Over the past several years Dr. Alex Cavalli, a gifted consulting physicist and engineer, has been quietly developing some of the most ambitious and best-sounding headphone amplifiers on the market today. First came the hybrid tube/solid-state Liquid Fire headphone amplifier, which TAS owner Tom Martin termed a “state of the art product” (a judgment neither he nor I would make lightly). Next came the Liquid Lightning electrostatic headphone amp, which I described as “arguably the most honest and revealing amplifier that money can buy for purposes of powering electrostatic headphones.” More recently, I reviewed Cavalli’s tube-roller-friendly Liquid Glass amplifier in our sister publication, Hi-Fi+, where I called it “a terrifically open-minded product, which offers as many uniquely beautiful sonic ‘realities’ as there are tube sets to audition.” This brings us, finally, to Cavalli’s new Liquid Gold solid-state headphone amplifier (priced at $6450). Cavalli claims the Liquid Gold is his most sophisticated and best-sounding design to date—one that builds upon all the positive attributes of his earlier works.
Before we delve deep into a discussion of the Liquid Gold’s sound, let’s take a brief moment to review its basic features, functions, and technological details. The Liquid Gold is a very powerful, “statement-class,” fully differential, balanced-output, solid-state headphone amplifier. Cavalli has this to say about the Liquid Gold’s circuit design: “Its fully differential topology takes advantage of all the benefits of differential operation, including high common mode noise rejection. The differential circuit design of the Liquid Gold distinguishes it from some other balanced amplifiers, which operate two separate channels connected together (bridged) at their outputs.”
The unit provides three analog inputs (one single-ended and two balanced) plus four outputs (two single-ended via TRS-type jacks and two balanced via a 4-pin XLR jack and a left/right pair of 3-pin XLR jacks). To accommodate headphones of differing levels of sensitivity, the amp provides two switch-selectable gain settings: Hi (8x or 18dB of gain) and Lo (4x or 12dB of gain). Moreover, one of the two TRS jacks (Jack 1) is fitted with gain-reduction resistors that enable the amp to be used with (most) ultra-high-sensitivity headphones.
The Liquid Gold is fitted, as are all Cavalli amps, with a piezo-electric power switch said to enhance long-term reliability (picture an ultra-reliable cross between a traditional push-button switch and a touch-sensitive switch and you’ve got the general idea). Once the power switch is activated, the amp commences a “controlled startup sequence to protect the output devices and their drivers from high startup currents.” On startup an LED labeled “W” (for “Wait”) illuminates in red as the amp goes through a gradual one-to-two minute power-up sequence. Once the “W” lamp turns white (indicating that the initial waiting period is complete) a second LED labeled “H” (for “Headphones”) illuminates in red as various sensing circuits “wait until the DC offsets at the outputs have stabilized to the point where no damage to headphones can occur.” Only then will the “H” light turn white, indicating the amp is ready to play.
Judging by the sound it produces the Liquid Gold has been designed with a handful of sonic objectives in mind, including: dead-neutral tonal balance, low distortion, wide bandwidth, exceptional resolution, and terrific transient speed. Put these together and you get one of the most (if not the most) disarmingly honest and revealing headphone amplifiers I’ve yet heard. Put on a piece of music you think know well, and odds are that within seconds the Liquid Gold will have you asking yourself, “My word, where did all that additional musical information come from?” The effect is uplifting and invigorating in the extreme, but also a little unnerving in that you realize much of what you thought you knew about favorite recordings suddenly seems woefully incomplete. In an instant, you learn there is much more to hear than you might once have supposed.
In this respect, the Liquid Gold’s sonic virtues closely parallel those of another state-of-the-art product, namely, the Abyss AB-1266 planar-magnetic headphone reviewed in this issue. Dr. Cavalli is keenly aware of Joe Skubinski’s impressive Abyss headphones and likewise Mr. Skubinski is appreciative of Cavalli’s Liquid Gold amplifier. Both men, in fact, recommend and endorse one another’s products. My personal experience has been that one really hasn’t heard all that the Abyss headphones have to offer until one hears them driven by the Liquid Gold, and vice versa. For this reason, I used a set of Abyss AB-1226 ’phones for much of my review listening, although I also used other top-tier ’phones such as the Audeze LCD-3 and HiFiMAN HE-6.
What do you hear with the Liquid Gold headphone amplifier in play? The first impression is one of tapping into greatly expanded reservoirs of musical information. Timbres, textures, and transient sounds immediately become vivid, pure, articulate, and appropriately rich in tonal colors, conveying an overarching impression of musical “completeness.” For a beautiful example of this, listen carefully to Anne Bisson’s vocal performance on her cover of Pink Floyd’s “Us and Them” from Portraits and Perfumes [Camillio Records] through the Liquid Gold/Abyss combination. You can hear, for instance, how Bisson uses extremely subtle inflections and subliminal touches of vibrato to underscore the dark, brooding emotions inherent in Pink Floyd’s lyrics, as in the line, “Forward, he cried from the rear, and the front rank…died.”
Similarly, you can hear Bisson leveraging the seeming lightness and breathiness of her voice to deftly underscore the darkest bits of Pink Floyd’s sardonic black humor, as in the line, “Listen, son, said the man with the gun, there’s room for you inside.”
The Liquid Gold is exceptionally good at capturing these sorts of light vs. dark or hard vs. soft points of juxtaposition and contrast in music, in the process adding not just sonic but also emotional depth to nearly every playback session. While many good headphone amps show you the general outlines of the music and give some sense of the various music-making techniques at play, the Liquid Gold goes deep and lets you hear the music from the inside out—enabling you to judge and weigh each passage as if from a veteran musician’s expert point of view.
Similarly, note how the Liquid Gold captures not only the performance details from well-made live recordings, but also the reverberant and acoustic qualities of recording venues, conveying an eerily realistic sense of place. A good example would be the ultra-funky percussion track “Stank” from Jamey Haddad, Mark Sherman, and Lenny White’s Explorations in Time and Space [Chesky, Binaural+ CD], which was recorded in a pleasantly reverberant performance-space that has served double-duty as a church sanctuary.
Part of what makes Explorations tick is the fact that you have three masterful percussionists performing together on a wide array of instruments that are spread across the stage in the sanctuary. In a very real sense, the sound of the instruments becomes inherently interwoven with the sound of the room— almost as if the room were a fourth performer in the ensemble. The Cavalli amp makes this fact abundantly clear, rendering the track with a rare combination of raw power and delicate finesse, so that through top-tier headphones (again, the Abyss and others) “Stank” becomes a truly immersive listening experience. You hear the sound of instruments being thwacked with great force, or tapped with the lightest of touches, and everything in between these extremes, all the while savoring the way the sounds merge and seemingly multiply as they interact with the walls, ceiling, and floors of the space.
Just how vivid and intense is this sort of experience? Allow me to supply just one illustration. I played “Stank” for a non-audiophile office mate through the Liquid Gold and Abyss headphones, and as the track unfolded his eyes grew progressively wider. When the track was finished the listener was visibly moved by what he had just heard. He slowly lifted the ‘phones from his head, swallowed hard, and then softly said, “I really had no idea you could capture such an experience in a headphone system—or really in any kind of hi-fi system. That might be one of the most amazing things I’ve ever heard.” Moments like these are precisely what make the pursuit of top-tier headphones and the state-of-the-art electronics necessary to drive them worth the effort and expense.
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
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