• Garage1217 Project Ember, Horizon, & Sunrise Review

    March 19, 2016 Luckbad 0

    I have traversed significant audiophile ground over the past few years. My humble introduction to the world of high end audio were the Sennheiser HD555s. I’ve sojourned across the landscape ever since that time, buying and selling dozens headphones, earphones, amplifiers, and dacs.

    In my journey, I have discovered a few gems, and I’ve found many stinkers. I learned that music is personal, and not all of us hear the same thing as others, nor do we have the same preferences.

    In that long quest to discover my audio preferences, I also came to the realization that price does not beget quality, at least necessarily. And, like anything else, the value for your money plummets quickly. It’s easy to spend $1000 on an item only to discover that it’s only 5% better to your ears than the $200 piece of gear you had previously or, worse, to dislike it entirely.

    I have found that I value both quality and bang-for-the-buck quite a bit. I care about customer service, workmanship, and attention to detail.

    I also discovered that I have a love for tubes. Musicality, euphony, and the ability to tweak to my wallet’s dismay are all attractive qualities to me.

    Which brings me to Garage1217. Jeremy offers masterful quality workmanship, excellent customer service, and incredible value for the money with all of his products. He builds them himself with the assistance of his wife, Wendy. Frans, aka solderdude, is the engineering mastermind behind the outfit and hails out of the Netherlands.

    My long and arduous exploration of the audio spectrum has landed me here, with two Garage1217 tube amplifiers–one at work, and the other at home. They are small in profile and big on performance, and they allow a seemingly endless amount of tubes to be rolled in them to influence the sound to your soul’s delight.

    Let’s start with the features of each to help pinpoint how they differ in function (feel free to gloss over this section if you’ve been to the Garage1217 website and read them. I’ll talk more about how they differ and how they are similar below):

    Project Ember II

    • Auto bias. Simply plug in a tube from a long list of 6 & 12V dual triodes and it will bias itself
    • Bias continuously adjusts itself so ageing of a tube is constantly corrected, within limits of course
    • Auto heater selection. Plug and play with a 6 or 12V tube and the heater voltage arrangement will be automatically set
    • Startup protection circuit with thermal shutdown
    • Line out disconnect for the pre-outs when headphones are plugged in (can be changed easily via two solder jumpers)
    • Pre-amp output so it can double as a volume controlled tube buffer
    • Advanced cooling design to keep temps nice and low
    • Three output resistance settings from 0.1, 35 and 120 Ohm
    • Input capacitor bypass possibility for more tuning options
    • Selectable gain / input attenuation via a quick change module or two jumpers
    • Very efficient, low power consumption, low temperatures
    • Awesome choice for headphones from 32-600 Ohm but can also drive 16 Ohm headphones easily
    • Lots of headroom and more than enough output power up to 2.4W, depending on headphone and settings
    • Comes with tube and power supply. Plug in your source to the RCA jacks, plug in your headphones and fire her up!
    • Not an audiophile feature, but you can change the under tube LED color to anything that you like via the RGB LED adjustment. Correct, we do not even force you to like the same color we do
    • A tribe of beautiful virgins from the Amazon… No, you did not read that part correctly – we cancelled that option as shipping was expensive and maintenance was high

