EAR V20 integrated amplifier
But before any of them had even heard EAR's V20 integrated amplifier, my female friends had already been captivated by its style and elegance. A few even allowed as how they'd be willing to let this design come up and see them sometime. There's something about the V20 that transcends high-end audio and borders on modern sculpture.
Still, handsome is as handsome does. While the V20 is, hands down, the tweakiest piece of equipment I've ever auditioned, at its core it's also as defiantly straightforward, functional, and spiritually involving a piece of audio gear as I've ever heard—one that reflects in large measure the iconoclastic vision of its designer, Tim de Paravicini.
The Road Less Traveled
Audio designer Tim de Paravicini spent his first seven years in Nigeria, where he became fascinated with music by listening to his mother play Beethoven on the family's gramophone. He completed his education in England, moved to South Africa when he was 21, and from there headed due east. He became one of the few western engineers accorded creative input in the Japanese electronics industry, developing for Luxman the classic Lux 3045 tube power amp and the muscular M6000 and M4000 solid-state power amps. For the past 20 years he's been involved in the design and manufacture of audio gear for every part of the signal chain—everything from customized tube and solid-state tape recorders to tube microphones, tube mike preamps, and analog disc-cutting systems.
All the while, de Paravicini has championed the renaissance of tube gear in the professional recording studio. (Recording engineer and producer Kavi Alexander of Water Lily Acoustics employs de Paravicini gear from top to bottom in his signal chain.) Feisty and opinionated, Tim de Paravicini has had a significant impact on the worlds of pro audio and the high end. He is a fierce and articulate defender of analog technology, and continues to explicate the limitations of digital technologies he felt were critically flawed and unduly limited in performance when they were first foisted on the public.
"I've always been one of these people who do things differently from the standard textbook issue. And if other people have difficulty understanding it, well, that's tough, as far as I'm concerned," de Paravicini states defiantly. But then, as they used to say of a brash, tough-talking drummer once of my acquaintance (Buddy Rich), he has the shit to back it up.
And so it came to pass that de Paravicini, inspired both by the aesthetic delight he garnered from the high-performance V-12 engine in his beloved Jaguar, and by his contempt for what he calls "the repetitious black-box syndrome," set out to design an integrated amplifier that would "...be aesthetically satisfying as well as sonically satisfying—a package arrangement that doesn't upset the housewife."
The disenfranchisement of women in audio is a favorite topic of de Paravicini's. During the course of our initial interview, I offered up examples of what I perceive to be "the female effect": in general, women's extreme sensitivity to high-frequency distortion and higher-order harmonics, and in particular my wife's preference for the gentler qualities of triode amplification. In response, de Paravicini shifted easily into enhanced tangential mode, as befit his multi-track sensibility, and by and by led us back to the sonic challenge he'd set himself in designing the V20.
"Actually, women are more sensitive. I was involved in discussions with a professor at one of the universities on the East Coast in America over why digital gave females more headaches than it did men in the beginning. It's simply because they are more sensitive to the higher-order artifacts. They're programmed to hear that end, because the noises the babies make are much more high-frequency."
So it's almost like their silent alarm system.
"Yes. Whereas we, as the hunters, were programmed slightly differently."
Sure. To discern extreme low frequencies—to sense the feet of mastodons shortly before they landed on our heads.
"Yes. Because we actually do hear way down below the conventional 20Hz—we hear down to about 3-5Hz."
If such notions seem esoteric or metaphysical, well, de Paravicini is no more a traditional bloke than the V20 is a trad audio design—every aspect of the amp is an expression of de Paravicini the man.
Working from the outside in
Check out the thematic use of gentle curves and spheres within spheres, like a Calder mobile or a Goya nude; the lovely crescent faceplate rising like a new sun over the horizon; the warm hardwood accents peering out at you like Minnie Mouse's ears, behind them a pair of black gloss mesh cages looking for all the world like a set of overhead cams. But instead of pistons there's an array of small-signal 12AX7 tubes, traditionally configured as preamp tubes but never—until now—as output devices.
Far out. I wanted to take it out on the road for a spin.
Still, as radical as this aspect of the V20 seems, the elemental simplicity of how it makes things happen is less important than what it accomplishes—which is to make music palpable, involving, and real. Essentially, the V20 is a straight power amp with high enough input sensitivity to accommodate your sources. There is no initial gain stage. The power transformer is up front in the middle, while the output transformers are in the rear, where an external roll bar gives the user extra leverage to handle this heavy amp. On the back of the amp are an IEC inlet, a set of high-quality, gold-plated RCA connectors, and vertically mounted speaker terminals (a bit of a tight squeeze to set up) with 4 and 8 ohm taps.
De Paravicini chose the 12AX7 tube for its benign breakup characteristics, easy availability, cost-effectiveness (re-tubing should cost around $300), and potential for long life. With ten 12AX7s per channel, de Paravicini employs five tubes to cover each phase of the push-pull circuit. "They operate as pure triodes and are always driven hard in pure class-A," he explains. "Enhanced triode means the tubes are never allowed to be running in what I call the cutoff mode." He uses 15dB of negative feedback "to tidy things up, not as a crutch," and the V20 has "a damping factor on the order of about 20. It runs balanced in operation, behaves symmetrically, and doesn't care what the phase of the signal going in is. It has the ability to deliver a current that's relatively unflustered by impedances, so it can drive a wide range of speakers without falling apart."
In reviewing some notes dating back several months, to when I first received the V20 for audition, it seems as though the sultan of simile was hard at work conjuring up aural impressions. Terms like "lush," "rich," "textured," and "bloomy" appear over and over again, as if I was in search of some lost chord, scratching away at the very limits of language in a vain attempt to fully convey the nature of the V20's musical pedigree.