Review

by

JAMES L. DARBY

 

A few months ago we reviewed what is now the  LSA Standard Integrated amp which was then the DK Designs Reference mkIII. Confused already? Don’t be. People, products and banks change names like Paris Hilton changes clothes.  What you need to know is that LSA offers three hybrid tube/solid state integrated amplifiers which are:

 

 

As you can see, all three share the same basic external form and function, the only difference being front panel style. All three offer the same creature features as well, such as inputs, outputs, remote, etc.

Where they differ is internally, building from the Standard and adding better and more expensive parts and systems.

The subject of this review is the middle of the line Signature which sells for $6,000. Here is what we previously said about the Standard, all of which holds true for the Signature model:

 

The LSA is an integrated two-channel hybrid tube/solid state amplifier whose output is 150 watts per channel at 8 ohms and a whopping 800 wpc at 1.3 ohms. At 77 pounds, the amp is massively overbuilt in all stages, inside and out. The amplification stage is class AB solid state with special topology to reduce heat and yet produce a high linear output. The pre-amp section employs two 6922 tubes (one per channel) to give the sound a tube quality to mate with the very high output solid-state section. It also employs the use of the Cardas Golden Ratio bypass capacitors in critical circuit areas.

The LSA is fully balanced via 2 XLRs on the rear. The power cord is not captive if you wish to upgrade.

We are thrilled to report that there is also a phono pre input for MM cartridges and hi-output MCs. It is isolated from the rest of the circuitry to limit noise. Total inputs number

four. Like me, you probably know of several integrateds that neglect a phono pre. Kudos to LSA for including one.

The quality construction extends to the remote control as well. It feels like it was cast as a single block of metal. Solid. It is actually machined aluminum, the type one usually sees in much more expensive lines.

The remote has the functions most needed without being complex and fussy. Two buttons turn the volume up and down; another toggles through the inputs with the last button used for taking the unit in and out of standby mode. There is a master on/off switch on the rear of the amp.

The design of the remote and the quiet volume motor allows for the ideal adjustment of volume – not to fast, not too slow. Sensitive to very slight increments so that the proper volume level can be set effortlessly.  I have seen much more expensive amps that will not do that. Another huge plus is that the remote is not finicky about distance or angle. In the picture, you might notice that the screening is two-color with the only red used in one character in the ‘III”. If you’ve ever paid for printing, you know two-color costs more, but this is just the level of detail found throughout the product.

 

 

UNDER HER SKIRT

 

One look inside continues their quality theme. Look at those massive dual power supplies and the physical separation of the channels. It’s about as close to combining two monoblocks in one chassis as you can get. The two tubes are placed close to the inputs for low noise and distortion. Very high quality WBT-style connectors are used as well.

 

Clean. Neat and tidy. No wasted space or long circuit paths. Limited wires kept to shortest lengths. Substantial heat sinks to assure long life and low maintenance.

It is obvious that much thought and engineering went into the overall design.

 

PRETTY FACE, TOO

The front panel is simple, clean and elegant. In the black area, behind a clear panel, four small squares outline the four input indicators. A small, soft red light signifies which input is active. For people who listen in the dark, the red lights are just the right brightness. They do not glare at you, yet are easily visible in full light, too. Well done, LSA. The left button toggles on/standby and the right toggles the inputs. The large, center disk adjusts the volume. A fingertip-size detent is thoughtfully placed to aid in turning. Other than the large, nicely sculpted handles or “ears”, that’s it. Perfect.”

 

*******************

 

 

So, with so many similarities, the question is; How does the Signature differ from the Standard?

 

“We upgraded all the capacitors in the preamp section to Auricaps for a cleaner sound, improved dynamics and soundstage. We also upgraded all the resistors in the preamp section from carbon film to the more expensive metal film. In addition, we upgraded the wiring from the amplifier section to the speaker terminals to SuperKonductor mono crystals cables”, explained Brain Warford, President of the LSA Group.

“Brian, what is the most significant change or upgrade in the Signature model”, I asked.

“That’s easy. The most significant upgrade that results in the most improvement is sound is our Active Tube Load circuit – a proprietary circuit for the cathode follower section of the preamp. It is basically a management system that regulates the high voltage current going through the tubes that results in a higher impedance and a much higher bandwidth load”.

 

“Which results in”?

 

“Significantly lower tube distortion and a much improved overall sound”.

 

“Brian, it sounds like your Active Tube Load circuit increases the load on the tubes which would cause them to run hotter, increasing heat output and thus decreasing tube life. Is that correct?”

 

“No. Quite the opposite! One of the main problems with tube circuits in general is current variation, from the incoming AC and the actual characteristics of tubes themselves which change as they heat up and handle varying loads. Our Active Tube Load circuit eliminates those variations allowing lower but more linear current to be used and therefore increasing their lifespan.”

 

“One more thing, Brian. The amp that you sent me which bears the DK Designs logo and a slightly different front panel is exactly the same sonically as the rebranded LSA Signature being produced now. Is that correct”?

 

“Correct, James. Our feedback from overseas as well as the US told us that they prefer a more rounded, sleek and svelte look rather than the front handles and more square appearance of the original. In addition, we wanted to simplify the model names throughout our entire line for our customers and make them a little less confusing and easier to differentiate and identify.”

 

"So your amps and speakers will all be either the Standard, Signature or Statement" as if to say, "Good, better, best".

 

"You got it".

 

 

THE SIGNATURE SOUND

 

The LSA Signature was compared to the previously reviewed LSA Standard as well as the Halcro MC-20 400 wpc Class D power amp reviewed here and it’s preamp mate. Speakers were the outstanding Ridge Street Audio Sason Ltd, reviewed here. Sources were the TW Akustic Raven One turntable with SST arm and Benz Glider High Output MC cartridge with a Cardas Neutral Reference arm cable. Digital discs were spun on the excellent Pioneer DV46 universal modded by Stereo Dave’s Audio Alternative, also reviewed here. Cables were the Selects by Ray Kimber and balanced connectors were Cardas Neutral Reference XLR’s. The Stillpoints rack was used for all components.

 

LSA vs. LSA

 

This was a no contest. The Signature outperformed the Standard in every area, save possibly the phono section. Sure, LPs played through the Siggy sounded better than Standard, but it was by virtue of the overall increased quality of the amp vs. improvements in the phono section itself – because there are no upgrades in phono section of the Signature. However, as in the Standard, the phono section is completely separate and isolated from the amp’s other circuits – something that is rather unique in most integrateds.

I can state that the increased quality of sound was not at all subtle and easily apparent. This was no mean feat as the Standard model received our MAXIMUM MOJO AWARD for overall sound quality and price/performance ratio at its then $3,000 price – now increased to $3,200. The most striking quality was the significantly improved sense of transparency in the soundstage. It was quieter and cleaner which allowed the instruments and voices to emerge more from the background and with a greater sense of focus and three-dimensionality. Remember, I am a very visual listner, usually listening in the dark with my eyes open. Simply put, it was easier to “see” and follow the sounds. Here is a graphic example of what I mean:

 

This was especially true in more complex music such as  “ON EARTH AS IT IS IN HEAVEN”  (THE MISSION SOUNDTRACK) LP. This is my favorite cut for evaluating how well an amp handles complex material be it doesn’t get more complex that this. And, the music is so beautiful and entrancing that I can listen to it thousands of times (which I have) without getting tired of it. What Ennio Morricone did was incorporate all the themes from the whole movie into one instrumental - simultaneously. So what you have is a piece that builds in intensity and complexity with an amalgam of two choirs (one singing sustained phrases and the other singing/shouting in staccato, a full orchestra, an oboe solo, African drums and percussion and a large African drum thwacked in the distance. All layered and panned in an soundstage that is extremely deep and wide enough to extend way beyond the speakers boundaries. Incredible height, too. The LSA Signature deciphered and delivered all that content and what’s more, portrayed it in a very musical, absorbing tapestry of sound.

 

There are two other features that are outstanding on both the Statement and the Signature, the first being the remote control.  The gearing of volume control is mated perfectly with the solid, aluminum up and down buttons. It is not too fast, not too slow and a simple tap will allow you to find that perfect level quickly and easily. Some pricey integrateds do not include a remote at all while others do not give you the precision of the LSA’s.  You don’t have to have a laser guided scope on the remote to make it communicate with the mothership, either. It just consistently works without a struggle or distraction. Remotes just do not get any better than this. Secondly, the front is not festooned with overly bright lights that sear eyeballs when listening in the dark.  A simple red dot indicates which input is selected. That’s it. Again, that suits me perfectly. Both of these well-implemented features show the level of thought and attention to detail the LSA designers put into their products.

 

Versus the Halcro

 

 

 

Here we have a harder comparison. The Halcros are separates versus the Signature’s all in one chassis. At about $13,000, the Halcros are more than twice the price and at the Halcro’s 400 wpc, the Signature is a middleweight fighting in a heavyweight class. But is it a contender?

