Ensemble B-50 "Tiger" integrated amplifier Page 3

This captivating ability of the Ensemble B-50 to maintain rhythmic and timbral spatial separation between diverse elements of any musical presentation forced me to open both eye and ear. Listening to music through the Ensemble became a physical event. If the music had any energy or beat at all, I found it just about impossible to sit still. My head went to bobbin' and my feet to tappin'. My system, now more than ever, was capable of passing the "Linn Test" (yes, Ivor, even with CDs as a source!). I was able to follow musical lines effortlessly in arrangements often crowded with ideas. Those lines were in no way "pushed-out" at me in a way I have heard with other electronics. They were not highlighted or etched. They simply were there as a part of the total musical experience, their absence conspicuous, to various degrees, when I reconfigured my system for comparative listening.

Dove Across the Water (Iona IR004) is one of my favorite albums of Scottish music, in exhilarating yet graceful performances by the well-known group Ossian. The all-acoustic set serves up a smorgasbord of plucked and blown instrumental timbres: Uilleann pipes, whistles, flutes, fiddles, guitars, cello, and double bass. The double bass, in particular, is captured with a full, woody, resonant character forming a rock-solid foundation to the music (the Quicksilvers were a bit "woolly" in handling this instrument). When heard through the Ensemble, the pipes and flute (often confused-sounding and difficult to differentiate when playing in unison) are clearly heard as separate musical voices, each occupying a distinct space in the soundfield. The confusion disappeared and the flow of the music could be followed without hindrance. In a darkened room, the entrance of the vocalists on "Braw Sailing' on the Sea" and "Will ye go to Flanders?" will raise the hair on the back of your neck and send a shiver through your body. The palpability of the singers is stunning (they seem to be in the room with you), their voices captured in an acoustic which lets each nuance of the performance through in an utterly believable manner.

On orchestral music the Ensemble B-50 rivaled much more powerful and expensive amps in conveying the dynamic range and scale of the music. A favorite recording of mine for getting a quick handle on a component's ability to capture the sound of a full orchestra is Malcolm Arnold's overture, Beckus the Dandipratt, on an LP containing several of his more popular compositions (EMI ESD 1077801). This humorous piece takes advantage of the various sections of the orchestra to convey a lively sound portrait of that member of the human race commonly referred to as an "urchin." The music will have you grinning from ear to ear. The demonstration-quality sound on this decade-old recording will delight you.

The Ensemble's see-through-to-the-music-stands transparency was much in evidence here; I was particularly impressed with the way the B-50 captured the sound of the snare drum, located dead center at the rear of the orchestra. The sharp, transient character of that instrument's singular voice cut through the orchestra like a lightning bolt, as realistic sounding as I have heard. Indeed, the entire percussion section was captured in sound with excellent dynamics and accurate timbres. The woodblock/bass drum interplay made me jump in my seat. The rest of the orchestra was not slighted either, massed strings sounding silky, with a sheen which could almost be seen. The woodwinds and brass sounded like real instruments in a real space, their respective timbres accurately captured. The sense of air in the recording site was palpable, and instrumental solos rose from the orchestra in believable perspective.

On the 1974 Columbia recording of Aaron Copland's original version of his ballet Appalachian Spring (Columbia M 32736), the sublime introduction will raise a lump in your throat as the instruments make their introductions, the sound literally "shimmering." The emotional effect is mesmerizing, similar to what one experiences when gazing rapturously upon fallen leaves in a quiescent mountain stream. Rarely have I been so moved when listening to this music. It is to the Ensemble's credit that it can extricate the essence of Copland's composition from a recording which, with other components in the system, can be almost unlistenable. Yet I was never aware of the B-50 subtracting character from the sound.

The strings maintained tonal character, the leading edges of the notes being especially well-captured. The flute, clarinet, and bassoon sounded just right to my ears, and the cushion of air surrounding their individual voices was conveyed with a tangibility I have rarely heard on this LP. The soundstage was convincing (for a rather closely miked recording), extending from my left wall to the right one, well outside the boundaries of my speakers. The piano was placed quite a ways back in the right corner, yet was easily heard with excellent balance between the upper and lower keyboard. The sound of the piano's lower register was particularly impressive; it took little imagination to visualize the connection between the piano and the floor.

