Legend Audio Design Starlet integrated amplifier
I realize that not everyone can afford to (as I've suggested in past equipment reports) split the difference by mating a tubed preamp to a solid-state power amplifier. But then, as a proxy consumer lingering for the nonce in the land of integrated amplifiers, I say that if you must have tubes—and a triode configuration at that—then few combos offer as much promise as the new Starlet integrated amplifier from the folks at Legend Audio Design.
In an aural landscape populated by the garish bells and whistles of audio ingénues, the Legend Audio Starlet's demure directness distinguishes it from the madding crowd. No bare midriffs or plunging necklines for this Starlet—though my review sample was done up in a subtle shade of purple with a silver tube cage. Standing atop four heavy-duty metal casters, the Starlet shows off its dual-mono output stage with two pairs of 6550 power tubes. These act as bookends for the five military-grade 12AU7 tubes (American-made Philips 5814A) the Starlet employs in its driver and preamp sections.
The front panel is austere in its Capricornian motif: company logo hard left, On/Off rocker switch to the right, a pair of rotary controls in between featuring a triptych of moon-like icons (Single, Duo, Trio) on the input control, and an ascending array of small to large orbs for the volume control. The equally simple rear-panel layout features, from left to right: an IEC inlet, a fuse, two pairs of speaker binding posts, and three sets of RCA inputs corresponding to the lunar symbols on the front panel.
Just inboard of the rear panel, a metal casing containing the Starlet's custom-designed transformers protrudes upward. Above that, nine U-shaped metal bars—not intended to function as carrying handles—form a decorative cage to keep the tubes in protective custody. The output tubes are shipped in their own separate box.
This utilitarian presentation heightens one's sense of the Starlet's rugged build quality and no-nonsense musical performance. Inside the chassis are a host of high-quality/high-performance components: an active preamp section with 20dB of gain; an Alps volume control potentiometer; and a selection of Solen and Siemens capacitors and Holco resistors.
"If you look into the amplifier," explained Legend audio consultant Raymond Leung, "there are two circuit boards for the driver section, one for left and one for right, even though they share the same power supply. Besides that, everything is dual-mono and everything is point-to-point hand-wired using our custom-designed silver wire—other than the circuit board, which is mechanically soldered. [That's] silver over pure copper cable. That combination has been very successful in our electronics in that it has a smooth, musical character, without the graininess and bright character of many types of silver cable."
In e-mails from Germany, Legend's reclusive audio designer, one Von Gaylord, explained that the Starlet employs modest degrees of feedback in its preamp (1.5dB) and power amp sections (3dB). He also pointed out, somewhat ambiguously, that the Starlet is not configured "in pure, pure class-A operation—in order to prolong the life expectancy of the output tubes, it is designed to be 75% class-A but to achieve pure class-A sound."
Ray Leung explained that Legend's goal in employing an active rather than a passive preamp was to achieve extra control over low- and high-frequency extension, soundstaging depth, and image stability. "Most designers use the 12AX7 for the preamp section. We believe that the 12AU7 can eliminate most of the gain noise, because [if] the preamp section is feeding into the power in the same chassis, then the signal from the power amp to the preamp will be enlarged many times and the noise will be unbearable.