What is the best amplifier for Sennheiser HD800? That’s a question that naturally is pondering many HD800 fans. Of course, it impossible to give a definitive answer. It depends on your budget, availability and your personal preferences. In this review I compare a range of amplifiers with the HD800 at various budget points. I compare them not by memory, but in a side by side comparison. There is a selection of solid state amps, tube amps, and a couple of amp/DACs.
The Sennheiser HD800 is a long standing reference in the headphone world. Launched in 2009, it set a new standard in the headphone industry with it’s ultra low distortion and exceptional soundstage. Sennheiser launched a re-tuned version called HD800S in 2015, but the original HD800 is still in production. The HD800S simply put has gotten some minor acoustic tweaks to boost the bass and tame the treble, but I would be very surprised if the results of the following test would turn significantly different for the HD800S.
I started out using two HD800’s from different production years for this review. Their serial numbers start with SN28 and SN16. Sennheiser never officially changed the HD800, but enthusiasts insist that there are small changes in the sound. The differences between my two pairs were indeed small, but not minute. Mostly I found the SN28 to be a bit more sensitive (sounding louder) and especially more forward in the midrange. But the preference regarding amplification didn’t vary much, and after a while, I ended up just using the newer version. I kept some of my comments regarding the difference in some sections.
Performing this comparison got quite a bit more difficult and time consuming than I initially imagined, mainly because the difference between the amplifiers was less obvious and more subtle than I expected. For the most part I tried keeping to a “two amps compared, track by track”-scheme, but I sometimes deviated from that scheme.
I will not go into detail about each amplifier here. Some amps are covered in earlier posts on this website, and I hope to write a review on the rest sometime in the future. The list of amplifiers is however as follows, starting with the least costly amplifier and increasing according to cost (although price differs a bit depending on where you live):
Lake People G103P, Schiit Asgard 2, Beyerdynamic A20, Burson Conductor V2, Violectric V200, Woo Audio WA2, Sennheiser HDVD600 (HDVD800 without the DAC), Audio-gd Master 9, Auralic Taurus mk2, Questyle CMA800R, Woo Audio WA22, Violectric V281 and HP4. I might update this review as I get my hands on interesting amps in the future. There are many good amplifiers out there that I have yet to listen to.
The Woo WA2 and WA22 that I use have been given upgraded tubes and is not as cheap as the list price tells you. The Sennheiser HDVD800 is essentially a Sennheiser HDVA600 with an onboard DAC – and since I only test the amplifier section – I really test the HDVA600. The Sennheiser amps are especially interesting since they are designed for the HD800 by Sennheiser themselves, and serves as a natural initial reference.
With regards to sources, I used three: Violectric V800, Hegel HD25 and Audio-gd Master 7. All are good DACs but latter is clearly the better of the three. The V800 is good, but not marvelous.The reason I ended up using the V800 the most was because it is good enough, and the ability to easily adjust volume made comparison easier, because during the process of comparing it is essential to make sure you are comparing quality and not volume. With the high-end amps I made sure to use the Master 7 at least partly, to make sure I did not miss any nuances. But frankly – all the Master 7 did was to make both amps equally better, keeping the differences the same.
So without further introduction, I present the observations I made comparing all these amps, two at a time. I did it in no particularly planned order, and that is the order you get it. You will also notice that I routinely broke my routine, being less elaborate. My conclusions are however just as solidly based in listening impressions, just not as strenuously recorded. If you are looking for a fast read you are welcome to jump right down to the conclusion at the end, or just skim through to my many small part-conclusions after each round.
Sennheiser HDVD800/HDVA600 vs Auralic Taurus mk2
Both these amps have single ended and balanced outputs. So I made two tests, first the single ended output (¼ inch TRS plug), and one using the 4-pin XLR balanced output.
1) Unbalanced mode comparison
IPA – Ting: Taurus sounds good, it is full sounding, spacious and punchy. But the HDVD800 offers an even more dynamic feel, with better separation, more air between instruments. But the difference is not big.
Hauschka – Bakerville : This song is not differentiating the amplifiers, I can hardly hear any differences at all.
Leonard Cohen – Slow: Same here, hard to spot the difference. If anything, I feel the HDVD800 is a little more dynamic, and some small details seem to get ever so slightly more audible.
Ola Kvernberg – Dualist: Again, the differences can be hard to spot between these two excellent amplifiers. But I feel that when the drums are unleashed after a minute, the HDVD800 has a little better control, making the busy soundscape feel a tad less crowded.
Tomatito – Donda Esta Tu Carino: This song is one of those where spotting the difference is a bit easier. The vocals are a bit more up front, the bass a bit punchier, the guitar strings feel more vibrant with the HDVD800. Taurus, while being a solid performer, sounds slightly flatter in direct comparison.
1B1: Holberg Suite 1 Prelude: As delightful as the Taurus paints the music, there is this slight feeling that the HDVD800 does it with even a bit more ease, resulting in a slightly more delightful experience. I get the feeling of increased gentleness, yet greater ability to punch when needed.
Floratone – Floratone: The percussion in the intro gives me the feeling of the HDVD800 being slightly more liquid sounding, the Taurus is a bit rawer. The “liquidness” I hear here is something I feel I recognize from the previous tracks too.
Smashing Pumpkins – Rocket: Again, the Taurus feels like it is revealing itself as having a rawer sound in the upper mids, making the electric guitar bite harder, in a way I cannot replicate by cranking up the volume on the HDVD800. This song clearly sounds better with the Taurus, the roughness of this track is portrayed in a less polished way, one might say. The electric guitar is simply sounding more electric, playing on the HDVD800 the song feels a bit toothless in comparison. Hard to describe, but the Taurus grooves more.
Pixies – Where is my mind: Also The Pixies is definitely more enjoyable with the Taurus. The distorted guitars sound distorted in a much rawer way, the HDVD800 tones the rawness down, the Taurus brings it up front. No doubt about it, the Taurus is more into rock.
I played some more rock music, Foo Fighters, Mogwai, White Stripes. Mostly the Taurus sounds better. I feel it has an crispier, edgier and more electric sound and it creates more of a “wall of sound”-effect. This sounds good with rock, but is a drawback with acoustic music. So – at least there seems to be a logic.