 

Though it is out powered, the LSA Signature does not seem to suffer a lack of drive and headroom. Bass is delivered with unbridled brawn and moxie underscored by complete control with a iron fisted grip on those sometimes unruly low frequencies. Think Mike Tyson after a brain transplant from Michael Jordon. The midrange was just as rich and powerful as the Halcro’s with maybe a smidge more color intensity – a bit warmer than the Halcro. At the very top, the LSA Signature was actually superior in terms of ultimate linearity and noise.

Listening to PAVANE POUR UNE INFANTE DEFUNTE (LA4 LP on Eastwind) you have a consummate jazz quartet with vivid bass, drums guitar and sax. The sax in particular was more burnished with the characteristic and difficult brass with reed sonority. Both the Signature and the Halcro possess remarkable speed and dynamic contrasts, though the Halcro may excel a bit there when reproducing well recorded acoustic guitar.

 

 

 

All genres from, pop, rock, jazz, bluegrass, country, small and large classical ensembles as well as male and female vocal were played through the LSA Signature in all formats. The LSA showed no preference or weakness in any of them, taking on all comers with power, grace, detail and above all – musicality. One cannot ask more than that.

I could not compare the phono sections because the Halcro does not have one. The LSA wins that round by disqualification. Suffice it to say the phonograph section is more than adequate for a table/arm/cartridge combo like the Music Halls, Regas, low to mid VPI’s, the Marantz or the Funk when a moving magnet or high output moving coil is used. The presence of the phono input might just encourage some erstwhile digital devotees to branch out, experiment and discover a whole new universe of musical pleasure and enjoyment. Let’s hope so.

 

The Bottom Line

 

The LSA Signature is not only a contender in the world of $15,000 and up high-end separates, it may well be vying for the crown. The Signature proves that design and technology have advanced so far in the last few years that the delineation between an integrated amp and separate amp and preamps has definitely blurred if not eroded altogether.

The only question left for me is, if the middle of the line LSA Signature is this good, how much better can the big boss LSA Statement be? I asked that question of LSA President Brian Warford; “The Statement is definitely a significant improvement over the Signature, but the biggest upgrade in sound and performance is between the Standard and the Signature”.

 

 

 

The LSA Signature hybrid integrated amplifier is recommended for anyone seeking a very high level of performance in either a tube or solid state design and may be the perfect example of a product that combines the virtues of both while diminishing the vices. The LSA Statement also is a great example of just how good an integrated can be when compared to moderately expensive separates. It removes the perpetual struggle for the perfect interconnect between amp and pre and in this case, a phono preamp as well. It not only saves you the hassle, it saves you money, too. If you are looking to spend anywhere between $5,000 and $12,000 for amplification, you would do yourself a favor to audition the LSA Signature. The LSA also has an outstanding 5 year warranty.

The LSA Signature is absolutely a reference quality integrated ampflifier, and with Mr. Warford's permission, that is exactly how we intend to use it for future reviews.

 

If interested, contact information is here. LSA has dealers all over the US (even in Florida!) and they will help you find one .

 


 

Halcro. What does that name conjure up in your mind? In mine it is “expensive”, “state-of-the-art” and “luxury”.

Before going back to my hotel room after a long day of talking and listening to stereo systems, I was winding down in the large, dimly lit Halcro/Wilson ballroom at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest listening to the $500,000 stereo system the companies had set up there. The big room was festooned with overstuffed coaches and chairs, lovely potted palms and plants and best of all, a well-stocked open bar serving very nice wines by a tuxedoed attendant. The soft jazz music was soothing after nearly 48 non-stop hours of telling industry people about the new Stereomojo site that had just launched. I hadn’t stopped to eat anything in that time. My hotel room was a place for reviewing notes I’d scribbled, going through the hundreds of pieces of sales brochures and price lists and mapping out the strategy for the next day’s must-see demos – not sleeping. Since Stereomojo had been created to specialize in equipment priced generally under $10,000, I was sure this mecca of multibuck machinery would afford me a respite from review seekers.

I was almost startled when a sophisticated gentleman in an expensive suit came over and asked me if I was James Darby of Stereomojo. I smiled and said I was. He introduced himself as a VP of Halcro and asked if he could talk to me about reviewing one of their products. I asked if he know what Stereomojo was all about to which he said he did. I motioned toward the half-a-million display before us and said “Then you know that Halcro is probably the antithesis of what we do. It’s a household name. We concentrate on lesser-known manufacturers. Halcro is known for its very high-end, expensive amplifiers. We focus on gear under $10k. I’m sorry, I just don’t think we are a good match.” I shrugged and sipped my vintage Cabernet.

Bruce Ball continued, “Did you know that we make an incredible sounding 400 watt-per-channel power amp priced less than $5,000?”

I said, “You’re kidding. I had no idea”.

He leaned towards me and whispered in my ear, “Neither does anyone else. It’s been out for a year and nobody knows it exists. That is why we want you to review it”.

For twenty minutes, I continued to resist. I feared reviewing a Halcro might be considered selling out our primary mission. Finally, he sold me on the idea. But then, that’s why he’s VP of sales, I suppose.

Halcro History

Here’s a bit of trivia: From where does the company name Halcro originate? I confess, when I first read the name, I thought it was Halco – you know, some guy named Hal started a co-mpany. That’s not it. I’ll save the interesting answer for later.

Another VP I talked to about the MC20 is Jesse Walsh. Jesse is VP of North American Operations. I’ll share the backstory he related to me.

Halcro is the brainchild of Bruce Candy. Perhaps you know people who are ultra sensitive to the odor of certain women’s perfumes or the redolence of mildew. Those two things can make me nauseous. For Bruce, it is audio distortion. He loathes it as much as he loves music. It seems every amplifier he ever heard was awash in that evil nemesis.  Like so many other genius inventors, he knew he could build an amplifier he could stand to listen to, so he set about to do it. After all, he holds Ph.D.s in mathematics and physics. You have heard the expression that “almost” only works in horeshoes and hand grenades? Halcro’s parent company holds 75% of the world’s market in explosive detection devices. Therefore, “almost” is not in Dr. Candy’s vocabulary. Alas, the good doctor could not build a perfectly distortionless amp. He could only get the signal to a purity of 99.9996%! He missed perfection by .0004 percent. What a loser, huh.

The result was the dm58 monoblock that was immediately hailed world over as a breakthrough product that set a new standard for amps and audio playback in general. Headlines blared “The Best Amplifier Ever”. Of course, as things seem to go, the next month’s issues proclaimed the same thing about the something else. At $25,000 the pair, the dm58 put out only 200 wpc. Bruce’s newer amp, the MC20 discussed here, generates a crushing 400 watts per channel for 1/5 the price. And no, it is not a spin off brand name – it says “Halcro Logic” right on the luxurious silver front panel.

So what’s the catch? This seems to good to be true and we know what that usually means. Is this $5,000 beast the equal of the older “bests”?

 

The Catch

Let us answer that upfront; No, the MC20 is not the equal of any of the dm series, nor is it intended to be. There is no claim of 99.9996% purity. The specs do claim:

· THD: <0.007% at 1kHz at all

powers up to 400W into 4ohms

· < 0.03% at 7kHz at all powers up

to 400W

· Noise:  <30nV/sqrt(Hz) @ 1kHz

referred to input· FCC Part 15

That is still pretty quiet, folks. Particularly for a Class D amp.


“Ahhh”, you say. “THAT’S the catch! It’s a digital amp”! Not really. Much has been written about Class D amps (we did a huge “Emerging Technologies” shootout that included several Class D amps), so I won’t go into it much here. Suffice it to say that while there is an element of 1s and 0s at play, Class D is still analog. It is just that with a D, the analog, push-pull amp is a full power all the time, but it is switched on and off by those 1s and 0s so fast as to be almost infinite. That is why Class Ds are referred to as switching amps.  Cool. And they are cool – literally. These amps use power very efficiently so there is very little residual heat – a big plus for those of us in tropical climbs.

The problem is, all that switching creates noise and – oh no! – distortion! Since Bruce lives by the motto “Distortion must die”, he donned his Starship Trouper outfit and created Lyrus – his proprietary circuitry to obliterate the malodorous fiend.

Yeah, that’s great. So how did Dr. Candy accomplish such low distortion figures? Here is what he says:

“Class-D amplifiers convert an input signal to a power 1-bit digital output signal, that is the output signal is either a 1 (say +70V) or a 0 (say -70V). The rate at which the output switches is much higher than audio frequencies (say 500kHz). This rate is controlled by a reference clock signal. The ratio between the average time spent at +70V and -70V varies in proportion to the input signal. That is if the input signal is say more than 0V, then the output correspondingly spends more time on average at +70V than -70V and so on.

 

This ratio is also controlled by the clock signal. The 500kHz switching signal is removed by analogue filters so that only the average signal passes to the loudspeaker, and as stated, this is controlled to be in proportion to the corresponding input signal.

 

Class-D amplifiers (analogue) suffer from intrinsic distortion, that is, even with "perfect electronic components" the circuits mathematically generate distortion. This intrinsic distortion increases rapidly with both increasing power and frequency. Thus at high powers, class-D amplifiers hitherto are substantially inferior to well designed traditional class-A or -AB or -B amplifiers.

