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Flagship Headphone / Amplifier Round Up

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HeadAmp’s Blue Hawaii SE (BHSE) is one of the most sought after bespoke hand made amplifiers in the world. The demand is so high (and production so limited) that the waiting list is always between 6 months and a full year. HeadAmp’s Justin Wilson is based in Virginia and he hand builds all the amplifiers himself with help of a small team. Many of Justin’s amplifiers are designed by renowned engineer Kevin Gilmore.

There are two sections to this amplifier – the main amplifier enclosure and a dedicated power chassis (shown in the above picture at the far left) which helps keep the circuitry separated to reduce crossover and other unwanted electrical anomalies.

The Blue Hawaii SE (Special Edition) is the latest in a series of high grade amplifiers created by HeadAmp. It is still the flagship model in the range and with the optional Alps RK50 potentiometer included is priced at $6596. This rotary potentiometer is rated as one of the finest in the world, priced at around £700 (sometimes you can get deals on ebay)! It is definitely worth the extra money when configuring the amplifier as it offers totally silent superfine control over volume.

Justin Wilson has earned a reputation for putting a lot of time and effort into creating these amplifiers, often delaying shipping until he is completely satisfied with the final product. There are various colours of front panels available, including black, silver, purple and blue. Our own review sample is in my favourite colour – blue.

This is an electrostatic headphone amplifier and as such is designed with STAX electrostatic headphones first and foremost in mind. It is not compatible with other planar based headphones in this article today.

The Blue Hawaii SE has been in production now for many years and has, in my opinion, yet to be surpassed. I have spent extensive time with competitor products such as the Cavalli Liquid Lightning 2T (HERE), Woo Audio WES (HERE) and Ray Samuels A10 Thunderbolt II (HERE).

There is no doubt these are all great amplifiers and worthy of attention and they each have a very distinctive sound signature, however the Blue Hawaii SE is the most neutral sounding of all the electrostatic amplifiers on the market. Don’t misinterpret ‘neutral’ as being bland or lifeless because the BHSE is able to drive STAX headphones to the limit of their dynamic sound reproduction capabilities.

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The Blue Hawaii SE is a valve (‘tube’ to our American readers) amplifier and as such demands a little more attention than a traditional solid state amplifier. There are four positions on top of the main amplifier to insert the EL34 valves. Justin supplies a matched quad set of Mullard EL34’s – made in Russia. These are actually pretty good modern tubes, although I upgraded them to NOS Mullard EL34 XF4’s which (these are very hard to find) cost around £500 for a matching Quad set.

Changing the valves in the BHSE doesn’t have a dramatic impact on the sound as the BHSE has been designed by Kevin Gilmore to act like ‘a wire with gain’, although minor improvements to soundstaging and overall sound signature are apparent if you use high grade NOS vintage tubes. At least to my ears.

After changing the valves the amplifier should be BIASED. This simply requires a AC DC Voltmeter set to 1000V, which you can buy from Amazon for around £20-£30. The pin layout is very straightforward, and the video above explains the procedure. If you fail to BIAS the valves, they can run hotter and life span will be reduced. I do think Justin should supply the standard tubes with LF (left front) RF (right front)  LB (left back) RB (right back) markings, as even bog standard matched quad EL34s from Russia have a little variance.

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Other valves worth a mention are Sylvania 6CA7 Triple Getters, also known as ‘Fat Boy’, due to their shape (see image above). These Sylvania 6CA7 Triple Getters are just as difficult to find in good condition as the Mullard EL34 XF4, especially in a closely matched Quad configuration.

These 6Ca7 valves will slightly increase bass and sub bass response while rolling off high end frequencies a little. These are an ideal set to try if you are aiming to thicken up the sound a little without compromising too much on detail. If you can’t afford to buy good NOS valves in the EL34 family then the modern Russian Mullard QUAD set that Justin supplies are perfectly fine.

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While I have been extremely impressed with many of the latest Planar headphones such as the HiFi Man HE1000 and Audeze LCD 4, the Stax 009 are in my opinion the finest headphone ever made. It may go against popular opinion, but I prefer the Stax 009 with the BHSE over the original Orpheus HE90 and HEV90 amplifier. This was why I sold it many years ago. Of course the new $50,000 Orpheus is now available  – however that is a story for a different day!

The older, less expensive Stax 007a MK2 are also a great match for the Blue Hawaii SE amplifier and a clever way to save a couple of thousand pounds. The only real negative I have against the 007A MK2 compared with Stax 009 is the slight loss of overall neutrality and fine micro detail when listening to more complex music. They are also not in the same comfort level as the newer Stax 009, due to the headband redesign. The Stax 009 are rated up there with the Sennheiser HD800 and HiFi Man HE1000 headphones in regards to comfort.

The Stax 009 and BHSE pairing is truly remarkable. It is a classical music lovers wet dream due to the truly remarkable level of fine macro detail and instrument separation. I have heard pretty good recordings through my Tannoy Kensington GR loudspeakers suffer dramatically within a headphone environment. Headphones in general will suffer from limited soundstaging, but the Stax 009/BHSE pairing will deliver a highly detailed three dimensional wall of sound, with marvelous instrument positioning and separation.

I have read alot about the Stax 009 being ‘bass light’, and I take issue with this statement. This is more than likely an issue with the Stax branded amplifiers you can buy which are quite honestly sub standard. The only Stax amplifier I rate highly is the Stax SRM 717 which was discontinued and replaced by the dynamically restricted SRM 727. Regardless, most of their amplifiers need to be modded to get close to matching the Stax 009 capabilities. It is criminal in my opinion that Stax are unable to release a flagship amplifier to the same standard as the Blue Hawaii SE.

Bass response from the Stax 009 with the BHSE is sublime. There is plenty of bass and sub bass on offer when needed – perfectly tight and impactful, yet without any hint of smearing or bloat. It is true, these headphones are not the first choice when listening to electronic/dance music, but they are more than capable of delving deep down into the lower frequencies of well recorded music.

I have lost many an evening listening to Miles Davis, Frank Sinatra and classical music through the Stax 009/BHSE. There is a tangible, organic feeling to the music experienced via the Stax/BHSE system which you do not get elsewhere. You simply forget you are using headphones at all after a short time – which is the goal of any truly great system.

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