    Project Horizon III

    • Easy Set bias via LED indicators. No need to use a multimeter anymore when rolling tubes! Access from the side of the amp, no removal of top cover
    • Easy access to bias trimmers. You can use a jewelers screwdriver to dial in the bias through the top cover, no need to remove the cover to set
    • Access to the 6/12V jumper through the top cover, no need to remove the top
    • Output impedance selection can now be set from each side of the chassis
    • Line output for pre-amp use
    • Revised protection circuit protects your headphones and audio gear
    • Revised circuitry overall
    • Designed in the U.S. & Netherlands. Kitted or Built in the U.S. depending on how you order / 5 YEAR WARRANTY ON G1217 BUILT AMPS!
    • All parts sourced in the U.S. From reputable distributors, NO FAKE COUNTERFEIT PARTS, CAPACITORS OR RESISTORS!
    • Only top quality components used, such as Bourns pro audio potentiometer, Bourns trimmers, Low noise Vishay/Dale RN, CMF and CPF 1% resistors, Nichicon Roederstein capacitors, Fairchild IRL510 Mosfets & top quality LM317HV’s used, Neutric phono jack. Ruggedized PCB RCA jacks, Rugged 5a power switch ETC… RCA’s, tube socket, phono jacks and even jumpers are gold plated
    • Beautiful piano gloss black .096 thick double sided, 2oz PCB with top and bottom ground planes & gold wash. Will not bend or flex while inserting a tube!
    • Dedicated heater power supply, no piggy-backing off LM317’s which is a cheap, non desirable way of powering the tube heaters
    • Turn on / off protection for your headphones and audio gear
    • Supports a wide range of 6V or 12V tubes with voltage selection
    • Built in test points to easily and quickly dial in bias or dial in bias via the Easy Set LED indicators!
    • Class A, No overall Feedback
    • Fused with reverse polarity protection
    • Chassis is beautifully laser cut and serialized.
    • Chassis hardware features all stainless steel allen bolts, washers and nuts. Stand-offs are aluminum along with top cover thumb screws
    • Each factory built amplifier is meticulously hand built and tested prior to shipping. Solder work is outstanding and clean with no flux or fingerprints left on the board. Pride in workmanship is evident from every angle of this amp. What you see in photos is the quality of build you will get!
    • An RGB LED is available under the tube which can allow you to turn the tube ANY color you desire via 3 trimmers, or cover the LED so all that you see is the glow of the tube!

    Project Sunrise III

    • Designed in the U.S. & Netherlands. Kitted or Built in the U.S. depending on how you order / 5 YEAR WARRANTY ON G1217 BUILT AMPS
    • All parts sourced in the U.S. From reputable distributors, NO FAKE COUNTERFEIT PARTS, CAPACITORS OR RESISTORS!
    • Only top quality components used, such as Bourns pro audio potentiometer, Bourns trimmers, Low noise Vishay/Dale RN, CMF and CPF 1% resistors, Nichicon and Wima capacitors, Fairchild IRL510 Mosfets & top quality LM317AT’s used, Neutric phono jack. Ruggedized PCB RCA jacks, Rugged 5a power switch ETC… RCA’s, tube socket, phono jacks and even jumpers are gold plated
    • Beautiful piano gloss black .096 thick double sided, 2oz PCB with top and bottom ground planes & gold wash. Will not bend or flex while inserting a tube!
    • 1A Dedicated heater power supply, no piggy-backing off LM317’s which is a cheap, non desirable way of powering the tube heaters
    • Turn on / off protection for your headphones and audio gear
    • Supports a wide range of 6V or 12V tubes with voltage selection
    • Built in test points to easily and quickly dial in bias or dial in bias via the Easy Set LED indicators!
    • Class A, No overall Feedback
    • Fused with reverse polarity protection
    • Chassis is beautifully laser cut and serialized.
    • Chassis hardware features all stainless steel allen bolts, washers and nuts. Stand-offs are aluminum along with top cover thumb screws
    • Each factory built amplifier is meticulously hand built and tested prior to shipping. Solder work is outstanding and clean with no flux or fingerprints left on the board. Pride in workmanship is evident from every angle of this amp. What you see in photos is the quality of build you will get!
    • An RGB LED is available under the tube which can allow you to turn the tube ANY color you desire via 3 trimmers, or cover the LED so all that you see is the glow of the tube!

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    How are they the same?

    They are the same in many ways. They can all roll tons of different tubes, they’re all about the same size, they are all built by the same master solderer in the USA, they all come with 5 year warranties, and they all use extremely good components.

    Aesthetically, they all occupy the same modest footprint and the beautiful workmanship is visible for all to see. You can adjust the LED color to just about any color you can imagine (my preference is “tube glow orange”) with the turn of a few RGB trimmers (or turn it off with a jumper).

    You can adjust input attenuation in a similar manner in all three, though the Horizon/Sunrise function slightly differently from the Ember. Essentially, you can utilize or bypass the attenuation module with a jumper on the Ember, while the Horizon/Sunrise are Low or High gain via the jumper. You can also easily replace the resistor module (no soldering or experience required–I got one from Jeremy for ~$1 and swapped it) if you want to change the amount of attenuation.

