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ampsandsound Kenzie Headphone Amplifier

02-11-2016 | By Dean Seislove | Issue 83

Headphonemania! Headphones hold top five slots in global audiophile charts!

Well, that's what the headlines should say. Headphones, headphones everywhere, and now I see headphone ads from the same companies that used to make my plasma TVs. Even the President is bumpin' his Beats, although that may be just a farewell finger to his non-Beat buddies across the aisle. The bosses of electronics, eying potential sales and a new demographic (praise God almighty, they're here at last!), are taking time out from making surveillance servers and refrigerator filters to sell headphone gear to all comers at all prices.

All to the good, I guess, but I'm of the mind that the best personal listening gear is still being made by specialized companies who want to make both money and cool headphone products. Marquee players like Audeze and Cavali Audio draw crowds at headphone shows and generate well-deserved praise. This demonstrates once again that single-minded focus and a head start go a long way when you're trying to outrun giants. 

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The only problem is, all of these headphone choices now flooding from headphone conglomerates and artisans make me feel like I'm standing in a Tijuana mercado, looking at Baja hoodies and trying to decide which one to get. All the hoodies look the same, so who knows which one stays scratchy and falls apart, and which one softens up and lasts forever? Aloha Mr. Hand, indeed. Fortunately, I'm lucky to have chums who will test the waters for me. The ampsandsound Kenzie headphone amplifier featured in this column was originally referred to me by chief headphone scout (tribal seer might be closer to the mark, if you're following his Occupy HiFi vision quests), the irrepressible Michael Mercer.

Talking headphone audio with Mercer is like catching snowflakes in a blizzard. He has heard practically everything and he blitzes out information just like you'd expect from a former professional DJ from New York. Outspoken and adamantly refusing to review gear he doesn't believe in, I know that when raves about something, he's all in! We don't always agree, of course, so I still have to make my own judgements. In this instance, however, I can say that his faith in the Kenzie headphone amp is well placed. 

My review sample of the Kenzie headphone amplifier arrived in a sturdy double box, with all tubes and cords neatly tucked safely away. Although its dimensions make it an easy fit for any desktop or rack (11 x 9 x 5 inches tall), the beautifully finished Eastern walnut exterior and aluminum top plate give it a reassuringly solid look and feel. Personally, I'm always annoyed by lightweight amps that skid across desks or racks with every movement of the head. I see the Kenzie amp as a pared down throwback to the days when wood, metal, and glass found full expression as exemplars of audio furniture. The highlight of any tube amp's aesthetic appeal is, of course, the high lights. The Kenzie amp's complement of two1626 single-ended direct-heated tubes and one 12SL7 signal tube provide a stellar visual treat for any potential purchaser.

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Ampsandsound's founder, Justin Weber, is effusive in his admiration of vintage McIntosh amps, and makes no bones about the fact the Kenzie amp owes a great deal to the design of those famous progenitors. In this respect, his honesty is a refreshing contrast to manufacturers who claim practically everything right down to the atoms in their amps is proprietary. In action, the transformer and tube choices not only dictate the sound of the Kenzie amp (more on that in a moment), but also spotlight the advantages of purchasing a product designed to fill a need, not a product line. Weber proudly credits Transcendar of Hollister, California, as being the source of the extraordinary transformers in the Kenzie amp. Weber states, "He is an industry veteran and is known to wind outstanding transformers. All internal wiring is Teflon covered copper with silver solder." 

Keeping costs down so as be able to include a crucial, but pricy part, is achievable only because the uncluttered design of the Kenzie ensures that it is reliable and, if needed, easily repaired. Ampsandsound proudly asserts that less than one percent of all amps made have experienced trouble, and even that number owed to a bad tube. The 1626 power tubes (sometimes described as "the poor man's 300B") and the 12SL7 were chosen for optimal sound, ease of replacement, and reliability. There are plenty of new old stock offerings for tube rolling, and retubing the whole thing can be done for about $45. Very nice! Upgrades of the capacitors are available upon special request, although Weber notes that, "Coupling caps are over spec'd Wima caps. Same brand as AR, Lamm, and McIntosh."

The Kenzie offers two headphone inputs, one 32 ohm and one 600 ohm. These inputs are located on the top plate, which I found to be inconvenient in my set up, especially when using large interconnects. Some may see the top-plate access as a benefit for small spaces and streamlined decor, and I'm told that the design helps to reduce internal noise, but it did force me to do some rearranging. Not a big deal, but worth pointing out. 

