Re(a)lview: Firestone Audio Little Country Headphone Amp

Re(a)lview: Firestone Audio Little Country Headphone Amp

peter
Jun 26, 2009

Ok, we officially have a tube fetish. We have always appreciated the magic of old tyme sound and even enjoy mono from tyme to tyme. We have admired Firestone's products from afar for a couple years now without thinking they were real. Seriously, just look at this little amp- is it not super cool looking? Who would have thought to put those incredible graphics on the front? And what marketing department would let that happen? Well, we are here to tell you that this stuff is real and there is more to this little country than cutting edge good looks.

The Firestone site is awash with diminutive, colorful audio candy (the site appears to be empty of content as of this writing). Every one of their products would look good on the desk of a big-city designer. We love it here. When I spoke with marketing manager, Kerry Ko, I didn't know what to start with... It all looked so delicious and bad for my teeth.

Enough gushing, on with the gushing:

I built a desk a while back which is made of an Australian wood called Jarrah. It is a naturally red colored wood that is very relaxing on the eyes and feels quite rich and exotic. Placing the Little Country upon it is one of the most erotic experiences I have had with this desk. All I can say is "yes" and "right there" repeatedly. The photo below should give you just a taste, but I will need your credit card number and an email address to spam if you want more:

I suppose we are going to have to talk about how it sounds at some point, but let's just go into a little of what you get when you buy the third incarnation of this amp. First of all, this is not a totally analog system, its a hybrid. You may hear complaints on both sides of the fence against that but the reality is that there is a growing number of people out there who like their sound to have digital accuracy with the warmth of the vacuum.

There are a lot of ways to use this amp and this is another reason why we like it. Take a gander at all the ports in the back:

These are here to allow you to use Little Country as a headphone amp and also as a preamp for your stereo system. As a headphone amp, you will enjoy the stepped attenuation that is coupled with a gain switch. We usually don't go too much into the fine details of how all this stuff works, but this is an important point. A stepped attenuator is a volume "knob". What makes it different than the normal continuously variable volume knob you might have on your old stereo is that it has a number of "steps" along the volume spectrum. Fine detail is not achievable with this kind of system because you can't turn the knob between the steps. That is a minus, but what you get in balance is the assurance that each channel, both left and right, is matched and the signal is traveling through a very defined and predictable path. This gives you cleaner, more accurate sound. Bottom line is you will find a comfortable volume setting, no matter your listening style and headphone choice and if you are really serious about finding the right volume, you can crack open the box and make a couple adjustments inside... I won't go into that.

You will need to get an adapter if you have one of those 1/4" plugs

BTW- you may notice a silver anodised box on top of the power supply of the Little Country, this is a DAC/Headphone amp from Firestone which I will talk about at a later date.

This leads me to discuss one of the most important features of this amp; the power supply. Power supplies are well known to audiophiles for being one of the most important parts of any high end audio system, but for the rest of the world, this can seem like super boring. Let's see if I can put this into perspective... Power supplies are like gasoline grades in a car... like water in a human... perhaps better to say that power supplies create the conditions under which an amplifier can get its electricity. Just as when you drink water that is laced with harmful microbes, an amplifier will suffer if you feed it bad electricity. "Bad electricity" can be defined as inconsistent and in the wrong amounts. The Little Country has its own, very well thought out power supply. It's even in a separate box to avoid interferences with other elecronic parts associated with amplification. If you have ever had a pair of speakers that hummed softly at low volumes, it was probably because of poor power delivery to the amp.

Anyway, theirs is an incredible supply, with an impressive (and upgraded) screw-on cable that comes with the system to attach the two parts. A torroidal transformer rests inside the port side box and is heavy and "well-wound".

Inside the main box we have two 6922 tubes that provide amplification along with a set of Burr Brown OPA2604 op-amps. Together they produce some of the sweetest sounds that you can hear for under $500. I am going to use a few terms here that might not ordinarily be approved for audio critique. One is "mature". The music sounds mature in that it is confident, alive and self-aware. It is well developed and clear. Sounds are obvious and smart. As in Tai-Chi, the amp just works off of what the music is doing, giving it a consistent and appropriate nudge that appears to come directly from the music itself.
Yes, you can hear the softening brought on by the tubes- that is something that can be missed if you just staple some tubes into a system willy-nilly, without regard for overall harmony. Firestone actually took this product off the market for a year or so to improve on it from its previous version. You will not, however, get to see your tubes light up since they are ensconced in some nicely turned aluminum bezels:

...so what?

"Spellbinding" raves Unplggd. Get one here.

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