Friday, June 24, 2016

Meze 99 Classics

I want to thank the MezeTeam over at Head Fi for allowing me the chance to review the 99 Classics as part of their Tour. 

You can purchase the 99 Classics in three colors right from their web site


The team over at Meze was kind enough to launch a Tour for the 99 Classics back in December, even better they will be awarding a pair of the 99 Classics to one of the participants! I always enjoy working with products from a company that's as passionate about their potential customer base as they are about their products!

Box and Packing 

The 99 Classics arrive in an elegant black box. Gold lettering and the faded silhouette of the 99 Classics make for an excellent first impression. I always appreciate minimalist packing, there's something to be said for simplicity. 

The box is held closed by a magnetic flap, with the headphones secured inside of semi hard shell case. The shell it self has a textured black finish and forms itself around the unique shape head band and ear cups. I found the case to be extremely easy to handle and rugged. Again, I'm noticing a bit of a trend here with their design choices. 

Build Quality and Design

The 99 Classics have a great in the hands feel to them, the metal head band is rigid while the suspension strap flexible to it. Overall, it feels solid, the metal headband does flex with a little effort and has just a little tension on it, allowing for an comfortable fit. It was neither loose, nor excessively tight on my head.

The Walnut cups are beautiful, and well complimented by the gold assembly. Personally, I think the gold compliment the walnut better than the silver. I love the shape and stain of the cups too. The overall design is gorgeous to look at.

For a smaller headphone, I found the ePads to be rather spacious.  The material was supple and breathable, it didn't get nearly as warm as I would have expected it to. The addition of a removable cable is much appreciated as well, I had no issues with the 3.5mm jacks nor the termination ports.

Overall, I'm fond of the design! I love the visual style of the headphone in addition to how easy it is to operate, it didn't feel delicate or brittle. Taking it on and off my head was hassle free as was transporting it. While I wouldn't want to walk around with the headphone, it's design makes such portable use a realistic possibility.  It was comfortable to wear and simple. Again, I really appreciate the more minimalist design they've implemented. Even better is that each part can be individually replaced as needed. An with nothing glued down, assembly and disassembly is simple.

While, I do not know the full in's and outs of the warranty being offered by Meze, I can speak for the modding and DIY guys who will appreciate the simplicity of build, as well as the availability of parts. An I my self personally enjoy being able to repair and service my own equipment when possible. However please be aware that any modification of self imposed repairs my void the warranty, so always check with the manufacturer first. 


If you'd like an idea of my preference and what I gauge as neutral check out this article.  

 Overall, I found the 99 classics to be very warm and organic. The sound stage and micro detail were on par with most of the closed back headphones I've heard in this price range. What really stood out to me, was how effortlessly the 99 classics switched from genre to genre.

Starting with the lows, there was ample punch and decay to the bass. They had enough impact for heavier faster genres like Drum n Bass or Dub Step, while also proving to be tame enough to handle acoustic folk and rock.

The mids are sweet, with a little less edge than I like but still enough excitement for me to enjoy both metal and jazz. It paired nicely with both high quality and poorly recorded music, proving to be warm but not mushy.

Up top the 99 classics have enough air to bring out some of the fainter details, without being overly transparent. Making an excellent compliment to both my binaural classical as well some of my poorly ripped 50's pop.

All in all, these are a touch bassy than true neutral, but offer a very inviting and forgiving sound! I loved being able to just enjoy my music without necessarily having to make a lot of EQ adjustments.

Specs & Comparisons 
  • Transducer size: 40mm
  • Frequency response: 15Hz - 25KHz
  • Sensitivity: 103dB at 1KHz, 1mW
  • Impedance: 32Ohm
  • Rated input power: 30mW
  • Maximum input power: 50mW
  • Detachable Kevlar OFC cable
  • Plug: 3.5mm gold plated
  • Weight: 260 gr (9.2 ounces) without cables
  • Ear-cups: maple wood

I sourced them from my LG V10, Audio GD NFB10ES2 and Hifiman HM901/601, an I again found them to be very consistent, offering a similar sound from source to source. While moving up to higher quality sources did yield a more detailed and controlled sound, there were no significant or major losses moving down.

