Heed Audio Elixir integrated amplifier
I recently watched Terra, an exceptional film by French directors Yann Arthus-Bertrand and Michael Pitiot. It’s not a nature documentary per se, rather a history of life on Earth from lichens to lions, amoebas to humans. Terra boasts stunning cinematography of the natural world, revealing a beauty that nearly softens the film’s cautionary message.
“How have our relations with other living beings changed so much?” asks Arthus-Bertrand on his website. “What do we still see, or notice, of the living world around us? . . . We no longer see the wild, we dream of it. It’s an age-old fascination, visible in the paintings of the Chauvet Cave. But this dream is today disappearing, vanishing in factory smoke and industrial smog. . . .
“Terra is an essay . . . on the human species and its relationship with other living beings. . . . a humanist and deliberately positive film, openly advocating that humanity is still capable of ‘getting back to basics.'”
Terra posits that, as factories owned by transnational companies, overpopulation, corporate farming, and swelling megalopolises push wildlife farther away from their native habitats, these estranged creatures essentially become refugees: natural beings without a home, no residence beyond urban zoos or vast preserves. With over 100 species currently on the endangered list, what happens when the last gorilla, rhinoceros, or leopard is no more? That will be a day beyond the imagination of any Hollywood screenwriter. Terra tells this alarming story with grandeur, empathy, and insight.
Terra and an informative book, Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses, got me thinking about the audiophile. Without trivializing the concept of natural habitat: as the nature lover enjoys the fresh air, scurrying critters, and open terrain found off the grid, the audiophile’s natural environment is the here and now of music. Transported via our audio time machine of choicedigital or analog, tubes or solid-state, speakers or headphoneswe enjoy music of any genre and from any record label, era, or origin. This, for us, is a natural state of being as perfect as anything under the heavens. Music provides respite from the very things Terra decries as unnatural, soul-killing, and life-crushingthose things that increasingly assail our senses.
Thankfully, enjoying music doesn’t require the cost of an all-expenses-paid trip to the Amazon rainforest. As vinyl’s resurgence has produced a robust spurt in growth for turntables, mono cartridges, andarguablyamplifiers and headphones, reasonably priced gear is more abundant than ever before, providing exceptional sound quality at almost any price point.
One of the easiest ways to enjoy high-quality reproduction of recorded music is through a well-made integrated amplifier, preferably one with an internal phono stage, DAC, headphone amplifier, preamplifier-only functionality, and a remote control. Heed Audio’s Elixir integrated amplifier ($1195) meets all of these requirements save an onboard DAC. It offers 50Wpc into 8 ohms or 65Wpc into 4 ohmsand my review sample worked flawlessly from the moment I flipped its power switch.
Building a bridge
Heed Audio Ltd. has a motto: “Forget hi-firemember music!” This 11-employee company designs and manufactures its lines of CD transports, DACs, speakers, and amplification components in Budapest, with parts from around the world. Heed’s casework, formerly made in the UK, is now made in Hungary by “one of the audio industry’s top metalwork houses, for the sake of quality and consistency,” notes Bob Clarke of Profundo, Heed’s US distributor.
In Hungarian, Heed (pronounced hid) means bridge. For Zsolt Huszti, Heed’s owner and chief designer, the bridge in question is that which must be made between “the world[s] of music and electronics. We heed the needs of that connection, and we make devices that can establish a bridge between the two worlds.”
Heed’s debut product, the Obelisk integrated amplifier, introduced in 1993, followed the design concepts of the founder of Nytech and Ion Systems, the late Richard Hay. (The current version, the Obelisk III, costs $1895.) Later, Heed’s Orbit power supply for turntables (not available in the US), which is compatible with ‘tables from Rega Research and other manufacturers, became a hit when imported into Germany, and led to the development of Heed’s Quasar ($1200) and Questar ($550) phono stages, which won praise from European hi-fi cognoscenti. Although Heed’s phono stages remain its best sellers, the Elixir and Obelisk SI integrated amplifiers now nip at their heels in Heed’s most popular markets: France, the UK, and the US.
