Three Affordable Tube Hybrid Headamps – Garage1217 Project Horizon Compared

Discussion in 'Headphone Amplifiers and Combo (DAC/Amp) Units' started by purr1n, Aug 4, 2020.

  1. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    Updated for 2020.

    A few weeks years ago, I called the Garage1217 Project Ember a POS** on SBAF. Probably not a fair thing for me to say; but nevertheless, I still don’t care for the Ember. I don’t remember exactly which version of the Ember I had (I think it was 2) ; but I did play around with all the switches to get the best sound, and even used Yggdrasil as the source, as well as several different headphones (HD800, HD600, Code-X, Abyss, etc.). The Ember sounded bloated, veiled, too tubey, slow, unlively, glossed over, and with some grain and dryness in the highs. My experience with Project Starlight wasn’t all that great either (boring and unengaging). So I completely wrote off everything from Garage1217 for years.

    @Luckbad, seeing my post, offered to send me his Project Horizon to try, assuring me that the Horizon was different – better. I decided to accept this offer. I may have strong opinions, but I want to be fair. My motto has always been “prove me wrong”. BTW, the Horizon supposedly has a different topology from the Ember. I am not sure about this, so I would defer to all questions to either @Luckbad for Garage1217.

    So I figured this would be a good opportunity to do a three way comparison between the Schiit Vali 2, Garage1217 Project Horizon, and Massdrop CTH.

    Left to Right: Project Horizon, Vali 2 (naked), Massdrop CTH
    IMG_20170828_152055-2-1024x576.jpg

    I used several headphones to assess the qualities of these amps: modded HD800 and HD650s (Vader and KISS modded respectively), HE4XX, and ZMF Atticus. A tweaked Gungnir Multibit DAC and Theta Data III CD transport were used as the source. All amps were left on for two hours. Manufacturer supplied tubes were used. Gain settings were on high for all of the amps with the exception of the Horizon, which required low again. Even on low gain, the Horizon’s volume knob was set well below the 9:00 o’clock position. With sensitive headphones like the Atticus, there wasn’t much room to play. The volume would go from zero to medium with just the smallest nudge of the volume knob. This wasn’t a major issue as I never listen at low volumes – only medium to loud.

    The Vali 2, Project Horizon, and MCTH are priced at $179, $249, and $249 respectively. In a nutshell, all three amps are appropriately priced to each other and I would highly recommend any of them. However, they do have different sonic qualities.

    The MCTH stands out from the others in terms of technicalities. It has superior clarity and resolution compared to the others. Tonally it’s the most neutral compared to the others. The high end is airy and extended. The stage is slightly wider than the other two. However with this source, the MCTH does exhibit a tiny bit of glare and sharpness. This is especially evident with the HD800 and even to a lesser extent with the HD650. Keep in mind that my tweaked OG Gungnir MB DAC is not as warm as the stock “Gungnir Multibit”, that I prefer a darker presentation, and that I am sensitive in the lower-treble region (upper mids don’t bother me as much). I’ve said this before in my MCTH review: pair with warmer or laid back DACs. I would much prefer to use the MCTH with DACs like the Modi Multibit or Metrum Amethyst as the source.

    The Project Horizon and Vali 2 are probably more similar to each other than to the MCTH. The Vali 2 was just a bit more veiled, a bit flatter microdynamically, and a bit less resolving than the Horizon. Headstage was pretty much the same. Both the Horizon and Vali 2 exhibit more warmth and body than the MCTH. The Vali 2 is the most laid-back sounding of the amps here. The Horizon takes the crown for the most even sounding treble, being neither too laid back, nor too sharp – just right.

    In conclusion, the MCTH is the highest technical performer, but being a Massdrop product, it is not always available for purchase, and there is a long wait time until delivery. The MCTH is also the most finicky one in terms of matching source and headphones. The Vali 2’s performance is a notch below the others, but priced appropriately being $70 less. The Vali’s laid-back sound (and more usuable gain switch) will more easily suit a larger range of headphones*. The Project Horizon falls just a bit short in technicalities (clarity, resolution, microdynamics) compared to the MCTH, but has what I would consider a more ideal tonal balance with its more even-handed rendering of the highs.