Conclusion – Unbalanced Mode
Both are very good amplifiers, and it was often hard to tell the difference. Where I had a preference, I mostly preferred the HDVD800, but usually by a small margin. It has this extra sense of subtleness, a bit more space and separation, and gives the impression of a more dynamic presentation. But when it comes to electric guitars, the HDVD800 didn’t stand a chance in direct comparison – Taurus was always the king.
2) Balanced mode comparison
The Auralic Taurus has an interesting function, making it use its four amplifier modules run in different ways depending on whether you have selected the unbalanced “STD” or balanced “BAL” mode. So it becomes a redesigned amp once you push that BAL button. I really like that feature, because balanced isn’t always best. But what happens to the HD800 when we go balanced with both the Taurus and the HDVD800?
IPA – Ting: Right from the start, it becomes obvious that the Taurus is a different beast in balanced mode. It is spacious and punchy, offering an insane soundstage precision on this track. The HDVD800 is still good but doesn’t keep up, even in balanced operation. With regards to the difference between the HDVD800’s balanced/unbalanced outputs, I couldn’t identify any significant differences, except for the very obvious difference in output level. A bit more clarity and openness maybe, but nothing like the difference of the Taurus running in balanced and single ended mode – which actually makes sense, since the Taurus uses the amp’s interior in different ways in the two settings.
Hauschka – Bakerville: Again, moving from the Sennheiser to the Taurus, the HD800 opens up, things get a bit cleaner and sharper cut.
Leonard Cohen – Slow: Same thing – there is more air between everything with the Taurus in balanced mode. Actually, I am quite amazed. The Sennheiser still sounds great – but there is this extra magic with the Taurus. The air, the supernatural definition.
Ola Kvernberg – Dualist: The guitar strings have this extra sense of floating in a specific point in the air, the drums kick in with extra kick, the ringing in the background has slightly more definition. The Sennheiser blends things a bit more into a whole, it is easier to separate everything with the Taurus.
1B1: Holberg Suite 1 Prelude: The HDVD800 is the smoother one, the Taurus has a bit more edge to the string and slightly better separation. But the difference is not as obvious here on this orchestral piece as on the previous tracks. Both are very enjoyable, but the Taurus does handle the busy parts with more authority.
James Blake – Limit To Your Love: This track has a very challenging deep bass kicking in after 55 seconds backing up Blake’s naked vocals. I feel the Taurus has a slightly cleaner presentation, but not really by the margin I by now had anticipated.
Dan Sartain – Those thoughts: This low-fi rockabilly track brings out some significant differences between the amps. It is mixed to sound bright and sizzly, making it a challenge for the HD800. The HDVD800 is significantly smoother and more pleasant, while the Taurus in balanced mode just gets too bright, and to me quite fatiguing. Running the Taurus in unbalanced mode makes the differences less significant, but I still prefer the HDVD800 for being slightly less bright and not exaggerating the lower treble region.
Conclusion – Balanced Mode
After the first round I was sure I’d declare the HDVD800 the winner – but after utilizing the Taurus’s balanced mode I cannot do that. Running the Taurus in balanced mode more than fixes the small issues I had with it being a bit flatter and less defined, and turns it all around. The HDVD800 does seem to take advantage of a balanced cable, but only in a very minor way, mostly it is just louder. The Taurus on the other hand is transformed into a new beast. And that is the beauty of the Taurus – you can get it to run in two modes by the press of a button.
So – in single ended – the HDVD800 is more spacious, less flat, yet feels more subtle in the treble, while in balanced mode, the Taurus’ exceptional precision and sense of control is truly great. The exception is on harsh and bright recordings. Whether Taurus is too bright or too revealing is hard to say. Anyway we are not really talking night and day, they are both great amplifiers for the HD800 – but in balanced mode – the Taurus is undoubtedly better to my ears.
Remarks: I used both my HD800’s for this test. I primarily used the 28xxx, but the 16xxx gave similar results. Source DAC: Violectric V800. Both amps via XLR input, TRS ¼” jack output.
Questyle CMA800R vs Sennheiser HDVD800
As the name suggests, the Questyle CMA800R was also made with the HD800 in mind. Here is how it compares.
Those thoughts – Dan Sartain: This is a low-fi rockabilly tune that is mixed to sound thin and sizzly. The bass is considerably more prominent with the CMA800R, and the treble is slightly less annoying, both traits contribute to making this track more pleasant to listen to than with the HDVD800. The Questyle also has better separation and seems clearer.
IPA – Ting: There is a greater feeling of space, of the room in which the musicians are playing, with the CMA800R – the bass is also slightly more prominent, which is nice. HDVD800 is still good sounding though – both are good. But the Questyle manages to present a fuller sounding and more spacious soundstage.
Bakerville – Hauschka: Not really much of a difference to spot here. But again, the CMA800R has a slightly firmer grip on the bass, without sounding less full. It also gives an ever so slightly deeper sensation of space. It sounds slightly more in control, and slightly less busy.
Leonard Cohen – Slow: Cohens voice is full and raspy, the imaging is great and precise with both. But the CMA800R gives just that little bit of extra texture, imaging and control, still managing to sound a bit fuller bodied.
Ola Kvernberg – Dualist: The CMA800R is clearly more vibrant, the solo strings in the intro are more clearly defined in space, when the bumping bass drums kick in, they do so with more energy, in a very satisfying way. They are full, yet controlled – nothing blurry at all. The scene sounds less crowded. The Sennheiser is great – a bit more polite and rounded sounding, though. The Questyle really offers something extra.
Tomatito – Donda Esta Tu Carino -: They sound quite different here. The vocals and guitar is fuller sounding on the Sennheiser amp. But there is more texture to the voice, a little crisper guitar strings with the Questyle.
In The Country – Villfugl: The differences are hard to spot in the quiet beginning where instruments are few. But as it gets more crowded, the Questyle shines a bit more than the HDVD800, it makes every single instrument feel more tactile. It makes me feel the body of the sound of each instrument in a more pronounced way. The HDVD800 is also great at this song, but just a tad short of its rival.
James Blake – Limit to your love: The challenging bass on this track is clearly better on the Questyle. Full and tight. The Sennheiser sounds totally alright but not as authoritative. Otherwise they are not dissimilar in their presentation.
