Ensemble B-50 "Tiger" integrated amplifier Page 2

A useful, optional accessory is a Kevlar/carbon fiber base to set the B-50 on. It is manufactured by Sicomin and is shaped the same as the B-50. It comes with three spikes to couple it and the B-50 to the shelf (or whatever) on which it sits. It raises the amp about 1½", leaving that much more room in back for hook-up handiwork.

Turning the unit upside down and removing the bottom plate reveals a neat interior with optimum use of the available space. All input connections are hard-wired directly to a glass-epoxy printed circuit board with the input selection relays located nearby. The signal path (MOS logic-controlled) is extremely straightforward, direct, and short. From the input selector relay, the signal travels to the silky-smooth but unidentifiable volume potentiometer, then to the first stage of the line-level amplifier, which appears to use transistors. From there the signal travels through the vacuum tube section (two ECC81s that can optionally be damped by Teflon-padded Kevlar rings made by Sicomin and available as accessories from Ensemble) and then via 4.3µ;F Solen coupling caps to the solid-state power amplifier board.

A complementary pair of flat-pack bipolar power transistors (per channel) are coupled to the heatsinks by mounting bars. The generous heatsinking (relative to the number of output transistors) should ensure cool running and a long life. Servicing should be no problem due to the easily removable pc boards with their quick-disconnect fittings. There are three fuses in total: one for the AC mains and one 4A type in each speaker line, while there is no series output inductor. The power supply uses a pair of 10,000µF electrolytics, while the specially designed 180VA power transformer is separated from the other components by a steel shield extending the full width and depth of the chassis. A construction detail, which I rarely see on components in this price range, is threaded stainless-steel inserts for the chassis Allen-head screws.

If you like your electronics in neat, tidy packages with great aesthetic appeal, you will not be disappointed with the Ensemble. From its no-frills exterior to the simplicity of its internal design, the B-50 personifies Ensemble's "less is more" philosophy. Once all the connections are made, you can walk away from the B-50 and begin enjoying your music without the equipment's presence dominating the room and your attention.

The first LP I cued up is a favorite of mine for relaxed listening—the 1988 At The End Of The Evening, by Nightnoise (Windham Hill WH-1076). The music, a smooth blend of acoustic instruments and electronic keyboards with Celtic undertones and New Age overtones, makes few demands on the listener, yet is full of sonic surprises which become more enjoyable as one's system improves. I thought I'd give a listen to a few cuts to warm up my ears to the new electronics. I ended up playing all of side 1 straight through, got up to turn the record over, and played, without interruption, all of side 2! I thought I knew this record, but hearing this music through the Ensemble was a revelation. Something unusual happened in my listening room—some force kept me glued to my chair. I heard nuances in the music which I had not heard before.

I was also keenly aware of a soundstage seemingly unlimited by the dimensions of my room. Lateral imaging, when the program material conveyed it, extended well beyond the edges of the speakers to the right and left. I was able to follow bass lines as if the score sat open in front of me. The quality of the bass was exceptional—taut, full-bodied, controlled, extending to the limits of my speakers' response (35Hz), all the while maintaining precise pitch definition and timbral accuracy. The bass reproduction the Quicksilvers had accustomed me to was no match for the Ensemble B-50's. Though the amps have similar power ratings, the bass through the Ensemble went deeper, tighter, was better focused, and had more energy. It's as if someone had pulled the drawstrings tighter on a nylon stuffsack filled with large foam balls—the form and texture of those balls became more easily discerned.

The midrange warmth and liquidity I enjoyed with the tubed Quicksilvers was equalled by the B-50. If the Ensemble amp subtracted anything from the sound through the music's midrange, it was that overwhelming sense of euphonic richness the Quicksilvers provided. Reflect on the prospect of being caressed instead of hugged by sound, and you'll understand the differences between the two products. The qualities of the midrange reproductions of the two amps were like milk and semi-sweet chocolate—the Quicksilvers reminded me of the former, the Ensemble the latter. Both chocolates satisfy—the palate ultimately determines which variety satisfies most. Substitute your sensitivity to and expectations of midrange colorations for your sense of taste and you'll know which sound you prefer. I thought I was firmly entrenched in the milk-chocolate lovers' camp until I heard the Ensemble—it conveyed a compelling sense of harmonic "rightness" to whatever music was played. In addition to providing me with an almost microscopically detailed view of a musical performance, the B-50 caused me to redefine transparency. Imagine the image in a mirror in a steam-filled room. Imagine that same image in a room without steam. The differences in the images you would see are similar to the differences you will hear with the Ensemble amp.

In which mirror would you want to shave?

My Acoustat peakerss have the ability to project an almost holographic image of a soundstage (assuming, of course, the recording has captured it!). This is a quality I demand from any loudspeaker but only occasionally find (the Mirage M-1s and M-3s, for example). I had no idea just how fine my speakers were in recreating this character until I hooked up the Tiger. Not since I had the opportunity (and pleasure) to listen to a Mark Levinson No.23 (and more recently a Jeff Rowland Model 1) in my system have I experienced that sense of awe at the ability of a component to transport me, so convincingly, to the recording site. The Ensemble B-50 is such a component.

On Ry Cooder's 1977 album Show Time (Warner Bros. BS 3059), you can feel the atmosphere in San Francisco's Great American Music Hall where this live recording took place. On "The Dark End of the Street," the sense of presence is stunning. The images of the musicians and vocalists are so precisely located on the stage you feel you could measure, to within a few inches, their proximity to one another. When the musicians move around on stage, you're aware of those movements through subtle ambient clues conveyed, unhindered, by the B-50. What really got me was the unmistakable sound of Jesse Ponce's bajo sexto waaay off on the right accompanying Ry's soulful electric guitar solo. Each note of the bajo sexto was heard clearly and distinctly, even when competing with the hoots, hollers, and applause of the audience, as if Ponce was standing in my room several feet to the right of my speaker. I felt like handing him a beer!