Tisbury Audio: Challenge Amp 1

_ (Un)Fortunately Sonny has done a great job already in describing the amplifier and how it sounds. I have to say I can agree with his findings but I will of course give you my point of view on the Tisbury Challenge Amp 1 in a reduced review as well.

The Box

Tisbury is a company that focuses on the technical side of things and when looking at the Tisbury website, you can clearly see that in all the technical specs and design details. But not only has the tech stuff make it look good, the design of the Amp 1 is absolutely stunning.

Unlike Sonny’s unit, my amp arrived dent free and I have to say it is one of the nicest looking amplifiers I have had at home in a long time. The wood and aluminum combination is simply stunning to look at and the lay-out of the CA1 is simple but effective. I even have it sitting in the middle of the living room and my girlfriend hasn’t complained once about it not fitting in to the interior. It actually is smaller than you would think measuring only 204mm x 170mm x 74mm. The only issue I have with the CA1 is that it is so light you have to hold the amp down when plugging in or unplugging your headphones, if not the amp will move all over the place. Some extra weight or more slide resistant feet would have been nice in my opinion.

Sonny has more than sufficiently covered the technical part but I do want to highlight a couple of things. For starters the Muting Relay: a muting circuit with turn on delay and fast acting AC detection protects your headphones from any harmful transients during power on/off. If the AC supply is switched off or interrupted, your headphones are disconnected instantly. The front LED displays the status of the protection circuitry: Blue = normal operation. And green = muting circuit active. I think we can all remember the reports of a certain American made amplifier where the amp killed several headphone drivers because of this, so it was nice to see this “security” implemented in their design/

Secondly, the power supply: an off board mains transformer with low noise. Forget about using one of your fancy power cords, this amp comes with its own wall charger. Less fancy is the UK power cord termination, so you will have to use an adapter to be able to plug in your amp. (The adapter is supplied by Tisbury in their defense). I would advise those wanting even more technical data to check out the full specs here.

Sound

I have been using the Cypher Labs Theorem and especially the Resonessence Labs Herus as source for the CA1. Headphones used were the Sennheiser HD650, Audeze LCD-2, Hifiman HE-500, NAD Viso HP50, Philips L2, Beyerdynamic DT770.

Before going into detail on these headphone & amp combinations you have to know that the CA1 sound really is like Sonny described it: Bass, present and detailed but doesn’t have the biggest body. Mids are detailed but more forward and a maybe little on thin side (as in body wise). Treble is detailed and nicely extended. Overall a fast, clear, detailed and more forward sounding transparent solid state sound. Sound stage is fairly good and focus is on vocals. Our returning readers know we usually do prefer a warmer, smooth sound with good body and mids but not everyone likes that. If you do like bass, warmth and body however, I’m afraid this amplifier isn’t the one for you. This amp is all about clarity, vocals, air and detail. And that can be really good!

For me personally it makes my beloved Senn HD650 not sound the way I want it to sound: I love the thick sound and bass and I don’t want to clear it up. One thing I don’t really agree with Sonny is that I do find the amp to have a rather big impact on the headphone’s sound. Power wise you don’t need to worry, it will drive as good as anything. But back to the HD650, this combo just isn’t for me but I didn’t expect it to be either given the characteristics of the amp.

The NAD Viso HP50 is a uniquely tuned headphone (review upcoming) with special kind of mids. I can’t say I really liked this combination. I’m having a hard enough time already to love the HP50 and in combination with this amp it just isn’t working for me: especially the body in the bass and mids are missing too much for my ears.

The Philips Fidelio L2 is a great all-rounder and of course doesn’t need a lot of amplification. However the CA1 drives it really nicely; bass and mids have good detail and treble is great. I’m really digging this setup and the L2 scales up nicely. With this headphone there is no issue whatsoever with the more forward sound signature of this amp. Recommended, especially with strong vocally music!

The DT770 AE/32Ohm, which we all love, doesn’t need much amping either but always sounds better when properly amped. This is one of those headphones that can really change depending on the amplifier used. You can make it sound really bassy and warm (like with a Duet) or you can clear it up. And that’s exactly what this amp does; it clears up the DT770 for those who like it. Lovely detail, great mids and bass and perfect treble. A great combination, the best so far.

With the Hifiman HE-500 you have to turn up the volume or use the gain switch. I personally preferred using high gain over more volume and this is something that rarely happens but for some reason this works on the CA1. The result is a clear and detailed sounding HE-500 with great vocals and treble. I’m convinced the majority of HE-500 owners will love the sound out of this CA1. I myself always tend to use the HE-500 with a warm tube amp or with the warmer sounding V200 solid state amp. While I have to admit this combination sounds really good, I love it even more with some more warmth and bass. But I have to be honest and give Tisbury credit for this combo, it sounds sublime.

