Every month, I receive a plethora of emails from readers (okay, three from a guy in Wisconsin, and the occasional one from a nice old lady in Ramat Gan, Israel) asking me for my opinion in regard to the use of separates or an integrated amplifier. Some of the more brazen ones have pointed out in rather colorful terms, that separates are unnecessary and nothing but an act of collusion between manufacturers and the audio reviewing press. It seems that the "art" of integrated amplifier design has advanced to such a lofty plateau, that using a separate power amplifier and preamp (and separate phono stage for those of us heathens who still spin vinyl) has become an enormous waste of one's hard earned shekels and that all of us who continue to perpetuate the lie about having to spend $5,000 on a single-ended amplifier and another $4,000 on a line stage are just "shills" for an industry that fails to give the average person who loves music what they truly need based on what they can afford.
Fine... We Are All Shills
Hey Gordon, I'll take my free Cardinal X monoblocks in gold as soon as you can get them done. Thanks Manolo!
For those of you not interested in separates, as they represent a "conspiracy" on par with the Kennedy Assassination, the Wild Card in Major League Baseball, and South Park's hostility towards Kathy Lee and Sally Struthers, I'd like to suggest the following integrated amplifiers which not only sound really good but are fine values in these rather difficult economic times:
Yes, I am getting married very, very soon. Is the tension really that noticeable?
1000 Points of Light...
Who in their right mind would launch a high-end audio company in these troubling times with three tube preamplifiers? Apparently, two rather talented and entrepreneurial residents of the fine state of Pennsylvania, named Carl and Fred Volz. While it is easy to be cynical, especially when any astute person who follows the business of audio knows that the future of audio must be in SACD players, a wise person would also think to themselves "Hmmm… these Volz fellas must be really sure that their preamps are good, because who would be silly enough to offer a preamp that uses eighteen tubes?"
From a reliability perspective, any product that uses eighteen NOS tubes is certain to raise some eyebrows. I will be the first to admit that the first time I saw a picture of the Sira; I remarked, "Imagine the poor sucker that has to replace the tubes in that monster." After nearly four months, I've discovered that I'd be damn lucky to be that "sucker."
Aesthetically, the Sira's "retro" looks are rather inspiring, especially when one lowers the lights and its eighteen tubes shine rather brightly. With the lights on, the contrast between the glowing tubes, its stainless steel top plate, and solid Granadillo wood sidepieces is rather striking. The Sira is an extremely elegant looking piece of equipment, one that clearly conveys the message that its creators have a strong sense of what constitutes industrial art. Quite frankly, it is one of the most distinctive pieces of audio equipment that I've ever seen.
One of the worst aspects of reviewing is the fact that we have to constantly swap gear in and out of our system and connect and disconnect cables. I'm sure that to most of you that sounds like a small price to pay for the privilege of trying so many great pieces of equipment, but the frequent changes put on a strain on both our own equipment (broken connectors, blown tubes, scratches) and our backs as well. The open design and very well thought out rear panel of the Sira made changes a non-event. For starters, G-d bless Fred and Carl Volz for placing the AC input and output jacks away from the input jacks and on opposite sides of the panel. The Sira comes with five sets of RCA inputs, one set of fixed outputs, and one variable output. Do not use the fixed output unless you plan on purchasing a new pair of speakers in the not too distant future, as you'll be combing the pieces from the exploded drivers from your hair for a few weeks.
During the review process, I swapped the Sira out of my system (when comparing it to the Blue Circle BC3) five times, and on each occasion, it took less than five minutes to get everything set-up again. The Sira uses premium Cardas RCA connectors for all of the input and output jacks and the spacing between each set of jacks makes it easy to use even the most ridiculously thick interconnects. If my math is correct, I've tested the rigidity of its connectors more than fifty times in less than four months, and the connectors haven't budged one little bit. The overall level of fit and finish on the rear panel is quite exceptional.
The top plate of the Sira is a rather crowded, yet well-spaced out affair. At the very front, one finds (from left to right) a toggle switch that serves as the on/off control, a second toggle that moves the Sira from Mute to Play, a source selector, and the volume pot. The Sira's eighteen tubes (used for voltage amplification, rectification, regulation, and resistance) occupy most of the top plate's real estate, and leave just enough room for a rather hefty AC transformer, one that looks like it belongs inside a rather large power amplifier. If not for the engraved brass plate on the front of the wood plinth, one would be hard pressed to know the maker of this fine preamp. The understated nature of the logo is actually a good thing in my opinion, as it doesn't detract from the gorgeous finish of the wood trim and the overall look. It's simple, yet very elegant.
