ASR Emitter II Exclusive integrated amplifier Page 2
Your New York–based Stereophile flight crew was invited to hear a pair of Emitter II Exclusives in action at Lyric HiFi recently, driving the four-tower Nola Grand Reference loudspeaker system. In-store demos are notoriously tricky, unpredictable, and often unsatisfactory, but usually the experienced listener can come away with at least a general sense of a product's quality. Lyric's combo of Nolas and Emitter II Exclusives was bass-heavy, and produced Godzilla-sized images on a sweepingly large soundstage. I'm not big on 25'-long harpsichords. However, there was an effortlessness to the overall presentation that made me want to hear an Emitter II at home and review it here.
My curiosity was rewarded with the best overall musical performance I've heard yet from my Wilson Audio MAXX2 loudspeakers. Though the Wilsons' production of depth had always been good, from the first note I heard with the ASR there was an immediate sense of unlimited depth that I'd not previously experienced from the Wilsons in my listening room. A vast, expansive soundstage opened up that no previous amplifier had managed to create with a pair of speakers that had nonetheless always delivered big, dramatic pictures, even when driven by undernourished electronics.
Disc after disc, the Emitter II produced a tube-like sense of open space "way back there" and, at the same time, a floor-to-ceiling expanse of sound that helped produce an sensation of almost being outdoors—the walls, floor, and ceiling seemed to drop away. This spaciousness was accompanied by image solidity without hardness or unnatural edge definition, and an uncanny three-dimensionality. The sonic pictures produced by the Emitter II Exclusive were immediately and continually stupefying throughout the month and a half it was in my system.
That's what I noticed right away. It was followed by the remarkable floating sensation of effortlessness and ease that had been apparent during the otherwise less-than-stellar demo at Lyric HiFi. That sense of inviting ease, along with its remarkable transparency, were the Emitter II Exclusive's greatest achievements. They help explain why I listened more intently, more often, and longer into the night than during any other month and a half of my life. That's how much listening I did.
The Emitter II Exclusive was as free of "electronica" as many of the tube amps I've heard, but it also had an upper-octave expansiveness, clarity—and, especially, transparency—that no tube amp I've heard has managed to produce. Its midband performance was as lush and rich as a tube amp's, but without euphonic colorations. And the Emitter II's control of the MAXX2s' woofer bins was iron-fisted without being overdamped. This can probably be partially explained by the amp's remarkably low (subjectively, at least) noise floor. I thought the mbl 9007 monoblocks that I reviewed in September were silent, and they are, but the ASR took the noise floor down more than a few stories.
Shortly after the ASR was installed, I was listening to The Essential Hollywood, a film-music compilation (2 CDs, Sony Classical 82876-77086-2), in preparation for reviewing it for my website. I was startled by the superb sound of the main title music for Gone With the Wind. When I checked the meager annotation and saw that the conductor was Charles Gerhardt, I realized that this track had been culled from a wonderful series of film-score recordings engineered by Kenneth Wilkinson and issued by RCA Red Seal on Dynaflex vinyl in 1974. I had the whole set, so I put on the original LP (ARL 1-0452). The sound was absolutely astonishing, Dynaflex notwithstanding. The lushness of the strings, the bite and tone of the brass, the sheer physicality of the orchestra, the scale of the presentation—all were well beyond any listening experience I'd had sitting in this chair.
This led me to pull another disc in the series, Sunset Boulevard: The Classic Film Scores of Franz Waxman (ARL 1-0708), which includes music from Prince Valiant, A Place in the Sun, Sunset Boulevard, and the Theremin-enriched Bride of Frankenstein. For sheer orchestral bombast, Prince Valiant can't be beat, but the sultry suite from A Place in the Sun (which starred Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, who, I've just read, was once the lover of the original Jimmy Olsen, Jack Larson), with its distant, boozy, lone saxophone, tinkly cocktail piano, lush strings, glistening harps, and heartbreaking horns, put my enthusiasm for this amplifier over the top—way over the top. The lushness of the massed strings, the reediness of the sax (placed way back stage left), the piano's uncanny, woody clarity, and the horns' sleek edge, produced a perfectly ripe, almost overwhelming sonic picture that never sounded canned or electronic.
The majesty of this recording was such that I insisted that JA pay a visit to hear it, then take the amps with him, instead of me shipping them to him for measurements. I wanted him to hear what I was hearing to give me some measure of cover, should the measurements indicate some mesmerizing coloration, à la the Harmonic Technology CyberLight cable (see my review in the August 2005 Stereophile), that somehow escaped my attention. If there is one or more measurable colorations, I didn't detect it; I found the Emitter II Exclusive to be the most colorless (in the best sense of the word) piece of electronics I've heard.
I tried everything to find the chinks in this amp's armor. MOSFETs can sound soft—maybe the Emitter II Exclusive sounded too soft for rock? So I started pulling stuff, including, for some reason, an original pink-label pressing of Jethro Tull's Stand Up (Island ILPS 9103). But instead of finding "soft," I found the brash cymbals on "A New Day Yesterday" perfectly sorted out, with just the right attack: sharp transients intact, plenty of shimmer, and organized with astonishing clarity. Ian Anderson's edgy, breathy flute had a wonderful balance of air and metal, and convincingly stood center stage forward.
