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POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 7
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ray samuels audio

Emmeline HR-2 headphone amplifier

as reviewed by Gary L. Beard and John Brazier

 

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GARY L. BEARD'S SYSTEM:

LOUDSPEAKERS
Merlin TSM-M on Osiris stands and a REL Strata III subwoofer.

ELECTRONICS
First Sound Presence Deluxe Mark II preamplifier and a  Berning ZH270 amplifier.

SOURCES
Cary 303/200, Sony DVP-7700, and Marantz CC65-SE CD players.

CABLES
Cardas Neutral Reference bi-wire speaker cables and Acoustic Zen Matrix Reference interconnects.

ACCESSORIES
RGPS 400 AC power conditioner, homebrew Belden/Hubbell/Marinco power cords, Final Labs Daruma isolators, Vibrapods, DIY points and isolation, TNT DIY "Flexy rack".

 

one.jpg (6551 bytes)Not too long ago, I purchased a pair of Sennheiser HD600 headphones. They are considered one of the great values in high end headphones, but due to their 300-ohm load, driving them properly presents a challenge to most headphone amps. I don't own a dedicated headphone amp; in fact, until recently, I had never heard a really top-notch pair of headphones, let alone an amp capable of putting the New York Phil in my head. When my Sennheiser cans first arrived, I plugged them into every headphone jack I could find. Various CD players and receivers sounded decent, but all lacked that quality that makes me want to listen for an extended period. I settled on an old Marantz 1070, which, even with its noisy right channel, proved to be a much better partner for the Sennheisers than any of the others, though I knew I had only cracked the window on their capabilities, and decided to wait patiently for something better to come along. Enter the Ray Samuel's Emmeline HR-2.

The Emmeline HR-2 is a solid state, dual-op-amp based amplifier with a separate power supply connected via a hardwired umbilical cord. Its sleek yet sedate black chassis looks very well made, and though it is rather small, its weighty, solid feel gives confidence. The only control found on the HR-2, a full-sized Noble volume pot, is located next to the single headphone jack. Once you plug a detachable power cord into the power supply, the red LED on the front lights up and you are ready to rock.

There is a noticeable tracking error at the very lowest end of the volume control, but this setting is so low that I seriously doubt anyone will ever use it. Otherwise, the volume pot is smooth and quiet. The amp goes louder than I can stand, with nary a hint of congestion or noise, though this depends on the quality of the recording. The noise floor is very low, and music emerges from a silent, black background. Compared to the Meier Corda HA-1 Mark 2, I first felt that the HR-2 sounded a bit distant, with a more mid-hall perspective, but after much debate with myself I have decided that depending on the recording, the Emmeline is equally at home inside the performance. Even without a cross-feed circuit like the Meier's, there is much more space and air around the players. The HR-2's bass is compact and tuneful, but does not offer as much richness as the Meier. The bass is quite good—very natural—but not overly warm or wooly.

I drove the Emmeline directly from my Cary 303-200 CD player and from the tape outputs of my First Sound preamp. I preferred going through the preamp, which is good, since that is the way I will normally listen. I listened to a wide variety of music, both LP and CD, good quality and bad. The Emmeline never seemed to impose much on the music, and I was quite taken with how great my old 70s and 80s recordings sounded. However, knowing my job as a reviewer is to shake the quality tree hard, I brought out a favorite audiophile recording, a Sheffield Labs CD compilation from 1984 entitled Crème De La Crème, to give the amp a shakedown.

On the first cut, "Amanda," which chronicles the great trek westward by wagon train, the sense of spaciousness provided by the Emmeline puts you smack in the middle of the Great Plains. At several points during the song, there is a loud thwack on the bass drum, which is in dynamic contrast to the rest of the track. On headphones, there is a different kind of dynamic change than that provided by loudspeakers, but with the HR-2 the effect is startling. While always musical, the bass doesn't really kick in on the Sennheisers until you turn the volume up to 10 or 11 o'clock, which, truth be told, is a bit too loud for me. At that point, the electric bass on "The Higher You Rise" becomes punchy, solid, and deep. The HR-2's bass is highly satisfying, considering that I am used to the "bass in the pit of the stomach" feeling produced by my REL subwoofer. On "Blackbird," the delicate tone of the strings and piano is beautiful, as are the string bass and drums on "Cripple Creek Breakdown." In terms of sheer musical enjoyment, the brassy bite of Harry James' big band horn section on "Corner Pocket" was just plain swingin'. The drive of the brass and Thelma Houston's great vocals had me dancing—or at least thinking about dancing—on "I've Got The Music In Me," and clearly showed the HR-2's ability to boogie.

