Luke Skywalker: She’s rich.
Han Solo: Rich?
Luke Skywalker: Rich, powerful. Listen, if you were to rescue her, the reward would be…
Han Solo: What?
Luke Skywalker: Well, more wealth than you can imagine!
Han Solo: I don’t know, I can imagine quite a bit.
I feel a bit like Han Solo, at least when it comes to money. It’s a failing, I’m sure. But it’s there. It’s why I play Powerball and Megamillions. Not often, to be fair, but I do play. Because: I can imagine quite a bit.
I think the problem with this job is that I do run across some truly epic gear. Gear that makes me sit up straight, my eyes bulge, my scalp run cold as my face flushes hot, my bowels loosen, my hands itch and shake, and guts feel like I’m about to throw up, all while I jump up and down and squeal with a glee you haven’t heard since you were (or were with) a five-year-old.
Witness the Viva Audio Egoista headphone amplifier. What a beast of a machine! The fat knobs, the lux-car paint job, the glow of way too many watts of thermionic goodness. Cue the Yello — “[Womp womp.] OH YEAH. It’s beautiful.”
Dr K got a crack at the Egoista last year, and to say he was impressed was an understatement. He concluded that the amp, a $10k hotrod with twin “845 direct heated triodes, with a zero negative-feedback topology, point-to-point wiring and amorphous-core output transformers”, was value-for-the-money — in the context of price-no-object audio systems. Not that $10k was cheap or affordable, in any sense of those words. But given that the quality on offer here is almost always reserved for sound built from systems that add zeros to the end of that number, there is something there that needs to be said. You many never have $350k for a new Ferrari. I certainly won’t. But in the world of high-end personal audio, $10k will land you in the same metaphorical ballpark. Do you need a Ferrari? Me neither. But wouldn’t it be cool? Anyway, Dr K makes a compelling argument; whether or not we can afford it, well, that’s another matter entirely.
So, when we ran across Viva Audio at Munich this past May, and found a new Egoista — this time, featuring the legendary 2A3 tubes embedded in a cooler and less expensive package, all of my neurons fired simultaneously in a paroxysm of squee.
Lemme emphasize! Ready? Here goes. The new 2A3 Egoista will retail for (about) $7,500; the other 845-based Egoista will still continue to be available, and will continue to retail for (about) $10,000.
And about that heat: the unavoidable (and perhaps, unlivable) “flaw” of the original design, in my opinion, is that those huge 845 tubes crank out enough heat to turn that sweet-looking V-shaped chassis into an oven — it’s really too hot to touch. The new 2A3 Egoista? Not an issue. Less power, less voltage, less everything (but still, with 3-or-so watts, it’s plenty) means that the heat-dump into the chassis is perfectly suited to an extended up-close and personal enjoyment, no hair-shirt required.
I was pestering Bob Clark of Profundo, the US importer for Viva Audio, pretty much non-stop after my return from Germany. Then, in August, It Showed Up.
Stroking my Ego
Did I mention that it’s beautiful.
I kind of feel that I should stop at this point, just to emphasize my reaction. The actual construction is a rather simple affair — a bent-metal colorful mid-chassis mated to outsized end-caps. But the color! The unit I have here is clad in automotive paint (like all Viva Audio products), a deliciously Halloween-y combo of Lamborghini orange and glossy black front-and-back plates. Look, it may be silly to get carried away on what amounts to a (phenomenal) paint job, but it works. Really. In person, the Egoista is big, imposing, and it looks like a million bucks.
The quartet of Sovtek tubes are submerged into/past the top plate; the tubes are all auto-biased; the two 2A3 power tubes are forward, the two 6C45pi-E drivers are to the rear. Interesting note — even running full-out, for hours, the chassis will not get hot. I mean, it’ll get warm, but the “regular” Egoista gets quite a bit more than that.
Around the back of the box, there are four sets of inputs and a pair of trim knobs (for dialing out any hum — these will likely be placed with a hard-value resistor at some point, but this is the first one-off the line apparently), as well as the normal IEC power cord inlet.
Moving to the front, there are three recessed dials/toggles. On the left is the power toggle — center is OFF, down is WARM UP (first step in the recommended turn-on procedure), and up is ON/NORMAL USE. When you’re getting ready to rock out, knock this down for a minute/three to get the tubes toasty. Then, when you’re settled in and have your source queued up, you can click-click the toggle up-up, and Bob’s your uncle. Volume is the dial in the middle; the right-most dial is source-select. Again, remember that you have four — just in case you happen to be sitting there, wondering when the magic is going to start.
