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Solo Ultra Linear Ramblings

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    Posted: 27 Jun 2019 at 7:06pm

It’s a wonderful thing to have the fact that one is never too old to learn something new emphatically proven, and even better when it is totally unexpected. My new Solo Ultra Linear was both unexpected and an education.

As mentioned in my first post here, I’ve a fair amount of experience with high fidelity gear of all kinds, having been an enthusiastic audiophile since my late ‘teens. The spark was rekindled after a long hiatus about 3 years ago, when I discovered this thing now commonly dubbed “Head-Fi”.

This rabbit hole has been slippery and deep, and the journey of discovering a new way of listening to my favourite music has been exhilarating and incredibly satisfying on many levels.

I wasn’t planning on another headphone amplifier. I already had five! Each carefully chosen for it’s particular attributes, I felt I had achieved the synergy between gears that I was looking for, and was as satisfied as any Gearhead could be, I suppose.

Then I came across an ad for a pre-owned Solo with upgrade UL board fitted and PSU1…and ignored it for about a month. Of course, I had come across the work done by Mr. Slee and Company during my ramblings on the interwebs, but had never seen one in the wild, nor considered it as something I needed to have. After about 6 weeks, with the amp seemingly still unsold and having hoovered up as much information as I could about it, I had to enquire after it. The rest, as they say, is history…

It took a while for the package to arrive, and I’m not the most patient, so when I finally unboxed the amp and PSU it was in a state of extreme anticipation. First thought: damn, it’s small! But beautiful. I love the utilitarian look. Classic. It won’t date and I’ll always enjoy looking at it.

Here’s the rig used for initial listening:  

PC running Windows 7 Pro/JRiver MC24 and little else, optimised for media -- Audioquest Pearl USB --  Resonessence Labs Concero DAC used as DDC (SPDIF bridge) -- 75 Ohm Lindy Gold coaxial cable --   Benchmark DAC1 USB --  Sommer Stage 22/Amphenol interconnects -- Solo SRGII with Ultra Linear board upgrade and PSU1  --  HD600/LCD2F/K612/DT990

It’s a tricky thing, trying to describe what something sounds like. Or rather, in the case of an amplifier, how it makes other things sound really: the DAC and headphones connected to it. My first impressions after letting the Solo warm up for a few hours were quite honestly underwhelming…it sounded good, but a tad thin and dry. Bass was present but not very extended or detailed. Plenty of promise though…that soundstage was already very apparent. I expected this, since the amp had not been used for at least 2 months, and left it powered on until I could again do some listening the following night.

I have a selection of favourite test tracks that I know note for note and chose “Yambu” off the stellar Santana IV album to kick off with, a track that has everything AND the kitchen sink: complex, multi-layered instruments, two percussionists, multiple vocalists and of course THAT Santana guitar tone. Well, what a revelation! Now I was hearing something rather special, but it would take a bit more time to realise exactly what that was. Detail and instrument separation was simply in another league compared to my Kingrex HQ-1 and Audio-gd NFB11.32 and they are both highly resolving amps. Bass now extended much deeper and punched harder. Wide soundstage with everything in its place, front to back and side to side. The mark of a well-sorted amp in my book. I was immediately sucked into the music.

Dave Weckl’s “Heads Up” (1992, GRP) can sound dry, as if it were recorded in a bare studio. Not so with the UL. I’ve never heard so much air in this recording. Snare drum decay is amazing, hi-hats actually sound suspended exactly where they should be. Precise imaging as good as anything I’ve heard on the MANY (expensive) amps I’ve had through here over the past 36 months or so. Drums are not easy to reproduce accurately, and the UL rendered them stunningly well and with seemingly endless headroom. This is a high DR recording that requires an amp with decent grunt and the volume knob never climbed above 11. This well and truly laid to rest any lingering misgivings about sufficient power. This amp is highly dynamic and I’ve not yet managed to get close to its limits – it just sounds effortless on any and all genres.

Jeff Golub’s ‘The Vault” (2015, eOne) is a fitting tribute to the late, great guitarist and again I was delighted by the smooth yet punchy delivery of the UL/HD600 combo with Jazz/Rock

So far so good, but my tastes are as wide-ranging as a Bedouin with itchy feet – how would the Slee deal with some Death Metal?? Omnium Gatherum’s The Burning Cold is that rare beast, an extremely well mastered Metal album, and the UL didn’t break a sweat in rendering double bass drums and guitars with power and precision – hugely impressive considering the specifications give little clue as to the ability of the UL to deal with such demanding music.

Thankfully winter is well and truly with us here at the Southern Tip of Africa, and I need no further excuse to spend as much time indoors as possible bonding with the Ultra Linear, as I troll through my collection at random. It takes a bit of time to fully appreciate the effect of the Ultra Linear circuit. This amp DOES sound different to most other solid-state amps and the secret lies in its musicality – the ability to render a recording organically. No hint of the dreaded Digititis, unless your DAC is that way inclined…which it should not be! Plenty of great DACs out there these days for beer money.