 99 Classics vs Sennheiser HD 25-1 ii

In terms of sound, the two headphones have a very different signature. Overall, I found the 99 Classics to have a more balanced softer sound, again making it easier to move between genres. The HD 25-1 ii was darker overall with a better controlled sub bass, but was a touch grainy up top.

Still in terms of function, the headphones differ in design. You find the HD 25-1 ii popular with a lot of DJs for it's incredible isolation, and aptitude for bass heavy music. Not to mention it's nearly indestructible, how ever it's not really all that attractive and has a NASTY peak at around 8.4khz. So yea, with proper EQ  and a quality source the HD 25-1 ii can exceed the 99 Classics, but at the cost of simplicity and comfort.

That being said, I like using my HD 25-1 ii exclusively when I work out with a Rock Boxed hm601 with also has a rather complicated and very specific eq setting just for the HD 25-1 ii, so outside of the very specific chain that I have for the HD 25-1 ii, I enjoyed the 99 Classics out of all of my each of my sources, without the need for any EQ.

Again I'd like to thank the MezeTeam for offering me the chance to listen to these, and I would honestly recommend them to any one in the market for a closed back headphone within this price range. It's simplicity and versatility make it an excellent choice for both new and experienced listeners. Plus it's gorgeously assembled wood and metal build, will ensure that it's both a pleasure to listen to and look at. Candy for your eyes and ears!

Thursday, January 21, 2016

My Sound Review Process- How I Describe and Evaluate

The Sound Review Process 

I am at heart a lover of music, I started my journey into the Audiophile hobby to bring me closer to the quality of music I've come to enjoy over the years. As an aspiring musician my self, I've always appreciated the story or the message that can be told with music. Though often times the juicy details of that story are lost, either during the mixing and mastering process or during play back. So I began to seek out how I could get the full picture as it were, I began to wonder how I could pull all of the little details out of my music. Allowing me to really listen to the story my favorite musician were telling! 

Thus, when I'm auditioning a headphone I use music and cinema to help me judge the sound characteristic of the headphone it self. 

I have nine songs that I use for comparative reference, with each of them being of a different genre and offering a unique look into what ever I'm hardware I'm listening with. I also enjoy clips from, the original Ghost in the Shell OVA, Pacific Rim, Master and Commander The Far Side of the World along with Mad Max: Fury Road.

As of recently, I've also started to accumulate my self with a new headphone by listening through David Chesky's The Ultimate Demonstration Disc.

Used Terminology Defined

Timbre - unique sound amd texture of individual instruments, what allows us to distinguish two different instruments playing notes of the same frequency. A more in depth definition is hosted here

Clarity (relating to frequency)- a lack of haze or fuzziness relating to frequency domain, a headphone with over emphasized lows/mids/highs that audibly overshadow the rest of the audible frequency lacks clarity

Clarity (relating to time) - the presence of reverb and or excessive ringing, think slow decay/sustain/release, a lack of focus, or a blur. A lack of clarity relating to time will soften and silence transients

Resolve - overall clarity and the presentation of detail
  • Micro Detail- pertains to the instruments themselves including transients
  • Macro Detail - ambient sounds, like foot steps
  • Noise (Pertaining to DAC's an Amps)- perception of a black or silent background, a such as a lack of hiss 

Transients- very short sudden sounds interweaving with the audible attack, decay, sustain,vibrato and release of an instrument, these five elements are interconnected an in more natural music are strongly related to how the instrument is played,
  • Attack - rise from silence to the peak or highest audible point
  • Decay - fall from the peak to either a state of sustain or point of release
  • Sustain - a continuation of audible energy
  • Vibrato - a rapid, slight variation in the pitch, often evident in both the sustain of an instrument and it's release
  • Release - the fall to silence
Dynamics - quick and effortless increases or decreases in volume, some may further specify this down to micro and macro
  • Micro - smaller gradual changes in intensity, either increasing or decreasing 
  • Macro - larger sudden changes in intensity, either increase or decreasing 
When I speak of the Lows/Mids/Highs I'm listening for 
  • Timbre of instruments that are dominate in the specified frequency range 
  • Clarity in the presentation of the specified range
  • Resolve of micro-detail for instruments within the specified range
When I speak of "speed" how fast or slow piece of equipment sounds, I'm referring to the combined presentation of transients and overall clarity. Gear that is too fast, often sound very thin as it may have a quicker than natural decay and present an over emphasized attack. While extremely tactile and exciting it's not "pure" is respect to fidelity, very fast equipment is good for listening to other gear but not so much your music. Equipment that is too slow can be enjoyable but often exaggerate decay and soften attack, slower sounding headphones will be very forgiving of the gear and overall quality of your music but will also be lacking the presentation of some transients. In my opinion balance is ideal, not to fast nor to slow sounding, a balanced presentation results in a very natural sound. 

