Audio Refinement The Complete integrated amplifier
You have to spend a lot of money only to discover that you didn't have to spend a lot of money.
Needless to say, given the inherent snobbery of old-time tweaks and the fundamentalist fervor of recent converts, thousands of acres of old-growth forest have been pulped in the expression of all the conflicting opinions as to what constitutes the outer limits of true high-end performance, and at what price.
I'm not here to lecture you as to the palpable superiority of certain pricey components, to squabble about analog vs digital or tubes vs solid-state, or to deny the evidence of our ears when confronted with large, sophisticated, full-range speakers offering bass extension that brings to mind the shifting of tectonic plates. But given the relative importance of music in our lives, and the budgetary constraints under which many of us operate, an audiophile's special insights are subjected to their sternest test in the balancing of the relative strengths and weaknesses of each link in the signal chain. Here, a little knowledge can go a long way toward procuring quality core components; one can entertain the possibility of judicious upgrades throughout the signal chain as one inches one's way up and over the slippery slopes of Mount TradeOff and into the Valley of NoCompromise.
The received wisdom of certain mid-fi scribes is to put most of your money into speakers. But the burgeoning number of quality integrated amps suggests that quality electronics is the most important part of your signal chain.
The Son Also Rises
The brainchild of French audio designer Yves Bernard André of YBA, Audio Refinement is distributed in North America by Audio Plus Services. At $995, The Complete integrated amplifier is the heart and soul of The Complete series of components, which also includes a $695 AM/FM tuner, an $895 CD player, and a unified system remote control for $50. The series is meant to offer quality-conscious pilgrims a no-compromise point of entry into the world of high-end performance, but at a reasonable price.
The Complete series is not some glorified mid-fi concept. Many of its design refinements are directly descended from the tried-and-true methodology André has evolved over the past decade in his imposing line of no-compromise YBA separates. In some ways, The Complete integrated amplifier is a leaner, meaner, slightly stripped-down version of the YBA Intégré DT, whose impressive sonics have led to its perennial inclusion in Class A of Stereophile's "Recommended Components."
Simple and elegant in appearance, the Audio Refinement Complete Integrated Amp features a nonmagnetic aluminum chassis, with internal parts of a similar genealogy, such as aluminum screws. The brushed-aluminum faceplate is pleasingly straightforward and uncluttered. To the left is a power button, topped by a solitary LED that glows green when the unit is powered up. An IR sensor is positioned at the bottom center of the faceplate, for use with the system remote—which is built like a tank. The remote also controls the motorized volume knob, which automatically rolls back to zero-output when you power down the unit, the better to protect the listener from sudden blasts of volume. Nice.
There is no balance control. This appears to be a sensible, cost-effective sacrifice—I mean, who needs it? Learn to optimize the position of your speakers, gang. Nor does The Complete feature a phono preamp (there's an Aux input), which also makes dollars and sense; but the absence of a dedicated headphone amp or some sort of headphone output jack seems, at the very least, an odd omission, given the target audience—especially as Audio Refinement has seen fit to buck the prevailing mindset, which discriminates against those of us who cherish our cassette collections and still enjoy creating music compilations, doing dubs, and trading tapes with our fellow musos.
As a result, the back panel is generously configured with two full sets of tape outputs and inputs, as well as Aux, CD, Tuner, and Video inputs. The RCA sockets for the Aux and CD inputs are "specially treated," the reasoning being that these are your "primary" source components. There are also a set of five-way binding posts, which accept banana plugs or bare wire. If you remove the posts' rubber sleeves (more on these anon), you can employ spade connections as well. Above the IEC power inlet is a cavity housing a pair of slow-blow fuses. Above that, is another novel touch: an additional main AC power switch (the CD and tuner share this feature) that disables all functions when in the Off position—including the power button on the faceplate. Very curious.
Just as curious are the aluminum tripod footers with hard rubber, conelike extrusions on which the unit rests, and suggesting the PolyCrystal cones I recently installed beneath my California Audio Labs CL-15 CD player. These tripods, like the rubber sleeves on the output terminals, are representative of André's system-wide focus on minute details, the better to insulate listeners from those sonic artifacts that cast a pall over the music.
"And what do [those artifacts] all have in common?" rhetorically asked Audio Plus's Daniel Jacques. "Vibrations. You look at a YBA amplifier from ten years ago and they're sitting on three hard footers, because they act as cones. As trendy an idea as it is now, you have to admit Yves was very intuitive in employing three footers on his amps at a time when most speakers weren't even on spikes. You can also see felt and rubbers on specific parts like the RCAs and the binding posts—to damp vibrations at a specific place where there is a signal path. And all of that does indeed have a significant sonic impact, much as we now recognize that vibrations can make a difference in cables.
"It is all very much part of the overall YBA technical approach. And it is that approach which is carried through on the Audio Refinement products. For instance, the wiring is consistent throughout; that is to say, it's the same exact type of wiring from front to back. And not multistrands, either, but solid-core, because strands have a tendency to vibrate—so there is one sonic signature throughout the amp. Normally, a capacitor is Mylar film in a can—that's it. But to exert greater control over their performance, after rolling the film and putting it in a plastic case, Yves fills that case with epoxy to inhibit the microvibrations—because they're vibrating when the current flows. And if they have their own vibration, they're imposing something on the music.