Six years ago, for $699, I bought a Woo Audio WA6, the affordable but justly venerated tube headphone amplifier from Jack Wu of New York. It was my first desktop amplifier, and I loved it. In fact, I think the Woo stayed with me for over a year – a near eternity in the personal audio hobby. It was a fun year too. I tried different vacuum tubes and played around with sources and cables. All the while socking away money for an eventual upgrade – one I was sure would blow away the woo – the SPL Phonitor. Sure, the Phonitor may have been a $2000 beast with a magnificent crossfeed circuit, but I found it cold and uninvolving. It lasted a mere two months in my house. , Just like that, I was on to the next thing. Maybe the Woo had ruined me. Maybe, as my first serious amplifier, it somehow imprinted upon me a preference for the warmth and musicality of tubes. After the Phonitor, there were other amplifiers, of course. Each new amp lured me away from the last, with silver-tongued promises of resolution, depth, and sonic bliss. Amplifiers as varied as the Little Dot Mk. VI+, Cavalli Liquid Fire, Ray Samuels DarkStar, Apex Peak and Volcano, Violectric V200, Donald North Audio Sonett, and Questyle CMA800R, among others, have all seen duty in my listening room. Some delighted while others disappointed. Some stayed around as long as the Woo. Others didn’t even make it as long as the Phonitor. But, the amplifiers I liked? They all had one thing in common: Musicality. Throughout this six year journey, if there is but one thing I have learned, it’s that I crave musicality from my audio components. My whole aim is to come home after a stressful day and put on some headphones to unwind, and I need my headphone rig to help pull me into the relaxing world of music. No surgical sounding amplifier is going to do the trick, no sir. So now, six years into the hobby – wiser but somewhat grizzled – I scan reviews, looking for those signifiers, the word “musical”, or any of its kin. I care less that the amplifier hits all the technical benchmarks. Nowadays, don’t they all anyway? I care more that new gear hits those marks while delivering musicality. This seems to me a rarer feat.
The headphone amp under review, the Auralic Taurus Mk.II, is one that I was quite excited to hear. The Beijing-based Auralic first brought the Taurus (in both a preamp-centric, and headphone amp-centric version) to the attention of American consumers back in 2012. So, the amplifier has been around long enough to develop a strong and stable reputation. It is generally considered a solid state amp of the highest caliber, and I believe I had read the word musical more than a few times. What started out as excitement when the package from UPS arrived, slowly became a vaguely dreadful feeling, though. The ensuing review of the Taurus just wasn’t getting written. There are a few reasons, but among those is the fact that I had already read a few great reviews of the Taurus. Plus, it can be daunting to find meaningful words to contribute after reading those. For evidence I will refer you to John Grandberg’s excellent review for Inner Fidelity. If you crave juicy technical details, to put it mildly, you will find his review tantalizing. Another reason I struggled writing this review? In my time with the Taurus, I just didn’t love it the way other reviewers have. Let me tell you, being the dissenting opinion can drive one a bit mad. What am I not hearing? Is my unit functional? Is it broken in? Anything to keep from having to admit that you just don’t love a product. This is, I feel, why negative reviews are so uncommon. Rather than the conspiracy theorists’ view that reviewers are “on the dole”, it is instead that writing a less than stellar review places a tremendous burden on the reviewer. I.e., you’d better know what you’re talking about.
In the case of the Taurus, the unease I felt was further heightened by the fact that I had requested this review sample. I wanted to hear this amp and to share my findings with Guru readers. I felt like an ingrate for not loving it. So there I was… And here I am, feeling a bit like the doctor telling the patient, “There’s good news, and there’s bad news.” The good news? Well, the Taurus indeed looks the business, at a skosh bigger than the Questyle gear I have on hand, but weighing about the same, and of similarly fine construction and finish quality. With a beautifully-machined anodized aluminum enclosure, the Taurus gives off an air of modernity, while also saying, “Hey, you can put me anywhere.” The connections, indicator lights, switches, and other touch points are all well-considered, though I find the hemispherical volume knob a little odd looking. Around back, things are strictly-business, as RCA and XLR inputs and outputs, IEC power socket, and main power switch are all shoehorned into the compact chassis. Overall, the Taurus is a sharp-looking and well-built amp that is a cinch to hook up, operate, and integrate into just about any headphone rig.
In other good news, the Taurus delivers power in gobs, and handles all the headphones in my arsenal – from Fostex TH-900 to Hifiman HE-500 – without breaking a sweat. The noise floor is admirably low, making the Taurus an amplifier that can be cranked up. It sounds good when played loud, that is for sure….
