During Hi-Fi '96 I happened by Tyll Hersten's Headroom booth. Tyll consistently presents a great setup that must be seen to be appreciated. This year his area was abundantly decorated with all the Headroom products, diskmen, headphones, as well as various electronics high-end electronics to showcase the Headroom products. Furthermore, the booth was like a mirage in the desert with a couch and chairs supplying ample, comfortable seating space. It was a great place to kill hours at the show and if you run out of music you can rest assured Tyll rarely runs short of conversation.
On one of my numerous visits to his booth I spied the brand new flagship Headroom product. Front row, center was the Max Headroom headphone amp. This is Headroom's assault on the state of the art. And its price? $1333, by high-end audio standards very much a bargain! With the heavy-duty build quality, new chassis style, and great sound I figured it should cost a whole lot more.
"DREAMER, NOTHING BUT A DREEEEE-MER "
Being the dreamer I am I immediately began making suggestions to Tyll about how he could beef up the Max even more to justify an even higher price tag. I couldn't offer anything to improve the sonics, so instead I suggested cosmetic alterations--stuff to really wow the audiophiles. "Use exotic materials, " I suggested, "maybe a space-age product from Dupont or something. Make 'em go ooooo and aaaaaa. Then put a big, honkin' solid gold volume knob on it. Yeah, that's the ticket! Gold and exotic materials." Tyll didn't agree. He built the Max to the sanest highest-end standards he could imagine. The chassis is expertly made, built like a tank, and the parts quality is first-rate. Anything more would simply be a waste he figured. No, this triggered another thought in Tyll's mind
So when a Maxed Out Home Headroom (MOHH) showed up at my door I said, "What the???" Instead of thinking up ways to make the product more expensive, Tyll thought up a way to make it even easier for audiophiles to afford. The Maxed Out Home Headroom takes the guts straight from the Max and puts it in the chassis of a Home Headroom. Tyll says everything except the volume control, headphone connectors, and chassis is the same as the Max. And the price is now $999.
Visually there is nothing to tell you this is a Maxed Out Home Headroom compared to a regular Home Headroom. Because of this I was somewhat confused whether I even had one. I phoned Tyll to ask whether an error had been made. Tyll had me look on the back panel for the only thing that indicates its Max upbringing, two letters beside the serial number: MH. With the MOHH you're pay for the sonics and you don't get the prestige of a fancy nameplate or anything.
At over $300 cheaper, and being basically the same, will it kill the need for a Max Headroom? No. That $334 price differential is well spent and Tyll says Headroom isn't making much to create the much beefier chassis, as well as offering new connectors and volume control. And it's supposed to be just a wee smidgeon better sonically because of these improvements.
|The Maxxed Out Home
front view (the one we're talking about)
|The Max Headroom front
"SO WHY A HEADROOM HEADPHONE AMP ANYWAY?"
The Headroom web site says it best: "The electronic circuitry behind the average headphone jack is cheap junk. Most headphones are $29 trinkets---filled with "if it barely works, ship it" engineering. And the biggest sin of all, headphones give you that yucky blobs-in-the-middle-of-your-head audio image. Almost everybody, quite rightly, carries around the distinct impression that headphones stink. We did."
And they're right! It took until I seriously listened to one of their headphone amps that I became a believer. It wasn't like it took me long either--like seconds. Even Headroom's smallest Little Headroom model at $229 is so far better than most any headphone circuitry you'll find in standard gear that comparison is silly. Immediately you'll hear infinitely greater dynamics, vastly improved clarity, and simply fantastic sound that can make the headphone experience every bit that of a high-end audio experience.
"IT'S NO BRAIN STRAIN TO GREAT SOUND!"
