Line Magnetic LM-845IA integrated amplifier Page 2

With 1950s and early '60s jazz recordings, there was no need to listen for the bass lines—they were easy to follow and imbued with unexpected presence and weight. Listening to the title track from Herbie Hancock's Maiden Voyage (Blue Note UCGQ-9009), one of engineer Rudy Van Gelder's most significant but technically least effective recordings, I'd never paid so much attention to Ron Carter's melodic, impressionistic playing, his bass sometimes acting as a percussive brake and at other times twining with Hancock's lilting piano lines. And on "Hot Stepper" from Gregory Isaacs's Night Nurse (Island ILPS 9721), the LM-845IA turned the crunching notes from Errol "Flabba" Holt's electric bass into stomach-massaging pulsations, leaving me happily stupefied. The Line Magnetic played this reggae classic with no audible compression, as if daring to be turned up louder.

The Line Magnetic also revealed the extent to which some other amps miniaturize the scale of recordings; it did this by restoring musicians to their correct size and role in the mix. "An Occasional Man" from Anita O'Day and Cal Tjader's Time for 2 (Verve Records UCCV-9292), a silly track performed by a serious jazz singer, opens with Wilfredo "Changuito" Vicente's congas, which I'd always heard as a kind of hollow sound effect in the right channel. The LM-845IA presented Vicente as a life-sized musician; for the first time I could hear his hands on the drumheads. The Line Magnetic did this repeatedly, drawing my attention to the scale and physical force of various sounds and reminding me that flesh-and-blood humans were playing these instruments. With certain recordings, sounds were presented as larger-than–life-size, an effect some listeners find unnatural, but that I found pretty neat.

The most impressive quality of the big Chinese amp was its way with dynamics—repeatedly, instruments and voices startled me with their volume and force. A friend was visiting when I put on "Right Off" from Miles Davis's A Tribute to Jack Johnson (Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab UDSACD 2150), and as we listened to the pounding groove laid down by drummer Billy Cobham and guitarist John McLaughlin, the hairs on my neck were standing up. "It sounds almost live," my friend remarked. The LM-845IA proved revelatory with music requiring the kind of dynamic swings most amplifiers simply can't muster—Stereolab, 2Pac, and Black Sabbath sounded more lifelike than I'd heard them in my loft. But the amp's forceful sound came through just as clearly with recordings of relatively subdued music: Listening to "Road" from Nick Drake's Pink Moon (Simply Vinyl SVLP 172),

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I was transfixed by how hard Drake was hitting the fairly dead nickel strings of his acoustic guitar. And when, on "Sister" from Angel Olsen's My Woman (Jagjaguwar JAG284cd), Olsen sings "I want to die right" and then, as the drums kick in, shouts "next to you"—that moment left me pinned back in my seat, marveling at the power of her voice. These moments weren't remarkable for demonstrating sonic hi-fi tricks but for heightening the emotional impact of the music, which is the purpose of this expensive and sometimes frustrating pastime.

I should add that the Line Magnetic's muscular, vigorous sound was not merely a function of having access to more watts than I was accustomed to. In the past several years, I'd lived with amplifiers that put out between 1.5 and 75 watts, and none of them produced the effortless sense of control and startling dynamic contrasts of the LM-845IA, demonstrating that not all watts are created equal. Halpern told me that this energetic sound is the sonic signature of large transmitter triodes, though I haven't heard enough amps using 845, 212, and 805 tubes to venture an opinion. It soon dawned on me that the Line Magnetic music had found a picture-perfect dance partner in my Valencias; with its 98dB sensitivity and 15" alnico woofers, it was able to take full advantage of the Chinese amp's power rating, 16 ohm transformer taps, and hair-raising way with music. Separated by half a century, the two components nonetheless share the same design priorities and strengths—dynamic freedom, presence, texture, chunk—and worked together as seamlessly as whiskey and bitters.

I also began to notice that the amp-speaker combination was altering my experience of upstream components: I'd sometimes found my Denafrips Terminator DAC a tad polite and dutiful sounding, but with the Line Magnetic, it sounded bolder, bigger, and more forthright. My Ortofon SPU Classic G cartridge sounded similarly invigorated. With some embarrassment, I understood that some of the faults I'd attributed to my source components were in fact due to suboptimal pairings between my amplifier and speakers. It reminded me that the answer to the perennial question of which component is most important to the sound of a hi-fi happens to be not a component but a relationship—between the speakers and the amplifier. I'm beginning to think that they should be thought of not as two components, but one.