Music for Headphones

The Zephyrtine - A Ballet Story [ Fundacao Orquestra Estudio, Rui Massena] 
#09 Dance of the Zephyrtines
  • I'm listening for the tonal balance of the mid-range with this track- starting with the timbre of the Brass horns in the introduction as well as the transients of those beautiful horns. 
  • Additionally, there are some very odd little details in this track,  almost like the sound of... a page turning placed through the intro and middle of the track. Hence, when auditioning headphones I'm listening for both the larger obscure macro detail, like page turns and the like, as well as the more innate micro details, or details pertaining to the sound of the instruments them selves, in addition to how the presentation of 
  • Finally, I'm listening for a well layered tonal presentation. This classical piece has many layers to it, from the drums, to the wood winds, the brass horns and every chiming bells! A tonally balanced headphone is able to present this rather busy piece, with real clarity not shifting the focus to one single instrument.  While retaining the snap and solidity of each instrument as they move through their dynamic shifts. 

Kind of Blue (2015 Mobile Sound Fidelity Labs Re-release) [Miles Davis] #01 So What
  •  Staring with the intro, I'm listening to macro details. There is a very faint sound of a gong being struck, it's in the intro as well as a second time during the end of the song. There are other... interesting sounds in this song as well, 
  • I love this track for bass detail, texture and speed as well. The upright double bass provides a great sense of attack with a very unique decay pattern, in addition to note changes as he moves up and down the neck. 
  • I'm also listening to the quality of the drums, the Brass horn and bass lines are very dominating in this track, a the high hats can some what mask the attack of the drums on headphones or systems lacking in tonal clarity. The drummer does an excellent job building energy in the track with a well mannered high hat beat and his drum line, which is played at an irregular tempo. I particularly like the aggressive drum roll that's set about 3/4 way into the song for gauging weight.
  • I feel this is an excellent song for judging the total resolve and speed of a headphone. 

Igor Levit: Bach, Beethoven, Rzewski #01 Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 - Aria with 30 Variations 
  • Again there is a lot of detail in this track as well, the sound of some one shuffling in the back ground throughout the entire track, in addition to the breaths the pianist takes in from time to time
  • In addition, I'm listening to the attack and decay on each of note, as well as the overall body as well as the overall tone of the Piano
  • Finally, I'm listening for midrange purity of a headphone, as the pianist shifts from the upper bass/ lower mids to the central mids I'm listening for a consistent weight and fullness within the sound as well as any ringing.

Collected [Shadow Child] #07 The Verdict (Part 2) (Edit)
  • I usually don't eq... but for this track I make an exception. This one is ALLLL ABOUT THE BASS. So I EQ a -5 shelf starting at 156 hrz, so I can really focus in on the bass. 
  • This tracks features very deeep heavy bass synth, Generally, I just slowly increase the volume an see how well the drivers handle the bass. I can go up to about 90dbs before my ears start to bother me... a lot. I usually don't even make it that high... Non the less, with this track I am 100% listening for distortion, excessive decay and roll off. This track nails in some pretty heavy stuff right around 35ish hrz, in particular the very end of the track has a nice 20hrz thump... like a final breathe from the synth dragon. 
  • The bass track on this is also very textured... Shadow Child has a very nice sub bass wobble he uses a few times in the track. It's a very distinct shift from a low to an even lower hrz synth tone, so I'm also listening for speed and proper texture. Many headphones will... distort with this wobble and either miss it entirely or render it as a single beat... soften it overall. I'm listening for a very sturdy low end, as well as good sense of grip to the bass. 
... And Justice for All - [Metallica] #05 The Shortest Straw

