HeadRoom Max headphone amplifier Page 3

Head of the Class
Articulate—that's the word that best describes Max. Oh, there are others: fast, rich, complex—and, paradoxically, simple as well. But articulate is the one that resonates most strongly. Perhaps I'm more sensitive to this than most, but for me, music is primarily about communication.

It could be argued that musical communication is compromised when the complete frequency range is slighted, or when transient edges are blunted—and I agree entirely. In fact, HeadRoom Max illuminates the frequency extremes with uncommon clarity. Its bass response is deep and full-bodied, and it will exercise your chosen headphones' HF response to their utmost. It also defines the leading edges of transients as climactically as a mallet striking an anvil. But that's mere mechanics compared to the effortless way Max has of fitting together musical expression into a coherent whole.

Albert Einstein said, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." To my way of thinking, that is one of the defining high-end paradoxes: Low-end and mid-fi gear tends to mash details together into a musical hash, whereas the better high-end gear unravels those details for you. But the thing is, the details themselves aren't the music. Music has an identity that exists outside the mere cataloging of its components. The best music attains a coherence that is simultaneously composed of its discrete parts and is, in some sense, simpler than them. Music is, in Barzun's memorable phrase, "intangible and ineffable; it can only be, as it were, inhaled by the spirit." Capturing that essence is the elusive task that the High End has set for itself—and to my ears, one that Max accomplishes.

But it's maddeningly difficult to describe. To start with, I found HeadRoom Max unusually adept at unraveling timbre and harmonic detail. Listening to Don Byron's Bug Music (Nonesuch 79438-2), January 1997's "Recording of the Month," I was aware of the harmonic interplay between Byron's clarinet, Steve Wilson's alto sax, and Robert DeBellis's tenor in a way that kept each voice quite distinct, even in unison sections. Listening to the same passages played through the Home HeadRoom, the three instruments sounded more like a single voice—overtones were smoothed out, and differences between instruments diminished. The tricky twists and turns that the music took were reduced in impact.

I tried the same comparison with Melos's SHA-Gold, which—lacking the HeadRoom crossfeed module—required that I bypass Max's processor in order to compare just the amplifier sections of the two. The SHA-Gold, a marvelous headphone amp, matched Max's ability to unravel the woodwind signatures of the three musicians. What was simple stayed simple—and what was complex was not reduced. Yet Billy Hart's cymbal work seemed more prominent through the Melos. My first thought was that the tubed, more expensive Melos had a more extended top-end, but repeated listening and comparison—on this disc and others—led me to the realization that the increased emphasis on the ride cymbal was indicative of greater sibilance through the SHA-Gold. The sss-sss-sss of the brass started and stopped with greater authority through HeadRoom Max. Good as the SHA-Gold is, I found Max faster and cleaner.

Privacy and consideration aside, for many listeners speed and detail are what headphone listening is all about. I recently had to evaluate test pressings of Robert Silverman's Sonata LP (STPH008-1), and while I did most of my critical listening on my reference system, I plugged in Max to spotlight pre-echo and groove roar.

Speed and detail can be a double-edged sword, however; too much of either and the sound turns brittle and bright. My hat's off to Hertsens—he got the balance just right. I could hear details I'd never heard before, but was still able to listen for hour after hour without listener fatigue.

Max is also admirably transparent. These last few months I've simply been devouring Paul Hilliard and the Theater of Voices' The Age of Cathedrals (Harmonia Mundi 907157, CD). It is a spectacularly natural-sounding recording of voices in a reverberant space—St. Vincent's Church in San Rafael, California, as it so happens. The program explores music fostered by the Cathedral of Notre Dame—which, rather than serving as some pedantic hook with which to anchor a grab-bag of styles and composers, turns out to make for a rich and fascinating collection. One of my favorite works is an anonymous "lesson" explaining the mysteries of the virgin birth, In hoc anni circulo. Over a vocal drone, two tenors take turns chanting the text, verse by verse. The drone fills the chapel, the prolonged decay illuminating its vast size. The sound seems to seek the boundaries, surrounding the strong tenor voices that pierce the drone and read the lesson.