I have been in this hobby since was old enough to spend my allowance on music, as opposed to most who would consider their first audio experience buying their first set of speakers. I consider my first audio experience getting a little taste of home while living abroad listening to Spin Doctors, Pocket Full of Kryptonite, 1991 Epic Records CD on my Sony Walkman CD player driving from Mexico City to Acapulco on one of the nicest private highway systems in the world, believe it or not. I remember that trip and my experience of being in my own little musical world, reflecting on such tracks as Little Miss Can't Be Wrong and Two Princes. I remember them being so rich and involving invoking emotions the way some of my favorite tracks do nowadays. Well I dug up that old CD, and to put it bluntly it was completely lacking all of the things I thought I remembered it possessing. It was flat, uninvolving, terribly mastered, and other than the emotion that Chris Barron (Vocals) brought to the track the distorted guitar added nothing to the track (This is a staple of most 90's rock to my recollection.) Still I remember loving this CD blindly because it was one of my first music purchases with my hard earned money and I enjoyed it. In my jaded adult brain with 22 more years of listening under my belt, I no longer have the naiveté necessary to blindly enjoy this type of music without judging it on these merits, yet still I enjoy it.
Many people from my generation think this is the same characteristic that draws the audiophile niche to technologies like Vinyl, Tubes, and Vintage speakers, and while this may be the case for some; there is still a lot of innovation going on with this "old" technology. A lot of very good ears, some much better than mine will swear on tube amp and pre amps against all other technologies; so I being of open mind and spirit dove in head first.
Searching For Simplicity
I asked to demo the Elyssa, a 35 watt integrated amplifier using KT88 power tubes and ECC82 and ECC83 in the preamplification section, in my experience this combo makes for a very balanced presentation between the warm natural musicality of tube sound of the ECC82 with the low noise floor and space of the KT88 tube. The Elyssa sits right in the middle of the Arte Forma lineup for both price ($2499.99 at the time of this review) and performance (35 watts per channel into 8ohm load), Arte Formas makes everything from a 20 watt tube integrated to a 50 watt 805b based SET tube mono, (would love to hear this in my system someday) as well as many high powered solid state designs. Based on what I heard from Arte Forma's gear at RMAF 2012, the Elyssa embodies the sonic characteristics of Arte Forma's tube lineup, low noise floor with a very musical, natural tonal balance, and an immense 3D soundstage. Arte Forma's designs are very value oriented tube designs along similar lines of Rogue Audio but made in Taiwan instead of the United States. Arte Forma's amps come from the factory with a full array of JJ Electronics tubes, although JJ Electronics makes a fine tube, these amps have a lot of potential to be realized through tube rolling.
I began connecting my 8 Ohms nominal Impedance, Vapor Audio Cirrus with DIY 8 gauge speaker cables. The speaker terminals are spaced slightly too close together for these thick speaker cables to connect securely with banana plugs as there is not much room for the wide turns such cables need to take, but you can do it. The RCAs are properly sized and even low grade cables fit very snuggly, some of the higher end Furutech RCA connectors are a bit tight to a point where they require a lot of force to disconnect, but not to a point where it is an issue. I connected the unit with 8 gauge loudspeaker cable and locking banana plugs, plus a and a set of blue jeans RCAs to my Eastern Electric MiniMax DAC with the output tube out of the circuit and let the tubes glow with a signal going through them at low volumes overnight. I didn't want any of the harshness of newborn tubes to cloud my notions of this amplifier so I resisted and reserved my listening impressions for the next day.
Noise Floor: Few artists anymore embody the mantra coined by French composer Claude Debussy, "Music is the silence between the notes." There is so much emotion and character to be had within a song by just giving dramatic pause and letting that last note just sink in. I listened to the very emotional song by the Avett brothers – Winter in My Heart in which the brothers give much pause to really let the emotion sink in. The Elyssa is quite capable, unlike some tube amplifiers, of delivering that black dark background needed to convey true emotion and space within a recording. Most tube based amps have some level of microphonics and self-noise that they add to the sound, Arte Forma has largely avoided that with this design. It can deliver the musicality and naturalness of tube sound, without the higher noise floor and distortion of some tube amplifiers. The Elyssa isn't as silent as some solid-state amplifiers in this price range but low enough that the noise floor is far below that of most listening rooms. With the volume at regular listening levels but the source muted, there is a barely audible buzz from the tweeter at close range on 4 Ohm speakers, this is not to say that this is audible during music, but I have listened to other amplifiers with this same setup where at listening volumes no audible sound emanates from the speaker at all when the source is paused. None of these amplifiers have been tube based, and of the tube based amplifiers the Elyssa is among the best.
Tonality: The Elyssa is a very natural and effortless sounding amp, my reference track for tonality which I have heard 1000s of times on hundreds of systems is Dave Grusin's - Git Along Little Dogies – This track has everything from piano to well recorded drums and electric guitar along with great crescendos. Everything from the horns to the drums was smooth and natural, there was no ringing or tinny sound to anything, the horns and the decay and scale of all instruments were accurate. There was very little drop off from tonal accuracy across volume levels however on some other acoustic guitar and male vocal tracks the lower mid-bass was possibly a little thin at low volumes (below 70 dB.) This was not particularly off-putting in my system as very rarely do I listen critically below 75 dB, but it was certainly worth noting.
Both male and female vocals were smooth and realistic with the speed on attack you would normally expect from a heftier solid state amplifier. Overall the tone of the Elyssa is among the best integrated amplifiers I have heard in its price range. Tonality and reasonable listening levels in the crowning achievement of the Elyssa, it delivers in spades exactly what you would expect from a tube amplifier without the coloration and overly warm sound you hear out of some more poorly executed designs. The Elyssa delivers the musicality and naturalness, without the coloration and uneven frequency response that some amps deliver.
Bass: In a medium sized room the Elyssa is more than enough to grab firmly on to most reasonably efficient speakers. It may not quite be enough for some harder to drive 3 way speakers but for most 2 way designs it is more than enough to keep bass even at high volume punchy and tight. It truly shined with my reference monitors but I could imagine, being limited to fewer than 35 watts at 8 Ohms, it might struggle with more complicated crossovers and higher impedance loads. The bass was tactile and fast without a hint of struggling. The bass was natural and warm as I have come to expect from tubes but not to the level of live sounding in your face bass from some of the bigger more powerful solid state amplifiers I have heard.
Dynamic Range: Believe it or not 35 watts of power was able to keep up with even the loudest passages of orchestral, rock, and dub step with my 87.5dB/W/m efficient reference monitors. My room isn't the largest around, it isn't tiny, I was able to more than overload the room without any sort of strain or break up on the amps at all. No signs of overdriving the amp to distortion or clipping at any volume that I could tolerate even on my least efficient speakers I specifically remember the track ‘Round Midnight – by Charles Brown, with great range and impact from the piano and picking up all the detail from even the most subtle stroke of the keys while not missing the scale of a full grand piano playing some swingin' jazz.
The pros to this are rock solid power supply, low noise floor, very natural and musical tonality, broad open soundstage, milled aluminum remote control, widely available tube array (for endless tube rolling with NOS tubes), optical volume control, Mundorf Capacitors used throughout, anodized brushed aluminum face plate and tops for power transformers. The cons being not quite enough power to drive complex three-way speakers in a large room, not the most thought out design on the back panel for speaker cable hook ups, plus no subwoofer pre-out.
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