Audio Refinement The Complete integrated amplifier Page 2
"And what of the actual transistors?" I asked. "You're not using MOSFETs."
"That's an interesting point," Jacques allowed. "No, they're all discrete bipolar output devices. MOSFET devices tend to run very warm, because there is a lot more current running through them, and Yves believes that amps should be running cool, not hot. When signal is applied to transistors, because the transistors are internally so small, if there is a peak, those tracks are going to get hot—that's why they're attached to heatsinks. And the better you dissipate the heat that occurs during peaks, the better your amp is going to sound. And transistors have memories, just like batteries have memories. They do recall if they have been subjected to a lot of intense heat, because the material inside the transistors doesn't retain its original shape. So for André, the ideal way is to run the transistors as cool as possible."
Over the course of several months, I auditioned The Complete integrated amplifier on a secondary system in my wife Mary's studio (composed largely of humble components from an earlier audio epoch), before moving it to the Amen Corner in my main room. In the process I found that The Complete doesn't sound a whole lot like your typical solid-state amplifier, and that its design refinements add immeasurably to the enjoyment of music while protecting me from the ramifications of sonic overkill.
For starters, I replaced the 110W Onkyo Integra integrated amplifier with the Audio Refinement unit, in tandem with an indestructible old Magnavox CDB-650 CD player and a pair of ancient Fourier 8 loudspeakers (a two-way design featuring a front-ported 8" bass driver and a 1" soft-dome tweeter). Still, just to hedge my bets slightly, I routed all the integral power cords into a JPS Labs AC Outlet Center, employing a set of Synergistic Research Alpha Sterling interconnects between the CD player and the amp, with two 4' runs of JPS Labs Superconductor going to the speakers.
The Fourier 8 once found favor among jazz listeners because of its open midrange response, but it has a very toppy high end and, given the size of the driver, surprisingly little bass articulation. In walks The Complete, with less than half the Integra's rated power, and simply wipes the floor with that amplifier. Straight away, it was apparent that the Audio Refinement had oodles more dynamic headroom and clean output power. More to the point, it passed the Mary Test with flying colors. Even after I'd cranked the amp up to bodacious, Chip Stern–styled volume levels, we were not only able to maintain a civil conversation, but Mary didn't squint in pain from the otherwise ubiquitous high-frequency glare of a garden-variety solid-state amp pushed too hard. I had to practically crank the amp up all the way to suggest an audible clip. This amp was very easy to listen to—no edginess or grain, and this from a tweeter that can get quite zippy at the slightest provocation. Even more impressive were the solidity and pacing it imparted to the Fouriers—great bass control. Made them sound quite punchy and adult.
After a while, having brought the amp into my primary listening space to drive a pair of floorstanding Joseph Audio RM22si loudspeakers, I was pleased to discover that the Audio Refinement is also schmuck-proof. I was checking out my favorite reference recording, Bill Frisell's Gone Just Like A Train (Nonesuch 79479-2), which is recorded and mastered fairly hot. "Damn," I thought, "this amp is really slamming." I was a little surprised at how effortlessly the amp was driving the Josephs, which present a friendly load to an amplifier. Nevertheless, Brother Atkinson computed the sensitivity of these 8 ohm speakers to be around 84.5dB/2.83V/m, so they do like power.
No problem. The amp's rhythm and pacing were dead on: quick, tight, and articulate, with exceptional bass control. I got a bit giddy: "Great presence...full and clear, just like I like it—I wonder how much louder I can crank these suckers." But maybe I leaned kind of hard on the remote volume control, because suddenly there was no sound, and the amp's light had gone out.
Uhhh...whoops. Damn, hope I didn't fry the sucker.
All my speaker connections were cool. Nothing else had gone down in my crib. I tried the power button. Nada. Checked the power cord, but it hadn't been knocked loose. I pulled it out and re-attached it. Still nothing. My other components were all right. Hmmm, what did you do, dipstick?
I had a brainstorm. I remembered that main AC switch on the back of the amp, above the power cord. I switched it off, waited a few seconds, turned it back on, then tried the On/Off power button on the front panel. As politely as the unit had gone off, it switched back on, and everything worked just fine. I breathed deeply, reckoning that I'd triggered some sort of thermal-overload protection circuit. As hard as I subsequently pushed The Complete over the next several weeks, it never happened again. Chalk up another small detail for Yves-Bernard André.
Spoiled by extended exposure to tube electronics, I was taken aback by the valvelike warmth of the Audio Refinement. Not that The Complete had the lush harmonic complexity or tonal liquidity I'd grown accustomed to from my Mesa Baron, but on the spectral airs of "Nature's Symphony," from the Frisell CD, I was impressed by the clarity of midrange detail and the level of resolution. I'm talking particularly of low-level information, such as the reverb trails from drummer Jim Keltner's brushstrokes on the snare, and the sense of distinction between the attack dynamic and the overtones it produced—it wasn't all just one extended buzzzzzzzz. Likewise, on the title tune, the timbral details of Keltner's cymbals, and the supple tonal differences between his three (count 'em) three different snare drums, were rendered with exceptional harmonic realism, without any etched, italicized character. And the images were so vividly drawn, the soundstaging so holographic, the stereo separation so clean...
