The Mystic Portal Revealed

Joe Abrams has an impressive audio resume. "I've been on the manufacturer's side of the desk since 1979," he says. That's when he started as national sales manager for Monster Cable. A few years later found Abrams as director of sales at Sumiko, and then in 1987 he started as VP of sales at Threshold. In 1991 Abrams joined cable start-up Tara Labs and quickly helped them establish a dealer network before moving on to MIT.

In 1997, Abrams realized that instead of hopping from company to company, the time was right for him to form Equus Audio and work independently as a marketing consultant to high-end audio manufacturers. But the itch to be directly involved in the development and sales of a new audio brand still needed the occasional scratch.

So, in 2001 Abrams formed Portal Audio as a separate corporation with the express intention of manufacturing and marketing "affordable audiophile-oriented electronics" which would be sold directly to the US public (in the rest of the world, the distribution would follow the conventional distributor to retailer to customer model). The "eliminate the middleperson" idea is not a new one, but has gained a measure of increased popularity in the Internet age as some customers search for ways to avoid the markup of the brick'n'mortar retailer.

But when you buy by wire, the ears-on evaluation process so helpful (some would say mandatory) with audio equipment often takes a back seat to cost savings and convenience. Abrams says he's learned that "when auditioning gear, there really is no place like home" and has set up Portal to minimize this issue with a 60-day "risk-free" home trial offer.

Why another audio company? When Abrams consults, he searches for gaps in the audiophile market and attempts to determine what people might want to fill them. After spotting one such opportunity, the company's first product, the Panache, was developed as a "no-frills integrated amp that retails for $1795, but is designed to provide the kind of sound you might expect out of a $4000 stack of preamp/amp components."

Abrams says that he and his designer (more about this in a bit) created the Panache for three kinds of end-users. "We wanted one product that could simultaneously appeal to the person who already has an excellent system in his/her listening room and wants something simple, but with exceptional audio quality, for another location; the entry-level audiophile who wants a generous taste of high-end performance; and anyone who wants exceptional quality when listening on headphones."

According to Abrams, the headphone output does not differ from the main output path except for the addition of a simple protection device. "We paid special attention to the headphone listening aspect of the unit, putting the jack in the path of the speaker outputs. This means that the output impedance of the 'phone section is very low—a real advantage if you're trying to get the best out of Grado SR125s.

"Among our other goals for this model is simplicity of function. Convenience features, such as remote control, were eliminated so that the budget can be spent on world-class internal components. The controls are Alps potentiometers and switches, hand-selected for neutrality, lack of noise, and reliability. The 425VA toroidal transformer is custom-built in California to Portal's specifications, and there are eight bipolar output transistors per channel, each device rated at 100 watts and 12 amps. The finished product is a very neutral passive-line-stage with a high-gain dual-mono class-AB amplifier rated at 100Wpc RMS into 8 ohms or 200Wpc RMS into 4 ohms."

So, who designs for Portal? When pressed for names, Abrams' only response is that the actual amplifier design "was a gift from one of the giants of amplifier engineering, on the condition that I never mention his connection. I won't confirm, even if you guess correctly." Abrams explains that he is neither an engineer nor an operations guy, "But I'm fortunate to have friends who are very good at these things. My role is to try to figure out what people want, to help bring these goodies into being, to make sure they actually sound good, and to try to alert the public to their existence.

"Portal products are produced for me by TIBI, the legendary Southern California sourcing/assembly house that did the made-in-America Adcom amps of the mid '80s, manufactured Forte for Threshold in '88–'90, and produced some of Acurus' best gear. And yes, I listen to every unit before it goes out to the public. After factory QC, every unit spends hours in my personal reference system. Only after it passes critical listening can a unit receive the sign-off to be shipped to its new owner."