A full-blooded audio maniac of dyed-in-the-wool caliber. That'd be HeadRoom's Tyll Hertsens' rightful billing were he a Broadway star. Like most members with an active audio license to have fun, he celebrates his own brand of zaniness. It embraces going the extra mile as a dear friend in need - and I'm not just talking about his BlockHead dual-mono statement headphone amplifier. You know, the one Jonathan Scull went ape over in one of his lamentably last Stereophile assignments; the same one I secretly refer to as Mad Max, the fire-spittin' reckless older brother of the Maxed-Out Home under review.

No, I'm pointing at his recently concluded World of Headphones caravan through the US. Rather than design this show around selling stuff -- to recoup gas-guzzlin' travel expenses if not (what a concept!) book an actual profit -- Tyll evangelized. Exclusively. He didn't bring any backup stock to sell. None at all. Instead: "Here, try this. Crap no, don't show me your wallet. Chill. Sample. Have fun. Just listen to music. Get the missus or hubby a drink. If you really wanna buy something, place an order with my guys in Bozeman when you get home."

Instead of pushing stuff -- his own -- Tyll displayed and thereby promoted tons of audiophile goodies by other manufacturers. If they let him. Some just couldn't grok the concept. Sugden -- whose HeadMaster I tried to procure for comparison but couldn't -- was one of 'em. Tyll doesn't sell Sugden, you see. Simply for completeness' sake and because it's supposed to be dynamite product, he wanted it included. He tried in vain. No Sugden at the World of Headphones. Who do you think really lost out? The folks from Cary Audio didn't suffer such shortsighted compunctions. Their 300SEI integrated was proudly featured in Tyll's upscale display sector.

His logic for seemingly defying healthy capitalist self-interest? "I simply wanted to promote headphone listening and show people the incredible variety across all price points and technologies available. I don't care whether I make it or somebody else. If it's good. people should know about it. In the long run, educating consumers helps us all."

Saint Tyll? If you conduct business along Sun Tzu's bloody "Art of War" practices, you might think that or call him insaint. But I'm not a businessman with ice running through my veins and a calculator upstairs. I'm an audio nut. From where I stand, Tyll is simply one of those rare extremist enthusiasts. He'd deserve laurels and recognition for sheer exuberance even if he didn't make any good shit himself. Which he most assuredly does. Asking him what was especially fresh on the HeadRoom menu, Tyll pointed at the Maxed-Out Home as one of his greatest bang-for-the-buck products. Then he threw in a Sennheiser HD-600 with Clou Red Jaspis replacement cable and dared me to take his claim to task.

Catch of the day

As the name implies, the Maxed-Out Home ($999) is a hotrodded version of the standard Home ($699) and king of the hill until the actual Max ($1,599 up) which itself is overshadowed by Mondo Maximillian, aka the BlockHead ($3,333).

Measuring 13.5" D -- incl. volume control knob and RCA jacks -- x 6.75" W x 2.4" H, the Maxed-Out Home (henceforth MOH, perhaps also a suitably implied abbreviation for "more" ) is housed in a solid and seamless extrusion with lengthwise decor striations and 1/16th front and back plates.

From left to right, the front sports two Swiss Neutrik 1/4" jacks, one 3-position "Filter" toggle (top "brighter", middle "off", bottom "bright), one 2-position on/off for "process" and another 3-position jobbie for "gain (hi/lo/medium from top to bottom).

Next are a continuous-motion volume control with white index marker and a red LED power indicator. In toto, superb functionality and confidence-inspiring parts, no fluff or excess.

The same no-nonsense theme continues aft where we find the power module with three-prong IEC, on/off rocker switch and fuse holder; a chassis ground lift toggle; and three pairs of high-quality Cardas RCAs, the first two inputs 2 and 1 -- with a two-position toggle between to select either -- and one pair of outputs. These latter jacks clearly suggests that MOH is intended for regular preamp duty. That's a handy-dandy feature if you abhor box redundancy, don't have more than two sources and don't insist on remote control.

