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Headphone gold: After ordering the Yamamoto HA-02 headphone amplifier with WE408A pentodes sight unheard from Japan and preferring it since over all comers—even my four times as dear Woo Audio Model 5 running dual 5U4G rectifiers and 300B power triodes—I had not been concerned over just what exotic stuff Mrs. Jones across the street might run on her headphones. This Luxman however incites envy. It even made my Beyerdynamic 880s into pleasure devices. That decidedly wasn't the case before. Headphone listening suffers a strange outcast image in hifi land. Few reviewers admit to doing, never mind enjoying it. As in my preferences for low-power amps with the fewest gain stages, tubes and higher efficiency speakers, I'm also wired backwards on headphone phobia. But I think the SQ-N100 could make believers out of even numb skulls. It's hard to restrain excitement in fact.

Over statement headphones, this amp has most the color density of my EAT 300Bs but a sprightlier snappier demeanor, clearly more air and openness than the Woo, Yammy and its own SQ-38u EL34 stable mate; greater speed and incision than the Western Electric pentodes; and more linearity than the Yamamoto with its luscious midrange centricity. Though of lower gain over cans than the Yamamoto, the Luxman's speaker-level drive is the clearly more potent. It wakes up the Beyers which graduate from upper mid-fi to big-time players. That the Beyers also matched the Luxman's trim was merely an added bonus.

On serious cans like audio-technica's top ATH-W5000, AKG K-702 with ALO Audio replacement cable, Grado's PS-1000 [above, hanging left to right] and Sennheiser's HD800 with ALO Audio replacement cable [above on Sieveking Omega stand], the SQ-N100 was like a lone shark in a full tank. All was devoured without prejudice and competition. Nearly no competition. Trafomatic's Experience Head One has eclipsed the Yamamoto in my estimation since its arrival. It's more linear, less 'deep triode' but still endowed with full tone and density to celebrate the good modern valve designs can bring to the table.

Compared to the Trafomatic, the Luxman ultimately had more raw drive which benefited the low end of headphones like the HD800s while turning the already potent Grado PS-1000s into surprising bass weapons, albeit without the acknowledged LF excess of the sealed Denons. The Luxman cut the transistor-based KingRex Headquarters and Red Wine Audio HPA units down by quite a few notches in the tone and texture stakes. While most tubes and speakers require very careful matching and even then pack undeniable liabilities, tubes + headphones are a no-brainer proposition to get from the glowing bits their most linear text-book performance (if noise has been handled).

At the various settings of the volume control required for the different earspeakers, noise was non-existent. Yes, fully opened up the power supply did generate some steady-state surf but at actual listening levels, the Luxman was immaculately quiet. Considering its overkill power rating in this context, that was impressive indeed. Since this is no headphone review, I won't get more detailed. Instead, I'll simply reiterate that of all the can openers - er, amplifiers I've heard, the Luxman SQ-N100 which isn't even really marketed as such belongs at the very top. It's better than the equivalent output of its bigger EL34 stable mate.

Likely too expensive to make the radar of most headphone aficionados as a dedicated unit; and just as likely only marginally used if at all by buyers for regular loudspeakers; the Luxman won't reshuffle the usual headfi lists of premium options. But it ought to. Hearing is believing. For more on that sound, what follows is 100% applicable. After all, with headphones it's merely being filtered through one 470-ohm resistor per side, far less than your average loudspeaker crossover will insert into the signal path.

On speakers: Implemented well, an EL84 amplifier can sound far more related to a 300B SET of Yamamoto caliber than pretensions and preconceptions would dare imagine. As my review of the Yamamoto YS-500 hornspeakers detailed, in that context the two 6BQ5 amps on hand—Luxman and WLM—actually had outperformed my 45, 2A3, 300B and 6C33C SETs. Being rather cheaper and far cheaper to retube, this should be insulting to SET fanciers. Were they to believe it. Snobbery being a steadfast companion, they're safe of course and the little Luxman will elude their attentions.

Another supporting member of the problematic cast which maintains the EL84's lowly ranking is the quality of the source. Nobody in their right mind would mate this—or a competing—€2,000 or less 6BQ5 integrated to a €5,000 machine like Metronome Technologie's new CD One T with 2 x 6922 valve buffer or my still costlier Esoteric/Yamamoto duo. You'd reach for a priced equal like Luxman's own D-N100 player. It's the sensible thing. But it will never tell all there is to say on the subject of the EL84 or the Luxman SQ-N100. That's true for all amplifiers of course. The better the source, the better the sound. What it would take in this context is a 60kg €10,000 EL84 amplifier to justify more upscale sources. Such an amp would have no commercial rationale however and therein lies the crux*.


* Cynics might take note that I am putting my wallet where my mouth is. I recently commissioned Sasa Cokic of Trafomatic Audio for a pair of custom ultralinear 25-watt monoblocks with an ECC81 driving an interstage transformer into four EL84s with a 5AR4 rectifier for the output bottles, an EZ80 for the input tube and some 'perversions' on the output transformers as Sasa promises. To be named Kaivalya, the unfolding details of this project can be found here. The point in the present context is simply that while others may disagree, I am truly enamored with the EL84 and consider it capable of eclipsing deluxe direct-heated SETs of far higher cost. The Kaivalyas will be my sponsored attempt to learn just how far the potential of this small pentode can be pushed when a gifted circuit and transformer artist has been given carte blanche.

Before we go sonic, the usual boiler plate stuff must mention the obvious power limitations and associated loudspeaker restrictions. Symphonies of a thousand and related nonsense in standard-sized listening spaces that would barely accommodate five live musicians also factor into whether a 10wpc amplifier will be appropriate or shortchange standard or even just occasional SPL orgies and serious headroom stretching.