I recently put up for sale my trusty CI Audio VHP-1 / VAC-1 headphone amp and linear power supply. This amp had been with me nearly a decade. Although I found no complaints with the sound of the VHP-1, it developed a scratchiness to the volume pot that couldn’t be repaired. Fortunately, this only happened if you turned the knob quickly – slow adjustments were completely silent. In the meantime I got to audition the Ayre Codex. The gears in my mind started to turn and that familiar old itch returned. I strategized, rationalized, and just about recruited myself – and my wallet – into action when another thought snapped into my mind.
Now, as much as I love – love – the Codex, I couldn’t help but notice that my electronics had taken on a sort of monoculture – all Ayre. It gnawed at me that I could be so unimaginative. Wasn’t there anything else out there that would catch my ear? It started to bother me. At a local headphone meet, I managed to listen to a pre-production version of the Cavalli Audio Liquid Carbon. It captivated me on first listen. I rushed back to my laptop to check on specs and price. When I saw that it was a limited run, well it’s probably needless for me to say that I ordered it the next day, convinced that I had made the right choice.
When the Liquid Carbon finally arrived, I hastily pulled out the balanced to single-ended adapter in the tape loop from the AX-5 Twenty, plugged in the Analysis Plus Pro Oval Studio and Pro Power Oval, then fired up the little black box. When I hooked up my Sennheiser HD 600’s, nothing could’ve prepared me for the disappointment. Hum. Not only on single-ended output but on the balanced out too. My heart sank. The only thing that banished the hum was to move back to single-ended input. To add a little bit of insult to injury, the single-ended output also had a little noise – barely perceptible with the HD 600’s, but noticeable with the more sensitive NAD VISO HP50’s. It wasn’t the kind of benign low-level Gaussian hiss that you could tune out which I experienced with both the VHP-1 and my previous integrated amp, a Plinius 8100. It was a tiny buzzing noise that seemed to be modulated by AC power.
To put this in context, I only waited about six weeks from initial purchase to delivery of the amp. Others had been waiting for months – since April. I couldn’t imagine how I’d feel if I had waited that long. To Dr. Alex Cavalli’s credit he paid for return shipping, fixed the hum, and had it back out the door in a matter of days. Excellent – no, superb – customer service. I held out hope that what fixed the hum, would obliterate the noise on the single-ended output. Alas, I found that only the balanced output really does the amp justice.
In the meantime, remember how I put up my VHP-1 / VAC-1 up for sale? Well, it sold. So now, deciding to sell the Liquid Carbon as well, I was left, uh, amp-less. Not really, though, since the Meridian Explorer 2 has a built-in headphone amp. Okay, so really standalone amp-less.
By chance, I happened upon a Donald North Audio Sonett 2 for sale in the Head-Fi forums. This was an amp that had just about nothing of what I was looking for – it was single-ended (though with balanced output), an all-tube design, and decidedly non-portable. Feature-wise it was everything the Ayre Codex and the Cavalli Audio Liquid Carbon was not.
I bought it. And it turned out to be the perfect choice.
The first thing you notice is that it’s damn quiet. Not a peep when you first plug in a headphone nor when you turn the volume control all the way up. Second, it has a quality to the sound that reminds me of the Codex in many ways – a tonal purity and presence that’s simply enchanting with the HD 600’s. It can also drive the Etymotic ER-4S, HP50’s, and my newly acquired pair of Audeze LCD-XC’s to sonic heights. It runs out of steam, however, trying to power inefficient planars like the HiFiMan HE1000’s to adequate listening levels. Finally, it runs fairly cool – maybe even cooler than the Codex.
And to all that, I say f*ckin’ A! (Pardon, the infantryman in me needed to get out.)
So where can you buy this great piece of kit you ask? Well, that’s the kicker. You can’t – at least new, anyways. It’s been discontinued. Sorry.
I know, not the ending you’re looking for. Cheer up, though, because of my phenomenal experience with the Sonett 2, I placed an order for its big brother, the Stratus. One day, I may just put the Sonett 2 back on the market…