Sunday, July 3, 2011

Heed Audio Obelisk SI and X2 external power supply

As Yo La Tengo once said, today is the day. It’s a day to hang my head low and finally pack up the Heed Audio Obelisk SI integrated amplifier and matching X2 external power supply and send it back to Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio Gallery. I checked the date on the original packing slip and was surprised to see it was dated March 24, more than three months ago. My time with the Heed gear flew by. I’m sure the opposite is true for Dan since these are his personal amplifiers, and I’m sure the spring must have dragged by insufferably without these incredible little black boxes in his home. We’re talking treadmill time. We’re talking waiting-in-line-at-the-DMV-time. I feel for you, Dan. I really do.

If Heed Audio isn’t on your radar, then it should be. This Hungarian audio company, quite frankly, is on a lot of people’s radar lately. For the better part of the last year, every time I mentioned that I was in the market for a quality integrated amp, whether it be LFD or Naim or something else, a dedicated contingent of Heed fans emailed me and told me I should check out the Obelisk at once. In fact, every time I mentioned Heed on this blog, every audiophile in Hungary checked in and drove my Google numbers through the roof. Hungarian audio forums were buzzing with the news that some crazy guy in Texas had discovered their audio secret, and they were excited. For them, it seemed, it was a terrible oversight that Heed wasn’t a household name throughout the world. Here in America, however, I have yet to encounter an audiophile who knows about Heed and isn’t head-over-heels in love with this gear.

Hyperbole aside, the Heed gear is at first glance rather modest-looking gear—simple black boxes that are quite small in size. When I first saw a photograph of the Obelisk SI, I instantly thought of the Naim NAIT 2 I owned through the ‘90s. When I saw the matching X2 power supply, I was reminded of the Naim NAP140 power amplifier I later added to the NAIT (although mentioning one of Naim’s power supplies, such as the HiCap, would be much more appropriate for this comparison). Both pairs of gear fit neatly onto a single shelf of your equipment rack. On closer inspection, however, the Heeds are more robust and stylish. In photographs they seem plain and austere, but the faceplates are thick and glossy and the shiny knobs have a luxurious feel to them. When the unit is turned on, blue LEDs glow discreetly and exude calm and grace. Not to bash the old Naim gear, which was attractive in its way, but the Heed is decidedly more modern and substantial in terms of build quality.

The Obelisk SI on its own is basically a 40wpc integrated with five inputs, the first one which has been taken up by the optional DACtilus digital to analog converter. The X2 external power supply, based on the same chassis, actually boosts the output another 10 watts per channel. Both are attached by a 5-pin umbilical. Heed Audio is very strict about using non-DC coupling in all of their designs. Alpar Huszti, who runs Heed Audio along with his brother Zsolt (the designer), explains his brother’s philosophy this way:

“Zsolt is strongly convinced that DC-coupling is the main culprit of the processed, often artificial sound -- that is, "chopped-off", "square-cut" notes instead of naturally decaying notes -- of most solid-state amps. He says, the superiority of valve amps over transistor-based should be attributed more to the way these are coupled to the speakers (not only, but to a large extent) , rather than to the vacuum tube itself. The reason behind it is simple: tones demand natural decay; DC-coupling, however, "tends" to short-circuit the speaker, thus cutting off the notes earlier than they are naturally resolved in performance.

“DC-coupling can be circumvented by 1) using output transformers (all valve amps, plus a famous exception from the 'transistor-camp', the McIntosh), 2) using output capacitors (Ion, Heed), and, finally, 3) using a fully balanced, truly +/- bridge-mode topology with two mirror-like amp stages.”

Because of this choice to avoid DC-coupled designs, Heed Audio enjoys a reputation for being just a little bit different in their approach compared to other audio companies, which may go a long way in explaining why these small boxes produce such a big, surprising sound.

As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, the first thing I noticed when I put the Heeds into my system (Trenner & Friedl ART monitors, Rega P3-24 turntable/TT-PSU power supply/GrooveTracer subplatter/Funk Firm Achroplat platter/Zu Audio DL-103 cartridge, Lehmann Audio Black Cube SE phono preamplifier, Blue Computer Solutions music server, Wavelength Brick V3 24/96 DAC, Cardas Clear Light cables) was the absolute lack of any grain. That was one of the shortcomings of the Rega Brio3 that the Heeds replaced, although I need to temper that statement with the fact that the Rega is probably the most satisfying and complete $700 integrated money can buy. But the Obelisk/X2 combination removed any sense of artifice or noise from the system that existed with the Rega, however slightly, and allowed the music to flow into the room unimpeded.

