The Apex Peak, with Volcano power supply, is an upper mid-priced headphone amplifier (and also a preamp for those interested in a larger system). It is U.S. made, and uses a 6SN7 tube. The design is also modular, so you can start with just the Peak amp (at $1395) and later upgrade with the Volcano power supply ($700).
The Peak is a hybrid amplifier, using a vacuum tube voltage amplifier stage with a class-A single-ended MOSFET output stage. The idea here is to optimize the linearity of the tube and leverage the MOSFET for excellent drive capability and deep bass response.
We tested only the $2095 combination of Peak and Volcano. The amp was supplied with two tubes, a Shuguang Treasure CV181-Z grade A (a $135.00 upgrade option) and the standard Russian Tung-Sol GTB. Other tubes of course may be used, which increases the challenge for the reviewer in characterizing the amp, but gives the consumer potentially desirable tuning options.
The Peak has three inputs, selected by a front panel switch, which is a nice touch for those who use multiple sources (e.g., turntable/phonostage, DAC, and perhaps a music server). There is also a line output (which is automatically muted when headphones are in use) that can be used to drive power amps or powered speakers. The fit and finish are pretty basic to keep the price down. At the same time, the focus seems to be on quality parts, as it should be.
The question, as always, is how these features translate into sound quality. That translation was fascinating to my ears, as this certainly is one of the most interesting sonic designs I’ve heard this year.
Consider this headphone amp if: you want an amp with amazing midrange focus and resolution.
Look elsewhere if: absolute transient accuracy and naturalness are at the top of your list of needs.
Ratings (compared to similarly-priced headphone amps)
• Tonal Balance: 8.5
• Clarity: 10
• Dynamics: 9.0
• Output Flexibility: 9.5
• Value: 9.0
Frankly, the Peak/Volcano is an amp that is easy to love in my view. While this may sound like a backhanded compliment, you can readily fall for this amp because its voicing so beautifully complements most high-end headphones, while at the same time its colorations (if that’s what they are) compensate for some the typical deficiencies heard in even today’s best headphones. Those deficiencies vary of course from headphone to headphone, but the Apex fits in with most of them.
Let me explain. First, you have to understand that even the best headphones are quite unruly—relative, say, to very high performance loudspeakers. Frequency response is anything but flat for starters. In addition, if we use the absolute sound (live music) or even speaker-based audio as a point of comparison, headphones would seem to trade off three-dimensional soundstaging (which the best speakers do well) for inner detail (which is where high-performance headphones can, at least in theory, really shine). The problem is that headphones, when compared with the mega-rigs that the high-end loudspeaker guys are now building, don’t always deliver on the proffered resolution advantages that they seem to promise. One question facing headphone aficionados, then, is whether the slight opaqueness sometimes experienced with headphone-based audio systems results from limitations in the headphones themselves or in the front end.
Listening to the Peak/Volcano combo suggests that a really good front end can do a lot to restore the highest levels sonic transparency that sometimes seem lacking in headphone-based systems. In short, this amp has an astonishing level of resolving power that shows up in its superior handling of spatial information, instrumental decays, and other low-level signals. These small signals are a key test of amplifier resolving power. This isn’t just a sporting thing; it’s the kind of difference that really matters for many kinds of music—if you care about realism.
The Peak/Volcano also expresses its superior resolution in the way it separates instruments. Many amps create a harmoniously blended sound on ensemble work (e.g., the sound of many instruments playing in a band at the same time)—a sound that is pleasantly homogenized, yet for that very reason is also inaccurate. The Peak/Volcano helps you realize that this kind of homogenized presentation is actually the result of lesser amplifiers smearing the distinct sounds of individual instruments into a wash. Once the Peak/Volcano’s much higher levels of resolution come into play, however, you instead hear more detailed contributions from each instrument in the ensemble, and in a way that doesn’t sound at all unnatural, but rather sounds more like the real thing.