Hovland Radia power amplifier Page 2

Round 2
My system had changed somewhat by the time I received the second sample. The second round of listening and the direct comparisons were done with the Focal-JMlab Nova Utopia Be loudspeakers, the Halcro dm10 and BAT VK-51SE line stages, and the Aesthetix Io Signature phono stage (reviews of the JMlab and Halcro in the works). Cabling was a mix of Acoustic Zen Silver Reference and Siltech's new Classic interconnects and speaker cables.

It was shocking how much difference such a small change made in the Radia's sound. In direct comparisons, the first Radia sounded distant, very diffuse, and waaay too loosey-goosey below 160Hz. The midrange was still superbly transparent, but there was little dynamic sock or authority. The second Radia, fully representative of current production, was another story entirely...

Beauty is as beauty does
Radia No.2 was a delight to listen to in virtually all respects. It consistently displayed a light, limber touch with images and timbres. Dimensionality was surprisingly and delightfully tubelike in its solidity and freedom from too-sharp, unnatural-sounding ultra-definition. The point source of each instrument's body was clearly discernible, but didn't exist in highlighted isolation from the air around it or the sound of the recording venue. The Hovland's overall resolution of detail was very good, bordering on the truly exceptional, and there was never any sense of resolution for its own sake. It always maintained a holistic sense of continuity, embracing all aspects of the music and knitting together the disparate parts of the recorded experience.

While it's not nearly as easy as it used to be, it's still possible to find solid-state components that have a character that I think of as "planes and angles." The Radia's was the antithesis of that sound. Like a fine tube amplifier, its constitution favored compound curves and rounded contours. Timbrally, the Radia had the slightest touch of mellowness, but this should not be interpreted as "romanticism." Subtleties revealed themselves subtly through this amplifier. There was a gentle sensuality to the Radia's sound that is a rare thing in a solid-state design—the sense of bloom and wholeness that was once the sole province of tubes.

On John Renbourne's Sir John Alot of Merrye Englande's Musyk Thynge and ye Grene Knight (LP, Reprise RS 6344, two-tone label), Renbourne's acoustic guitar and Terry Cox's xylophone were crisply defined without a suggestion of etch, though the slight overload of the recording (or perhaps the pressing) was occasionally apparent. On "Session at Pete's Pad" and "Dreamsville," from Henry Mancini's Music from Peter Gunn (LP, RCA Victor LSP-1956, "black dog" label), the brass exhibited a richly complete harmonic structure and a truly dreamy ensemble sound.

The Radia's bass might well raise some eyebrows, as it might not be quite what people expect from an expensive, powerful solid-state amplifier. The amplifier did not engage in egregious and showy muscle-flexing in the low ranges. What it did have was a taut, well-controlled sound that had the same spatial and tonal bloom as the mids and treble. Everything that was on the recordings came through—to the extent the speakers allowed. The deep synth bass in "Honey" and "Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad," from Moby's Play (CD, V2 27049-2), had heft and body but didn't cause the Nova Utopias to rattle the room the way the Plinius SA-102 or Halcro dm58s could.

The Moby tracks are admittedly exceptionally demanding, and the Hovland handled John Taylor's potent but less subterranean bass guitar on Duran Duran's "A View to a Kill," from The Best of James Bond (CD, EMI 798413 2), with real force and fortitude. Bass now kicked or purred where the earlier amp had mumbled. The Radia did not have the utter force in the bass of some solid-state muscle amps, but there was little lacking.

As you might guess, the Hovland's midrange was simply wonderful. It resolved strings with a generous and inviting sound in the blazing Gamba-Ricci-LSO performance of the Bizet-Sarasate Carmen Fantasy (LP, London CS 6165). The solemn drama of Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (Barbirolli, New Philharmonia; CD, EMI 5 67264 2) remained naturally generated by the music, not artificially pumped up by the Hovland. Beth Hirsch's sensuous voice, recorded extremely closely on Air's "All I Need" (CD, Source/Caroline CAR 6644-2), was delectable, and the delicious flirtations of "La Femme d'Argent" were all chiffon, effervescence, and cotton candy, just as they should be.

