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.