Kenzie Encore Headphone Amplifier Review

The Kenzie Encore

Midrange Magic in a Box

$2,000 USD as configured

I must admit, this review is a little different for me.

I generally try to focus on lower or mid-priced gear that represents a value proposition — essentially, things that would interest other 23 year old freelancers on strict budgets — so I was a little trepidatious before my first call with ampsandsound founder Justin Weber, as a $2,000 USD tube amplifier is decidedly not what I would consider within my budget.

Weber spoke very thoughtfully about his attempts to keep costs down and consider ergonomics for those without the luxury of equipment racks and gobs of space or funds.

"The idea was that you could fit it on a bookshelf if you needed to," said Weber.

Photos courtesy of ampsandsound.

A quick survey of other small manufacturers of tube headphone amps revealed that many are similarly priced or sometimes even more expensive than ampsandsound Kenzie offerings.

Weber explained the Kenzie Encore as an attempt to tailor the design and feature set to the personal-audio community while improving sound quality over the base Kenzie.

It is designed as a classic Darling circuit topology using one 12SL7 input tube and two 1626 output tubes. Input impedance is a nominal 10K ohms and there is a choice of output impedances, with each Encore allowing two different impedance outputs ranging from eight all the way up to 600. I opted for 32-Ohm and 300-Ohm outputs and skipped the Input Transformer and Upgraded Capacitor options, which add $450 USD and $100 USD to the price respectively.

I was tickled when Weber told me that while the upgrades do make a difference, he recommends most people, "skip the caps, buy music." Definitely speaking my language.

The amp itself is rather industrial looking to my eyes: two single-ended 6.3mm jacks on the front, three tubes in the middle surrounded by four transformers and one pair each of inputs and pre-amp outputs on the back.

The build quality is nice and very sturdy, the wood is nicely finished, the metal plate is thick and engraved. The transformers add a ton of weight on one side, but everything fits very securely on the chassis without any wobble or looseness and it seems to support itself well. The ALPS volume pot moves smoothly and draws no overt attention to itself. Tube installation and removal is easy, and is not noticeably tight or loose. From the outside the Kenzie is a nicely assembled piece of gear, understated and totally functional.

The amp specs are a bit shy on output, about 200 milliWatts at 32-Ohms at 1kHz. As long as an amplifier provides plenty of current and drive, I’m not fussy about what the specifications say. I will make a note here that my general preference is for a fairly balanced, somewhat drier solid-state sound, with plenty of punch, and with a preference for a slight warm tilt over a slight bright tilt — a byproduct of working as a musician and mastering engineer.

I am open to and have purchased and used a wide variety of sound palettes and amplifier topologies however and consider myself open to a variety of presentations. Enough details though, let’s dive into the sound.

I’ll be clear about this upfront: the Kenzie Encore is not a neutral amplifier.

However, it is most certainly a high-end one. The tonal balance is quite midrange-forward, with bass that is softer and lower in balance and somewhat colored in the presence region and rolled off but sparkly with saturated highs. Unlike other tube amplifiers I have listened to, the coloration of the Kenzie was most obvious at the transition points between these three bands though. The midrange is actually quite clear and dynamic with snappy transient response. I was surprised by just how dynamic the Kenzie was, it never steers into overly rich or warm territory and as a result has a startling sense of stage depth and transparency — the "3D" effect as some people like to call it.

In fact, because of the rather subdued bass level, I found the Kenzie on certain headphones was a bit too dynamic for tastes, occasionally sounding a bit aggressive in sensitive presence and treble regions for my tastes. I know some people enjoy this very sharp transient sound however, so while not to my preference, it is not necessarily a downside.

The treble too has a really remarkable sense of air and presents music very naturally, giving it even a little soundstage enhancement. I felt that this effect was generally very pleasing, but it sometimes made aggressive or more compressed recordings sound a little deeper or airier than they really were. This is most likely an upside for most, and I will admit it made for pleasant listening on some poorly-produced recordings. However there were other recordings that did not fare so well. I found that some recordings I have that are a little dark had me reaching for the volume knob, only to find the midrange much too prominent, bordering on shouty.

A few examples of recordings I used, to illustrate these characteristics were Robert Randolph and the Family Band’s "Ain’t Nothing Wrong With That." This is a song with huge dynamic punch. The recording is heavily compressed, though not in a brickwall, chop off the transient peaks way, but in a tight, punchy rock and roll way, with some nice saturation and sparkle in the upper frequencies. The beauty and danger of this recording is that very punch — the midrange and upper-midrange energy between 500-3000Hz is enormous and with midrange-happy equipment quickly becomes shouty. Unfortunately, this was the case with the Kenzie, which added midrange and treble sparkle and saturation, but emphasized the aggressive midrange of the song too much. I found this a fatiguing combination. Unlike some tube amps which soften transients, the Kenzie makes them appear more aggressive in the midrange.

