Review - eXecption Reference Headphone Amp

Positive Feedback Brutus Award

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"The final Brutus Award winner in this category is the brilliant eXception Reference Headphone Amplifier by John Tucker of eXemplar Audio..

John's designs are well known to folks in the Pacific NW, and across the country where his work with tubes, speakers, and cables are highly regarded. He's a highly-qualified audio electronics artisan, and produces electronics that are generally in a very affordable price range (in audiophile terms, anyway!). He's meticulous in his evaluation of the parts that he sources…painfully so, sometimes…but the results are always worth the wait.

John's eXception has been quite a while in the making. It was pretty carefully user-tested in its initial phase, to make final a prototype. That unit came here for a listen, and then went back to him for configuration to the final production guts ‘n glory.

The result is a very fine, solidly built, and handsome classic design. The brushed finish aluminum front has a large and very smooth ALPS volume control, a 4-pin balanced output jack, and a single-ended Combo XLR/TRS output. There are also two buttons, one to select the output, and the other to choose high or low impedance for the output from the amp. (Push in for 64 ohms or less; out for 75 ohms or greater.)

On the rear, there are two sets of unbalanced inputs, with a switch to choose which input to use. The power switch and IEC power connector round out this very clean package, the main chassis of which is solid steel. eXemplar audio notes that the eXception is built in America.

eXemplar audio claims a frequency response of 20Hz – 20kHz for the eXception, with an output of 300mw. (Believe me, it sounds a LOT bigger than that!) The tubes inside are three 6N6p/6H6p's in an all triode signal path, and no negative feedback. This tube is apparently going to the mainstream as a preamp/driver tube, with a reputation for detail and resolution.

The unit is 16.25" wide x 12.5" deep x 4.5" high, and tips the balance at a tolerably hefty 20 pounds. Warranty on the unit is 5 years, with a "1 year or 10,000 hour warranty, whichever comes first" guarantee on the eXemplar audio tubes.

The performance of the eXception headphone amp was promising in the prototype, but rounded out very nicely in the final production version. I listened to it with the Audeze LCD-4's and Double Helix Cables Prion4 Reference Headphone Cable in 4-pin balanced mode. The results were so fine that I completed my impressions of the LCD-4's using the eXception only. (Good thing, too, since neither the final production version of the Cavalli Audio Liquid Au headphone amp nor The King headphone amp from Audeze were forthcoming from their respective companies.)

The eXception had no problem driving the LCD-4's via the DHC Prion4 cables quite nicely. The combination of these three showed the eXception to be dynamic, very detailed, highly resolving, and very quick in transient response.

All of my comments on the LCD-4's above were based upon the eXception headphone amp and the DHC Prion4's, and so constitute additional reflections upon the eXception. No audio component floats in a vacuum….

The eXception's MSRP is $2995, a reasonable price in audiophileland for the quality of the workmanship involved."