Fi X 2A3/45 Integrated Amplifier
If you have to ask "Why?" You really need a Fi...
Review By Ian White
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There is something about music that keeps its distance even at the moment that it engulfs us. It is at the same time outside and away from us and inside and part of us. In one sense it dwarfs us, and in another we master it. We are led on and on, and yet in some strange way we never lose control.
- Aaron Copland
It had been less than ten hours since I had finished installing a pair of Spendor SR5s in Rachel Weisz's London home when the text messages began.
***System sounds great... need more music... cheers***
***System still sounds great... found one of your audio do-hickeys under ottoman...
***New Madonna sounds shrill... system broken... please reply or will put stop on cheque***
***Willing to do coffee if you fix whatever is wrong... agent wants references for Scotland Yard beforehand***
Before I ventured into the exciting world of audio/video consulting, acquaintances within the industry warned me that dealing with the "rich and famous" was a dicey exercise at best and that I should be prepared for endless complaints about everything from price to
color scheme (no, they don't offer these in tiger print), but nobody mentioned anything about being asked out on a date.
The first five months of my separation had not been kind on either the body or mind and it took a cabbie in a Suburban Washington D.C. parking lot to wake me from a Krispy Kreme-induced coma before I decided to stop feeling sorry for myself and turn things around. I sold almost everything and started over.
It was now the early evening and as I fought my way through London's rush hour traffic, I struggled with the idea that a famous Hollywood starlet wanted to have coffee with me - even if she had ulterior motives and was probably going to fly-off to Paris or New York in the morning to have lustful sex and overpriced Sushi at Nobu with Neo.
I pulled over to the side of the road and responded to her dozen text messages with one of my own.
***Have to go home to get tools... be at your home in 1 hour…don't have
references... no priors... coffee sounds fine***
The reality was that everything I needed was in the car with me, but I had driven aimlessly around the city all day following our introduction the night before and I desperately needed a three minute military shower and shave before venturing out to see just how cruel God was capable of being. I also wanted to tidy up, although as is the case with many anal-retentive singles, the magazines on the coffee table had not moved at all during the day unless a jumbo jet had crashed into the southern bank of the Thames by Vauxhall while I was out.
As I took a final inventory of items on my person before running out the door, I did what any insanely neurotic and desperate audio consultant on a date with a client would do…I checked my teeth for poppy seeds (note to self - perhaps my Mother is right about not eating hamantashens outside of the Purim holiday) and made sure that my system was going to be warmed up and my turntable rotating at a precise 33.3
RPM if "we" returned.
If MJ could bag Lisa-Marie, anything was possible, I thought.
BBC Radio 2 was counting down to some ridiculous British Folk contest soon to be aired when I crossed over the Thames and made my way into Belgravia.
"But before we join this evening's contest already in progress, let's send out a birthday cheer to Richard Thompson, whose new album The Old Kit Bag has made it to number 45 on the HMV charts this week."
As I flipped between Radio 2 and 5, I made a mental note to purchase eleven copies of the Thompson LP just to spite the DJ who probably thought that the Oasis boys got a raw deal and that real British talent like that wanker from Coldplay needed to sell one million more CDs in order to support Gwyneth.
It was going to be a long night in audiophile-ville, perhaps the longest ever.
I could smell her perfume even before she opened the door and I promised myself that I wouldn't show too much teeth when I smiled as it always looked forced.
"Good evening," she said even before I could extend my hand and pretend to be polite.
"Good evening to you as well, Ms. Weisz. After all of your text messages today, I was almost afraid to show my face," I replied.
"I am sorry to have made you crazy, but after the way you made the Spendor speakers sound last evening, it was damn frustrating to have it sound so awful with my Madonna CD," she responded with a level of genuine disappointment that almost had me turn in my audiophile decoder ring and merit badge.
"If you would permit me, I would like to correct what is wrong so that I can spend the rest of the week flogging myself with print-outs of SoundStage as it is the only punishment other than forcing myself to read Hi-Fi News that is worthy of this heinous crime."
She stepped backwards, bowed and replied, "Thou art forgiven Neo."
I could see her begin to suppress a smile and I knew that I had gone overboard in my choice of a black suit and sunglasses at 19:30. She was actually flirting with me. Her smile was disarming in an awkward way and I began to realize that she was trying to make me forget that she was a movie star and just a single Jewish girl in need of a properly working stereo.
Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom. If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn. They teach you there's a boundary line to music. But, man, there's no boundary line to art.
- Charlie Parker
When I walked into her listening room, my jaw hit the floor when I saw just about every audiophile tweak under the sun being used throughout the system. None of this had been there the night before.
"Where the hell did all of this come from?" I asked.
"My friend, Keanu, sent them to me from America a few weeks ago and I decided to try them out."
