Review: The Massdrop Cavalli Tube Hybrid

The midrange and treble are all of a piece here.  They flow smoothly and naturally without any loss of detail as a result.  Obviously, there is no harshness in the midrange, nor anything piercing in the treble, but, as I said before, they are never dwarfed, or buried in any way by the bass.  There aren’t any worrisome spikes in the sound to contend with.  Vocal presence is also (I am getting tired of writing this word) natural.  In truth, the CTH retains the sound of whatever headphone you plug into it; it just adds a small touch of tubey smoothness to the sound, and weight to the bottom end.  For those who use tube amps as a form of EQ, this is not your amp.  For those who, like me prefer their amps as complimentary to their headphones, this is a most wonderful amp.

The soundstage is nice and open, with good width and depth.  Its resolution and micro detail are shockingly good at this price.  For those wondering how this pairs with Massdrop’s SDAC (and this is a fair question as the CTH does sometimes drop with the SDAC built in), they make a very fine, musical combination.  The Grace Design SDAC, reviewed here, is a killer, low budget USB DAC, with an off the charts price/performance ratio.  Pairing it with an amp that is also a price/performance beast is a no brainer.  However, the CTH is resolving enough that, when I switch over to my X-Sabre Pro, the differences in micro detail and soundstage are easily noticeable.  The CTH can scale surprisingly well.  However, if looking for a great sounding, DAC/AMP combo on the cheap, the SDAC and CTH make great bedfellows.

Comparing the CTH to the very nice SMSL T1 I reviewed some time ago, the CTH has more weight in the bass, is more open sounding and is more resolving than the T1’s amp section.  The T1 does come with a good built-in DAC, although I do prefer the similarly priced CTH/SDAC combo a bit more.  The T1 does have more input and output options.

I suppose I need to confess one more thing before I continue: I hate tube rolling.  The way I see it, tube rolling is an expensive crapshoot.  Spending how much time and money trying to find just the right tubes that will make your system sound its best… Well, if that is your idea of a good time, great!  I do know people who enjoy buying, mixing and matching different tubes; I am just not one of them.  Part of the problem for me, and why I often shy away from tube amps, is that the amp never seems to come with a tube that can show the amp at its best.  The way I see it, you should be able to use whatever tube comes stock with your amp, to show how good it is.  If you just spent $250 on an amp, you shouldn’t need to double that, just to hear the amp can really do.

This might actually be my favorite thing about the CTH: it comes with a tube that sounds like it was designed specifically for this amp.  The Electro-Harmonix 6922 is an amazing match, and like I said, you could swear the amp was built around this tube.  What’s more, the EH 6922 is a very inexpensive, current production tube.  It can be had for peanuts at any store that sells vacuum tubes, and as it is still being made, it is unlikely to disappear.  Now, for those who do like tube rolling, knock yourselves out.  And, if by chance you do find another tube that really does well in the CTH, please let us know.  For those like me, who don’t really have the taste (or the bank) for it, you don’t have to worry.

There is only one strike that I have to levy against the CTH, and it really isn’t even that.  It is just stopping me from giving this a universal, to anyone, anywhere, recommendation.  The CTH, like most amps that sport vacuum tubes, is happiest when driving high impedance headphones.  Now, the CTH sounded fine to good with everything I tried with it.  The Hifiman HE-560, Hifiman HE-400i, Base Audio G12, Grado SR-80e, and Mr. Speakers Aeon C (if something doesn’t sound good with the Aeon C, then that something is broken) all sound  good with the CTH, but the star of the show here is clearly the HD650.  As I said before, it has tremendous weight in the bass, but it does so without losing its normal pace (which, admittedly isn’t very fast, but it certainly isn’t any slower).  The whole thing sounds clean, very detailed, and insanely musical.  The CTH even helps the HD650 open up a little bit.  If you want to spend as little as possible and get a damn near end game amp for the HD650, this might be it.  I just wish I had other high impedance headphones to try out on the CTH.  It should be a great budget amp for the HD800.

Conclusion

But, getting back to that one strike, if you are looking for an entry level amp that does everything equally well, this isn’t quite it, as it does clearly show preference to the high impedance crowd.  Just to reiterate, it doesn’t sound bad with anything, it just isn’t quite the perfect all-a-rounder.  I am just not happy with myself if I don’t say something negative.

So, yeah, the CTH is another easy recommendation for me from Alex Cavalli and the good people at Massdrop.  For those who share my preference for what a tube amp should do, pair these with the HD650 (or the Massdrop 6XX, same thing), and enjoy your time in heaven.  The CTH retails for $249 and is available now at the other end of this link:

https://www.massdrop.com/buy/massdrop-x-alex-cavalli-cth-tube-hybrid-amp

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39 Comments

  • Reply May 3, 2018

    Totoro

    Good write-up!

    Damn fine amp for the money, did you try some IEM’s with it Dave? You’d be surprised! Anything under 32Ohm and you’ll be hearing the noise floor of the amp but damn good sound!

    You and the others are correct about the 650’s with this amp. Like Batman & Robin, a Dynamic Duo!

    Agree with you on the tube rolling phenom, I do a bit myself but you do start to question it’s purpose sometimes, thank Christ it only comes with one tube and that tube should be sufficient. I have however gone with a Russian NOS 61nP -EV which seems to be holding up well. Cheap as chips but sounds (to me) a greater step up from the EH6922.