I ran into similar problems with other modern rock and hip hop tunes, such as Prince’s "FunkNRoll," which lacked the 28-32Hz bass fundamentals and sounded harsh in the midrange.

On the other hand, the music that played to the Kenzie’s strengths sounded phenomenal — older recordings or those with more muted transient energy were excellent. Melody Gardot’s “Morning Sun” and "Once I Was Loved" are mixed with a huge amount of presence in the vocal part. The overall album has an interesting, thick and dark sound to it however and most of the punchiness is in the 200Hz range. The Kenzie added a layer of 3D sound-staging depth and midrange and treble sweetness that colored the darkness of the album in a very pleasing way. The vocals went from intimate to spine-tingling in their transient clarity. In this case the Kenzie’s chosen coloration worked wonders — accentuating just the right bands of warmth and clarity to make the music spring to life.

I think the combination of my heavily-modded HD800 with the Kenzie is my favorite presentation of this album on headphones I’ve yet heard.

Other music that worked well was folk music, and some classical. The Goat Rodeo sessions between Yo-Yo Ma, Chris Thile, Edgar Meyer and Stuart Duncan is an album of bluegrass and classical crossover, with plenty of string plucking and a wonderful clarity and ambience. As it is an entirely a string band with some vocals, there’s little in the way of extreme-bass content and the Kenzie presented the music with a pleasing combination of warmth and clarity.

Likewise the Carolina Chocolate Drops sometimes bright cover of "Hit ‘em Up Style." Orchestral music from the likes of Austin Wintory’s Journey Soundtrack and Tellarc’s famous Jupiter rendition by Andre Previn, had sound-staging and midrange sweetness and warmth that played well to the Kenzie’s upper-midrange coloration in just the right ways.

By emphasizing that frequency band, and transients, the Kenzie took the music to a higher level of tactility, perceived transparency and depth.

Weber also suggested I would enjoy the preamp capabilities of the Kenzie, so I tested it in that capacity and in this use it behaves much like what you might expect of an all-tube gain stage. The sound is quite warm, with plenty of soundstage and a little softening and more rolloff at frequency extremes than when driving headphones. Speaking of headphones, I found the Kenzie a capable match for pretty much anything I plugged into it. I had far more gain and volume pot play than I would ever need with the HD800, Mr. Speakers Aeon, ZMF Ori and Beyerdynamic DT880 just to name a few.

In terms of ideal pairings, I feel that darker headphones like ZMF make for a response that is too colored for my tastes, although I know many enjoy using tube amps with these headphones. The DT880 benefitted a bit form the somewhat forward midrange, helping to enhance their sense of depth in that range, while taming a little of this headphones brightness in the 8-12kHz region. The Mr. Speakers Aeon had tremendous presence, though I found it occasionally harsh. This was a pairing that only worked sometimes for me, but when it did work it was phenomenal, the Kenzie helping to open up the slightly flat and clinical soundstage of the Aeons, and giving the illusion of greater detail and a slightly smoother frequency response.

I did the majority of my listening on my modified HD800 and found these to also be an excellent match for the Kenzie. The HD800 can be somewhat reserved in the upper-mids, even after modification, and the Kenzie helped bring some extra transient energy and presence, which worked well in my opinion.

As a side note, between the two different output taps, I preferred the lower impedance 32-Ohm tap on all the headphones I tried with this amplifier. The 300-Ohm tap seemed overly colored and muddy, even on higher-impedance headphones.

So there it is, the Kenzie is exuberant and somewhat forward in the midrange, with sharply defined transients, depth and a sort of sparkly-saturated upper midrange, and somewhat rolled off or at least subdued extreme bass and treble bands.

If your music tends toward older, duller recordings, or music with softer transient energy, the Kenzie brings a level of midrange magic and harmonic euphony that can make appropriately-matched recordings a joy to listen to. If my music choices consisted solely of bluegrass, old rock, quieter orchestral recording and the like, I would not hesitate to see this amplifier as an endgame purchase.