Below these are the outputs. You have two and yes they’re wildly different. On the right, you have a standard 1/4″ phono plug. On the left, you have a standard 1/4″ phono plug. Do not mix them up. Do not attempt to insert an XLR cable into either one of these outputs. Under no circumstances are you to insert your tongue in either of them, either. Ditto a ham sandwich. Good rules, all.
Honestly, I have no idea what the difference between them is. I suppose you might think one to be a high-Z and the other a low-Z (that’s technical talk for low-impedance/high-impedance), which is reasonable. Wrong, but reasonable. You might expect that one has a higher output than the other, in order to accommodate headphones with varying sensitivity levels. Nope! As far as I can tell, there are two headphones here for the sole reason of sharing.
Apparently, the designer at Viva Audio is a psychopath. Madness, I say! Madness! I will not share and you cannot make me!
I probably should be a bit more circumspect and tell you that this amp is “good, but” and then find a list of nits to help counterbalance the raving enthusiasm I have for it, but I can’t seem to muster the will to bother. The short and sweet is this: this amp sounds fantastic.
My favorite pairing came with the new HiFiMAN HE-1000 headphones that I had come through last year (John Grandberg reviewed them, HERE). Those headphones offer a match, both sonically (great extension with natural, present bass) and aesthetically (both finished to the nines). With the HiFiMAN cans, everything flowed ….
Hmm. I’m overly tempted to dip my virtual pen into the inkwell of liquid cliches, so let me take a different tack.
If you’re familiar, at all, with the 2A3 tube, this implementation has everything you’re looking for and more — speed, articulation, detail, unbelievable tone and timbral accuracy, with immersive and fully 3-D soundscapes spilling over, around and through you.
Where this tube does not tend to thrill is in bass reproduction. Again, the 2A3 tends to find most of its airtime these days with insanely sensitive horn loudspeakers, which can take advantage of its strengths and not be crippled by its meager output. Bass reproduction, for most high-sensitivity full-range systems, is a challenge. You generally get systems that do fantastically well with string bass and not, say, Lorde, or anything like that massive drum the Blue Man Group have in their on-stage mania. That said, “subterranean” isn’t really the point with those systems — dynamics is. And, arguably, orchestras — and other “live music” productions actually relying on “real instruments” — tend not to need sub-30Hz fidelity, at least not as much as broken washing machine “music”, or whatever it is that used to be covered by the term “electronica”. You want subterranean, those horn enthusiasts would say, go get a subwoofer or three.
So, let me say that the Egoista 2A3 doesn’t present bass as powerfully as my reference Cavalli Audio Liquid Gold might (of course, nothing does, but whatever), or even as deep as the Woo Audio WA5 LE, a sweet 300b-based headphone amp I had in last year. A headphone like the Sennheiser HD800, a notoriously bass-shy mega-‘phone, isn’t going to be transformed into the gloriously abyssal Abyss, at least, not when run through the Egoista 2A3.
But! Planar magnetic headphones, especially ones as fast as the HE-1000, will still over-perform your bass expectations with the Viva Audio amp. There’s plenty of power to push around the deep, dark and warm Audeze LCD-3, and the nature of planar designs tends to entail more forgiveness in deep bass, anyway. So long as there’s adequate power. With the HE-1000, however, the story was a little different.
Again, these headphones still present a deeper and more powerful bass on the Liquid Gold, but the even with “Royals” from Pure Heroine, the Viva + HiFiMAN pairing was deep and — yes — wholly satisfying. Where things got interesting, for me, was with the bass being less emphasized in the amp also meant that there was less overshoot in the headphones, that is, there was less “planar bloat”. Still, the HE-1000 on the Viva is never going to be mistaken for either a Beats headphone or for a Fostex TH-900. You want skull-crushing bass, that’s elsewhere.
This was most apparently moving past techno/pop and on to small-scale, well-recorded stuff. Zoë Keating’s Into the Trees has some of my favorite solo cello work, with just stunning under and over-tones presented on an instrument that never fails to inspire chills. There is this sense of wholeness in “Escape Artist” as each note rips itself earthily out of the soundstage like the uprooting a medium-sized tree — complete with clods of dirt hitting the ground, the slow tearing of roots, the groaning wood as the tree tips past the balance point. Keating’s bowing is just uncanny: the long, almost tortured, fibrous s-l-i-d-e across vibrating steel is an exorcism; a slow-moving train pulled from its tracks, backwards over the sea cliff edge; the skirl of an forgotten banshee, pining for a love it had only ever imagined. I suppose the word I’m reaching for is “evocative”, but this album, with the HE-1000 and the Egoista 2A3, was heaven. If heaven were imagined as Carcosa. It was eerie. Otherworldly. Unnerving. And intensely musical. Brr. I’m getting shivers just writing this.
