If you’ve spent much time reading our sister magazine The Absolute Sound, then it will come as no surprise to learn that true top-tier stereo systems (complete with killer speakers, amplifiers, source components, cables, etc.) can easily run deep into six figures (yowza!). Make no mistake; when done right, such high-end systems can sound fabulous. Still, relatively few of us can afford to make that sort of investment in our sound systems. What if you want to go to the sonic mountaintop, so to speak, but don’t have a small fortune to spend?
This is where many Playback readers would argue that top-tier headphone-based systems could be a very enticing alternative to conventional ultra high-end hi-fi systems. Although top-tier headphone rigs are by no means inexpensive, they are vastly more affordably priced than their traditional high-end audio counterparts.
One of the prerequisites for a first class headphone system would be a top echelon headphone amplifier, and this article will introduce (or perhaps reintroduce) readers to three of the finest top-tier headphone amplifier options Playback has thus far encountered.
To read the full review: http://www.avguide.com/review/apex-peak-headphone-amp-volcano-power-supply-playback-44
What it is: The Apex Peak/Volcano is a two-chassis, hybrid tube/solid-state-powered headphone amplifier/linestage preamplifier. The amp provides three line-level single-ended stereo analog inputs, one variable-level single-ended stereo analog output, and a single-ended ¼-inch phone jack headphone output. The U.S.-made amplifier uses a top-mounted 6SN7 vacuum tube, which means that tube-rollers can experiment with various types of tubes to optimize sound quality. For our tests, we used an Apex-recommended 6SN7 upgrade to a Shuguang Treasure CV181-Z grade A tube, which sounded simply terrific.
Why you might choose it: Let’s acknowledge up front that the Peak/Volcano is versatile in at least two ways. First, it can serve both as a very high-quality headphone amplifier, but also as a fine albeit minimalist stereo preamplifier for a full-sized hi-fi system. Thus, depending on your personal application scenario, you may be able to get “double duty” out of the Peak/Volcano pair.
Second, let’s note that the Peak/Volcano isn’t an “all or nothing” proposition. Instead, you can buy this product in an incremental way, starting with the Peak alone (which comes with a pretty basic power supply for $1395), then add the much beefier Volcano power supply later on ($700), and finally add the Shuguang tube upgrade as a finishing touch ($135).
But the real reason to buy a Peak/Volcano involves sound quality, pure and simple. Specifically, you buy this product because it offers simply mind-blowing levels of resolving power. In all seriousness, when used with top-tier headphones, the Peak/Volcano can create the eerie illusion that your brain has somehow been “hardwired” directly into the recording/mixing console (as if you are hearing exactly what the producer heard when the recording was made). That, my friends, is a pretty darned exciting—not to mention illuminating—listening experience. Instrumental separation is amazingly good, too, so that you can easily follow even the subtlest of musical threads within a mix. Finally, note that the voicing of the Peak/Volcano helps compensate for some of the sonic deficiencies heard in even today’s best headphones.
Why you might look further: Great though the Peak/Volcano is, it’s not perfect in that its ultra high levels of resolution do, in a sense, come at a price. Specifically, there are some circumstances where you might hear very faint hints of a “whitish” or edgy sound on hard transients, or equally faint traces of strain on extremely dynamic passages. Finally, the amp sounds very tightly controlled, but also just a little lightly balanced in the bass region, which means the Peak/Volcano tends to put a bit of a spotlight on the midrange of the music. If you favor that subtle touch of midrange emphasize, look at the Apex (or perhaps the Woo, below), but if you feel a slightly more reserved/balanced midrange presentation would be best, then consider the Cavalli, as below.