Around 2009, the rumbling and chatter at Headfi.org was getting louder… It was beginning to roar. There was mention of a DIY designer who had an amp that would not only change headphone listening but also create an entirely new standard for headphone amplifiers. People were talking about how he was making a difference in the community with his DIY designs. The person they were talking about was Alex Cavalli.
Back then, with the encouragement and support of the headphone community, Cavalli decided to go “commercial” and manufacture some of the designs that had been rattling around in his mind for the last ten years. Alex knew he could build a terrific sounding product. Yet the biggest challenge was to find the right suppliers to make the product to his specifications and quality. This process took eighteen months time to get the supply chain where it was up to Cavalli’s high standards. The searching for and using various different suppliers was painstaking. Finally, Cavalli was able to locate the suppliers who were capable of producing the quality he was demanding of his products. If it was to have the Cavalli name it would have to be the best it could be.
If you have been reading reviews by our team members at Headphone.Guru and more at other sites, the consensus has been that Cavalli products are designed and built to extremely high standards. Cavalli Audio’s goal has been to offer reference grade products that are transparent and without coloration. Alex’s goals are to design components that just get out of the way. His objective has always been is to produce products that have intelligent circuit topology and offer listeners an unbelievable listening experience.
Alex started designing and building amplifiers at the age of ten, stopped for a few decades, and returned in the mid to late 90’s . The Liquid Gold is a result of years of research and development. The goals behind the Gold were to produce an amplifier that would power any current headphone in existence and also be able to adapt to any future headphones that may come down the pike. The vision started in 2010 when Audeze designed its first LCD2 and Cavalli moved forward with the Liquid Fire- a hybrid design that was powerful and could easily drive any of the popular planers that were becoming rampant in the personal audio community.
The Liquid Gold is manufactured in Austin, Texas and uses all high quality parts that offer superb performance and reliability. The construction of the Liquid Gold is a labor of love. Cavalli products are offered direct through the website located here. Cavalli amplifiers are not inexpensive and never offered in large quantity. Outsourcing the labor or parts to foreign countries would reduce the cost of the amplifier but Alex also feels that anything built with the Cavalli name has to be exceptional; which is why he demands the most from his vendors and from himself.
Load impedances vary with headphones. They could be as low as 25ohm and also go as high as 600 Ohms. The product would have to be able to adjust to the different loads and also be able to get the most of what each headphone was capable of producing. Many designers have not been able to make an amplifier that was capable to handle all the different load schemes.
High Impedances headphones such as the Sennheiser HD800 and Beyerdynamic T1 with loads of 300 Ohm and 600Ohm respectively, create another set of issues that can be challenging on amplifiers. The Gold to drive both high and low impedance headphones and do it musically and efficiently. As if that was not enough to scare some designers, it was being designed as a true differential balanced amplifier. Many headphones – including the new flagship K812 designed by AKG – are single ended and cannot be changed to a balanced configuration without modification.
The Liquid Gold is a true differential solid-state design. Each channel has its own independent rail regulators. The chassis is in a single package (housing the power supply) in stealth black. The Gold has 9W of power going into a 50-Ohm load. The unique features of the RCA single ended input is that converts to balanced. There is a gain switch on the front of the amplifier for adjusting the gain to accommodate both high and low impedance and various load of different headphones. The gain on low is 4X(12db) and 8x(18DB) making it adaptable for any current headphone designed,except for extremely sensitive IEMs and similar sesitivity headphones
The Gold operates in Class A for the first 2.25W of output power. The power supply is no afterthought. The 35.0000 uf in capacitance is enough headroom to bring the finest symphony orchestra to full crescendos with unlimited headroom. Designed into the Liquid Gold is an auto fault protection circuit. When you power up the Liquid Gold there are two protection circuits that are illuminated with LEDs. The design will show a white light on start up with two red lights and once the amplifiers goes through the warm up the red-light disappear one at a time and change to white. The whole process takes about two minutes to complete. The purpose is to protect the headphones and amplifier. The amplifier weighs in at 12 lbs. and has both a 4pin XLR in the front and two neutrix combo pro jacs. For anyone interested in all of the design principals of the Gold, you can find an excellent white paper if you click other stuff here.
The HD800 is perceived to be one of the most difficult headphones to pair with an amplifier. Curious to see how it would pair with the Liquid Gold, the Sennheiser HD800 an easy first test (the Nordost Heimdall balanced cable was used during the sessions with the HD800).
Hugh Masekela album, Hope, has the classic song, “Stimela”, which is a powerful expression of apartheid in South Africa with lyrics talking about the gold and silver mines in Johannesburg. The lyrics are involving and it was easy to get involved with this recording. Masekela’s flugelhorn was pinpoint focused within the soundstage. The instruments were all defined in their own space and the instrument tonality was accurate. Absent from the presentation was any grunge or glare that is common in many solid-state amps. The amplifier had a sound that was very difficult to describe. The notes of Masekela playing the flugelhorn were noticeable and other musicians playing were spread out in a layered soundstage with space and distance within the stage with air around the performers. The drums had excellent definition with good impact. The high-end cymbals and other percussion were all shimmering and sounding what you would hear in a live performance. There was nothing in the way of the music while using the Liquid Gold. The dynamics were explosive. The amplifier easily had speed and finesse to recreate all the dynamics this album provides.
