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SKYLAB review of the ZENHEAD (Read 8372 times)
Steve Deckert

If the 1st watt
sucks why continue?

Posts: 3020
SKYLAB review of the ZENHEAD
04/27/08 at 00:10:16


If you're into headphones, you're probably well aware of Head-Fi.org - seems to be the largest place to go to find out and chat about headphones and related products.  Anyway, one of the more prominent members on their forum caught my attention one night was I was lurking through the posts.  He started reviewing a few different portable headphone amps with the intention to rate them from best to worse by developing a list, which he did. Soon many forum members started wondering how their portable headphone amps stacked up on the list so they asked him to review more.  It didn't take long for several manufactures to spot this growing list (myself included) and many of them asked him to review their products for inclusion on the list.  The list had grown to 25 portable headphone amps in no time.  

Understanding that this list encompasses the top 25 portable headphone amps in the world I decided to take a chance and see where the ZenHead would rate so I contacted Skylab by e-mail and asked him to review it.  

Here is a link to the original thread:


Below is a reprint on just the ZenHead from the review:

Headphoneus Supremus:
Reviewerus Prolificus

Join Date: Apr 2005
Location: Chicagoland
Posts: 7,212

I just added the following to the review:

> Decware ZenHead

DECWARE / High Fidelity Engineering Co.

I was asked by Decware, a maker of many high-end tube amps, to review their portable headphone amp, The ZenHead. When I received it, I was surprised about the size Ė itís BIG. Itís as big as the Lisa III. It uses a 9V battery, and has no charging facility. Like the Lisa III, itís really too big for many portable applications. Decwareís Steve Deckert said that he did not really try to keep the size down for the same reason that he didnít include a batter charging circuit Ė he was going purely for the best sound he could. Certainly a good goal. However, while in the case of the Lisa III I felt the superior sonics could justify the size, the Zenhead is merely a very good, competitive sounding amp, that is really big.

OK, OK, but how did it sound???? Well, very good. Overall, I felt that Decwareís main business of selling tube amps shows in how the amp is voiced. It sounds like many tube amps I have heard. As such, its sound is a little idiosyncratic. I struggled some with the normal ratings I give, in terms of capturing the essence of the amp. On some tracks it sounded fantastic; on others, merely good. It sounded SO different from the iQube, my reference amp, that I had to switch back and forth multiple times to get a handle on the ZenHeadís sound. It is slightly colored. But in a very pleasant way.

Build Quality: A: Pretty industrial, plain looking case, but very sturdy, and solidly built. No turn on/off thump. Totally silent also Ė no noise at ALL. No points for style, but none deducted for cheap plastics Ė itís all metal.

Treble: A-: Treble is quite clear. It does lack some top end air and extension, and is perhaps a tiny bit hot in the mid-treble.

Midrange: A-: Sometimes they were splendid, but sometimes they didnít sound quite right to me. Most of the time they had a certain presence I associate with tube amps, but occasionally that presence wasnít really serving the music and just sounded like a coloration.

Bass: A: The bass was excellent. Full, powerful, punchy. Lacked the very last bit of depth that the iQube has, but still truly excellent.

Neutrality: A-*: Well, it just isnít completely neutral sounding. Compared to the very, very neutral iQube, and also to the Meier 2Move, the ZenHead has character. Much of the time I really liked its character, but sometimes I didnít think it was adding helpful.

Soundstaging: A+: The ZenHead has non-defeatable crossfeed. I found that its soundstage was deep and wide, and truly palpable. It excelled here, even better than the 2Move with the Meier crossfeed on. If you are a soundstage freak, this amp is for you.

Transparency: A: This was kind of tough. There wasnít anything that made me feel the amp wasnít transparent. Neutrality and transparency are NOT the same thing. So even though the amp really wasnít neutral, I did think it was transparent sounding. Quite so, in fact.

HmmmmÖso what to make of the Zenhead? Well, it wonít be for everyone, but some people might think itís the best they ever heard. I didnít, but you might. For me, however, at its price and size especially, I think it will warrant a careful listen for the prospective buyer.