Transcap technology, svelte steel body
The output sections of the Elixir and Obelisk SI amps are non-direct-coupled. Instead, they use output capacitors that are charged by complementary pairs of Darlington transistors, in an architecture referred to by Huszti as Transcap technology. “We make transistor amplifiers with capacitor outputs,” Huszti explained via e-mail. “These capacitors are translator capacitors, as they convert the electronic signal into a form that an electromechanical converter needs. [Sound] is tiny changes in air pressure, the deviation of the basic atmospheric pressure. Sound recordings, however, store absolute levels. A directly coupled amplifier is a level-setting amplifier; it tries to set an absolute air-pressure level, which is not [an ideal] goal. An output-capacitor amp, however, drives the speaker in a changes-only mode, and that is required for the stress-free generation of air-pressure changes [into] the sound we hear.
“Tube amplifiers do almost the same thing,” Huszti added, “but there is a difference: output transformers are restrictive elements. Capacitors are, however, energy-storing devices. This energy is always directly accessible for the speaker, as there is nothing between it and the output capacitor. The speaker can work with one less electric restriction, and in a mode that is more close to its mechanical needs (as a mechanical result is our main goal). In terms of [sounding natural], this is a huge difference.”
The Heed Elixir is one of the most robust and substantial products I’ve encountered, regardless of price. Somewhat resembling a Rega Brio-R integrated amplifier, the Elixir looks and feels like a tank designed not by General Dynamics but by Finnish futurist Eero Saarinen. There’s nothing fussy or confusing in its design or its functionalityit’s a finely realized, practically foolproof product that any Pokémon kid or iPhone fanatic could easily set up, understand, and enjoy. What better way to bring people into this hi-fi thing of ours than with understated, affordable gear that’s easy to operate?
Popping the top of the Elixir’s black, powder-coated steel case revealed a single large, hand-soldered circuit board holding various relays, resistors, transistors, Jamicon electrolytic capacitors, and low-impedance Teapo and Samwha output caps. A vertical steel plate running down the middle of the interior separates the circuit board from a UK-built Airlink 150VA transformer and a robust heatsink. The Elixir’s dedicated headphone circuit is a fully discreteall transistors, no integrated circuitsclass-A output amp shielded from the transformer’s EMI effects by that same steel center plate. Also attached to the big board is a Heed-motorized Alps Blue Velvet volume pot.
On the back of the CNC-machined-aluminum faceplate is a small strip of fabricto “eliminate the vibrations between the chassis top and bottom,” Bob Clarke explained. I found this small detail somehow touching. It reminded me of the careful attention to detail you might see in a hobbyist’s project: not an afterthought, but a logical embellishment that would have obvious impacts on both sound quality and the unit’s overall fit’n’finish. The small fabric strip produced feelings similar to those I have for the late Ken Shindo, who went to great lengths to personally sound-design his beautiful amplifiers, three of which I am proud to own.
The front of the Elixir’s faceplate is silky to the touch. On it are, from left to right, a ¼” headphone jack, followed by a row of seven small circles (they light up!), one each for the five inputs and two outputs. The inputs are labeled 1, 2, 3, 4, and MM (for moving-magnet phono stage). Icons depicting headphones and a speaker drive-unit mark the output circles. Inputs and outputs can be selected by pressing one of two large buttons, labeled In and Out, to the right of the circlesor from the remote. (The latter is an oblong, hand’s-length design.) When I selected an option with the remote, the circle representing that option emitted a soft white light. The remote also controls the Elixir’s large volume knob; a tiny, sliver-thin light at the edge of the knob brightens when you press the remote’s + or key, to adjust the gain.
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Heed Audio Kft.
US distributor: Profundo
2051 Gattis School Road, Suite 540/123
Round Rock, TX 78664
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