Review: Viva Audio Egoista headphone amplifier
From the Merriam Webster Dictionary:
Egoist: noun \-gə-wist, -gō-ist\, 1: a believer in egoism. 2: an egocentric or egotistic person
Do you consider yourself as one? In audio terms, do you like listening to music alone? In terms of ethics, the term has a third meaning: one that lives by the values of egoism, that is, one that puts his personal interests as a priority.
If you are a little bit of an egoist, go on and read this review. Just make sure you also have some serious $$$ in the bank.
You are going to need it.
Some five months ago, during my annual High-End pilgrimage in Munich, I bumped into my friend George (who also happens to be an audio importer), and the usual corridor chat took off. What’s good, what’s new, what sucks big time — the usual stuff. During a show as big as Munich’s, every bit of information comes handy; chances are you will miss more than a few things as it is impossible to listen to everything.
George told me about this new headphone amplifier that the guys from Viva Audio, a small Italian brand that produces handcrafted tube amplifiers and speakers, was being presented for the first time. When you have a hundred or more “live” rooms with equipment costing anywhere from tens of thousands up to a million $ and more, a new headphone amplifier might not be in top of your list. But George insisted, “this is one you must give a listen, it’s like no other.”
I have heard this “like no other” quite a few times and was still skeptical, was it worth the precious time? After a couple of hours, I was downstairs and learned first-hand that every now and then something truly “like no other” actually does hit the market. Well, not exactly the market as this was a pre-production model, but there it was, the first and only prototype of Amedeo Schembri’s latest creation.
Even more recent history
Besides my day time job and my moonlighting over here at Part Time Audiophile, I also like participating in the various audio forums. I find them being the pulsating heart of the audio community, the perfect place to chat with friends about our passion. Actually I do more than just participate; I also help moderate the biggest one in Greece, the local AVClub.gr. And not more than a month ago, we organized the first ever local headphone fest, which was a major success with 80 brands presenting their stuff and more than 40 live set ups. You can read all about it in The Audio Traveler, for those who have already followed my extensive report, you know where I am heading with this. Yes, during the Athens show we had the Viva Egoista on display, one of the first official production units flew in from Italy and it was paired with Audeze’s LCD-3 planar magnetic headphones. After the show, a series of phone calls set up the details of the review you are about to read. The whole took place at the local Audeze show room, and I would like to thank the guys for the proverbial hospitality.
History in the making
Viva Audio is nowhere close to being a new player in the market. They have been producing speakers and tube amplifiers since mid-nineties. Current production consists of 3 amplifiers, a phono stage, a DAC with transport (Numerico, used a source during this review and still not officially available), and a couple of speaker systems, with the big one being really big and the small one again awaiting official presentation.
Viva amplifiers are designed with some constant principles in mind. Current production takes advantage of the 845 direct heated triode tube with a zero negative-feedback topology, point-to-point wiring and amorphous-core output transformers.
Among the various models, the Solistino integrated is the one that acted like a donor for the Egoista’s design. The Solistino and the Egoista share in fact the same layout, meaning a Russian 6N6P double-triode (similar to the ECC99) driving the classic 6SN7 GTB double triode (by ElectroHarmonix) and one 845 output triode per channel, sourced by TAD. Rectification is also done by tube with a pair of EH 5U4GB. Besides the obvious and necessary adaptation of the circuitry to the specific headphone use, the only differences lay in the remote control with the Egoista costing only slightly less than the integrated for not having one. Casework and knobs are identical; you would be hard pressed to tell one from the other. On the front panel you will find the power toggle switch, the volume knob and the input selector for a total of 5 positions (one input runs direct). All three lay inside recessions on the black plate covering the front in typical Viva fashion. Two additional smaller recessions placed inline between the bigger ones house the headphone outputs.
A second black plate covers the back while the rest of the casework is made from an undulated single piece of aluminum that can be customized with a wide variety of automotive colors. The review sample was finished in Porsche Yellow while the Numerico at hand was silver, also sourced by Porsche. The looks are what I would call “original”, you might prefer the term “innovative” as they follow a form over function concept. Underneath the two cliffs, Mr. Schembri has hidden the power and output transformers along with the filtering chokes. The canyon that is created offers shelter for the tubes as there is no protection grid of any kind. I find the design to be very appealing, despite being a bulky amplifier (and weighing 65lbs), and even when turned off the Egoista will attract the eyes of everyone and dominate your living room.
