NIGHTINGALE AFS-30 POWER AMPLIFIER - $5,100

& PTS-02 PREAMPLIFIER- $2,390

Review by

Mike Peshkin

I love this reviewing thing…I get paid millions of dollars and manufacturers give me the equipment for free so I can have a superb system in every room. I admit it’s a bit hard on my marriage because of all the beautiful women who throw themselves at me, admiring my fancy cars and houses and the gorgeous music emanating from the cabana beside the Olympic sized swimming pool, for it, too has a wonderful system. My wife doesn’t mind because of the diamonds and emeralds and rubies those manufacturers bring to appease her. They know a reviewer’s life can be trying and difficult for a wife, even if one’s wife looks like Jessica Alba.

It’s tough, but someone has to do it!

You think I’m lying, don’t you? OK, I am, but you could have suspended disbelief for a few moments, couldn’t you? But that’s what a great system should make easy, suspending the disbelief that there are no musicians in your home. If the playback reminds you of live music, that’s pretty good. If every now and again you’d swear there is an oboe or piano or trumpet in your room. Then that is audio Nirvana.

I’ve listened to Nightingale’s ADM-32 integrated amp and wrote my feelings about it in a review - the link to it is at the bottom of this page; I was struck with its physical beauty and its beautiful portrayal of music. Like the ADM-32, this amp and preamp are both designed and made in Italy with all the beauty and attention to detail you would find in a Ferarri or Michelangelo. The metal work is bedecked in champagne gold with gorgeous real walnut wood trim.

The separates step up things a bit. Not a huge amount, but when equipment gets good, when you listen to great sounding gear, then those steps are incremental and that my friends, is why we like to upgrade. The incremental becomes the huge within the audiophile’s mind.

Should we expect huge changes? Nah, that’s the point I’m trying to make. Improvements are improvements and we should be happy with any improvement. The fact that the integrated blew me away takes nothing away from the reactions I’ve had with Nightingale’s separates. To make it simple, if I hadn’t heard the integrated I would have still been blown away by these pieces of equipment…heck, I was blown away.

 

The Nightingale AFS-30 power amp, which operates in pure class A over the whole range of both power and frequency, was supplied with Sovtek tubes: 2 X 6992, 2 X 6189W, 8 X 6L6 (5881) to produce 30 wpc. The unit automatically adjusts bias, making replacement quite easy. Many tubaholics seem to treat the Sovtek tubes with disdain. It’s obvious that with proper build and the prudent choice of ancillary electrolytic parts, superb sound can be achieved with tubes that won’t bust your budget in the future. If you wish to roll tubes, try different manufacturers, use NOS tubes, I’m rather sure the sound you achieve will be glorious.

 

I listened to a lot of music, as always. I heard some things I had never taken notice of before with other equipment. Playing with some tweaks and additions to the PTS-02, the Nightingale units sounded even better, revealed more detail than I expected (more on that later). Obviously this pre-amp shows a huge commitment to phono playback as well as all other line stage gear. 2 phono inputs…unbelievable! On the rear panel of the unit are dip-switches for each phono output to set resistance and capacity values. If it had two sets of output RCAs as my Anthem does, well…I’d just have to rob a bank so I could bi-amp my next pair of speakers (well…?)!

The Nightingale line gets my mojo workin’ with the look and feel of their knobs…I love playing with knobs! With its solid look and feel, the amp has a selector switch that the user turns from OFF to STBY (standby) where a reduced supply voltage is applied to the tube filaments for preheating. Simitel advises to allow 60 seconds for warm-up for longer tube life. Turning the selector switch to ON you are ready to get down and boogie…or waltz, if you wish to do so.

The PTS-02 uses the same (well, I just gotta say it) masculine knobs, the selector switch acting also as the on-off knob; turning the pre on, switching to standby and then selecting, CD, Tuner, Aux, MM, or MC. In standby only the tube filaments are supplied (preheated). There is a mute knob and a monitor knob, I used the mute when switching between CD and phono to silence a (not loud) pop. Sadly, what is missing is a remote. It’s wonderful to be able to easily change volume levels from your listening chair. The Anthem does not have a remote and after using an integrated this past winter that had one, I’m sold!

