Handsy Fivesome in Home Office with Nerd and Four Hot Amps (A Comparison)

Discussion in 'Headphone Amplifiers and Combo (DAC/Amp) Units' started by Hands, Jul 17, 2016.

  1. Hands

    Hands Overzealous Auto Flusher - Measurbator

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    Thanks to @jexby for generously lending me his Mjolnir 2 and Black Widow 1, as well as a conveniently timed ECP Black Diamond purchase on my end with money I shouldn't have spent, I've had some good times sticking phallic-like, gold-plated objects in and out of open holes on these amps and my existing, modded Super 7 just to see what sort of noises I could get them to make.

    For my initial tests, I used my trusted, modded HD650. When able, I ran balanced in and out, because there's nothing better than sticking three or four separated pokers in the same hole vs. just one poker in one hole, granted the one poker is longer and girthier.

    As I go about my business over the next week or so, and assuming I have time, I'll update this post with findings with other headphones or other amps thrown into the mix.

    Format will be more about traits of individual amps with some comparison notes thrown in there. Can always answer specific comparison questions later. I would like to point out that it is often easier to critique a product than compliment, so don't take a lack of compliment to mean I had nothing positive to say in that area. Often, leaving out a critique means that particular area was positive.

    IMG_20160711_174140.jpg

    Eddie Current Black Widow (First Edition)

    - Awesome tone. Yes, it leans towards the thick, warm, and powerful sounding side of the spectrum. Some may not like this, some will specifically look for this. I like it. Not usually found in solid state land, and one of the few solid state amps I feel doesn't make the HD650 sound lean and strained.

    - Surprisingly liquid and smooth for solid state. I found it better in this regard than both the Mjolnir 2 and Black Diamond.

    - Has a bit of bloom to it, sort-of-but-not-exactly like a well-tuned tube amp. Gives a feeling of fleshed out bass and midrange. Downside is that it can muddy or bloat up the sound just a bit, which causes a lack of definition, tautness, and texture in the bass and low-mids.

    - Good low-end extension. Top-end is a bit rolled compared to the Mjolnir 2 or Black Diamond.

    - More likely to give you that feeling of engagement without edge than Mjolnir 2 or Black Diamond. Easier to sink in and relax or feel involved. Mjolnir 2 and Black Diamond are less easy going and are more prone to fatigue.

    - Does not dig as deep with details compared to Mjolnir 2 and Black Diamond, but still holds its own. At first glance, nothing sounds missing, though you can hear that last bit of resolution missing in direct comparisons.

    - Really powerful sounding. Almost in-your-face, and with a small but 3D stage, not unlike a highly modded Crack. Micro-dynamics can seem a bit compressed at times, but it's still a lively amp.

    - Overall, a very enjoyable solid state amp. One of my favorites. While it isn't the best in all areas, it's rare to find a solid state amp with such a pleasing tone, dynamic sound, and liquidity without completely suffering in other areas. It isn't necessarily for everyone, but it's certainly a standout, one-of-a-kind solid state amp. Good if you want something like a good tube sound but need solid state for some reason.

    - Random note: The Black Widow 1 and a highly modded Crack share some other similar traits beyond what I already touched on.

    Schiit Mjolnir 2 (w/ some sort of Dutch, NOS tubes, I think.)

    - Not a lot of talk about the Mjolnir 2. Seems it is overlooked in favor of cheaper or pricier amps. I think this is a mistake and does the amp a disservice for those looking for a well-rounded, versatile, readily-available amp under $1K.

    - First thing I noticed was a sense of quick dynamics. Grip on the low-end is excellent. You can feel the driver snapping back and forth almost instantly, creating a sense of low-end, tactile feedback I hadn't heard quite like that on the HD650. Dynamics on a macro and micro sense were great, though macro trumped micro on this amp. Very powerful sounding amp overall.

    - Stage is very wide but lacks depth. Think 2D plane for the stage.

    - Compared to a very neutral, very tight solid state amp, lower end can sound a bit rounded on the Mjolnir 2. This is subtle, however, and easily made up for by the sense of fleshy fullness you get with the Mjolnir 2's lower half. Note that I am splitting hairs.

    - Not as liquid as the Black Widow or Super 7, but not bad. Not as dry as the Black Diamond. Strikes a nice balance.

    - A bit hard and bright sounding in the top-most registers. Minor complaint. Note that I did not say it sounded etched or sibilant.