The Audeze LCD-2 sounds best on low gain and so the volume dial goes right up to 12 o’clock. Kind of the same thing happens as with the HE-500. Great clarity, vocals treble and details and voices sound superb. Big difference here is that you do get a rather impactful bass. It does make the Audeze very clear and slightly more forward sounding but with vocals and classic music I can really appreciate this combo. For myself, I would still rather use the V200 or even Theorem (an awesome setup) though.

Conclusion

I am positively surprised with this little amp. I didn’t expect it to sound this good with that many headphones. Like I said before this amp is all about transparency, clarity, detail, vocals and treble. If you like a sound signature like the Violectric amps this unit isn’t the one for you. If however you’re into classical music or you listen to music where the vocals are very important (like Anna Ternheim, Melody Gardot, etc) you are in for a serious treat!

This amp will set you back 349£, comes with a 3 year(!) warranty and can only be bought directly from the manufacturer. Do check out their website and if this sounds like an amp you might like, you really should take them up on that 30 day trial period!

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Lieven is living in Europe and he's the leader of the gang. He's running Headfonia as a side project next to his full time day job in Digital Marketing & Consultancy. He's a big fan of tube amps and custom inear monitors and has published hundreds of product reviews over the years.

13 Comments

  • Reply June 19, 2014

    spudgered

    Great review guys as you’ve pretty much nailed the sonic signature of this compact headphone amplifier. I acquired one recently and though it’s extraordinarily transparent, the sound is just too polite and lacking in grungy grunt (think more bass euphony) for my taste, so my classical loving father now has it. One aesthetic thing that bugged me, was the way the mains adapter pin only pushed halfway into the amps power socket, otherwise it’s a very nicely designed unit.

    • Reply June 19, 2014

      L.

      It does do that indeed. thanks for the compliment.
      It is a great unit, especially for classic and Vocals

  • Reply June 19, 2014

    Rūdolfs Putniņš

    Looking good. I’d ditch the input caps, but that’s just me. Also there’s plenty space on the board to get a small tranny and not use a wallwart.

    Opamp+buffer circuits have a very good potential to sound good.

    • Reply June 21, 2014

      ohm image

      Tranny…

      • Reply June 21, 2014

        Rūdolfs Putniņš

        Well, sometimes it’s good to have a tranny or two on board!

  • Reply June 19, 2014

    Peter Janušič

    L you should have not read Sonny’s review before you made yours.

    • Reply June 20, 2014

      L.

      Who says I did? I even had my unit before he did and made my analysis. I just wrote the full text after he sent me his review. Don’t assume. But anyway even then it wouldn’t have mattered, it sounds the way it sounds. The only difference now is I didn’t need to repeat the technical part. Anyone who has heard the unit will agree with both our opinions, I’m sure. The comment below even proves that. Just to be clear we’re on the same level, I didn’t appreciate that comment 😉

      • Reply June 20, 2014

        Peter Janušič

        Thats what I gathered from you first sentence, didn’t assume anything. If you didn’t then I am sorry for the missunderstandment. For me your review wouldn’t be valid if you read his first.

        • Reply June 20, 2014

          L.

          I understand, but I’m pretty sure that any reviewer has read something of the product in question before making their own review.

          We’ve done dozens of double reviews here on Headfonia and sometimes the opinions of the reviewers do not match. Again, proof that reading another review first has no real impact on the review. At least imho

    • Reply June 20, 2014

      dalethorn

      It’s a tough choice, yes? (not really). A choice between the small possibility of influence and the very real possibility of learning things that save a lot of time and work. The good reviewers will save that time when they can, then they will dig in and see where the differences are. Good reviewers have to do that anyway, since sometimes there are sample differences, sometimes an earlier review misses something – many possibilities. Since amps come before headphones in the signal path, they not only have their own sonic properties – they create different effects in headphones that aren’t always predictable in advance. So I would expect any good reviewer to have as much information from other sources and reviews in advance of doing their own review, so they can predict some of the sonic effects in advance, as a starting point. Just because you start there is no assurance that you’ll end up there. Reviews can chew up a *lot* of valuable hours, so every bit of information from reliable sources helps to get the job done.

  • Reply June 23, 2014

    Michael

    Thanks for the review, guys. Do you think this is a good amp for Sony MA900, or Graham Slee/Yulong is better?

    • Reply June 23, 2014

      L.

      I’m not familiar with this headphone, sorry

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