At this time, I’d like to take the opportunity to thank Dr. Alex Cavalli for the loan of several headphones, with which to provide a broader spectrum of comparisons. These include Audeze’s LCD-3 Fazor, Audeze’s LCD-X, and MrSpeakers’s ETHER. In his words:
“if you’re going to do a review I’d like you to be as thorough as possible and use as many well-known headphones as possible. If there’s a bad pairing with my amp please report it as such. I want the community to be absolutely sure that my amp may work well with what they have on hand. Please hold nothing back be it good or bad.”
Dr. Cavalli, ask and you shall receive.
The following sound impressions were noted using the following headphones and IEMs:
- AKG K712
- HiFiMAN HE-400i
- Enigmatic Audio Paradox
- Audeze LCD-X
- Audeze LCD-3 Fazor
- MrSpeakers ETHER
- Ultimate Ears Reference Monitor (UERM)
Note: all headphones used to gather final impressions were driven using a 4-pin XLR balanced cable and SE cable. Notable exceptions are the AKG K712 and my UERM custom which could only be driven with a SE cable. Another notable exception is the MrSpeakers Ether came only with a balanced cable and as such I could not do a head to head comparison with my other amps.
The following amps were used for comparison:
- Lambert Play-It-By-Ear
- Garage1217 Project Ember (w/clear top RCA)
The principal DAC used was a CLAS-db. Source material used was a mixture of 16 bit/44.1kHz and 24 bit/192kHz either streamed via Tidal or played via my laptop/DAPs. Some of the source material used for evaluation was 24-bit binaural recordings along with albums such as: RAM by Daft Punk, Jazz at the Pawnshop, the Avatar Soundtrack, DJ Kicks by Kruder and Dorfmeister, Fleetwood Mac Greatest Hits, Free by Office Of Strategic Influence, Stoa by Nik Bartsch Ronin, and Up Close by Ottomar Liebert & Luna Negra
The Cavalli Audio house sound has always been about finesse and transparency. The Liquid Carbon very much lives up to the pedigree of its bigger, more expensive siblings. The overall sound of the amp is quite neutral, with just enough warmth to add the right amount of musicality, which aids it from sounding overly boring or clinical.
Although the amp had both single-ended and balanced outputs, I found myself gravitating more towards the balanced output. That’s not to say the single-ended output sounded bad. It sounded quite good in my opinion. But I do think the balanced connection sounded much better. I highly recommend that anyone who purchases this amp further invest in a well manufactured 4-pin XLR balanced cable for their headphone of choice. In my opinion, the extra money invested is well worth it.
Out of all the headphones I sampled, the Audeze line was the most pleasurable of the pack. A while back, I heard and reviewed the Audeze LCD-XC and was quite impressed with it. As such, I’ve been very curious about its open back cousin, the LCD-X. I’m happy to report the LCD-X was quite an enjoyable listen and I now understand why it’s become a fan favorite amongst many of the Head-Fi crowd. The LCD-X has powerful bass that reaches deep and hits hard. That, for me, was the endearing trait of the LCD-X.
With the Play-It-By-Ear, which is the bassiest of three amps being discussed here, I found that the bass of the LCD-X could be a little suspect when the low end was pushed too far by overly-demanding bassy music. Simply put, although the Play-It-By-Ear did an admirable job, most of the time, it could sometimes lack control in the lower frequencies resulting in bass bleed causing the mid frequencies to sometimes sound veiled. Speed was quite good with the Play-It-By-Ear, albeit, not the fastest I’ve heard. Smoothness, the strong suit of this amp, was excellent overall, and the high frequencies were an especially pleasurable experience. Although sound staging was good, I did find the amp’s slightly phat note presentation could sometimes get in the way of instrument separation. Basically, the amp could make some music sound a little jumbled up.
Garage1217 Project Ember
In comparison, the Project Ember with its best sounding tube, the RCA Clear Top, was leaner and more aggressive sounding. Although the bass was better controlled and impact was harder, the highs were sometimes too energetic and metallic, especially with bad recordings and masters. As such, it was touch-and-go for me with the Ember. A little creative tube rolling would fix the highs, but then the bass suffered; mid-range presentation was only decent with Project Ember’s RCA tube. Although I very much like the Project Ember amp I really did not like it driving the Audeze LCD-X. Overall, it was a passable pairing but not great.
Cavalli Liquid Carbon
The Liquid Carbon took the LCD-X, grabbed it by its drivers, and bent it down to its will. The strongest positive attribute for me with this pairing was control, it was superb.
Because of its superior driver control, all frequencies were crystal clear. And although the LCD-X’s bass still held center stage, the mid-range frequencies weren’t far behind. As a matter of fact, I almost gave up on the LCD-X because of its mid-range faults until I heard it with the Liquid Carbon. The best way I can describe it, was that the micro detail came out from behind the haze to finally be heard. Another positive for this pairing were the highs; they were every bit as smooth sounding as the Play-It-By-Ear, and even extended a bit further up. Actually, there was added extension on both ends of the frequency spectrum.