 

The Lyrus circuits contain patented distortion canceling circuitry so that at high powers the Lyrus™ class-D amplifiers are on a par with well designed traditional class-A or -AB or -B amplifiers. Technically the intrinsic distortion can be attributed to an intrinsic time distortion (advanced phase) which varies in a non-linear manner with signal level (level squared law). The Lyrus circuits introduce a compensating time variation to the reference clock signal which controls when the output signal switches.

 

More technically, the clock signal is a triangular-wave which acts as a reference to the pulse-width modulator and the symmetry of the triangular-wave is varied by the input signal to produce the required corresponding phase compensation.

 

The Lyrus amplifiers produce about 1/5th to 1/10th of the distortion of typical well designed competitors at high powers.”

 

Like I said, the man hates distortion.

 

Physical Description

Another hallmark of Class D is potential small size and weight as seen in Dusty Vawter’s Channel Island amps. But the Candy man’s MC20 weighs almost 50 pounds and the size is 7x17x16 inches. Not small, not light.

Like a big Mercedes, the Halcro oozes quality and luxury. The front panel has a small line of gold that creases it horizontally that does nothing more than break up the visual monotony of the silver slab and adds a bit of tasty sumptuousness without implying lavishness or opulence. Classy.

The backside is all business – XLRs for fully balanced operation or RCAs if you must.  I ran the amp in both modes, but preferred the sound in the balanced configuration through Cardas Neutral reference XLRs. Speaker posts are first class as well. There is one connection port that you will not find on any other stereo amp. We’ll reveal that in a moment.

The Halcro employs a series of protection circuits that make it electronically bulletproof. The amp also acts like a state of the art line cleaning device that renders that incoming juice worthy to ignite the amp’s fire.

There are several other quality touches as well. Even the shipping cartons are an engineering marvel. The users manual is a leatherette 3-ring binder with the pages on very heavy paper. The Halcro name is proudly stamped on the cover.


IT’S INTELLIGENT AND INTERNET SAVVY

 

One thing a new owner will find in the carton is a CD. There is no music on it, but there is a Windows executable. Stick it in your PC and it will install the HRAS program. The Halcro Reliability Assurance Service. To quote from the manual, “HRAS monitors the performance of the system. It can be set up to alert your dealer, installer or yourself by E-mail if any amplification module fails, without disruption to your listening pleasure. An event log can also be maintained by HRAS for troubleshooting purposes”. Yep, if something goes south, the thing will E-mail you and any two other recipients you tell it to. This is where that other connector on the MC20’s back comes in – it’s an Ethernet jack. The PC software will also search, locate and identify every Halcro device in your system and automagically register it with Halcro.

Halcro even goes to the trouble of burning in the unit at the factory, saving you the two weeks it normally takes at 24 hours per day to reach potential.

This is where I tell you that the MC20 is part of Halcro’s home theater series which includes two pre-processors and four power amp configurations from two to seven channels; this being the 2-channel version. Now you know the other reason the Halcro VP had to twist my arm to get me to review this unit – Stereomojo doesn’t do Home Theater.

So. Is this slight exception (it is 2-channel) exceptional in sound?

THE SOUND OF HALCRO

Okay. No more drama;

The sound of the Halcro MC20 is extraordinary in its ability to produce the essence, heart and soul of music near flawlessly at this – or any other price.

Should we go through the litany of soundstage, detail, low-mid-high and all the rest, or does that one sentence do it for you? I suppose I should proceed because that’s why you pay me the big bucks. Wait. No you don’t. Aw, what the heck.

Whenever I am asked to review a power or preamp, I always insist that its mate is sent as well. That way, no one can claim that the other associated piece was not compatible or otherwise objectionable. It also assures that the product will receive a review that is fair for you, the reader. In this case, Halcro sent their SSP80 pre-processor which is a visual and sonic match for the MC20. Since the SSP80 is a surround sound piece, it will not be the subject of a review at Stereomojo. I will just say that at $8,000, this thing in direct, balanced stereo mode with no DSP or other processing in the circuit is exceptional as a preamp. It also includes one of the best sounding audio DACs I have every heard. The DAC alone is almost worth the eight grand. While I have been sorely tempted to stick it in the home theater system which is entirely separate from the stereo reference system, out of respect for Halcro and you the reader, I have not succumbed. Perhaps after this review I will ask Halcro permission to slip it in for a few days before it is returned.

Running into the even more extraordinary Sason LTD granite-enclosed speakers and Kimber Select BiFocal wires, the Halcro combo formed an image of sheer music. I must insert here that Steve Rothemel, the designer of the Sasons, is every bit the perfectionist and distortion loather that Bruce Candy is. This system just projects whatever the source creates in a space that is neither too big nor too small, dictated by the recording venue and how well the engineer captured it. And it is utterly quiet. No haze, no hash. Even the word “transparent” is inadequate because it implies that there is some barrier in place that is clear enough to see through. What we heard was not transparent, it was just there!

At 400 watts per channel, power is virtually limitless, but it never flexes its muscles ala the young Schawartzenegger, it never draws attention to itself at all. It never brags about its power.

If you think about it, it can be said that the high end is all about laziness. Most good components will present audio information and detail at one level or another. What people pay the large dollars for is the ability to hear them without having to work at it. In live music in a good venue, one does not have to strain to hear rosin on the bow or that triangle back in the percussion section. One does not have to exert effort to hear the nuances of a vocal performance or the articulation of the trumpeter. You never feel the urge to physically lean forward to differentiate the bass player’s lines from the kick drum.

One of my reference selections is Karen Carpenter singing Solitaire. She’s close mic’d so her unmatched rich alto timbre is right there in front of you. My niece, who just received her Ph.D, was visiting during the review process. When I played that cut for her she turned to me wide-eyed and exclaimed “My gosh, you can hear the saliva in her mouth”!

True. She’s no audiophile, but it was easy for her to recognize that rather odd detail. We put on Gnarls Barkley, cranked it up and rocked out. She turned to say something else to me and was surprised when the music was too loud for her to talk over. I hit mute and she said, “Wow. Was it that loud? It didn’t sound loud at all”! I explained to her that distortion adds a false senses of loudness, so when a signal is really clean, it can be loud but not perceived as such. I mentioned that rock guitar players today often use distortion inducing stomp boxes or even computer software to simulate distortion at low decibel levels. Then I took her into my home studio and played two signals at the exact level – one with a distortion VST add-on and one without. Of course, the nasty, distorted signal sounded much louder.

QUIET PLEASE

On weekend mornings the first thing Linda and I do is play some classical music while we read the paper, drink coffee and talk. When I say classical, I mean the real classical school; Mozart, Bach, Vivaldi. This morning it was Handel. No Mahler at 7 a.m., please. Even though the music was at background level, we found ourselves at times not talking or reading, but listening to something particularly interesting in the music. In other words, the Halcro not only rocks, it conveys detail, nuance and musically when playing quietly. Many call it microdynamics, but those are found in loud music as well.

The MC20 was so revealing that even non-audiophile friends and visitors could hear the difference when I switched out a cable. By the way, I did try substituting an excellent $1,000 power cable for the stock one, but there was very little improvement. That is a tribute to the filtering circuits in the amp, because usually there is a marked improvement.

There was no perceived glare or edge. The Flim & the BB’s cut I use for dynamics propelled the 100db sudden “hits” like the sound of a .44 magnum being shot at close range. Or, exactly as they were intended to be by the musicians. There is a little piano and bass ostinato for a few measures, then a quick beat of silence followed by a crash of piano, drums and electric bass all struck at blastissimo. Very few systems render this impact as explosively as it was recorded. This one did without strain or protest. Just…”BAM!!”.

But James…what does that mean?

Glare and edge. What does that really mean? Let’s see if I can show you what it means to me graphically.

Here, “MOJO” represents the music (of course!) as produced by an excellent system. The “music” is three dimensional, clear and clean. Each letter (note and/or instrument) is clearly defined. The bumpy surface indicates texture. Music is not flat, it has dynamics, transients, harmonics, detail and emotion. The color, or lack of it, signifies just that – no added colorations. The soft, gray background portrays the ambient or reverberant field encompassing the performance.

This graphic represents “edge”. Surrounding each note, voice or instrument is an electronic, non-organic, non-musical artifact that does not belong there. The size, amount and rawness of the edge will vary from component to component. Here, the edge is intended to sound rather moderate. It does not pervade the whole image, just an edge around individual sounds. The reverberant field is still there and little effected, but usually a bit truncated. For me, still listenable, but it impedes the flow and beauty – the naturalness – of the performance.

Here the edge is more prominent. It diminishes the original sound. Beyond moderate and bordering on nasty. Not pleasant. This is usually found in lower quality (but not mid-fi and not always less expensive) solid state gear. It can come from an amp, a CD player, any part of an analog front end or even power chords, cables and lack of quality equipment racks. In fact, everything else in a system may lack this edge, but one component may be the culprit that introduces it.

Now this is what “glare” sounds like to me. It is an unnatural, bright sounding artifact that is less hashy-sounding than edge, more solid in substance, but it can take on anything from a steely quality to that of gelatin. You notice that the ambient field is now reddish. That is because I’ve found that glare often invades that territory and colors it as well. Tubes as well as solid state can generate glare. Perhaps bad electric current can, too. Mismatches in impedance can cause it to some degree, though usually the opposite is true. Glare, to me, is rather fatiguing - not something to which I like to listen for long periods. This graphic portrays quite a bit of glare. Just looking at it makes me shudder.

