When I was going to write my first review for Headfonia, I suggested the LaFigaro 336c. I thought, at its price point, it might be the legitimate competitor to the Bottlehead Crack for pairing with the legendary HD650 that people have been looking for. I mean, the Crack is great, but there has to be something else out there, right? The first review soon became a comparison between the Crack, 336c and the WA3. Of course, for one reason or another, the WA3 and the LF336c fell through, and my first review became what got posted, and I didn’t hold out much hope for hearing the 336c. Not that long ago, however, I go to the mail room in my apartment building, and what do I find? I find a package from Yuking Audio containing the La Figaro 336 Classic. You can’t imagine my excitement. Does it dethrone the Bottlehead Crack? Let’s find out.
Just a word on the following: I would usually talk about the amp by itself first, and then move into a comparison. This time, however, I am going straight to the head to head. (Also, I settled on keeping my Crack in its stock build. That is what I am using in this review). Let the shootout commence!
Customization and Build Quality
First, both the Crack and the 336c use the 6080 type as their power tube. The 336c uses the 6sn7 for its input tube, while the Crack is the 12au7. Now, the Crack, being a DIY amp, is going to have the edge in customization. You want to change the type of wires? The capacitors? The volume pot? Heat up your iron and go to work! Anything you can think of doing (and have the skill for) you can try. The LF 336c obviously doesn’t allow for that. Looking through the FAQ on their website (www.yuking09.com, also where you would go to buy the amp) it seems like they might offer some customization on request. I am not sure of that however. Their English is difficult to read, and communication with them can be difficult if you don’t speak Chinese. That can be an important issue if you find yourself needing their customer service (and again, you don’t speak Chinese).
The Crack looks and feels like a DIY project, and I am perfectly fine with that. That’s what it is, and there is something nice about being able to say you built something. The 336c, on the other hand, looks and feels like a serious piece of hardware. I love the way this thing looks, and, oh yeah, it is heavy. That’s nice because, not only can you use it as an amp, but it can also be used to bludgeon robbers if they break into your home. The amp feels very well put together. There is nothing cheap looking or ill fitting on the chassis. The word I would use to describe the build of the 336c? Awesome! I would find it hard to imagine seeing a cooler looking amp at this price point
So, at this point, that is the question. Which do you prefer? If you like to DIY, and enjoy a great deal of possible customization, the Bottlehead Crack has what you need. However, if you want rock solid build quality, and the ability to tinker with your amp isn’t a big deal, go for the La Figaro 336c. Of course, these are minor issues when compared to the one, all important issue: sound quality. The sound quality of the Crack is well established. How does the 336c fair?
Sound- all listening done with the HD650 unless otherwise mentioned
You can tube roll, of course, and greatly alter your sound, but as I can use the same power tubes in both (a Sylvania 6080 for instrumental and a GE 6080 for vocal), I can get a pretty accurate feel for the natural sound of each amp. It breaks down like this. The 336c is warmer, while the Crack is more neutral. The 336c pulls out a little more detail from the sound, but is grainier. The Crack is cleaner, but with the slightest bit less micro detail. The 336c is more laid back. The Crack is more forward. The 336c has a deeper sound stage. The Crack has a wider sound stage. The 336c seems a bit more linear while the Crack pushes the mids out just a jot more. Treble behaves on both amps, and I found the bass performance very similar. That may be all well and good, but let’s see how that translates to actually recordings. With Classical and instrumental music, the edge has to go to the 336c. The greater sense of depth gives the music a more three dimensional sound, which is so important with classical. It also comes with better layering to the sound. I am listening to Brahms violin concerto as I write this, and the violin is positioned right in front of my face, with the rest of the orchestra well layered behind it. It is wonderful to hear. I find that the extra micro detail adds more to classic music than does the extra bit of clarity since the detail is there to hear.
For folk, rock and music of that sort, the 336c does a mighty fine job, but here, the Crack betters it by a little. Since I don’t find much depth to most pop or rock recordings, I find the wider sound stage to be more important. It help makes the music more enveloping. The same goes with the added detail. It isn’t as important with most rock recordings as is that extra clarity the Crack brings. The differences are little, but they can add up. The biggest difference with vocal music is that through the Crack, vocals simply have more bloom to them. They do a better job of jumping out at you. Voices sound very good out of the 336c, but out of the Crack, it is like Shirley Manson is whisper in my ear, trying to seduce me (which I like).
With my Superlux HD660, both amps did fine, however, being that the HD660 is a rock headphone, I give the Crack an edge here, although the Torpedo beats both of them in this case. My Beyer DT770 AE is very low impedance, and not suited for either of these amps, however, the bass is so bloated when connected to the 336c, that it is sort of fun, in a really grungy sort of way.
Here is where my review originally ended. I sent it off to L for feedback, and he responded with some good notes. I decided to let the amps sit for a week and then listen to them afresh and see if anything new came to my ears. Well, there is the power. The 336c is a more powerful amp. I don’t think I ever had to cross 9 o’clock to get my music loud enough, and that is with my quieter classical pieces. No big twists of the wrist are required for this one. It can also do one thing that the Crack can’t: drive the HE-500. It can drive those phones louder than I can listen with no distortion. I am not claiming that it is an ideal pairing, but with mellow vocal music, and jazz, it was pretty enjoyable. The 336c has a surprising amount of juice under the hood.
I did discover one other thing, and this one bummed me out, as I realized that I would once again have to write, “the Crack reigns supreme.” This involves tube rolling. The LF 336c has a naturally warm, laid back sound, and that sound is going to remain no matter what tubes I rolled. With the stock Chinese tubes, the sound was warm, laid back and bright, which was a very uncomfortable sound, although don’t hold that against the 336c as I didn’t like the stock tubes that came with the Crack either. However, the more neutral, cleaner and slightly more forward sound of the Crack makes it more responsive to tube rolling. It does a better job of taking on the sound of the tubes, where as the LF 336c will always have its sound being pulled in the warm, laid back direction. This just makes the Crack a better all around unit. Part of me was really hoping I would be the one to get to write, “the Bottlehead Crack has finally been bested!” I still might be able to, but not in this review. The thing is, I really do love the La Figaro 336c. If you are looking for a warm amp, with a laid back sound, and you have a preference to roll dark, you might love this amp as well. And its build is first rate. The Crack, however, has it beat in versatility, and that’s a fact. Sigh, the Crack still reigns supreme.
Still, this isn’t really a loss for the LF 336c as much as it is a win for us, the low budget audiophile. To hear Mike tell it, it was only a few years ago that, without a $1000 amp on your shelf, you could never really see what the HD650 could do. Now, we have two amps, both under $300 that can make the HD650, and boy does it sing. Isn’t it great to be spoiled for choice! And a special thanks to the people at Yuking Audio for bringing their wonderful 336c into the world. Anyone who owns a HD650, and has a budget to stick with, owes it to themselves to have one of these amazing amps on their shelf.