Review: Creek OBH-11 Amplifier
My Sennheiser HD580 headphones -- a revelation when I first got them -- have since revealed themselves to be seriously power hungry. While the sound is perfectly acceptable through the headphone circuit in my Sony SACD player, and much better than average via the jack on my Rotel RC-980 preamp, I’ve noticed some serious weaknesses. The bass isn’t exceptionally deep, it’s not very controlled, and the low end is generally sludgy. Complicated musical passages tend to sound compressed, rough and ragged. Simply put, the Sennheisers run of steam just as things are getting interesting.
It seemed natural to splurge for a dedicated headphone amp. Still, while seeking pre-purchase opinions, I found a lot of conflicting advice. The pro-amp camp argues that the average headphone jack is nothing more than a five-cent op-amp, suitable only for the casual listener. Conversely, the anti-amp camp states that outboard headphone amps make little if any improvement and, more than anything else, they simply color the sound. The truth, as always, would likely lie somewhere in the middle. I was going to find out one way or another.
WHICH AMP TO CHOOSE?
Creek’s stuff is generally great. And the prices are right. So while I considered everything from the HeadRoom Little and Rega Ear to the Musical Fidelity X-Can V2 and Pro-Ject Head Box, I always returned to the Creek OBH-11. It was the lowest priced, at $199. But it came with its share of controversy, too. The supplied wall wart power supply was lauded by some as more than adequate, and loathed by others who’d tried regulated supplies to great effect. Whew, lots of controversy…and I hadn’t even received the unit yet! But all this disagreement helped me refine the questions I’d need to answer in order to say definitively whether the Creek is a worthwhile investment:
1. How does the Creek stack up to the headphone jacks in my Sony SACD player and my Rotel preamp?
2. What effect, if any, does an upgraded power supply have on its performance?
3. To what degree do different components influence the sound of the Creek? (For instance, would it reveal the differences between my Sony SACD changer and my Phillips changer?)
4. How important are cables in this application? (After all, the best-sounding component in my system is a Rega turntable with Denon cartridge, and the tonearm cabling cost about 10 cents.)
5. Is the Creek, overall, a good value and a worthwhile upgrade?
I called around, but as it turns out, the OBH-11 is in the process of being discontinued in favor of an improved (and more expensive) model. I was able to track one down at Audio Advisor for only $199 including shipping. At that price, it’s a solid buy, especially since used OBH-11s routinely change hands for $125 or so on Audiogon. Worst-case scenario: I’d lose $75 on the deal if the Creek turned out to be a bust.
The OBH-11 is a solidly built little guy with a substantial-feeling volume knob. The tiny power button, located on the back panel, is a little inconvenient and slightly cheesy. Moreover, the wall wart power supply is anything but impressive. In fact, it bears a striking resemblance to the power supply that came with my $20 Conair sideburn trimmer. Not an encouraging sign.
I plugged it into my Monster Power HTS2500 power center, then reached into my big bag o’ interconnects and fished out the heftiest cable I could find. This cable—which I like to call the “Mystery Cable”—has no name on it, and no markings to indicate who made it. I have no memory of buying it, but it’s too well constructed to have been a freebie. Whatever it is, it’s not bad. Once, when I was moving around a lot, I used it to connect my ancient RCA DVD player to an Acurus DIA150 integrated amp, and the results were quite good. Most recently, I used it to connect a Phillips tuner to my Rotel preamp and the results were similarly satisfying.
I loaded a CD changer with discs and hit “repeat all” to help break the OBH-11 in. After 24 hours, I sat down for a listen. I can’t say it was a revelation. I started with Nickel Creek’s self-titled debut, which sounded about the same through the headphone jack on my Rotel as it did through the Creek. The Creek, however, is a huge improvement over the jack on my Sony SACD player. (But then again, so is the Rotel.)
In fact, the jack on my Rotel and the Creek sounded almost identical at first. Every time I thought I heard some advantage over the Rotel, I’d play the track again with the ‘phones plugged into the Creek and was disappointed to note almost no difference. I tried this with a number of discs that I was very familiar with, including Randy Newman’s “Bad Love,” James Taylor’s “Hourglass” and Paul Westerberg’s low-fi “Come Feel Me Tremble.” (I confined my listening mainly to CDs and SACDs because I rarely play LPs through headphones—not because they don’t sound good, but because it’s inconvenient to jump up and change sides every 20 minutes when all I really want is to load the changer with CDs and relax in the dark for a few solid hours.)
