A few weeks ago, I called the Garage1217 Project Ember a POS on SBAF. Probably not a fair thing for me to say; but nevertheless, I still don’t care for the Ember. I don’t remember exactly which version of the Ember I had (I think it was 2) ; but I did play around with all the switches to get the best sound, and even used Yggy as the source, as well as several different headphones (HD800, HD600, Code-X, Abyss, etc.). The Ember sounded bloated, veiled, too tubey, slow, unlively, glossed over, and with some grain and dryness in the highs. My experience with Project Starlight wasn’t all that great either (boring and unengaging). So I completely wrote off everything from Garage1217 for years.
Luckbad@SBAF, seeing my post, offered to send me his Project Horizon to try, assuring me that the Horizon was different – better. I decided to accept this offer. I may have strong opinions, but I want to be fair. My motto has always been “prove me wrong”. BTW, the Horizon supposedly has a different topology from the Ember. I am not sure about this, so I would defer to all questions to either Luckbad for Garage1217.
So I figured this would be a good opportunity to do a three way comparison between the Schiit Vali 2, Garage1217 Project Horizon, and Massdrop CTH.
I used several headphones to assess the qualities of these amps: modded HD800 and HD650s (Vader and KISS modded respectively), HE4XX, and ZMF Atticus. A tweaked Gungnir Multibit DAC and Theta Data III CD transport were used as the source. All amps were left on for two hours. Manufacturer supplied tubes were used. Gain settings were on high for all of the amps with the exception of the Horizon, which required low again. Even on low gain, the Horizon’s volume knob was set well below the 9:00 o’clock position. With sensitive headphones like the Atticus, there wasn’t much room to play. The volume would go from zero to medium with just the smallest nudge of the volume knob. This wasn’t a major issue as I never listen at low volumes – only medium to loud.
The Vali 2, Project Horizon, and MCTH are priced at $179, $249, and $249 respectively. In a nutshell, all three amps are appropriately priced to each other and I would highly recommend any of them. However, they do have different sonic qualities.
The MCTH stands out from the others in terms of technicalities. It has superior clarity and resolution compared to the others. Tonally it’s the most neutral compared to the others. Maybe a smidgen warm. The high end is airy and extended. The stage is slightly wider than the other two. However with this source, the MCTH does exhibit a tiny bit of glare and sharpness. This is especially evident with the HD800 and even to a lesser extent with the HD650. Keep in mind that my tweaked Gungnir DAC is not as warm as the stock “Gumby”, that I prefer a darker presentation, and that I am sensitive in the lower-treble region (upper mids don’t bother me as much). I’ve said this before in my MCTH review: pair with warmer or laid back DACs. I would much prefer to use the MCTH with DACs like the Modi Multibit or Metrum Amethyst as the source.
The Project Horizon and Vali 2 are probably more similar to each other than to the MCTH. The Vali 2 was just a bit more veiled, a bit flatter microdynamically, and a bit less resolving than the Horizon. Headstage was pretty much the same. Both the Horizon and Vali 2 exhibit more warmth and body than the MCTH. The Vali 2 is the most laid-back sounding of the amps here. The Horizon takes the crown for the most even sounding treble, being neither too laid back, nor too sharp – just right.
In conclusion, the MCTH is the highest technical performer, but being a Massdrop product, it is not always available for purchase, and there is a long wait time until delivery. The MCTH is also the most finicky one in terms of matching source and headphones. The Vali 2’s performance is a notch below the others, but priced appropriately being $70 less. The Vali’s laid-back sound (and more usuable gain switch) will more easily suit a larger range of headphones*. The Project Horizon falls just a bit short in technicalities (clarity, resolution, microdynamics) compared to the MCTH, but has what I would consider a more ideal tonal balance with its more even-handed rendering of the highs.
*Most headphones, even in 2017, still have some sort of upper mid or treble fuckery.