Stellar Gain Cell Upgrade Recommendations?

Sigh. Audio Nervosa has infected me again. I truly adore my SGC as a headphone amp with DAC. It delivers great sound paired with my Focal Clear MGs. However, I am wondering if other SGC owners have gotten the itch and moved up to something that they feel is a worthwhile upgrade. I’m not looking to spend huge money, nor move away from the preamp/headamp scenario (in other words, I have no need for a power amp to drive speakers). I am currently using a separate upgraded DAC, so that’s not necessarily an essential component.

Thoughts appreciated.

Welcome, @output555 !

So you are looking for a new headphone amp?

Sort of. The SGC is a headphone amp, but it’s classified as a preamp/DAC, so the term “headphone amp” can be a number of different configurations. The point is, however the unit is classified, I will be using it exclusively with headphones.

Headphone and amp synergy is a real thing I think and I don’t have experience with the Focal headphones. But I do have this preamp/DAC and mostly use ZMF Ori headphones in this (headphone only) system and I much prefer the resulting sound using the PS Audio GCHA headphone amplifier than the same headphones with the Stellar GCDAC. More of everything that I like about headphone sound with the GCHA in use, fed from the Stellar.

Right. You have another source (DAC) and the new unit will only serve to amplify this source for headphones - you are looking for a headphone amp (anything else included in the piece is superfluous for your use).

A used PS Audio GCHA headphone amp would be a great choice.

What is your budget? This may help others with suggestions.

Yes, your budget would help narrow down the enormous field of possibilities.

I can’t speak from first-hand experience (although I did own a SGC for awhile, I mostly used it as a DAC), but folks who use this one seem to like it a lot … SPL Phonitor

Thanks, but the GCHA is a lateral move, at best.

I’ve looked at the SPL Phonitor. Some folks think it’s less musical than the SGC. Plus, the styling is late '60s. :wink:

Again, what is your budget? The SPL Phonitor X is $2,600.00.

Budget, that’s a good question. I’m somewhat flexible. Ideally, something under $2k new or used. That said, the new $2400 Flux VOLOT is getting some excellent reviews and word of mouth. I love Pass Labs and their HPA-1 headamp can be had for around $2500 used. Audio-GD makes some interesting products under $2k, but they seem to have fallen out of favor. A used Cary SLP-03 is going for under $1300.

Also, I’m sticking with solid state so the tube options aren’t for me.

I prefer the styling of the Phonitor, personally. But haven’t heard it.

Not in my experience. This independent headphone amp is much better to my ears than that in the Stellar GCDAC.

1 Like

I owned one many years ago. While a great value, and very nice sounding I wouldn’t consider it better than the SGC in any way. Plus, it has very limited in connectivity and can’t accommodate both a balanced DAC and phono preamp. The SGC Gain Cell is a newer generation, too.

The Woo WA22 is a very nice HP amp, especially for this money.

I have a Woo WA5. Wonderful amp, but expensive.

It is very nice, and if I was still into tubes, I’d consider it.

Well, it runs counter to my experience as I use it fed by a SGC to power headphones and it sounds considerably better than the headphone amplifier within the SGC, using either the balanced or single-ended inputs. So much so that it ended my quest for a headphone amp within this (headphone only) system. Good luck in your quest. The SGC is a newer generation, but it’s headphone amplifier is far wimpier.

I’ve not listened to the other suggestions here but I do have what I consider to be a pretty great headphone amp, the THX AAA 789. Not sure how well it pairs with the Focals but it pairs very nicely with my DCA Aeon2 open headphones.

After weeks of researching dozens of headphone amps I was down to:
Topping A90
Audio-GD Master 19 2.5w@40ohm 9W Balanced
RME ADI-2DAC 1.2W @32ohm
Liquid Platinum $1168
Monoprice THX AAA
Pathos Aurium
Schiit Audio Magni 3+
Schiit Jotunheim 2 - 5000mw
Monoprice Monolith THX
I got the RME but found to be hitting limits with some phones. (As was the issue with my Marantz HD-DAC1) I’ve always believed in over-powering; if you want to go 120, get a car capable of 200. As the GD Audio is 9 watts (balanced) I gave it a try. Direct order from China from the guy who builds them (Kingwa) so you avoid the re-saler markup. The unit was just over $1000 US shipped. You can also use both headphone outputs at once. It is fairly large, heavy, beefy and gets QUITE warm. As it uses four-channel 100 steps digitally controlled relay-based volume control, there are slight audible noises when changing volume but not enough to be an issue.

Side Note - the RME is terrific for several different headphones as you can save EQ settings for each set.