While my personal tastes are for a less colored, less aggressive presentation to the music, the Kenzie is an excellent amplifier. My philosophy on gear choice outside the studio setting is to pick things that match your music and make you happy. I certainly had many evenings of listening pleasure with the Kenzie, and as I surveyed other options in the high-end tube amplifier market, I had an interesting realization. While there are less expensive tube amplifiers, the Kenzie really plays with high-end tube amplifiers that I’ve heard from the likes of Eddie Current, DNA.

However most of those amplifiers are quite a bit more expensive and often very difficult to obtain, with long wait lists and some out of production completely. With this in mind, the level of quality on offer here is quite high. At $2,000 USD MSRP I don’t believe I can call it affordable, but I will say I think it is appropriately priced in relation to the rest of the market, and a fair bit less than some of the excellent competing amplifiers I mentioned.

On a pretty subjective note, I’ve listened to some popular $1,000 USD~$2,000 USD tube amplifiers out there and been unimpressed by the value proposition. Many are nice, few are as nice as I would hope for the price. With the Kenzie I never got that feeling, during my entire time with the product, I felt everything from build quality to sound quality was above average. Even though aspects of the amp do not fit my preferences, I feel these are the result of conscious design and manufacturing choices, and not deficiencies or quality issues. The Kenzie gets a thumbs up from me.

Recommended for anyone looking for an endgame tube amp with some midrange magic and transient mojo.

COMPANY INFO
ampsandsound
Dealer: The Source AV, 3035 Kashiwa St Torrance, CA 90505
Dealer: Deja Vu Audio South, 120 NW 25th Street, Suite 302 Miami, FL 33127
justinsweber@ampsandsound.com
1-323-868-9722

COMMENTS
bogdanb's picture

you should do a video review as well.

Grover Neville's picture

Have been thinking about this - I may do this if I feel a video would add something the written review can’t capture. This review has been in the queue for a bit though, so thats why it doesnt have a video.

Best,
Grover

Impulse's picture

I appreciate the review, and it did tell me more about the amp than a lot of reviews that lack more direct comparations (w/other amps), but I'd still like to see exactly that... Specially at $2K+ which isn't a totally unique a price point (or at least not as devoid of high value options as the gap between like $1-2K).

Grover Neville's picture

I was trying to be mindful of the length of the review, which is why it wasn’t mentioned extensively. Other choices that come to mind are the DNA amps which have less crystal clarity in the midrange but a much smoother, more linear and warner presentation. I’m not familiar with eddie current gear, but heard a Balancing Act once that sounded quite nice. Woo has smoother warmer amps too, but the sense of imaging, depth and soundstage is not as great as the kenzie. Less defined transients as well. Feliks is a more linear almost mini-DNA sound. Decware makes nice amps, not as aggressive as the Kenzie, but not as warm as woo.

Hope that helps!

Best,

Grover

Impulse's picture

Thanks for the added context, much appreciated.

Simply Nobody's picture

I would recommend looking into Rogue RH-5, Sreophile class A headphone amp/pre-amp $2500 ........ Tube/transistor hybrid ........... Very good "multi-tasker", can drive almost any headphone :-) ...........

ednaz's picture

Over on another audio site, a video only review generated dozens of requests to NOT do that again, including from me. Most of the people shared the same reason. Only so much time in the day, and we can read the text of a review many times faster than listening to a video. (Unless you're some kind of amazing fast talker...) Not to mention it's more discreet to read a review than to watch one. If you do video, don't do it to the exclusion of a text presentation, please.

As to the midrange emphasis you identify - I have a few friends who eagerly bought speakers that they absolutely loved in short in-store listening sessions, but that they eventually hated once listening the way (and for as much time as) one listens at home. That mid-range emphasis is seductive in short listening sessions, but in longer ones can really annoy. In a couple cases, that mid-range emphasis triggered headaches - so much fatigue that muscles tightened and throbbing head pain ensued. I had a set of speakers like that once, handed down to me from a brother who hardly listened to his system, and I remember headaches setting in around 40 minutes or so of listening.

I'm sure there are midrange forward components that won't fatigue, but I've seen enough that I'm very, very sensitized to the risks.

Grover Neville's picture

Thanks for the feedback.

Good video is much more logistically intensive. I don’t feel me sitting in my studio or bedroom doing a video (no matter the production quality) is really any more helpful than a written review. As I stated above, if it were to add something - for example if I was reviewing something with binaural recording capabilities I think a video demonstrating those capabilities would be useful. I cannot let you hear amplifiers or DACs in a video however, so to me regurgitating content in an different format doesn’t seem compelling to me. I also 100% agree with you and am annoyed that lots of great content nowadays is video only - its one of the few forma of media that is both passive and static: that is, can’t be sped up. (I guess you could fast forward but at that point the video is probably overly verbose)

On the topic of midrange heavy products, I don’t think it prevents a product from being excellent but certainly isn’t to my taste. I try to be as honest as possible without being overly harsh when writing reviews - there’s few things I find as boring as consistently overly positive or negative reviews.

