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Reviewer: David Abramson
Source: Rega Jupiter; Panasonic SL-CT470
Preamp/Integrated: Creek OBH-11
Headphones: Grado RS-60, Sennheiser HD600, AKG 501
Interconnects: Argent Audio Pursang
Review Component Retail: $369 Emotion +; $200 Cute

What's in a name? Two headphone amplifiers attempt to live up to theirs.
"You look like a space cadet," said my girlfriend when first she saw me decked out in Sennheiser HD600s in Critical Listening Mode (CLM). Yep, she walked into the open apartment and caught me in full geek - I mean reviewer mode (boxer shorts and a navy SEALS T), smiling away to the unearthly buoyant dreamery of Kathy Battle's spiritual music CD, Grace. Unselfishly, I pulled the cans off and handed them to her as she sat on the couch. "Try 'em out. I'm listening to this little headphone amp called the Emotion from a company called... aw, just try it out. It's Kathleen Battle. Here." I gave her the space cadet Sennheisers.

After a minute or two of listening she said, in that much too loud a voice that all infrequent headphone listeners affect wearing headphones: "I like those better." She was pointing to my Audio Physic Virgos. "Yeah," she said, stripping off the Senns, "those are better."

Okay, so headphones aren't for everyone. Maybe they're not for you. Well, they're definitely not for my girlfriend. (Though naturally, she does have an iPod). But if headphones are for you -- or at least if they're for you some of the time -- I've got a couple of little dandies here that do a good job of living up to their respective names. Read on.

A river runs through it - well, a Creek anyway.
I've had my Creek OBH-11 headphone amp for God knows how long now. I must've bought and sold tons of CD players and speakers in the last 10 years but that ol' Creek has stood by my side through thick and thin. I did have a brief flirtation with a Headroom Home for a time, a loaner from an audiophile friend of my dad's. It was definitely a step above the creak in terms of resolution and, most saliently as I recall, tonal beauty but I certainly couldn't justify so relatively extravagant an expenditure for a piece of equipment I use only occasionally. That same guy also lent me a pair of entry-level Staxes at the time and I remember savoring their pristine clarity late in to the night. However, I also recall the Headroom Home in combo with the Sennheisers getting pretty darn close in the domain of clarity and in certain respects such as overall listenability, pleasing me more.

I remember thinking that, as with loudspeakers, electrostats certainly do electrostaty things surpassingly well (such as the aforementioned pristine clarity) and in general, do certain things like macrodynamics/punch less well. As I think I've mentioned in the past, there is also such a thing as too much resolution for me. Our editor has written about the pursuit of said resolution at length and this sort of HiFi electron microscopy always serves to make me more aware of the recording process and technology involved and less aware of the musical event. I feel less able to suspend disbelief. I think that was one of the things I did not like about the Staxes. But memory is fading...

Back to the future - or at long last, the present.
While the Creek is musical and fun, not to mention built like an M1 Abrams, there has always been a frisson of mechanicalness to the sound, a certain hardness that'll pull you out of a moment of bliss with Renee Fleming and lets you know you haven't really died and gone to heaven. It's as if the Creek was saying "Hey, for 199 bucks you can stay up there for a bit but no loitering." Maybe if I got the upgraded power supply?

Anyway, the Creek certainly nipped at the heels of the Headroom Home (not as resolved and simultaneously inviting as the Home) and even sent its more closely priced competition, the Musical Fidelity X-Cans (I forget the version - somewhere between the 2nd and the 8th) back to Audio Advisor for a refund. Yes, there's decidedly a bit of sand in the Creek's tone and a more-than-occasional edge to things but all in all, it's a splendidly musical performer for the money. Did I mention it's solidly built?

I second that E-motion.
Burnished. And I'm not just talking about the satiny smooth finish of the Blueberry Audio Emotion headphone amp. No, I'm talking about the tone. I could listen to this baby for hours, the golden heft of Domingo's tone on "Jes Crois Entendre Cor" or the spun legato, equally rich, of his "Il Mio Tesoro" (both from The Young Domingo on RCA). The Blueberry Audio Emotion seconded that emotion again and again, pulling me in and letting my shoulders relax at the end of the day. I never ever felt a flinch come on just before a big Anna Netrebko high note or a Furtwängler orchestral crescendo.

That its designer clearly understands string tone and music in general are readily apparent. In fact, two of the first words that came to mind listening to the Emotion were organic and dense. There is a certain flow this piece allows my music to have, a certain bit of rosiny richness that's justly satisfying. It doesn't go over the top into tubey mush-ville but definitely sprinkles a bit of sugar (okay, Splenda) on the proceedings and makes the medicine go down in the most delightful way.

As a point of comparison, I owned an Earmax triode headphone amp for a time and the Emotion is not one of these. It is not as triode-syrupy as that elegant hot little powder puff was. That little triode confection was just a touch too sugary for my tastes. One likes a little honey at times but not every day. No one gets sick and tired of water.

