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The Crack comes with the most user-friendly instruction manual I have ever seen for any product. Step by step one is walked through the process in language that any layperson can understand. A parts check list helps you organize your way. A CD/ROM containing a 30-page illustrated instruction manual is your guide. Point-to-point wiring means you’ll certainly improve your soldering techniques over the course of this project. (I had practiced in advance using some wires and other odds and ends I had lying about the house). The ever-helpful PartsConnexion in Ontario had supplied me with my WBT silver-lead solder and Hakko soldering station. If you don’t own these things you must budget another $100 for high-quality solder and a basic soldering iron.

And so how did it sound? With the flick of a switch, a rich warm sound free of etch, hum and hiss filled my ears. Dead quiet between notes. Liquid and propulsive. A massive soundstage. Warm and three-dimensional. Tubes all the way. Open, vast, clear, clean. Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny’s minimalist masterpiece Beyond the Missouri Sky was playing. I thought I knew this disc like the back of my hand. When I pressed ‘play’ on the $399 giant-killer Marantz CD5004 that graces my upstairs office system, I was disabused of that notion. The signal darted along my Connex/DH-Labs BL-AG silver interconnects to my Crack. From the Crack, it was onward and upward to my 600Ω Beyerdynamic T1s. A perfect match.

I was at once overjoyed and disappointed. Had my 25 hours of hunched-back labour been worth it? Yes I suppose so. Had it really been necessary to spend so much on so many different amps over the years to arrive at this… this $269 assortment of parts? Perhaps not. But there is no time to second-guess myself. There is music to rediscover. I had ordered the Crack kit without the vaunted $125 Speedball upgrade. Should I order it? No. That can wait. Best to leave well enough alone. I knew that this simple little amp had relegated my Hong Kong-made Little Dot MkIII and my artisanally crafted Japanese Almarro A205a Mk2 to second-tier status. It was marginally better than my Canadian-designed but Chinese-made Musical Paradise MP-301 MK2 and MK3. I wasn’t quite sure how it stacked up against my Australian-designed solid state Burson HA-160D. In any case, now I could truly appreciate the majesty of my Beyers. The soundstage doubled in size in relation to the Little Dot. Transients became faster. Bass firmed up. Yes this tube amp compared favourably with the Burson. Bass was not as deep but with certain recordings grippier and drier even as it was smaller and less propulsive. There was no bass bloat. It seemed more balanced.

I played Victor Villadangos’  Guitar Music of Argentina and heard the plaintive cry of (the Cuban!) Leo Brouwer’s "Un dia de noviembre". Next in line was Tierney Sutton’s homage to Sinatra, Dancing in the Dark. The ripe warm plucks of Trey Henry’s bass came through with more clarity than they do from my Harbeth Compact 7ES-3s. Sutton’s voice was seductive, smooth and sibilance free.
Now it was time to feed this ‘head some rock. I turned to Jefferson Airplane, Steely Dan, the Doors, Rush and the Eagles. Could the Crack keep the beat? For the most part, yes. And it did what tubes do best. It took the edge off poorly remastered discs from the 1970s. But could it do orchestral music? Could it sort out and make sense of the manic genius that is John Adams? Not entirely. Could it keep pace with the inchoate blowing sessions of Chicago during their big band phase? Well, not really. But perhaps no piece of equipment can sort out such messes. John Adams is kind of like Steve Perry or Geddy Lee’s voice or the Newfoundland swill that is Screech—an acquired taste. To its credit, the Bottlehead can take a shrill violin section and render it bearable but it simply cannot keep pace with the rhythmic drive of Adams’ Violin Concerto.

What it could do however was capture the spacy otherworldliness of Yolanda Kondonassis’ recording of Alan Hovaness’ music written for harp, including "Spirit of Trees" in a way that the faster solid-state Burson could not. The Bottlehead could convey a sense of space and one could hear into the concert hall. The Bottlehead could capture the ethereal gossamer touch of Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s piano on Debussy’s "Reverie" but also his high-octane rendition of the "Suite bergamesque". It could cover in a warm bath the weird tones and rich colours of Bill Frisell’s version of "Shenandoah" on the CD East/West.