Best,

Grover

MRC01's picture

This reminds of Pete Millett's Wheatfield HA-2, an OTL SET amp I used with my Sennheiser HD-580s about 20 years ago. Except, the HA-2 was about half the price of this amp, and it had a neutral frequency response. It had that gorgeous tubulicious sound that every audiophile should experience at least once, even if it's not everyone's cup of tea. The HD-800 is pretty hot from 5-7 kHz. I wonder if that influenced the reviewer's perception of this amp's non-neutral response. Or, does "highly modded" mean he has alleviated this quirk of the HD-800?

Grover Neville's picture

Inflation has risen more than double in two decades, which doesn’t mean that amp would necessarily be double now, but prices have risen as the dollar has devalued.

I have posted my mods of the HD800 on SBAF, just look for the “Fugly Mod” for details and measurements.

I noticed the characteristics of this amp translated to every headphone. It was not a 4-8khz emphasis, it was a 500-1500hz emphasis, and a small 2-3khz bump as well. The HD800 actually has a somewhat recessed upper midrange, unmodded as well, and the emphasis fairly clearly in that area. A listen on a pair of closed Mr. Speakers aeons confirmed this.

Skycyclepilot's picture

It's nice to read a review that considers affordability. I'm sure I am not alone when I say that I can't consider even $2,000 "affordable", although I'm sure plenty of your readers can. I hope InnerFidelity will do more reviews of truly affordable gear for those of us with champagne tastes and beer budgets. I'm also happy that you avoided all of the snake oil nonsense found in reviews of stuff that costs more than my home and car combined. I read stuff like that on the Stereophile website when I think my eye-roll muscles need exercising. :)

Thanks for keeping it real, and keep up the good work.

Grover Neville's picture

I was a bit self conscious about doing this review as $2K on a headphone is quite a significant chunk of money to me. I’m getting some manufacs asking me to do review of extremely expensive (none of that insane celebrity priced two channel stuff but expensive nonetheless) gear and I’d really like to move back to affordable gear and also music and some editorials! I am a recording engineer and musician/musicologist so I hope to bring interesting tidbits from those realism to innerfidelity, as ultimately a review can only go so far before you simply have to listen to a product. Whereas those other topics can certainly bring something new other than a simple thunbs up or down.

On the subject of good attainably priced gear, I own and like schiit gear. I don’t personally feel its appropriate for me to review schiit gear because I’ve done and continue to do some work for them, so take that with a big ‘ol horse-sized block of salt. It’s also impetus to seek out other good attainably priced gear from other companies - to do my homework as a reviewer basically! I think iFi has some nice gear, especially the black label stuff, and off course there’s a plethora of small makers and one man shops out there charging very reasonable prices!

Skycyclepilot's picture

I own a JDS Labs Element headphone amp, a pair of Oppo PM-3 headphones, which I bought refurbished, and a pair of HifiMan HE400i headphones, which were a gift. The amp and PM-3 headphones were major purchases for me, which should give you some idea of what I consider "barely affordable", and I'm sure others are in the same boat. Many of us would love to see you review items in that price range.

IgAK's picture

Glad to see others nixing vids, my vote too. I skip those as a waste of non-informative time myself, but what's with the artsy looking, but hard to see anything in, manufacturer supplied photos? They are not of the same unit. Cheshire cat transformers? 3...no...4...no, what's going on here? Look closely for only a few seconds and it's obvious they are different layouts. Better, more informative photos would have been a plus. Nice review with an open mind.

P.S. - The DNA can deliver quite a lot more with a bit of mod work, I've done it. The designer is not an audiophile (the - former - owner of the amp knows him - and it showed in the parts choices philosophy, albeit a good straightforward design).

Rafe Arnott's picture
Are supplied from ampsandsound website of the unit because no other photos were provided.
IgAK's picture

"manufacturer supplied photos", as above. But it does seem like everyone has a camera around nowadays, even if only in their phone. Oh, well, they are nice looking photos.

Rafe Arnott's picture
There will be proper photography for all reviews. This was one that had been left in the queue and needed to run, regardless of where the photos came from.
X