Tube Rollng & the DeVore Speakers
As often happens in life, the marriage between the Line Magnetic amp and the Altec Valencias turned out to be not entirely perfect. The cost of the LM-845IA's full-throttle presentation is a somewhat aggressive tone, which made certain tracks sound slightly hard and steely. This was exaggerated by the well-documented tendency of the Altec H-811B horns to ring. The pairing made some sounds—like indifferently recorded saxophones and harmonicas—difficult to enjoy. After some cable swapping, I decided to see if the LM-845IA's bull-in-a-china-shop personality could be civilized with some tube rolling.

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Over time, I replaced its Line Magnetic–branded Chinese tubes with vintage alternatives: the 12AX7s with RCA Commander 5751s (which slightly reduced the amp's high-ish gain, giving the volume control more usable range); the 6P3Ps with GE 6L6GCs; and the 5AR4 with a 1960s Mullard. Each of these substitutions effected small but positive changes, sounding less glassy and tonally richer, with the rectifier making the most audible difference. Finally, I replaced the 845s with "best grade" Linlai 845-DGs ($499/pair), lent to me by Rachel Zhang at Grant Fidelity. These beautifully made tubes are larger than standard 845s and rendered the tube cage unusable, but I kept them in anyway. To my surprise, after 200 hours of use, this change resulted in a far greater sonic improvement than swapping the smaller tubes, turning the LM-845IA into a significantly more delicate and insightful component. At times, it reminded me of SET amplifiers that use the 300B tube, playing music with more tonal and textural finesse and precision, even more psychedelic airiness—and less hardness and harshness.

One Friday afternoon in early spring, speaker designer John DeVore stopped by with two large boxes. I wanted to hear the Line Magnetic with current-production speakers that would still play loudly in my loft, with its 1200-square-foot floor space and 15.5'-high ceilings. With their claimed 96dB sensitivity (footnote 1), usefully high 10 ohm impedance, and impressive dynamic abilities, his DeVore Fidelity Orangutan O/96s seemed ideal.

After John set them up on their matching wooden stands, we sat down to listen. With the O/96s connected to the 16 ohm taps, I'm happy to report that the hi-fi still sounded fierce and big, but the Orangutans sounded sweeter and less colored than the Valencias, imaged with more precision, and did away with the last traces of hardness (confirming my suspicion that the Altecs were contributing to it). For the next few days, I listened to this terrific combination, admiring the O/96s' balanced and beautifully detailed way with the music. In the end, I found myself missing the Altecs' unrestrained dynamics, startling presence, and saturated tone colors, which made the more accurate and "correct" Orangutans sound a bit domesticated and polite in comparison.

Conclusion
Despite the Line Magnetic's scary-high voltages and intense heat, in the months it spent in my home it performed faultlessly, without stutters, burps, or parts failures. It brought a new dimension to my musical enjoyment, revealing the physicality and force in every recording I played through it, from Monteverdi to Merle Haggard, an experience that provided addictive amounts of fun. $4895 is hardly a modest sum, but using nearly any sensible metric of value, the Line Magnetic is a stone bargain. If Rubens had lived in the hi-fi age, I imagine that he would have appreciated its way of making music pulse with vigor and vitality. Unless you listen to little except baroque trio sonatas, and maybe even then, you should find a way to hear one. It's that good.


Footnote 1: JA measured 91dB(B)/2.83V/m, while DeVore Fidelity specifies sensitivity in units of watts not volts; the two measures are numerically the same only with an 8 ohm load. See JA's measurements here and John DeVore's Manufacturers' Comment here.
COMPANY INFO
Line Magnetic Audio Co. Ltd.
US distributor: Tone Imports
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
Anton's picture

I walk around in the summertime saying "How about this heat!"

That is some hot hot heat on that amplifier. I think the required AC support noise would mask some of the sonic benefits of the amp.

Everything else you wrote about it sounds like it would be perfect...even the price! I half expected it to be some 33,900 dollar audio-decoration room heater, but that price for that amount of kit seems not crazy! It's a good spot where a person of normal means could save up and get one.

Thank you for a really great review. The review gave me a tactile feeling about this amplifier.

I wonder if you could put those AGD Productions tubes into those sockets and get a cooler running amp.

(No need to explain the joke, friends.)

