Price/performance sweetspot for solid state headphone amps?

Discussion in 'Advice Threads' started by Magnetostatic_Tubephile, Sep 15, 2021.

  1. Magnetostatic_Tubephile

    Magnetostatic_Tubephile Friend

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    Hey all,

    got a bit tricky question but willing to give it a try regardless:

    Which products or price range would you recommend to a seasoned audiophile (not newcomer) as a sweetspot for solid state headphone amplifiers? And why?

    NOTE to mods: If there is a similar thread of better place to put my question in, feel free!
     
  2. crenca

    crenca Friend

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    Maybe the used market, where you can get the EC BW and various ECP amps for around $1k?
     
  3. Magnetostatic_Tubephile

    Magnetostatic_Tubephile Friend

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    Thanks for the answer, appreciated!

    To give a bit of a personal context, rather interested in hearing opinions of SBAF folk than actually buying something. :) The market has become so much flooded lately with sub 500 USD amps (be it Schiit, Topping, Drop THX, whatever), that I am simply not quite sure if it still makes sense price/performance-wise to go above that range in the solid state world.

    I've always been more into exploring with headphones, do not find much enjoyment in obsessing about amps. Did go through some rounds with tube amps, finding out that something like Kenzie and Stratus is "complete and great enough" sonically for me while something like Valhalla 2,Vali 2 or Sunrise III is not. But never explored as intensively on the solid state side of things, probably since solid state amps seem to sound kind of similar to each other overall.

    Anyway, do you think that anything "lower" than ECP or EC is not quite the sweetspot? And why so? Those amps are relatively speaking very expensive even used.
     
  4. Merrick

    Merrick A lidless ear

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    Depends on what you're looking for out of the amp. We've been discussing the Mjolnir 1 lately as it can be found as low as $300-$350 if you're patient and represents excellent value for the money--if you like the sound qualities of the amp and are cool with only balanced outputs. You can also get something like the Liquid Carbon X for around $150-$200 used which I think is good value for the performance of that amp.

    I do feel like there's a delta between good performing, some might say overachieving budget SS amps (Magni 3+, Jot 2, LCX) and used prices on higher end SS amps (BW, 3F). I can't think of too many SS amps around $700-$1k new that are really competitive, but maybe they're just not on my radar.
     
    Last edited: Sep 15, 2021
  5. Armaegis

    Armaegis Friend

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    I think you'll find here that people can offer good amps at nearly any price point. Personally I define my financial sweet spot as equal to my mortgage payment. Any more than that and I have to apply for some extra considerations.
     
  6. aamefford

    aamefford Nothing like chamberpot coffee

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    I like the jot2 at $400. I had a Dynalo built by Mr. X several years ago that I bought used in that price range. I’ve had a few other solid state amps over the years in the roughly $500 range, and an all in one or two that were in the $750 range. The only ones I’d personally recommend are the Jot2 and the Dynalo.

    I’m not a big fan of spending more than the $500 range for solid state. All of this just based on my preferences and use, and budget.
     
  7. Beefy

    Beefy Almost "Made"

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    Monthly versus bi-weekly could really get you in trouble here.
     
  8. crenca

    crenca Friend

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    For me, these amps you (and @Merrick) listed probably are not even a sweet spot proposition at $500...maybe only at $300 and below. I agree with Merrick that in the SS world there is this no man's land between $300 and $1k. I owned a EC BW for a while, and when I triangulate impressions nothing interests me in the SS world until about $1K. That's not to say there is not something out there at $600 that would be a sweet spot value for me, I'm (and I would argue SBAF) is just unaware of it.

    I have this Shanling M6 Pro DAP (older AKM version) that hits the sweet spot. I get an amp that is more or less the equal of everything I heard and triangulated in the sub $500 range (equal in the terms of preference/value - everything else is a tradeoff/sidegrade even when they offer specific superior qualities), plus I get a DAP, streamer, etc.

    Of course my regular HP's are Utopia, D8000, and to a lessor extant Clear's. If I was only listening to <$500 HP's, such as the HD6XX, my sweet spot would probably be the amps you listed because I have not heard a HP in this price range that scales enough (and here I swim upstream from those who argue that the HD5 & 6 series seriously scale when plugged into uber amps)...of course you have to throw in DAC's, source, and the like so the whole system synergy comes into play as well which confounds, though does not negate, the idea of a specific "sweet spot" amp proposition ;)
     
    Last edited: Sep 16, 2021
  9. Azimuth

    Azimuth FKA rtaylor76, Friend

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    Everyone knows what I am going to say, but Mjonir 1 was $750 and worth all of that. Mjolnir 2 was a hybrid. I can speak at least on first hand experience with Mjolnir 1, and it is crazy good, but I digress.