    The output resistance can be changed with jumpers between 0.1Ω (low), 35Ω (mid), and 120Ω (high). This can impact the bass and/or treble slightly depending on your particular headphone’s impedance curve.

    You can even run the much-loved 6SN7 series of tubes with an inexpensive adapter made by Garage1217 (grab one when you order to save on shipping).

    All three come with a sexy see-through acrylic chassis, but you can upgrade it to a gorgeous CNC aluminum chassis (black with silver trim). I started with acrylic and got CNC because it also helps with interference in some tubes.

    All three can work as a volume-controlled tube buffer/pre-amplifier and have RCA outs for this function. Yep, you can use these to add a touch of tube sweetness to your favorite amp.

    Finally, you can bypass the input capacitors by changing a pair of jumpers on the amplifiers. This is an audio purist function. It removes one component from the signal path, but it can mean that you hear a little scratching when adjusting the volume.

    You’re probably starting to get the picture. The Garage1217 lineup is incredibly flexible and gives you more functionality than almost any other offering out there, regardless of price.

    How do they differ?

    Ah, now we’re getting into it. I’ll get this first bit out of the way right now: The Horizon and Sunrise are sisters, while the Ember is their first cousin. There are more similarities than differences between the Horizon and Sunrise, but the Ember is its own beast.

    A great place to start is the Garage1217 Amplifier Comparison Guide.

    By far the most significant difference is that the Horizon/Sunrise use a no overall feedback Class A OTL (output transformerless) output topology. The Ember uses a solid state output. The effect on sound is largely subjective, but one obvious difference is that the Horizon/Sunrise get quite hot, while the Ember tends to run pretty cool apart from the tube.

    Another obvious difference is the range of headphones each amplifier is suitable for. The Ember can run just about anything out there , from 16-600Ω (even the HE-6 and K1000!). The Sunrise is best for 32-300Ω, while the Horizon is best for 120-600Ω (though can be suitable for 32-64Ω headphones in some cases).

    The next difference is tube heater current support. The Ember supports 1+ amps, the Sunrise supports 1 amp, and the Horizon supports 600 milliamps. If you want to run high current draw tubes like the 6N6P/6H6Pi/6N30P/6H30Pi, you can order the Supercharger along with the Horizon for $40 installed (I did, as I love those tubes). Note that none of these amps support 12SN7 tubes. If you want to use those, you should give the new Garage1217 Solstice a try (I have not yet heard this one).

    The final clear difference is one of convenience. In the Ember, you can pop in any compatible tube at your leisure and it automatically selects the correct voltage and biases the tube for you. On the Horizon and Sunrise, you’ll need to change a jumper to select the voltage. Then, you need to use a jumper to select each channel and a jeweler’s screwdriver to increase or decrease bias until the two LEDs no longer light up. This is less difficult than it sounds and isn’t like some other amps that require a multimeter (but if you prefer using a multimeter, you can!). I find that you have to adjust it about every 30 minutes for the first few hours, then it settles in for weeks at a time without the need for adjustment.

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    How do they sound?

    It’s time to get subjective, if only briefly.

    The short answer, to my ears, is that the Ember sounds more dynamic, faster, and accurate. The Horizon/Sunrise sound a bit softer, a little more romantic, a touch more tube-like.

    The Ember is probably Garage1217’s most beloved amplifier, and for good reason. It boasts dramatic capability, functionality, versatility, and gives an audiophile type sound with a splash of tube sweetness that can be altered with tube selection.

    The Horizon and Sunrise have a smaller–but just as passionate–fanbase. I am personally a member of this crowd. I prefer the musical euphony of these amplifiers, even if they’re less versatile and require a bit more effort to tube swap.

    I personally settled on using a Project Sunrise III at work (with the JVC HA-DX2000 as my primary headphone and IEMs as a possibility) and Project Horizon III at home (with the Sennheiser HD650 as my primary headphone and JVC HA-DX2000 as my weekender).