The Questyle is more precise and vibrant, but without sounding brighter. It also has a tighter, yet fuller bass.
Remarks: Source DAC: Violectric V800. For the HDVD800 I used its balanced XLR output, the CMA800R only has single ended. I had the two HD800’s for this test. I primarily used the 28xxx, but the 16xxx gave similar results.
Auralic Taurus vs Questyle CMA800R
Out Of Yourself – Truls: On this fetching pop song with a very simple clear bass line and all falsetto singing, both amplifiers sound simply terrific, with tight and full bass, super precise imaging and great clarity. However, they are not identical, the Taurus is a tiny tad more open sounding, ever so slightly crisper.
Gilimanuk – Petter Molvær: There is this tiny bit of extra sublime solidity, a sense of mass, especially noticeable in the bass, that the Questyle presents here that I find attractive. Again the Taurus is very close and sounding and a bit more airy.
Villfugl – In the Country & Frida Ånnevik: In the tender instrumental opening they both are extremely open and clear sounding with lots of foundation. But again, the Taurus is a tad more airy, the Questyle has a tad more flesh. But they are very close, and hard to really prefer one for the other. Further out in the song where the vocals come in and instruments gets more complicated I struggle to find real differences to put my finger on. Frida’s tender voice is so beautifully tenderly rendered on both amps, all elements are clear and naturally painted, holography is superb. There might be a tad more solidity to the bass on the Questyle, the Taurus still might be a tad more airy, but this is splitting hairs.
Ragged Wood – Fleet Foxes: There’s a lot going on in this track, many instruments and voices playing simultaneously. The Taurus comes out as a tad better at separation, there is a bit more space between each instrument. The Questyle has this ever so slightly extra flesh to the instruments. But again, this is hair splitting, and I wouldn’t bet much on passing a blind test.
Brahms: Symphony No.3 in F, Op.90 – 1. Allegro con brio – Un poco sostenuto – Tempo I, Gewandhausorchester Leipzig: They are very close. And very nice. String and wind instruments alike, they are deliciously rendered, all harmony and balance.
Comparing these amps was a bit challenging because they sound so alike. And that’s a good thing because they both sound great. The Taurus occasionally was a tad sharper in its tone, which sometimes was an advantage and sometimes not. But mostly I could not really identify any significant differences.
Woo Audio WA2 VS Questyle CMA800R
Tube amplifiers are always hard to review, since they of course have the possibility of swapping tubes, and most people end up doing it. Even from the Woo factory, you don’t necessarily get the same tubes – it depends on what is available. I chose to run two rounds, swapping out some of the tubes. As you will see, the main character of the WA2 stays the same.
Woo WA2 with Raytheon 6AS7G tubes
Hauschka – Bakerville: The Woo is fuller bodied, especially noticeable in the bass. It is also smoother sounding. The Questyle is sharper cut with more air around instruments, but the Woo does not feel like it is lesser in detail. Both are wonderfully spacious, but the Woo has that extra full bodied silkiness that is just wonderful.
Max Richter – Vivaldi Spring 1: Both amps are really amazing on this tune. The violins are playing playfully virtuously in your head. It is tempting to give this to the Questyle due to its slightly sharper nature, which makes each tone stand out more, giving the strings more bite. But then I switch back to the Woo and guess what, it is just as delightful.
Leonard Cohen – Slow: Given the wast difference in amplifier topology, I am amazed how similar these two amps sound here. The bass is a bit more present with the WA2. It kicks a bit harder. Still, it is tight and with great definition, but the Questyle is maybe a tad tighter. I have an urge to pinpoint bigger variation, but the difference is just not very big. They are both extremely competent amplifiers and renders Cohen’s full and raspy voice wonderfully. Yes, the Questyle is still slightly sharper, but the amount of detail, texture and timbre is quite on the same level.
Vincente Amigo – Donte Esta Tu Carino: Both amps are crisp and clear, though the Questyle is a bit sharper. Both play the flamenco guitar with air and speed, the female vocals are passionate, the percussion is snappy, the bass is present and tight – as always a tad fuller on the Woo. Neither is bright, but the Questyle is closer to sibilant the places where that could be an issue.
Røyksopp – Running to the Sea: Playing electronic music makes the differences come out a bit more. The bass on the Questyle is clearly a tad tighter, and the typical treble action of electronic music comes out sharper. The first is a good thing, the last is not. Both are of course still great to listen to. It is not at all like the Woo has a sloppy bass. It is tight and defined, just not quite to the extent of the Questyle. Basically, the bass is tighter with the Questyle, the vocals are better with the Woo. Treble energy is higher with the Questyle. They are different, but I can’t put one in front of the other; another tie.
M83 – Midnight City: When I switch from the Woo to the Questyle, it seems at first like things get just a little bit clearer, but when I switch back I don’t feel that things are getting less clear, just more pleasant.
Conclusion WA2 vs CMA800R
After more listening with a variety of music, the conclusion is in line with the “track by track” comparison. Both amps are really amazing with the HD800. They sound surprisingly similar. Both are very fast. The Woo is smoother, without losing detail or speed. The Questyle is tighter, without losing much smoothness. Picking a winner is impossible on objective criteria. Personally I have a soft spot for slightly smooth yet highly detailed audio, so I’d pick the Woo if forced to choose.
Woo WA2 with TS5998
The TS 5998 is a more powerful tube, and a long time favorite. The general impression seems the same. The Woo is smoother, silky, still with great resolution. The Questyle is rawer.
The distorted sounds on Røyksopp and Robyn’s “Monument” has more edge with the Questyle, while the vocals are still quite smooth. The Questyle is not a “bright and edgy” amp, but it is slightly more aggressive sounding – in a good way. The Woo is very pleasant and non-fatiguing. Similar results with “Scratch Bass” from Lamb. I must add that Røyksopp’s “Monument” was one of the very few places where I switched preference with the two HD800’s, preferring the WA2 with the slightly “more polite” sounding SN16xxx, the Questyle with the “slightly warmer” SN28xxx. It was a very small degree of preference on both, but still interesting.
Switching to Max Richter’s “Spring 1”, I might prefer the Questyle for the extra zing in the strings and extra air around them. Switching back to the Woo makes me uncertain, though. Putting on some Emerson String Quartet, reveals that even though the Questyle is perceived as clearer, the Woo is slightly more pleasant. To me, at least. Delicate. The Woo presents more body to each tone, a bit thicker, in a full sounding lush yet detailed way.
