YBA Integré integrated amplifier Integré Passion, February 2003
"You have to come over and hear this."
This was the fall of 1988. My friend David Wolf had just opened Audio Images, a high-end hi-fi salon in New Canaan, Connecticut (footnote 1). David was lining up brands—always dicey for a new dealer.
"What is it, David? Did you land Mark Levinson? Krell?"
"I got YBA."
There was such hope in his voice.
"It's a line of French electronics and the stuff sounds fabulous."
In many ways, YBA seemed just right for the upscale Fairfield County suburb where David had located his store—European, beautifully made, rather like a fine Swiss watch. Surely, the well-off denizens of New Canaan and Darien would be impressed.
I loved the place. Everything seemed so right—except, perhaps, that you had to climb a long flight of stairs to get to it. And there were no windows to walk by. Still, the store was friendly, social, comfortable—surely it would catch on.
It did, in a way. Audio Images became a destination store that drew audiophiles from as far away as New York City, especially to the wine-and-cheese parties late on Saturday afternoons. People would meet, mix, mingle—audiophiles, writers, even musicians. I'm not sure how many people bought, though.
But the locals, in the words of the late Samuel Goldwyn, stayed away in droves. The sad thing was, David would have done just fine a few years later, with the advent of home theater and custom installations.
It was David who introduced me to YBA. Shortly after he closed his doors, distribution of the line passed from Sumiko to Roy Hall, aka Music Hall.
Roy called me one morning, all chipper. "I think I am going to take on YBA."
"Great stuff!" I replied. "But is it really your thing? Aren't you into tap your foot, wiggle your big toe, bang your speakers up against the back wall?"
Roy stopped me with words I can't print. Then, enthusiasm undiminished, he continued. "Yes, I know the stuff is different from British gear. But it's magnificently made. Did you know that Yves-Bernard André makes some of his own parts—or has them custom-made? He makes some of his own resistors, for instance. He goes to incredible lengths to isolate components from vibrations."
Death to bad vibes.
"It apparently makes a difference," said Roy.
"I'd like to review the YBA Integré. It might be fun to compare it in the same column with an 'umble Creek."
But by opening my big mouth, I'd dashed any hope of receiving a review sample.
A few months later, Roy gave up the YBA line. "It was too much like hard work," he told me.
YBA wasn't the easiest sell, perhaps. Quality instead of quantity. Elegant. Stylish. Much more about la restitution sonore than PRAT (pace, rhythm, acceleration, timing.) In French, if I understand properly, the word restitution combines the meanings of restitution (in the English sense) and reproduction.
I've razzed Roy about YBA ever since he gave it up. Daniel Jacques, of Audio Plus Services, headquartered in Montréal and already YBA's Canadian distributor, assumed the line's US distribution as well. M. Jacques promptly sent me the YBA Integré that Roy should have sent but hadn't. I reviewed it in the December 1996 Stereophile (Vol.19 No.12). As soon as the column appeared in print, I phoned Roy to rile him.
"That Daniel Jacques. He knows good sound," I said.
"Darned right he does. He distributes Creek in Canada."
The Integré is still available, and probably will be for years to come. That's the way it is with YBA. Models go into production and stay in production for a decade or more. Yves-Bernard doesn't discover a new miracle circuit every two years, clearing dealers' shelves and leaving owners with last year's models.
If you opt for the standard Integré, you'll probably want the DT (dual transformer) version. Basically, there are separate power supplies for the two channels. In its line-stage-only version, the Integré DT sells for $2350. Add $150 for a moving-magnet (MM) phono stage and $300 for remote control. If you have a low-output moving-coil (MC) cartridge, you'll need a step-up device; YBA offers an outboard transformer, the MC Module, for $400.
The Integré DT is rated at 50Wpc into 8 ohms, 90Wpc into 4 ohms. As M. André himself once told me, many years ago, "Eet iz not zee size, but what you do wizz eet. N'est-ce pas?"
The Integré Passion
The YBA Integré remains an excellent value. But, as I had to tell my friend Matt, who owns one, the new Integré Passion is even better—which it needs to be, at almost twice the price. The line-level-only version retails for $4500 with remote included. Add $150 for a built-in MM phono stage and $400 for the MC step-up transformer.
The Integré Passion is rated to deliver 100Wpc into 8 ohms and 170W into 4 ohms. The Passion comes in black or silver-colored brushed aluminum, the fit and finish are superb, and it weighs just 24.25 lbs.
Following Yves-Bernard's design philosophy, the Passion is quite compact: 16.75" wide by 3.5" high by 14.5" deep. Yes, you can get more for your money. Or can you? Looking for more, does the audiophile often get less? You can own some other manufacturers' separates for less than the price of the Passion Integré, but you won't own a YBA.
