Exposure 2010S integrated amplifier

Yet another of the best systems I've ever heard at a hi-fi show was an exhibit by some former distributors for the English manufacturer Exposure Electronics, at a Chicago Consumer Electronics Show in the late 1980s. The exhibitors seemed to believe it was better to impress with a humble product than to overwhelm with a full-bore assault, because they limited their display to a single amplifier: the then-new Exposure X (as in "10") integrated, mated to a record player comprising a Linn LP12 turntable, Ekos tonearm, and Troika cartridge, and a pair of Linn Kan loudspeakers.

Let's back up a minute: It's fair to say that Exposure got their foot in the door by falling in with the whole Linn-Naim thing—not that there was anything wrong with that. But in those days, virtually everyone in the US who was professionally associated with one of those companies refused to demonstrate their gear with anything other than two records: the Blue Nile's A Walk Across the Rooftops and Ben Sidran's awful Don't Let Go. Smart Showgoers would choose the former, of course—yet, even so, man does not live on electric bass solos alone.

So it went at that Exposure display, where all requests to hear good music were denied, albeit politely. Still, for all of that, I was astounded by how well that system performed: not only how well it played the notes and beats, but how well it sounded, too. Gather what you will from the fact that, almost 20 years later, I remember that system—and literally nothing else from the entire show.

And then Exposure more or less went away from the US.

And then they came, and left, and came and left again. Now they've come back one more time, through the efforts of the Canadian firm that also sends Croft amps and Neat speakers over the border. That company, Bluebird Music, called me and wondered if I'd like to try the latest Exposure integrated. I was torn: I remembered how good that early one was—how shockingly, unforgettably, paradigm-shiftingly good—but I assumed that, by now, the company must have changed hands and was probably using their once-good name to promote the same boring me-too sadness as almost everyone else. I was in no mood to write about one of those. As it turned out, I needn't have been so cynical.

Then again, I was right about the company changing hands: Exposure Electronics, though still doing business in England—where final assembly and all testing continue to take place—is now owned by a Malaysian firm. Founder John Farlowe, a talented designer who got his start building guitar amps for the Who and Jethro Tull (footnote 1), now enjoys life in a sunnier clime.

It was Farlowe, in fact, who designed the X integrated amplifier that had impressed me all those CESes ago, and I'm told that the new 2010S ($1250) is, in many respects, descended from that excellent design. It's also descended, in a more immediate way, from something called the 2010, an earlier version with less output power. (According to the Exposure website, the S stands for Super Power; I'll spare the delicate constitutions of Stereophile's whiniest critics by not reaching for the obvious political joke.)

Interestingly, a key change from the 2010 to the 2010S involved replacing the older model's 50k-ohm volume pot with a 20k-ohm unit: a seemingly insignificant change, but one that served to linearize the product's upper-range frequency response, because this is an integrated amp with a passive preamp stage: The music signal goes straight from the volume pot to the amplifier's power section. Accordingly, the input impedance of the 2010S is lower than average, which may force the prospective owner to be more cautious than usual when it comes to choosing source components and interconnects.

That first gain stage in the amplifier section is a long-tail transistor pair loaded with a constant current source, after which the signal is cascoded—another new twist for the 2010S, this one to improve rejection of the positive supply rail. The signal goes from there to a second gain stage, which also has a constant current source, and to which the designer has applied some local feedback to keep that stage's output impedance low. Following that, the output transistors are SanKen bipolars, which replace the MOSFETs preferred for earlier Exposure designs. That, plus increased voltage from the transformer secondaries, account for the increase in output power compared with the 2010: 75Wpc instead of just 50Wpc.

The new design satisfies the need for beef in another way: It has a pair of preamplifier-out jacks, wired in such a way that the Exposure can drive an external power amplifier and continue to run its own built-in amplifier, providing an easy and relatively affordable approach to biamping. Some buffering is required for those auxiliary outputs, though, so that portion of the 2010S is equipped with a preamp IC. Apart from that, all of the active devices in the signal path are discrete transistors.

Parts and construction are surprisingly good for $1250. The aluminum-alloy chassis is sturdy and nicely finished, and its floor pan serves as a heatsink for the two pairs of output transistors tucked beneath the main circuit board. The volume pot and input selector switch are nice, old-fashioned mechanical types, equipped with motors for remote operation (a handset is included). The passive parts are fine, the power supply looks sufficiently robust, and the circuit-board layout is especially clean, with indications that someone at Exposure knows the value of keeping low-level signal paths as short as possible.

I used the Exposure in my primary system, replacing the Fi preamplifier and Lamm ML2.1 monoblock amplifiers that usually drive my Quad ESL-989 loudspeakers. When it came time to play LPs on my Linn LP12, I added a Linn Linto phono preamplifier. (Exposure offers a phono preamp card for the 2010S, available in moving-magnet and moving-coil versions, but that $195 option wasn't available for this review. I'll try one as soon as it gets here, with the hope of describing its performance in a future issue.)

The first piece of music I listened to through the Exposure 2010S was Brahms' Clarinet Quintet in B Minor, Op.115, albeit a different version from the one mentioned in this issue's "Listening." This one was recorded by Charles Neidich and the Juilliard String Quartet (CD, Sony S2K 66285). For the first minute or two, through the admittedly un-broken-in Exposure, the music was so unlike my expectations that I didn't know what to think. I had begun with the second movement, the Adagio, because that's what I wanted most to hear at that moment—and the different instrumental voices overlapped one another in a way I wasn't used to hearing, sounding just a bit imprecise in their timing. But my mind floundered: Either this amp was a bit off, or it was exposing the imperfectness, the humanness, of the performance in a way that nothing else I've used recently has managed. I couldn't say what was what.

