After I uploaded my review of the Phatlabs Sassy and Phantasy designer Eric Lin informed me of some new stuff he would be working on, one was an entry level headphone amp with an adapter power supply. It was going to be under new branding, Elemental, and named Watson (Sherlock fans?). It is an almost chassis-less Class A Valve/MOSFET Hybrid headphone amp and boasts some extraordinary specs for its low price of 259, whether you spend euros or dollars. The idea is that you will be hearing high-end performance when you close your eyes, even though it may not have the fancy housing and the big price tag when you open them.
Unpacking the simple brown cardboard box and removing the perspex covered circuit of the amp along with the provided wall wart is far from a special experience. There is nothing grand about it. Unlike with some more expensive products where it just seems they were lazy in packaging, it seems Elemental were purposefully withholding with the packaging so that they can keep the price low.
While the packaging may be sub-par even for the price, the specifications certainly are not. All stages of this amp are run in class A and it even features a dual mono circuitry. That means you have one NOS 6AK5 valve per channel which are used solely for the gain stage before we go to a class A MOSFET output stage, hence this amp is a hybrid. Tubes for gain, transistors for output. What they aim for with the tubes usage is that they provide a positive influence to the sound and the solid state part of the PCB just allows endless current. This is aimed to be the perfect combination and why you see this sort of design used in headphone specific amplification a lot. They have also put a lot of emphasis on their ability to remove the pop noise you may have encountered when powering other amps on and off, preventing an energy surge into your headphones that could potentially damage them.
Keeping on with the specs and in terms of numbers we don’t have too many but the few we can access are great. It is only one set of numbers that particularly stand out to me and that is the output power. 250mW per channel into 300 ohms (think Sennheiser HD800) and 2000mW per channel into 30 ohms (think some planar magnetics)! This is a very powerful amp, it is not messing around in the slightest. While power output is not the last say on performance by a long shot without it you can almost immediately write off driving certain headphones. This is often the case with cheaper, weaker desktop amps, even with balanced outputs. This has no such problems. It can drive anything in my collection and does so well, I mean very well, HD800s, ZMF Blackwoods, you name it! Perhaps a negative byproduct of such power and gain could be that you don’t get much use of the volume pot. I have yet to get it past 9 o clock and that is with harder to drive headphones. I think you would need some HiFiMAN HE-6 to even start to near 12 o clock. Elemental claim that they have adapted volume adjustment to a logarithmic scale and have integrated the gain of the amp and linear potentiometers but this just doesn’t prove to be the case in use. The power is great but gain could be reduced. It becomes even more of an issue with IEMs and low impedance portable cans.
Now while this is not an amp that wears it’s tubes on the top of the amp, the little clothing its circuitry does wear does a poor job of covering the orange glow of the 6AK5 valves (or the orange LEDs beneath the tubes). Of course, this is on purpose and it actually gives a refreshing appeal to what is a design based around cutting costs. We have 4 metal posts binding two clear plastic platforms. You can see straight down through the plastic from the sky but the bottom platform has a cardboard covering on the bottom. The actual PCB sits around an inch above the bottom layer. Then on the sides, you have some heatsinks which I was a bit confused as to their purpose since the heat has enough exit points with this being open air. Inside each of the 4 heatsinks is an op amp suspended in the air, The front two are LM371T voltage regulators and the back two are IRF630Ns.
Back to my train of thought about the 6AK5s ( an actual model that comes stock is the JAN-5654W) and these were designed by Bell Labs and Western Electric as intermediate frequency amplifiers for World War II radio systems. They were effective in this role because they had awesome high-frequency playback. This was one of the reasons Elemental chose this as the stock tube. The other reason was that there is an extensive range of equivalents that you can pick up cheap and start playing around with tube rolling. Something I have covered with products such as the Lampizator Lite 7 DAC and Tektron TK2A3. This means there are fine tuning options available with this amp and that really increases the fun and performance potential. You can even change the bias via little dials in front of the tubes socket!
While this is small its need for a power supply means it is a desktop-only product. You can move it around with ease as the amp has no weight but with it having barely any protection for its guts I would do with caution. While I have already said I see the nice side to the basic looks, I am a bit put out by the placement of its inputs and outputs. The 1/4 inch headphone outputs are smack on the front, slightly to the left of the moderately sized volume pot. Weirdly on its right though is the RCA inputs, meaning with it sitting next to my DAC, the RCA cables wind around the back and then to the front. It kills my OCD for cable management and generally looks a bit ugly. Why can’t they have been implemented on the back like every other amp I have ever owned. You also get a 3.5mm input with the amp. That is a nice touch because with its small size it makes a lovely system with a DAP or even a phone, which can sit comfortably on top of the amp. However, it is very easy to miss this input as it is tucked down on the right side next to the heat sink. It is labelled to be fair but is certainly stealthy. Oh and if you were already scratching your head as to why the RCAs were on the front, the power switch is on the back, meaning you have to perform a reach around whenever you switch this on/off. They really ought to switch the power and RCAs around.
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