NewClear NC1000

While vacuum tube and solid-state amplifiers continue to improve, the gains have been for the most part evolutionary rather than revolutionary at this stage of the game.

Class D amplifiers are a whole different game – much like the introduction of the compact disc, early efforts were harsh and highly unmusical.  But Class D has matured.  Perhaps not into the voluptuous shape of a pair of giant VTL or ARC monoblocks, but not the skinny runway models they used to be.

The NC1000L is a dual mono design, built around the latest ICE Power modules and is essentially two power supplies and two separate mono amplifiers sharing the same chassis.  It features balanced XLR and single ended RCA inputs, both going in via a pair of high quality Lundahl transformers. The NC1000L delivers 501 watts into an 8-ohm load and doubles that into 4 ohms.  Magnepan lovers, this amplifier is your new best friend.  And that’s exactly where I began this review, with my Magnepan 1.7s.  This amplifier’s enormous power reserves light up these wonderful, but power hungry speakers – giving them a true semblance of dynamics, even playing fairly heavy rock.  Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter” never sounded better on the 1.7s.

Oodles of power

Many say the “first watt” is the most important, however I feel they are all important.  I also prefer a lot of power to not so much.  There are a number of classic low power amplifiers, all of which have a tonal magic about them: the Wavac EC-300, the Pass Aleph 3, the McIntosh MC-30, etc., etc.  And as much fun as they’ve been at very low levels, if you don’t have efficient speakers, those amps run out of steam fast. Ultimately, dynamics are just as important as tonal accuracy, or any of the audiophile parameters that try to convince us that we are hearing reality through our stereo systems – even with music that you don’t think demands it.

Low powered amplifiers are always fun to take for a spin, but I always go back to high power at the end of the day, and the NC1000L delivers the goods.  I mentioned Magnepans at the beginning of the review, and after about a month with both the 1.7 and 3.7, unless you are going to drop upwards of $15k on an amplifier, the NC1000L is the amplifier for you – at an introductory price of $2,600.

We can argue the merits of a “dealer direct” product versus one sold through normal distribution channels and whether a $2,600 amplifier sold this way really needs to be compared to a $5,000 amplifier sold with the costs of distribution attached to be fair.  No problem.  The NC1000L stands up handily to everything we’ve heard in this price category. It doesn’t have the sweetness of say, a McIntosh MC275, but you can’t drive a pair of inefficient speakers with an MC275 either. No disrespect intended to either manufacturer, the amount of clean power available with the NC1000L easily justifies its price.  With this much power on tap, I could not play the NC1000L loud enough (without risk of brain damage) to explore the boundaries of their claimed “graceful rounded waveforms at clipping.”

Under the hood

Popping the top of the thick, 14-gauge chassis and thick front panel reveals a tidy layout.  Each amplifier has it’s own separate board, with power supply and ICE module self contained.  The layout is tidy, and my only concern for sonic degradation over time is the screw terminals used to bring in power an input signal.  However, I have seen this approach taken in much more expensive amplifiers and speakers, some ten times the cost of this amplifier.

The NC1000L doesn’t take long to settle into a groove – it doesn’t need hundreds of hours to sound its best. The slight bit of solid-state haze at initial power up vanishes after about three days of 24/7 operation at modest volume.  Its miserly 28 watt current draw at idle lends itself to leave powered up continuously without guilt.

A real pleasure

Thanks to the NC1000Ls balanced XLR and single ended RCA inputs, it will work with whatever linestage or preamplifier you have handy.  After trying about ten different examples from my recently rebuilt Conrad Johnson PV-12 up to the $60,000 Indigo Qualia linestage, the NC1000 merely revealed the character of what was in front of it, with plenty of resolution to discern the differences between front end components with ease.

The NCl000L does fall short of spendier competitors is resolving last bit of detail in the upper registers, but this is not a fair comparison.  Auditioning similarly priced products in the 50-100 watt per channel range, the NC1000L is without peer.  The presentation is very neutral and if like, me you desire a bit more warmth or romance, you can always mate the NC1000L with your favorite tube preamplifier and season to taste.  I did just that with my vintage Conrad Johnson PV-12 (recently rebuilt by the CJ factory with a full compliment of CJD Teflon caps, so it’s not that vintage sounding) and was in affordable hifi heaven.  Man I wish I could have had this amplifier back in the days of my Magnepan Tympanis or Acoustat 2+2s!

This amplifier throws a very wide soundstage, thanks in part to it’s dual mono design, with well delineated imaging, but again not quite as much front to back depth as something with vacuum tubes in the circuit, yet low level detail is excellent.  Listening to the title track on Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns is fantastic, with the gentle percussion bits floating well outside of the speakers with Mitchell’s multi-layered vocals well separate from the bass line anchoring the tune.

Timbral complexity is also well represented, as Mitchell gets a bit shrieky on “Shadows and Light.”  This is a track that can deteriorate into a ball of midrange on an amplifier unable to handle complex passages.  The NC1000 does an equally good job with the violin, reproducing this delicate image with aplomb.

The NC1000s ability to drive speakers with a low impedance or a complex load is better than any Class D amplifier we’ve yet sampled, where many early Class D designs were more like an SET amplifier with many speakers, horribly rolling off the top end when the match was less than stellar.  The B&W 802 Diamond speakers always prove tough for the Class D amps we’ve reviewed in the past, but he NC1000L passes with flying colors.  There really was no speaker at our disposal that was problematic for this amplifier.

As with many ICE powered designs, the NC1000L excels at the low frequency part of the audio spectrum. Cranking up Bassnectar’s “Boomerang” with the 802 Diamonds felt like a subwoofer was added to the system now offering a serious punch to the chest at high volume levels.  Ditto with Prince’s “Billy Jack Bitch.”  And of course, the heartbeat at the beginning of Dark Side of the Moon was pretty cool too.  The massive power is well controlled, giving bass instruments a natural response that does not sound overdamped.

Speaking of cool, the NC1000 stays nice and cool, even when pushed to punishing SPL levels, and under normal operation, shouldn’t use much more electricity than a light bulb.

Nod to the new guys

If the market is an indicator, it will be tough for the crew at NewClear to keep building these amplifiers for this price forever.  Other manufactures have done incredibly well with the factory direct approach, and considering this amplifier is so underpriced at this point, our hope is that as NewClear grows and has to amortize those costs, this amplifier will still be a solid product.  But for now, this understated black box has to be one of the year’s best bargains.  If 500 watts per channel sounds like your way to party, get in on the ground floor.

The NC1000 does its job simply and effortlessly, serving the music all the while.  It easily earns one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2013.

The NewClear NC1000 power amplifier

MSRP:  $2,600


Analog Source             AVID Volvere/SME V/Sumiko Palo Santos Presentation

Digital Source              dCS Paganini, Sooloos Control 15

Preamplifiers               Conrad Johnson PV-12, ARC REF5SE, Burmester 011

Phonostage                  Simaudio MOON LP810

Speakers                      Magnepan 1.7 & 3.7, GamuT S9, Dynaudio Confidence C1 II, B&W 802D

Cable                           Cardas Clear

Micromega AS-400:

Micromega of France, enjoys a very respectable presence here in the US, and has been introducing new products with a vengeance recently.

The company currently designs and builds a full line of electronics from sources to amplification.  In the last few years they have taken a distinct interest in wireless technology and it’s incorporation into high-end audio playback in the home without compromise.  Enter a very unique product, the AS-400 Integrated amplifier, priced at $4,595.  The AS-400, which shares it’s name with a famous IBM midrange computer, is much more than a standard integrated amp.  It produces 200 wpc, (400 wpc into 4 Ohms) of Class D solid-state power, and is available without the Airstream functionality for $3,595.

