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Musical Fidelity X-Can V2 Headphone Amp

The Neighbors Buy You Candy & Flowers

Francis Vale

So what does it mean when you stop listening to that big surround sound rig and instead you keep putting on the cans--In this case, a pair of Sennheiser HD-600 headphones driven by Musical Fidelity’s X-Can V2 headphone amp? It probably means you finally can hear the movie dialog clear as a bell in the midst of planet shattering explosions that, even though they emanate from the tiny bowels of the HD-600, will rock your crock.

Headphone listening is the dirty little secret of audio reviewers. We all rave about $40,000 speakers, $20,000 amps and all the rest of the big ticket high-end gear. But rarely is it said that a sub-$1,000 system comprised of good cans and an equally good headphone amp can get you 95% of the way to big bucks audio heaven, whether it’s sourced from CD or DVD. Most people think those cheap phones that came with their MP3 runabout or the sounds that burp out of the headphone jack on their rack mount CD player are the end of the canned story. Ain’t so. It’s only the beginning for those willing to put aside their preconceived high-end notions. And the combination of the Sennheiser HD-600 headphones and X-Can V2 headphone amp are a great way to begin, and, for most listeners, to end the search for audio bliss.

The $295 X-Can V2 is a tube amp. It uses two ubiquitous and cheap (about $10 each) ECC88 vacuum tubes, which are equivalent to 6DJ8 glowing glass bottles. They should stay electrically lit for several years even when the X-Can is powered up 24 hours a day, every day, per Musical Fidelity’s operating advice. Even when run continually, the X-Can V2 never feels warm to the touch, although visually it looks like a designer wannabe beer can on steroids. The X-Can is big around (4.25” inches), it’s long (7 inches), it’s hefty (3 pounds), and its anodized black ribbed chassis acts as a heat sink to keep it from getting too hot. (Why does this description sound vaguely pornographic?) The X-Can V2 sits on two rods that run along its entire length. The rods have rubber inserts that act as both vibration control devices and non-skid rails for when the Big One hits.

Musical Fidelity X-Can V2 Headphone Tube Amp

The X-Can’s silver brushed aluminum minimalist fascia has only a power-on red LED, a standard headphone jack (mini-plugged cans will need an adaptor), and a much too small volume control knob. At the X-Can’s nicely rounded rear are left and right channel inputs that can be run off the tape monitor output or off a second set of line outputs if your gear has them (which my Sunfire Vacuum Classic Tube Preamp does). The X-Can V2 also sports its own pass through outputs so you can use the device as the line output to your recording device or to your main amp(s) if you run a separate preamp and amp.

The X-Can V2 does not have an on-off switch, so unless you unplug its accompanying wall wart (an external AC/DC adapter) it stays on. According to Musical Fidelity this external adapter is a feature that ensures there is, “No magnetic interference with delicate small signal parts, leading to bigger dynamic range and great low level detail.” But maybe you might want to interfere and try experimenting with aftermarket AC/DC adapters to see if there are any audible tweaks to be had. For my part, I stuck with the original X-Can equipment plan during this review.

The X-Can V2 has prodigious load driving capacity, which cannot be said for most of the cheap op-amp powered headphone jacks on almost all CD/DVD player gear. The X-Can V2 has oomph to spare for driving highly reactive loads that some headphones present, or for juicing up highly inefficient cans that otherwise will suck the dynamic life and headroom out of the op-amp--and your music To make the point, I also tried the X-Can V2 with Grado Labs' SR325 and SR 80 headphones and got equally great results. There is no reason to believe the same good things won’t happen with whatever cans you may be using, or would want to use, now or in the future.

Headphone listening is a totally different type of high-end audio experience, and it’s just as valid and satisfying as using a big rig--perhaps even more so in some cases. In normal stereo speaker operation, the two left and right speakers typically overlap each other in reproducing a specific sonic event, like a cymbal crash occurring on the right. Your right ear hears two sound source locations of that right-side only cymbal, one coming from the right speaker and one coming from the left speaker. This speaker overlap causes a blurring or smearing of the soundstage, resulting in less than optimal reproduction of the recorded event. With regular speakers and electronics, the sound, especially faint or low level detail, is sonically smeared,

In contrast, with headphones only the left ear hears what the left side 'phone is playing and the right ear just the right 'phone. This makes for a much better stereo effect. This is also the big reason why hard core gamers use cans: They make it much easier to detect sonic cues like a lurker faintly rustling in a dark corner. (The "Holographic" image circuit designed by Bob Carver and featured in his Sunfire surround processors, which can be switched in or out, uses phase cancellation of unwanted second source arrivals to create a more three dimensional and realistic sound stage, just like headphones do.)

If you haven’t figured this out already, I am saying this Mini-Me headphone setup is a killer rig in its own high-end right. The sounds are glorious, big in detail, large in soundstage, delicate when need be, and Technicolor in sonic impact when called upon. Another huge plus when using this sub-$1000 HD 600/X-Can V2 rig is the ability to listen deep into a mix and get super high definition, and without losing musicality.

But why did I start off this review raving about listening to movies via the X-Can, and not to music? It’s because I went from a situation that I was forced into to one that I now look forward to. I live in a high-rise apartment tower and my suffering neighbors routinely burn me in effigy, especially when I'm reviewing floor buckling surround systems. During the day I can get away with it, but I had to come up with a late at night DVD strategy if I wanted to stay out of housing court. So I tried using the HD 600’s and X-Can for listening to movies, expecting that this would be a wildly disappointing, me-as-friendly-neighbor accommodation. Oy, was I ever wrong! To my great surprise and delight the jaw dropping sound effects, especially the big boom-boom stuff, was still great when using the component combination of HD 600’s and an X-Can. Moreover, all the hero dialog that often went MIA on a regular surround setup when the big enemy action started was now clear and in focus despite all the Foley stage histrionics.

Bottom line, once you get into quality headphone listening using the X-Can V2 and good cans like the HD 600’s or something from Grado Labs you may be reluctant to take them off and go back to your regular high-end rig. And who knows, your long suffering and suddenly relieved neighbors may even send you candy and flowers.

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