Monoprice/Cavalli Liquid Spark Headphone Amp – Review

Discussion in 'Headphone Amplifiers and Combo (DAC/Amp) Units' started by Hands, Oct 4, 2018.

  1. dBel84

    dBel84 Friend

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    For those who had not seen atomicbob's measurements of the Spark.

    The standard smps does extremely well.

    .. dB
     
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  2. xsuperxapplex

    xsuperxapplex Acquaintance

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    That's awesome, I'm glad to see that the Cavalli x Monoprice collab has started off well. The description of the tonality from the Spark seem to be the classic Cavalli house sound. Super excited for the Liquid Platinum now, especially since the power supply seems to perform very well, something that I worried would suffer from cost cutting. @Hands, have you gotten a chance to compare this to other lower range Cavalli amps like the Liquid Carbon or MCTH?
     
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  3. westermac

    westermac Friend

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    Spent a little time this morning comparing the Liquid Spark to the Magni 3.

    Chain: Gungnir Multibit > LS/Magni 3 > HD600

    Most of what @Hands wrote rings true for me as well, especially regarding treble, soundstage, and dynamics.

    TREBLE - The LS's treble isn't just a bit less pronounced but also a bit smoother, which makes it a tad more forgiving of aggressive recordings. Magni 3's treble has a slight edge to it that can come across more hashy or abrasive. This is pretty nitpicky though.

    MIDS - The LS is also a bit more laid-back in the upper mids. I prefer the LS's presentation with the HD600, but for more mid-recessed headphones I would expect the Magni to be a better match (haven't gotten around to trying with my LCD-2 rev2 yet, will update when I have. I'm pretty positive the Magni will be the better match).

    BASS - This is where my impressions differ from Hands. While I agree that the Magni has better macrodynamics (slam), I found the Magni's bass to be tighter and more controlled. In electronic tracks with especially quick bass hits I found the Magni to leave a better sense space between the notes, almost like a vacuum. The LS on the other hand didn't seem to clear those spaces quite as nimbly with the HD600.

    SOUNDSTAGE - Neither amp does anything magical in this regard (buy a Vali 2 instead if you care about soundstage). The Magni does have a bit flatter, two dimensional "wall of sound" thing going on which I attribute to its more forward midrange. The LS by comparison gives the stage a bit of depth and space beyond the front plane, which also gives the soundstage a less "in your head" feeling. It's still in your head, just a bit further forward in space than the Magni. Like around your eyeballs.

    DYNAMICS - Macro vs micro. The Magni has more weight, punch and slam, making it a more exciting and engaging listen overall. The LS is more polite and reserved, but has a bit of extra refinement that gets lost in the Magni's more heavy-handed presentation.

    TL;DR - The Liquid Spark and Magni 3 are both good, exceptionally well-priced solid state amps. The differences outlined above are minor, and had I not the opportunity to hear them side by side I would be hard pressed to find any useful points of comparison. Get whichever flavor appeals to you more and be happy.

    Side note: The above comparison was done with the Liquid Spark's stock SMPS power supply. I did try a LPS (Acopian A36MT400) and did find it to improve the LS's macrodynamics as well as bass slam and control, bringing it about toe-to-toe with the Magni in these areas. The LS does not respond as dramatically to a LPS as the MCTH however, and given the fact that a LPS will easily cost you more than the LS itself, it's not something I would necessarily recommend.
     
    Last edited: Oct 16, 2018
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  4. Hands

    Hands Overzealous Auto Flusher - Measurbator

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    Regarding bass, listen to "Lose Yourself to Dance," and listen not for how quickly the bass dissipates (a clear win for Magni, no doubt, as it's faster overall), but listen for the pitch differentiation and resolution of the bass as it plays. Try to separate that out from any lingering nature. I'm curious if you hear the same as I did.

    However, this was an area where I started to go crazy. You hear one thing one minute, then something else the next. I ended up landing where I did when I wrote the article, but I could be wrong about it!
     
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  5. westermac

    westermac Friend

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    Just listened to it; I see what you're getting at. The Magni has more pop and slam to it but the quick jumps in octave in the opening bass line is a bit more well-defined on the LS. There seems to be a bit more texture on the LS as well, I can hear the finger/fret interactions with the strings a bit more clearly.

    Admittedly my choice of tracks for testing bass may have played into the Magni's strengths more than the LS.
     
