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tbln

Going balanced: My journey with The Apache

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Since I descended the slippery slopes of the world of headphones about five years ago, I have seen quite a number of changes to my headphone and equipment line-up.

 

While it has been an enjoyable journey so far, the dream of setting up a true balanced rig continues to be my Holy Grail in headphones.

 

This has however, remained an elusive dream as concerns regarding the increased costs of such a setup together with questions about whether the sonic improvements were worth the effort kept this dream, just that, a dream.

 

It was only after I acquired the Marantz SA11S1, that the drive to balance the system became even more pressing. With an idle set of balanced outputs lying unused, the siren call of going balanced started loud and strong once again. I could not help wonder if the balanced outputs would sound better? :helpsmilie:

 

The introduction of the Apache by Ray Samuels gave me the necessary push over the fence I had been sitting on for so long.

 

The Apache was designed with some important features that fit my dream balanced system. As both a preamplifier and a headphone amp, it contains enough balanced and single ended inputs and outputs to provide the necessary flexibility needed as the backbone of my planned rig. :lust:

 

The Apache

 

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A two chassis design, most people are surprised when they see the unit in the flesh as it is smaller than it looks in pictures. Barely twelve inches wide, both the amplifier and PSU sit on slender spikes, adding both audiophile credibility (vibration control) and visual appeal.

 

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Up front, a balanced DACT stepped attenuator and three position gain switch ensures that the desired volume level is easily achieved. You have a choice of plugging in either one single ended TRS jack or two balanced XLR plugs.

 

Looking at the back, the main body reveals two balanced and two single-ended inputs. This is the minimum number that will allow me to optimally hook up all my available sources.

 

As a preamplifier, the single set each of balanced and single-ended outputs allow flexibility in connecting a choice of power amps that will drive the AKG K1000.

 

All this is powered by the dual mono power supply supplying the 'juice' through an umbilical cord.

 

The amp does not have an ON/OFF switch and is designed to be ever ready. Is it any wonder Singapore Power loves me? :cry:

 

I got the silver version of the amp with black screws and I think it is quite a handsome beast. :drool:

 

Fit and finish are excellent, as with most RSA products.

 

The Headphones

 

Sennheiser HD580/Cardas, HD600/Cardas, HD600/Equinox, HD650/Equinox, HD650/RAL

 

Beyerdynamic DT880 (05) Apuresound V2

 

AKG K701 XLR terminated with original cable, K701 Apuresound V3

 

The Method

 

To ensure a fair comparison when listening in both balanced and single ended mode, these were two of the steps I took to level the playing field:

 

1. Listening levels between balanced and single ended sessions were matched as closely as I could with a SPL meter and test tones.

 

2. For single ended listening, XLR – ¼ inch adaptors made from the same cables were used. For example, the HD650/Equinox would be used single ended with an adaptor made with Equinox cable as well.

 

A variety of CDs and SACDs covering jazz, vocal and classical were used for evaluation and listening, including my usual assortment of binaural war horses.

 

The Sound

 

My Apache came with the latest revisions that included the newest National Semiconductor LME4971 opamps and the upgrade of certain capacitors within. Ray believes that this combination widens the soundstage and is the best sounding iteration of the amp to date. Increased resolution plus more warmth? Sounds good to me! :rclxms:

 

The million dollar question: What would be the benefits from going balanced, if any?

 

Greater sense of air/space

 

Wider soundstage

 

Increase separation

 

Bass control

 

I heard all these benefits across all the headphones, although the level of improvements varied depending on the characteristics of each particular can.

 

By comparison, the single ended listening experience resulted in a loss of all or most of these benefits, with the narrowing of the sound stage being one quite apparent drawback.

 

Update: This was an answer I gave to a question on the benefits of going balanced and I thought it would be good to repeat it here again, to provide perspective.

 

"Whether the benefits are worth the additional costs would depend on each individual.

 

I cannot say the differences are night and day, but are definitely noticeable and worth considering (from the audio perspective) should you wish to squeeze the last ounce of performance out of your listening experience.

 

So, yes, the HD650 benefits from going balanced, but balancing alone does not make up for a poor source and mediocre amplification."

 

Of the senn cans, the HD650 showed the greatest improvements in the bass and displayed a level of texture and control that I never thought possible. :cans:

 

As a die hard Sennheiser fan, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that balancing took my favourite headphones to even greater heights. I have always believed that the HDXXX series scaled well with equipment upgrades, but balancing literally took it to a new level.

 

The HD600/Equinox and HD650/RAL provided the most synergistic match with the Apache, with the K701/APS V3 coming in next.

 

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The listening experience was enhanced by the wide soundstage as it took the sound out of the head and brought it closer to listening to live music. Details that were not noticed so clearly before now popped into focus quite vividly.

 

I believe that the best way to describe the sound of the amp would be a top notch solid state presentation.

 

The usual solid state buzzwords like dynamic, fast and great bass control are mated to tube characteristics like transparent mids, touch of warmth and killer sound staging to create a KO punch. :rclxub:

 

In comparison with my Singlepower amps, the tubes had the edge for sonic images that were subtly rounded off compared to the razor clear edges painted by solid state amplification. This is in my opinion, a more realistic portrayal of real life listening experiences.

