Super Dart Feature-01

Atomic Floyd Super Darts

The Super Darts are a hybrid IEM from English manufacturer, Atomic Floyd. They boast some of the best build quality and bass quality I’ve ever seen and heard in an earphone, but were recently reviewed rather negatively by a local magazine publication. I was shocked to read the review and promptly asked Billy from Noisy Motel if I could have a lend of the Super Darts to review and to see if I had mis-perceived the Super Darts during my previous auditions. Despite being loaned the Super Darts there is no bias for me to write a favourable review.

Overview

  • Sensitivity:  100 dB
  • Frequency range:  5 – 25,000 Hz
  • Impedance:  16 ohms
  • Drivers:  1 x dynamic, 1 x balanced armature per earphone

The Super Darts retail for $299 (AUD) which places them firmly in the sweet spot for the many hybrid IEMs appearing on the market from companies such as Astrotec, Sony, and T-Peos to name a few. The hybrid trend is thriving at present because of the benefits of marrying the very bass-capable dynamic drivers with the more agile balanced armatures for mids and treble. I’ve previously reviewed the Astrotec AX60s which are a 3-driver hybrid that costs $100 more than the Super Darts so they provided a nice reference point for this review.

Design & Comfort

These are easily some of the sexiest IEMs I’ve ever seen and the fact that they’re made from metal and have a beautiful fabric-wrapped cable means that they feel as good as they look. They are built like a tank, but a tank made by Ferrari. Everything from the plug through the Y-split to the shells of the IEMs themselves are made of high quality materials and look and feel like they’re worth every cent of your $299.

Cable

SAMSUNG CSCThe cable is fabric wrapped up to the Y-split before being replaced by a hard-wearing red rubber to maintain the silver, black and red colour scheme of all Atomic Floyd products.

Incorporated into the left channel cable is a mic and remote control for Apple devices (it doesn’t work with any other brand of device I’ve tried including Windows and Android phones) and the mic housing is also made of metal and high quality rubber for the buttons. Everything about it feels high quality and long-lasting, but the placement leaves me wondering a little.

Using the Super Darts while wearing an open-neck business shirt, the microphone section was constantly SAMSUNG CSCcatching on my collar and soon drove me quite nuts. It also seems to be a little too high, sitting level with the adam’s apple in my neck. Although it’s probably a good placement for a microphone it is out of sight and in a position that will catch on a lot of clothing I think. Of course, some of this may also depend on your individual dimensions because we all have different length necks, ear heights, etc. It’s not a deal breaker, but I felt it was worthy of noting.

Accessories & Fit

TSAMSUNG CSChe Super Darts are supplied with a sparse selection of silicon tips – 3 sizes, but that’s fine because they are excellent tips offering great comfort and perform better with the Super Darts than any other tip I tried (including foam, Sony Hybrid, and Monster tips). The tips carry the black and red colour scheme as well so your IEMs will look extra bad ass with the provided accessories.

As well as tips, Atomic Floyd package in an airplane adapter and mini-jack (6.3mm) adapter. Both are gold-plated with red accents so they look good and they feel like they’re high quality too.

SAMSUNG CSCFinally, you also get a rubber clam style carry case which is basic, but very practical and one of the best carry cases I’ve seen for IEMs (from a practicality point of view).

Overall Comfort

The Super Darts are a very comfortable IEM. I’ve mentioned in previous reviews that I sometimes struggle with in-ear comfort because of relatively small ear canals. The small flange on the tip of the Super Darts is just enough to hold the tips securely in place, but puts no pressure on my ears allowing the Super Darts to almost feel weightless.

Despite being made of solid metal, the Darts aren’t heavy or bulky. They have some weight, but they remain comfortable even for long listening sessions. As previously mentioned, the supplied tips are excellent and definitely contribute to the overall comfort.

Sound Quality

The Super Darts are best described as a fun sounding IEM with a U-shaped frequency response. They have perhaps the best bass I have ever heard on an IEM  - admittedly I haven’t heard some of the beasts in the bass department like the SE846 and IE8, but for a $299 IEM to be SO impressive in the bass region is astonishing. Before I carry on about the bass though, let’s break down the sound as usual into some categories for consideration.

Bass

SAMSUNG CSCNo suprises here. I’ve just told you how exceptional these are here. The Super Darts are able to create rumble below the audible frequencies which is just amazing to me. They have a slight emphasis in the bass, but are not bloated at all. The bass is tight, punchy and full, but not soft or bloomy. Listening to Black Capricorn Day by Jamiroquai I was literally feeling sounds against my ear drums that I couldn’t hear. There are many tracks where I’ve flat-out stopped what I was doing to marvel at the bass from these tiny little bullets of sound.

Other than describing the bass from these as perfect, there’s not a lot more I can say and that’s not hyperbole. Imagine the best bass you could hear from an IEM and you’ll know what the Super Darts sound like in this region. Wow.

Of course, bass alone doesn’t make the perfect listening experience though so read on to see how they fare as we approach the higher frequencies.

Mids

The Super Darts’ U-shaped signature automatically means the midrange is going to be slightly pulled back in relation to the bass and treble, but to my ears the mids are still very good. There’s nice cohesion with all instruments and no signs of conflict between the dynamic driver and balanced armature where they share duties at the crossover point.

The mids are natural and clean overall. I’d probably describe them as neutral and accurate when considered in isolation. Yes, they sit behind the bass and treble in terms of overall emphasis, but the mids aren’t coloured in any way to my ears. There’s no lushness or cream added, but they also don’t get too dry or analytical with vocals – a nicely balanced approach.

Treble

SAMSUNG CSCAnd it was going so well… OK, so it’s no a deal breaker, but the treble is going to be a love hate thing for some people.

The Super Darts skirt the fine line for me between being energetic and dynamic in their treble presentation versus straying into strident and “too hot” territory occasionally. They remind me of some of the beyerdynamic cans with the peaks in the upper treble around 9kHz. If I had to draw a comparison to a headphone, I would point to the beyerdynamic T90 which is just a little brighter than the T1.

Depending on your taste in signatures, your device, and your music choices, the Super Darts could be anywhere from the perfect earphone to an ear-shredding disaster (but the latter exaggeration would only be for those who swear by super dark setups like Sennheiser HD650s with uber warm amplifiers). For most people I think the Super Darts will be much like many of the high-end beyerdynamic headphones – really enjoyable for 90% of your music and just a bit uncomfortable for the 10% that’s mastered too hot or poorly and with harsh treble.

Staging & Imaging

I expected the treble profile of the Super Darts to make for some epic staging and imaging, but they aren’t quite as incredible as I hoped. They’re not bad by any stretch, but they’re probably just average. You wouldn’t pass these up because of their staging and imaging because they’re respectable and solid, but they aren’t world-beaters in this department either. Imaging is clear, well located and cohesive and the stage is moderate in size, extending from ear to ear and slightly forward. The stage is also nicely semi-circular too whereas some other IEMs sometimes create a centre section and side sections with nothing at the angles, but the Darts perform well in that regard.

Summary

So what does all this mean and would I buy a set of Super Darts?

If a friend asked me about the Super Darts I would highly recommend that they try them out. In other words I think very highly of these earphones, but also recognise that they won’t be for everyone. If you like a dynamic sound, epicly awesome bass and sparkly treble you will absolutely love these earphones. If you run screaming from anyone who says the word “treble” then you probably shouldn’t bother with the Super Darts, but everyone else should definitely give them a go and make sure you try a track with some bass – you won’t regret it!!

Just to clarify all of this for anyone on the fence, I am general a bit treble shy. I use tube amps to smooth out my heaphones and lean away from bright / analytical gear towards more musical and slightly warm presentations, but I still REALLY like the Super Darts. If I didn’t already own a set of custom Miracles I would buy the Super Darts in a heart beat. For my ears I would pair them with slightly warmer sources (the Fiio X3 and RWAK100 would both be great combos) and love every second of time spent with them. I’m almost tempted to buy a set of these just because they are such a sexy, high quality product.

 

Teal Feature C-12-01

Signature Acoustics C-12 IEMs

The C-12s are hand-made IEMs made from Indian company, Signature Acoustics. A newcomer to the scene, it seems Signature Acoustics is creating some differentiation by creating hand-made, wooden IEMs.

Overview

  • Driver:  8mm dynamic
  • Impedance: 18 ohms
  • Frequency:  17 – 20 kHz
  • Sensitivity:  102 dB

For around $60 (AUD) these are a budget earphone that performs very well for its price and are a little bit special due to their wooden construction. Of course, there’s more you’ll want to know than just that though so read on for all the details…

Design & Comfort

Cropped 1I’ve already mentioned that the C-12s are made of wood so I won’t harp on it. It is worth noting though that being handmade does mean there will be some minor variation from one unit to the next and the casings may not be 100% perfect. For example, you may be able to see in the image above that the groove around the earphone at the front of the photo is of varying width because the earphones haven’t been assembled perfectly. It seems to have no impact on the sound and is only noticeable if you look closely so I really don’t think this matters and it’s always nice to know that someone has personally put their care, attention and expertise into creating a product so I’m fine with the minor aesthetic imperfections. It’s also really nice having a beautifully crafted wooden Y-split complete with a slider so that earns points in my book.

Cropped 2In terms of comfort, the C-12 comes with a fairly basic range of silicon single-flange tips and the sound port is the same as the HiFiMan earphones so there are plenty of tips around that will fit the C-12s. My ears are fairly tricky to get a comfortable fit with when using a universal so it’s no surprise that the C-12s aren’t perfectly comfortable, but the Re-272s and Shure SE535s are the only universals I’ve found so far that were 100% comfortable so this is more about me than the C-12s. Overall, I would expect the C-12s to be as comfortable as the majority of other IEMs for most people. If you struggle to get a comfortable fit, these might not be for you, but if most earphones are OK for you there’s no reason to not consider the C-12s.

Supplied Accessories

In addition to the range of tips, the C-12s come with a beautiful brass storage case. I doubt you’d use it as a carry case because it’s really heavy, but it’s a really nice storage case to keep on a desk or in a draw with your earphones safe and sound. I wonder though if it’s a bit of a mismatch to have a fairly deluxe style container for a relatively budget IEM. Perhaps a cheaper case and some extra tips would be a better inclusion.