...that I decided to put on some other recordings. After all, Gone Just Like A Train is an aural dog yummy—the type of recording that makes any system sound like a million bucks. I reached for a pair of more acoustically oriented guitar trios: from 1959, Poll Winners Three! (Contemporary OJCCD-692-2), featuring Barney Kessel, Shelly Manne, and the unofficial reference bassist of all audiophiles, the great Ray Brown; and from 1997, If Summer Had its Ghosts (Discipline DGM9705), an exceptionally mature jazz hang by King Crimson drummer Bill Bruford, and featuring acoustic guitarist/keyboardist Ralph Towner and bassist Eddie Gomez.
On the wildly swinging "Crisis" from Poll Winners Three!, the rhythm and pacing of Brown's acoustic bass were fast and accurate, while Kessel's lightly amplified acoustic-electric had real bite and presence, and the leading edges of Manne's impeccably tuned drums were crisp and cutting. Still, for all the high-end detail, there was a smoothness to the treble that was quite pleasing, without any sense of edgy, solid-state brightness. On Bruford's title tune, The Complete was able to convey the weight of Gomez's bass and the drummer's dancing kick with excellent dynamic energy.
Yet despite the musicians' supple rhythmic blend, the Audio Refinement maintained the crucial tonal distinctions that allowed me to differentiate between the sound of a hard felt beater on a skin and the fleshy attack of fingers on thick metal strings. And while the highs lacked the crystalline character some people look for in a solid-state amp, The Complete's portrayal of midrange details in Bruford's warm-sounding Paiste cymbals and Towner's harmonically complex 12-string stylings was quite revealing. The highs weren't particularly veiled or rolled-off, but there was a smoothness, a softness to the top end that I found very involving, and never fatiguing.
And I loved The Complete's low-end resolution and focus—which are, of course, hallmarks of solid-state performance. But on "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," from A Merry Jazz Christmas (MCA Special Products MCAD-21038)—an exceptionally graceful, swinging jazz interpretation of holiday chestnuts by pianist Bill Augustine and bassist/recording engineer Malcolm Cecil—the bass wasn't merely punchy, but exceptionally detailed as well. Cecil the engineer allows listeners an aural perspective of Malcolm the bassist in which you can feel the instrument moving air, hear how high the strings are off the neck, and gauge the percussive nuances of his attack. And the amp didn't merely give me tight, tuneful, well-damped bass, but did so with an effortless quality that allowed the immense drum strokes on Yoel Levy's demolition-derby version of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring (Telarc CD-80266) to penetrate right down to the small of my back without obfuscating the other instruments.
Nevertheless, for all its low-end gusto, the Audio Refinement's presentation of soundstaging was not forward and aggressive, but gently laid-back—in the best sense of the term. While I like a fully formed, holographic soundstage, I don't particularly want the string section taking up residence in my nostrils. On Classic Records' superb vinyl reissue of Bruno Walter's singing rendition of Brahms' Symphony 4 (Columbia Masterworks/Classic MS 6113), the amp rendered the strings in sleek, silvery fashion, while the massed brass had plenty of snap and dynamic shading. Yet while the big orchestral passages had weight and guts, with superb articulation and control of transients, they never quite gathered into the kind of surging, liquid swell that promises to levitate you out of your 10th-row seat.
Not that the amp lacked slam—but it possessed a nice sense of balance and proportion. Thus, on Sinatra at The Sands—a thrilling summit session between Quincy Jones, the Count Basie Orchestra, and Ol' Blue Eyes (Reprise 46947-2)—Sinatra's rich, robust tenor was front and center, smoothly articulated against Basie's warm, percussive piano, as the rhythm and brass (particularly drummer Sonny Payne) rose to match the singer's power and then some, without swamping him in a welter of instrumental details.
Neither exceptionally analytical nor particularly lush, the sound of the Audio Refinement Complete integrated amp was nevertheless quite sensual and involving. Laid-back, transparent, and tonally neutral, The Complete delineated tonal details with pristine clarity. And while it won't quite send chills down your spine in terms of slam factor, it has excellent rhythm and pacing—it's an incredibly fast, responsive amp that snaps to attention whenever the music demands current for transient episodes.
A couple of caveats: First, while The Complete has plenty of headroom and dynamic range, carefully consider how much speaker you presently have or how might eventually want to acquire, and how loud you like to play your music. Because while it takes a lot—and I mean a lot—to make this amp clip, it has its limits; carefully consider speaker efficiency, and you should be cool.
While the remote is well crafted, I didn't find it very intuitive. I was constantly futzing with it, hitting the wrong control in the wrong sequence. Daniel Jacques assures me that an updated version is already in the works.
Those quibbles aside, I enjoyed listening to The Complete so much that I didn't much mind my extended sabbatical from vacuum-tube electronics. Which proves, I suppose, that it's not so important whether an amp is configured with valves or transistors, but how it involves you in the musical experience. By that criterion, the Audio Refinement Complete integrated amplifier is a superb performer. As weeks turned to months, I never tired of The Complete, or of discovering fresh nuances in old recordings. And at only $995, I wish it had been available a few years ago, and someone had hipped me to it—I might very easily have been seduced by its versatility and effortless musicality, and avoided the massive pile of debt I willingly shouldered to enter the Valley of NoCompromise.
No matter—in for a dime, in for a dollar. I'm a happy camper. But for those audio pilgrims just starting out on the road to audio nirvana, The Complete Integrated Amp might just prove to be your final destination.