Little Apex: The Butte

Having associated the Apex brand with high end amplifiers priced in the thousands of dollars region, most people me included are probably not going to be too excited at the idea of “the most affordable amplifier in the Apex line up”. What we want, after all, is the $2,000 Apex Peak, or even better the $10,000 Apex Pinnacle. But hey, the wallet has got a loud voice in all of these decisions and so the $500 Apex The Butte is the one we’re looking at this time.

I was pretty underwhelmed with the overall look of the Butte. In the world of desktop amps, size usually correlate to price and most importantly overall sound quality. The Butte, however, is probably the smallest dedicated desktop amplifier I’ve seen in a long time, right there with the Gilmore Lite from Head-Amp. The Schiit Asgard that sells for $250 actually looks more high end than the Butte, thanks to the more proper “desktop size” enclosure and classier chassis design. But hey, it’s all about the sound right, and so let’s talk about the sound.

I blew up the wall wart that comes with the Butte the first time I tried to turn it on. Todd had shipped me a 120V wall wart while the local voltage is 240V. And so I sent the whole amp and wall wart to be repaired. I noticed then that the wall wart is an AC-AC unit, and so all the power supply circuitry is probably located on inside the Butte. Well, I felt a little bit optimistic then, since you have a chance that the power supply rectification and regulation circuit would probably be better than if the Butte had relegated the duty solely to a generic switching wall wart.

I received the amp back in less than a week. The next day I’ve gotten the proper 240V-120V travo and so I’m ready to listen to the Butte. I plugged it in to the CEC TL51XZ CD player, where I also had the Apex Arete amp connected into. The headphone I happen to use was the Beyerdynamic T1. I played Horowitz in Moscow and listened. One second, two seconds, three, four.. this amplifier is good. Amazing clarity, soundstage imaging, resolution. I haven’t listened to the Arete in a while since I’ve been doing a lot of portable gears lately, and so I turned on the Arete and plugged in the T1 into the Arete. Amazing. The Butte is roughly comparable to the Arete. I needed more resolving headphones, I thought, and so I took the Sennheiser HD800 from the headphone hanger and listened to the recording through the HD800.

I didn’t use the Volcano power supply to even out the playing field a little bit and instead used the stock switching power supply with the Arete. The Arete clearly is the bigger sounding amp. Soundstage was wider, more grand, and the lows are weightier. But I can’t help but notice how well the Butte compares to the bigger amp that sells for twice its price tag. The soundstage was narrower but I find depth to be deeper on the Butte, likewise center soundstage image was better too. And if you’ve been following my reviews you would know by now that I put a lot of weight on soundstage depth and center image, since those two are the most difficult aspect to achieve from a two channel system.

The Arete had more weight in the lows and weighty lows are always a good thing. In that respect the Butte sounds lighter, though it is not a bottom-light amp. The weightier sound of the Arete also gives instruments a more proper weight when played through the Arete. But guess what, the Butte countered with a fuller sounding mids with a punchier mid bass. Not only is the midrange fuller on the Butte, but I also keep on noticing how sweet and clear-sounding the mids on the Butte is, compared to the Arete. Technically, it’s more difficult to achieve the weightier lows of the Arete, but when it comes to music listening, it’s a give and take and I don’t think the frequency balance of the Arete is necessarily more superior than the Butte’s. Crap. Did I just make the Arete looks bad in front of the smaller, cheaper offering of the same brand?

Keep in mind what I said earlier, that there is no mistaking that the Arete clearly is the bigger sounding amp from the two. But it’s how the Butte that manages to pull off such an impressive presentation despite having less “under the hood” that makes it shine more in this comparison. If I can assign numbers here, the Butte probably scores 90% to 95% of what the Arete is while only priced at 50% of the Arete.

I talked to Pete Millet about this and he responded by saying that though the Butte is based on a different, simpler architecture than the Arete, it is actually more accurate and has less distortion than the bigger Arete. And this would explain the better soundstage center image, better depth and clearer midrange that I’m hearing on the Butte.