The rear panel has three line inputs, a preamp output, and you can drive the power amp section with an outside preamplifier. There is also an analog iPod input, and a headphone jack, but the most surprising on such a 21st century device is the MM phono input!  The unit weighs a whopping 33 lbs., and is built to an extremely high standard. With seamless casework and a volume control that is smooth as butter to turn, something often overlooked on digital devices these days.

Still more lurks under the hood. The AS-400 is equipped with AirStream, a proprietary wireless network protocol, based on Apple’s iTunes software and AirPlay feature, allowing for untethered streaming of your iTunes library. Further inspection reveals the Cirrus Logic CS 4351 24-bit/192kHz DAC chips, a custom precision low jitter clock, and an Ethernet jack. Oddly, there are no digital inputs or outputs of any kind.

Easy use and setup

Not a member of the Apple ecosystem, I found the AS-400 easier to set up than I anticipated. I don’t use iTunes, and I don’t own any iDevices, but I do catch myself pondering the new iPhone 5, so it could happen sooner than later. My computer audio setup is based on a Logitech Squeezebox Touch, an Ethernet network, and a Bryston BDA-1 DAC in one room, and a Musical Fidelity V-DAC II in another.  A Mac Mini acts as a server, with all files saved in FLAC format.

For the purposes of this review, I converted about a dozen albums from FLAC to AIFF, and imported them into iTunes. A quick download of the iTunes Remote app for my Android tablet had me rocking in no time.  Pairing the AS-400 with the Opera Seconda speakers (reviewed in Issue #49 of TONEAudio) via Transparent’s MM2 Super speaker cables and their PowerLink power cord made for a sweet system that was as easy on the eyes as the ears.  The next step after powering up the AS-400 is to select “Which speakers to use” from the iTunes menu.  Simple!

Trust that first impression

I instantly noticed an authority and a dimensionality to the sound, making clear that Micromega’s wireless implementation is a huge success. The first track streamed, John Legend’s “P.D.A. (We Just Don’t Care)” was rendered with a huge, forceful bass line, great palpability on the vocals, with highly convincing tonality on the piano.  This track is a very familiar reference and the AS-400 nails it.

Running through multiple listening sessions, concentrating on familiar albums, like Norah Jones’s Little Broken Hearts, I remain excited with the AS-400. Grizzly Bear’s terrific new album, Shields, is densely layered art pop and through the AS-400, it sounded coherent, with all the layers easy to decipher, with soaring melodies and jagged guitar parts in evidence, never getting lost in a digital fog.

The AS-400 is amazingly quiet when connected via Airtunes/AirStream, with the quietest passages of music unadulterated. The WiFi signal of the privately created network between the AS-400 and my Mac Mini was never interrupted, flawless in operation for the duration of the review period.  Those using Apple devices can stream via AirPlay. Input switching remains muted and is as smooth in operation as the volume control mentioned at the beginning of the review.  I was surprised, however, that the AS-400 does run somewhat warm to the touch, despite its Class-D design.

Standard duties

Using the AS-400 as a traditional integrated amplifier, connecting a transport and and DAC to it’s analog inputs proves that this is a serious, stand alone amp. Delivering tons of clean power to the Opera speakers, with excellent bass control, the finer points of transparency and resolution are well on par with other integrateds I’ve sampled in the AS-400s price range – and they don’t have an on board streamer.

A side by side comparison of tracks streamed wirelessly over AirStream to ones played back via my Musical Fidelity M1CDT transport and Bryston BDA-1 DAC gives the nod to the MF/Bryston combination, but this is probably more of a shortcoming to using iTunes.

The Ethernet jack allows for streaming of files with other premium playback software brands. Additional software for your computer would be required as well. However, I don’t think many will opt for this option. The elegance of the iTunes/AirStream interface is tough to beat. Plus, there are much cheaper solutions for wired playback like the Squeezebox Touch.

An excellent combination

Back in full force in North America after a few years of minimal activity, Micromega proves they have a full product line that is both cutting edge in regard to technology and visually attractive.

The AS-400 is a full function integrated amplifier, iTunes streamer, and wireless DAC making for a very impressive one box solution that does not compromise performance for convenience. The hassle free setup and operation clearly makes this the perfect component for those who want to set it, forget it, and just enjoy their music collection.

The AS-400 is not perfect, but its shortcomings are minor.  The major limitation is Apple’s AirPlay, which limits resolution to 44.1 khz, 16 bit files. So no higher resolution downloads can be heard in their native sampling rate and bit depth, as they will be down sampled. While three analog inputs might not be enough for a few users, but considering the convenience orientation, it should not be an issue.  The remote is well laid out, but feels a bit lightweight for a $5,000 component.  In a primarily streaming environment, an iDevice app or Android app will probably be used by most, if not all owners. But the true beauty of the AS-400 is that setting and using it requires virtually zero expertise in networking or computers.

The AS-400 has multiple strengths: It’s clean, authoritative, and dynamic sound will easily drive most speakers and its bass articulation is a particular strength, which is typical of Class D designs.  The build quality is impressive, and the pride of ownership factor very high. If you are an audiophile seeking to simplify your setup, yet still have analog sources and use iTunes to catalog your digital music files, the AS-400 demands a close look.

Additional Listening

As Andre is a “digital only” guy, (And after chasing the analog rabbit for some time I can’t say I blame him.) I ran the AS-400 through its paces with a Rega RP6 turntable with Rega’s Exact MM cartridge mounted.  Keeping in step with what one might spend on a turntable for a device like this, the RP6/Exact combination comes in just under $2,000.  And it works brilliantly with the AS-400, with a low noise floor and full-bodied sound.  The on board MM phonostage is easily the equal of the external models we’ve auditioned in the $300 – $500 range.

A number of other cool features make the AS-400 an even more versatile component.  Separate preamp and subwoofer outputs allow system expansion along with an RS-232 port.  Incorporating the AS-400 into a system with both the Dynaudio Confidence C1 speakers and a pair of Magnepan 1.7s, proved that it’s robust amplifier drives both of these relatively inefficient speakers with ease.  And thanks to that subwoofer output, a number of powered subwoofers on hand from MartinLogan and JL Audio were easily incorporated into the system.

Headphone maniacs will still opt for a higher performance headphone amplifier solution, but occasional headphone listeners will enjoy the convenience offered here – combining streaming and controlling things via your wireless device of choice and lounging in your favorite comfy chair. Both my modded Grado SR-60i phones and the latest offering from Focal made an excellent match with the AS-400.  Even my notoriously tough to drive AKG 701 phones worked well, having sufficient dynamics.

This is the component I will be suggesting to my non – hifi friends when they invariably say, “I just want great sound, I don’t want to futz with an elaborate system like yours.  What should I buy?”  Considering how much is under the hood, and the fact that you won’t have to buy a gaggle of cables and power cords, I’m happy to give the Micromega AS-400 one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2012.

-Jeff Dorgay

The Micromega AS-400

MSRP: $4,595, without Airstream as the AI-400: $3,595

Manufacturer contact:    (Manufacturer site)  (North American distribution)

Associated Equipment:

Loudspeaker: Opera Seconda

Cables: Transparent MM2 Super, Stager Silver Solids, Transparent PowerLink

DAC: Bryston BDA-1

Streamer: Logitech Squeezebox Touch

Transport: Musical Fidelity M1-CDT

Computer: Mac Mini running Snow Leopard & iTunes 10

Emotiva USP-1 Preamplifier and UPA-1 Amplifiers

In an audiophile world where individual components have five (and sometimes six) figure price tags, the concept of being able to get a preamplifier and a pair of 200-watt mono amplifiers that use discrete circuitry instead of just being Class-D for under $1,200 is refreshing. You may have guessed that such components are manufactured offshore and sold direct to you from the manufacturer; both methods are necessary to keep costs down to this level. However, due to the high praise that greets Emotiva products, it appears that the company makes quality control a main priority.

