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REVIEW: Mapletree Audio Design Ear+ Amplifier (Tube)

Model: Ear+
Category: Amplifier (Tube)
Suggested Retail Price: $325 kit, $405 assembled
Description: Ear+ Tube Headphone Amp / Preamp
Manufacturer URL: Mapletree Audio Design
Model Picture: View

Review by Steve A (A) on July 26, 2002 at 06:10:35
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The Ear+ is the second headphone amp from Toronto’s Mapletree Audio Design. Head MAD man Dr. Lloyd Peppard has a nice line of modestly priced products including the original Ear headphone amplifier, a phono stage, several preamps, and more to come. Most of these are available in both kit and assembled versions. Note that both the Ear and Ear+ have line outs so they are also considered preamps.

The Ear+ was developed from the original Ear to provide better drive capability for high impedance headphones such as the Sennheisers. To do so, the 12X4 tube rectifier had to be dropped in favor of a bridge rectifier to provide more oomph. The Ear+ output transformers are substantially larger then those in the Ear as well.

The input stage is comprised of one half of a 5751 (12AX7 works too) configured as a common cathode voltage amplifier directly coupled to the grid of a 12B4A setup as a cathode follower. See the owner’s manual on MAD’s webpage for a much more detailed circuit description and schematic.

Everything is provided to complete the kit including wire and solder. The quality of the components are as good as they need to be for the job. The 5751 is a JAN Westinghouse and the 12B4As are General Electric. The casework is nicely painted and grained. No one will confuse this little fellow with the eye candy popular with many neither will anyone be ashamed to show it off.

The Ear+ assembly / owner’s manual is the paragon of clarity and exemplifies what, I feel, the level of completeness that all audio equipment documentation should aspire to. Ample diagrams, schematic, parts list and identification guide, theory of operation, troubleshooting tips, and even a soldering tutorial accompany the most detailed assembly instructions I have ever encountered.

Due to the excellence of this manual, I believe a first-time builder could successfully complete this kit. But do remember that there is lot of point-to-point wiring and things get a little cramped at times. I’ve been building electronic kits and DIYing for nearly forty years. The only trouble I encountered was a couple of insulation burns from my soldering iron when I was a little less than careful.

The manual is organized into manageable sessions although I found that I broke these down even further based on the time I could devote in any one sitting. Total assembly time was approximately 16 hours. I asked Lloyd how he could sell the assembled version for only an $80 premium over the kit price. He replied that he can assemble one much faster than the time I did mine. If you are impatient or technically disinclined, buy the assembled version. If you really enjoy the nuts and bolts aspect of this hobby and the sense of accomplishment, go for the kit.

Crank it Up!
After checking a few voltages per the manual (no smoke – always a good sign!) and installing the bottom cover, I was anxious to try out my new gem. I plugged in my trusty RCA portable CD player and my Grado SR80s and let things soak for about ten minutes until my curiosity could no longer take the drama. I put on the Grados and slowly rotated the Volume knob from low to high with no disc playing. I heard nothing, absolutely nothing. Great, I thought, must have balled up something. Tube equipment is just not that quiet. For grins, I put a disc in and hit play. I was unprepared for what followed.

Listening Observations – Grado SR80
Music poured from the Grados with an ease I had not experienced when using the Advent 300. But perhaps more startling was the eerie, black background from which it emerged. I cannot believe how quiet this unit is. There is no hum or background noise period. The Advent hums happily into both the Grados and the Sennheisers and it is sometimes distracting in quiet passages.

This is a very high resolution and neutral piece of equipment. Don’t expect any euphonic sweetening with the Ear+. It won’t tame glare elsewhere in the chain or knock the edges off a lousy production. The SR80s are known to be punchy with somewhat accentuated highs. This is exactly the presentation I heard with this pairing. Cymbals, high hats, triangles, and string overtones move to the fore but not unpleasantly so. Bass instruments had great impact and pitch definition. The middle range had “presence” in the way that word was once used. My long held opinion that the Grados are great rock headphones was very definitely validated.

Listening Observations – Sennheiser 600
I’d heard and read so many good things about the 600s that I decided to buy a pair to add to my headphone arsenal. Years ago I had a pair of lightweight Senns that were forgettable. I also enjoyed a five minute audition of the Orpheus system at the 1999 Stereophile show in Chicago. That was pretty much my experience up until now.

The Ear+ does a fine job with these as well. The Senneheisers are much more reserved in the upper octaves compared to the Grados. While not soft, there is much less apparent energy. In the bass region, the 600s seem to go lower but with not as much definition. And the midrange, the portion of the spectrum that the 600s’ reputation is built upon, is very natural and relaxed. The Ear+ is unflustered driving these higher impedance cans. I never felt at anytime that the 600s were being reserved due to inadequate power, which leads to my conclusions.

It’s a tired old saw, but the Ear+ doesn’t sound like anything. It is quiet, fast, neutral, highly resolving, and basically lets the inherent sound of the headphones stand on their own merits. It is not syrupy or romantic. Think of it as what really good solid state would sound like if it had a soul. It can drive both high (300 ohm) and low (30 ohm) cans with equal facility. It is small and attractive: it looks great on my desk. It is a very well engineered unit with the budget used for the important stuff. Since I bought it, I’ve been buying more music. I read somewhere this is a good sign that the music is getting through. I concur.

Product Weakness: Possible lack of respect due to bargain price.
Product Strengths: Unbelievably quiet, neutral, fast, transparent, and musical as anything I've heard.

Associated Equipment for this Review:
Amplifier: N/A
Preamplifier (or None if Integrated): N/A
Sources (CDP/Turntable): RCA Portable CD Player
Speakers: Sennheiser HD600, Grado SR80
Cables/Interconnects: Nothing Fancy!
Music Used (Genre/Selections): Progressive Rock, Jazz, Classical
Room Size (LxWxH): N/A x N/A x N/A
Room Comments/Treatments: My Office at Work
Time Period/Length of Audition: 4 Weeks
Type of Audition/Review: Product Owner

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Topic - REVIEW: Mapletree Audio Design Ear+ Amplifier (Tube) - Steve A 06:10:35 07/26/02 (2)

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