    - Details, resolution, ability to dig deep, etc. quite impressive. Very competent sounding overall. Is held back when it comes to layering, staging, and separating out items. Sometimes the flat stage gets in the way of other sorts of resolution, i.e. the sort of resolution that requires good layering.

    - Overall, the only thing holding the Mjolnir 2 back is a wide but flat, 2D stage, and a bit of upper-treble emphasis. Could be that other tubes will alleviate these traits. However, these are very minor complains. In all other regards, the Mjolnir 2 is a very respectable, great sounding amp. I would not fault someone for having this as their end-game amp. It is quick, dynamic, powerful, snappy, technically competent, and strikes a nice tonal balance with some pleasurable tube-like qualities. Almost a best of both worlds sort of sound. Works well with dynamics and planars.

    IMG_20160711_174712.jpg

    ECP Black Diamond

    - Ignoring sound, certainly the most unique amp of the bunch. Probably harder to obtain than a Black Widow, so maybe not the most useful impressions if you're looking for one to buy.

    - Very fast sounding. Sharp transients. Laser focused sound compared to the others. Tight from top to bottom, including low-end texture.

    - Stage is on the smaller side of things, but larger than Black Widow. Has a nice 3D, spherical feel to it. Good sense of air and ambiance, albeit as much as you can get in a smaller stage. Not as in-your-face as Black Widow either, in that the stage takes a step back.

    - Thanks to the stage and speed of the amp, it sounds very detailed and makes it easy to pick everything out of the music. Very pure sense of clarity that you don't usually get without tubes, but also has its own unique play on it.

    - Really good micro-dynamics. However, macro-dynamics and a sense of sheer power and authority is definitely a weak spot relative to the other amps.

    - Good extension from top to bottom, but sounds a bit lean, or perhaps overly neutral. Lacks heft and sustain in lower registers.

    - Least liquid of the amps. A bit of upper-mid/lower-treble bite. Slightly dry and hard timbre. Upper-treble not as bright as Mjolnir 2 but more so than Black Widow or Super 7.

    - Overall, probably the least "musical" of the amps. That said, the speed and pure sense of clarity is really something worth hearing. It sounds very different than what you normally get from solid state, nor does it quite sound like tubes either. Clearly the unique design and high quality transformers are doing some good stuff here. I am not sure how best to describe the Black Diamond, really, because I hadn't heard anything quite like it until now (wasn't quite as good as picking these things up when I heard the prototype, and I think the production unit is better FWIW).

    - Foreshadowing: Seems to respond to and change a noticeable amount with simple mods.

    Eddie Current Super 7 (Modded)

    - Fair comparison? Maybe not. Probably the hardest amp to find of the lot, but when they do pop up for around $1K, it's a steal for the sound quality. I mean, seriously, the fact these don't get snatched up immediately is a sign that everyone dropped the ball that looked but didn't buy. Mods on my unit include voltage regulator upgrade to a Belleson unit, TOCOS potentiometer, upgraded wiring for the pot, upgraded caps (Cardas 0.1uf, and CDE motor run 10uf), as well as my own tube preferences. The voltage regulator mod allows me to run the RCA 6BX7 in the driver stage, which I find is a very capable tube and not quite like the usual RCA sound. Big thanks to @MisterRogers for helping me out with this and the Changstar community for posting about S7 cap swapping long ago. This is real TOTL shit here.

    - The most "grand" sounding amp of the lot. Stage width is about on par with the Mjolnir 2. What the S7 has in addition is an excellent holographic feel to the stage. It mixes the Black Diamond's 3D, layered stage and ambiance with the Black Widows ability to get in your face if needed and throws steroids and sex into the mix to make it even better than the other amps.

    - Tonally is most similar to the Black Widow, albeit the timbre is even more liquid (most liquid of the bunch), and the bass quality is better (more powerful, tighter, better texture and pitch, etc).

    - Regarding bass, in general reminds me most of Mjolnir 2, just with a bit more bloom to it. That is, the Mjolnir 2 is a bit tighter and a bit snappier/has slightly more slam, but A) it's not too far off and B) the Mjolnir 2 suffers in other ways the S7 does not. There are also times, like with bass guitar, where despite the S7 being a bit bloomier, you can still pick the bass out more easily due to the more layered sound. S7, you could pick out the bass player jamming along. Mjolnir 2, you could hear the bass player, but that's it, and couldn't hear them as well as the S7. Black Diamond is still the tightest of the lot, if that matters, but had a more clinical feel to it.