The USP-1 preamplifier fetches $499 while the 200-watt-per-channel UPA-1 monoblocks cost $349 each. Popping the top on both components reveals beefy power transformers, large capacitor banks, and tidy construction throughout. No massive film capacitors, fancy wire, or mega-expensive binding posts—simply well thought-out components that are consistent with their design goals.

Both pieces also sport no-nonsense features. Each has more than adequate inputs and outputs, along with 5-12v. trigger inputs for remote access, etc. The power amplifiers have two sets of reasonable binding posts while the preamplifier boasts a decent headphone amplifier, internal LF crossover for use with a powered subwoofer of your choice, and a phonostage capable of MM and MC operation.

Subwoofer and HT-Ready

The UPA-1s had more than enough power to drive any of the speakers at my disposal, and the USP-1 preamplifier comes with an adjustable low-pass and high-pass filter for those using smaller satellite speakers that have limited LF capability. This can also prove handy for listeners wanting to use a powered subwoofer with a lower-power tube amplifier with their main speakers. I followed that very scenario with the CJ MV-50C1, which I used to power Polk Audio TL-3s and Paradigm Millennia One speakers (both currently in for review). Rolling off the output at 100Hz and passing that to the CJ relieved the tube amplifier of heavy lifting. I passed the LF information to a MartinLogan Grotto i subwoofer, making for an incredible sub/sat system.

I came away highly impressed at the preamplifier’s versatility. In addition, the USP-1 also offers a pair of bypass outputs for use in a multichannel home theater system. So, if you don’t currently operate in the multichannel realm, you won’t have to eliminate the USP-1 to integrate your two-channel system should you expand at a future date.

Easy Listening

Talk about a quick and easy setup. Using AudioQuest Columbia interconnects, Rocket speaker cable, and a set of Shunyata Venom 3 power cords, I was rolling in about 15 minutes. The rear panels of all three components are well labeled, so you should have no trouble hooking everything up sans the assistance of the well-written manual.

While the out-of-the-box sound was good, the system sounded smoother after being powered up for 24 hours. Once power cycled for 48 hours, the UPA-1 required about an hour for the sound to fully stabilize. As it was barely warm to the touch, I kept the trio powered up at all times to net the best sound. Those feeling slightly more environmentally conscious may want to consider leaving the amplifiers off between listening sessions. The preamplifier only requires 30 watts, so it’s worth leaving on.

Aces the Fundamentals

To stack the deck against the Emotiva combination, I began my listening sessions with the B&W 805Ds. These moderately efficient 2-way speakers are heavenly but highly resolving. The diamond tweeter reveals any inadequacies in equipment that drives them. The 805Ds made such a great match with the Emotiva components that, after experimenting with a few other speaker systems, I kept them in the system for the duration of the review. The UPA-1 amplifiers drove all of the other speakers we hand on hand for our budget gear issue (Issue 38), including the power-hungry Magnepan MMGs.

While not the equal of my reference Burmester 911 mk. 3 monoblocks, the UPA-1s did a respectable job driving the $150,000 GamuT S9s—very impressive for a $700 pair of amplifiers. Playing “Baltasaurus” from D.F.A.’s 4th at a fairly high level, as well as “Euthanasia Waltz” from Brand X’s Livestock, I was instantly struck by the Emotiva’s ability to keep the pace intact while playing complex musical passages at moderately high listening levels. When pushed too hard, the UPA-1’s quickly soundstage collapsed. Still, the volume was quite high, and the GamuTs only have 88db sensitivity. With more efficient speakers, you should be able to rock out to your heart’s content before running out of amplifier power. Those needing brain damage levels would be wise to consider Emotiva’s 500-watt monoblocks.

Taking a Spin

The USP-1 offers an onboard MM and MC phonostage, which is somewhat unbelievable given its price. Remember, these days, $500 will get you a mid-grade power cord at many other places. Doing some quick comparisons with the Rega RP1 turntable and its associated performance pack upgrade yielded great synergy. And as switching to my Cambridge 640P and NAD PP3i revealed, the USP-1’s onboard stage is easily the equivalent (and perhaps slightly more resolving) of these $200 standalone counterparts.

While most vinyl enthusiasts will probably opt for a MM cartridge that stays within the parameters of a budget system, the USP-1’s MC performance ranks above average. The somewhat low output (.25mv) Denon DL-103R proved an excellent match.  There is only one loading option (240 ohms) and gain is fixed (no level specified), but it should work just fine for most available entry-level MC cartridges. Both inputs offered a quiet background and enough dimension that one could still hear a meaningful difference between analog and digital with comparably priced source components.

More Comparisons

My experience with acoustic and vocal music found it fairly well reproduced, yet these are areas where big-bucks gear leaves budget stuff in the dust. Listening to TONEAudio cover girl Keren Ann’s latest record, 101, it became obvious that there were textures and that prized third dimension that the Emotiva gear couldn’t bring to the table. These shortcomings were the combination’s only real limitations and, again, at this price level, tradeoffs are a reality. A PrimaLuna ProLogue integrated will give you more midrange depth and texture, and the Rega Brio-R possesses more resolution, but these amplifiers are 40 and 50 watts per channel, respectively. Obviously, 200-watts-per-channel allows for a much wider range of speaker choices.

Even when using the Klipsch Heresy IIIs, the difference in sound quality between the Emotiva triplets and Simaudio Moon 600i (reviewed last issue) wasn’t subtle; the Moon gear claimed a clarity that the budget separates could not match. But a quick comparison to a $1,200 Yamaha integrated amplifier purchased from Best Buy proved the opposite. The Emotiva gear won out on all levels, providing a much more lifelike perspective of the music than the comparably priced mass-market box.

The UPA-1s always mustered a lot of grunt on the low end as well. The amplifiers admirably captured the weight and texture of the bass lines in “Dragonaut” from Sleep’s Holy Mountain, as well as some of my favorite Snoop Dogg tracks, controlling the woofers in whatever speakers I employed. Such music really demands extra amplifier power, and the UPA-1s did not disappoint.

Musically Engaging

After putting the Emotiva USP-1 and UPA-1 through rigorous listening sessions, I have to admit that the set comprises some of the most musically engaging amplification I’ve heard for around a thousand dollars. And if you aren’t as impressed with it as me, Emotiva offers a 30-day return policy. It’s impossible to go wrong.

Okay, you’ll either love or hate the blue glow, but beyond that, there’s nothing to complain about. This gear offers up neutral tonality, great dynamic range, plenty of power, and an abundance of truly useful features. If I were starting again from the beginning, the USP-1 and UPA-1 would serve as my system’s core. Add your favorite $500-$1,500 pair of speakers, a $500 turntable, a DAC, and you’ve got a system that rocks for a few thousand bucks. (I’m really looking forward to listening to Emotiva’s flagship monoblocks; if the company can turn out a product of this caliber for $350, what they can do for $1,000?)

I can’t stress it enough: This combination does not make a single misstep. Sound quality is excellent, and the pricing is amazing. Ten years ago, Chinese-made audio carried a stigma of poor build quality, shoddy finish, and subpar sound. About eight years ago, PrimaLuna came on the scene and set the gold standard for Chinese manufacturing with its line of vacuum-tube amplifiers. After listening to these components, it’s safe to say that Emotiva is well on the way to doing the same with solid-state electronics.

No, $1,200 won’t get you a $60,000 Burmester amplifier and preamplifier. But what you do get is solid build quality and great sound. Just as I was ready to award the USP-1/UPA-1 combo one of TONEAudio’s Exceptional Value Awards for 2011, a glance at the company’s Web site yielded yet another pleasant surprise in the form of a temporary price drop: The USP-1 currently sells for $399 and the UPA-1 monoblocks for $299. Factor free shipping into the equation, and there’s not a better entry point into high-end audio.

