Vacuum Tube Amp with iPod

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MikeM

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This isn't really an iPod-specific accessory, but I've been using it with my iPod occasionally.

What is it?

An Antique Sound Labs MG Head OTL Mk. III

Well, its a vacuum tube driven headphone amp. Unlike most amps/receivers out there, this thing is designed to drive headphones only and not speakers.

Here's where I bought it. A close-up photo on the site:
http://www.gcaudio.com/cgi-bin/store/showProduct.cgi?id=267

How do I use it?

I purchased a second DVD player a while back but I purposely bought one that will play SACDs. For those who haven't heard of these, SACD [or Super Audio CDs] are higher-resolution CDs. Like what HDTV is to TV. It includes multi-channel surround sound, but I use a mixed-down stereo version for headphone use. Its a Sony DVP-NS500V for anyone who may care.

Many SACDs coming out now [Best Buy is a pretty good source of them if you want to see what titles are available- mostly Jazz and Classical but some mainstream] are Hybrids, meaning that they include a regular CD layer. This allows me to rip to my iPod as usual.

As far as the iPod, my 2G 10gb is full of 128 AACs, not exactly high-quality stuff.

I have a pair of Sennheiser HD-580 headphones- a great pair of phones that are probably the highest quality piece of equipment in the set-up.

How it sounds
In one word: incredible.

I have own just a few SACDs right now- Miles Davis: Kind of Blue, Dave Brubeck: Time Out, Pink Floyd: Dark Side of the Moon, and a couple of other jazz discs.

The differences between CD and SACD seemed subtle at first. I don't have a way to switch really quickly. I have to stop the disc and change modes, then scan back to where I was. It took some effort of listening and remembering but as I did more of this, the differences became apparent. The biggest to me was the subtle sounds that are now there that simply don't exist on a CD. A bass player's string buzz. The sound of the drumstick on the cymbal. It all adds up to make everything more real, more live. On the Pink Floyd disc, the 'spacey' sounds were larger and surrounded me more.

Still, the overall effect wasn't huge. CDs don't suddenly sound like garbage or anything. My plan is to purchase hybrid SACDs when possible but I still buy CDs most of the time.

Okay- on the iPod.

Definitely not the same as a CD or SACD. I don't have any higher-res or lossless files on my iPod, so there was no testing that. I may change that just to try but I like to carry a lot of music, so my files will stay at 128. My iPod also doesn't have line out, so I'm getting some of the iPod's sound shaping in there too.

There was certainly much enhancement of the sound. I have a portable CMoy amp and it doesn't compare. The CMoy will help the iPod drive the big phones [or even my shure e2s better] but it doesn't enhance or add to the music like this tube amp. The MG Head brings out a fuller dynamic range, as much as the 128 AACs can provide. It drives the sound making it much more alive than with the CMoy or especially just a direct phones-to-iPod connection.

But, the MG Head also reveals more about what's missing in the compressed files. The sound doesn't expand around my ears much. Everything sounded more 'close'. Everything sounds more fake or recorded. I think its due to instruments missing those important details. The compressed dynamic range vs. CD or SACD is quite apparent. What I didn't notice was any revealed artifacts, like those heard on really low quality mp3s. There was still none of the underwater sound associated with those files either. It wasn't suddenly unlistenable.

Overall, the iPod sounds reasonably good with this system. For the average iPod owner who uses the stock buds and 128 AACs, this would be an immediate upgrade. For someone who uses higher-res files and better phones with their iPod will probably still find this to be an upgrade in sound. But, as expected, the iPod doesn't hold up to a dedicated, home disc player.

I wouldn't recommend an amp like this to someone unless they were A] really into headphone listening. This is definitely a very specific piece of equipment. And B] only using the iPod as a source. Sure it works fine but a dedicated home player is required to get the most of this. Maybe if someone used lossless files, they could do it though.

Here's an okay pic of the amp in operation. There's the separate power supply box on the left and the amp on the right. There are 3 vacuum tubes in the cage. I used low light to try and capture their glow. The blue power light is blown up though.
 

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Doug Gilmour

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Looks like a very neat set up. I'm currently pleased with my Cmoy Headamp, but maybe one day I'll go for one of those... How heavy is the amp by the way..?

-Dan
 

MikeM

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I don't know for sure but several pounds. Each piece is a good handful.
 
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