By Lee Shelly
The first stop I made (pre- show!), was to the Schiit booth. When I got there, Jason Stoddard was fighting with his flagship system … no sound was coming out … yikes. Fortunately, it turned out to be an issue with his laptop. A quick restart and all was right with the world.
And when I mean it was right, it was REALLY right!
I sat down and listened to the Yggdrasil DAC feeling the massive $1,699 Ragnaok (Old Norse for “End of the World”). It was appropriately named to be sure! Raggy, as Jason calls it, can deliver a staggering 15wpc into a 32Ω load through the balanced headphone output. Yet, with a variable gain, the Raggy will also deliver a silent noise floor to even the most sensitive IEM’s. And for those looking to drive loudspeakers, Raggy will deliver 60wpc into an 8Ω speaker load and a whopping 100wpc into a 4Ω load!
I spent some time in a quiet space with a prototype Raggy a few months back and found it transcendent. This time, using the Mr. Speakers Ether and Audeze LCD- X and under only semi-quiet show conditions, did absolutely nothing to change that opinion, especially when fed by the upcoming Yggdrasil DAC ( … which I’ll cover in Part 4).
Schiit was also showing their (very) full line of amps, that start at $79. That includes the USB DAC/Amp, the Fulla, the Mani 2 (and Mani 2 Über), the micro-tube based Vali, the solid-state Asgard 2, the OTL tube Valhalla 2, the tube hybrid Lyr 2, the all-balanced Gungnir and the aforementioned Ragnarok. They have Schiit for every budget and sonic preference.
Another perennial favorite of Head-Fiers is Cavalli Audio. Dr. Alex Cavalli was at the show demonstrating his fantastic lineup of high-end sweetness. That included the stunning solid state Liquid Gold, the tube chameleon Liquid Glass, the electrostatic Liquid Lightning (available in both tube and solid state configurations) and his new Liquid Crimson. I listened to then Liquid Gold feeding the AKG K1000’s and loved the out-of-head experience!
￼As exciting as the top of the line amps were, the real buzz in the Cavalli booth was about the as-yet-unreleased Liquid Carbon and an un-named portable amp. The Carbon is a fully balanced amp from front to back in a smaller ‘transportable’ body and features a variable gain setting. It was dead quiet with IEM’s and orthos alike. I can see this fitting very nicely on lots of desktops … especially give then it is expected to come in at under $1000 (and no, not $999). Keep a watchful eye for a possible group-buy to kick this off!
The portable amp is tiny in its current prototype version, but will be a bit larger when it’s finished as he will be adding a battery. The current version was running off a small wall-wart. The sound he was getting from that tiny amp, especially with a wall-wart was terrific. My Noble 4 IEM’s sounded as good as I’ve ever heard them sound. I can’t wait to hear the finished product!
HeadAmp was on hand to showcase their GS-X dynamic amp and their Blue Hawaii electrostatic amp. Both offer stunning sound and a finish that is second to none. Justin Wilson definitely elevates design to an art form both internally and externally on his amplifiers!
Ronnie Holtzman was on hand showing his desktop amp solution, the Covalent Audio Nucleus amplifier. Nucleus pumps out 1.5wpc into a 32Ω load, like the Grado’s he was using for demonstration. I was surprised to hear the size of the soundstage he was getting from the Grado’s! This is another gain-selectable amplifier, but it also offers a slew of high-end features like 2 inputs (switchable from the front panel), a variable preamp output, and all-aluminum chassis and all-American manufacturing. The difference is you won’t be hit with a high-end price. The Nucleus will only set you back $399.
Continuing with the American Made theme, I visited Wells Audio to listen to their headphone offering, the Head Trip. Jeff Wells entreated me to listen to the Abyss headphones through it. I have a Love/Hate relationship with the Abyss. I have heard them sound stunning when driven by the right amplification (my all-time fav for the Abyss are the Woo WA-234’s) and I’ve heard them sound beyond mediocre on the wrong amps. The Head Trip definitely fell into the former category. The imaging and soundstage were as good as I’ve head the Abyss produce … which is to say about as good as it gets! I’m also a fan of the gloss front on the Head Trip … it exudes sex-appeal! With 25wpc (TWENTY FIVE!) into a 32Ω load, there is no hard to drive headphone that the Head Trip can’t tame!
Audio Plus and SPL￼
Troy Manning from Audio Plus was at the show representing SPL, makers of the Phonitor 2 amp. If you haven’t seen it before, it is not your typical minimalist design! The Phonier is designed for music professionals, but ended up being a favorite of headphone enthusiasts thanks to the processing ability that recreates a typical loudspeaker soundstage. If you haven’t tried it out, you should!
Ayre Audio, from Boulder, CO, got into headphone audio in an unexpected manner. They were asked to make the DAC and amplifier section of the Pono. Yes, THAT Pono. Say what you want about Neil Young’s marketing, you can’t deny that it sounds great. Now Alex Brinkmann, Ariel Brown and the Ayre team have made their first Ayre-branded foray into headphones with the Codex desktop DAC/Amp. The amp is fully balanced with XLR (and RCA single ended) outputs for the DAC on the back of the unit as well as a 1/4” SE headphone jack on the front complemented by a PAIR of 3.5mm minijack outputs for balanced use. I haven’t seen dual mini-jacks implemented for balanced use before. The compact vertical chassis will fit nicely on any desktop. The sound was lovely, as I would expect from an audiophile company like Ayre. Welcome to the game guys! Very glad to have you here!
