Listening #188: ASR Emitter II Exclusive Page 2

We began by listening to the DeVore O/93s. I was immediately struck by an increase in top-end sparkle and air, compared to when the speakers were driven by my Shindo Laboratory preamp and power amp. Perhaps for that reason, the ASR made my system sound bigger with some recordings—this was not consistent across all of the listening I did with the ASR-DeVore combination, but never did that combination sound smaller than when I used the Shindos. Also with the DeVores, the ASR didn't squeeze out the same degree of timbral-color saturation as the Shindos, from any recording. But the ASR never sounded colorless or gray; indeed, after only an hour of warm-up, this transistor amp provided a very good sense of flesh and blood: Instruments and singers seemed enthused with life.

Notably, with such numbers as "Lorraine," from Ornette Coleman's Tomorrow Is the Question! (LP, Contemporary S7569), and "Shot from Guns," from Country Cooking's 14 Bluegrass Instrumentals (LP, Rounder 006), the ASR was no less capable than my Shindos of sounding spontaneous—even raucous—when called for. The Emitter II didn't filter out the music's rough edges; with improvised music in particular, it left intact all the edge-of-the-seat randomness. And as for communicating the music's sense of touch, the differences between the Shindos and the ASR presented a Roshomon-like narrative comprising different versions of the same stories. Through the tubed Shindos, Tony Trischka's banjo picking on the Country Cooking LP leapt more to the fore. Yet the solid-state ASR gave a better account of the force behind Shelly Manne's floor-tom and bass-drum strokes on the Coleman album—likewise the force behind drummer Billy Higgins's brief solo flourishes in "Angel Voice," from Coleman's Something Else!!!! (LP, Contemporary S7551).


Both the Shindos and the ASR had the ability to bring the DeVore O/93s to life—to make the music sound awake and immediate and convincing, albeit in slightly different-sounding ways. That said, the Shindo preamp and amp did a better job of getting across the sweep of orchestral music, and of communicating not only the sizes of orchestras, but a sort of humanness in the ensemble playing that's hard to describe, but that kept me hanging on tighter to every note. This was notable while listening to the famously good-sounding recording of Falla's The Three-Cornered Hat by Ernest Ansermet and the Swiss Romande Orchestra (LP, London CS 6224). With the ASR steering the DeVores through those sinuous melodies, the music was still effective and enjoyable: the positions of solo singers were clearer, and the castanets and xylophone seemed to come from farther back on a deeper stage. Nonetheless, I found this performance more involving with the Shindos.

Switching speakers
The time came to swap out the DeVores for my well-worn Quad ESLs, which had been charging up for a few days while tucked away in the corners of my room. I'd heard anecdotal reports of other Quad lovers—Chesky Records' David Chesky among them—getting good results with ASR amplification, so the pairing seemed a must. But because my Shindo Haut-Brion amplifier is not a good partner for the Quad—it lacks the global feedback necessary for a tube amplifier to accommodate the ESL's wide-ranging impedance curve (3–33 ohms) and overall capacitive nature—direct comparisons weren't practical.

In general, with the ASR driving them, I heard the snappiest bass I've ever heard from my ESLs. More than that, there was flesh and blood. There was momentum. And there was, in abundance, that hear-around thing: the combined forces of good old-fashioned clarity, and an absence of the electronic gunk that too often fills the spaces between the notes where nothing ought to be.

Surprisingly, the touch and impact I'd heard with the ASR-DeVore combination was little diminished through the ESLs, and very satisfying. Granted, this was in a small room, with the speakers and furniture positioned for nearfield listening (I sat about 7' from the center of each Quad), and the DeVores are capable of sounding much more forceful with recordings that suffer less compression, and of doing so in a larger space and for a larger audience. Yet when I played "Narrow Escape," from Ray LaMontagne's Trouble (LP, Sony Legacy 86697 39844 1)—a pop recording with an absolutely amazing drum sound—I didn't find the reproduction at all lacking.

That snare drum, which seems to have been miked somewhat distantly, had its snares engaged, but loosely—a sound we've probably all heard live a hundred times. But this recording captures that sound with Polaroid-caliber awkward truthfulness, and the ASR made that enjoyably clear. On every one of the occasional passing beats when the drummer struck or rolled one of his sticks on the floor-tom head, the sound was breathtakingly deep, touch-y, and surprisingly uncompressed. And this from Quads.


