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November 15, 2019

Linear Tube Audio MicroZOTL MZ3 Headphone Amp

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.

PROS
  • 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

CONS
  • Not a warm and syrupy tube amp if you are looking for that
  • Only comes in black

Note: 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.

Setup:
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.

August 1, 2019

Vanatoo Transparent Zero Powered Mini Speakers Review


Speakers are often a conundrum for space-strapped audiophiles. Sure, often larger speakers sound better, but there are often constraints like room size, distance from the walls and other equipment, and plenty of other imaging concerns. If you’re not listening in a dedicated listening room, often these factors are less than ideal. Fortunately, there are some speakers out there that truly make the most of their minuscule footprint, filling the room with great sound without being too picky about placement.

The first time I heard the Vanatoo Transparent Zeros, I was at Capital Audio Fest. I walked into a room full of onlookers (or should they be “onlisteners”?) with sound effortlessly enveloping me. Then confusingly, I looked around for what is usually a tower of equipment flanked by a pair of tall speakers… only to find two minuscule trapezoid-shaped boxes at the front of the room. Right then I knew the Vanatoos were special.

The Zeros come with some sweet magnetic grills and isolation pads

Granted I have built a couple of small-form-factor full-range speakers in the past that do a nice job filling a small space and work well for near-field monitoring. One of which uses a 3” driver from GR Research, and one uses a 4” driver from Fostex. Both I like to augment with a small subwoofer to fill in the lower-end. The Vanatoos certainly do not need any low-end augmentation. The bass quantity is there in spades. This is thanks to a 4” passive radiator that complements the 4” woofer, moving quite a bit more air than just a single driver. In fact, the bass is actually a bit much for me (someone used to listening to headphones) so I simply turn the bass down on the Vanatoos and all is well.

The bass adjustment is not on the source equipment, the Transparent Zeros actually have a built-in equalizer. That’s not all, they have a built-in integrated 4-channel 48W class D amplifier, USB input with built-in DAC, wireless remote, Bluetooth (with aptX), and a subwoofer out if you’re a true basshead and NEED MOAR BASS. It also comes with a host of wires if you happened to not have any USB or analog cables sitting about. So, for $359 a pair, you get a lot for your money... truly a plug and play system where all you need is a phone or computer to get grooving. These speakers sound quite good in this price-range and fill the room better than anything I’ve heard at this price.

A look at the variety of features on the back of the unit

Being an audiophile and a relentless tweaker, I’ve done quite a bit of experimenting with placement and found the Zeros sound best in a certain configuration. Per the literature, you can place the speakers firing up or stood on their handle, firing forward. I found they sound notably more controlled with firmer bass firing upward, likely because more surface area is planted on whatever surface they are sitting on. I also like them placed on an IsoAcoustics Aperta stand, mounted on a wood plinth with the included foam pad sandwiched between the speaker and the wood. To increase the clarity of the treble, I recommend removing the magnetic speaker grills. These little tweaks may sound silly, but you'll quickly hear a difference. 

I haven't tried building any large gauge cables for them yet (or use an audio-grade Ethernet cable to connect the second speaker to the base speaker), but in time I'm sure I'll try it :) Placement, I believe, is far more important. 

A look at the handsome Zeros sans grills


I don't think the Zeros sound quite as controlled in this configuration,
but I encourage you to try it yourself.

Anything not to like? As mentioned, you’ll probably want to play with the EQ and potentially use a stand to get the sound to your liking. In my small listening space, the bass was a little overwhelming and overpowered the rest of the sound. I believe the standard settings are voiced a little more for the average user vs. the audiophile or enthusiast, which makes sense given the price. Turning down the bass and bumping up the treble results in a nice, balanced sound (to these ears), falling to the warm side thanks to a forgiving soft-dome tweeter. The typical caveat for Bluetooth applies: while it is perfectly implemented on the Zeros, it takes some of the life out of the music, just like every other device I’ve used Bluetooth with. It will be a while before I ditch the wires ;) Connecting is a breeze though and easier than most devices. I was also surprised at the quality of the built-in USB DAC, being quite clear when extracting hi-res music from my phone. 

If you are looking for an all-in-one sound solution for a small to medium-sized room and you're looking for good sound quality at a very reasonable cost, the Transparent Zeros are a great choice. Also, if you anticipate needing something portable that can be moved from room to room easily (or taken along for travel), the value gets even better. They are versatile, well made, and have carved themselves a nice niche in the market that was previously vacant.  


The Fine Print: DIYAudioBlog was provided the Vanatoo Transparent Zeros as a review sample, however this does not affect the integrity of this review. I actually use them frequently in my work-room while I build new stuff to blog about ;)  


    

March 4, 2019

Modding the Atari Lynx Portable with McWill Screen, New Caps


The Atari Lynx is a relatively obscure system that was released during the burst of hand-held gaming systems between 1989 and 1991. This included the Lynx, as well as Nintendo’s Game Boy, Sega’s Game Gear, and NEC’s TurboExpress. While the Game Boy was the value champ and the TurboExpress was the top performer for kids whose parents belonged to country clubs, the Lynx and Game Gear were both middle players which had similar orientations, screens and gaming performance.