This little amp does rock—and jazz, and classical, and folk, and… well, you get the idea. The HR-2 embodies the qualities I have come to appreciate in fine audio gear. It has very solid bass (though not in the same league as that of a fine speaker system), extended treble, and excellent reproduction of the tone and timbre of instruments and voices. The Emmeline HR-2 has a natural presentation that is smooth but also has bite. I did find some perceptible improvements in dynamics when I bypassed my power line conditioner and plugged the amp straight into the wall. Like many of the new generation of solid state amps, it doesn't have an obvious sonic signature, and while it is certainly not warm in the classic tube amp sense, neither is it cold and clinical. Samuels uses a plug-in op amp socket that allows the user to tune the sound, a la tube rolling. I decided not to muddy the water by changing op amps during my reviewing time, but it is a nice option, and gives this amp additional value.

The transparent clarity of the Emmeline, along with the immersive quality of headphones in general, makes it easy to get lost in the music. Since the HR-2 and the Meier Corda HA-1 Mark 2 are the only dedicated headphone amps I have heard, I cannot say whether the Emmeline is the best at its price. I can say that it drove my HD600s so well that I looked forward to every listening session. The Meier amp gave the Emmeline a run for its money, but I give the nod to the Samuels. The stock Sennheiser cable may also be holding back the rig from further improvement. Many owners of HD600s have replaced the stock cable with one from an after-market manufacturer, and most report improved performance. I hope to try one soon. Also, as good as they sound, I wonder if the HD600s are perfect partners for the HR-2. Some headphone aficionados swear by the synergy between the Sony R10 and the Emmeline*, stating that this combo rivals the best of the best. The R10s are in the rarefied territory occupied by the most expensive ‘phones in the world, but it is nice to know that the Emmeline will rise to the occasion if I decide to cash in my life insurance to buy a pair.

What does the HR-2 offer over the Corda HA-1 for all that additional cash? It all comes down to refinement. The Emmeline is more dynamic, more transparent, and more airy. Its timbre is more correct, and it is more resolving. It offers that little something extra for those who appreciate the difference. To some, it may be a subtle difference, for others, the two may seem light years apart. Other than the desire to see what difference a cross-feed circuit would have on the performance of the Emmeline, I can't ask for more. It is a beautifully executed piece of audio electronics, and deserves a listen by anyone in the market for a no-holds-barred headphone amp. I may have to hold on to it a while longer. Gary L. Beard

*To clarifiy my comments regarding the Sony R10 and the Emmeline HR-2: To my knowledge, there are only a few people who have ever heard these two components together, and only two who own both. Their very positive comments appear on the headphone forum Head-fi (www.head-fi.com). I wanted readers to know that the Emmeline, being a great partner with the Sennheiser HD600s, is apparently an excellent partner with some of the finest dynamic headphones ever made too. My apologies to those good people at Head-fi, anyone who might have been misled by the statement in my review.

 

 

 

JOHN BRAZIER'S SYSTEM

LOUDSPEAKERS
Sennheiser HD 600 headphones.

ELECTRONICS
EarMax Tube OTL headphone amplifier.

SOURCE
Rega Planet (transport only), Perpetual Technologies P1A Digital Correction Engine and a Perpetual Technologies P3A Upsampling DAC (both with IS2).

CABLES
Acoustic Zen Silver Phantom digital cable and Acoustic Zen Matrix Reference interconnects.

 

two.jpg (6646 bytes)It seems that I am one of the first to get the call from PFO when it comes to reviewing anything headphone-ish, and that is fine with me. It is a good time to be a headphone-a-phile. Only a few years ago, headphones were regarded as superfluous to high end audio, something not to be taken seriously, but this is no longer the case. Just visit www.head-fi.org to witness the obsessions that headphoners have with their rigs. I won't bore you with my personal migration from the world of living room two-channel to the intimate cradle of headphones; just read my recent headphone-related reviews.

I had never heard of Ray Samuels before the call from the PFO editors, but have been thoroughly enjoying his HR-2 headphone amp for the better part of a month. The HR-2 is a solid two-piece rig. One piece is a hefty power supply measuring about 4 x 4 x 8 inches and weighing a solid five pounds. The other, the jack and attenuator box, is lighter and smaller than the power supply. Between them is a heavy power cord, one you would need a tool or two to remove. The construction is top notch—solid and substantial, with no worries about the smaller of the two boxes being jerked by a miscalculated step away from the amp when tethered. The volume knob is heavy to the touch and smooth in its rotation. It is not the most attractive amp I have seen, nor is it even in the top ten, but Mr. Samuels, to his credit, appears to be a form-follows-function engineer. This is not a problem, but a little panache would have been nice.