I don’t know if it would make sense to put the same circuitry currently found in the Butte inside of a bigger casing, cause I can’t seem to grasp how big the Butte really sounds just looking at that small box. And I know that some people have the same predisposition that I have. It’s heavily biased, I know, but somehow it’s so strongly ingrained in my mindset that it constantly get in the way of me making a good judgement. Despite the fact that this is a really really excellent amplifier. And with a clearer and fuller midrange than the Arete? I’m sold.

We’re talking about a really small amp here.

 

This is a size comparison with the ALO Rx Mk2 portable amp. It may not look that small in this shot, but remember we’re talking about a desktop versus a portable amp here.

 

And this is a side view.

 

And this is the Butte with the AC adaptor.

 

Little Apex: The Butte
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56 Comments

  • Reply September 27, 2011

    CccC

    Damn I’m tempted. Looking for an amp for my home setup, and was contemplating on a La Figaro 339 (used to be DarkVoice), massive tube amp. After reading your review, now I’m not too sure about my decision anymore.. lol.

    • Reply September 28, 2011

      Anonymous

      I haven’t listened to the La Figaro 339 but all I can say is that the Butte is one great sounding box!

      • Reply September 28, 2011

        CccC

        I seriously don’t know how to decide properly at the moment.. I’m just itchy all over for tubes lol. Gah. I’ll take some time back to relax, let this itchiness fade off, and remake my decision. Great review again Mike! 🙂

        Oh if it helps,the headphone I’d be pairing with the amp will be the Sennheiser HD650 which I hardly use (cause if you still remember me, I still use earbuds alot more),  so I was thinking about getting home setup to utilise the HD650 more often. For 400~600USD, if you have any other amps in mind you may just let me know if it doesn’t trouble you too much. 🙂

        • Reply September 28, 2011

          Anonymous

          Well if you’re itchy for tubes then go and get a tube amp!

          Although from my experience, Chinese tube amps tend to be mellow sounding, which would further over-mellow the HD650. Based on that consideration I would think that the Butte is a better choice.

  • Reply September 27, 2011

    FrznCdn

    Hi Mike,

    Long time reader, first time commenter.  Fantastic review – I’ve been looking to get a quality solid state amp in a smaller form factor, and was looking at the Graham Slee SRG II, until this article was posted just now (the Apex’s were always a bit out of my price range).

    How would you compare the two, as you described the Graham Slee as having a great midrage as well?

    Appreciate all your work!

    Alex

    • Reply September 28, 2011

      Anonymous

      Hi Alex,
      Yes the Graham Slee SRG II is another great amp. Here is the primary difference between them: The Slee is a mellower, thicker sounding amp. It clearly is trying to be more like a tube amp in that sense. The Butte on the other hand is a more lively open sounding amp a direct descendant of the Peak’s sound signature.
      The midrange is great on both amps, though with a different presentation. The Slee again is a thicker and mellower midrange, where on the Butte you get a clearer sounding midrange while still sounding relatively full.
      With headphones like the Beyerdynamics or the Grados, for instance, I think I can use some of the smoothing out effect of the Slee. Whereas with a Sennheiser (Sennheiser tend to have a smoother sound incorporated into all their headphones), I would pair it with the Butte.

  • Reply September 27, 2011

    Mast3r_5ega

    Mike, seems that the Butte need to head2head with GS Novo 😀

    • Reply September 28, 2011

      Anonymous

      Yes a pity we don’t have the Novo around.. but my gut feeling tells me (and by the comparison to the Arete too), that the Butte would score better technically.

  • Reply September 27, 2011

    XTZ

    Mike,

    How much driving power does the Butte have? What headphones would be a good pairing with this amp? How does it compare to other amps like Matrix M-Stage or Schiit Audio Lyr?

    • Reply September 28, 2011

      Anonymous

      Good question.