Like M. André's other designs, the Passion is a purist design. There are no tone controls. No balance control. No volume potentiometer, either. You have to listen at just one level. Je ris mon mauvais rire. (I laugh my evil laugh.)
Only kidding. Sort of.
You can bypass the volume control. Connect any line-level source to the Passion's video input. Now press the Video button on the remote and hold it for three seconds. Eh, voilà—a home-theater bypass mode where you use the volume control on your surround-sound processor.
Volume control on the Integré Passion, meanwhile, is achieved by an array of relay-control resistors, which "effectively eliminates the inherent problems of [a] potentiometer—non-linearity, difficult matching—and allows a more natural sound." Only two resistors are in the circuit at any one time.
M. YBA is fanatical about "le contrôle de l'énergie vibratoire," one of the things that distinguish his marque. He's had the Integré Passion's owner's manual translated into English, but it's far more fun in French. M. André refers to "les vibrations méchaniques" and, more darkly, to "les vibrations parasites." In English, he wrote about "draining" these bad vibes. In French, he referred to "une excellente évacuation des vibrations."
M. André was way out in front about vibrations when he launched YBA in the mid-1980s. Things were shaking all over then. Such vibration-control accessories as Mod Squad Tiptoes and VPI Bricks were just being introduced—and dismissed by some audiophiles (and audio journalists) as risible, which of course they weren't. Vibration control has been a distinguishing characteristic of YBA gear from the start, and perhaps no one knows as much about it as M. André.
Like other YBA models, the Integré Passion has three feet—you can't rock a tripod. Ringing each foot, inside a special notch, is what looks like a rubbery tube damper. Its purpose? To further control vibrations.
Surely, these little rings couldn't possibly make a difference, I told myself. Well, easy enough to try. I slid them off and listened. I won't definitely say I heard a difference—but danged if I didn't think I heard some improvement when I slipped the rings back on. Possibly I am losing my marbles.
Years ago, M. André advised me never to place any hi-fi gear on a piece of glass (one of the worst things you can do, he told me at the time)—advice he repeats in the Integré Passion owner's manual. If you have to use glass, make it automotive glass, he wrote. Wood or granite are preferable.
I mentioned la restitution sonore. French hi-fi scribes use this term regularly. If I understand correctly, it has as much to do with restitution as resolution. It means not only resolving detail, but preserving the harmonic structure. When single-ended triode buffs rave about SET sound, what they're usually talking about is la restitution sonore—sonic purity, if you will. The very simple construction of SET output tubes, like the 2A3 or 300B, may do less to alter harmonic relationships than more powerful output tubes. What happens, I think, is that there is less smearing of harmonic relationships in time. Or, to put it another way, with a lot of hi-fi, harmonics go out of whack, as some octaves are shifted in relation to others. I can't prove this, however.
"Mechanical vibrations in the air have a negative impact on the purity of sound," declared M. André. "The impact of these vibrations depends on the size of the preamplifier, the quality of materials used, and the rigidity of the construction."
So, while American manufacturers like to build big, M. André prefers to build his products as compactly as possible: "Small physical size moves resonant frequencies out of the audio range."
As always, M. André is thought-provoking. One of my own favorite themes, over the years, has been that small amplifiers tend to sound better than big ones. I've usually rattled on about this in the context of flea-watt wonders—SET amps producing 3-8W of power.
Yves-Bernard seems to be saying something else. He appears to say that the bigger you build it, the more problem you have with those parasitic vibrations—one more reason, perhaps, that a manufacturer's small amplifiers might sound better than its bigger ones.
Like many other top designers, Yves-Bernard believes in minimizing the number of components. "No passive components alter the original purity of the music signal," by which I assume he means that no passive components are placed in the signal path. "[T]he musical signal meets only transistors," he wrote. You wouldn't want your music meeting the wrong element.
The output stage of the Integré Passion uses two pairs of bipolar transistors per channel. There's no overkill here, but two pairs more than suffice to deliver the commercially desirable 100Wpc. (The older Integré DT uses a single pair of bipolar output devices per channel to deliver about half the watts.) Remember, the more pairs of output devices you use, the more trouble it is to match them.
Yves-Bernard said he uses no loop feedback in the output stage, and keeps the overall feedback to less than 20dB.
Like the Integré DT, the Integré Passion is a dual-mono design, with a separate power supply for each channel. Yves-Bernard uses a pair of grain-oriented double C transformers. In the owner's manual, he explains their advantages over less costly toroidal transformers. Most notably, the primary and the secondary windings are wound separately, achieving such isolation between the two that the windings serve as an AC line filter.
