The Fifth Element #13

Aristotle, what a guy.

Aristotle (384-322BC) spent 20 years studying under Plato, and was himself the private tutor to the young Alexander, later "the Great." Aristotle's works include writings on biology, philosophy, and ethics. The relevance of Aristotle to audio hinges on one of his fundamental achievements: the development of the concept of purposefulness as an important part of intellectual inquiry.

Aristotle reasoned that what something "is for" is an important part of what it "is," and, conversely, that what something "is" provides important clues to what it "is for." For Aristotle, the purposefulness of a thing is elemental to its existence as existence, and not something we conventionally impose upon it. Take that, deconstructionists! And stop using that screwdriver as a hammer!

What set me wandering in this direction were the irony-laden incongruities between a truly wonderful amplifier—one you really should hear—and the way quite a few audiophiles go about buying audio systems. First, the amp.

Unison Research's unusually handsome S2K ($2000; add $100 for remote control)—a single-ended, class-A, KT88-based integrated amplifier—is the sort of component of which, after giving its spec sheet a cursory glance and seeing its somewhat puny rated power of about 15Wpc, many potential customers might say, "Unh-hunh, not for me."

I'm the first to admit that, if you want to drive difficult loads such as Magneplanars or Shahinians to room-filling volumes with Brahms' Ein deutsches Requiem, you should look elsewhere. But that specific purpose is not the only possible or valid answer to the question "What is this for?"

This is where Aristotle comes in. By making "What is this for?" a central question in Western thought, he has provided valuable guidance to a lot of people who don't seem to be paying much attention.

I get e-mails all the time asking for equipment-buying advice. I try to reply as helpfully (and rationally) as I can. But golly, the way some people go about buying audio equipment makes about as much sense as feeding celery and mayonnaise to tuna in hopes of getting tuna salad. All the components (or ingredients) are there, but somehow they don't work together as a system to produce the desired result. In large part this is because people often put what the components "are" first, and only as an afterthought concern themselves with what the components "are for"—usually after misspending a whole bunch of money.

What is it—meaning the music—you want to listen to, how, and where?

Should anyone be surprised that, within a given reasonable budget, a system optimized for listening at moderate levels to Beethoven string quartets—or to Sarah McLachlan, for that matter—might be configured differently from a system designed to play Widor organ works—or movie soundtracks—very loudly?

There are times and places when you can really let a system rip, and play at levels above realistic concert-hall volumes, but I think that 95%—or certainly at least 80%—of our listening time is spent at moderate volume levels. If you have only a certain amount of money to spend, doesn't it make sense to at least consider a low-power amplifier that more than makes up in fatigue-free tonal lusciousness what it lacks in ultimate slam?

If you're ready to give even grudging assent to that proposition, Unison Research's S2K should be on your audition list. Two thousand bucks might seem like a lot of money for 15Wpc, but, having hefted and sized up this amp, I have little question that it is a fairly priced labor of love. First off, with single-ended transformer-coupled designs, both power and audio transformers are very important, and it's obvious that Unison has not scrimped in that department. This amp is heavy (about 36 lbs), and most of its weight is at the rear. Its industrial design is top-drawer, and its build quality and fit and finish are excellent for the price.

The S2K's chassis is deeper than it is wide. The rear two-thirds are taken up by an enclosure of black sheet-metal. In front of that, not centered but offset slightly to the right, are two 12AU7A input tubes; behind them are two Sovtek KT88 output tubes. A contoured stainless-steel apron surrounds the tubes, and bears script legends identifying which tubes go where. Considering the size difference between the input and output tubes, at first blush this gesture might seem silly. But if the amp gets separated from its tubes and manual, the legends will eliminate guesswork in buying replacement tubes.

A thick piece of hardwood trim (it looks like lacquered cherry) laps down from the top front edge, with a cutaway on that edge to accommodate the tubes and apron. Cutaways on the front accommodate the beefy Volume and source-selector knobs, both of polished stainless steel, and the Source/Monitor toggle switch. A beveled section on the left of the trim piece holds a red LED to indicate power on, and Unison Research's "UR" logo, which, typically, is rendered in contrasting solid milled metals with a Florentine finish. (Obviously believing that nothing exceeds like excess, Unison binds the S2K's owner's manual with a spine of solid wood.)