      The Butte actually comes with roughly the same voltage gain as the bigger Arete and Peak. So if I’m playing the HE-500 at the 10 O’clock mark in the Peak, I would roughly play it at the same level on the Butte. Now power delivery is definitely sufficient since I don’t hear any distortion.
      Having said that, some people equate driving power as being how much bass impact you can get from the amplifiers (better impact translated to more power), and in that sense I think the Matrix and the Lyr would give you a better impact than the Butte. The area where the Butte shines is refinement, clarity, overall sound quality. It is totally above the Matrix and also better than the Lyr in that sense.

  • Reply September 27, 2011

    coolbreeze

    Hi Mike,

    Excellent review on an excellent AND affordable product! I’m sold man ^^

    However I’m having some questions regarding this. I have a plan to get me a desktop amp with good detail level, soundstage, instrument separation and most importantly I need a decent speed. So how would this Butte do compared to GS Solo SRG II (w/ PSU 1) and Meier Corda Concerto?
    (I actually have my eyes on the new Corda Jazz, but since I think you’re more familiar with the Concerto, I ask you this)

    Cheers ^^

    • Reply September 28, 2011

      Anonymous

      Hi coolbreeze. 

      With the Graham Solo II here is what I wrote from the comments earlier: 

      “Yes the Graham Slee SRG II is another great amp. Here is the primary difference between them: The Slee is a mellower, thicker sounding amp. It clearly is trying to be more like a tube amp in that sense. The Butte on the other hand is a more lively open sounding amp a direct descendant of the Peak’s sound signature. 
      The midrange is great on both amps, though with a different presentation. The Slee again is a thicker and mellower midrange, where on the Butte you get a clearer sounding midrange while still sounding relatively full. With headphones like the Beyerdynamics or the Grados, for instance, I think I can use some of the smoothing out effect of the Slee. Whereas with a Sennheiser (Sennheiser tend to have a smoother sound incorporated into all their headphones), I would pair it with the Butte.”
      Compared to the Concerto, the Butte has a little more color, warmer sounding, and overall I think it is less dry than the Concerto. The Concerto is a very straight, colorless sounding amp and it’s a little too dry for my taste. 

      • Reply September 28, 2011

        coolbreeze

        Thanks Mike. Think I’d stay away from the Concerto for now. If only they had designed the Concerto just a little bit less dry, I’d have been heavily interested in the active ground topology + cross feed function.

        The actual problem is, I’m having a feeling that the Solo has made my DT880/600 a little slower (I could be wrong, of course). It’s nice with slower songs though. OTOH I need an amp upgrade from my DACPort, something that’s what I told you above.

        So, would the Butte fix this for me? Is this much better than the DACPort’s amp?

        • Reply September 28, 2011

          Anonymous

          Lol I didn’t know you actually own a Beyerdynamic. Yes it can have a slowing effect on the sound, with the Solo.
          The Butte? Of course it’s a much better amp than the DACport, but if you use it with that DACport (non LX) then you’ll be double amping.

  • Reply September 28, 2011

    Joe Siow

    Hi Mike

    You are truly killing me with this review. The price for Arete ruled it out for me. The Butte, however, is a different ball game entirely with it sounding 90% similar to Arete for 50% of its price. I have an option purchasing either this amp or a used Burson HA-160 at SGD 550 from a friend.

    I would greatly appreciate if you could briefly compare theButte and Burson HA-160. Which would you choose for a HD600 and my music collection (60% Jazz, 25% Pop, 10% Soundtracks, 5% Rock)?

    Cheers
    Joe

    • Reply September 28, 2011

      Anonymous

      Good question Joe, 
      The HA-160 vs the Butte, briefly what stands out is the different sound signature. The HA-160 is more upfront, punchy bass, aggressive sound. The Butte is a more moderate-pace amplifier with a slightly more relaxed presentation than the HA-160 and with a better air. 

      For Jazz I’d definitely take the Butte that’s for sure. I’m also leaning toward the Butte for Pop and Soundtracks, also stuff like Folk, Indie, Acoustic, Blues, Country. 

      The Burson would be better for Rock, Metal, Techno, House, and other Electronic music. 

      • Reply September 30, 2011

        Joe Siow

        Thanks Mike. It’s so tough to decide on a desktop setup! Choices, choices, choices!

