The Effortlessly Nuanced Apex Audio High-Fi Teton OTL Headphone Amplifier
Having just reviewed a few inexpensive headphone amplifiers, I now turn back to a high-end contender: the Apex High Fi Audio Teton. Apex High Fi Audio is essentially the house brand of online headphone and audio retailer Todd The Vinyl Junkie. The Teton is a vacuum tube, "OTL" (output transformerless) headphone amp of considerable size and girth. When I was unpacking it, I immediately had a flashbackthe tube compliment is EXACTLY the same as the Wheatfield Audio HA-2, which is a long discontinued amp that I owned for quite a while, and really liked. Well, it is the same designer, Pete Millett, and the heritage is clear, but the TTVJ website also makes it clear this is a highly refined evolution of that venerable design. The Teton is actually the second-from-the-top-of-the-line Apex amp, behind the $10,000 Pinnacle.
This Millett design uses a 6SN7 dual triode as the input tube, a 6AS7/6080/7236/5998 as the output tube (also a dual triode, but a much larger and more powerful one), and a 5U4GB as a rectifier tube. It's a very large amp, in a nice looking black anodized chassis. No one will complain about the price per weight of the amp, but I do think some people who will consider spending $5,000 on a headphone amp may wish for a bit fancier chassis. I'm more interested in the sound than the looks, as long as the thing isn't butt-ugly, and the Teton is far from that. It's also VERY solidly built.
The Teton has three inputs on the rear panel on VERY nice chassis mounted RCA jacks, which are front panel switchable, and it has a preamp-only setting. It certainly could be used as a nice preamp in addition to a headphone amp. There is an IEM setting, which very clearly reduces the gain. I don't own any IEMs, so I didn't use this setting, but when my LCD-3's were plugged in and I switched to the IEM setting, the volume dropped very noticeably, so it's clear what the amp is doing here, and I'm sure IEM owners will be grateful for this feature.
Power output isn't specified, and the TTVJ website doesn't provide much in the way of specs, but does indicate "for 16 ohm and up headphones". The Teton had no problem driving the LCD-3 to levels far beyond which I would normally listen. And every bit as importantly, it did so without noise or hum. I have heard 6AS7-based amps that ALWAYS had some residual hum, and in fact, my Wheatfield HA-2 was among them. Not the case here, so perhaps that is one of the design improvements.
I listened to a wide variety of music on the Teton, which I fed directly from the analog outputs of my Pioneer N-50 Network Music Player/DAC. I played mostly high-resolution (96/24 or higher) digital audio files. I did also connect it briefly to the tape output of my Pioneer SX-1980 receiver so I could listen to it playing vinyl and reel tape. I listened mostly to the Teton with the Audeze LCD-3's.
A Teton is...
Well, the Tetons were an American Indian tribe from the Dakotas. Not sure if that was what inspired the name of not, but there it is. The real power button is on the rearthe front panel switch toggles between standby (tubes off) and full on. Not sure exactly what is powered up in standby mode, but I certainly like having the full off switch as well.
I was immediately VERY impressed with the Teton. I have been reviewing some less expensive amps lately, and while they are actually very nice, and the last one I reviewed was 10% of the price of the Teton, there is no doubt that you DO get something for your money. The Teton provides a level of openness, detail, transparency, and delicacy that sadly, you DO have to pay for. It doesn't come cheap, no matter how nice that would be.
Music played from the Teton flows in a remarkably effortless way. Listening to the new album by Yes, "Heaven & Earth" (which in spite of a number of fairly negative reviews I actually like quite a bit), the lushly layered "To Ascend" was absolutely beautiful. The three part harmony chorus vocals were just gorgeously rendered. Maybe people who didn't like this album listened to low bit rate MP3's of it and were not "getting it". I don't know. But the beauty of the vocals, guitars, and keys of this track, all of which like squarely in the all-important midrange, were a delight. You really can't ask for better midrange performance from a headphone amp than the Teton delivers, and even if you do ask, you aren't going to get it, in my experience.
Having been put in the mood for harmony vocals, I then switched to the new BluRay release of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young 1974, which is all live material from that year. The audio is 192/24, and it is really impressive for 1974 live sound. The soundstage is very evident, and on Neil Young's powerful "Helpless", the four singers were spread out in a very believable, natural way. Depth of field on the soundstage was excellent, as was lateral image placement. The width was not the very best I have ever heard, but was nonetheless very good.