Emotiva USP-1 Preamplifier and UPA-1 Amplifiers

MSRP:  USP-1, $499 (currently $399); UPA-1, $349 each (currently $299)



Analog Source            Dual 1219 w/Grado Red cartridge, Rega P3-24 w/Denon DL-103 cartridge

Digital Source                        BelCanto CD2

Speakers            Klipsch Heresy III, Magnepan MMG, Magnepan 1.6, MartinLogan ElectroMotion, B&W 805D, GamuT S9

Cable            AudioQuest Columbia I/Cs, AudioQuest Rocket Speaker Cables, Shunyata Venom 3 power cords

Accessories                        Running Springs Elgar Power Line Conditioner

Croft Micro 25 Preamplifier and Model 7 Power Amplifier

For those of you that have been waiting for the next series of Croft amplification products, they are back with their Micro 25 preamplifier and Series 7 power amplifier. In case you aren’t familiar, don’t feel out of touch, Croft has always been one of the smallest of British hifi manufacturers, but worth seeking out if you are interested in high performance at a very reasonable price. The two components you see here are only $1,395 each.

When you pick them up, you might be surprised at the relatively light weight; there are no massive power transformers or CNC machined chassis here, but that’s not the Croft design ethos. There are seven components in the Croft lineup; three preamplifiers, three power amplifiers and a phono stage. They all share the same enclosure to save cost. The two top line products fill the enclosure and the two lower models have progressively less under the hood, ultimately keeping the cost down on all models.

Value inside

Where past Croft owners might smirk ever so slightly upon reading this, as they know what lurks inside, the more traditional audiophile might be somewhat tense, worried that they aren’t receiving enough for their money. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you look more closely, you will notice that there are no printed circuit boards inside either of these two components. They are completely wired point to point, with a density and precision that would make a watchmaker proud.

Croft has always been about simplicity, and these two components are the essence of minimalism. The Micro 25 preamplifier is a full tube design and uses three 12AX7 (ECC 83) tubes, one for the linestage and two for the phono stage. The series 7 power amplifier is a hybrid design, again using the 12AX7 for the input stage with a Mosfet output stage, producing 45 watts per channel.

In the 60’s Dynaco was the benchmark for great sound at a very reasonable price, and in the 80’s the early Hafler gear offered more of the same, with their DH-101 preamplifier and DH-200 power amplifier. Though a bit more expensive (it is 2011 after all), these two pieces from Croft offer a level of musicality that are truly unmatched at this price level, at least in my experience – though you need to define your priorities.

Like the Dynaco and Hafler products before, the Micro 25 preamplifier is a no frills design. There are two high level inputs and the phono input. No remote is offered and there isn’t even a balance control. All the effort has been put into sound quality and that’s great news for audiophiles on a budget. The Series 7 amplifier has a pair of RCA input jacks, a simple pair of output binding posts and a power switch. Nothing more.

Instantly impressive

These two pieces of gear will surprise you as soon as you power them up. As I was just completing the review of the $45,000 pair of Estelon speakers for the December issue, I started here to see just what the Croft combination was capable of. Running a pair of RCA cables from the dCS Paganini to one of the line level inputs, I was amazed at just how musical these two were right off the bat. At moderate levels, it was very easy to get fooled into thinking this amplifier and preamplifier were worth at least double their asking price when judged on sound quality alone. The pace was excellent and the Series 7 amplifier did a great job of controlling the Estelons and my reference GamuT S9’s as well. I started with one of my favorite totally 80’s test tracks, Thomas Dolby’s “Hot Sauce,” that features a killer opening bass riff. The Series 7 had no problem controlling the might Estelons, and that hooked me instantly on the sound. Next up, Dave Stewart’s “Kinky Sweetheart” from his Greetings From the Gutter CD. This track is very ethereal, with a lot of electronic and synth effects that float around the soundstage and will fall flat with a lesser preamp. The Croft combo through a soundstage that was impressively wide and deep. Going back to something I’ve heard a million times for an acoustic reference, Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus was the next choice and again I came away astonished at how natural instruments felt, with just the right of space and decay.

Of course this is playing way out of the league of these two components, but the point is that they still turned in an outstanding performance, even with state of the art speakers and digital source. Moving on to a more “budget appropriate” system, I used a few more reasonably priced speakers with the Croft combination and still came with a big smile on my face. The Series 7 amplifier even passed the torture test of driving my Magnepan 1.6 speakers at a modest level, something most budget amplifiers (even those with higher power ratings) can’t do. The rest of my listening was done with my freshly restored JBL L-100’s, the new Blackstone speakers from Polk Audio and the B&W 805D’s.

Great phono

As the Micro 25 only possesses a MM phono stage, the freshly restored Dual 1219/Grado Black and Rega RP1/Ortofon OM40 tables were used to spin records, making for a very nice system. Both tables turned in excellent performance, but the synergy between the Dual/Grado was unbelievably good, offering a very rich tonal quality to whatever I played. If you are an analog lover that is on a tight budget or just doesn’t want to spend the time (and money) to seek out mega pressings, The Micro 25 could be your little slice of heaven. Some of my 70’s classic rock favorites sounded way better than they had a right to.

I love to compare audio components to automobiles and while this may annoy some of you that are less automotively inclined, the Micro 25 and Series 7 remind me of one of my favorite cars of all time, the Series one VW GTI. While the current GTI is an excellent car in its own right and offers a healthy does of Audi – level luxury, they now retail for about $30k and are out of the range many of the enthusiasts the car was originally aimed at.

But that original GTI was only $7,000 dollars and between 25 and 90 mph, provided a level of driver involvement that few cars at any price could match. This is exactly what the Croft pair offers up. They do such a great job at what they do well; you won’t notice their limitations. Even when used with a pair of $40k speakers, they sound so inviting connected to your favorite pair of $500-$1,500 speakers, you’ll be blown away with how much you can enjoy your music collection, analog or digital.

Only complaint is that the phono stage could be a little bit quieter. There is a bit of tube rush at modest levels when getting relatively close to the speakers, though you won’t hear it from your listening position. It does make a fairly harsh click when shutting off the preamplifier, so be sure to turn the amplifier off first.

Croft all the way, or…

These two Croft components have an obvious, one-manufacturer synergy when using them separately with other components but the preamplifier is the over achiever of the two. You’ll be hard pressed to find a vacuum tube based phono preamplifier this good for $1,395, much less one that includes a great linestage. Going a bit further upscale and plugging the Micro 25 into my recently rebuilt Conrad Johnson MV-50 power amplifier, I was pleasantly surprised at just how much more music was lurking inside this little preamplifier.

Where the Model 7 really shines is the amount of inner detail and musicality that it reveals. This is a quality vs. quantity piece all the way. You can buy other amplifiers for about $1,500 that have more power, but I defy you to find one this musically satisfying. Just like the preamplifier, mate the Model 7 with the right pair of speakers, preferably ones with a sensitivity of about 90db, and you may never go any further down the audio path. The other preamplifier I found great synergy with was my vintage Naim NAC 52, so anyone thinking of using one a Micro 25 with a vintage Naim preamplifier (also well known for an excellent on board phono stage) will not be disappointed, though you will need the appropriate interconnects.

Regardless of where you are on the audiophile path, if you are building a high performance, yet reasonably priced system I can’t suggest the Croft Micro 25 preamplifier and Model 7 power amplifier highly enough, especially if you can live without a remote control.

Both of these pieces perform far enough out of their respective price point that even if the audio bug bites you hard, you should be able to go through a few rounds of source and speaker upgrades before you tire of the Croft pieces. Even if you do decide to move further up the ladder, I’d suggest keeping these two forever – they are destined to become classics. I bought the review pair and plan to do just that. We are proud to award the pair one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2011.

