Mesa Tigris integrated amplifier Page 2

Randall Smith's sonic triumph is that he has designed an integrated amplifier that addresses head on the notion of what truly constitutes the live music experience and what represents quality music reproduction. That's because, while the Mesa Tigris certainly isn't colored, it ain't exactly neutral either. The Tigris has a definite point of view—several, in fact. It's a veritable tone machine that allows listeners the flexibility to have it their way—that is, to determine for themselves what constitutes the ideal sonic perspective and tonal balance.

It offers listeners an aural parfait of tonal possibilities, each one vividly musical, dynamically involving, and sonically distinctive. If full pentode operation with progressive increments of negative feedback can be said to represent the vast scale and power of the modern world, the euphonic smoothness of two-thirds-triode/one-third-pentode offers a telling reminder of the High End's lost innocence, suggesting something of the midrange bloom one might associate with single-ended triode. Somewhere in between, bestriding these aural epochs with stunning musicality, the Tigris' two-thirds-pentode/one-third-triode configuration offers the best of both worlds: a lovely balance of dynamics and sweetness, resolution and transparency, clarity and tone.

Obviously, full pentode operation is louder and more dynamic, offering a bigger, more forward soundstage, punchy bass, crisply detailed highs, and a nice open midrange, with a pronounced emphasis in the presence region that is fatiguing on bright loudspeakers. However, this was a good match for the power-hungry Joseph RM22si. With its aluminum woofer and silk-dome tweeter, the Joseph speaker has a very clear, open midrange and an exceptionally smooth top end. Full pentode really brought their soundstage alive, liftin' deh bass out' duh box for an appealing fullness, a realistic dynamic range, and a natural tonal balance.

By contrast, when I switched to the more efficient Celestion A3 (with its titanium tweeter) while auditioning "The Mooche" from Rendezvous (Stereophile STPH013-2), full pentode proved altogether too bright—downright jarring, in fact. Dialing in Stage I feedback smoothed out the highs considerably, and by increasing the gain I was able to draw Jerome Harris' subtle, understated acoustic bass guitar a little more forward in the mix—but with an associated loss of air and transparency.

Switching to two-thirds-triode/one-third-pentode, I was able to soften and sweeten the top end; soundstaging became more laid-back, with a smoother, flatter, more natural transition from the upper bass to the lower midrange, which took on a bloomy, creamy character. This is not to say it lacked definition or distinction, but there was a soft, euphonic quality from the presence region up through to the top end that was particularly noticeable on Art Baron's trombone. It was as if I'd moved back a few rows—the leading edges of the brass transients were slightly muted by the apparent increased distance from the stage.

By contrast, two-thirds-pentode/one-third-triode proved the most natural and satisfying with this, and with most well-recorded acoustic source materials. A slight emphasis in the presence region of the midrange conferred more sweetness and detailing on the overall presentation; Harris' bass sounded chewier and more forward-defined, more distinct. There was a greater sense of overall resolution, and the soundstaging was both deeper and more transparent, with a more crystalline triode quality up top and pentode control down below. This was particularly apparent in the portrayal of Steve Nelson's vibraphones: slightly forward, left of center, protruding out beyond the speaker at 45°. And in Billy Drummond's drum feature on "Followthrough," the dynamic impact and tonal dimension of his drums, as well as their sense of place in an acoustic space, were dead on.

On Ralph Towner and Gary Peacock's vividly recorded performance of "Postcard to Salta" from A Closer View (ECM 1602), the main strengths of my favored two-thirds-pentode/one-third-triode mode shone through: phenomenal bass resolution and detail; a palpable sense of physicality to the dynamics; stable, well-defined imaging; a sweet, warm midrange; sparkling, open highs; and realistic soundstaging and a good depiction of low-level information, such as the reverb trails when Towner slaps the top of his guitar like a Spanish dancer.

On Nature's Realm, Kavi Alexander's beautiful new Blumlein-miked, analog recording of Wolfgang Sawallisch and the Philadelphia Orchestra (Water Lily Acoustics WLA-WS-66-CD), the sense of venue on Dvor;aak's title composition was excellent, as was the Tigris' depiction of such inner details as a delicate triangle roll buried in the strings. Soundstaging and tonal balance were quite good, though not comparable to the endless holographic depth and lush harmonic complexity (mainly in the strings) that a really beefy all-triode amp, such as the 100W VTL MB-85 monos, might confer in tandem with an equally classy and expensive preamp. But the orchestral swells were conveyed with stunning realism, and, on Stanislaw Skrowaczewski and the Minnesota Orchestra's resounding rendition of Bruckner's Symphony 9 (Reference Recordings RR-81CD), the Tigris' portrayal of the deep, hymnlike massed brass was deeply involving.

