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Review and Measurements of Cavalli Liquid Carbon X

amirm

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#1
This is a review and detailed measurements of Massdrop's Alex Cavalli Liquid Carbon X headphone amplifier. It is on kind loan from a member. I think the retail price was $299 but since the drop is over, I am not 100% sure. Someone should comment if that was not the case.

The Liquid Carbon X is an attractive headphone amplifier. It manages a luxury feel despite its low cost. Here you see it below the new Topping DX3 Pro dac and headphone amplifier (review to come).

Massdrop Cavalli Liquid Carbon Headphone Amplifier Review and Measurement.jpg


The Liquid Carbon X is covered in semi "rubberized" paint which while feels nice, tend to show any dirt or dust. So keep a rag next to it if you want it to look good.

As you see in the front, it has both balanced and unbalanced connections. Same is the case in the back where there we have both balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA connectors.

Overall, it is a thumbs up on design, look and feel.

For power, it comes with what looks like a laptop switching power supply, producing whopping 30 volt output! I think this is the highest voltage power supply I have seen on any desktop audio product.

Let's see how she does in measurements.

Measurements
Let's start with our usual dashboard measurement in "unity gain" (2 volts in, 2 volts out):

Massdrop Cavalli Liquid Carbon Headphone Amplifier Unity Gain Dashboard Measurement.png


This is not much to write home about. It means that it underperforms most DACs and becomes the dominant source of distortion given the SINAD of 96.

For this review, I will be comparing the Liquid Carbon X to Arcam rHead since it has similar features. So I decided to set the levels such that it compares to my review of Arcam rHead and compare:

Massdrop Cavalli Liquid Carbon Headphone Amplifier High Gain Dashboard Measurement.png


Yuck. We are not in even in the same neighborhood. Despite rather high level of output power, the Arcam rHead manages a SINAD of 105 whereas the Liquid Carbon X sinks to just 70 dB!

Measuring power at 300 ohm we see the same situation:
Massdrop Cavalli Liquid Carbon Headphone Amplifier Power with 300 Ohm load Measurement.png


The Carbon X starts to lose its breath around a few milliwatts. It crosses the Arcam distortion curve at 11 milliwatt while the Arcam cruises to higher power at even lower distortion @120 milliwatt. Noise level is lower though throughout that range.

Oddly, the noise advantage goes away when we switch to 33 ohm load:

Massdrop Cavalli Liquid Carbon Headphone Amplifier Power with 33 Ohm load Measurement.png


Same power disparity remains with the Carbon X producing just 0.26 watts relative to rHead's 1.1 watt.

The only power ratings from Massdrop are at 50 ohms so let's see how the Carbon X does in both single-ended and balanced:

Massdrop Cavalli Liquid Carbon Headphone Amplifier Power with 50 Ohm load Balanced Measurement.png


Massdrop's spec for single ended is 0.7 watts. I am not remotely getting that. I always drive both channels at once so maybe they measured one channel at a time.

Same is true of balanced output in that it is half as much of Massdrop spec. That aside, you do get a lot more power in balanced at the expense of higher noise. Trade off is worth it though.

Output impedance is essentially zero which is excellent:

Massdrop Cavalli Liquid Carbon Headphone Amplifier Output Impedance Measurement.png

Finally let's look at channel imbalance relative to volume control position:

Massdrop Cavalli Liquid Carbon Headphone Amplifier Channel Balance with 50 ohm load Measurement.png

Again, Arcam rHead leaves it in the dust with near perfect channel balance.


Listening Tests
I used the setup in the picture with Topping DX3 Pro driving the Liquid Carbon X at full level. I started with my Sennheiser HD-650 headphones. Here, up to about 2:00 o'clock in volume control, the sound was fine and reasonably loud. After that, it became higher pitched and somewhat muddy, indicating onset of distortion.

I then switched to HiFiMan HE-400i and given its lower impedance, the unit became fairly loud at 12:00 o'clock. Past that point though, distortion again became obvious with emphasis in higher frequencies and generally unpleasant.

Conclusions
The Massdrop Cavalli Liquid nails the industrial design and branding. The marketing department gets an A+ here. Alas, from engineering point of view, this is an average effort. Power levels are modest as desktop products go.

