Portal Audio Paladin monoblock power amplifier Page 2

What did the Paladins have that the other amps didn't? Clarity and focus, mainly, but along with those two big differences came a more subtle distinction. The clarity and focus were immediately apparent; bass was bolder and better differentiated from the overall thrum of the music, while different textures and timbres were, well, more different. Music sounded more like itself and less like a generic music product.

Jelly Roll Morton's "Shreveport," from Jelly Roll Morton: 1926–1930 (5 CDs, JSP CD 321–326), rollicked along, the clarinet and snare drum tumbling out of the Cantons as if surfing on their own momentum, whereas previously the sound had just sort of dribbled out and pooled there—if not lifelessly, then at least altogether too languidly. The superb syncopation of drummer Baby Dodds was alive with rhythm, and his rimshots and cymbal work were models of how to drive a beat. These recordings, even though more than 80 years old and mono, sounded fresh and new.

Fed the live version of "Land," from the Columbia/Legacy edition of Patti Smith's Horses (CD, Arista/Columbia/Legacy 82876711982), the Paladins gave Smith's voice its full range of expression—which isn't huge, granted, but the Paladins' power let me hear her chipper chirps as being distinctly different—and a different size—from her incantatory roar, which involves her entire body.

And Smith's all-star band just chugged into full stride, then built momentum like a locomotive behind her, at least until the singer ticked and tocked into a slo-mo saunter through the middle portion of the song before winding it back up into a roaring recapitulation of the set's opener, Van Morrison's "Gloria." Okay, sure, I'm describing the dynamics of Smith's performance, but that performance is all about dynamic range—and the Paladins were dab hands at delivering dynamic differences, from a whisper to full-tilt boogie.

The Paladin's excellence at dynamic shading did not come at the expense of its timbral palette, however. Artur Rubinstein's interpretation of Chopin's Piano Sonata 2 in B-flat Minor, Op.35 (CD, JVC XRCD JM-XR24008), is a paean to texture and tonal shading, especially in the Scherzo, which swings from limpid arcs of notes that flow into one another as though breathed into existence, to forceful chord clusters slammed out in staccato rhythms. Of course, the Marche funèbre that follows is all about tone and bloom. Here, too, the Paladin delivered the goods, with dark power and sparkling harmonics so liquid they almost splashed.

He travels on to wherever he must
The surprise wasn't that a big, powerful monoblock had, um, power; the startling part was how subtly that power was employed. The natural comparison seemed to be my reference power amp, the two-chassis Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista 300. Of course, the Nu-Vista isn't strictly speaking a monoblock—its two chassis are split into a power supply and a signal amplifier—and its limited edition of 500 units sold out long ago. On the other hand, John Atkinson called it back in 1999 "possibly the best-measuring amplifier I've ever seen," and it's what I own.

For the acid test, I kept the system source my Ayre C-5xe universal player, and the preamplifier the Conrad-Johnson CT-5. Cables were Stereovox Colibri and biwire runs of Stereovox Firebird. Although I'd used other speakers during the audition, I felt the Canton Vento Reference 1 DCs were the most demanding and revealing I had on hand, so I used 'em.

Is 100W an audible difference? I guess that depends on whether you're talking about the difference between 5W and 105W amplifiers or between 200W and 300W amps. Certainly, the Paladins didn't seem softer than the Nu-Vista 300, or any less capable of driving the Cantons. Yet the Nu-Vista seemed a trifle more lively at the top end of recordings—even those ancient Jelly Roll Morton sides. It wasn't so much that the Paladins sounded dark, just that the Nu-Vista had a shade more sparkle.

But that's not quite it: sparkle sounds as if I mean more zing on the overtones, when in fact it was almost as if the Nu-Vista had a bit more control there. Less sizzle and more splash—if by splash I mean the effortless way water seems to flow around stone when it falls from a height.

The Patti Smith Band, on the other hand, sounded about the same whichever amp delivered it. The galumphing rhythm, Smith's physical delivery of her lyrics, and the hell-bound momentum were intact either way, No, again, more than intact: both danced on the edge of chaos, which means it wasn't chaos, 'cause chaos don't dance.

That's the grace I spoke of earlier. The Paladins kept things together with style, which is what grace is—as they exhibited with the Chopin, where control was all. Except, of course, that control must be hidden within grace if it's not to sound labored. The essence of Rubinstein's Chopin is that it simply charms the ear.

The Nu-Vista delivered that charm in the same way as Rubinstein, as though he'd never given it a thought. And, in the final analysis, so did the Paladins—with a tad less insouciance, perhaps, because the Nu-Vista 300 really did make it seem easy. But the Paladins didn't make it seem exactly hard. They sure did make it seem believable—and when you're achieving the impossible, believability is not to be sneered at.

I'm making it seem as if the Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista was better, especially at such between-the-cracks properties as charm, but again, that wasn't quite the case. The difference between a stellar performer like the Nu-Vista and run-of-the-mill products isn't immense, but it's significant. The difference between the Nu-Vista and the Paladins was even more subtle—and I'm not sure it's terribly significant. The Paladins don't establish a new benchmark, but they sure didn't miss the old one by much.

A knight without armor in a savage land
At $3500/pair, the Portal Paladin isn't quite a budget component—but you'd be hard-pressed to find its match, which makes it a bargain of sorts. It's well built and works like a charm. It also offers sound that equipment twice its price would be hard-pressed to match, much less better.

Can you buy better-sounding amplifiers? Yes, the Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista 300 is better, I reckon, though not by a lot. To get more liquidity and air, and perhaps even more low-impedance oomph, is possible—but not at anything approaching the Paladin's price.

In many ways, however, the best recommendation for the Portal Paladin might be Joe Abrams himself, who stands behind his products with a "satisfaction or money back" guarantee. Having known him for 20 years, I'd reckon that's really worth something. The fact that you get that for less than similar products would cost you without such a warranty seems like icing on the cake.

Have amp, will travel: Wire Paladin.

Portal Audio
6626 Charter Hills Road
Charlotte, NC 28277
(888) 737-4434