Big Sexy Headphone Amplifiers – CanJam SoCal 2016

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Just as tangible gains are constantly being made in the [portable head amp market], likewise the flagship amplification end of things continues to grow as well.  Even though overall “units moved” may be small in this niche within niche, companies still love to make big ‘ol zesty headphone amplifiers to prove that they can do it.

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Perched on top of all this loveliness is an amp already unveiled to the press at [CES last year]. The HiFiMAN EF1000 might just prove to be the most expensive headphone amplifier of all time. Owner/designer [Fang Bian] hinted that the price is still TBD, but will most likely be the cost of a car. Weather that car is a used ’04 Honda or a Maserati has yet to be seen.

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In any case, the spec rundown is as impressive as you might expect. Not only does it demand your attention with its commanding presence on a desktop, its capabilities include the ability to drive loudspeakers and plenty of power for any headphone on the market, including the notorious HE-6 planar magnetic. Details from our CES coverage: “The HE 1000 wasn’t the only new item on display.  HiFiMAN also had a new vacuum tube shunt regulated push-pull class A amplifier that delivered a whopping 8 watts into either balanced or SE headphone outputs. Dubbed the EF1000, the new amp offers a separate power supply and even the option to power loudspeakers with spec’d 50W Class A, 150W Class A/B amplification.”

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Hidden away upstairs in a 3rd floor room was a Cavalli prototype not quite ready for public consumption. Private listening sessions were allowed to select members of Head-Fi and press to hear the next gen amp which should be called Tungsen. The early prototype still needed casework but the initial sound from the bare unit was well rounded and lively. As with all things prototype, things can change, but fortunately this evolution its usually for the better with only extremely rare exceptions. Price for the Tungsten is still TBD but Cavalli amplifiers start around $3k and up for their full size amps.

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Well’s audio has slew of high end amplification on display in their corner of the world on the second floor. Their lineup starts with the Enigma at $4k (with XLR inputs) and works its way up to the $7k Headtrip. A quick spec rundown for the Headtrip from the company site includes “the use of Bybee Technologies AC purifiers for AC line noise filtering and Bybee Music Rails for up to -45db of DC noise filtering, as well as upgraded Rike PIO input coupling capacitors…a stepped attenuator with all gold plated connections and Japanese Takman 1% carbon film resistors”.

New to the world at this year’s CanJam however, was the Headtrip “Reference” pictured above in prototype form. The new flagship will top off the lineup at a whopping $14k price point. Aside from its fancy internals the Reference did sport an interesting and somewhat unusual feature, a polarity switch for both channels accessible from the front panel.

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Also from Wells, this little guy with big ears is called Milo lands a little more down the cart path to budget town at $1.5k. Casework was still in flux but there was a lot to like about the upright cabinet and unique approach of the unit.

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Audeze’s flagship piece is called the King ($4k) and is current taking orders for a May shipping date. This big bad baby is designed in partnership with Bascom King who has worked with several other prominent audio companies in the past including Marantz and Infinity. The website spec rundown: “The King’s circuitry is very different from the typical complementary output topology; it uses the same polarity N-channel MOSFET outputs as these are more alike and complementary than N- and P-channel MOSFETs. Just before the output stage is a two-stage differential amplifier using a dual-triode tube for the input stage followed by a P-channel MOSFET differential driver stage. The driver stage supplies complementary drive to the N-channel output devices. Overall negative feedback is taken back to the input stage to include the input triode in the feedback loop. The circuit is DC-coupled from input to output and a servo control circuit keeps the output DC offset to within millivolts of zero.”

Tryst Headphone Amplifier

Last but not least there was the new Tryst from Modwright Instruments, in case you missed our early post [here]. It starts at $3k and is made to order with custom color options available.

It was very interesting to see so much development at both ends of the budget spectrum this year at the Los Angeles CanJam. Bespoke flagships add a lot of diversity and interesting sonic texture to the game. While the argument “is it worth it” weighs heavily on if you can easily afford such items of luxury, their presence is a welcome one to the market. Improved headphone amplification can be had at any spend level, but some of the most interesting developments in this part of the chain often take place in the highest rafters.

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