Kenzie takes me in…and won’t let go

Pros: Quiet, affordable, gorgeous, warm quality sound, fairly powerful, TUBES!

Cons: May not drive the hardest headphones, but I had no problem…

AMPSANDSOUNDS KENZIE- what….a….WEEK!

 

The Kenzie is handmade in Southern California with U.S.-sourced parts and custom hand-wound output transformers from Transcender, out of Hollister, CA. My first thought honestly, after I carefully put the tubes in and turned the unit on; was “It’s alive,” like in Young Frankenstein and the immortal words shouted by the great Gene Wilder. It had a Frankenstein-like look, or maybe it was the lab. I do not say this to insult, but to state that I was venturing into something, which was new to me. My current hybrid-tube amp is the small but quite nice Nobsound NS-08E. I do enjoy that hooked to my iPhone, but this was an entirely different level of creature here, to say the least…Built from the excellent Darling Ciruitry, along with tubes originally produced from the WW2 era, there is an excellent “old meshes with new” formula to pay homage to that historical era where tubes ruled. I am thoroughly entranced in tubes now, and would love to delve into this category of amps more as a result.

 

Lyle Lovett is an example of another bridge to that era and as such, his music is very fitting for the Kenzie, which harkens back to another era when tubes were tops. While they never really went out of style, tubes became reserved for the (apologies, please) ridiculously high-end equipment. Witness McIntosh components. They have been around since 1949, when founder Frank McIntosh developed his own wares after consulting in the early TV days. With the help of Gordan Gow, they developed their wares into the infamous patented high power/low distortion amp. The rest is history, as they say. I mention this for two reasons. Ampsandsounds founder Justin Weber is an admirer of McIntosh, and humble of origin; and second I have coveted McIntosh components since I was a teenager. I had a chance to purchase some used McIntosh equipment some time ago, and didn’t….an opportunity lost. Some day…I do not consider McIntosh ridiculous at anything other than their incredible sound performances…the Kenzie falls into that category.

 


Simply gorgeous to look at…

 

 

When I found the opportunity to review the ampsandsounds products, I did not hesitate. After researching the company and knowing the affinity for McIntosh, I was in. Please don’t take this as an insult that I would not have taken this opportunity without the tie, but knowing I could get closer to someone with the same affinities as I, made it an easy decision.

 

Specifications (from their website):
Input impedance is 10K ohm with alps pot, .5v for full power
Input Sensitivity 520mV peek for full power out.
32ohm power: 200mWatts RMS @ 1khz, 20.5VRMS
Frequency bandwidth 20hz -3db to 12khz -3db full power
Frequency bandwidth 20hz -3db to 18khz -3db @ 160mw output
Noise on 32ohm tapp @ 500uV

600ohm power: 250mWatts RMS @ 1khz, 12.5VRMS
Frequency bandwidth 20hz -1db to 18khz -3db full power
Noise on 600ohm tapp @ 1.4mV
Retail – $1,650 with NOS tube set.

Supplied Tubes:
Input tube: 12SL7 or equivalent
Output tubes: 1626 or VT-137

 

About the headphone jacks:

Cathode Bias/automatic bias allows for easy tube changes without adjustment.
Compatible with 32 ohm-300 ohm headphones using the 32 ohm 1/4″ jack.
Headphones above 300 ohms will benefit from using the 600 ohm 1/4″ jack.

 

 

Sources used:

 

iPhone 6+ (not much, but I did; so there)

Fiio x3ii (cold, analytical sound, but still good)

MacBook Pro (the best of my listening as well as over 85% of my audition time)

 

Headphones used:

 

Focal Elear

Audioquest Nighthawk

Campfire Audio Nova

Fostex T40RP MK3

 

 

 

When I started, I used my iPhone 6+ through the Elear/Kenzie…and an almost deep foreboding sound ensued. The kind of sound, which once you hear it, it draws you into the darkness. Into that deep, deep cavern of unknown. An unknown you are hesitant to explore, but know you must. This is the true definition of “The Journey is the true meaning.”