All of the above was with the Sentec phono preamp connected to the ASR's Direct input—which I followed up by using my lingering review loaner of the HoloAudio Spring "Kitsuné Tuned Edition" Level 3 DAC into the same inputs. (According to the ASR's operating manual, because the Direct inputs bypass the source-selector switch, the user should connect his or her sources either to inputs 1–6 or to D—but never to both, as that might result in the amplification of signals from two sources at one time, which will sound awful and perhaps even do a bit of damage.) Through this combination—new HoloAudio, new ASR, and 61-year-old Quads—an AIFF file of Hot Rize performing the late Hazel Dickens's "Won't You Come and Sing for Me," from the band's So Long of a Journey (CD, Sugar Hill SUG-CD-3943), was musically and sonically stunning. Spatially, the voices were believably arrayed—in the choruses, it was easy to picture lead singer Tim O'Brien and harmony singers Pete Wernick, Nick Forster, and the late Charles Sawtelle all closing in on the single omni vocal mike. And when Wernick's banjo solo rang out from stage right, the effect was electrifying. It's one of the nicest examples I've heard of stereo trickery serving rather than distracting from the musical message. And this from Quads.

Julie Miller's "Ellis County," from her and Buddy Miller's Written in Chalk (AIFF from CD, New West NW6158), also has well-recorded drums, including a great moment at the beginning when the drummer tightens his snares just a little bit late for the first stroke, then gets a hair-raising whap out of the next. The ASR-Quad combo made that moment sing with believable tone and, again, a surprising amount of force. The piano, acoustic guitar, and harmonium in this track were sweetly colorful and richly textured, and the Millers' voices sounded altogether more real than I'd ever heard them: there was a sense of the singers' physicality behind every note. The performance was so effective that, at one point in the song, when the Millers sing a certain line, I found myself crying.

Around that time, my wife, Janet, came in and sat down on the couch to listen. A minute or so into "So Real," from Jeff Buckley's Grace, she said, "I have to tell you, this really sounds fantastic." I replied that, if God ordered me to have no other speakers but Quad ESLs for the rest of my life, I'd buy a smaller, one-box version of the Emitter II in a heartbeat. If such a thing existed.

Conclusions & Techno-Psychological Analysis
Weeks passed. The sound of the ASR-Quad combination further ingratiated itself, aided by what seemed an opening up of the sound in the treble range: no doubt the amp was still running in. One of the last pages of notes I took on the ASR preserves this observation, made one Saturday morning: This just gets better and better.

Pressed to sum up the Emitter II Exclusive in a sentence or two, I'd call it a very complex product that somehow manages to sound very simple. I mean that in the best possible way. The ASR's sound was open, clear, and as inviting as an oasis, while sounding meaty, colorful, and never dry or harsh.

During my time with the Emitter II Exclusive, I tried comparing the sound of its Direct input with the sound of input 4, and input 4 with the sound of input 2. The differences were so tiny that I felt silly for wasting my time on sound instead of focusing on the music. (Still: Through the Direct input, voices and instruments seemed to step forward an inch or two, as those sounds seem to do when a component is switched from inverted to correct signal polarity.) For the same reason, I stayed with ASR's factory-default input impedance (22k ohms)—not to mention the factory-default volume setting at which the amp switches automatically from energy-saving mode to full-power mode, the factory-default setting for a high-frequency compensation circuit that increases amplifier stability into difficult loads, and the factory-default display-brightness setting. Nor did I play around with the remote, buttons on which allow the user to set all inputs so that no source is louder or quieter than the rest, and to adjust channel balance, and so forth.

In terms of user functions, there's even more that the ASR can do: page after page of more. As my colleagues know I'm fond of saying, this is a review, not an owner's manual, and the only people who want or need the latter are those who already have the product in front of them. Suffice it to say, the Emitter II Exclusive is more than just a great-sounding, distinctly musical-sounding amp—it's a well-thought-out product with a massive amount of documentation.

There's just so much one can say in 4000 words. Still, something about this very distinctive amplifier brought out the techno-psychologist in me. The ASR amp strikes me as the product of someone who has, throughout his life, given a great deal of thought to the playback of recorded music, and has consequently developed for himself an intense approach to listening. This person is thorough, detail-oriented, and probably punctual. As a child, he no doubt spent a lot of time listening to records with friends and/or members of his extended family, and paid close attention to their listening styles as well as to the details of their playback gear. His passion for music was probably nourished by borrowing records from his fellow listeners, and he was surely generous in lending out his own records.

