Endgame for $300?
There's a lot of hype around this amp. Some saying it's not all that and others saying it's an endgame amp for entry level money. What's the truth? In my opinion, the answer lies in what you plug into it. The short answer is very nearly, "For $300, just f****** buy it." But it's not quite that simple. For a better explanation, read on. If this is too much, go the bottom for my final thoughts.
I received my 789 in September, 2019. At the time, I had somewhat recently purchased a Violectric V281 (balanced class A) and matching V850 DAC. I got the set used, but the new retail prices were around $2300 for the amp with remote control option and $1600 for the DAC. Curiosity about the 789 had gotten the better of me though and I needed to know what the fuss was about. So I ordered it..
First of all, the V850 is a perfectly good DAC, but it's an older design and nothing too special these days. After hearing what the 789 could do, I ended up buying the Airist R-2R DAC off Drop as well. I found the performance basically indistinguishable from the V850. $350 vs. $1600 new retail, remember. Save this thought about the DACs for later. Comparing the amps, the V281 set a new bar across the board for me, when I got it. Yet, the 789 revealed its strengths and weaknesses. The 789's highlights were hands down better low bass and higher resolution, especially on simpler passages. In complex passages, I thought the v281 held its ground better. The advantage of the Class A v281 however, was heft. Individual sounds had more weight, realism and just plain sounded more like they were really happening. The v281 was a little warmer too. I spent a LONG time pulling my hair out, switching between the two. I sort of came to the conclusion that I preferred the 789 for electronic music and the v281 for rock type music.
Fast forward to CanJam 2020. I had hauled all my gear down to NYC to stay with my other audiophile friend and have an epic shoot out after the show. My intent was to go audition LCD-4 at a local store, (Audio 46, great people!) choose a winner between the two amps and move toward buying the phones. (I was on LCD2c for some time by then.) Well, I ended up buying a floor model Audio Valve Solaris instead. Oops. (The $6k tube amp from Z reviews. That Solaris..) That wasn't even the piece of gear that really messed things up for me though. My friend had a new Denafrips Ares DAC. It goes for around $700 and beat all my DACs hands down. The first DAC I've heard that really did something different. Very musical in addition to its technical abilities.
The next day, there we were.. Piling the huge Solaris, decent size v281 and tiny 789, all onto the counter at Audio 46, along with the Ares. It was glorious! We both listened to the LCD-4, switching amps, for at least two hours. You know which one of the three we both liked best? Yeah. The f****** THX-789 that I paid $400 for.
In the last couple weeks from today, I finally got my hands on the LCD-4 AND a Denafrips Venus. I sold the Violectric gear and tried to sell the Solaris. For better or worse, I still have it... And, I'm back to trying to figure out weather or not I prefer the Solaris enough with various types of music to stop trying to sell it. I would keep the 789 either way, for use with gaming and short listening sessions and probably EDM. It really comes down to hair splitting differences though, which is DUMB when you remember that the 789 is now going for $300 and the Solaris retails for $6000. (I got a sweet deal, which is the only reason I own it.) The 789 is more linear in it's response and more "accurate" probably. (Accuracy is a whole other discussion.) The 789 maybe even has a more coherent sound stage left to right. Where the Solaris really shines, is the front to back sound stage. I've never really heard front to back sound stage like this on headphones before. It seems to be arbitrary, which tracks one or the other seem to push the dynamics harder. Over all, the Solaris does tend to sound more natural and alive. While subtle, it's an important distinction. There were several nights, listening to my 789, Airist R-2R and Audeze LCD-2c, that I thought I should just sell everything else and stop there. After all, it seemed I had 95% for a very reasonable price. Instead, I ended up spending a LOT more for those last few percent. I wouldn't say either choice was right or wrong. I simply acknowledge my priorities..
So, here's my final thoughts. The price tag on this piece of equipment is kind of the wild card. In one sense, it's a no brainier for the money. In another sense, such a low price is almost a disservice, considering the 789's "ultimate" capabilities. I put ultimate in quotes, because what I mean to say is, "what it can achieve," NOT "what it will give you out of the box." By itself, the 789 has no real flavor and can come across as a little bit clinical, cold, thin and/or flat. If you want a bit of warmth, a bit of heft and favor "musicality" over raw, technical prowess AND are pairing this amp with other equipment in its general price range.. You might be better off with a reasonably priced, traditional class A solid state, or even some kind of tube amp. Those who bought a 789 with something like 58X and a cheap DAC, do have a fabulous setup for the money, but the 789 might even be the weak link, IF it feels like something is missing. Pair this with at least a Denafrips Ares and now you've got a stack you can call your endgame, with no shame. But, you still have to make sure that your headphones really suite your preferences.
Would recommend to a friend.