June 20, 2019 7 min read
Recently, I was able to obtain directly from AmpsandSound, a review sample of their Mogwai SE, a pretty phenomenal (there’s the abreviated version of the review) tube-powered headphone amplifier. I am accustomed to receivers and integrated amplifiers that almost always include a headphone jack as a convenience feature. The Mogwai SE turns that thinking around the other way. It’s a headphone amp whose convenience feature is a set of speaker cable binding posts that allow you to drive a pair of efficient loudspeakers to very satisfying levels in typical, domestic listening spaces, as well as less efficient loudspeakers in near-field listening arrangements. This is possible because—as headphone amplifiers go—the Mogwai SE is a tremendously powerful amp.
The SE in Mogwai SE stands for Special Edition and the feature that makes the Special Edition special is a pair of input transformers whose function is make the amp quieter than it would be without them.
This review is not based on long-term use and evaluation. It would be nice to be able to keep any piece of high-end gear in my system for an extended period, but I don’t feel that it’s necessary to audition a piece of equipment for months on end in order to determine whether it’s better or worse than similar products with which the reviewer is familiar. If you’re a skilled listener—maybe even if you’re not—you should be able to tell, pretty quickly, whether and why you like some new piece of gear. Also, I’m skeptical about differences among products that are so small that they can be discerned only after months of listening. If you require months of listening to determine whether A is better than B, or the other way round, then I’m going to be fairly suspicious about the significance of any differences you ultimately perceive between A and B.
It’s a great time to be in the market for headphones and headphone amplifiers. The headphone universe has been rapidly expanding during the past several years. There are lots of headphones and amps and personal listening accessories from which to choose: open back headphones, closed back headphones, headphone amplifiers, DAC-amplifiers, portable amps, portable DAC-amps, tube amps, solid state amps, headphone cables, in ear monitors, balanced amps—both fixed base and portable. It’s a huge segment of the hi-fi market and it’s still expanding!
The bad news about this rapid expansion in personal listening is that creates a lot of room for posers and re-badgers in this ever-growing market segment. Right now, I suspect that there’s a whole bunch of nearly identical gear being sold at wildly varying price points with the only real difference between some products being cosmetic. Even before you listen, even before you plug it in, even before you open the box you can be certain that none of that bad news applies to the Mogwai SE, or any other AmpsandSound product. The Mogwai SE is an original product from an original company. It’s a product that might have cousins, but it has no twins at its price, or at any other price points. Rather than designing products that target specific price points, each AmpsandSound product seems to have been designed to fill a unique market niche and listening need. I’ve heard all of the AmpsandSound headphone amps; choosing one of them wouldn’t be a matter of making some kind of sonic compromise to accommodate my budget, it would simply be a matter of choosing the amp that best fit my needs.
I listened to the Mogwai SE using just one pair of headphones, my open back, AKG K-701s. These massive-looking headphones are actually very light. When I listen with them, I barely notice that they’re on my head. They are amazingly comfortable and they are fantastic sounding. Friends keep channeling new and expensive—sometimes, very expensive—headphones my way. Many of them sound very good; some sound almost as good as my 701s! I think the latest crop of 701s are made in China, but mine are Austrian. I’ve had them for a while. For me, they’ve been a very satisfying reference. I’ve heard a few headphones that I’d be as happy to have as my AKGs, but the only headphones for which I would trade them are the high-end Stax electrostatics with their dedicated amplifiers.
Using my AKG K-701s, I compared the Mogwai SE with two other headphone amplifiers, my Ray Samuels’ Hornet and my Apogee Digital, Mini DAC, which is now a legacy product. The headphone amp in the Mini DAC is extraordinary. Its only downside in my view is that you can feed it only a digital signal, which is too bad because it is so good that I wish that I could connect it directly to my phono preamp for use in listening to my turntable.
My Ray Samuels’ headphone amp continues to amaze me. It’s a portable amp that runs off a single nine-volt battery. Frequently, I strap it to my i-pod with a rubber band (it’s about two-thirds the size of my i-pod). Other times, I use it as a miniature, battery-powered pre-amp in my desktop hi-fi system.
