HeadRoom Cosmic And Maxed Home
Review by Todd Warnke
Click here to e-mail reviewer
I have a deep fondness for headphone listening. Growing up the eldest of 6 kids effectively banished quiet from my childhood, not that the interloping chaos was bad, as the best sounds are most certainly those of a close-knit, happy family. Still, having a family that was not built around audio parameters carried a side benefit since my parents actively disliked most of my favorite music. So, the best way to avoid their interference, as well as being the only practical way to do any quality listening whatsoever, in the music-lover sense, much less the audio-geek sense, was with headphones. Of course this was before the day of the Walkman, so many was the morning my parents found me on the living room couch, headphones still on and the glories of '70s FM or the infinitely repeating 8-Track drilling deeply into my malleable mind.
Today things are not that different. The ever-suffering Robin can only take so much of my musical tastes before she threatens separate living quarters, whilst the newest arrival at the Warnke Snowshoe, Music and Diaper Lodge, Miles Rees Lucas Warnke (he made two sets of Grandparents happy with the double middle names) is now 9 months old and, to my personal astonishment, still needs the occasional tranquil moment. Finally, life as an IT professional means constant study, certification and re-certification, so I often find myself in one of the local coffee huts, book in hand. In all these situations headphone listening is the best noise and isolation solution. But I have to confess to another reason for liking headphones, simply put, they are, by far and away the most affordable way for a music lover to experience audiophile sound.
Not that most headphones or headphone jacks are of audiophile caliber. Starting with headphones, most of the packaged for "free" cans that come with a portable player down at the local big box electronic store are about as valuable as the "free" advice you get at the same locale. The sad thing is that good, basic headphones are not expensive. The Koss KSC-50 headphones are about $20 and will slay anything included with that Walkman. Even better, just about any portable player easily drives the
Koss, so the match is a natural one. Of course, like all things audio you can spend a whole lot more than $20 on headphones, and, if you pick carefully, you'll get a lot more as well. Sennheiser, from Germany, has a line of dynamic cans that starts around $25 and goes to $450. They also have the Orpheus, a $12,000 electrostatic headphone that for sanity's sake we'll leave out of this conversation.
Beyerdynamic, another German firm, has an equally impressive line that includes pro as well as consumer headphones. Austria boasts
AKG, who have a diverse product lineup, including several mid-priced, audiophile favorite headphones. In Japan
Audio-Technica has a strong pro presence and also make several good home cans. Sony, not surprisingly, produces an extensive line of headphones, and only a tad surprisingly, several of their products are truly outstanding. In the States, Grado Labs has long held up the home side while recently
suburban Chicago based Etymotics has become
the name in highly isolated, high-end ear canal phones. There is, however, a problem with this wealth of headphones. A trait common to nearly every one of the higher quality headphones is that they present a more difficult load than most portable sources can properly drive, so spending more than $20 may not actually deliver better sound from that portable player as it is starved for current to drive better phones.
The headphone jack also has its issues. The portable player, obviously, is not going to meet typical audiogeek standards while at home the headphone jack has undergone a gradual extinction. Perhaps the Walkman deluded high-end manufacturers into thinking that anyone who wanted isolated listening could have it on the side. Of course, considering the quality of many of those older headphone jacks, they probably were right, as even when it was popular the headphone jack was usually an afterthought - and sounded like it. All this adds up to an unusual situation. The choice of superb headphones has never been better, but the gear to use them properly has all but dried up or is of poor quality. Or rather that would be the case t'were it not for a few, specialized, crazed even, companies that design and manufacturer dedicated headphone amplifiers. And of those companies, none may be as crazed...
ah, enthusiastic... as HeadRoom.
Located in the Big Sky Country of Bozeman, Montana, and founded by Tyll Herstens, HeadRoom has been making dedicated headphone amplifiers since 1992. The line of HeadRoom amplifiers is extensive. It reaches from the $119
AirHead, a battery powered amplifier designed to buffer the output of a portable CD player for on the go listening, to the
$3,888 BlockHead, a stepped attenuator, dual-mono, balanced, home use amplifier, and has about a gazillion combinations of amplifiers in between those extremes.