The song, “Birds of St. Marks”, from Jackson Browne’s new album, Standing in the Breach, induced a similar experience. The Liquid Gold once again disappeared and all I was left with was the music and Jackson’s strong vocal performance in the opening track of this great cut. I could feel the performance as if I was there in person. The music was all well defined. The HD800 sounded as good as I have heard it using any amplifier, at any price.
Joshua Redman’s album, Live at the Village Gate, has some of the best live sax I have ever heard on record. Recorded in 1995 at the historic Village Gate nightclub in Greenwich Village, the recording (when played on the right equipment) exudes the excitement of being at the live venue. Closing my eyes on “Jig’ a Jug”, I could visualize the club (as I’ve actually been there numerous times). The venue is a small jazz club and the Gold made the venue come to life. You know something is special when you are completely involved in the performance, with eyes shut and toes tapping and your body moves up and down and totally consumed with the music.
The AKG K812 single ended headphone proved to be an exceptional match with the Liquid Gold. The new reference headphone from AKG (full review coming) has exceptional detail. The bass was a deeper on the same “Jig Jug” track and with excellent definition and focus. I could hear all the acoustic bass notes and the treble was very extended. I never lost the “toe tapping” while listening to the K812. The dynamics and musicality was exceptional. I could hear people moving glasses at the tables and the drum sticks hitting the skins. I could feel the impact of the bass drum and once again, I had that quintessential “I am there” feeling.
Joe Beck’s new album, Get Me, has some incredible jazz guitar tracks. “Manha de Carnival” is well recorded and the K812 allowed me to distinguish all of Beck’s finger work with his guitar. Beck opens with soft delicate guitar work and when the band joins in the bass guitar was grumbling and had deep extension. There was nothing missing in the track. The K812 is a detail monster and the liquid Gold brought out the best of what the K812 had to offer.
The Beyerdynamic T1 is another single ended headphone, one that is more difficult to drive than the K812 due to the 600-OHM load. The T1 has a reputation of sounding excellent with tube amplifiers. The Beyer T1 has been a love/hate relationship with me for over five years. The T1 can sound stellar with the right amplifier or can be bright and shrill on others. The performance with the Liquid Gold was exceptionally transparent here. Missing was any bright or shrill sound on recordings. “Peel Me a Grape”, from Diana Krall’s album, Love Scenes, sounded exceptional. The acoustic bass on this track is excellent and the notes were deep and Krall’s voice was seductive and involving. The T1 and Gold worked well single ended and once again I was treated to an amazing vocal performance.
The Oppo PM-1 is another planar design that many people feel is restricted in soundstage. Switching to the album, Classics, from the band, She and Him, the soundstage felt more expanded with the Moon Silver Dragon balanced cable and the Liquid Gold and I felt as if a veil was removed with the PM-1. I immediately noticed the increase sound stage extension with more transparency. The music was crystal clear and there was no evidence of any electronic noise in the system. The Silver Dragon with the Liquid Gold made the PM-1 come to life. The music was so involving and Zoey Deschanel’s sexy vocal lured me into the performance. The song “She” opens with an acoustic guitar and M. Ward supplying the vocal, the sound was clean and realistic. I could hear the acoustic guitar in its own space and M. Ward’s excellent vocal as if he was singing this song to Zoey directly. The Liquid Gold was able to just let all of the music come through in a romantic and realistic performance. The music just flowed and had me totally involved in the performance.
The Alpha Prime balanced can be a difficult headphone to drive. Getting the most out of the Prime requires good amplifier matching and power. Amplifiers that are restricted in dynamics and power will not deliver everything the Prime is capable of delivering. The Liquid Gold was able to drive the Prime effortlessly. Kiasmos’ new self-titled album is outstanding electronic music. The track “Looped” showcased the Alpha Prime. There was no shortage of power or any sense that dynamics were lacking in the performance. The performance was outstanding on this track. The melodies sweeping around the bass was exciting and involving. I could feel the impact and delicacy of the song at the same time. The more time listening the more involved I became with the music.
Justin Townes Earle’s new album, Single Mothers and Absent Fathers, is another album that is extremely personal. Justin’s father Steve Earle left his mom at a very young age. This album is redemption for Justin. The opening track “Worried Bout the Weather” is a great opening track and the album is filled with terrific and gifted songwriting. The album is very personal. “Single Mothers” talks about his Dad being absent and you can feel his attachment to his mom and you can feel some of his pain he feels in his expression and lyrics. The songwriting is exceptional and Earle really put his heart and soul into this recording. The Prime and Gold let me become a part of his personal world. Both the headphone and amplifier disappeared. The pairing was exceptionally synergistic together.