The Croft Micro 25 Preamplifier and Model 7 power amplifier

MSRP: $1,395 each

Manufacturers Information: (factory) (North American distributor)

Mini Watt Amplifier: Take a Fresh Look at HiFi

No matter what your position in the audiophile game, you need a MiniWatt. This is one of the most fun pieces of gear I’ve seen in about fifteen years. (The last time was when the Antique Sound Labs Company sold their $99 tube monoblocks…) The MiniWatt is a 2.5-watt per channel tube amplifier that weighs a couple of pounds and only takes up about a 6 x 6 inch footprint on your desk, about 15 x 15 centimeters for our friends in the rest of the world.

It uses a pair of 6J1 and 6P1 tubes and a self contained AC power supply. The rear side of the transformers have banana jacks wired directly to them for your speakers and there is one set of RCA jacks to plug in an analog source. ALOAudio and their retail store 32 Ohm Audio is the exclusive American distributor for these little jewels, and when I stopped by their store last week, they weren’t even open and people were already buying them. “Wanna take one home?” Ball asked me as I was surveying the new store. Look, shiny thing!mini watt rear

Hurry up and plug it in

I wasn’t even half way to my car when I thought of hooking the MiniWatt up to my Zu Essence speakers that have a sensitivity of almost 100db. Knowing the luck I’ve had with Zu’s and 2A3 amplifiers in the past, I knew that this would be a rocking combination. The minute I hit the door, the MiniWatt was plugged in to the living room system, with the tubes warming up.

For the nerdtrons in the audience, I hooked the MW up with a pair of Zu’s Libtec speaker cables and a pair of Furutech Reference III interconnects to my Marantz Pearl SACD player. You think I’m crazy hooking up about $4k worth of ancillaries? It didn’t stop there, I had a spare Shunyata Python CX power cord, and so I was now ready to roll with the whole setup plugged into a Running Springs Haley power conditioner.

FYI, for those considering the MiniWatt to be the hub of a “budget” system, it works great that way too. Later on, after the amplifier was fully evaluated, I broke out the $50 Pioneer 563 Universal Player and my favorite $100 Polk Audios and was still very impressed with the watt top

2.5 watts can accomplish a lot

Powering the Zu’s the MW was able to blast. I zipped through some of my favorite metal discs and was amazed at how loud I could play Van Halen with this tiny amplifier. TONEAudio writer Jerald O’Brien stopped by for an adult beverage and thought I was using the Lavardin integrated amplifier that is also in for review. He was pretty surprised when I told him it was just the MW. “I thought that was a new headphone amp!” he remarked.

We proceeded to spin more discs and after some jazz and vocals, it was evident that this tiny tot was no mere toy amplifier; it delivered the goods. Because this amplifier has the tubes driven in ultralinear mode and those are some pretty small output transformers, it’s slightly grainy, but that’s judging it against my Bottlehead 2A3 monoblocks, which are silky smooth and with some upgraded 2A3’s will set you back a couple thousand bucks. You’ll never touch tubey goodness like this for $229.

What impressed me the most about the MW was the amount of bass power and control it had, which wasn’t limited to the Zu’s. Going through another cache of tracks from Pink Floyd, Genesis and Spock’s Beard, we were convinced that the MW could really get down. I also had a ton of fun using it as a desktop amplifier with a pair of KEF XQ20’s that feature their Uni-Q driver and are very coherent. Soundstaging on my desk between my 30” Apple Cinema Monitor was wide, wide, wide and dynamics remained excellent, even with speakers only having an 88db sensitivity. Near field listening has its benefits.

Pondering the Zu’s again, which have a nominal impedance somewhere around 14 ohms, I thought the MW just might be a good headphone after all and gave my Sennheiser 650’s a try. Again, excellent luck, so this could also work as a headphone amplifier for some phones. I didn’t get a chance to give this configuration extensive testing, so it might not work with every situation, but if you buy a MW I suggest giving your phones a test drive while you are at it. It’s small enough to carry into the bedroom for some late night listening with your iPod and favorite phones.

More performance

I suppose you could get crazy and mod the heck out of the MW, (and this could be a future article because I have a hard time leaving well enough alone) but an easy upgrade is to spend another $45 and get the “upgraded tube set” from ALO which includes a pair of Russian tubes to replace the 6N1’s on the outer left and right, while the two middle tubes are replaced with a pair of vintage Western Electric 403, which is a 7 pin mini pentode tube.

This made a big difference in the overall sound, increasing the soundstage about 25% and eliminating some of the grain that was present in the upper midrange/lower treble range. This is definitely the best $45 upgrade you will ever hear, so I suggest just ordering your MW from Ken with the better tubes, you won’t regret it.Mini watt upgrade

Award winning fun

I am happy to give the MiniWatt amplifier our Product of the Year award in the “Budget Audio” category. This is a great amplifier, period. If you are just starting out in HiFi, you can make a pair of single driver, high efficiency speakers, add a source and be digging music on a pretty tight budget that you will really enjoy and our world definitely needs more products like this. And I can’t think of a more fun way to enter the world of vacuum tube audio if you haven’t yet.

This little amp is the real deal folks. Highly recommended.

– Jeff Dorgay

The MiniWatt Amplifier

MSRP: $229, updated tubes, $30 additional

USA Importer:

Ken Ball/ALO Audio,

MiniWatt home page:

Vitus Audio SS -050 Amplifier

vitus-openingThe Vitus Audio SS-050 is a very high performance, yet minimalist integrated amplifier. Tipping the upper end of the price scale at $26,500, this is another destination product, and with one XLR and one RCA input, must be made part of a system that has only two sources. I imagine that this should pose no problem for the average person who has an analog source and a digital source.

Make sure your rack is adequately braced, as the SS-050 weighs 90 pounds. It’s a very compact yet dense piece of hardware with a huge power supply and some fairly massive heatsinks. Identical in appearance to the SS-010 amplifier, which produces 25 watts per channel in pure class-A mode, the SS-050 only remains class-A for the first few watts, going on to ultimately produce 100 watts per channel. Judging by the warmth of the sound and touching the outer case, it might be biased closer to class A than designer Hans Ole Vitus cares to admit.

An equal, if not higher amount of attention to detail is paid on the inside of the amplifier as well. Starting with the highest quality parts is only the beginning. Every resistor, capacitor and transistor is hand sorted and matched to assure only the best of the best exist in the Vitus amplifier. When I talked to Hans-Ole Vitus at this years CES show, he smiled and said, “You should see what we don’t use!”


With two inputs and an IEC power cord socket, it doesn’t get easier than this. I made it a point to feed the SS-050 with a dedicated 20 amp circuit, while the Naim CD555 was connected to a different AC line and the Nagra VPS/VFS phono stage remained battery powered. As the Nagra sounds best through its balanced outputs and the Naim does not have balanced outputs, these two high quality sources were a perfect match of the SS-050.

vitus-overheadAs with any solid-state amplifier that has been in transit for some time, the SS-050 took about 48 hours to open up, stabilize and sound it’s best, though it was more than pleasant out of the shipping carton. After spending a few weeks with the amplifier and going through regular power cycles, it takes about 30 minutes to fully stabilize in normal play.

The high current delivery of the SS-050 was a perfect match for my MartinLogan CLX speakers, however the lack of a preamplifier output, did not allow me to use my Gotham subwoofer with the SS-050, ultimately eliminating the CLX or the YG Acoustics Anat II’s that also required a high level output to drive its powered subwoofers. Keep this in mind if you have this requirement; if you love the Vitus sound, you will need one of their separate preamp/power amp combinations for this application.

Fortunately, the GamuT S-7’s were in for review at the time and these proved to be a fantastic match with the Vitus amplifier, as did the Harbeth Monitor 40.1’s. Those with a high performance full range loudspeaker will enjoy the powerful delivery the SS-050 offers. I’ve never heard the big Harbeth’s sound better than they did with the Vitus amplifier.