Now this is what you get with really poor components. It usually takes more than one bad one to achieve this monstrosity. Notice the music is now smeared, blurred and indistinct. It is also flat and lacks both dimension and texture. The color takes on the cast of fecal matter. The soundstage (if it exists at all) is clipped, grainy and colored. This, my friends, is what the vast majority of our fellow Americans listen to in their homes every day. This is what my 2005 $2,000 Denon Home Theater receiver sounds like to me when I attempt to listen to music only through it – something I abandoned long ago.

 

Has this been helpful? Drop me a quick line (use “Contact” on the Home Page) and let me know. If so, maybe I can illustrate other “audiophile” terminology in future reviews.


HALCRO LOVES TUBES & VINYL

Bruce Ball, the Halcro VP who talked me into reviewing this (bless you Bruce), mentioned that the designer is a tube geek who wanted to impart the good qualities of tubes while excoriating the less pleasant.

I won’t go so far to say it has the luscious warmth of good tubes, rather it lacks the coldness of even good solid state. I did put the nice Triode TRV-4SE tube preamp in front of it for a while. The Halcro seemed to say, “Hey, that’s nice. Here’s what the Triode really sounds like”.

The sound became bit creamy and languorous, the soundstage diminished just a tad and instruments were not as delineated in the image. Strings became a bit more lush and vocals took on a more golden aspect. Acoustic instruments in particular sounded a bit more woody. There was no drastic deterioration, but there was a change, as if another singer had taken the stage. I believe with a lesser amp and speakers, those qualities may not have been as easy to discern. Perhaps I am lazy, too.

I usually never refer to other reviews, in fact I try to avoid reading any reviews on a component under review here, but since Jesse practically recited it to me that night at RMAF, I read it after my listening process was finished. In it, Art Dudley compared the MC20 to his $30,000 Lamm monoblocks. Mr. Dudley concluded that the MC20 was equal or better in some areas, but lacked the last “eerily convincing sense of texture” for which the Lamms are “notorious”. He also points out that the Lamm’s last sense of texture costs you an additional $25,000. The only reason I mention Mr. Dudley’s comment is because the Lamms are tube amps and I am commenting here on the designer’s fondness for tubes and the sound I perceived. Bottom line, if YOU are a tube addict and long for more than 25 wpc without spending $30,000, the MC20 is definitely worth investigating.

Even though the DAC in the Halcro pre I mentioned is exemplary with CD and DVD-A, when I fired up the TW Acustic (yes that is spelled correctly) Raven One table, the musical level went up. I have already received several emails, mostly from the Pacific Rim, either asking about it or telling me how hot this table is in the region.

 

The MC20, aided by the wonderful Roksan Caspian Reference phono pre, embraced the increased musical acumen of LPs like a long lost golden retriever. The LA 4’s “Pavane Pour Une Infante Defunte” on EASTWEST Nautilus Direct to Disk was never more clean and convincing on the superlative guitar work of the late Laurendo Almeada.

 

Ennio Morricone is becoming increasingly recognized as a master of composing movie soundtracks and “The Mission” as one of his best works. The LP cut “On Earth As It Is In Heaven”  is a very complex track  with two different choirs singing in counterpoint, a full orchestra, oboe solo, and array of African percussion and very deep and distant drum thwacks. The soundstage is very large in all directions and layered with lots of ambience. The Halcro handled all of those factors flawlessly.

 

I listened to hundreds of CDs, SACDs, DVD_As and LPs through the Halcro. Never did it make a discouraging sound. It never faltered even during Florida’s regular power surges and outages in severe weather.

So then, is this power amp perfect? Of course not. No amp is. Even if a thousand people pronounced something “perfect”, there would be another thousand whose taste and sensibilities would somehow be offended by its sound. I believe It is not my job to pronounce something good or bad, but rather to report on how it sounds in relation to a myriad of other components I have heard, owned or currently have as part of a reference system, report as accurately and clearly as possible without unnecessary hyperbole or excessive “audiophilespeak” and to make recommendations based on my years of experience as an audiophile and professional musician. Does that make sense?

 

Reading “Publishers Listening Materials and Biases” (http://www.stereomojo.com/Articles.htm) may shed some light on what I have just said.

 

Having said that, since there is no distinct coloration or euphonic, romantic lushness, some may find the sound of the MC20 on the dry side. Like wines, it depends on your palette. In this case, your audio palette. The Halcro defines the smallest details in a solid perspective. Some may find this to be too much, preferring a smoother, more constrained approach.

I compared the Halcro mates to the outstanding LSA Reference MK III integrated amplifier. The LSA is a hybrid tube/ss design with 150 wpc that goes for about $6,000. The Halcro combo was just a smidge better, but in fairness, LSA makes a better version of this integrated that would be a closer comparison in price.

 

In short, the Halcro MC20 power amplifier sounds like the first  “MOJO” graphic above. It pushes all my buttons. It is a sensory wonderland. It lets me not just hear the music, but experience it. I think there is a very strong chance it will for you, too. Halcro warrantees the MC20 for 3 years.

 

The Halcro MC20 presents an excellent all round power amplifier in build quality, extra amenities, factory support, sound and even at its $4,995 price, an excellent value. For those reasons and more, we award

the Halcro MC20 our

 

Congratulations to Bruce Candy, Jesse Walsh, Bruce Ball and all the fine people at Halcro.

Oh. The trivia question: Where did the Halcro company name originate?

Halcro is Bruce Candy’s middle name – Bruce Halcro Candy.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Triode TRV-35SE is a 45 watt per channel tube integrated amplifier

Price - $1,695

Who is Triode?

Confucius ask, “When is Triode not Triode but sound like Triode”?  Triode is a Japan based company that specializes in value priced tube amplifiers created by Junichi Yamazaki. Junichi san has been building and selling his designs in Japan for ten years, but has recently inked a deal with importer Santy Oropel of Twin Audio to distribute his products in the US. The Triode line consists of six different amps; four integrated and two monoblocs, each featuring different tube sets such as KT88s, EL34s and 300Bs.

 

Physical Description

 

The first thing one notices about the TRV-35SE and all Triode amps is the candy-apple red finish that would make a Lexus paint job proud. It is so glossy the paint still looks wet. Not ostentatious, it looks very classy and rich; contemporary, but also classic. A nice application of Feng Shui, perhaps.  On each side is a dark walnut-colored wood panel that is very complimentary and ads a more upscale look.

The tube compliment is 4-EL34s, 1-12AX7(ECC83) and 2-12AU7s (EC82) producing an output of 45 watts per channel at 8 ohms in an AB push-pull class. Frequency response is said to be 10Hz- 100 kHz (+/- 4dB).  The 35SE is no lightweight, tipping the scales at about 34 pounds. It comes with a black tube cage that can be switched around to provide protection via narrow rail grid or a less dense pattern that allows a better window for the glowing tubes. Or, it can be removed altogether. Very nice.

 

There are 4 inputs; 3 in the rear and one placed conveniently on the front, all gold plated and selectable by a nice sized knob. Another controls the volume and it is the only way to do so – there is no remote. A very nice surprise was to find a headphone jack on the front as well. Insert your ¼” jack and the speakers are automatically muted.

The rear panel is simple and well laid out. There is a pre-out available and the power chord is not captive if you wish to upgrade. There is a choice of 6 or 8 ohm speaker outs via WBT style posts on the rear to complete the design. Again, even the rear panel exudes an aire of class and quality not usually found at this price point of $1,695.

Turntable owners will need a phono preamp as none is provided on this model.

The Triode TRV-35SE has an expensive look and feel that belies its modest price.

 

Feng Sound

 

There is no doubt that its jewel-like appearance, quality build and finish is impressive, but how it performs is what counts. Reference speakers were the incredible granite enclosed Sason LTD-IS by Ridge Street Audio, bi-wired by Kimber Select BiFocal cables in the large room and the Stereomojo Maximum Mojo Award winning LSA Monitor 1s in the small room. Analog source was the

 TW Acustic Raven One with a Dynavector XX2 MK II MC cart running into a Roksan Reference phono pre. Digital was provided by a Pioneer DV47 universal player, heavily modified by Stereo Dave’s Audio Alternative. ICs were again Ray Kimber’s Selects. I also used the magnificent Halcro preamp to drive the power section of the Triode for a bit, just for the fun of it.

 

The first thing I always ask the designer of the product under review is, “What was your design goal for this product”?  That comes from many conversations with manufacturers and distributors who have told me horror stories about reviewers who have arbitrarily set their own expectations for a component with little regard for what the piece was actually designed to do, resulting in a rather unfair and inaccurate review. That is not good for the maker, the consumer or the audio press in general. When I asked this important question of Mr. Yamazaki, he said, The design goal is to reproduce music at its best using good components at affordable price. The looks was also considered carefully to be pleasant to the eyes of many”.

