The Best Headphone Amp I Have Heard At Any Price
Like most of you, I’ve been doing this audio thing for a while. I’m privileged to be in the MD/DC/VA corridor so I’m able to attend meets and audio shows regularly and sample a lot of different equipment. Generally, at any show there’s plenty of gear that sounds very good, and there are a 2-3 special pieces of equipment that leave a strong, lasting impression. These are usually priced like a new car, but every now and then you find a performance outlier, something that’s disruptive in its price range and should frankly cost far more. One such performance outlier is the subject of this review.
About a year ago I attended Capital Audio Fest (goes by CAF for short) which has a small but ample headphone presence. There I saw Linear Tube Audio’s booth and wandered over. I was familiar with LTA’s MZ2 headphone amp based on David Berning’s ZOTL technology, having previously listened to it at a meet in its stand-alone state without the power supply upgrade. The unit’s visuals with transparent top harkened back to the original blue Berning headphone amplifier I listened to at a meet many moons ago (its Plexi side window presented the unique topology like a PC enthusiasts rig).
New at the booth for 2018 was a pre-production MicroZOTL pre-amplifier with a headphone output. I took a look and was a little dismayed it didn’t have a balanced output, but I sat down and had a listen anyway, plugging in a nearby MrSpeakers Aeon Flow (if you’re not familiar, it’s a very good value planar magnetic headphone under $1K) and choosing a song on Tidal. Everything sounded good and well until I heard the strumming of a guitar. It’s hard to describe how incredible it sounded, just crisp, natural and telegraphic, like the acoustic guitar was right there next to me and I needed to turn to my side to confirm it wasn’t. The acoustics of the song had more presence and detail than I was accustomed.
The gent running the booth, Josh Levi, let me know that MicroZOTL pre-amplifier was based on their new MZ3 headphone amp which would be out shortly, price TBA. Not being content with only a smattering of details, and knowing LTA is a local brand, I reached out to owner Mark Schneider and scheduled time for a visit to the LTA listening room/manufacturing area.
Mark has a calm and approachable demeanor and is a true engineer. I’m quite certain he has a complete virtual catalog of all the various audio parts available in his brain. We chatted at length on our preferences for various audio jacks, capacitors, resistors, what made an audible difference and what didn’t. Given the length of time I’ve been experimenting with various audio builds, I was almost perplexed that Mark had tried as many different items that he has.
Besides the parts, Mark was experimenting with myriad other design elements, picking up small but noteworthy improvements in sound. From expensive ceramic circuit boards to non-magnetic transformer covers, everything was there for a reason… sonic improvement. At this point I realized nothing here was getting phoned in, these devices were meticulously designed and likely engineered more carefully than most audio equipment on the market.
If this were the only thing going for LTA, they’d still be ahead of the pack, but the most unique thing about these amps is the technology. David Berning’s technology is completely unique. You will not find anything like it on the market. I’ve put together countless amps, solid state, tube (both with output transformers and OTL), hybrid, etc. The innards of MicroZOTL amplifiers look completely alien, with hand-wound magnet doughnuts and small towers of diodes residing above them flanked with wires on each side. I’ve read the white paper on how this works, but quite frankly it went above my head. Ultimately, for you and I the listener, we can say “who cares what’s going on inside, all I care about is the sound”. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that approach, but some niceties with this design are reduced heat, much longer tube life, and the units aren’t overly heavy from bulky output transformers. They also have a remarkably black background that you won’t hear in most tube amps.
|Love the volume control display|
Long story short, I helped out Mark with some marketing for several months while he finalized the MZ3 and a few months ago took one home. To say that the MZ3 is better than my highly modified Bottlehead Mainline is an incredible understatement. Not that I was dissatisfied with the Mainline, I found it to be a nice step up in terms of clarity from the Bottlehead S.E.X. and it held its own against other amps like the Torpedo, Budgie S.E., a high-voltage octal Aikido build and other various amps that have come through the listening room. The difference, however, is truly palpable. It’s very rare that I’ve changed a piece of gear and it’s just night-and-day better… like almost two decades ago when I shelved some $30 Sony headphones for the Sennheiser HD600s, or when I set aside a pair of HD650s for my first planar magnetic headphones, the Audeze LCD-2.
|The MZ3 is not lacking in connectivity|
Listening with my Audeze LCD-4, the MZ3 has a sound that is slightly more neutral than a typical tube amp, but it is still natural sounding. I personally would consider it neutral; others may consider it ever-so-slightly warm. It’s also, full, enveloping, and easy to get lost in the sound and just not think about anything else. Soundstage is precise and crisp. Every detail is there but not obtrusive or overly sharp. I believe what this amp has more than anything else is it just sounds so natural. I was starting to lose interest in headphone listening to speakers, however the MZ3 rekindled that joy so acutely that I often lose track of time playing track after track.
Bottom line, this is a phenomenal amp, truly the best headphone amp I have ever personally heard at any price. It is not the cheapest amp; however, the price is incredibly reasonable for the performance and all the detail that went into its creation. It’s not a balanced amp, but after hearing it, I honestly don’t care. I think building headphone amps can finally take a rest, as I don’t think I could ever make one that sounds this good. If you are a headphone enthusiast and can swing it, I highly recommend auditioning the MZ3. Even if you need to double your budget, save yourself some time and buy your forever amp. I know if for whatever reason I suddenly needed to rebuild my rig from the ground up, I would be at Mark’s office tomorrow with my credit card in hand.
- Beautiful, neutral and engaging sound
- Super black background
- Attractive chassis
- Cool, satisfying haptic-touch volume control
- Includes a remote control
- Has speaker outputs for high-efficiency speakers
- Multiple inputs and pre-amp outputs
- Price is very reasonable for performance level
Not a warm and syrupy tube amp if you are looking for that
Only comes in black
I didn't get into some of the features of the amp as I'll only be using it as a headphone amp with its standard settings using the controls on the chassis... but others will be pleased to know there are three selectable inputs, a pre-amp output, speaker outputs for VERY efficient speakers (the output is about 1 watt), and a remote control that allows you to switch inputs, adjust balance, etc.
Audeze LCD-4 Headphones w/Ballista Headphone Cable
PC w/Amazon Music HD Unlimited > Chord USB Cable > Schiit EITR > 110 Ohm Zynsonix Coax Cable > AudioNote DAC 2.1 > Zynsonix RCAs
Disclosure: The author provided marketing services for Linear Tube Audio from Sept 2018 to Mar 2019 in exchange for product credit. All views herein are the true opinion of the author and are not the result of any compensation or business arrangement.