The sound

The highest strength of the SS-050 is the inner detail and lack of grain it presents. While some might prefer the somewhat dreamier, more romantic presentation of the SS-010 monoblocks, they are only 25 watts of pure Class-A power, somewhat more limiting in speaker options. 100 watts per channel just offers more opportunity to mate the SS-050 with different speakers.

This amplifier is solidly on the top of the mountain with the worlds best; one of a small handful that sounds like neither solid state nor vacuum tubes. On one level, it has no sound at all; merely presenting the music it’s fed in a completely honest way. Of course, the downside to all this honesty is much will be required of your source components.

vitus-rear viewI just happened to be listening to the complete set of the current AC/DC remasters on vinyl, so the first track I played on the Vitus based system was “Live Wire” from the High Voltage album. The guitar lead-in on this piece instantly struck me, as I could hear the speakers in whatever cabinet Angus Young was using to record with rattle, much clearer than ever before. Next up was “Night Prowler” from Highway to Hell. Again, I was impressed with not only the weight, but also the subtle texture and roundness of the opening bass riffs in this track. When I turned this up, perhaps too loud, the placement of the snare drum remained rock solid, just in front of the soundstage on the right side, and did not fall back into the mix. However, when I went back to my early stamper originals, it was plainly obvious that these records were produced from digital safety masters; another layer of detail was now available.

While AC/DC can’t be the ultimate judge of fidelity, it does reveal whether an amplifier has grunt fairly quickly. If an amplifier can’t really rock, what’s the point? I suppose for those of you in the audience that aren’t metal heads, a similar amount of stimulation would be necessary from your favorite large orchestral piece from Mahler or perhaps Shostakovich.

I’ve been in somewhat of a Mussorgsky mood lately, and one of my favorite demo tracks is “The Warrior Captain” performed by the Netherlands Wind Ensemble. While starting out very delicately, when the thunderous solo vocal enters the mix, it is tough for less refined amplifiers to retain the airiness of the wind instruments, while keeping the vocals out in front. The SS-050 passed this test with ease.

So how about some Monkees in the midst of all this? Much as I love the Monkees, most of their music is poorly recorded, but this is always a great test to see how well a very resolving piece of gear does with a terrible recording. I must say that the Rhino remaster of the Monkees’ Headquarters never sounded better. Thanks to all the inner detail of the Vitus amplifier, I heard some great overdubs on “The Girl That I Knew Somewhere.” The point here is that while the SS-050 possesses a high level of resolution, it will not be limited to the 20 “audiophile pressings” in your collection to give its all. Of course, the best recordings will be spectacular, but even the average recordings in your collection will reveal more than you’ve heard before. A tough challenge to meet, indeed.

Though it is a somewhat worn out audiophile cliché, that is often overused, the SS-050 is truly an amplifier that adds or subtracts nothing (or at least very precious little) to the recording; it just pulls everything that is available out so you can hear it. If you’ve ever compared the sound of a very dirty record, to one that you’ve just spent time meticulously cleaning, this is the effect the SS-050 will have on your music collection.

High frequencies are delicately rendered, without a hint of graininess. Overtones sound clean, with cymbals and percussion sounding correct without being overdone. Acoustic bass again has the correct amount of natural resonance without being loose and whumpy, yet without making the mistake of being overdamped. This is a trap that many solid-state amplifiers make and while this may appeal to a segment of audiophilia that is looking for really tight bass, is not what an upright bass sounds like in a room. All the way through the frequency spectrum, the SS-050 always retains a delicacy that many think solid state is not capable of producing, and was only reserved for vacuum tubes.vitus-front 34

The Bottom Line

The only limitations of the Vitus Audio SS-050 amplifier are in terms of flexibility. If you require more than two inputs and need to integrate a powered subwoofer into your system, you will have to pass on this amplifier. However it’s sound quality is without peer. I put the SS-050 up at the pinnacle of solid-state amplifier design that in many ways surpasses the best vacuum tube designs I’ve heard, yet having none of the inconvenience associated with tubes. This amplifier will sound just as good 25 years from now as it does today. And when you consider that over that period of time, you will have bought about 10 sets of 6550 output tubes, the SS-050 becomes a much more practical investment.

If you are looking for the anchor to an ultimately minimalist system, this amplifier should be at the top of your list. And it is available in silver and black as well as the bright gold you see here.

The Vitus Audio SS-050 integrated amplifier
MSRP: $26,500


Digital Source Naim CD555/PS555

Analog Source Nagra VPS/VFS

Turntable Spiral Groove SG-2/Triplanar/Dynavector XV-1s
Cable Shunyata Aurora interconnects, Shunyata Stratos SP speaker cable

Power Running Springs Dmitri and Maxim power conditioners, RSA Mongoose power cords

Speakers MartinLogan CLX, Harbeth Monitor 40.1, GamuT S-7

Vista Audio i34 Integrated Amplifier

In the world of audio, simplicity not only exists, but also is ravenously celebrated. Both Conrad-Johnson and McIntosh have produced anniversary editions of a few of their most beloved equipment. The single driver speaker community is alive and well. Most importantly, the days of mass buttons and switches have gone the way of the dinosaur, sans home theater receivers. Vacuum tube equipment thankfully has always followed a more simplified life. Though the process of developing a fine piece of glowing glass is a long and laborious process, the finished product is quite simple, and usually elegant.

Vista-Audio first caught my eye a few years back when I got to spend a few weeks with their i84 integrated tube amplifier. It was a very musical amplifier, that had a tonal purity and did an excellent job with fairly inefficient speakers, so I was anxious to sample their latest creation, the i34, which uses a pair of EL34 tubes per channel to produce 35 watts per channel. This definitely opened up the possibilities to mate the Vista sound with a wider range of speakers.

The i34 is designed and built in Serbia and is very reasonably priced at $980. It uses a pair of ECC832’s, which designer Boris Sasic feels offers the best qualities of the 12AX7 and 12AU7 in one tube. The latest version of JJ’s EL34 the EL34L’s are used for the output tubes and are supplied in a matched quad for this view

Sleek and simple

The i34 features a basic layout, reminiscent of the Dynaco Stereo 70 or early McIntosh power amplifiers with an open steel chassis, exposing the tubes and transformers. Definitely an old school approach. The transformers are sourced directly from Traformatic, who’s factory is nearby. Sasic says that this helps to keep the build cost more reasonable, because the majority of the amplifiers bulk doesn’t have to be shipped very far. The i34 weighs 24 pounds, but feels heavier than it is, definitely having a short and stout footprint.

The front panel has a simple volume control and input selector. Around back ar three sets of high level inputs marked CD, TUNER and AUX. There is also a ground for Vistas’ new phono preamplifier that I am in the process of reviewing. There are taps for 4 and 8 ohm speakers, rounded off with a standard IEC receptacle for power and the power switch, which keeps the front panel clean.
Setup and burn in

Thanks to the matched quad of tubes, the i34 leaves the factory with it’s bias already set. Sasic claims that the tubes do not need to be rebiased until a new set is fitted. Per Sasic’s direction, I gave the i34 a full week of burn in before settling down to serious listening.

Not wanting to get too much of a tubey good thing, I kept my modified Jolida CD player with a tube output stage on the sideline and used the SimAudio i.5 and the Rotel RCD-1520 CD players as sources for the bulk of the review. My usual reference speakers, the Eficion F200 speakers were used, sans MartinLogan subwoofer, as the i34 does not have a variable output to use with a sub.

The Sound

The i34 had a very open tonal quality and did not bloat breathy female vocals as some tube amplifiers can do. When listening to Nora Jones, Come Away With Me, the airy sultriness that attracts most listeners to her voice wasn’t overdone in the least. This was very similar to my memory of the i84; midrange magic, but not too much.