 

I also asked, “Were you aiming for a certain type of sound or voicing”? This question was critical, I thought, because the Triode’s voice does have a definite accent. He replied, “To reproduce music that is real and pleasing to the ears”. A bit generic, but fair enough.

 

Although the sample I received was a demo unit, I let the amp get settled in the system for about 40 hours. The first thing I had to determine was whether to use the 6 or 8 Ohm speaker outs. It did not take long to determine that the 8 ohm taps sounded better in this instance. In the large room, I was a bit concerned about the Triode’s 45 wpc ability to power the 89dB efficient Sasons. Even though I know from experience that 45 tube watts usually equates to more power than a solid state equivalent, I was surprised at how robust the output was. Listening to my dynamics testing cut from Flim & the BB’s Tricycle CD, the Triode provided very adequate volume, but as to be expected, huge dynamics were a bit compressed. This cut has 100dB peaks, so in a large room with full range not-that-efficient speakers, the Triode actually did very well. In the smaller room with smaller, restricted range monitors with much less power needed, dynamics were very good, though still not this amp’s strong suit.

Bass was a standout. Low frequencies were firm and well controlled; not a bit sloppy or loose. And even in the large room, there was plenty of it.

In both instances, turning the amp up to full volume with no input resulted in dead quiet – no noise. I know some much more expensive amps that won’t do that. That contributed to the excellent soundstage which was nicely deep and wide, but not as tall as usual.

To me, if a component can’t do vocals, it is a non-starter for me. A deal breaker. The 35SE adores male and female singers. Linda Ronstadt and Karen Carpenter on vinyl, KT Turnstall, Lara Fabian, Randy Crawford (yes, a female) and Rebekka Bakken all sounded wonderful. Sam Moore on his hot, funky R&B CD “Overnight Sensational” was just that. If you have heard this recent collection of duets with people like Sting, Steve Winwood, Wynonna, Eric Clapton and several other living artists, among them the last ever recording by Billy Preston, you are missing a treat. There is one painfully bad train wreck of an effort with Mariah Carey and Vince Gill, but the rest are flat out great, the Winwood being the standout. Very “up, feel good” songs and spirit. If your wife or girlfriend don’t shake her money maker to this, it’s broke!

Rebekka Bakken? If Nora Jones, Madeleine Peyroux, Diana Krall and the like leave you wanting more, check her out on her “I Keep My Cool” release. Let me know what you think. Excellent sonics, too.

 

Ennio Morricone’s  “The Mission” soundtrack has very beautiful, very complex tracks, which is why I use it to test how well a component can delineate instruments in a complex, multifarious sound field.

I was able to pick out and follow different lines and phrases of the multiple choirs, drums, African percussion, oboe, strings and others fairly easily. The space around individual instruments is not as clean as pricier integrateds such as the $3,000 LSA Reference 1 (which sounds much better than $3k), but those are the things one sacrifices to stay in budget – both the designer and a consumer. Recall what Yamazaki said: “Good components at affordable price”. So far, I would say he has done what he said.

 

Here is where things get interesting. Earlier I said,  “The Triode’s voice has a definite accent”. I know this is going to sound strange, but the 35SE is partial to things of a more organic composition such as wood, voices and acoustic rather than things made of metal or amplified electronically. For example, string sections sound more convincing than brass sections and acoustic bass fares better than electric bass. Acoustic guitars are beautifully rendered, rich and vibrant, where electric guitars come off a bit thin and pale. Now, a bit of a disclaimer here: The Sason LTDs are extremely revealing and honest and listening through them was where this trait was most apparent. The LSAs were not as critical, but once I heard it on the Sasons (spronounced  Sa-sahns) it was more evident on everything else. What I am saying is, I would bet that with the vast majority of systems this personality would go unnoticed.

 

But, another question I always ask myself is, “Does it rock”? Here I would suggest that the 35SE does not, at least compared to other amps in this category. I believe this amp has been voiced to stress a transcendental type beauty over other characteristics, and that it does very, very well.

What could possibly cause this characteristic? I cannot say for sure, but it probably has something to do with the harmonic structure of the instruments and/or the first or third order of the amp design.

 

Is this characteristic bad? Depends on what your listening preferences are. If you primarily dig rock music laden with heavy, fuzz-distorted guitars and processed vocals, or if Kraftwerk is at the top of your playlist, you would probably be better off elsewhere. If you prefer orchestral that leans more towards Mozart rather than Mahler, Heifetz rather than Hendrix and Michael McDonald over Megadeath, you will be ecstatic. 

Pavarotti is a great tenor, but I wouldn’t want to hear him sing Led Zep’s “Whollotta Love”. Do you think Jimi would have had the impact he did on the rock world if his instrument had been the tuba? Everything has its strong points and there are no perfect audio components. This Triode is much more of a beauty than a beast.

 

 

Here’s what convinced me I was right. One of my audiophile buddies (let’s call him Stereo Mario) who occasionally serves as a listening partner, brought over a pristine, special edition collector’s version LP on the JEM label of “Court of the Crimson King”. Listening through the 35SE, “21st Century Schizoid Man” and the title cut were not that impressive, where the rest of the LP was stunningly beautiful. Most of this LP is soft music with flutes, soft muted drums and such. The contrast was not hard to hear on the Sasons.

The next week, I took the Triode over to Stereo Mario’s house and stuck it in his system, replacing his other tube amp. It’s not a big room, has hardwood floors a Cal Labs CD player and Rogers speakers. He had just gotten the new Beatle’s “Love” remix CD. It starts out a capella with the boys singing “Because”. Breathtaking. Mario was dumbfounded.

He began pulling out CDs and LPs one after the other. Cat Stevens, sixties Blue Note jazz LPs, Shaded Dogs, The Triode had more power, more bass punch and more detail than his current amp. Everything sounded so musical.

Stereo Mario asked cautiously, “How much is this marvelous amp”? When I told him, he was shocked. “You’re kidding! Can I buy it’? “I don’t know, Mario. That would be up to Santy, the distributor”. “Please. Ask him.”

I left the Triode with him. Santy agreed to the sale. The amp now belongs to Stereo Mario. What amp did the Triode replace? A Conrad Johnson. I think that probably says more than anything I could write in a review.

Running the Halcro into the Triode via pre-in improved things a little bit, mainly in the area of quiet background and increased soundstage. However, the improvement was not that significant, leading me to believe that Mr. Yamazaki’s design balance was well conceived.

The headphone amp section is no afterthought. Listening through AKG – 240s and Ultrasone HFI-2000s revealed a high quality level of listening enjoyment. The sound was full and richly detailed. This addition alone is probably worth about $500 in overall value compared to a separate head amp.

The last question I asked of the designer was, “Can the sound be improved by upgrading tubes? Do you have any tube suggestions for buyers”?

His reply was, “Current tubes are same quality, if there is a difference it is very little that will be very hard to tell. Upgrading pre tubes 12AX7 and 12AU7 to NOS would be nice”. Tube rollers take note.

 

 

 

The Triode TRV 35SE looks as good as it sounds and provides willing power within its 45 watts per channel limits. It more than meets its designer’s goal of reproducing music at its best using good components at an affordable price. About the only downside is that it does not come with a remote control or phono preamp. The inclusion of a good quality headphone circuit is a definite plus. Recommended for those whose main appetites do not include lots of heavy metal rock or electronica. The 35SE excels at reproducing acoustic music in real spaces; classical, vocals and jazz in particular. It does so at a very accommodating price of $1,695.

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by

James Darby

Description

The first thing you need to know about this product is that it retails for only $3,195. When I first saw it at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, I was sure it cost at least $10,000 – it looks that substantial in quality and heft. Linda thought so, too. Working with this amplifier feels like driving a Lexus or a top model Mercedes. It just exudes quality, craftsmanship and extreme attention to detail. The switchcraft has the tactile feel of quality that one knows when they feel it.

The LSA Reference MK III is an integrated two-channel hybrid tube/solid state amplifier whose output is 150 watts per channel at 8 ohms and a whopping 800 wpc at 1.3 ohms. At 77 pounds, the amp is massively overbuilt in all stages, inside and out. The amplification stage is class AB solid state with special topology to reduce heat and yet produce a high linear output. The pre-amp section employs two 6922 tubes (one per channel) to give the sound a tube quality to mate with the very high output solid-state section. The VS.1 Reference MK.III also employs the use of the Cardas Golden Ratio bypass capacitors in critical circuit areas.

The LSA is fully balanced via 2 XLRs on the rear – another feature often excluded in $3,000 integrateds. The power cord is not captive if you wish to upgrade.

We are thrilled to report that there is also a phono pre input for MM cartridges and hi-output MCs. It is isolated from the rest of the circuitry to limit noise. Total inputs number four. Like me, you probably know of several integrateds that neglect a phono pre. Kudos to LSA for including one.

The quality construction extends to the remote control as well. It feels like it was cast as a single block of metal. Solid. It is actually machined aluminum, the type one usually sees in much more expensive lines. The remote has the functions most needed without being complex and fussy. Two buttons turn the volume up and down; another toggles through the inputs with the last button used for taking the unit in and out of standby mode. There is a master on/off switch on the rear of the amp.