Conclusions (4/25/08)

OK, so now itís now 39 amps! Here is my view on how the amps stacked up. Note that the sum of the "Grades" I give does not always tell the whole story in how I rank them, since the whole is sometimes greater or lesser than the sum of the parts, and I am often forced to split hairs here, since the list has gotten so long. Also please note that even if these amps include a DAC, that DAC performance was NOT a factor in these rankings AT ALL. Also, for clarification, this ranking is based on sound quality ONLY, and does not take things like size or battery life into account.

1. Triad Audio Lisa III
2. Qables iQube
2. Headamp Pico
2. Larocco Audio Pocket Reference II mk 2 (availability unknown - PLEASE read entire review)
2. Meier Audio 2MOVE (and the older MOVE)
3. RSA SR71
3. RSA The Predator
4. RSA The Hornet ďMĒ
5. Xenos 1HA-EPC (discontinued)
6. RSA Tomahawk
6. Meier Audio XXS / Headsix
7. TTVJ Portable Millet Hybrid
7. Decware Zenhead
8. Xin Reference
8. Meier Audio Porta Corda III (discontinued)
8. Xin SuperMicro IV (current version auditioned 1/22/08)
9. Headamp AE-2
10. Go-Vibe 7
10. Mini3
11. Leckerton Audio UHA-3
12. Portaphile V2^2
13. mSeed Spirit (discontinued)
14. Mini-Box E
14. Storm B4
15. iBasso P-1 (discontinued)
16. Visely HEA- 1
17. Microshar uAmp107
18. Practical Devices XM4
18. C&C XO
18. iBasso T2
19. Go-Vibe 6 (discontinued)
20. Xtra X-1 Pro
21. Xenos 0HA-REP (discontinued)
21. iBasso T1 (discontinued)
22. Xtra X-1 (discontinued)
23. C&C Box V2
24. Storm B3
25. Little Dot Micro+ (discontinued)

As always, this is JUST MY OPINION, but I hope it has been helpful.
Team Go-U-Northwestern
Pics: Main Home Rig; Other Home Rig; Office Rig; Portable Rig;
Headphones: Headphile Deep-Cup Darth Beyers V3; Beyerdynamic DT990/600 (Custom 05/06); Denon AH D5000; JVC HP-DX1000; S2 Audio Strawberry Donuts (woody-modded Yamaha YH-100 Orthodynamics), recabled Ultrasone HFI-780; Shure E500; Audio Technica ATH-ANC7, ATH-ESW9
Home amps: Darkvoice 337 (JAN-Chatham 6AS7G + JAN-Phillips 6SJ7WGT); Singlepower Extreme (Tung-Sol 5998's + Mullard ECC32); Ming-Da MC84-C 07 (RCA 6BQ5 + Command 5751); WooAudio 3 (Amperex 6AS7G + 6DJ8); Blue Circle Audio SBH; Travagan's White;
Portable Amps: Meier Audio 2Move, XXS; Quables iQube
Sources: iPod 4G 60GB & 5.5 80GB (Apple Lossless) w/ Red Wine Audio iMod line outs & ALO VCap dock; iPod Classic 160GB; Sony SCD-555ES SACD player; Denon DP59L table + Benz Micro Wood L2 cartridge> Simaudio Moon LP 5.3 Phono Preamp
Loudspeaker system: Krell KAV250 Preamp>Sunfire Signature II Power amp>B&W Nautilus 800 Signatures
Tube testers: B&K Dyna-quick 650; EMC 213
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« Last Edit: 04/27/08 at 00:18:09 by Steve Deckert »  
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Re: SKYLAB review of the ZENHEAD
Reply #1 - 04/28/08 at 16:08:08

congrats steve, thats a great result against the rest of the world. and might get better as more 'tube heads' try it.

"It sounds like many tube amps I have heard."

mission accomplished. Cheesy
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« Last Edit: 04/28/08 at 16:19:05 by 60_and_up »  
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