The Fifth Element #82 Page 2
Compared to the voiced-by-ear, somewhat euphonic Unison Research S6 tubed integrated amplifier, the AMPX definitely had a more present, "modern" sound. Its treble was surprisingly delicate and sweet for an amp that had just come off a UPS truck. The sibilance of Richard Lehnert's somewhat closely miked speaking voice slating the tests on these tracks were more apparent than through the S6, and John Atkinson's Fender bass sounded surprisingly more dynamic.
I was not surprised that a solid-state amp would go deeper in the bass than a tube amp, but I was surprised that a 20Wpc solid-state amp would sound more dynamic than a 45Wpc tube amp. So far, so good, and even at that very early point, I was ready to declare the AMPX not only to be excellent value for money, but also that it met a need I'd been trying to fill for 10 years now.
For the last decade I've regarded Grace Design's 901, m902, and m903 headphone amplifierDACs as being among the greatest bargains in audio. What I've searched for by fits and starts and not come up with is a power amplifier to partner with an m903 that is, in its own way, as good as the $1995 Grace but costs no more. That's why I requested the loan of Lindell's AMPX. And until something even better comes along, as far as I'm concerned, the Lindell AMPX is it as the affordable amplification partner for the Grace m903.
I then ran Ayre's Irrational, But Efficacious! System Enhancement Disc's "Full Glide Tone" track, and followed with a quick assortment of favorite music tracks. To assess the AMPX's ability to drive the Opera Callas's 4-ohm/86dB load, I cranked up the title track of Al Stewart's Year of the Cat (CD, Arista ARCD 8229) so that the Bricasti's volume control was set to "0dB." Very respectable; I'd characterize the impact as satisfying but by no means overwhelming. That said, we should keep in mind the AMPX's intended use with monitoring speakers, which often sit only an arm's length away from the listener, atop a mixing console's meter bridge, and whichin sanely run studiosare rarely played louder than 85dBA over the long haul.
Ella Fitzgerald's landmark recording of "Easy to Love," from her The Cole Porter Songbook, Volume Two (CD, Verve 821 990-2), was also very satisfying, but the Lindell's upper-bass drive might have excited a bit of string-bass room boom from the Opera Callases that the Unison Research S6 did not. I didn't move the speakersthe Callases were on their way out anyway.
Time for Love: The Best of Julie London (CD, Rhino R2 70737) did show that the AMPX had superb resolving power. At times I felt uncomfortably close to London's tonsilsbut my discomfort was more a matter of my social space being invaded than of a tipped-up tonal balance. Quite enrapturing were the Cypress String Quartet's recordings of Dvor†k's Cypresses and String Quartet 13 (CD, Avie AV2275), which I raved about in the August issue; and the Lendvai String Trio's Destination Paris (CD, Stone 80079) and Alan Feinberg's Basically Bull (CD, Steinway & Sons 30019), which I raved about in October.
Early on, my friend Bob Saglio took exception to what he perceived as excessive sibilance in "Honeysuckle Rose," from Jane Monheit's Taking a Chance on Love (CD, Sony Classical SK 92495). Perhaps Bob is overly sensitive to sibilance. Anyway, I do think that some tracks of that CD are a bit too closely miked. I also think that, as I put more time on the AMPX, the sibilance excess in "Honeysuckle Rose" dissipated somewhatbut the AMPX always had more energy in that region than the Unison S6. The solo electric bass that kicks off the track was very satisfying.
The AMPX was unfailingly musical, sounding both powerful and revealing. Some aspects of its performance reminded me of Plinius's 8150 integrated amplifier: a liveliness that was never undisciplined or "electronic," and its top-to-bottom coherence.
I believe that the Lindell AMPX, despite its lowish nominal power, belongs in Class B of "Recommended Components." And remember, to be listed in Class B is not a slight, but high praise. Class A is reserved for "the best of the best, regardless of price or practicality." In my book, Class A is the province of the darTZeel NHB-108 and other amplifiers every bit as good; as nice as the AMPX is, it is not a drop-in replacement for the darTZeel. Class B is supposed to be the "next best thing [to Class A]," and I think that that is where the AMPX belongs. A great amp and an amazing bargain. I've shipped it to JA for measurement. Highest recommendation.
Cardas Audio Clear balanced interconnect, rev.1
While I had connected the single-ended analog outputs of the Bricasti M1 DAC to the Unison Research S6 tube integrated amp via Cardas Clear single-ended RCA-to-RCA interconnects, Lindell's AMPX had only balanced inputs (although, as noted, the amplifier circuit itself is single-ended). I initially connected the Bricasti to the Lindell using a pair of balanced interconnects that broadcast-supply house Markertek had made for me: Canare L-4E6S star-quad cable with Neutrik black-with-gold-pins XLR connectors. The 0.5m pair probably cost me around $50. While the sound was completely respectable, I was concerned that there was a slight but noticeable degree of veiling, in addition to perhaps a click's worth more sibilance than I usually like. I wanted to find out whether those phenomena should be laid at the doorstep of the workaday Markerteks or if they were baked in the amp's loaf.
Fully realizing that connecting an amplifier with interconnects that cost more than the amp itself is not a real-world scenario, I nonetheless borrowed a 1m pair of Cardas's Clear balanced rev.1 interconnects, which incorporate Cardas's very heavy, gold-plated CG XLR plugs. At $2140/pair, the Cardas Clears cost about $500 more than Lindell's AMPX. (Rev.1 came out about 18 months ago, and applies to both the Clear balanced and single-ended interconnects. Cardas has not disclosed any technical information about the revision.)
