Electrocompaniet AW400 monoblock power amplifier Page 2

I discussed that with Peder Beckman, CEO of Electrocompaniet North America, who offered the additional loan of an Electrocompaniet EC 4.8 preamplifier. Thus I allowed myself an extra couple of weeks to absorb the sound of only the fully balanced EC 4.8 in my system, accomplished with the help of some Shindo XLR-to-RCA interconnects borrowed from Tone Imports. After that, I moved the Electrocompaniet EC 4.8 to my (Quad ESL–based) living-room system; the AW400 amplifiers spent several weeks being driven in single-ended mode, by my Shindo preamp in my main system, before resuming balanced operation for a final week with the EC 4.8 and the Quads.

The reason for all that: An amplifier such as the Electrocompaniet AW400 can't perform its best in single-ended mode. For one thing, to use it with a nonbalanced preamp required that I plug an XLR-to-RCA adapter (supplied by Electrocompaniet) into each amp's input jack—itself a performance limiter. More significant, apart from the obvious mechanical chores, those adapters work by connecting the negative contact to ground, thus asking the output section to swing the whole of the audio signal in one direction, and leaving a goodly portion of the amp's capabilities untapped.

Apart from all that, the Electrocompaniet amps posed no extraordinary requirements. In both my systems, they operated while standing on hardwood floors—their size precluded the use of any of the accessory stands or bases I had on hand—and I used them with their stock AC cords rather than any aftermarket types. The AW400s never became more than moderately warm during use, even while driving the notoriously cranky Quads, nor did they behave badly in any other way, apart from a faintly audible trace of hum in single-ended mode.

One small caution: The Electrocompaniet AW400 is, in fact, a DC-coupled amp. And as I discovered when I first experimented with the OMA slate plinth for my Thorens turntable (see "Listening" elsewhere in this issue), the AW400 is capable of passing very-low-frequency signals through the speaker to which it's connected. In particular, if your turntable setup requires work, and/or your floor is unusually sensitive to footsteps, you will hear those problems through the AW400s.

The first really great solid-state amp I heard in a perfectionist system was an Electrocompaniet Ampliwire. I've carried around the memory of that remarkably sweet-sounding amp for 25 years or so. That may constitute a bias.

But let me back up just a little: In my experience, early hi-fi sound, especially mono, was noted—with pleasure—for reproducing the sounds of instruments and voices with presence and solidity. Its greatest failing, to some, was that early hi-fi made everything sound solid and present, such that there was no sense of the space that exists between notes, and sometimes seems to surround each performer. At its best, early hi-fi could sound convincingly tactile, but it was always more opaque than the real thing.

By the late 1970s and early '80s, the sound by which some hobbyists came to identify high-end audio took shape in the salon showrooms of New York City (and elsewhere, I guess): an airier, "puffier" sound than the old gear made, wherein the soundfield as a whole, and everything within it, became much more open, even "pellucid." But that sound, too, came to disappoint, for its fussiness and lack of substance. (I know: Some people are never satisfied!)

What I enjoy hearing is reproductions of music wherein instruments and voices are solid and colorful and real, and yet the space between those things isn't filled up with a lot of shit. Some tube gear nails that—low-power stuff, mostly, in my experience—but not all. I remember thinking some relatively inexpensive and similarly low-power transistor amps could do that, too. Maybe it's an overly rosied-up memory, but I think the Naim Nait 2—the early version, when it still had a phono preamp—could do it, as well as that fondly remembered Ampliwire.

Maybe it's a house sound: The AW400s played my favorite stereo recordings with that same solid yet open presentation. Solo voices were believably substantial, especially from the better-sounding opera recordings in my collection, such as Cavalli's L'Ormindo with the London Philharmonic under Raymond Leppard (LP, Argo ZNF 8-10), and Puccini's La Bohème with von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (LP, Decca/Speakers Corner 565/6). Yet the presence of the performers—and their movements, when called for—was enhanced during playback by an equally real and engaging sense of the space around them. At no time was that more true than with Luciano Pavarotti's soaring "Che gelida manina," in La Bohème.

And that was just the sound. The Electrocompaniet amps were musically accomplished as well, with especially good momentum with all upbeat music, including classic rock: My favorite Blue Öyster Cult collection, Secret Treaties (LP, Columbia KC 32858), was especially fun through the combination of Electrocompaniet AW400s and Wilson Audio Sophia 2 speakers. With well-recorded bluegrass, Dawg music, and other acoustic fare, the musical flow was satisfying but not as good as it gets: Through the big AW400s, lines of notes didn't unravel with quite the crazy, organic, psychedelic ease as with the very best low-power tube amps.

Electrocompaniet AS
US distributor: Electrocompaniet North America
97 Linden Street
Oakland, CA 94607
(510) 291-1222