Gramophone Dreams #41: Auris Nirvana headphone amplifier & Focal Stellia Casque de Musique headphones Page 2

Nirvana with Susvara: In Bed-Stuy Brooklyn, during the intense Black Lives Matter protests, there were helicopters and military-loud all-night-long barrages of "no justice, no sleep" fireworks. As my own form of sympathy, I played "Get Up, Stand Up" from the first reggae album I heard when I came to NYC, in 1974: Burnin' by the Wailers with Bob Marley (16/44.1 FLAC Tuff Gong/Qobuz). I listened with the 60 ohm, low-sensitivity (83dB/1mW), open-back, planar-magnetic HiFiMan Susvara headphones. Their $6000 price is Babylonian high (although 24kt gold is sputtered on the Susvara's nano-thin diaphragms). But! Driven by the Auris Nirvana amplifier, the sound, especially the bass guitar and Marley's distinctive voice, were tidepool-clear, Rastafari-strong, and natural of tone.

With the Susvara connected to the Nirvana's 80 ohm tap, I also listened to Tunisian composer and oud player Anouar Brahem's 2000 album Astrakan Café (24/44.1 FLAC ECM/Qobuz). Astrakan Café is a timeless-feeling sound collage that is dominated by the rhythms and harmonies of exotic instruments. The Susvara-Nirvana alliance kept the album's rhythms and nuance in the frontal lobe of my listening awareness. The Auris, Susvara, and Jan Erik Kongshaug's recording-mixing-mastering combined to let the instruments in Brahem's trio (the oud, darbouka, and clarinet) sound like they were being played in a great marble-floored hall. The zest and purity of the Nirvana-Susvara sound made Brahem's Astrakan Café into a memorable audio moment.


Woo WA5 comparison: The Woo Audio WA5 headphone amp/preamp is the best-sounding, most exciting headphone amplifier I have yet reviewed for Stereophile. Like the Auris, the Woo is a two-chassis tube amp. In its base configuration, it costs $5899—just $100 more than the Nirvana. Unlike the Auris, which appears to use solid-state rectifiers and regulators, the WA5 features a dual-mono, tube-rectified (274B × 2), choke-filtered power supply and an amplifier circuit with octal-based 6SN7 dual triodes driving single-ended, directly heated 300B tubes. My review sample of the Woo came with optional Takatsuki Denki 300B tubes ($1995/pair) and a $1250 premium parts upgrade for a price of $9144 as reviewed. The Woo is long gone, but I remember still, and will never forget, how the WA5 played all my headphones with a luminous, spatial fullness.

The Auris Nirvana is not as LSD-300B radiant, atmospheric, or dramatically three-dimensional as my memory of the WA5, but it is more solidly detailed and directly spoken.

I have auditioned a variety of single-ended EL34 power amplifiers. The Auris does not sound like any of them. The Nirvana shows more force and well-sortedness, which, I suspect, results from the character of its 7.8lb power supply. The Nirvana comes stock with new tubes, as it must: JJs and Russian-manufactured Mullards, which are quiet and good but not brilliant or exciting. A little bird tells me that the Nirvana might respond dramatically to rolling vintage tubes. Vintage European or American tubes would more than likely open up and lively up the Nirvana's slightly buttoned-down sound.

Compared to the ZMF Pendant: I have zero doubt that many headphone aficionados would prefer the bouncy, sunny-bright clarity of ZMF's $2500 Vérité closed-back headphones over the darker, more serious insightfulness of the $6000 HiFiMan Susvara or the recording-studio resolution of he $4995 Abyss AB-1266 Phi TC. And why shouldn't they? The reasonably priced, 300 ohm, 99dB/mW-sensitive Vérité make music sound engagingly lifelike. Right now, they are my favorite closed-backs because they minimize cupping effects, and their angular-mounted, beryllium-coated, polyethylene-naphthalate dynamic drivers deliver relaxed but controlled sound and image with better delineation than any closed circumaural headphone I know.

My initial impressions of the ZMF Vérité headphones (Gramophone Dreams, April 2020) were formed using the $1999–$2499 Justin Weber–designed ZMF Pendant amplifier, which made the Vérité sound superclear and intimately detailed while giving recordings an ear-pleasing burnished tone. To my taste, the Pendant was perfect with the Vérité. The Pendant is gone, but my memory of it is clear enough for me to state that the Nirvana and Pendant sound very similar driving the Vérité. If I had to separate these amplifiers, I would say the Pendant made music more easy-flowing and tube-magical while the Nirvana played with greater wallop. Take your pick; both amps reside at the top of Headphone Mountain.

