Edge NL-12 power amplifier Page 2

After power-lifting the NL-12 out of its box and receiving the necessary adapters, I hooked it up and let it cook for a week. Two things stood out at first listening: The amp sounded a little tight and unforgiving at first—the mids and top sounded rather dynamically constricted—but its bass power and control were astonishing. The NL-12 joined the rotation of amps in my system and, over the next 100 or so hours, lost its somewhat pinched sound and began to open up, harmonically and spatially.

As it was the bass that had made such a strong first impression, it seems logical to begin there. The NL-12 did not merely go deep, though it certainly did that. The gargantuan synthesizer bass on Sugar's "Let's Feel the Music," from Shine (Korean CD, Starworld/BMG PD-6621), plummeted nearly to the center of the earth. While this was mightily impressive, the Edge's most evident quality was its tremendous authority and control of the midbass. Most music does not have truly deep bass; that is, any musical information in the 20-40Hz octave. For instance, the low E of a four-string bass guitar or double bass has a fundamental of 41.2Hz, and most of the sound when the string is plucked is the first overtone: 82.4Hz. The midbass—from 40 to 160Hz—is where most bass energy exists, and the fact that an amp can plumb the deepest depth does not guarantee that it will handle the crucial midbass region with the same aplomb.

The Edge most certainly did. Unamplified bass instruments are the most demanding test, though not the only relevant one, and with them, the Edge showed exceptional mettle. Scott LaFaro's matchless, groundbreaking playing on Bill Evans' Waltz for Debby (SACD, Analogue Productions CAPJ 9399 SA) had a presence and strength that were matched only by the clarity of his articulation. LaFaro's bass had a natural bloom and expansiveness into the Village Vanguard's space (and that of my listening room) that was truly eye-opening.

Charles Mackerras' Pineapple Poll (Mackerras/Royal Philharmonic, UK LP, EMI ESD 7028), a delightful pastiche of Sir Arthur Sullivan's melodies arranged as a ballet, has spectacular sonics and full-bodied bass, which the Edge delivered in smashing style. With amplified bass instruments, such as John Taylor's bass guitar on Duran Duran's "A View to a Kill," from The Best of James Bond (CD, EMI 7 98413 2), there was emphatic wallop when called for.

The NL-12's midrange performance was excellent, its defining character traits being sterling transient response and admirable transparency. "Pavlo Style," from Pavlo's I Feel Love Again (Canadian CD, Sleeping Giant SGM 03), features an upfront nylon-string guitar played with speed and brio, and the Edge tracked it like sonar. Despite the CD's rather hot EQ, the angelic cloud of voices at the beginning of Sugar's "Shine" sounded properly heavenly. Bert Jansch's guitar and voice on "Needle of Death," from Bert Jansch/It Don't Bother Me (UK CD, Transatlantic ESMCD 407), were warm and involving.

The NL-12 had a particularly nice way with singers. Jessica Banks' vocal on "Cherry Blossom Girl," from Air's Talkie Walkie (Dutch CD, Source/Virgin 5 96600 0), was delicate and evanescent, and Phil Collins sounded melancholy and resigned on "Blood on the Rooftops," from Genesis' Wind and Wuthering (UK LP, Charisma CDS 4005). Clannad's "Closer to Your Heart," from Macalla (LP, RCA NFLI 8063), showed off Maire Brennan's unusual ability to simultaneously sound cool and sultry. The Edge made it easy to ignore the question of what type of devices were providing the amplification and sit back to enjoy the music, just as it should be.

There was harmonic generosity aplenty to be heard on orchestral music. Traditionally, the signature of high-powered solid-state amps has been a slight dryness, a thinning of the lush textures of strings and the organically woody character of woodwinds. The Edge defied old-school solid-state shibboleths. It brought a light touch and a naturally musical sweetness to the posh massed strings of George Butterworth's Two English Idylls (Marriner/ASMF, UK LP, Argo ZRG 860). The gorgeous Pavane from Peter Warlock's Capriol Suite (Dilkes/English Sinfonia, UK LP, EMI ESD 7101) was enchanting. Here, the strings should be a bit more astringent than on the Butterworth, but not aggressively so. The Edge caught this characteristic with delicate precision.