Night after night, I found myself pulling out familiar records and rediscovering old favorites in a vain attempt to find the Emitter II's weak suit. I tried LPs of female vocals: Nanci Griffith's Storms (MCA 6319), Janis Ian's Breaking Silence (Analogue Productions APP027), an original pressing of Canteloube's Songs of the Auvergne (Vanguard VSD2090), and Marti Jones's wonderful, underappreciated Used Guitars (A&M SP 5208). All confirmed that the incredible depth produced by the ASR was not due to a lower-midbass heaviness that can show up as a chestiness in vocals.
I taxed the Emitter II's bass-producing abilities with Telarc's old D2D recording of Michael Murray Playing the Great Organ in the Methuen Memorial Music Hall (LP, 5036 DD-2), which I hadn't played for more than a decade. The amp produced prodigious amounts of muscular, well-textured organ bass from the MAXX2s. (I also noticed in the credits that the recording was made at the suggestion of Aerial Acoustics' Michael Kelly, who then worked for a/d/s/, whose speakers were used by Telarc's Jack Renner for monitoring.) Then I tried Jon Hassell's City: Works of Fiction (LP, Opal 26153-1), on which my friend Dan Schwartz plays monster bass. The LP was shortchanged by the amp, or by the MAXX2s.
Trying to find recordings that might overwhelm the Emitter II's dynamic capabilities, I dug into some of the thousands of classical LPs I was given last year, and found some astonishing, obscure (at least to me!) recordings—including Vincent d'Indy's Istar, conducted by Pierre Dervaux (EMI-Path Marconi C069-14043)—that confirmed both the ASR's spatial prowess and its prodigious dynamic capabilities.
I pulled originals and reissues of some favorite Roy Orbison albums to hear how well the amp distinguished each one's particular sonic signature, and the Emitter II was impressively neutral and revealing. Recordings of electronic music were equally satisfying, including Everything Ecstatic, Part 2 (Domino WigLp 173), the latest LP of pleasing bleeps, blops, and squiggles from Four Tet. Finally, I played some recordings that just plain suck, that make my ears bleed or can turn an expensive audio rig into a Bose Acoustimass system. Guess what? They still sucked.
Mostly, though, rather than searching for recordings to trip up the Emitter II, I just stayed up every night happily spinning discs, delving into dark corners of my record collection (and, thanks to the amp's low noise floor and high resolution, the dark corners of my favorite recordings) in which I hadn't set foot in years or, in some cases, decades, enjoying and marveling at the supple, tactile, harmonically complete, rhythmically persuasive, spatially convincing, utterly effortless presentation of this impressive performer.
The four-box ASR Emitter II Exclusive proved to be among the most neutral-sounding pieces of audio gear I have ever heard. It bridged the gap between tubes and solid-state as has no other piece of electronics in my experience. It sounded neither tube-like nor transistory. The usual solid-state negatives at the extremes—dryness, etch, edge, overdamped bass, muted, uninvolving—simply didn't apply to the Emitter II Exclusive. From solo violins and harpsichords to full orchestral climaxes, the amp produced the most natural and realistic sonic pictures I've yet heard in my listening room. In doing so, it took itself out of those pictures, and dragged the speakers out of the way along with it. Other listeners, experienced and novice alike, heard it do this too.
Aside from the high cost—though remember that it doesn't need a preamp—the biggest problems presented by the Emitter II are those of space and complexity raised by having to find somewhere to put its four big boxes. Audiophiles with source racks on the side and power amplifiers between their speakers will have a hard time finding somewhere to put the Emitter II. If its four boxes end up between the speakers, it will either require a total system reconfiguration or lengths of expensive interconnect running from each source. The other option is to use a passive switcher like the Manley Skipjack, but for some reason I found putting even a carefully designed, relay-driven device like the Skipjack between sources and the Emitter II's direct input added a trace of grain and edge and detracted from the transparency and purity the amp is capable of delivering. So even if you've got $24,900 to drop, first consider the logistics.
After an experience such as that provided by the Emitter II Exclusive, the real test is when I reinsert my reference into my system. After they'd warmed up, I was still impressed by my reference Musical Fidelity kWP preamplifier and kW power amp. They are prodigious performers in their own rights, and believe me, the ASR has not suddenly rendered them amusical or sonically unsatisfactory. On the plus side, the kW's huge power reserves produce an equally effortless presentation, if not more so. The MF combo's dynamic capabilities remain unsurpassed, including by the Emitter II Exclusive, good as it is dynamically.
However, as demonstrated to me by the kW's baby brother, the powerful and bargain-priced ($10,000!) kW750 that I reviewed in December 2005, the kW sounds slightly forward and a bit cool. But with that slight chill come a clarity and a transient authority that tend to compensate to some degree.
So yes, sitting in my chair now writing this, listening to that Franz Waxman disc that so wowed me through the ASR, I hear it a bit cooler and a bit more forward through the MF combo—but also, perhaps, with slightly more air, dynamic authority, and solidity—factors that almost compensate for what, now that the ASR is gone, I'm no longer getting. I'm tempted...