 

Lindsey Stirling’s Element led the way into my journey with the Kenzie. Overall it wasn’t the best sound, but one which you gladly take knowing your smartphone will never sound this good… again….for a mighty bad pun, you could say the iPhone transcended itself, to a better place. It was an excellent example of the amp certainly making the Smartphone sound much better, but I quickly moved on…

 

No fuss, no complaints; just musical playing at an upper level through the Kenzie. So impressed, I am….but as I stated; I moved on to better sources…

 

 

 

Memory-tie:

 

I remember one mountain bike ride I had many years ago in the winter. I hooked up with my local bike shop buds, and we drove to the Kansas River trails in Lawrence, KS. We had about 4” of fresh snow, it was about 31.5*F. I mention this, because those are just about the perfect winter riding conditions. Fresh snow, perfect “stiction” temperature, not too cold, not too warm. The synergy of this ride sticks with me so much, that as I recall this, I feel as if I am still on my Specialized Stumpjumper from that night. We didn’t “bomb down the trails,” but rather we reached such a high level of focus and concentration that we were traveling faster than had we indeed bombed down the trail. Mile after mile, hour after hour, we rode. If was well into an early Sunday morning before we succumbed to cold and hunger; a full six hours after we started. Throughout the whole ride, there were to us Zen-like moments of perfection. The perfect line chosen, the perfect gear, the perfect apex on a tough corner. It was just a mesmerizing, superb display of perfect oneness with our steeds. Throughout the whole of six hours, rarely did we talk, lest we destroy the synergy, the perfectness of the moment. We drove back to Kansas City, tired but with full bellies from some cheap QT grub, and did not speak. It is one of the top three mountain bike rides I have ever had; and this includes many, many rides and races in the mountains of Wyoming and Colorado. It was that perfect.

 

 

 

I mention this not to brag, please accept my apologies in that regard, no not to brag; but to try and make you realize what the Kenzie did to anything I threw at her. That perfect synergy of music, quality of tone, and focus, sheer focus of that particular moment in time. THAT is what the Kenzie brought to my system, the same way that ride, on that perfect night did. It was just an incredibly intrinsic moment in time with the Kenzie, and I am extremely grateful to Justin, having experienced it.

 


Top quality build and finish highlight the Kenzie, and who DOESN’T love the look of tubes!

 


My preferred set up for the wonderful audition

 

 

More impressions:

 

Somewhat confusing to me was that one reviewer says the Kenzie is warm and full. Another says fast & quick, while NOT being warm & enveloping. I think the sheer variety of listening experiences afforded allows for the discrepancies in verbiage. The Kenzie is simply the avenue, which allows whatever music is there to show. No fuss, no problem. I myself found the Kenzie to be warm and inviting; like a fine bottle of single malt in front of a fire on a cold night, such as I had after that night of mountain biking. What a marvel, and with immense memories, I recall both. The Kenzie provided that soothing warmth to almost ALL music I played at her. Very little was not at the top of the game. And to be honest, I won’t even go there because it could very well have been the recordings played. Just an old friend to come home to every night and enjoy. That trusty old dog, who is so loyal you eagerly anticipate the return home…that is what the Kenzie provided me.

 

 

Listening sessions:

 

Listening to my excellent Nova via Lindsey Stirling & ZZ Ward in Hold My Heart through my MacBook Pro, the sound was full on vibrant, with a “hint” of more bass than I have heard through other Amps…also I did have a background hum…this happened on my Schiit stack too for historical notes, so I do believe it is through the Nova, that this occurs. Just a wonderfully vibrant fun sound I heard. Enthralling and quite enjoyable.

