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Published on September 13th, 2011 | by Greg


The HiFiMAN EF5 Tube Amp: The Next Step Up For Your Music

Au­dio­philes, by def­i­ni­tion, are will­ing to spend more mon­ey on bet­ter sound. Spend enough time lis­ten­ing to mu­sic, and you’ll quick­ly be­gin to ap­pre­ci­ate the many dif­fer­ences be­tween that pair of cheap ear­buds and a nice set of mon­i­tors. So many fac­tors can af­fect the way your mu­sic sounds- the files them­selves, of course, if you’re us­ing lossy MP3s- go­ing from 128 kbps to a high­er bi­trate is a fast, sim­ple way to dra­mat­i­cal­ly im­prove your sound. And an­oth­er is sim­ply buy­ing a good pair of head­phones- they can mat­ter more than any oth­er sin­gle piece of gear, so it pays to spend a bit ex­tra. But once you have a good source, ei­ther ana­log or dig­i­tal, and a good set of cans, then you have a cou­ple of oth­er im­por­tant steps.

The first is to im­prove any dig­i­tal-to-ana­log con­ver­sions, if you’re us­ing a com­put­er to play back your mu­sic. This means buy­ing a small, fair­ly in­ex­pen­sive, box that plugs in via USB and han­dles the ac­tu­al au­dio pro­cess­ing. We’ve seen a few of these cross our desks, and they are fair­ly sim­i­lar gen­er­al­ly in out­put qual­i­ty- it seems to pri­mar­i­ly be a mat­ter of se­lect­ing the right op­tions in terms of avail­able out­puts and in­puts and bal­anc­ing porta­bil­i­ty and dura­bil­i­ty. At about $150, these DACs can make a ma­jor dif­fer­ence in your lis­ten­ing plea­sure. But if you’re us­ing an ana­log source, or have a sol­id DAC or sound­card, then the next step is cru­cial- find­ing a good amp.

Some folks will tell you that cer­tain amps pair with cer­tain head­phones. And then there is the mat­ter of which tubes to use, if you get a mod­el that us­es them. We’ve been try­ing a tube am­pli­fi­er that of­fers the best all-around val­ue that we’ve seen, the Hi­Fi­MAN EF5. The cost alone- $500- means that not ev­ery­one should have one (or needs one). But, with­out ex­cep­tion, ev­ery lis­ten­er agreed that mu­sic sent through the EF5 was rounder, rich­er, warmer. We tried play­ing ev­ery­thing from fair­ly harsh elec­tron­ic tracks, like Square­push­er (glitchy and scratchy, the edges were worn down a bit and the of­ten sub­tle back­ground melodies boost­ed) to Ni­na Si­mone (acous­tic mu­sic, with strong vo­cals, shines bright­est with a good amp, even more so than with a DAC). And we were on­ly us­ing the in­clud­ed tube for most of the tests, a beau­ti­ful-look­ing 12AU7 from a com­pa­ny called Full­mu­sic. An­oth­er au­dio­phile sug­gest­ed that a NOS (new old stock) tube can make yet an­oth­er lev­el of dif­fer­ence, but it’s easy to be in­tim­i­dat­ed by the wide ar­ray of op­tions- and the Full­mu­sic is pret­ty sol­id.

We’ve got sev­er­al oth­er amps on hand to test, and will be post­ing on them short­ly, but the EF5 was unique in a cou­ple of re­spects. For starters, the pow­er sup­ply is a com­plete­ly sep­a­rate unit, and not a sim­ple pow­er brick- in­stead, it’s the same size as the amp it­self and sits nice­ly be­neath it in a stack. The pow­er sup­ply seemed well-shield­ed, and fea­tured some pret­ty heavy-du­ty con­struc­tion. All told, the com­plete pair weighs over five pounds, so it’s not par­tic­u­lar­ly portable. And the tube is par­tial­ly ex­posed- it’s cer­tain­ly pret­ty, but means that you can­not stack any­thing on top of it and need to be some­what gen­tle. The tube does have some pro­tec­tion- a slight­ly odd plas­tic brack­et and com­po­nent cov­er are the on­ly dis­trac­tions from the black met­al on these hand built units. In­put is via RCA on­ly, and out­put is sole­ly 1/4 inch head­phone (not mi­ni-jack, like many, though it’s cer­tain­ly easy enough to get an adapter and sim­ple enough to drop down in size to mini­jack while hard­er for mi­ni-jack on­ly de­vices to sup­port 1/4 for those who are old school). We would’ve liked an­oth­er in­put though.

One im­por­tant thing to note is that tubes can be a bit fussy. They take time to warm up each time you turn on the unit, and can al­so re­quire some burn-in time when you first start us­ing them. We left ours sit for a while, just in case, and test­ed sev­er­al times af­ter a 12+ hours. The pri­ma­ry head­phones we use are the clas­sic Gra­do SR80i mod­els, though we have many oth­er sets from Sennheis­er, Mon­ster, Et­y­mot­ic, and bey­er­dy­nam­ic to lis­ten with and com­pare. And on each one of them, the EF5 amp added quite a bit of depth to tracks, bring­ing for­ward some in­stru­ments that can get lost or drowned out, ac­cen­tu­at­ing the mid-range, al­beit with a bit of damp­en­ing on bass, and on a cou­ple of pairs sound a bit com­pressed odd­ly. Vol­ume is nev­er an is­sue- even at half-lev­el, we were more than sat­is­fied with the sheer pow­er. You can pin­point, and fo­cus on spe­cif­ic ranges with a good amp, and hear things that you’ve nev­er heard be­fore, even in a song you know by heart. And un­like a DAC, most amps can help smooth over er­rors or glitch­es in dig­i­tal files, mak­ing your bad­ly-record­ed MP3s from scratched CDs sound a lit­tle bet­ter.

Again, $500 is a fair­ly high pric­etag, and we un­der­stand that for some peo­ple this is more than they spent on a de­cent set of speak­ers or head­phones. But the hi-fi crowd is dif­fer­ent, and we can def­i­nite­ly ap­pre­ci­ate the crafts­man­ship, care, and knowl­edge that went in­to build­ing this. With­out a doubt, you’re get­ting your dol­lar’s worth, and the sound will im­press even jad­ed palates. With tubes, au­then­tic­i­ty is not the key­word, but achiev­ing warmer and broad­er sound through a de­cent set of mon­i­tors is on­ly an EF5 away.

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About the Author

Greg dreamed up the idea for the Truly Network while living in Hawaii, which began with a single site called TrulyObscure. In 2010, when advertisers and readers were requesting coverage beyond the scope of that site, TrulyNet was launched, reaching a broader audience over a variety of niche sites. Formerly the head technology correspondent for the Des Moines Register at age 16, he has since lived and worked in five states and two countries, helping a list of organizations and companies that includes the United States Census Bureau, TripAdvisor, Events Photo Group, Berlitz, and Computer Geeks. He also served as the Content Strategy Manager for HearPlanet, a multi-platform app that has reached over a million users and has been featured in the New York Times, Hemispheres Magazine, National Geographic Adventure, Fox Business News, PC Magazine, and even Apple’s own iPhone ads. Greg has written as a restaurant critic and feature journalist for a number of national and international publications, including City Weekend Magazine, Red Egg Magazine, the Newton Daily News, Capital Change Magazine, and an arm of China Daily, Beijing Weekend. In addition, he has served as a consulting editor for the Foreign Language Press of Beijing, as well as a writer and editor for the George Washington University Hatchet, the school newspaper of his alma mater. Originally from Iowa, Greg is currently living in the West Village of Manhattan.

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