Linear Tube Audio microZOTL2.0 line stage/headphone amplifier Page 2

Later, when I inserted in front of the ZOTL—which I now used as a tubed line stage—PrimaLuna's ProLogue Premium, a 36Wpc tubed amplifier ($2199), the slam pinned my psychic VU meters, but transparency and flow weren't diminished at all. If you're a freak for pace, rhythm, and timing (aren't we all?), the Linear Tube Audio amp can shake, boogie, and run with the best. Oh, yes—and it plays Schubert lieder as sung by Elly Ameling, and Robert Johnson's "Walking Blues" as performed by Paul Butterfield!

The combo of microZOTL2.0, ProLogue Premium, and Soul Supremes played music in a uniquely natural and lifelike manner—especially in the purity with which it reproduced women's voices.

I'm just now beginning to appreciate the music of Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683–1764). I'm not yet a fan of Italian opera, but something about Rameau's small French operas seems richer, more earth-based than those Italian wedding cakes. Rameau is more holy spirit than ego—less about tenors and divas and more about worldly relations. Rameau's characters dance and have real (not ersatz) feelings. By no means do I pretend to understand Rameau's creative intentions, but I've never felt closer to them than I did with microZOTL2.0. I got music-drunk playing excerpts from his Zoroastre: A Lyric Tragedy, with Richard Kapp conducting the Hamburg Chamber Orchestra (LP, Vox-Turnabout TV-S 34435). American soprano Lou Ann Wyckoff, mezzo-soprano Nancy Deering, and heroic tenor Bruce Brewer captured days of my life, simply because the microZOTL2.0 wouldn't let me put the disc back in the jacket. The clean-water beauty of the microZOTL2.0's mids and highs let me fully access the intensity of joy behind Wyckoff's singing and the humanity of Rameau's art.

Headphones: JH Audio Roxanne
Late one night after David Bowie died, I lit a red votive candle and lay on my apartment's cold wooden floor, listening to his final album, Blackstar (LP, ISO 88875173871). The dark mysteries of his last music let me feel the man who fell to Earth in the room with me—together, it seemed, we were at "the center of it all." Blackstar is surely Bowie's greatest creation, and the darkness, the solitary candle, and the inner-ear soulfulness of the 15-ohm Jerry Harvey Audio Roxannes ($1299) combined to make me sob with happiness that I was able to share this world with an artist of Bowie's magnitude. No other in-, over-, or on-ear 'phones of my experience reproduce music in a more naturally balanced or holistic manner than do the Roxannes. These in-ear monitors aren't amped up in any part of the audioband. They might be a smidgen rolled off in the high frequencies, but who cares? With the ZOTL, the midrange was pure and right. With Bowie's Blackstar, the microZOTL2.0, and the Roxannes, there was no hi-fi, ear-fi, or super-audio in my experience—just shared human reverie.

Headphones: AudioQuest NightHawk
Listening deeper into Blackstar, I thought, The more I use the AudioQuest NightHawks, the more I recognize how uniquely natural and organic their sound is. AudioQuest must be applauded for hiring Skylar Gray to design these headphones, which are like no others. A semi-open-backed design with pulp-cone drivers, these $599 dynamic headphones present recordings with a bare-feet-on-black-soil naturalness that makes most other 'phones sound mechanical. Besides their extraordinary tonal character, the illusion of space they generate is totally compelling, and has a singular, almost indescribable transparency. In fact, in terms of how Bowie's intricate masterpiece presents itself spatially, the NightHawks sounded more microarticulate and properly scaled than they ever had. With LTA's microZOTL2.0, big was really BIG, and small was teeny-tiny. In between was a distinctively tangible space filled with fine textures and delicately rendered light and shadow. Because of this extraordinary space, "near and far" delivered a special joy that's rare in headphone listening.

The first time I heard Blackstar, I immediately thought of Scott Walker's "The Electrician," from the Walker Brothers' Nite Flights (LP, GTO MOVLP 1356)—which, I'm now certain, was one of Bowie's inspirations for the tone and imagery of his carefully executed soliloquy. On this DDA reissue of the Walkers' 1978 LP, this powerful track proved that every pair of speakers and headphones sounds unsubtly different with every amp I connect it to. In this case, the AudioQuest NightHawks loved—and came alive with—the microZOTL2.0, and vice versa. The strange beauty of "The Electrician" was mesmerizingly rendered. Its off-kilter otherworldliness was never more spine tingling.

Headphones: Audeze EL-8
As I declared above, a given loudspeaker or pair of headphones can sound radically different, depending on the amplifier driving them. The truth of this showed itself when I connected Audeze's EL-8 planar-magnetic headphones ($699) to the microZOTL2.0. The EL-8s usually present music in what seems to me to be a more neutral or accurate manner than the NightHawks. However, with the microZOTL2.0, "The Electrician," "Blackstar," and every other recording I tried sounded excessively dry and bare-bones. This was dumbfounding—earlier that same day, playing Ali Akbar Kahn's Artistic Sound of Sarod (CD, Chhanda Dhara SN 3386) through the Schiit Audio Asgard headphone amp ($249), the EL-8s sounded delightfully detailed, moist, and sumptuous. Obviously, the microZOTL2.0 didn't mate well with the usually neutral-sounding Audezes.

Headphones: AKG K812
It's reasonable to say that Bob Dylan's art looks backward, musically and spiritually—perhaps as far back as the Old Testament. In contrast, David Bowie's art, and especially Blackstar, looks forward, perhaps as far as Revelation—except that there's no Whore of Babylon, or final judgment, or apocalypse: just peace and prophecy. Blackstar unfolds like a mass or sacred cantata. As Bowie sang, I sensed that death was in the room with him. No audio devices at my disposal revealed this specter of death better than the microZOTL2.0 and AKG K812s ($1500). As the end of the album approached, the K812s spoke only truth.

More than any other headphone amp I have in-house, the microZOTL2.0 revealed the strikingly neutral AKGs' basic nature: not too dark or light, detailed but never etched, not bright in the highs or soft in the lows—just plain old-school audio realism. True to its character, the microZOTL2.0 showed me a bit more of the K812s' soulful side, which tends to stay hidden with anything less than the best headphone amps. In return, the AKGs showed me a bit more of the LTA's analytical nature, which can be hard to hear with anything less than the best headphones. This amplifier-headphone coupling made a fine match.

I am a major fan of fusion audio components. Now that LPs are truly back, and DACs are getting smaller and improving with extreme rapidity, components like Linear Tube Audio's microZOTL2.0 seem prophetic—equally at home in desktop systems or full-scale audiophile rigs. Almost unbelievably, the microZOTL2.0 delivered top-level sound quality as: a 1W integrated amplifier; a line stage that, because of its radical transparency, would hold its own in a cost-no-object system; and a headphone amplifier that could hold its own at thrice the price. Highly recommended times three!

Linear Tube Audio
Washington, DC
(202) 450-6480