Massdrop x Alex Cavalli Tube Hybrid Amp (CTH) Page 2



I love affordable audio gear when it's done right. Give me a DAC, amp, or headphone that performs beyond expectations for its price, and I'm a happy guy. Unfortunately that's easier said than done—keeping prices in line calls for clever design, careful parts selection, and knowing what to sacrifice—and what not to. It's one thing to build cost-no-object gear using the best components available, throwing money at a design until it can't help but sound good. It's quite another thing to make every dollar count.

The CTH is a great example of the latter. I'll cut right to the chase and say this amp is highly impressive. No qualifiers about "for the price" or anything like that—just impressive, period. I can't imagine any card-carrying audiophile who wouldn't enjoy the pants off this thing, regardless of what kind of expensive amps they normally use. Good sound is good sound.

My initial listening to the CTH was done with a simple Pono player, using the line-out via 1/8" to RCA cable. Jaw, meet floor.

The resulting sound made me question the value found in either of my reference systems. The CTH was resolving enough to do justice to the quirky Neil Young/Ayre Acoustics collaboration, and potent enough to bring practically any headphone to life. As someone who routinely listens on a stupidly priced rig, I have to admit the improvement gained is nowhere near the price differential. And if you can't enjoy great little systems like this, well, I'd have to question your motivation for this hobby in the first place.

The presentation is what I'd call neutral, but not dry or analytical, with a nicely open sound to it. I was particularly impressed with the amount of bass heft it brought out with the Sennheiser HD650 (or the Massdrop HD6XX... same thing). Reasonably priced cap-coupled designs tend to have indistinct or downright muddy low-end performance, but I'm hearing none of that with the CTH. If anything, it sounds very slightly warm and "wet" compared to most "just the facts" solid-state amps anywhere near this price. But I don't think it deviates too far from neutrality either. Again, the performance is way beyond what I expected for the price—even with my knowledge of how much value Massdrop typically brings.

This is not a syrupy, overly saccharine presentation, and those who assume tubes always sound that way will be surprised and/or disappointed. There's just a hint of warmth, but certainly not enough to make an HD650 sound overdone. Nor is there enough to transform an HD800 into a smooth operator if you don't care for the natural flavor of that headphone. No, the CTH tends to bring out the true character of whatever headphone you pair it with, perhaps adding just a touch of editorialization on the low end. Don't expect it to "fix" a headphone you don't like, as this isn't a tube-based tone control like so many affordable tube or hybrids designs out there.

While the CTH worked great with most headphones, I did find myself drawn to the higher impedance Sennheisers more often than any other option. The MrSpeakers Ether C was excellent as well, as was the Fostex TH-X00, but I kept going back to the sweetness of the HD650 and the resolution of the HD800 time after time. Interestingly, I don't know which one I preferred—when the HD800 was good, it was REALLY good, but the HD650 was more universally pleasing across a wider range of recordings. And doesn't that just sound like a good summary of the HD650/HD800 dichotomy as most folks hear it, even with far more expensive amplification? As I said, the CTH tends to bring out the true character of whatever you pair it with.

I got excited for tube rolling only to find myself coming full circle with the included Electro-Harmonix valve. It just flat-out sounded the best, compared to more than a half dozen others I tried. Many of them were new production models selling for more than the stock choice, and some did a few things I liked, but none had the overall performance of the stock glass. I even tried some vintage NOS tubes and still I found myself right back where I started. That's not to say there isn't any point to tube rolling—perhaps some undiscovered gem takes this amp to the next level. But, unlike most stock tube choices, I'd say the Massdrop folks picked a winner.

The closest competitor in my collection, at least in terms of pricing, is the Wall-of-Fame Arcam rHead. At $599, it goes for over twice as much as the Massdrop CTH. But don't read too much into that, as well-known brands such as Arcam sell via dealers for the usual markup. If the rHead was sold factory direct it would surely sell for a lot less, and the inverse is equally true if the CTH was sold through dealers. So that price difference really isn't as big a factor as one might initially think.

Anyway, the Arcam is one of my favorite amps for its excellent balance of neutrality and musicality. Interestingly, its more affordable competitor has many similarities. Both models are accurate, clean, and very resolving without being annoying about it. Both have engaging midrange presentations, with the Arcam being a little more forward and intimate. It has a more tightly focused soundstage, while the CTH feels more zoomed out and therefore more expansive. The biggest difference I hear is in the low-end. The Arcam is extremely tight and well controlled. So much so that it can feel a bit lean depending on the headphones involved. The CTH has no such trouble. While perhaps lacking a bit of texture and articulation (but only in comparison), the CTH gives a greater sense of body, and the result ends up feeling more weighty and substantial. Which is better? Depends on the circumstances. I could build a killer system out of either model.

