It's made in Germany and costs a fortune, but the Mal Valve Head Amp Three is the best there is.
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
I heard through the grapevine that the Mal Valve Head Amp Three takes headphone sound to the next level, so I had to check it out for myself. I brought two of my best headphones to the Audioarts NYC showroom to audition the amp, and it really was an ear opener. "Space" was the first thing I noticed, the Mal Valve decodes spatial cues in recordings better than any amp I've heard to date; and the resolution, clarity, and purity of the sound were all superlative via my Audeze LCD 3 headphones. The Mal Valve frees up the sound, as if there was nothing between the music and your ears.
The amp has 10 vacuum tubes tucked inside, and it's the first headphone amp I've ever seen that hides its headphone jacks on the rear panel. That's inconvenient, but there are six headphone jacks back there, along with a collection of RCA and XLR input jacks.
The LCD 3 headphones' sound with Radiohead's "Kid A," a recording I've heard hundreds of times before, unfurled a 360-degree halo encircling my head. The sound was hyper-detailed and laid-back at the same time.
My Hifiman HE-6 headphones didn't match the thrills generated by the LCD 3s, but if I hadn't first heard the LCD 3s I would have been knocked out. With the HE 6s, the sound of rock/jazz band Chicago's "At Carnegie Hall" concerts from 1972 was eerily realistic, and the perspective was more audience-oriented than what you get with most headphones. Instruments and vocals stand out in sharp relief in the soundstage, so the "spaces" between the players are deeper. The sound takes on a three-dimensional quality that once you hear it, everything else sounds flat and two-dimensional.
Since the Mal Valve is one of the rare headphone amplifiers that can drive electrostatic and dynamic headphones, I also auditioned the sound with a pair of Stax SR 007 electrostatics. The 007s' you-are-there transparency was astonishing, but lacked the body and soul I heard from the LCD 3s. That's the way I've always felt about the 007s, but some hard-core headphone lovers prefer them over the LCD 3s. To each their own, but with the Mal Valve you have an amp that can drive both. And the price? It's $6,475, making it the most expensive headphone amp I've spent quality time with.