It had been a while since I'd had the opportunity to listen closely to a solid state amp, but all my perceptions returned quickly. All the typical SS traits were there—detail, tight bass, and a slightly impersonal presentation—but from a broad perspective, the amp did everything well. Most notable was the well-defined soundstage. The whereabouts of the instruments were neatly delineated, and muddled only when they were supposed to be so. Contributing to the success of the soundstage was the silence between the notes and passages.

Tubes have the reputation of serving up female vocals on a velvety pillow, while male vocals are not so well served. Tubes add sweetness, but tend to emasculate. You just don't hear, "Man, Tom Waits sounds so sweet with my tube amp." Note that I am not equating sweetness with emotion. I bring this up because I found that male vocals won out with the HR-2. My prior experience with solid state amps is that they tend to treat the frequency range equally. If an SS amp is dry or edgy or bloomy, that characteristic is evident, to varying degrees, throughout the frequency range. However, the HR-2 worked a little magic with the fellas, in a way not too dissimilar from the positive spin tubes give to the gals. I was able to attach more emotion to the typical Johnnie Cash tune.

Another case in point was Mark Knopfler's "Devils Baby" from The Ragpicker's Dream. Knopfler's voice is a bit raspy, and masculine by nature. With the HR-2, these elements are present, but are coupled with an endearing hint of emotion and sensitivity either masked by other solid state amps or smoothed out by tube amps. I got a sense of the feeling behind the music, and could hear the care he had for the tune. By way of contrast, "Marbletown," on the same disc, offers a slightly more aggressive tone. A lesser amp would allow the aggression to dominate, but with the HR-2 I got it all. I heard and felt the tension he was expressing, while all the while his masculinity remained intact. While I am speaking about The Ragpicker's Dream, let me say that the overall delivery, not just the vocals, was tight and authoritative, the guitar picking spot on. I did not hear any unnecessary decay or artifacts. When a note was supposed to be over, it was over.

So how did the feminine side fare? Not as well as with a tube amp, I'm afraid, but not as bad as with some solid state amps I have heard. It is my opinion that female vocals should have a sweet element. I cannot image the likes of Allison Krauss without it. Even my much-loved Ani Difranco benefits from some sweetness, no matter how hard she tries to bury it. One afternoon, I got caught up by a young singer blessed with her own thirty-minute MTV special. Upon learning that she was named Angie Stone, I spent the cabbage on her CD. Ms. Stone has oodles of funk and soul. She fits comfortably in the company of Eryka Badu, Racheal Farrel, and Macy Gray. There are some cheesy soul tunes on the disc, but there is an excellent cover of "Wish I Didn't Miss You." With a tube amp, her rendition is overflowing with emotion and soul. A touch of this is lost via the HR-2, though it does sound solid, well balanced, and harmonically on the money. What separates a good amp from a great amp is the ability to capture those things that can't be measured or even easily identified, and that are missing from female vocals when heard through the HR-2. That is not to say that the amp does damage to female vocals. Nothing could be further from the truth, yet in the end, emotion—male or female—is what makes a so-so disc into an awesome one.

One final note on the character of this amp, which I call the "reach for the volume control" effect. Typically, and I am not sure why, I tend to listen to softer music via my Sennheisers. I do drop in the occasional Cake or Primus, but for the most part I find my predilections go more toward jazz or vocal pieces. I rocked with the HR-2. I spun discs that I had not spun in a long time. The rougher tracks got played louder, without fatigue or headache. The HR-2 appears to exhibit the best in solid state while avoiding the worst. It seems, all too often, that solid state amps are a bit too edgy, if not downright annoying. I liked what I was hearing with the HR-2, and I wanted to hear more.

Would I recommend this amp? Absolutely. Would I like to own this amp? Yes. For the asking price, Ray Samuels offers an excellently built, well-thought-out headphone amp. Music comes through the HR-2 the better for it. If you are a rocker and a headphone user, you must audition the HR-2. If you fall on the other end of the spectrum, try it—you may like it a lot. If you are in between those two camps, you just can't go wrong. John Brazier

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Emmeline HR-2 headphone amplifier
Retail: $875

Ray Samuels Audio
web address: http://www.raysamuelsaudio.com

 

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