It was a beautiful winter day. All the houses in
sight, all the trees, the streets, the sidewalks and most people sneaking by
were covered with soft, powdery snow. Exactly at high noon a courier knocked on
my door, package in his hand. Within a few minutes I worked my way through the
packaging to hold in my hands the latest Swiss masterpiece from Soulution, a
Series5 integrated amplifier, the 530. A few more minutes to plug it in my
system and I could happily fly away, listening to perfectly produced CDs
faithfully rendering the artistic intentions of all involved people.
I really wish it had happened that way! It would
have made a perfect intro to this review, matching the amplifier design and
nicely harmonizing its sound. Life, however, has that annoying habit of making
things not quite as we dreamed them to be and showing us our place in the scheme
of this world. The day was actually anything but remarkable – melting snow,
lots of water in the streets, heavy wet snowflakes falling from the trees,
lugging the amplifier to the third floor (an exercise after which both myself
and the courier could not come round for a good while), my subsequent struggle
to get the almost cubic ninety-pound lump out of the box and a long burn-in time
to be able to say I know what it's all about – that was how it looked in
Fortunately, two things straightened out almost
immediately: the next day I woke up in a white scenery, exactly as described in
the first paragraph (please look at the photo – that's the view from my
window) and after firing off the 530 I did almost immediately fly away.
Apparently sometimes we get what we dream of, perhaps in a slightly different
form than the one we imagined or at another time, but we get it nevertheless.
All it takes is to really want it and believe it. And not to sit down on our
butts but do something to make it happen.
The audio industry is a world of stereotypes and
prejudices (Editor Steven's Note: No way, you don't say? Sarcasm anyone?).
The latter are disgusting and although time and time again I notice I still hang
on to them, I believe I will someday reach the point where I can say, I’m
through. Stereotypes, on the other hand, while seemingly equally absurd, have
their internal logic and are part of something bigger, something we use every
day. I could naturally refer to a dictionary definition but instead let me quote
a statement by Anna Grodzka, Polish first transsexual MP and a candidate for
Deputy Speaker of the Polish Parliament (she unfortunately lost in a recent
vote), that perfectly illustrates my point. In a weekly TV program hosted by
Tomasz Lis, one of the most influential Polish journalists, she did not
dissociate herself from various stereotypes concerning her person but said that
stereotypes help us quickly find ourselves in a particular situation and are not
bad in themselves; quite the contrary, they are useful. The problem begins when
we conform to them instead of moving on; when we give up thinking and reduce
ourselves to a given stereotype. That is dangerous.
We got used to the fact that the audio world is
the domain of engineers-visionaries, kind of God's Madmen. The so-called
‘yurodivy’ (Rus. юродивый),
i.e. a holy fool, a mad saint is a very popular theme in the Russian culture. We
may not formulate it directly but what we expect of the designer is a vision,
not looking back to the constraints; we demand a constant breaking of the
existing patterns and formulas, unpredictable actions, not touching us directly
but reaching us through an appropriate "filter". And indeed, that’s how many
manufacturers began their adventure with audio, slogging away alone in their
tiny workshops, honing to perfection their ideas or someone else’s whose
potential had not been sufficiently realized. Many of them never grew out of
that but some went a step further, becoming small, specialized manufacturers. An
advantage of such approach is a highly personalized product, usually intended
for a specific customer, with a distinctive design and a "message" behind it. A
disadvantage is a (surprisingly!) relatively low innovation – technological
advances require large or very large sums of money. Something classic high-end
audio manufacturers are usually short on. Recent years, however, saw the
emergence of a group of manufacturers completely defying that stereotype by the
very basis of their existence – see Continuum Audio Labs, Constellation,
Magico, dCS. Brought to life by engineers and designers with vast funds, they
offered audio components and speakers that could never be manufactured in a
garage, even if it were a Bugatti Veyron garage. The manufacturers offered the
kind of sound comparable to what had earlier been available only from tiny,
group of manufacturers would not be complete without mentioning Soulution from
Switzerland. It is a relatively young company – established in 2005 – but
within just a few years its products won high-end audio global market. Two years
after its debut at High End Show in Munich Soulution was already a star. The
brand is owned by Spemot AG, a corporation headquartered in Dulliken,
Switzerland, and specializing for the last 56 years in manufacturing of motors
and electromechanical components for industrial automation as well as motors and
servo-motors for the automotive industry (BMW, Volkswagen, SAAB).
The decision to get Spemot, a company employing
high-class engineers and having an extensive R&D department, involved in
music reproduction business was made by two people: Cyrill Hammer and Roland
Manz, both engineers and avowed music lovers, apparently outspoken enough to
convince the parent company to back them up with significant funds. These were
needed in order to come up with something completely different to everyone else,
to make Soulution something more than another "me too" company. It was perhaps
easier in so far as Cyrill Hammer was a majority shareholder of Spemot, having
taken over the company from his late father, Erich Hammer, although in a world
ruled by economic interests it did not necessarily need to work in his favor.