    Tube selection is crucial with all three amplifiers. You’ll need to find the right synergy for your equipment as well as your ears, and that synergy might differ depending on which of the three amps you choose.

    With certain tubes, you can get a flat frequency response beyond the audible band. With others, you’ll get audible rolloff in the treble and/or sub-bass. It’s all a matter of a few degrees here and there, but it adds up to a fair amount. With some tubes, things can sound harsh to me, and with others, they can sound too soft.

    I was so happy after hearing the Sunrise III that I ordered a Horizon III. I was so happy after hearing the Horizon III with my Sennheiser HD650s coupled with an MHDT Labs Atlantis dac that I sold my Audio-GD Master-11 (a $2000 amp/dac) and replaced it. That should tell you something.

    What are some good tubes?

    I shouldn’t have written that question down, because now I have to answer it. I personally use one of two tubes the most: Electro-Harmonix 12BH7 Gold Pins (new production) if I’m going for a versatile, neutral tube.

    Most of the time, however, I’m running NOS Russian 6N6P/6H6Pi tubes or new production Electro-Harmonix 6H30Pi Gold Pins. You can get the NOS tubes for close to $5 a piece shipped if you buy them in small lots (usually 4 or more) from overseas. I also have a new production Electro-Harmonix 6H30Pi Gold Pin which is essentially the same, but costs much more. It does glow rather nicely, though…

    There are many other great tubes, but those are the ones I tend to like the most after trying a couple dozen. I also have a few 6SN7 type tubes like RCA and Ken-Rad. Price/performance, to my ears, goes to the new old stock 6N6P tubes.

    But, music is personal. I like low end slam and sub-bass extension combined with smooth (not accentuated) highs. Those old 6N6P tubes give exactly that to me. Remember! If you get a Horizon, don’t try those tubes unless you get the Supercharger, as they draw too much current.

    There are many opinions out there, and many of them are going to suit you better than mine. Search for FrankenEmber and you’ll see some things that cannot be unseen.

    Which amp is best?

    All of them are the best. If you’re just talking about functionality and versatility, Ember is the clear winner. It’s the flagship of the Garage1217 lineup. If you’re just getting into tube amps and/or you have a wide variety of headphones you want to use with the amplifier, the Ember is probably the right choice.

    For me, the Horizon and Sunrise are roughly equal depending on the headphones I want to use.

    Garage1217 makes incredible amplifiers for an excellent price. They fill a niche in the audio world for me that needed to exist. High quality, excellent customer service, great sound, and very good prices. If you’re looking to get into the tube world, you can’t go wrong with anything they offer. Frankly, I’ve not yet found a tube amp below $1000 that I’d take over these.

    What can be done to improve these amps further?

    I’ve heard from reliable sources that a linear power supply will improve everything about the amps. Some folks use Talema power supplies available on eBay from China.

    Personally? Rumor has it that Garage1217 will be offering a linear power supply sometime soon. Given the quality of work, I’m buying two of these as soon as they are released.

    More on the Horizon

    I picked up the Project Horizon III with the Supercharger option, which allows you to run 6N6P tubes (which the Ember II and Sunrise III can do stock). I had some initial issues with the unit blinking when using old stock tubes, though I had no issues with new production equivalents (6H30Pi). After a minute it would stay lit and things would be fine.

    After some troubleshooting with Jeremy at Garage1217, we discovered that the issue was the huge inrush of power needed with the old tubes combined with the Horizon. The stock power supply wasn’t enough. A temporary workaround was to turn the unit on with headphones and the tube unplugged, then to plug the tube in after the unit powered up.

    The permanent fix was that he got me a more powerful GS60 power supply (stock is GS40). Who said customer service was dead? This fixed the issue entirely and I can cold start the amp with everything plugged in without issue. I’m a happy customer.

    Additionally, I picked up some of the strongest input attenuation modules from Jeremy (at $1). They’re a simple swap that takes just a couple minutes. It allows me to get more play out of the volume pot on more sensitive headphones. For example, though the ideal impedance of the Horizon is rated at 120Ω, my 64Ω JVC HA-DX2000s sound glorious out of the Horizon, in part because they are sensitive and in part because I’m using the input attenuator.

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