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First look: Cypher Labs Prautes Headphone Amp

As the headphone craze continues to gain momentum, there are a rash of new and varied headphone amplifiers available, with budget to sky’s-the-limit pricetags.

At the upper end of the scale, Cypher Labs new Prautes hits the market at $3,900, catering to the mega enthusiast. Nope, this probably won’t be your first headphone amplifier, but chances are it could certainly be your last.

We managed to get our hands on one for a few days right before the Munich High End Show, and ran it through its paces with a handful of headphones, including the HiFi Man HE-6, the Audeze LCD-3 and the new OPPO PM-1s – some of the hottest high end phones going.  Hard core headphone enthusiasts know how tough the HE-6 can be to drive, so this was the first test combination. The Prautes passed with flying colors, providing more than enough drive to make your ears bleed.  Everything else was gravy, and the OPPO PM-1s, the easiest of the lot to drive, being the most efficient of the group.

The highly textured beginning of Matthew Sweet’s “You Don’t Love Me,” puts Sweets vocal way out in front of the soundfield, feeling as if it’s almost coming from the speakers in my listening room, instead of the cans on my head.  A similar effect is had with Elvis Costello on the Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me soundtrack.  Spinning the Burt Bacherach classic, “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again,”  this amplifier is a master of rendering musical texture and inner detail.  That’s what separates the thousand dollar headphone amplifiers from the four thousand dollar ones.

What’s in a name?

Many manufacturers name their products after their wives, girlfriends, and kids (ugh).  We’re not far off here, going to the ancient Greeks for a word that means “a character where strength and gentleness are perfectly combined.”  For those of you that feel less whimsical about your amplification, suffice to say that being an all vacuum tube design, the Prautes serves up a tremendous amount of resolution without ever being harsh.

Designed by Damon Coffman of Coffman Labs, the Prautes has a similar sonic character of their G1-A preamplifier, which is still a reference component here at TONEAudio.  Utilizing 50L6 (vintage NOS RCA) and 12AU7 (vintage NOS Sylvania) tubes, along with a combination of new and old stock capacitors and resistors, the end result is nuanced, like the world’s finest tube gear, yet never slow and veiled as some vintage gear can come across.  And to his credit, the Prautes won’t be expensive to re-tube when the day comes. Damon Coffman always manages to hit a perfect balance between the two realms and he succeeds brilliantly again with the Prautes.

What makes it cool?

You’ll either love the styling of the custom casework, built in Coffman’s home town of Portland, Oregon.  This writer is in the love category and the new, updated (from the G1-A) tube shields are a masterpiece of modern industrial design, yet totally functional.

But for almost four grand, you want more than just aesthetic purity, and the Prautes delivers in spades.  Much of this is in it’s ability to be fine tuned to your headphones.  With impedance settings for low, medium and high impedance designs, allowing perfect power transfer between the amplifier and your phones.  A good impedance match also makes for the best possible frequency response too.  Going through the gamut of planar phones, on to dynamic phones from Sennheiser, Grado and AKG, the Prautes continues to impress, via standard and balanced connections.  If the impedance selector wasn’t enough, there is a “bass boost” switch, with six positions, that slightly shelves up the LF response.  The best thing about this control is the subtlety at which it works.  Most of the time, you’ll probably need it, but when listening to a notoriously thin recording like Todd Rundgren’s Something, Anything, it really comes in handy. Worked pretty well fleshing out the bottom end of KISS, Alive! too.

If you happen to be a high efficiency speaker fan, the Prautes incorporates a pair of speaker output posts on the rear panel, and works well with high efficiency speakers, or even modestly efficient speakers in a desktop situation.  Combining them with the awesome little Blumenstein Audio Orcas on my desktop was a wonderful combination when you crave a bigger auditory space than just a pair of headphones. On one level, the Prautes/Orca marriage felt like having a superhuman pair of headphones on. The single driver Orcas reveal so much information, they are a perfect match for the Prautes on your desktop.

Equally exciting results were obtained with a pair of Zu Audio Soul speakers, which have a sensitivity of over 100db/1 watt.  Even when cranking some of the new Zeppelin remasters, the power of the Prautes had enough juice to keep the pace in a modest size room.

If that’s not enough
The Prautes features a pair of line outputs, so you can use it as a preamplifier.  Compared to a few other things we’ve heard in this price range, the Prautes is good enough to stand its ground with any $4,000 linestage you might come across, and the headphone amp is a bonus. While you’ll probably buy it as a top of the line headphone amplifier, it’s nice to know that you can press it into service should your system requirements expand in the future.

Pairing it up with power amplifiers from Pass, Simaudio and Burmester all provided highly convincing results, even using adaptors to interface with the balanced inputs on the Burmester 911 mk.3 ($32,000). Driving a system consisting of the dCS Vivaldi (reviewed in issue #63) and the Dynaudio Evidence Platinum speakers ($85,000/pair, reviewed in issue #64) the Prautes holds its own, working the same magic in my reference system as it does with a pair of headphones on.

Do you need one?

In my opinion, if you’re going to do something, do it all the way.  If you love personal audio and you want everything your phones are capable of delivering, put the Prautes on your must have list.   We’ll be doing a little more in-depth listening in the months to come and report back, but for now, it’s a provisional winner.  And worth every penny.