PRICE: $4,380 US
With built-in MM & MC Phono Section
Ahhh Italia…a country Linda and I have visited many times and tops of our list for return. If I believed in reincarnation, I would swear I was an Italian in a former life. I love Italian food, cars, clothes, shoes, composers, art, wine, tenors, architecture and Sophia Loren, to name just a few. Italian tube amplifiers? That remains to be seen – or read in this case.
Nightingale Hi End Audio Equipment is manufactured by Simetel SpA, an Italian company operating in the telecommunications field since its foundation in 1959. Thirty-six years later in 1995, a small group of Simetel engineers with a passion for music designed the first Nightingale tube amplifiers and urged the company management to market them. This is how the brand Nightingale was born. In the United States, Nightingale is distributed by Valentina Ross, a Pennsylvania resident of Italian descent. Valentina is the daughter of Luciano Del Rio, Simetel SpA partner and CEO. Faithful to her Italian roots, she shares with her father the same passion for music, beauty, and for things done well.
Nightingale makes eleven different amplifiers ranging in price from a $2,930 pre-amp to their statement Gaia monoblocks at $16,300 per pair. All are based on various types of tubes.
Do you ever assign a sex to your components? No? Neither do I, normally.
Nevertheless – the Armonia is without doubt a female. Think Sophia Loren. She’s beautiful in a classy, elegant vogue, always demure and attractive but never trashy or common. She’s a diva but without false pretense or immodesty. She never shops for clothes at Walmart, but doesn’t mind an occasional trip to Home Depot for house goods. Elite but not aloof. Definitely, the type of girl you’d be proud to meet your parents.
As you can see, the appearance of the amp is unusual with a rather retro yet modern motif that is certainly eye catching and unique. It easily stood out from among the many similar black or silver metal, square boxes at CES. The champagne paint and the sculpted, solid, real-walnut base are excellent in quality and finish and the switchcraft all have an elegant and refined feel. She’s young but with and old soul.
My wife Linda agrees. When I asked for her feminine take on the Armonia’s style, the first word she uttered was “sexy”. She continued, “I like the champagne color and the generous amount of wood. It has curves and looks like a piece of art”. At the time, it was sitting on the floor among six other amplifiers, tube and solid state.
When I thanked her for her input, she said, “Wait. Look at all those other black and silver, square-looking boxes there. It’s the only one that stands out and says ‘I’m different’. The other ones look very masculine while that one looks almost feminine and beautiful”. When I asked her if she thought other wives might like it, too, she nodded and said, “Definitely”.
This lovely integrated is designed by Roberto Cappelli, electronics designer for more than 25 years and audio electronics designer for 13 years. The artistic look of the amp is by the aforementioned Luciano Del Rio, Simetel CEO and partner and father of Valentina.
It (or she) is based on the EL84 tube (8 Russian Sovtecs to be precise), which produce a stated output of 20 watts per channel, though in the real world, it sounds much more powerful. When unpacked, the tubes are all numbered and a chart is provided that specifies where each tube is to insert, which indicates to me that they went to the trouble of matching each tube specifically to its mate. She’s pure Class A all the way from the claimed 10 Hz to 40kHz. Two E88C tubes in the preamp and two E82CC tubes as phase inverters complete the compliment.
For a diva, she’s very low maintenance as the bias is automatically adjusted to within 0.5% efficiency. And she’s always ready. There is a standby mode that keeps her tubes warm so she never has to get turned off if you don’t want her to.
The Armonia sports four inputs PLUS, and this is important, a MC AND MM phono stage! Yes, she loves her vinyl. I told you she has good taste.
YOU CAN’T LIVE WITH ‘EM, YOU CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT ‘EM
There are four factors that for some may be potential negatives. The first centers on the phono inputs. On the back, the left and right inputs are segregated to either side of the chassis, which puts the phono inputs 13” apart. This was a problem for me since all my cables the go from my arms to phono were DINs that are wrapped into a single cable that breaks out into two RCA’s and a ground. The leads were not long enough to reach those 13”, so I had to call our friends at Zu Cable to have a special phono cable made up. Thanks to Sean Casey and Zu for their help. If your table uses standard RCA to RCA, this is not a problem for you.
No remote control option exists. When I asked Valentina about this she said, “Since the remote control would only control the volume, it is not really necessary”. You can make up your own mind whether you agree with her or not.
Some audio enthusiasts like to upgrade power chords on all their amplifiers. With the Armonia, it’s not going to happen since the chord is captive. “To keep the supply cord as far as possible from the LF inputs, it was connected to the center of the bottom of the amplifier”, explained Valentina.
Lastly, there is no provision for headphones.
THE SONG OF THE NIGHTINGALE
Vo·lup’·tu·ous [vuh-luhp-choo-uhs] full of, characterized by, or ministering to indulgence in luxury, pleasure, and sensuous enjoyment: a voluptuous life. Directed toward or concerned with sensuous enjoyment or sensual pleasure: voluptuous desires. Sensuously pleasing or delightful: voluptuous beauty.
