Based on experience, we could say there are four characteristics that distinguish good amps from one another. Let’s look at these in order to get a handle on what the Liquid Fire is and does.
First, the Cavalli deals very well with low-level signals. Low-level signals are critical for conveying the color of instruments (because the color often lies in the harmonic structure of the instrument, which consists of small overtones). Low-level signals are also essential for conveying a sense of the space in which the recording was made (because the “sound” of the space is represented by a series of reflections of lower and lower volume). The Liquid Fire allows you to hear all sorts of these smaller signals, whereas some amps either blur them or bury them in noise.
Second, the Cavalli offers excellent instrumental separation. Some amps, when confronted with complex arrangements, smear the instruments together a bit. But the Cavalli is stunningly realistic on this score.
Third, and unlike some amps known for their transparency, the Cavalli has a solid ability to convey the smoothness, richness, and warmth of well recorded music. Too many amps put a little edge on treble transients, and you get the sense that their low-level signal handling is more a matter of artifacts than of simply reproducing the original recording. That just isn’t the case with the Liquid Fire. If anything, it sounds slightly mellow, but in a way consistent with live music. In particular, it doesn’t blunt the edges of fast-rising transient sounds.
Fourth, the amp can drive pretty much any headphone we have in the Lab, including the Hi-Fi Man HE-5LE and HE-6, as well as the Sennheiser HD800. This is important if you use multiple headphones or wish to change headphones periodically. It is also a comment meant to convey the fact that the Liquid Fire has plenty of dynamic range, though I did think on certain high-level sounds the Liquid Fire could sound a bit pushed.
So, with this rather strong endorsement in mind, are there any limitations or flaws to be found here? Well, if you’re willing to pay careful attention to the following words, I’ll say “yes.” The Liquid Fire has slightly less mid-range or treble emphasis than some competing amps. I’m tempted to say that the Liquid Fire is accurate and the competing amps are colored, but this is really very hard to know. It is more logical and useful to simply say that if you want to maximize clarity or openness, you might find another amp that fits better (or worse) with your headphones. At the same time, if you want to retain excellent clarity but also the inherent natural richness that is in your music, the Liquid Fire probably should be your first stop in this price range. At the same time, be aware that the Cavalli is not a soft-sounding amp, so if you want to smooth things over or apply tone controls, the Cavalli (like any other good, accurate amp) probably won’t be your flavor of choice. But, assuming we’re talking about very accurate amps, then the distinctions I draw here are akin to Ferrari vs. Porsche kinds of distinctions, not a matter good vs. bad.
On “Wildhorse”, from Glikyson, Gorka and Kaplansky’s Red Horse [Red House Records], the sibilants were natural and the backing vocals had good space; each instrument stood out clear, and yet was properly placed forward or backward in the mix as the producer no doubt intended.
The instrumental separation on "Last Known Surroundings" from take care, take care, take care by Explosions in the Sky [Temporary Residence] was pretty impressive—the amped-up sound of this track could easily be rendered as mush through some amps, but through the Liquid Fire it wasn't. Also, when listening to this track through Sennheiser’s flagship HD800’s, the Cavalli did a good job of controlling the typical “splash” of those headphones.
Indicating the power and control of the amp, the bass drum on "Calamity Song" from The Decembrists The King is Dead [Capitol], was solid and well defined. The acoustic guitar on the track was clear as well, though the top-end snap might have been a little rounded-off.
Cymbals on Shelby Lynne’s "I Cry Every Day" [Suit Yourself, Capitol] seemed clear and clean, even though the cymbals were place well back in the mix—an indication of the amp’s excellent rendition of spatial cues. Instrumental separation, too, was excellent, especially with the electric organ, for example, which came through very clearly even though it was positioned off to the side of the soundstage.