  • I love this track for testing the overall balance of a headphone as well as tactility. The track as a whole is very hard and mixed rather narrowly. 
  • The double bass track on the drums along with the heavy guitars riffs really allow me to gauge the overall transient response. An uneven transient response, will either sound overly aggressive and very metallic or will present this song in a warm soupy mess. Balance keeps the aggressive edge alive alongside the warm creamy sound of the Electric Guitars.
  • Additionally, the narrow mix can be challenging for some warmer headphones to render clearly. For me a clear and accurate render has both the vocals and the guitars within the same plane of distance with neither one out shadowing the other, additionally the high hats sit slightly above the guitars and vocals with the bass drum at the rear. This mix also has the bass guitar buried very deeply, so for me I'm also listening for that bass line. A lack of clarity will mask over this already subdued bass line. 
Migration - [Dai Quing Tana & Haya Band] #04 Gayatri 
  • Sadly, I've never understood a word of what she is saying, that said I love this track for vocals! The lack of... linguistic understanding here really helps me focus in on the timbre of her vocals for each headphone. Her voice in particular is unique, she has a lot of low mid body in addition to a slight upper mid/ low treble peaks in her voice. Right around 4 and 7k hrz Hence, I love to really listen to her voice, I'm listening in particular for the low from the body tactility in her voice as well as the touch of airiness from her throat and lips.
  • I'm also listening for a clean low to mid shift, her voice has a nice peak around 260hrz with an acoustic guitar playing behind her in the same range, but dipping a little lower with a melodic riff starting with a low note around 120. As the song progresses, the addition of a drum adds to this very rich low mid and bass section.  For me, a well tuned headphone will render both the body of the lower bass notes on the guitar and drums in addition to the lower mids in both her voice and the guitar without smearing or overpowering the other elements. 
  • As for the highs, I'm listening for the touch of sparkle in the high hats in addition to the crisp sounds of the guitar strings as they are strummed. As well as the texture of the bow as it's drawn across the viola in the latter half of the song. So all of these little details in the upper mids and treble allow me to gauge the top end extension, speed and clarity.  

Hotel California - [Eagles] #06 Hell Freezes Over 
  • Starting with mid range timbre and purity, I'm listening for both the sound of the strings as well as the unique transients of each instrument. A slight echo, the overlay of harmonics in both the strummed guitar and arpeggios.  
  • A big bass drum permeates the intro, the tone shifts a little each time it's hit. A touch of vibrato is present in the release following each hit, I'm listening for not only the heavy weight of this massive drum but also the vibrato and unique sound of each strike. 
  • Finally the track as a whole is very dynamic and very well imaged. I'm listening for where and how the audience is staged, how large is the image presented? The instruments are panned out in front of me, when I close my eye's can I envision my self there in the crowd, if so where am I. Where are the musicians, where is the man shouting, how far away is the woman whistling, can I feel the applause of the crowd at the end. Headphones are only a pale imitation of what speakers can do, but even so how close to can I get. 

Jazz In the New Harmonic - [David Chesky] #08 Transcendental Tripping 
  • Sound stage, this track is by far wonderful for it's very 3D sound stage. It was recorded binauraly and thus has a fantastically realistic sound stage presentation! Hence, the 3D nature of this recording is excellent for testing how well a headphone can reproduce what the binaural head heard! 
  • I also like this track for testing dynamics, as there are a few subtle dynamic shifts as the track progresses that are sometimes missed on slower headphones. 
  • This track also features a very breathy brass performance, as such I'm listening for those extra breaths the saxophonist and trumpet player take during the track. 

Beginning of The New Legend - [Ark Storm] #06 Evolution 
  • Well... it's a bass solo so this track is dedicated to bass and low mids as well as tactility! This track is one of my favorites for how incredibly tactile it is! Any excessive decay what so ever, removes... the sheer sense of speed that Isuma demonstrates with both his fretting and fingering. Their bassist Isuma Takita does a fantastic job in this track, his fretting is very quick and solid. For me this tracks demonstrates how well controlled the bass is, as there are many over lapping bass notes and a lot of texture as he's playing. 
  • There are also many extra details layered within as well, the sound of the strings hitting the fret board, the squeal as he moves up and down the neck. For my the plethora of details in this track are outstanding to listen to, with a headphone transparent enough to render them. 
  • In addition, the shift from the lowest notes around 45-50 hrz to some of the higher ones around 450hrz, give me a clear picture of well well the headphone transitions from bass to mids.