The other things provided with the C-12s are a lapel clip to hold the cable and 2 different sets of filters to tweak the sound to your personal preferences. I’ll discuss these in more detail below.

Sound Quality

The price tag of the C-12s might leave you expecting little, but there are various budget IEMs out there now offering great performance and the C-12 seems to be targeted at the same market. The overall signature of the C-12s is warm and smooth with a slight emphasis on bass. It’s an inoffensive sound and easy to enjoy, but let’s look more closely…

Treble

Cropped 6This is probably the weakest part of the C-12s signature. The treble is just a bit too rolled off and it leaves the overall sound feeling a bit murky and thick. The provided filters (the mesh you can see on top of one of the IEMs in the image to the right) allow you to tweak the sound, but none of them really open up the treble quite enough. It’s very hard to tell if the pre-fitted filters are the middle of the 3 or the most open. One set is definitely for a much darker sound, but the other is so similar to the pre-fitted ones that I had a hard time distinguishing the difference by the time I removed the IEMs, change filters and got them back in my ears.

In the end, what really matters is that there is no configuration of filters or tips that could produce quite enough treble extension to make these sound as open and detailed as they probably should. With no filter at all, the C-12s start to approach a better balance of treble energy, but I imagine just one small amount of ear-wax in a tiny driver like this could be curtains so I wouldn’t recommend filter-free use and only tried it myself for the briefest time to see what the starting signature is like. Doing so showed me that the C-12 probably started a little too dark before the filters were applied and it had nowhere to go. Had the starting sound included just a little more treble energy, these could have been really magic. As it is, despite the quoted 20kHz frequency peak, it sounds like there is fairly significant roll-off before about 16kHz and it leaves the C-12s lacking that little bit of air that would help them feel more spacious and alive.

I know I’ve just spent 2 paragraphs bemoaning the C-12s treble, but all is not lost. The treble that is present is of great quality – smooth and refined – and the relative lack of treble energy means there’s zero fatigue from the C-12s. For people who enjoy a laid-back listening experience, the C-12s are still worth considering so read on!

Mids

The C-12 offers a nice, creamy mid-range with plenty of detail and texture. It’s a little bit coloured and not entirely even across all mid-range frequencies, but it’s enjoyable nonetheless. These aren’t IEMs you’d use for analysis or monitoring – they’re IEMs purely for relaxed listening to music.

Vocals are clear and present with good body whether it’s a male or female vocalist. Overall, the tonality of the mids is quite neutral the majority of the time with the exception of some slight upper bass bloat which can muddy the mid-range on some tracks, but this is more an exception than the rule. All-in-all I find the C-12′s mid-range enjoyable and a little seductive. I wonder if the wooden housing is the cause for the overall warmth and the nice timbre of most vocals and instrumental presentation.

Bass

The C-12s were clearly tuned to have a nice prominent bass with punch and presence, but not too much bloat. They’re not the final word in bass control, but the bass is really good for the most part. Bass lines sing through the music, you can feel some kick and thump in your ears and with a few exceptions (as mentioned above), the bass mostly stays in its own lane and doesn’t interfere with higher registers. There’s plenty of extension down deep and on some tracks, the depth and subtlety of the rumble I was hearing and feeling was really impressive.

Summary

Cropped 4If this is the first foray into earphones from Signature Acoustics (which I believe it might be) it’s an excellent start. They probably need to make a few adjustments (like starting with a brighter driver to put inside their beautiful, but warm sounding wooden shells), but this first effort is very well priced for its quality of build and sound.

I wouldn’t recommend this for people who enjoy bright, airy sounding ‘phones, but it’s worth checking out if you’re looking for a well-priced, laid-back cruisy earphone with great bass. Think of the C-12 as a budget earphone representing something similar in overall signature to an LCD-2 or HD650 (not that it performs to the same level, but it has the same laid-back type of signature).

I’m keenly waiting to see what Signature Acoustics might offer up next because the value for money of the C-12 is excellent, their design is really nice, and the overall result is only a few adjustments from being a serious giant killer. To get a better sounding, but similarly voiced earphone you need to spend nearly twice as much on something like the thinksound TS01 so it’s a really good start from Signature Acoustics!

Quattro Feature-01

Matrix Quattro Balanced Amplifier

After spending a lot of time with some high quality tube amplifiers, I thought it was time to revisit the world of solid state (using sound processing chips rather than tubes). Some headphones seem to pair well with tubes while others like solid state so it’s always nice to have both options available.

Matrix M-Stage (HPA-1): the Quattro's older sibling

Matrix M-Stage (HPA-1): the Quattro’s older sibling

The amp I decided on is the Matrix Quattro amplifier which offers balanced and unbalanced operation (which I’ll explain later) and pairs really nicely with the Matrix X-Sabre DAC I bought a little while ago. I was fortunate enough to also be able to buy a second hand Matrix M-Stage (HPA-1), the Quattro’s baby brother (although it’s been around longer). The M-Stage is renowned as a great bang-for-buck entry level amplifier (around $300) so how would the more expensive Quattro compare at its $450 level? Let’s find out…

Overview

The Quattro builds on the success of the famously affordable and excellent M-Stage amplifier, but brings improved design and balanced operation. It was the balanced operation that hooked me because I love the idea of it from my days working in car audio where I often designed systems with completely separate left and right channels, but let me explain the concept a bit better.

Every speaker (or driver in a headphone) requires a positive and negative connection or an active signal and a ground connection. In unbalanced systems, there are two active outputs that deliver the stereo signal  - one to each driver – and there is a single ground connection that is shared between both drivers. This setup can produce very, very good sound, but there is also the risk of the ground connections causing some leaking of sound between the left and right channels which can result in the sound becoming less defined and less controlled. I’m sure there are much better explanations of these circuits out there if you’re interested, but hopefully this paints enough of a picture to say that balanced circuits have the potential to provide cleaner, better defined sound.

Specifications

  • Max power:  1 W (balanced mode)
  • Power per impedance:  800mW @ 60 ohms / 400mW @ 300 ohms (balanced mode)
  • Inputs:  1 pair RCA, 1 pair balanced 3-pin XLR
  • Outputs:  2 x stereo 6.3mm headphone jacks / 1 pair balanced 6.3mm headphone jacks
  • Signal-to-noise ratio:  >98dB via XLR / >95dB via RCA
  • Distortion:  <0.001%

Just to explain some of these specs, the power of the Quattro in balanced mode is twice that of its unbalanced mode because it’s essentially 2 amplifiers working together when running balanced versus just a single amp when running unbalanced. Also, there is just one set of outputs that are used for both balanced and unbalanced operation, but I’ll explain that setup a little later.

The specs of the Quattro don’t really tell us a lot about its performance and there was nothing in that list which excited me more than any other amplifier on the market, but for the price and with its offering of balanced operation for my beloved T1 headphones, I had to give it a run.

Design & Compatibility

01170021The Quattro is a simple design that’s been described as two M-Stage amplifiers sandwiched together. That may or may not be true as there are definite similarities under the hood, but also some differences in terms of the components used.

Perhaps the most obvious differences are the combination of unbalanced and balanced circuits as well as the use of different op amps. Op amps are the chips that amplify the sound and lend the amplifier a significant dose of sound signature (how warm, cool, bright, dark, bassy, or tinny the amp sounds). Where the M-Stage uses the OPA2134 chip, the Quattro uses the OPA604 and OPA2604 chips for its balanced and unbalanced circuits respectively.

Inputs / Outputs

01170020The Quattro has a pair of RCA (unbalanced) inputs and a pair of 3-pin XLR (balanced) inputs. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get any line level outputs which is a shame. It’s always nice to have the option to use headphone amps as pre-amps or to have a straight pass-through to connect other amps in a chain, but for the average consumer who doesn’t stockpile audio gear, the Quattro offers everything you need in terms of these 2 input options.

For output of sound, the Quattro comes with a pair of 6.3mm sockets on the front which are labelled Solo 1 / Balanced R and Solo 2 / Balanced L. It’s only as I write this that I realise that the left socket is on the right side and vice versa!? Oh well, doesn’t really matter. The point is that this pair of sockets is multi-functional which is both good and bad.

The Good

01170018Having 2 jacks means that you can use 2 pairs of headphones simultaneously which is great if you’re comparing headphones or if you want to listen with a friend. It ‘s amazing how often I would like to be able to switch between headphones without having to plug and unplug leads all the time so the Quattro is great in that regard.

Neither good nor bad is the fact that the twin sockets are used for balanced output via normal stereo 6.3mm headphone jacks which are easy enough to buy from most electronics shops if you need to make an adapter. Please be aware though that you specifically need to use stereo jacks. Mono ones won’t work with the Quattro’s auto-detecting circuit which I’ll explain shortly.

The Bad

In my experience the twin 6.3mm arrangement is one of the least common ways to connect to a balanced output with 4-pin XLR being a much more common choice. That means you’re most likely going to need an adapter lead to connect your 4-pin terminated headphones to the Quattro’s 6.3mm sockets. It’s an easy DIY build if you can be bothered, but you can also buy this type of lead if you prefer so it’s not the end of the world, but an XLR socket would have been better I think.

The other thing I’m not a total fan of is the auto-detect circuit on the Quattro’s outputs. Although the concept of the amp switching modes for you is nice, the reality is that the process isn’t seamless and sometimes leaves me with a balanced connection to an unbalanced output. This is because the Quattro detects the status of the connection with the contacts on the 6.3mm plugs. It seems that sometimes, the plugs touch the wrong contacts on the way into the socket and make the amp think it’s connected to an unbalanced headphone. The only solution I’ve discovered is to unplug and reconnect the headphones or to switch the amp off and on again. It’s not the end of the world, but I would have been perfectly happy with a third button on the front panel to select my output type.

Other Design Elements

In terms of size, the Quattro is about twice the width of the M-Stage, but is shorter by about 15-20% and a hair lower in height. It’s a nice compact size.