The Tigris' ability to morph its personality gave it the versatility to put the best face on my source material. Configuring the amp in full pentode with a full 12dB of Stage III feedback enabled me to enjoy the savage low end and throbbing physical immediacy of Sly & Robbie's hip-hop/reggae assault, Silent Assassin (Island 91277-2), at lose-your-lease volume levels. At the same time, it depicted all manner of percussive panning with crisp detail, while fleshing out and centering the vocal image with the clarity of a high-powered transistor amp.

On the other end of the spectrum, it was fun to drive certain recordings even louder in two-thirds triode than in two-thirds pentode—the onset of clip was much more gradual, which afforded a really cool, larger-than-life sonic perspective. But generally, two-thirds triode was a lifesaver on large-gestured, ass-kicking older recordings that were mastered fairly hot and a touch on the bright side.

Two of my all-time favorite big-band/vocal recitals with charts by Quincy Jones were recorded in the late 1950s and early '60s: Dinah Washington's The Swingin' Miss "D" (EmArcy 314 558 074-2), and Sinatra at The Sands: with Count Basie and His Orchestra (Reprise 46947-2). In two-thirds pentode the Tigris centered Miss Dinah's and Frank's vocals quite nicely, portraying the biting quality of Miss Dinah's big, bluesy attack with brassy realism. But the leading edges of her transients, as on the out chorus of "Bargain Day," were conveyed with enough power to reduce the gutsiest of microphone transducer elements into sniveling puddles of blood. Ag-oh-nee. Yet by employing the laid-back, euphonic qualities of two-thirds triode, I was able to soften Miss Dinah's attack; and by bringing up the volume level a taste while adding Stage I feedback, I reassured the Celestion's nervous metal tweeter by sandblasting away some of the nasty treble bite, while focusing low-end clout for better rhythm and pacing.

The Mesa Tigris is an utterly original engineering statement, a thoroughly modern amp with an old-fashioned heart. It handled all of the musical challenges I threw at it with style and grace. For listeners whose primary thrust is music with strong rhythm and pacing, the Tigris is a champion performer that will only deepen your enjoyment of acoustical recordings.

Quibbles? More inputs would be nice. If you have a cassette deck, a tuner, a turntable, and a CD player, you're already sourced out. And while the Preamp Out is handy, my experiments in biamping the Celestions with the Baron were not quite as celestial as I'd hoped. Gain matching was fairly intuitive, but the character of the two amps (the Baron was fitted with E34L power tubes) is pretty different; while I achieved some musical combinations of heft and sweetness, I preferred to just drive the Celestions with the Tigris (or the Baron with a comparably cool preamp). And with the two-way Josephs, biamping sounded downright silly, as if I'd encountered a parody of those old-time, mismatched liquor ads depicting the ideal audiophile—the head of J. Gordon Holt, the body of Harry Pearson, and the feet of Julian Hirsch.

Also, for stone classical listeners and cost-no-object types, the Tigris falls a touch short in terms of the lushness that gives massed strings their elemental glow, and the progressive increments of power so vital to depicting a deep, deep holographic soundstage. And while I never found the Tigris to be less than satisfying on acoustic sources, it did fall a bit short on some smaller gestures.

Still, matching price to performance, it's hard to go wrong with the Mesa Tigris. For headphone freaks alone, its performance level is startling, and it's amazing how nonfatiguing life can be for a couple of hours in two-thirds triode mode with a pair of superb cans like the Grado RS-1s—among the warmest, smoothest, most detailed headphones I've experienced at any price.

All things being equal, for most aural pilgrims the Mesa Tigris offers more than enough power and dynamic headroom to build a system around. With the sweet sonic attributes of class-A performance, and its ability to morph into a variety of high-quality integrated amplifiers, the Tigris offers listeners the flexibility to adjust for source anomalies and accommodate a wide range of speakers. If you feel the urge to step up to different transducers or source components, the Tigris has the ability to keep growing with you—which is why, at $2495, the Mesa Tigris is one of the most compelling values in high-end audio.

Mesa Engineering
1317 Ross Street
Petaluma, CA 94954
(707) 778-6565