The design of the remote and the quiet volume motor allows for the ideal adjustment of volume – not to fast, not too slow. Sensitive to very slight increments so that the proper volume level can be set effortlessly.  I have seen much more expensive amps that will not do that. Another huge plus is that the remote is not finicky about distance or angle. In the picture, you might notice that the screening is two-color with the only red used in one character in the ‘III”. If you’ve ever paid for printing, you know two-color costs more, but this is just the level of detail found throughout the product.

 

UNDER HER SKIRT

 

One look inside continues their quality theme. Look at those massive dual power supplies and the physical separation of the channels. It’s about as close to combining two monoblocks in one chassis as you can get. The two tubes are placed close to the inputs for low noise and distortion. Very high quality WBT-style connectors are used as well.

Clean. Neat and tidy. No wasted space or long circuit paths. Limited wires kept to shortest lengths. Substantial heat sinks to assure long life and low maintenance.

It is obvious that much thought and engineering went into the overall design.

 

PRETTY FACE, TOO

The front panel is simple, clean and elegant. In the black area, behind a clear panel, four small squares outline the four input indicators. A small, soft red light signifies which input is active. For people who listen in the dark, the red lights are just the right brightness. They do not glare at you, yet are easily visible in full light, too. Well done, LSA. The left button toggles on/standby and the right toggles the inputs. The large, center disk adjusts the volume. A fingertip-size detent is thoughtfully placed to aid in turning. Other than the large, nicely sculpted handles or “ears”, that’s it. Perfect.

 

 

 

THE SOUND

All of the above might be rendered pointless if the sound does not stack up. We are happy to say that the sound is every bit as impressive as the accoutrements. The first question I always ask of the designer is “What was your design goal for this product”? Larry Staples, the head man at LSA, told me the design goal was to produce an integrated amplifier that surpasses the sound and build quality of every other integrated in it’s price class. While we have not heard every integrated in the $3,000 category, we’ve heard many, and we can safely say that the LSA easily meets it’s overall goal. It must be pointed out that this amp was not intended to be a cost-no-object statement. LSA itself makes two other integrateds that look very similar but have upgraded parts. They also cost more, so clearly there were some compromises. The bottom line is how well those compromises were implemented. Judging from the sound, the designer did an outstanding job. Let’s look at things this amp does particularly well.

The first thing one notices is the easy sense of power, especially in the low range. I cannot help but go back to the luxury car metaphor again. When the accelerator is depressed, even in an uphill passing situation, there is no sense of strain or even effort. It is as if the car says, “Oh, you want to go faster? No problem”, and “Whoomp, there it is”!  Unlimited torque. This amp has torque.  I drove several speakers with it, from mini-monitors to large floorstanders. There was never a sense that the big brute was exerting itself. Dean Peer’s bass solo CD was reproduced powerfully, as was Stanley Clarke and Jaco via vinyl. Timpani and pipe organ revealed no shortness of breath while playing Reference Recording’s “Tutti” and the Sonoma SACD from Sony, “Music for Organ, Brass and Timpani”.  The lower registers were never out of firm control.

The next outstanding attribute was dynamics. The first cut from Flim & the BB’s contains dynamic swings of 100db. The LSA handled them well. Power has its privileges. Headroom was plentiful in the same Sonoma SACD. Trumpets blasted, organ pipes roared and timpani pounded when the music called for it. Dynamics put the life in music to a large extent and the big LSA was full of life. The amp also did well when playing quietly, though this quality was not as impressive. Microdynamics were there, just not as effortlessly portrayed. The next model up in the LSA line (review pending) does a finer job there, but it costs about twice as much.

Soundstage is next in line. Deep, wide and detailed, the image was much better than expected and much better than an amp, integrated or not, has a right to produce in this price range. Size was not the issue. Even through Ray Kimber’s outstanding “Select” speaker cables and ICs, there was a big of grain to be detected and individual instruments, while very stable in their proper places, did not have the sense of ultimate separation that better amps entail. While I would not describe them as smeared, they were just a little soft in focus as illustrated with the Turtle Creek men’s choir on another classic Reference Recording. Spend a bunch more dollars and you get higher resolution. The Halcro MC20 (another review upcoming) almost lets you know which guy has a beard or moustache it seems, but at 400 Class D wpc, it’s a bargain at $4,950. And the Halcro is not an integrated; it is a separate power amp so we are not comparing nuts to nuts. For the bucks, the LSA is an overachiever here, too.

During the review process, I received  a prototype ESS rack by Paul Wakeen of Stillpoints. The ESS improved the sound of the LSA – and every other component I placed in it – dramatically. If you are not using a good quality isolation rack, you are depriving yourself of much of your system’s potential. Just a quick word to the wise.

Midrange was very good. Silky smooth and never glaring. My wife and I were able to listen for hours with no fatigue. Linda Ronstadt was radiant in “Shattered” from “Cry Like a Rainstorm”. What’s more, the Ref Mk III captured the heartbreak of her “shattered” romance convincingly. On the same cut, there is a very delicate piano solo intro. Only the finest components can capture the subtleness of the pianist’s soft touch. The LSA was not brutish at all and rendered it well. Those two 6992 tubes (Electro Harmonics) made themselves known here, I think. I must have listened to a dozen different recordings by the softer sex and was never disappointed. The men, represented by a diverse sampling of Pavarotti, The Fairfield Four, John Hiatt, Boz Scaggs, Luther Van Dross and many others, fare equally as well.

I recently received the Cantus CDs “Let Your Voice Be Heard” and “There Lies the Home” from John Atkinson of Stereophile. (Superb recording, John, thank you!) The Ref III revealed the exquisitely talented a cappella singers as well as JA’s remarkable engineering prowess. I wish the Kings Singers, another of my favorite

male ensembles, were recorded so beautifully. I strongly recommend that you buy one or both of these now.

Can the amp do vocals? Yep.

Strings also benefited from the tube influence. Comparing the midrange to the Triode TRV-35SE integrated, an excellent EL34 all tube model at $1,695 and 45 wpc, the LSA’s tube quality was unmistakable with the added bonus of all those torquey watts. Would it compete with a costlier Manley, VAC or Cary in terms of “tubiness”? It would compete, but it wouldn’t win. It terms of all around power it would, of course, come out way ahead with any of those at twice the price. Again, the designer made great choices in voicing this amp.

The high end, while good, did not exhibit the extension and sparkling detail of the Triode and some solid-state integrateds I know well.  Listening to my own piano recordings, it was a bit grainy compared to the rest of the amp’s frequencies. Orchestral music, while never dull or lifeless, just made me work a little harder to dig out some upper sonorities.  Other amps in this price range may well equal the LSA in this area, but finding one with all its other outstanding qualities and power may prove a difficult task as my recent sojourn to CES can attest.

Don’t get me wrong, the upper spectrum is not deficient in any way, it is just not as strong as the other aforementioned factors. Unless one was listening very critically, it would not be a factor at all. It is still very much a high-end high end. Again, this is improved in LSA’s next model up the chain.

The designer chose well in his tradeoffs.  Bass and mids are much more important in the scheme of things since the vast majority of musical sound emerges from those regions and there is very little activity way up top.  I should also point out my reference, granite enclosed Sason Ltd speakers are very revealing, much more so than the vast majority of “audiophile” speakers, so your speakers may not even detect this slight imperfection. Not to worry.

 

BUT CAN IT ROCK?

Lawdy, she can rock!  Led Zep IV practically exploded our of my speakers with John Bonham’s drums detonating like cannons and Jone’s bass driving the rhythm forcefully.

The colossal LSA sounded like it was born to rock. Guitars had plenty of grit and snarl and vocals were spot on.  Gnarls Barkley and Flaming Lips on CD, Zappa, Alan Parsons and Talking Heads on vinyl had no problem “Burnin’ Down the House”.  There is a sense of incredible inner energy that pervades not only your mind, but your body as well. It made Linda get up and dance. That’s worth the price of admission right there.

The same energy is released by jazz recordings as well.  Oscar Peterson’s pyrotechnics, for example, were vivid and distinct. Each lightening fast note in his famous16 measure, two-fisted phrases were precisely delineated. His piano sounded uncolored and natural and of the proper scale – something not easily achieved.

PRE JUDGING

Mentioned earlier was the inclusion of a phono preamp input, but it deserves special attention. Some amp builders include them, but regard them as a bit of a throw in and do not go to great pains to make them sound that great. Other amps do not include them at all, possibly because they also sell separate phono pres. In both cases, the object is to keep prices down.

The phono section of the LSA Reference MK III is no mere add on. The company did go to great pains to create a phono section that sounds, very, very good. How good? It bested the Grado PH-1 which sells for $500 (and sounds better than that) and came pretty close to the Musical Surrounding’s Phonomena at $1,200. The Phonomena is a bit quieter with the battery pack engaged and more detailed in overall presentation, but the LSA version is also very quiet and throws a lush soundstage and, like the rest of the amp’s sound, is very musical.

Just think, with the LSA, it is like getting an outstanding integrated for $3,195 with a $1,000 phono stage for free!  Very cool. Bear in mind an integrated amp also saves you significant cost in the interconnects you don’t need between a separate amp and pre. When an integrated like this compares favorably to some separates, it makes for a clever choice.

