Review: Ray Samuels Audio Apache Headphone Amplifier Amplifier

Category: Amplifiers

Review: Ray Samuels Audio Apache Headphone Amplifier.

Maybe Ray should have called it the Can Opener.

It creates a vividly open sound area with whatever cans
I try it with (Senn 650s, AKG 701s, Grado GS1000s).
In short, the sound is un-headphone-like. (Uncanny?)
The Apache produces a very compelling listening experience that I have never had
with headphones before.
Tonality is excellent, striking a perfect balance between detail and smoothness.
It rivals the what I have heard in
audio shows and dealers with some extreme high-end speakers.
(The Apache also functions as a Preamp. I have not used it in this mode.)

All of my listening is from my McIntosh C46 preamp into the Apache.
I have a CD-only system. My previous headphone amplifier was a 1999 Headroom
Max (updated with a newer reference module in 2004). I still have the Max.

I have had the Apache for only a week, so I may be
updating this. Consider these initial impressions.

The sound is quite speaker-like, especially with the Grados.
The Grados are natively tipped up and bright, so I use the
tone controls on the McIntosh preamp (which has an 8-band equalizer)
to roll-off the highs somewhat.
With the AKGs or Sennheisers, no equalization is necessary.

(I like using the McIntosh preamp to feed my headphone amp becuase
I sit some distance away from my system and use the McIntosh
remote to adjust the volume. Actually, I wish headphone amps had a
remote volume control. I also appreciate the Mac's tone controls--blasphemy I know...)

Listening to the Capitol Beatles CD set, other classic rock or popular music
(which is what I mainly listen to on headphones), with the Apache
I feel like I am in the studio, with the voices and instruments spread out,
fleshed out and distinct in a 3-dimensional space much larger than I have
ever heard with headphones.
The musical components, if not life-size, are far from the miniaturized images
that, to my ears, are common with headphones. The Apache somehow creates some
sort of ether-field with honest-to-goodness 3D images, each with its own
size and shape. This effect is more prominent with the Grados,
but still quite evident with the other phones. The Senn 650s seem
especially helped by the Apache--really coming out of their shell.
The vauge claustrophopic or compressed feeling I always had with the
650s (and predecessors) has just about disappeared.

The images have real body and density but are not heavy or hard-edged or super-pinpointed.
They blend just enough into the recording venue to sound naturally placed.
And, thankfully, nothing shouts or sounds pushy.

In comparison with my Headroom Max
everything sounds de-congested. Many of these old CDs of 60's and 70's
recordings sound raspy and rough through the Max.
Somehow, the Apache separates all
the pieces and smooths out the rough edges just enough to produce a natural sound.
The spatial cues are there but the harsh abrasion is gone.
The sound is still vivid but no longer annoying.
I really feel as if I am among the performers.

The vocals are liquid and rounded and have just enough grit to sound
genuine without being mechanical,
grainy or telephone-like. I have always felt that vocals were always
the ultimate truth-test for a system. Sometimes even when instruments
sound fine, a vocal comes along and sounds artificial, raspy, buzzy, and
nothing like a real voice. With the Apache, I can listen deep into a voice,
and I hear a continuous, smooth sound that is just extremely satisfying.

Percussion is precise and fast without being assaultive. Wind instruments
are airy and have just the right density. (I think the famous flute solo on
California Dreamin' is as pure as I have ever heard it.) Strings are silky
and never scream or make me wince.

The Apache's bass is a real joy. It is "just-there," with no subwoofery/boombox
feel. I love the way the bass is attached to the the object creating it,
rather than just part of a pervasive
bass-fog. I am reminded of the bass from well-set-up Wilson speakers.

At first I thought the highs were more spotlighted than with the Headroom Max,
but then I realized I lately had been using the Max's high-frequency filter (a useful
feature by the way), and concluded that, In A-B'ing the two amps, that
the Apache is no more aggressive or less warm than the Max with its filter off.

To sum up, I think that
the great thing about the Apache is that it is revealing, but not ruthlessly revealing.
Details are well evident, but just recessed enough to produce an inviting, relaxing sound
that is still live and involving, along with a wonderfully plausible sense of space.