"Okay, first of all, your friend has been reading way too many audio magazines and none of this crap is going to work right unless we start from scratch," I replied with the knowledge that I had just called out Keanu Reeves as a hack. Just to prove my point, I listened to the Madonna CD that she disliked and heard exactly what was wrong.
"Well, you have succeeded in mucking up what was a perfectly coherent and musical sounding system with what I am sure cost your "friend" thousands of dollars."
What was once a tidy and perfectly fine sounding equipment rack was now an edgy, sterile, platform of shit. I removed all of the metallic spikes and cones from underneath her Naim source gear, disconnected it from two daisy-chained power line conditioners (plugged it directly into the wall) and pressed 'play' on the CD player.
While it did nothing for the content, Madonna's voice was no longer melting our brain matter and I could see that Ms. Weisz was beginning to slowly understand.
"Grab your coat, as it is time for coffee and I am going to show you something."
With that, my somewhat puzzled client grabbed her Kate Spade purse and we made our way back across the Thames to my hovel passing itself off as a "New York-style loft".
A Little Less Conversation, A Little
More Action Please...
As I fumbled with the keys to my apartment I began to wonder if I had made a mistake bringing such a high-profile client back to my home for coffee and a private demonstration. What I had failed to mention to Ms. Weisz while she grilled me about my failed marriage was that I was somewhat intrigued by a young woman in my building that had the nerve to complain about the volume of my system and call the police.
"Nicole" lived across the hall from Apartment 300B (how ironic) and one evening while reminiscing about the 80's with a barrage of one-hit wonders from Dexy's Midnight Runners, the Romantics, and Gowan, there had been an intense pounding on the door.
"Shut that bloody crap up!" she yelled. "If you are going to drive me absolutely crazy with that Boy George-wannabe music, at least have the decency to use valves!"
Yes, ladies and friends... she actually said "valves".
It was as if I had been standing in a bathtub while touching the circuit board of a pair of 300-watt push-pull 6550 monoblocks during an electrical storm.
I had sold my soul when I packed my things and moved across the ocean, only to go all solid-state with my trusty Spendor's. One day passed into another and I was unable to even look at my system.
I scrounged around London for days looking for salvation and found two of the most unlikely pieces that would end up saving me - both mentally and physically from a total breakdown.
While I previously reviewed the Cain and Cain Abby loudspeakers and enjoyed them a great deal, I had never seen a Fi X before. Fi had always been one of those mysterious brands back in the states that rarely got any press but the buzz among the huddled audiophile masses was that its creator, Don Garber, was not only a wonderful artist, but a bloody genius as well. On one occasion, a manufacturer whose opinion I greatly respected and whose anonymity I swore to keep told me in confidence that if you are looking for something really "extraordinary" at a very fair price, find a "Fi".
While not as fancy as the larger Fi 300B and 2A3 monoblocks that come with some fancy iron from MQ, the X looks like no other piece of hi-fi. The amplifier literally is an "X" and it was designed that way from the perspective of shielding components from one another, proper grounding, keeping everything nice and cool. At the price, under five hundred pounds, the Fi X was a downright steal. To make matters even more interesting, it was the "integrated" version of the X with three inputs.
I was startled that such a unique piece of single-ended tube lore was just sitting there gathering dust. The X does not (for obvious cost reasons) have the polished wax finish of its more expensive brethren but so what. You look it and you have to appreciate the creativity that went into its design.
Ever the procrastinator, I played eleven rounds of "rock, paper, scissors" with myself before emptying my wallet and going home with both the Fi X and the nearfield version of the Cain Abby. My new
neighbors probably thought that I was crazy as I schlepped the rather irregular speakers up three flights of stairs but it was certainly good exercise.
While designed primarily around the 2A3 triode, the Fi X can be used with the even more angelic 45 triode, just as long as you don't mind losing fifty percent of the power and remember to switch out the stock 5V4 rectifier tube for a 5Y3GT. I had heard
rumors about having to flip the Fi X on the Internet (like anyone actually reads stuff posted on the net) if one wanted to use 45s and especially the mesh plate version of the tube, but that proved in my experience to be untrue. Apparently, the new TJ 45 mesh plates were designed so that the tube could be oriented horizontally without risk of damage to the tube.
Still, 3 watts with 2A3s and between 1-2 watts with 45s did rule out symphonic orgies at 3AM with the Spendors. The 96dB Abby on the other hand were another story.
Meanwhile back at the Bat Cave…
As Ms. Weisz made herself comfortable on my sofa, I flipped quickly (albeit with a great deal of nervousness) through my classical records and removed one that I thought might just work. I was a late bloomer in regard to classical music and I hoped that my guest would enjoy the
Elgar Cello Concerto (Elgar, J.S. Bach, Saint-Saens, Bruch) performed by the lovely Jacqueline Du Pre [Angel Stereo 363338 LP]. I turned down the lights and stood behind the sofa as the first few notes emerged.
