I've heard a lot of, but far from most of the world's best headphone amps, but even in that heady territory the Auralic Taurus MKII shines. I've used a wide range of my very best headphones, in-ears and full-size, and they're all sounding better than I've heard them before.
The $6,475 Mal Valve amp is right up there, but it's been a few months since I heard it, and I never had it at home so my experience was more limited. I had the luxury of living with the Taurus MKII for weeks, and was privileged to try it with a large helping of my best headphones. The sound was never less than revelatory.
The meticulously finished chassis is stunning. The buttons have a great feel, as does the volume control knob. Like nearly every headphone amp I've ever used, the Taurus MKII is a hands-on deal, with no remote control offered. That makes sense; you're connected to the amp with a wire, so you're never very far away from it.
The front panel has two output jacks, the familiar 6.3mm one and a four-pin XLR, which is for headphones that can be used with balanced cables. My Sennheiser HD 700, Audeze LCD 2 & 3, HiFiMan HE series headphones, and many others can be outfitted with balanced cables, which produce slightly better sound than the standard 6.3 mm connection method. The rear panel has stereo RCA and XLR inputs, plus RCA and XLR outputs that can be used to run a stereo power amplifier for speakers.
The Taurus MKII is not very big, it's just 11x9x2.6 inches and it weighs 8 pounds. It succeeds by staying out of the way, and letting more of the music come through. It's superquiet; few home amps are quiet enough to be used with the best in-ear headphones without a subtle, but still audible, residue of background hiss. Not the Taurus MKII, it's always dead quiet.
With great-sounding recordings the sound is something you want to savor, like a fine wine. Drums kick harder, singers sound more present and realistic; you can almost feel their breath. Any amp can play all the notes, but the best ones communicate more about the feeling of how those notes were played. With great recordings you feel like you're in the room with the band.
The Burson Audio HA 160 is a great amp, a really beautiful piece of gear. When I reviewed it, it sold for $700. I still have it, and still love the sound, but switching between the HA 160 and the Taurus MKII with my Beyerdynamic T90 headphones, the HA 160 loses some of the magic. The sound is more distant, less immediate, less vital. Luckily, these are the sort of differences you'll never know you're missing, until you hear what you've been missing.
I fell back in love with my Sennheiser HD 700 headphones during the course of this review. They're great headphones, but can sound too lean and cool on a lot of amps; the balance was very right on the Taurus MKII. The main attraction was the see-through transparency, wow, you hear stuff with these headphones, like when the singer moves a little farther away from the mic, other amps won't pick up on that.
Continuing with the amazing HiFiMan HE-6 headphones, the HiFiMan EF-6 amp sounded coarse and grainy compared with the clean-as-a-whistle Taurus MKII. Other amps always seemed to add something to the sound, while the Taurus MKII just let it be. It's an expensive amp, designed for audiophiles who have more than one set of great headphones, and want to hear all of them at their best. That's one thing that distinguishes headphone guys from speaker-oriented audiophiles, the headphone people tend to have lots of headphones, many have more than five really good sets. Most audiophiles I know are limited to one pair of speakers.
So the $1,899 Taurus MKII, like the finest cars, cameras, watches, and so on, is reserved for folks with a passion for the best and the money to afford it, but the Taurus MKII is a whole lot more within reach of most people than a Ferrari 458 Speciale supercar. Then again, the Ferrari has 597 horsepower and can go from 0-62 mph in 3 seconds, while the Taurus MKII just sits there, making great sound.