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Preamp use. Were the various 6.3mm outputs to simply parallel the main pre-outs, you'd expect a rerun of the prior headphone comments. That's of course not entirely the case. Whilst the core personalities indeed translated intact, the weighting of certain attributes shifted. Between Peak and LS-100 the issue of relative mass established by bass grounding favored the ModWright to a larger extent. This also translated dynamically into greater perceived voltage swings for bigger waves (or ripples as it were). To my ears the reality of speakers having to overcome the far greater emptiness of room space wherein to plant a believable illusion of bodies makes more demands on tone density. With headphones you don't expect this embodied illusion. There isn't enough space between your ears unless you count little green men and women a few inches tall who take up room in a hollow skull to begin with.

With headphones all this is far more about sounds per se. It's about the essence of what's left when you subtract the 3D soundstaging effect of 'outer' space rather than inner or head space. Where on well-balanced headphones like the HE-500 or T1 the Peak had the edge for pure immediacy, on speakers the LS-100's greater weightiness, shove and tone richness added to what I think of as incarnation or 'they're here' factor. Put differently, I view the ModWright as preamp first to which a very good headphone output was added. The Apex Audio strikes me as a headphone amp first which also makes a surprisingly good preamp. The lack of remote control—a personal deal killer with preamps—merely underscores such reversed priorities.

Where the Peak's nude valve has advantages is rolling. The ModWright's casing imposes strict height limits. Any 6SN7 variant that's too tall is out (or means you'll drive with the top down). With the Peak anything goes. Screwing around with cover bolts of which the ModWright has very many never even factors.

Power supplies: Pete Millett did a very good job shielding his circuit from incoming SMPS noise. The key difference between generic switch-mode and custom linear supplies—or the first one I keyed into—was relaxation. With the Volcano the music seemed to take more time. It felt more settled, stately and unhurried. Leisure. The switcher felt speedier and more tensioned. The second differentiator were dynamics. During melodic cresting over a long arc or end-of-bridge chorus appearances, the linear supply clearly had more swell and scale. This was easily noted because the first time I veritably rushed over to turn the volume down a tad. The third gain was low-end weight but not by much.

Comparing the magnitude of offset with my Mark+Daniel Fantasia S speakers and various headphones, I thought them more relevant to the former. If I used the Peak predominantly or exclusively for headphones, I'd first apply the surcharge for the Volcano to better headphones or an aftermarket wire harness for them. It's of course popular and common dissdom to regard SMPS as devil's spawn. Here it might be disappointing to learn that what comes standard with the Peak and (perhaps more so) how the main circuit interfaces with it is a few cuts above the norm. It should not prompt the usual knee-jerk reaction. If the Peak was a headphone, I'd single out HifiMan's HE-500 as the one that most personifies its core traits of resolution, speed, treble light and midrange purity. Resolution with valve circuits is directly contingent on noise. It's why many valve amp manufacturers get in trouble when asked to turn their attention to low-level circuits like preamps and phono stages. To optimize ground-plane behavior and drive operational noise below the threshold of audibility is its own craft. Add headphones and their microscope action on noise. The challenges facing valve-amp designers now compound further.

Pete Millett's experience in this sector shows. The Peak is as quiet as they come. This makes it attractive in both preamp/headphone functions for listeners whose noise expectations are informed by transistors. Vinyl fans, SET amp devotees and hi-eff speaker fiends routinely overlook and forgive a certain amount of operational noise. They consider it as part of the deal and tune it out. The Peak requires none of that. In that regard it behaves like a transistor amp - which of course is what couples the 6SN7 voltage gain stage to the outputs. It also means that the tube sees a constant load to operate under more ideal circumstances. The Mosfets do the heavy lifting.

As I already felt with ModWright's LS-100, the 6SN7 seems the ideal choice for hybrid applications when it's primarily tone textures that are to be harvested from the glowing bit/s. None of the 12/7 series—AT, AU, AX—do it like that. Neither the 5687, 6H30 nor 6922/7308. Why use more transistory bottles? You might as well go with a pure solid-state circuit then. The 6SN7 is for those who want some fluidity and nubility, who want to shift gestalt a few clicks away from metronomic. It's also for those who want fleshier tone and a mild case of glow worm. That latter sounds as though there was more inside-out pressurization of colors. By comparison it makes other stuff drier, starker and flatter.

The Peak is very careful not to overglaze its layered cake with sugar. Anyone expecting a certain kind of sloppiness like Raphaël Faÿs getting clearly confused about the finer intricacies of Flamenco compas needn't worry. The Peak is properly crisp, tart and translucent. But to stay with personal guitar heroes, it does tone like a Vicente Amigo not a Gerardo Nuñez. The only thing holding it back aren't sonics but cosmetics. Pete Millett might want to take a lesson or two from the Schiit heads. They likewise practice in the US of A. They likewise champion value, not flash. But even their cheapest $249 Asgard looks better than the Apex. Today's competitors at Schiit, Burson and Woo mean that the Peak's $1.400 sticker applies closer scrutiny to its cosmetics. The quality and heft of casing and knobs, matched and properly toned down lights all matter as they should when customers are more educated about choices than ever before.

Hierarchy: From what I know and purely speaking to sonics rather than external build quality, the Peak belongs to the general class which includes the likes of the ModWright LS-100, Woo Audio Model 5 and Eddie Current Balancing Act. Seeing how those are costlier—though also featured differently, with the ModWright adding i/o ports and options and remote control, the Woo driving speakers directly—all is as it should be regarding the comments one paragraph up. Todd Green aka Todd the Vinyl Junkie did a very clever thing by roping in free agent Pete Millett to work as chief designer for Apex Audio. There's no substitute for experience. Both men contribute that very thing which no school can teach and which no money can really buy. With their Peak machine you do buy it and the return on investment is properly high as befits our economically troubled times.
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