For those of you not familiar with Pete Millett’s work at Apex, he has already created a few very well received pieces in the personal audio arena with his headphone amplifiers the Apex Pinnacle ($10k) and Peak ($1.4k). For his latest entry Pete decided to take a trip down to portable town with the Apex Glacier ($495). The Glacier is a very slim portable headphone unit that contains a built in USB DAC to connect to your computer. Apex products are distributed through Todd the Vinyl Junkie’s retail site. [www.ttvjaudio.com]
Connected through a computer, the Glacier has enough juice to power both IEM’s and higher impedance headphones with grace. Considering the relative size of the unit, this is quite a feat. I found the little wonder a perfect complement to both my Jerry Harvey JH16 and the 1964 Ears V6 In-Ear Monitors. The three-level gain switch allowed for an excellent pairing with IEMs, delivering smooth volume control and a silent background. The volume control is really a unique highlight for this product. According to Todd’s website the clickable wheel control is a “microprocessor-controlled analog stepped attenuator” and is quite ingenious in its execution. The single LED light that graces the tiny front panel is multi-use to say the least. In addition to indicating weather the unit is powered up, connected, charging etc., it also lets you know what the relative volume of the unit is by cycling though the color spectrum as you adjust the dial. I found this control to be right where you want it for IEM volumes, where it can be tricky sometimes with large volume sweeps. I did notice an occasional clicking noise between steps with IEMs that was not present with higher impedance ‘phones.
The back panel sports two separate micro-USB inputs, one for charging and one for DAC connectivity. I didn’t mind this unexpected separation of church and state at all. Unlike some portable DACs, the Glacier doesn’t need a separate power supply or wall wart to charge. The charging duties can be handled exclusively via USB power, and if that requires another USB port on the back I welcome it. The outside stainless steal casing is simple yet classy and has a pleasant “brushed” look to it. The unit feels somewhat heavy for the size, most likely due to the inclusion of the lithium-polymer battery, which takes up a good chunk of the internal space. Even given those constraints the Glacier is slim. Perhaps the slimmest portable unit this reviewer has ever laid his hands on. Slimness is important when stacking separate units like a portable external DAC or digital player. Looking down on the unit the overall footprint on your desktop is quite average compared to other portable units. It fits nicely on top of the CypherLabs AlgoRhythm Solo –dB.
While looks and functionality are all well and good, how does the Apex Glacier perform sonically? Overall, you get what you pay for with the Glacier. Considering the $500 price tag, I think many will consider that to be quite a bit. Connected to my MacBook Air though Audirvana Plus, the Glacier delivered solid bass impact and a nice wide soundstage. The low end on No Doubt’s Hella Good came pounding into the mix with clarity and depth. Both mids and highs were exceptionally well represented for such a tiny package. Combined with an overall sonic signature that I found to be very pleasing, the Apex starts to put together quite a compelling offering.
The 24/96 internal DAC held it’s own against the competition. Clarity and resolution landed it squarely in its price bracket, easily outperforming many of the $250 combo units I had on hand. I did notice a slight increase in performance when paired with the AlgoRhythm Solo –dB. The pairing is even offered collectively on the TTVJ website, and is very sweet indeed. Of course, the -dB is also a significant boost in price (as you might expect). A quick side note: Due to the reduced output of the analog signal from Solo –dB, the Apex suffered a bit more pressure to perform with high impedance headphones. While this setup is ideal for IEMs and easy-to-drive cans, I did notice a little bit of strain when it came time to drive the Audeze LCD-3 via the AlgoRhythm Solo –dB at full/extreme listening volumes. I could not detect any power issues when utilizing the internal Apex DAC with any of the headphones I had on hand. The highest gain setting for the amplifier is quite powerful (+20dB according to the website). The recessed gain switch is a little hard to navigate if you are big on switching around hi/low impedance headphones, although I would imagine that once you have your desired setup up and running this might be a non-issue for most folks.
While the Apex Glacier will not connect directly to a iDevice in the same manner that the AlgoRhythm Solo –dB can, the internal DAC will accept signals directly from an iPad through the CCK. I was also able to get it working with my Galaxy S III phone, albeit the experience was unusually buggy at times.
As far as portable DAC/amp combo’s go, the Apex Glacier is the one to beat in its price range. Impressive design and sonic clarity make the Glacier a versatile execution in portable personal audio. I highly recommend you check it out if you are looking for something for your on-the-go or mobile desktop setup. Major props to Pete Millett and the Apex team.