If we accept that the desire for resolving power is one of the key attractions (and satisfactions) of high-end headphone listening, then the Peak represents something of a breakthrough. This breakthrough is particularly meaningful because it works so broadly. As I listened through the Sennheiser HD 800s, the Hi Fi Man HE-5LEs, the Denon AH-D7000s and the Grado SR 325i’s, the Apex helped the music come through in a refined and clear way that was a step above what I’ve heard from most competing amps.
This suggests that the Peak/Volcano is simply more accurate than many other amps. But I’m not convinced that is completely correct. You’ll notice that I referred to “colorations” in my comments above, and that’s because I hear a few things in the Peak/Volcano that make me think some of its superior resolution comes with (or maybe even because of) careful tradeoffs made in the design.
One such tradeoff is that the Apex can sound a little “white” or ever so slightly edgy on transients. Another is that it can sound faintly strained on some dynamic passages. While this could be a matter of the resolving power of the amp showing up problems in associated source components, I don’t think that is the case. Either way, both sonic issues are very subtle—enough so that some listeners might not notice them at all.
To put things in perspective, and though it may sound contradictory given the minor drawback I have noted, the Peak/Volcano is not one of those splashy or strident sorts of “high-resolution” amps you may have encountered. If anything there is a natural softness and quietness to the proceedings here that is something I associate with the most realistic equipment.
Finally, I noted that the Peak/Volcano’s bass comes across as being both tighter and more lightly balanced than the bass you might hear in some other high-end amps (and in live music, itself). This makes me think that the Peak/Volcano’s high-resolution magic stems in part from a spotlight that it puts on the midrange.
So, let me put these observations together by saying that the Peak/Volcano is a fundamentally well-designed and very high quality amp that has some subtle and masterfully-chosen tradeoffs (or colorations) that for the most part serve to compensate for the (typically much bigger) shortcomings I commonly hear in most conventional headphones.
If you are the kind of person who cares more deeply about the music than about achieving some sore of technical “perfection,” this is an amp you must hear with your preferred headphones. If you are the kind of person who wants to know in your head that a component is theoretically “correct” or “ideal” before you can enjoy it, you may want to look elsewhere (though I suspect that exercise might ultimately lead to swapping one small set of tradeoffs for another).
Please note that comments above reflect the sound of the Peak/Volcano as heard with the Shuguang tube. With the Tung-Sol tube I felt that the dynamics got a tad harder (not moving in the right direction for accuracy) and the resolution levels went down slightly. Sorry, folks, but you should plan on springing for the Shuguang tube upgrade ($135 extra); just know that it will be money well spent.
The opening guitar and following kick drum on Shelby Lynne’s “I Cry Every Day” [Suit Yourself, Capitol] illustrate the sonic profile of the Apex. The acoustic guitar jumps off the background with good snap and resonance, and it also sounds alive because the Peak/Volcano lets your hear the acoustics of the recording venue. When the low-pitched kick drum enters the track later one, its sound is likewise clear and detailed, though lacking a bit of oomph. For perspective, though, note that you might not care to quibble about bass weight, because the song otherwise sounds so right and rich.
With Brandi Carlile’s band at full tilt on “Pride and Joy” [Give Up the Ghost, Columbia], you can hear the complex work of each instrument as if it had its own channel and speaker.
On The Unthanks’ song “Because He Was a Bonny Lad” [Here’s The Tender Coming, Rough Trade], the opening voices are presented in a natural acoustic which you can hear well (it isn’t smeared over) and the decay of the reverb is deep and detailed. The voices on this and subsequent tracks sound impressively real.
On Jack Johnson’s “Dreams Be Dreams” [On and On, Universal], the electric guitar dynamics are good, but a little constrained relative to live sound, with slightly less punch that you might expect.
As always, I start with the standard caveat that value is a function of your budget and your needs. Speaking outside that context, we can use the “show me better for less” test. On that basis, I think the Peak/Volcano fares quite well. You will have a hard time finding more resolution for less money.