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Positive Feedback ISSUE 63
HH-1 Headphone Amplifier
as reviewed by Robert H. Levi
If Midas also had the touch for musicality, he would be on the design team at Cary Audio that created the HH-1 Headphone Amplifier! Built for the serious headphone and personal listening devotee, this hybrid beauty is one sweet piece of gear. Weighing in at 10 pounds and the largest headphone amp in physical dimensions I have ever reviewed, the HH-1 sports two 6DJ8 tubes in the input stage and MOSFETs biased in class A in the output stage. The new highly regarded Grado PS 1000 Headphones were among the top cans used in the voicing of the HH-1.
From Cary Audio:
"The new HH-1 headphone amplifier from Cary Audio is an all-new hybrid design, featuring a tube input stage feeding a single-ended MOSFET output stage. These MOSFETs were chosen as they have sonic characteristics very similar to tubes, and the entire amplifier operates fully in class-A at all output levels.”
I set up a review system with an E.A.R. Acute II CD Player feeding the E.A.R. 834L line stage via the new Kimber 1036 interconnects. This was coupled to the HH-1 with Kubala-Sosna Emotion! Interconnects, all single-ended from the tape-out connectors on the line stage as recommended by Cary. I also auditioned my McIntosh MR71 FM Tuner and Dynaco FM3 Tuner in the same circuit. A Kubla-Sosna Emotion Power Cord was used on the HH-1.
The Cary is quite minimalist for such a large chassis. It has single-ended inputs and outputs and a detachable AC cord on the back. It features a volume knob, a single RCA phone connector, and a power button on the front.
It also has two red LEDs on the circuit board to let you know the tubes have fired up. It uses a 30-second delay from power-on to give the tubes a chance to settle down before listening. Everything on this Cary Audio unit worked perfectly, with no quirks at all. I ran it for 100 hours with music before doing any critical listening. The headphones that I paired with the HH-1 included the Grado PS 1000s, PS 500s, Ultrasone Edition 8s, and Audeze Version 2s. On hand for comparison were the E.A.R. HP4, Lyr, KingRex, and Benchmark DAC1.
Cut to the Chase
As terrific as the HH-1 performed, I appraise it as being about 75% as detailed as the E.A.R. HP4, though the E.A.R. design runs 4X the cost. So, if you want the world's best cost-no-object headphone amp for dynamic cans, you can stop reading now.
But on the other hand, if you are searching for a moderately priced headphone amp for quality cans that gets you above the confusion of the $400-$1500 headphone amps proliferating all over the net, the HH-1 is for you! I could not find anything priced below the $1599 HH-1 that truly challenged it! Even the hard to drive Audeze sounded delicious and delightful on the HH-1, and a quantum leap beyond the Lyr's performance. I even tube-rolled my friend's Lyr with Telefunkens and Bugle Boys and could not close the gap with the stock HH-1. Yes, the HH-1 is 4X the price of the stock Lyr, but if you are spending $1000 on cans, a more expensive and sophisticated headphone amp is warranted.
I'll share with you some of the great music that was really key in my evaluation of the Cary Audio HH-1.
The new Acoustic Sounds reissue of Dave Brubeck's classic Time Out on hybrid SACD, CAPI 8192SA on Analogue Productions.
This is a killer hybrid pressed in Austria and mastered by Bernie Grundman. By far the best digital effort to date, and very analog-like and relaxing to hear. On the HH-1, I heard tons of beautiful definition, even sound top to bottom, perfect timbres, no lumps or bumps, just a splendid performance. On the PS 1000s, the sound was most life-like and master-tape sounding. On the 500s, it was miraculous. And on the Audeze, it was most emotional and lush. I love this SACD; it is a must own!
Dialoghi from Yarlung Artists, new European CD Pressing 78876
The jump factor on the solo cello sections and the bell-like tone of the Steinway are truly mellifluous and entertaining with the HH-1. I particularly liked this CD on the Edition 8s, as it had a distinct you-are-there sound. It was with this disk that I heard a slight touch of dryness on the HH-1, due, I suppose, to the MOSFETs. If this had been an all-tube design, I might not have heard this artifact, though it would surely have been more costly to build the HH-1 if done with tubes. I consider this a minor quibble, and one I did not hear in cans under $1200. This new pressing of a masterpiece of engineering is worth getting even if you have the USA pressed original... it sounds better, folks!
Margareta Bengtson, Spice of Life, CD SOL MB 0001, using the song "Where the Midnight Sun Never Sets."
This is a true reference vocal with small combo that is in the room with you as few other CDs I know of. Her pure vocal nuances were exceptionally produced with the HH-1, and the ambient cues were just beautiful and well fleshed out. I found the Grado PS 500s were magic with the HH-1, more so than any other cans on hand. There is a synergy with the 500s that you just have to hear.
I know lots of you love the Audeze sound, and they make beautiful music with the HH-1 and this wondrous CD. Nevertheless, the sound is a gorgeous confusing mess compared to the super detailed, well organized, even natured performance of the Grados and Edition 8s. But if you must own the Audeze, try them on the HH-1 before you buy anything else. They still sound emotional and swaggering, but a bit more sophisticated to me. I am going to stick with the more linear and neutral cans, just as I do loudspeakers.
I did not try tube-rolling, but certainly easy to do with the HH-1. Any 6DJ8 variants will work. The tubes included are extremely quiet, detailed, neutral, and open sounding. I could easily live with them on the long haul. I think a pair of Mullard 6922s or GEs from Kevin Deal at Upscale Audio in Upland might be fun selections here, and may buy you added definition and richness.
This new product from Cary Audio for the personal listening fan or monitoring pro is all Class A, and I have to say that I found its performance to be Class A as well! It is a killer amplifier at its price point of $1599, and unequaled by anything less costly in my experience. I could not find any cans that were not well served by the HH-1—even the hard-to-drive Audeze and the maxed-out Grado PS 1000s curled up and purred! Extremely detailed and smooth, you can listen to the hybrid HH-1 until the cows come home! This is a fantastic match with the new Grado PS 500s. Could you spend a lot more and get some more performance out of your dynamic headphones?
Would you want to?
Maybe not. How's your wallet?
Well done, Cary Audio! Your notable taste for good music comes through once more! Robert H. Levi
HH-1 Headphone Amplifier