Luckily there isn't much to hooking up a Headroom amp. Likely your source signal will come from a CD-player or external DAC. Simply plug it into the RCA inputs on the rear. Then plug you headphones in the front. Next make sure the volume is turned down and slip some 'phones on your noggin. Press Play and you're set. And make sure to keep a two-four close to the listening chair--you'll be there a long time. In my case the source, for the most part, was a Theta Data Basic transport into an Audio Alchemy v1.2 DAC. Various headphones were used, each described later.
Musically speaking, the Maxxed Out Home Headroom is fantastic. Listening to music through a headphone system such as this is every bit as involving and exciting as through a regular high-end system with speakers--in some ways more so. Music comes through full-scale, tonally natural, and with life-like dynamics. Furthermore, imaging is very precise when Headroom's Process is engaged (more on that in a bit).
There is a wonderful sense of weight and presence. High frequencies are extended, but never etched. Bass is deep and tight. But where they really get things right is in the midrange. Vocals, in particular, sound full and natural through the Maxxed Out Home Headroom. The sound is highly detailed, yet musically relaxed and well presented. Although there was great texture, the music was never forward or hard. I don't tolerate problems in the midrange. I believe the midrange has to be exactly right in order for a system to be right. I'd rather give up bass and some high-frequency response in order to get a natural-sounding midrange. Luckily not much is given up anywhere with the Max. Overall, it's wonderfully natural and fully extended from top to bottom.
The pacing and dynamics are great. The quick sound made familiar music seem faster in some cases. Overall, there was more involvement. In the end I generally found this attribute to be the result of better resolution and detail, making instrumental lines easier to follow.
And the resolution? Simply outstanding! There was one day when I was doing some cable comparisons on my regular system. I was using program material that would allow me to determine resolving characteristics of the cables. I was listening here, there, back, and forth. Then I thought, "I wonder what this sounds like through some 'phones?" Well, were the Stones just another band? Is Cindy Crawford just another supermodel? Is Robert DeNiro just another actor? Is Babe just another pig? Resolution and detail were in another league altogether. The Max was microscopic in its ability to pick up musical nuances! Details I'd never heard through ANY system were as apparent as Pamela Anderson in a thong. Now, I use the Max as a reference in my critical listening to find out exactly what I should be hearing and where it all is placed in the mix.
Headroom products, in general, have taught me that headphone listening is serious listening. And what's more, you don't have worry about speaker placement, room boundaries, etc. As well, unlike the multitude of speaker/amp/preamp combinations, the Maxxed Out Home seems right at home with almost any headphone you plug in. I figure if you're spending this much on a headphone amp, you probably own, or are thinking of owning some pretty respectable phones. Still, I found tremendous pleasure plugging in the $69 Grado SR-60's. But the better the headphones got, the better the whole experience got. And there are a multitude of great options. The various Grado 'Reference' models and the Sennheisers come to mind. Each performed wonderfully to my ears. But the best sound I heard came at Hi-Fi '96 through the full-blown Max Headroom using some beautiful Special Edition Sennheiser 580 Jubilees that Headroom had on hand. But alas, I'm told these are no longer available. Still, headphone choice will come down to personal choice so I'm not about to make any recommendations here. But with the Maxxed out Home Headroom you'll have the pleasure and confidence of choosing virtually anything you like.
"AND WHAT ABOUT THE 'PROCESS' AND 'FILTER' THINGEES?"
Besides volume, about the only thing you can play around with on a Headroom amp is the Process and Filter. First lets talk Process. In a few words the Process affects the image you hear with headphones. With standard stereo amplification you tend to get an image that is way left, way right, and dead center. There is not a natural stereo spread. The Process uses crosstalk and frequency response changes at specific places to achieve a more natural stereo image. And it works! Depending on the recording, the effect can range from barely noticeable to monumental. In all cases I found that the Process never degraded the music and only served to enhance imaging, so it was safe to leave on all the time.