If I had to characterize the sound of the Armonia is one word, it might be that. It is on the warm side of neutral but not overwrought or colored, except for the golden sound of tubes in general, which the Armonia leaves little doubt as to whether it is a solid state or tube design. The Sovtec’s are known for their creamy midrange and good (but not great) bass control with maybe a little softness at the top end. Not as good (or expensive) as the Svetlana’s overall, but a pretty good compromise for value. When I asked Valentina why these tubes were chose, she told me, “We believe they are the best for their soft sound. They have a small power, so we needed to use four of them for each channel to have 20 watt in class A”.
It is no secret that Italians worship singers. Pavarotti’s recent death was mourned in Italy like Princess Diana’s in England. In Rome, if you are willing to take your life in your hands and flag down a cab, you are much more likely to hear LaTraviata than Lavigne on the radio. And don’t ask them who the best Tenor is or the cabbie will take his hands of the wheel as he give you an ear and eye full of his opinion. However, ask him if he knows “La donna è mobile” and you’ll be treated to his probably very well sung rendition. By the way, “La donna è Mobile” translates to “Woman is Fickle”.
The Armonia reflects this obsession with the singing with vocals that are rendered beautifully with wonderful articulation and three-dimensional holography. Whether Linda Ronstadt or Renee Fleming, the female voice is reproduced richly rounded and realistic. James Taylor and his excellent background singers and band on the marvelous “LIVE” two-CD set (Columbia C2K 47056) are just killer through the Armonia. Led Zep’s “IV” on Classic’s 200 gram reissue LP faired equally as well on my TW-Acustic Raven One/Graham Phantom rig with my Dynavector DV-XX2MKII cart running into the integrated’s MC phone stage. After all, the famous Brit guitar sound is produced mainly by EL34’s in their tube guitar amps. So will she rock? Sure, as long as appropriately efficient speakers are employed.
One of my favorite reference recordings literally is a Reference Recording – by the label so aptly named. “Testament” is by the Turtle Creek Chorale, made up of about 200 men. As a former director of a 200 voice mixed choir, I have a pretty good handle on what real choral music sounds like. The Armonia portrayed the 200 guys well, with strong body and presence. The chorale is bathed in a large reverberant field that is not easy to reproduce in a living room, but the Nightingale performed very well. I had to notice that the curved tube layout very much resembles a small vocal ensemble. Coincidence? I don’t know, but it certainly is apropos.
Speaking of the phono stage, this is no mere afterthought add-on. It melds well into the Armonia’s character, adding nothing nor taking anything away. It did not leave my $12,000 front end (which sounds much more expensive) wanting for much. Cartridge load adjustments are via dip switches on the rear, which means you don’t have to crack open the case to access them. Nice.
If your table setup is in a range under, say, five or six grand, you could be very happy with the amp’s built in phono section, saving yourself a couple thousand or so. It’s pretty quiet, though not absolutely silent. The added detail of vinyl helps make up for the tiny lack of transparency when compared against the big-buck boys. The phono section adds a great deal of value to the Armonia’s price, especially factoring in its ability to handle Moving Magnets AND Moving Coils.
While the soundstage is not “huuuuge” (or “exaggerated” by some folks taste), it is large and scaled well, reaching good depth and height with well-defined layers. Detail is abundant but not up to the level of much more expensive units – nor should it be at this price. The high end is indeed a bit soft, but not to the point of dullness. We’re talking small increments here. She will help make some of those “too bright and edgy” CDs in your collection much more listenable and enjoyable.
The Plinius 9200 integrated happens to be here under review. While I don’t want to give too much away, these two integrateds are very much at opposite ends of the scale in terms of overall character. So, if you know like the Plinius sound, the Armonia might not be your glass of Chianti. Even if you think you like the Plinius type of sound, you would do well to give this lady a listen. You might just change your mind, because another adjective I would ascribe to the Armonia is - “seductive”.
Considering what you get with the Armonia, the $4,380 asking price is actually a good value – especially in this age of a weak dollar. For example, Nightingale makes a stereo power amp (not an integrated like the Armonia) dubbed the AFS-20, which has the same 20 wpc and eight EL84 tubes. The rest of the specs are virtually identical. The price, however, is $3,760. So, for $620, the Armonia gives you a four-input tube preamp with tape monitor, PLUS very substantial sounding phono inputs for both MM and MC. Pretty good deal. It competes very well with the plethora of Chinese clones in terms of sound, and blows most any amp away in terms of beauty and unique appearance – if your tastes happen to lean that way. Do not discount the wife factor, either. It might be an easier sell if this were to appear in one of her rooms. It may be that women will warm up to the sound of the Armonia as well as the stylish fashion. There is nothing harsh in it’s sound that women often find objectionable.
Your speakers need to be at least moderately efficient in a room of appropriate size. Watch the impedance, too. Four and eight Ohm taps are provided, but speakers with a difficult load will tax any 20 wpc tube amp. This might be an excellent choice for those considering entering the world of tubes and vinyl – a match made in heaven by most opinions. This integrated could last you a long, long time and provide years of satisfying, no-fatiguing music. Upgrading the tubes when you are ready will take you up a good level or two without breaking the bank. Like a fine wine and Sophia, she should age very well.