Ah, the signal path. The links in the sonic chain that condition those digital and electrical sparks before they hit your ears. Each piece adds its own bit of flavor, creating an integral part of the audio experience. Yet, many seekers of sonic nirvana rarely think about them — especially when it comes to headphones. You buy a good or even great pair, connect them to your sound source, be it a phone, computer, or DAC, and call it good. Unless you’ve experienced it, it’s hard to appreciate just how much a dedicated headphone amp can influence sound quality.
However, one spin with the Kenzie, a gorgeous tube amp from the hand craftsmen at Amps and Sound, might just be enough to convince any nonbeliever how important a truly brilliant audio ambassador can be.
The Kenzie is our first encounter with California-based Amps and Sound, but the amp’s superior build quality is obvious from the get-go. The platform is heavy, built with real wood trim around the perimeter and metal plating on top. The sturdy design and classic styling recall audio gadgets from the golden age of radio, and the dichotomous blend of minimalism and steampunk charm makes the amp a serious eye catcher. Just a day or two with those sparkling tubes popping up from the corner of our desk brought in plenty of oglers, both curious and covetous of this exotic collection of metal, glass, and wood. That said, the Kenzie does boast one odd design choice: The three-prong IEC power jack set on the top panel is both unsightly and necessarily means undue strain will be put on the power cable.
As for components, Amps and Sound has brought in plenty of quality materials, including a secret audiophile favorite as the foundation: the Darling circuit. But the company is also mindful about upkeep, choosing accessible/affordable parts for those that come with a shorter shelf life: the tubes. To that end, the Kenzie hosts dual 1626 single-ended tubes for the output, set to the left and right sides of the top panel. Chosen for their affordability as well as their penchant for “warmth, texture, and soundstage depth,” the 1626 come with a pedigree that can be traced all the way back to WWII radar installations. On the input side, the Kenzie hosts a 12SL7 tube, which can be swapped out with several available alternatives when necessary.
The blocky transformers set just behind those sparkling tubes are hand wound, and “ultra-high quality” according to the company, dedicated to delivering massive frequency extension (and on that note, my ears agree). An ALPS potentiometer set to the left front offers simple and responsive volume control. The single input is a set of analog RCA stereo ports — no dedicated DAC onboard this classic box — while outputs include ¼-inch jacks rated at 32 ohms and 600 ohms for optimal impedance matching with a wide variety of headphone types. (Note: It’s important to experiment with your cans for optimal sound here, as you’ll get very different responses from the two outputs.)
I listened to the Kenzie amplifier using varying degrees of mid-to-high level headphones, including Audeze’s EL-8 and Sine models, Ultimate Ears Pro’s Reference Monitor (RM) in-ears, and HiFiMan’s Edition S. Sources included a straight shot from a Mac headphone output, as well as a Cambridge DACMagic XS DAC, and an Astell&Kern AK Jr. hi-res player.
(Note: When used with highly sensitive balanced armature in-ears, such as the UE RM, the amp can sound a little noisy, and, as you might expect, may not foster the “linear” sound you’re used to. Tubes, baby.)
While the Kenzie’s specs and design give audiophiles who already want to bask in its glow even more reason to do so, none of that can hold a candle to the headphone amp’s sound. From the very first listen we were taken aback by the Kenzie’s musicality, its sparkling and vibrantly forward presence, and its rich and detailed soundstage that carves open a vast dimension of space, allowing all your favorite instruments to stretch out inside its dynamic expanse.
The Kenzie’s vacuum tubes do add some warmth in the form of a golden touch to the midrange, but the coloration was only really discernible in testing with the UE RMs, the most transparent earphones this writer owns. With all other cans, it’s immediately clear those quality transformers really have their way with the sound signature, catapulting music forward in glossy waves of clear-cut detail, and rigidly delineated textures. Electric guitars glow like embers in a campfire, dashing through the soundstage in ribbons of light. Synthesizers warble in spacious columns with zesty edges at the attack, while bass and percussion is often so clean and lively it feels almost like a live performance in an acoustically treated environment.
The sheer depth of the soundstage and tactile textures of instruments make the Kenzie extremely engaging. Sound is effortlessly clear, but it’s also sweet and smooth, making your music sing and distracting you from anything else you might try and focus on; you know, like work and stuff. The expressive dynamics expose each subtle nuance, again calling up a more organic, personal experience than you expect from your studio tracks.
Electric guitars glow like embers, dashing through the soundstage in ribbons of light.
And then there’s the dynamic nature of the stereo channels, which are separated perfectly when called upon, but also fluidly blend instruments as sounds matriculate across the soundstage from one channel to the other.
And really, that kind of fun is what the Kenzie headphone amp is all about. It doesn’t just reproduce a clearer image of your sound, it enhances it, supports it, and vibrantly colors each note with its gorgeous tone to make your music more engaging and more enjoyable.
Of course, all that enjoyment will cost you a pretty penny — $1,650, to be exact (and that’s without a DAC, which you will probably want to help the Kenzie sound its best). That price point makes the Kenzie an aspirational purchase for most of us, though there are also plenty of other options for those looking for something a bit sharper and more versatile, like Oppo’s HA-1 or Shure’s SHA900 portable amp, both of which also include DACs. Still, if you’ve got a killer pair of cans, and you’ve been longing for a way to juice up the sound — and maybe bring some more rock and roll thrills to your listening experience — the Kenzie is a fantastic way to go.
- Smooth, and effortlessly clear sound signature
- Massive, dynamic sound stage
- Richly detailed and textured instrumental timbres
- Design is both sturdy and stylish
- Forward, vibrant presence
- Awkwardly placed power socket
- No integrated DAC