Also with In the Country’s “Villfugl”, the Woo has this enveloping, silky fullness that really is hard to resist. The Questyle is a tad harder and thinner sounding, for good or worse, though it is still smooth, detailed and full of texture.
This is really a close race, but I would have to pick the Woo, also with the 5998-tubes.
Remarks: Source DAC was Violectric V800, XLR to Questyle, RCA to Woo WA2, Nordost Baldur cables. I had both HD800’s for this test. I primarily used the 28xxx, but the 16xxx gave similar results.
Audio-gd Master 9 vs Questyle
These two amplifiers have more in common than their massive difference in size would lead you to assume. Most importantly, they are both “current mode” amplifiers, meaning that their internal analog signal processing is done in the “current domain” rather than the normal “voltage domain”. Both convert the signal to the standard voltage/mode at the output. Both are also chinese..
Smashing pumpkins – Rocket: The HD800 is not in my opinion ideal for the listening to stuff like the Smashing Pumpkins. But it is more enjoyable on the Questyle. The bass is clearer and tighter. General separation of instruments is better. The fuzz guitars have more bite.
Floratone – Floratone: This tune is dominated by deep bass, picky guitars, some trumpets. Not a crowded soundscape at all like the Smashing Pumpkins song. At first listen it is hard to tell them apart, but after a while, I clearly can identify the extra dynamics of the Questyle, more texture to the percussion, some deeper sense of space. A small, but significant difference.
Lamb / Scratch Bass: This bass and percussion heavy electronic tune is really great sounding on both, but in direct comparison, the Questyle is more distinct, the treble is a bit clearer, more of that micro texture.
1B1: Holberg Suite 1 Prelude: Moving to some classical music, this tune offers a variation of strings. I find both amplifiers to do a terrific job here. Not really able to pick a winner. The Master 9 might feel a bit meatier and smoother in a very nice way, but that is just by a tad.
In the Country / Villfugl: Both deliver a great presentation with this very quiet jazz tune, with gentle piano, female vocals and percussive elements. Even though the Questyle feels a tad cleaner, I somehow tend to prefer this song with the Master 9 by a tad. It feels just a bit more enveloping, the same experience I had with the Holberg Suite before.
Glasser – Plane Temp: It is really hard to hear the difference here, but if anything, the Master 9 is a tad fuller, the Questyle a tad crisper. The bass is maybe a tiny bit tighter with the Questyle, if you listen really hard for it.
Mahler Symphony no.2 / III: Really hard to tell the difference. Both are great. Kettledrums and strings alike are beautifully rendered.
Brahms Symphony no.3 1 allegro: The Questyle might be a tad sharper in portraying the strings and horns. Again, it is a slight sense that the Master 9 is somehow giving the music a very little bit of extra body, while the Questyle seems a bit lighter.
Questyle seems to have a tighter bass, a crisper treble, but in a nice liquid way. The Master 9 has a slightly flatter, meatier sound with treble a bit less sparkly. The midrange presentation seems to be quite identical. Both are very neutral amplifiers.
Remarks: Source Hegel HD25.
Violectric V200 vs Questyle
The Violectric V200 is a reference in the headphone community for good reason. It is very versatile, and I have yet to experience a headphone that it doesn’t do justice.
Hauschka – Sunrise: I really struggle to identify any significant and audible differences here. Both sound terrific to me. After almost three minutes when the track builds to a crescendo, I tend to feel that the Questyle is a bit more busy sounding. But this might be just because I tend to look at the V200 as a more”relaxed” sounding amplifier from previous experience.
Thåstrøm – Grasflecker: The differences get a tad more apparent here. Thåstrøms voice is a bit crisper, the tambourine-ish instrument that goes through most of the song is a tad more zingy with the Questyle. But again – the differences perceived are minute.
High as a Kite – God don’t leave me: Again I really struggle to find anything to differentiate these two amplifiers.
And so it went on – I tried many different tracks, but there were no differences to speak of. Finally, however, I found something to put my finger on:
Pantha du Prince and the Bell Laboratory – Wave: Finally I found a song that made the difference clear enough for me to actually feel that there really was a small audible difference. This track is mainly done with different type of bells, and with the Questyle, there is an audible extra zingy-ness to the bells. It is a bit more action in the upper frequencies.
Floratone – Floratone: Another track that finally made me get a feel of some kind of difference. There is a tad more depth to the listening space with the Questyle, slightly better at pinpointing sounds.
Except for a few tracks, I really was not capable of differentiating these two amplifiers. This is a big win to the V200, which is way less costly than the Questyle. But still, the Questyle did come out on top. And thus remains my favorite solid state amplifier for the HD800.
Remarks: Source Hegel HD25.
Violectric V200 vs HDVD800/HDVA600
Hauschka – Bakerville: When I swap between these amplifiers I immediately get a sense that there is a slight difference, but struggle to put my finger on it. Maybe the V200 is a tad more spacious feeling. I don’t know really.
IPA – Ting: Same thing here. They are really close, but the V200 has a tad more of that airy feeling.
Astor Piazolla – Cite Tango: There is an immediate preference for the V200 here. Clearer, more spacious and full sound. Not night and day, but still. Especially that rasping sound continuing through the whole song is clearly more separated from the rest. There is a more dynamic feel to the V200.
Björk – Army of me: More flesh to the music, Björks voice is more present. Clear preference for the V200.
The Violectric V200 is great with the HD800. To my ears it definitely beats the HDVD800/600.
Remarks: Source Hegel HD25. HDVD800 via XLR output.
Schiit Asgard 2 vs HDVD800/HDVA600
IPA – Ting: The Schiit feels more dynamic. There is more punch, the drummer hits harder and the acoustic bass is a bit more prominent. HDVD800 does a good job, but the Schiit is more fun here.
Hilary Hahn / Mozart track 5: The Schiit certainly has a lot more bite to those strings. It is however a double edged sword. I tend to find that I prefer the calmer presentation of the HDVD800, it feels like it is more nuanced in its presentation. And less prone to causing fatigue.