Rounding out my sonic trawl, I went to Bobby Timmons’ piano work on “Moanin”, a 192kHz HDTracks cut off the album of the same name. Timmons’ fingering is sharp, and the sound is explosive, like an IED wiping out a tiger at midnight — bop be-bop bop baaahp bop … but with the caps-lock key jammed open. And then, once the band hit stride, Art Blakey’s cymbals start slithering around inside the music like a sack of sensuous snakes. Less “hiss”, more “spit”. Ssss. [SPLASH]. Sss. [SPLASH]. [Crash!]. Oh my.
This has got to be one of my all-time jazz favorites. Sizzle and zing and clash and ring …
I want to say that the top-end matched the flawless — and I mean flawless — mid-range. But that would probably be untrue. Because that mid-range, with those stock tubes, was so very very that a direct comparison between the between is just impossible, man, just impossible.
If I had to nit, I’d say that the top-end is sweet in just a slightly forgiving way. Moving to crap recordings, like “Phoenix”, a hot mess of a compress-o-rama off of Fall Out Boy’s sloppy Save Rock and Roll, were just a little too easy to listen to. What was done to this album in post-production was a crime, and one day, I’m hoping someone will explain the travesty. In the meantime, this album — and this song particularly — plays well on my car stereo and that’s about it. Here, with the HiFiMAN and Egoista, it was still loud as hell, flattened, and more than a little bleached. But not, interestingly, Scanners bad. Catchy, though. Like norovirus. Unfortunately, my 8-year old daughter listened in on this session and has since taught her twin brother the words, and the two of them chant this song at me. Yeah. At me. The point: I’ve heard this sound way worse than what the Egoista was able to wring out of it. The Liquid Gold amplifier, for example, tends not to gloss anything over. Playing this song through the HD-800, at volume, on that amp, and the listener will find their consciousness immediately reset to lizard-brain escape-and-survive mode. It’s not pretty. Said another way, I’ve heard more “forgiving” systems, the best-sounding of which was the Woo Audio WA5LE, which was also several steps more sweet (as in, “obviously but not unpleasantly rolled off”). This is a tube thing, IMO — with better tubes (like the Takatsuki 300b, for example), the WA5LE went from ‘good’ to OMFG in this regard. I wonder if the same wouldn’t be true of the Egoista 2A3, but I was unable to explore 2A3 alternatives for this review. Anyway, the Egoista seems to slot cleanly between the Woo Audio and the Cavalli Audio amps, at least in terms of treble presentation.
Nits aside — and they are nits — I got nada. I had to go looking to find this. I’ve got nothing else.
All I really want to say is: wow.
Here’s my big finish. You ready? Here we go:
This is the best-sounding headphone amplifier I’ve ever heard.
I say that in much the same spirit that John offered up in his review of the HE-1000 from HiFiMAN. There are headphones that do treble better (Sennheiser HD-800) or bass better (Abyss AB-1266), but none that do both better while at the same time nailing the mids, and while looking quite so awesome doing everything with an aplomb that belies exactly how hard this all is. The Egoista is exactly like that.
The Egoista 2A3 may not do bass like the Cavalli Liquid Gold (or even the “regular” 2A3), but I’m not sure the gap matters to all but a rare few. It may not do treble like a … actually, I can’t think of a headphone amp that does the high-end in a way that is clearly superior to what this amp does, or what better tubes might then be able to make this amp do. But in the mid-range, it’s not even a contest. This amp is killer.
The only problem I see is, unfortunately, the price. We’ve had this complaint before, however, and it’s something of an old saw. That is, it’s not irrelevant. I wish this stuff was cheaper. But just because I can’t afford it doesn’t mean it’s not worth it’s asking price. If I could afford it — both in terms of sheer cost, and also, in terms of space (it’s not exactly desktop friendly) — I probably would. If I was a bigger headphone nut, I’d probably try to sell off body parts in order to find a way to afford it.
This is where head-fi enthusiasts go when they hit the lottery.
If that’s you, go get yourself a kick-ass DAC (I’d cheerfully suggest not skimping on one), some unbelievably great headphones, and get lost. We’ll see you in 20 years.
- Aurender W20 Music Server/Streamer
- Synology NAS
- TIDAL Audio music service
- Bricasti Design M1 Digital Audio Converter
- Cavalli Audio Liquid Gold headphone amplifier
- Woo Audio WA5LE v2 (on loan for review)
- HiFiMAN HE-1000
- Abyss AB-1266
- Audeze LCD-3
- Sennheiser HD-800
- Fostex TH-900
- Network cables from Audioquest
- Analog cables from WyWires
- Power Cables from TelWire