Headphones

Here's a high-end headphone amplifier with an (almost) affordable price

The Audiophiliac checks out the Cavalli Audio Liquid Carbon 2.0 headphone amp and loves its sound.

I've long been an admirer of Cavalli headphone amps, I've heard three or four of them at audio shows over the years, but for one reason or another never got around to trying one at home. Now I have one in my clutches: it's the Liquid Carbon 2.0, and it runs just $799. Cavalli Audio is based in Austin, Texas, and the company was founded in 2011.

The Cavalli Audio Liquid Carbon 2.0 headphone amp, shown with the Hifiman Edition X headphones

Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Sadly, the Liquid Carbon 2.0 is a limited-production amp, and there's just a dozen or so Carbons left in stock. Cavalli has no plans to make another amp in that price range -- the company's mainline prices start at $2,999 for the Liquid Crimson amp.

Don't despair, there's an upcoming model that'll put a lot smaller dent in your wallet. The Carbon is made in the US with parts mostly sourced from US suppliers.

The amp is a fully-discrete, fully-balanced design. It's pretty small, just 5 by 7 by 1.75 inches, so connectivity is limited to stereo RCA, XLR, and 3.5mm analog inputs, the front panel hosts 6.3mm, RSA, and XLR headphone jacks.

Before we go any further, the Liquid Carbon 2.0 is just a headphone amp, pure and simple, so it doesn't have a built-in digital audio converter. I prefer that, I'd rather have the converter housed in a separate chassis. Headphone circuits, good ones that is, age gracefully; digital converters on the other hand go obsolete faster than you can say "iPhone 4." So it makes sense to buy the best amplifier you can because there's a good chance you'll get 10 or more years of use out of it, and don't splurge on a digital converter. The $149 Schiit Modi 2 Uber converter is killer for the money.

The Liquid Carbon 2.0's main attraction is its balanced circuitry, it's the sort usually only found on much more expensive headphone amplifiers. Even then I'm not always sure balanced operation makes an audible difference, but here with the Liquid Carbon 2.0 paired with my Hifiman Edition X and Sennheiser HD 700 headphones, the Liquid Carbon 2.0's balanced XLR output was clearer sounding than its 6.3mm headphone jack. For these listening tests I used my Nordost Heimdall 2 headphone cable that makes it easy to switch between its 6.3mm and balanced XLR plugs.

The Cavalli Audio Liquid Carbon 2.0 rear panel

Cavalli Audio

With its balanced or standard headphone output jacks this little amp is seriously transparent. Take the Grateful Dead's "American Beauty," the band's vocals and harmonies had something really special, like the guys knew right then and there they were making music that would stand the test of time.

With jazz guitarist Jim Hall's "Textures" album the Liquid Carbon 2.0 projected a deeper soundstage and more "air" around the instruments than I heard with the softer and mellower Audeze Deckard headphone amp ($699). Still, I felt Drive-By Truckers "American Band" sounded harsh with the Deckart, switching over to the Liquid Carbon 2.0 took some of the nasty edge off the Truckers' sound.

That said, the Liquid Carbon 2.0 is best appreciated with great recordings, like mandolinist-singer Chris Thile and pianist Brad Mehldau's brilliant self-titled new album. The sheer clarity of their music, Mehldau's touch on the keys, and the texture of Thile's strings are fully revealed over the Liquid Carbon 2.0.

I had such a good time with the Liquid Carbon 2.0 I'm already looking forward to my next Cavalli Audio review.