Jenny Hval – In The Red: The Schiit clearly feels better focused in this strange, artsy little track, which is mainly made up of breathing sounds and voices. The HDVD800 is a bit fuzzier, but maybe less fatiguing in the treble area.
Röyksopp Monument: Hard hitting mid bass on this one and a quite aggressively textured synth. Again the Asgard 2 comes out as a bit sharper cut, a bit more aggressive. The HDVD800 is a bit less up front but more enveloping. Midway through the song the bass is definitely fuller sounding on the HDVD800.
James Blake – Limit to your Love: The Schiit seems to have a tighter grip on the bass that kicks in after the first minute, and the pinpointed sound stage is tighter and more precise.
These amps have very different presentations. The Schiit is snappy, feels very hyper focused, and quite a bit crisp and also also edgy. Altough it feels great in short listening sessions, if you are easily fatigued by your HD800s you should maybe not go for the Schiit.
Remarks: Source Hegel HD25
Schiit Asgard 2 vs Questyle CMA800R
Wussy – Teenage wasteland: The Questyle CMA800R is more revealing, especially with some background hiss in the beginning. There is more air and feeling of precision with the more expensive amp, crisper, clearer, a bit more punch, but really not that much difference.
James Blake – There´s a Limit to Your Love: These amps are quite similarly voiced, but the Questyle tends to have more subtlety, and the bass at the end of the track is a bit more intense, not louder but more powerful. It is hard to pinpoint, but there is something I tend to prefer with the Questyle.
Hilary Hahn / Mozart Violin Concert no 5 – track 4: Both are great, but there is something with the Schiit that makes it feel a bit “rawer” with the strings. Very dynamic, but the Questyle does all the Schiit does and has some extra refinement. The Questyle often tends to feel crisp and gentle at the same time.
The Schiit Asgard is sometimes very fascinating with the HD800, and generally the only thing that makes it hard to like it all around is that it can become a bit bright and harsh. The Questyle, however does everything great.
Remarks: Source Hegel HD25
Schiit Asgard 2 vs Beyerdynamic A20
These are about the same size and in the same price range.
Leonard Cohen – I’m leaving the table: Both do well with the slow pace and Cohen’s voice. The Schiit is a tad sharper cut, the A20 a tad softer and slightly more laid back. It is really hard to pick a favorite.
Hilary Hahn / Mozart Violin Concerto no 5 – track 4: As with the previous track, I get the feeling that the Schiit is a bit raw, a bit too much edge to the strings in comparison to the gentler presentation of the A20. I prefer the A20 here.
Röyksopp – Monument: The A20 feels a bit fuller sounding, I like the slightly more enveloping experience it gives me here.
Jenny Hval – Blood Bitch: Listening to the whole album going back and forth, I get my impressions from the previous tracks confirmed. The Schiit is indeed sharper in it’s tone. They are both good, but the softer, more delicate tone of the Beyer seduces me. Others might prefer otherwise, though. In many ways, the A20 reminds me of the HDVD800.
Remarks: Hegel HD25.
Beyerdynamic A20 vs HDVD800
These two amps initially seem very similar. Both are high output impedance devices made specifically for high impedance headphones. It takes me a while to discover something significant, but after running the same album some rounds (Hanne Kolstø – Fest Blikket), I tend to favour the HDVD800. It is simply more pleasant to listen to. And especially at low volumes. The A20 actually has a channel imbalance at very low volume. It isn’t a listening level volume, but the volume knob isn’t that far above before I reach a volume I would call low level listening. I tried some other music and my impression was confirmed. The HDVD800/600 is like a “better version” of the A20.
Lake People G103P
Lake People is the designed and made by the same people as the Violectric amplifiers, and it sure sounds like it. The G103P has balanced inputs only, but you can use adapters.
… vs Schiit Asgard 2
Pink + White – Frank Ocean: The Schiit is sharper, without feeling more detailed, really. I prefer the tonality of the G103, fuller without sounding murky. The Schiit is a bit strained sounding to my ears in direct comparison.
Morning Bell – Radiohead: This song can get painfully bright and dry. And sure, it sounds very much more pleasant with the Lake People.
Hawk – Brasstronaut: This track is dominated by a strong bass line, the vocals are mixed unusually back in the mix. The Lake People is again fuller and more pleasant, the Schiit bright and unnatural in direct comparison. The bass is significantly less present.
Chokichoki – Helge Lien Trio: Here the differences are less obvious. The Schiit feels initially a tad more snappy and dynamic, but that was not an impression that lasted. But they are more equal.
Vivaldi, The Four Seasons – Spring 3 – Recomposed By Max Richter: Same thing here. The Schiit is ok, but the tonality of the G103P is so much more to my liking, and it does feel just as detailed and even more dynamic.
… vs Beyerdynamic A20
Alala – Populous: The Beyerdynamic and the Lake People have similar sound signatures but the G103P feels more detailed.
Caparica -Populous: Same thing. The G103P just feels like a clearer version of the A20.
Villfugl – In the Country & Frida Ånnevik: The A20 is absolutely ok, but the G103P is more at ease, more complete.
Slow – Leonard Cohen: The music geeks freer, more alive and breathing with the G103P. It’s still good with the A20, but the G103P is better to my ears.
… vs Violectric V200
Muggen Fallskjerm – Jøkleba: There is slightly more refinement to the V200, but these amps are ridiculously close.
Chick Corea – Pledge for Peace: Again a bit more air and detail with the V200, but way closer than the price suggests. Actually, the G103P feels smoother and more relaxed, making it more enjoyable to me, but at the cost of some fine detail.
Dualist – Ola Kvernberg: As with the other songs, the room feels deep and big with both. But the G103P has such a big space I am amazed. The V200 is a tad sharper and more detailed, the G103P feels smoother and slightly darker but very, very nice.
Janácek: String Quartet No.1 – 2. Con moto ,- Emerson String Quartet: With strings, the extra fine detail of the V200 and slightly more pronounced highs givs it an advantage. But not by a margin that doesn’t still leave me impressed by the baby brother.