On a side note, while studying some European audio mags, I noticed that this amp line has been picked up by one of Europe’s most prestigious very high-end dealers, Shadow Audio. Shadow only sells the very “best of the best lines”. I think it is rather significant to see them featuring this amp in their two-page ads.

 

The VS-1 LSA Reference MK III is a masterful piece of engineering and a true hi-end component at an entry level price. It gives you the sweetness and finesse of fine tube gear as well as the oomph, headroom and bottom end control of the more costly, big-watt super amps. It excels at all genres of music and eschews none.

The build quality is such that Krell, Pass and Musical Fidelity would be proud to have their monikers affixed. This is an amp someone could own for a long, long time and never have to worry it breaking down. The fact that you get a rather primo phono section just adds to the astonishing value. Visually, the amp gives your whole system an expensive look.

Anyone looking to upgrade from solid-state to tubes should consider the LSA.

Anyone looking for higher power yet high-end refinement should put this at the top of their list.

Anyone considering an amplifier purchase of $2,500 to $5,000 should investigate this integrated.

                                                                      

That LSA can accomplish all this sound and build quality in a fully balanced, integrated amplifier at such a rudimentary price is mind-boggling. Larry Staples tells me that the sound can be taken to even another level by doing a little tube rolling. He will gladly give owners his expert recommendations.

Because of the outstanding achievement in sound, build quality and amazing value, the VS-1 LSA REFERENCE MK III is awarded Stereomojo’s

 

MAXIMUM MOJO AWARD

Congratulations to Larry Staples and the fine people at LSA

Contact info & website:

http://www.thelsagroup.com/

 

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Channel Islands D-100 Monoblock Power Amplifiers


I've heard it said that good things come in small packages. If we look around at the world we attend each day, we see that the average retail consumer likes things big, bigger, and biggest. When I was offered the opportunity to review Dusty Vawter's Channel Island's 100 watt Class-D monoblock amplifiers I was very interested because I was previously able to listen to his dedicated headphone amp and upgraded power supply combo at an electronics meet and at a Home Entertainment show in NYC. I came away impressed with the sound and build quality.

Channel Islands Audio is an American company based in Port Hueneme, California. They proudly state that they are "Handcrafted in the USA". They have 2 different monoblock amplifiers in their lineup that also includes a 200 watt version. In addition there is a passive controller, a 24 bit digital to analog converter, and a phono stage for moving magnet and moving coil cartridges.

I initially received a single box from Dusty that wasn't very big and not at all heavy, so I figured I'd wait one more day before I checked with FedEx about not getting the second amp. In the mean time I opened the single container and to my surprise both amplifiers were inside!

 

Physical Description

Each amp was individually boxed inside the outer box and came with a stock IEC power cord in each box. The size of each module is 5 inches high, 6 inches wide and 8 inches deep. They weigh 15 lbs. each and come with a one-year warranty.

Each amp has its own push button on/off switch that when in the off position allows the amp to stay in a standby mode so the amps are always ready and warmed up when you turn them on.

The D-100's are each equipped with a high quality Neutrik single ended rca jack or a XLR connector for balanced applications and also have two gain options (26dB for active or 32 dB for passive preamps) when ordering. That's a nice feature you don't often find even at higher price points. The manufacturers' rated output is 100 watts into 8 ohms and 175 watts into 4 ohms.
Another unusual feature is that there are no vents or large heat dissipating fins to be found. There's a good reason for this which we'll get to in a moment.

Upon removing the cover, I spied in the middle section an 8-pack of capacitors that plug into the power supply mounted to the rear wall of the chassis. (These have since been upgraded. They now use two large
> 10,000uF capacitors instead of multiple smaller ones - Ed.) There is a huge torroidal transformer mounted to the 3/16" thick front panel which takes up a good portion of the inner workings. The rear panel appears to be made with the same specs. The binding posts are gold plated. One small issue is that my spade terminated Cardas Neutral Reference speaker cables didn't have enough room to fit on the bottom of the posts, so I had to use the top. Banana plugs may suit you better if you use high-end cables.

The amps are rated to handle a frequency range of 10-20 Khz. (Dusty claims the D-100's bandwidth is DC(0 hz) - 50khz +0/-3dB - Ed.)


Sounds of the Islands

I let these guys burn in for 4 days before I sat in my sweet spot and started to work.

One thing that amazed me was that even after 4 days of continuous play these puppies did not get warm. Not even a little. And that's with the lack of vents and fins I noted earlier.

I decided I would use my digital players first before subjecting the amps to some serious vinyl recordings. I loaded a great SACD by David Sanborn "Timeagain" in an Emm Labs CDSD transport and Dac6 E. As Sanborn's saxophone started making sweet, sultry sounds, I was amazed at the sound quality that those little boxes were putting out. Clean, spacious, powerful and silky smooth.


I then moved to Keiko Matsui's "Dreamwalk" which is a creative, feathery transition of melodies that take the listener into a realm of relaxation and fantasy. I felt as if I were listening to the music rather than the amps, which is what we are all pursuing, isn't it?
These amps helped me through the complex transitions without impeding my travels. Channel separation, a main advantage of employing monoblocs, was exemplary.

 

Next up was my VPI HRX vinyl setup where I put on Ray Brown andLaurindo Almedia's "Moonlight Serenade", which, in track one, has Ray bowing his double bass rather than the normal plucking technique azz bassists normally employ. Twice he bows a low E pitch which is the lower limit of the instrument at 41.2 Hz. The D-100's rendered the bowing with both power and finesse, creating a visceral effect I could feel in my teeth.
The Meitner gear (Emm Labs) was then removed in favor of my Meridian G08 which is a very neutral, non aggressive Redbook CD player that adds very little color to it's interpretation. Here the D-100's stayed true to the recording with only a slight feeling of thinness in Warren Haynes' "Gov't Mule" which is a hard driving rock and southern blues recording. The touch of thinness was apparent when Warren started his trademark wailing guitar solos. Please note that this slight thinness is in no way a fatal flaw. Some listener's ears may even interpret it as an advantage. It is still above and beyond what an amp in this price range should be able to do. These amps outperform their price range by a significant margin.

As the CD moved from track to track one thing that really stuck out was the amp's incredible soundstage. Side to side the width was something for which I was not prepared. I found on well recorded albums that the sound wrapped around me in a Carnegie Hall fashion. One thing that I found that was lacking was the very center of the soundstage. The layers that usually form in the middle on my reference system weren't as 3D. The staging wasn't too far forward, it was where I feel it is supposed to be, it just didn't go quite deep enough into the end zone.

I tried different perspectives including moving up into a near field listening point in my room which yielded a slight improvement, but I felt silly sitting on my coffee table so I went back to my sweet spot. It's important to realize that a sweet spot for one setup and room can change drastically in another. Your experience may vary.

I decided to change speaker cables to a pair that a friend of mine sent me built by a designer named Mark Reid (the company's name is Susnick Audio) made from OFC (oxygen free copper) that is braided in an unusual manner which is claimed to have a very high bandwidth of 350 MHz which should allow for lots of headroom. The braid is arranged to allow the cable to better guard against interference and reject noise so they say.

Switching to these cables not only changed the signature of the sound but also reinforced the fact that audio components are truly system dependent. The identity and depth of the instruments opened slightly and the soundstage shifted. The center staging was still a little two dimensional but there was more information coming from my imaginary center channel and the side sound staging went from the felling one gets from a nice spring day to a really nice spring day - open and airy. The air was a little fresher and the sky was a little clearer.

I changed from the stock power cables to two Virtual Dynamics Power 3 power cords which are a steal for the money ($200 compared to their higher end $1500 cords) and the bass that was already deep and clean from the D-100's improved significantly. These amps produce a very clean, taut bass. I found the highs to be pleasant, without any sharpness but with a tiny bit off treble roll off at the top end The speaker cable and power cord swap outs helped improve the midrange and bass frequencies but pretty much left the treble alone. I played a good amount of my reference CD's from Redbook to SACD to DVD-Audio and was quite pleased with most of what I heard. I would have liked to have given their D- 200's a spin to see if they would have provided my home system with some more meat and potatoes.

The Channel Island D-100 Monoblocks are an incredible deal at $1599. Even more unusual is that Dusty includes the price of shipping to the continental US. At that bargain price, they give you a very potent taste of what hi-end audio is all about. With some decent interconnects, speaker wire and power cords, the flavor index increases even more.

 

Dusty Vawter's Channel Island D-100 Monoblocs are recommended to all audiophiles looking to upgrade from a lesser mid-fi receiver or integrated amp or even a similarly priced separates system. Their small size, 100wpc and lack of heat emission is ideal for smaller rooms and apartments. Their relatively low price and high level of performance make them more than just an attractive value, they are an outright steal.

If you also need a preamp to go with these monoblocs, Dusty now makes a passive line controller dubbed the PLC-1. (review upcoming – Ed) We applaud the fact that Dusty offers a 30 day in-home trial for his products.