After his father died in 1999, Cyrill bought all his shares as well as the
shares of retired managers and currently controls 90% of the shares which
naturally helps in taking strategic decisions.
One of such decisions was buying the brand name
Audiolabor whose products had earlier been distributed in Switzerland by Cyrill
and Roland. Recognizing its great potential, in 2000 the gentlemen bought the
Audiolabor brand name as well as some of its newer product designs and
Soulution first and most important product, its
pride and glory, are power amplifiers – the 700 monoblocks and their stereo
version, the 710. Since Soulution is an "engineer driven" company, the choice of
solid-state design was not accidental. From the beginning the gentlemen planned
that they would first design a device with the best possible measurable
parameters and then confront it with listening sessions. The result was an
amplifier with incredible parameters: 0 Hz to 800 kHz bandwidth, damping factor
over 10,000, minimal distortion and extremely high dynamic range. In order to
achieve that they resorted to an age-old patent (declared by Luxman to be its
idea), namely the negative feedback.
Push-pull class AB amplifier is particularly
vulnerable to a few, well-defined types of distortion, the most troublesome of
which are those associated with transition through zero, with the thermal drift
of amplification circuits and with power supply efficiency. The last problem is
the easiest to solve but at the same time the most expensive. In class AB
amplifiers power consumption is not constant and is proportional to input
voltage. Therefore, one of design assumptions is that since the circuit will
very rarely be driven to maximum output power; the power supply section can be
downsized, reducing the size of transformers, capacitors, etc. Soulution uses
power supplies several times in excess of the maximum power consumption. The
latest amplifier, the 530 integrated, employs a switching-mode power supply.
design objective has been that the problem is not negative feedback per se but
its inertia. Consequently, Soulution designed circuits with extremely fast slew
rate, with a signal path few centimeters long from input to output, ready for
ultra-wide bandwidth (and here even the shape of paths, their violation, etc.,
matters) with such fast response time that the listener is not able to make out
the delay resulting from negative feedback loop. As the NF-induced phase shift
is frequency dependent, it is adjusted accordingly in the Swiss amps. To further
reduce delays, local negative feedback loops has been applied to individual
stages (there are three in power amplifier – two buffers and a gain stage). In
keeping with other Soulution designs, the 530 amplifier features very low global
negative feedback loop (0.1 dB). The amplifier was also tested with no global
negative feedback, however, the tests showed that very low feedback resulted in
a slightly superior sound and helped long term stability issues.
As you can see, Soulution breaks away from all
stereotypes. It "passes over" sacred audiophile principles. Also when it comes
to external design. The 530 integrated amplifier looks like a lab machine, maybe
a furnace or perhaps a nuclear fuel generator – in any case as a high tech
device. The company’s devices are often compared to Calvin Klein’s designs
due to extraordinary purity of line and simplicity of design with extra added
details not imposing but rather highlighting it.
case of the reviewed amplifier it is mainly about its body: an aluminum block
with a silver front, back, top, and bottom and black sides. The 350 mm high (!)
front panel features a display window near its left upper corner with three
buttons next to it and a small rotary control knob further right, in the center.
And that’s it. The red dot-matrix display has two lines and indicates the
selected input and current volume level; on entering the menu we can
additionally select input names and set starting parameters such as initial
volume level and default input, display brightness, and others. The rear panel
is not too crowded, either, but please keep in mind that we’re talking about a
350 x 448 mm area. Close to the upper edge – which seems to indicate the
location of the preamplifier section – we can see input connectors: four line
inputs (two balanced XLRs and two unbalanced RCAs), a Phono input with DIP
switches and two pairs of pre-outs. Placed below are two pairs of binding posts.
They are widely spaced and sport great caps.
a small bag found in the packaging there is also an additional set of
transparent acrylic caps. They were used throughout listening tests. The rear
panel also features a mains socket with a mechanical switch and LINK-System
ports used to communicate with other Soulution devices. Both amplifier sides are
completely covered by huge heatsinks. Although they get quite warm to touch
after a few hours, they never exceed the rated temperature. As I said before,
distortions and their elimination is the "pet subject" of Soulution engineers.
One of the major problems concerns temperature change of the electronic
components. Swiss amplifiers are equipped with advanced logic circuitry to
maintain constant temperature – hence the large heatsinks and a fan to further
cool down the interior, if necessary. The fan does not stop immediately after
the unit is turned off, additionally cooling down transistors and capacitors
(they are most susceptible) so that they maintain their properties as long as
possible. Indeed, it is a device designed to work for many, many years without
any performance deterioration.