Nothing against the Creek: it was very good to this point, certainly better than the jack supplied on most source components and mass market receivers. It just wasn’t blowing me away. Credit Rotel for throwing in a headphone jack that’s much better than it has to be. One thing’s for sure: anyone without a headphone jack should be extremely satisfied with the Creek.
After about 10 hours—and right before I was ready to pack it up for a refund—I noticed something. The Creek relayed music with a more effortless quality than did the Rotel’s headphone jack. The Rotel sounded labored and mushy by comparison. The difference was subtle, but appreciable. Or maybe it was all in my head; I’m willing to leave room for that possibility, too.
SWAPPING THE INTERCONNECT; MORE LISTENING
Any audio manufacturer who blames an audio interconnect for their product’s shortcomings deserves to be run out of business. That’s not to say a product owner shouldn’t have to make responsible cable selections. But if you replace a good CD player with a great one, you should be able to hear the difference with the same cable you were already using. (Think of it this way: if you put bargain tires on a Porsche 911 Turbo, would they hobble its performance to the point where you’d mistake it for a Chevy Cavalier from behind the wheel? Of course not, but if car manufacturers were like certain cable companies, they’d have you believe that. Cable makers would also have you believe the reverse: that a great set of cables can make a crappy system sound better. A set of Pirelli P Zeroes are no more likely to transform a rickety old Dodge Omni than would Kimber 4PRs give new life to a $79.95 receiver. But boy do I digress.)
With all that in mind, I wasn’t about to spend $150 to connect a $199 headphone amp to my system, but I needed to know if the “Mystery Cable” was the limiting factor in the Creek’s solid but not stellar performance. So I replaced it with a sensible alternative: the MonsterCable Interlink 200, a one-meter run of which sells for about $20. I also fed the signal directly from my Sony SACD player, bypassing the preamp, with an Audioquest Diamondback.
Like most Monster products, the Interlink 200 is probably overpriced, even at $20. However, it doesn’t do anything too wrong. I used it once to connect a budget CD player to my preamp, and it did fine. Used with the Creek, it has a warm sound quality that sands the rough edges off questionable source material (like an early CD of Dire Straits’ masterful but awful-sounding all-digital “Brothers In Arms”). In a mid-fi system like mine, the Interlink 200 is all the cable some people will ever need. (A word of warning, though: I once substituted it for the Kimber Hero that links my preamp and amp, and the results were horrible—all the life immediately drained out of the music. But it’s fine for hooking up modest source components.)
When I fed the Creek a signal directly from my SACD player using an Audioquest Diamondback ($100 for one meter), things improved slightly. The highs were more extended, the midrange -- strings in particular -- was more natural, and the bass was just a tiny bit deeper and more defined. But we’re talking slight differences here. Are those differences worth an extra $80 over the price of a Monster Interlink 200? I don’t think so, but if you can afford it, why not?
With that in mind, I want looking for the ideal middle ground in price. I found it with the Monster Cable Interlink 400MkII. One meter sells for just $39.95—eminently reasonable, I think. Perceptions of this cable vary widely, from the unequivocal “best buy” status and five-star rating bestowed upon it by Britain’s HiFi Choice magazine to countless thumbs-downs from consumers on sites like www.audioreview.com. However, most of the reviews on that site reveal no context for the users’ opinions -- what systems are they using the cable in, how much experience do they have listening to hi-fi, do they have a family history of mental illness, etc. Being more inclined to trust HiFi Choice and my own generally positive experience with Monster, I stopped by my local Circuit City and picked up a set of the Interlink 400MkII.
Even when relatively unbroken in, this is a very nice cable. A definite contender for best buy status in its sub-$50 price class, it may even be a best buy against everything under $100. After a few days, it revealed deep bass, a lively midrange and detailed highs together with much-improved transients when compared to the lower-priced Interlink 200. It has a fuller, more rounded sound than the Audioquest Diamondback, and it strikes a nice balance between easy listenability and toe-tapping rhythmic drive.
