Just received my amp today, the tube is brand new as well. No burning done so far. And used only as a preamp so far, not even tried any headphone :)
Aktimate Micro powered speakers
Swan M50W 2.1ch speakers
Asus Essence STX DAC
Out of the box, default settings with the Siemens 12AU7 tube (same tube that I was using with my Bravo Ocean):
A little warm for my taste but some improvement over the Bravo. Noticeable out of the box. But I didn't spend too much time on this setting.
I changed Output to Low, Input Gain to High, bypassed Input capacitors and then tried again with the same tube:
Again, some more improvement over the previous combination. Not night and day over the previous setting, but again, I didn't spend too much time and it did seem less warm, louder and more to my taste.
Then I tried the Philips USA 6DJ8 tube with the new settings itself:
This was a significant improvement over the previous tube. Much better. Clearer, cleaner. Better pass, better in every way. I didn't listen too long but many would call this a substantial jump considering you don't expect the lyrics to change in the audiophile world :P
Then I finally settled on the Siemens 6922 with the same new settings:
Again, a noticeable jump in performance over the previous tube. Bass did become less tight and somewhat muddy in comparison to the Philips. However, for non bassy parts, it is cleaner, sharper and clearer. Seems more lively and dynamic as well. I might go back to the Philips later but for now I seem to have settled on the Siemens 6922, at least for the time being.
Changing the tube makes a hell lot of difference. Perhaps somewhat less than with the Bravo Ocean if you really ask me, not quite sure about it.
However, it does make a very significant difference to the extent that you might like an amp with one tube and dislike it with some other tube.
Especially, when you change the family, the difference is even more pronounced. And the tubes I tried from 6DJ8 and 6922 pawned the best tubes of the 12AU7 family :)
Compared to the Bravo, with the final setting and tube:
Much cleaner, much clearer, better bass response, better treble I think, much more hifi, a huge difference if you pay attention to details and listen for a few hours. Unlikely that you will want to go back after a couple of hours I think. Though, it has barely been 30 minute for me but the clean clear sound has already won me over :D
Far more dynamic and lively over the Bravo as well.
But of course, to somebody with less finicky ears, the difference might be barely noticeable. But for audiophile ears, the difference is significant, just less than night and day I would say. But then again, to each his own.
You do end up with diminishing returns, so provided you have the dough without being clinched, it should be a decent boost in sound quality.
Mids: Much more articulate. I can clearly make sound lyrics I couldn't before. It is much closer to cinema/hi-fi compared to the Bravo. Again, the difference won't bring you to the moon, but it is rather significant if you pay attention to details and articulation.
Details: A decent jump over the Bravo. Not night and day but perhaps I will know better with time.
Bass: 6DJ8 and 6922 families give much better bass response, at least the tubes I tried, and these families are not compatible with Bravo. Those 12AU7 tubes which have similar bass response lose in other areas, so this is a very clear win for the Ember by a long short.
Treble: Much more realistic and natural compared to the Bravo Ocean. Not a night and day jump, but a huge jump I think. Much cleaner and a bit sharper. Far better at realism. This is without burning in!
Dynamics: A night and day jump. Not even a comparison. Far more lively and realistic out of the Project Ember.
Realism: Project Ember is significantly more hi-fi and cinema like. Far more natural.
Soundstage Width: A decent jump, maybe huge or at least noticeable, not sure about the extent of the difference. But it is better for sure. Wider and more realistic.
Soundstage Depth: A night and day difference. It is far more profound and natural. Deep voices which engage you!
Imaging: Not too much difference, some difference, perhaps a bit noticeable. But not too big a difference out of the box at least. Definitely more balanced without channel imbalance and stuff, a bit more natural, but not as good as what I can get without any preamp in the chain.
Clarity: A huge jump in terms of clearness and cleanness. The PRAT is better as well I think. It is speedier when required but in a natural way. The PRAT isn't night and day difference, but not nil either I think.
Volume: The Bravo Ocean is much louder than the Project Ember with high gain. Night and day louder, the Bravo Ocean is.
Most significant differences over Bravo Ocean:
No channel imbalance like in Bravo Ocean
Much much clearer and cleaner
More dynamic and realistic
A huge difference in articulation and mids
Many more differences, lots more, which really matter, but the above is what will really matter to you out of the box to the most extent.
And the tube/tube family/brand within the same family make a huge difference even with the Bravo Ocean, and also with Project Ember. It is enough for you to like or hate the amp based on the tube used. It is rather significant. Changing the tube is like trying another amp which is similar but different at the same time.
Would I call it a worth it upgrade over the Bravo Ocean for the price difference I paid?
I got my Bravo Ocean new with 1 year warranty shipped to my country including customs etc for less than USD 100.
Project Ember cost me nearly $550
Is the difference worth it?
If you can afford it and have the money to spend this much on a preamp, then yes, it is worth it, provided you have audiophile ears and can appreciate minor nuances and changes.
Is it worth it for every Tom Dick and Harry who finds Bose better than Sony?
NO, the difference isn't as large. But it is huge for most audiophiles, considering people spend 1000s+ on a single equipment, this is definitely worth what I paid, provided money isn't an issue for you :)
PS: I am not reviewing Bravo Ocean with Project Ember. Just trying to point the differences as these are the only two full sized desktop amps I have owned. They are in different price brackets and of course Project Ember is much better. But how much better? I try to answer that!
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