EAR V20 integrated amplifier Page 2

But words can be double-edged. To describe the bass response of a particular component as "lean" might convey tautness, articulation, and muscularity to one person, but to another thinness and a lack of body. And in characterizing the sound of the V20 as "lush," I need to break it down even further—I certainly don't mean to imply anything "lugubrious," in the senses of syrupy, indistinct, or wildly colored.

No—the V20's midrange was seductively lush but extraordinarily articulate. If the sound of the Mesa Tigris integrated tube amplifier that I reviewed in August is a full-bodied yet earthy white wine, the sound of the V20 was analogous to that of an aged-in-the-cask, 100-year-old brandy that nevertheless allows all the details and subtleties of light to shine through its deep amber hue.

The glory of the V20's lush midrange was its incredible resolution: naturally bloomy yet beautifully detailed, euphonic yet harmonically accurate. Nowhere was this more evident than in the V20's ability to re-create the fast, complex transients and dynamic contrasts of the acoustic piano without coming apart at the seams. In my experience, setting the system gain so that one can experience pianissimo details at a realistic volume level is to invite trouble. For instance, on his recording of the Brahms Ballade No.1 in d (CBS Masterworks MK 37800), Glenn Gould begins ruminatively with pastel chords, gently pedaling, luxuriating in the afterglow as the strings melt into silence. I felt myself following the overtones all the way into silence, when in short order Gould shifts from f to fff, to Mach 4, to 5 on the Richter scale, with massive, percussive chords full of tragic yearning. The V20 never faltered or went crunch, maintaining a stable, rock-steady image while clearly delineating individual nuances in all registers with ease and distinction. The tolling middle-register chords that undulate suggestively in the middle section of Ballade No.3 in b, only to be punctuated by bell-like upper-register filigrees, were depicted by the V20 with sparkling sweetness but without etching or italicizing.

Found on another page of notes: "...triode warmth and bloom, but damn near pentode character in its depiction of the bass." Well, perhaps I was gilding the lily a bit; having had a number of other integrated amps in the rack since then, each one's depiction of the bass proved a defining trademark. And while the V20 had excellent bass articulation for a triode amp, it lacked the speed, immediacy, forward thrust, and pacing of the Mesa Tigris in that amp's two-thirds-pentode/one-third-triode mode. In fact, I found that when I would first turn on the V20, its rhythm and pacing were rather slow; it needed to be up and running for at least an hour before I could get a true feel for its tempo. So, prior to road-testing the V20 with some rock and hip-hop during the final audition phase, I left it on for several days so it would be fully aerobicized.

On "Come Together," from the Beatles' Abbey Road (Parlophone CDP 7 46446), Paul McCartney's bass sounded kinda laid-back, and the attack on Ringo Starr's bass drum wasn't quite as visceral as I would have liked. But the actual tonal nature of his tuned calfskin bass drum was dead on, the stability and detail and depth of separation of each image in the stereo soundfield pretty damn surprising.

Erykah Badu's Baduizm (Universal UD-53027), with its acoustic jazz/blues top and hip-hop bottom, proved even more daunting. On "Appletree," the bass lacked dance-club immediacy but possessed beaucoup weight and harmonic detail. Still, not for nothing am I known as "Clip" Stern. "More gain!" went out the cry to the engine room, and my engineer cranked the V20 past 2 o'clock without bringing up any discernible residual noise, which gave the bass the kind of attack and forward character I wanted.

But bass transients got really daffy on the succeeding power ballad, "Other Side of the Game," where I finally succeeded in clipping the V20. It was kind of an upper-bass belch, but the midrange and high end remained clear and coherent. By contrast, on the Tigris, the bass on this track held together but the amp took on a glare in the presence region; a call came in from the engine room for less gain or more negative feedback. Still, the V20's control of Badu's vocals never wavered. The distinction in character and inflection between each register—warm, smoky bottom; smooth, breezy midrange; wispy, broken-eggshell upper register—was wondrously clear and uncolored.

Symphonic music really let the V20 really strut its stuff. Nature's Realm, Kavi Alexander's Blumlein-miked recording of the Philadelphia Orchestra (Water Lily Acoustics WLA-W5-66-CD), is a joy, not least for its use of de Paravicini triode tube gear throughout. On the closing passages of Liszt's Les Préludes (from 13:50 till the end), the V20's control of low-level information was effortless and detailed, with a striking sense of venue. The depiction of left-right movement between the first and second string sections, as well as front-to-back brass and timpani accents, was also incredibly vivid—in addition, I got a real sense of the top and bottom of the hall. Strings were uncommonly warm and smooth, with a basted-in-butter glow; the soundstaging was almost endlessly deep, the dynamics quick and compelling, and the resolution and separation of complex images stable and coherent.

