Audia Flight FLS1 preamplifier

Our conservative two-channel audio world doesn't easily accept change. Not that many years ago, even remote control was considered a sign of electronic moral decay certain to degrade sound quality. Today, home theater–like operating systems, with their fluorescent-screen hells and microprocessor-controlled functionality are commonplace, even in the highest of fi. Consumers accustomed to the convenience of audio/video processors now demand it on every price tier of two-channel hi-fi, though purists who think sound quality is commensurate with inconvenience can have that if they want it.

Audia Flight, founded in 1996 in Civitavecchia, Italy, on the Mediterranean, not far north of Rome, makes a wide range of high-performance electronics with convenient operating systems, at a variety of price points. The FLS series is their newest, priced below their cost-no-object Strumento line

The FLS1 ($6995) is a fully balanced, dual-mono (each channel on a separate board), feature-packed preamplifier with a built-in headphone amplifier that outputs 12Wpc RMS into 8 ohms. The FLS1 can be switched among three unbalanced (RCA) and two balanced (XLR) inputs, with both balanced (XLR) and unbalanced (RCA) outputs, as well as a fixed Record output (RCA).

The rear panel leaves space for the optional phono preamplifier and DAC boards. The review sample came with the MM/MC phono preamplifier card installed ($1000). Soon to be released is the DAC board ($2000). This will have five digital inputs: optical, AES/EBU, two S/PDIF, one for Audia Flight's SACD/CD transport, and a USB port that will be able to handle 32-bit/768kHz PCM and DS128 data.


A swept-wing OLED screen and a large Volume knob dominate the sculpted front panel. Below the display is a row of six small, recessed pushbuttons, from left to right: On/Off, Input, Set (menu), Mute, Phase, and Out (for Output Disable); to the right of these is a ¼" headphone jack. The case is stylish, robustly built of thick plates of brushed aluminum secured with hidden fasteners to produce a sleek, modern design that looks and feels as if it costs more than its price. A non-illuminated, eight-button remote control of brushed aluminum adds to this impression, as does the FLS1's weight of 24 lb.

Menu: easy to understand, easy to use
Nested menus can be intimidating and confusing, sometimes forcing you to keep the instruction manual handy to avoid getting lost. Not with the Audia Flight FLS1, which is fortunate—its manual's English translation from the Italian isn't nearly as elegant as the operating system's design.

Push and turn the Volume knob to scroll through the inputs, and select the desired input by pushing Input. Or, using the remote, push Input, then the + or – button to scroll through the choices. Some other front-panel functions, such as Phase and Output Disable, aren't available with the remote, but the most useful ones are: Volume, Balance, Mute, On/Off. Naming inputs and skipping unused ones is easily done from either the front panel or the remote.

The gain of each input can be adjusted within a range of ±6dB. In addition, you can: set a Soft Mute for –90 or –30dB; change any input to Direct status and thus bypass the volume control, for use with a home-theater processor; set the headphone gain; and even disable the Infrared remote, if you think it's degrading the sound. You can also reset the FLS1 to its factory defaults by selecting Load Default.

Unlike some nested menus I've experienced, the FLS1's was easy to grasp and use, aided in part by the OLED screen's large characters. I had the FLS1 configured to my liking and needs within a few minutes of plugging it in.

Phono card
In the May 2009 issue I positively reviewed Audia Flight's standalone phono preamplifier, which then cost $6100 and now, miraculously, is priced at $5995. The FLS1's $1000 phono-card option adds to the rear panel two inputs (Input MC, Input MM) and eight DIP switches per channel. The DIPs let you easily adjust capacitance values for moving-magnet cartridges (50, 100, 150, 200, 250, 300, 350, 400pF), and resistive load values for moving-coils (20, 25, 30, 70, 100, 200, 250, 330, 600, 1000, 1500 ohms). This combination of inputs and DIP switches means that you can have one of each type of cartridge, MM and MC, simultaneously connected and ready to use at all times. In addition, by pulling the card from the back of the chassis, you gain access to two sockets that let you install your choice of loading resistors. The MM gain is 46dB, the MC gain 66dB.

At this price, something had to give.
Like AVM's Ovation PA 8.2 modular preamplifier ($8995), which I reviewed in December 2018, the Audia Flight FLS1 is priced well below my reference preamp, a darTZeel NHB-18NS Mk.2 (approx. $44,000)—in fact, at $6995, it plays in a different league from the rest of my far more costly system. With the FLS1 inserted, my system's sound took a hit, but the damage was minor and well controlled, not a bombing run. I spent weeks with it installed in place of the darTZeel.

The FLS1's midrange was smoothly presented and richly appointed, though I was in no danger of confusing it with the rich midband bloom produced by tubes (of which there are now very few in my system). The FLS1's bottom end was moderately well extended if somewhat softly expressed, and its top end followed suit. The three regions, being of similar character, blended well to produce a coherent overall sound that leaned toward the soft, pleasing side, while avoiding any hint of edge, etch, grain, or glare.

Bluesman Doug MacLeod hasn't put out one bad record in his long career, and the ones on the AudioQuest and Reference labels sound great, too. His latest, Break the Chain (2 45rpm LPs, Reference Recordings RM-2519), recorded live at Skywalker Sound by Keith O. Johnson and Sean Royce Martin, with no edits or overdubs, is yet another winner. This record first hit the turntable while the FLS1 was in the system, and with nothing to reference it against, I heard MacLeod's voice reproduced with richness and warmth, appearing three-dimensionally well back in the space between my speakers. In "Travel On," percussionist Oliver Brown's light-fingered taps convincingly hovered in space in the right channel, well connected to the spacious, three-dimensional soundstage. In an instrumental, "One for Tampa Red," MacLeod solos on National Style O resonator guitar in open D tuning, accompanied by Denny Croy on double bass. Johnson bathes MacLeod's guitar in a lonesome echo, Croy's walking lines directly behind it.

I found no fault with the FLS1's reproduction of this track until I played it again, this time through the darTZeel preamp, which costs more than five times as much, and is not designed to a specific price. Then I heard, far more clearly, the contours of the reverb, longer decays of notes, greater definition of the transients of plucked bass notes and, especially, bass weight, and MacLeod's expressive use of microdynamics as he digs in to emphasize certain notes. I also more clearly heard the light bass thumping of MacLeod tapping his foot.

I thought it more productive to play through the FLS1 only recordings I'd never played before—I've got thousands!—then play them again through my reference darTZeel preamp. Rummaging through my shelves, I was embarrassed to find an album with quotes from John Atkinson and Art Dudley on the jacket, probably written based on the CD edition. It's Holst's The Planets, arranged for brass quintet and organ, performed by the BUZZ Brass Quintet and organist Mélanie Barney, and engineered by Nagra's René LaFlamme (2 45rpm LPs, Fidelio FALP028). It's out of print, but maybe one of the reissue labels will bring it back. Someone should!

Audia Flight
US distributor: The Audiolux Group
Rochester Hills, MI