JHL's picture

*This* is reviewing; audio for the senses and for the beauty.

philipjohnwright's picture

Lovely lovely writing. And having had an 845IA at home for an extended period I recognise and second the impressions conveyed. I just wasn't daft enough to burn myself :-)

Archguy's picture

Agree with the other commenters: this is one of the more pleasurable reads in memory here.

Thanks to Alex also for the Rubens references. Though he's not one of my favorite painters, it's gratifying even to see him mentioned, in these apparently waning days of Western Civilization.

This latest 'best-ever' amplifier sounds tempting indeed--for the two or three months of the year that are not blistering hot where I live. Line Magnetic appears to have married good sound to good aesthetics which is no mean feat--judging from many pieces in the marketplace.

Gratifying also to have it reviewed in a decent space rather than a tiny, overcrowded apartment bedroom. Not mentioning any names of course. But good apparatus fairly demands good space and acoustics. Otherwise I'm not entirely sure what the point is. Salut

Metalhead's picture

Great review and enjoyed your writing, whoever the hell you are? Of course your preaching to the choir here as I fell deep and hard for tubes in the go-go 80's. Couldn't afford tube gear until the 90's but it was worth saving for.

I was lucky enough to hear the big Line Magnetic at Pitchperfect audio when Matt was in LA. Probably the predecessor to this model? 28 watts or so of SET and it was captivating and enthralling through those DeVore speakers he had. I bought a Leben 28 pre that has been a rock solid and wonderful preamp.

In any event I really enjoyed your review and you are going to make Herb earn his keep as the tube pantheon review King. Love me my Fremer but he can keep that solid state big overblown stuff. GIVE ME TUBES!!!!!!

Ortofan's picture

... Willsenton R-800i-300B-845?
Perhaps HR can evaluate it?

https://www.china-hifi-audio.com/en/willsenton-tube-amplifier-c-77/willsenton-r-800i-300b-845-single-end-class-a-tube-integrated-amplifier-balanced-p-2277

Thermionic's picture

845 or 211, SE or PP, would have been wonderful to have tried with your old speakers, Spica Angelus. I caught your review of them on Listener a long time ago, which I do appreciate. I still have mine, although I have JBL monitors, De Capo-i’s, LS50, Proac, and LS3/5a, The Spica’s, as you know, sound heavenly on 300B SE, but I have tried them with 845s and 211’s, which also give a different type of umami filigree (to borrow/paraphrase Herb). Great writing btw.

Jack L's picture

Hi

Yes, 300B is the best sounding power tube I ever audition. It did indeed sound "heavenly" in the Audio Note Japan 'Kegon' power amp (USD125,000).

I also audition the later Audio Note Japan single-ended class A power
monblocks using 211s. Yes, more power but sonically could still not touch 300B.

300B sounds like a Cinderella spinning ballet on her dancing shoes ! So lovely.

Jack L

Jack L's picture

.......... vintage alternatives:" quoted Alex H.

Yes, replacing the made-in-China tubes is the must thing to do for any made-in-china amps, respectively of pricing.

That's explain I never like the sound of any made-in-China amps due to the made-in-China tubes used.

IMO, $5,000 an amp from China is not cheap at all given made-in-China tubes used therein.

I had the chance of auditioning a made-in-China power amp using the DIYer-beloved 2A3 tubes using similar design topology like the LM-8451A, using a power triode to drive the 2A3. Of course, only 5W output power per channel.

It was given to me for replacing all the crappie coupling & HV bypassing capacitors therin with high current made-in-USA metallized polypropylene film caps, same as those I used in my KEF bi-wired X-over networks.

After a whole month audition after upgrading the caps, I was still not impressed, obviously due to the made-in-china tubes.

No free lunch, guys. Money talks.

Listening is believing

Jack L

shawnwes's picture

Such excellent value in these days of $10k integrateds. Alas my back health won out and I picked up something I could actually move w/o going to see my chiropractor!

Jack L's picture

HI

I wish you were a smart audio DIYer like yours truly who builds tube amps like a piece of cake.

Good sounding amps do not NEED to be backwrecking heavy.

The 6-all-triode stereo power amp (single-ended class A) I design/built SMARTLY many years back mainly for my vinyl music, delivering only 5W+5Wrms, weighs only some 10 lbs !!!!!!!!

Supplemented by 3 active subwoofers (L, R, & L+R), this home-brew Little David rocks my 700sq-ft basement sound den with realistic cathedral pipe organ music, no sweat !!!!

Listening is believing

Jack L

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