On the front right of the unit is a nice large aluminium volume knob with a rough texture around the side. It looks good and feels good and it’s attached to a high quality Alps motorised volume pot so you can also use a remote control with the amp if you want. The remote is an optional extra, but it’s very well priced.

Also on the front panel are a power button and source button to switch between the RCA and XLR inputs. I was pleased to note that both inputs are able to provide output to balanced and unbalanced phones so you don’t have to use a balanced source to enjoy balanced ‘phones. Not only that, but the difference between the sound from the balanced / unbalanced input is near enough to identical that it makes no difference which you use.

01170017Finally, on the left side of the amp’s fascia are lights indicating mute status (only available using the optional remote control), input in use (RCA / XLR), and output status (balanced / unbalanced).

Compatibility

The Quattro’s power output means it will drive most headphones other than difficult-to-drive planar magnetics. I’m hoping to try it with some Audeze LCD 2s soon so I’ll update if there’s anything notable to share. Unfortunately, the Quattro has an output impedance of around 10 ohms which is quite high and may negatively affect the frequency response and tightness of sound from lower impedance headphones depending on their specific specs. Testing the Quattro with my 32 ohm headphones showed some variation compared to the M-Stage with its 5 ohm output, but it was very much a case-by-case thing. The one thing I can say for sure is that it will not match ideally with low impedance, multi-BA IEMs like the Miracles. The sound is really clean and hum is negligible, but the frequency response is altered slightly by the impedance mismatch.

Other than the minor issues with output impedance – and I do consider it minor because it’s an amp designed for desktop headphone listening, not IEMs and portables – the Quattro drives all my phones really nicely and I love the fact that it can run unbalanced / balanced in and unbalanced / balanced out. There’s plenty of versatility in how you use the amp and with what.

Sound

01170022Having been excited to buy the Quattro, I was initially disappointed with its sound. It was a bit harsh with the T1s and I felt like it wasn’t significantly better than the much cheaper M-Stage. The balanced output was definitely an improvement, but I was still left no really enjoying what I heard. Although I’m still quietly skeptical about the effects of burn-in, I decided to leave the Quattro running for a while to see if the sound changed at all. I didn’t listen to it during this time so I know I haven’t adjusted to its sound, but I can definitely confirm that I now thoroughly enjoy the sounds being produced by the Quattro in both unbalanced and balanced modes.

For the review of the sound, I’m referring to the character of the sound in both balanced and unbalanced mode. The balanced circuit is just 2 of the unbalanced circuits running in parallel so the character of the sound is identical. I’ll explain the audible impacts of balanced versus unbalanced output separately.

Treble

Treble from the Quattro is present and extended, but smooth. Even with the sometimes edgy Beyer T1s, the Quattro produces very listenable treble that’s easily on par with the treble produced by other amps in this price range or slightly above.

The Quattro produces brighter treble than the M-Stage, but manages to do so without getting cold or harsh. The treble can be a little dry, but the overall signature is slightly warm so it balances the treble nicely. Fans of sparkly treble may want to look elsewhere for an amplifier because there’s not a lot of sparkle in the Quattro’s sound, but don’t mistake that for a lack of treble or extension. The treble’s there, it’s just not enhanced or lively – instead it’s smooth and easy to listen to. To my ears, the Quattro strikes a really nice balance by presenting a sound that’s not as thick as the M-Stage (which is a great amp) while still keeping the smooth and musical presentation that makes the Matrix gear so enjoyable. I was really impressed with the Quattro’s rendition of the detail present in the sound of a solo violin during the listening I did for this review. The Quattro was able to accurately recreate the subtle rasp of the bow being drawn across the strings sounding completely accurate and lifelike. I think that’s a benefit of the slightly dry sound – it allows details like this to come through where a lusher, smoother sound might cover them over.

Mids

The Quattro’s midrange is accurate and clean. It’s got good presence in the overall presentation and strikes a nice balance between musicality and accuracy. Once again it’s drier and cooler sounding than the M-Stage, but still enjoyable and slightly smooth. I really like the presence of the midrange created by the Quattro. Even in busy, active tracks, the vocals are always clean and separate, but not enhanced or pushed in your face in any way. THey are slightly forward compared to the rest of the spectrum, but only to a degree that you notice if you’re listening for it.

Bass

The Quattro produces bass that is largely accurate, but possibly a bit behind the rest of the spectrum. I wouldn’t say it’s lean sounding at all, but the mids and treble overshadow the bass ever-so-slightly. The quality of the bass though is very good. There is texture and impact as well as body on sustained bass notes – it’s just that all of this happens slightly behind the rest of the spectrum. Extension of the bass is really good all the way down and is probably more balanced in the lower ranges than around the mid-bass.

It’s hard to be sure because of the time taken to switch, but I think bass impact and present improves slightly when running in balanced mode. This could simply be a reflection of the power output doubling and therefore having more energy to apply to bass notes.

The Quattro’s bass presentation pairs really nicely with bass-tilted phones like the Fischer FA-011 LEs and I imagine it would also really suit some of the Sennheiser models with a bit of extra mid-bass warmth.

Signature Summary

I don’t normally do this, but I wanted to clarify the descriptions I’ve provided of the bass, mids and treble. I found myself struggling to describe the Quattro’s sound in this review and I think it’s because the Quattro is largely neutral and accurate to the source with a slightly dry, but musical presentation. The comments above reflect very subtle impressions only and should not discourage anyone from considering this amp because it’s very, very good for its price and the evidence of that fact is the difficulty I had trying to really dissect its sound signature.

General Presentation and Staging

Matrix Quattro AmpIn unbalanced mode the Quattro produces a good-sized soundstage (or headstage) with decent width and depth, although I would say it is wider than it is deep. There’s not a lot of vertical layering or vertical space so the result is that all of the sound seems to be placed across a narrow stage extending side to side. The stage sounds open and in no way congested, but it’s not expansive and spacious like some amps I’ve heard, although those amps also cost significantly more (e.g. $200+ more). Staging is definitely more open and more accurate than the M-Stage so the Quattro is a definite upgrade.

Beware: moving to balanced mode makes a significant difference to the soundstage! Switching over to use the balanced outputs of the Quattro lifts the sound to a whole other level. The overall signature is unchanged, but staging resolution is dramatically increased. Everything becomes more sharply defined, gains extra presence and weight and just generally gets better. This is why you buy a Quattro!

In balanced mode the stage is deeper and taller while retaining the same side-to-side space. The accuracy of placement is improved and the ability to hear vertical layers in the sound is improved as well (i.e. vocals now sound higher than a guitar being played by the singer). In balanced mode, the Quattro’s stage and presentation is outstanding and highly enjoyable. It’s still not expansive and massive, but strikes a good balance by placing the listener “a few rows back” from the stage while keeping the music close enough to be engaging.

Summary

For its $450 price tag, the Quattro is definitely an amplifier worth considering if you’re running balanced headphones (or if you can get a cable to make them balanced).

I probably wouldn’t specifically recommend the Quattro if you’re only using unbalanced headphone connections even though it’s a good amplifier even in unbalanced mode. With the new M-Stage (HPA-2) out now, I would expect it to match the Quattro for unbalanced performance and you can always change op amps (see below) to upgrade the sound of either amp so I’d probably choose the M-Stage plus an upgraded op amp for unbalanced use, but it’s a no-brainer for balanced headphones – the Quattro is excellent!!

Just like its older brother, the original M-Stage, the Quattro offers outstanding value for money with good power, an enjoyable sound that’s more neutral and detailed than the older M-Stage, and the opportunity to wring every last bit of performance out of your headphones with balanced cables.

A Quick Note on Op Amps

01170024I’m new to op amps, but having come from recent experiments with tubes in amplifiers, I look at these little “chips” kind of like digital tubes. What I mean by that is that you can tweak the sound of your amplifier by using different op amps. In the image to the right, the op amps are the black, rectangular things – there are 4 along the top and one in the bottom left corner.

The Quattro uses a single, stereo op amp for unbalanced operation and uses 4 mono op amps for balanced operation. This can make it an expensive prospect to upgrade because you need to buy 5-6 op amps depending on the versions you use, but it can also provide some relatively cheap fun because you can pick up decent op amps from as little as $5-6. You can also spend up to nearly $100 each if you want to spend that much, but it’s not necessary. You do need to make sure the op amps you buy are suitable for your device, but it’s not too hard to work out with a bit of online reading and asking on forums.

I’ll be posting an article specifically on op amps soon so subscribe if you want to know more. I’ve ordered a bunch to plug into the Quattro and a couple of other amps I’ll be reviewing soon and I’ll have impressions of the different op amps and how they influence the Quattro, M-Stage and a Fiio E12DIY portable amp.

Bottlehead amplifier range Aside

I’ve been quiet for a while here on the Passion for Sound blog due to a little personal project I’ve been working on over at Head-Fi. Some of you will have read my review of the assembly and performance of the Bottlehead Crack DIY tube amplifer and you might have also read my assembly review of the Bottlehead S.E.X. amplifier too. If you’ve been waiting for the performance review for the S.E.X. then you’re in for a treat! Not only have I completed a thorough review of the S.E.X., but I’ve also built and reviewed Bottlehead’s premium, top of the line amplifier, the Mainline. I’ve compared each of the three amps to each other as well for anyone who’s unsure of which amp is for them.

Rather than post the same reviews here or take the time to redo them, I’m going to share links to the review on Head-Fi. Don’t worry, you don’t have to be a member to read the reviews, but you will need to sign up if you want to comment (it’s free to sign up and it’s a great community). If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to post them here.

Bottlehead S.E.X. full review prior to the C4S upgrade

Bottlehead S.E.X. review post C4S upgrade

Bottlehead Mainline full review

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See you soon for more reviews including:

  • Matrix M-Stage amplifier – the classic entry level performer
  • Matrix Quattro fully balanced amplifier
  • Fiio E12DIY portable amplifier with swappable components to tailor the sound
  • Signature Acoustics C-12 IEMs

Where I’ve Been Lately

Sabre Feature-01

Matrix X-Sabre DAC

Matrix is a Chinese brand that made its name with the astonishingly affordable and excellent M-Stage headphone amplifier. After making a few products which were seen as “clones” of other brands’ offerings it seems Matrix wanted to make the point that they create great products in their own right, not just copies of other people’s gear. The X-Sabre is where they make their stand.