 

They present different enough perspectives that I have decided to keep both single ended tube and balanced solid state amplification in my main rig.

 

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The good

 

Great sound quality (Air, Soundstage, Separation, Bass Control)

 

Excellent fit and finish.

 

Flexibility

 

The bad

 

Light weight. Care must be taken when switching cables as amp can move.

 

Spikes do not always sit squarely.

 

Audible pop when you switch to pre-amp mode. This can be heard through the K1000.

 

 

Associated Equipment

 

Sources:

Marantz SA11S1

Cambridge Audio Azur 840C

 

Interconnects:

Slinkylinks XLR

Kimber Hero XLR

Grover U8 XLR

 

Power cords:

Audience

JPS Digital

DH Labs

 

Closing words

 

Great job, Ray!

 

This experience has made me a believer of the benefits of going balanced. Just see how many cans I have balanced now. :grin:

 

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Edited by tbln

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Awesome review and pictures! Are you planning to get the Black Dragon GS1000 balance? :grin:

 

Nick and I are tempted to place two Zana Deux together for the balance fun. :lol:

 

 

(NB: Attached to sticky articles.)

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Oh yeah, this kind of review I likes..... nice one tbin. :party:

 

Definitely need to get the cables together for a 2x Zana Deux set-up now!!! :dance:

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Thanks for you sharing. Great set-up!

 

I am curious how a balanced set-up compare with a electrostats set-up. Perhaps you have some insight to share?

 

Thanks! I believe that this rig will keep me happy for the time being. :yes:

 

Have only had a short listening experience with a STAX set quite a long time ago, I do not think I can make any meaningful comparisons.

 

 

Awesome review and pictures! Are you planning to get the Black Dragon GS1000 balance? :grin:

 

Nick and I are tempted to place two Zana Deux together for the balance fun. :lol:

(NB: Attached to sticky articles.)

 

Some of the pictures were the result of my experimenting with my new G9.

 

No balancing for the GS1000 at this time yet. Do not know if I love them enough to take the plunge.

 

 

Oh yeah, this kind of review I likes..... nice one tbin. :party:

 

Definitely need to get the cables together for a 2x Zana Deux set-up now!!! :dance:

 

Please do not forget me when that takes place! :grin:

 

 

Thanks everyone for the kind words of encouragement. I certainly hope that our members will add their own thoughts/impressions of cans and equipment so that everyone can benefit from such 'local' knowledge.

 

I planning, for the next installment, to put into words my impressions of the different aftermarket headphone cables.

Edited by tbln

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Noticed you have 2 Marantz CDPs (SA11S1 and xx?) and the CA840C.

Would like to hear your comments on the 2 brands?

I am using CD7300 and I had the 640C before.

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Noticed you have 2 Marantz CDPs (SA11S1 and xx?) and the CA840C.

Would like to hear your comments on the 2 brands?

I am using CD7300 and I had the 640C before.

 

SA8260 is the other Marantz player.

 

I would like to say that there is a Marantz house sound, but these 2 players do not have the same signature.

 

In general, the SA11S1 provides a warmer, more laid back perspective with my preferred filter 3. This brings the sound closer to the older flagship Marantz Cd players. You can tweak the sound with the choice of 3 different filters.

 

The SA8260 on the other hand, provides a sound that is livelier and sits on the middle ground between the SA11S1 and the 840c.

 

The 840C is fast, dynamic sounding, though I would call it generally neutral sounding.

 

Two different flavours to cover my needs.

 

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Great review and pics! :thumbup:

 

 

Small request if not too much to ask: I am familiar with the 840C and the HD650. How do these sound with the Apache? Just trying to form a mental picture. Thanks.

 

Agree with you, a real slippery slope...

 

 

 

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Great review and pics! :thumbup:

Small request if not too much to ask: I am familiar with the 840C and the HD650. How do these sound with the Apache? Just trying to form a mental picture. Thanks.

 

Agree with you, a real slippery slope...

 

The 840C/Apache/HD650 presents a clean, dynamic and balanced sound. The warmer ,more laid presentation of the 650 is nicely balanced by the upstream equipment. The 650 with either the Equinox or the RAL would do it for me.

 

 

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nice review :prettyprincess:

 

any rankings for these Sennheisers w/ different aftermarket cables in your system?

 

From most preferred combination downwards, it would be like this:

 

HD600/Equinox or HD650/RAL

HD650/Equinox or HD600/Cardas or HD650/Mobius

HD580/Cardas

 

And thanks to both for the kind words!

 

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Hi TBLN,

 

Is your 880 balanced too? Do you have to send it out for mods or can be easily DIYed?

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Hi TBLN,

 

Is your 880 balanced too? Do you have to send it out for mods or can be easily DIYed?

 

My DT880 was sent out for balancing.

 

As far as I know, converting to balanced is not a simple matter of reterminating the TRS plug (as with HD650 or K701). The original wire on the headphone was single entry, so it would also require some work on the right earcup to facilitate cable entry.

 

Original post also updated to answer questions received.

Edited by tbln

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