I enjoy these songs out of a few different sources, I use my NFB10ES2 Kernel Streaming out of FooBar2000 in addition to listening with my Hifiman HM601 and HM 901 Line Out into my Headmp PicoPower. While my Audio GD NFB10ES 2  and HM 901 to PicoPower chain are incredibly transparent, my HM 601 is a very warm source and amp, and most entry level Digital Audio Players and cellular playback devices tend to also be very warm as well. So listening with my HM 601 as my only source and amp, gives me a chance to see how headphones will work for users who source and amp with Cellular devices, or entry level digital audio players exclusively.

I use my Hifiman HE 4 as a absolute reference for open backs, it's sourced and amped from FooBar 2000 running Kernel Streaming into my Audio GD NFB10ES2 balanced Solid State Dac/Amp exclusively. I always use a balanced cable with my HE 4 as well. I also have a 40 band Frequency display I monitor, in addition to a L/R DB meter, wave form and spectograph, that I monitor when I'm listening. It gives me objective data to compare to my subjective impressions.

For closed backs I'm happy to announce that I've gotten a ZMF Eikon in Cherry as my Closed Back reference, I run it out of my Audio GD NFB10ES2 Line out into my Project Ember II with a Sylvania 6SN7W Chrome Dome Short Bottle, for me the ZMF has beauty and detail in the mids from my Hybrid Tube and it's wood housing, in addition to amazing clarity in the bass and resolve in the top end. It's a more detailed and balanced closed back, capturing the best both of my older Mid Range closed backs. 

Here's a picture of my Music Player along with some of the objective readings it has on display. 

To my ears, the HE 4 offers a completely transparent look into music. It has incredibly low distortion and decay with the sound, and the presentation is extremely tactile, it really gives me the feeling of being there with the music! Thus, when I'm listening to a new headphone I will compare the changes to the sound in that headphone to my reference. 

When comparing the HE 4 to other headphones, I always Volume Match each with a SPL Meter and a 1000 hrz Test tone, my Audio GD NFB10ES2 has a push button volume display, so each of the steps are literally numbered. Allowing me to dial the volume very specifically and meticulously. 

Cinematic Viewing

For testing 3D placement and imaging within a soundscape I enjoy viewing clips from the original Ghost in the Shell OVA. In both fast paced action and slower dialogue scenes, the Ghost in the Shell OVA does an excellent job of presenting sound in correspondence with the visual location of characters, from the sounds of an approaching helicopter from behind a shot, to a characters voice trailing off as they exit a scene. 

I love Pacific Rim, the opening scene starts with a raspy male monologue and transitions into a thunderous monster roar, as it plays out the sound of gunfire, and explosions is soon met with an upbeat battle anthem. Being a mecha monster movie, each movement is accompanied by the deep rumble of their weight, with a clear distinction of what is mechanical, electrical and organic. The scene continues, with the pounding sounds of the ocean and the deep throaty cries of the monster. Overall, that opening scene gives me an excellent look into full spectrum response, transients and overall clarity. 

Cannon fire, the thunderous roar of gunpowder driving iron balls through the air, A deep creaking as the waves gently toss and turn the crew, men scurrying across the bow accompanied by foot steps, each a different weight, a different pace. Master and Commander builds suspense right from the start, with a dynamic detailed soundscape, amidst a fog covered battle, This movie unlike the others, presents an incredibly dynamic listening experience. From the quiet lull of foot steps, distant voices, to the  sudden screams of battle, Master and Commander grants me the opportunity to test the speed of a headphone as it shifts from quite to loud almost abruptly, in addition to it's ability to layer micro-details amidst a strong bass presentation. 

