Disclaimer: A couple of weeks ago Wes from Tisbury Audio contacted me to see if we were interested in reviewing his new amplifier, the Challenge Amp 1. While I had never heard of Tisbury Audio I am always keen on checking out new gear, especially when it is made in Europe. At the same time this is a dual review with Sonny from inearspace.co.uk and myself. We’ve for a long time been looking to do something together et voila! Headfonia is is no way connected to Tisbury Audio and both our review samples will go back to Tisbury Audio after the review.
Normal text is from Sonny, text in blue is from myself (L.) Enjoy!
Page 1: The Amp (Sonny)
Page 2: The Sound – Part 1 (Sonny)
Page 4: L’s Take on the Challenge Amp 1
It’s not the biggest deal in the world but I am 100% British yet 95% of my audio collection is manufactured elsewhere. This isn’t me having a dig at stuff made overseas but there certainly is a sense of patriotism when you get a product that is made just up the road from me. That’s the case with the latest headphone amplifier I am to get my hands on, the Tisbury Audio Challenge Amp 1, it is handmade, not far from me in London, that’s each individual unit they make, hand assembled, not something so commonly done these days! This is only their second product and it is very simple in that it is a headphone amplifier, nothing fancy going on, no pre-amp settings or digital inputs, it only plays in the analogue domain and simply has just one input and output. Tisbury have decided to stick a £349 price tag onto the CA-1, which is fairly modest, for something of so bold claims. You can also grab a 30 day free trial with the amp, there is nothing like trying before you buy and I heavily recommend taking up that offer if you’re in the market for an amp, reading a review is one thing but actually trying it is another!
When I said it was simply an amplifier I was not exaggerating, you have one, single ended RCA input and one, single ended ¼ inch headphone out. We do have a gain switch as well that allows us to swap between 6 dB (2x) and 16 dB (6.3x) that has proven to be well selected, giving a solid option for IEMs and full sized headphones. It does have a couple of nifty little tricks like the LED on the front changes from green to blue when it enters playback and then when its muting circuit (handy in its own right for not blowing your headphones) is activated it goes to green. Specification wise they have some very attractive points such as a close to 0 ohm output impedance so with multi BA IEMs with crazy impedance curves you will not get a skewed frequency response and with low impedance headphones you will never suffer an over dampened bass response. It can also output some serious wattage, with this being designed with the power hungry HiFiMAN HE-500 and the CA-1 can put out 1010mW to 50 ohms and 945mW to 32 ohms so it’s no slouch if that something to concern you.
The headphone amplifier section is designed around Texas Instruments LME49600 op amp, which they have selected as the output buffer after 18 months of testing and I can imagine a fair bit of chopping and changing was done with different buffers to get to where they finished. The main focus with the parts what to minimize anything that can interfere with sound and cause degradation in any way or shape and makes it immune to ground loops.
They also put a lot of thought into the power supply with them deciding to use an off board mains transformer. The transformer gives a clean AC to the 7,200 µF capacitor bank, which in turn feeds a noiseless power supply. Having the transformer off board makes a lot of sense because it completely isolates itself away from the audio circuitry and this basically puts a full stop on there ever being any annoying humming. It also allows upgrades to be under taken, if you’re someone who feels up to it maybe, it might even see Tisbury do one them self in the future!
Maybe like me, one of the initial reasons that this product caught your eye was the enclosure, which in my experience at the least, is unique. While the main PCB is enclosed in a fairly mundane 3mm aluminum enclosure that doesn’t stray too far from what I have seen time and time again, that is then sitting in a rather beautiful wooden “nest”. It definitely grabbed my attention mainly due to it just being different and positioned next to my wooden Fischer Audio FA-011 LE headphones which are sitting on my wooden omega style headphone stand, I can indeed say I have got wood and it is a very aesthetic combination! There is one bit of the design that has really grated on my inner OCD and that is the volume pot being stuck on the left side of the front panel, in opposed to being on the far right like all my other components and a position I have become accustomed to, but can I truly even moan at that.
The solid American black walnut cradle is not just for show though; it has copper shielding so also plays a part in isolation and all the geeky stuff (and should it be any other way). That being said I was a bit disappointed to find a small dent in the wood of mine on arrival, nothing huge but clearly noticeable and as far as I am aware mine was a brand new unit. Parts throughout out this product try and stick to that British theme and if the part can be sourced in Britain, it has been. They also boast that they have stuck with top quality components using the smooth Alps Blue Velvet volume pot, Neutrik jacks on the input and outputs, Panasonic caps and Susami 0.1% thin film resistors.
It is a fairly compact item for a desktop piece, smaller than the similarly priced Yulong A28 for example with quite a thin structure but one that is a but taller that my others, which makes for a slightly stocky look. The feet have come across a bit lack luster and they are just small rubber dimples, not too dissimilar to what some portable gear like the Epiphany Acoustic E-DAC or Fiio E17 and it just doesn’t feel quite as substantial as I would like for a desktop piece.
Sound on Page 2