Both amps work with almost any headphone out there. My prototype CTH doesn't pair as well with IEMs but that should hopefully be remedied in the production run. Both models have build-quality worthy of applause. Both look dapper in all black. I really have a hard time picking a winner, unless I judge based on price—then the CTH takes it without question.

So, what's the catch? Well, for starters, the CTH is strictly a basic headphone amp. No preamp outputs to control your active monitors, no gain adjustment switch, no XLR inputs or multiple RCA connections. Just a plain, straight forward singel-source amp, with no bells or whistles. That might not work for everyone. However, for $250, I'd say it was worth whatever sacrifice that might entail—you can probably make it work.

No, the real limitation here is availability. Massdrop only sells limited runs of their exclusive gear for a specific time frame, and then it's a waiting game. Those who made it in time must wait while the product is built—in this case, delivery is expected in late February next year. That's ages in twitchy audiophile years. Those who didn't jump in must wait until the next drop comes along. CEE TEE tells me they hope to have more openings going forward, so folks who didn't get on board the first time around will get another opportunity. But nothing is set in stone and I really don't know when that might take place.

Lastly, I've been swamped and didn't get this out as soon as I planned. At time of writing, there isn't much time left, and by the time you read this the first run might already be sold out. If that's the case, I recommend doing whatever it takes to make sure you get on board the next time around. The Massdrop x Cavalli Tube Hybrid is a gem, and it very much deserves a spot on our Wall of Fame.

Editors Note: The InnerFidelity Wall of Fame is only available for commercially available products. Because Massdrop products are not readily available they are excluded from positions on the WoF regardless of performance.


ab_ba's picture

Wow, thanks John! I'm glad I surfed over to InnerFidelity tonight. I've been curious about Cavalli for a while. What a great way to get an introduction to their sound.

geniekid's picture

Thanks for the info about the quality of the stock tubes, although I am a little curious what other tubes you tried.

Impulse's picture

As of this morning (day after the review went up) Massdrop still had like 200 of 1,000 max units/spots available. Guess it didn't generate quite as much buzz as an HD6XX or whatnot, tho it looks like just as much of a solid value.

AllanMarcus's picture

More of a solid hybrid value


Impulse's picture

From the vacuum of space.

Caligulove's picture

Note to UK people the Arcam rHead mentioned is £200 in most places now.

John Grandberg's picture

That's a steal of a deal, thanks for posting. I don't think Arcam promotes the rHead enough in the USA... it is hard to find online. Perhaps it can easily be found in brick 'n mortar stores.

buckchester's picture

I'm curious, are you able to reliably tell a difference between this amp and another in a blind test? Better yet, if using fairly efficient headphones that can be adequately powered by, say, an iphone or a macbook pro, e.g. Hifiman HE-400i, in a level-matched blind test, could you pick out this amp from the iphone or macbook pro? This should be the minimum standard required.

John Grandberg's picture

I've done my fair share of blind testing in the past. It sucks the life right out of you, makes you question your own sanity, and generally makes this "hobby" a lot less enjoyable (at least for that moment). It's also something I think everyone should try if at all possible.

I recommend reading Tyll's Big Sound 2015 series to get a bunch of good examples of folks doing blind testing, and how stressful/difficult it is. Ultimately, it CAN be done (see Roy's results). But it's a humbling experience that, for me anyway, reminds me to take great care in describing "night and day differences" or anything of the sort.

As for the CTH amplifier. Yes, I'm confident I could pick it out from an iPhone, just as I can pick it out from the solid state Arcam I compared it to. As the other fellow replied in another post, the HE400i benefits greatly from the extra juice provided by a dedicated amp, and that comparison in particular isn't really fair.