Focal Stellia Casque de Musique headphones
I have the Focal Stellia (footnote 3) on my current shortlist of superfidelity 'phones because my auditions at CanJam NYC 2020 were extremely positive. At CanJam, it was obvious that Focal's 1.5" (40mm) M-shaped electrodynamic beryllium-dome drivers were delivering a very high level of relaxed and refined sound, with no beryllium metallic-ness. And, for reasons I cannot yet fully explain, I am feeling extra-good about closed-back headphones.


After my CanJam Stellia audition, I reviewed the ZMF Vérité and found it sonically reminiscent of the legendary Sony MDR-R10 closed-back, dynamic-driver headphone, which many regard as the sky god of all the headphones ever made. Noticing that similarity caused me to wonder: Is there something about closed-back headphones that makes them sound more lifelike than open-backs? I did not know, but ... I had a hunch that Focal's closed-back Stellia would help me answer the question. I also thought they would make an excellent tool for comparing the $2599 Feliks Audio Euforia Mark II amplifier I described in the December 2019 Gramophone Dreams to the Auris Nirvana described above.

That hunch was based on how delightfully and evocatively the Euforia powered my daily-driver Focal Clear headphones, which sounded extremely good but sometimes a tad dull powered by Mytek HiFi's Brooklyn DAC+ DAC/preamp/headphone amp. The Feliks Euforia makes only 0.13 watts into 32 ohms, 0.2 watts into 100 ohms, and 0.08 watts into 600 ohms. Voltage gain is 20dB, and output impedance 20 ohms.


"Do you remember all those psychedelic nights? When your head came loose and floated into the lights." That is country singer and fine artist Terry Allen singing "After the Fall" on one of my 2015 R2D4 albums, Human Remains (16/44.1 FLAC Sugar Hill/Qobuz). "And all them girls without any tops at all. Down in the dirt. After the fall." Ever since Scarlett Rivera and Rolling Thunder, I like songs with an amplified violin singing behind an electric guitar. Ever since Dylan, I like doom and ironic social critique. Since it came out, I have played this faux-country art song on a multitude of extremely expensive stereos, some costing more than $1 million. On the best, it exploded into the room with big energy and abundant Terry Allen attitude.

Playing "After the Fall" through the Nirvana and Focal Stellia, the song's doom entered my head with force, but it was 30% low on psychedelic color. My head did not float into the lights.

The less expensive, less powerful Feliks Euforia put more excitement and colorful energy into the Stellia. The Euforia displayed more of Terry Allen's Texas gusto and not-subtle sarcasm than did the Nirvana. Vocal tone was more complex and expressively nuanced. The Feliks put light and fire into Terry Allen's dark nights.

So why was the output-transformerless Euforia so effective with the 35 ohm, 106dB/mW Stellia? I don't rightly know. Other than the Stellia's high sensitivity, the Feliks amplifier's high (20 ohm) output impedance driving the Stellia's low (35 ohm) impedance might factor in—maybe in a positive way? What I do know is that the HoloAudio May DAC connected to the Feliks Audio Euforia powering Focal's Stellia closed-backs produced vital, exciting sound.


Atmosphere, soundstage dimensionality, and precise image mapping are elements I expect and cherish in floorstanding sound systems, but with headphones I expect and cherish the feeling of being in the space with the microphones and musicians. These are very different "Where am I?" experiences. In an attempt to mitigate this imaging disparity, both the ZMF Vérité and Focal Stellia angle their dynamic drivers (relative to the listener's ears) in a way that encourages the listener to "see" a bigger soundstage and more of the action as it happens in front of them.

I mention these headphone-imaging issues because at the start of my story I was obsessively reestablishing my communion with the immortal pianissimos of Vladimir de Pachmann, during which his piano appeared in front of me. Now, 30 days later, Italian composer Ennio Morricone has died, and my past life and artistic viewpoints are Rolodexing through my mind.

When I was a teen, Sergio Leone's Dollars Trilogy had an enormous impact on what I admired in cinema and music. To my young senses, these innovative films struck a perfect balance between unprecedented realism (for a Western) and unprecedented abstraction (for a film drama). These culture-shifting films came off as Homeric epic, aided by the force of Morricone's soundtracks, which allowed for long, mesmerizing scenes without dialogue.

Unfortunately, Morricone's scene-stealing music power did not fully survive the in-my-headness of the headphone experience. I still enjoyed my old favorite soundtrack, but compared to the theater it sounded emphysemic, like it does on all but the biggest sound systems. (Naturally, giant movie scores sound best on giant horn speakers.)

In order to enjoy The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (16/44.1 FLAC MGM/ Qobuz) with any headphones, I have to ignore my need for the sound action to be just as I remember it from the big sound systems of my past: large and completely in front of me. For this review, I forced myself to adapt by letting go of expectations while immersing my mind in the force of the soundtrack's sonic energy. Imaging was left-center-right. And of course, the Stellia's angled drivers played loud, clear, and dynamically. And yes, the sound seemed larger and more frontal when I closed my eyes.

