ECP Audio L-2 Headphone Amplifier Page 2

Good Design Makes a Product Useful -- "A product is bought to be used."

The L-2 is as capable of subtle, low-level listening sessions as it is set at 11 and rocking out. That lack of a noise floor that I mentioned previously really comes into play here. The listener is free to enjoy whatever is being piped through their source of choice. I know that some prefer to sample and evaluate gear with all of the other components in the audio chain fixed, but it just so happened that during this review my primary DAC went kaput. This component failure turned out to be a blessing in disguise with the change of DAC being a particularly eye-opening evaluation tool. To replace the defunct EAD DSP 1000 I picked up two vintage reference DACs: the Parasound D/AC 1500 and the Adcom GDA-700. Both offer a different listening experience and helped to highlight just how transparent the L-2 is.

The clean, deep bass of the GDA-700 came through with authority, without bloom or distortion while a somewhat muddy upper-midrange was also present. A switch to the D/AC 1500 cleaned the midrange up with slightly reduced, and perhaps more realistic, low-end notes all gloriously crystal clear with a neutral but not sterile sound signature. The takeaway--it's going to take one heck of a source to leave the L-2 as the bottleneck in the chain. It serves up exactly what you feed it, as it should. I often found myself sucked into longer and longer listening sessions, sampling album after album and enjoying every minute.

There's one more important note to add--this is one of the few commercial amplifiers that I've sampled that gets gain right. All too often manufacturers submit to the "more is better" approach and for those wanting to preserve their hearing for future listening sessions that leaves precious little range of adjustment. Not so with the L-2. With a gain of approximately 5 into a 32ohm load (as all my Grados are) there's a wonderfully large range of useful volume adjustment. Given that my musical preferences run from Amanda Palmer to Bon Iver to Swallow the Sun and beyond, having more than a few degrees to play with was a welcome change.

Good Design is Thorough, Down to the Last Detail -- "Nothing must be arbitrary of left to chance."

So that the reader doesn't think that the entire article is a love-fest please allow me to share a few points that I think could be improved upon. They're minor but worthy of mention. One, the power umbilical leaves me wanting a bit. The strain relief is long and somewhat cumbersome and with the exit point off of the front face of the power supply it means that you'd better have a deep shelf to mount this piece on. For me, not a big deal, for use on a desktop, potentially troublesome. And don't think that you're going to bury the power supply down on the floor behind your rack.

That brings me to point number two, the power switch. It's on the back of the power supply and integrated into the IEC inlet. I get why this was done, panel space on the power supply is at a premium and having the integrated switch is very efficient from multiple perspectives. But from the user's perspective it is a bit annoying to have to reach over the top of the power supply to the back and feel for the switch. I'd suggest that modifying this detail so that both the IEC and umbilical exit on the rear and that the switch be mounted on the front panel would be worthy of consideration.

There's one last issue and it's hard to call it a real issue, the amplifier only has one set of inputs. Again for me this is a non-issue--I route all of my sources through one DAC and feed its output to the amp. However if you're a vinyl junkie or need more than one analog input it simply isn't going to fit in the L-2's compact chassis layout. From a sonic perspective however, there's just isn't anything to complain about and nothing mentioned above is a worthy reason for not choosing the L-2.

Good Design is Honest -- "(Design) does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be met."

All in all the L-2 is an exceptionally well executed headphone amplifier that simply delivers. While the asking price of $2495 puts it square in the cross-hairs of several larger competitors, I have no doubt that anyone who decides that it suits their needs will end up satisfied. It's certainly nice to see the high-end headphone amplifier game getting some fresh competition and if you're a lover of Grados in particular you owe it to yourself to try to find a way to try the L-2.

ECPAudio_L2_Photo_top

Resources
Dieter Rams: 10 Principles for Good Design
ECP website and L-2 product page.

COMPANY INFO
ECP Audio
contact@ecpaudio.com
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
jherbert's picture

And actually, are they suited for anything else then GRADOS? Just wondering.

Willakan's picture

My immediate concern would be the price rather than what they are designed to drive. Would be nice to have at least a couple of basic specs for your two and a half grand...