The best example I found for the effect of Process was on the......ahem, Cyborgasm disk (1993 Algorithm - ALG01-2). Cyborgasm was a disk I picked up a few years back after reading about it in TAS (the issue has long since escaped me). You can imagine the content and are possibly wondering how it even got discussed there. Anyway, the TAS reviewer found track 4 particularly enlightening. This is the point at which a French woman basically talks dirty to you while rain falls on a rooftop above (if you don't know French, you'd never know what she was saying, perhaps the ingredients to a Louis All-Dressed Pizza, but if you do parlez vous.....). Actually, in the part of Canada I live, this fantasy situation isn't an odd occurrence; however, that's not really the point here. The spatial and soundstage effects (left, right, up, down) are quite entertaining. Tracks such as Mistress Kat took on new life as the whip came from here, there, and everywhere. YOUCH!
I had the mistaken notion that Headroom held all the rights to the Process, but I was informed by Tyll that most of the work for this was done decades ago. However, Headroom has attained considerable expertise and experience over the years. Subsequently, the Headroom company itself has lent particular value in this area and now other companies are licensing their technology. Simply put, Headroom is doing things right, and having their involvement adds value. I've seen the Process show up on Audio Alchemy and Sonic Frontiers products now.
The Filter is intended to work in conjunction with the Process. The purpose is to slightly brighten things up. As the Process does its thing, there is a chance it may lend an overall warm character to the sound according to Tyll. Certain frequency areas could go down in amplitude a bit. If this happens, the Filter can be engaged to bring things back to normal. I could barely notice any difference, if at all, with the Filter. In general, I also didn't find myself using it since things sounded A-OK with just the Process engaged. Tyll said that the effects are very, very subtle and that was normal.
THEN I FOUND OTHER USES FOR THE MAX
On the backside of this unit are a single set of outputs that were just begging me to experiment with. A couple years back Corey Greenberg of Stereophile was one of the first to write about using a headphone amp as a preamp. At the time, he found the Melos headphone amplifier to be better than preamps many times its price.
As well, I figure that if someone needs only one input source (as many CD only systems do), then having the ability to use this headphone amp as a preamp too, makes it even more valuable to a prospective purchaser. The only caveat of this is that you get none of the usual functionality of a preamp such as input selector, mute, etc. It simply acts as an active gain stage with volume control. No problemo with me! Oh yeah, before you do this make sure you defeat the Process and Filter buttons since the outputs run parallel to the headphone jacks and these stages are still in line.
And the result? Very, very good. I preferred it to my Sonic Frontiers SFL-1. The SFL-1 was just a tad bit smoother, but the Headroom cleaned house in dynamics, high-end extension, soundstaging, and on and on and on. Detail was much improved and individual voices, instruments, etc. were much easier to distinguish. On strong vocal recordings, 'shading' of the voice (the subtle fluctuations and changes) was much more apparent. Really, it was no contest and the Headroom remained on linestage duty for many weeks.
A PARTING OF THE WAYS.....
Like almost all great things, my time with the Max had to come to an end. At nearly one thousand clams, the Maxxed Out Home Headroom isn't cheap. But it's a serious high-end product that gives you many times that level of performance. Furthermore, it's giving you almost all of the performance of a Max Headroom for a few hundred dollars less. This is an important product, I feel, for audiophiles who may be able to stretch their budgets above the other Headroom lineup, but know they'll never make it to the $1333 Max.
Among the right electronics (and I don't mean expensive either) it will give awesome performance. If you have a full system already, slipping the Max in and out of the chain is simple (make sure to check it out against your regular preamp - who knows what you'll find). As well, the pleasure of headphone listening over standard speaker listening is just what you'll need at times.
For those thinking of building a great headphone system on its own, this would make a great centerpiece. Couple it with an all-in-one player, say the Cal Icon, or the Audio Alchemy ACD-Pro and some great headphones and you will have a fairly reasonably priced, yet extremely high-performing system. Either way you cut it this is a great product you need to try for yourself.
|Maxxed Out Home Headroom
Price: $999 USD