    - S7 seems to keep all the details and resolving power of these amps, if not being a bit better, yet never sounds artificially sharpened, etched, hard, or sibilant. While the Black Diamond had this particular laser focus to the sound, the S7 digs just as deep but sounds incredibly organic doing so. It is hard to fully grasp the amount of organic clarity you can get out of tube amps until you've heard it.

    - Uncanny ability to let you relax, sit at the edge of your seat in engagement, or analyze all the nuances of your music. However you'd like to listen, the S7 doesn't get in the way. A lot of people are used to "relaxing" or "fatigue free" being coupled with an overly warm or mushy sound, lack of dynamics, loss of clarity, or what have you. S7 will let you relax if you so choose but not because it suffers in other areas. Hell, you can relax and analyze your music at the same time if you want. Weird, right?

    - Responds well to mods and tube changes. You can make the S7 sound pretty gosh darn nasty and etched if you'd like. You could also make it sound more like mud. Mine would be like an uber-Black Widow with a much better stage, if I had to simplify. Long story short, while all of these amps have their positive traits, S7 is like getting your first taste of a sound without compromises.

    Other Headphone Notes (Brief, WIP if I can and remember)

    I'll try to fill this out more as I go along. Since I have the Ether and Ether C in the house now, my thoughts are: I only really like them from the S7. The Mjolnir 2 and Black Diamond exaccerbate either Ether's inherent rough traits. Black Widow is better in this regard but doesn't make them sound as powerful as I'd like and, due to the amp having a small stage, makes the already small, crappy stage on the Ethers sound even worse. S7 is the only cure in my arsenal!

    IMG_20160711_182527.jpg
     
  2. jexby

    jexby Posole Prince

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    @Hands spectacular write up in so many ways! thank you!
    :bow:

    returning now to tube rolling our pal's purple suitcase of 6SN7 into the @MisterRogers Uber 7 to see if I can get it nasty and etched.
    ;)
     
  3. jowls

    jowls Never shitposts (please) - Friend

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    This is going to be good.

    Every time I see one of Dougs amps I can't help but think, 'this is what the future should have looked like...' Beautiful.
     
  4. KurtSvensson

    KurtSvensson Friend

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    Great writeup, couldn't agree more on your mjolnir 2 impressions. Slight upper treble emphasis , bass is superb but with tubes it's very slightly rounded.

    I've said it before and I'll keep saying it though, LISST has some weird murkiness in the midrange, but it gets rid of the slightly rounded bass for more slam, control and definition.

    Late edit: Should be noted the bass can get really rounded with the wrong pair of tubes, stock is pretty rounded for example.
     
    Last edited: Jul 17, 2016
  5. Hands

    Hands Overzealous Auto Flusher - Measurbator

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    Yes, classy looking amps for sure. The transformers poking out and red accent lighting below really seals the deal.

    Trying to figure out if I want to stain the wood and add some gloss too. Thinking like what the TH-X00 cups look like, granted I'd never be able to get it THAT good looking. I'm a sucker for that sort of wood look unless it's natural bamboo or a lighter wood (latter depending on type of wood and application).
     
  6. Jun

    Jun Friend

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    Nice write up. Based on your description the Super 7 seems like my type of amp.

    What dac did you use to compare those amps?
     
  7. Hands

    Hands Overzealous Auto Flusher - Measurbator

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    Audial Model S.
     
  8. Psalmanazar

    Psalmanazar Most improved member; A+

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    Which was the most nimble in HD 650 bass? I remember the AGD Master 9 hit ridiculous hard for a solid state amp due to Krell sound but wasn't as quick as the Asgard 2. I don't remember how fast the Black Widow was as it was just so good overall.
     
  9. Hands

    Hands Overzealous Auto Flusher - Measurbator

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    Most nimble bass? Probably the Black Diamond, but also the most lean. Black Widow was probably the least nimble of the bunch. But it's possible we're using that term differently.
     
  10. UpstateGuy

    UpstateGuy New

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    Nice write up. :)

    Could you go into some more detail on the sound of the Black Widow?

    Do you know if the BW 1 sounds like the BW 2?

    I'm not sure what you mean by one of the few solid state amps I feel doesn't make the HD650 sound lean and strained.




     
  11. cizx

    cizx Friend

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    I think he means that he feels that the HD 650 sounds lean and strained with most solid state amps, but not with this one.
     
  12. Hands

    Hands Overzealous Auto Flusher - Measurbator

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    1) Not sure what more to say. It's a solid state amp that sounds powerful and has a warm, yet natural, tone, not too unlike a good tube amp (not exactly the same, but similar).