Overview

The X-Sabre is a flagship, dedicated DAC built around the insanely popular ES9018 SABRE DAC chip which also lends the “Sabre” moniker to the product. The X-Sabre has no amp or pre-amp just turns data into audio signal – nothing else. At a retail price of around AUD $1300 it’s pricey, but is it worth the dollars?

  • Inputs:  Coaxial, AES, USB (no optical)
  • Sample rates:  44.1 kHz – 192 kHz (Coaxial and AES), up to 384 kHz (DXD) or 5.6448 MHz (DSD) via USB
  • Outputs:  RCA / XLR (balanced)
  • Output Voltages:  2.2Vrms (RCA) / 6.8Vrms (XLR)

Design & Build Quality

Perhaps the most impressive thing about this DAC is its design and build quality, but that’s not to diminish the quality of everything else it does.

x-sabre_06-600x450The X-Sabre is made out of a single block of aluminium which is machine cut to house each individual component of the DAC. The image to the right shows a rendered image of the X-Sabre chassis and it’s certainly a marvelous piece of engineering which looks and feels every bit the quality of its price tag and position in Matrix’s line-up.

The X-Sabre is finished with a simple anodising which is hard-wearing, looks great and feels great too. The front panel has 8 small, white LEDs which tell you when the signal is locked (i.e. synced), whether is a PCM (FLAC, MP3, etc.) or DSD signal, and what bit-rate it’s decoding using. It’s a really simple display that I love because it’s subtle, informative and clean. Matrix also got the LED brightness just right. They are easy to see in any situation, but don’t light up the room or attract unnecessary attention away from the computer monitor, etc.

Finishing the front panel are 2 simple silver toggle switches – one for power on / off and the other for input source (USB, Coaxial, or AES). At first I wasn’t a fan of the toggle switches, but I’ve come to once again admire their simplicity and clean functionality.

11010048On the back of the X-Sabre things are equally simple, but refined. From left to right (in the image to the right) there are a pair of XLR output sockets on either side of the high quality, gold RCA output sockets. The inputs then consist of a 3-pin XLR AES socket, a gold coaxial socket and a USB B socket.

It’s worth mentioning that the sheathes of the RCA sockets can be pulled off. One day while switching RCA cables, the RCA plug was tight enough to take the gold sheath straight out of the X-Sabre case. I was convinced I’d just broken my brand new DAC, but thankfully the sheaths can be pushed back on so if that happens to you don’t worry!

Connectivity & Compatibility

As always with DACs, the coaxial connection just plugs in and works – no fiddling required. I can’t comment on the AES connection because I have no devices that use it. The USB is obviously where connectivity and compatibility comes into question.

I’ve used the X-Sabre with a Mac and with PC. With Mac it is literally plug and play with Aurvana working flawlessly with MP3, FLAC, DXD and DSD.

11010045Using the X-Sabre with PC is a little bit more fiddly, but not by much. Matrix are kind enough to provide all the drivers you need on a little (32Mb) USB stick in the box. The instructions are nice and clear and the process is quick and simple so it can be all set up in less than 5 minutes.

Once set up, the X-Sabre works seamlessly with Foobar, Media Monkey, and JRiver although Foobar and JRiver appear to be required for DSD playback if that’s something you’re interested in. For my purposes, FLAC and DXD (or uber-FLAC as I think of it) work perfectly via all players. I’ve also found that there are absolutely no issues switching between sample rates and file types with all playback starting instantly and switching smoothly. I also found that the X-Sabre works with ASIO, WASAPI, and every other sound output method I’ve tried, but WASAPI and ASIO are preferrable with ASIO getting a slight nod according to all the discussions I’ve had. However I don’t hear a difference between ASIO or WASAPI via any player software I’ve tried.

Sound Quality

Prior to the X-Sabre I was using the very good Audio-gd NFB-5.2 and I’d struggled to find a DAC that was a significant upgrade over its sound quality, but the X-Sabre is clearly miles ahead (as it should be at around 3x the price).

The sound quality from the X-Sabre is a little challenging to describe because the X-Sabre isn’t particularly coloured and that’s a good thing.

11010047Out of the box, the highs are a little edgy and dry, but that settled down after a few hours and the true sound of the X-Sabre shone through. In style, the X-Sabre’s presentation would be described as accurate but musical I think. It’s not warm by any stretch, but it also steers clear of being cold or analytical which suits me because I listen to the music for enjoyment, not critical analysis.

Despite being musical in its presentation, the X-Sabre produces oodles of detail and nuance throughout the music so don’t take the “musical” description as meaning smoothed over or thick sounding. The sound is clean, precise and incredibly detailed, but without any harsh leading edges or cold, dry timbre. Instruments sound natural and real, are well defined in the stage and come together in a coherent overall presentation.

I don’t personally find the X-Sabre to add emphasis in any frequencies so it’s a great addition to a system if you’re looking to let your amps, speakers, or headphones do the voicing of your music. It’s all personal taste, but I personally think the DAC should be as transparent as possible and I believe the X-Sabre achieves this perfectly. To me, even being overly cold and analytical is a way of influencing the sound so the X-Sabre strikes the perfect balance of neutral, pure musicality.

Overall Impressions

The Matrix X-Sabre is not as big as I had expected from photos I'd seen.

The Matrix X-Sabre is not as big as I had expected from photos I’d seen.

For a device of this price, the X-Sabre doesn’t disappoint in any way at all. At $1300, it would be easy to find flaws and faults to spur on the bitter pangs of buyer’s remorse, but once I discovered the gold RCA sheaths can be reattached, any hesitations or worries I had soon disappeared. This is a top end DAC with top end functionality, build quality and sound. There is absolutely nothing to take away from it.

It might be an issue for some that it comes without any cables, but if you’re anything like me, you have so many cables lying around that this is a welcome decision from Matrix and allows you to use higher quality USB and power cables without wasting the cheap ones normally provided.

The X-Sabre has brought a significant upgrade to the sound in my headphone and speaker setups. It has paired beautifully with both of the amps I have tried (Bottlehead Crack and Bottlehead S.E.X. – review coming soon) and with all the headphones I’ve tried. To me that’s the sign of a DAC doing what it should – providing great sound with detail and energy, but without bringing any sound colouration.

It may seem expensive to some people, but this DAC is truly worth it’s price tag and is an undeniable upgrade from the DACs I have heard in the mid-level $400-800 range.

If you’re in Australia, contact Billy at The Noisy Motel to get yours. He was very helpful and informative as I tried to decide on my big purchase and I can’t recommend him and his products enough!

I’m looking forward to also trying the Matrix Quattro amp soon as a fully balanced amp to pair with the X-Sabre. Stay tuned and subscribe if you want to know when the review is ready.

HP200 feature-01

SoundMAGIC HP200

11010050I have a confession to make. I have completely disregarded the SoundMAGIC headphones for ages simply because of their name. It wasn’t the fact that they’re a Chinese (i.e. not German) company because I love some of the IEMs and headphones coming from companies like HiFiMan. No, the simple reason is that I thought the name sounded a bit dinky and cheap.

It was only because the HP200s were setup as a demo at the recent AV Show in Melbourne that I heard them at all and I was really excited to discover a hidden gem. These are an incredibly well-priced headphone for their outstanding performance and well worth considering for anyone looking at headphones like the Sennheiser HD650s or HD600s.

Overview

The HP200 is an open-backed full-size headphone from Chinese manufacturer, SoundMAGIC. SoundMAGIC built a reputation on their excellent budget IEMs, but are showing with their HP100 (closed) and HP200 (open) headphones that they can play at a higher level too.

Specifications

  • Driver:  53mm dynamic
  • Frequency range:  15 Hz – 35,000 Hz
  • Impedance:  20 ohms
  • Sensitivity:  98 dB / mW (at 1 kHz)

With a price tag at a little over AUD $300, the HP200s are direct price-point competitors for headphones like the Audio Technica ATH-AD900 and AD900X, the AKG K/Q701, and Beyerdynamic DT880 and DT990. That’s stiff competition, but I would also go so far as adding the much praised and more expensive Sennheiser HD600 and HD650 to that mix. Intrigued? I was…

Design & Comfort

11010059These are some nice looking cans – and they feel as good as they look!

They are made from a combination of plastic, metal and faux leather and everything looks and feels solid, but not heavy. When you pick up the HP200s they just feel great – soft and smooth where they should be (ear pads, headband, etc.), and solid and sturdy everywhere else. In terms of design and build quality, the HP200s are easily on par or ahead of every other headphone I listed above as their competitors so we’re off to a good start.

The headband slider is metal over plastic and moves in clearly notched increments. It’s even labelled with numbers painted onto the metal to help you return to your perfect settings every time.

The outside of the ear cups are covered in a gloss black metal grille that looks and feels great. Meanwhile, other parts of the frame are made from high quality soft-touch plastics that feel almost luxurious.

In terms of practical design, the HP200s are basically faultless. Their visual design is a matter of taste, but isn’t going to offend anyone. I personally wasn’t “wowed” by the styling of them, but I would also be very happy to have these displayed on my headphone rack.

Electronic Design

The HP200s have a relatively low, 20 ohm  impedance which helps them easy to get good volume levels from portable devices but can be a double-edged sword because lower impedance leads to less control, especially in the bass and can reduce the overall tightness in the sound of the headphone. If I had to pick a fault with the HP200 it would be this low impedance. Had these been a >100 ohm headphone, they might just have completely dethroned some of the long-term kings of the category. As it is, they are great, but can be a little bit picky with the source / amp used. If you try these or buy these make sure you use them with a source or amp that has an output impedance below 2 ohms. If you listen to them and they sound a bit loose and flabby try another amp or source – it’s not the headphones.

Accessories

11010051It’s always nice to receive some extra goodies with a set of mid-to-high level headphones and the HP200s deliver with a nice black hard-case, extension cable and airline adapter. A really nice touch is the pouch that’s built into the case using a velcro system so you can store your adapters, etc. in the case without them rattling around and damaging your headphones.