    The Project Horizon also provides for the users to roll many different kinds of tubes, from 6V to 12V filament, as long as they are pin compatible 9-pin (or through an adapter). For the tweaker, bias can easily be modified on the easily accessible board. This is a great option for those who wish to listen to tubes instead of music.

    *Most headphones, even back in 2017, still had some sort of upper mid or treble fuckery.

    **How is the possible that the Ember sounded like ass but the Horizon didn't since their designs look similar enough? The Ember uses an OPA551 opamp in unity gain (local feedback) for the buffer. This opamp sounds like butt. The Horizon uses a single power MOSFET instead - SE throughout. This is a HUGE difference. The OPA probably measures better.
     
    Last edited: Aug 5, 2020
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  2. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    Oh, someone mentioned to me some the stuff is a lot cheaper now. The Vali 2 is $149 and the MCTH is $175 is available on Drop as of August 4, 2020.
     
  3. westermac

    westermac Friend

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    I've never heard the Vali 2 (how did I become a friend again) but have owned both the MCTH and Project Horizon III. The following observations are using a stock HD600:

    Both are good budget amps in their own right, but become excellent budget amps when you ditch their stock power supplies in favor of a LPS. The most noticeable improvement is bass control and slam (it's not subtle).

    I agree that the MCTH is technically the better amp, but the upper mid/lower treble glare wasn't to my liking and for a tube amp it can come across a little sterile and lifeless (almost more solid state-ish).

    The PH III with a LPS on the other hand is more along the lines of what I expect from a hybrid tube amp; big, warm and involving without a hint of harshness, glare or other weirdness to speak of. I think I referred to it as the budget BW2 jr. awhile back (when one of the higher Z output settings is used) – it clearly doesn't touch the BW2's resolution or bass control but it's a pretty damn good approximation of its sound as a whole, and without the bit of midrange timbre weirdness the BW2 exhibits.

    (Side note: I believe the BW2 was tuned with the HD600 as a reference, so perhaps what I hear as weirdness is a compensation for the HD600's forward upper mids. I just prefer the HD600's mids the way they are).
     
  4. monacelli

    monacelli Friend

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    This echoes my experience with the MCTH + SDAC combo unit that I owned for a little while. For me, it was a no-go with the HD600, whereas Vali 2 + HD600 is a known synergistic pairing. I think that's really what it comes down to -- system synergy. If you prefer slightly dark headphones and you have a DAC/source that is also slightly dark, then MCTH could be a great option. But if you have a neutral-leaning DAC/source and neutral/slightly bright headphones, then MCTH will be very difficult to enjoy (or even listen to for more than a few minutes). My personal opinion is that the SDAC is not an ideal complement for MCTH, and that the standalone amp is the better buy. That said, I would steer any HD600 owner away from MCTH and toward Vali 2 + 6N23P-EV or 6CG7. I was also annoyed that the MCTH didn't respond much to tube rolling because I didn't have much ability to tune the tonal signature to my preference. But again, I could totally see how it could be a good amp in the right system, with dark-ish cans.
     
  5. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    MCTH with HD650 and a maybe a source like iFi DAC Signature or Modi Multibit A2. MCTH can be glarey or strident and also seems to have a dip in the mid bass that makes it sound cool. Hence the recommendations provided in the first sentence. The MCTH is clear, black, zippy, fast, and detailed; but also harder to pair.

    The Horizon has a typical MOSFET type sound which is overtly warm and cozy, maybe even fuzzy because of that big ass electrolytic cap at the end of the signal path. Think Asgard 1, but better and a bit less colored than that and more resolving.. The Horizon will be a lot more forgiving with delta-sigma DACs. I imagine that one of the better modern ESS implementations for a DAC and almost any headphone of choice would be good with the Horizon.

