Well, I’ve been testing out the Soloist SL headphone amplifier for a while now (thanks to their fantastic loaner program — thank you Burson!!!) and I have some thoughts on it that might need to be taken with a grain of salt as my gear setup will likely not be comparable to that of some of the more veteran head-fi-ers. I haven’t read any of the other reviews of this in an attempt to keep my mind open. Anyway, here goes:
As I have yet to even venture into the realm of DACs, I used my Technics SL-J2 turntable as my main testing source going through my bare-bones Behringer PP-400 preamp and the freeware ‘upsampling’ app called Play on my iMac using Lossless and FLAC files. The only “dedicated” headphone amp I have to do a solid comparison with is my 18V 4556 op amp cmoy.
First of all, I’ve never heard so much detail in music in my life. Right out of the box, it was staggeringly detailed, albeit fairly up-front sounding and condensed soundstage-wise. It has been steadily improving in both detail and soundstage as it’s been burning in, however. It’s just absolutely the most smooth and clear sound I can imagine.
I will say however, at the risk of being berated, that my little cmoy seems to have a slight edge in soundstage / transparency over the SL. Maybe it’s just that the SL is TOO detailed and clear and makes it difficult to experience different sounds in different spaces or maybe the SL hasn’t fully burned in yet but the cmoy provides a head sensation that things are moving all around you. I HAVE been using this cmoy for about 8 hours a day for over a year now, so it could just be burned into a sweet spot. I don’t know. It just seems that, with the ridiculous clarity of the SL, you can focus and imagine the different spaces that each sound inhabits while sounds seem to be more obviously laid-back and separated in a more casual listen when using the cmoy. This difference somehow becomes less apparent when using the audio out of my iMac (as opposed to vinyl) and even less so when listening to more complex, textured stuff like Amon Tobin or Squarepusher where being able to appreciate all those finely crafted individual noises are a large part of the experience.
This is a bit of a big deal for me though. I love to be able to make out all the different timbres of a snare, all the vibrato of a violin, and every gurgle of Tom Waits’ throat as he growls out his intensity. But, personally, more of my enjoyment of music comes from the spatial qualities, and being able to hear everything that’s going on at once, even if I can’t hear all the subtle nuances of each sound. The energy and atmosphere of music seems to have more of a reality-displacing effect on me.
The SL, of course, has a significant advantage in detail (it’s simply breath-taking) and silky smoothness and DOES have an impressive soundstage of its own. And the design of the unit, itself, is great. The dual input is nice, especially since I switch between my computer and turntable a lot. The large, smooth attenuator is fantastic for fine-tuned volume setting. Small box and clean, minimal design is lovely. It does take a short (about 30-45 minutes) time to warm up and really start cooking each time it’s turned back on which could be a problem if you really need the best sound possible right away, for some reason.
Being someone who has never spent more than $100 on any one piece of audio gear, I would find it difficult to make the SL my next gear upgrade. But if you have the budget, and need detail — possibly above all else — and maybe make or listen to more complex compositions with a lot of mixed detailed textures like Amon Tobin, I think the SL would be an excellent choice. I hope the next person in the program has an easier time letting this go than I did. :)
Al Di Meola “Electric Rendezvous”
Frank Zappa “Orchestral Favorites”
Genesis “Invisible Touch”
Lorn “Nothing Else”
Tom Waits “Small Change”
Shellac “1000 Hurts”
*Victor Wooten “What Did He Say?”
*Amon Tobin “Foley Room”
*Mahler “Symphony #1 in D, Titan”
JVC HA-RX700 (open-back mod)
AKG k240 Monitors