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Toes in My Head, er Sand - MrSpeakers' Aeon Flow Headphones, Schiit Gungnir Multibit DAC, and Ampsandsound Kenzie Amplifier

05-30-2019 | By Larry Cox | Issue 103

This note reflects, essentially, my first toe in the water of a higher end headphone setup, at least as a reviewer. I've heard high end speaker systems for decades. My first "high end" headphone setup was sometime in the late 1970s, an unknown model of magical Stax "earspeakers." At the time I thought them better than any regular speakers I'd heard. Since then, I've heard numerous excellent two channel setups, but I have made little or no effort to familiarize myself with headphones. Among the reasons are discomfort during listening, an unnatural listening experience, and an unwillingness to duplicate my two channel setup.

I own AKG 702 headphones, primarily because they were the most comfortable headphones that sounded better than okay. They are rather large and wearing them reminds me of wrestling matches as a teenager, when my head was being stuffed between the cushions of our sofa—not the smell of victory! Faint praise, indeed, but far better than having my head pinched into an A-Frame, or flattening my ears as some headphones require.

I hear live music in open spaces. Two channel speakers conjure up that experience far better for me than headphones. Sure, two channel playback isn't a perfect replication of live music, and I don't think I'll ever get that. I don't expect it, my limited audiophile aspirations are just not to be constantly reminded that I'm hearing a recording. Dialog about "bass slam," or hyper specific imaging of instruments seems weird to me, as I never hear either with the live music I listen to.

Finally, I prefer listening in my chair, like I would at a concert, free of paraphernalia dangling from my person. Headphones I don't notice... don't exist. Having to be within a meter or two, or three from a desk... seems weird. I'm lucky enough to own a house. If I wasn't, I'd be willing to have stuff dangling off of me to enjoy music. But that's not me right now. Often I assume with more money I can, not necessarily will, get a more realistic rendering. I'd prefer not to dilute funds for my two channel setup by having a second system. Verstehen Sie? As with all things audio, your mileage may vary.

All of that is the backstory of why my headphone "reference setup" is modest, though it is far better than a headphone out of a computer. It's enjoyable but not to the standard of my two channel rig. I'm using two pieces of Schiit gear, the Modi Multibit DAC ($249) and Vali 2 headphone amp ($149) to power my reference headphones with a street price around $210. While some will crow about those prices, $610 is pretty low for the performance on tap. HQPlayer (~$143) improves the performance such that I can live with the sound I have. I've used it primarily for work, seminars, and uncritical music listening sessions with some satisfaction. Have I reached the shores of Nirvana? Tahiti? Redondo Beach? No, no and yes—but the last is by bike not headphones. I've not been trying to get to the first two, at least not through my headphone setup.

My setup and some of my previous favorite headphone things should be discussed first. I cannot imagine listening to "on ear" headphones for long. I find them so physically irritating that fidelity, resolution, or realness are not under consideration. My AKGs are a bit lean to my taste, but overall they're reasonably balanced. I'd like a bit more warmth in the lower midrange, down into the deeper bass but for now, I'm okay.

The Schiit pair are workmanlike, and good value. The Modi MB does not send shivers of joy down my spine, and likely won't with others. It won't, however, scare you away with a lean and scratchy sound; it errs on the side of being nicer than incisive. At its price point, I consider that a good balance of attributes. The Vali 2 is also pretty good, again not a great sounding amplifier; its signature hides in the woof and warp of the carpet of sound it delivers. Powering the satellites from my under appreciated Aego 1 speakers, the sound is invisible, i.e. no obvious problems, if also no great joy. Neither the Schiit stack, nor my AKG's take me to a "happy ending," nor do they piddle on my shoes. For their initially assigned task... they're winners.

My Likes

Hearing the Stax headphones back in the late 1970s remains a magical recollection. At CanJam 2018 I heard a pair of Stax headphones and again found their sound wonderful. I think if I listened more often, I'd consider getting a Stax headphone setup. Generally, however, if I can't have a suave and detailed sound like the Stax, I'd prefer a round, warm, and "emotive" presentation. Again, this is not the presentation my headphone setup provides now. I've heard and liked the Meze 99 headphones—despite their slightly over plumped bass. About four years ago I heard Audeze's LCD headphones, or Audeze's headphones that retailed for about $1600 four years ago, and those were close to ideal for me, but that's more than I'm willing to spend at this point, when the performance also requires a high quality amp and DAC. I have also liked some of Focal's headphones, though they tend to be a little more clinical sounding than what I'd call ideal. Still they're very good.