If I had to use just one word to describe the sound of the Heeds, it would be confident. These little amps seemed to proudly state, “We know we’re little. What are you going to do about it?” They were completely unfazed by any type of music (you can see my previous blog entry about my late night Tool-fest here), and they never seemed to implode or run out of gas. This is one aspect where the Obelisk does not resemble the NAIT 2 in the slightest; even with the NAP140 providing extra juice, the Naim always found a way to remind you of its limitations, usually in the form of an alarming and sudden downsizing of the soundstage. The Heeds never quit projecting a fully-realized portrait of the music. Now I’m not saying the Heeds, coupled with the tiny Trenner & Friedl ARTs, are the perfect choice for your next rave. But I am saying that after living with the Heeds in your system, you’ll realize that size doesn’t matter when it comes to delivering an accurate spatial re-creation of the original musical performance.

I’ve also heard from a lot of the Heed faithful who believe that the Obelisk SI is the one solid-state amp that sounds the closest to SET amplifiers. I’ll agree with that to some extent, because the Heeds did excel at the whole voices-hanging-eerily-in-space thing. The midrange was smooth, natural and extended in the same manner as the Yamamoto Sound Craft A-08 45 amplifier I owned just a few years ago. Where the Heeds distance themselves from the classic SET sound, however, is their ability to continue that level of musicality to the frequency extremes. Highs were extended and airy, and I was experiencing an unusually accurate sense of decay in all types of musical instruments. While the ARTs limit my low-frequency output somewhat (they go down to the mid 40s), the Heeds were able to extract a far deeper foundation for the music than the Brio3 (which offer nearly the same output power).

Finally, the Heeds excelled at making all types of music sound good. I can’t remember a single instance with the Heeds where I found myself wincing at a strident, harsh recording. For instance, I have a publicist from Portland who sends me a lot of local music from up-and-coming bands. While the vast majority of these performers are quite good, they’re not hiring Bob Ludwig to master their releases. Nevertheless, the Heeds always managed to unearth the music out of every track and reduce the noise and the grunge. I’m not saying the Heeds rounded corners and applied several coats of lacquer to the music in a McIntosh 275 sort of way, since I was still able to mine an extraordinary amount of detail from the grooves and the bits. It’s just that the Heeds aren’t one of those amps that are always eager, like a puppy who has just encountered a skunk in the backyard, to show you every little ugly thing that’s going on in the rest of your system.

There are two caveats to owning the Heeds, but they are minor. First, since the Heeds are so compact, the back panel is pretty crowded. I use Cardas Audio Clear Light cables throughout my system, and even though they’re “light,” they’re still pretty thick. Along with the beefy and stiff Oyaide Tunami GPX power cords Dan sent along with the Heeds, the back of my rack became quite chaotic. Using the superb Cardas Audio spade-to-banana adapters on the speaker cables helped a bit, but you should be somewhat talented in the area of cable dressing to keep everything organized, separated and clean.

Second, if you’re using the DACtilus card, the Heeds need to be powered down for a significant amount of time before you start swapping components. As Dan told me, the chip can be “potentially confused or damaged if ‘hot plugging’ is going on and likes for the integrated to be off and fully discharged and that the digital source be off as well.” With the other inputs, it’s business as usual. If you’re a set-it-and-forget-it type of person, this is no big deal. But if you’re the type of audiophile who likes to do quick A/B comparisons between DACs, this may slow you down a bit.

I have three more related reviews to conduct on the Heeds before I’m done with them, and hopefully I’ll get them out in the next couple of days. First, I need to talk about the DACtilus DAC option. Second, I want to talk about the Oyaide power cords. Then I want to talk about the sound of the Obelisk SI…without the X2. But those three subjects need their own space, and I’ve already gone on long enough.

As you might have guessed, I highly recommend the Heeds. The Obelisk SI is $1650, the X2 is $1200 and the DACtilus is $400--I can’t think of a better way to spend roughly $3000 on solid-state amplification. The combination of the Heed Audio Obelisk SI integrated amplifier and the X2 external power supply is one of those elusive products that makes you forget about what your system is doing right or wrong…you just shut up and listen to the music. They formed a very synergistic bond with my Trenner & Friedl ART monitors (yet I also tried them with my stand-by Vienna Acoustics Bach Signatures with excellent results), so if you own either one of these products and are looking for its mate, you have your answer.

In other words, if you ask me about Heed, I’ll say yes. Definitely yes. Check them out. Now.

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