Cable Options

I mentioned the extension cable provided with the HP200s, but it’s worth going a little deeper.

11010057The headphones come with a straight, 1.2m cable which is great for desktop use, but won’t reach to your television and may be a little limiting if you like to move around without always having your source at your hip. The extension cable takes care of that by adding a couple of extra metres to the cable. The main cable ends in a 3.5mm jack with a screw on adapter for 6mm connection while the extension cable ends in a plain 3.5mm plug without screw thread.

In addition to the extension option, the HP200s have a detachable cable which uses a simple 3.5mm stereo jack so it would be very easy to buy (or make) a replacement cable if required. If you did decide to go the custom cable route though, it’s worth noting the SoundMAGIC locking system which limits the size of the plug used (and means the plug won’t lock into the headphones so it could pull out if accidentally tugged on.

The stock cable is a little bit prone to hold the “waves” created by coiling so a slightly better cable would be nice for ergonomics, but it sounds fine.

Comfort

Having waxed lyrical about the great feel of these headphones in the hand, it’s probably a good time to consider if they feel as good on the head!

The simple answer is “yes”. The HP200s are very comfortable. The soft ear pads are very comfortable and the cups are big enough to fully cover the ears without putting pressure anywhere and without getting too big. The padding on the headband is sufficient to keep it comfy for long listening sessions, but I’d say overall the headband is not quite as comfortable as some of the best in the game (HD650 / Beyer T1, etc.) due to a slight sense of pressure in the centre of my scalp. It’s worth keeping 2 things in mind here: firstly that I have no hair to add padding between my scalp and the headphones, and secondly that I am being very nit-picky to find anything you might want to know.

Overall I’d rate the HP200s as a fraction behind the HD650s in terms of comfort, but it’s literally just a fraction.

Sound Quality

The HP200s garnered their comparison to the HD650s on account of their sound signature. Similar to the HD6X0 series from Sennheiser, the HP200′s sound smooth and a touch warm, but without losing any detail. They have more top-end sparkle and clarity than the HD650s and may be more akin to the HD600s, but I can’t compare directly to the HD600s because I don’t know the HD600s well enough.

Bass

11010060The HP200s produce excellent, controlled bass that has plenty of body and impact in the mid-bass region, but without bloat and boom. Once again they’re quite similar to the HD650s in their presentation. Bass is warm, full and smooth with kick and presence. It’s not the most detailed bass I’ve heard, but it’s very enjoyable and tends to flatter most music I’ve thrown at the HP200s.

I often use Marrakech by Incognito to test bass because it opens with a well-recorded kick drum that really tests a headphone’s ability to move the air cleanly and tightly, but with force. The HP200s performed beautifully here and sounded as natural as anything else I’ve tried. The presentation had both the sound and the feel of standing in a room with a kick drum being played.

The HP200s also have sneaky sub bass. I was about to write that they didn’t go as deep as I might like, but I changed tracks and found the hidden rumble. While not quite at the level of the Beyer T1s (which cost nearly 4x the price of the HP200s), the sub bass is present and authoritative. While not a bass-head can, the HP200s are very impressive in the bass department, but present the bass in a very natural and musical way.

Mids

Hopefully you’re not getting bored of my HD650 references yet because there are at least 2 more to go.

The midrange from the HP200 is clean, smooth and balanced with everything else. Nothing about the midrange sticks out, but I think that’s exactly how it should be because it means nothing is being overshadowed or over-emphasised.

Switching over to Tin Pan Alley by Stevie Ray Vaughan, the guitars and the drums had beautiful texture and clarity, but were buttery smooth the way they should be. What struck me though is a level of openness that I think was lacking from the Sennheiser HD650s. People often talk about the Sennheiser veil and although I never bought into it 100%, I can understand where the term came from. To my ears, the HP200s present the same quality of silky smooth midrange for vocals and instruments, but manage to add a tiny amount of edge and attack that the HD650s never gave me. That edge takes the sound from relaxing and enjoyable to exciting and enjoyable. It does this without bringing fatigue – just excitement.

I also like to test headphones with tracks from the Alison Krauss and Union Station album, Paper Airplane because some headphones can sound a little glassy with some of the strings used. The HP200s aren’t among that group though. The strings all remained clean and “plucky” (for want of a better term), but without getting edgy and fragile sounding. To sum it up I guess I’d say they maintained both warmth and detail which is perfect!

Treble

11010053

If you’re waiting for the big “but” here and expecting the HP200s to falter you might be disappointed, but the treble does require some discussion.

Final HD650 reference alert! In my opinion the HP200s deliver better treble than the HD650s. It is brighter, more detailed and with more extension. Where the HD650s may have an edge over the HP200s is that they never become sibilant. It’s not a regular issue, but it is possible for the HP200s to sound a bit edgy in the treble, particularly if a track has been poorly recorded or heavily compressed. While not brutal like the T1 or HD800 headphones, the price we pay for treble detail and extension is the risk of sibilance. I personally think the HP200 balances the divide really well. Overall it’s still a smooth sounding headphone, but without drifting into anything mushy or vague.

I think the sound engineers at SoundMAGIC created a beautiful balance between enjoyable listening and detailed listening by presenting just the right amount of treble, but without going to the extremes and revealing every flaw and weakness in the music or the source.

Staging & Imaging

When listening to the HP200s, the headstage (a new term I’ve picked up from someone somewhere and prefer to soundstage because it recognises the fact that it’s all inside the head) is spacious and clear. The sound is intimate and feels like you’re up close to the musicians, but it’s not claustrophobic, just intimate. I noticed that the size of the headstage was influenced by the source I used. A better-matched source (i.e. <2 ohm output impedance) resulted in a larger, more spacious sound and a headstage which is clean, open and very lifelike.

Spacing in the headstage is good and instruments are well placed in a good-sized semi-circular stage. While I’ve noticed a few triangular headstages lately (front and sides with no depth at the diagonals), I’d say the HP200s perform quite well at the diagonals and present a convincing auditory picture. There’s also good vertical layering with voices sounding slightly higher than the instruments being played by singers.

In terms of imaging, the HP200s define the placement and boundaries of instruments really well. Listening to orchestral music, each instrument is clearly separated and defined and there is a nice sense of depth and placement within the stage.

I would describe the HP200′s staging and imaging as immensely enjoyable and relaxing. Sure, surgical tools like the HD800s will perform better at pulling apart instrument placement, etc., but the HP200s do a great job for enjoyable listening and a wonderfully relaxing and yet engaging presentation.

Summary

The easiest way to sum up this review is to say that this pair of HP200s was kindly loaned to me by Billy at Noisy Motel for the purpose of reviewing them. I am dropping them off again tomorrow afternoon and will not only miss them, but have started budgeting to by a pair. I like them that much!

I really wish I still had my HD650s to compare side-by-side with the HP200s because I have a feeling that the HP200s are on par or better in every area (as long as they’re paired with the right source) and a clear winner in the treble region. As mentioned, I have a feeling the HP200s are actually a very close competitor to the HD600s and look forward to a direct comparison soon hopefully.

In the meantime, if you have around $300 to spend on an open headphone and you’re looking for a headphone that delivers a slightly warm, but mostly neutral sound with plenty of detail and clarity then honestly look no further than the HP200s. I’ve tried the HD650s, HD600s (briefly), DT880s, AD900s, AD900Xs, and various other headphones at this general price-point. The HP200s are the first ones I’ve decided to buy since owning my T1s and selling my HD650s. If I could have HD650s or HP200s at the same price, I’d still choose the HP200s and the same goes for all of the other headphones at the same general price-point with the possible exception of the HD600 which I need to listen to in more depth.

Don’t be put off by the relatively unknown brand-name and lack of European heritage, the HP200s are the real deal and an absolute must-listen before spending any money on an open headphone. I can’t stress enough though that these must be paired with the right source. With a poosly matched source (like my tube amps) the HP200 sounds better than average, but with the right amp / source, the HP200s are simply astounding – not just for their price – simply astounding, period.

Gill Phones Feature-02

Onkyo ES-FC300 – Giki Gill’s Headphones Mass Review (Part 2)

The next headphone up in Giki Gill’s Mass Review (see Part 1 here) is the Onkyo ES-FC300.

When I first heard the FC300 I wasn’t particularly impressed. I thought it sounded nice, but a little bit “commercial”. When I saw that Tyll over at InnerFidelity really liked it I figured I should give it another chance and I’m glad I did!

Overview

The FC300 is an impressive,subtle and sleek looking headphone, especially for its sub $200 price. (I’m not sure it’s recommended retail price, but it’s easily obtained for under $200 based on some quick searching I did for this review). Anodised aluminium cups and sturdy plastic headband and frame make for a light, but quality-feeling headphone. The specs are as follows:

  • 40mm titanium drivers
  • Detachable dual-entry cable (1.2m)
  • Frequency response:  10 Hz – 27,000 Hz
  • SPL:  97 dB / mW
  • Impedance:  32 ohm

Design

10050042The FC300 doesn’t feel at all like a sub $200 headphone. Even though it’s design is very simple, it doesn’t look or feel cheap. The cups are well padded (as is the headband) with nice soft faux leather and were comfortable for a relatively long session as I wrote this review. Eventually, I became aware of some pressure on the top of my head and a little where the pads sat on my ears, but it was minor and something I expect I would adapt to. Not only that, but I see these as a commuting and short stint can, not an all day listener so their comfort is absolutely fine for that.

The FC300 isn’t foldable, but the cups rotate flat so the headphones could easily be slipped into a satchel style bag or backpack.

The final design item of note is the detachable dual-entry cable which makes cable replacement upgrades possible. The dual-entry design also means you could set these up to run balanced (dedicated positive and negative / earth for left and right, instead of shared earths). Of course, you might question the point of running a <$200 headphone in a balanced setup, but if it’s cheap and easy, why not?

The stock cable is really nice. It’s relatively thin, but feels like good quality and is terminated with a nice looking right-angled jack which is perfect for portable devices.

