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.
How would you compare the sound of the 701s as currently configured in your system to that of the Stax Omega 2s with the 007t energizer? Things like detail, bass definition and depth, timbral accuracy, smoothness, and midrange richness would be of interest, if you have the time or inclination to comment. Thanks.
The Omegas have a sound signature all their own, or at least they are really directly comparable to other electrostics. The strengths are a way of taming digital
(or other) audible flaws that cause discomfort or pain while still retrieving detail. Thus, they are not ruthlessly revealing, just revealing. OTOH, there is definitely a kind of flat-panel personality (like with Martin-Logan speakers), a kind of shimmering, slightly hazy sound sometimes that let's you know it is a vibrating membrane driver, but just on some musical components on some recordings. That makes it sound worse than it is, because it is actually a kind of soft, romantic coloration.
It is actually kind of relaxing. There is still depth and soundstaging and very good separation of things, but things are a bit miniaturized. Bass is not overpowering, but not weak either, and it is very detailed. Vocals are very sweet and mesmerizing. Images are pure and fairly dense, but not super solid.

The AKG 701s are a different animal. They sound like an excellent dynamic speaker with great driver integration. Vocals and all midrange components are direct, pure, dense,
and have nice soft edges with no grain. At the same time they are not pushy. Upper mids/lower treble is not ringing or to "shiny," but still very liquid. In fact liquidity is the main sonic signature of the 701s, in contrast to the Senn 650s which can be a little dry and bit buzzy (but are warmer). But, with the wrong amplification (or when not broken in), a recording with tilted-up or pushy highs can
sound piercing and painful. This only happens occaisionally but it does happen. For some reason, the (first generation) Headroom Max amp sounds good with the 701s, especially with it's high-frequency cutoff filter switched on. The 701's bass, while not as warm as the Senn 650's, tight and ample when broken in. I did not feel like I wanted extra bass. The bass is not exaggerated, but is there when called for. Image separation, sizing, and localization in 3 dimensions is good and does not sound artificially pronounced or flattened. The soundstage is quite satisfying. Finally, comfort is really nice in my opinion. They are not over-clamped or hanging loose, and the velour pads feel great on my head. I think the 701s are a terrific bargain without question.
Wow, what an outstandingly well written and lucid description! It sounds like the 701s merit serious consideration, to say the least. When and if the time comes to gear back up with headphones I'll keep them on the short list for sure. Thanks for all of your time and effort.
Hey RGS,

I was wondering about the power supply for the Apache. Do you know if the Dual Toroidal Transformers are the Custom Plitron versions like the ones used in B52? I understand power supplies to make a HUGE difference, which is why I was asking.

You really have a beautiful setup!

excellent review of the RSA apache and headphones. i have one myself, as you may recall. : )