Base Price: $5,500
Price as tested: $6,250
James & Joe
Joe Fratus, the man behind Art Audio, is a cool guy. The kind of guy you want to hang out with and maybe go bar hopping. Linda and I call him Tony Soprano. It’s a big compliment, really. Linda and I enjoyed the HBO series and like Tony, Joe has that Soprano swagger. A man’s man. He is also extremely knowledgeable about music and tubes – two subjects about which he loves to talk. There’s a third subject he loves to engage in, but if I mention it, I might get my kneecaps busted. Just kidding… Joe also has a great sense of humor. I hope. In other words, put all of that together and Joe has tons of Mojo. They say a man’s products are a reflection of his personality. His soul. Is that the case with the Carissa? Let’s find out.
The Art Audio Carissa is a 16 watts per channel, single-ended, transformer-coupled, pure class 'A', triode stereo amplifier. Most significantly perhaps is that it uses the gargantuan 845 tube, prominently displayed right up front. So prominently that maybe he should have named it the “Dolly Parton” rather than the Carissa!
Here is a short list of the Carissa’s important specs:
Output Power:16 wpc
Input Impedance: 4 - 8 ohms
Output Impedance:180K ohms
Frequency Response: 20Hz to 60kHz ± 1dB. at full rated power
Tube Complement:1 x 6DJ8/6922, 2 x 12BH7, 2 x 845
Dimensions:12.75” x 18.5” x 9” [ W x D x H ]
Warranty:3 years parts and labor/90 days tubes
Single-ended, transformer-coupled, pure class A, triode stereo amplifier
The 70 pounds weight is no overstatement. This is one heavy honey. That frequency response is also conservatively but more accurately rated than most since he states it is plus or minus only 1 dB at full power. Many others rate theirs at plus or minus 3 dB or more. Much more forgiving. Perhaps that’s why it sounds more powerful than its 16 watts per side as well.
The fit and finish is superb. It is very obvious that there is a true craftsman at work here. Carissa is just drop-dead gorgeous dressed in her optional polished stainless steel which such deep reflectivity, the finish looks like the chrome on that of a ’59 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz. When those big twin towers light up and are reflected in the shimmering stainless, it is a sight to behold. It exudes quality and even luxury, even though at a base $5,500, it is far short of the five-figure numbers demanded by many competitors. It’s not cheap either, but if cheap was always the best way to go, we would all be driving Yugo’s. Cheap does not always translate to “good value”.
While you can get into Carissa at the base price, you can customize her to your heart’s content. There is a long list of options – some sound related and others just for visual appeal. It’s not called ART Audio for nothing. In fact, when describing his company, Joe says, “Art for the eyes. Art for the ears. At the heart of these words is where we live every day. Ours is a crusade that carries on where each circuit is pursued with the utmost passion for both performance and musicality. And where industrial design meets old world craftsmanship in a family of products that speaks to a singular level of presentation … where hand polishing, indeed triple polishing of the accessories, is the standing order. Our goal is attaining an unequivocally natural sonic landscape with low distortion and astounding timing accuracy.”
When I asked Joe what he thought was unique about the Carissa, he went on to say, “Our design runs at a much lower plate voltage than our competitors. We also draw more current than most other 845 based amplifiers commercially available. This is good for a prolonged tube life on the 845 and also keeps the heat to a minimum, compared to most amplifiers that incorporate transmitter type tubes for the output. The design, although having less output power than the competition, has plenty of drive with extension on the top and bottom with and much less distortion. The design incorporates a high quality MOSFET regulated power supply. The output transformers are a custom, hand wound, multi-core design. We can wind these transformers by special order to 30 ohms or greater if need be. The standard is 4, 6, or 8 ohms, depending on how the dealer orders it for the specific customer's speaker system. We do have an optional auto bias circuit (dual-mono). This is an additional $500 retail and makes things much easier for the consumer. All capacitors are a low ESR/ESL type. These allow for increased high frequency performance, among other things.
The resistors are 1% METAL OXIDE. These allow for a much lower noise floor. The finish you had was a non-magnetic, polished stainless steel chassis and transformer cover. We also offer these in painted flat black and various high gloss automotive paints.”
I inquired about his tube selection; “The Carissa comes standard with Valve Art 845 output tubes. Your question about the KR Audio 845 tubes; The KR tubes are a better sound, but unfortunately they are out of production. Our design of the output transformers allow a greater extension in the top frequencies than most other transmitter type triode amplifiers can accomplish.”
About pricing, Joe ventured, “The standard black Carissa is $5500. The polished stainless steel version is $6050. The automotive paints will retail for an additional $500 more than the stainless steel version. The automotive paint finish version is a special order and takes 4 weeks to deliver. These can also be special ordered with various types of volume controls such as a passive, Goldpoint 24 step, remote controlled at an additional charge. There are other cosmetic options and pricing as well. People can check that on our web site. NOS driver tubes are available at an additional charge as well.”
