Published on September 13th, 2011 | by Greg0
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.