    LPS does wonders, but with the cost of an LPS, I’d rather move up to Valhalla 2, Lyr 3, NBM, or SWT51 depending upon what you are looking for. Don’t mod a Civic LX with $15k when you can move up to the Type R.
     
    Last edited: Aug 5, 2020
  6. Luckbad

    Luckbad Traded in a unicorn for a Corolla

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    While a linear power supply seems like overkill for a fairly inexpensive amp, I still don't know of a tube amp that I prefer to a Project Sunrise or Horizon for less than four figures if you give it the LPS and a decent tube.

    @atomicbob has mentioned multiple LPS options in the past (including measuring a Project Sunrise with them). Most people would actually be better off with the Sunrise instead of the Horizon, in part because of the impedance range it covers, and in part because of the availability of 24V linear power supplies (Sunrise) vs. 48V (Horizon).

    I went on a journey a while back finding and performing minor repairs on old bench power supplies, and I use a sweet Power Designs supply with my Project Sunrise these days.

    My standing opinion is to stick with an affordable tube amp unless you can afford something way more expensive, like a Liquid Crimson (unobtanium), Eddie Current (unobtanium), ECP (expensive or unobtanium), ampsandsound (if you like SET and they're a little pricey), or DNA (expensive and long wait).

    NOTE: I still recommend finding a linear power supply for under $200. The only ones I still have were under $100.
     
  7. westermac

    westermac Friend

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    Yeah, LPS's can get pricey – and they're probably not worth the hassle for everyone. If you don't mind setting some eBay alerts and waiting a bit for the right one to come up, they can be found cheaply enough though. I've picked up 3 different Acopians (24v, 28v, 48v) between 20-60 bucks.

    That said, there are more options available now than when these amps came out, I just enjoy the PH III enough not to feel the itch to upgrade (and these days buying a headphone amp is a little like buying an iPhone: there's a better one coming out in the fall).
     
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  8. Melvillian

    Melvillian Friend

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    The MCTH has a very "mature" sound for an amp at its price. My main issue is that I get bored with it pretty quickly. It is very polite.
     
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  9. msommers

    msommers High on Epipens

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    I had the MCTH for years with a few tube options because the glare mentioned was very evident regardless of dac choice using the stock tube. @Biodegraded and I did a power supply shootout of stock vs. LPS, and while it was an improvement it wasn't overly dramatic. Fortunately the LPS was fairly inexpensive and therefore well worth the price of addition for performance.

    All that said the MCTH was a great amp but was swiftly overtaken by the SW51+.
     
  10. Baten

    Baten Friend

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    About the MCTH. Is it true the knob wears out and develops scratchiness or other flaws over time? If true that seems like a drawback that should be taken into consideration. I've always been interested in the MCTH but never bit the bullet.. :)
     
  11. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    I've had this happen with volume pots on other gear. I also know that tiny amounts of DC offset from the source can cause scratchy pot.
     
  12. Pogo

    Pogo Friend

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    I've had my MCTH for just over 2 years, figure 700+ on/off cycles and a lot of volume adjustments. I've never had any issues with any aspect of the amp. Course now I put the gris gris on it and it'll no doubt blow up when I turn it on tonite!!!!
    With over 2000 units having been sold I'm sure some have had a problem but I don't know what percentage other than that's it's not 100%.
     
  13. Biodegraded

    Biodegraded Friend

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    LPS for MCTH: although the stock switcher is rated at 1.25A, something that can push higher current is needed. Current draw when up and running is only a few hundred mA, but @atomicbob showed that with the stock tube, the inrush current at startup approaches this and an equivalent that lacks the stock wall-wart's soft-start mechanism might not kick the amp over that hump (indeed there were reports of that in the MCTH thread). Go at least 2A for safety.