One thing that is shared across the HeadRoom line is one of several versions of their proprietary crossfeed and time delay processor, designed to enhance the headphone experience. This processor does two things, one active and one a by-product. First, the crossfeed circuit eliminates the standard headphone audio stage, which, usually, is a distinct pool of sound directly on each ear and a third pool, unconnected to the other two, in the center of the head. By actively cross-feeding the two channels and adding a slight degree of time delay the sound reaching the each ear is a closer approximation of the way we normally hear with the resultant audio stage connecting into a recognizable, single entity, arrayed from ear to ear. Second, as a result of this more natural presentation, listener fatigue associated with an unnatural presentation is said to be reduced. The HeadRoom module comes in three versions, standard, premium and reference; with the primary differences being parts quality and power draw. Regardless of version or individual amplifier, the processor is
defeatable, so you can verify for yourself how well it works.
For those of you have not yet met Mr Herstens, he is one of, if not the single most hyper-kinetic individual in the high-end, and is constantly messing with things, which is one reason the HeadRoom product line is so extensive. Anyway, after designing the original HeadRoom processor years ago, he had to fiddle and fuss with it, the result being the recent upgrade to version 3.0. And once he upgraded the processor he had to go through each of the amplifiers and refine them as well. After hearing that the line had been completely re-worked, and with my previously acknowledged love of and need for quality headphone listening, as well as having used several of his previous products over the years, I asked Tyll to set me up with a review sample, but to send the model he thought offered the best value. So I was surprised when two amplifiers show up. The more affordable of the two is actually the most second expensive portable amp the line, the $699 Cosmic, while the second is, roughly, the third from the top of the line, the $999 Maxed Home.
Even though the two amplifiers have differing purposes, they share several parts; most significantly, they both employ the premium version of the HeadRoom processor. Both also feature high-quality parts selection, including custom Cardas jacks for getting signal to and from the amplifier. Where they diverge, as you would expect, is in their power supplies, with the Cosmic using a battery pack for mobile listening and an AC wall-wart power supply for home listening, while the AC power supply in the Maxed Home is a massive thing that takes up just about as much space as an entire Cosmic. In addition, the Home has several additional features, such as a higher quality volume pot, dual headphone jacks, the ability to hook up more than one source, and a line-out which allows it to be used as a pre-amplifier
A Cosmic Trip
The Cosmic is 5 inches wide, 1 inch tall and 6 inches deep. The front panel has a power LED, power toggle, ¼ inch headphone jack, a three position toggle for flat, bright and brighter high frequency contour (the HeadRoom processor, like most crossfeed circuits, can make some recordings sound dull), the processor toggle, a three position gain toggle and a volume pot. Round back are a pair of custom Cardas RCA jacks (recessed to reduce stress on the connectors) and the 5 volt DC power input jack. For the truly obsessed HeadRoom manufacturers an add-on, linear AC power supply called the Base 1. This $299 unit, besides offering an upgraded, linear power supply similar to the one found in the Maxed Home, also has a pair of RCA inputs so you can permanently tether it to the main system. To use the Base 1 the rear of the Cosmic has a DIN input jack that receives both power and audio signal and two toggle switches, one to select the Base 1 as the power source and one to select it as the audio source. The extruded aluminum chassis on the Cosmic is finished in black and looks rugged enough for outlast anyone on Survivor.
Using the Cosmic is straightforward. After you plug in your power source, battery or AC, but before you turn the Cosmic on, hook-up your source. The RCA jacks allow home or portable use, but since most portable CD players lack RCA outs HeadRoom has contracted with StraightWire to build a high-quality, affordable mini-to-RCA cable for portable listening. Next, plug your headphones in, power up the Cosmic and press play on the CD player. I found that the medium gain setting gave me the proper range of volume control with almost every headphone I used, while I also preferred the middle of the brightness setting as well. HeadRoom says that the Cosmic gets about 20 hours out of a set of 4 D cell batteries, a figure I found conservative as I got considerably more.