More history, about tubes this time
The 845 valve is a magnificent US design that dates back in 1932. This audio power triode has a thermal dissipation of 75 Watts and operates with 1250 Volts, give or take, on the anode. A small beast with 54mm in diameter, and excluding the base pins, 185 mm tall. In single ended triode mode it will output a healthy 15 Watts which is good for medium high sensitivity speakers and tops most if not all headphone amplifiers in driving capabilities. One of the more commonly used driving tubes for the 845 is the 6SN7 GT, introduced around 1940 and with many variants. The GT stands for glass tube as many of the early 6SN7 series had metal casing. My favorite 6SN7 GT is the Kentucky Radio “staggered plates” version with a distant second being the Sylvania VT 231. If you can find decent Ken Rads for your equipment, don’t hesitate — you can thank me later. During the review I used stock tubes, as provided by Viva.
Headphones that will make history?
I have not mentioned the price of this beast, but as you might have guessed, it is not peanuts. How could it be, an Italian hand-crafted single ended triode amplifier with amorphous transformers outputting 15 Watts per channel? Here in Europe it will retail for approx. 9.000 euros, back in the States in the $10K neighborhood. What more logical than to pair it with my Superlux HD 681 evo cans for which I paid less than $50.
Relax people, this is over-the-top amplification and using it with nothing but the “crème de la crème” of cans makes sense. My choice went to the top of the line Audeze LCD-3, and in order to taste some dynamic headphones too (of which I am a fan, same goes with speakers), I used the recently introduced AKG K-812. Both models represent the pinnacle for each company and this automatically lands them among the most expensive headphones available in the market. While for the entire Audeze catalogue, several quality reviews have seen the light of day, the AKGs are a relative novelty, so a few words are obligatory.
It was quite some time since the last AKG flagship, the 701, was released; 2005 if memory serves me well. Not a bad headphone at all, but in recent years, many things have changed. All major brands created a new top of the line set of headphones, newcomers showed what they can offer, and AKG was left with the various iterations of the 701 without keeping up the pace. Up to this year that is, when they finally introduced the K-812 which features the strongest magnetic system that can be found on a headphone currently, a whopping 1.5 Tesla. It is an open-back design with 53mm compound diaphragm drivers and double layer voice coils. Frequency extension goes all the way up to 54KHz, max input power is 300mW, with 36 Ohms impedance and a sensitivity of 110 dB/mV. Yes, these are efficient headphones, and in theory they won’t swallow your amplifier in one bite like certain AKGs used to do. Let me rephrase that, it is not just in theory. I gave them a try with my laptop’s output and the HTC M8 mini cellphone and both managed to drive them to decent SPLs. I am not suggesting you should buy a pair of K-812s and hit the road with nothing but a cellphone, but you will not have amplification issues with these cans. Quality driving, on the other hand, is whole different story.
During the review, I used the matching Viva Numerico DAC-CD transport. Chief designer and founder Amedeo Schembri calls this a “DAC” with the added bonus of a transport and not the other way around. In fact, it has only digital inputs (USB and 2 Coaxials) while sports only the obvious single ended RCA output. I am not giving you much here as I know very little myself. Truth is that Mr. Schembri has his own personal way of putting things. The point he makes is “come and see for yourself what the Viva sound is all about, forget technicalities”. The transport will reproduce only standard RedBook format (16bit/44.1Khz), while the USB input will go all the way up to 24/192. On OS X, the Numerico runs driverless, while Windows users must install the proprietary ASIO drivers provided by Viva. Obviously, the Numerico and the Egoista have a perfect synergy, so I had no reason to complain. For the record, the Numerico will be announced later this month at an estimated price almost identical to the Egoista (approx. 9K euro in the EU and $10K in the US).
And back to the present
There are two fundamental parameters in every amplifier. Quantity and quality. The Egoista is almost unique among headphone amps. With 15 watts, it is powerful enough to drive even the most demanding headphones no matter how inefficient those might be. During the recent headphone fest I gave it a try with the HiFi Man HE-6 and it drove them without hesitation. No audible distortion, even when the pot was at 1 to 2 o’clock and the volumes were almost painful for my ears. It clearly has no problem with the Audeze LCD-3, and the AKG K-812s were a piece of cake for the yellow beast; during my listening sessions the volume knob was adjusted for about “an hour” under the corresponding level of the planars.
If it was the quantity you and I were going after, this amplifier would make no sense. Not at this price. You can have a perfectly fine solid-state amp with the same amount of raw power for much, much, much less moola. Things are rather different when it comes down to quality, and in fact the yellow beast is on a whole new, inimaginable level.
Dead Can Dance is the band that blended folk music with rock and African vibes with Celtic elements. The live version of “Rahim”, as reproduced by the Viva+Audeze chain was mesmerizing. The santur intro followed by the timbrel and the chorists made this recording almost as memorable as a nineties concert while the basic trait of this combo clearly emerged. Air. Top of the line planar magnetic LCD-3 offers this sensation of “airy” reproduction, a sensation even more intense with the Egoista in command. Everything seems lighter, like floating, defying the laws of gravity.