  • Reply September 28, 2011

    P. J.

    I like the looks of this small amp. Too bad it uses a wallwart adaptor, most products at this price have everything built in. Could you compare it to Asgard, Mike?
    Btw I like the fact that it has two inputs (I assume they are of the same quality?).
    Thanks for sharing

    • Reply September 28, 2011

      Anonymous

      Good question.. and yes in a way I too think that it would be better if they can incorporate the travo inside the same casing, and make the casing bigger. Less hassle in my opinion, but perhaps they were aiming for a smaller footprint to use as small office desktop amp. 

      I can’t quite comment on how they are different in the technicalities as I don’t have the Asgard here to do an A-B on, but what I remember is that the Asgard has a similar sound presentation except for the mids where the Butte is fuller. 

      One more thing, but this is just from my general experience of chip-based amps to discrete-based amps. The Butte is chip-based and the Asgard is discrete based. From experience, the chip amps would shine in having a more coherent, “one voice” sound, often a better soundstage coherence, better center image, better depth. Discrete based amps would shine in having a more linear frequency response, leading to a better low bass (I do remember the Asgard’s low bass being better than the Butte) and a wider soundstage, and maybe also a blacker background.

  • Reply September 28, 2011

    Spencer Chan

    Hey Mike,  how does the butte compare with burson’s ha-160?

    • Reply September 28, 2011

      Anonymous

      Good question Spencer, here is copy and pasted from the earlier comments: 

      “The HA-160 vs the Butte, briefly what stands out is the different sound signature. The HA-160 is more upfront, punchy bass, aggressive sound. The Butte is a more moderate-pace amplifier with a slightly more relaxed presentation than the HA-160 and with a better air. For Jazz I’d definitely take the Butte that’s for sure. I’m also leaning toward the Butte for Pop and Soundtracks, also stuff like Folk, Indie, Acoustic, Blues, Country. The Burson would be better for Rock, Metal, Techno, House, and other Electronic music.”

  • Reply September 28, 2011

    Themiddlesky

    Nice review mike, this little amp looks so promising huh 😀

    btw, about this sentence:
    “Not only is the midrange fuller on the Butte, but I also keep on
    noticing how sweet and clear-sounding the mids on the Arete is.”

    at the last 2 words, is that suppose to be Butte instead of Arete?

    • Reply September 28, 2011

      Anonymous

      You got that right man. That’s supposed to be the Butte. Bottom line is Butte’s mids is better than the Arete.

      • Reply September 29, 2011

        WarriorAnt

        “You got that right man. That’s supposed to be the Butte.”    Can’t you fix the print to keep this line from confusing everyone?  

        • Reply September 29, 2011

          Anonymous

          Yes I will fix it.

          • Reply September 30, 2011

            WarriorAnt

            Cool because now I’m even more interested in the Butte.

            • Reply September 30, 2011

              Anonymous

              Thanks. Error is now fixed.

  • Reply September 28, 2011

    Guest

    mike..how would you compare this to the amp section of Dacmini??

    • Reply September 29, 2011

      Anonymous

      I think the Dacmini’s amp section is good because it’s inside one box as the DAC hence the signal path can be very short. The amplifier however can’t be quite compared to the Butte. The Butte is more natural, organic, and the music flows better through it.

  • Reply October 16, 2011

    Johnny

    Hello Mike,

    I am a Fiio E9 user.  Could you let me know the similarities and differences between the Butte and E9, please?

    Thank you very much.

    Johnny

    • Reply October 17, 2011

      Anonymous

      Hi Johny,
      Both are headphone amplifiers, but that’s where the similarities end.

  • Reply October 24, 2011

    Guest

    mike..have you ever heard the gilmore lite?? i’m currently thinking of buying a small-ish transportable amp.. how does it compare to the gilmore lite?? also, given the price diffrence, does it completely trump the e9?? lol..