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  6. Hands

    Hands Overzealous Auto Flusher - Measurbator

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    I think they both have their pros and cons in the low-end either way, and they're similar enough that you could probably fool yourself into hearing it either way on each.
     
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  7. rtaylor76

    rtaylor76 Can't wipe his tag

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    Monolith by Monoprice Liquid Spark designed by Alex Cavalli

    Source Gear:
    Raspy Pi -> HiFiBerry Digi+ -> Bifrost Multibit

    Headphones:
    Senn HD650
    Fostex T50 (modded)


    Conclusion: (Yes, I am getting to this first)
    Highly recommended amp and an unbelievable value at $99. Higher priced options will get more width, detail, power, and slam.

    The reason I put that first is that many people will ask:
    Is this better than X headphone amp at the same price?
    How does this compare to higher priced amps of even the same designer?
    Is this an upgrade of my aging amp I bought X years ago at the same price?

    Although I can’t answer all of those for you, the above conclusion will hopefully help.

    Breakdown / TLDR Section:

    Good:
    • Details and space - microdynamic
    • Openness
    • Smoothness
    • Small form factor
    • Have you seen the price!!!!

    The not so good:
    • Soft and spongy - lacks punch
    • Thin at times
    • Gain switch is only 3x and 6x - not extremely useful
    • And this list is very nitpicky for a $99 amp...this ain't no TOTL deal.

    First, before we get started, think about circuit technology over the past few years. We are seeing a transformation that can reduce the size of electronics that pack a big punch thanks to surface mount parts (SMD) and external power supplies. Surface mount has the advantage of small size and low cost in parts and production. External supplies also keep the costs down, even if we have to deal with a laptop sized cable wart...more on that below. I am surprised I wrote this much on a $99 amp, but here I am.


    The Little Details:

    Yes it is small. Probably about the same size as a Modi, maybe a touch bigger. The chassis is a stamped steel chassis that appears to be thin metal, but does not look back. Controls are pretty straightforward - power, jack, gain, volume. There is an LED light in there that is red when first turning on or goes into protection and then green when fully on, but it might as well not be there. I can barely see it from my desk. Unless it is dark or looking straight on at it, I can’t hardly tell it is there. Case also gets slightly warm when on, but very moderately warm. Warmer than the fairly cool to touch MCTH and cooler than most Schiit amps. About the same warmth as a coffee mug full of coffee - not hot, but you know it is warm (maybe even half full of coffee).

    The volume knob and controls are awesome. I wish all volume knobs were this way. I was glad to see companies like Schiit upgrade their knobs on the small amps like the Magi and Vali 2 as I never cared for the original knob on those, but the one on the LS is of actual size. It is almost too big to put your fingers around sitting on your desktop as the desk would get in the way. However, it is so buttery smooth and has a nice feel to it. It is not too stiff or too loose and I wish all my stuff had volume controls like this. The indented indicator is pretty clear to see as well.

    Back is pretty normal, in, out, power. Yes it has line out that you can hook up some powered speakers. And yes, those are muted when headphones are plugged in.

    Note: this thing has a 36V 1.25A cable wart power supply. You saw that correctly. For reference, the big brother, the Liquid Platinum, has a 36V 1.5A power supply. This power brick is as big as laptop power supplies and has an LED indicator for when it is plugged in. Many people will ask if this amp will benefit from a linear power supply (LPS) over the switch mode power supply (SMPS), and I am not hear to answer that. I don’t have a 36V LPS, and I am doubtful of any real improvement over cost given @atomicbob’s measurements. Thanks Bob!


    The Good Stuff:

    First off, this is one of the most confusing amps I have ever heard or try to put into words. Confused? Ok, well...it’s warm, but not boomy; it’s soft and smooth, yet detailed; it’s airy, but not bright; it’s spacious, but not wide. More confused?

    @Hands said this amp was warm - warmer than Magni. However, there was some contention of bass tightness. I find that overall there is some warmth, but there is lots of smoothness. There is not a whole lot of aggression in this amp. So bass tends to be there, just not punchy and dominant.

    The mid range reminds me of my Dynalo - kind of U shaped and recessed, but maybe not quite as much. Again, very buttery smooth, but I don’t want to use up that adjective enough. Vocals can sound a touch warm, but still very detailed.