David Chesky has been producing one great recording after another for years now and “A Capella Dreams” by the Pursuasions (24/96 FLAC) is no exception. In the U2 classic “Angel Of Harlem” sung in an a doo wop version, channel separation was excellent; voices clearly jumped from one can to the other. During playback, a miracle happens, a chorist’s voice enlightens just the upper left part of the scene saying nothing more than “angel”, intervening like a deus ex machina. The timbre of unaccompanied voices was faithful, articulation was magnificent; I tried to repeat this experience with lesser headphones (the 681 evo) but the magic was all gone. Then I added the AKG K-812 to the recipe and this changed just about everything. The voices now were more distant one from the other, as if they were recorded one at a time and then mixed together during the production. At the same time the imaging went beyond imagination. That single chorist felt like he was suspended from ropes, ten feet above the ground, placed in the upper-left part of a theatrical scene, waiting for his turn to enlighten the session with a falsetto “angel”.
The difference in approach was remarkable, that theory saying “flagship audio products tend to be similar in character” is complete nonsense. The two headphones sit in the antipodes of musical reproduction. I needed more and it had to be complex — if you’re thinking big scale symphonic works, you are spot on. Beethoven’s 5th with Carlos Kleiber (DG) forgives none and showcases everything there is to point out. I started with the Audeze headphones, while the AKGs were connected on the second output waiting to be used. Swapping only took a second and all that was needed was adjusting the volume. The LCD-3 has made some progress from the LCD-2 in terms of speed and clarity; that slightly blurry feeling of the massive violins bursts gave its place to a better defined treble with more efficient instrument identification. With the 3s you get to hear more distinctive violins playing together and not the sound of violins summed in a hazy picture. The differences are there but I would hesitate calling them humongous, let’s say that the 3 is the logical evolution of the 2 (and for double the price tag they must/should offer something more, right?). Then it was the K-812 chance with Beethoven’s 5th and the” allegro con brio”. Bang! I could count the exact number of violins, violas and cellos, I pictured the rows they were sitting in and the disposition of the wind instruments at the back of the stage. Perceived 3-dimensional field was impressive to say the least, as if my seat moved a few rows ahead, closer to Kleiber. Both headphones presented fast attack but decay was shorter for the AKG (a bit overdamped?) and definitely longer with the Audeze (typical of planar magnetics?). The Egoista was proving itself to be a mirror of each headphones soul.
Up to this point, soundstage and detail retrieval were in favor of the AKG, while an overall sensation of airy reproduction was coming from the Audeze headphones. I knew where the LCD-3s would amaze me and probably better the electrodynamic AKGs: bass. Nothing manages the first octave better than a good pair of planar cans and my intuition was proven correct on an old favorite from my rock days, AC-DC’s “Back In Black” (Japanese remastered version SICP 1707). Both headphones offered the same balance with Malcolm Young, Rudd and Williams in the background and Johnson with Angus Young placed forward, closer to the listener. The LCD-3 slapped me in the face once, twice, then a third time during the headbanging intro, I had to remove them from my head, take a deep breath and play the song back from the start. Then I swapped in the AKGs. Yes, bass extension is limited when compared to the planars, but only slightly. Maybe just a couple of dBs at 20Hz? I have this hunch that the AKGs outperform the Sennheiser HD-800 in bass slam but as I am going by memory here take this for what it is, a hunch. (It would make a great review though, head to head the HD-800 against the K-812).
All this time, a single thought was running in cycles around my brain. Was I really listening to a tube amplifier with output transformers? Usually the OPTs, even those implemented in high-end amplifiers, present a slight roll-off in the bottom octave and especially when approaching the 20Hz threshold. The Viva transformers were the closest thing to a perfect transformer I have listened in quite some time. If there is a roll off, it is the slightest possible, and it would make itself present only when a discrete amount of power is used and the OPTs are close to their saturation point. You won’t be able to perceive it with electrodynamic headphones and you should use planar magnetic ones as stubborn as the HE-600 to duplicate this sensation of mine.
As one listening session succeeded the other, I went through various works by composers such as Britten (Simple Symphony op4), Shchedrin (Basso ostinato for piano) and Bizet/ Sarasate (Carmen Fantasy), which aided me in putting together the big picture for this headphone amplifier and the cans involved. The Viva-Audeze pairing had a bigger coda and longer decay in piano notes while presented all musical genres in a “fleshy” and rather dark manner. This is the matching most audiophiles dream about, amazing cans perfectly driven in all aspects. AKGs where more impactful in dynamics with clearly wider soundstage and an overall more ballsy character. Detail retrieval and precision second to none. At the same time, each instrument was more confined to its own space, the so-called “pinpoint imaging” trespassed into a less woven musical fabric. In certain aspects the AKGs got me beyond a live concert, they pushed me into the mixing room.
