The Fifth Element #15 Page 3

The case as a whole is another new departure. The selector and volume knobs are on the front panel, which is approximately one standard rack-unit in height. Also on the front panel are the headphone jack and a single button that disables the speaker outputs while enabling the headphone amplifier.

The amplifier as a whole is two rack-units high, though the only internal component that is fully that tall is the toroidal power transformer. Brinkmann's idiosyncratic solution is to surround the power transformer with its own circular enclosure, which extends through the bottom of the case and acts as the Integrated's front support. Two small, decoupled cones at the rear corners provide balance. From across the room, the amplifier appears to be floating. Heatsinks with vertical fins run front to back on either side of the amplifier.

The rear panel is the same height as the front panel, and includes two RCA digital input jacks for the optional DAC, four RCA analog input pairs, buffered tape outputs, and the pairs of speaker terminals for single-wiring. The Integrated is designed to be left on all the time, so there is no power switch. The attached power cord goes directly into the bottom of the case, near the power transformer. Remote control of volume and muting is an option. The instruction manual is slightly self-laudatory, but the shipping carton is exemplary.

For those who want to take system simplification one step beyond, Brinkmann offers an optional DAC card that is dual-differential in the digital domain, yet uses a very small (the size of an AAA battery) dual-triode tube in its analog stage. A relay arrangement powers up the DAC when a digital input is active, even if not selected. Using the onboard DAC rather than the analog CD outputs from the Marantz SA-8260, and driving the ASA Baby speakers, I found the sound of the Brinkmann's DAC to be very slightly leaner and more detailed, but I preferred the Marantz's opulent warmth. Whether the DAC card makes sense for you will depend on how much money you have tied up in your digital source and how happy you are with it.

To sum up: If you're looking for a medium-powered one-box solution that combines extremely engaging sound quality with high-quality construction and very distinctive design, Brinkmann's Integrated should be on your audition list.

Other than the aforementioned Plinius and Rowland units, you might also want to investigate Perreaux's new integrated amplifier. Magnum Dynalab's MD 208 FM receiver is truly a one-box solution, although its distinctly mellow sound counsels care in speaker selection. And for those whose patience is exceeded only by their liquidity, Halcro keeps promising to come out with an integrated amplifier.

Having such a capable new amplifier in-house, I couldn't resist lining up a new speaker to hear. Dynaudio may seem an eternal fixture in the audio firmament, but they're currently celebrating only their 25th anniversary. For quite a few years, raw drivers from Dynaudio seemed to be the nearly exclusive choice for designers challenging the state of the art, as in the original Duntech 2001. Although that success has brought out more competitors, Dynaudio's drivers—tweeters in particular—are still used in many well-respected designs, such as Merlin's VSM and Silverline's La Folia.

Dynaudio's top tweeter is the legendary Esotar, now apparently in "2" form and used in Dynaudio's own Confidence C4 speaker, which impressed so many people at Home Entertainment 2002 last May. Some of that new technology (as well as technology from the Evidence Master and Evidence Temptation) trickles down to Dynaudio's more affordable ($4800 vs $16,000) Special Twenty-Five monitor loudspeaker.

The Special Twenty-Five is a medium-sized, rear-ported box measuring 17" high by 9" wide by 13" deep, with an 8" woofer/mid with a claimed (and credible) bass extension of -3dB at 35Hz. As befits an important anniversary, particular care was taken in aesthetic design, my pair being clad in birch-burl veneer.

How do they sound? Fabulous. No excuses needed on organ music, or on Brahms' Ein deutsches Requiem. Female vocals are just beguiling, string quartets riveting. But with high-quality parts, conservative (first-order crossover) design, and flawless execution, what's not to like? (Well, okay—the Euro-Nanny speaker terminals are not to like.) $4800/pair is admittedly rather stiff, but the audible family resemblance to the Evidence and Confidence goes a long way in justifying that. The Brinkmann, the Dynaudios, and a Marantz SA-14 SACD player will top out at $11,200, but they make for a "buy it once and buy it right" ticket off the merry-go-round.

P.S. For beer: Theakston's Old Peculier.