Thanks to the more delicate nature of the EL 34 tube, this amplifier is probably more suited to acoustic and vocal music. Unless you have incredibly efficient speakers, you won’t be able to enjoy Megadeth or Audioslave at the proper levels, though I was intrigued with the Who’s Quadrophenia when listening to Keith Moon’s drumming. While this amplifier does not hit you on the head with thunderous bass performance, the quality of the bass is excellent and the amplifier has great pace overall.

Comparing the i34 to my other tube amplifier, the Onix SP3, the Onix amplifier had more overall slam, but the i34 had more detail and delicacy. The i34 is a very resolving amplifier for its price point indeed.

Trying a few different speakers, I had excellent luck with the Swan 2.1SE monitors, which have a slight bass bump, making for an excellent match with the bass performance of the i34. The Era Design 5’s are less efficient and were not terribly enticing overall. The i34 is no different than any other 35 watt tube amplifier in this respect; careful speaker matching is necessary to get the most out of the power on tap.rear view

Final thoughts

There’s a solid selection of tube integrated amplifiers around the $1000 price range. At $980 the Vista Audio i34 holds it’s own very well. The fit and finish is excellent, with an understated vintage aesthetic. The overall presentation is excellent, with this amplifier providing a more refined sound than you would expect at this price point.

The Vista Audio i34 amplifier

MSRP: $980

Manufacturers Information

ENG Vista, Inc.
77-21 86th St
Ridgewood, NY 11385

Rita-340 Integrated Amplifier

web RITA FrontIf you like tube amplifiers that hanker back to the glory days of audio with a big, beefy chassis and huge output transformers, the Grant Fidelity Rita-340 is for you. It’s so robustly built that even the careless handling of the UPS guys couldn’t stop it! The substantial crate arrived, looking like it had been dropped off the top of my garage roof, but after I dusted off the Rita and fired it up it worked perfectly and it has worked flawlessly for the past six months. I think this should settle any build questions you might have about this amplifier; anything that can survive that kind of abuse should be fine in everyday use.

The Rita-340 has a substantial footprint, reminding me a lot of the Audio Research D-79 and D-150 that I used to own in the 80s, so make sure you have enough shelf space. It measures 15.5” wide, 10” tall and is 19” deep, weighing about 115 pounds. Perhaps the bottom shelf on your rack may be the best.

The silver faceplate is massive and it features control buttons on the front with a pair of transparent power meters that feature deep blue lights that let you see the tubes glowing inside. The Rita 340 is also available in all black if you prefer that look. If you subscribe to the “deep listening” crowd that needs all the lights out to get in your audio trance, you can switch the lighting off on the back panel. I loved the contrast of the blue panel and the rich warm glow of the tubes. However, I did find the power meters relatively useless. With no markings to show what they really are indicating, and the small, thin florescent orange pointers, they are virtually impossible to read from more than a few feet away. If I made the style decisions, I’d just leave the see through front panel without the meters.


Keep in mind that this is an integrated amplifier, so the size isn’t so imposing when you realize it’s taking up two spaces. There are four high level RCA inputs and one XLR input, should you have a component with balanced outputs to integrate with your system. I took advantage of this to use my Luxman D7 combination player, which features balanced outputs.

The test system consisted of the Luxman player, my Sound HiFi modded Technics SL-1200 with SME 309 arm, Sumiko Blackbird cartridge and Audio Research PH3SE phono stage. All cabling was the latest Furutech Ref III (speaker and interconnects), with Shunyata Python CX power cords and a Shunyata V-Ray power conditioner.

While most of my listening was done with my Harbeth Monitor 40.1’s, I did try quite a few different speakers during the listening period. The Rita wouldn’t really push my MartinLogan CLX’s or Magnepan 1.6’s (nor did I expect it to…), but it did a great job with all the more traditional dynamic speakers I used it with. Excellent results were achieved with the Zu Essence, Verity Audio Sarastro II’s and the Gamut S-7, as well as a number of mini monitors that have passed through for review.

web RITA RearThere are two sets of speaker outputs on the rear panel, and while the amplifier is rated to drive speakers from 4-8 ohms, with a tap for 4 and 8 ohms and a common ground. The speakers I tried had varying impedance and I did not notice any issues driving anything.

Overall the Rita-340 is very easy to use, the only quirky thing I found during the review period was the relatively slow ramp up of the volume control, but I’d rather have it go too slow than too fast, which has been the case on a few preamplifiers I’ve used lately. Fortunately, the stylish remote does have a mute button, so it’s all good.

The basics

The good news is that none of this affects the amplifiers performance, which is excellent. After a brief burn in period of about 50 hours, Rita was in full song. Featuring a pair of EL34’s driven by a 6SN7 and 6SL7 in each channel, tube rollers will be in heaven. I was very pleased with the stock tubes, but swapping the 6SN7’s for a pair of Sylvanias’ I had on hand relaxed the overall presentation, but if you are a tube roller, I’m sure you have your own secret combination. For those wanting to take the amplifiers’ performance a bit further without a lot of experimentation, you can purchase Shuguang Treasure “Black Bottle” 6SN7’s for about $300 a pair and their EL34 tubes for about the same price. Click here to see their variations on the theme:

If you purchase a set from Grant Fidelity at the same time you pick up your amplifier, they will give you 25% off. And thanks to Grant Fidelity’s excellent customer service, if you aren’t quite ready to swap tubes, as a Rita owner, they will still extend the discount later, when you are ready to make the change. Very cool.

If you are new to tube rolling, I’d highly suggest just trying the 6SN7’s. NOS variations of these tubes are indestructible and you can actually change the tonality of the amplifier quite a bit, allowing you to fine tune the sound to your room, taste and speakers. NOS EL34’s may prove too spendy, reaching as much as $300 or more each.

While still on the subject of tubes, the Rita-340 features fixed bias on the output tubes, so you will not have to monitor or adjust bias. This will require purchasing a matched quad of output tubes when retubing, which usually adds 10-20% more to the cost, but because the Rita is run so conservatively, I anticipate tube life to be very long, much like my McIntosh MC275.

If this all sounds like too much work, just fire up the Rita and dig the glorious sound.

Big amplifier, big sound

The Rita is an excellent blend between current and old school design. It has the midrange delicacy that drives most people to a tube amplifier in the first place, yet has the extension at both ends of the frequency scale to sound modern. But being an EL34 design, it does possess more warmth than a KT88 design. If you prefer a punchier version, try their Rita-880, which uses KT88 tubes and is only slightly more expensive at $4,200. The 340 was a perfect fit for me, as the EL34 is one of my favorite tubes, and I’ve used quite a few variations on the theme over the years.

I was most impressed with the quality of the bass and control that the Rita possessed. When used with the $42,000 Verity Sarastro II’s that go solidly down to 25hz, it was no problem getting some serious bass grunt with some resolution. Playing my favorite Pink Floyd and Genesis tracks revealed that the Rita could shake the walls quite nicely, but switching to some acoustic bass showed off the more articulate side of the amplifier.

Listening to “Her Room” on Anja Garbarek’s Smiling and Waving allowed me to cross the acoustic bass and female vocal requirements off the list handily. This record is a great demo, because it starts with some great plucky bass lines and weaves a great sonic texture of trippy environmental effects with Ms. Garbarek’s ethereal voice.

As I mentioned earlier, this amplifier does an excellent job of adding a touch of tubiness without becoming slow and syrupy, but make no mistake; this is a tube amplifier that adds a slight bit of body to the sound. But isn’t that why you buy a tube amplifier in the first place? Listening to some of Henry Rollins’ spoken word discs was outright scary! It sounded like Henry was right in the room screaming at me through the Harbeths. Johnny Cash’s “Delia” from American Recordings and various tracks from Tom Waits Mule Variation were equally haunting.