Listening Notes

The most impressive and immediately obvious feature of the ES-FC300′s sound is its bass. You just don’t expect this quality and quantity of bass from an affordable on-ear. The bass is tight and controlled, but deep and punchy at the same time. It’s some of the nicest bass I’ve heard from a portable type headphone. Whether running from a full-sized headphone amp or from a portable player (RWAK100), the bass remains impressive. At 32 ohm and 97 dB sensitivity, the FC300s are easy enough to drive that you’ll enjoy great quality from any source including phones, iPods, etc.

Despite that mini-rave about their bass, the ES-FC300s aren’t a bass monster. Unlike the previously reviewed JVC HA-SZ2000s, the Onkyos are less about bass and more about overall musicality. The mids and treble are really nicely balanced with the bass and the overall sound is enjoyable and musical.

I wouldn’t describe these as neutral headphones, but they’re also not overly emphasised in any one area. I would describe them as dynamic with a slightly boosted bass, but not heavy colouration.

10050045At first listen, I thought the FC300s had slightly tinny upper mids and this may be true, but I adapted to the different signature very quickly and didn’t mind it at all. I think it’s a case of it being different to my daily listen (Beyer T1s / Unique Melody Miracles) rather than them being good or bad. Now that I’m used to their sound I don’t feel like they have any significant flaws in the upper mids other than them being a little drier in that region than my other cans, but they’re not bad, just different.

My final comments on the listening experience with the FC300s has to go to their staging and imaging. Closed cans are rarely an exciting experience when it comes to staging and often sound very closed in. While the FC300s aren’t going to beat many open cans, they are extremely impressive for a closed can at their price point.

The stage is well defined and of a good size extending just beyond the ears to each side. It has fairly good depth (very good for a closed can) and a nice sense of vertical layers. I really like how it presents the image of the sound because everything is very nicely defined and not at all crowded despite the closed design.

Overall I’d say these are an exceptional sounding headphone and I’m so glad I gave them a second chance – thanks Tyll and Inner Fidelity!

Summary Recommendations

For:

  • Price
  • Bass
  • Well-balanced version of dynamic sound
  • Stylish and quality-looking design

Against:

  • Nothing

Would I Buy These?

Absolutely! I’m seriously considering grabbing a pair to share with my fiancée because I think they’re excellent value, look great, sounds great and are a nice option for fold-flat portability.

Alternatives for the Price (or Less)

At this price and with this performance it’s a hard headphone to beat, but you could try:

  • Audio Technica ATH-M50
  • SoundMAGIC HP100 (a tad more expensive)
  • Shure SRH-840
Gill Phones Feature-02

JVC HA-SZ2000 – Giki Gill’s Headphones Mass Review (Part 1)

A friend of mine recently lent me a whole bag full of headphones for a few weeks so I figured I should review them. The only issue is that there are so many of them!! There’s no way I can complete a full review of each one so I’ve decided to consider them all in one mass review. I’ll summarise the pros and cons of each headphone along with some listening notes on each one so I hope it helps you to join me in exploring Gill’s amazing range of headphones. All price references will be from Amazon where possible in order to keep consistency.

JVC HA-SZ2000

First up is the slightly mental JVC HA-SZ2000.

Overview

The SZ2000 is built like a tank and was instantly one of the most visually interesting headphones in the bag of wonder that Gill handed over. Here are the basic specs:

  • Closed design
  • 16 ohm impedance
  • 108dB sensitivity
  • 4Hz – 35kHz frequency range

Pricing starts at around $250 on Amazon.

Listening Notes

10050046

The SZ2000 offers prodigious with very well controlled delivery. Wearing these is like walking into a nightclub with a high quality PA setup – the bass is obvious and visceral, but not boomy or loose. I don’t consider myself a bass head, but I really enjoy the bass from these beasts.

With all that bass you would be forgiven for expecting a muddy or congested presentation, but the SZ2000 surprises here too. The soundstage is clear and defined, but intimate as you would expect from a closed can. In shape, the soundstage seems a bit triangular extending to the front and each side more than diagonally, but it’s still an enjoyable presentation and quite spacious for a closed phone.

Treble from the SZ2000 is detailed and clear, but a little rolled off. The end result is a fatigue-free listen that still offers plenty of detail. It’s actually pretty ideal treble balance for a bass-oriented can and reminds me of the presentation of nice mid-level speakers in a good listening room.

Mids are presented without any significant colouration, but there is a slight veil over the sound to my ears where the vocals don’t sound like I have the singer actually in front of me. Instead it sounds like the singer is behind a sheer curtain – not thick enough to obscure the clarity, but enough that the sound doesn’t reach me directly. It’s minor and only noticeable when I listen critically, but it’s there.

Design

10050048The SZ2000 is a large headphone clearly not designed for portability (unless you have a big bag). Construction is predominantly high quality plastic with some aluminium trimming which appears to be almost entirely cosmetic rather than structural. There is ample soft padding and soft leather around each ear cup and the drivers are lined with a soft fabric. The headband is also well padded and covered on the top with soft leather. A nylon mesh covers the padding where the headband contacts the scalp.

The cable is terminated with a nice looking gold 3.5mm jack and the SZ2000s performed well from a portable player so the 3.5mm jack makes sense even if they’re a fairly bulky headphone to use with a portable device.

These are quite heavy cans and I can imagine them becoming uncomfortable after more than a couple of hours, but for an hour or so they felt fine to me. What I did notice though was some warmth around my ears due to the snug enclosures on each ear cup. This could be an annoyance for some people.

Summary Recommendations

10050047

For:

  • Great bass
  • Relaxed sound is relatively balanced despite the enhanced bass
  • Solid and attractive design

Against:

  • Weight may be an issue over an extended period
  • Ear cups may be too snug for some

Would I buy these?

Yes, I would. I think they’re a fun listen and are reasonable value. They’re not the end-game in any area, but they’re a good headphone in many areas (especially deep and punchy, but controlled bass).

Alternatives for the Price (or Less)

Not an exhaustive list by any stretch, but here are some options that jump to mind:

  • SoundMagic HP100
  • Shure SRH840
  • Audio Technica ATH-M50
AX-60 Teal-01

Astrotec AX-60

There are 2 pieces of opening information required to help contextualise this review. Firstly, Astrotec may sound like a new name in the business, but they’ve actually been making headphones and earphones for many well-known brands for a long time and their standards of quality and build are very good.

The second thing to know is the difference between dynamic, balanced armature and hybrid design in-ear monitors (IEMs). These three types of earphone descriptors are based on the drivers (speakers) used inside the shell of the earphone. Dynamic drivers are very similar to what we’re used to seeing in full sized speakers. Balanced armatures (BAs) are a special driver originally designed for use in hearing aids. Hybrid refers to an IEM which combines both dynamic and BA drivers in the same shell to make a multi-driver IEM with the aim being to maximise on the benefits of each driver type and to circumvent the drawbacks of each driver. Sometimes it works a treat and sometimes it doesn’t…

Overview

Astrotec_AX60_S_large3The AX-60s are a 3 driver hybrid design using a dynamic driver for the bass (because this is where dynamics consistently out-perform regular BAs) and two BA drivers for the mid-range and treble. This makes sense because the BAs were originally designed to reproduce vocal frequencies in hearing aids so they tend to excel in the mid-range and treble areas.

  • Driver: 10mm Dynamic + Dual-Balanced Armature
  • Frequency response: 8 Hz – 28000 Hz
  • Sensitivity: 110 dB / 1mw (S.P.Lat 1KHz)
  • Impedance: 12 OHM
  • Cable: 1.2m +/-0.3m Galaxy cable
  • Connector: 3.5mm gold plated connector
  • Max input: 10 mW

Design & Comfort

The AX-60 shells are made entirely from aluminium which makes them look and feel very high quality. They feel like the premium product they’re meant to be. They are finished in dark grey or blue anodising which both look good.

I’m personally not a fan of the shape of the housing as I find they don’t sit particularly nicely in the ears, but they’re not uncomfortable – it just seems like they were designed on their own without consideration for how they might nestle into the ear of the listener. This doesn’t affect the comfort or listening experience in any way whatsoever, it’s just an aesthetic thing.

Cable

10110009The marketing info for the AX-60 claims that the cable is made using a range of special, high grade materials, but there’s no way to really know exactly what they are without pulling it apart (and I don’t think that would go down well when these are a loan pair for review).

What matters though is that the cable is supple and feels good. It’s terminated with a nice, slim but sturdy feeling metal headphone jack and the Y-split and cable cinch are made with the same metal and finish. The cable then is easily on par with the great look and feel of the housing materials and finish.

The cable connects to the housing with some rubber strain reliefs that look like they’re well up to the task of extended use, but the cables are non-detachable so for those who like to cable-tweak, this may not be the earphone for you.

Personally, I think an earphone with a high quality non-detachable cable (like the AX-60s and VSonic GR07s) is preferable to an earphone with a crappy quality detachable cable so to me the AX-60s are doing just fine in the cable department.

Accessories & Fit

When you open the AX-60 box you might think you’ve been duped because all you can see is a pair of earphones with the default silicon tips and a metal plate with some weird metal pieces screwed into it. Your first thought could easily be “Where’s the rest of it?”

Well don’t worry, the rest is hiding underneath the top layer of foam.

10110004Lifting up the top layer reveals the goodies below.

The AX-60s come with a nice metal tin which looks like it should contain mints or lollies, but instead holds a wide selection of tips including single and triple flange silicon options as well as foam tips similar to the Comply brand. There is also a pair of cable guides very similar to those supplied with the VSonic GR07s.

10110008I found the tip selection to be excellent, especially because the small size triple flanges actually fit me! That never happens so kudos to Astrotec for actually having truly small triple flanges rather than just medium and large like every other brand I’ve tried. The single flange silicon tips were also available in a nice range of sizes and are comfortable to use. I didn’t try the foam tips, but if you have any experience with Comply tips, these will be much the same.

In addition to the tin of tips, you’ll also find a nice little leather pouch for storing and carrying your AX-60s. The pouch looks and feels like it’s good quality, but I couldn’t say if it’s real leather or not (mainly because I don’t think it matters and didn’t take the time to work it out). What does matter is that it’s small, but appropriately sized for the earphones and would be a comfortable thing to carry around in your pocket.

