Not only does the venerable vacuum tube refuse to lie down and die, as everyone predicted when audio went solid-state; it continues to deliver better performance than anyone had imagined it could. Only a few years ago, we could characterize "the tube sound" as being sweet but soft at the high end, rich but loose in the midbass, deficient in deep bass, and bright and forward, usually with excellent reproduction of depth. Since then, we've seen the introduction of what might almost be called a new generation of tube amplifiers, which rival solid-state units in those areas where tubes used to have weaknesses, but have given up little of the tube's sonic strengths.
Solamente una faccia bella? At first glance, the Sonus Faber (pronounced Fah-bear) Electa Amator appears to be a typical minimonitor: a small vented box with two drivers. The speaker is significantly better-looking than Franco Serblin's first speaker system, the Snail, a subwoofer with two satellites attached via arms (see photograph in Vol.11 No.3, p.34). And, like the Oracle Delphi turntable or Goldmund Apologue speakers (the latter also an Italian design), the Amator's appearance has received at least as much attention as its performance. But is it just another pretty face?
Combine an electrostatic panel to reproduce music's midrange and treble with a moving-coil woofer for the bass foundation. For decades, this has seemed the ideal way of designing a loudspeaker: Each type of drive-unit is used in the frequency region for which its performance is optimized. The resulting hybrid should sing like an angel.
I love being seduced. I'm shocked to learn that not everyone does. The very qualities in live music that excite and intoxicate me are denigrated by many audiophiles as "colorations." It would seem they prefer the lean, chilly sound that they've dubbed "accurate." While I concede that almost all of their preferred audio components have ever-more-extended high frequencies, I'm not certain that that's the same thing as having greater accuracy. It sounds to me—to use Stravinsky's description of electronic music—"spayed for overtone removal." The overtones that I miss are those stripped from the middle ranges—the ones the clinical crowd (footnote 1) disparagingly refers to as the "warmth" region.
As strongly as I believe that the listening experience is the most reliable method of judging the quality of audio equipment, I've been biased against single-ended tube amplifiers because of their quirky measured performances. Without having heard single-ended under good conditions—much less living with an SE amplifier—I had concluded that many listeners must like them because they're euphonically colored by large amounts of low-order distortion and impedance interactions with the loudspeakers. SE amplifiers seem to be a departure from the goal of making the electronics transparent. Moreover, the range of loudspeakers suitable for SE amplifiers is so restrictive that I wondered why anyone would bother with these underpowered distortion-generators. I had fallen into a trap that I've repeatedly railed against: drawing conclusions without firsthand listening experience (footnote 1).
Let me take you back some 40 years to the mono days of the early 1950s. It's unlikely that the minimonitor genus of loudspeakers, of which this French JMlab is a prime example, would have survived back then. There was the practical problem of available amplifier power. The average amp could squeeze out no more than 10 to 15W into an 8 ohm load—far less power than the typically insensitive minimonitor demands for adequate dynamic headroom. But that in itself would not have sufficed to displace the minimonitor from the marketplace. After all, "high-power" amps (50-watters) could be had at a price.