The presentation never got cloudy, when listening to relatively complex music either. Orchestral music had a very nice sense of spaciousness and placement. The Rita threw a very big and wide soundstage, with a lot of front to back depth as well. While 35 watts can only go so far, the Rita gave its all, even on less efficient speakers and to its credit, clips very softly. 86 db speakers should be no problem if you don’t need to achieve concert hall levels and anything above 90 db sensitivity will let you rock the house.

But there’s just something special about listening to 60’s and 70’s rock on a great tube amplifier like the Rita. That extra body just makes those Marshall amplifiers come alive in your living room. Thanks to the airy presentation, I also enjoyed my favorite grunge records from the 80’s and early 90’s too. Sonic Youth’s “My Friend Goo”, from Goo is a relatively flat recording, but the Rita did an excellent job of unraveling the texture within. Soundgarden was just as much fun to blast as Led Zeppelin and I was always surprised at just how dynamic the Rita made good live recordings sound.

This sense of dynamics really came in handy when listening to some of Naim Records’ latest 24/96 recordings. “Dolphyus Morphyus”, the sixth track on Empirical’s Out and In, has some great sax solos that will push an amplifier to its limits to keep up. The Rita-340 did a great job and never felt strained in the least, so if you are adding high res files to your music collection, you will have no problems here.


Regardless of your musical taste, the Rita is an excellent amplifier that was always involving and most of all, a lot of fun to listen to. As an integrated, you save on rack space and the fact that you will only have to upgrade one power cord (if you are so inclined) and will not need to agonize over interconnects between amplifier and preamplifier. Not to mention the resulting synergy that comes from having it all in one box.

If you have wanted to get back into tubes or are thinking about trying it for the first time, the Rita-340 should provide years of musical enjoyment thanks to its robust construction and gentle use of its power tubes. The folks at Grant Fidelity have an excellent reputation for customer service, so they can help you with tube rolling and other system questions. We are very happy to give the Rita 340 one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2009.

Manufacturers Information

The Grant Fidelity Rita – 340 Reference Integrated Tube Amplifier

MSRP: $3,500


Analog Source: Sound HiFi Modded SL-1200 with Sumiko Blackbird and Audio Research PH3SE

Digital Sources: Luxman Du-7 Combination player, Sooloos Music Server with Neko Audio D-100 DAC

Speakers: GamuT S-7, Harbeth Monitor 40.1, Verity Audio Sarastro II, ZU Essence

Cable: Shunyata Aurora interconnects, Shunyata Orion speaker cable, Shunyata Python CX power cords

Accessories: Shunyata V-Ray power conditioner, Shunyata Dark Field Cable Elevators, GIK sound panels, Furutech DeMag

LFD’s latest amplifier


I had my first experience with LFD  in 1998 when I purchased their Mistral amplifier on the suggestion of my dealer, Gene Rubin, of Gene Rubin audio.  It was such a good amplifier, that even after upgrading my analog front end to five-figure territory, I was still very pleased with the Mistral.

Last year, Gene sent me the LFD Zero LE III, which was basically a Mistral with higher quality parts throughout.  At $2,495 it was an incredible bargain and even at the current price of $3,195 this is still one of my favorite integrated amplifiers.  I am still haunted by the high level of performance by that modest, minimalist amplifier and regret not buying the review sample.

The current offering from LFD, the NCSE (New Chassis, Special Edition) has taken their design even further using Vishay bulk-foil resistors, Shinkoh tantalum resistors, silver internal wiring and a very robust case that adds eight more pounds over the LE III. The faceplate is unusually thick for a British integrated and is similar to what you might see on a big American monoblock.
The four rubber feet from previous versions have now been upgraded to three isolation devices that consist of a viscoelastic foot that fits into a milled aluminum cup. Power output has taken a jump to 70 watts per channel, up from 60wpc in the LE II and 50wpc in the original Mistral.  Even with the power increase, the LFD runs cool to the touch, so it will easily fit in tight spaces without a problem.

Act now!

At $7,500, the NCSE is not inexpensive, but there is an introductory price of $6,000.  LFD had a similar pricing policy with their past models, so if you are intrigued, I suggest getting in at the beginning of the production cycle before the price goes up or something else wacky happens in the currency markets.

LFD is a low profile company that takes pride in hand assembling their amplifiers, but part of what makes the NCSE so special, is that designer Richard Bews assembles each unit personally.  Every aspect of the amplifier exudes craftsmanship with understated elegance. The compact size and dark grey casework will blend into your decor quite nicely.  If you need the approval of your audiophile buddies that own gargantuan amplifiers and huge heatsinks, the NCSE may not pass muster, but the minute you turn it on, I guarantee they will be impressed.


Items for the wish list

I only have two complaints with the NCSE; the lack of a remote control and the crowded rear panel.  I can certainly understand the purist approach taken by LFD, eliminating every bit of unnecessary circuitry from the main board, but an amplifier at this price point should provide a remote, even if a very basic one with volume and mute options.

The RCA jacks and speaker binding posts are very close on the rear panel, too close to use some premium cable with the amplifier, and this amplifier’s performance is worthy of the best cable you can afford.  The speaker binding posts are so close together that many of the larger cables will be difficult if not impossible to use with spade lugs.  If you do not have a lot of room behind the LFD, sticking to banana plugs will be best.

The NCSE features five line level RCA inputs along with a tape monitor input and output.  As you can see from the front panel, there are no markings for the various inputs, so you will have to commit your sources to memory.  A phono stage is not available as an option, so an outboard phono stage will be necessary for LP lovers.  I found excellent synergy between my Lehmann Black Cube SE and the NCSE, using Audience Maestro interconnects.

On to the good stuff…

Anyone who has owned or used LFD gear knows that these criticisms are minor and those willing to forgo some functionality in search of performance won’t find any of this an issue.  As with past LFD amplifiers, the NCSE required about three days of continuous play to settle into its character and sound its best.  Initially, I found the presentation slightly laid back, but with a very wide-open soundstage that spread out behind the boundaries of my room.  Once adjusted to this new perspective, I was reveling in the detail, noticing the sizes and shapes of the presentation in my favorite records.

The NCSE was a fantastic match with the Harbeth Monitor 40.1’s (which you can also get from Gene Rubin), doing what only the best gear does – offering ever bit of nuance your recordings have to give without sounding analytical or harsh. Many have called the LFD amplifiers “tube-like” and I think the NCSE comes even closer to that description than its predecessors.

After hearing “Prophecies” used in the film Watchmen, I had a hankering to go home and listen to my Nonesuch pressing of Koyaanisqatsi. Even though it had been a while since I last listened to this LP, I was immediately struck by the fact that I could make out individual voices in the choir and follow each person all the way through certain passages. While listening to folk-singer Sarazin Blake’s newly repackaged 2007 CD, The Air Your Lungs Forced Out, I was treated to a wealth of information that was downright surprising, relishing the way Blake’s guitar amp would make the snare drum rattle and buzz on certain notes or the way the four musicians would move and shift their positions slightly throughout each tune.

When auditioning the LE III, I was always impressed with the quality of low bass information present, but the NCSE offered more extension and slightly more warmth. On the new MFSL LP pressing of Linda Ronstadt’s Prisoner in Disguise, Kenny Edwards’ bass sounded unusually rich and full without being boomy or over-extended. Low frequency information continued to be tactile and textured throughout a variety of recordings, with just a little more pluck, a little more flesh-against-string and a little more interaction with room boundaries clearly evident.


Into the sunset…

Boxing the NCSE back up at the end of the review, I’m reminded of the ongoing conversation I’ve had with fellow audiophiles about the “Golden Years” system, the one that you retire with after you are finished keeping up with the Joneses and playing the upgrade game. This is an amplifier that I could live with forever.  If sound quality is your priority and you can forgo the remote control, I highly suggest the LFD NCSE.

The LFD NCSE integrated amplifier

MSRP:  $7,500 (introductory price, $6,000)

Where to purchase in the US:

Fidelis AV (the US importer)

Gene Rubin Audio