Listening #25 Page 2

The F1's power supply is nothing if not simple—and elegant. Apart from its Plitron toroidal power trannie, it's virtually all dual-mono, with separate rectifier bridges and a quartet of sane, nontesticular reservoir caps for each channel. A few supporting bits aside, that's just about all there is to it.

The F1 amplifier as a whole is built logically and well, but it isn't overwrought. Each channel has a single, slender, audio-section printed circuit board, with five P-type MOSFETs fastened to the adjacent heatsink extrusions—which themselves comprise the two sides of the chassis. The F1's differential-pair gain circuit lends itself to balanced operation, of course, and XLR inputs are provided alongside the usual single-ended phono jacks. Nelson Pass says that balanced operation gives slightly better performance.

Try this at home
It's time once again to sneak out from behind the bushes and scare you with the L-word.

I forget if I've mentioned this already, but my Lowther PM2A drivers sound unusually fine lately, arguably because I took them apart a couple of months ago, cleaned them, and realigned their coils and formers during reassembly. (A PM2A's air gap is only 1mm, and the speaker's heavy alnico magnet tends to pull its frame out of alignment over time—hence the need for regular maintenance in order to prevent the voice-coil from binding.) I continue to back-load my Lowthers in Medallion horns, which I built and subsequently modified in order to decrease the volume of air behind the driver, hopefully increasing pressure at the throat of the horn. I think that makes the Medallions a better match for the unusually high-flux PM2As (they were originally designed around the Lowther PM6A, which has a smaller magnet), but who really knows?

Theoretically, my speakers are an ideal load for the First Watt F1. The 15-ohm drivers are efficient, and they're electrically sensitive, too, with an unloaded rating of over 97dB/W/m. That's owing to a number of things: their powerful magnets (2.1 Tesla), the low mass of their parchment-like paper cones and formers, and the aforementioned teensy-weensy air gap. Back-loading helps, too: The free-air resonance of a 6" Lowther driver is 36Hz, and even a smallish horn like the Medallion keeps the system close to that number, with none of the sharp dips or peaks one might see in a ported box.

And remember, this is a single full-range driver: a bass cone and a treble cone, both propelled by the same voice-coil. (Actually, the highest frequencies seem to emanate from the inner edge of the cone, closest to the voice-coil, and not from the edge of the notorious whizzer itself.) Electrically, there's nothing either in series or parallel with the amplifier's output section except that coil: Not a single passive filter in sight.

That's how it looks on paper; in the real world, the match was excellent, if not entirely perfect.

I've owned five different single-ended tube amps over the years—not counting my 1956 Fender Harvard, 1965 Fender Vibro-Champ, and a few weird table radios—and my experience has led me to expect a number of strengths from the breed: An almost scary sense of presence on voices and solo instruments. Superb immediacy in terms of musical nuance. Equally superb drama, with the greatest dynamic contrasts available in home playback when mated to the right speakers. At least good to very good performance in terms of getting the notes and the beats right. A sense of flow and momentum in musical lines that is second to none. And an uncannily natural way with textures and colors—that beguilingly beautiful, gooshy feel that makes it easy to forget you're listening to electricity imitate people playing music.

I'll get the only notable negative out of the way first: In combination with my Lowther-Medallion speakers, the First Watt F1 didn't have that last quality in nearly the same measure as, say, a good 300B amp. My friend Herb Reichert, who has built his share of lovely-sounding things, describes it as a single-ended tube amp's sense of flesh and blood—and that's what the F1 was missing. It didn't sound at all gray or threadbare, but it just wasn't as fleshy or bloody as I might have liked.

In virtually every other way, the F1 was silly good—one of those products where, during the first couple of minutes of playing time, I laughed out loud to the empty room. I didn't expect it to be that musical, that much fun to listen to.

First off, I would never in a million years be able to tell if the F1 used tubes or transistors if I didn't know already. I heard neither the slow bloat of one nor the icy crunch of the other, at their respective worsts: Just music, played well, in a framework of good sound.