One reason for the rather lofty price is the quality of the parts inside and out. Emotive has chosen to use rather premium Black Gate and Hovland MusicCap film and foil polypropylene capacitors, Holco precision resistors, Cardas connectors, and proprietary polypropylene and tin foil coupling capacitors. Your hard earned shekels are not buying you crappy parts here, folks.
If I have a gripe, it is with the volume pot and source selector. A product this expensive needs a stepped attenuator. While the pot moves rather smoothly, it's rather impossible to set the exact volume levels each time you change a recording. While it is possible that the Volz's tried a stepped attenuator and didn't like what they heard, I still think that for a preamp that costs $4,800, a better quality (although I have no proof that it would be better sounding in this particular case) volume control would make this superb piece of gear even better. The source selector on the other hand is rather noisy, making a "pinging" sound each time you move from source to source. I also noticed that the selector seemed to loosen over time with a lot of use and I wonder if it could be tightened. Overall, the Sira is extremely well finished piece of gear, both inside and out.
While the source selector may be somewhat noisy, the NOS tubes have proven to be rather quiet, almost too quiet for a paranoid tube-junkie like myself. Although none of the NOS tubes used in the Sira are currently in production, Fred Volz has assured me that Emotive has more than enough stock to handle the needs of its customers for years, and based on the reliability so far of the tubes I've tried, I take Fred at his word.
Yeah, But How Does This Sucker Work?
From Fred and Carl's perspective, the 5687 tube is an excellent voltage amplifier with the potential to amplify the audio signal with great integrity. Unfortunately, the basic fact of audio circuits is that the potential of a tube like the 5687 is almost never fully realized because tubes require extremely specific operating environments, ones which are in this case hard to provide because they are in direct conflict with one another within conventional audio circuit designs. One example of this conflict involves the use of plate resistors to provide current for voltage amplifier tubes. In this situation, the tube wants the resistor to present the highest possible AC impedance. The higher the AC impedance, the more linear the tube's performance and better the tube's sound will be.
Unfortunately (yeah, I know it's rough to be such a techno-genius…good thing I don't have to explain how Carson Daily eats and chews gum at the same time), the tube also wants the plate resistor to present a low DC resistance. The lower the DC resistance, the easier the tube's access to the DC current will end up being and as a result, the better performance and sound. The conflict (there is no conflict…it's too late for me son) is that a resistor can not provide both a low DC resistance and a high AC impedance (don't you hate when that happens…those damn pesky AC impedances). So, selecting a plate resistor has always required one to strike a balance between these two needs.
If you are still with me at this point, I'm very depressed and would like to give you the number of a woman named "Dixie". She's smart, sexy, and enjoys playing games with large round fruits and balding men over forty who are still living with mom.
This is precisely why the Sira is unlike other more conventional preamplifiers. Emotive has eliminated the conflicting needs within the Sira's circuit through the use of high impedance vacuum tube current sources in place of (a) the plate resistor for the 5687 and (b) the cathode resistor for the 6186 cathode follower tube. Emotive takes this one step further by eliminating the 5687's cathode resistor and replacing it with a string of three LED's to bias the 5687.
Phew! And to think that there are only fifteen more tubes to go!
The remainder of the Sira's tubes are used for tube rectification, handled by a supplied brown base RCA 5R4GYB, regulation, and resistance. The power is split for the left and right channels, and is followed by a CLC pi filter which incorporates a 15 Henry choke. The Sira then uses pairs of 5651s, 6AG5s, and a pair of 6Y6GTs in the remaining stages. The last eight tubes are used to supply current.
I really need a drink at this moment. Everyone, please feel free to pause for a moment, run to the bathroom, stretch, curse at oneself for electing such an idiot for President (and I'm a Republican).
She Sure Looks Purdy,
There are many in the audio community who feel that a preamp should do nothing but act as a source selector and volume control, imparting no sonic signature of its own to the signal it is fed, but the reality is that a perfectly "neutral" preamp does not exist, and if it did, I would not want it within a thousand yards of my system. What's wrong with a little color? Isn't life about seeing things or hearing things from a different perspective?
While I don't want to speak for Fred and Carl, I'm willing to bet that they were not huge fans of the Violent Femmes back in the early '80s. That being said, the first recording I threw at the Sira was a vinyl copy of Violent Femmes [Slash Records 92 38451], and what a shock that proved to be.