Website: http://www.ciaudio.com/
Equipment
Preamp - McIntosh C45 Control Center

Sources - Meridian G08 CDP
Emm Labs CDSD Transport and DAC6 e digital to analog converter
VPI HRX Turntable w/ JMW 12.5 Tone arm and Lyra Titan MC Cartridge

Speakers - Vienna Acoustics Strauss

Cables:
(Speaker)- Cardas Neutral Reference, Susnick Audio (Mark Reid)

(Interconnects)- Audience AU 24, Nordost Red Dawn, Cardas Golden Reference

(Powercords) - CI Audio OEM, Virtual Dynamics Power Three, PS Audio Statement

Music Selections

David Sanborn - "Timeagain" SACD
Keiko Matsui - "Dreamwalk" CD
Ray Brown and Laurindo Almedia - "Moonlight Serenade" Direct to Disk 180 gram LP
Gov't Mule (Warren Haynes) - "Gov't Mule"

SPECIFICATIONS:
Power Output: 100 watts @ 8 ohms/175 watts @ 4 ohms
Bandwidth: 50kHz
Frequency Response: 10Hz - 20kHz, +0dB/-0.5dB
Damping Factor: >1000
Input Impedance: 100k ohms
Gain: 32db (for use with VPC•2 or other passive preamplifiers) or 26db (for use with active preamplifiers)
Dimensions: 6.25"w x 5.5"h x 8.0"d
Weight: 15 lbs (each)
Warranty: 1 Year Parts & Labor

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REVIEW

QINPU A1.0X INTEGRATED AMP

100 watts per channel - solid state

Price: $699

One of Stereomojo’s stated goals is to bring to the attention of audiophiles new products that are not commonly reviewed by other publications.  In addition, in our reviews we try to emulate the consumer’s experience as much as possible. Toward that end, when  a product or company is very new, we may opt to do a unsolicited review, meaning the product is purchased at retail just as you would with the seller not informed that the product was purchased as the subject of a review. As far as they know, we’re just another customer.

Since we also are prone to hang out on audio boards such as Audio Asylum and Audiogon in order to keep abreast of what audiophiles are thinking and saying, it couldn’t help but be noticed that two Qinpu products were advertised heavily and regularly. One was the A8000 MKII at $1,695, which had been reviewed favorably quite a bit, and the A1.0x at $699 for which we could find no reviews.

A good candidate? We thought yes, so a Qinpu A-1.0X was purchased from Hawaii Audio for $699 plus shipping of $45.

 

DESCRIPTION

 

The solid state Qinpu is rated at 100 wpc @ 8 ohms. As you can see in the picture, other than two oversized chrome colored knobs - one for volume the other for input selection and two other smaller knobs for bass & treble - the Qinpu A-1.0x is your basic black box. Note that the picture from Qinpu’s site has a yellowish “glow”, perhaps to suggest warmth, that makes the knobs appear a golden color. They are however, indeed chrome colored.


Note that a small button enables the user to bypass the bass & treble. There is also an on/off button, but no standby. A standard headphone jack is available in front.

The Qinpu has no phono section, so if you have a turntable you will need an additional preamp, and if you have a tape machine there are no loops available. There are four line inputs which should be adequate for most people and a stereo pre-out. There are only tone set of speaker terminals on the back of the cheapy plastic type, but the standard power cable is not captive in the event you would like to upgrade.

What you will notice immediately is that there is one single blue LED power indicator on the front panel. However, that one blue light is bright enough to light up a large room. If you install the amp at eye level it may be an annoyance. Or, if you listen in the dark as do I, the light will be a problem. I've never seen an electronic device with so piercingly bright a light. I called the vendor to see if there was a way to dim it or turn if off completely. I was told that others had complained about the light but there was currently no way to dim or extinguish it. I ended up putting a piece of black electrician's tape over it rather than risking a warranty violation of just clipping it from the inside.

 

The Qinpu A-1.0x does come with a remote control, but it's only function is volume up and down. It's very small, lightweight, plastic and flimsy feeling. It is also so thin that it kept disappearing into the space at the side of the chair’s cushion. If you want to change inputs or adjust bass & treble (there is no balance control on the remote or on the unit) you'll have to get up and do it manually.

 

 

Preamble

Right out of the box the Qinpu A-1.0x was bright and congested with a very small soundstage. This is not unusual for a never-plugged-in-solid-state amp so I didn't panic. I left it running with a CD on repeat for a week since any new amp should never be judged before a full week of burn-in. It is critically important to point out that the seller’s policy is for a 10 day audition only. For an internet seller, this is treacherously short for the audiophile since the burn-in required will take up most of that time. Most reputable dealers offer at least a 30 day home trial which is much more realistic.

 

Listening

My first listening session began with a CD of Flim & the BB's Tricycle. This is a DMP recording with audiophile recording techniques. It is an extremely dynamic jazz CD with sudden and loud bursts or “hits” of piano, bass, guitar, sax, drums and synth. following very ppp passages – the jazz equivalent of Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony. The story goes that Pappa Haydn was annoyed by his aristocrat audiences falling asleep during his concerts, so he composed a symphony designed to wake them up with unexpected loud bursts. It has been reported that the royals didn’t appreciate the humor. Pappa Haydn was a real scamp. Who knew.

The amp handled the cut well with no signs of clipping or unusual distortion.  The presentation was extremely detailed revealing seemingly high levels of resolution. Closed hi-hat taps, stuck out of the mix as did upper registers of the sax and bass. Snare drums snapped and kick drums, well, kicked. The soundstage was wide and deep, but tended to dissolve around the edges much like a TV screen set to channel with only noise. The hash you see in the center is usually pretty sharp, but as you get closer to the edges the visual noise loses focus and becomes a bit ragged.

 

I’m not sure what “Qinpu” means translated from the Chinese, but perhaps it should be “hyper” because two characteristics jumped out at me. The first was speed. It seemed to grab onto leading edges of percussion and bass quicker than most which added to the sense of detail. Initially, that was a good impression.

The other signature was overall brightness. The well recorded piano had a brittle quality in the upper end, not only in the fundamental frequencies, but also in the overtone or harmonics progression. I double checked the treble knob, but it was centered and bypassed, so the brightness was not attributable to that.

On to female vocal If an amp can't get voices right, it's a non-starter for me. My designated female demo is Linda Ronstadt's "Cry Like A Rainstorm...".  No, it’s not an officially sanctioned “audiophile” production, but if a component cannot reproduce standard issue recordings that represent the vast majority of releases, of what value is it? This title features Aaron Neville on a few cuts, so there is a male vocal to boot as soloist and in duets. In addition, the Beach Boys do a wonderful backup on “Adios” that when rendered well is exquisite.

The titles are full of emotional content. Songs that make you feel something. Grief is represented in the poignant “Goodbye My Friend”, sexiness in “Trouble Again” and “So Right, So Wrong (So Good),  and probably one of the most heartbreaking tunes ever in Jimmy Webb’s “Shattered”. There’s classic R&B, power ballads, country and rockers, but mostly there is Ronstadt’s voice, capable of going from a silent whisper to full “belt” and back again in a matter of three words. There’s also a large gospel choir in attendance and full orchestra so the musical gamut is covered on just one CD.

Linda does contemporary pop/rock, country, classic rock as well as heart rending ballads. Producer Peter Asher varies each song dramatically from dry, punchy sounds to silky strings and oboes bathed in what might be the most beautiful, layered, lingering, floating, delicate reverb ever recorded. That reverb is also difficult to render and will separate a good component from a lesser one quickly. One can tell a great deal about an amp by how well the reverb trails are rendered in size, length, depth width and clarity. The Qinpu was no slouch in those areas, but the added coloration turned the golden warmness into more of a fluorescent starkness.

The Qinpu placed Linda’s vocal was very upfront and forward, her voice well in front of my monitors. Some might consider this an “in your face” presentation. Neville’s vocal gymnastics were similar and nicely separated from Linda’s when they sang in unison - not an easy feat for any amp. But still that sense of a tilted up mid to upper high end was there.

Let’s see what it does with vinyl.

On “Witches’ Brew” (RCA LSC2225), the trumpets, French horns, and trombones sounded very brassy and metallic. The problem is, so did the strings and woodwinds. Once again the hall ambience was cast in an unnatural sheen rather than an organic richness. One might even say the sound was more CDish than analogue.

I continued to throw recording after recording at the amp with the same results. Basses and violins that were plucked rather than bowed (pizzicato) sounded as if a plastic pick was being used instead of human fingers, but the pick was very dynamic with lots of “pop”.

Overall, the sound was more mechanical than musical, but even worse it was found to be fatiguing and not conducive to extended listening sessions.

 

 

In all honesty, we really cannot recommend this amp. Even at $700 we think you would be better off with something from Cambridge, Onix as sold by AV123.com, or how about a tube/ss hybrid? Check out the JD 1501RC by Jolida.

Published Specs:

Output:100 watts x 2 (8 ohms)160 watts x 2 (4 ohms) Signal to noise ratio: over 93dB Frequency response: 20Hz to 20kHz +/- 0.5 dbTotal harmonic distortion: 0.2%Damping factor: over 100Crosstalk: over 50dB @ 1kHzInput sensitivity: 500mVDimensions (L x W x H): 400 x 430 x 110 mm

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