The treble performance of the Teton was definitely world-classsweet, delicate, nuanced, clean, and not at all rolled off. This isn't that easy a trick for a tube amp that isn't both well designed and well implemented, but the Teton pulls it off well. There is a wealth of treble detail in Holly Cole's "The Train Song" from "Temptation", and the Teton rendered all of it splendidly. Listening to the Japan SHM-SACD of this release was thoroughly enjoyable via the Apex. The ability to deliver lots of treble detail without any tendency to brightness seems to me to be something of a lost art in audio design these days. But that is just exactly what you get from the Tetonall the treble detail and nuance you could hope for, without ANY brightness or glare. Unquestionably something to delight in.
There was one area of the amp's performance that I wasn't completely smitten with, and that's the bass. I did feel that the bass was slightly underweight. What bass was there was truly excellent - well defined, tight, and punchy, but in comparison to other amps, there was simply less bass weight than I think is completely accurate. It's possible that tube rolling might be able to ameliorate this, but I wouldn't count on it. I used the tubes that were supplied with my loaner unit, which were some very nice vintage US tubes (Tung Sol 2399, Sylvania 6SN7W and 5U4G). I think of the 2399 as being a tube with excellent bass (I own and have used this tube frequently), and ditto the 6SN7W.
On music that doesn't really feature a lot of powerful bass, like the inexplicably underrated Rolling Stones album Black and Blue, the bass balance of the Teton wasn't in and of itself noticeable at all, and the groove that makes up "Hot Stuff" grooved right along as it should. It was only with something like Porcupine Tree's "Russia On Ice" from the musically and sonically phenomenal album "Lightbulb Sun", which contains some VERY deep and powerful bass, that I found myself wanting a bit more weight. One shouldn't ever have LCD-3's on one's head and think, hmmmm, I wish there was a bit more bass. And yet I did sometimes feel that way. The bass was plenty deep, that wasn't the issue. You get the full frequency range. Some people will probably think the bass balance is perfectit just depends what you are looking for. And again the bass that you get is excellent. I just found myself wishing for a bit more of what was there.
That's Teton, not Tectonic
OK, so it doesn't spark earthquakes with its bass pyrotechnics. Still, this characteristic of the Teton has to be viewed in the context of what the amp delivers as a whole, which is pretty spectacular performance. Most of the time I would describe the performance of the Teton as "breathtaking". "Dancing With The Moonlight Knight" from Genesis's "Selling England By The Pound" was so gorgeously rendered that I got goosebumps that lasted a LONG time. That's not even remotely slouchy. I could very happily live with this Apex amp as my only headphone amp, and I will be sad to see it go. Still, $5,000 is a serious investment, and I believe one needs to consider such investments carefully. Like pretty much every audio device ever made, it's not going to be for everyone. Crazy bass freaks probably should look elsewhere. But if you like to be wowed by the beauty of music, the Teton is definitely worthy of consideration.
I do feel the Teton is deserving of being included in InnerFidelity's "Wall of Fame", with the understanding that not everyone is going to be in the market for a $5,000 headphone amp. For those lucky people who can consider such an investment, I would strongly recommend checking out the Teton.
Editors Note: Dear reader, I'm going to have to apologize. I had this amp for a few weeks and loved it...but didn't have time to review it myself, so I offered it to Skylab for review. Knowing the amp had to get back on the road for Todd's Teton Loaner Program, I asked him to move forward with the review as quickly as possible. For a variety of disparate reasons, Skylab at the time had a reduced number of headphones available and reviewed the amp with an LCD-3. Being an OTL amp, the Teton has a relatively high output impedance (around 50 Ohms depending on the output tube used), and is not an optimal match with Teton, which really prefers high impedance headphones like the Sennheiser HD 800 or AKG K701. It is a testament to how good this amp is that even with the LCD-3, Skylab's impression was, "I did feel that the bass was slightly underweight. What bass was there was truly excellent - well defined, tight, and punchy, but in comparison to other amps, there was simply less bass weight than I think is completely accurate." The problem here is the headphones and not the amp. Unfortunately, we didn't manage to figure out we had a problem with this review until it was finished and the amp on its way home to go back on tour.
As I said, I did spend quite a bit of time with this amp with higher impedance headphone and found it absolutely stellar in every way, including bass response, for an amp of this type. No, this amp will not deliver slam and tooth rattling thump like a world-class solid-state amp, but with high impedance headphones it does it as well as other best-in-class tube amps of this type. Had I had the time I would have reviewed the amp myself and put it up on the "Wall of Fame."
One option was to simply delay the review, but unfortunately that would have meant many, many months before the gear would become available again. Because I felt Skylab did an excellent job of characterizing this amp and it's gorgeous mid-range and treble response, and because I had heard the amp with high-impedance cans and knew I could comment here, I decided it would be best for all concerned to produce the review and attach these comments. Apologies to all.