At CanJam 2018 I heard MrSpeakers' Aeon Flow ($799) with (I think) a Schiit Jotunheim, and the pairing piqued my interest. Their balance of attributes made them a good place to start. I contacted Dan Clark at MrSpeakers and he said while they'll mix well with my Schiit (well, he didn't say that, but I just wanted to write that phrase), they show their full range of performance with much more expensive gear, too. So, with a suggestion from Dean Seislove I reached out to Justin Weber of Ampsandsound. He kindly lent me a Kenzie headphone amplifier ($1700 as configured), and Schiit sent me the more precious Gungnir Multibit ($1249).

It's a privilege and joy to listen to gear. I know that it's possible to pay a lot more and a lot less than the products on review here, but I'll venture to say that all of these three products are reasonably priced, in my mind. At this juncture, without a more intimate and deep awareness of what's available, I felt I should walk around the block (try out gear) a few times before committing to my own upgrade and therefor tempering my criticisms, as well.

Listeners similarly situated to me may want to know where the inflection point in price and performance occurs. At the outset, I thought I might be able to offer fellow newbies ideas on the first place to spend their money on the upgrade path. Some people are clear and dogmatic about the order and priority of upgrades. This started, I believe, in the 1970s, when Linn HiFi argued that the source component was the most important. Perhaps their argument boils down to "A system can never sound better than its original signal." A less than complete or perfect replay means you're not getting all there is to get.

Intellectually, that seems to hold water, inside the paradigm of an "absolute sound." Exponentially, to me at least, it's not an inescapable conclusion if you have enough experience. To me a speaker colors the sound, in ways good and bad, more than any other component. No speaker is without some coloration, whether it's inherent in the speaker or in how it interacts with the surrounding components or listening space.

Are headphones next?

Mr. Speakers Aeon Flow - Open-Back

My AKG's are open-back, rather than closed back, so Dan Clark (literally the Mr. behind MrSpeakers) and I decided that open ear would be a good review item choice. The Aeon Flow is an "ear shaped" headphone, rather than round or oval. I found it to fit my ear and head very well. Listeners needn't fear, if they do, that the shape will irritate their ears—they didn't touch, let alone irritate, my ears. Though they're more contoured than the AKGs, they actually fit better. After a month listening to them, they're a nearly ideal fit for me. I listened during a hot period in southern California weather, but my ears sweated only when the rest of me sweated, i.e. the headphones didn't add discomfort. For the neophyte, open-back headphones bleed sound so that people around you will likely hear some of what you're hearing. Sealed back "seals" the sound more, but also seems to plump the lower regions of sound and makes the sound... a bit closed in.

Most of MrSpeakers headphones these days are planar magnetic headphones. I really like this technology and some of my favorite headphones are planar magnetic. The Aeon Flows ship with what MrSpeakers calls a tuning kit which includes "black foam, black felt, one and two notch white felt filters" to tune the sound. The instructions with the filters suggest listening to filters for extended periods to get a sense of their signature rather than quickly swapping back and forth for a short duration. I started with the headphones as shipped. My initial listening experience wasn't bad, but the Aeon Flows did not sound nearly as good as at CanJam. And, they weren't worth three times the cost of my AKGs.

Initially I thought my Schiit gear was the problem. Then when the Gumby and Kenzie amp arrived, I remained disappointed. My Schiit (I just had to do that) wasn't holding performance back as much as I thought. I took to "tuning the sound" with the fabric filters. Starting from what MrSpeakers suggests are the least to the most "filtering," I commenced inserting the provided filters. While I could hear differences, I preferred what I thought was the least filtering. Even so, CanJam 2018 remained a higher mark than I was achieving. My father was in hospice care and I thought, maybe I just can't hear it right now. Performance-wise, my AKG 702 and the Aeon Flows didn't sound the same, but the delta of performance was not enough for me to even consider buying the Aeon Flows.