The 530 has dimensions of 350 x 448 x 442 (HxWxD
in mm), weighs around 90 pounds and delivers up to 125 W at 8 Ohm, 250 W at 4
Ohms and 500 W at 2 Ohm, thus acting as an ideal current source.
With Mr. Cyrill Hammer
How is it
different from the Series7?
does the 530 power section differ from the one in my 710 power amp?
responsible for exterior design?
Why the XLR
input is not exactly twice that of the RCA input in terms of input impedance?
What does it mean?
Why did we
have to wait since 2011 (Munich) for the 530 to appear on the market?
Is the 530
DC-coupled, as is the 720 preamp?
device has been designed in such a way as to constitute a compact, rigid unit.
It consists of aluminum plates on the outside, huge radiators on the sides and
various screens inside, separating different sections from each other. The whole
sits on specially designed feet. They feature two aluminum discs with three
steel balls inserted between them – similar to CeraPuc feet from Finite
Elemente. I am in favor of a rigid connection between individual components,
just like one of my masters, Mr. Ken Ishigura, the owner of Acoustic Revive who
I met last November at the Audio Show 2012 in Warsaw. Engineers from Soulution
apparently think likewise.
The interior is divided into three horizontal sections. The top two house the preamplifier and power amplifiers, and the largest bottom section is the power supply. The preamplifier is mounted on one large printed circuit board, including both voltage controllers as well as line and phono sections. The circuit is built on Analog Devices AD797 and Burr Brown OPA627 (phono section), and transistors and Burr Brown OPA 627 (line section). Relay switches are used to select the active input from whence the signal is sent to a very sophisticated volume control system. This fully discreet system uses high-precision, low-noise metal foil resistors switched by reed relays – the best components of that kind, sadly, very rarely seen. They can also be found in McIntosh and ASR. They guarantee a long service life. To avoid switching noise, the system has been paralleled by the classical Burr Brown PGA2320 resistor ladder. At the time of volume level change the Burr Brown is switched in the signal path and the discrete circuit is used to select volume level in the "background". Ultra-purist design but it makes sense.
circuit is coupled via capacitors. A prototype had used Mundorf M-CAM MKP but in
the unit I received they were bypassed with beautiful Mundorf M-Cap Supreme
Silver/Gold/Oil, in other words, oil capacitors. Phono preamp section looks
equally impressive: it employs Evox capacitors and more Mundorf MKP as coupling
capacitors. Pre-amp power supply section is very complex. DC power is regulated
in the bottom section of the device housing the switched-mode power supply but
the final rectification, filtering and stabilization takes place on the
preamplifier main PCB. The power supply section employs Mundorf M-Lytic AG+
capacitors and discrete voltage controllers on the ON transistors.
Power amplifier section is placed directly below.
It is a fully solid-state dual-mono design. Unfortunately, I was unable to get
to it so I do not know exactly how it is built. What is known is that it uses
five pairs of bipolar transistors per channel in the current amplification
The bottom section houses four huge 600 W
cutting-edge switched-mode power supply units, capable of delivering 2400 W. It
is divided into two parts – voltage regulation and rectification and
filtering. It seems that the preamplifier has a separate power supply,
additionally shielded. The manufacturer quotes a total of nine power supply
units in the 530, optimized for their specific functions. The power supplies for
digital and audio circuits are electrically isolated from each other by
optocouplers and transformers.
The unit is designed and built to work and sound
the same in 10, 20 or more years. No expense was spared on passive components.
The amplifier uses proprietary solutions which the Soulution engineers are
convinced of: switched-mode power supplies, deep local negative feedback, signal
coupling via capacitors and an interesting volume control system. With the 530
we not only get outstanding sound but equally outstanding performance.
And Overall Sound
The 530 is different still. Its sound is creamy,
silky and not as defined or selective as the 710. As if the new team of
designers (see the above mini-interview) focused on its compatibility with the
widest possible range of speakers. As always, it entails consequences since it
is ultimately a compromise; what’s important, however, is whether basic design
objectives have been achieved.