Around back there is nothing too fancy. Two gold plated RCA inputs and high quality speaker binding posts. There is a non-captive standard IECC plug so you can upgrade the generic power cord, which after about 20 hours of listening, I did. I used Richard Dolan’s custom made, very heavy power cable which improved the sound, as always, quite significantly. Also on the back is the power switch. The placement of the switch on the rear is my one complaint about the otherwise exquisite design. Because of the very tall height of the 845’s, when you have to bend over to reach 18.5 inches around to the back, doing so brings your face in very close proximity to the towering infernos. I am sure Joe put it there for some sonic reason, but I wish it was on the side closer to the front.
While I’m talking about hot tubes, you need to be aware that there is no tube cage to prevent youthful hands or inquisitive pets from learning a very hard lesson about “don’t touch!” Gorgeous crystal-like "chimneys" are available, but I doubt if they provide much insulation.
On a positive note though, you might notice that even the back is swathed in the mirror-like, triple polished stainless. There is no short-changing with Art Audio amps .I placed the Carissa on my wonderful Stillpoints rack, well off the floor to make sure there was no roasted Shelties to deal with. Of course the Stillpoints rack also removed another layer of anti-good sound resonance. It works especially well with tube amps.
Front and center on my sample was a single matching knob which is, to me, and important option. It is a passive volume control, which means I could run my phono preamp or disk player directly into the Carissa with no intervening linestage. For $200, this is a great option if you don’t have more than one or two sources and can live without listening to more than one source per session. I mainly used my precious TW Acustic Raven One table with Graham Phantom arm and Peter Lederman’s astonishing “THE VOICE” cartridge. By the way, as I was writing this, TAS’ Jon Valin published his review of the One’s big brother AC-3 which I affectionately dubbed “The Mothership”. Valin compared it very favorably, and in some regards superior, to his four-times-the price Walker Diamond table. Bearing in mind that my smaller and much cheaper Raven One gives me about 80% of the Mothership’s sound quality, it makes me feel pretty smart for naming the One as our overall Product of the Year for 2007. Thank you. Thank you very much….we now return to our scheduled program…
MISS CARISSA SINGS
The first thing I noticed about the Carissa, after letting in break in and warm up for at least 30 minutes before any serious listening, is that Miss Carissa is a tomboy. There is nothing feminine about the amp’s powerful bass presentation, unless Carissa is hiding a couple of unpleasant surprises in her panties. This is much more a Tony Soprano, testicular sound, particularly in the big, well-controlled nether regions. In the review of the Gemme Tanto speakers, I had this to say; “Here’s a bit of a mystery. The Tanto's are rated at 91.5 sensitivity, yet they will happily take everything a 200 wpc amp will dish out. In contrast, they also played plenty (moderately) loud in my large room with Joe Fratus’ wonderful Art Audio Carissa 16wpc SET amp”. Now, the “large room” is 24’ x 30’ with a high, vaulted ceiling that starts at 12’ and goes on up to 20’. “Moderate” to me is averaging around 80 to 85 dB with peaks going higher at my listening position 11’ from the speakers. Many people would call that “loud”. The Tanto, miraculously with only a 6 ½’ woofer, goes down to the 20Hz basement, which the Carissa powered easily. Of course, when I hooked it up to the 100+ dB efficient Cain & Cain Single Horn Ben’s, the volume could drive you out of the room. The Large room.
The thing is, “loud” is one thing, but “clean and undistorted” is quite another. Turning the passive volume knob all the way with the Tanto’s delivered perfectly on the latter. Usually a tube amp will run out of steam and start to compress dynamically and diminish the size and quality of the soundstage. Clarity gives way to graininess. The Carissa did no such things. I think the reason Joe’s amp has so much low end torque is because of the lowered plate voltage which trades off’ watt quantity for watt quality by increasing current, thus strengthening low end muscle.
Speaking of soundstage, 845’s are not known for their size and layering compared to 300B’s, for one. Both the Tanto and the Ben are champs in this regard, so if the big Art Audio was a slacker, they would have let me know in no uncertain terms. I was frankly surprised at how well the amp threw an image that was very comparable to the any 300B I’ve had in my system. Several cuts on the Stereomojo Evaluation CD are there to test soundstage, including the first cut which you can download by right clicking here. Yes that’s right. We are the first and only publication that lets you download a test track used in our reviews. It’s a short mp3 version to comply with copyright agreements, but it will give you a flavor of what I’m talking about when I say there are footsteps in the cut that walk from left to right across the stage. Each one should be clearly defined in timbre and position during the journey from side to side – and back. The image is far above the speakers and far to each side and well behind as well. There are also abundant ambient cues such as birds chirping, a car starting and even a voice speaker that identifies the enclosed but open garage. Then there’s that Coke bottle rolling across the stage. The Carissa portrayed all of these elements with no hesitation, but the degree of depth and the space between the layers was excellent but not outstanding. I think 300B’s might do a better job there.