The ending scene of Mad Max Fury Road, offers a wide range of vocal performances, cast amidst the screams of hot engines and gun fire. A plethora of mirco-detail accompanies a well defined sound stage, as the camera pans across different angles. From Nux spitting fuel into the engine and the sounds of his guzzolene can gently placed on the hood of the War Rig. All accompanied by a tense orchestral background piece. My final cinematic clip tests the full experience, 3D sound stage, full spectrum response, the speed of transients and the overall ability to layer mirco details, amidst all the action. 

For Amps/Dacs/Daps

 My review process is similar for amplifiers, digital audio converters and digital audio players. I make use of both my HE 4 and my Modded W1000X. My HE 4 is a very hard to drive headphone, more so than a 600 ohm dynamic thus I use it to give me a real world gauge of power on hand. Often times an amp will drive it "loud enough" but not well enough, or not with a quality that is enjoyable to listen to. 
Like wise my W1000X , though unlike the HE 4 it is very picky and prone to pulling out any noise or distortion. I find it to be very transparent, but it's also easily influenced by it's source and amplification. In contrast to the HE 4, it responds badly to high power but low quality amps, the two together allow me to test the flexibility of an amp, in both high and low power demands. As well as the overall tonal balance of an amplifier.

For gauging Sound Stage, Dynamics, Imaging I use

David Cheskys Ultimate Headphone Demonstration Disc 
  • I primarily use the test tracks for sound stage, such as # 16 Four Surround Sound Voices, #20 Drum and Bell Walk Around the Mic and #24/26/28 for gauging sound stage 
  •  #53 & #55 for speficially testing bass roll off, the tones from 25-20 are pretty freaking cool! The feel like a dragon breathing on your neck! Though these do require some careful usage, as it is unnatural and strenuous on a driver to play these low bass tones continuously. I'm listening for any oddities or distortion.  [Ofc the HE 4 handles everything from 300-20 perfectly with it's very linear response in that range] 

I also enjoy using Igor Levit: Bach, Beethoven, Rzewski #01 Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 - Aria with 30 Variations  for mid range purity tone, timbre and mirco detail. There are also some very fine comb details present in this track.

Kind of Blue (2015 Mobile Sound Fidelity Labs Re-release) [Miles Davis] #01 So What
  •  Staring with the intro, I'm listening to micro details. There is a very faint sound of a gong being struck, it's in the intro as well as a second time during the end of the song. There are other... interesting sounds in this song as well, 
  • I love this track for bass detail, texture and speed as well. The upright double bass provides a great sense of attack with a very unique decay pattern, in addition to note changes as he moves up and down the neck. 
  • I'm also listening to the quality of the drums, the Brass horn and bass lines are very dominating in this track, a the high hats can some what mask the attack of the drums on headphones or systems lacking in tonal clarity. The drummer does an excellent job building energy in the track with a well mannered high hat beat and his drum line, which is played at and irregular tempo. I particularly like the aggressive drum roll that's set about 3/4 way into the song for gauging weight.
  • I feel this is an excellent song for judging the overall layering ability and tactility of a headphone. The track is extremely well recorded, and very tactile. There is an amazing story being told within this song, an each of the little mirco details adds to that. From the extra weight of a drum note, to the quicker strides of the bassist, to masterful brass horns. 
I love this track so much, I use it some what exclusively with dac/amps/daps. As I know it very well, almost second by second. Additionally I ensure volume matching when comparing devices.
The Chesky Test Tracks are also excellent for judging very specific sound characteristics, though in my opinion, any Amplifer, DAC or DAP should be sonically transparent,  the biggest improvement you'll get as you upgrade is in Sound Stage, Dynamics, Imaging and Mirco Detail.

Those 4 elements are masterfully present naturally in Miles Davis's Kind of Blue, and presented some what more focused within David Chesky's Demonstration Disc, hence the two albums give me a clear look into what changes are introduced by the different pieces of equipment.

Non the less, this hobby is one of my favorites! Stemming from my long love affair with music! Both as a listener and musician my self.  Please feel free to ask my any questions! An be on the look out for updates to this method, I'm always improving it and I'm hoping to have some measuring equipment soon, to be able to provide my own Objective data!