Richard Sinclair's vocal on Hatfield and the North's "Didn't Matter Anyway," from The Rotter's Club (LP, UK Virgin V2030), was palpable as all get-out as Jimmy Hastings' melancholy flute danced around the guitar, keyboards, and drums. As noted above, the Radia's treble was grainless and open, with outstanding resolution of top-octave detail. Transient response was excellent from top to bottom, and hall details on Elgar's Introduction and Allegro for Strings (from the Vaughan Williams disc) suffused my room with the atmosphere of the venue.

The Radia's treble was particularly smooth and extended. The Nova Utopias have some of the best high-frequency extension and smoothness I've heard, and the Hovland's silky, yes, tubey-sounding treble was a beautiful match with the French showstoppers. There was now no gauzy euphony, only easy and relaxed extension.

Perhaps the Radia's foremost strength was a remarkable clarity and transparency. It was consistently excellent at letting each bit of a musical event happen in its own time and in its own space while remaining solidly knit into a whole presentation. The guitars and bouzouki on Moving Hearts' Hiroshima Nagasaki Russian Roulette (UK LP, WEA K 58387) were as clear and distinct as could be wished for. The Radia's backgrounds were exceptionally quiet, in the same league as the best I've heard, namely the FM Acoustics 611 and the Halcro dm58—mighty fine company. It revealed without fuss or undue emphasis the differences in front-end electronics and cables. The Radia let each cable and line stage exhibit the characteristics I was familiar with, but to a somewhat higher degree than usual.

As for soundstaging, the Radia reflected the recording and the equipment that it was paired with. The Hovland's topnotch detail retrieval contributed to excellent resolution of spatial characteristics. When I paired the Hovland with the Halcro dm10 full-function preamplifier, the huge ambience of the studio in which Henry Mancini recorded Peter Gunn metaphorically popped the back and side walls out of my listening room. The Halcro's unsurpassed quiet showed just how deeply silent the Radia's backgrounds were. The Ricci Carmen Fantasy had all of the breadth and depth I have consistently found on this marvelous LP, and Nick Rhodes' voluptuous synthesizer backdrops in "View to a Kill" were far behind Simon LeBon's front-and-center lead vocal and John Taylor's dominating bass guitar.

Dynamically, the Hovland did not have the ultimate top-to-bottom wallop of the Halcro dm58, but c'mon, you can buy nearly three Radias for the cost of a pair of Halcros. With the Siltech LS-188 Classic speaker cables, the Radia had natural, unforced dynamics on 95% of the music I played through it. Lower- and mid-level dynamics, and particularly the contrasts between instruments playing at almost identical loudnesses, were resolved with great subtlety and sophistication, letting the breath of music flow smoothly and continuously.

Style and substance
Assuming the second sample is representative of current production (footnote 3), the Hovland Radia is much more than its pretty face. It reproduced music with a beautifully cultivated and sophisticated character, and its transparency was exceptional by any standard one might care to apply. While it might not be the first choice of those who demand pile-driving low bass, it had wonderfully balanced performance and a winning presentation.

While I've described the Radia as sounding "tubey," this is not quite accurate. Still, the Radia's sonic characteristics are not unlike those of fine tube amplifiers. This shouldn't be surprising—all of Hovland's other electronics use tubes. What the Radia does is transplant many of the qualities of tubes—dimensionality; rounded, lifelike images; and, when present on the recording, a splendidly natural spaciousness—into a powerful, ultra-quiet solid-state context. Finesse, polish, and refinement are all there to be had in abundance. And that pretty face doesn't hurt its cause one little bit.

Footnote 3: The serial numbers of the first and second samples were 03105103 and 06105803, respectively. Radia owners should look at the serial number of their amplifier and check with their dealer to make sure their amplifier has the later, better-performing internal ground arrangement.—John Atkinson
1545-A Pontius Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90025
(209) 966-4377