    Regarding the sound, with Modi Multibit and stock HD6XX I don't find too much harshness in the upper mids (maybe this has improved since changing the Modi's firmware to v2; v1 had a bit of that), I don't think I'd want more bass, and I'm using a tube that's on the leaner side (Telefunken).

    So maybe I value technicalities over euphony more than I recognize (I liked the Soekris dac1421 in my 2-channel system, too); but the HD6XXs now seem to stay upstairs with the MCTH and the T50RP3s only escape the Vali 2 in the bedroom for more modding experiments.

    No volume pot issues for me either so far.

    And to reiterate: although power supplies and tubes do make a difference, don't go crazy when the same money would get you much of the way towards a better amp.

    Edit: cured gibberish in first paragraph and broke up into sentences.
     
    Last edited: Aug 5, 2020
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  14. rtaylor76

    rtaylor76 Can't wipe his tag

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    The pot issues on the MTCH are real and related to dirt/dust/etc. because a shot of Detoxit will clean it up. If it were DC, this would not happen. Most outputs have caps on the output, although the MCTH does NOT have caps on the input like the Vali 2 does. I have not bypassed the caps on my Vali 2 yet, but if you feel your outputs are safe, then you can probably remove them.

    I do know the Vali 2 also has caps on the output that are needed since there is no room for a DC servo on that small board like there is on the Magni series. If so, it could greatly increase the clarity. Maybe for a Vali 3...also with slight increase in plate voltage, but I might be asking too much.

    MCTH does have some glare, kind of like listening to speakers with horns. It is not up top, but in the upper mids somewhere. I always enjoyed movies with the MCTH as it gave that sense of movie theater speakers in that way. No other amp I found can do that with my HD650's. The separation is also great.

    The Vali 2 personality also changes quite a bit with different tubes. Because it is a driver tube and not a buffer tube, it can really change personalities with different tubes.

    The Ember is designed for high impedance headphones. The op amps also run at close to max voltage. I think it also has a TS921 in the signal path.

    I have heard all three (Ember, Vali 2, and MCTH), and I still have the Vali 2 and will likely have it forever if that tells you anything. At $179 the MTCH is much more attractive since I think when they came out was $249 with no DAC.
     
    Last edited: Aug 24, 2020
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  15. Cspirou

    Cspirou They call me Sparky

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    A bit off topic but I remembered you originally posted this on your own audio blog @purr1n . Are you also going to post that paper dodecahedron mod you did for the Lowther?
     
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  16. Tchoupitoulas

    Tchoupitoulas Friend

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    I can’t speak for the other two amps but the MCTH has the added benefit of pairing nicely with a variety of headphones, among them high- and low-impedance dynamic drivers, as well as fairly sensitive headphones (but not with planars, necessarily - alas, the LCD2-C sounded soft, flat, puny, and sleepy with it).

    The MCTH is reasonably good with the stock HD 6XX, for the price, although I’d encourage someone looking to put together an affordable system to consider a slightly higher-tier tube amp like the Valhalla 2. Out of the MCTH, the stock HD 6XX lacks punch and could be livelier, and the “veil” is quite apparent when compared with my ZDT Jr.. But, still, the combination is solid, especially for the price. On the other hand, the MCTH sounds great with the Fostex TH-X00. The bass isn’t too flabby, although it thumps and booms satisfyingly, and the macrodynamics are strong (almost excessively so). I suspect the technicalities are held back as much by the headphones as the amp. I infer this from the Clear, which sound glorious out of the MCTH - fast, highly resolving, with decent extension at both ends of the frequency range, and a great deal more clarity than the Fostex.

    The treble glare is apparent with both the Clear and the TH-X00, although I think my Drop Airist RDAC, which is pretty dark, mitigates this somewhat. It’s too bad there was all the controversy surrounding the RDAC and that it now seems to be defunct, for whatever reason. It complemented the MCTH nicely, and not just because of its form factor.
     
  17. BrokeSkoolBoi

    BrokeSkoolBoi Acquaintance

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    Seems like a fun shootout.

