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Timothy Smith
Review component retail: $269

How many of us have spent an entire Saturday assembling a barbecue or bunch of IKEA furniture? And yet today most of us get 100% of our audio kicks in finished form. Gone are the Dynaco days when teenage boys built kit amps in their garages or basements. Today they are more likely to wave wands at flat-screen TVs from the overfed comfort of their couches. We have become alienated from the means of musical production. Bottlehead Corporation to the rescue. Are you uncomfortable with the idea of low-paid Chinese labour? Look no further than your own—unpaid—labour. As the owner of sixteen Chi-Fi products as well as hifi items from the Czech Republic, the UK, Japan and the USA (but no Canadian ones), I've done my share of contributing to Canada’s trade deficit. No longer content to purchase my kit primarily from the (not so) dark satanic mills of Shenzen, in December 2011 I picked up the phone and dialled Bainbridge Island, Washington state. There the friendly folks of Bottlehead hang their hats. With thousands of satisfied customers having left a trail of praise on Bottlehead’s user forum and across the web, I was fairly certain that my money would be well spent. After more than two years of listening to this amplifier and demoing it against products from Burson, Musical Paradise, Audiolab, Decware, Little Dot and several others, I am confident that this is the best sub-$300 headphone amp money can buy.

What’s in a name? The Crack is designed to hook you on your first try. You can upgrade to the Crack with Speedball. Other DIY kits in the Bottlehead stable include the Single-Ended eXperimenter’s headphone and speaker amp, the S.E.X. headphone amp kit, the S.E.X with Extended Foreplay, the Stereomour 2a3/45 stereo amp, the Paramount 300b/2a3 monoblocs, the Quickie battery-powered preamp and the Eros and Seduction phono preamp kits. Bottlehead is nothing if not consistent in its attempt to carve out a distinct house style. In a world filled with attractive model names like the Pioneer SP-BS41-LR—not to be confused with Pioneer’s SP-BS21-LR—and the Harbeth Compact 7ES-3, Bottlehead stands out like a breath of fresh air. Or maybe not. The road to sweet single-ended ambrosia led through a thicket of red, white and black wires; the sickly stench of silver-lead solder; and 25 hours of artisanal labour in the man cave punctuated by bouts of sheer frustration.

My first attempt had resulted in one channel working properly but the other one being totally silent. I went back to the drawing board, pulled out my multi-meter and checked my resistances. All except one—an RCA jack—measured up. I resoldered some joints. And then nothing. The imposing 6080 dual-triode power tube did not light up. It was time to check my voltages. When my wife asked what the risks were in checking those, I said there was virtually no chance of death by electrocution but a slim chance of a high voltage shock. "Send it back you fool" came the reply.

I dutifully returned the completed amp to Washington State for repair. As it happens, I had blown that RCA jack probably by overheating it during some re-soldering. All in all I had waited two months to listen to the music since I had received a 5-keys box of crack in February filled with over 100 parts. Bottlehead claims on its website btw that over 90% of those parts are sourced in the USA. The turnaround at Bottlehead was quick. I have no complaints except perhaps one. Having not soldered in 25 years, I was not one of those who can, as the Bottlehead website suggests, make this amp in just a couple of evenings. And frankly, I doubt that anyone without experience can make this amp in fewer than fifteen hours including the time required to glue, varnish and sand the wooden base.

But I quibble. Shawn, the friendly technician at Bottlehead who answered my emails in a timely fashion, assured me that my soldering was "very good" but that I had left a couple of long leads that must be clipped. Apart from the blown RCA jack, my handiwork met the grade. I bet Shawn says that to everyone. After a one-day burn-in and a thorough check of all joints and readings, Bottlehead shipped the amp back to me swaddled in enough bubble wrap to protect against the abuse of North America’s ramshackle railroad network. I was out of pocket another $90 but at least knew that I had a properly built amp, certified as it were in the event of resale. Unless you plan to assemble several DIY kits, I cannot understand why anyone would sell their Bottlehead creation. As it happens, builders rarely part with their amps. A quick tour of the web shows that the Crack’s basic metal plate design lends itself well to wannabe woodworkers. Crack owners display pride of craftsmanship and ownership. Here's a Tyll Hertsens video on how to roll your own.