I left female voices for last. It is no secret that in this area tube amplifiers typically excel. Single-ended amps even more so. It is also a stronghold for Audeze cans. In fact, I preferred the warmer and richer sound of the LCD-3s in both Kylie Minogue singing with Nick Cave “Where the Wild Roses Grow” and in Nina Simone’s “My Baby Just Cares for Me”. AKG considers the K-812 a professional studio headphone, and this is what it sounds like with the Egoista. Precise, fast, dynamic, detailed and on certain passages, clinical, or should I say surgical, in its precision with underlining errors during the recording/ mastering process. A slight sibilance made itself present during those repeated esses in the Minogue/Cave duo. These traits are usually associated with solid state amplification, I made comparisons with the all new M2Tech Marley headphone amplifier and used the AKG on the Auralic Taurus as well. Both these machines run in class A and both keep the character of the AKG unaltered. The Egoista is a tube amplifier with all the characteristics of a good solid state design. On top of that, it adds the slightest flavor of warmth and harmonics but it will not transform your cans into something else. This is good, or should I say: this is excellent, as the tube amps who transform your rig represent nothing more than an equalizer in disguise, packed with distortion.
The Egoista proved to be a perfect match for the Audeze headphones as well. These have a rich character on their own, and though this can be seen as the best way for listening female singers, piano and jazz music, if paired with a mellow tube amp it could end up being all too smudgy ruining musical genres such as symphonies and complex musical content generally speaking. This was not the case here, the Viva Egoista pairing is brilliant in every aspect.
End of the story
Canonical reviews should contain several passages of comparisons with other similarly priced products, but there is an issue here. Not many headphone amplifiers cost ten grand. Woo Audio produces the gorgeous 234 mono headphone amplifiers that are even more expensive, but output only 2 to 3 Watts at 60Ohms depending on the tube complement. Other amplifiers will produce serious amounts of power, like the HiFi Man EF-6 or the extreme value for money Schiit Mjolnir. But these are solid state designs and fall short in terms of perceived transparency, delicacy during female voices and that magical sensation of space the Egoista provided.
Clearly there must be a downside in all this, right? Well, I went through my notes and I can point out the following. First, this is not a balanced design. It would have been a major handicap if there was humming, buzzing or rumor of anything of the sort during playback, but these are unknown notions for the Egoista. I have no measurements in hand, but SNR must be vanishingly low for a direct heated triode design and seems comparable to solid state amps.
What else? It is overly bulky, no other headphone amp comes even close in weighting 65 pounds and only able to drive cans. The WA-234, by contrast, will also drive very efficient speakers too; everything else in the market is relatively small enough to be placed on your desk, next to you or even moved from office to home without risking a hernia.
Critics are now thinking “the PRICE”, that’s where the catch is. I’m sorry to let you down, but this is not the case here. Wait, what? 10 big ones is not a downside? Nope, the Egoista is true VFM. Before shutting down your browser, let me explain. Can you name another summit audio product that comes for 10K? How much is it for the best of the best stereo power amp currently available? What about top of the line speakers? Not even audio cables come that cheap in this category. Can you name one other product that has zero flaws and outperforms pretty much everything in the market in both driving capabilities and finesse?
The unfortunate fact that many of us cannot afford it does not make the Egoista anything less than a bargain. The joy provided by the yellow beast can be matched by very few classic two-channel systems, and almost always for much more money. This rig, cables excluded, complete with the beautiful Numerico and both headphones will set you back $25K, compared to ultra high-end two channel systems at this level, this is only a fraction of that cost. And if you can afford the Egoista may I suggest the acquisition of both headphones used in this review? The Audeze and AKG work in complementary mode; depending on the genre (and the listener’s mood) you will always have the perfect one waiting for you.
After days of testing the only “real” downside I could come up with is the volume knob, which runs particularly hot after a few hours of listening. I could live with that. But now, I must come up with $10K.
Viva Audio Egoista
- Zero negative feedback pure class A operation, 15Watt/channel
- Tube complement: 1x 6N6P, 1x6SN7 GTB, 2x 845, 2x EH 5U4GB.
- Dimensions: 430×250×440 mm
- Weight: 30Kgr (65Lbs)
- MSRP TBD (EU aprox. 9000 euros, US aprox $10.000)
- Viva Numerico DAC/ CD transport
- M2Tech Marley headphone amplifier
- AKG K-812 Superior Reference Headphones
- Audeze LCD-3 High-performance planar magnetic headphones
- Vovox Textura Fortis RCA interconnect
- Vovox Textura power distribution strip
- Jorma Origa power cords
- Wireworld Platinum Starlight USB 2.0 cable