The Emotion may not be the last word in resolution or even the penultimate or even whatever expression comes before that. It is not the most dynamic head amp at its price either, with the Creek and maybe even the Cute a whisker more so at least with regard to macrodynamics. And if you go up into the nosebleed priced head amps that are the exclusive purview of the super-lucky (read: our editor) and Bill Gatesians - well, I'll bet it isn't as refined as any of those. But it is intensely musical, big sounding, possessed of a beautiful burnished tone and has a satiny-smooth wood finish to boot. By the way, it can also get up and dance when it needs to, all the while maintaining that big, sweet and punchy sound. So like the Jewish Deli guy says, for $369 you want more?

Don't get cute with me!
I certainly hope you've been brushing up on your Japanese or Mandarin to understand what in Sam Hill the Cute website is describing. All you really need to know about the externals of this eager-to-please little amp are three things:

  1. It comes in a rainbow of anodized colors (my sample was red)
  2. It has a positively bright, star-wars-defense blue LED which certainly needs toning down
  3. It is very extremely -- and may I add highly -- cute.

So the Cute very definitely lives up to its name. As if the amp itself though weren't cute enough, it comes accompanied by an equally bijou power supply as small and charming as a three-year-old's first necklace. Yep, the whole damn thing just smacks of cuteness. In fact, I ended up preferring both it and the Emotion to my Creek but more on that in a bit.

Not as tonally endowed as the Emotion nor as big and ballsy as the Creek, the Cute occupied a midpoint between the organic beauty of the Emotion and the Creek's edge and dynamics. It had a fairly even-handed delivery with a particular penchant for dynamic swings. You wouldn't think it looking at it but in its price range, this baby can let a chorus explode and punch out Moby tunes with the best. The Creek might have had an edge here but only just. Tonality was generally excellent, with perhaps the merest bit of hardening now and again but I definitely preferred its tonality to the Creek.

The Cute is also exceedingly well built and ergonomically delightful. Of the three amps, I enjoyed interfacing with the Cute the most. Small and easily portable room to room, fast to come on song from cold and featuring a non-
stepped gain control buttery smooth in operation, the little Cute was a joy to use. The Emotion also has a non-stepped gain control but lacked the quality feel of the Cute's. Think of the elegance of Copland and Cello gear. That'll give you a sense of the feel of twiddling the Cute's control knob. Can you tell I really dig my knobs?

Of note, the Cute is simply too cute for the standard 1/4" headphone plug and only accepts the smaller 1/8" one. Since most audiophile headphones come with an easily removable adaptor for just such a situation, this bit of idiosyncrasy shouldn't present a problem.

Three amps enter, one amp leaves. Let's get it on!
The squared circle. A steel cage death match. Mano a mano a mano. 3 tracks of music representing different genres of music, all of equal artistic merit. Yours truly sitting in a seat switching interconnects (with locking RCAs that are a bitch to use) from one amp to another maniacally for an hour. That's right. Initial impressions aside, it's time to find out what these amps really sound like. So who takes it?

First up was a track from one of my all-time favorite CDs, King of the High Cs starring none other than super-tenor Luciano Pavarotti when he actually was the greatest tenor in the entire world. I chose "A Te, O Cara", a complex, multi-layered and supremely gorgeous piece from act one of Bellini's impossible-to-sing I Puritani in order to try and lay some legato smack down on these little amps. Once again, the Emotion+ was at the fore in the conveyance of - emotion. It was the musically most involving of the three, with the most natural string tone. It went down deeper and conveyed a grander sense of scale than the Cute though, owing to its slightly lower resolution, the Cute was also easier to listen to overall on this less-than-flawless recording. The Creek did very well. I'll say it again; the Creek did very well. I kept thinking that throughout
these tracks and maybe that was the problem. Every time I listened to the Creek, I did a bit too much thinking about how nice a value the Creek was and not enough connecting to the artists. With the Emotion+ and the Cute, I did more connecting than thinking.

Track 2 was pretty Katie Melua's "Closest Thing to Crazy" from her multi-platinum album Call Off the Search and it's a beautiful example of the singer/songwriter's art and craft. Well, lots of Brits seem to think so anyway. I happen to think she's pretty good too and our readers need to know about some goings on abroad. That, plus the CD was already out sans jewel case atop my Rega. First up was the Emotion+. There was a delightful delicacy to the guitar and pianissimo piano tinkling that precedes the vocals and the song was lent a weighty underpinning throughout by the solidly reproduced bass line. The Emotion+ laid Katie's soul bare between my ears and suddenly, I seemed to want to switch to the next amp less. Or it could've just been that I didn't want to disconnect the damned locking RCAs again.

In any case, the Emotion+ also let me know that this album's production was a touch electronicky, with synth strings and a clearly artificial reverb added. There was also ssssibilance. Now prior listening leads me to believe much of this sibilance was probably on the recording to begin with but the Emotion+ might have been emphasizing it a touch as well. In any case, the Emotion+ made a moving case for this delicate ballad.

The Cute was also moving with this piece though not quite as involving as the Emotion+. It too let the delicate instrumental intro flow gracefully into my head through the Senns, though it was apparent there were slightly less bass and slightly less resolution. Interestingly though, Katie's voice seemed to be more dynamic, jumping out more readily from the mix with crescendos.