    Recently retired the MCTH to my home in VA. I ditched the LPS since I'm running it with included sdac and it ends up sounding claustrophobic and clumsy.

    The NOS tesla e88cc '32' varient was a good upgrade for the sound over the EH tube. Slightest bit more life and clarity. Sounded good with my hd600. $25 upgrade, no LPS needed.

    Honestly I would dissuade anyone from getting an LPS because you need a decent dac to match, and at that point you're spending too much.
     
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  18. Luckbad

    Luckbad Traded in a unicorn for a Corolla

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    I've been wondering about the Acopian linear power supplies for a while now since bob has used several of them and they tend to be available for pretty cheap on eBay. I've been reluctant to recommend the power supplies I generally use (old linear bench supplies from Power Designs or HP/Agilent) because they tend to need some fixing up to function optimally.

    I found a couple of Acopian power supplies for ~$50 on eBay that should work with the Project Sunrise III: A24NT125 (not yet verified, but the 1.25 amps should be enough for 6N6P tubes) and A24MT210 (2.1 amps).

    The only thing you need to do is a tiny bit of DIY cable making by grabbing a standard power cord, chopping off the end, and putting a few things on. Basically you need to put a fuse in-line at the rating outlined here. For my 1.25 amp model, it's a 0.7 amp time delay/slow blow, and for my 2.1 amp supply it's a 1.25 amp time delay/slow blow fuse.

    I grabbed this in-line fuse holder from Mouser, which is suitable for 5x20mm fuses like this one. @atomicbob outlined the wiring for dummies in a post here.

    I'm very pleased with the results. Sounds great, very quiet, and more compact than I expected (the Sunrise would fit nicely on top of it, but I'm wary of transformer noise--I'll try it at some point anyway).

    This A24MT210 was at my door for $42.26, plus another few bucks for the in-line fuse holder and fuse, a few pennies of solder, and a sacrificial power cable. I might be into this $50 and it really elevates the amp.

    If you have some minor DIY chops, a soldering iron, and no small children who can't take direction, check one out!

    IMG_20200821_191953.jpg

    EDIT: Made a second power cable. This is actually a 5V power supply of the same size as the A24NT125. It's really petite. The seller sent me the wrong unit. I might use it for the Modius... I'm really not sure yet but 5V is pretty common.

    IMG_20200821_214305.jpg
     
    Last edited: Aug 21, 2020
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  19. Sqveak

    Sqveak Friend

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    I'd like to add a mention of pets here. I have an Acopian for my MCTH but there's no way in hell I'm risking my cat's lives by leaving it wired up outside of an additonal enclosure. Don't underestimate the safety risks of using an industrial power supply in your home.
     
  20. gixxerwimp

    gixxerwimp Professional tricycle rider

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    I'm not sure about wearing out, but my original pot developed a scratch several months in. There was only noise when the volume was adjusted, and the sound was fine if left alone. So basically a minor annoyance. But annoying nonetheless.

    I never used the official Deoxit as I haven't seen it here locally, but I tried several contact cleaner sprays and if there was any improvement it was only temporary. I replaced the pot with an almost drop-in Alps (seems the original part has custom extensions on the pins, so any stock parts will be a few mm too short). See here for the story:
    https://www.superbestaudiofriends.o...alli-tube-hybrid-amp.4866/page-49#post-267642
    The scratch could be heard "physically" by putting your ear up to it and turning the knob. I soaked the original pot in contact cleaner and while the physical sound of the scratch and the turning resistance changed, it was still scratchy.

    After a year, either my soldering job on the too short pins or the pot itself gave out and I replaced it with another one. And then another one. I think this time it will last. I'm definitely on the newbie end of DIY electronics, so it's a fairly doable job. IMO, I think it's worth the risk if you can get one at a reasonably price and are able to do simple electronics repairs, cuz it's a great little amp, especially with an LPS.
     
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