 

 

Moving on to the Elear, there was no hiss whatsoever. Just a deep full fun sound. Complex music is handled very well. The Arena, which is a very busy song, just plays and plays so well. Everything trying to fight for a spot, but successfully doing so through the Elear. No problem for either the Elear or the Kenzie. On Hold My Heart, the punchy bass just dragged me into the rabbit hole along with the young man. As we descended, ZZ Ward’s seducing voice told us to hang on it would be a ride worth the bumps and bruises. What a song, and what a combo…It was then and there, that I decided except for a short listen through my Nighthawks and Fostex (for comparison purposes), that the entirety of my time would be through the Elear/Kenzie combination. Lets just say it was a “good choice.”

 

On We Found Love, the female vocal of Alisha Popat is simply magical! Right where she needs to be….off to the left as in the video, but moving center when called upon. Not a note was misplaced, and the Kenzie again added that touch of warmth to the mix. I do enjoy a warmer sound signature, so this did not bother me. The incorporation of native sounds as background is just right. Not overpowering, but right where they need to be…bass provides a solid foundation on which the song carries without problem. A hint of bass being withheld, but I think it is so that the supporting drums and vocals can show their force…

 

Mind you, the Kenzie was not (to me) coloring the sound at all. As I understand, it was the mix of tubes, which provided the warmth by design. And I thoroughly enjoyed it.

 

Hello from Adele was one of the few songs, which I did not enjoy the most due to a bass line that is a little too far forward. I think it is the recording, but this does not cover at all her voice, though. Just a phenomenal song heard through my MacBook/Kenzie/Elear combo. This combo is made for female vocals and violin…just superb.

 

Someone Like You-Adele: I have goosebumps…I literally do…Just Adele and the piano live in Royal Albert Hall; one of the most iconic venues on the planet cements this combination. Adele/Royal Albert Hall=Elear/Kenzie. For some reason I am brought to tears by this. I think it is the genuine love I have for my wife, and this combination of Adele/Royal Hall/Elear/Kenzie that makes such an impact upon the sound. I am the luckiest guy on the planet right now…Even when her voice cracks a smidge, it is true, genuine and REAL. The way sound was meant to be.

 

Set Fire to the Rain: Vocals and piano upfront again, drum/bass as the foundation. Strings again, alight in the middle, which holds the bass line and the Adele/piano combination together. This songs shows that the Elear/Kenzie allow the music to shine through. Not imposing a “false sense” of sound on the proceedings. There is nothing false about this. This is true music. This is true enjoyment.

 

Another case in point is Anne-Sophie Mutter’s excellent Zigeunerweisen Op 20: is pure classical and violin. This is what the Kenzie and Elear were meant for…oh my God… It is as if all in the audience are collectively holding their breath throughout the whole song…while magical, it is a hint too laid back for me, until the song hits the 6:45 mark. Then the finale finishes what has brought me to my knees. I think it is simply preparing me…slowly bringing me back into the fray. Preparing me for the finish…gently. Then the last 2+ minutes dispel any “thinness” noted above. Incredible.

 

One of my favorite male vocalists is Dave Matthews, as well as Stevie Ray Vaughan (my all time favorite artist, God rest his soul), Matthews has a “soft-gravelly” quality, which compliments his music extremely well. Throw in a diverse group of musicians, and you have a diversity, which lacks in much of the music of today. It is almost like he is from another era. Gravedigger shows the passion with which his music was developed, coming from a slower start, building to a crescendo, and finishing with that sad, intimate, almost forlorn ending. You FEEL for those that died in the song, and the Kenzie portrayed this without protest. It was as if the reverence from the amp was a conscious decision. It’s way of paying homage to those departed. What a respectful way it was.