    2. Haven't heard the BW2.

    3. Means exactly what it says. Most solid state amps give the HD650 this sort of strained sound and make it leaner and overall less pleasant to listen to. If that doesn't make sense, it's probably something you'd have to hear to understand. In other words, there's a reason many pair their HD600/650 with a good tube amp.
     
  13. cizx

    cizx Friend

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    I miss my EC S7. :(
     
  14. UpstateGuy

    UpstateGuy New

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    I've had a 650 for a long time. I've listened to it for years from a Woo3, a M^3 and a GS-1, (as well as many other amps) and I'm struggling to understand Strained and Lean.

    1. What I think I've heard between those amps that the GS-1 has noticeably more resolution than either the Woo3 or the M^3.

    2. I also found that with 637/627 chips, the M^3 has an extremely similar sound signature to the Woo3 with a Cetron 7236 and 2 Jan-Philips 6922s, but without 2nd harmonic reinforcement. As you said, not exactly the same, but similar.

    But in no case would I ever say the 650 sounded strained or lean from any amp, so please help me understand what you mean.

    Regards
     
  15. Hands

    Hands Overzealous Auto Flusher - Measurbator

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    Unfortunately, I can't say I've heard all the same amps you have, nor do all solid state amps exhibit this trait on the HD650. It could be our experiences never aligned, or we're listening for different things, or would use those terms differently, or listen to different music that may not highlight these things, etc. etc. etc.

    The HD650 is capable of a surprising amount of slam, dynamics, and low-end power in general (outside of the mid-bass hump). Most solid state amps I've heard diminish the HD650's true capabilities in this area, as if it's being held back. This can make the HD650 sound less extended, leaner, whatever you want to call it. Good tube amps seem to deliver the swing the HD650 needs to shine, albeit some solid state amps do the same.

    On top of that, the HD650 has a couple minor spots, I believe around 5KHz and somewhere in the 12-15KHz vicinity, that can sound a bit glaring depending on your source equipment. Solid state amps tend to exacerbate this. This contributes to the "strained" sound. It's as if the HD650 can't loosen up, doesn't sound like it's free, which can lead to a subtle but particular type of fatigue. Again, not all solid state amps do this.

    I am generalizing here, but not all tube amps let the HD650 shine, and not all solid state amps seem to hold it back. I would have to let someone else speak on the Woo3, M^3, and GS-1 and compare that against other amps, given I am unfamiliar with those. If our gear experience alone hasn't matched up, we might not be able to adequately understand each other.
     
  16. UpstateGuy

    UpstateGuy New

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    • How about the ubiquitous O2 amp? Have you listened to one of those with the 650s? Strained and lean?
    • What music are you referring to? Let's see if we can get on the same page.
    • So I can understand this better, could you list some SS amps you've heard that give the 650s a strained and lean sound?

    You said, "This can make the HD650 sound less extended, leaner..."

    I understand less extended, meaning a roll off in the high frequency range. Leaner always meant less or thinner bass to me. The opposite of having a "fat" or more prominent bass, which btw, I always felt the 650s had.
     
  17. Rthomas

    Rthomas Friend

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    Hats off to @Hands for a super shootout the likes of which none of the ''pro'' reviewers have the balls or the integrity to do.

    |{
     
  18. Hands

    Hands Overzealous Auto Flusher - Measurbator

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    O2 hasn't been in my stable since...Hmm, over 3 years? Did not have anything remotely similar to the HD650 at the time. I sold it pretty quickly in favor of the UHA-6S Mk2.

    Other amps I didn't care for as much with the HD650, despite possibly finding them very favorable on other headphones, included the Leckerton UHA-6S Mk2, Gustard H10, QVR-08 DIY amp, Black Diamond in some ways, didn't care much for the Ragnarok + HD650 combo despite it being dynamic sounding, DIY Pete Millett Butte, GSX-Mk2 had OK bass quantity-wise but otherwise sounded like sandpaper (so that one was tough to tell other than I knew I hated it with every HP)...Honestly, I can't remember every SS amp I've tried with the HD650. Between stuff I've owned (and sold), loaner gear, meets, Big Sound event, it's tough to keep track of them all. It's just the more I tried SS vs. tube with the HD650, the more I heard that SS had a general tendency to hold the HD650 back. Again, it's not always true, and some are better about it than others, just as there are tube amps, like the Valhalla 2, I didn't care for either. It's similar to how having heard enough delta-sigma vs. multi-bit DACs, I've taken away that I prefer multi-bit, but the memory of each piece of gear I've ever heard has started to blend together in my memory.