Some people might find this combination glaring within the context of this system. After all, Sennheiser ‘phones tend to have a slightly exaggerated—but nonetheless lovely—treble response. The Creek has a decidedly British bent—accurate and unforgiving but stellar with quality source material. The Monster warms things up nicely without sacrificing the detail I think people demand from headphone listening. So, all things considered, I prefer the beer budget Interlink 400MkII to the Audioquest Diamondback, at least in this application.
As time went on, the Creek endeared itself to me. In A-B trials against my Rotel’s headphone circuit, the Rotel continued to turn in excellent performances. But there was something about the Creek that’s not easily described, nor easily heard. As I said, the Creek definitely has a sense of ease about it. That quality became more apparent with more critical listening. In fact, with the Rotel, it felt like the music was being forced through the headphone cable, while with the Creek, the music seemed to glide. I know that’s a weird way to express the perception, but it’s the only way I can think of. All I know is I tapped my toes to the music more when I was listening through the Creek.
After a few weeks, I can honestly say the Creek provides deeper and tighter bass than I’ve ever heard with my HD580 headphones. I can also tell you that vocals and strings were more natural sounding through the Creek. (Hear it yourself with the Mark Levinson SACD of recordings he made at his Red Rose Music store in New York City—it’s available from all the usual suspects like Music Direct and Acoustic Sounds.) Finally, the highs seemed to glare a bit less with the Creek. And, overall, there was a greater sense of air around the instruments. Granted, these are all very subtle qualities, but once you get used to them, you find you can’t live without them.
UPGRADING THE POWER SUPPLY
Many people would rightly argue that if the manufacturer encourages a power supply upgrade, it must mean the basic power supply is inadequate. They’d have a point if the Creek weren’t such a solid performer right out of the box. Besides, Creek offers an SE version of their headphone amp for those who want the very best upfront.
Still, it’s nice to have an upgrade path for the OBH-11, and the OBH-2 power supply is it. At $100, it skirts much of the middle ground between this amp and the premium SE version. I was originally on the fence about whether to try an upgraded power supply at all. But it makes sense, especially in an amp, to have a regulated power supply. I already know the difference smooth current flow makes for other equipment in my system—more so with amplification than sources.
I actually started by looking for a cheap alternative to the OBH-2. After browsing some discussion groups, I found that the Elpac WM080-1950-760 would do the trick nicely—and it’s only $30! The only problem is, it comes with a choice of two hardwired DC output connectors: one DIN-style, and a barrel-type that might match the Creek. The Creek uses a 2.1mm barrel jack, while the Elpac comes with a 2.5mm jack. The 2.5mm might fit, but that wasn’t the only problem. All the dealers I contacted were unable to tell me which output connector the Elpac would ship with. (The model number has no suffixes listed to differentiate the two connectors.) The helpful folks at Newark In One electronics even tried to get Elpac on the line, but their phone was busy every time they tried. I tried a few times myself and got a busy signal.
In the end, I thought it would be safer, easier, less frustrating and better for the Creek’s resale value if I bought the OBH-2. Audio Advisor doesn’t list it, so I poked around for good deals. Audible Elegance, a high-end store with Ohio and Kentucky showrooms, offered free shipping and a price of $100 delivered. I ordered it online on a Thursday night and received it a little over a week later. (Audible Elegance mailed me an invoice that arrived before the unit itself, and even followed up with an email to make sure the OBH-2 arrived safely. Pretty great service considering it was only a $100 purchase.)
The OBH-2 looks like it’s worth the $100. It’s big and heavy—not artificial heft, either, since the case is lightweight plastic. Something inside there is working hard. Despite the plastic case, it doesn’t seem to leak any interference. I placed it next to the OBH-11 and just below my preamp, and it didn’t seem to interfere with either the OBH-11 or my preamp, even the phono section. Kudos to Creek for that.
My initial impressions of the OBH-2 were not unlike those of the OBH-11: a little underwhelming. A lot of listeners will be tempted to give up and send it back for a refund, but don’t. The OBH-11 is a connoisseur’s product, and the addition of the OBH-2 makes it even more so. Don’t expect to be bowled over so much as won over.