I wouldn't disparage anyone who couldn't tell the difference though - and I do think it's an acquired skill. Just like the Philips Golden Ear Challenge (sadly, now defunct) which at first seemed absolutely impossible. Eventually, I learned what to listen for, and success was attainable after much difficult (and not really very pleasant) work. I certainly wan't the only person to pull that off either.

pete111's picture

The HE-400i is not a "Fairly efficient" headphone. At 93 dB sensitivity, It's only efficient when compared to other planars. In fact I don't have experience with this articular amp (I do own the 400is), but the benefit of pretty much any dedicated amp compare to an apple device will be quite obvious, blindfolded or not.... We are talking about 50 time the power that the 3.5 mm output an apple device can provide. Personally I have a more portable solution than this but my he-400is certainly sounds dull and lifeless in my Iphone. In fact it can't drive them, no need for a blindfold to hear that. No bass, hearable distortion, sounds like 50$ headphones and need to be at max volume to get a decent level. If you where talking about IEM's your comment would have been relevent because it's not that obvious but really if you are talking planar headphones 100% of people will hear a major difference, no need to have trained ears, it will be obvious, and yes, I'm talking at matched levels.

buckchester's picture

The Hifiman HE-400i is an efficient headphone. Every review I've ever read agrees. I can play them quite loud with my iphone 6S. Likewise with my Macobook Pro. I also have a Schiit Asgard 2 and a Schiit Modi.

The reason why I purchased the Schiit products was because of reviews that said things like you are saying. But try as I may, I cannot notice any sound difference with them whatsoever. I would consider myself to be quite a keen listener and I would say that I really wanted to hear a difference.

My experience makes me believe that people who make comments like yours might think they hear a difference, but if they didn’t know which product they were listening to, they would have a much more difficult time telling them apart.

Science has proven how much our biases can influence our judgment. Blind testing is how all these reviews should be done. I’m disappointed that the author hasn’t answered my question on this.

pete111's picture

OK, well your 6s must be miles better than my Iphone 6 cause mine don't have enough power to drive my 400i. We will have to agree to disagree. With all respect "people that make comments like yours" is quite a generalization. I don't buy on snake oil statement myself, i, like you, believe than in a lot of cases our brain can trick ourself, and yes, I agree, this has been proven. Now where our expectations can cause a bias, which is absolutely correct, blind testing is not "The only" way to evaluate audio product. As an engineer myself, designing audio products, I rely on measurments more than anything. The distortion figure when you ask the tiny chip of an Iphone to supply current to drive the 400i is real whether you hear it or not. I can't speak of the the macbook pro, it's probably better. No offence right?

buckchester's picture

Thanks, Innerfidelity for deleting some of my comments. I see certain topics are taboo around here. That's unfortunate for everyone. Well, maybe not your advertisers.

John Grandberg's picture

I thought our exchange was perfectly civil, and certainly didn't delete anything. Tyll very rarely has anything to do with moderating unless things get way out of hand. And I don't see any deleted posts as I normally would for "unpublished" comments.... it's as if they were just never there in the first place.

Maybe a technical glitch? I don't know, but all comments after a certain date seem to have been erased. See the early comment from "scientist1" which is obviously negative but was not deleted - we don't usually moderate that way.

Junki's picture

Maybe I'm too new to know what's going on, but the trend I've seen on Innerfidelity is the reviewer mentioning something going on the Wall of Fame doesn't necessarily mean it goes onto the Wall of Fame. The CTH and the HIFIMAN Sundara are old and new examples of this.

John Grandberg's picture

...Tyll made the call that only regular-production models can make it to the WoF. Which makes sense considering we don't know when Massdrop will have the CTH in stock, or for how long. It might end up being a fairly limited run, or you might only be able to order it during small window. Not fair if people see it on the Wall and want to buy it, but can't actually do so.

I haven't checked on the Sundara situation though. Might just be that Tyll needs to find time to update the Wall.

flummox's picture

I realize this is an older review but I am trying to make the exact same comparison made in the review with one added wrinkle. I don't have access to both units and my current integrated amp is an Arcam A39. I'm wondering if the rHead will give me much more than the built in headphone circuit for the A39. Arcam UK's response: "The headphone stage in the A39 is very good but the rHead is better. I can't tell you if you will hear a difference because peoples hearing and ability to discern sounds varies but the rHead is a dedicated class A amplifier so on paper at least it is another sizable step up." Hmmm... on paper. Does the reviewer or anyone else have any thoughts about this? From the InnerFidelity review it seems possible that the CTR will give me a slightly different audio flavor (staging, bass) than either the A39 or the rHead. If soothes would give me an Arcam option and a CTR option. Would be interested in the reviewer's or anyone else's opinion.