HeadRoom was also kind enough to include their special, hand-built in Montana carrier for the Cosmic, and if any single thing shows how much these folks obsess over everything headphone, the Traveler Bag does. The large, center compartment holds the Cosmic and has a soft divider with space below to store a CD holder. To the right of the center compartment is a separate chamber that holds the 4 D cell battery pack. In the back of that chamber is a gusseted hole that feeds the power connector to the back of the central chamber, where the power input is on the Cosmic. On the left side is a similar chamber to hold the wall-wart AC power supply. It too has a gusseted hole to feed to power jack to the back of the Cosmic. The back of the central compartment, where the power cords meet, is accessible by a zipper, so you can switch power supplies without having to disassemble a thing. On top of the central compartment is a separate, zippered compartment to hold a CD player or other portable source, and at the back of this compartment is a slot that leads to the back of the Cosmic so you can hook the player to the amplifier. The carrier also has a handful of other zippered compartments, perfectly sized for plane tickets, passports, pens and ear bud headphones. At $129, it's not cheap, but for the portable listener it is perfect. During the review period I took the Cosmic and the Traveler Bag on several business trips and discovered this for myself. I checked all my bags expect for the laptop and the Cosmic and still had room for every air and airport essential. On a side note, I found it odd that my laptop was almost always checked by security but the Traveler Bag, with all those wires, metal boxes and compartments never was. Perhaps those much-maligned Argenbright Security folks appreciate good Hi-Fi more than I thought.
Anyway, how does it sound? First, running off AC or batteries; driving Sennheiser, Beyerdynamic or Etymotics mattered not a bit as the Cosmic was always precise, controlled and clear, but never bright, harsh or edgy. OK, it had a very minor case of the solid-state wispies through the mids but it also has a very small sonic footprint so that listening to various sources, most especially using it to listen to subtle differences between the Cary CD-303/100 and the CD-303/200 was rewarding and revealing.
Second, do you remember the life-size poster of Michael Jordan with his arms spread? I hope so, because that's exactly how the extension of the Cosmic sounds. Bass reached so deep and was so well rendered that in spite of the fact that headphone bass lacks the visceral punch of hi-fi bass much less real-life bass, I found that I enjoyed all my low frequency recordings to no end, primarily because the resolution, depth and texture of the bass was in every way (except for that visceral thing) life-like. The treble had similar reach, clarity and purity. A perfect example is the way acoustic guitar sounded through the Cosmic. The ring of string, pick and fingers had vibrant tone, wonderful energy and beautiful extension yet was also free of unnatural edge.
Next, the Cosmic spoke with superb dynamic control. The primary headphones used during the review were the Sennheiser
HD600 (pictured above), the Beyerdynamic DT831 and the Etymotic ER4S, and each, most particularly the HD600, exhibited a greater ease and freedom from congestion as well a stronger kick than when driven with other headphone amplifiers that have passed through here.
The Cosmic also sounded all of a piece; that is the tonality emphasized no particular region, giving music a wonderful and involving cohesiveness.
This is an odd yet effective example. I love to play John Zorn's Naked City [Elektra 9 79238-2] to drive folks from my house when the hour is late or they have overstayed their welcome (although it does not seem to work on mothers-in-law). Using headphones to listen to their demented take on
"The James Bond Theme", or other snarling soundscapes such as "Igneous Ejaculation" or
"Demon Sanctuary", offered me a different view. I always knew the musicianship on this album was first rate, and, with
"The James Bond Theme" in particular, I love the way the group fractures time, tonality and reason. Through the Cosmic the disparate musical lines and instruments were utterly distinct, as I said, without emphasis on any one region or type of sound, so when the group suddenly locks up and plays a 10 or 15 second snippet of perfectly funky, perfectly tight music, the change carried all the startle that I imagine a live version of the song would.