Soundstage-wise, the Carbon with its added extension bested all my other amps. In addition, depth along the Z axis was especially good, making this pairing the best by far for layering of detail. Overall, even though the Play-It-By-Ear was a strong competitor against the Liquid Carbon, with the LCD-X, the Liquid Carbon was able to trump it in mid frequency detail, and control across all frequencies, with better staging to boot.
Audeze LCD-3 Fazor
The LCD-3 is Audeze’s current flagship headphone, and is the most neutral of their entire Audeze lineup. I’m going to say this straight up; I wasn’t a huge fan of the original LCD-3. When I first heard it under meet conditions I thought it was a good headphone, but thought the LCD-2 was a better value for half the money. When I heard that I would be receiving the newest version of the LCD-3 for reviewing purposes, I was apprehensive – the LCD-3 has a very hardcore following and I really didn’t want to get into a debate with someone concerning his beloved headphone. But I’m glad to report that the LCD-3 Fazor is a nice update from the original LCD-3. I can now honestly say the LCD-3 Fazor is worthy of the title of flagship.
The LCD-3 paired nicely with this amp. Although the LCD-3 lives on the warm-neutral side of life, the Play-It-By-Ear added a nice touch of coloration to the headphone without ruining its strengths. Mid-range presentation on this amp was more forward when compared to its LCD-X sibling. And unlike the LCD-X, the LCD-3 was clear and open with excellent detail retrieval. Bass had excellent control, was fast, and slammed with a hint of mid bass bloom that was just shy of losing control. High-frequency presentation was well-controlled as well, and lacked any noticeable treble spikes that can ruin a headphone’s overall presentation. Again, smoothness is the strong suit of this amp and it shows when paired with certain headphones. Sound stage was good, albeit, the LCD-X with its superior Z-axis was neck and neck with the LCD-3 when paired with this amp.
Garage1217 Project Ember
Compared to the Play-It-By-Ear, the Project Ember was the drier and more neutral sounding amp when driving the LCD-3. The strength of this amp with the LCD-3 was the midrange, which was cleaner, leaner and quicker which aided in making the midrange sound more well-defined. Although cleaner, the mid-range presentation could sometimes sound overly compressed, and a bit honky. The Ember did well with instrument separation. Bass was well-controlled and sounded quicker than the Play-It-By-Ear. Missing was the slight mid-bass bloom that the Play-It-By-Ear was able to utilize so well. Although staging was good on the Project Ember amp extension of the X, Y, and Z axis’s left a lot to be desired and I couldn’t help but feel that the LCD-3 was being held back by this amp.
Cavalli Liquid Carbon
As with the LCD-X before it, the Liquid Carbon grabbed the LCD-3, and again bent the headphone down to its will. Control was even better with the LCD-3 then with the LCD-X. Mid-range response was pulled forward right to the front of the stage with oodles of detail for the world to hear. Although not as lean sounding as the Project Ember amp note decay was just as quick if not quicker. The big plus was that the mids were well separated, and avoided any sort of claustrophobic compression. Bass was a nicely linear and slamming bass, on par with the Ember but not as mid bass bloomy as the Play-It-By-Ear. The highs were especially energetic with this amp, more so than with Project Ember, all the while remaining just as smooth as the Play-It-By-Ear. Staging was a runaway hit leaving the Play-It-By-Ear a distant second and the Project Ember an even more distant third. As such, I highly recommend this pairing to anyone with an LCD-3 Fazer edition who’s looking for an affordable amp to drive their headphone. Hands down, an excellent pairing with a wonderful and enjoyable audiophile grade sound.
Enigmatic Audio Paradox
The Paradox is a perennial favorite headphone of mine. The Paradox is Fostex T50rp headphone modded by Luis Flores, a.k.a. LFF. The Paradox is a neutral sounding headphone with multiple positive traits that I love in a headphone. Bass control is impressive on the Paradox. The treble region is smooth, energetic and clean, has air, and avoids any unwanted metallic glare caused by treble spikes. Above all, the strongest suit of the Paradox is its tonality. Out of all the headphones I own, the Paradox is the most tonally correct headphone I possess. As such, I’ve used it many a time as a benchmark for headphone reviews. In my opinion, for the money, it’s a little jewel of a headphone.
I’ve never been a big fan of the Paradox with the Play-It-By-Ear. Don’t get me wrong, the Play-It-By-Ear is not without its strengths. The main problem with this pairing, as far as I’m concerned, has always been note presentation and decay. With this amp the Paradox’s note presentation is overly phat and decay is rather slow for my liking. The bass line is full bodied; a little too full bodied for my liking. What can I say; maybe a bass head who likes a warm and thick sound would love this pairing. For me, it’s not the type of pairing I like.