When I finally stopped worrying about imaging, my mind floated back, easily and naturally, to the 1960s of my youth, when I discovered an evening of good, bad, and romance-filled memories.

In sum
For more than 120 years, people have made recordings to provide listeners with exciting, transcendent moments caused by the reproduction of sounds other people made in another place at another time. In the case of those Vladimir de Pachmann piano rolls, I felt I was communing with a long-forgotten art spirit. In the case of the Wailers' "Get Up, Stand Up" and Ennio Morricone's "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," I was able to dream backward and reexperience some of the feelings that formed my present worldview. These were not trivial moments. These experiences are among the reasons I regard audio reproduction equipment, at the exalted performance levels of the Auris Nirvana amplifier and the Focal Stellia headphones, not as frivolous audiophile toys but as essential high-technology tools for self-discovery and a deeper appreciation of historic musical culture.

Footnote 3: Focal-JMlab, 108 rue de l'avenir, 42353 La Talaudière cedex, France. Tel: (33) 04-77-43-57-00. Web: US distributor: Focal Naim America, 313 Rue Marion, Repentigny, Quebec QC J5Z 4N8, Canada. Tel: (800) 663-9352. Web:

pbarach's picture

However nice that Everest LP sounds, it's likely a poor representation of de Pachmann's playing. For example, Impromptu #1 from the piano roll is a rhythmic mess:

Compare it to de Pachmann's 1915 acoustic version:

I had an Everest LP of Josef Hoffman's piano roll versions of the Chopin Scherzos. They were rhythmically a mess, and they sounded nothing like his studio or live performances.

Herb Reichert's picture

what you say is inarguably true. Piano-roll performances exhibit a kind of holes-in-paper gears-in-motion hesitation to every note. Rhythms are stunted. That is why I collect 78s. But, for me these roll-recordings deliver a certain intimacy and feeling of 'being there' with these legendary performers that I do not get as much of from the acoustic or electric recordings.

For me, heavy black discs are the opposite of inconvenience.


Ortofan's picture

... the Chopin Impromptu No. 1 by Jorge Bolet.

SET Man's picture


Now you've got me curious, I'll have to keep an eye open for that 78 disc to play it on my 1902 Victor Type E Talking Machine.

pbarach's picture

You'll need a $25,000 external power supply to run that Talking Machine, and $5000 in isolation devices to get the best sound quality. So I'm going with youtube and

NeilS's picture

4-CD set with excellent sound thanks to Ward Marston

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Thank you for mentioning Marston Records. I'm on their "Preferred Customer" list for vocal releases, and occasionally buy others. Ward Marston is one of the best re-masterers around of both acoustic and electrical recordings. Other sources for historic remasters include Immortal Performances in Canada and Pristine Records in the UK. These invariably top efforts from major labels, which tend to filter out overtones in an effort to filter out hiss, pops and all the rest. Plus, many of the early digital remasters of historic recordings came out early in the digital game, when midrange went south, bass suffered, and highs were accentuated. Hence the later remasterings of those remasterings, the latest remasterings of the Solti Ring and Callas commercial and live performances being prime examples.

NeilS's picture

For your kind note - I couldn't agree more about the wonderful work Marston and others have done on historic recordings. Ward Marston has been called an "audio resurrectionist". I think that's a very good description.

newernow's picture

Hi Herb, so did I read you correctly that all in all you still prefer the ZMF VC over the Stellia? If so, why exactly? Does the VC scale better with your tube amps? More open sounding? What are the virtues of the Stellia when talking about sound quality alone? Thanks!

Jack L's picture


All roads lead to Rome: digital restoration of the "immortals".

Last month by chance I picked up from my neighborhood thrift store a RCA Caruso mono LP for a buck & half !! My policy of vinyl collection: No mono but only stereo recordings. Being an operatic tenor songs lover, I always fancy about master singers like Enrico Caruso, so I got it anyway.

Am I lucky or what? When I flipped over the LP sleeve, I found it was a digitally restoration of historic recordings Enrico Caruso, the "greatest operatic tenor for all times": he received more complimentary mails from his admirers than all others added together, live & dead!!!!

This immortal restoration of this infamous master singer's recording was done by Soundstream in 1976. So this is a digital mastered LP !!!!

What this LP impressed me is: Caruso sounded so live like singing in front of me with dead silent background. I think only Soundstream could do it so real! I am so gratifying to enjoy Caruso's gorgeous operatic voice so real dated back to 1920s FINALLY !!!

Listening is believing

Jack L