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 has been renamed the LSA "Standard" and has undergone a facelift as part of the overall three model line of integrateds shown above. The "Standard" is their entry level model with the Signature next inline and the "Statement" as the flagship.
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.
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 favoritemale ensembles, were recorded so beautifully.
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.
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
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