Using the Hifiman HE560 (single ended) was similar to the other headphones. The Liquid Gold had no problem again driving the HE560. Listening to the “Suite from Candide” from the Reference Recordings, Bernstein with Eiji Oue conducting the Minnesota Orchestra, is exceptional. The violin sections in the recording are stellar and the HE560 reproduces a violin as good as I have heard on any headphone. The Liquid Gold did not disappoint here. The soundstage was layered and the performers were on the stage in their own space with excellent air and depth. The sections of the orchestra were easily identifiable and never did I feel the Gold was underperforming or leaving anything out of the performance. The HE560 is great on classical music and the soundstage sounded as good as I have heard when using the Liquid Gold. I was able to identify the individual sections of the orchestra. The amp never ran out of steam, as it was able to easily handle the big dynamic swings of the recording and sailed through the music without any distractions.
The Audeze LCD X and LCD XC were easy to enjoy with the Gold. The power requirements were less demanding than the Alpha Prime and overall easier to drive. The 9W Liquid Gold drove both of them effortlessly. Melody Gardot’s “Worrisome Heart” is a stellar recording and showcases this amazing Canadian talent. Her vocal was crystal clear and reproduced with detail and sibilance free with the XC. The soundstage was focused with Melody in the front of the band. There was good space and air between her and the band. The sound was involving and easy to pick out where each member of the band was in the stage.
Caribou’s album, Our Love, came to life using the LCD X. The soundstage exploded with the electronic rhythm and vocals. The track, “Cant Do It Without You”, has excellent and grunting bass. The Gold was able to rattle my head with deep extension and I could feel the intensity of the music. The LCD X was really performing well with the Gold. The LCD X and this amp were really playing nice with each other. “The Sorcer’s Apprentice”, from the Mephisto& Co. album, from Reference Recordings, is a favorite of mine to use because it has excellent soundstage layering and explosive dynamics. The LCD X was up to the task and the Gold had enough speed to get the most out of this dynamic recording.
Valentino Dances, another superb recording from the Reference Recording label, is a great test piece for equipment evaluation or for exceptional musical bliss. When properly reproduced this magnificent Keith Johnson recording takes the listener to the venue with the magnificent Minnesota Orchestra. The “Ring of Time” is excellent for listening to treble extension. The chimes in the recording are complex and well recorded. The Liquid Gold was able to deliver a stellar performance with this engaging and beautiful piece of music. I could hear the shimmer of the chimes with extension and the speed of the orchestras this vastly dynamic recording came to life. The Liquid Gold and LCD X were in unison. The music kept flowing and the start and stop of the orchestra was special. I could hear deep into the layered soundstage and the hall acoustics were easily heard. The LCD X delivered all of the dynamics and more so kept me totally involved with the music. The piece is broken into four sections and the chimes are dominant throughout the twenty-eight minute track and the music is very beautifully composed. The Minnesota Orchestra, under Eiji Oue’s direction, nailed the performance. The combination of the LCD X and Liquid Gold left nothing out of this wonderful recording.
Using eight different flagship headphones of various impedance and loading was a tremendous challenge for any amplifier to pass. The amplifier would have to adjust to both using balanced headphones and single ended headphones with ease. The load variances were different with each headphone and some were extremely difficult to drive while others were not. The second part of equation was that the amplifier would have to do all of this and be able to handle the various recordings and different variances. Yet the Liquid Gold never subtracted or added any coloration to the performance. The Gold had no specific sound signature: It was neither warm or cold nor analytical. The transparency was on an entirely other level than what I been accustomed too as it had all the necessary speed to handle the wide loads of different headphones and recordings.
The words, genius and masterpiece, are used frequently in the high-end audio circles. Yet I must admit that the Cavalli rumblings that I had heard in various forums for the past seven years were accurate. Alex Cavalli is a rare talent. He created an amplifier that will work with any high-end headphone available and allows the listener and music to come together in unison.
The amplifier had no identifiable faults, although some may not like a simple chassis designed without all the added bells and whistles. However, if sound is your main objective (as it is for me), the Gold delivered well beyond what I ever thought was possible with a solid-state device. For this level of performance, the $3950 price is a bargain. There are amplifiers in the same price range (with the fancy meters and chassis) that don’t come close to this level of performance and can struggle with different headphones. The Liquid Gold delivered a big performance every time used, no matter what recording or headphone I threw at it.
The tube designs, including my reference Viva Egoista, have character and an identifiable sound. What makes the Liquid Gold so special is the transparency. The amplifier completely disappeared. In all my years of reviewing I have never heard a solid-state amplifier that can do everything the Liquid Gold does with transparency and musicality. If you’re looking for you next fix or if you’re a high end junkie like me, the Cavalli Audio Liquid Gold will give you the highest of highs. The Liquid Gold never fails to perform and has kept me up on many sleepless nights. It is a rare masterpiece worthy of reference status.
Frank started his journey in high-end audio in 1978 and was quickly hooked. Frank’s passion for music and great sound reproduction is stronger than ever. His main focus is with high-end headphones and portable related gear. He is a regular Head-Fi.org contributor and is a co-founder of Headphone.Guru.