Sound quality varied only slightly when driven by batteries or the wall wart power supply. With the batteries I lost just a smidgeon of bass and the smallest piece of detail, but the sound was a touch more relaxed with the batteries running. The top end was also slightly more natural if also an equal amount softer with the batteries. That said, I could live with either power source without issue.
When it comes to driving headphones the Cosmic treated each model in true Will Rogers form as it seems to have never met a pair of phones it didn't like. I understand that the AKG K-1000 will give it an issue, but simply because those cans need
7 watts to become audible. So, those and other esoteric headphones aside, the Cosmic seems to have the guts to drive anything.
On the negative side, the Cosmic did not flesh out the mid frequencies as well as my home reference system so with certain recordings I heard a slight loss of body and texture. Of course the First Sound Presence Statement pre-amplifiers, Manley Neo-Classic 300B amplifiers and Merlin
VSM-M loudspeakers, before source and cabling, goes for over $22,000. And, to be fair, the reference system has been assembled, first and foremost, to honestly laid bare everything about the mids, so the comparison is far from fair.
In fact, the Cosmic presents several issues when trying to compare it to other gear. It has been designed to be the absolute pinnacle of portable amplifiers, and, after listening to it for several months and comparing it to the much lower priced portable amplifiers from Meier and other sources, I can say it has no peer except one, the $849 Cosmic Reference. The Cosmic is so good, in fact, that HeadRoom themselves recommend purchasing the $449 Supreme if you plan on using the amplifier with portable sources only as the cheaper amplifier will give a softer edge to the typically rough portable source sound quality. Where HeadRoom has aimed the Cosmic is not just at the portable user who wants to take the sound quality of a true audiophile system with them, but at the person who will also use the Cosmic at home to listen to their big rig.
This dual purpose means that the Cosmic has also been designed to compete with the top echelon of home headphone amplifiers. After comparing it to a Creek OBH-11SE headphone amplifier, I can say that the Cosmic is easily better, and at twice the price it should be. There are several tube-based home headphone amplifiers that are priced similarly to the Cosmic, a couple of which I've heard, but not side-by-side with the Cosmic. Working from memory only, the Wheatstone HA-2 offers greater midband warmth, but not quite the same level of detail, bass control and treble extension. This makes it, as well as other tubed amplifiers more suitable for certain headphones, but, again from memory, the Cosmic impresses me as the more flexible and the more truthful. I also borrowed a friends older Cosmic for a couple of days and found the newer version to sound smoother but with no loss of detail, to have a better midrange and to be ever so slightly quieter. So, the Cosmic is superb, but then again, perhaps the reason Tyll also sent the Maxed Home amplifier along was so that I would have something around that could better the Cosmic. With that in mind, let's look at the Maxed Home.
The Maxed Home is a serious headphone amplifier. At 2.5 inches tall, 6.75 inches wide and 12 inches deep it takes up a fair bit of rack real estate, so it's also a good thing that it looks nice. Sporting the same rugged aluminum finish as the Cosmic, it is built to last. Up front it has two Neutrik ¼ inch headphone jacks that can be used simultaneously as long as both headphones are the same, or, at least, very close in impedance. The controls are the same as the Cosmic, with filter, processor and gain switches but the Maxed Home boasts a higher quality volume pot. 'Round back the Maxed Home has an IEC power jack with integrated power switch, two pairs of RCA input jacks with a toggle switch to choose between them and a line out pair of RCA jacks. There is also a ground toggle that HeadRoom suggests should be left on float when using the Maxed Home as a headphone amplifier and should be turn on when using the Maxed Home as a pre-amplifier.