Which brings me to my first criticism of the Taurus: It prefers to be played loudly. This is one of those somewhat nebulous areas of this hobby that just isn’t touched on very often. But here it is: How loudly do you prefer to listen to your music? If, like me, you listen to music at conversational volume, or even quieter, there are headphones and amps that suit this listening. If, like others, you prefer to crank the volume a bit, there’s gear out there that suits that as well. Why does the Taurus strike me as a loud-lover’s amp? Because there is a slightly recessed and thin quality to the midrange that mostly rights itself once you begin to push the volume. The midrange, especially vocals, fleshes out at a volume level that I normally reserve for wild Friday night listening. On Tuesday afternoon, though, I find myself wishing for just a bit more midrange presence and body from the Taurus, regardless of the headphone pairing. I know I have generously wagged the word musicality around. And I am aware of what a “lazy-writer’s” word it is, and how loaded-with-meaning it has become. So I will share an analogy in an attempt to explain my own oddball connection between musicality and listening volume. For lack of a better name, I will call it the Squint Test.
Let’s say you are looking at an impressionistic landscape painting by Claude Monet. From four feet away you may be able to appreciate his brush technique, but perhaps not quite get the “impression” of a field with hay stacks. Conversely, from fifty feet away, those hay stacks are pretty evident, but you may not be able to discern the technique used to paint them. With audio, it’s not so dissimilar. When you turn the music down to an audible but somewhat soft level, what do you hear? In my humble opinion, it is here in this tame-but-telling zone that gear reveals as much about itself as it does when cranked to skull-crushing levels. When put to this test, the Taurus unfortunately seems to be a museum that hangs all its paintings in three-foot-wide hallways, giving patrons but one perspective on the art. While this might come across as a bit “Goldilocks”, these are the pitfalls and perils of the personal audio hobby. That it is, indeed, quite personal. Of course that fact can make this reviewer feel a bit inadequate mind you. It’s my job to tell you what I can about a product to help you decide if it might be right for you. But, then I have to concede that sometimes “you just have to taste the porridge yourself.”
Another nit to pick with the Taurus is that I somehow found myself preferring the sound of the single-ended outputs over the balanced with my headphones. I am not savvy enough to know the technical reasoning behind these findings. I just know that the single-ended output seemed to offer left-to-right imaging that, while a touch narrower in width, seemed a bit more relaxed and natural to my ears. No, I am not crazy, thank you very much. I must to admit, though, in full disclosure style, I have heard only a small handful of balanced amplifiers that I preferred over a well-designed single-ended amp. I have my own hair-brained theories that involve component matching, parts count, crosstalk (or lack thereof) and other things I have only a quasi-grasp of. What’s wrong with preferring the single-ended outputs you might be asking? Nothing. Except, maybe, the fact that you paid $1900 for a balanced amp and are only using half of it.
Now my final criticism (I promise I am not piling on here) is that with the volume knob all the way down I still hear music. I actually scoured the forums to see if other owners reported the same issue, and indeed, they had. Again, this is a trivial thing. A quibble really. However, for $1900 you should get nothing but silence from the amplifier by rolling the volume knob all the way down.
To be fair, at this point, I should share a few other strong points about the Taurus. With instrumental music, such as Ottmar Liebert’s fabulous ‘Up Close’ album, the Taurus was actually quite exemplary. Its honest monitor-like sound signature allows organic, acoustically-recorded performances such as this one to really shine. On a different night, while in a different mood, I enjoyed some bass-heavy music from DeadMau5. Here the Taurus also excels, with a tight and tuneful bottom end, but with enough impact to satisfy fans of electronic music.
Basically, so long as I wasn’t listening to vocal-centric music at lower volumes, I was pretty pleased and impressed with this piece of kit. That’s about the long and short of it.
So, then, where does the Taurus stack up in the continuum of amplifiers that I have heard? I can tell you that it is an intriguingly-close cousin to the Questyle CMA800R that I have on hand. The Questyle unit sells for about $400 less than the Taurus, but comes awfully close in terms of performance. The Taurus offers balanced drive and a bit more power for the extra dosh, but you have to decide if that is important to you.
When listening to the Taurus at a fuller volume level it acquitted itself as a very capable, neutral, and reliable headphone amplifier that left me with little to complain about. While I no longer have the trusty Woo WA6 around to compare I can say with some certainty that the Taurus plays in a higher league regardless of its sound signature. Also, while I no longer have a Phonitor on hand either, I can assure you that the Taurus would last more than two months in this fickle reviewer’s home. The Taurus is, in all honesty, not the most musical amplifier I’ve ever heard, and one that I found just a tad uninvolving at times, but I would never describe its sound as cold or surgical.
If the Taurus is on your short list of amplifiers to audition, please don’t let me scare you off the product. After all, I think I have made it pretty clear that my quibbles with the amplifier are patently my own. Maybe I like my porridge served up a bit warmer than you. So, if you have an opportunity to audition the Taurus Mk.II, go for it.
Brent is a lifelong music lover and collector, and a two-channel stereo guy who fell in love with headphones sometime around 2009. Brent resides in Birmingham, Alabama, with his lovely wife and embarrassingly large collection of headphones and electronics. His contributions at Head-fi.org can be found under the user name "TheWuss".