Review: Ray Samuels Audio Apache Headphone Amplifier Amplifier

Category: Amplifiers

Review: Ray Samuels Audio Apache Headphone Amplifier.

Maybe Ray should have called it the Can Opener.

It creates a vividly open sound area with whatever cans
I try it with (Senn 650s, AKG 701s, Grado GS1000s).
In short, the sound is un-headphone-like. (Uncanny?)
The Apache produces a very compelling listening experience that I have never had
with headphones before.
Tonality is excellent, striking a perfect balance between detail and smoothness.
It rivals the what I have heard in
audio shows and dealers with some extreme high-end speakers.
(The Apache also functions as a Preamp. I have not used it in this mode.)

All of my listening is from my McIntosh C46 preamp into the Apache.
I have a CD-only system. My previous headphone amplifier was a 1999 Headroom
Max (updated with a newer reference module in 2004). I still have the Max.

I have had the Apache for only a week, so I may be
updating this. Consider these initial impressions.

The sound is quite speaker-like, especially with the Grados.
The Grados are natively tipped up and bright, so I use the
tone controls on the McIntosh preamp (which has an 8-band equalizer)
to roll-off the highs somewhat.
With the AKGs or Sennheisers, no equalization is necessary.

(I like using the McIntosh preamp to feed my headphone amp becuase
I sit some distance away from my system and use the McIntosh
remote to adjust the volume. Actually, I wish headphone amps had a
remote volume control. I also appreciate the Mac's tone controls--blasphemy I know...)

Listening to the Capitol Beatles CD set, other classic rock or popular music
(which is what I mainly listen to on headphones), with the Apache
I feel like I am in the studio, with the voices and instruments spread out,
fleshed out and distinct in a 3-dimensional space much larger than I have
ever heard with headphones.
The musical components, if not life-size, are far from the miniaturized images
that, to my ears, are common with headphones. The Apache somehow creates some
sort of ether-field with honest-to-goodness 3D images, each with its own
size and shape. This effect is more prominent with the Grados,
but still quite evident with the other phones. The Senn 650s seem
especially helped by the Apache--really coming out of their shell.
The vauge claustrophopic or compressed feeling I always had with the
650s (and predecessors) has just about disappeared.

The images have real body and density but are not heavy or hard-edged or super-pinpointed.
They blend just enough into the recording venue to sound naturally placed.
And, thankfully, nothing shouts or sounds pushy.

In comparison with my Headroom Max
everything sounds de-congested. Many of these old CDs of 60's and 70's
recordings sound raspy and rough through the Max.
Somehow, the Apache separates all
the pieces and smooths out the rough edges just enough to produce a natural sound.
The spatial cues are there but the harsh abrasion is gone.
The sound is still vivid but no longer annoying.
I really feel as if I am among the performers.

The vocals are liquid and rounded and have just enough grit to sound
genuine without being mechanical,
grainy or telephone-like. I have always felt that vocals were always
the ultimate truth-test for a system. Sometimes even when instruments
sound fine, a vocal comes along and sounds artificial, raspy, buzzy, and
nothing like a real voice. With the Apache, I can listen deep into a voice,
and I hear a continuous, smooth sound that is just extremely satisfying.

Percussion is precise and fast without being assaultive. Wind instruments
are airy and have just the right density. (I think the famous flute solo on
California Dreamin' is as pure as I have ever heard it.) Strings are silky
and never scream or make me wince.

The Apache's bass is a real joy. It is "just-there," with no subwoofery/boombox
feel. I love the way the bass is attached to the the object creating it,
rather than just part of a pervasive
bass-fog. I am reminded of the bass from well-set-up Wilson speakers.

At first I thought the highs were more spotlighted than with the Headroom Max,
but then I realized I lately had been using the Max's high-frequency filter (a useful
feature by the way), and concluded that, In A-B'ing the two amps, that
the Apache is no more aggressive or less warm than the Max with its filter off.

To sum up, I think that
the great thing about the Apache is that it is revealing, but not ruthlessly revealing.
Details are well evident, but just recessed enough to produce an inviting, relaxing sound
that is still live and involving, along with a wonderfully plausible sense of space.

Associated equipment:
EMM DCC2 SE DAC and CDSD SE Transport,
McIintosh C46 Preamp,
Stealth Indra RCA IC from DAC to Preamp,
Kubala-Sosna Balanced IC from Preamp to Apache,
Shunyata Anaconda Power Cables on all components except Apache,
Kimber PK-10 Palladium Power Cable on Apache,
All equipment plugged into Shunyata Hydra 8.
Headphones: Grado RS1000s with Moon Audio Black Dragon cable (single ended).
Sennheiser 650s with Zu Mobius (single ended).
AKG K701 with Moon Audio Black Dragon balanced.