Any chance of future measurements? :D

n_maher's picture

Sorry for the lack of measurements guys, neither I nor Innerfidelity is currently setup to perform the full spectrum of measurements. It is something Tyll is working on. What I can provide is what the manufacturer gave to me:

Test Constraints - Load: 32ohm, Output: ~125mW (2Vrms)
Results - THD: ~0.14%, IMD: ~0.12%

I'll see if I can get the full suite of RMAA results from ECP and find a way to post them here. It's worth noting that in the test listed above you'd be deaf if you were actually listening that loud and the results are still very good.

Regarding how the amp might perform with headphones other than Grados. Given the configuration, which has selectable output impedance, I'd say the amp should perform well with a wide range of headphones. It has characteristics that should allow it to succeed - extremely low noise floor, selectable output impedance and sufficient power to drive all but the most extreme dynamic headphones.

About the price - yes, ~$2500 is a lot of money. The L-2 is neither the cheapest or most expensive amp in this category. Do I believe that it's a good "value"? Yes. It is extremely well built, well designed, not stuffed into a cookie cutter enclosure and backed by someone who'll provide excellent customer service. For example: Doug contacted me mid-review to let me know that he was completely redesigning the power supply. He had noted, in a few examples, that there was what he deemed to be an unacceptable level of mechanical noise from the transformer. Not content with good enough he designed a new circuit board for the power supply and had new, custom wound transformers produced. It's that kind of effort that shouldn't go unnoticed or unappreciated. That said I don't expect that everyone can justify this type of purchase but for those considering an investment of this magnitude it's a worthy option.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
... at how long it's taking to get measurement routines together. :(

Anybody know where I can buy some time?

Limp's picture

I usually stay well clear of amplifier reviews, but this one was well worth the read. Good job Nate.

No doubt some measurements would be interesting on an educational level, but I wouldn't expect anything revolutionary in the way of transparency. Tube amplifiers are often designed with other goals in mind.

I just got to say that this is one of the best looking amplifiers I've ever seen. TTVJ/Millett could learn a thing or two from Doug, I think ;)

Willakan's picture

Thanks for the specs: seem somewhat typical for a SE amp, although I really did expect higher output power: with orthodynamics all the rage recent designs seem to go vastly overkill on that front (6W into 32 ohms! Acheive 130db peaks!), but this is genuinely ill-suited to driving orthodynamics IMHO. As you say, that wasn't really a design target though...

As someone from the Audio Critic school of thought when it comes to audio reproduction, I don't feel my extended opinions on expensive SE amps would be very constructive, so I'll just say: nice review (and comment on how damn nice that casework is)!

Limp's picture

Peter Aczel, yay!

teufelshunde's picture

I can speak from first-hand experience that Doug's amps work well with both Audeze and Ultrasone phones. We already know that they're great with Grados.

I recently flew to Chicago to audition Doug's amps for use with Audeze LCD-3s; and I came away thinking that both the L-2 and DSHA-1 showed superb synergy with Audeze's phones.

I brought some Ultrasone Pro900s along just for giggles, and they were easily driven to listening levels that transcend discretion.

I ultimately purchased a DSHA-1 because of a personal preference for SS topology (I don't know jack about tube rolling).

I have the front switch on the DSHA-1 set for hi gain; but with the volume control only set at the 9 o'clock position, the output levels are more than loud enough for my '50 something' ears when listening to classical, jazz, hard rock or dub step.

zippy2001's picture

What a great review Nate!
It was enlightening and not too much technical detail to get me lost in the design details. It made me want to give this amp a listen.
It looks great and I would love to hear one at a future meet.

swt61's picture

A straightforward, no BS review. Well thought out and well written.
I was also impressed with the prototypes presented at CanJam 2010.

ECP audio seems to be old school in as far as their reason for being...passion!

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purk's picture

I just want to add that the L2 is a match made in heaven for the HD800 as well. The combo sound sweet and very liquid through out the range. The HD800's treble energy is tamed down by the ECP L2 so it is very easy on the ears. Bass is tactile with good sense of low level details. Super quiet background. Easily one of the best amp around for the HD800 (if you are lucky enough to find one used!).

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