Exposure 3010S integrated amplifier Page 2

Usually, when I hear something like that, I try reversing the amp's absolute polarity by swapping the loudspeaker connections at both channels. More often that not, the source of the problem is that the design just happens to reverse polarity—no big deal. But when I did that with the Exposure 3010S, I couldn't hear much of a difference: Leading-edge transients were a bit blunted, no matter what.

Several days after those initial impressions, the Exposure did sound slightly better with its speaker leads reversed: Loudon Wainwright III's voice on the live "Mr. Guilty," from Unrequited (CD, Columbia CK 65258), sounded marginally louder and more present that way, and guitarist Gary Williamson's bass lines on "Boatman," from the beautifully recorded Still Light of the Evening by Tony Williamson and the Williamson Brothers Band (CD, Mapleshade 08952), also seemed louder and more relevant to what the rest of the band was doing, if you see what I mean.

The newest Exposure didn't sound distant, per se, in comparison with the decidedly forward-sounding 2010S—just a shade less engaging, a bit less vital. On the positive side, the 3010S had a more commanding bottom octave: deeper than my recollection of the less expensive amp, and tauter and more detailed as well. The glissando that starts with the lowest notes of the electric organ on Santana's "Waiting," from their eponymous debut album (CD, Columbia/Legacy CK 9781), was powerful and downright cool, and the same could be said of the floor toms and electric bass in the crossfade to "Jingo." The deep bass drum used throughout the lovely Raising Sand, by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss (CD, Rounder 11661-9075-2), sounded deep and present.

Heard through the Audio Note AN-E/SPe HE speakers, the Exposure's line section was reasonably open and clear, and sounded surprisingly big for such a relatively inexpensive solid-state product. More important, the amp followed the music with a good sense of flow, and preserved a lot of the touch and humanness in well-recorded playing and singing. The lead vocal in the title song of Levon Helm's thoroughly wonderful Dirt Farmer (CD, Vanguard 79844-2) jumped out of the speakers with believable presence and nuance. The same could be said for Helm's drumming on that track, which sounded forceful and rhythmically right—and, again, very warm and human. As someone else once observed, Levon Helm is the only musician on Earth who can make a drum kit sound mournful.

It was possible to wring better performance from Joanna Newsom's album Ys (CD, Drag City's palindromic DC303CD) using Shindo and vintage Quad electronics: no huge surprise, given the differences in price and fussiness. Yet there was sufficient vocal nuance and presence through the comparatively inexpensive Exposure 3010S, and sufficiently convincing color and flow to the supporting instruments. The same held true for Quartet, the most recent collaboration of Tony Rice and Peter Rowan (CD, Rounder 11661-0579-2). The string-bass virtuoso Bryn Davies, who recently left Rice and Rowan to work with singer Patty Griffin, sounded especially good through this amp, with a good sense of touch and lots of realistic texture and tone.

The Exposure's imaging strengths were apparent even through the corner-positioned Audio Note loudspeakers, limited though they are in that regard. The amp contributed to producing a credible spatial distinction between the piano and string instruments in the Vienna Piano Trio's recording of the Zemlinsky Piano Trio (CD, MDG Gold MDG342 1354-2), yet also managed to convey the sheer scale of the combined musical forces in a magnificent performance of Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius by Colin Davis and the Boston Symphony Orchestra (an air check recording from 1982, courtesy John Marks).

Initially, when I moved the Exposure from the room with the electrically sensitive Audio Note loudspeakers to the room in which I use my Quad ESL electrostats—an altogether wiggier load—the amp lost enough performance ground that my first impression was that the pairing was less than optimal. A day later, all was well again.

In fact, the Exposure took to the Quads like a duck to water. The combination sounded wonderful in all the ways I expected—clarity, immediacy, presence, lack of obvious colorations—and in one that I didn't: image height. That's right, height. When called for, the sounds of some instruments and voices between my floorstanding ESLs got appreciably taller with the 3010S in my system—such as the mandolins and violins on Bryan Sutton's Bluegrass Guitar (CD, Sugar Hill SUG CD 3975), and Ricky Skaggs' especially well-recorded Ancient Tones (CD, Skaggs Family SKFR-CD 1001). The broken-in Exposure also had good bass extension and control through the Quad ESLs, and trebles that were sweet and listenable without lacking substance or color.

In both settings, the Exposure's phono section sounded less neutral than its line stage alone. Lower mids seemed a bit shelved down, resulting in a hollow sound on some instruments and an overly dark, overly heavy sound on others, including cellos and string basses. Back to Sir Colin: His early-1970s recording of Berlioz's Harold in Italy (LP, Philips 9500 026) sounded thick and unclear, to the point where cello lines in particular were difficult to understand and enjoy. Piano recordings, such as Benno Moiseiwitsch's enthusiastic performance of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (LP, Decca DL 710042), also sounded dense and timbrally unappealing.

Dynamic headroom with phono sources, however, was no problem. On the Berlioz disc, the crescendo in the first movement that announces the change in key from G minor to sunny G major was handled well, the sound of the orchestra remaining clean and big throughout. And my beloved 1950s mono recording of flamenco artist Pacita Tom·s (10" LP, Spanish Columbia CLP 11006) was appropriately loud and present, with all the drama and sheer force I'm used to hearing.

Two miscellaneous phono notes: First, although the Exposure's MM phono section had enough gain to comfortably amplify low-output MC cartridges such as the 0.5mV Ortofon SPU Synergy A, I tended to use it in conjunction with various step-up transformers, to provide those cartridges with the proper load impedance. Second, hardcore mono enthusiasts should note that, as with all other preamps and integrated amps that lack a mono switch, the Exposure can't be used with true mono (right-channel-only) cartridges such as the EMT OFD 25 without a Y-adapter being inserted between the Exposure's phono inputs and the tonearm's right-channel output plug. (I tried that very thing—and got great results with that very cartridge, to which the 3010S was friendly.)

A final, general sort of note: The Exposure 3010S powered my main-system speakers during a time when I was also working on a Follow-Up about moving-coil step-up transformers. One morning, I heard a 60Hz hum that was much louder than I expected with the trannie that happened to be in use. I went through the usual ground checks and changes without luck, then realized that the Exposure, which was less than a foot away from that trannie, was still switched on. Switching it off did no good—but when I unplugged the 3010S from the AC socket, the hum vanished entirely. Phono enthusiasts who are thinking of buying an Exposure 3010S will have their setup work cut out for them, and might do well to lay in a supply of longish interconnects for maximizing the distance between various components.

The Exposure 3010S is just as good as I'd expect at this price. Like everything else, it has flaws—none of which I consider fatal—and many appealing qualities, all built on a foundation of musicality: pitch, rhythm, and momentum.

I can't avoid comparing the 3010S to the last Exposure integrated amp I reviewed, nor would most of you want me to. Fortunately or unfortunately, that last amp, the 2010S, was as special as all get-out, and a hell of a bargain. This newer one is very good—but it isn't as special.

Taken as a line-only integrated, the Exposure 3010S is recommendable at its price, notwithstanding the slight blunting of its leading-edge transients. There may even be some hobbyists—I'm thinking people who still use the early CD players they rushed right out to buy in the 1980s—who'll reasonably regard that blunting as a plus. That said, I don't see the Exposure with phono option as an especially good buy: Exposure's board sounds a little dated to me, and you can do better elsewhere.

Exposure Electronics, Ltd.
US distributor: Bluebird Music Ltd.
310 Rosewell Avenue
Toronto, Ontario M4R 2B2, Canada