HeadRoom Max headphone amplifier Page 4

Listening through Max, I was intensely aware that both sets of voices—despite their seeming solidity—are not themselves physical entities, although they define that which contains them. You can hear through them—almost see through them—and when someone nudges a hymnal with their foot (at least that's what it sounds like to me), the scrape of the cover along the stone floor and the reverberations from that motion are startling in the way in which they define a specific point within all of that space.

Ultimately, however, I must keep returning to that least definable of qualities, but the one that most inhabits my love for HeadRoom Max: the coherent articulation of the essence of music. When confronted with the supreme mysteries of music, I always return to Beethoven—no matter how many times I go to that particular well, I never come up dry. This time I turned to the string quartets, specifically Op.132, as recorded by the Végh Quartet (Valois 4400, CD). Many listeners feel that a late Beethoven string quartet, especially that one, is as close to the essence of pure music as one could get—a purely closed system with no references to the outside world—but that's not the way I experienced it.

Nor is it the way that Beethoven intended it, not if the section title "A Convalescent's Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Deity, in the Lydian Mode" can be taken as any indication. (Beethoven's work on this quartet was interrupted by a serious intestinal inflammation.) Here Beethoven uses the Lydian mode (basically, an F-major scale that substitutes a B-natural for the scale's B-flat) to compose a hymn of thanksgiving, harking back to an earlier musical era. The somber hymn is interrupted by a dance in the much sprightlier key of D major, which infuses the piece with an antic energy—Beethoven marked the score "feeling new strength." The hymn then returns, alternating with the wild dance. The range between individual instruments widens and the harmonies grow ever more dissonant until, after an emphatic passage with every beat emphasized, all of the energetic filigree ceases and the melody is carried forth through a calm progression of half-notes. This climax establishes the serene tone of the two final movements.

My point is not so much to analyze Op.132 or to probe Beethoven's motivations for writing the work—none of which I knew before reading Michael Steinberg's essay on the Late Quartets in The Beethoven Quartet Companion by Winter and Martin—but rather to lay the groundwork for explaining the emotional impact of the piece as I experienced it through HeadRoom Max. The contrast between the Lydian hymn and the dance was jarring, as any vision that contrasts heaven and earth would be. And the sense of relief engendered by the slow melodic development at the climax was physical. "Heart-stopping," as Steinberg would have it. Of all of Beethoven's works, few are dearer to me than Op.132—I must have heard it hundreds of times. (Not thousands, simply because I ration it—I don't want over-familiarity to taint such a powerful piece.) Yet I have rarely felt its power and mood swings more vividly than through the HeadRoom Max.

Head 'em Out
I think HeadRoom's Max is an extraordinary product—and while I haven't heard the "Maxed-out Home," I love the idea that you can buy the unit in both plain and fancy configurations. The headphone listener today does not lack for choices when it comes to headphone amps: McCormack, Cary, Audio Alchemy, Melos, Sonic Frontiers, and Counterpoint all offer high-performance units that incorporate topnotch headphone amps, and a wide range of prices to boot. And many of these offer additional features that would make them indispensable for specific applications—such as the SHA-Gold's remote volume control and line-level switching capabilities, or the McCormack Micro Integrated Drive's ability to drive a sensitive pair of speakers. Yet, for the sheer love of music, I'd have to say that HeadRoom Max is the one to beat.

It's transparent, articulate, fast, and tonally natural. That's a lot to offer, in and of itself; but beyond that, I found the unit true to the music in way that darned few electronic components can claim to be. That's rare, and makes the HeadRoom Max very special indeed.

Footnote 1: I asked Tyll if he didn't feel that this was unfair to audiophiles who didn't want the fancy cosmetics. He'd already thought of that. "We also make what we call a 'Maxed-out Home,' which has the same guts as the Max—except for the volume pot—but without the front and rear panels. That sells for $999. It looks just like a Home HeadRoom, but it has MH before the serial number. The circuit board changed from earlier designs, so we can't upgrade the Home to a Max."