Through the upper mids and lower treble, the NL-12 seemed to me just a tad light—not grainy, not bright, just gently and ever so slightly spotlit. Part of this turned out to be the amp's decided sensitivity to the AC with which it was fed, as I later found out when the Shunyata Hydra 2 power conditioner showed up at the end of the auditioning period. Overall treble performance was adroit and revealing, giving neither warm fuzzies nor cold comfort. The Edge did offer superior treble resolution, reaching deep into the stage to unravel faint details.

Transient response was steadily superior across the spectrum, the bass again taking special honors. Well-recorded acoustic guitars tell more about midrange and treble transient response than do most other instruments; Steve Hackett's nylon-strung guitar on "Blood on the Rooftops" and Bert Jansch's display of steel-string virtuosity on "Anji" both had spark and immediacy, while retaining the unique timbral characteristics of the respective instruments. The forest of percussion instruments on Talking Heads' "The Great Curve," from Remain in Light (LP, Sire SRK 6095), had snap and vitality. Notoriously complex and difficult treble transients, such as the Tibetan bells at the beginning of "The Lagoon," from the Thin Red Line soundtrack (CD, RCA 63382-2), were as clean as the proverbial hound's tooth.

Combine a walloping power supply with a lot of watts, excellent transient response, and seriously quiet backgrounds, and the result should be excellent dynamic performance, which is exactly what the NL-12 delivered. The bass dynamics were world-class, the equal of the Plinius SA-250 Mk.IV—the finest one-chassis amp I had heard up to then. The Edge's performance was continuously good across the spectrum. The subtleties of Jansch's voice and guitar ebbed and flowed serenely, and the top-to-bottom fireworks of the Berceuse and Finale from Stravinsky's The Firebird, from Reference Recordings' Tutti sampler (CD, RR-906CD), had superb nuance in the former and overwhelming potency in the latter.

The NL-12's soundstaging was spacious, well-defined, and as good as that of any stereo amplifier I have heard. Mariss Janssons and the Berlin Philharmonic's performance of Kurt Weill's Mahagonny suite (CD, EMI 56573 2) had a fine sense of size and scale with a pleasingly expansive sense of the hall. Depth was excellent on the cavernous "The Nightingale," from the Twin Peaks soundtrack (CD, Warner Bros. 26316-2).

Image localization and solidity were uniformly excellent. Definition of images was clean and clear, but without the always unpleasant "razor-cut" effect, in which every voice or instrument seems to exist in its own distinct space rather than within the context of the whole. The NL-12 never ran things together, nor did it artificially highlight individual instruments. On "Cry," from Brian Wilson's Imagination (CD, Giant 24703-2), the old master overdubbed a veritable cathedral of backing voices, which remained individualized but no less a part of the entire picture—a mark of genuine distinction. Vaughan Williams' Five Variants on Dives and Lazarus is a longtime favorite of mine, and the Slatkin/Royal Philharmonic performance (CD, RCA 61195-2) caught its inner voices with delicacy, subtlety, and perfect placement through the Edge NL-12.

As the Focal-JMlab Nova Utopias weren't going anywhere without piano movers or a forklift, I did all of my evaluative listening with the French masterpieces. The Novas' standard-setting top-end extension clearly presented the character of the Edge's top end, as well as how it changed with two excellent but quite different speaker cables. The Nordost Valhalla allowed the Edge's resolution and transient response to come to the fore, while the Siltech LS-188 Classic gave a slightly mellower and richer presentation.

The Edge also proved picky about power. While it sounded as I've described it without the Shunyata Hydra 2 between it and the wall socket, adding the little Hydra made nearly all of that touch of lower-treble lightness disappear, as well as a previously unnoticed fine scrim in the treble. Some garbage riding in on the AC line that was scotched by the Hydra? Entirely possible. Top-level components are often the most sensitive to changes in associated equipment, and the NL-12 hid nothing about the distinctive characters of my BAT, VTL, and McIntosh front ends.

Leading Edge?
The sound of the Edge NL-12 is anything but the shopworn cliché of what a massively powerful solid-state amplifier "should" sound like, and it's a thoroughbred—a seriously solid piece of equipment in every way, physically and sonically. I don't know of a speaker that this amp would not be able to handle. Its prodigious power reserves, tremendous bass control, and polished, well-balanced character would make it a particularly appealing match for any difficult speaker load, especially if the speaker is a bit reticent in the lower treble. The Edge NL-12 has no serious weaknesses, and a commendably high number of genuine sonic strengths. It should be considered a must-hear by anyone looking for an amplifier that offers a particularly well-balanced combination of brute force and true finesse.

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