Being a power cord fanatic, I was slightly dismayed to see the power cord is fixed as it is on the amp, too. If you’re using power filtering, that probably isn’t much of a problem at all. If you live where you have clean power…well, there is no such place. Get some power protection and filtering! All of the RCA connections look and feel as solid as anyone would like. The binding posts on the amp are knurled rather than allowing the careful use of a nut driver. You can, however, use bananas, spades or pins (or bare wire!). Large spades may be a problem since there are 3 connections per channel, allowing for 4 or 8 ohm operation.

The PTS-02 preamp shows me that my old CD player is still damned good. Over one hundred years old now, it looks and sounds great. It is that old within the electronic community but it still reveals that another part of the playback system is great; reveals its weaknesses too. The 30 watts of tube power of the amplifier will surprise you if you aren’t well acquainted with tube gear. Tube gear can be and is quite muscular; you don’t need solid state to have powerful bass. What tubes bring to you, I think, better than solid state gear is nuance.

If I were to choose a single word to describe the Nightingale’s sound I’d pick purity. I’m listening to Bobby Hutcherson’s Happenings CD (it’s got to be about as old as my CD player) and was wondering what happened to the music, a split second of thinking there was no sound. The sound of his vibes is so pure and natural my head couldn’t wrap around the idea that there was any sound, yet somehow I know I was hearing it, reacting to it. Focusing upon it I realize that the purity of the sound was incredibly calming, relaxing me completely.

A moment of weirdness perhaps, but it happened. Perhaps I’m just getting old. But I can tell you if this is a manifestation of aging it is sublime.

Hyperbole. We reviewers are guilty of it, at least this one is because I am so moved and excited by music when the sound is right. Excitement does not have to be grandiose, not all music is upbeat or jumpy. Musical excitement comes from the sound being correct, being real.

Hutcherson’s vibes ring so purely, the sound hangs in the air beautifully and decays realistically. The separations of sounds, the piano vs. the vibes, as I sit in my listening room or in the chair in the next room is palpable, real. I can easily disbelieve I’m listening to an electronic signal fed to a diaphragm which in turn moves the air creating sound.

For anyone like me who has two turntables, this preamp will shock you just to know it has two phono inputs, one for moving magnet, one for moving coil. I like the moving magnet input a bit better while playing back and forth with my Kenwood KD500 vintage player with Pioneer arm and the VPI HW19 with JMW10 arm. Everything sang with a Hagerman Piccolo head amp (see my review of it here) driving the phono input. I did not play very much with the loading and gain options the PTS-02 provides through dip-switches on the rear panel, but you may find that with your particular cartridge the adaptability of this unit is the ticket to paradise. My Win Labs SMC10, as I’ve written here, liked to get its boost via the Hagerman Piccolo. I felt that since I use it now with my Anthem, I should review the PTS02 with the Piccolo. I assure you that you won’t miss anything with most moving coil cartridges with the PTS-02, it sound is marvelous…I just have fallen in love with my Piccolo head amp and the way the SMC10 sounds with it.

I played the LP Rastaman Vibrations (Island 9383) and was hopping around the room like a mad man. I was bouncing in my chair, bobbing my head, swaying side to side; heck, I was enjoying myself. Within the limitations of my arthritic body, I was dancing! I really go nuts when I listen to reggae. We’re talkin’ snap…I mean these electronics know how to boogie!

A big negative was revealed to me whenever I listened, however. My dog never stays in the room when I play CDs with my system. She’s been sleeping in there all day…she’s been doing that a lot lately. It isn’t that way when I play CDs with my Anthem pre and Monarchy amps!

I find that a bit disconcerting. Does that infer my system is crappola? Not to my ears, I’m always happy with it. I’m happy with the way it reveals the sound of other equipment I have in for review, and most of all, happy with the music I hear.

I have to admit I would be happier with the Nightingale, however. But one lives with one needs to live with, no?

The Nightingale PTS-02 preamp, in my system, is the choice for CD playback. I used it for a very short time connected up with my Monarchy solid state amps…it was a bit depressing when I heard the improvement the Nightingale’s integrated amp improved the sound of CDs in my room and I wasn’t any happier that the separates bumped it up another step. I listened to CDs more often with the Nightingale equipment than I ever have with ANY preamp I’ve ever had in the system.

