April 03, 2016 5 min read

The Ampsandsound Kenzie Headphone Amplifier is simply an incredible-sounding headphone amp. It offers amazing performance at a fair price, with a lifetime warranty.

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I had been looking for a replacement for my Oppo HA-1 for quite a while. I had recently upgraded my DAC to a Schiit Gungnir Multibit and was on the hunt for what I thought would be a balanced amp; probably a Schiit Mjolnir 2 or something similar. I wanted to be able to tune my sound with tubes and had grown slightly bored with the down-the-line neutral take that the HA-1 offered. Enter the ampsandsound Kenzie Headphone Amp. (yes, that’s how it’s spelled, small “a” and all). The Kenzie headphone amp is derived from Justin Weber’s original Kenzie speaker amp. He decided to take the well-regarded Kenzie design and modify it strictly for headphones. The KHA has two dedicated headphone jacks: one optimized for 32 ohm headphones, and one optimized for high impedance headphones. I asked him what the actual output impedance was on the 600 ohm jack and he said it’s in the high 200’s; so this option will be better suited for the Beyerdynamics of the world rather than Sennheisers. Feel free to experiment as you like, though. I tried out the Beyerdynamic T1 second-gen, and it was very pleasing: plenty of thump in the bass and excellent clarity. I would suggest using Sennheisers such as the 6xx series and the HD800s with the 32 ohm jack: it gives a better balanced performance. The bass can get a bit wonky out of the high impedance jack.
Justin is not overly worried about benchmark specs and buzzwords in his designs, but he is open to any questions you may have of him. I’ve got to give a plug for Justin’s customer service: it is in a word, awesome! Feel free to send him an email with any questions you may have and he will give you candid and informative feedback. He will go out of his way to earn your loyalty. I’ve had the opportunity to correspond with him via email and in person, and he’s a great guy and designer who is incredibly enthusiastic about speaker and amplifier design. BTW, Justin was very generous when I met him at Canjam. I didn’t currently have the cheddar to purchase the amp at the show, but he took an interest in the HA-1 I was selling to use as a dac at home. In short he took the HA-1 off my hands and gave me a generous credit towards the Kenzie, which made all the difference. Thank you, Justin. Thrice over!
The Kenzie comes supplied with two NOS (new old stock) 1626 power tubes and one RCA 12SL7 input tube. This “stock” configuration is extremely compelling, and I doubt many buyers will feel the need to roll other tubes in to rectify perceived flaws: this amp sounds amazing right out of the box! Clean, extended treble without a hint of harshness. awesomely textured mids with just a slight lower-mid emphasis, nothing too “warm” or any other tube clichés. The bass is not accentuated at all; it’s clean, hits nice and has great texture. I would describe this amp as neutral with a hint of tonal warmth.
Tracks (or albums) that I used for this review were from Moving Pictures (2015 remaster) from Rush, Volto! Incitare (an amazing heavy rock/jazz fusion album), Metallica’s Black album(24/96), John William’s Star Wars: Return of the Jedi Soundtrack, Beethoven’s 5th conducted by Carlos Kleiber, and Meliora by the faux-occult band Ghost; this last one falls into the heavily compressed category.
The LCD-2’s are known for having a mid-centric tilt with a slightly recessed presence region. That being said, I really enjoy these headphones with classical music. Some LCD-2 users describe the treble as slightly “grainy” for lack of a better word; I understand that description, but don’t find that to be the case with the Kenzie HA. Listening to Return of the Jedi’s Main Title, there is plenty of “air” present in the mix without getting weighed down by the midrange and lows. Similarly, Beethoven’s 5th symphony, as conducted by Carlos Kleiber and performed by the Vienna Philharmonic, is an exercise in dynamics with gentle, quiet passages and explosively loud bombast. The overall tone falls on the heavier side through the Audezes, but that’s just a matter of taste. Try these tracks with some Beyerdynamic T-90’s or T1’s, and you’ll have all the air and presence you could possibly want.
Rush’s Moving Pictures is a spectacularly well recorded progressive rock album. With great separation between the drums, bass and guitars, the speed of the LCD-2’s planar drivers and the tone of the Kenzie shine through. On YYZ, the drums are lightning fast, the bass rock solid with great extension, and the guitars just simply sing with no peaky-ness or stridence. The Camera Eye is a 10-minute epic with a ton of layers. Keyboards, electric guitar, acoustic guitars, bass and drums combine to make a great test for amp/headphone pairing. The Kenzie/Audeze combo pull it off nicely.
On the more compressed modern side of things, Ghost’s Meliora is their now-signature album, with their best songwriting to date. While the album is very well produced, the mastering is pretty loud, and there aren’t a lot of dynamics. The Kenzie extracts all the great guitar textures, distorted bass tones and hard-hitting drums and makes them sound their best, while taking a bit of the edge off the hot mastering. On lesser amps, the cymbals can come across extremely dry and a bit harsh. Papa and the Ghouls have never sounded better.
Volto! is a jazz/rock fusion band that caught my attention back in 2011. Danny Carey of Tool mans the skins, John Ziegler is on guitar. They are accompanied by Lance Morrison on bass guitar and Jeff Babko on keyboards. Incitare is essentially a live-in-the-studio effort (with a few overdubs here and there). This is not a particularly dynamic record, but there are places where the volume drops, then kicks you in the face, such as “Drumbeaux”, which starts with a Danny Carey drum solo, then explodes into palm-muted guitar wailing. Another favorite of mine is “Gillz” which starts off with a mysterious, chorus-laden, clean guitar tone. Ziegler brings on the mellow arpeggios, then kicks in the overdrive to bring forth an incredibly melodic lead. Lance Morrison supports the entire album with rock-solid, subterranean bass. Jeff Babko is also great on the album: trading leads with John Ziegler throughout the album in a fun back-and-forth jammy vibe.
In conclusion, The Kenzie Headphone Amplifier is, in my opinion, a world class piece of headphone gear that will likely make you a happy audiophile for years to come. You have the ability to tube-roll to your preferences, it comes with a lifetime warranty, and it sounds absolutely superb. I think a lot of potential buyers looking at stuff by Cavalli and Woo Audio should take a look at ampsandsound; I think you’ll find performance that rivals the big boys and spend a lot less than say, a WA5 le, Liquid Crimson, Gold, or Glass.

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