CanJam SoCal 2019: ZMF, Ampsandsounds and Upscale Audio

I stopped by the ZMF booth to say hi to the owners, Zach and Bevin Mehrbach, who are two of the nicest, most relaxed folks in the audio business.

There wasn’t anything new in the way of ZMF headphones, though we did chat briefly about their plans to finally move into a full-on shop, as well as some of the very cool ideas they have coming down the road. Keep your eyes on the ZMF website and newsletter for those. I didn’t spend much time listening as Zach has offered to send me some headphones for review, so I almost missed the new Ampsandsound Leeloo Monoblock.

Monoblock headphone amps have been somewhat rare for a while and with good reason – they usually cost a lot of money. The Leeloos come in at a hefty $5,500 USD. However, considering for a moment that they can function as very competent, low-powered speaker amps, as well as cost-no-object headphone monoblocks, and the value proposition here is more akin to a high-quality integrated. Not cheap, but if you’re an audio fanatic willing to pay for top-shelf gear, it’s nice that these can do double duty.

Speaking of top-shelf, they drove every ZMF at the table phenomenally. I always preferred the Pendant amplifier to the Kenzie from Ampsandsounds, finding the Pendant a little less warm and soft. The Leeloos pick up where the Pendant leaves off, delivering more power, better separation and less noise. The amp certainly sounded even clearer and more dynamic than the Pendant. It was one of the few tube amps I heard at the show where I didn’t feel I was giving up the greater dynamics and neutrality of solid-state for the staging depth and spatiality of tubes. I could see some folks preferring different flavors, but technically I couldn’t find much to complain about.

The Upscale Audio booth was next up. These folks are known for dealing in everything tubes, and are a large seller of both tubes and tube electronics. They had an extensive lineup of Feliks Audio headphone amps, as well as a few selections from Pathos Acoustics. The Feliks Elise amplifier has enjoyed popularity in the community as a superbly good amplifier for the money. It’s surprisingly neutral, resolving and clear for the money, and is a great taste of ubër high-end tube sound for less than stupid prices. The Euforia and Esspresivo sounded very nice as well, though for me they were warmer and didn’t have the same incredible linearity of the Elise, which remains the star of the line for both sound and value in my mind. The Feliks Elise retails for $1,649 USD from Upscale, The Euforia is $2,599, and the Esspresivo goes for $1,119. They also had an even smaller amp for $679.

Pathos Acoustics Aurium and Classic Remix were up next, and I tried them both. These were hybrid units, and were obviously a little more solid-state sounding than Feliks gear. The Aurium was a little less lively, but also a little faster and more dynamic. The Pathos Classic Remix was very transparent and had phenomenal clarity, however, it sacrificed a little soundstage compared to the Feliks in return for greater headroom and openness. Transients seemed gently smoothed, but macrodynamics and punch were very good on both units, and at $1,295 USD price for the Aurium and $3,100 USD for the Classic Remix – which is also an integrated unit – the sound on offer was quite nice.

Up next time: Two-channel companies doing headphones… and doing them well.

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