In the domestic world, Lehmann Audio is best known for its Black Cube phono stages, but on the pro-side, it’s the first choice for high-quality headphone amplifiers for mastering. In a world where headphone sound has become the prime way people listen to music, a good headphone amp with oodles of gain is becoming a mandatory part of the recording process. Now, with increasingly powerhungry headphones appearing in the home, it’s time to reevaluate the Linear range with the new SE.
Last time we looked at a Lehmann headphone amp was using the USB-equipped version of the standard Linear. This is a more traditional model, with just a line input and output, but with a few improvements, such as SSC feet, Mundorf caps and Mogami wire. Last time we looked at a Lehmann headphone amp, we viewed it in the context of the Sennheiser HD800s. Now it’s time to let the headphone amp fly on its own.
It’s a simple, extremely well made design, from the German experts in the field. The SE takes the basic concept of the Linear and runs with it, making a more refined and elegant design inside and out. So, where the standard Linear has a relatively simple case, the SE has an elegant sleeve in a range of funky finishes alongside standard silver. Not only gloss white or black, but also thin wood veneers; our model came in a lovely shade of olive wood. You do pay a healthy premium for that sliver of tree wrapped around the box, but quality is sometimes worth paying for. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a standard and wood finish side-by-side to determine if getting wood bestows any performance enhancements too. Somehow, I think the finish is thin enough not to make a big difference.
It’s powered by a standard 13A IEC socket and it’s designed to be perma-powered, because the on-off switch is on the IEC block. The only other control (aside from the volume knob) sits on the underside of the device; two pairs of DIP switches, which provide a 10dB or 20dB pad to match the efficiency of the headphones.
The manual goes into some detail about headphone design differences and optimum settings, but its one rookie error is discussing the gain boost switches, but forgetting to tell users where these switches are. The obligatory blue LED (the audio industry loves its blue LEDs) and two ¼” headphone jacks complete the line-up and the whole caboodle sits on four closely spaced feet.
The Lehmann Linear SE is the audio equivalent of the perfect gentleman. It doesn’t do anything apart from what it is asked to do, and then it does that job extremely well without ever calling attention to itself. If the music is dynamic, it plays the music dynamically, if it’s got a wide soundstage, it presents a wide soundstage (lateralisation effects inherent to headphones of old notwithstanding). It will play frankly stupid loud without distress, but is good at playing at whisper quiet levels too. As home headphones get more uncompromising in their sensitivity and impedance, standard issue headphone amps wuss out, and you are left with some of the more beefy or wacky designs…or the Lehmann Linear SE.
As a reviewer, this is a tempting design, because it allows the listener to focus on what the headphones are doing in their own right, rather than what the headphone amplifier is making of the headphones. Yet, for all this “straight wire with gain” approach, don’t think this is a hair-shirt, boring or uninspiring design. It’s instead the kind of headphone amplifier you can listen to for the longest time.
In comparison, what you notice about the Linear SE is its absence of flubby bass that can plague headphone amps used with demanding headphones. Here, the bass is taut and controlled; your first thought might be ‘dry’ or even ‘bass light’, but going back to a lesser design – which is a polite way of saying ‘its rivals’ – and what you thought was bass fullness is just bass bloat.
There’s a temptation to append near-magical properties to good products. In this case, it would be easy to try to ‘big up’ the Linear SE by saying it makes the sound of sources better, turns a nasty pair of headphones into something wonderful and more. And in fairness, some headphone amps do just that. This one doesn’t. It just makes the headphones sound how they are supposed to sound, and it doesn’t do anything nasty to signal while it does that.
I threw several headphones at this headphone amp. From amp-crushing HiFiMAN loads to benign Focal Spirit Ones. From studio-grade Sennheiser HD-25s that tell you the truth to such an extent, you need a lie down between listening sessions and ENG-friendly MDR-7506 pro-Sonys that can be fed from a camcorder, but have a presence peak that comes with a design that has been around so long the manual is written in Latin and is too well known and well-loved to change. In other words, a good selection of pro and domestic headphones that reflects the split pro and domestic nature of Lehmann’s audio presence. And, with all of these headphones, the Linear SE simply lets the headphone play itself out properly. It didn’t care whether the headphones were hard or easy to drive, it simply gave them the best environment to bring out their character.