Associated equipment:
EMM DCC2 SE DAC and CDSD SE Transport,
McIintosh C46 Preamp,
Stealth Indra RCA IC from DAC to Preamp,
Kubala-Sosna Balanced IC from Preamp to Apache,
Shunyata Anaconda Power Cables on all components except Apache,
Kimber PK-10 Palladium Power Cable on Apache,
All equipment plugged into Shunyata Hydra 8.
Headphones: Grado RS1000s with Moon Audio Black Dragon cable (single ended).
Sennheiser 650s with Zu Mobius (single ended).
AKG K701 with Moon Audio Black Dragon balanced.

Associated gear
EMM DCC2 SE/ CDSD SE Digital Source
McIntosh C46 preamp
Shunyata Hydra 8
Stealth Indra/Kubala-Sosna Emotion ICs
Shunyata Anaconda power cables

Similar products
Headroom Max.
Stax Omega/007t system.
Wow, excellent review! Their web site shows quite a variety of headphone amps. It looks like yours is the one that's $2995, is that correct? How does its sound with the Grados compare to that of the Stax 007t with your Omega 2's?
The Stax generates exquisitely pure, continuous, beautiful images that are well defined and have very distinct boundaries. Tonality is perfect from the sweet highs to
the firm and clear bass. There is an overall fluid sound; everthing just flows. There is no tizziness, rawness, or discontinuity of any kind. It seems to fill in the blanks everywhere. The sound in very similar to Quads I have heard. They never offend, regardless of the quality of the recording. Like Will Rogers, the Staxes never met a recording they didn't like.

But, the images are smaller than life, and there is not the sense of expansiveness or distance up, down, around I hear with dynamic phones, especially with the Grado GS1000s, which open up a new frontier in this respect to my ears. The dynamics put me in the performance space. (With the Grados, they actually give speakers a run for the money in this regard.) The dynamic sound is more raw than than the Staxes, more challenging to listen to, but
not in an offensive or abrasive way. While the Staxes are more absorbing, the Grados are more involving and participatory.

I enjoy both of them depending on my mood. I like to listen to the same recording on one than the other for
a different experience. (Maybe there is no absolute sound...)
One more comment comparing comfort:
The Staxes, while comfortable and do not make me sweat at at all,
still press on my head somewhat and I find myself adjusting them a lot.
I am always aware of them.

The Grados are super-comfortable and feel great, like a fine, light shoe does.
I actually like the way they feel.
When you get tired of one or the other, you have my permission to just ship it to me and I'd be willing to listen to it for that you don't have all those pesky high end phones cluttering up your listening area, etc. Yeah, that's the ticket.

OK, seriously, your headphone set-up reads as though it must be just astounding. Your detailed and nuanced descriptive comments convey a great deal of (what I find to be, anyway) highly useful information. Thanks for taking the time to post all of that info. Hopefully I'll get a chance to listen to the Omega 2s with the 007t and/or the Grados with an amp of similar caliber to the Ray Samuels Audio Apache, if not the Apache itself. Probably won't be any time soon, though.

I wanted to post some updates on
my Apache impressions now that its
had about a month of use.
It is actually now more
silky and smooth and continuous with dynamic phones as my old
Stax Omega 007t tubed system, but with big, round and palpable images
on a totally silent background. Bass is absolutely perfect, too:
deep and satisfying but not pounding at all.

I have sent it to Ray for the newer OP-Amps, as I think
it would complement my Grado GS1000s, which I think
need a little roll-off in the highs to sound their best.
(Ray is now using a new, warmer sounding OP-amp and
is offering to upgrade all Apache owners for free.)

The Apache is, IMHO, the amplifier of choice for the Sennheiser 650s.
I think it may have been voiced for these. With the Senns,
Everything sounds "in place," with no frequency anomalies,
no harsh artifacts, with the rare combination of peacefullness
and excitement at the same time.