    Kind regards,

    • Reply May 5, 2018

      Dave

      Glad you like the CTH. Where did you get your NOS tube, out of curiosity. I might have to give it a try some day.

  • Reply May 3, 2018

    DC

    Dave, could you clarify a doubt about the difference you spoke of the bass between a solid amplifier and a valved amp, the solid amp has more weight and strength in the bass than the valves? Do Amp otl also enter into this?
    Why they say 300ohms sennheiser with an otl amp is paradise.

    • Reply May 5, 2018

      Dave

      I (generally) find the bass on SS amps to be tighter, deeper and more detailed than with tube amps. Of course, there is tremendous variation with tube amps, so some setups will be better than others.

      OTL tube amps are designed to be used with high impedance headphones, like the Senn 6xx series. However, the HD650 just seems to always sound its best when connected to tube amps. I can’t really tell you why, it just seems to have synergy with tube amps.

      • Reply May 6, 2018

        DC

        You really liked the HD650 in this Hybrid amp, for a little more would have the options like the Amp otl BH Crack and the WA3, as you already know the BH Crack amplifier and also the Woo audio, for that extra value you get a noticeable improvement in the sound, or would have to raise the budget a lot to be different? I just want an amp that takes the 650 to the level it deserves. would appreciate your help.

        • Reply May 8, 2018

          mindhead1

          DC, I can’t speak about the CTH, although I’m very tempted, but I can tell you the my DarkVoice 336SE OTL and the 6xx are a match made in heaven. The stock tubes blew me away when I first listened to it. I didn’t think it could be better, but after spending about $100 on some additional tubes I have a setup I’m very happy with. End game happy.

          My solid state amps are the Topping NX4, Aune X1S 10th and the AudioEngine D1 and I like them with the 6xx in that order. None are close to being as good with the 6xx as the DV 336SE.

          • Reply May 10, 2018

            DC

            Would the 336SE OTL be on the same level as BH Crack?
            Do you know where to find the 336SE OTL dealer in Europe?

  • Reply May 4, 2018

    Jay

    How do you think it’d sound with EarSonics S-EM9s?

    I know, it’s a specific question, but it’s what I got, ha!

    • Reply May 10, 2018

      alex

      I have both. Its kind of hard to describe the effect without just saying that it “sounds better”, when I compare it a good mobile player like my LGV30 or my Dragonfly red.

      Its a very clean and warm sound. Details come out more and are more lush. I haven’t noticed it influencing the balance of the signature in any way. It kind of just brings out the best of the earphone and covers up its faults. Bass and treble still seems slightly elevated. The mids seem a little thicker, which is really nice since I find the mids to be a little thin on the SEM9 depending on the source. It never sounds muddled. Where I usually don’t like female vocals on the SEM9 they sound very nice and have good timbre through the CTX. Sound stage seems about the same.

      There is a bit of hiss as well but its not noticeable for me unless I’m not playing music. I don’t think its an exceptional amount of hiss and it doesn’t affect me in any way.

  • Reply May 4, 2018

    Jensen O'mali

    I always luv your review da most, Dave. Least exaggerated. Thank you.

  • Reply May 5, 2018

    Booker

    Mine arrived a few days ago. Hardly had any burn in but already sounds great. Pairs well with micro iDSD DAC (using RCA out to bypass the iDSD amp). The Massdrop HD6XXs sound nice but it also pairs well with the Bowers & Wilkins P7 which is a much easier to drive headphone. There’s nothing like good audio equipment that doesn’t break the wallet 🙂

  • Reply May 7, 2018

    Hermanni Savolainen

    Do you guys think it would be worth it to put the extra money in and grab a Burson soloist SL mkII over this. Which do you think would work better with AKG K712 pro:s

  • Reply May 14, 2018

    Lev

    Thanks for the great review. I was just trying to decide between this amp and the Beyerdynaics a20 for ny HD6XX…
    Probably gonna go with the CTH.

  • Reply May 23, 2018

    Devin

    Yo Dave I have a disagreement on the low impedance headphone part. I have a pair of Audeze LCD-2Cs & Focal Elexs that both sound phenomenal on the CTH. The caveat here is that with planars like the 2C the bass does get slowed down a bit. It doesn’t have that same visceral slam like a solid state would. However, it opens the 2Cs up a lot & injects more air into the treble beautifully so that’s the trade off. I will be tube rolling to see if I can get the fast bass back. Someone gave me a tube suggestion so I’ll post my findings when I buy it.

    There is no caveat for the Focal Elexs though. At only 80 ohms it shouldn’t pair well as you’d say but it’s the best sounding amp I’ve heard with them. Everything about the CTH takes the Elexs sound signature & takes it up to 10. They synergize so well.

    The Focal Clear (55 ohms) sounds amazing with it too, though I haven’t had as much time with those as I have the Elex.

    I’m madly in love with my CTH. An endgame tube amp for only $250 is an incredible value.

  • Reply June 9, 2018

    Michael

    This amp continues to delight and surprise. I can’t agree more with your review. It’s an amazing achievement and I wouldn’t shudder if it were priced 3 times higher.

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