The G103P is a great amp for the HD800 regardless of price and it competes with amplifiers five times as expensive or more. It has the perfect tonality and drive for the HD800 and only lacks slight refinement when compared to much more expensive amps. I has a great, deep soundstage. A real stunner. I was a bit disappointed with the A20 and the Asgard 2. Both are decent amplifiers, but I felt they gave me the choice of being a bit too bright (the Schiit) or a bit lacking in dynamics (the A20). The Lake People solved this “dilemma”. Not only is it the cheapest of the three, to me it is also the most complete sounding for the HD800. The Violectric V200 really got some serious competition, and the V200 has proven to be a solid performer with the HD800, clearly preferred to the HDVD800. Unfortunately I didn’t get a shoot-out with the HDVD800 and G103P, but it wouldn’t surprise me if I’d prefer the latter.
With other headphones the G103P is still a great little amp, but doesn’t hold up to the extreme degree as with the HD800. It is indeed a budget-match made in heaven, which took me by quite a bit of surprise and made me go through some extra rounds of listening to be sure I found it consistent.
Remarks: Source Violectric V800
Burson Condctor V2
In my separate review on the Conductor V2+ (the “+” indicates an onboard DAC), I compare it to several of the amps mentioned in this post. For the details, please red the review here (link coming), but here is a brief takeaway.
The Conductor came out on top when compared directly to the HDVD800. I found both the amplifier and dac section of the Conductor to be better than the Sennheiser.
Compared to the Violectric V200, it was on the same level, but with a slightly different sound signature, a bit lighter in the bass and a bit sharper cut. Even the Auralic Taurus didn’t really offer too much more than the Conductor. So basically, the Burson had me impressed big time.
Significantly more expensive than the rest, I had big expectations for one. After listening to all the other amps and finding them a bit “too” similar, I was hoping the HP4 brought something new to the table, or more correctly, something new to the HD800. And boy, I was not disappointed. It felt as if the HD800 was revitalized. The soundstage expanded, the tightness and precision felt absolutely stunning.
First I compared it to the Sennheiser amp, which immediately felt a lot flatter. It is of course – as always on this level, not totally different. The HD800 sounds like an HD800 on both amplifiers. But long term sessions with various music just gave me more pleasure with the HP4, the tiny, tiny details felt more right, there was more flow, a bit more life. The HP4 felt more vivid.
Switching to compare the HP4 with the Questyle, I found the same. Listening to the Swedish jazz group Moskus’ Yttersvingen, there is a subtle but significant organic sense of added openness with the HP4, that the Questyle, or any of the solid state amplifiers I have tried cannot match. With Max Richter’s opening track to his Vivaldi recomposed it is the same. The HP4 feels more alive, more micro-dynamic, the timbre of instruments is so real, the soundstage opens up. The differences in each aspect are subtle, but add them together and the HP4 is on a level on it’s own.
HP4 adds openness to the soundstage that makes the music so immersive, the extra ease with which each note flows gives it an almost supernatural feeling.
Woo WA2 vs EAR HP4
BMX – Bergen Open: There is more warmth and clarity to the HP4. Better focus. Percussion is snappier, saxophones a bit warmer. The WA2 is great, but when swapping amps, there is a noticeable difference.
Radiohead – Burn The Witch: Same here, even better focus and clarity with the EAR. And the bass kicks a bit harder, Thom Yorke’s voice is a bit fuller and more present.
In The Country – Villfugl: Not so much difference on this track, but still the HP4 sounds a tad more alive and real.
The Norwegian Chamber Orchestra – Vivaldi 4 Seasons, Winter – I: The difference isn’t very obvious, but it is there. Slightly more attack in the strings with the HP4. WA2 a tad more laid back in the mids.
Ola Kvernberg – Dualist: Again, it sounds great on both. But with the HP4 there is just a tad more clarity, mids are slightly more forward. The separation between instruments is even better, the silence even blacker.
The WA2 is a great amplifier for the HD800. It is fabulous. But the HP4 is even more fabulous. My earlier experience with the WA2 is reflected here. It is a bit polite, a little laid back. This is not a bad thing, but a matter of preference. The WA2 has excellent soundstaging capabilities and does everything very, very well. But in direct comparison with the HP4, which not only is better at WA2’s strengths, but in addition offers a tad more presence in the mids without any drawbacks – the HP4 is impossible to beat.
Woo Audio WA22 vs WA2
The problem with testing and comparing tube amps is that essential parts of the amplifier, the tubes, can be exchanged, and that most users actually never end up with supplied “standard” tubes. In order to get a sense of how these amplifiers compare across tube changes, I chose to keep the WA2 constant with tubes I have used with it for a long time and know are great. For the WA22 I used three slightly different variations of tubes. I then ran three rounds of comparisons.
1 – WA22 with Rayeton 6AS7G , GZ34, Sylvania VT231 (all NOS)
Ola Kvernberg – Alarums & Excursions: The percussive elements in the into stands out more with the WA22. They are not very different, but the WA2 a tad bit more polite. When the strings set in they have more bite. The deep tones of the cello has a bit more power to it with the WA22. It. Is like everything is a bit louder on the WA22, but raising the volume on the WA2 doesn’t give the same effect.
The Norwegian Chamber Orchestra – Vivaldi 4 Seasons, Winter – I: Surprisingly little difference. Strings are nice, crisp detailed and natural sounding on both, but the WA22 is a tad crisper. Great sense of space, image depth, with both, but I feel the WA2 actually is better at this here.
Floratone – Floratone: There is a slightly sharper tune to the trumpets with the WA22, but frankly I find it difficult to identify significant differences.
Frank Ocean – Fertilizer/Sierra Leone: The WA2 is a bit more polite, but also tend to feel slightly more refined in its presentation. The WA22 is more “up front”, giving you more of an “in your face”-presentation. Both are however great to listen to with a huge image and great level of detail, and they are not that different. Even though the difference is clear, I cannot pick a winner.
Hauschka -Sanzhi Pod City: Again, the WA2 is silky and a tad polite, especially in the mid range, while the WA22 pushes things a bit harder.
These amplifiers are really superb with the HD800. They are however constructed quite differently. I tend to describe the WA2 as polite and silky smooth, and the WA22 is “up front” and has a bit more edge, it feels snappier. There are no way to declare a winner between these two.
2 – WA22 with Tung Sol 5998, GZ34 and VT231
Helge Lien Trio – Bon Tempi: I sense that the WA2 does a slightly better job at giving me feeling of the ambience of the recording, especially in the intro with the lonely piano playing. There is an even more three dimensional feeling with the WA2. But there’s not really that easy to tell them apart.