I listen to Fleetwood Mac a lot, and Stevie Nicks' fuzzy vocals
are now as clear and natural as I've ever heard them,
from phones or speakers,
about on the level of my old Apogee Stage speakers.
The same goes for other CDs that I use for evaluating equipment,
like Jim Croce (some buzz in his voice), Nat King Cole,
Carole King (some distortion on the CDs like Tapestry), Carly Simon (some ringing
in the upper midrange), the Supremes (some shrieking)
and the earlier Beatles CDs (which seem to have a "white-sounding",
high-pitched overtone).
Amazingly the Apache deals with all these problems very gracefully,
makeing these CDs entirely listenable.

The Apache/Senn 650s strike a perfect balance between the natural
grit of vocals and the smoothness I need for a relaxing listening experience.
Guitars, percussion and brass and piano are just recessed enough to avoid being abusive
but still have real, palpable presence. Pecussion has great speed and drive,
without being too "smashy."

Again, I am reminded of ribbon speakers like Apogees and the
ribbon-tweeter speakers like the big Von Schweikert VR9s I heard.
The sheer beauty of speakers like these is to a large part duplicated
with the Apache.

I thought I would need to switch between my Stax system and the Apache
but now the Apache is the clear winner.

I'll report back when I get my Apache back with the new op-amps.

Between the 650s and the GS100s, which do you prefer with the Apache?
Tough call. The 650s are very good or great on just all recordings I have tried. Smooth, lush, well-balanced.
The Grados can be too
raw or aggressive on some recordings, but when
the recording is right, which is quite frequent, the Grados are just perfect-- compelling,exciting, not fatiguing, live and full of nuance, brings out little things I've never heard on 'phones or speakers
on music I've been listening to for 35 years. I would
not be without the GS1000s, and I usually gravitate to
them most of the time. (As mentioned earlier, I have
Moon audio Black Dragon single ended cabling on the Grados,
Zu Mobius cable on the Senns.)

I'm still waiting to get my Apache back from Ray with
the National Semi op-amps.

At this weekend's 2007 RMAF, I went to the Sennheiser display where they had HD600s hooked up to the same source at the same time as HD650s. The HD650s are a significant improvement in my opinion. Quite a bit more detailed, among other things. Those may be a consideration for me some day. Thanks for the info.
Other opportunities for listening to headphones were rather limited. Ray Samuels was not at RMAF, as far as I could tell. Also, Singlepower had loaned out or else sold their amps so those were unavailable for listening.
Yep, I traded my 600s for 650s a few years back.
The 650s sound (to me) more direct
but not aggressive or punchy.
However, I understand some folks like the 600s better,
so remember it's just my opinion.
Ray has upgraded the Apache with a new National Semi opamp
(a free mod to all existing Apache owners.) Here are my impressions.

Well, I just got my Apache back with the new National Semi op-amp mod
and made some quick listening tests.
(I will do some more extensive evaluation later.)
In short, I unequivocally recommend the NSM mod.
It was a big improvement with all of my phones
(Senn 650s/Zu Mobius2, Grado GS1000s/Moon Black Dragon, and AKG 701s/Moon Black Dragon).
While the type of improvement varies with the phones,
with all there is much more of an overall sense of ease,
and better bass integration and solidity, and sweeter but still extended highs.
There is just a more relaxing sound, and individual musical components
blend together into a nice, silky sound field.

Somehow, the latest Apache manages to ameliorate (cure to a major degree)
the colorations or shortcomings of the phones.
The Senn 650s are less veiled with better image body.

(The new Zu Mobius 2 Senn 650 cable is great cable,
preserving the wonderful warm character of the 650s
while adding smoothness and detail.)

The Grados sometimes high-pitched sound on lesser recordings is still sparkly but
is no longer very painful or abusive.

The AKG's sometimes lumpy bass that was really annoying in controlled,
and the occasional "GLUMP" sound in the upper bass that would drive me crazy is gone.

The Senns gained more roundness in vocals and instruments and
had better bass definition. The Grados still have tipped up
highs compared to the Senns, but somehow the highs are much sweeter
and far less searing and much more listenable,
even on a CD that itself was raw and screechy.