    Music is pretty varied. There are a few progressive metal albums that I find really challenge audio equipment (Opeth's "Pale Communion" is solid sounding, "Ghost Reveries" is more challenging on gear but is subject to loudness war compression), but I check through several other albums and tracks in listening tests (the everyone-and-their-mom-uses-this Hell Freezes Over, Radiohead samples, a few orchestral samples from the Battlestar Galactica OST, Daft Punk, etc.). Unfortunately, I'm picky and not adventurous with music, so my selection is fairly minimal.

    I should have specified that I was referring to bass extension, not treble extension, though I assumed that would be implied based on the context. Extension can go either way. HD650 always has a strong mid-bass presence, but I'm talking more about everything below that.

    What tube amps have you had a decent amount of time with on the HD650? Just the WA3?
     
  19. Psalmanazar

    Psalmanazar Most improved member; A+

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    @Hands By nimble/quick bass I mean ability to keep up with fast, impactful bass. Think cannon barrage of double kicks from Motorhead or some old school metal band like Slayer or Bolt Thrower. Most tube amps and some actually good solid states like the AGD Master 9 can't deliver the voltage swing-fast enough to reproduce this on Sennheisers despite adequately "filling out" the sound. "Can the amp control hte drivers enough to do this quick enough and reproduce the sound?" type of deal. BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM with the boom starting again and maybe not ending before the next one starts depending on the amount of compression used on hte kicks or just Boooooooooooom with the beater hitting the head like a typewriter swimming in bass mud. Double kicks actually sometimes sound like this in poor venues and some recordings but the Magni 2U makes recordings that don't sound like typewriters in mud sound like typewriters in mud with the HD 650 while the Crack and less so the Master 9 are like playing Street Fighter II only using the slow but powerful Fierce Punch button.

    Most solid-state amps sound too thin with the HD 600/650/800 as they can't deliver the voltage swing fast enough to power the low end or can barely power it at all. They're incapable of getting a fat sound by which I don't mean warm, gooey, syrupy, or impactful or evne the opposite of the "lean and mean" sound Hands doesn't like. You can be lean and fat at the same time like the Asgard 2 and Valhalla 2 (except for tubey bass) with Black Widow as slightly less lean. The O2 just starts distorting and clipping instantly and sounds thin as hell. The GS-X mk2 is thin, harsh, and filled with glare. The Magni 2U does a lot better and is much closer to "actually hearing the headphone" tonally but is still constrained staging-wise. You can actually tell instantly as these amps have problems reproducing the delay/space on the recording and will actually leak less sound at the same or louder volumes inside the cups than better amps like the Master 9, Asgard 2, Black Widow, Valhalla 2, and Speedball Crack despite any individual flaws those amps have. These "thin sounding" amps are just incapable of fully powering the headphones despite being able to reach loud sound pressure levels.

    The Sennheisers are revealing enough to pick out problems in DACs and amps like the haze of the Crack, the harshness in the Mjolnir 2/Valhalla 2/Rag, Sabre's awful treble timbre, AK4490 bloom, general Wolfson problems, and AGD's Krell sound.
     
  20. UpstateGuy

    UpstateGuy New

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    IC :), Unlike you, I seem to be an accumulator, having sold only piece of equipment since '04, so when I buy something, it's with that in mind.

    That said, the Woo3 is the only tube amp I have. I've listened to many other through the years, some euphonic like a Dark Voice or Woo2 and some that sounded more like a good solid state, like the Woo3 I have.

    The best tube amp I ever heard with my 650s was Nate's monster DIY he set up at one of the NY meets. Never heard anything like it before, or since.... :) Nate had Goldfrap's A&E playing and I never was able to duplicate the texture his amp imparted to her voice.

    [​IMG]


    Never the less, I was never happy with the idea of "Tubes" having a life span and begin deteriorating as soon as you start using them. I remember reading the now famous Carver Challenge when it first came out in the 80s, and how the golden ears at Stereophile and The Audio Critic couldn't tell Carver's amp from the expensive reference tube amps he was given to sonically duplicate.

    But what stuck in my mind was that when they tried to test the amps again much later, there were noticeable differences between Carver's amp and the reference amp that were not there before, because although the sound of the SS amp remained unchanged, the tubes in the tube amp had begun their journey toward deterioration and the tube amp no longer sounded the same as it did when the test was first conducted.
     

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