And in the end, the V20's pinpoint resolution, depth of soundstaging, and refined overload characteristics renewed my sense of discovery on countless classic jazz recordings. On "Here's That Rainy Day," from Johnny Smith's eponymous 1967 album (Verve 314 537 752-2), the V20 revealed layers of dimensionality I'd never quite apprehended by gently focusing Smith's electric-acoustic guitar front and center, and granting a more capacious spatial berth to Hank Jones' rhapsodic, swinging piano, George Duvivier's melodically centered acoustic bass, and Don Lammond's crystalline cymbals and crisp snare drum.

Where the piano's acoustic space had always felt pretty boxy before, the V20 seemed to help extend it beyond the borders of the left-channel speaker. And on Smith's solo rendition of "Shenandoah," I could practically smell the forest floor, all cool and piney...the feel of a man leaning over his guitar, the percussive quality of the acoustic box and the sustaining characteristics of the amp all distinct, yet blended together in a lush, sweet manner that was utterly convincing in its poetic portrayal of Smith's glacial attack and cathedral tone. Toss another log on the fire and gaze at the aura around the moon.

Speaking about speakers
If you're considering purchasing a pair of loudspeakers along with an integrated amplifier like the V20, I suggest you audition the V20 with a coherent set of high-sensitivity, high-definition two-ways for the last word in air, resolution, and soundstaging. Not that I would discount a sensitive set of full-range speakers—but how loud do you need to go, pilgrim, and how big is your room? In my wife's smaller, more limited acoustic space, we got good resolution, detail, and bass focus with a pair of Joseph RM22si speakers set up only 6" from the back wall, a set of EchoBusters absorptive panels, and the Audio Refinements CD player with its 800mV output voltage.

When it comes to fine electronics, the Josephs are especially complementary and revealing; they renewed my appreciation for the V20's midrange articulation, while refocusing my attention on its rolled-off top end, which some might think a tad too triode for their speaker of choice. However, in our main listening room, the V20 gently mellowed and sweetened the sharper top end of the Celestion A3 (with its titanium-dome tweeter), while endowing the upper-bass and midrange frequencies with full-bodied presence. Back in my wife's room, she experienced the sound as warm, full, nonfatiguing, and natural.

The EAR V20 is as much an aural as a visual sculpture—a magical musical instrument designed by a visionary audio maverick. The level of musical detail and involvement I experienced compared favorably with some of the finest tube separates, yet though I was utterly charmed by its sonic signature, this amp is not for everybody. It needs to be judged on its own terms.

While I was comfortable in recommending that listeners who majored in rhythm and pacing and minored in acoustic music should audition the Mesa Tigris, I give roughly the opposite advice in attempting to connect the V20 with its potential audience. Unquestionably, the triode V20 is marginally less compelling in its portrayal of the big, fat transients that give electric music its snap and slam, particularly when auditioned next to certain pentode, tetrode, and Ultralinear-based tube setups—or comparably priced solid-state combos, for that matter. However, the listener who would most cherish the V20 is not concerned with loosening dental fillings or caving in Puff Daddy's chest cavity. Slam factor and concert-level volume are less important issues than purity of expression, and such listeners will be more than satisfied with the V20's laid-back yet solid bottom end and its smooth, natural portrayal of the top end.

The listener most likely to enjoy a V20 is one who cherishes the euphonic midrange qualities of a single-ended triode design, but considers that style of amp too dynamically limited to fully depict the entire range of music they enjoy. The best analogy I can think of to characterize the sonic parallels and differences between a single-ended triode amp and de Paravicini's enhanced triode design is to compare a pre-Beethoven fortepiano with a modern, industrial-age instrument built on a high-tension steel frame: With the modern instrument and the V20 you get the purity of midrange articulation and bloom you crave, but with greater volume and dynamic headroom, more weight and presence, and enhanced articulation and projection in the frequency extremes.

All in all, the V20 is such a congenial house guest that no hard sell should be required before your significant other accords it a place of honor in your living room.

1624 Sunset Avenue
Santa Monica, CA 90405
(562) 422-4747