Overall, the Senns were the winner for a totally relaxing and warm but still
exciting sound with lots of fine detail, but with much less grain
or distortion than I use to get with my older Headroom Max. There
is less distortion also than with the original op-amps in the Apache,
and a more open sound, with more fleshed out images.

But the Grados hold there own with the Apache, while less relaxing,
there is much better defined, tight bass, and the extended highs
sound liquid and inviting, less dry and piercing than with the
original Apache or even the Max amp.

The AKG 701 with the Apache also has it's charms. It stands between the
Senns and Grados in terms of high-frequency emphasis, and in that sense
is better balanced than the others. And the bass is now real and
evident, with a quality I never heard with the Max amp--a nice fundamental
bass, but not as tight or satisfying as the Grado bass. It is also not
as warm or relaxing as the Sennheisers. But voices and instruments
are pure, palpable, and realistic, and I can see how many could really
enjoy the 701s (I enjoy them too, but I think I will gravitate the the other
2 phones long-term).

In summary, the Apache with the new op-amp really seems to elevate all
these phones to a new level, and I hope others get to hear it.
(And I would be interested to hear impressions of the newest version
vs. the B52.)

Thanks for reading.
That's some excellent information, and extremely well written, in my opinion. Thank you for offering so much detailed comparative information.
Thanks for the kind words.
I just wanted to add that, since the first review in this
thread, no tone controls have been used. I have the
Apache driven directly out of the preamp outputs of
the EMM DCC2. (I use the preamp outputs to get
remote volume control while using headphones.)

Also, there is some word on the headphone forums that Sennheiser is releasing an HD700 in the next few months.
Some more thoughts on this (AKG K701 headphones):

I let my AKG K701s with their relatively recent Moon Audio Black Dragon (SE) cable break in a bit with my Apache, and I have a new appreciation of these phones. The forwardness I had heard has completely recessed now, and everything sounds like it is in the right place now. They now sound more natural and less distant than the 650s and do not have the GS1000s sometimes searing highs. For now at least, they may be my headphone of choice. Even the bass, while not as fundamental as the GS1000s,
is full, evident, but not plump or slow at all. All musical images have nice just-soft-enough boundaries (no hard edges or glare). Again, they seem to be a very nice match with the Apache after all.
And comfort is a real strong point with the 701's thick round soft pillows.

I think Headroom was right in their appraisal and
rave review of the 701s after all.

One other finding about the Apache--I prefer the Gain switch set to Low for best bass response (and overall sound). I keep the volume at about 1:30-2:00 and use my preamp
volume control for adjustment. I am back to my McIntosh C46 preamp driving the Apache, using Stealth Indra interconnects at every link in the chain.

With the Apache in this configuration,
driven by the EMM DCC2 dac and the McIntosh,
the sound is really glorious. Images are dense with out any "film" or white noise around them and the bass has no extra annoying artificial vibration or hangover or humming sound (with either the Senns, Grados, or AKGs). And there is even a kind of tube-like humidity in the background.
Just de-briefing my thougths here in case anyone is interested...

I had been wondering about the 701s, so that's useful, to say the least. That makes at least one person interested. Thanks.
Thanks. I'm always happy to hear I'm not just talking to myself. You know, headphone sound has come a long way in the last 9 or 10 years with little increase in cost, when my Sennheiser 600s and a then-current headroom Max were among the best out there for a reasonable price.
How would you compare the sound of the 701s as currently configured in your system to that of the Stax Omega 2s with the 007t energizer? Things like detail, bass definition and depth, timbral accuracy, smoothness, and midrange richness would be of interest, if you have the time or inclination to comment. Thanks.
The Omegas have a sound signature all their own, or at least they are really directly comparable to other electrostics. The strengths are a way of taming digital
(or other) audible flaws that cause discomfort or pain while still retrieving detail. Thus, they are not ruthlessly revealing, just revealing. OTOH, there is definitely a kind of flat-panel personality (like with Martin-Logan speakers), a kind of shimmering, slightly hazy sound sometimes that let's you know it is a vibrating membrane driver, but just on some musical components on some recordings. That makes it sound worse than it is, because it is actually a kind of soft, romantic coloration.
It is actually kind of relaxing. There is still depth and soundstaging and very good separation of things, but things are a bit miniaturized. Bass is not overpowering, but not weak either, and it is very detailed. Vocals are very sweet and mesmerizing. Images are pure and fairly dense, but not super solid.