Not only that, but some of the sounds—especially the clarinet itself—were limned with a light sonic underline that I wasn't used to hearing, although it wasn't at all unpleasant. Again, I'm describing the sound of a brand-new 2010S right out of the box: I decided not to think about it too much, but rather to let the thing warm up.

But temptation got the better of me, and that very evening I tried another disc—not to put the Exposure through its paces, whatever they may be, but because I was in the mood to hear something more: my mono disc of Jascha Heifetz playing the Elgar Violin Concerto in 1949, on Naxos' great archival series (CD, Naxos Historical 8.110939). I didn't even sit right in front of the speakers—just wanted to hear the music, not the sound. But like it or not, I was pulled to the sweet seat within seconds: Even from several feet away, I could hear that this relatively cheap solid-state amp was pulling Heifetz's solo violin away from the rest of the orchestra—endowing it with great emotional meaning, even pulling the sound of the instrument itself forward and away—in a manner that nothing, and I mean nothing else in my experience has. In other words, it was playing this mono recording as if it had two channels: the important one, and the even more important one.

Was this thing broken, or was it actually righter than everything else? I could see no middle ground.

Careening back to the world of stereo, again using that Linn Linto phono preamp to feed one of the Exposure's line input pairs, I tried Jascha Heifetz's recording, with Brooks Smith, of Beethoven's "Kreutzer" sonata (LP, RCA LSC-2577). I was astounded. The famous Heifetz technique and tone leaped off the vinyl, and while the overall sound and presentation were a shade more forward than what I get with my own tubed separates, there was still plenty of dramatic headroom, if you will, for when the music got even more intense. Smith's piano came through with unusual strength and wit, with beautifully realistic purr and die-away at the quiet end of things—something that only a great amp can tease from this usually taciturn record.

That was just the first evening I used the 2010S.

I left the Exposure powered up overnight and got right back to listening the next morning. That light limning of the sound was now gone, although the sound of the amp was still remarkably clear, uncolored, and wide, wide open—and remains so today, weeks later. The mildly forward quality of the 2010S remained, but not unpleasantly so. When it played the human voice, the Exposure thought it was a single-ended tube amp. On Hot Rize's beautiful live version of Hazel Dickens' "Won't You Come and Sing for Me," from So Long of a Journey (CD, Sugar Hill SUG-CD 3943, footnote 2), the three singers sounded every bit as present, whole, and human as through my Lamm megablocks—the musical lines themselves were every bit as involving and emotionally satisfying. Yet throughout the song, Nick Forster's understated electric bass line was quick, surefooted, and, again, believable.

And I had to marvel at the way this affordable little amp revealed elements of Forster's technique—the way he held back and damped the notes during the vocal lines, then played them with more sustain at the ends of each line and during the instrumental breaks. As far as the latter was concerned, the timing of the notes in Charles Sawtelle's cross-picked guitar solo was simply perfect: there was no lack of momentum, and plenty of the right kind of tension in the way the Exposure played the always-unpredictable Sawtelle's last break in the song.

And so it went, disc after disc, for many days straight. I had to make an effort to pick the thing apart, and when I did, I could note only a few relative shortcomings: No, it doesn't sound quite as liquid as a good tube amplifier, and no, it doesn't retrieve all the instrumental textures that a good SET will. Nor did the 75Wpc Exposure really sound as dramatic, as potentially surprising, as my 20Wpc Lamms.

What surprised me was my own reaction: Every time I sat down to listen with the Exposure 2010S in my system, it pulled me in and made me smile; every time I tried to play it while I was doing something else, it made me sit down.

I'm surprised in a technoweenie sense, too, because I've never before used anything with a passive preamp, or a passive preamp with anything, and gotten results this good: I had always found passive preamps somewhat boring and uninvolving. Time to rethink that one, I guess (footnote 3).

No one—certainly no audio reviewer—approaches everything in life with an open mind, a clean slate, a tabula rasa: It's too exhausting, and no one has time for that kind of foolishness. So, like everyone else, I go into every new experience with at least some sort of prejudice—and while that sort of thing can be very wicked and negative, it can also be healthy and life-affirming. I'm prejudiced against putting my hand on a hot stove, for instance.

Positive or negative, my prejudice in the case of the Exposure 2010S was misplaced and is now happily shattered. When I first opened the carton, as I allotted myself a certain number of weeks listening to it, I told myself: Other Exposure amps have been good things, very good for the money; not quite world-beaters, but nice enough. And that's probably what I'm going to wind up writing here.

As we say in upstate New York, Not hardly! This is a positively magnificent little amp. Its tunefulness and timing are beyond reproach, and, among other things, it's probably one of the most transparent amplification products I've ever heard at any price. Forget tubes vs transistors, domestic vs imported, and all the other things we reviewers like to blather about: None of that means a great deal in the face of a product such as this, because the Exposure 2010S is a great amp and, at $1250, a bargain on the order of the Rega tonearm and Spendor's entry-level speakers. If everything else were taken away tomorrow, I could carry on happily with the Exposure.

I know and like a lot of the folks whose products compete directly with the Exposure 2010S, but they're going to have to work harder than hell to beat this thing.

Footnote 1: But not Jethro H. Tull, my current epithet of choice when I stub my toe.

Footnote 2: This album is graced by a series of marvelous black-and-white photographs—I didn't realize until years after buying my own copy that they were taken by Stereophile alum Steven Stone.

Footnote 3: Funny, too, because Brian Damkroger and I were just having an e-mail conversation on this very subject, in the wake of his evidently well-grounded enthusiasm for the Sonic Euphoria PLC passive line stage (review to appear in January 2006).

Exposure Electronics
US distributor: Bluebird Music Ltd.
620 Wilson Avenue, Suite 360
Toronto, Ontario M3K 1Z3, Canada
(416) 638-8207