I turned to David Gray's emotionally gray White Ladder (CD, RCA 69351-2), in part because I'd recently listened to it when my system included the Bricasti M1 DAC connected to the Unison S6 with Cardas's previous-generation Clear single-ended interconnects. I listened to the entire album with the Markertek-Canare balanced interconnects between the Bricasti M1 and the Lindell AMPX. I then replaced the Markerteks with the Cardas Clear rev.1s and ran the Irrational! But Efficacious disc's "Full Glide Tone." I then listened to all of White Ladder, even though it was immediately obvious that the Markertek-Canares had been a bottleneck that considerably limited the AMPX's performance.
In track 1, "Please Forgive Me," I immediately heard a degree of reverb on Gray's voice that I'd previously been unaware of. The reverb on and after the final time he sings the last word in the line "Please forgive me if I act a little strange" just popped as never before. The inner voices of the string accompaniment were clearer than I'd ever heard them. The electric bass in "Babylon" was rounder, the acoustic guitar in "Nightblindness" was downright scary, and the piano in "This Year's Love" was glorious. Well done, Cardas, Lindell, and David Gray. Too bad most users of the AMPX may never hear it with equipment and cables that can reveal what it's capable of.
Whether this comparison is valid only vis-Ö-vis the Markertek-Canare interconnects is an interesting question. I suspect that, even though I listened through a different amplifier when using the previous-generation single-ended Cardas cables, those differences do not invalidate my impression that the rev.1 has even more detail and transparency than the previous generation. In other words, I believe what I was hearing was more the difference between the previous generation and the rev.1 than that between balanced and single-ended, especially because the AMPX's circuit design is single-ended.
The nervous audiophile within me nonetheless wonders whether a version of the AMPX with single-ended (RCA) input jacks would be even more transparent, because the op-amps that unbalance the balanced inputs wouldn't be necessary. But perhaps changing anything would upset the AMPX's sonic equilibrium. In any event, the Cardas Clear balanced rev.1 is a phenomenal interconnect. Another highest recommendation.
Shunyata Research Venom System for power distribution
I think that the Venom System of power-distribution products will turn out to be a breakthrough range for Shunyata Research. The company has earned an excellent reputation for its power-delivery products, but the high cost of entry of its previous line filters has meant that Shunyata's only really affordable product has been the excellent SR-Z1 duplex electrical outlet ($95). The SR-Z1 has long been a favorite of mine; I most recently recommended it in my October 2013 column.
The Venom system consists of the PS8 eight-outlet power-distribution strip ($695), three models of Venom power cords ($75$295/1.75m), a Venom HDMI cable, and the Venom Defender plug-in noise filter with surge protection ($195). There are also optional, cool-looking, stainless-steel spikes with matching protective bases ($200) to replace the PS8's rubber feet.
The PS8 is designed to be a high-quality, minimal-insertion-loss power-distribution strip. The outlets are by Hubbell, with Shunyata's proprietary cryogenic treatment, and the internal wiring is 12-gauge, oxygen-free copper, also cryogenically treated. The PS8 includes a Carling Technologies hydraulic-electromagnetic circuit breaker, for lower noise and superior high-current performance. It's housed in a handsome enclosure of brushed stainless steel that's meant to sit on the floor beside or behind an equipment rack. The spikes and bases were very well made. The Venom-HC power cords I received were a restful shade of blue.
While one should expect the PS8 to improve the sound of the components plugged into it compared to a hardware-store power strip, the PS8's design does not include filtration or surge protectionand some listeners might prefer it that way. The PS8 requires a power cord with a 20-amp IEC fitting. Shunyata recommends their own HC C19 ($295), but also offers a $25 non-branded IEC cord.
The Venom Defender is a plug-in noise filter that contains a parallel filter that Shunyata claims contains 30 elements, as well as a thermally insulated metal-oxide varistor that provides 22,000 amps of surge protection. like the more expensive Hydra line conditioners. It can be inserted into either the PS8's first outlet, or into the remaining outlet of the duplex wall receptacle the PS8's cord is plugged into.
I think Shunyata hopes that the Venom products will make their expertise in power management available to many more audiophiles and home-theater enthusiasts. This is to be accomplished by, to the greatest extent possible, engineering out the cost factors that have previously made Shunyata's products prohibitively expensive for most. As I understand it, the foundation of this effort was to develop a molded IEC-plug power-cord termination that meets Shunyata's performance requirements while eliminating most of the hand labor. I'm told the tooling for this cost in excess of $20,000, and has enabled Shunyata to offer its Venom power cords starting at $75.
Shunyata's philosophy is, first and foremost, to avoid the use of any technologyeg, chokes, coils, transformers, or reactive elementsthat might have the side effect of impeding impulse or continuous current, in the interest of preserving as much as possible of the music's dynamic impact.
Replacing a GE power strip bought at a hardware store and a mélange of IEC power cords, I installed the Venom PS8, its spikes, the Venom Defender, the PS8's 20-amp power cord, and Venom-HC power cords for: the Parasound Halo CD 1 (used as a transport), the Bricasti M1 DAC, and the Lindell AMPX power amp. Following about 48 hours of break-in, serious listening revealed no negatives, and the rather obvious positives of a lower noise floor and a more easeful sound.
So it was very gratifying when a listening chum who hadn't visited in a whilea serious DIY loudspeaker designer-builderspontaneously and rather wonderingly commented on the dynamic freedom he was hearing from a 20W amplifier: the Lindell AMPX. I hastened to point out that the total cost of the power-delivery products was twice that of the amp, which we both agreed provided food for thought.
I think Shunyata Research's Venom Power System is a solidly safe recommendationeven more important, all Shunyata dealers offer a money-back guarantee. Highly recommended.