Compared to the Cosmic, the Maxed Home is an across the board more of an already good thing. First, it has a fuller midrange, not by much in absolute terms, but by just enough that a headphone like the Sennheiser HD600 was easily more enjoyable through the Maxed Home. It also helped the Beyerdynamic DT831 sound more accurate and more enjoyable, not by fleshing out the mids as with the
Sennheisers, as the 831 sounded great in that region with either amplifier, but by slightly extending the bass. Since the 831 is a touch bass-shy anyway, this was a small but very significant gain.
Yet another way that the Maxed Home improved on the Cosmic was with the results of the HeadRoom processor. Through the Maxed Home the stage was slightly wider but just as smoothly arrayed right to left. It was projected the stage ever so slightly forward, an effect that closer approximates the sound from a standard stereo.
These three examples showcase what the Maxed Home does best in that it has a chameleon-like ability to blend in whatever is needed most. Or perhaps better said; it has the control and power reserves to handle any load with greater ease and finesse. I found that the Maxed Home certainly had greater dynamic swings and spoke with an even more coherent voice at both the soft and loud ends of the spectrum. It also resolved finer textures and harmonics. HeadRoom says that using the Base 1 with the Cosmic does much to reduce the differences between it and the Maxed Home and I hope to be able to report on that in a follow-up, but until then I can say that the linear power supply in the Maxed Home allows it to take greater control over any particular set of headphones than the Cosmic with either the battery pack or the wall-wart power supply. But, of course, we expected that. The real question then becomes, is it a significant enough improvement to justify spend $300 more on the Maxed Home if you are planning on staying put
when you listen?
This is where personal priorities come into play. Both headphone amplifiers are absolutely first rate but this does not mean that both are capable of driving any headphone. For example, the Sony V-6 has a well deserved reputation of being
ruthless. As a studio mastering set of phones, it needs to be. For ordinary listeners, that is for folks who listen to the music and not the recording, either of these amplifiers with the Sony would more than likely be too much warts and all and not enough meaning and depth. But this situation applies to any amplifier/headphone combination.
Inside the admittedly wide range of headphones that would work well with the HeadRoom amplifiers, the Maxed Home will always allow you to see deeper in to a recording. It will give you more bass, more detail and a slightly better stage. But the Cosmic is no slouch. If you peek down the page to the scoresheet you will notice that the Maxed Home picks up a few points here and there over the Cosmic, but that the scores for the Cosmic are remarkable in and of themselves and that I rate it a better overall value. The little guy is a true audiophile product, and at $699 is an outstanding purchase. Add in the $129 Traveler Bag, a quality CD source, a high set of cans, and for under $1250 or so you can have a music and audiogeek system that no dynamic speaker setup short of 10 large could touch. And you also have a headphone listening system that is perfectly happy along side your home system, one that, for example, in my listening sessions was fully capable of extracting everything the $3000 Cary CD-303/200 could throw at it. And unlike your home rig, this is one thing you can take with you.
On the other hand, the Maxed Home is better. And it offers its own brand of versatility. If you do all your listening at home and need a pre-amplifier, the Maxed Home is ready. In pre-amplifier mode it strikes me as comparable to the better, sub-$1000, solid-state stand-alone pre-amplifiers. Place it in front of a modest tubed amplifier like the Assemblage ST40 feeding a solid pair of speakers like the Silverline SR11s (review in a couple of months), juice it from the Cary CD-303 just like I did and you have a sub $8000 system, total, that makes beautiful music, and when you plug your headphones in, gets even better.
As for me, I still like the Cosmic in spite of the fact that the Maxed Home sounds better. I love knowing that I can go to work, a coffee shop, on the road or in the home office and still listen to music that is more involving, more resolving and just plain more enjoyable than what most folks are listening to in their living rooms. Of course it's nice to be able to listen to that big rig in the listening room as well, but at those odd times when Miles needs to sleep, I certainly am not suffering using the Cosmic. So, both HeadRoom amplifiers are most highly recommended amplifiers, with the Cosmic getting a little extra boost for portability.