Friday, January 15, 2016

Schiit Vali 2 The Budget Buster Reinvented

Schiit Vali 2 $169 

I'd like to start by thanking Jason of Schiit Audio, and his team for allowing me the chance to get to demo the Vali 2. As a fan of the original Vali, I was really excited to get to hear this the Schiit Vali 2! The budget buster hybrid tube, reintroduced and reinvented! 


Pros: POWER, Function, Value, Size, Tubey Goodness!  

Cons : Noisy, inanimate , Poor Stock Tube

The BOX [5/5]

I've ALWAYS been a huge fan of how Schiit Ships their products! They have this very cool and original... contraption that holds everything together, safely and securely. While the box your amp comes in is not... the most important feature. I think it speaks volumes of the company's guiding philosophy! 

Build [3.7/5]

Solid metal chassis, hand built here in the USA. The physical design is gorgeous; the Schiit Vali 2 is even better looking than its predecessor.  It still has a touch of noise, particularly when I plug my headphones into it. Given that my HE 4 is balanced, I just keep my SE to 4pin XLR adapter plugged into the Schiit Vali 2’s 6.5mm port and rid myself of that… ping! However the volume knob is a smidge crooked too, all in all the product is solid with a touch of personality!

Hybrid Tube Amp
Stock Tube is NOS 6BZ7
Frequency Response 20- 20, -0.2db,5-150kHz -3db
Maximum Power 32 Ohms: 1000 mW RMS per Channel
Maximum Power 50 Ohms: 650 mW RMS per Channel
Maximum Power 600 Ohms: 140mW RMS per Channel
THD <.03%  
SNR >99db
OutPut Impedance 1.2 / 5,8
Gain ~ 14db or 2db  (depending on the tube an gain switch setting)
Power Consumption  9W
Size 5L x 3.5W x 2.75H

Utility [Inputs, Outputs, Features ect…] (5/5)

AUTO BAIS, yeap any time you roll a tube into the Vali 2, the bias adjusts itself! This feature alone is a wonderful for any one new to tube rolling, and with the Vali 2 you get a LOT of power on tap as well. Which allows my HE 4 to really shine, it also has a low gain switch allowing me to use my dynamics with it as well. Schiit was also generous enough to bring RCA outputs, which I enjoyed very much with my little JBL speakers. All in all the Schiit Vali 2 is a very easy product to own and operate.

Price to Performance : [4/5]
$169 Assembled

The Vali 2 comes in two options, purchased and assembled at $169 an un-purchased at $0.00 for your convince. Seriously though, it has enough power to drive my orthos, dynamic headphones and a small set of speakers. With its auto bias and acceptance of a handful of 6v tube variants, the Vali 2 makes tube rolling, quick, painless and fun!

However, I found the stock tube to be a little lack luster, when compared to my $15 6N23P. Tubes are like people, some you love, some you hate and some… you have no idea how you feel about. Though, again for my tastes I found the Reflector 6N23P to be a clear step up!

         FooBar 2000k KS: Audio GD NFB10ES2 Line out Schiit Vali 2 to Hifiman HE 4

Sound Signature- Very warm, great bloom in the mids with a very smooth musical sound, has a touch of present an audible noise that varies with source and tube choice.

It’s sound signature can change drastically, depending on the tube you’re using. With a Reflektor 6N23P, the Vali 2 gained a heavier sound overall with better layering and a touch less noise, when compared to the stock tube.

For listening, I love Miles Davis – Kind of Blue. I prefer the Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab SACD Release myself, the track has some noise to it, and I found the stock tube only added to that.

Swapping into the 6N23P, gave me a slightly black background and a better sense of weight to the sound as a whole. The Double Bass had a cleaner more prominent attack, as did the horns. The high hats retain a really nice crispness to them, along with a good leading edge to the brass horns. Details are better as well, during the latter half of the second horn solo, there’s a beautiful echo! Swapping from the 6N23P back to the stock tube, I lose that little touch of detail.  
Closing Thoughts

I highly recommend the Schiit Vali 2 to any one new to Hybrid Tube Amps for their high impedance dynamics or Ortho Dynamic headphones, while the entry price is low; this is an amp that will greatly appreciate a tube upgrade! So plan to get your feet wet into the world of TUBES and start rolling!