I remember the first time I heard this album and I know for certain that it didn't sound like this coming out of my friend's pair of Advent loudspeakers. Right away, it became apparent that the Sira makes music sound very vivid. If I was only talking about a subtle increase in the degree of immediacy, I would have written that in my notes (okay, on the back of a Krispy Kreme doughnut box) and characterized it as being a "slightly forward presentation," that is not overly aggressive. After listening to "Blister in the Sun," I was truly dumbfounded. As much as I love my Spendor SP2/3 loudspeakers, I recognize that they have limitations in the areas of soundstage reproduction and overall scale. They reproduce a "wall of sound," but not a very deep one. With the Sira inserted into my system, the SP2/3 opened up and I mean in every direction. Please don't misinterpret that as me saying that the Sira "exaggerates" the size of the acoustic space making each recording sound as if you are in Yankee Stadium. On the contrary, it makes each recording sound very, very lifelike. Instruments such as the guitar and the piano are reproduced with incredible accuracy and scale but without a significant loss of body.
At the recent Montreal Audio Festival, I listened to a $300,000 high-end system that made a piano sound more than thirty feet wide, which to my ears was an obscene error for any system, regardless of price. There is a limit to how much interpretation one should have to put up with before leaping into the absurd. The Sira's interpretation is just right to my ears.
One thing that I did notice while listening to the Violent Femmes recording is that the Sira sacrifices a tiny amount of warmth for a lot of inner detail and pace. In comparison to my Blue Circle BC3 line stage, the Sira does not sound as "smooth," or "velvety," but it does sound a lot faster and more transparent. The BC3's inherent warmth is not a bad coloration in my opinion, as it makes the human voice sound very fleshed out and smooth, and that quality might make it more appealing to listeners with speakers or amplifiers that are more analytical in their presentation. From a soundstage perspective, the BC3 sounds confined in comparison to the Sira. There isn't a subtle difference between the two in that regard; the Sira does a significantly better job at recreating the space around musicians.
One reason why I bought the Blue Circe BC3 is because of its excellent tonal reproduction, especially with jazz and classical music. There is something very exceptional about the way it makes a tenor sax, trumpet, bass guitar, cello, and violin sound. The comparison between the Sira and BC3 with jazz was a fascinating experience, especially when I listened to Miles Davis' The New Miles Davis Quintet [Prestige OJC-006], a recording that is somewhat forward sounding, yet very full and robust.
The Sira did a better job of conveying the energy of the performance, the sense of scale, and allowed one to hear more inner detail. The BC3, on the other hand, was more tonally accurate and smoother on the top end and more robust sounding in the bass. Neither preamplifier walked away from any of my jazz listening sessions as the "clear" winner, but they both do specific things better than the other.
When I switched to blues, and lowered the needle of my Benz Micro H20 into the grooves of R.L. Burnside's Come On In [Fat Possum 80317-1], I knew that this preamplifier was most certainly in very elite company. Burnside's guitar playing was captivating and to the extent that I replayed the song five times before allowing the rest of the recording to unfold. The Sira locked Burnside in place, and just let him rip. There was a quality to the sound that I am unable to convey in coherent prose, which is an amazing thing for someone like myself who has something to say about everything. The $300,000 system that I heard in Montreal sounded like a joke in comparison.
Turn Out the Lights, The Party's Over...
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that I really liked this piece of equipment, but the question is, who is it appropriate for? I've owned five high-end preamplifiers since nineteen eighty-nine and none of the them with the exception of the Blue Circle BC3, come close to the performance of this particular piece of equipment. The Emotive Sira just imparts a level of drama, musicality, and resolution that few high-end components ever come close to. The saddest thing about the entire high-end market is that a lot of really outstanding products from smaller companies get overlooked due to politics, lack of advertising resources, and sheer ignorance. While its $4,800 price tag will limit its appeal to those with deep wallets (although Emotive offers two less expensive models as well), the fact remains that products this good should not be given away at bargain basement prices. If absolute garbage can retail for $300,000, then why shouldn't a state-of-the-art preamplifier not retail for $4,800? Hell, for $10,000, one could own the Sira and the Wavelength Duetto and there is nothing shabby about that at all.
While I have not heard enough of the most recent offerings to label one preamplifier as the best one on the market, I would have no problem recommending the work of First Sound,
Lamm, Blue Circle, or Klyne as serious attempts at that coveted title. That the Emotive Audio Sira belongs in such illustrious company so soon, is a major endorsement of its creators and a very good reason why you should consider trying one.
Input impedance: 100K Ohms
Emotive Audio Designs Inc.