I first heard it on track 7 of Liz Phair’s new self-titled release. The drums on “Little Digger” had a coarse quality through the headphone jack of my Rotel preamp, and they still retained a bit of that with the OBH-1 wall wart. But with the OBH-2, all of a sudden the grit was gone and each fall of the drumstick was a well-defined slam that decayed naturally. Before the OBH-2, the slam was more of an explosion that slowly disintegrated; kind of like when you turn your amp off with a signal still feeding into it and the sound slowly crackles and fades. This example in particular made me a big believer in the difference a regulated power supply can make, and why it makes it.
Over the course of the next few days, I found the OBH-2 an able co-conspirator that helped the OBH-11 deliver better defined bass, a more natural and open midrange and a shimmering top end. I also found that I enjoyed listening more as the Creek warmed up—the sound warmed up along with it and became fuller, rounder and deeper. After awhile, I got into the habit of turning on the Creek when I walked in the door so it would be ready to rock after dinner. (The OBH-2 power supply always has current, with a red LED indicating its status: plugged in or not plugged in.)
If I had it to do over again, I would have bought the OBH-11SE for a few dollars more. But, for $299 including the OBH-2 power supply and shipping, it’s hard to complain. Therefore, my advice for anyone on the fence about this unit is to buy the OBH-11 (or OBH-21, the newer version) and see if the standard wall wart satisfies. If it does, stop there. If not, only then ante up the extra $100 for the OBH-2.
WORTH $199 FOR THE CONVENIENCE?
The Creek has one feature that can’t be overlooked: you don’t have to turn your preamp on to use it. Which means, if you listen through cans a lot, you’ll be saving wear and tear on your preamp. Of course, this doesn’t work with a turntable—you’ll need to power up your phono stage to listen to LPs. But, with my Sony SACD player and the Creek both plugged into unswitched outlets on my Monster Power HTS2500, listening to a CD was as quick and easy as pressing two “on” buttons. Hell, why not leave the Creek powered up all the time? After all, how much juice could it possibly use?
ANSWERING THE QUESTIONS
To answer the questions I posed earlier in this review:
1. How did the Creek stack up to the headphone jacks in my Sony SACD player and Rotel preamp? It killed the limp, muddy sounding headphone output in the SACD player. But the Rotel’s circuit was surprisingly robust and musical. Most people could live quite happily with it. However, to get the most out of a pair of high-impedance cans like the Senns, a headphone amp should be a required purchase at some point.
2. What effect, if any, would an upgraded power supply have on its performance? The basic power supply is perfectly adequate—especially if your sources are on the lower end of the mid-fi spectrum like mine are. But for $100 more, the OBH-2 is a worthwhile upgrade for the serious headphone listener. It makes for a more liquid and involving presentation of all of the material I tried.
3. To what degree did different components influence the sound of the Creek? The Creek was a fairly revealing product, especially in combination with the 300-ohm Sennheisers. I could easily tell the difference between Red Book CDs played on my Sony (lean and un-hyped), Phillips CDR785 (warm, easy to listen to and somewhat analog-like) and my old faithful RCA DVD player (awful).
4. How important were the interconnect cables? In my opinion, you’ll get excellent performance out of the Creek by using a fairly modest cable. But a carefully chosen cable in the $40-$100 range will yield increased performance. Try a few, and get them from a place where you can easily return the ones you don’t like, because all three cables I tried with the Creek sounded distinctly different. (Remember, however, to invest in a quality headphone extension cable if you need added length. I’ve been using the $30 Grado 15-foot extension cord for results that are excellent. I can say that the Grado has little detrimental impact on the sound. Sooner or later, though, I’ll be replacing the entire cable on my HD580s with something like the Cardas 15-foot replacement cable.)
5. Is the Creek, overall, a good value and a worthwhile upgrade? Maybe, maybe not. If you have no headphone jack in your current system, the Creek is a very affordable way to add one. If you have a quality headphone circuit in an integrated amp or preamp like the Rotel RC-980BX, maybe not. Your choice of headphone is another consideration. I tried a pair of low-impedance cans (63ohm Sony ProAudio MDR-7506 Studio Monitors) with the Creek and noted no improvement at all. In fact, I believe that the Creek may not be well suited to drive low-impedance headphones. (See my review of the Sony MDR-7506s for more on that point.)