An old double-page magazine ad of the Atari Lynx

While they were a blast 30 years ago, by today’s standards, the backlit screens on these middle performers are dull and faded looking and not terribly efficient with batteries. Fortunately for fans of retro games, McWill offers a replacement screen mod for both systems which gives each unit a crisp and bright display. This is very helpful for those of use who grew up with these systems and who’s eyes are getting a little older.

A photo of the original LCD from Gametech.us

What else is getting older is the capacitors and power components in these units. Electrolytic capacitors from this time frame are not known for reliability and are likely ready to give up the ghost at a moment’s notice, bursting and oozing out onto the PCB and making restorations more involved. In addition, the Lynx has some silicon parts that handle the 9V to 5V regulation that need to be replaced too, otherwise if they fail, the motherboard can get fed 9V and that is enough to take it out of commission. Fortunately, these parts are available and cheap to replace, even with nice quality Japanese caps like Nichicon.

What’s not cheap is the McWill mod, at $120 as of this writing, but if you’re a fan of these old systems it is totally worth it. Not only is it on the pricey side, but it takes some effort. You need to know how to handle SMD soldering (use tweezers, a fine point iron and lots of liquid flux). If you are not sure about soldering skills, you should not be handling these mods. There are several people out there that do the mod for what I consider to be very reasonable.

As an example, I’m pretty methodical when soldering, but to replace the caps, power-related parts, and wire up the screen and VGA out takes a solid 8 hours. Granted if I did it again, I could get it down to 4-5, but there are people replacing screens on eBay for $200 with the $120 McWill mod included, and another $60 or so to replace the caps. I’d call that a solid deal if you’re not inclined to handle it yourself.

I picked up the McWill Screen mod, a set of caps, and the power parts for about $130 from Console5. They host the instructions PDF as well. The two-page instructions on the McWill is decent but has a couple of head-scratchers that you’ll have to Google around to figure out. They could be better, but I’m sure this mod is a labor of love and McWill’s not getting rich from it… so just grin and bear it. 
Before getting started, I placed a paper towel over the screen and then covered the front of the unit with painters’ tape to protect it. It doesn’t stick much so it won’t leave residue, and it protects the unit from getting scratched while you work on it.

Using painters tape to protect the Lynx

To get the unit open, there are five screws that need to come out, two under each of the rubber grips on the back, and one inside the battery compartment. To get the rubber grips off, wedging a thin screwdriver underneath on one of the corners and gently rocking back and forth will help the adhesive give way. I’d recommend using foam or painters’ tape to protect where the screwdriver’s shaft touches the unit to avoid marring.

Screw locations to get the unit open

Removing the back cover reveals the circuit board and all the little capacitors you will have to replace. 

Atari Lynx interior

Capacitor locations

These are pretty easy to handle, aside from the one sitting in the middle of the metal shield. For that one, the copper shielding behind it must be partially removed so you have access to the solder joints underneath. Once that cap is replaced, the joints need to be covered with dielectric (electrical tape / Kapton tape, etc.) so the copper shield doesn’t short it out. For the rest of the caps, simply heating the joints on the bottom of the PCB while pulling on the cap on the top of the PCB releases them fairly easily, then a solder sucker can be used to clear the eyelets on the board. One trick is you should NOT cut the leads until you try and reseat the back cover to confirm there is clearance. Some of the caps may touch the case or the speaker so they have to be leaned one way or another.

Based on the directions provided for the McWill, several parts which handled the old LCD need to be removed. You'll notice these are mostly on the right of the photo below. 

Fresh new capacitors installed and non-vital parts removed.

The next objective is to replace the voltage regulator parts. This includes a Zener diode, MOSFET, two 3906 transistors and the power jack. The MOSFET is the largest part. I trimmed off the legs, then heated the metal backing behind the chip to get it to release. The existing jack is superglued down next to a teeny transformer, so be very careful when removing that glue not to damage it. The remaining parts are quite small and require SMD tools to install (tweezers, liquid flux, small solder tip, etc.). 

The voltage regulator parts are tiny, so be sure you're up for the task

Below is the unit getting wired up. I like to use 24 gauge silver-clad copper wire with PTFE sleeving. It's nice high quality stuff and is pretty is to route. When wiring, you have to ensure you are considering how the screen will be oriented in relation to the main PCB so the wires aren't cut too short or too long. 


Wiring up the VGA output

The VGA output installs where the brightness potentiometer used to be (you do need to dremel out some of the plastic so it will fit). It's a nice added feature that adds value to the McWill package. HDMI would be preferable, but that would add cost and complexity which may not be welcome for many modders. 

Wired up and ready to re-assemble



Once all that work is complete, you'll have yourself a beautifully performing Lynx system that will hopefully last another thirty years.



The big question now... is all this worth the hassle? There are a number of us that like to play games on original hardware because emulators introduce annoyances like slowdown, sprite flickering, crashing, etc. If you want to play Lynx games on original hardware, you have to replace the voltage regulation immediately or you'll be playing Russian roulette with a valuable piece of vintage gear, and really the capacitors all need to be replaced too. If you're already going to that effort, the McWill screen is a no-brainer given the improvements... just keep in mind that if you're not sure of your solder slinger skills, get someone else to handle it. 



The Fine Print: Please remember that building/modifying circuits can be dangerous to you and/or your surroundings and should only be performed by a certified technician. The owner of this blog and all associated parties can not / will not be held responsible if you attempt a build or modification posted above and cause physical harm to yourself and/or your surroundings.