Two pairs of speaker outputs are provided, each offering a somewhat different sound. One pair accepts only banana jacks and has a lower damping factor than the other. M. André says this pair "gives warmer, fuller low frequencies, but with less bass extension, and there is a reduction in transparency." The other pair, with a higher damping factor, is fitted with annoying plastic sheaths, to comply with CE regulations. Slide them off and you can use banana plugs, spades, or a direct-wire connection.
I listened mainly in the high-transparency mode—ie, to the outputs with the higher damping factor—using a Sony SCD-XA777ES SACD player and Sonus Faber Cremona speakers. Phono was supplied by a Goldring G1042 MM cartridge in a Rega P25 turntable, eliminating any need, in our living room, for a step-up device. Speaker cables were XLO—they must be 10 years old by now. Interconnects were mostly Nordost Blue Heaven.
With the Integré Passion, I heard an extraordinary degree of resolution—again, not just detail, but restitution, or SET-like sonic clarity and purity. While the amplifier did not romanticize material, it was surprisingly kind to some older historical classical recordings, many from the 1930s, recently reissued on Naxos. Which is to say that the YBA Integré Passion never seemed to add an edge of its own.
The Passion delivered what one might expect from a French integrated amplifier: openness, clarity, speed, with no perceived slowing of the music and no perceived thickening of the harmonic soup. If you've heard a French symphony orchestra (or one from Montréal, for that matter) in concert, you know what I mean. The French like their music clear, quick, bracing—I know this is true, because I once attended a concert in Paris with M. Renaud de Vergnette, of Triangle.
Having two different sets of speaker outputs is peculiar, but there does appear to be a purpose. If you want more richness and warmth—more fullness, too, perhaps—you can always use the pair of speaker outputs with the lower damping factor. However, I didn't like the slight loss of resolution—er, restitution.
I wouldn't term the sonic presentation lean or even austere, but I think it headed somewhat in that direction. I've heard other designs go in the same direction—Musical Fidelity's A3.2CR preamp and power amp, for instance, or Conrad-Johnson's MV60 power amp.
I think that the YBA Integré Passion establishes a true benchmark reference at the price. Is it the best amplifier ever? Danged if I know. At less than $5000, it's still reasonable, and reinforces my favorite adage: You can have great sound for not a lot of money; you just can't have a lot of it.
I'd mate the Passion with reasonably sensitive speakers, though—maybe a model from JMlab or Triangle. And if your speakers can be biamped, you have an option: use the Integré Passion for the midrange and treble and a separate YBA power amplifier for the bass. In general, though, I'm with Franco Serblin, of Sonus Faber: I don't like such complications.
I did have a couple of mishaps with the Passion Integré though, one of them minor.
While substituting the Sonus Faber Minima FM2 speakers for the Sonus Faber Cremonas, I accidentally shorted one of the speaker cables. Poof. The Passion clicked and conked out.
Negligence on my part? Perhaps. I assumed that when the small light on the front panel (a bulb, not an LED) goes out, the speaker outputs are muted. Mais non—current still flows through the speaker outputs. It took only a few seconds, but I'd rendered my first review sample inoperable.
Several weeks later, I did the same to the second sample of the Passion.
Marina had just come home from work. When the cat's away, the mouse will play—and I was playing one of the blues recordings I'd bought at Chad Kassem's Blues at the Crossroads weekend in Salina, Kansas. (Got to go again next October! See you there!)
"Sam, the music is much too loud," she said.
I had one more minute while Marina was in the bathroom, and cranked up the sound for one last blast. That blast was, indeed, the last. The volume level started to decrease, slowly. I ran to unplug the amp, but it was too late. Fortunately, I'd blown only the Passion's single fuse—a 5-amp slow-blow for North America, and not, as stated in the manual, a 10-amp, which is the right value for Europe. (The manual will be corrected.) The amp was up and running in the time it took me to get to Rat Shack and back.
So, if you drive the Passion into clipping—which is what I probably did—you can expect a fuse to fail. No big deal.
I do have a complaint about the Integré Passion; others have beefed about it, too. While Yves-Bernard is undoubtedly correct that his array of stepped resistors achieves great purity of sound, I found that the differences in volume between the steps were just too great.
The following is not a complaint, but a comment about the phono stage: I thought it sounded about as good as the one in the original Integré. Since it adds only $150 to the price, it may be the same one that's found in the original Integré; but I certainly have no complaint at the price. For the ultimate in phono resolution, you need to spend much more than $150. You should be able to use any MM cartridge, of course, and any MC with an output of about 1.0mV or more. For low-output MCs, of course, you're not limited to YBA's own step-up transformer.
The YBA Integré Passion is an exceptional piece of equipment. For a solid-state integrated amplifier that costs less than $5000, it achieved a level of performance that set a standard—for me, anyway.
Footnote 1: No connection with the store of the same name in Whitehall, Pennsylvania, which continues to this day.—Sam Tellig