The variable gain settings optimize different loads by maximizing useful volume increments. "Process" activates HeadRoom's proprietary crossfeed circuit that bleeds low amounts of opposite channel data to each ear. Unlike with speakers, headphone listening isolates each ear from the other. Our hardwired binaural hearing mechanism -- assigning three-dimensional positioning via the time arrival differential of the same data perceived first by the closer, then the farther ear -- is disabled. HeadRoom's algorithm attempts to restore some of it to soften the concomitant hard panning (left ear/center of the head/right ear) that many headphone listeners find objectionable or unnatural.

The twin brightness contour settings add treble boost and are recommended to offset the HF rolloff that results from the crossfeed algorithm's data processing.

MOH benefits from HeadRoom's latest "premium module" that upgrades the Burr-Brown OPA604 op-amp of the standard module to its very expensive 627 iteration and steps up parts quality with certain resistors and capacitors elsewhere. The cutaway image from Tyll's website shows not only the innards but explains what functions they serve.
MOH's secret weapon
the premium module
The multi-course main meal and desert

My review game plan called for taking MOH through its paces with and against a variety of contenders.

The most obvious challenger was my resident Antique Sound Lab MGHead DT ($329, pre OTL option) that uses one transformer-coupled EL84/6BQ7 per channel.

The first unexpected addition to my usual stable mates was Grado's RA-1 battery-powered amp ($350). It was forwarded by my graphic artist lady and fellow 'phile. A friend of hers was curious how it'd hold up in this context. He persuaded her to send it to me on short-term loan.

Tyll's Sennheiser HD-600 ($449) were his #1 recommendation for the MOH. They'd see duty with the stock wiring harness and the HeadRoom supplied Clou Red Jaspis ($119/9ft. length) aftermarket cord. My Grado RS-1 ($695) would add spice for variety and a second opinion.

Then James Serdechny of Stefan AudioArt e-mailed. He had read my review of the AKG K-1000 and knew about the upcoming review of today. Was I interested to evaluate his cables? James is an ex-Sennheiser engineer. He now handcrafts replacement cables for the top Sennheiser models and K-1000s.

Appreciating synchronicity, I shouted hurray to soon find myself recipient of his Equinox ($189/9ft. length) to pit against the Red Jaspis. The K-1000 cable showed up as well. It'll make a cameo appearance in my AKG follow-up review while using the ASL MG15 and nOrh SE-9 tube integrateds as dedicated headphone amps.

Lastly, MOH would be inserted into my reference system and strut its stuff as a stand-alone preamp, competing -- unfairly but unavoidably -- against my in-house Bel Canto Design PRe1 ($2,395).

While I indulge in a fair amount of late-night headphone listening on my Grado/MGHead rig, it's purely to enter "the zone". I merge into the heart of music and get lost. It means dropping the reviewer's persona like the boat anchor it is when going for pure pleasure. Don't believe that acquiring this "critical" listening habit is necessary. If you're not yet suffering the disease, avoid the virus at all costs.

To get a handle on MOH's sonic signature, I'd perform the reference rig insertion as standard preamp first. It's in this context I do most my, ahem, habitual listening. Any deviations from the norm would be readily noted. A perfunctory reality check of feeding on my CD player's headphone jack then would provide the backdrop against which to compare MOH with the MGHead and RA-1, using the RS-1s and HD-600s in stock form. Then a few laps on the processor circuit.

Lastly, an evaluation of the Jaspis and Equinox cables versus the Sennheiser's stock wiring harness. Talk about a pig-out audiophile table setting. I belched once in anticipation and went to work. Waiter, another Q-tip, please.

Antique Soundlab MGHead DT
Sennheiser HD-600 with Clou Red Jaspis
Grado RS-1 with Grado RA-1
Stefan AudioArt Equinox