The Marc Aubort–engineered recording of Scarlatti Sonatas played by Anthony di Bonaventura (Connoisseur Society CS 2044) proved ear-opening. It captures, to a degree I have yet to hear on CDs, the unmistakable feeling of being present in a recital hall where a solo pianist is performing. Listening to this record through my new reference system became a totally relaxing experience. Picking nits seemed irrelevant in the context of such fine music-making. Those criteria by which sound reproduction is judged (you know what I mean) were met, their effects manifested in the ease with which I became involved in the music. Such involvement in the music is, for me, the most important criterion by which to subjectively evaluate a system. If I'm not moved, if I don't get a tingle of excitement, if my body remains motionless while listening to music, then something is wrong somewhere in the chain of technology I use to bring the music to my ears.

I've had the opportunity to listen to a lot of gear. Some of it offers good sound for a modest price. Other gear offers state-of-the-art sound for a not-so-modest price. The Ensemble B-50 "Tiger" integrated amplifier bridges the gap between these two types of equipment, offering superlative sound for just under two kilobucks. I cannot imagine a music-lover disappointed with what he/she hears through the Ensemble (given associated components of similar quality). I'll go so far as to say that for anyone starting out in the high-end game (or for those seasoned veterans who find themselves disenchanted with what they've been listening to), the Ensemble system, consisting of the B-50 amp, Hotline speaker cable, and Supraflux interconnect, will provide an excellent point of departure for speaker auditioning and source-component selection (the former group of audiophiles), or an opportunity to end the angst associated with burnout (the latter). The combination of Ensemble electronics and cables exemplifies the synergistic relationship we all seek in our quest for the system. The amp and cables can stand alone as excellent products when used with other components. The magic occurs, though, when they are used together—a case where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Couple this with the fact that the B-50 is one of the most neutral-sounding amps I've heard, and you have a great diagnostic tool for evaluating colorations in equipment up or down the line.

The B-50 projects one of the most balanced sounds I've heard, regardless of source. It performed flawlessly with CDs, LPs, tape—even FM radio. Live studio broadcasts from KUNM in Albuquerque had stunning presence, an effect which took me by surprise; I'd rarely paid them any attention in the past. Neither the bass, treble, nor midrange fought for attention or pride of place in the soundfield. Rather, each element in the spectrum of sound was projected naturally and without fuss. Every nuance of a musical performance was captured with finesse and a sense of "rightness." Like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, diverse and irregular musical elements fit together into an involving and communicative musical whole, whether classical, jazz, blues, rock, or pop. From Bach to Buddy Guy, Rachmaninoff to the Rolling Stones, Bartók to Bob Wills, or Fauré to Front Line Assembly, the B-50 remained signatureless, letting the music manifest its own persona on the listener. Dynamic contrasts, so important to music's impact, were handled by the B-50 with aplomb. The ability of this amp to get down and boogie was outstanding, considering its modest size. It can bop with the best of them!

My previous reference system brought me great pleasure but invariably left me feeling as if something was missing in the presentation of the music, especially after my frequent visits to Stereophile's listening room. Some of the most-talked-about components in the world can be found there—and listened to. It can be a humbling experience to a music lover, but not a daunting one, particularly if that music lover has an Ensemble B-50 amp in his system. I did not feel deprived! Instead, I chuckled to myself, feeling much like the little boy whose unimposing-looking toy sailboat has just won the race. I feel confident you'll chuckle too, after installing the B-50 in your system.

If your listening room is modestly proportioned, your speakers relatively sensitive, and your front-end above average, I urge you to give the Ensemble a listen. It could very well change your preconceptions of what high-end audio components should look like. I feel the Ensemble B-50 is an exceptional product, deserving of a strong Class B rating in "Recommended Components." In terms of value-for-dollar, I would rate it Class A. The B-50 is one "Tiger" you can safely grab by the tail.