4 1/2 stars
It may be cute, but this headphone amp doesn’t lack for bite.
The Cute Beyond is another one of Firestone Audio’s Cute-Series products, which all take the shape of a sturdy little aluminium box.
As far as headphone amps go, the Cute Beyond (CB from here on out) is a small one, especially compared to my Perreaux SXH2 or Lehmann’s Black Cube, but then again, it’s priced at a much more comfortable level. The compact form factor makes it possible to place the CB next to an existing component on an AV rack or to have it sit discreetly on a desktop. Even the wall wart is relatively small, which again helps in the hide-away process. The CB offers only standard analogue inputs, with no pass through connections, so it’s only suitable for a single source system or for users who don’t mind a bit of cable swapping. There’s no built in USB input and DAC, so forget about hooking it up a computer digitally. There are other models in the range that offer computer connectivity.
The CB runs in Class A and is based on a Single Ended circuit, a topology usually found in low powered valve amps. Unlike those valve amps, the CB runs as cool as a fridge because its power output is minuscule in comparison, and of course there’s nary a valve to be seen. The CB is built around interchangeable op-amps, namely a TI – OPA2604 and a TI – TL072 for those who have a real interest in the smallest details. Replacing these op-amps allows tweakers to adjust the sound of the CB in much the same way that valve amps can be “rolled”.
Firestone Audio claims that the CB is optimised for a wide range of load impedances and suitable for “almost all headphones,” and it had no problem driving the models I tried it with, including my Sennheiser HD650s. The two-way gain switch round back is actually an attenuator (-20dB at the low setting, no attenuation at the high setting) but it does ensure that the volume pot can be used in its optimal range (there is some channel imbalance at the lowest parts of the volume control’s range, but this vanishes with a slight increase in levels).
The CB needs a short warm-up period before it sounds its best, but ten minutes proved sufficient and in any event, the differences weren’t shattering. It isn’t a warm sounding device, nor is it a bright ear-splitter; rather it’s as neutral as a Swiss politician at the UN, tracking straight and true down the middle. It seems to leave most of the editorialising to the source, the recording and of course the ‘phones, which after all are likely to be the most coloured part of the system.
Any external headphone amp has to be able to do a better job than the headphone jacks fitted to source components or amplifiers, especially the basic afterthoughts fitted to most hi-fi gear. There are some components that have decent or even very good headphone stages fitted, but they tend to be few and far between.
Directly compared to the headphone output on my Marantz SA8260 SACD player, the CB proved to be ahead sonically. The Marantz actually doesn’t sound too bad when put to service as a headamp even with the aforementioned Sennheisers attached – it’s clear and detailed but the bass sounds a tad loose (especially when the volume is well up) and in absolute terms, it’s fractionally on the bright side; it’s not a bad listen though.
The CB adds a dose of control and smoothness to the equation without cutting back on the detail at all. In fact, there’s more to be heard in the way of textures and subtleties, while the presentation is more refined and the low end toes the line right up to eardrum creaking levels.
Listening to Hellhound On My Trail – the Robert Johnson tribute CD – showed that the CB allows the ‘phones to just do their thing, seemingly without hindrance. There’s plenty of headroom and the output is very quiet, with no hum at all. This excellent Telarc recording is a cleanly put-together blues gem and most of the guitar based tracks tend to be fiercely played and quite forward, while the vocals are close miked. It can be a bit much on a bright system but not with the CB in the loop; with either the HD650s or the Esmooth ES-881CW ‘phones, the sound was vivid but not fatiguing in the least.
With Rusty Truck’s Luck’s Changing Lanes in the SACD player, the sound of the HD650/CB combination could best be described as luscious. This recording is another treat, rich and intimate but it can come across as being too warm and laid back via the wrong gear. Here it was just right, with open and enticing sonics, good dynamics and a lot of weight and impact. I’ve grown to love this CD and it’s superb through a good headphone rig. After hours of listening to a number of different genres, it’s obvious that despite the modest price of the amp, this is definitely a good headphone rig.
Spend approximately three times as much on the Perreaux SXH2 that I’ve used since 2006 and you get even more impact and insight, a greater degree of outright control and a sense of increased spaciousness to both the recorded acoustic and the physical soundstaging. Micro dynamics are improved and the smaller details seem to be more apparent. The Perreaux is slightly warmer as well but at the price, the Firestone Audio product offers huge value for money. It’s easy to recommend this little box if you’re looking for a closer connection with your music. With a decent set of ‘phones on the end of it and a good source, you’d be in for many a happy hour finding out more about what’s actually on your recordings. ASHLEY KRAMER