The only glaring shortcoming I noted in all my listening is that the Creek/Sennheiser combo seems strangely out of its element with certain types of guitar rock. This isn’t a technical issue so much as a subjective impression. It’s also tough to tell whether the problem lies more with the Creek or the Sennheisers (or my sources). But during my listening sessions, I was continually bothered by the dull, uninvolving way this duo played everything from the Rolling Stones SACD reissues to The Who and even the Replacements.
On the other hand, funkier rock bands—The Clash and The Police, with their reggae-inspired beats, as well as the Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Afghan Whigs, to name some others—fared much better. The bottom line is the Creek/Sennheiser duo lacked the visceral, punched-in-the-chest slam of high-power amplification and a good pair of loudspeakers. Maybe it’s impossible to get that from any pair of headphones, but I remember liking the Grado SR60s a lot with exactly the kind of music the Creek/Sennheiser combo falls slightly short on.
I’m keeping the Creek. For $199, this is a high quality unit that’s well built and thoughtfully engineered. The volume knob feels expensive, and I can turn it all the way up without hearing any buzzing, interference or hiss through my cans. It’s totally insensitive to placement, and while the junky OBH-1 power supply isn’t the best, it gets the job done well enough. With the OBH-2, music becomes more liquid, more involving and more highly resolved. It’s $100 well spent.
The Creek sounds supremely musical right out of the box, simply plugged right into a wall socket and connected to an entry-level CD player with a modest interconnect. I think it deserves a place next to the best high-value audio products of the last few years: the Rega P2 and Music Hall MMF-5, various NAD and Creek integrated amps, Polk RT25i monitors and Grado SR60 headphones, among others. You’d probably have to spend $10,000 or more on speakers and amplification to get the sound quality I enjoy with the inexpensive Creek, Sennheiser HD580s and a cheap CD player. And that’s the fun part: headphones and headphone amps—even really good ones—cost a fraction of what a good integrated amp does. You can have a blast trying these things out.
For the occasional headphone listener, the Creek may be redundant. Maybe that’s why there seem to be a steady stream of them on the used market. Another reason could be that people enjoy the Creeks so much, they want to upgrade to something swankier. For someone who’s just getting serious about headphones—or someone without a headphone jack—I can’t think of a better way to treat your ears for less than $200. Thanks to everyone who recommended it to me.
After finishing this review, I did some listening to LPs using the Creek OBH-11 with my Rega P2/Denon DL-160 rig played through the MM/MC phono section of my Rotel preamp. The synergy was fantastic. I listened to a Classic Records 180-gram reissue of Berlioz’s “Symphony Fantastique,” a rather ordinary reissue of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” and an original pressing of Bruce Springsteen’s “Tunnel of Love,” among others. I heard much deeper into the music than I ever had before, leading me to begin a systematic re-examination of my entire record collection.
The Creek OBH-11 is a boon to analog nuts, letting you hear mistracking and other maladies loud and clear. It sent me running for my copy of the Hi-Fi News & Record Review Test LP. After a half-hour of tinkering, the setup on my Rega is better than ever—probably about as good as it will ever be. LP surface noise is surprisingly subdued, with tics and pops relegated to the background. (By contrast, my Sony MDR-7506 cans annoyingly bring LP vinyl imperfections front and center.)
All in all, a very pleasant surprise.
Rega P2 turntable with P3 glass platter and ExtremePhono None-Felt mat
Denon DL-160 cartridge
Rotel RC-980 preamplifier with MM/MC phono card
Rotel RA-970 amplifier
Sony SCD-CE775 SACD player
ProAc Tablette 2000 loudspeakers
Kimber Kable 4PR speaker cables
Various Audioquest, Kimber, Vampire Wire and MonsterCable interconnects
Monster Power HTS 2500 Power Center
Record Doctor II record cleaning machine/Disc Doctor record brushes
StudioTech HF series racks
Audioquest MC cartridge demagnetizer
Sennheiser HD580 headphones
Sony ProAudio MDR-7506 headphones
Sennheiser HD565 Ovation