The headphones used for the review were MrSpeakers Ether C, Audeze LCD-X, and Astell and Kern's AKT5P models. These headphones are all very easy to drive, which meant that I couldn't test ampsandsound's claim that the Kenzie can drive, "Even the most difficult headphones." Despite having very different voicings, all headphones used helped me to reach the same conclusion: the Kenzie sings like a fine choir at mid-morning Mass. Ok, so I've never been to a mid-morning Mass, but I imagine that beatific voices in the quiet of a still morning would sound pretty sweet, and such loveliness is what the Kenzie is all about. 

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I've already mentioned that the ampsandsound Kenzie is utterly silent in operation, but perhaps more explanation is needed. Lots of amps don't produce hum or hiss with gain running full out, and this is true of the Kenzie, as well. The unique character of the Kenzie is such that there doesn't seem to be any discernible extraneous auditory film to obscure the music. Paradoxically, I can't help but notice that everything sounds musical. It's clear but lovely, is how I'd describe it. If this sound is colored, it must be extremely subtle, and it sure doesn't get in the way. Listening to Erykah Badu's "Appletree" from her album Baduizm shows the Kenzie at its best: tastefully doling out tone, texture, air, and detail to present a beguilingly enchanting experience. Paired with the Audeze LCDX headphones, for example, the midrange fulsomeness in the vocals of Badu and her backup singers appeared to emanate directly from the master tape. Similarly, the interplay between Kevin Eubanks and Stanley Jordan on their cover of "Nature Boy" has a naturalness and sense of ease that makes it seem like you're hearing it, well, maybe not live (it's a studio piece), but certainly live-ish.

And that's the puzzling thing. Comparing the Kenzie to many fine amps, some with known forensic attributes, the ampsandsound headphone amplifier enabled me to better hear bass runs, tape edits, and squeaky drum stools in all of my rock and roll three minute mysteries. Playing over, and over, and over again, Mike Nesmith's "Yellow Butterfly," I was impressed by the Kenzie's ability to discern melodic bass runs buried deep within the song's admittedly overproduced chorus, while still being able to communicate the timbre of the pedal steel or nylon string guitar. Music was rendered with the right element of delicacy and deftness.

I suppose I lost myself in the moment and forgot to click back on the file, because I was suddenly ambushed by another "Yellow Butterfly" that was a decidedly much more ornery critter. The Scorpions version! The opening chords of the song showed that the Kenzie had no trouble handling big-haired rock and roll, and I was soon head banging my squarish dome to the German stylings of Matthias Jabs and his Marshall JCM 800 amp (which was set on "elf," naturally). Es is gut, ja?. Yes, it was good, but maybe lacking some of the speed and edginess that you might get from other headphone amps. Needing to wash that song out of my ears in a hurry, I moved on to listen to one of the two songs I've been playing non-stop lately, The Lumineers's "Ophelia" (Bowie's superb Black Star requiem being the other). "Ophelia" follows the Lumineer's patented "live in the church" sound, a technique wonderfully illustrated by the Kenzie's ability to create a visceral, expansive portrayal of music. 

As a side note, the Kenzie responds well to cable upgrades. There was no mistaking the positive sonic impact produced by swapping out a pair of Kimber Hero interconnects for a pair of Kubala-Sosna Emotion cables. The Kenzie amp even helped me to hear the difference in USB cables connected to my DAC. Other amps I have used have not revealed cable differences nearly so well. In a recent column, I wrote favorably about the Annalyric Systems USB-1 USB cable. I realize now, however, that I didn't do this cable justice. Using a variety of similarly priced USB cables connected to the Schiit Bifrost Uber DAC, I was surprised how more music I was hearing when using the USB-1.The Annalyric USB-1 simply communicated a far greater impression of the Kenzie's sound than the other cables. Perhaps I wasn't hearing the Kenzie at its full potential? The sound was very fine with the cables I had, but the promise of even better performance is tantalizing.

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Will the ampsandsound Kenzie headphone amp be a great choice for you? I've written before that acquiring headphone products can be a "Jane! Stop this crazy thing!" habit. You could stop with any of the excellent lower priced amps and DAC/Amps I've reviewed (or choose one of the excellent Astell and Kern players, for example) and be absolutely fine. But we are attracted to this hobby for a reason, and this amp's worth the extra money, to be sure. Some people will want an amp with more bite and slam than you might find in the Kenzie, especially with electronic and aggressive rock music. I'm listening to Mogwai's "San Pedro" right now, and couldn't wish for more, but I can see where some might want more torque in their tunes. I'm hoping that my chum, Michael Mercer, will be able to address this aspect of the Kenzie with greater facility. For me, though, this amp does many, many things exceptionally well, and rewards the listener with consistently fine, highly musical sound. Highly recommended. 

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ampsandsound Kenzie Headphone Amplifier

Retail: $1500

http://ampsandsound.com

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