It was just a few weeks ago when my buddy Tyll Hertsens was raving about Colin Shaw's Sicphones amplifier Kickstarter project. Hertsens never steers me wrong, so I contacted Shaw, and a few days later I received the amp. Hertsens was right. This design uses a newly available SemiSouth silicon carbide transistor, and the amp sounds amazing. If Shaw makes his Kickstarter goal he'll be able to sell amp kits for as little as $229, and assembled amps for $279! DIY-ers can spring for just $35 and get the Sicphones amplifier PC board, assembly instructions, and parts source list.
I was blown away by the sound: the Sicphones is competitive with $1,000 headphone amps. The 6x7x3.25-inch chassis is a three-piece design with laser-cut steel top and bottom panels. Shaw's friend David Tanner is responsible for the Sicphones look, and I think it's a handsome and totally unique design. Build quality is, by far, the best I've seen for the money. The rear panel hosts a pair of good-quality RCA inputs, a power switch, and a mini connector for the included wall-wart power supply.
I listened to the Sicphones with Grado RS-1, HiFiMan HE 400 and HE 500, and Sennheiser HD 700 headphones, and the sound was exceptionally clear. The amp doesn't add any warmth or richness to the sound, so it won't please buyers who listen to a lot of heavily equalized, low-bit MP3s. If the recording isn't up to snuff the Sicphones won't make it any better than it really is.
With great-sounding acoustic jazz or classical music the Sicphones sound was revelatory. The immediacy was stunning; it was like looking through a much clearer window. Paul Simon's outtakes from the "Graceland" sessions were a thrill. Vocals and acoustic guitars were palpably realistic. The sense of being there, as if there was nothing separating me from the musicians, was perfect.
The Sicphones amp was awfully impressive -- the one snag was the bass, which was lightweight compared with the sound of my Schiit Lyr headphone amp. Keith Richards' "Main Offender" album had more oomph with the Lyr. The Lyr's sound was more diffuse, softer, and less clear than the Sicphones'. The HiFiMan EF-6 headphone amp matches the Sicphones' transparency and has a lot more weight, but it's a $1,599 amp (review in the works).
The Sicphones is a remarkable-sounding device for $279, but there's no amp that will satisfy every taste. The sound is a little too cool for me, I kept wishing it was a little fuller or warmer-sounding. It certainly was powerful enough to play nice and loud, but it sounded best at quiet and medium volume levels. The clarity is beyond, far beyond what I've heard from any other under-$1,000 amps, so if you crave sonic purity from your headphones, Colin Shaw's Sicphones amp is highly recommended.
If Shaw's Kickstarter project doesn't reach its goal the amp will probably be made, but it might wind up selling for a little more money. Even so, it will still be one of the most affordable made-in-the-U.S. headphone amps on the market.