    There are other SS amps that are still great in their price range that others talk about here on SBAF: Lake People/Violectric, SPL, Bryston, iFi. However there are probably more I don't see mentioned or have not a stellar repuation: Burson, GSX, Airist, Topping (for good reason), Benchmark, Naim.

    Basically, once you get to a certain point it becomes a speaker amp, which is what Ragnarok truly is and to a certain extent so is Mjolnir and the GS-X. Even Magni is a switcher speaker amp, just on a very small scale.

    All that to say, that I think past $1k and it is diminishing returns. Maybe $2k...past Rag, GS-X Mini, BHA-1, and Phonitor, there is not much you can extract. Or just sit back and enjoy Asgard 3 (or a good used Mjolnir).
     
  10. Armaegis

    Armaegis Friend

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    I deliberately left this vague for the aforementioned wiggle room :cool:
     
  11. Jerseysam

    Jerseysam Rando

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    I have a lot less experience here than many, but in my time with about a dozen SS amps....from $100 to $4K, to me it's just like headphones or DACs. Chosen wisely, I 100% "get" the difference between $100 amp, $500 amp, $1,000 amp, etc. Wouldn't think it much different from the OP post where it was mentioned (paraphrase) "I liked these $2K+ tube amps, wasn't pleased with these $300 tube amps". Same scale at play....to me anyway...for SS amps. Is my V550 notably "better" than my G111? I'd say yes. Is it $2,250 better? Only someone's individual budget can make that call I'd guess;)

    What I will add, and again...could be my limited experience....but there is seemingly a big 'hole' in SS offerings from $500-$1K. At the low end of that, Lyr 3 and Lake People G111 my favorites. $800 level, the FluxLab FA series (10/12/22.....I have the two latter). You can probably make the same-ish call with headphones (selection dips in the $500-$1K)...but SS amps seem to be far-flung or niche boutiques in that range.
     
  12. earnmyturns

    earnmyturns Smartest friend

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    If you could find a Neurochrome HP-1 on the used market... It was the best SS amp I listened to extensively before I moved to SPL (Phonitor XE) and eventually to ecp DSHA-3F. IMHO, all of these are well above earlier Schiit SS amps (Asgard 2, Jot 1) but I've not tried any of their newer offerings now that I'm well set with ecp for SS.

    PS: What do I mean by "best"? Forgiving pairing with DACs and headphones, no glare in the highs, punchy but controlled lows. A little dry relative to 3F (especially nickel transformer 3F) but coherent, engaging, non-fatiguing. Pre-COVID, I spent many work hours listening to my favirite-for-work ECM Euro-jazz tracks on Soekris dac1541>HP-1>DCA Ether Flow closed.
     
    Last edited: Sep 15, 2021
  13. jaker782

    jaker782 Friend

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    I have not tried many high end SS amps, but if I were looking for best value based on sonic performance, from cheapest to most expensive (though still all sub-$500 used), Cavalli Liquid Carbon/LCX (SE output not good, must be used balanced), Schiit Mjolnir OG (balanced only), Gilmore Lite (especially with upgrade power supply). I own 2 of these 3 currently, and only sold the MJ1 since it was a bit large too large for my space. I feel all three are fantastic at their respective price points on the used market.
     
  14. Magnetostatic_Tubephile

    Magnetostatic_Tubephile Friend

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    The answers posted in the thread so far have been excellent, thank you all!

    @Merrick definitely! The word I would personally be looking for is "complete" aka without significant compromises. Such amp would not need to have unicorn-level technicalities but better to sound overall balanced (aka Susvara / Auteur) than overexcited (aka AB-1266 Phi TC / Utopia) or "specific" (aka HD800 or LCD2 rev1). The description given by @earnmyturns sounds quite like it!

    Neither Stratus or Kenzie are absolutely perfect technically. However, they do not have the various tonal or timbral issues from bass to treble noticed when using the mentioned cheaper tube amps while providing much better sense of dynamics/lifelikeness... and that's the key for me.

    I guess the main issues I had with SS amps have been the glare in highs mentioned by @earnmyturns along with somewhat compressed sense of air and soundstaging. Are the today's sub-1000USD amps like Jot 2 or Drop LCX not plagued by that anymore? Or is it still one of the reasons why pay big for quality, as suggested by @Jerseysam ?

