Bottlehead Single Ended Experimenters Amp
For me, music has always been there. It is very much a part of who I am. I spent countless hours listening to records as a teen. Later, I spent years playing music in all sorts of bands. Audio gear(for playback) became an interest when I was a teen, though after an initial purchase (Harmon Kardon integrated c.1989) my path took me elsewhere. A couple years back, I realized that I no longer enjoyed listening to music (which at this point was primarily through ear buds and a cell phone). I’d succumbed to the ‘plague of convenience’ (for another post) along with so many others, and, had gotten away from the one thing that inspired me to play in the first place.
My return to quality audio began with a Peachtree Nova 125 integrated and KEF R300 bookshelf speakers. I quickly traded up for a Primaluna Prologue Premium integrated amp and Tekton Lore speakers. I was shopping for Zu Audio speakers, but budget would not permit (one day), and, I had the good fortune of stumbling on a local enthusiast who wanted to trade his Lore for the KEF. These pieces are all quality performers – each with their strengths. Ultimately, the process revealed to me my preference – single ended amps and high sensitivity speakers.
I have now proven an oft quoted bit -that one lovely watt is enough. For me, of course – others want 400 watts of solid state goodness to drive 6ft. towers built for domination – I get it. There’s music playing along both paths.
Because I also enjoy building things, and am fascinated by this century old technology, my next steps brought me here:
My Bottlehead Single Ended Experimenters (aka S.E.X.) kit.
Bottlehead (Bottlehead.com) is a company out of Washington state that designs and builds amplifier kits for those of us with a passion for music and tubes. Headphone amps, stereo integrated amps, phono pre amps and more are available direct from their site. Prices are reasonable – no – based on sound quality alone, these are a tremendous value! Add to that personalized service and a fantastic community of builders, many of whom are ready to assist rookies like me, and they become the obvious choice. I’m not able to speak to the technical design of the amps, so for further insight look here.
A front view of my finished amp here –> The base (included in the kit) is Pacific Northwest alder wood, and comes ready for finish and assembly.
What I want to do here is describe my experience with the Single Ended Experimenters kit and my Tekton Lore speakers.
I’ve read some reviews of this amp and many forum posts on it’s qualities, though 98% were focused on headphone listening (it supports both headphone and speaker output!). I do listen on my ‘phones too, though my 2 channel system is my first choice, so it will be the focus of this review.
I’m gonna give this to you the only way I know how – we’re talking about music. I’m not an expert on the technology, so you’re not going to find measurements here. There are plenty others who can do this.
I’ve been running this amp 10 hours a day for the past week, so it’s now breaking in nicely. Initially, the mids were hard and it lacked the ‘dimensionality’ I expected. Bass was boxey. Tonight, things are relaxing into place. I expect this will continue for another week or so.
First, output : this amp puts out approx. 2 watts. But, paired with the right speaker – in this case my 98db Lore – it delivers. I am reaching well beyond comfortable listening levels before I get to 12:00 on the volume dial. This varies with the recording, of course. Oh -my listening space is small and quiet.
Frequency extension is astonishing – highs are airy and clear but lack the hash that makes these freqs hurt. This amp is more linear than my PL – the tube selection (6CA7-Z in the PL) affects this – so while I may trade some texture in this instance, I am gaining much. Accordingly, soundstage is illuminated as if we’ve turned the light up to reveal the farthest corners, though without adding glare. Sunlight, not fluorescent. Layering and separation are improved as well – definition is had without dissecting the whole. This is what I expected from a tiny watt set amp – dimensionality, speed, tone and texture.
This amp is no slow poke. Quick, and able to handle big dynamic shifts – it’s engaging and musical. Resolving. I am hearing tons of new detail in recordings I am familiar with. Midrange is clear, low end is textured and deep. Now, a pianos lowest notes reveal their oscillation, and string texture in addition to their physical presence. Drums sing(!), shove and bark along with the usual punching and splashing. Instruments are more like their real selves.
Yes, the S.E.X. does not provide the whallop the Primaluna does – this is roughly 35watts vs 2 watts – so, not a fair comparison. But, if I’m honest – I don’t miss it. There is so much quality low end here, that I’m not left wanting. This pairing of amp/speaker/space is ideal.
And finally – I want to feel the music. Literally. Not by way of exaggeration, but by drawing me in (and removing obstacles) to where I can experience the energy of the performance. That’s what this amp brings. That’s my best shot at avoiding the popular ‘pulling the veil’ descriptions we often see.
I wanted to get back to music. And to simpler times.The Bottlehead amp exemplifies the idea, and proves again that less is more.
This is about music for me, though the gear does provide an alluring distraction…
Reference: Fiona Apple, Nils Frahm, Sparklehorse, The Tallis Scholars, Hindemith, Portishead, The Bad Plus, Califone, Nosaj Thing, AWVFTS, Joshua Redman, Patrick Watson, Deafheaven, Hundred Waters, Open Mike Eagle