Audiophiles have a horrible tendency to start talking just as the music starts to get good in order to show off how much/little they know about the equipment, and I made sure that this was not one of those moments. I could tell by the way she sat up that she was connecting with the music. There was great body to the cello and each note flowed into the next with passion and purpose. While I could not see her face, I sensed that it was either ghost white as all of the blood drained out of it or that she was quite flushed as she became more aroused with each passing note.
I moved closer to the sofa in order to kneel down so that I could ask her a question when her left hand made the "stop" signal right in my face and I froze.
And She Said To Me
"Don't make a sound, this is so wonderful," she whispered.
As the piece came to a close, she turned and said, "Well, aside from a small amount of haze in certain sections, that was some of the most wonderful music that I've ever heard. There was such body to the instruments - they almost sounded real."
"Can it play any louder?"
"That depends on your definition of loud. If you mean 'too loud to have a conversation" loud, then yes it can reach those levels but on symphonic material and hard rock it does begin to clip. Let's try the other tube and see what you think."
With my Linn Sizmik subwoofer handling almost everything below 100Hz, I really didn't think that volume was an issue with the RCA Black Plate 2A3s that I had been using, but I switched off the amplifier and substituted a pair of TJ mesh plate 45s and let the amplifier warm-up for twenty minutes.
While we waited, I walked into my kitchen and began to prepare coffee the only way that I knew how.
The Bialetti stove top coffee maker.
It is one of the really ridiculous inventions that don't require a manual or monthly service. You put water in the bottom, the espresso in the filter, and you screw on the pot. Place pot on stove and wait until steam comes out of valve. Delicious coffee ready to screw up with too much milk or ridiculous sugar substitutes such as Splenda.
As I handed Ms. Weisz her cup, she leaned back against the counter and looked back into my living room.
"You know that your coffee maker and amplifier are very similar," she said.
From a visual perspective, I could see where she was going with her remark but it ended there.
"It is so obvious. They both are quite simple in their design and functionality, but that is also why they succeed at what they do. Your 20£ coffee pot takes the water and coffee and without any bells and whistles or pretentiousness…makes a wonderful cup of coffee. The amplifier seems to do the same."
"Are you sure you were never married to Mark Levinson?" I responded.
Apparently everyone read that totally idiotic book.
"I'm being quite serious. I think that amplifier is a threat to the community that you live in. It has none of the fancy bells and whistles or overbuilt boxes that you need to stay in business. I can see why YOU love it - you are an emotional mess and you need something honest and true in your life right now. That little "X" thing scares you. Fine, so it isn't perfect. You should have gone for the more expensive one with the better transformers and audiophile-approved parts, but how much more evidence does one need in order to see/feel the truth? If you feel nothing while listening to that then there is no piece of equipment that is ever going to do it for you."
As we settled back into the living room, I cued up the same record and we listened with the 45s.
While I did have a stash of NOS 45s that I could have used to demonstrate the Fi X, I came to the realization that the new TJ mesh plate really is the proper choice for most speakers and not just because it has some extra power. Not only does the TJ retain a lot of the classic "45" sound, but it is punchier and more dramatic…and drama is sometimes a very good thing.
For the better part of three hours we listened to an assortment of classical (Dvorak, Haydn, Shostakovitch), jazz (Allison, Monk, Vaughn), blues (Waters, Burnside, James), and folk/rock (Thompson, Fleck, King, Gabriel) and we both agreed on the following conclusions:
1. The Fi X sounds better with 45s but only if you use the new TJ mesh plate and use a good NOS 5Y3.
2. The Fi X sounds better with the 2A3 (RCA Black Plates, Sovtek) if you are listening to rock, alternative.
3. The simplicity of the product does a great job of camouflaging what is a very sophisticated and musical piece of art that is capable of hot flashes and sweaty palms.
4. The price is insanely low for how much music it makes.
5. Why not own more than one?
6. With the appropriate speakers, the 2A3 and 45 can produce rather taut and meaty bass, but you most certainly need a subwoofer if you want to fill in the bottom octaves.
As the evening came to an end and I helped Ms. Weisz with her coat, she turned and looked at me with some apprehension.
"I know that this is going to come off as being somewhat forward, but are you free to go to a concert with me next week?"
Like she didn't know the answer beforehand.
"I would be delighted, but only if you promise to come back again for some more music," I replied.
"I would very much like that," she replied and moved forward to give me a soft kiss on the cheek.
Love…Fi X…Music…Fi X…Genuine Musical Enjoyment…Fi X
There is some hope for this silly industry yet.
Let us hope that my medications last long enough and the neighbor did not watch through the peephole.
Tube Compliment: two Chinese 2A3s and one Sylvania 5Y3GT (rectifier)
Mr. Don Garber
Voice: (718) 625-7353