The Fifth Element #15

The word chancellor derives, believe it or not, from the Italian word for wooden latticework, cancelli. In the church architecture of sixth-century Rome, a latticework screen demarcated an area near the altar where deacons or priests would stand, waiting to assist the principal celebrant as needed. In English, this area became known as the chancel. In consequence, a trusted assistant came to be known as a chancellor. In the High Middle Ages, that title was given to the cleric who would correspond on behalf of and maintain the archives for an important churchman, such as a bishop.

After the fall of Rome, in the West, literacy was almost lost. In Charlemagne's time, it was said that Alcuin (d. 804) knew personally or through correspondence everyone in Europe who could read and write. Nearly all literate people were clerics. Therefore it is little surprise that, as government and politics regained complexity, the office of royal confidant and secretary also became known as chancellor.

For many years, the chancellor was always a cleric. Sir Thomas More (d. 1535) was the first royal chancellor of England who was not a priest. Today in the United States, a chancellor is usually a big shot in university affairs, but in England, the office of Lord Chancellor is still concerned with the administration of the court system.

I was mulling over how to convey how impressed I have been by the Brinkmann USA Integrated integrated amplifier, when I recalled the story of a Lord Chancellor who tersely rebuked a verbose advocate with an eternal truth: "Thirsty folk want beer, not explanations." Guided by that maxim, I will start by telling you how the Integrated sounds, and then try to cobble up an explanation. The beer is your department.

In much the same way that the Unison Research S2K, which I wrote about in my November column, makes a compelling case for low-powered tube amplifiers, the Brinkmann exhibits all of the virtues and few (if any) of the vices of high-quality, medium-powered solid-state amplifiers: clarity, focus, tonal trueness, dynamic drive, and ample bass. A music-savvy friend who stopped by just after the Brinkmann arrived was taken aback at how different it sounded from the Unison Research, yet was reluctant to declare either "the better." "They're just different," he mused.

As I mentioned in November, the Unison S2K might err here and there on the side of euphony and soft focus. The Brinkmann Integrated is nearly as tonally luscious, but also has dynamic and bass capabilities greater than one might expect from its rated 75Wpc, and more definition than the S2K in space and articulation. Christophe Mantoux, playing organ works of Jehan Alain (Vox Humana SM 12 21.61), made those points quickly.

I don't want to fall into the trap of comparing pieces of gear to each other rather than trying to describe how each presents good recordings. But I don't think it would be far off the mark to say that, in terms of timbral character at least, the Brinkmann pretty much splits the difference between two of the best integrated amps out there, Plinius' 8200 Mk.II and the Jeff Rowland Design Group's Concentra II. And you are shocked—just shocked—to learn that it costs more than one and less than the other.

The Unison S2K costs $2000. Plinius' 8200 Mk.II costs $2950. In its basic form, the Brinkmann costs $3500; an optional internal DAC ($750) raises the price to $4250. Jeff Rowland's Concentra II is $6500. A steepening curve, indeed. The optimal point on that curve will vary from listener to listener, but it bears emphasizing that, both in sound quality and value for money, the Brinkmann is firmly on the curve of first-rank integrated amplifiers, not off somewhere among the answers to questions nobody is asking.

I think of the Plinius "house sound" as being a bit pepperminty—a matter of slight flavoring rather than of coloration. Make no mistake: I like the Plinius house sound very much. Dynamics are, well, dynamic, while the treble seems to have a little bit of extra effervescence that can bring lifelike sparkle back to the music in the right system, but in the wrong system can get fatiguing. Jeff Rowland's "house sound," in contrast, embodies stately elegance that does not call attention to itself. In the right system, it draws you in by relaxing your defenses against grit and glare, but in the wrong system, one might develop a disquieting sense that something is missing. I have often ruminated that the ideal solid-state integrated amplifier would split the difference in tonal quality between the Plinius and the Rowland, and, except for the disparity in power ratings (75 vs 150Wpc), the Brinkmann may be the closest thing yet.

Back to our apples and oranges of low-powered tubes vs mid-powered solid-state. The Brinkmann has greater clarity and gives a more vibrant sense of immediacy than the Unison S2K—the music has more solidity—but also costs about twice as much. Sigh.

I can't tell you whether the Brinkmann is "twice as good," much less worth it, because that determination can be made only with respect to the demands your listening will put on either amp. If you listen to a fair amount of Mahler and Shostakovich, the incremental expenditure on the Brinkmann should be relatively easy to justify. If you listen mostly to acoustic folk music, I would think perhaps not. Neither to be ignored is the consideration that, with less-than-optimal associated equipment and recordings, the Unison Research will certainly be more "forgiving."