At $3,200, the Mogwai SE is a pricey piece of gear, but it’s not unreasonably pricey. It’s a handmade, made in the USA piece of premium, high-end tube audio gear that is definitely not subject to the “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” kinds of lamentations that we all express about modern products. If you open up a Mogwai SE you’ll see it’s packed with robust, oversized, high quality parts that are unlikely to fail, but which could be easily identified, diagnosed, and replaced if they did. Instead of trying to design-in accommodations for what you think, or hope the future might bring to circuit design, that’s an incredibly effective, retro method of future-proofing a product!
Still, you should be aware that however good the Mogwai SE sounds—and it does sound very good, no $3,200 headphone amp is going to give you twice the sonic performance of a $1,600 headphone amp. The laws of diminishing returns apply to the Mogwai SE just as they do to all audio gear. Having said that, I think you’ll find that you might easily get more than twice the pride of ownership and enjoyment from the Mogwai SE. It’s a piece of audio gear that’s likely to delight you even when it’s switched off! And it’s nice to know that you, or your great-grandchildren will be able to enjoy it almost indefinitely into the future.
My Ray Samuels Hornet is a great and amazing amp. Its tiny size and battery-powered portability make it even more amazing. If I didn’t have anything better with which to compare it I don’t think I would ever notice its limitations, but in direct A-B comparisons with the Mogwai SE it always came in a very close second. Again, I had to switch back and forth between the two amps to identify the meaningful differences. I don’t know that I could have listened to the two amps an hour apart and identified those differences, but in careful side-by-side listening they were noticeable. The Mogwai SE edged out the Hornet with its sheer power and its broader dynamics, something that’s reasonable to expect from an amp that plugs into the wall and that has enough power to drive a lot of loudspeakers!
When I compared the headphone amplifier in my Apogee Digital Mini DAC to the Mogwai SE I was unable to express a preference for one amplifier over the other. To my ears they sounded equally good, but the Mogwai SE let me do something my Mini DAC wouldn’t. It let me connect directly to my phono preamp , an EAR 834P, and listen to my turntable directly. I prefer the sound of my Apogee to that of my Ray Samuels, but the Apogee has no analog inputs, so when I listen to records through headphones I have to use my ever-so-slightly inferior Ray Samuels amp. It was really nice to be able to listen to records with my headphones, powered by a truly first rate headphone amplifier, that’s what the Mogwai SE is!
The Mogwai SE had a rich, full, textured bass that was never bloated or flabby. Consistently, it delivered tuneful, articulate bass that was the equal of the best bass reproduction that I’ve heard from my headphones. The only thing lacking was the felt bass that you can never get from headphones and can be had only from full range loudspeakers, or subwoofers. In the mid range and upper frequencies the Mogwai SE delivered a lush, but articulate sound that made it seem like all the voices, instruments, and notes had been pulled apart from one another. It was something like the difference between what you might hear if you put ten musicians in a 400 square foot studio, listened for a bit, and then moved them into a 1,500 square foot studio and took another listen. Everything sounded bigger, more open, more spread out, and more comfortable. Musicians were no longer elbowing each other for space when they were played through the Mogwai SE! This might have been the most startling and enjoyable sonic feature of the Mogwai SE.
I used the Mogwai SE to power a pair of Overnight Sensation MTM stand-mounted/desktop loudspeakers in my 100 square-foot home office. The Overnight Sensations are not especially efficient loudspeakers and I was not prepared for the volume of sound that they were able to produce when powered by a headphone amplifier! I got more volume than I needed for the space, and the quality of the sound I got from the speakers was as good as I’ve heard using any other amplifier I have. The Mogwai SE is quiet. Without a signal I turned up the volume and heard nothing from my speaker’s tweeters. That may be the result of the SE’s input transformers. I wish that I could have heard the amp paired with much more efficient speakers. I imagine that the effect would be startling.
Every listener comes to this hobby with pockets of varying depth. Sadly, I’m a relatively poor audiophile, but I have been fortunate enough to find gear, and in some cases make gear for myself that not only sounds great, but sounds great in comparison to much more costly equipment. I don’t really need a Mogwai SE, which is too bad because if I needed one I would find a way to justify its purchase. Serious headphone listeners who are not as economically constrained as I am should give the Mogwai SE very serious consideration. It’s an absolutely first rate headphone amp and, when paired with the right speakers, a first rate power amp.