SPL, you see, makes a range of very high-quality headphone amps that were originally developed with an eye toward giving recording engineers (and producers) an alternative to monitoring through tradition near-field speaker systems. One very interesting implication of this approach is that SPL’s flagship Phonitor headphone amp ($2149) provides two special controls that are geared toward helping headphones produce three dimensional soundstage images similar to those produced by fine speaker systems. Thus, the Phonitor includes a precision, variable “Crossfeed” control, plus a “Speaker Angle” control; together, these controls allow the listener to dial in as much or as little 3D imaging effect as desired (or, the controls can be defeated for a more purist-oriented headphone listening experience).
SPL’s next model down, the Auditor ($1000), is essence the headphone amplifier section of the Phonitor with all of the special spatial imaging controls stripped away. Finally, as a decidedly classy “entry-level” model, SPL offers the Control ($600), which is their most basic headphone amp. After a bit of research, though, I’ve discovered that the firm also offers a variation on the Control amp, called the Control 2, which is what you get if you take a standard Control model and then add in a simplified, minimalist version of the “Crossfeed” feature from the Phonitor (though I’ve only seen the Control 2 in photographs; it wasn’t on exhibit at Can Jam).
• SR-009—World-class electrostatic headphone. ($5200)
Stax was not officially an exhibitor at Can Jam or at RMAF, but even so the firm’s latest and best electrostatic “earspeaker”—the new SR-009—was well represented and on demonstration at both the Head Amp and Woo Audio displays.
While I haven’t logged enough time with the SR-009 to be able to issue any sort of definitive proclamation as to its merits, let come right out and tell what I think on the basis of first impressions. I think that the SR-009, when powered by a good enough dedicated electrostatic headphone amp (and that’s a big “if”), may very well be the finest headphone on planet Earth. This one really does it all; low level resolution, blinding transient speed, smooth and neutral tonal balance, all the subtlety and nuance you could ever want, and—this is the factor that sets the SR-009 apart from other electrostats I’ve heard—truly potent and expressive dynamics.
• Arete—Desktop solid-state headphone amplifier. ($1095)
• Volcano Power Supply—Upgrade power supply for use with TTVJ/Apex Arete or Peak headphone amplifiers. ($750)
• Butte—Compact solid-state headphone amplifier. ($500)
We at Playback are big fans of the Apex Audio headphone amplifiers as sold by Todd The Vinyl Junkie (TTVJ). Indeed, the mighty Pinnacle amp ($10,000) won favorable commentary in our sister magazine, The Absolute Sound, while the next model down—the Peak headphone amp with Volcano power supply ($2095 - $2230, depending on tube options chosen) won critical acclaim in our own Playback review.
But for Can Jam, Apex and TTVJ teamed up to roll out new models that help further flesh out lower price points in the Apex product line up. In particular, Apex showed the new Arete solid-state headphone amp ($1095), which can be thought of as a solid-state version of the tube-powered Peak amplifier and that—like the Peak—is meant to be used with Apex’s upgraded Volcano power supply ($750).