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 MC's. 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 listener, 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 amplifier, 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 .
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