The Fifth Element #44 Page 2
As you can tell by looking at the photo, the Filarmonía SE is quite handsome. The quality of the chassis work is extremely high, but it is a retro or nostalgic quality, not the modern high-tech feel you get from Nagra or Sound Devices. The Filarmonía looks like what a Stereo 70 might have looked like had Dynaco had an exceptional industrial designer on staff—and an open checkbook. I rate its fit'n'finish one step above 1960s McIntosh, so how's that? You can spend quite some time looking at the chromed chassis corners and edges, wondering how they got them so uniform.
I won't recapitulate all the information on Ars-Sonum's website, www.ars-sonum.com. Briefly: the front panel holds a slim toggle switch for power on/off, a small deep-blue pilot light, a volume control, and a source selector. There is no balance control. The knobs for volume and source selection are made, exclusively for Ars-Sonum, of very highly polished solid aluminum, and have a wonderful tactile quality (the volume potentiometer is an Alps Blue Velvet). And many opportunities to appreciate that feel you will have, because remote control is not an option. There are three line-level source inputs and no phono input. The front panel is available in silver or gold finishes; the review unit's was gold.
The chassis top plate holds a 6922 (E88CC) double-triode input driver tube, flanked by two JAN5814-A (E82CC/6189/12AU7/ECC82) double triodes for phase inversion, behind which are a large capacitor and two pairs of E34Ls (a special version of the EL34/6CA7 output tube). The transformers have chrome caps, and are mounted on Delrin standoff insulators. The transformers are designed by and made exclusively for Ars-Sonum.
The rear panel holds four pairs of RCA jacks, for three inputs plus a tape output; a pair of Cardas copper EC-compliant speaker binding posts; and a hefty IEC power inlet. (The binding posts do not allow the use of banana plugs, which are verboten in the EC.) The Filarmonía weighs 29 lbs and sits on three, not four, resilient feet.
The two-year guarantee excludes the tubes, which are anticipated to have a working life of 4000 hours. I didn't open up the unit, but internal construction is stated to be a combination of circuit-board traces and point-to-point wiring, and to include such premium parts as cryogenically treated Hovland capacitors.
The Filarmonía departs from Dynaco's design in several important ways: The input is screened and transformer-coupled, the circuit design is not Ultralinear, global feedback is a low 6dB, and the Filarmonía operates in class-A for most of its rated 30Wpc output. Loudspeaker impedances should nominally be 6 ohms or greater, and should not fall below 4 ohms at any point.
In short, the Filarmonía is a handsome 30Wpc integrated amplifier reminiscent of a Dynaco ST-70 but with an arguably more ambitious circuit design and a laundry list of premium or exclusive component parts—and which costs 40 times what the original kit did, nearly 50 years ago (not allowing for inflation).
As I idly awaited word that the time was ripe for me to evaluate this individualistic amplifier, I was full-on primed for a nostalgic wallow in classic Stereo 70 "butterscotch" sound: rolled-off highs, flabby bass, a candlelit midrange—a single candle, in fact. Think again, pilgrim. On firing up the Filarmonía SE, I was taken aback at how "modern" it sounded. I'm not about to say that it didn't "sound like a tube amplifier," but it certainly didn't sound like any Stereo 70 I had heard. Golly. Time for a reappraisal. Don't judge a book by its cover.
With the Wilson Benesch Arcs
Wanting to assess the Filarmonía SE with a familiar loudspeaker that I thought would be a likely match in the marketplace, I asked US importer Steve Daniels of the Sound Organisation to again lend me a pair of Wilson Benesch's entry-level model, the Arc, which I wrote up in November 2002 (Vol.25 No.11). The Arc currently retails for about $4500/pair, including integral stands. Finish options determine the final price.
Well, isn't this nice? Just about a match made in Heaven. The Arc's ported enclosure made no demands that the Filarmonía couldn't effortlessly cope with, and its soft-dome tweeter made for an ensemble that was beguilingly smooth and easy to listen to. Compared to my aural memory of the luscious Unison Research S2K single-ended triode amplifier, which I'd used with the Arcs five years before, the Filarmonía was somewhat more robust in dynamics and somewhat more (for lack of a better word) orthodox in frequency response and freedom from euphonic coloration (or special pleading on behalf of acoustic instruments and human voices)—but there were more similarities than differences. Just as was the case with the Unison Research S2K, the Filarmonía-Arc combo was one I could imagine many discerning music lovers deciding was ample reason to get off the upgrade merry-go-round.
For all of my listening, the source was Grace Design's m902 DAC/line stage/headphone amplifier, fed by a digital signal from Oppo's DV-970HD universal player. For cables, I swapped between Cardas Golden Reference (power cord supplied with amplifier; speaker cables and interconnects lent by Cardas) and Nordost Blue Heaven (lent by Nordost). I slightly preferred the Nordosts with the Wilson Benesches; with the Verity Audio Rienzis (see later), I slightly preferred the Cardases. The Nordost Blue Heaven's bracing clarity brought focus to the Arcs but went too far in that direction with the Rienzis, while the Cardas Neutral Reference's, erm, neutrality left the Arcs a bit uninvolving but was just the ticket for the Rienzis.
With both the Arcs and Rienzis, and with both the Cardas and Nordost wires, the Filarmonía SE sounded more like unto than different from most of the other excellent amplifiers I have heard. Good audio sounds more like good live music than does bad audio. And even different varieties of good audio sound essentially more similar than different.
Over months of intense auditioning that included more hours than I care to count of listening to alternate takes for my Pipes Rhode Island organ project (CD, RIAGO CD101), the Filarmonía SE proved itself extremely coherent, and to have wide bandwidth, exceptional low-level resolution, and nonexistent fatigue factor. Positively engaging.
In some audio judgments of mine I have extremely high confidence; in others I am confident, but I wouldn't stake my life on them. Among previous high points of certainty were my first experiences with the Nagra-D recorder, Wilson Benesch's A.C.T. One speaker, and darTZeel's NHB-108 power amplifier. I can say with that level of confidence that I am sure that the Ars-Sonum Filarmonía SE is an absolutely superb amplifier that will make many owners happy for years. The limb I am not quite ready to climb out on (though I'm tempted) is to say that the Filarmonía—detailed yet oh, so sweet—is "the poor man's darTZeel NHB-108." I'm not there yet, but the temptation is there, and that says a lot.
However, the Filarmonía SE is not the integrated amplifier for all seasons. Based on its specifications alone, I anticipate that it will pretty much give up if asked to drive a speaker whose impedance falls to 2.75 ohms while presenting a –45° phase angle, and that has gallons of air to push around in a large enclosure. Good intentions plus craftsmanship do not repeal the laws of physics. Careful system matching and, ideally, an in-home audition will determine whether this marriage is made in Heaven or somewhere else. If you blindly buy a Filarmonía SE and pair it with the wrong speakers, you'll be wasting a lot of money.