I have to admit I like the sound of the phono section fed by the Hagerman Piccolo than standing on its own. I listened for awhile sans Piccolo, then connected it and even went to the trouble to disconnect the Piccolo and listen again. With the PTS-02 alone, the listening experience was good, but not what I’d heard with the Anthem/Hagerman combination. The Nightingale preamp threw a wide soundstage and decent imaging; adding the Hagerman, just as it did with the Anthem, fleshed out everything that I played. Thus, everything I write about phono playback is with the Hagerman. Normally I would have NEVER done anything like that. I would have judged the preamp on its own, but once I’d hear the Anthem/Hagerman combo I had to try the Piccolo on the Nightingale…it would have been an unfair comparison.

I really don’t care for comparing gear; A-B tests bore the heck out of me. But since the Nightingale/Hagerman combo thrilled me even more than the Anthem/Hagerman, well folks, I had to leave things as they were. Simply said, the Nightingale is a wonderful preamp for line stage playback gear. The phono stage is quite good on its own. Judging the phono stages head to head with the Anthem on its own the Nightingale is on a par with the Anthem. It reveals its glory with that Hagerman Piccolo. The Hagerman is now a permanent part of my system and as such I must criticize all gear with the Hagerman in place.

 One thing (well, more than one) where the Nightingale gear shines brighter than the sun is their choice of selector switches and volume pots. The gorgeous walnut cabinetry along with the champagne finish makes it look elegant. I’m sorry, if you don’t care for elegance you’ll have to paint it black, there are no colors otherwise so just go paint it black (apologies to the Stones). There is a solid feel when utilizing those knobs that literally dwarfs and puts to shame any selector switches, on-off knobs, or volume knobs in any gear I have ever laid my hands upon. There are many ways to judge a piece of gear but the one thing that will always reveal the great from merely the good is how often you listen and how much music you listen to during the periods you’re able to spend in your listening room. I found, with the Nightingale equipment, I spent more time listening to music, forgetting that I was to take notes and criticize the equipment.

Your listening room; let’s examine that idea for a moment, OK? A listening room is wherever you have spent a reasonable or fanatical amount of time setting up and adjusting gear to sound its best and then take the time to listen to music. That may be a dedicated room if you’re lucky enough, or a living room alongside the families’ things, or even a garage shelf…wherever you listen to music, focus your attention to the details of the recording, THAT is a listening room.

The reason I write this is to make you understand that this amp and preamp are gorgeous looking pieces that sound great, too. The Nightingale gear would be welcome in any décor where beauty is important; where an ugly black box would look out of place and ruin the total picture of beauty some folks strive for in their homes.

For those who believe that’s not important and for those who do, these electronic sculptures deliver music in a way that would soothe the most discriminating listener along with pleasing his aesthetic and artistic senses. I really can’t stress that enough; I love the looks of this gear!       

I’ve listened to both CDs of Ray Brown’s last recording, Walk On (Telarc 83515) over and over and over again through quite a few different pieces of gear. I don’t recall, however, listening to each CD more than once in a single listening session. I was floored by the string sound on this recording! Ray Brown had such a magnificent touch, listening to him play on this CD is as if he was singing, his bass does just that, sings! I swore, as I listened, I could see the body of his bass and his body behind it, too. I’ve heard that aural phenomena on LP playback but never listening to a CD. The attack, the moment his fingers touch the strings, is palpable; almost eerie. Goeffrey Keezer’s piano sound is about as pure and real as it gets…the sound of the hammers, the moment they first strike the piano strings is equally eerie. An absolutely wonderful recording of some absolutely wonderful Jazz and the Nightingale gear brings that great sound to you in bucketfuls.

But when I listen to Joni Mitchell singing and she’s taken a step forward from where she’s always played, the shape of her body behind the shape of her guitar so perfectly reproduced, well that’s reason to celebrate! It was that way with Blue (Reprise MS2038) as well as with The Hissing of Summer Lawns (Asylum SYLA 8763). The same miracle occurred listening to the first Chicago Transit Authority LP (Columbia GP8). One can easily place each instrument within its own space. If you haven’t heard that LP for a long while, I heartily recommend you do. It is NOT the (in my opinion) smarmy luv-duv music of later years. This is muscular, big-band music.

 

I got chills listening to Soundsmith’s recording on the Larry Frisell Doug Wamble LP and also (MY GOD! Incredible!) the clear vinyl Leo Kottke 6 and 12 String Guitar from Classic records. The air and three dimensional portrayal around the instruments and musicians blew my socks off. I really think it may be the very best sound I’ve heard in my listening room.