Overall Comfort

The AX-60s are a comfortable earphone once you find the right tips and insertion methods, but I wouldn’t say they’re among the most comfortable I’ve used. To me they’re on par with the VSonic GR07 (I keep mentioning these, don’t I?) and other straight / barrel shaped IEMs I’ve tried. They don’t quite compare to the comfort of some of the more molded IEMs I’ve tried like the HiFiMan Re272 or  Shure SE535. Having said that, they’re not uncomfortable so if they sound as good as or better than the other slightly more molded earphones then I’d still choose these, but we’ll get to the sound shortly…

One final thing to mention is that these manage to cram a lot of technology into a small space and still manage to make it a comfortable earphone so that’s saying something. There aren’t a lot of hybrids around (but there are a few and the numbers are growing) and it seems to be a challenge to fit them into a good sized enclosure while maintaining both comfort and sound quality. For that reason alone, the AX-60s should be applauded.

Sound Quality

As always the sound is what matters.

With a hybrid earphone you expect 2 things: great bass courtesy of the dynamic driver and smooth, detailed mids and highs courtesy of the BA drivers. Let’s step through the frequencies to see how the AX-60s performed.

Bass

10110003Wow! The AX-60s have some great bass… depending on the filter.

When you first open the box you’ll see a metal plate which holds 4 filters (2 pairs). The 2 sets have slightly different sized mesh in them so when they’re screwed into the bore of the AX-60s, they change the sound significantly. With the open mesh the bass is a bit sloppy and slow to my ears. It’s impressive in its mass and weight, but just a bit too bloated. Changing to the finer mesh produces a very different (an impressive) bass experience.

With the finer mesh installed, the bass from the AX-60s is impactful and detailed. It’s not as fast as the bass from some other IEMs I’ve tried, but none of those have the body and impact of the AX-60s so it’s a slight trade-off. In terms of what I prefer, I think I would choose the AX-60 as my bass presentation of choice. It produces bass which is much more on par with a full-sized headphone or speaker and that lends an extra degree of toe-tapping fun to the listening experience.

Texture in the bass is good and it never bleeds into the mids so the overall listening experience is very clean and detailed despite the powerful bass. What’s extra impressive is how deep the bass goes. While I was writing this review, Hail Mary by 2pac came up in my playlist and I couldn’t help but be impressed with the deep rumble in the bass. Despite the deep, authoritative rumble coming from the AX-60s’ dynamic drivers, the bass always remained behind the rest of the track where it belongs.

Mid-range

I’ve heard some people suggest the mids of the AX-60s might be a little recessed, but I never felt like I wanted more. Certainly the treble and bass are prominent, but mid details don’t suffer and vocals are clear and present.

I love a BA mid-range. It has a certain texture and clarity that you rarely hear from a dynamic driver. Listening to acoustic guitars on the AX-60 you can hear and feel the strum on each string. Although not quite as refined as the Unique Melody Miracles (which cost more than 2x the price of the AX-60), the mids remind me a lot of the Miracles in terms of detail and texture. Overally, the AX-60s sound very different to the Miracles so I’m only talking about the mids here.

Vocals are clean and present. They’re also natural and without any tilt towards dryness or creaminess. In short, I really like the mids from the AX-60s!

Treble

Astrotec_AX60_large4OK, here’s where it gets a little tricky. As with many BA setups, the AX-60s can tend towards a bit harsh on some treble notes, but they are also very dependent on the tips you choose. I found that open tips (i.e. with wider and shorter sound tubes) were much smoother to listen to. Narrower tips like Sony Hybrids caused the treble to spike to uncomfortable levels on certain frequencies and really detracted from the listening experience. Of the tips I tried, I would recommend sticking to the stock single flange tips or possibly the foam tips (which I didn’t try, but have past experiences with similar tips).

Once you get the right tips on the AX-60s they really sing, but they are still bordering on bright. Interestingly, the thing they most remind me of is the Beyerdynamic T1 or T90 headphones. I’m not saying they’re as good as the T1s / T90s, but that their treble is reminiscent of the high end Beyers because of a spike around the 10kHz mark and can sound a bit harsh on certain tracks / sources. The thing with this type of treble spike is that it also seems to reveal information in the music that I don’t hear on ‘phones without such spikes.

To describe the treble from the AX-60s I’m going to focus on the sound with the finer mesh tips installed. The treble is clean, crisp and detailed, but slightly boosted compared to the mids. You could describe the AX-60s as having a slightly “V” shaped sound. It makes for a dynamic sound, but may be fatiguing to some people and is why the tip selection and source selection is important. There is also the importance of “brain burn-in” because I found once I got used to the sound I really enjoyed it and actually missed it when I returned to the Miracles.

Cymbals, percussion and consonants (in vocals) are present and defined, but jut slightly raspy at times. I think any shortcomings in the treble are really only noticeable because of the outstanding quality of the bass and mid-range, and that means that the treble is actually still very good. Where the bass and mid-range are well above standard for the price of the AX-60s, I think the treble maybe falls just a hair short of what I expect at this pricepoint. Don’t be discouraged though because one small issue doesn’t necessarily destroy the whole experience.

Staging & Imaging

10110013I absolutely love how these things image! They have a really spacious presentation that is beyond any other earphone I’ve tried, except possibly the Miracles. It’s not that they create a massive soundstage, although it’s larger than average for an IEM. Where the AX-60s excel is the space in between all the instruments. Every sound is separated and placed in the soundstage perfectly. None of the instruments blend together and all have their own space and character.

If I had to nit-pick regarding the staging and imaging it’d be to say that the instruments can sometimes sound like their on their own. A guitar in my left ear sounds like it was recorded separately from the rest of the music rather than being a coherent part of the whole picture. I think the AX-60s might place the mids just a bit too far forward in these cases, but it doesn’t happen often and can actually be quite fun and engaging to hear things presented differently. It’s not ideal for critical listening and accuracy, but it’s doesn’t detract from enjoyment and is all about how you use the earphones.

I mentioned the stage being spacious, but not huge. Just to clarfiy, the stage doesn’t extend very far forward, but has plenty of space from left to right and a reasonable sense of height for an IEM.

Summary

10110005The AX-60s aren’t a perfect IEM from a technical / accuracy standpoint, but they are brilliant fun and great value. They do everything very well and excel as a fun, dynamic listen. Don’t buy them if your goal is analytical accuracy, but definitely take a listen if you’re looking for an engaging musical experience with outstanding, but well-controlled bass (using the right filters of course)

At the time of writing, Noisy Motel, who lent me this loan pair, are selling the AX-60 for $399 (AUD). At that price, there are few other earphones I would choose over the AX-60 (if any). Others I would consider are the HiFiMan Re-400 which is cheaper, but will not even begin to match the bass performance of the AX-60. I also haven’t tried the new design of the HiFiMan earphones so don’t know if they would match the comfort I came to enjoy with the Re-272s and one of the reasons I loved the HiFiMan earphones.

Having owned other comparable earphones costing more and less than the AX-60s I can comfortably say that I would choose the AX-60s over the Shure SE535 Limited Edition, the VSonic GR07 MkII, and the Fischer DBA-02.

The AX-60s sit in an interesting spot in the market where they’re priced above some of the most popular IEM models, but less than high end IEMs and customs. For the money, I think they’re very good value as a venture into higher end sound without pricetag approaching $1000. They don’t match the performance of earphones approaching $1000, but I believe they are better value than the other earphones I’ve heard in the midrange $300-$500 range.

If you have a chance, take a listen to the AX-60s, but make sure you try them with an open-bore tip (i.e. not Sony Hybrids) and give them a bit of time to adjust to their dynamic sound if you’re coming from something more subdued. Oh, and don’t expect them to be an analytical, mastering earphone because they’re not. They are fun, exciting and enjoyable, and to me that makes for a great listen when I’m on the go. To me, these are the best earphone I’ve heard (under $400) to get my foot tapping and head bobbing.

BH S.E.X. Feature-01

Bottlehead S.E.X. – “The Build”

Some time ago I built the Bottlehead Crack amplifier and reviewed both the build process and the resulting sound. After thoroughly enjoying the Crack for over a year, I decided it was time to enjoy the next step up in the Bottlehead range for both a challenge and a new step towards audio nirvana. The next step in the Bottlehead range is called the Single Ended eXperimenter kit (or S.E.X. for short). It’s a different design to the Crack as the S.E.X. uses output transformers to work with a wide range of headphones. (The Crack is an output transformerless (OTL) design which will only work effectively with high impedance headphones.)

The S.E.X. has a lot more wires than the Crack (partly due to having two output transformers) so it’s a slightly more complex build, but it’s still fairly simple point-to-point wiring with no circuit boards or finicky micro components.

The Kit

S.E.X. kit contentsWhat arrived at my door was a moderately sized box containing a couple of plastic bags of components and wires, 4 pieces of wood which make the base, 5 cardboard-wrapped power components (transformers, etc.), an aluminium chassis plate, a list of parts, and a CD containing the manual in PDF form.

At first glance I actually thought the S.E.X. was going to take only a tiny bit longer than the Crack… oops!

Customisation

Having built the Crack completely stock in all ways except for staining the wooden base, I decided I would express myself a little more in this amp. I love the Art Deco period and I thought that style would match the vintage tubeyness of the S.E.X.

To achieve the vintage look I decided to paint some of the visible metal parts and my fiancée convinced me to anodise (rather than paint) the aluminium chassis plate – thanks Lisa!

Painting

Painting the metal elements of the S.E.X. required a lot of careful preparation. The top of the main power transformer and the brackets on the plate chokes (the things on either side of the transformer) needed thorough sanding to remove the varnish that they are coated with during production.  The plate choke brackets had a lot more varnish than the transformer bell, but both were tricky to sand and took multiple attempts to get right.

I was using an etch primer to ensure a good finish on the metal parts, but my first priming attempts didn’t go well. Despite fairly thorough sanding, there were small patches of varnish left on the metal and the varnish reacted with the etch primer to create a crinkled look that would have really messed with the final paint finish. Having failed once, I stripped all parts bake to 100% bare metal before starting again.

