Antique Sound Lab Explorer 805 DT monoblock power amplifier Page 2

I only recently realized that I hear Tom Petty's "You and Me" every time I go to the local supermarket. (It's the Great American in Cooperstown, New York, which would be a nice place if not for the many doctors' wives who park in the handicapped spaces, crowd in front of people at the deli counter, and leave their baskets—just leave them there!—in the checkout lanes.) "You and Me" sounded lovely through these amps, as did the harder-edged numbers from the same album, The Last DJ (CD, Warner Bros. 48396-2). On "Have Love, Will Travel," the Explorers again showed that bit of overhang on the electric bass. Yet still, just as characteristically, they played with precision and impact and drive. And, as with any fine SET, vocals came forward of the instruments in a manner that made them sound both musically more engaging than average and sonically present and uncanny.

"Get Back," from the Beatles' new and irrelevant and horribly titled Let It Be...Naked (CD, Apple/Capitol CDP 5 95713 2), also rocked greatly: no slowing, and no sloggy, soggy beats. The way Ringo worked his kick drum and snare triplets together had all the impact and timing precision it should have. It was jumping, involving, great bushels of visceral fun. With tubes. With Quads.

Pressed to describe the sorts of things that seem available only from very-high-quality home audio gear—and for which, to some extent, I'm willing to pay—I often point to the ability to convincingly reproduce sonic and musical textures. The Explorer 805 DT is a fine example of just what can be had in this regard. Listening to a good-sounding LP of Kertész and the London Symphony playing Dvorák's Symphony 8 (LP, London CS 6358) through the Explorers, I was impressed that even the strings at the edges of the soundfield—such as the basses at far stage left—sounded thrummy and vital and real. These amps not only got across the thick orchestral textures and ferocious playing on my favorite recording of Brahms' Piano Concerto 1, with Clifford Curzon (LP, Decca/Speakers Corner SXL 6023), they also did a better-than-average job at revealing Curzon's artistry in the shaping and accenting of each phrase: Individual piano notes had distinct pitch and distinctive "flesh and blood," yet still held their proper places in line.

And the Explorers accomplished all of that—the abundant textural detail, the apparent physical presence of solo instruments and voices, the superb timing and flow—without so much as a trace of undue brightness. I was being serious a few hundred words ago, when I said these amps were better than most at telling the timbral and textural differences between various instrumental sounds, including electric ones. Even the transistory distortion in the sound of the Univox keyboard on "The Words of Aaron," from the Move's brilliant Message from the Country (LP, Harvest SHSP 4013), was portrayed well by these tube amps: a well-illumined sound that "felt" as complex as the scales on a fish, even as the sound overall was well-balanced and not at all tizzy.

My months with the ASL Explorer 805s reminded me that there are amps that sound too smooth and amps that sound too gritty—and then there are amps like these, that confound hi-fi expectations by sounding simply, and at times ruthlessly, true. Don't even consider them if you're not prepared for that.

I suppose the only can I have left to open is the one having to do with musical drama—power, if you like. Did this 50Wpc SET sound like a 50Wpc push-pull amp? Could it drive a Quad? Was it satisfying?

The respective answers are "Not really," "More or less," and "Very much so." The 805s didn't sound at all like a Conrad-Johnson MV50 or a Naim NAP140—two nice amps I know well that boast similar output power. The Explorers sounded most powerful when called on to reproduce nuances or dynamic shadings within the framework of a piece of music. And throughout most pieces, they sounded poised and unperturbed: Their sense of scale didn't go to pieces when things got loud, although in the largest of my listening rooms, other, more powerful amps do a better job of getting the big Quad panels to really startle me.

And when I listened at too loud a level overall with the Explorers driving the Quads, the most extreme orchestral peaks did get a bit mushy—again, in my largest room. In the 225-square-foot room I usually listen in, the Explorers didn't run out of steam at all. So there you go...

Exploring these Explorations
All that said, I still have not heard a perfect audio component. And yet, while listening to the Antique Sound Lab Explorer 805 DTs, each time some deviation from the ideal crossed my attention my reaction was a sturdy "Yes, but..."

Yes, but a bit of overhang in the bass doesn't bother me, as long as it doesn't interfere with the timing of the notes—and with the Explorer, it didn't seem to. Yes, but a whiff of strain on Mahlerian peaks with the system in a large room just doesn't keep me awake at nights. Yes, getting up to re-bias the amplifiers more than once during a listening session is a crick in the caboose, but it's more exercise than some audiophiles get. Apparently.

But I'm bracing myself for a bad end: John Atkinson will perform his measurements and say, "This is the most perversely distorted amplifier I've seen in all my life, and if Art Dudley thinks it's good, he needs therapy." I respect and admire John. John is my friend. But if such a thing happened, I don't think it would matter to me—any more than I cared when my high school friends suggested that my girlfriend had a gap between her teeth. Yes, I suppose she did. So what?

I couldn't not listen to music that was being played through these amps. Even music I didn't like, or didn't think I liked, grabbed me and wouldn't let go. With record after record, the Explorers found the music and glorified it. In that sense, they were archetypal SETs; in the unrelated sense that they could do that and, for the most part, drive inefficient, insensitive loudspeakers like the Quads, is remarkable. Not to mention good.

In addition to that—perhaps even beyond all that—the ASL Explorers offer superb value for money. I admit, sometimes I get sick of having to tell the truth when non-audiophile friends come by to listen and ask the inevitable: "What's this thing cost?" But when I told one friend that the pair of very large handmade tube amps he was listening to cost "only" $3000, he nodded. "Yeah, I can see that." More important, I had a hell of a time pulling him away from the system.

If you're intrigued by the strengths of a single-ended amp but you don't want to give up your "normal" speakers—and you don't want to go completely broke doing it—you simply must audition the ASL Explorer 805s. I don't know of anything like them at this price—and given their combination of SET presence and texture with unassailable pitch, timing, and flow, there may not be anything like them at all. A heartfelt recommendation.

Antique Sound Lab
North American distributor: Divergent Technologies
342 Frederick Street, Kitchener
Ontario N2H 2N9, Canada
(519) 749-1565