    The top end is where things get interesting. Once again, not aggressive, not harsh, just there. At times, the top end can sound a little muted, but it is hard to tell if that is just the black background. I could only really tell when A/B’ing with my Dynalo.

    The detail and layering is amazing. This is where it shares a lot with the MCTH. Stuff just comes out of nowhere and very transparent and intricate sounding. You can hear deeper details in there that you might have missed before. There is clear definition in all the instrument and they all have their specific place in the mix that is quite precise. Yes, dynamics overall softer and spongy, but still has details come through and sound in focus. It is not soft like the original Asgard that I just reviewed - that amp was like looking through a window smeared with Vasoline. This is more like one of those old camera lenses - just puffy in the corners, but sharp where it counts.


    The not so good stuff:

    When presented with more complicated material, it can get somewhat congested and finer details can get lost. The congestion is not unpleasant as there is still great euphoria and lose out in sheer dynamics and may not sound as energetic as one may like. Poorly recorded material sound kind of flat. The dynamics might just be lightly lost. MCTH would be wider and more detailed and more effortless here.

    This kind open space and politeness does have its drawbacks. One of the things some may not like is that there is a tendency for this amp to sound “thin”. Meaning acoustic guitars will sound slightly dry, snare drums to lose some body, and vocals to sound weak. This effect is more pronounced on my HD650’s. At times, acoustic guitars sounded flat out plasticy. This has more do to with missing some oopmh and overall mass.

    One last thing, and this might be the most important to many. Synergy. I found the best results and sound out of my modded Fostex T-X0/T50 planar headphones. Real synergy going on there. I would imagine other planars will sound also great with other dynamics, like the TX-00, but I digress.

    I feel the LS also liked higher output source gear. The Bifrost Multibit was nice, but I feel the speed and dynamics increased with my Fiio portable and my vintage Denon DAC which has a slightly hotter output than most.

    I think comparisons of Magi 3 are fitting. Magi 3 is more aggressive and this one is more polite sounding. They remind me of the devil and the angel on your shoulder with Magi 3 being the devil of course. Marv likes to use the terms microdynamics and macrodynamics, and that is a good way to put it. Magni 3 is good at macrodynamics and slam, LS is better at microdynamics and space.

    Directly compared to the Dynalo, the Dynalo had hands down more slam, more macrodynamics, better imaging, better width, and more an "in the room feel", but going back to the LS was still quite nice sounding and very spacious sounding and at times might of had more extra fine detail, but I miss all the other stuff. I am still comparing a $500 amp against a $99 one...shakes head...moving on.

    I have also not compared directly against Vali 2, but from memory Vali 2 was much more exciting and I would never call it soft. So take that in consideration..again, YMMV.

    In Closing: (Conclusion above)

    I would not recommend this for lovers of heavy metal and really fast music who look for a lot of fast transients and slam. There is a Magni 3 for that. However, the trade off is that this LS has a ton of value in a small package, sounds warmer, more natural, more open, and more pleasant overall. A killer deal for a desktop amp...have you seen the price!
     
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  8. IAmTheLampizator

    IAmTheLampizator Rando

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    Has anyone tried it with the K7XX by any chance?
     
  9. IAmTheLampizator

    IAmTheLampizator Rando

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    Just got mine a week back.

    It's a tricky one. This is a good amp no doubt, but next to my Aune B1... it trades insteads of does everything better, which I was hoping for. I'm on the SDAC.

    Both sound pretty similar, but from what I can tell:

    B1: smoother, sound less like a Magni than the Spark. Has a slightly wider soundstage, slightly worse imaging. Slightly more "musical" if there's a scientific way to explain that. Bright, soundstage may be due to this.

    Spark: Clearer, more slam/impact, bass is less (!) elavated than the B1, but clearer.

    I'm thinking the brightness difference is less due to higher frequencies and more due to recessed mids on the B1, but I'm not entirely sure.

    On the modded HE400S: Man, I'm going to have to go for the B1 on this one. It's really a matter of preference, and I can see most people going for the Spark more often. I need a reasonably large soundstage, it's just my thing.

    K7XX default: Both are good, really good - but the SDAC + B1 is a bit too bright for long listening sessions. I'm no good with EQ, but because of this, I'm probably leaning towards the Spark.

    The Spark doesn't have a small soundstage - it's just not as spacious as I usually like (and what I prefer disqualifies most budget amps to begin with).

    Now I'm in a bind. Do I keep both...?
     

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