One further element not to be overlooked is that Cavalli’s Liquid Gold, though as delicate, refined, and subtle as they come, is at the same time immensely powerful by headphone amplifier standards (maximum output is a very impressive 9Wpc!). Interestingly, this does not mean the amp sounds brutal or “muscle-bound” in any way; in fact, the opposite is the case. Most of the time listeners become caught up in the Liquid Gold’s resolution of low-level details and in its blinding transient speed. But when powerful and demanding dynamic swells do come along, the Gold exuberantly demonstrates that it has seemingly bottomless reserves of dynamic headroom on tap. Stated another way, when dynamic push comes to shove either your ears or your headphones will likely give up long before the Liquid Gold does.
Certain musical tracks fairly beg to be played at “kick out the jams” volume levels—a good example of which might be Peter Gabriel’s “Steam” from Secret World Live [Geffen]. A big part of the “engine” that propels this track would be the mind-blowing grooves jointly created by world-class percussionist Manu Katche and virtuoso electric bassist Tony Levin (who performs, at times, on the difficult-to-reproduce Chapman Stick—an instrument that can generate positively subterranean bass notes). Together, these factors make for a playback scenario where headphone amps of moderate output—no matter how good they might otherwise be—simply will not do the job. Happily, the Liquid Gold stands ready to make most any headphone you could name boogie with serious gusto. On “Steam” in particular, the Cavalli handles the track’s vigorous, but also crisply defined and richly textured, low-frequency percussion, strings, and synth passages with power and grace. You can almost feel concussive waves of low-frequency energy racing across the stage toward your ears while enjoying virtually complete freedom from compression or overload. The musical result is liberating indeed.
Is there anything the Liquid Gold can’t do or are there any drawbacks we need to know about? I can think of two. First, note that the Liquid Gold is designed to power dynamic-type headphones, but not electrostatic ’phones. Those who have fallen in love with Stax’s superb SR-009 electrostatic headphones will need a dedicated electrostatic headphone amp (Cavalli’s Liquid Lightning MkII is ideal for such applications).
Second, the Liquid Gold absolutely will not and does not add any sort of sonic warmth or perceived “richness” to the music, unless, of course, those qualities are faithfully captured in your recordings. I mention this point because, frankly, a number of other fine headphone amplifiers do add a certain “tincture of warmth” to the musical proceedings, which is a euphonic coloration that I suspect some listeners will find appealing. If you want an amp that will generate its own aura of warmth or perceived richness, then the honest-to-a-fault Liquid Gold is probably not for you because it imparts very little sonic personality of its own. With recordings that sound vibrant, colorful, and alive the Gold will reflect precisely those qualities, but if fed thin, brittle-sounding, over-produced recordings, the Gold will unflinchingly reveal those characteristics, too—whether for good or ill. For my part, though, I find the transparency and honesty of the Cavalli refreshing and very desirable.
Like many of you, I keep a sort of running tally of the best audio systems I’ve heard to date—including, of course, the best headphone/amplifier combinations I’ve sampled. For now, Cavalli’s Liquid Gold, used in concert with the Abyss AB-1266 planar-magnetic headphones, not only made my short list but also earned a well-deserved place at the very top of that list. While I acknowledge that the admittedly expensive Liquid Gold will not fit every budget (my own included), nor will its hyper-honest sound suit all tastes, I nevertheless regard it as the finest headphone amplifier I have yet heard. Well done, Cavalli.
SPECS & PRICING
Inputs: Three analog (one single ended, two balanced)
Outputs: Four headphone outputs (one via a 4-pin XLR jack, one via dual left/right 3-pin XLR jacks, and two via TRS jacks)
Power output: Maximum output, 9W into 50 ohms, pure Class A output for the first 2.25W into 50 ohms
Frequency response: 3Hz –650kHz -1dB @ 3W into 33 ohms.
THD+N: 0.0015% @ 3W into 33 Ohms.
Dimensions: 42cm x 7.6cm x 29cm
806 Zappa Drive
Cedar Park, TX 78613