TOTL tubed headpone amp

It’s fantasy island at the moment but I’m thinking about options for a tube headphone amp. However, I have not had any opportunities to hear any, aside from a brief trade show encounter with one of the Linear Tube Audio integrateds. The brands on my radar:

Manley Absolute

Woo Audio (WA 22, 33, 5)

Linear Tube Audio (various)

Feliks Euforia

ZMF Pendant (and/or other Ampsandsound amps)

Coincident Dynamo SE III

Did I miss any? The price range seems to be anywhere from just under 2k to just over 7k. Obviously, they all use different tubes and have different selling points (being able to pull double duty as a low-watt speaker amp is a plus). Herb Reichert’s reviews/columns for Stereophile and its related websites have touched on some of these, and in some depth and variation, but I’m wondering if anyone out there has any real-time experience listening to these, or would have thoughts/comparisons. (I have read comments on Woo amps and the Pendant in posts; not so much LTA or Manley; Coincident is kind of an outlier, but the amps have been well-reviewed in The Absolute Sound (although not so much for headphones as for high-efficiency speakers). I probably won’t buy one at all, as I get really nice sound out of the headphone outputs of my Class D integrateds from Bel Canto, but the itch is always there.

Thanks!

I’d put just one of those in the TOTL category today … and that’s the Woo WA33.

The WA22 is nice sounding, but I like the WA6-SE better. The WA-5 can be amazing (I owned the fully-optioned/upgraded WA5-LE MK2 for several years), but is very heavily dependent on the tubes you put in it - and that’ll nearly double the price of the thing. The WA33 is worth the extra.

Manley Absolute … interesting, and quite beguiling, but very expensive for what it is, and not really TOTL. Physical UX is very clacky and not really up to par for a unit at its price (even “B-stock”).

Euforia … nice enough, but overpriced and not remotely TOTL.

ZMF Pendant is not your typical tube amplifier … it is more a competent amplifier that happens to use tubes than something that will, innately, flood you with “tube sound”. That’s a positive, on a technical level, and you can bend it to “tubeiness” with the right tubes. I love it. But it’s also not in the TOTL class when it really comes down to it. It is probably the best unit shy of the real TOTL units (Stratus, feedback-modded Aficionado), however.

If you’re really thinking TOTL, then the list needs to include (listed purely alphabetically):

  • Apex Pinnacle Ultra 2
  • Bottlehead Neothoriator
  • DNA Stratus & Stellaris
  • EC Studio (maybe Studio Jr), Aficionado (w/ feedback mod) and ZDS
  • Glenn Custom
  • Viva Egoista 2A3 and 845
  • Woo WA33 (non-Elite) and WA234 MKII

Full, end-game, tube complements for most of the above will be a significant portion of the raw cost of the amplifier (more in some cases).

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I’ll comment on the ones I’ve heard and have experience with.

I wouldn’t buy the Manley. Usability issues like headphone jack placement, dials that don’t make sense, and a sound that really didn’t stand out as anything special, let alone TOTL.

Woo makes some pretty solid amps, but most of their products stretch the value proposition to the upper limits. This is a brand I usually suggest people buy used, because they are built like tanks, but the MSRP just isn’t worth it. I also haven’t heard the 33, so no idea there.

If the Euforia shares any DNA with it’s predecessor, the Elise, then save yourself a bunch of cash and get a Bottlehead Crack. Not only will you get a better sounding amplifier, but you’ll have enough left over to get a Bifrost 2 for a source.

LTA amps. I heard a microZOTL once. It didn’t leave an impression.

I’m glad for Torq’s reply. I think he hits the nail on the head. I think there are far better amps you could get then the ones you listed.

Edit: Look for a pre-owned EC ZDS or Aficionado. Seriously, they are amazing and I miss my ZDS greatly.

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Thanks, wow … most of those outfits are new to me. I’ve seen the Viva gear and Bottleheads from kits, so this is really, really interesting. I’ve also seen the WA33 in shops (gorgeous) but never got to listen to one. Definitely going to do further research!

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Thanks PF! Yeah, I am aware of some of these products because the companies spend a lot of money advertising, and then getting reviewed in the more prominent audio mags and sites, and, as well, the prices are unrealistic for that kind of purchase. (I got my Utopias used, for instance, at roughly half-price, so budgeting more than what they cost me for an amp is kind of hard to do).

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That tube amp that comes with the Sennheiser HE1 is awful pretty, but I don’t see it separate - seems a shame to toss out the headphones just to get the amp, but it’s supposed to be TOTL. Even if it does contain an ESS Sabre ES9018 DAC chip.

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I’m still putting my ampsandsound Bigger Ben through the paces, and I’m very much enjoying it. I will post impressions on it soon, but I will agree that it doesn’t deliver that overpowering tube sound experience. But that was kind of what I was looking for with this purchase too. I wanted something that almost all my headphones would sound great on, but I still see myself keeping my darkvoice around when I want that dirty tube sound on my HD600s.

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Sounds like a past relationship, or two…

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Nothing to be ashamed of if no one else knows about it

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I have to say, my Cayin HA-300 with the Psvane ACME 300b tubes + Psvane CV-181T mkII tubes are amazing in its own right, but MAN it’s a whole revelation when I got my brand new Chord Hugo TT2 today.

Holy moly!! I can’t believe how much clearer, more natural, and more resolving it sounds compared to my Qutest.

20200512_132345_HDR

And while the Hugo TT2’s own headphone amp is really good, but I get a much bigger soundstage and sweeter sound on my Cayin HA-300 tube amp to my Audeze LCD-3F headphones!

Only issue is when I use my more expensive Morrow Audio Reference USB cable, my computer won’t recognize it. I had to use the cheaper Analysis Plus Purple USB cable that is still good, but not as good as the Morrow Audio cable.

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Can you actually hear the distortion with them? Fuzz style? hahaha

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for sure. Planars don’t sound good on it, but my Sennheisers and ZMFs do. It’s not refined by any means, and I never modded to reduce the hum, but sometimes that’s the way I enjoy listening to old Rolling Stones albums the most

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I’m the first to admit that tubes are a fetish for me.

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Great. Never had this experience. I assume the distortion is more percetive towards the low end frequencies, or is it in the whole frequency range?

The closest I am to this is to route a mono signal straight into the power amp section of my 30W guitar amp – while using the 16ohm speaker out into the HD600. But still, headroom in there is so high that my cans would probably fry even before the 6L6 valves start distorting. Not worth the risk. :rofl:

If I insert the signal in the pre section, the cans would probably fry even earlier.

Curiosity can kill sometimes. :weary:

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Add anxiety to the recipe as well.

I mean, I can actually hear it in my Greenbacks. It won’t just sound like a headphone. :blush:

https://celestion.com/product/16/g12m_greenback/

I would also add DNA (Donald North Audio) as @Torq has already listed. If I had the space for it I would get a Stratus in a heartbeat.

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That’s a gorgeous amp!

Isn’t it though!! I got the littlest brother of the three coming soon and Im quite excited.

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I’m certainly not an expert on tube amps, and I don’t want to take the thread away from the TOTL subject, but if you have the HD600 you have one of the best headphones for tubes out there. I love it on the Dark Voice, and love it even more on the Bigger Ben. If you haven’t heard it off of a tube amp before, you’re in for a treat

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@perogie what are the price points? Didn’t see any on the DNA site. I assume 3-5k-ish? (Not including upgrades, etc.). I love the Made in USA/artisan angle, which I always try to support. And the look is distinctive.