Wells Headtrip II Level II

Typically I don’t review stuff like the Wells Audio Headtrip - it’s expensive, huge and designed for a very specific kind of customer. However, I had some folks ask for this one and specifically ask about driving extremely hard to drive headphones, things like the JPS labs Abyss 1266, certain HifiMan headphones and the like. So, here we are. If you don’t like expensive stuff, turn back now, you’ve been warned.

With that out of the way, I’ll say that my previous experience with Wells Audio has been limited but quite positive. I’ve heard their Milo amplifier several times and thought it sounded quite nice for the price, as well as having a nifty chassis and enough oomph to drive just about anything I’ve ever heard paired with it. On the occasions I’ve heard it I recall a kind of ‘sweetness’ to the sound that I often hear from really good solid state. I’ve drifted recently into tube land, but this kind of well-done solid state is more than capable of drawing me back in.

On arrival, the first thing I noticed was that this thing is huge and I mean seriously huge. The website lists the weight as 20lbs and I won’t argue with that. It’s the size of a modest speaker amp and feels like it. At 25W a channel at 32ohms, it puts out speaker-amp power too. The chassis is pretty rock solid, it’s built out of an interesting glossy milled acrylic, giving it a sort of glass and gloss black look. The sides are a metal hex material, and overall construction feels pretty solid. Some folks might fin it a little unusual, but I appreciate that Wells Audio is doing something a bit different than the typical ‘metal box with six sides’ thing.

Somewhat unusually, the amp lists it’s power output as 50W into 8ohms, but there are no speaker taps, only single-ended and XLR inputs and a TRS and 4-pin xlr output on the front. Clearly this unit is designed to drive headphones and only to drive headphones. I suppose if one is looking at a price point where money truly is not object, it stands to reason you might not need to mix and match your two channel and headphones, but it might have been nice to included them just in case. This is just a nitpick however, and again, one I suspect potential buyers likely won’t care about.

So Just what kind of headphones is this beast of an amplifier designed to drive anyways? The headphones that immediately came to mind were the JPS Labs Abyss 1266, The HifiMan Sundaras, Mr. Speakers Ether 2’s - which I think are fussier than power hungry, and other beefy planar magnetic headphones. So, I set about chatting with a few friends who I knew had extensive stashes of gear and managed to borrow a couple of these rare, expensive and very difficult to drive headphones for a time. I’m glad I did because it’s with these headphones in mind that I think the Headtrip Reference has been designed.

Soundwise, the first thing I noticed when I plugging in a more typical set of headphones was just how much gain and power this thing has - and with more gain and power comes generally more noise. The Headtrip is not what I would term a noisy amp, but in my mind it really isn’t designed with the likes of Beyerdynamics, Sennheiser or other high efficiency dynamic headphones in mind. I barely needed to touch the volume knob and I was getting more than sufficient levels. Soundwise what I heard was exceptional, but it just didn’t feel like the right match.

Move on to me plugging in a pair of very insensitive planar magnetic headphones and suddenly the amp came alive. My first experience plugging the Dan Clark Ether 2’s into the Headtrip was an eye-opener. Immediately these headphones came alive. Some of my dynamics-loving audiophile friends have expressed the opinion that these headphones can sound a bit overdamped or a little dynamically compressed. With the Wells Headtrip any concept of dynamic compression was wiped away and replaced by a sense of total headroom, enormous scale and massive transient clarity. Low drums and bass sounds were thrilling, sounding both huge and tight, yet the midrange was sweet and rich, definitely upfront but with tons of depth. It never got shouty, but it did present a ton of information in the treble and midrange.

The more power hungry the headphones I threw at it, the better the amp seemed to perform. Not once did the amp ever seem to falter or stumble, in fact it thrived when I hit it with the Abyss, the HifiMan and several headphones which have severe impedance drops and intense current demands, the Headtrip did quite the opposite of flinching. It seemed to come alive in a way. There was a real sense of tactile dynamic slam, a ‘this is real’ sound that I rarely get from speaker setups and almost never get from headphones. It’s hard to overstate just how ‘reach out and touch it’ good the sound is. Although none of these absolute top-end headphones have exactly got a perfectly neutral sound signature, this is one of the few times, maybe the only time, I’ve been able to put that aside somewhat and simply be amazed by the sheer dynamic wait and transparency of my favorite tracks. The amount of detail on offer is approaching RAAL SR1A levels without the aggressiveness of those headphones and with a much more subterranean bass reach.

Once I got over the sheer impressiveness of the setup, I did notice a few differences between the Headtrip and several other very powerful setups. Firstly, while there is great depth on offer, this is not a the same kind of deeply layered, ‘suck you in’ kind of experience that tubes offer, it’s’s still solid state, where things are a bit more upfront and in your face. What depth is there is excellent, and there is a sweetness and richness to the upper mids that I hear on some of my favorite solid state amps that helps give a greater sense of microdynamics than a simple ‘clean and clear’ style solid state sound. I can see how with some headphones that are tipped up in the treble this may come off as aggressive for those folks deeply invested in the HD600 or 650 house sound, which I find somewhat warm. There are no punches pulled here.

Another interesting feat was that there was so much detail presented so cleanly and distortion-free that I found myself tending to listen a little louder than usual. This can be both a good and a bad thing, but it’s quite an impressive feat. It also meant that even at my more typical low listening levels, I was treated to tons of dynamics and auditory information that normally might be lost. I listen very quietly typically and it’s a rare trick for any system to be able to stay engaging at these levels, yet be free of absence or harshness when cranked a little higher.

All this is to say that the Headtrip Ref II sounds phenomenal when paired with the right headphones: namely headphones nearly as expensive as itself. When paired with sensitive or efficient headphones, my results as I’ve mentioned were workable, but not particularly useful. In a sense, rather than being a headamp which can drive anything - though technically it can - I think of it as a product designed with cost as no object, and with the singular purpose of sounding exceptional with the most difficult to drive planar magnetic headphones, and perhaps AKG K1000’s if you’re lucky enough to have a pair. In this purpose, the Headtrip is amongst the best I’ve heard, it stacks right up against other monstrously powerful headamps but also brings a level of refinement and sweetness that take it beyond mere technicalities.

In most of my reviews my final litmus test is whether or not I would buy the unit in question. In this case the answer is no. Much like Ferrari’s or Three-starred Michelin restaurants, even if I could afford it, I simply don’t have enough interest in this level of extreme performance as anything more than a novelty to want to live with it every day. For me, this hobby is fun because of the diversity of different setups and sounds, and I’m certainly always grateful to be able to put ears on setups like this. I will say however, if you are someone who is lucky enough to have the kinds of money that make this level of purchase a possibility - I am not - then the Wells Headtrip is an eminently capable amplifier for the likes of the HifiMan Sundara, Audeze LCD-4, JPS Labs Abyss 1266 and the Dan Clark Audio Ether 2.