Amplifiers

AURALiC Taurus MKII Headphone Amplifier

A TONEAudio World Premier!

Many great bands and product designers have suffered the “sophomore slump,” stumbling after producing a great product or releasing a great album, with the follow-up never meeting the promise of the debut. The new, updated version of AURALiC’s premier headphone amplifier easily breaks through that barrier, building on the strengths of the original while adding significant upgrades throughout. The result is an incredibly liquid, musical headphone amplifier that will have you shaking your head, wondering if there really isn’t a vacuum tube or two under the hood.

Seriously, there isn’t. In the famed tradition of Mark Levinson, the Taurus features discrete Class-A gain and buffer stages that contribute heavily to the high dynamic range and low-noise sound of the Taurus MKII. A quick listen of the clunky piano on the White Stripes’ “Forever for Her (Is Over For Me)” reveals the immediacy that the Taurus can muster, responding to Jack White’s spastic playing with ease and painting a broad sonic picture of this fairly dense recording.

Switching program material to the jazzier side, with Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil, the clarity and high-frequency smoothness of the Taurus makes it easy to listen to the whole album straight through. An edgier setup usually leads to bouts of audio ADD, but the Taurus lets me listen to album after album without glare or fatigue—and that is a wonderful thing.

The Taurus does not have the last bit of “reach out and touch it” that my reference ALO Studio Six does, thanks to its all vacuum-tube design, but the AURALiC does come damn close. And it is stunning in its own way, both for a solid-state design and for its much lower price tag of $1,899, compared to $4,900 for the ALO.

Inner and Outer Beauty

This solid-state design will appeal to those more predisposed to plug-and-play components. You’ll never have to replace tubes (or agonize over tube rolling). The Taurus is also tidy and compact, and it looks great in any setup. Those wanting an all-AURALiC high-performance headphone system would do well to consider the brand’s Vega digital audio processor. The Vega is equally impressive and matching in form factor. (We have a full review in process.)

I’ve been living with the AURALiC gear for a while now, and it’s purposeful, tidy appearance and high build quality brings Nagra to mind. The front panel is finely machined, with a semi-spherical volume control that feels as luxuriously damped as it looks. With so many new manufacturers missing this aspect of product design, it is refreshing to use a component that has such a pleasing aesthetic.

Around back is an equally concise layout, with balanced XLR and single ended RCA inputs and outputs—a nice touch that provides maximum flexibility. Listening duties were split between AURALiC’s own Vega digital processor, the Light Harmonic Da Vinci DAC and an AVID Volvere SP turntable with SME V tonearm and Lyra Kleos cartridge, via the Audio Research REF Phono 2SE.

Quickly Down to Business

Break-in time for the Taurus is brief. Slightly closed in at initial turn on, our test sample sounds its best after about two days of continuous play. As the Taurus’ power consumption is minimal, you can leave it on without suffering any eco-guilt.

Once the unit is fully stable, it provides a high-resolution, no-nonsense sound. Again, the comparison to the Studio Six comes to mind. Where the ALO amplifier offers a presentation that is ever so slightly on the warm side (never a bad thing in this reviewer’s notebook), much like my reference Pass monoblocks, the Taurus is slightly more natural, more like a Boulder component. The amps will appeal to different listeners for different reasons.

The Taurus gets high praise for having both single-ended and balanced outputs on the front panel, but even more for its ability to drive a wide range of headphones. This is one of the few amplifiers we’ve auditioned that can do this with ease.

For those not familiar with the HiFi MAN HE-6 headphones, they are a planar style with a difficult impedance curve—a tough load that most headphone amplifiers make sound mushy and uncontrolled when trying to drive them. The Taurus sails through, with its high-current, Class-A output stage providing enough grip and delicacy to showcase these premier phones at their finest. The Taurus even beats the HiFi MAN amplifier designed specifically for the HE-6 at its own game, revealing more music and a smoother, more delicate and more nuanced presentation.

Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine is full of small instrumental vocal effects and layered harmonies that put any system to the test, whether headphones or speakers are delivering the music. The title track is littered with violin and percussion riffs, all layered behind and in front of Apple’s quirky, breathy voice. The Taurus keeps everything locked in place with the proper amount of space and texture. The bell at the end of the track rings with perfect clarity, making any pair of headphones feel much larger than they are—a very cool effect, and one of the reasons many of us appreciate the presentation of a great pair of headphones via a high-performance amplifier.

Running the Gamut

Equally great results are on tap with all the other phones in my collection; there is nothing that the Taurus can’t drive with aplomb, making it a perfect reference amplifier for those with a large headphone collection (or for those considering expanding their current collection). My other reference phones, the Audeze LCD2s, work equally well with the Taurus, serving up a massive inner-head soundstage, with sound floating all around my head in a pleasantly trippy manner. Joni Mitchell’s “Talk to Me,” from the Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter album, illustrates this effect perfectly. Jaco Pastorius’ fluid bass line is firmly anchored, sounding as if emanating straight out of my cerebral cortex, while Mitchell’s vocals float in front of my head, with her guitar sounding otherworldly and mind-expanding.

While many headphone fanatics swear by balanced operation, and the Taurus offers it (thoughtfully, I might add), the single-ended performance is so good that I struggle to hear a major difference—which proves to be more dependent on the headphones being used. The Sennhieser HD 650s (recabled by ALO Audio) show the most marked change for the better of anything else tried here, so the balanced option is definitely worth investigation.

It is also worth mentioning that, because of its high output (1 watt into a 600-ohm load and 4.3 watts into 32 ohms), there is always plenty of headroom on tap, regardless of what phones you are using. And we should also make the necessary public service announcement about watching the volume control: With this much clean power on tap, it’s easy to overdrive your ears.

The key to the Taurus’ excellence is balance. This amplifier delivers the full range of sound at a high level of quality. It offers enough low-frequency drive to keep the biggest bassheads happy, with mids that are silky smooth (though not embellished) and with a high-frequency response that is extended and detailed but that never crosses into harsh, strained territory.

Not to Trivialize Tech

The Taurus is equally gorgeous under the hood. Removing the top panel reveals high-quality parts, thick circuit boards that are concisely laid out and a massive power supply that would look more at home in a modestly sized power amplifier than in a headphone amplifier. The Class-A modules feature massive heat sinks to stay within their proper operating temperature. Nothing has been scrimped on in the least.

All this science serves the music quite well. It will only take a short test drive to not only convince you what a great product this is, but to also get you to forget about what’s inside the box—as it should be. And for this, we are happy to present AURALiC with an Exceptional Value Award for this remarkable headphone amp.  -Jeff Dorgay

Taurus MKII Headphone Amplifier

MSRP:  $1,895

www.auralic.com

Peripherals

Digital Source AURALiC Vega digital processor    Light Harmonic Da Vinci DAC   Meridian Control 15    Aurender S10
Analog Source AVID Volvere SP turntable    SME V tonearm    Lyra Kleos cartridge   Audio Research REF Phono 2SE preamplifier
Headphones Audeze LCD2 and LCD3    HiFiMAN HE-6 and HE-400    Sennheiser HD 414, HD 650, HD 700 and HD 800    Grado GS500    AKG K 701
Cable Cardas Clear
Power Running Springs Dmitri