When the Nightingales were hooked up to the Infinity P-FRs the upper end extension, the highs so pure it made me cry. My gear doesn’t…oh heck, Mike, stop eating your heart out! I was so taken by those highs and the midrange delicacy, my gear putting a bit too much muscle on female vocalists and strings. Not to any huge degree, mind you (remember those incremental differences?) but enough to upset me, or at least make me lust for the Nightingale electronics.

 But, that same muscularity and the same incremental amount of it are lost in the very bottom of the musical spectrum. Drums are superb, but not quite as gut rumbling when listening with the powered sub Infinity P-FRs. I couldn’t expect any of the same with the speakers I’d bi-wired, they just aren’t designed to reach into the subterranean regions. The attack of those same drums, however, is a bit better with the Nightingale gear. You sense more easily the colorations that a good drummer can impart by where and how he strikes the skins of the drums.

I had a friend one time who has since moved to Nashville to work as a session man that was, perhaps…nah, he was the best drummer I’ve ever heard. I listened to thousands of LPs and seen hundreds of performances, but no one I know could make his drums sing like Steve did (and hopefully still does). I learned a lot about music from him; discussing what makes a good musician, how he colored his drums, how he reacted to and with his fellow players.

I wondered then and still wonder how he could hold a steady beat and get those drums to sing such intricate hues. I realize that a large part was that I was listening to him play only a few feet from where I sat. Listening to Art Blakey, for instance on the Japanese reissue LP Three Blind Mice (United Artists UAJ 14002) I never heard that colorization, those intricate hues. Listening to that LP and others with the Nightingales I realized that capturing those sounds, allowing me to hear that sound, is not an easy chore for most amplifiers. The combination of the Nightingale pre and the Nightingale amp showed me a path I’d never taken through the forest of sound in my own home. I haven’t taken any illegal substances and I’m seeing colors, man!

 The addition of an external step up device, the Hagerman Piccolo, made that possible with both the Nightingale and the Anthem. With either of those pre-amps I heard improvements that shocked me…but sadly not with the Monarchys alone, (WAAAAAH!). It was that tube amp that created the magic.

 I don’t really look forward to returning the Monarchy amps and the Infinity speakers to their proper place** in front of my listening chair. A few weeks and I’ll be OK with them, but I’ll miss that incredible sound of a bi-wired speaker, the tubes up top and solid state below. If I was able to bi-amp the P-FRs, I’d be plundering my retirement fund. It really wouldn’t be a huge hit on it. The Nightingale gear, while not inexpensive, is wonderfully priced, even for a pauper retiree.

Summing it all up I have to say that this combo is one of the great duos out there…I loved my time with it, loved its adaptability with phono playback (I made it even more so with the addition of the Piccolo), and was thrilled with how CDs sounded. Loan me some money and I’ll keep them…OK?

 **P.S. I’ve written about this elsewhere, but I do have to say I’m happy with my Infinity speakers once again. How they got moved is a mystery, but moved they were and while they always sounded very good, I didn’t realize they still sounded great once moved to where they are supposed to reside in my room. As for all of the equipment I’ve reviewed I have to believe they sound even better than I had though, and I’ve fallen in love with a lot of the equipment I’ve reviewed this past year, optimal speaker placement or not!

$7,500 is not chump change for a pair of separate tube preamp and 30 wpc tube power amplifier, but it is by no means near the top of the price scale either. Nightingale itself makes a a pair of monoblocks that put out 10 wpc less and cost over $16,000. Of course, lines such as Audio Note and others will cost you the price of a condo. So, one must ask, are the looks and sound of this equipment commensurate with that price? The style of the Nightingale pieces, like art itself, is something that must be appraised by the beholder. The look is unique and, to many, that will be worth something. It is made in Italy. It is elegant without shouting "Bling!" like Krell or MBL. It's a bit retro but has auto tube bias. If you must have a remote control, then you must have something else. No headphone jack or removable power cable either. There’s but one way to find out for sure. You MUST listen to these if you’re looking for a tube amp/pre-amp combo and your pockets don’t cringe at that price. I was impressed, I think you will be too.

Nightingale ADM -32 Integrated Amplifier Review

Classic Records Leo Kottke Clarity Vinyl Review

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