    That is actually a very good point too! When stated "seasoned" before, I probably meant someone not only having a long-term experience with the hobby but also owning great headphones by today's standards (that can scale).

    However, one of the motivations behind this thread might be that I dislike the typical argument "if you spend big on headphones, you must spend big on amps/DACs/whatever too". Rather than throwing as much money as I can at amps, it makes sense to me to seek the sweetspot time range / products that might not necessarily get me to instant nirvana but at least won't let my headphones down in the long term!

    Obviously my original question is flawed in a sense that value is perceived differently among us - we all have different budgets, situations, and preferences. Still, I see this thread as a nice way how to collect feedback on the topic across SBAF... to be able to think about all the unique points of view together. :)
     
    Last edited: Sep 16, 2021
  15. Scubadude

    Scubadude Almost "Made"

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    Got my Phonitor for the equivalent of USD 500 ... Gonna be tough to beat that as a value proposition, provided you like the presentation (not everyone's teacup). I've seen Deckard, Matrix HPA3B, Lake People, Meier Corda, Graham Slee, Perraux and others change hands in the $200-400 range. Probably best bang vs buck band. For myself I still want an original Lehmann BCL ...
     
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  16. Beefy

    Beefy Almost "Made"

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    It's been many years, but I remember most of these being pretty average, at least from a technical standpoint. At the very least, the Corda, Graham Slee and Lehmann are all just OPAMP input and BUF634 or very basic BJT output. My M3 absolutely spanked the Corda amp I owned at the time (Arietta, from memory?).

    I mean, they are not going to be terrible, not by a long shot. I just have a hard time imagining them as a price/performance sweetspot.
     
  17. Magnetostatic_Tubephile

    Magnetostatic_Tubephile Friend

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    Somewhat on-topic, somewhat off-topic

    So I have kind of unexpectedly stumbled upon an opportunity to put Topping A90 (solid state) against my DNA Stratus (full tube), the primary goal been to test how powerful my DNA Stratus V3 actually is and if anything changed regarding my preference for full tube amps.

    Long-story short and IMHO:
    • Topping A90 is a good, powerful and enjoyable SS amp but, especially compared to Stratus, harmed by typical SS issues (sizzly upper mids, flat highs, compressed staging, gimped/inconcrete decay)
    • Stratus (at least V3) seems more powerful than indicated on the DNA website (available headroom from 4-pin XLR with HE-6/Susvara is subjectively comparable with A90 from 4-pin XLR on high gain)
    • I do not hear Stratus anyhow lacking in deep bass or dynamics with HE-6/Susvara compared to A90. Stratus is obviously somewhat rounder in bass and its overall presentation a little bit smoother/softer but that would be the case regardless of headphones (due to inherent sonic differences of SS and full tube topologies).
    Before you get started - I am sure there are better SS amps out there than Topping A90. ;) But have always preferred full tube amps over SS/hybrid types... so not quite sure if anything of SS nature would ever convince me, even with HE-6/Susvara. Well, maybe some speaker amps might if I ever become open to owning multiple headamps!
     
    Last edited: Sep 19, 2021
  18. rhythmdevils

    rhythmdevils MOT: rhythmdevils audio

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    Monoprice Liquid Gold X on eBay from Monoprice. Under 700. Best SS amp I’ve heard. I’m getting a loaner for SBAF.

    It’s not tubey like the black Widow, it doesn’t have artificial dynamics and spaciousness like the MJ1, it isn’t dry and dull like the BHA-1, it’s not cold and sterile like Gilmore amps. It seems to be super transparent and natural. It just sounds very normal. I think some may find it boring actually.
     
  19. dncnexus

    dncnexus Friend

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    This is an interesting find and one I too have found myself when testing the Susvara and HE6 out of the Stellaris. Getting fed from the Wavelight, I was barely reaching halfway on the pot before getting to too loud listening and when comparing against a Bakoon 13R, I was hard pressed to notice lacking in anything, especially deep bass impact that some people say it will lack. Glad I am not going crazy and someone else feels the same way.
     
  20. Magnetostatic_Tubephile

    Magnetostatic_Tubephile Friend

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    Based on the expansive Susvara review from SoundNews.net with many headphone and speaker amps included, I have recently given Burson Soloist 3XP a try with HE-6/Susvara. And again, haven't really heard DNA Stratus lacking with the cans compared to it. On the contrary, yet again experienced the unpleasant grainy/flat/hard timbre associated with solid state amps.
     

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