Portal Audio Paladin monoblock power amplifier
Of course, these are only a few of the folks who give high-end audio its special sauce—others include Kathy Gornik, who has played as big a role in growing Thiel as Jim did, and Roy Hall, who made Mike Creek a household name, at least over here in 'Murrica. They're lifers in the good sound army.
Although perhaps not as well known as Gornik or Hall, Joe Abrams, too, is a lifer. I first met Abrams more than 20 years ago, when he was an earnest vice-president building Threshold as an audio brand and I was working in a Threshold dealership. I think he was flogging Threshold's "budget" line, Forte, which, at that time, consisted of one amplifier: a very fine-sounding, 50Wpc, class-A solid-state amp that even I could afford.
"I have just one problem with the Forte," I remember telling him. "It really ought to be called the Fiftay."
I don't remember what Abrams said in response, only that he said it instantly, and that it was a pun even worse than mine. He's like that.
Over the years, Abrams has been Monster Cable's national sales manager, director of sales at Sumiko, and has filled similar posts at MIT, TARA Labs, and AudioQuest. Eventually, he got tired of making money and went to work for himself, founding Portal Audio to develop and market affordable "audiophile-oriented electronics" that he would sell direct. "I guess you could say I decided to make the products I would buy—and since I live in North Carolina, I was painfully aware that there are vast areas of the country that don't even have high-end stores, much less access to high-end aspiration components with low(ish)-end prices. I decided to 'sell by wire'," Abrams told me.
Portal's first component was the Panache ($1795), an integrated amplifier that married a passive preamp to a 100Wpc power amp. Sam Tellig went gaga over it, as did I, in another publication. Sam loved the Panache's low parts count, the exceptional quality of those parts, and the relaxed, authoritative sound, which "could give solid-state a good name."
When I asked Joe Abrams to describe his design goal for the Panache, he said, "To deliver the sound quality of a $3500 preamp/power-amp combination—no, wait, you'd need to add an interconnect to that, so make it $4000—for under two grand." I'd say he got darn close.
Paladin, Paladin, where do you roam?
Now Abrams has produced the 200W Paladin monoblock, which sells for $3500/pair. The Panache radiated a brutal, butch sense of brawn, but the Paladin's gold-and-black livery has a timeless high-end elegance that screams "stylish but sensible." The Paladin looks good, but it doesn't look as if you're paying for those looks.
The Paladin is fully balanced, Abrams points out. "When fed a differential signal, the negative input never contacts the system's electrical ground—in fact, if you pop the top, each Paladin looks like a dual-mono stereo amplifier. Everything is just that separate. I guess the description of the circuit would be: a complementary-symmetry, high-bias [class-]A/AB design with a current-source differential pair, followed by a common emitter going to a Darlington-configuration output stage."
What happens if you feed the Paladin a single-ended signal? "One thing that doesn't happen," Abrams responded, "is any kind of loudness difference. A lot of balanced amplifiers are 3dB louder when playing a fully balanced signal, but we thought that would be unacceptable for a lot of reasons. It took my partner—Ted Benett of TIBI Manufacturing, who refined the design, specced the parts, and assembled it—about three months to overcome that problem."
But what happens to that SE signal when it enters the Paladin? When an RCA input is used, said Abrams, the RCA selector engages a balanced driver, which creates not just the plus and minus legs, but a separate ground path as well. He also said that the Paladin has surprisingly robust storage capacitance (he claims 40,000µF per signal leg), a power supply based on a custom-built 800VAC toroidal, 16 high-speed bipolar power transistors, and extremely short signal paths. Oh yes, and in addition to all the usual high-end litany—good parts, great construction, etc.—the Paladin offers one unique feature: selectable input impedance. A toggle switch selects between low (10k ohms single-ended, 20k ohms balanced) and high (50k ohms SE, 100k ohms balanced) impedances.
How come? "Actually, Bruce Brisson [of MIT cables] suggested that—and not simply to accommodate high-capacitance cables, either. He pointed out that, in markets outside the US, it is far more common to run long interconnects and short speaker cables than the other way around, so it would be intelligent to offer a solution to the impedance mismatches that could then take place.
"Scenario two is that I prefer simple systems, so offering the impedance switch would make better synergy with CD players like the Spectral SCD-1000, which have analog output controls—many of them do not have output impedances below 100 ohms."
Pretty impressive. I have just two more questions: Who designed the Paladin, and why did you call it that?
"I made a promise not to name the designer who contributed the amp's basic design, so let's just call him he who must not be named. And I'd like to tell you I named it Paladin because of the 12 peers who protected Charlemagne, but the truth is, I named it after the Richard Boone character on Have Gun Will Travel: he was a badass who was also incredibly suave—just like these amps."
There are campfire legends that the trailmen spin
I was in the midst of several other reviews when Joe Abrams shipped the Portal Paladins to me. Of course I wanted to play with them immediately, but duty required that I first finish reviewing another set of monoblocks, so I contented myself with unpacking them and putting them in the on-deck position of my listening room. Then I received a pair of Canton Vento Reference 1 DC loudspeakers, a very ambitious, rather large pair of dynamic floorstanders. Paul Madsen, Canton's US importer, and Gordon Sell and Raney Nelson of GSPR, Canton's PR firm, helped me wrestle the Ventos into position, and after our exertions we rested by—what else?—listening to some tunes.
I won't say that things didn't sound good, but it gradually dawned on me that the system didn't sound the way a hi-fi incorporating $30,000/pair speakers ought to. I asked Paul Madsen, "Do these sound the way they have when you've heard them before?"
"I have no idea. This is the first pair we've gotten in the US—and I don't know your room."
"I think we can do better." So out with the other amps (since discontinued—my review of their replacements is in progress) and in with the Paladins. Madsen, Sell, and Nelson began tapping their feet and nodding their heads to the music. Now we were talking!