M-Stage compared to Burson HA-160
The Burson HA-160 is my new favorite solid state amplifier, and this is is as unfair as comparisons get, as the Burson sells for more than double the price of the M-stage ($699 vs $289). The Burson build quality definitely shows the upper hand. But when we’re starting to talk about sound signatures, then the two can be just as good depending on your signature preference. The M-stage is warmer and not as energetic as the $699 Burson amp, but I don’t feel it to be too mellow either. I’m certainly liking how it plays U2’s The Joshua Tree album with either the HD800 and the HE5LE. The amplifier definitely has a good coherence in its sound, and it’s a sound that is easy to fall in love with. It may not have the Burson’s superior soundstage performance, bass punch, or the authoritative bass, but I am totally enjoying the sound. When paired with the HE5LE, I actually prefer the presentation of the M-stage, which tames the treble a little better, while giving a more coherent soundstage image.
Considering the price of the M-Stage, you wouldn’t have guessed that it can perform so well in the soundstage presentation. Somehow similar to the EF5 amplifier, the M-Stage presents a good and coherent soundstage image. With the HD800, the M-Stage does have better center image than the Burson, but the discrepancy is not that great, The M-Stage’s soundstage is shaped like a nice sphere in front of you, where with the Burson, there is a greater freedom of the placement of the instruments.
Playing vocal tracks, surprisingly the M-stage gives a better vocal presence than the Burson. The Burson is slightly dryer for vocals, where the M-stage is smoother and more pleasant.
M-Stage compared to the Hifiman EF5
If the Burson is my current favorite solid state, then the EF5 is my current favorite tube amp (entry level). Talking aesthetics, EF5’s glossy front panel simply looks better than the M-Stage. What I do like about the M-Stage is the one enclosure simplicity, as well as the solid weight of the amplifier chassis that doesn’t topple easily when I’m plugging and unplugging a headphone.
When compared to the Hifiman EF5 amp, the M-Stage doesn’t quite have the unique tube coloration of the stock RCA Clear Top 12AU7 tube, but as a solid state, the M-Stage has a different warm coloration than the EF5. The EF5 is slightly more emphasized in the midrange, where the M-Stage is generally more neutral, but with the same warmth. The EF5’s has a slight bump in the midrange to midbass area, and it’s a very pleasing coloration. The M-stage is more neutral on those areas, and instead of the midrange bump, you’re getting a superior midrange clarity than on the EF5. The EF5 is more mellow than the M-Stage, but I’d still consider both amps more to the “mellow” sounding group. The M-Stage has a wider soundstage, but the EF5 has a much deeper depth in the soundstate. Between the two, there are enough plus and minuses to make the choice close to a draw. While the midrange bump on the EF5 makes it the better pairing with the HE5LE headphone, but the synergy of the M-Stage with the HE5LE is not so far behind the EF5. In fact, I’m enjoying the HE5LE more from the M-Stage than the other more expensive solid state amps like the Burson or the Grace.
The EF5 in its stock form sounds like a tube amp with good clarity, where the M-Stage sounds like a solid state with warmth. Ultimately the M-Stage has an upper edge in clarity, but that doesn’t put it above the EF5 in terms of musicality. It’s like choosing between a Ferrari F430 or a Shelby Cobra. Of course the versatility of the M-Stage is a little superior, where the 4-steps gain adjustments allow you to use an IEM with the amplifier.
The M-Stage comes with a stock OPA2134 opamp mounted in a socket. Accessing the opamp is fairly easy, just unscrew the four screws that hold the top plate, and locate the opamp sitting behind the blue colored ALPS potentiometer. The M-Stage’s supply voltage to the opamps are ±15V, so that eliminates any opamp that has a maximum input lower than ±15, including the AD8066.
Changing the opamp with OPA627 gives you an instant boost in sound quality: more open sound, better transparency, clearer treble, yada yada yada. I need to mention, however, that the OPA627 is not a direct plug in to the M-Stage’s socket. You need to get two OPA627s and fit them on a single-to-dual channel adapter, before fitting it on the M-Stage.
The AD797 opamp, gives an even clearer sound than the OPA627. I don’t know if this is the general performance of AD797s, because my BRZ version is supposedly the better quality version. It has a more treble centric performance and a thinner sound than the OPA627, however. But clarity and refinement is quite better on the OPA627. As with the OPA627, you need single-to-dual adapter to fit this on the M-Stage.