Associated gear
EMM DCC2 SE/ CDSD SE Digital Source
McIntosh C46 preamp
Shunyata Hydra 8
Stealth Indra/Kubala-Sosna Emotion ICs
Shunyata Anaconda power cables

Similar products
Headroom Max.
Stax Omega/007t system.
Yep, I traded my 600s for 650s a few years back.
The 650s sound (to me) more direct
but not aggressive or punchy.
However, I understand some folks like the 600s better,
so remember it's just my opinion.
Ray has upgraded the Apache with a new National Semi opamp
(a free mod to all existing Apache owners.) Here are my impressions.

Well, I just got my Apache back with the new National Semi op-amp mod
and made some quick listening tests.
(I will do some more extensive evaluation later.)
In short, I unequivocally recommend the NSM mod.
It was a big improvement with all of my phones
(Senn 650s/Zu Mobius2, Grado GS1000s/Moon Black Dragon, and AKG 701s/Moon Black Dragon).
While the type of improvement varies with the phones,
with all there is much more of an overall sense of ease,
and better bass integration and solidity, and sweeter but still extended highs.
There is just a more relaxing sound, and individual musical components
blend together into a nice, silky sound field.

Somehow, the latest Apache manages to ameliorate (cure to a major degree)
the colorations or shortcomings of the phones.
The Senn 650s are less veiled with better image body.

(The new Zu Mobius 2 Senn 650 cable is great cable,
preserving the wonderful warm character of the 650s
while adding smoothness and detail.)

The Grados sometimes high-pitched sound on lesser recordings is still sparkly but
is no longer very painful or abusive.

The AKG's sometimes lumpy bass that was really annoying in controlled,
and the occasional "GLUMP" sound in the upper bass that would drive me crazy is gone.

The Senns gained more roundness in vocals and instruments and
had better bass definition. The Grados still have tipped up
highs compared to the Senns, but somehow the highs are much sweeter
and far less searing and much more listenable,
even on a CD that itself was raw and screechy.

Overall, the Senns were the winner for a totally relaxing and warm but still
exciting sound with lots of fine detail, but with much less grain
or distortion than I use to get with my older Headroom Max. There
is less distortion also than with the original op-amps in the Apache,
and a more open sound, with more fleshed out images.

But the Grados hold there own with the Apache, while less relaxing,
there is much better defined, tight bass, and the extended highs
sound liquid and inviting, less dry and piercing than with the
original Apache or even the Max amp.

The AKG 701 with the Apache also has it's charms. It stands between the
Senns and Grados in terms of high-frequency emphasis, and in that sense
is better balanced than the others. And the bass is now real and
evident, with a quality I never heard with the Max amp--a nice fundamental
bass, but not as tight or satisfying as the Grado bass. It is also not
as warm or relaxing as the Sennheisers. But voices and instruments
are pure, palpable, and realistic, and I can see how many could really
enjoy the 701s (I enjoy them too, but I think I will gravitate the the other
2 phones long-term).

In summary, the Apache with the new op-amp really seems to elevate all
these phones to a new level, and I hope others get to hear it.
(And I would be interested to hear impressions of the newest version
vs. the B52.)

Thanks for reading.
That's some excellent information, and extremely well written, in my opinion. Thank you for offering so much detailed comparative information.
Thanks for the kind words.
I just wanted to add that, since the first review in this
thread, no tone controls have been used. I have the
Apache driven directly out of the preamp outputs of
the EMM DCC2. (I use the preamp outputs to get
remote volume control while using headphones.)

Also, there is some word on the headphone forums that Sennheiser is releasing an HD700 in the next few months.
Some more thoughts on this (AKG K701 headphones):

I let my AKG K701s with their relatively recent Moon Audio Black Dragon (SE) cable break in a bit with my Apache, and I have a new appreciation of these phones. The forwardness I had heard has completely recessed now, and everything sounds like it is in the right place now. They now sound more natural and less distant than the 650s and do not have the GS1000s sometimes searing highs. For now at least, they may be my headphone of choice. Even the bass, while not as fundamental as the GS1000s,
is full, evident, but not plump or slow at all. All musical images have nice just-soft-enough boundaries (no hard edges or glare). Again, they seem to be a very nice match with the Apache after all.
And comfort is a real strong point with the 701's thick round soft pillows.

I think Headroom was right in their appraisal and
rave review of the 701s after all.

One other finding about the Apache--I prefer the Gain switch set to Low for best bass response (and overall sound). I keep the volume at about 1:30-2:00 and use my preamp
volume control for adjustment. I am back to my McIntosh C46 preamp driving the Apache, using Stealth Indra interconnects at every link in the chain.

With the Apache in this configuration,
driven by the EMM DCC2 dac and the McIntosh,
the sound is really glorious. Images are dense with out any "film" or white noise around them and the bass has no extra annoying artificial vibration or hangover or humming sound (with either the Senns, Grados, or AKGs). And there is even a kind of tube-like humidity in the background.
Just de-briefing my thougths here in case anyone is interested...