Massdrop, on the other hand, is a company specializing in group buys for a wide range of enthusiast categories. Want a great deal on a fancy mechanical keyboard, fountain pen, pocket knife, wrist watch, or any number of other hobbyist items? Massdrop is your go-to source.
When the two join forces to create something special for headphone enthusiasts, the result is definitely worth getting excited about.
Massdrop traditionally offers deals on existing gear, but they’ve been dabbling in exclusive commissioned products more and more lately. Some examples of this include the Noble X, HiFiMAN HEXX, and the popular Sennheiser HD6XX. These all involve minor changes to existing products along with considerably discounted pricing.
Moving forward, I imagine we’ll see more of those types of products, as they really are a big win for the community. Who wouldn’t want the chance to own a well-regarded headphone for a lower-than-usual price? But Massdrop also has ambitious plans for being directly involved in the process by commissioning built-from-scratch designs that are not available anywhere elsenor will they ever be. The Massdrop x Alex Cavalli Tube Hybrid Amp, hereafter known as the CTH, is the first such product to launch.
Massdrop worked with Alex Cavalli to resuscitate a classic design from the Cavalli portfolio. For those new to the hobby, before Cavalli Audio made high-end amps Alex was known for his DIY designs. The CTH, which at the time stood for Compact Tube Hybrid, was a popular model known for making great sound from a tiny footprint. It was sort of a sleeper amp compared to some of Cavalli’s other designs, and in my opinion one of his best works. Info about the CTH is still available at Cavalli’s website. You’ll notice the projected cost for DIY builders was around $200keep that number in mind.
Commissioned by Massdrop, Alex Cavalli revisited his original CTH design and made numerous improvements. This is a capacitor-coupled hybrid design running a single 6922 tube and a discrete output stage. The original design allowed for swapping a wider variety of tubes, but this iteration is specifically built around the 6922 and its immediate variants. Tube swapping is easy thanks to the automatic biasing circuit. I’m told the production version will have a slightly larger cutout around the tube compared to this prototype unit, in order to facilitate tube removal.
Power output was beefed up to a full 1W into 50 ohm loadssignificantly more than the original design. Output impedance is well under 1 ohm, and gain is set at 8x which is another improvement. Gain in the original model varied based on tube choice but was significantly higher no matter the tube…not generally a good thing in my book. The power supply is an external 28V power brick said to be quieter than the 24V PSU used in the old model.
The CTH chassis is well built and rather handsome in an understated way. It’s very simplisticjust a single RCA input around back, and a pair of headphone outs on front in 1/4″ and 4-pin XLR formats. To be clear, this is a single-ended design, with the XLR output being added as a convenience. I appreciate this because most of my headphones are balanced, and it’s much easier to have a native jack than to use an adapter. I don’t notice any sonic change whatsoever between the two outputs.
A quick word about volume control. I’m told Massdrop will be sorting volume pots for production units in order to ensure best quality. This process will involve a torture test using an extremely sensitive IEM (the Campfire Andromeda was floated as a possible option), to ensure channel matching stays tight enough at low volumes. The review prototype I have did not undergo this process and I do get just the slightest imbalance when playing at unrealistically low levels. More importantly, I also get a noticeable bit of noise which I’d describe as a sort of hiss, at very low or very high settings. It’s more obvious with sensitive IEMs or headphones, and practically inaudible with a high impedance can like the HD650. While not terribly bothersome overall (I rarely listen that quiet, and never that loud) I’m still pleased to hear about Massdrop’s quality assurance program, so every customer gets an ideal experience.
Massdrop is selling this device for $250. Let that sink in a little. That’s not all that much more than the predicted cost for a DIY builder to throw together an original CTH back in the day. Keep in mind this updated model features significant improvements across the board, and that it has a much nicer chassis than the Hammond enclosure specified by the original. Also don’t forget that DIY projects have the benefit of “free” labor. I honestly don’t know how Massdrop manages to turn a profit on this thing. Obviously their business model revolves around spreading small margins across a large number of units, but still…the value on display here is remarkably high.
Lastly, I have to say a brief word about how this device came into existence. Veteran HeadFier (and all around good guy) CEE TEE, became Product Manager at Massdrop not too long ago. His beat is “Audiophile Custom Products” and we have him to thank for spearheading these projectsyes, I said projects in the plural, as CEE TEE has some big plans in the works. He’s been engaging trusted community members for product testing/feedback; interacting with industry folks for potential new collaborations; and just generally handling this stuff like a boss. I’m not at liberty to say a whole lot more right now but I can promise some exciting new stuff in the very near future. I’m thrilled to have such an excellent member of our little community turn his passion into something large, something that will most definitely impact the hobby in a positive way. Massdrop is lucky to have him.