I was a reviewer under my own name and a couple of nom de plumes for over 20 years. One of my editors asked if I would review a Swedish headphone amp. Now, the important point here is that at the time I had no interest in headphones and even less interest in headphone amps.
Sure, I owned some good headphones and sure I had heard a number of high end headphone amplifiers but the experience always left me cold.
Then one day a small box arrived on my front porch from Gottenborg, Sweden.
Inside was a small, simple black box with the name Harmony Design on the faceplate.
Weeks went by, then months. Finally, my editor called me, begging me to review the Harmony Design Ear 90. Like a petulant 10 year old, I gave my promise. So, I let the little fellow cook for a couple days and then took a listen.
I was astonished.
The sound was liquid, effortless yet totally revealing. I began plugging in my headphones elsewhere trying to emulate or at least rival what I was hearing.
I couldn’t and to this day I haven’t.
I quickly emailed Mattias Stridbeck at Harmony Design in Sweden. I could not believe what I was writing: “Do you want distribution in the US?”
I mean, come on; what a lousy idea. Who wants to buy a headphone amp in the middle of the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression?
I didn’t care. I had to do what I could to bring this unlikely and unassuming product to people in the US who would hear what I was hearing.
You’re right. That was years ago!
It turned out that Mattias had been wanting to improve the Ear 90 for quite some time. He didn’t want to bring on new distribution without making a great product fantastic. So, for the next five years (yup, that’s years not months) Mattias and I undertook a long-distance project of improving something that I never believed could be made any more perfect.
I was wrong. The result was the Ear 90 Mk II.
Yes, it still looks unassuming.
No, you cannot find a more musical headphone amp at any price.
Best of all, Mattias & I still enjoy emailing each other. We enjoying writing to each other and discussing the qualities that make good amplifiers and speakers and photographs.
It turns out that Sweden is a very different kind of place than the US, except in the ways that it’s the same. I’m really lucky that Mattias’ English is so much better than my Swedish.
Hey, at least I know how to say one word in Swedish and it just may be the most important one.
Well, that’s just dandy, too. I want you to have one. I heartily encourage you to make arrangements to borrow the proto to make sure the Ear 90 Mk II is right for you (and that you’re right for the Ear 90 Mk II).
I vastly prefer that to you buying a new Ear 90 Mk II without hearing the proto.
I have no ambition to sell a huge number of Ear 90 Mk II and I couldn’t even if I wanted to. But, more to the point; I really don’t want to.
Some of you old timers may remember me from when I handled the marketing, advertising and sales for Music Reference and Muse Electronics, toward the end of the last century.I liked working with those two companies for three reasons:
I liked the principals. I liked the products. I liked the folks who bought our gear, and I actually knew them.
That’s right. It’s not only about the sound of the product it’s also about the quality of the people. I’m not looking for legions of indiscriminate consumers. I’m looking for the small cadre of true believers who love their music and need to have it well-produced. It’s that simple.
I’m not looking for (and don’t need) a lot of business for Harmony Design to be a success in the US.
Because they don’t matter to anyone. I could go on and on with more justifications and explanations but I will leave it to none other than high end legend Nelson Pass who once told me:
“Listening is a measurement, and in high end audio is the most important measurement. Not all the art is in what you hear, and not all the science is in what you measure.”
Some years ago I met a small speaker manufacturer named Marc McCalmont. He had the rare achievement of designing and building a Stereophile Class A floor-standing speaker his first time out.
Anyway, way back when Marc turned me onto some humble looking feet that achieve a kind of magic with a small signal device (like a heaphone amp).
They don’t look like much but they are unequaled for this application.
Marc explains them this way:
“These feet are tuned to below 20 Hz so they decouple the headphone amp from audio frequency vibrations, much like a spring in a car’s suspension. The polymer contains a resistive element (carbon) which aggressively dissipates vibration like the shock absorber in a sports car and the constrained layer construction increases effectiveness. They were designed by a company that supplies vibration and noise suppression for Navy submarines that obviously have to run very quietly. Best of all they outperforms Sorbathane, which is really just a spring that will transmit larger vibrations at its resonant frequency.”