The F1's ability to convey musical nuance-playing technique, I mean, as opposed to violin bows hitting music stands or other such irrelevancies—was the quality I came to enjoy the most, and which electrified my listening enjoyment with every record I tried. A friend recently gave me an, shall we say, unauthorized recording made at a bluegrass festival in Roanoke, Virginia, in 1966: the great Bill Monroe, leading an informal mandolin workshop in front of a small audience, with only rhythm-guitar accompaniment by the then-newest member of the Bluegrass Boys, a very young Peter Rowan (footnote 1). Different amplifiers—even very good, music-playing amplifiers—all tend to emphasize certain things, to bring different qualities out of the same recording, and the F1 brought the subtleties of Monroe's right-hand technique way to the fore, in a manner that other amps I've heard recently do not. This was especially interesting because, at the beginning of this recording, Monroe is obviously a bit uncomfortable with the setting. But my F1-powered Lowthers made it obvious that his playing technique altered, and generally improved, over the course of the workshop. I dare say the system let me hear how his grip on the plectrum loosened up over time.

On every sort of record, in fact, the F1 got right to the heart of the matter, and while sonics were fine—imaging precision, depth, freedom from coloration, and all those good things were above average—the First Watt amp was clearly more interested in the music than in the sound. In that sense, it made everything sound like mono—except it was in stereo. If you see what I mean.

My Lowthers fairly basked in the luxury of 10 whopping watts: no strain, no clipping, no errors. But there were a couple of times when the bass, such as it was, went woooom when it shouldn't have—such as the quiet but nonetheless deep orchestral drum strokes in the final movement of Elgar's Symphony 2, with Sir Adrian Boult and the London Philharmonic (LP, EMI ASD3266). What's there to say? If an amp isn't the kind that excels at controlling woofer cones—and this one isn't—then it's no surprise that controlling a big column of air over a certain range of frequencies will also be just over its head. In any event, the effect was not at all unpleasant, for all its infidelity—an observation that may or may not make me A Bad Person in the eyes of some. Like I care.

Some hackneyed car metaphors
On a related matter, here are a few words for anyone who's tempted to think the F1 "sucks" because it doesn't sound good with most speakers: That's like saying a rear-engine Porsche "sucks" because you can't let up on the accelerator when negotiating tight curves at fast speed. If you ignore that axiom in a 911, you will probably lose control of the vehicle and quite possibly die. But that doesn't mean the Porsche is a bad car. It just means you're an idiot.

If one were to draw an even better parallel between audio engineering and the world of automobiles, the First Watt F1 would be like the first off-road vehicle: It's not at all suited to most thoroughfares, but it makes everyone stop and rethink their notions of motorized travel—and it can take you places most people have never seen before.

There are three other things you should know about the First Watt F1:

1) It's as quiet as a tranquilized mouse. The only other amp I've tried that's this free from hum and other noise is the very good but very different Linn Klimax Twin, with its switch-mode power supply and transistor-caressing casework. The F1 has neither of those niceties, yet doesn't make one iota of noise, even through very sensitive speakers. Whoa!

2) The First Watt F1 retails for $2000. That's actually quite cheap for all the cutting-edge design work, not to mention music, it offers. But you have to keep in mind that

3) Nelson Pass will make a total of only 100 F1s for sale to the public: Then he's going to move on to another design. That may or may not have its own parallel with the Hindu Love Gods themselves, who made only one album and never toured: Some things are done simply to tinker and to learn and to blow a little dust off the status quo. No sense getting too comfortable.

My definition of an artist is someone who reworks the commonplace in an effort to make his audience think and consider it anew. An artist is a manipulator of contexts—from the composer who uses a series of falling fourths to suggest some or another program (Wagner comes to mind) to Warhol making us notice soup cans as something other than a commodity. In this sense, I have no hesitation suggesting that Nelson Pass is himself a sort of audio artist—a distinction even in a hobby already blessed with a great many superb craftsmen. Like his newest amp, Nelson is in a class of one.

Footnote 1: While introducing the song "Walls of Time," which he cowrote with the Boston-born Rowan, Monroe jokes that he's "trying to make this Yankee into a Rebel." The stony silence that follows is the loudest thing on the disc.