I try to be gentle with the equipment lent to me, and it turns out in this case, I was too gentle. Unbeknownst to me, MrSpeakers sent the review pair with the least impactful filtering still in place. Thus, every subsequent "addition" of filter, whether felt or foam, was adding more filtering. With a filter already in place each change was a decrease in performance. Starting again, with the initial filters removed, the differences in filters became more evident, the performance leap from my 702s to the Aeon Flows more pronounced, and the more expensive DAC and amplifier were more worthwhile upgrades. Ultimately, with the Kenzie and Gumby, even so I preferred the sound of the Aeon Flows with the least filtering the most.

The Aeon Flows, thankfully, do not have a V curve, which is headphone speak for boosted bass and treble, and a shelved midrange. Uh... there are types of music, you can often hear, usually rattling the trunks of the car two lanes over from yours, that are served by a V curve. I subscribe to and prefer music that seems midrange centric and... the Aeon Flows were a good place to start. The overall sound presents as reasonably flat. I detected no obviously discernible frequency anomalies.

The Aeon Flows ("AF") were ultimately a noticeable step up from my 702s, with a richer tone and a slightly more distinct rendition of timbre. The slightly leaner 702 presentation provides the illusion of greater treble detail, but I'd take the AFs pretty much every time. I won't say the bass dug deeper than my reference, perhaps because I don't listen to much EDM or electronica, again preferring midrange centric music. I did try out various Infected Mushroom tracks (Army of Mushrooms) downloaded from YouTube, and bass performance (for me, bass is the reason you would listen to Infected Mushroom) wasn't noticeably deeper, though it was a little more realistically rich than the 702s.

The AFs showed their best with midrange music, which is where the bulk of my listening and critical interest lies, and probably for most other audiophiles. Pulling out an array of female vocals from the Indigo Girls' Swamp Ophelia, the Story's The Angel in the House, to my usual Pink Martini collection allowed vocals to be richer, and delivery of lower notes in otherwise higher pitched sounds. The 702s, while acceptable, didn't really leave the recorded media rendering that my two channel setup does. Male vocals like Frank Sinatra, Timothy Nishimoto, or Pepe Raphael (both on Pink Martini albums) as well as the under appreciated Steve Forbert were very pleasant, with a preferable warmth and viscosity from the Aeon Flows. With male vocals the reason for my preference is less easy to identify than to point out the reason each singer sounds different than the others, rather than hearing a generic male vocal.

The Aeon Flows at $799 are neither inexpensive, nor given the range available, terribly expensive. Nudging your headphone setup's performance can happen noticeably with MrSpeakers' Aeon Flow open back headphones.

Is the DAC the next upgrade to take?

Schiit Gungnir Multibit

While $800 for a headphone is not inexpensive, the Aeon Flow headphones are a bridge between the electronics of my reference system and the higher performing "borrowed" gear. Schiit's Gungnir Multibit ("Gumby") is a bit more expensive than the AFs at $1249. The combination of the AFs and Gumby would be the "next component" to consider upgrading. The Gumby is slightly forgiving in sound, without digital nasties prevalent in the 90s and early 00s.

The Gumby was far richer in sound than the Modi MB. This showed up with both my Vali and the Kenzie, and if the headphone was my reference or the AFs. The higher resolution devices created a lot more magic than the Modi MB allowed with the headphones on hand at the time. Placed in my two channel setup, the Gumby was pretty intense in timbre and tone. With the stress of my dad's illness, it was almost too much, as most everything was. Imaging was quite satisfying, as was its frequency response. Like my music, the Gumby's performance was midrange centric. If there was great bass or treble rising to the moon... I didn't notice it. I didn't, however, also think I was missing much if anything.

