow. It was also one of the most compact unit of the group, and carried the highest level of fit and finish. Of course, it also carried the highest price tag. That’s hard to shake. But the texture was just superb, and if anyone ever was to say the phrase “tube sound”, this was the amp to take to that party. It was big, expansive, rich — but not bereft of treble or bass, and in fact, excelled at both though not in a way that called attention. This amp was about finesse and grace, but ultimately, about coherency and consistency. Nothing was out of place. By contrast, the Liquid Gold is most definitely a different kind of approach, more linear and less smooth, and every headphone it touched was driven to perform at it it’s peak capacity. That bottomless sense of drive and dynamics made for an intoxicating ride, but one that stepped “out of the way” more than “polished up the edges”.
Compared to this august group, the Liquid Gold proved to be something of a Jack of All Trades. It chased in some categories but landed less than second in none. It might have been edged out by the GSX Mark II in background, detail and dynamics, but the margins were small. Timbre and tone may well have been edged out by the HP4, but the margins were also small and were here weighted more heavily on aesthetic preferences than objective performance. With those admissions, the Liquid Gold bested both of those amps (and the others), and handily so, in terms of sound stage, air and total scale of the sonic presentation. In terms of being the “Great Escape”, it was the Liquid Gold that wove the most convincing illusions, and drove more headphones to pinnacles of performance than any other.
Summary of Part 1
All of these amps are interesting, and those flagships are just truly excellent. They represent, to my mind at least, the very best that the market currently has to offer. Any one can and will anchor a reference-class headphone rig. But of the three, the Liquid Gold is the one that ended up staying.
To be fair, the decision wasn’t straightforward. As a reviewer, I have slightly different needs than the average sonic escapee. The fully-balanced architecture, with the nifty ability to drive balanced cans two different ways and still drive two pairs of single-ended headphones, well, that’s really different than everything else I have in the candy store at the moment. Put another way: as a tool, it offered something new.
Sonically, solid state amps tend to leave me a bit cold, but sometimes there’s really just no other way to get what you want. The question, then, is what are you willing to trade? While the Liquid Gold is never going to be mistaken for a tube amp — make no mistake — that’s not a bad thing, it’s just a thing. The presentation is just different than what a tube amp — even one of the very best tube amps, like the HP4 — does. Some headphones, like the Sennheiser HD-800, really shine with tubes. The new “Fazored” LCD-3, with it’s tube-friendly 100Ω impedance, is another natural tube-friendly match. But the older Audeze headphones, or the beastly Abyss (for what’s likely to be an entirely different reason), or a whole host of low-impedance headphones all really seem to shine a bit more brightly when driven by something else. Something like the Liquid Gold, for example.
The riddle of power …. In hi-fi, it’s a maxim that more power is better power. Assuming that this is true in every instance is problematic (that’s the flaw with universal statements), but there’s a reason that it’s a maxim in the first place — it’s true often enough that folks have now glommed on to the notion as a kind of mental shorthand. And short rigging up a stereo hi-fi amplifier with some kind of wacky wiring harness, the Liquid Gold is loafing around, pretty much alone, at the top of the power heap.
And then — with all that said — there’s the issue of sonic excellence. The Liquid Gold is, quite simply, one of the most consistently excellent sounding amps I’ve heard, with just about every headphone I tried it with. Assuming you’re not using electrostats or IEMs, the Liquid Gold checks off far too many boxes to not be a contender. And actually trying it out, well, that seals the deal. I was stunned at how good my flagship headphones sounded on this amp. What else is there to say?
In Part 2, we’ll explore the Abyss AB-1266 headphones! Stay tuned for that.