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Garage 1217 Project Starlight

I'd like to start by thanking Jeremy Helms of Garage 1217 for extending this demo unit to me! He was kind enough to even include a few extra tubes for me to roll.

Pros: BLACK background, versatility, build quality, Exceptional Sound Quality

Cons : Headroom, can be finicky

Build [5/5]

Sporting a solid Aluminum base and top with and open chassis, the Starlight has nothing to hide. It features solid metal screws up top to hold the upper plate to the lower one. The volume pot is sensitive and offers a smooth action when changing the volume, in addition to the solid 6.5mm headphone out.  I don’t experience any noise when changing the volume or removing my headphones from the amp. All in all, despite the open chassis, the Starlight is extremely well built, meticulously assembled and rugged.

Hybrid Tube Amp
OpAmp Output Auad LM4562
Stock Tube is 12UA7 JJ ECC 82
Frequency Response 15- 80, -0.5db, 4-230kHz -3db
Maximum Power 64Ohms: 625 mW RMS per Channel
Maximum Power 600 Ohms: 75mW RMS per Channel
THD <.015% [Depending on Tube, in most cases better]  
SNR >93db
OutPut Resistance is Adjustable [2.5, 34, 72ohm]
Gain ~ 20db (depending on the tube)
Power Consumption 7.2W Peak
Size 5.75L x 5W x 2.75H

Utility [Inputs, Outputs, Features ect…] (4.8/5)

The Starlight has a limitless amount of customization, accepting both 12v and 6v tubes. You can also roll different Opamps into the amp. It also offers 3 different output resistance settings.

The wide range of both tube and opamp combinations give the user an almost limitless variety of sounds. For the purposes of this review I’ll be sticking with the stock tube. My only issue with the amp however, is the lack out RCA outputs.

Now, while Garage 1217 flagship Ember II has Auto Bias, the starlight… does not. With that regard, it can be a little finicky when it comes to adjusting the bias, anytime your swap a tube you’ll need to adjust it. Additionally you may want to just check it every few days as well. For me part of the fun is tinkering around with my Jewelers screw drivers, though for others… they may just find it tedious. 

Price to Performance : [4/5]
[$189-$229 Assembled ] [$159-199 DIY]

          The price is dependent on your choice of base plates; I have the Aluminum plates on my build.  For those of you, able to assemble the DIY kit, the price is even lower! With an almost limitless amount of customization, the Starlight is well worth the price! The only downside to the Starlight though, is it’s inability to drive higher impedance headphones or older less, efficient Orthos.  Meaning, it’s going to perform its best within the 16-300 impedance range of dynamic headphones.

Now, if you’re looking to power a high impedance headphone or a low efficiency ortho, the Project Ember II would be the way to go! 

          FooBar 2000k KS: Audio GD NFB10ES2 Line out Project Starlight
I used the stock tube for this review.

Sound [5/5]
          Sound Signature- The Starlight has a very clean sound, with a very black background an excellent left/right/center channel separation. I found it very enjoyable for gaming, movies and music listening. For me it brought a touch of tube warmth, without a huge loss of sound stage or 3D layering.

Though that sound signature can change drastically, depending on the opamps and tube you’re using.

For example, I swapped in a 6H6N Tube, no idea what brand it is? Or was? Or anything, it was included in my demo set! Either way it sounds REALLY great, it… was very intimate… a little boxy but overall added a very heavy weight to the sound as a whole, without giving me to much decay or a softer upper mid range! Very enjoyable! It offered a nice change in how the amp sounded and gave me an idea of how much the tube in this amp, can change the sound!

Swapping back to the stock JJ ECC 82… I found I gained my sound stage depth back, at the expense of some intimacy and weight.

Closing Thoughts
I highly recommend the Garage 1217 Starlight to anyone looking for an amp to complement any low impedance dynamic headphones; my LA D5k, Senn Grado and Allesandro MS1i are very enjoyable out of the Starlight! It offers an exceptional level of personalization alongside a well balanced and lively presentation.

As a matter of fact, I prefer almost all of my older Jazz recordings with the Starlight as opposed to the NFB10ES2s balanced out! So much so that I'll probably wind up purchasing a Starlight for myself!