Gotan Project – Cité Tango: They sound so similar, but still the WA22 is slightly more up front, if anything.
Ola Kvernberg – Dualist: Bass is fuller with WA2, tighter with WA22. The 3D feeling is better with WA2. The WA22 is making me focus more on the main instruments, the WA2 gives me more of that ambience.
The differences between the WA2 and WA22 feels quite similar and in line with the previous tube setup.
3 – WA22 with Tung Sol 5998, GZ33 and VT231
Olga Konkova, Carl Morten Iversen & Audun Kleive – Solar
Both are very enjoyable playing this playful jazz instrumental. The WA22 has a slightly sharper and crisper tone with the piano, the WA2 is still a bit softer and gentle. Bass slightly looser and fuller with the WA2. The soundstage a bit wider and deeper with the WA2, making me prefer it.
Röyksopp – Monument
The raspy intro synth is tighter with the WA2. They are pretty similar though, but I feel the WA2 actually is more precise here.
Solveig Slettahjell – Never Forget The Good Ones
This is a slow song dominated by a female voice, a piano and a soft trumpet. The singer’s voice might be a bit more up front with the WA22, whilst the soundstage is more expansive with the WA2, which also is more subtle. Very close, but I prefer the WA2.
In this round I prefered the WA2. I have previously enjoyed the GZ33 quite a lot in the WA22, but in this case it seems like the GZ34 was a better match.
Conclusion WA2 vs WA22
Across tube changes made I tended to perceive the WA2 as more holographic, giving me a better sense of space, the ambience of the recording. With the GZ34 rectifier especially, I usually found the WA22 to be more forward sounding and a bit “rawer”, and tended to have a tighter but slightly less plentiful bass presentation than the WA2. That being said, I must underline that I often struggled to find any significant differences between them, and when I did, it was seldom obvious which I did prefer. There is of course an unlimited number of potential tube combinations one can arrange, but I have tried out enough tubes on both to say that I feel quite certain that I found some traits that are specific to each amplifier. The WA22 is significantly pricier, but I would put these amp on the same level here: They are different, but neither is objectively better for the HD800.
WA22 is more powerful and has better compatibility with lower impedance headphones. It also has a “high/Low impedance switch” that makes it possible to better tune the amps performance. On the other hand, the WA2 is dead silent, while the WA22 has a slight hum, though not significant through the headphones. If I only owned the HD800 and had to choose one of these amplifiers, I would keep the WA2.
Woo Audio WA22 vs EAR HP4
02:59 – 1982 + BJ Cole: The HP4 is delicious, warm, delicate, detailed. Switching to the WA22, things get a bit crisper and sharper and I miss some of that enveloping warmth from the HP4.
Sue (Or In a Season of Crime) – David Bowie: Starting out with the WA22, it is really snappy, punchy and engaging. Switching to the HP4, there is more warmth m, it feels more effortless and at ease, more natural, really superb. However, the WA22 might actually be more engaging with this song, even though the HP4 is objectively better.
He Would Have – Deerhunter: Again, the HP4 is deliciously balanced, everything is a natural haven of musical flow. The WA22 pushes the midrange a bit up front, making it sound more aggressive. It is punchy and dynamic. More in your face than the HP4, certainly in an entertaining way. But still, the HP4 I’d in a class above
Female Vampire- Jenny Hval: The WA22 is very good, it is up front and engaging, clear and tight. In comparison to the more grounded experience of the HP4, the WA22 does feel a bit “forced” in direct comparison.
Vivaldi – Spring 1 – Max Richter: All the strings are full of natural timbre and fullness with the HP4. The WA22 is brighter, lighter, has a bit more edge. The WA22 makes me think more about texture, the HP4 is more about timbre, if that makes any sense.
Conclusion Woo WA22 vs EAR HP4: Although the EAR HP4 always came out as the better amplifier, the WA22 has a presentation I often really like. They are really different. HP4 with its delicate and ultra pleasurable naturalness is impossible to beat in the long term. But the WA22’s more insisting and crisp nature gives you another window into the music, making my hand often reaching out to turn it on.
Remarks: Tubes in WA22: GZ34, VT231, TS5998
The last amplifier to join my never ending review is the Violectric V281. It is an impressive amp, which is in many ways a an upgraded, balanced version of V200. You need two amplifiers to make an amp balanced, so it is basically a double V200 with a bigger power supply various tweaks. Considering how well the V200 did, I really looked forward to this. And I wasn’t disappointed:
V281 vs WA22
Spectral Split – Pantha Du Prince & The Bell Laboratory: This is an instrumental tune, a heavy bass line with lots of bell sounds, often coming from the interesting instrument called an aluphone. Both amplifiers sound really nice, great bass, great bell sounds. The V281 is more relaxed in a way, at the same time it feels ultra precise. The WA22 is a bit fuller sounding, more up front, but not really at the cost of perceived precision. Hard to pick a winner.
Midnight City – M83: Both amps sounds terribly good. The difference is that the V281 again has this little extra sense of ease. It’s not that it feels restrained or laid back, just totally in control. The WA22 is very close, but it doesn’t handle the busy parts as elegant and with the same superb separation and control as the Violectric.
It Should Be Obvious – Jørn Øien Trio:
Really a fun tune. Lots of percussion, but still quite clean soundstage. The WA22 is very fun to listen to. It has lots of meat on the bone, it is really engaging. The V281 is noticeably cleaner. It also feels more polite. But it has all the dynamics needed when called upon. The midrange clearly is less forward than with the WA22.
Higdon: Violin Concerto – Fly Forward – Hilary Hahn
Again, the WA22 is a bit fuller sounding. But this time I find it subjectively as clean sounding as the Violectric. So really I enjoy the WA22 a tiny bit more. Maybe..
The V281 is superbly balanced and sounds like it measures beautifully perfect. It’s clean as a lab. Totally awesome. The WA22 is very close in detail and precision, but not all the way there. What it offers instead is a more forward presentation. The midrange is more up front, and instruments feel a bit thicker. Often I find it more engaging. Both have great dynamics. I find it hard to proclaim a clear winner, subjectively speaking. Which I prefer depends on the music. But the V281 is really impressive, and with busy music the it is unbeatable.
