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Positive Feedback ISSUE11
Consonance Cyber 20 headphone amplifier
as reviewed by John Brazier
I have written this before, and may write it again: It is a good time to be a headphone-ophile. A case in point is the Consonance Cyber 20 made by the Opera Audio Co. Ltd. In Beijing, China. Late one afternoon, a compact and heavy box arrived at my office via the Brown-truck man, and the return address tipped me off that it was the headphone amp I had recently volunteered to review. With scissors in hand, I released the neatly packed tubed power amp and external independent power supply from the Styrofoam grip of the box. I estimated the weight of the amp to be over ten pounds, a far cry from that of my one-pound (maybe) Earmax.
I could tell that this was a well-built tank of a unit right off the bat. The faceplate is nicely finished, inch-thick aluminum. Atop the output transformer housing are two "planks" of real maple with "Opera" tooled into one. The rest of the body is made of matching silver-anodized metal material, with the tube exposed on the back of the unit. All of this rests upon three neoprene-type legs, each of which is encompassed by a harder plastic. The power supply is another hefty unit with a simple on/off toggle. Enough cable is supplied that placement of the two units shouldn’t be an issue for most.
The attractive faceplate has a few amenities not typically found on headphone amps. The first is a plug for a second pair of headphones. If you and your [fill in the blank] wish to enjoy headphone togetherness, this is your stop. Secondly, the unit has a "high" and "low" impedance switch. "High" is for headphones with an impedance of 300 plus, while "low" is for 300 or less. My reference Sennhiesers HD 600s have a nominal impedance of 300, so I listened in the "low" mode. The volume knob is midsized, with a notch in one side so that volume adjustment can be done by feel in the dark. When switched on from the power supply, a neat blue light glows from the upper center of the faceplate.
The literature that accompanies the unit reads: "The Cyber 20 is a single ended ‘Class A’ headphone amplifier with no global feedback. The 12AU7 is a mu dual triode, and acts as a one tube drive stage. Signal goes first to the grid of the 12AU7, which provides voltage gain and drives the single EL84 output tube per channel. The triode wired EL84s are transformer coupled to the load."
My reference headphone amp is the Earmax OTL, complemented with one ECC81 and two ECC86s, so I am no stranger to music sung by tubes. The major difference is that the Earmax is output-transformerless, while the Cyber 20 is not.
I had a brief email exchange with the retailer, Quest for Sound, regarding burn-in, and was told the Cyber 20 wouldn’t need it. Skeptical, I let it run for twenty-four hours before I gave a listen. I must confess I did not expect too much after such a short amount of time, but to my delight it sounded pretty darn good. In fact, it sounded really good. I began my critical listening at this point, though I suspected that given a bit more burn-in time, the sound would get even better. To some degree I was right, but after twenty-four hours the amp was 98% home.
My immediate impression was of a vastly expanded soundstage, exciting dynamics, and the blackest of backdrops. These characteristics could be solely due to the power supply, but my evaluation did not stop there. I have reviewed some great amps in the last year (the Ray Samuels comes to mind first), and have even contemplated the coronation of a new reference unit, but in the end I stuck with the Earmax and have been the better for it. I always felt that it offered the best possible sound in the world of headphones.
On to the Consonance Cyber 20. First in for a spin was Chet Baker’s Deep in a Dream. This collection of classics does put me deep in a dream. "Whatever Possess’d Me" was near perfect via the Consonance. The ambience was sultry and melancholy. As Baker vocalized, emotion emerged that would otherwise come from his flugelhorn, though the notes from the horn were wonderful, too. Tonality was spot-on throughout the musical range. The plucks of the bass were abrupt at initiation, yet at the same time mellifluous. Every musical instrument of the ensemble was clear and defined. Between the notes were air, silence, nothing… and everything. Never had the absence of the notes conveyed so much. The detail was, again, perfect. I heard hints of Chet moistening his lips before a line or a note with the horn. I heard just enough of the detail, and not too much. Each element of the track was layered, in a subtle but no less individual manner. The horns, the drums, the vocals—all had their own expressive nature that never became entangled with any other element of the recording.
Can the Cyber rock? For that I turned to Robin Trower’s Bridge of Sighs and the little ditty called "Day of the Eagle." Mind you, this recording was released in 1974, so it is with a hint of reluctance yet enthusiasm that I typically use it as a reference in a review. No reluctance this time. The Cyber rocks, and rocks hard. Tubes are not usually known for their prowess this genre, but they got it right this time. I could not help but to liken the experience to one of my first "high end" setups—Bryson amps and preamp driving a pair of Sonus Faber Concertos. The amps kicked while the Concertos remained mellow. I used to play Dave Matthews’ Stay, loud. I was physically driven by the energy of that years-ago combo, but I got that same energy from the Cyber and every type of rock I threw at it. The way Trower’s guitar struck, with a clear and crisp cymbal keeping pace, got the hair on the back of my neck to tingle. The expansiveness of the soundstage mitigated nearly all of the 1974 compression. Even more amazing were the previously unreleased live recordings that came with the disc. 1974 live recordings sounding good? You betcha—damn good.
Then it was time to mellow out with Johnny Cash’s American IV: The Man Comes Around. Johnny Cash singing Depeche Mode, who’da thunk it? But Cash does a convincing job. The Cyber was able to capture that deep, barely-under-control voice that is the essence of Johnny Cash. As you might expect, this recording is a real tribute to Cash, and he is the centerpiece of every track, but not too far to the side is his acoustic guitar and the strings, which sounded as accurate as I have ever heard, from headphones or otherwise. The closer the attention I paid to the vocals, the more impressed I was with the Cyber’s ability to get inside the track and construct the music. When Cash sang "Personal Jesus," the aforementioned Depeche Mode tune, I was able to connect with his vocals in a way that no other amp has allowed me to do.
I kept this amp for well over month, spending two hours a day listening on average. The Cyber 20 humbled me. If there is anything wrong with the amp, it is beyond my ability to recognize, much less articulate. Once I put on my phones and plugged them into the Cyber, I was enveloped by an amazing soundstage of incredibly accurate tonality. The music was wonderfully layered, creating a almost eerie listing experience. If you are in the market, find a Cyber 20. If you are not really in the market right now, think about getting into it. I cannot say enough good things about this amp. Though I have been using the Earmax for the past three years or so, I don’t wish to go back to it. I am going to buy the review unit and make it the reference by which all others will be judged. My standards have changed. John T. Brazier
Consonance Cyber 20 headphone amplifier