The Fifth Element #19 Page 2

His central claim is that achieving low noise and distortion numbers are Pyrrhic victories. He claims that timing errors are introduced by having the music go through more than one silicon junction at once, those varying signal paths often being of varying length, and through multiple transistors that are very difficult to match. For M. Delétraz, it is nearly all about preserving the purity of the musical timing, and to that end he is cheerfully willing, after more than two decades of wandering in the wilderness of trial and error, to write off a lot of factors other companies obsess about.

That M. Delétraz may be on to something is suggested by the continuing esteem many cognoscenti feel for Plinius' SA-50 and Krell's original KSA-50 amps (both discontinued), each of which had an output topology similar to darTZeel's, but half the power. JA still owns his Krell "purist" amp, and Sam Tellig for quite some time owned the Plinius version.

Delétraz claims that the NHB-108 has no switch, contact, fuse, or relay in its entire signal path, the only fuses being the mains fuses (one per channel). Neither is there any global feedback, DC servo compensation circuitry, or current limitation of any kind.

To avoid catastrophic failure in case of an output short, a Hall-effect sensor shorts the power supply by means of an industrial thyristor, the "crowbar" action of which is claimed to vaporize the fuse elements with 350 amps of current in 6.5ms, before the output transistors can go into thermal runaway. For this reason, the darTZeel absolutely must never be plugged into the wall unless speakers have already been connected to its outputs. Both the owner's manuals—and a separate warning card—drive this point home.

A wag once commented that it took an awful lot of money to maintain Gandhi in his life of poverty. In much the same way, darTZeel's extreme engineering simplicity comes at the cost of some very stuffed (but elegantly stuffed) circuit boards, and lots of weight: 65 lbs, not counting its very Swiss shipping carton with CNC-cut foam inserts holding a complete set of Swiss-made tools.

Some of the weight comes from the unusual design of the casework's "floor": between the amp's outer and inner bases is a 25mm air space, through which much of the wiring is routed. Much of the rest of the weight seems to be in the power supply, which is quite large for an amp of 100Wpc.

The provided hand tools are necessary: the darTZeel is shipped with a marine-grade plywood board substituting for its smoked-glass cover, the changeover of which requires a screwdriver and suction cups. Special extra-long-nose pliers are required to reach the power fuses, which are situated where they do the least sonic harm, rather than in the locations most convenient for replacing them.

The glass cover, once installed, serves three purposes: It lets you admire the extraordinary build quality, the equal of Jeff Rowland's or Nagra's; it provides an airtight seal to keep the inside dust-free; and it is claimed to reduce the antimusical effects of electromagnetic forces' being reflected back into the signal circuitry by the usual metal cover.

This third factor brings into play one of my few caveats about the otherwise easy-to-set-up darTZeel. The transparency of the glass to EMF is a two-way street. Some degree of care is required to prevent the induction of hum by having a preamplifier or CD player's power transformer too close to the darTZeel.

The darTZeel's visual design is firmly in the land of love it or hate it. The main case is meticulously anodized a warm yellow with an eggshell-gloss finish, very reminiscent of Jeff Rowland's early work although slightly more lemony in tone. The front panel sports a gold-plated plaque the size of a business card, on which are engraved the owner's name and the serial number. The heatsinks are of the red usually found in a glass of Campari with just a splash of tonic. The crescent-shaped bus bars for the power supply are gold, with the powder-blue capacitor tops showing between. The two gumdrop-sized power-indicator lights are pumpkin orange in most of their states.

About the lights: The darTZeel is intended to be left on all the time, powered up but in standby. This is designed to help the capacitors reach their anticipated lifespan of more than 25 years. The front Power button is actually a standby/on switch. To power down the unit entirely, you must pull the line cord out of the wall.

The indicator lights are on, but nearly imperceptibly, while the unit is in standby mode. Powering up makes them glow softly, playing music above a certain threshold makes them light up brightly but not intensely, and with the approach of clipping and protection they shine forth with unmistakable urgency.

The questionable aspect is that, if you are listening to string quartets quietly with relatively efficient speakers, the power lights for the two channels will toggle dimmer and brighter independently as the music ebbs and flows, because the amp thinks it is coming in and out of its quiescent state. (The lights also blink for certain warning functions.) But the effect is only visual—I heard no audible glitches.

When you add up the Playskool primary-color industrial design, the fey naming of the power button and indicators "Nose" and "Eyes," and the occasional late-night ballet of indicator lights, you get a strongly idiosyncratic product that some people will love and others will simply not get—but on grounds entirely apart from how it plays music.