Woo Audio was on hand showing their wide range of tube amplifiers. The balanced WA-22 (my personal reference tube amp) was on hand. as was their entry-level WA6 & their terrific DAC/Amp combo, the WA7. However, all the attention was being paid to the newest member of the Woo arsenal … the WA8 portable tube DAC/amp.
This battery-powered tube amp might better be called “transportable” because the substantial heft will make it unfriendly to the pockets, but the traveler will love setting it up next to his or her laptop in a hotel room and getting every bit of the glorious Woo house sound.
Questyle were represented by the VP, Bruce Ball and Operations manager Gary Barker. they were proudly showing their new DAP and DAC feeding their CMA800 in dual mono balanced operation. When I say “dual mono”, I’m not talking about two pathways in the same chassis … this is a dual chassis setup. Two CMA800’s are fed from the same source in a mono bloc arrangement. It does require that you adjust the volumes independently, but this setup certainly maintains the greatest stereo separation. The amp is also described as a “Current State” amplifier, which Garry explained allows them greater dynamic range and lower noise.
Across the room was the Chord Electronics booth. This was one of my “must see” booths after hearing the hype surrounding the Hugo portable DAC/Amp. And the hype was not overblown!
￼Listening to the Hugo playing Sennheiser HD800’s was the very first time I’ve heard them sound right from top to bottom. Then I switched over to listening to my current reference headphones, the Audeze LCD-X’s, through the new Hugo TT (for table top). This may well be the best DAC/Amp on the market, especially if you’re looking for a smaller form factor. Colin Pratt was in from across the pond and explained that this was a real statement for them…and it’s priced accordingly at $5,000.
Another strong contender in the DAC/Amp arena is a Aurender Flow. About the same size as the Chord Hugo, one differentiating factor that will please many laptop travelers is the built-in storage. I travel with a MacBook Air that only has 128gb of internal storage. This leaves me carrying a hard drive for all my music. The Flow would be able to take the place of DAC, amp and music storage. That’s a very appealing option, especially given the great sound quality I heard from my brief time with the Flow.
Andrew Clark, president of Peachtree Audio, was on hand showing his two new offerings.
A portable DAC/Amp and a desktop DAC/Amp. As I have come to expect from Peachtree, they both sounded very good and both are very easy on the eyes! The portable has a leather top and isn’t much bigger than a deck of playing cards, while the desktop version has the now- standard rounded corners. The desktop version is smaller than previous Peachtree offerings and should pair nicely with any workstation.
ALO Audio was showing their Studio Six amplifier … one of my favorites to be sure, but one I’ve already rolled over at a few shows. The new drool-worth study was in the portable arena … the new RX and Dual-Mono Continental. The RX is a tiny amp-only product designed to power your IEM’s. Paired with my Astell & Kern, it really brought out the full capabilities of my Noble IEM’s. The all-metal design is gorgeous as well!
The new Continental DAC/Amp is a beauty to behold. It features another all-metal chassis with a window through with you can see the glowing tubes. While it’s smaller and lighter than the Woo WA8, it’s still not something I’m expecting to find in paint pockets…unless you need a leg-warmer! The sound was exceptional whether from my IEM’s or from the Audeze’s that Ken Ball had on hand. At $1500, it’s not cheap, but at $1000 less than the Chord Hugo, it still gives the Hugo some real competition! The tube stage allows you to roll in different tubes that are available from ALO pre-soldered onto the adapter needed to fit the Continental. You can even roll your own! Just get the adapters and solder your own compatible tubes!
ENIGMAcoustics were powering their fabulous new Dharma headphones with a new tube/solid state hybrid amp, the Athena A1 ($1,490), that was really making the headphones sing! From the brochure:
As a single-ended triode / hybrid amplifier, its vacuum tube front-end is biased Pure Class-A, and exhibits extremely low noise, while its low impedance Class-A MOS/BJT hybrid output stage and its high voltage swings ensure compatibility both with low and high impedance headphones, and is equally adept at driving both.
Steve Holt of The Audio Nerd was at the show displaying the “Play it By Ear” headphone amp from The Lambert Company. This crowd-funded headphone amp features a tube hybrid design that will fit just about anywhere thanks to it’s diminutive footprint. It will also fit most budgets thanks to it’s diminutive $499 price tag (and even less through Indegogo).
In the next booth over, Casey and Gavin from LH Labs were showing their Geek Pulse DAC, amp and Power Supply. These modular solutions provide a great ability to build a solid desktop audiophile system!
They were also showing their fabulous market-defining Geek Out 1000 USB DAC/Amp. At 1wpc and capable of playing PCM 32/384 as well as DSD128, this tiny solution gives the laptop audiophile a great sounding “system” in something the size of a pack of gum.
I twisted Gavin’s arm to get a demo of their new Geek Out v2! With a similar feature set to the Geek 1000, this 3D printed design will eliminate some of the potential challenges with an aluminum chassis while also allowing for more flexibility in terms of case design. This white one is a prototype, but the full production version will be available in a variety of colors.
Last, but certainly not least is the LIO modular amp from Vinnie Rossi. I’ve been a big fan and owner of Vinnie’s designs since the Red Wine Audio days, and this new design takes his previous work to a whole other level!
Using huge banks of capacitors to store power and simultaneously separate the power being used from the noise AC/DC rectification, Vinnie achieves amazingly black backgrounds and low noise dynamic sound.
The design itself features a single chassis into which you can add modules for DAC, headphone amp, loudspeaker amp, phono preamp. and more. You can add a tube stage as well! This really is the most customizable amp I’ve ever seen. Be sure to check them out!
This is a great time to be in our hobby … never before have there been so many varied offerings that all provide a high quality experience.