Plus, I don’t like Sorbothane or nasty metal feet (and neither does your equipment rack or fine furniture).
I needed to be able to ship an Ear 90 Mk II soon after it was ordered. I didn’t want to accept an order, email Mattias in Sweden, wait to learn when he would be able to prepare a unit for shipment, wait for the amp to get to me from Sweden, confirm its adherence to the sound of the prototype, before finally shipping it to its new owner.
That’s just unworkable.
So, I dedicated the presence of Harmony Design in the US to the Ear 90 Mk II ...for now.
All of that said, you can order any other Harmony Design product from me on a custom order basis. Be forewarned: You’ll be doing some waiting.
Interested? Drop me an email.
Yup. I do. I also pack each Ear 90 Mk II for shipment. I also repair any Ear 90 Mk II that may need it, though none in the history, even back to the time of of the original Ear 90, have ever needed repair.
That’s easy; don’t.
Seriously, don’t waste your hard earned cash on an Ear 90 Mk II if you don’t need it. If you’re happy plugging your headphones, ear buds or whatever into your phone, receiver, preamp, please, go on doing so.
Consider yourself lucky and save an Ear 90 Mk II for someone who needs one to create a musical experience that his sense of music demands.
Not everyone needs or will appreciate a Ferrari so not everyone should aspire to own one. And, when it comes to music in the 21st century we are all blessed by great efficiency. We can all carry tens of thousands of songs in our back pockets.
It’s both wasteful and crazy to have more when you’re satisfied with less.
So, if your headphones or ear buds sound just dandy to you right now, keep on rockin’ and leave the limited numbers of Ear 90 Mk II to folks who really need and want one.
That way everyone’s a winner, just like in youth soccer!
Sorry, nope to both. If you want to tell someone what you think of your Ear 90 Mk II that’s great; Mattias & I appreciate it. But, how someone else hears just can’t be relevant to you.
A headhone amp (and headphones) are like underwear and girlfriends; they’re personal.
Heck, I used to be one. But, the only way a reviewer will get his hands on an Ear 90 Mk II will be the same way you got yours. He’s going to have to buy one at full price. The Ear 90 Mk II was built for you, not for someone trying to make a buck from writing about it.
I want you to be totally sure about my loyalty to you, the person who came up with the cash to buy an Ear 90 Mk II.
Nope, yet again.
You can borrow it, but it’s mine!
By the way, the Sharpied nomenclature on the front panel was done by José Murillo, one of my best friends & a superbly talented artist. He did the work while we sat in a bar drinking fine California craft beer.
Here’s how it works. If you think you want to own an Ear 90 Mk II you email me and ask if the proto is home and ready to be auditioned. If it is, you PayPal me $500 and I will ship you the proto for a 15-day evaluation.
By the way, the proto’s finish is more basic than the production units. You’ll also note from proto-photos that it uses rear panel mounted output jacks, also that there are two pairs of output jacks and that a locking connector is employed. These differences made it easier for me to keep a pair of different headphones connected to the proto which made A-B comparisons easier. While the original Ear 90 used rear panel mounted outputs also, in the last analysis I found them to be a pain in the ass, as I did the locking jack. Hence, the production Ear 90 Mk II uses neither.
Anyway, if you love the proto and want to own a production Ear 90 Mk II just send the proto back home to me. Once it arrives back to me, I will prepare an invoice for another $500.
Once you pay the balance, your production Ear 90 Mk II will be auditioned by me one last time and then made ready for shipment.
The next thing you know a USPS Priority Mail Delivery Confirmation number will appear in your email and a couple days later your new production Ear 90 Mk II will arrive and you will be in a perpetual state of audio bliss.
If you don’t like the proto just ship it back to me by Priority Mail within 15 days of receiving it. Once it’s in my hands, I’ll take a look at it and when I find it to be unscathed I will refund your $500 deposit.
What could be easier?
Does your system bother you?
Want to know something about high end audio that none of your Hi-Fi buddies know?
Uncertain (or overly certain) about the nature and extent of climate change?
Need written confirmation that the Harmony Design Ear 90 Mk II will finally make your life complete?
Need to develop a sense of humor or the ability to differentiate irony from coincidence?
Just message me and we’ll nail it down.