These qualities are apparent because this product is both unapproachable—it is very big, very heavy, very expensive, and perhaps not easy to find in most parts of the world—yet uniquely attractive, and loaded with features designed to accommodate. The operating manual supplied with the Emitter II Exclusive follows the same pattern: It is long (24 pages without a lot of blank space between the paragraphs) and very, very dense. Yet, like almost every facet of the amp itself, its every page shouts I've made this just for you and I really hope you'll like it.

I did.

I wasn't kidding when I said I'd probably buy this amp if I had the money and the room—special emphasis on the latter, seeing as how big houses are even more expensive than big amplifiers. And this amp requires a lot of space. It didn't run at all hot, and none of its four boxes made even a mouse's sigh of noise. But you'll want access to its rear panel, for plugging and unplugging different sources as needed. You'll also want to unplug those power supplies from time to time—during thunderstorms, or when you have to clean them—and all those umbilicals are heavy and inflexible, the power cords almost as much so. These are not products that can be squeezed into a rack of modest size, with their rear panels a couple of inches from the wall behind them. They need room.

The ASR Emitter II Exclusive is unlike any other audio product of my experience—and I've experienced a lot. I can't recall a single other product designed and built with so much love—not for everyone, but for the relatively few listeners at whom it is aimed. It's like the lover whom not everyone finds attractive, or compelling, or companionable—yet in the heart of that lover's intended, no one else will do.


Anton's picture

I think I align with you, as I get older, I want less fuss and boxes. Seems like a lovely sounding thing, however.

You are likely too young to recall, but my all time award for best use of LEDs with a smokey semitransparent cover goes to Superphon's Revelation II in the Space Case. Side note: available with either two mono volume knobs or a separate volume and balance knob. I liked both, perhaps the two volume knob version was a 'scoootch' better.

Maybe even a distant family resemblance between the Superphon and the Emitter.


Ortofan's picture

... scoot over to chez Dudley with an evaluation sample of the McIntosh MA252 integrated amp.

Anton's picture

Nice one.

I bet Art would get its measure.

It's pretty, too!

Jim Smith's picture

I've had my ASR Emitter II Exclusive for several years, using it with my modified Tannoy Canterburys. I've not heard a preamp/amp combo or integrated that can beat its musically immersive & engaging qualities. Haven't heard Art's Shindo gear, though.

The amp is easy to tweak slightly, if one cares to do so. For instance, in my system, simply getting the left & right power supplies as far from the amp was worthwhile (they have long umbilical cords from the supply to the amp)...

There's more, but Art covered the main event very well indeed.

CG's picture

Great observation!

That suggests that various power supply created artifacts (noise and the like) induced into the audio circuitry affects the perceived sound.

I'm sure that ASR products are not alone in this.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Yes, it is possible ......... Search for "dirty electricity" on Google :-) ............

Till's picture

Thank you, Art, for the wonderful write-up on the ASR Emitter II Exclusive. As you, I have been moved to tears by the music played through the Emitter.

I have been collecting high-end audio equipment for the past 30 years and since 1997 I own ASR Emitters; first the Emitter 1 HD with battery supply, now, in addition, the model you have reviewed here. I have heard these amps on numerous speakers, e.g. BW 801D, Jamo Oriel, Focal Diva Utopia Be, Usher BE-10 DMD, Martin Logan Summit, T+A TCI 2E. I was also able to compare them to various other amps from big players: Burmester, MBL, Accuphase, Gryphon, Goldmund, McIntosh, Devialet, Krell, Mark Levinson, Musical Fidelity and fine tube gear from Air Tight. Both in integrated and in separates versions. I can honestly say that none has surpassed the Emitter in my personal assessment, even if the price was higher.

In addition, I do not know of any manufacturer that offers such an enormous range of customisation options both technically and cosmetically. Yes, Devialet and McIntosh offer as much (or in certain cases more, as with Devialet’s phono input and SAM,) technical adaptability, but none offers in addition the cosmetic configurations or feature configurations down to being able to specify which op-amp is used and what kind of speaker posts are mounted and how the knobs are finished. In fact, basically every Exclusive model lives up to its name and is hand-built by a crew of dedicated craftsmen in Germany under direct supervision of the company founder and chief engineer. All of this is topped up with sterling customer service and the possibility to upgrade models for at least ten years to the latest standard as technology keeps evolving.