Subjectively, the Liquid Carbon X simply does not have enough clean power for my taste. The purpose of such a large desktop units should be to have ample amount of power to throw any headphone at it. That simply is not the case in single-ended mode. The amplifier distorts before the headphone which is no good.

I don't have a balanced headphone to test with it. That should be a more satisfying experience given the higher power output.

As I have noted, the Arcam rHead performs much better. It is much more expensive if you pay full list price but you should be able to find it on the used market for same cost as the Liquid Carbon X. Another choice -- if you don't mind the high output impedance -- is the Aune X7s. It is the same price at Liquid Carbon X but with a lot more clean power.

In summary, whatever magic people assume behind this branded product escapes me, both in engineering and subjectively. Nothing is badly broken but there simply is not enough "oomph" to make it for me. So I can't recommend it.

As always, all questions, comments and criticism is welcome.

-----
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#2
Well, I feel relieved that I did not buy this!

Still looking for an amp (preferably with with a nice onboard DAC) to use both my headphones and IEMs with...
 
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#4
Another product I almost bought and am now glad I didnt. This site is great for easing my regrets!

In your subjective impressions you mentioned that your headphones kind of take on a bright tinny sound when you hit the distortion, is that usually how distortion presents itself?

I ask because I have quite frequently noticed that effect when I was using weak amps or connecting headphones directly to my PC motherboard and its nice to be able to finally have a technical explanation for it.
 

amirm

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#7
In your subjective impressions you mentioned that your headphones kind of take on a bright tinny sound when you hit the distortion, is that usually how distortion presents itself?
Yes, if you look at the FFT in the second graph you see why:
Massdrop Cavalli Liquid Carbon Headphone Amplifier High Gain distortion Measurement.png


We have our main tone at 1 Khz. But with distortion, we now have a bunch of harmonics which keep increasing in frequency. That naturally increases the level of high frequencies, making the sound bright and tiring.
 

amirm

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#8
Thank you very much Amir.
I really hope the Massdrop THX 789 amp delivers its power spec both channels driven.
Same here. Hopefully it is not another boutique attempt!
 
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#10
Thanks for your response! Good to know I was not imaging that effect! I always describe it as sounding diffuse. Some of the amps I tried hit that effect really early as well. Its quite frustrating when you get an amp that is claiming to put out a lot of power that distorts way before it comes anywhere near the maximum amount is rated for.

I wonder if this is why many audiophiles gravitate towards darker/treble light headphones. They like to crank the volume and the distortion from their poor amps makes more neutral headphones sound super tinny/diffuse.
 
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#13
:oops: Wowsers! How did you manage to get the DX3Pro?? It's not even released yet, very anxious to see the review. To bad it only has a 3,5mm jack I was kinda hoping for a 6.25mm as well.
 

Veri

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#15
Before anyone complains that the RHead is much more expensive than the Liquid carbon, its price has dropped to $220 levels nowadays. As long as you can order it from the UK and import it, it's relatively cheap. Cheaper than the liquid carbon...
 

Sythrix

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#16
I feel bad for the suckers that bought Cavalli at full price. Even the suckers buying these Massdrop/Monolith versions are getting ripped off.
To be fair, it's not like they had any prior experience or warning that they wouldn't be good. Calling then suckers seems excessive. That's why Amir is doing all of this, so people will be informed.

I just hope the THX is good, but again, someone had to buy it so we could find out.
 

Headphonaholic

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#17
Thank you for the review Amir! Considering the results of the CTH, this is about what I was expecting to see. It's a shame that such a well presented product doesn't perform at higher levels. I feel like Massdrop had a good opportunity to set the bar of performance for a reasonable price and they failed. It really does make me suspicious of any Alex Cavali branded device though.
 

Sythrix

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#20
@amirm

EDIT: INACCURATE. SEE RESPONSE.

Question: Did you redo the tests for the Arcam rhead with the Topping DX3 Pro driving it? If not, your results that show in comparison to it aren't actually scientifically comparable.

I know it's probably not going to make a real difference, but as these are measurements, you want your data to have as few variables as possible. Since you own the Topping DX7s, I would use that for the foreseeable future with amps until announcing a paradigm shift to something else, such as the DX3 pro or whatever you decide on. However, if you do change, I wouldn't use prior measurements (driven from different DACs) in comparison.

Just a suggestion if you want to guard against scrutiny.
 
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