 

Follow that with Grey Street, and you have come full circle. This journey is like an experience where you must be brought down to the depths; then lifted out. There were times in which I would fail miserably during my two-day mtb races on the first day. I would have to dig deep on the second day to overcome this. With the help of my trusty Specialized Stumpjumper, more often than not I did. On a cold, wet snowy, did I say cold?, day in Lawrence, Kansas we rode the second day of the Kansas State Mountain Bike Championships many moons ago. Moving steadily through the pack, this was the muddiest race in which I had ever raced. I am proud of my 7th place out of 65. And I was the only one to ride up a particularly muddy section…I attribute this to not only my skill (which wasn’t much), but also to the ability to read the terrain and I let the bike decide the route. Almost intuitively, the Stumpjumper guided me; much the way the Kenzie is now. Showing me the correct path to choose while allowing me the choice of music for the journey (I mentioned this in my Elear write up too, but for different reasons. The Kenzie was that steadying force, just like my Stumpjumper in the race mentioned above). A wonderful guide into the realm of Hi-Fi music, the Kenzie was.

 

Dave Holland and Pepe Habichuela combine so well on the Hands album, this quickly became my go-to listen, along with pretty much anything by Lindsey Stirling. The title track, Hands is just a play on the emotions. Bass guitar and Flamenco combine seamlessly to concoct a sound, which really brings the strengths of the Kenzie out. Variety, solid bass, mids which compliment and hold together the two opposites while there is enough treble to satisfy ones needs. No bleeding of sound into the others territories. Each playing nicely, to combine into a sound, which puts you front and center. Intimate, almost sitting on stage next to each guitarist. The Kenzie really shines with string instruments, which to me are slightly dark by their natural sound. Just splendid, it is!

 

My Fiio x3ii gives the Elear a straight forward sound. Kind of an analytical sound, which the Kenzie warms nicely. Almost a juxtaposition of sound smorgasbord…who wins? Well, I do right now! An interesting mix, which the Elear tries to meld into an elegant  sound, but ends up slightly hollow in sound presentation. It is not the Elear’s fault, though. I blame the almost antiseptic flat sound of the Fiio here. I really, really like the sound from the Fiio, but here it is just SLIGHTLY hollow and odd with some of the songs. The Kenzie does her best to warm up the whole scene, but the Fiio does not really want to accommodate that request. Not bad mind you, just not my favorite. Then other songs on the album and well, they were just right. Still quite acceptable, but not the weeping, teary-eyed emotion which the MacBook/Kenzie brought. Highs are better positioned and of a clearer nature, but at the cost of that lack of….fullness. Maybe it is the true nature with which the Kenzie allows the sound to my ears. No hiding behind a false presentation.

 

 

 

 

Elements-Orchestral version, by Stirling is just a “holy buckets” moment. This must be what the top truly sounds like. So deep, so spatial, so clear and vibrant, that my jaw slackens a bit, not in jealousy, but a wanting to jump wholeheartedly into the music, like no song has through the Kenzie up until now. And the other songs have been damn bloody good. I had to stop listening for the night after this song. It was too much. Incredibly sensuous and surreal, my breathing quickened, as did my heartbeat…. I truly felt like I was in Transylvania. Hearing the beat of the cloth mallet on the “pipes” has never felt so real. I was INSIDE the head of the mallet. Every instrument so precisely placed, that I dare not breath, lest I disturb the smallest Ion in this sphere. This song truly defines a sense where intimate sound stage is desperately OK. Menacingly perfect. No sense of flaw is present, and you dare not disturb that aura.

 

I could go on, but I hope my scribble and thoughts have conveyed what a genuine prize the ampsandsounds Kenzie is. It truly was an honor to be part of such a high level loaner-tour. This is the reason I have come back to audio, and Head-Fi-type audio, so that I may enjoy the wares of the craftsmen who share their enjoyments with us. Share their hard work with us, so that we may have options. So that we may choices, which fit our every “need.” That said, I can honestly state, that the Kenzie is on my final list of tube amps should that open up to me (after the kids are out of College, sigh…). Justin and his crew should be very proud of their efforts. I would feel extremely comfortable recommending this amp to anyone, not just those who are in the market for a Summit-fi amp. It is that good. The Kenzie is indeed the anonymous money behind the project, and she does not mind. Thank you, @ampsandsound, thank you Justin, and best of luck with your continued success! It was my honor to be present.

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