In fact, this was a phenomenon I noted again and again with the Cute. I don't know whether this was the result of the battery power but I sometimes had to turn down the volume owing to the Cute's ability to track broad dynamic swings particularly with vocals. Watch out on those Pavarotti high Cs! This despite the fact that generally, the Emotion+ was the more broad-shouldered sounding and punchy of the two. Go figure. Moving along, the Creek sounded very good on this track; very good, but without quite the same sense of grace and flow the other two contenders had. It was just maybe a hair more artificial sounding - a bit less human. These differences were not grand but they were enough.

On track 3, Wilco's "Jesus, etc." from that perennial CES counter-culture fave, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the Creek sounded -- all together now -- "very good on this track", punchy, even and somehow ever so slightly mechanical. The Emotion+ showed a clean set of heels to the other two amps on this track. It simply made my toes tap more (PRaT alert!) and had more impact with rim shots and bass. Again, the Cute proved balanced, dynamic and slightly less resolved. It was also slightly less involving, with decidedly less PraT, though it again displayed its idiosyncratic superiority at portraying vocal dynamics

The rarely performed (and often dangerous) LoFi test
I know what you're thinking. I'll never do it again. Please don't write in canceling your subscription. But first let me tell you about an interesting night I had on-call in the hospital where I work. It was a call night like any other - blood, guts, glory, sirens wailing, hot women in too-tight scrubs bent over in an exaggerated fashion doing incorrect CPR and mispronouncing medical terms. No, that's ER on TV. Well, TV version notwithstanding, real call nights, at least in psychiatry (and frequently in surgery too), are quite often boring and more often than not taken up with nursing calls wanting either Tylenol or Motrin for someone who could easily get those himself at the local Walmart without a physician's authorization provided he or she were not locked up in a psych hospital. So what's a beaten-down resident to do? Portable audio reviewing!

I quickly and carefully bubble-wrapped my Cute and Emotion and headed toward Tylenol-land and another sunny weekend in a tastelessly decorated, boxy and windowless room. I couldn't well bring my Rega CDP to work (they might commit me!) so I brought my trusty Panasonic SL-CT470 (a cheap portable CD player) and a few discs of Richter, tenor Juan Diego Florez, The Young Domingo - my usual suspects. In an effort to dumb down the resolution a tad to reduce the Dentist's Drill Effect (DDE) LoFi is capable of, I used my Grado SR-60s for this call-night communion. They're also more portable than the Senns.

So how did the head amps, and by extension my music and sanity, fare when fronted by my SL-CT470? Well, not great. But I learned a few things in the process I'm willing
to share. The first thing I learned was that either of these headphone amps was a lot more enjoyable to listen to than a stand-alone cheap-ass CD player with a headphone jack. But you knew that already. Otherwise there wouldn't be a need for them at all. After determining such products had a right to exist in the first place, I listened on ignoring my pager (just kidding). I discovered that I enjoyed the Cute in this setup more than the Emotion, this despite the fact that I preferred the Emotion overall for home listening with a good front-end. I preferred the Cute because it homogenized a bit, giving me a more pleasing sound. The Emotion let me hear all the brittleness and digititis my el-cheapo CD player was capable of. Highly unemotional indeed.

As a result of this stint into the rarely encountered world of LoFi, some additional notions regarding the sonics of these two competent headphone amps crystallized. Not only did the Emotion have the more burnished and attractive tone, it also seemed to be more resolved than the li'l Cute - beautiful over the Rega, bordering on mildly irritating over the Panasonic. On disc after disc, I here preferred the Cute, with the Emotion making Richter sound like he was plinking away at Schubert on a keyboard his parents bought him at Toys R Us.

But enough of this knobbery
"Okay," you're thinking. "The Emotion is emotional (and more resolved) and the Cute is cute (and emotional), but which one should I buy, David? I'm an audiophile and therefore humbly defer my decision-making process to you." Thank you for your trust.
I developed a deeper relationship with the Emotion but frequently went back to the Cute because it was such a joy to use. Plus, its LED is so miffing bright, you get a free retinal exam each time you stare at it. Can you say value-for-money? I guess what I'm saying is, I myself second that Emotion 5 stars on the What HiFi magazine rating scale. I give the super-cute Cute 4.5 stars on that same scale and 3.5 globes on the HiFi World magazine scale. It rates highly on the LoFi Compatibility Scale as well. I'd also have to place both of these amps squarely in Recommended Components high class C - or maybe even low class B. In either case, assuming we will not get sued, I certainly award both amps Golden Ear awards for value. As for the Creek, I give it a serene and respectable golf clap and doff my cap in its general direction. Definitely a Component of Merit. Good show, old boy. Peace.

News Flash: This just in!
Word from the distributor is that there is an even more better (cuter?) Cute available. It's called the Cute Beyond (they're killin' me!) and it is AC powered only, I believe. Stay tuned for Steel Cage Death Match Part Deux. We now return you to your regularly scheduled AudiogoN shopping channel...
Blueberry Audio website
Cute website