V281 vs Taurus mkII
Lost Highway – Bill Frisell
I love the sound of the electric guitar on this one. The Taurus renders it in a nice and warm away and the soundstages spacious and the bass is generous. The V281 presents a tighter but also less full bodied soundstage. It feels more precise, but still a bit less playful.
Mi Declaracion – Vinicius Cantuaria
The depth of the soundstage is insane on the V281. Background is dead silent, the separation is truly stunning. Everything is delicate and controlled. Bass is plentiful yet full of texture. Moving to the Taurus, you lose a little bit of that detail, but things come to life in a different way, vocals are a bit more up front. Somehow the Taurus gets my toe tapping, the V281 fills me with awe.
Winter 1 (Vivaldi 4 Seasons) – The Norwegian Chamber Orchestra: The V281 is hyper detailed as always which is easy to appreciate. However I feel the violins sounds more natural with the Taurus.
Martinů Op.H 313 – I. Poco allegro – “Intimate Letters” Emerson String Quartet: Another string piece, I start with the Taurus, and is fascinated with the ability to pinpoint each instrument in a three dimensional space. Texture is great, you can feel the bows friction against the string. This time I feel the strings are maybe a bit more natural when I switch to the V281, however. Maybe. Switching back and forth makes me very uncertain which to prefer, they are actually quite similar. But extremely good.
Symphony No.2 in C Minor ‘Resurrection’: III. In ruhig fließender Bewegung
Mahler Symphony No.2 – -Paavo Järvi/hr-Sinfonieorchester
This symphony contains a lot of dynamic contrasts. The massive opening kettle drums is soon relieved by gentle violins and a slow build up for another crescendo. Though both do very well, I feel the V281 handles especially the minor nuances of the low volumes better.
Plane Temp – Glasser: This song can sound a bit forced, strained and unpleasant. The Taurus/HD800 certainly isn’t the best way I have heard this. Going to the V281 does indeed make it nicer, with its controlled, unstrained presentation. Again, the V281 recess it’s strength when things gets complicated.
Although the Taurus have a tonality that sometimes is more to my liking, it is no doubt that the V281 is the better amp overall, with its insane level of precision.
V281 vs V200
Playing a range of tracks, it seems hard to find anything noteworthy between the two siblings. The V281 might have tad better definition, but differences are mostly just subtly present.
This Love is Here to Stay – Thomas Dybdahl: This is one of the tracks I find it easier to separate the two. There’s better separation between instruments with the V281. Thomas’s voice sounds more textured, crisper.
Running to The Sea – Röyksopp: Here too, the vocals are rendered with more nuance and texture with the V281. The V200 is slightly more diffuse in a general way all along the spectrum. Just slightly, but significant.
Midnight City – M83: The Violectric V281 is a tad better here too. They are annoyingly close sound signature wise, it is just the V281 being a bit tidier.
With the HD800 both the Violectric amps are superb. The V281 is basically a better V200 and that what it sounds like. The HD800 being HD800, with its pronounced treble, makes the V200 sounding less laid back in comparison with the V281 than with less bright headphones, making the difference between the amps appear very small, but still significant.
V281 vs Audio-gd Master 9
The V281 is a beast. But it is small compared to the Master 9. Both are powerful, “no compromise” balanced amplifiers. I initially struggle a bit to find much report about differing performance, but finally I find a track that makes the difference clearer:
Violin Concerto in D Minor, RV 813 III. Allegro Adagio – Ensemble Modo Antiquo: This very lively string piece reveals the Master 9 as a bit meatier, with more flesh to the strings. The V281 is a tad sharper cut, details more pronounced.
Viaticum (1) – EST: This track has me struggling again. Whenever I feel like concluding that the V281 is more detailed, I tend to think “hmm, maybenot” when swapping back to the Master 9.
Midnight City – M83: This track never fails me. It reveals an amplifier’s ability to keep stuff tidy. And the V281 is simply better at it than the Master 9.
Merciful – Nils Petter Molvær: Simple song with vocals and a piano. V281 feels ever so slightly cleaner. But just a tad.
With the HD800, the Master 9 and V281 sound very close in most cases, and share a similar “neutral but slightly darkish” sound signature. But when things get busy, the V281 puts its head first.
V281 vs HP4
Bergen Open – Bmx: The V281 is truly great on this mostly toned down improvised jazz piece. Truly exceptional. The timing, precision, tone, texture… The detail level is insane. Pure bliss. Moving to the HP4 there is a change in tonality, or in something. But it too has superb timing, precision, tone, texture… and the level of detail is still insane. It is like two different versions of perfection. But there is something extra to the HP4. Some additional natural flowing character.
Vivaldi 4 Seasons – Summer – III – The Norwegian Chamber Orchestra: The HP4 sounds truly great, but moving over to the V281, it becomes clear that the Violectric has a small edge on separation. On complex music like this, it seems the Violectric puts most amps to shame, although I wouldn’t use that word here. The HP4 this still really, really, really good and almost on par with the V281 at its strongest point. In addition it has that extra smooth flow. They are the stereotypes of solid state perfection vs the perfect tube amplifier. Almost arrive at the same, but the result has a different character.
I keep listening and find it consistent. They are both extremely good. The Violectric V281 makes the HD800 sound like a high end studio monitor setup. The HP4 makes the HD800 sound like a high end tube stereo system. You choose.
This review has been an exhausting journey. The biggest surprise is that the cheapest one in the test actually gets so much right, relatively speaking. The two other budget amps are ok, but not really doing the HD800 justice. The rest are ranging from good to superb. Some are better value than others. Many of them are quite similar, but different enough for me to make a ranking in some sort of confidence:
Order of preference:
- EAR HP4
- Violectric V281
- Woo WA2 / WA22
- Questyle CMA800R/Auralic Taurus mkII / Audio-gd Master 9 /
- Violectric V200 / Burson Conductor V2
- Sennheiser HDVD800
- Lake People G103
- Beyerdynamic A20 / Schiit Asgard 2
Best sound: EAR HP4
Best solid state amp: Violectric V281
Best Value: Lake People G103P / Violectric V200 / Woo WA2 / Burson Conductor V2 /
Best Budget: Lake People G103P