Pros: Wonderful sound, transportable, inexpensive
Cons: Ummm….may not be enough power for everyone?
Not too long ago, I was a lowly noob looking for my first headphones. I waded through the murky waters of terminology I couldn’t understand and brands I’d never heard of before. Over time, some patterns started to emerge and I started getting an idea of what the community considered bad (I’m looking at you, Beats) and what they considered good.
Of course Head-fi is a very diverse community so I rarely saw a product or brand that everyone could agree on. But one brand name that was always spoken of with respect was Cavalli Audio. The Liquid Gold was arguably one of the pinnacles of summit-fi audio. Even if nobody could agree that it was “the best”, the fact that people argued about it at all says a lot.
Time passed and I became educated, as we are all wont to do. My ideas of what was considered sane pricing for audiophile equipment changed, but Cavalli amps were always out of my price range and thus off my radar. Owning a Liquid amp of any kind was as far away as owning a $30,000 Sennheiser Orpheus. Until one day, this little fellow was announced.
The Liquid Carbon is a small transportable, solid-state, balanced amplifier that was designed to be an entry point into the Cavalli “house sound” at a reasonable price. The limited first run of 500 units is selling for $599. While this is still quite pricey in some ways, it’s less than one quarter the cost of Cavalli’s next cheapest amplifier. It’s a full 90% cheaper than the Liquid Gold was when it was released!
Obviously, many people were excited right away at the prospect of Cavalli sound and quality in an affordable package. Then CanJam SoCal 2015 happened and people got to hear it for the first time, including myself. It was pretty unanimous that this was a great sounding product and a bargain at the asking price.
Pre-orders went on sale and hundreds were reserved on the first day, just based on impressions from CanJam! But production would take four months and people have been ravenous for any more impressions on the unit.
I spoke with Dr. Cavalli after Canjam about using his amp in an upcoming project for Head-fi (more on that to come) and he graciously provided me with a pre-production unit to use until my final unit is ready. I’ve been using it for some time now and, due to popular demand, I’m here to give you a preview of this wonderful little device. While I don’t have a ton of experience with different amps, I’m going to do my best to deliver those sweet, sweet impressions that we all need so badly.
The Boring Stuff
The unit I have, as I mentioned, is a pre-production unit so a description of its physical properties is not going to be particularly helpful. Suffice it to say, the unit is very small and light and is indeed quite transportable. It also looks very classy in matte black with a laser-engraved logo.
On the front panel are outputs for XLR and Kobicon/RSA balanced connections as well as ¼” TRS single-ended. There is a power switch, a gain switch and an input selection switch. The final unit will also have LED’s to indicate… stuff. The back panel has the power cord input, XLR balanced inputs, and single ended inputs via RCA or 1/8” TRS.
Do note that purchased units will not come with a power cord. These are intended to be high-end audiophile units and those folks tend to be picky about their cabling. Dr. Cavalli can keep the price lower by not offering a cable that many folks wouldn’t use anyways, so it seems like a win/win to me.
The Good Stuff!
Okay, whew, glad we got all that out of the way. Now we can get to the juicy bits, namely how it sounds. To sum up my thoughts in one trite sound bite: it feels transparent and detailed like a solid state, while imparting some of that warmth and euphonic tone of a tube amp.
The amp is very transparent in that is has a wonderful black background as well as the speed to provide enough detail to satisfy my planar-magnetic headphones. I did the IEM test at one point: I plugged in my Noble 4 CIEM and, with no music playing, cranked the volume until I could hear some hiss. It was apparent at about 12:00 on the knob. However, it should be noted that normal listening volume with the IEM’s was at about 7:10 on the knob (with 7:00 being the starting point). 12:00 is absurdly, damagingly loud with a sensitive IEM. So you can imagine that at normal volumes it’s just dead silent.
I also found it transparent in another way: the soundstage. While it wasn’t the widest soundstage of all my amps (the NFB-28 is notably wider), it has a wonderful sense of front-to-back depth that the Audio-GD lacked completely. I never noticed that the NFB-28 felt unnaturally wide and flat until I compared it to the LC. In fact, the Liquid Carbon has a very proportioned soundstage between the X and the Z axes giving it a very spherical presentation. Something about that nice shape makes it just feel natural, which in turn adds to the feeling of the amp just getting out of the way.
Now tonally, I’m going to say that it doesn’t actually sound perfectly “flat” to me. It’s got an added weight to the bass and a bit of a laid back treble. Neither of these effects are particularly overstated, but they’re certainly noticeable in a direct comparison with other amps. Slight as the warmth is, this can certainly affect the pairing with some headphones, so it’s worth keeping in mind.
Interestingly, I find that it also has some of the euphonic characteristics of my tube amp, the Garage1217 Project Solstice. The bass and mids have just a bit of bloom, not in that “not enough power and control” sort of way, but in that “what has two thumbs and loves that tube sound” kind of way. I know it’s a weird thing to say that this solid state amp sounds tubey, but there it is.
The warmth and euphony that this provides is wonderful; it gives the amp an effortless, fatigue free sound that you can just listen to for hours on end. When combined with the transparency and detail mentioned earlier, it makes for a potent cocktail of audiophile bliss. If this is the Cavalli house sound that people are raving about, I can certainly see why!
Some Nerdy Stuff
I’m also going to touch on something here that I’ve discussed previously on Head-fi but is worth restating. The amp uses something called a phase splitter to convert the single-ended input into a balanced signal before sending into the actual amping circuits. Now, I don’t claim to have a clue what that means from a technical perspective. But the intention, as I understand it, is to make it so that a single-ended input signal benefits from the fully balanced amplification circuits.
I tested this myself to see what the big deal is. I plugged my balanced DAC, the Theta DS Pro Basic II, into the Liquid Carbon both via balanced XLR and single-ended RCA. Then I used the handy button on the front of the unit to swap back and forth between inputs. They sound virtually identical. Since the labeling of the button is a bit unclear to me (probably more a failing of mine than anything else), I actually lose track of which I’m listening to because they sound exactly the same. I have to unplug one of the connectors from the back to tell. It’s as close as I’m going to get to a blind test and the LC beat me every time.
To be clear, the phase splitter makes it so the SE input sounds as good as the balanced input, all other things equal. It’s a very interesting feat and it opens up all kinds of possibilities for DAC pairings when you’re not limited to balanced DAC’s for the best sound.
One last caveat: I haven’t tested this with any other DAC’s as the Theta is my only balanced one. It’s possible that the Theta just sounds the same balanced and SE, and all the phase splitter is doing is matching the volume. I think more testing is in order and I look forward to seeing what happens when the greater community gets their hands on the LC.
The End (for Now)
I hope this brief preview gives you a better idea of what to expect when the Liquid Carbon is released in a few agonizingly long weeks. It pulls off a wonderful trick of being linear and detailed, yet musical and euphonic at the same time. While it sounds oddly schizophrenic on paper, it actually adds up to a synergy that works effortlessly. It’s a sound that doesn’t leave you wanting for more detail, yet never fails to be musical. This could very well become the mid-fi amp to have for audiophiles who want it all at a reasonable price.
Equipment used in this preview includes: Theta DS Pro Basic II, Audio-GD DAC-19 10thAnniversary Edition, Audio-GD DI-2014, Garage1217 Project Solstice, Schiit SYS, Hifiman HE-560, Noble 4C, ZMF Blackwood, ZMF x Vibro, Oppo PM-3. Source was my PC running Foobar to play a variety of MP3’s and FLAC’s in genres including rock, metal, djent, trance, dance, psybient, trip-hop, jazz, hip hop, and a sprinkling of classical.