WP_20130910_09_00_51_ProIn this image you can see the metal parts all sanded and masked for painting. This image was actually before the first, failed attempt. You can see a dark patch on the top left corner of the front piece (the transformer bell) which is some of the left-over varnish that I failed to fully remove.

It’s worth adding at this time that masking the plastic parts on the plate chokes is VERY difficult. There are a lot of small sections that are tricky to mask and I found that using lots of small pieces of tape was more effective in the cramped spots than large pieces of tape.

Once correctly masked and sanded, the metal parts were relatively easy to prime and spray. The only other issues I had were keeping dust out of the fresh paint job and paint quality issues. I dealt with the dust by lightly sanding the blemished coat and lightly respraying. The paint issue was solved by changing paint brands and actually led to a fortuitous change of colour from off-white to cream which better suited my desired colour scheme.

Anodising

Chassis plateI was worried that the anodising was going to be expensive and possibly time consuming. It turned out to be neither once I found the right provider.

After a few calls I came across Riga Crafts who were located fairly close to me here in Melbourne and were able to work with a small scale, single-piece project like mine. I delivered to them a simple aluminium plate (as seen to the left) and received back a strangely Anodised platemottled looking brassy coloured plate. I had ordered the bronze colour, but expected something much more brown, much less yellow, and much more consistent in colour. Before you think Riga did a bad job, please read on because their work was wonderful!

I don’t fully understand why, but for some reason, the colour on the chassis plate became uniform over the next few days and went more brown than yellow (as I had wanted). The finished product perfectly matched the sample Jimmy at Riga had showed me and was a perfect match for my design idea.

Assembly

Assembled chassisSo far everything I’ve discussed I did on my own, but I actually bought the kit with 2 friends (1 kit each) and we agreed to build them together.

The first stage of building was a night of assembly where we screwed all of the components to the chassis plate in preparation for a separate wiring and soldering adventure.

The assembly stage of the S.E.X. is very straight forward, much like with the Crack. It simply involves clicking into place the various plastic power parts, screwing on some terminal strips and installing the volume control, headphone jack and tube sockets. All straight forward except for the tube sockets which were a little fiddly to get centred and well secured.

At this stage, I also had to make sure to create a good earth point on my anodised chassis. The anodising process creates an inert layer on the surface of the aluminium which means it no longer conducts electricity. That’s a slight problem when you want to create an earth on the chassis, but it’s easily solved by just taking a file or a piece of sandpaper to the chassis plate around the earthing screw hole (see silver screw to the right of the black box on the chassis near the far left corner).

After just a few relaxed hours, the underside of our chassis plates looked something like the image to the right.

We could have installed the plate chokes and output transformers at this stage, but this involved a tiny bit of soldering so we left it to be done at the same time as the other wiring and soldering.

Wiring & Soldering

I mentioned earlier that there are more wires to work with in the S.E.X. compared to the Crack. We allowed a day and an evening to do the wiring and soldering, but we should have split it over 2 days. It’s not hard as such, but it IS time consuming so please allow plenty of time and some breaks to ensure an enjoyable build process if you decide to buy and make the S.E.X.

SAMSUNG CSC

To do the work, we setup a table with a sheet of thick cardboard to catch any solder drips and prevent damage to the table we were using. This turned out to be a great move because we were able to fold up the cardboard at the end of the night and easily dispose of all the little wire and insulation off-cuts we’d created. I can highly recommend this approach!

The first step in the wiring of the S.E.X. was to install the plate chokes and power transformers. At this time we also had to decide on the impedance we were wiring the S.E.X. for. You can choose from 4, 8, 16 or 32 ohm loads and should make the decision based on the speakers you will drive with the amp (if you will ever use speakers), or on the power vs noise ratio you are after. Lower impedance wiring means a quieter amp, but with less power so it all depends on your usage. We all chose 8 ohm wiring because it suits most common bookshelf / desktop speakers and also will work with most headphones, except the most power hungry orthodynamics out there. You can also buy an impedance switch from Bottlehead which allows you to easily change the impedance setting later buy simply switching the unit off, lifting the chassis plate and throwing a switch. It’s a great idea for those wanting all options, but not necessary in my case.

SAMSUNG CSCOnce the chokes and transformers were all installed we were ready for the hardcore wiring and soldering. You can see the numbers written on the chassis plate in the image to the left and the wiring process is as simple as following Bottlehead’s brilliant and clear instructions. For each wire or terminal, there are numbered terminals to connect each end to. The biggest challenges in the wiring process are confirming the right parts are used the right ways, especially for the directional components like capacitors and diodes, and also soldering in cramped spaces as the circuit nears completion.

SAMSUNG CSCIn all cases, the instructions are extremely clear and every written instruction is accompanied by a clear picture of the connections being made. The instructions specify the correct orientation of directional parts and even remind you to double-check before soldering. With patience, care and attention there’s really nowhere to go wrong.

Hook-Up Wire

Unlike the Crack, which used single core wires throughout, the S.E.X. uses a mixture of single core and multi-core wire. This makes the build slightly more fiddly because stripping and preparing the multi-core shielded wire takes a little more care and time, but it has it’s benefits because the shielding prevents noise creeping into the wire itself takes up less space in a circuit where real estate is in relatively high demand.

Wire Lengths and Paths

SAMSUNG CSCBecause the finished product becomes an organised mess of wires and components (see left), it’s important to focus on tidiness as you progress the build. Even though mine’s not bad, if I had my time again there are some things I would do differently to ensure a much neater finished product.

Although the measurements in the instruction manual never once left us short of cable, it sometimes seemed to be too much cable. Thinking back this might be because we took a direct path between the 2 connection terminals when the better path may have been around other things to keep them clear. In short, if I were to build the S.E.X. again I would manually check and plan the path and length for each wire before I cut it.

As you can see in the image to the right, the S.E.X. can look neat and tidy if you get it right. That image is from the Bottlehead website and was no doubt built buy one of their wizards, but it’s definitely a level of finish to aim for.

The main thing at this stage is to be wary of soldering in close proximity. It can be easy to accidentally touch a wire or the side of a capacitor (for example) with the soldering iron and melt the insulation or destroy the component so take care and think about each step before you do it. I can very close to destroying one of the capacitors and I think we all disfigured some insulation here and there.

Those Bloody Rectifiers!

WP_20130923_09_47_35_ProPerhaps the trickiest part of the build happens quite early when you’re building what will become the power supply for the tube heaters. It involves the use of some rectifiers which have really thick, stiff leads and all go in a tight spot between the power transformer and a terminal strip.

In the image to the left, you might be able to see some small black cylinders in the bottom third of the image. Those are the rectifiers and you can see from this shot that they’re all smashed in together in a very cramped spot. This is made harder by the fact that you have to pre-bend the very stiff leads prior to installing so it’s pretty fiddly.

What makes it worse is that the rectifiers are directional so you have to get them oriented correctly. Getting this wrong (as one of us did) is a real pain because desoldering and changing them is very tricky due to the cramped space and stiff leads. My tip? Care, attention and patience!

Testing

Once all of the wiring and soldering is completed you’re almost ready to test. I say almost because it’s worth giving the whole circuit a once-over before testing because if you’ve missed any solder joints (we all missed at least one) or done a poor job of a joint it’s much quicker to find it visually now before you try to troubleshoot strange readings during your test. A good solder joint should have ample solder, but not too much, and should be shiny, not dull.

The instructions for testing are as clear as everything else in the manual so it’s fairly straightforward. Stage 1 is an impedance test without the power connected so you can’t hurt yourself at this stage. After checking the resistance across a range of terminals you can either troubleshoot or continue.

Stage 2 involves power and therefore extra care. Once again the process is straightforward, but there is now the risk of touching a high voltage source so patience and care are key.

If, like us, you find strange readings at this stage, the first thing to check (again) is your solder joints. A partial solder joint can create very strange symptoms in your circuit. It’s also very important to take care with your circuit even after unplugging the power. We had a scary moment where one of the guys touched a component that should have been safe because the power cord was unplugged, but the capacitors hadn’t discharged their power due to a dodgy solder joint. The result was a few hundred volts through the hand and a very unpleasant experience so please be careful!

Building the Base

The wooden bases are very simple, but allow for lots of customisation. You can build it early or wait till the end – it doesn’t really matter.

WP_20130924_08_22_44_ProI found that building the base is as simple as gluing the pieces together with PVA craft glue, but we discovered (the hard way) that some glues work better than other. One of the guys had a craft glue which is extremely strong and actually made it impossible to fix any assembly errors.

I found the PVA craft / hobby glue to be a really nice compromise between bond strength and flexibility. It gives you time to adjust the positioning of the pieces of timber before it dries too solid and can be pulled apart if absolutely necessary. My approach was to put a zig-zag of glue along the edge of one piece of the base and then sandwich it together with the other piece. While the glue was still wet, I gently slid the pieces of wood until the edges all lined up to a nice flush finish. Because the wood is all pre-cut with a ridge for the chassis plate to rest on it’s easy to identify which parts go together. Once again it’s a case of patience and care.

Stains & Finishes

The beauty of the natural wood base is that you can make it look however you want. On both my kits I’ve chosen to stain and varnish, but you could also paint the timber, oil it, or just sand it lightly and keep it natural – it’s all up to you.

For the record, staining is a fairly simple process of wiping or brushing the stain onto the timber and allowing it to dry. You can also do things like wiping off any excess or lightly sanding to create an uneven / aged look on your stain. Once stained, you can varnish or oil the wood to complete the look of the stain. I guess you could leave it just stained, but my experience with the two stains I’ve tried is that it didn’t look particularly good until varnished.

Conclusion

09280022Once the build is all done and you’ve tested the circuit you’re ready for listening and feeling the massive sense of satisfaction that comes from hearing your handiwork sing. Be prepared for a fantastic experience because this amp is a beauty!

I was unfortunate enough to have a faulty tube with major hum and noise, but the lovely folks at Bottlehead were quick to offer a replacement and I found a local supplier to buy some from in the meantime so I didn’t have any downtime (and will have spares for the future).

I’ll share a full review of the amp’s sound in the coming weeks so please subscribe if you’re interested in more!