Garage1217 Project Ember
Project Ember, with RCA tube, brings out some of the best traits of the Paradox. With its rather linear, quick and aggressive nature the Paradox shines quite brightly with it. While other headphones I own can sound slightly suspect in the treble region, the Paradox’s highs seems to love the Ember’s RCA clear top tube and bilk every ounce of audio goodness it can offer. The mids are another high point for me. Although dry, they are not boring, and have just enough coloration to keep things interesting. Microdetail is quite good and sounds wide open. Bass control is excellent with no leeching whatsoever into the lower mids. Although not the most linear bass I’ve heard, the bass line doesn’t fail to impress me. In my opinion, this pairing brings in just enough mid bass to keep the low frequencies sounding fun and full bodied. Overall, the project Ember has been my top pick for driving my Paradox.
Cavalli Liquid Carbon
The Liquid Carbon goes head to head with the Project Ember and dukes it out showing it no mercy. Its greatest strength with the Paradox is its ability to disappear into the audio chain. In short, it’s colorless when driving the Paradox. End result, you hear the Paradox voiced exactly as it was meant to be heard in all its glory. Highs are smoother, and as tonally-correct as the Project Ember, but have more air. Mid-range presentation is as dry and has quicker note decay than Project Ember. Vocals sound more forward and male vocals have a nice beefy heft behind them. Bass is tight and controlled at all times with a very slight mid bass bump to give the low frequencies some nice body. Staging is beyond reproach with this pairing and was the most 3D like experience of the three amps. I’ve always loved Project ember with my Paradox but now I’ve found a new favorite.
The HE-400i is the latest update from HiFiMAN replacing the well-liked HE-400. I originally owned the HE-400 and happily updated to the HE-400i recently. Although not as fun sounding as the original HE-400, the update bought many positives to the original HE-400. Gone is the overly energetic and metallic treble to be replaced by better controlled and more linear highs. The mid-range is no longer laid back, and has been pulled further forward resulting in better microdetail. The bass, although not as hard hitting as its predecessor, is still full-bodied enough and slams hard enough to keep most people happy. As you may have guessed, I very much like the HE-400i.
The Play-It-By-Ear is one of my better amps for driving the HE-400i. The HE-400i when paired with it picks up some nice coloration in the right places without sacrificing too much of its original voicing. First off, as smooth as the HE-400i may already be the Play-It-By-Ear adds some finesse to the mix resulting in very natural sounding treble. Upper mid to lower treble transition is very smooth resulting in almost no sibilance and very little edginess when listening to brass instruments. The mid frequency is good, although I do sometimes find myself wishing that note presentation was a tad leaner, and decayed quicker. The bass line is hard hitting – this setup being one of the harder hitting signal chains with the HE-400i – but can sometimes sound loose due to a lack of control when listening to music with a lot of mid and sub bass.
Garage1217 Project Ember
The Project Ember amp, paired with the HE-400i, results in a presentation that’s more on the linear side. The highs sound slightly less natural with this setup but air and separation is better. The end result is far better extension in the high frequency region with a slow gradual roll off. The mid frequencies are dry and on the lean side. Micro detailing is excellent and at times the HE-400i almost borders on sounding mid centric with this amp. The bass line is almost as linear as the mids. Although linear there is still enough mid bass present to give the bass line enough body and slam to keep me happy. Also, bass extension is quite good with this pairing. Because of good extension on both ends staging with this pairing is quite good resulting in a large soundstage.
Cavalli Liquid Carbon
As linear as the HE-400i may be with Project Ember the Liquid Carbon takes it to a whole new level. Unlike Project Ember the HE-400i sounds far more natural with the Liquid Carbon. The biggest difference of note is the treble. While sounding slightly tonally off with my other amps the HE-400i’s upper frequencies now sound tonally correct; triangles especially. Mid-range response is also on the dry side with this pairing, coupled with a slightly faster note decay than Project Ember. In short, the mid frequencies sounded dead neutral which is how I like my mids to sound on my HE-400i and Paradox headphones. Also worth noting is that mid-range detail retrieval went through the roof with this pairing. To date, I’ve yet to hear the mid frequencies of my HE-400i as detailed as it did with the Liquid Carbon. Low frequencies were also noteworthy in that even though it wasn’t as hard slamming as with the Play-It-By-Ear the bass line was now more detailed, faster, and extended deeper. Sound stage was big, bigger than any of my other amps, and I found myself more easily immersed in my music due to a more involving 3D like audio presentation. The pairing of the Liquid Carbon was a very surprising pairing for me. Put bluntly, if you’re a HE-400i owner you’re missing out if you don’t pair it with a Liquid Carbon amp.