Paired with my Resonessence Labs Concero the Ultra Linear seems to revel in having to work a bit harder to translate the 1.2V line output of the Canadian mini-marvel to ear-splitting levels on Marillion’s magnificent “All One Tonight (Live at the Royal Albert Hall)” in 24 bit 96kHz FLAC. The Solo just makes me want to turn the pot up a LITTLE bit more…Now sometimes that can be due to a lack of punch or energy in the music, or artificial detail, neither of which is the case here. It just sounds so damn excellent with the Audeze LCD2F at volumes higher than I might normally listen. It’s all about control, which allows for a neat segue…

What sets great amplifiers apart from the herd is control. Regardless of source or material a great amp just gets out of the way and lets the music arrive, unencumbered by distortion or artefact. You realise this after you look at your watch and you’ve been listening for 3 hours and could continue another three. At least. The Solo Ultra Linear facilitates this happy process unfailingly. It makes me want to get home and listen to music rather than watch TV – Cricket World Cup? Don’t even go there. Definitely rather find out what the Solo can do with some ultra-revealing DSD recordings.

Amber Rubarth is as good a test of vocal rendering ability as any, and I’ve never heard “Sessions in the 17th Ward” (2012, Chesky Records DSD128) sound quite this binaurally huge. Her voice can veer towards shrill to my ears on certain gear – not so with the Solo and Audeze planars. Also excellent with my AKG K612, soundstage for Africa (!) and a steely grip on the power-hungry Austrians.

Beyerdynamic DT990 Edition 600 Ohm? Spectacular headphone with the Slee, which tames the infamous chainsaw treble just a tad. Although that said, my battle-scarred aural appendages don’t hear much above 15kHz anyway and I LOVE the DT990 for that very reason. Few other headphones at any price deliver the visceral punch that the Beyers can with the right amplification. Budget they may be, but don’t let anyone tell you they are entry level. Technically excellent headphones, start and stop on a dime. A Metalhead’s dream. Big smile 

Much more listening to be done, apologies for the lengthy ramble but I got inspired to spew forth this stream of consciousness babble and just had to share. Great gear can do that...




Edited by capetownwatches - 27 Jun 2019 at 8:04pm
Solo Ultra Linear=Kingrex HQ1=NFB11.32=Little Dot Mkll=SRM252S=Benchmark DAC1 USB=RL Concero
LCD2F=HD600=SR207=DT990 600Ω=K612Pro A=K240S=K171Mkll=M4U2=Y50
RCF Ayra 5=Mogami/Sommer->Neutrik/Amphenol
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Fatmangolf Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 27 Jun 2019 at 9:32pm
Thanks Arie, that's quite a musical work out you've given you new headamp and a great write up of your findings. I hope you get some sleep tonight amongst the music and enjoy many years of happy listening.

Jon

Open mind and ears, whilst owning GSP Genera, Accession, Elevator EXP, Solo ULDE, Proprius amps, Cusat50 cables, Lautus digital cable, Spatia cables and links, and a Majestic DAC.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote capetownwatches Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 28 Jun 2019 at 5:39am
Sleep is for the weak...much rather get a few extra hours in with the Solo! 
It really is addictive, in the best possible sense of course. Wink

Thanks Jon, I was indeed very fortunate to find it, and based on what I hear I don't think this amp is fully burned in yet either. Yesterday it initially sounded as if the highs were not quite as smooth as they should be, but it settled after a few hours. I think there are still changes happening, but of course this could also be my ears or expectation bias playing a role. 

I don't know how much use the amp has had since the board upgrade, but according to the original owner, not much at all due to his tinnitis. I wish this on nobody, but his loss was my gain...Evil Smile


Edited by capetownwatches - 28 Jun 2019 at 5:44am
Solo Ultra Linear=Kingrex HQ1=NFB11.32=Little Dot Mkll=SRM252S=Benchmark DAC1 USB=RL Concero
LCD2F=HD600=SR207=DT990 600Ω=K612Pro A=K240S=K171Mkll=M4U2=Y50
RCF Ayra 5=Mogami/Sommer->Neutrik/Amphenol
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Pwog Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 10 Jul 2019 at 2:55pm
Thanks for the review Arie. I haven't listened seriously to music through headphones in years (other than at the gym). I have stayed away from the headphone section of the forum, as I haven't been interested, but now I may wander that way.
Paul
Acoustic Research ES-1, Ortofon 2M Bronze, Ayre C-5xemp disc player, Dynaco SCA-35 (updated), Dynaco ST-70 (updated and modified), Revel performa M20, Accession M, CuSat 50 interconnects
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote capetownwatches Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 10 Jul 2019 at 7:07pm
Be advised, it's a slippery slope but a highly rewarding one if you get hooked. 
My advice FWIW? Start with an Ultra Linear and you've reached endgame right there, no need to be mucking about in mid-fi purgatory. Thereafter add a decent source, headphones to taste and enjoy. Easy. 

Solo Ultra Linear=Kingrex HQ1=NFB11.32=Little Dot Mkll=SRM252S=Benchmark DAC1 USB=RL Concero
LCD2F=HD600=SR207=DT990 600Ω=K612Pro A=K240S=K171Mkll=M4U2=Y50
RCF Ayra 5=Mogami/Sommer->Neutrik/Amphenol
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Pwog Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 11 Jul 2019 at 2:57am
Thanks for the advice, Arie. I’m not ready yet, but whenI am, I’ll check the Solo Ultra out first.
Paul
Acoustic Research ES-1, Ortofon 2M Bronze, Ayre C-5xemp disc player, Dynaco SCA-35 (updated), Dynaco ST-70 (updated and modified), Revel performa M20, Accession M, CuSat 50 interconnects
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