With permission from one of our favorite recording labels, Reference Recordings, we can provide clips from selections that exemplify the company’s name. Recorded by Prof. Johnson in HDCD, these are truly reference recordings in every sense of the word. Download and listen to this Rimsky-Korsakov clip from “Tutti” entitled “Dance of the Tumblers”. The full orchestra starts softly and builds to a tremendous crescendo and crash from a low bass drum to high crash cymbals and piccolos, challenging a system’s full-range capability and ability to deal with sudden and big dynamics. The whole orchestra is way behind the speakers and spread out well beyond the speakers, or at least it should be, even with the mp3. Again, Joe’s glistening amp acquitted itself wonderfully with no sense of glare or grain to be found. By the way, the HDCD encoding really does make a huge difference in terms of definition and “realness”.
845’s, as with tubes in general, are known for their superior midrange. Even the Carissa’s tube midrange superiority was superior. The impact and drive was truly outstanding; much more than I am used to with 300B’s. Yet the 300’s other qualities were present in large quantities; the spaciousness and utter fluidity that only a great tube amp can extricate from a recording.
That “I can almost reach out and touch” the female singer quality was exemplified by Jennifer Warnes' new 2oth Anniversary remaster of her “Famous Blue Raincoat”. This is where I discovered why the depth of image, though well behind the speakers, was not as extensive as the best I have heard. The Carissa has the ability to project a singer or instrumental soloist well in front of the speakers with an airy and almost spooky distance between them and those in the background – when the recording called for it. Some might call this “in your face”, but I call it realistic.
If James Taylor is out front of his band and singers like he is on the two-CD, 30 song “Live” 1993 CD set on Sony, then he should be in your listening room, too. I’ve seen JT live several times over the decades, but this CD is more “live” than he was live. Nine feet away is nowhere near my face which is good because I’d much rather reach out and touch Stacy Kent, LeAnn Rimes or even Carrie Underwood. Even Maria Muldair, especially when she singin’ her “Naughty, Bawdy and Blue” collection. Not really any of those, though “Empty Bed Blues” has some double entendre. But "Separation Blues," a duet with Bonnie Raitt, is a hoot and flat fabulous. Not Amy Winehouse, though. She’s just….nasty.
What you don’t get this amp is sharply delineated, razor-edge definition in the midrange. Here, the Carissa lives up to her feminine name with more supple, rounded frames around the notes. Not spongy or mushy or overly romantic, just more rounded and curvaceous without a trace of etch or glare without sacrificing clarity. More Sade than Janis Joplin.
So. We have talked about the bass and the midrange, but what about the high end? This has always been problematic for many tubes (as
well as solid state) and in particular with the big 845’s. No doubt due to the Carissa’s lower impedance at the output transformer and the hand wound split core output transformers Joe mentioned, both part of the design to help enrich the upper frequencies, the high end is unusually rich with even order harmonics full and dense and extended. Job accomplished! I played some of my own piano recordings and the Carissa/Tanto paring was excellent. I might have detected just a bit of emphasis about 2 octaves below middle C that I didn’t hear with the Gemme’s before. Again, the complex harmonics of a 9’ concert grand were rich and complementary. The upper octaves of Julius Katchen’s “Brahms Complete Piano Works Vol. 2” on the London LP CS 6404 were not dull and not overly brilliant or strident as some older LP’s can be.
Speaking of Brahms, according to a couple of biographies I’ve read, he had quite the wit to go along with a good dose of upper class elitism. One story I recall was when the famous composer was attending a party in his honor at a patron’s home who was known as a great wine connoisseur. Brandishing one of his finest vintages, the proud patron announced the party goers, "This is the Brahms of my cellar!, as he poured the wine for Johannes. Brahms scrutinized the wine closely, inhaled its bouquet, took a sip, and then put down his glass without comment.
"How do you like it?" the host inquired anxiously.
"Better bring out your Beethoven," murmured Brahms.
Can a $6,000 power amp that only produces 16 watts per channel be a good value? Well, I can say that I wish I could have purchased it. The main reason I did not is not because of the quality or the value of Mr. Fratus’ amp, it had do with the heat it produces. Living is southern Florida has many advantages, but the sub-tropic head and humidity we experience most months of the year make using big heat difficult. Since it would have been played mostly in my small room where just a couple of 98.6 degree bodies make it hard to maintain coolness, it just wasn’t to be. It was with a very heavy heart that I had to hand it over to the UPS guy.
The Art Audio Carissa is a piece of brilliant tube audio design as well as a object ‘d art that would inspire high degrees of pride in ownership. Its visual appeal endows it with a very high wife acceptance factor. Its exceptional low end authority and high end clarity make it an excellent choice for those who value cleanness and clarity without the often attendant dry sterility of solid state and the more laid back presentation of 300B tubes. The Carissa also has an excellent upgrade path, allowing buyers to start with a very fine amp and build on it as funds become available. The $200 passive volume control is a no-brainer if you have only one or two sources since it eliminates the need for a pre-amp. Joe also has a good number of dealers, so you can hear and see it before you purchase. If you need the ultimate buying authority, Mr. Fratus is very accessible and enjoys answering questions. And there’s no need to worry about finding a severed horse head in your bed if you decide to buy something else. Really.
ART AUDIO WEBSITE
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