At the same time the industrial design has hardly seen a change and instead become an icon of amplifier design. The Emitters are as unique and recognisable as a Blue Period Picasso. After all, in this price range and with gear this big, a nice look is almost a necessity.

Everyday use is flawless. It is a joy to behold the lights and fiddle with the knobs that feel like the wheel of a Swiss bank vault. But, for me, the most important thing is the sound. None of the other amps I tried and heard had this particular combination: Neutral yet warm, fast yet gentle, detailed yet wholesome, accurate yet very musically involving.

In the past 30 years, as you can tell, no other component has given me such pride of ownership. With my 2016 Exclusive II I am well set for the next 20 years and I am certain to buy another one then, while keeping my first two operational and moving them to other systems. it may be a bit more hassle to get a hold of one of these precious machines but it is well worth the effort.

John Toste's picture

Nice review, Art.

Back around 2007 or so, I had the opportunity to spend quality time with the ASR Emitter II. Despite not being as "juicy" as some tube amps, it remains one of the very best amps I've ever heard. (I still use an ASR phono stage.)

Till's picture

That's right. I got two separate ASR phono stages, too. Absolutely excellent! I believe Michael Fremer has very positively reviewed the Exclusive Version with two separately configurable inputs and battery power supply.

I think it is not said too much when one calls Friedrich Schaefer the Nelson Pass or Joe D'Appolito of Germany. There are very few amplifier designers/engineers of this level worldwide.

PhillyCheese's picture

I've owned this amp since 2014, and if I had to sum it up in one word, it is idiosyncratic. In both good and frustrating ways, I think Art hits on some of its' descriptions very well. Since versions of this amp have been around since the 80's, it is easy to trace the history and its slow evolution.

I don't have a lot of experience with the number of amps or speakers Art has, but it is true that both of these components share a symbiotic relationship. From my time with this amp, I can share a few things I've found: Unlike Art, I found the differences between the Direct line input and any other input to be vastly better. For this reason, I consider this amp to be single source. If I switch between vinyl and CD, it is a physical process of disconnecting the cables from one to the other. It IS worth the effort!

The manual is confusing because the translation from German to English is not fluid. I'm sure this thing is capable of more, but I can't always decipher it or call someone for help (another point Art made: it is hard to find and good luck with locating a dealer that knows anything about it that can guide you). This has hit home with me when a year ago several lights came on in the front, which I am sure are indicating something. Both the remote and manual offered little help in getting the lights to go away. Hope they aren't important. When the battery supply gets too low, weird things begin happening, like the inputs start switching on their own making the music go back and forth between glorious and blah. The Direct no longer is Direct but Input 5, even though the lights indicate it is Direct. The amp is susceptible to weirdness when the heat sinks suddenly pop and crack at random intervals and scare you with low level music (I thought this was just breaking in, but it still happens). Power outages, even brief, throw this thing into fits. And Art discussed the vast space and electrical needs this thing does require that makes logistics a challenge (I've found that Shunyata high current power chords on ALL these boxes is a huge improvement)

But despite these flaws, there is something special about this amp in the way music projects into the room. It is unlike anything I've heard before and the reason I put up with some of its drawbacks. From the factory, you can customize many different things and mine is biased to stay in Class A for the first 30 watts. Friedrich can add or subtract many different features before it gets to you. Whatever the reason some of these matter, the amp is a marvel. It is perplexing, complicated, yet gloriously musical. And, as Art said, in the dark, all the lights are really cool---even the ones I know shouldn't be on.

Awsmone0's picture

Dear Art

I read yours and Michaels review and bought one

It’s staggeringly musical and powerful yet delicate, for an SS amplifier to also does timbre very well, and separates instruments such as woodwind surprisingly well
It’s soundstage sweep and depth is wonderful
I haven’t found a better sounding SS amplifier anywhere near the money
I have had no operational issues, and yes it’s a complicated device, but very configurable in way such as input impedance etc, and the lights help you work out things like pulling a power plug out
The photos do given you the scale of the thing which is actually huge and heavy despite the acrylic, and more like an amplifier octopus than a conventional amplifier

Everything about it is gigantic and looks more like it was designed to land on Mars than your living room

It has become the centre of my elaborate Hifi system, and I have digested a lot of its functionality in the manual and used these function

Yet I find it easy to use and read from my sitting position

It also is very good at shutting down should something untoward happen and a reset and it’s all good to go

If you have the space, and I mean a lot of space then you won’t be disappointed I suspect, but don’t let the batteries run flat :)