Jason Stoddard, he of Schiit fame, said he preferred the Gumby to the Yggdrasil, Schiit's top end DAC. I found that hard to believe, it sounded like marketing to me. However, after hearing the Gumby for an extended period, I might have a similar reaction—of course, I haven't heard the Yggrassil. Whether the Yggdrasil is better or not, as I listened to the Gumby, I thought the performance was so good that many people, myself included, could be content with the Gumby. There is an "always better" solution marketed to you. And, maybe there is always something better. However, if you want to be happy, I think the Gumby could be a destination piece. I thought about buying the Gumby. As an estate planning attorney I advise clients to wait a year before making "big purchases" because they often regret their actions during grieving. So, I took my own advice. Otherwise, I would have purchased the Gumby.

What about an amplifier?

Ampsandsound Kenzie Amplifier

Justin Weber is the man behind production of these amplifiers. AmpsandSound gear is somewhat hobbyist in appearance, versus say Devialet, Chord, or larger commercial ventures. The metal top plate of the amp is adorned with a silk screened metal plate that covers the top, which is complemented by side and bottom panels of well finished wood. The Kenzie uses a 12SL7 (NOS available for around $8) or equivalent tube at its input. The output tubes are either 1626 or VT-137 tubes (replacements are available for between $5-$15).

I am unfamiliar with all of these tubes, but the ability to roll tubes might be very attractive given their prices. Justin suggests you can expect up to forty years performance out of the tubes as they're used—of course, that may be altered by a random tube failure, but at the cost of replacement tubes, that would not be a consideration for me.

My sample provided 16 and 32Ohm connections (now it is offered at 23/300Ohm output impedance) at the back of the unit, with a smooth, even tracking volume pot near the front, left of the amplifier. 32 Ohm connections deliver 250m Watts RMS. I've lost the specifications for the 16Ohm outputs. The Kenzie can also be configured, in a separate offering, as an integrated amplifier.

The power on offer for my reference and the Aeon Flow headphones was always sufficient. I rarely turned the dial past ten o'clock. Justin says he follows an Italian style of production, which is to say, good parts with a good design will yield a sound. His design mantra is to create good components made well, no intention to shape the sound. You'll like the Kenzie, or you may prefer a different style, hence different models in his lineup.

Although there were slight differences between the 16 and 32Ohm connections, I can't say I had a distinct preference. Both sounded good. I had no functional issues throughout my use of the Kenzie. The tubes operated without issue, though as can be expected from time to time with tubes in the circuit, there was some tube noise, in the familiar roar. I note it for the edification of people considering any tube product, but I did not find the tube noise to impair my enjoyment. With the 92dB efficient Aeon Flows, the volume did not need raising, or at least for me.

The Kenzie was easily preferable to Schiit's Vali, but at nine times the premium... is that news? The presentation with either my reference or the Aeon Flow headphones was even handed. If you're looking for a classically "tubey" distortion... look elsewhere. The sound was smooth and extended in the treble range. The same held for bass reproduction, especially with the Infected Mushroom tracks I tried. Male and female vocals were at their best with the Kenzie in place. Where praise was given previously, it's the Kenzie that allowed the performance to reach its zenith in my system. If it were strictly a performance comparison, I can't imagine anyone choosing the Schiit Vali over the Kenzie. But, since paying for things can be an issue, price would be the primary, if not the only, reason to purchase the Vali.

At the end of my long-winded babbling, I engaged in the question of whether a $620 nipped at the heels of one costing $3900. And my answer is no. The far pricier gear was unfortunately preferable. My reference setup serves its purpose and is a way to listen to music. Still, it's a big step up from sound out of my computer, and there is no "magic" with it, just good sound. Inserting MrSpeakers Aeon Flow open headphones let me glimpse what my reference two channel setup provides. It's also more comfortable than my AKG 702 headphones, and so it's a double whammy of improvement. The Gumby is a winner that would be at home in a headphone setup, or in my far more costly two channel setup. But for life exigencies, I'd have bought the Gumby. And, it's clear AmpsandSounds' Kenzie closes the loop and allows for a thoroughly satisfying sound. Whether the Aeon Flows or the Gumby should be the first place to upgrade my system, I'm not sure. All three products here are very good performers and are recommended without hesitation.

Mr. Speakers

Aeon Flow Open Back $799



Schiit Audio

Gungnir Multibit $1249



Kenzie Headphone Amp $1900