Have you ever looked at a gallery photograph and thought, “Damn, that’s just beautiful?” No, I’m not just talking about the subject, the lighting, composition, colors, or image sharpness. For folks who love photography, once in a rare while we are lucky enough to come across the use of a really special lens that just somehow makes the image pop . We’re talking about specific famed Leica Summicrons as an example; you can put another highly-rated 50 mm lens in the exact same location, with the same settings and lighting, and get something that comes close, but it just doesn’t look as good.
What is that magic? Is it something quantifiable, measurable? You know it when you see it, but “it” is so hard to define. And that perceived effect is so much greater than the minute percentage difference.
In search for the office head-fi sonic heaven, this past year I upgraded my vinyl and digital headphone system from the Audeze LCD-2 to the ZMF Verite Open. The headphone source and amplifier was also upgraded to the Vinnie Rossi LIO, a ultracapacitor-powered (e.g. extremely quiet) integrated with his “L2” DAC and phono stage (total MSRP approx. $12,175), which has a paired 6922 tubed stage and dedicated solid-state headphone amplifier with XLR-output (2W in 32 ohms). Sources included an Aurender music server with a Curious Evolved USB cable, and a Rega P8 plus Apheta 3 vinyl combo. This baseline system is extremely detailed and quiet with a hint of warmth, and ticks all the audiophile sonic boxes; it met the “feels like I am rediscovering my music for the first time” deal.
However, despite enjoying this higher sonic performance for a few months, the music from the LIO’s headphone output was missing a certain je ne sais quoi . Voices were recessed and the band instruments more prominent. Vocals are very clear, but did not tug at heart strings. The overall musical picture felt slightly empty, even though when I searched for the individual components e.g. bass, treble, rhythm, etc. they were all there. Regardless of how loud the volume knob was set, crescendos and choruses sounded like they were climbing to fortissimo, but it never felt like fortississimo. The LIO reminded me of my last M3 (apologies to you BMW fans)… it had all the numbers and tech, was blazingly fast, and I really wanted to love it, but it just wasn’t fun . And thus the Ampsandsound Mogwai SE came into the picture.
The first words that came to mind upon unpacking the Mogwai SE are “beast”, “solid” and “beautiful.”The Seahorse hard shipping case is huge, and definitively raises the standard in component packaging. The amp is solid and hefty, with a complete absence of rattle or creaks. Cables and tubes seat definitively into their sockets without play or loosening. The power switch, volume pot and headphone jacks also similarly reflect the high build quality. The walnut and black steel motif is elegant yet understated, and should visually pair well with any typical black/silver audio equipment, and pairs especially well with wood-cup headphones. My Mogwai SE came with a JJ 6SL7 input tube, pair of Genalex Gold Lion KT88, and a NOS 5u3c rectifier. Due to office space limitations, the Mogwai SE was placed over the Aurender server on 3” wooden blocks; a 3/4” wood board with copper foil and Faraday tape were used to separate the server from the amplifier for good measure.
Just to first get it out of the way, the Mogwai SE has a tremendously quiet noise floor. Per Justin’s measurements, the RMS noise is 0.45 mV and 1.9 mV at 32 and 300 ohm taps, respectively. I dreaded receiving a unit with the hum described on internet forums, and in fact I did have a low hum when the Aurender was paused and the LIO’s DAC was powered on. However, when I muted the LIO output, the Mogwai SE was virtually SILENT with the ZMF Verites on both 32 and 300 ohm taps until the volume was turned to the 11 o’clock position using the stock tubes, which is well above typical listening levels. The hum therefore came from either the LIO or interconnects. After discussions with both Vinnie Rossi and Justin Weber, both absolute class acts in my book, the final solution included the use of DH Labs Air Matrix shielded interconnects from the LIO’s variable output (set to ~80% max output, therefore lowering the Mogwai’s volume setting to 9 o’clock). For good measure a Shunyata NR V10 power cord was used directly into the wall socket.
Music through the Mogwai SE felt as if I’m now in front of the original oil-on-canvas masterpiece instead of the giclee prints with the LIO. Immediately noticeable is that timbre and tonality are just so right. Triangles, guitars, kick drums, and even the microphonics on female vocals sound more realistic, with a significantly fuller, more dimensional vocal body. On Sarah McLachlan’s Mirrorball “Angel”, whereas before with the LIO I would continue to turn up the volume in hopes to flesh out her voice, now the music just comes forth with a natural ease, and Sarah’s voice has the right presence and volume to balance out the piano and venue. Most importantly, whereas the LIO’s presentation was a sonic smorgasbord with separate high-definition components, the Mogwai SE’s picture was one of just cohesiveness and beauty. As if the artists’ intentions and meaning are more evident. The drums at the opening of “Ice Cream ”, also on the Mirrorball album, exhibited not only surprising depth and slam even when compared to a solid state amplifier, but also a greater texture that can only come from timbre accuracy.
With Bill Evans Trio’s Portrait In Jazz“Autumn Leaves” , the Mogwai SE portrayed each double bass pluck and piano note with heft. Like a refined award-winning cabernet as opposed to a pinot noir, but not merlot. Despite the larger serving of tonal body, Justin’s amp easily kept all the instrument lines cleanly separate without smearing. Details (especially microdetails) and speed are abundant and both microdynamics and macrodynamics are plentiful. This was exemplified in the famous opening sequence of Guns N’ Roses’ “ Sweet Child O’ Mine ”, with the building up of additional instrument layers while the main guitar riff remains bold and unchallenged. Excitement was back at 100%. The Mogwai SE’s ability to blast Gn’R with enough vigor to transport us back into the memories of our youth places it among the top echelon of components…. Where everything was a fresh as the bright blue sky…
Track after track I got lost in enjoying the music and found myself singing or playing air guitar, and forgot about the whole audiophile listening thing. Norah Jones seduces. Taylor Swift mocks. Keith Jarrett brings it home. After all, isn’t that what this is ultimately about?
Tube rolling with the Mogwai SE is the icing on the cake. The rectifier tube was replaced with a rare Western Electric 422A: the differences were not subtle, at least on the level of a cable change. On Sara Bareilles’ “She Used To Be Mine” and “Live At The Fillmore”, the 422A provided a slightly more detailed and focused presentation, with a greater sense of the venue, further enhancing the already great stock Mogwai SE performance. Listening to the amplifier with upgraded tubes with the lights dimmed was akin to finishing off an amazing Michelin 3-star dinner with a smooth after dinner whiskey compared with the LIO’s Ruth’s Chris meal. Substituting the JJ 6SL7 with a TJ Full Music 12AU7 dropped the noise floor further and allowed a greater use of the volume pot range, and increased treble airiness with a slightly decreased midrange fullness. However, with so many potential permutations of input/power/rectifier tubes, sonic trade-offs are likely; an Amperex Holland 12AT7 brought a slightly decreased PRAT and bass definition, resulting in a less exciting sound, and also increased the noise floor. The tube flexibility allows a great advantage in system matching, but your mileage may vary. Just be prepared to go down the tube collector’s rabbit hole with Justin’s amps.
Ansel Adams once said, “a great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed.” For our musical journey, we similarly search from component to component with the hopes of that fulfillment, but often then covet the next upgrade. The Ampsandsound Mogwai SE fulfills for me that rare solid endgame of delivering a tremendous performance with truth, emotion and beauty leaving little else to wish for (don’t tempt me with Justin’s Bigger Ben/Rockwell/Natilus, I don’t hear you, La La La). To any reader who is fortunate enough to consider Justin’s amps, you will not regret it.