The AKG 701s are a different animal. They sound like an excellent dynamic speaker with great driver integration. Vocals and all midrange components are direct, pure, dense,
and have nice soft edges with no grain. At the same time they are not pushy. Upper mids/lower treble is not ringing or to "shiny," but still very liquid. In fact liquidity is the main sonic signature of the 701s, in contrast to the Senn 650s which can be a little dry and bit buzzy (but are warmer). But, with the wrong amplification (or when not broken in), a recording with tilted-up or pushy highs can
sound piercing and painful. This only happens occaisionally but it does happen. For some reason, the (first generation) Headroom Max amp sounds good with the 701s, especially with it's high-frequency cutoff filter switched on. The 701's bass, while not as warm as the Senn 650's, tight and ample when broken in. I did not feel like I wanted extra bass. The bass is not exaggerated, but is there when called for. Image separation, sizing, and localization in 3 dimensions is good and does not sound artificially pronounced or flattened. The soundstage is quite satisfying. Finally, comfort is really nice in my opinion. They are not over-clamped or hanging loose, and the velour pads feel great on my head. I think the 701s are a terrific bargain without question.
Wow, what an outstandingly well written and lucid description! It sounds like the 701s merit serious consideration, to say the least. When and if the time comes to gear back up with headphones I'll keep them on the short list for sure. Thanks for all of your time and effort.
Hey RGS,

I was wondering about the power supply for the Apache. Do you know if the Dual Toroidal Transformers are the Custom Plitron versions like the ones used in B52? I understand power supplies to make a HUGE difference, which is why I was asking.

You really have a beautiful setup!

excellent review of the RSA apache and headphones. i have one myself, as you may recall. : )
Thank you!
I upgraded to Ray's B52 tubed headphone amplifier/preamp. It is remarkable.

In short, the B52 may be the best component I've ever bought in 30 years of audiophilia. It seems to cure (or substantially reduce) the ills of everything else in the system, including the recording. It creates a wonderful zone of contentment inside the the headphones, a kind of happy zone, a safe mist, where all is well. No shrillness, no boom, no grain, no tizz. It heals bad sound around it. It does no harm.

I thought it would be similar to the Apache, with a kind of house sound. No.
It just looks similar. The B52 is far better. It is in a class by itself. The Apache (a fine amp in its own right) has a nice, clean, smooth sound that does reveal its surrounding components. The B52 just takes over and creates its own world. With my Grado GS1000s, the searing highs are now a friendly sparkle. In fact, the whole impression with the Grados is that the whold soundfield is of a piece.
There is a nice, full space with happy blobs of sound, but not flabby or rolled off.
Old, scraping, grainy 80's recordings are
now fluid and warm. It's amazing.
The B52 is like the ultimate painkiller. It's my last headphone amp.
I also did spot check of its preamp abilities, and also thought the sound was outstanding. The B52 is simply extraordinary, worth every penny, and I could imagine it
becoming a collector's item like the
MDR-R10s or classic Marantz gear someday. Sell whatever you have to and get your hands on one of these.
congrats on the B52. amazing piece of equipment.
It sure is amazing.
Ray's stuff is very well known (and renowned)
on head-fi, but not at all here on audiogon. The B52 is
a remarkable preamp and a relative bargain, I would say.
So your saying I will be impressed when I trade my Apache for the B52 in about 10 days? I'm so excited I've actually become sedate. I've gone full circle. The Apache is wonderful and I am enjoying it now but with all the buzz about the B52 being in it's own league I had to take the plunge.The Apache works well as a stand alone preamp so I'm gathering the B52 should be a good preamp as well. Who am I kidding. I'm expecting to be blown away! I can't wait!!
Yep Mitchb, the B52 may be my favorite piece of equipment I ever bought in decades of this habit. (OK, honestly,
my biggest thrill came from my very first speakers,
Dynaco A25s too many years ago...).