    • Reply October 24, 2011

      Anonymous

      Yes heard the Glite many times, even did a review on it too.

      https://www.headfonia.com/headamp-gilmore-lite/

      Now, while the Glite is an excellent little amp, I think the Butte is quite ahead in terms of musicality.
      And yes the Butte is waay ahead of the E9. 🙂

      • Reply October 24, 2011

        Guest

        oh..nice.. but the butte is having mixed impressions in head-fi.. check this post http://www.head-fi.org/t/567764/butte-review-and-new-loaner-program#post_7816531.. did you experience the same technical issues??

      • Reply October 25, 2011

        Guest

        oh..nice.. but the butte is having mixed impressions in head-fi.. check this post http://www.head-fi.org/t/56776….. did you experience the same technical issues??

  • Reply November 9, 2011

    Jfteuber

    Mike:
    I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I really enjoy how you are so candid, open and humble in your writing, as when you admit biases like being impressed with size and casework. Helps ease some of my own guilt about materialistic neuroses. It also lets us know that we can trust your opinions, as you seem to hide nothing–“let it all hang out.” I love this site.

    • Reply November 9, 2011

      jeffreyfranz

      Mike, that’s me, jeffreyfranz, above. It didn’t use my username that time, for some reason.

      • Reply November 9, 2011

        Anonymous

        Thanks, Jeffrey.

        Hopefully I can maintain the same standard in the years to come. 🙂

  • Reply November 25, 2011

    musicdiddy

    Hi Mike, I don’t know if this has been asked before but would the Butte be suitable for use with custom iems’s? I am looking for a good desktop amp to use for my bedside rig and this might be a good choice.

    • Reply November 25, 2011

      Mike

      Sorry for failing to mention that anywhere in the review. The Butte has a pretty high gain and I wouldn’t recommend it with IEMs.

      This is taken from the Apex Peak & Arete review (which comes with the same gain as the Butte):

      Headphone Pairings
      Both the Peak and the Arete are built with
      a relatively high gain (23dB on the Peak, 21dB on the Arete). With the
      Sennheiser HD800, I listen on roughly the 9 O’clock mark. The LCD-2 is
      slightly higher than that, and the HE-500 is slightly higher than the
      LCD-2. The HE-6 requires the most gain, but the amps do a good job at
      driving the HE-6 roughly at the 12 O’clock mark. The amps sound great
      with all of the big full sizes I use on this review: HD800, HE-500,
      HE-6, LCD-2, provided that you know the character of the music you are
      listening to and use the proper headphone for that music. Due to the
      high gain, I wouldn’t recommend pairing them with an IEM, except if you
      happen to use something with very low sensitivity like the Etymotics
      ER4.

  • Reply December 1, 2011

    Bulmanxxi

    So how does it compare to the Asgard?  Thanks.

    • Reply December 1, 2011

      Mike

      A few things,
      1. Different tonality. Butte is more mid-centric and is clearer. Asgard is more linear, slightly darker, better bass body. 2. Whilst the Butte exhibits a more high end sound, it is also undeniable that the Asgard is the better all rounder. But again, high end amps are usually pretty genre specific.

  • Reply December 27, 2011

    Sickdrummer182

    Hi, can the Butte power the HE-6 to high volume levels without clipping?

  • Reply April 7, 2012

    Jongheon Park

    What genre is this amp good for?

    • Reply April 7, 2012

      Mike

      More into Jazz, Blues, maybe Indie, Instruments

  • Reply August 7, 2012

    라키 황

    I’m guessing if I listen to alot of female vocals, and modern pop, and I have the LCD-2 rev2, I should go for the Butte over the Arete? The thing is, I really like weighty bass since I listen to a lot of dubstep.

  • Reply September 3, 2012

    Kis Ákos

    Hi Mike!
    I have purchased a Butte a few minutes ago.
    In my country the voltage is 240V.
    Can I use it with 240V voltage?

    • Reply September 3, 2012

      Mike

      I think you need to ask Apex Audio about that, but they should be able to give you a power supply for 240V.

  • Reply September 8, 2012

    Kis Ákos

    You were right. Can you give me a comparison beetween the Butte and the Woo Audio WA6?

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