A massive amplifier’s body, its power supply
capable of running a small welder, heatsinks and the cooling fan able to
dissipate heat from a large heater, they all suggest a large mass of sound, an
avalanche of bass and its full, even exaggerated, control. That is how
stereotypes get translated into expectations. In this case it fails flat – the
integrated amp from Switzerland sounds nothing like that. It is not contoured or
"mighty". Bass extension is not as deep as the 710 nor its differentiation so
puzzling (I say ‘puzzling’ as it invokes the question: why all other devices
average this element?).
very core of this presentation is absolute calmness. That type of "self-confidence"
is a sophisticated expression of full control over presentation, over the
speakers and the source. Such is the result of the advantages I discussed
earlier; so manifests itself the extremely high damping factor. How that
translates into music? In several ways. One of them is incredibly black
background, a black silk screen with instruments bodies displayed on it;
displayed in 3D and on an IMAX scale to boot. The role of this background needs
to be fully understood and properly appreciated because what the 530 does with
music is absolutely unique, even better than the 710 paired with the top 720
preamplifier I once tested. In such case as this we sit in front of the speakers
and stop thinking in terms of "more, deeper, further away" because music starts
to interest us as an event happening before our eyes, constantly developing and
unpredictable. Indeed, the unpredictability of musical act is one of the major
advantages of this amplifier. Well-known recordings take on deeper meanings; new
ones (even not very successful, as the new Depeche Mode single "Heaven") build
up suspense like a good thriller.
More examples? The very first is Tomasz Stańko
album Lontano. It so happened that
just at the time of this review the Polish trumpeter released his new album
titled "Wisława". Dedicated to the memory of the Polish poet who died a
year ago, Nobel Prize winner, it was released on the Munich label ECM. We all
know the "ECM sound", don’t we? When we have low-cost audio systems it seems
incredibly precise, resounding, with great space; perhaps slightly bright. With
each audio system upgrade it proves more and more "meaty", with lots of
connective tissue and filling. Eventually, when we reach real high-end (in terms
of sound quality, not the money spent) it suddenly hits us right in the face: it
is a warm, extremely deep sound. Precise? – Yes! Spatial? – Sure it is! But
at the same time saturated with harmonics in the way almost no one else can do
I did not yet have the "Wisława" album but I
held in my hand tickets to a Stańko (who, incidentally, owns quite a nice
audio system) concert promoting it. I was looking forward to what the artist
called "masterful playing" in an interview in the Polish edition of "Newsweek":
the studio the producer told me that it is a real bomb, so ECM decided to
release a double album, which doesn’t often happen anymore for commercial
reasons. But even I am surprised here with every sound. This is masterful
playing because I have great musicians.
(Sebastian Łupak, "Manhattan Transfer", Newsweek 6/2013).
For the time being, however, I was listening to "Lontano". The audition was on the one hand comforting and on the other exciting. The comfort lied in the fact that after only a few minutes I knew that this amp would not create nor permit any problems with treble, with sibilants. Its creamy presentation makes the attack somewhat rounded, slightly modified. Typically, this is achieved by withdrawing treble or warming up midrange. Both are distortion. I do not know what exactly hides behind the sound I heard from the 530 but I welcome it with interest and appreciation. All the more so as – I repeat – it’s not treble being rolled up. The bell striking at the beginning of J.S. Bach’s "Toccata in D Minor" released by the Japanese magazine "MJ Technical" on its compilation Vol. 6 shook me, rocked my room and probably half of my neighbors. Certainly my downstairs neighbor, a poet, Mr. Adam Ziemianin who kind of looked deep into my eyes the next day, apparently searching for my remorse....
listening to Stańko’s trumpet I was presented with huge soundstage,
incredibly deep and black, better than the one I know from live music.
Naturally, I know that being at a concert is the highest form of communion with
music but I also know that the recording is a completely new world, created by a
number of people, and that it often presents a world that is more attractive
than what we can hear live. And I know Stańko from many situations as I do
the trumpet – both from the concerts I mixed as well as from the studio where
I recorded it many times. It will never be as silky live as on the best
recordings, which the 530 showed with grace and ease only a few amplifiers are
capable of. It was a real event, being created before my eyes. I know
this album inside out, back and forth, and I like it, but I here waited with
great interest for the next sounds, phrases, tracks.
It was similar with Simone Kermes recordings. She
is a soprano with a voice moving me to the very bottom of my soul. I vividly
remember her performance during the last year’s MisteriaPaschalia festival in
Krakow and I just hold in my hand tickets (yes, I have lots of tickets…) for
this year’s Misteria. Accompanied by Venice Baroque Orchestra she even trumped
Fabio Biondi with Europa Galante and JordiSavall appearing on the same stage,
though I'm a huge fan of them all. Kermes, however, was phenomenal. No album can
convey even half of what she presents live.
While the example of Stańko proved that the
Soulution amplifier can show something unique, absent even in live performance,
that is intimate closeness without problems arising from getting close
physically to the instrument (here, the trumpet), which is not always pleasant,
Kermes recordings, such as those from the album "Handel. Arias for Cuzzoni",
signaled another ability: organizing the presentation. Classical recordings,
with large orchestration, are usually shown from a distance. Since it is not
possible to convey all the components that make up the live sound, the
presentation is usually "constructed" from smaller components. Soulution brought
order to all of them, introducing incredible calmness to the sound; not the kind
of calm resulting from quieting down of presentation but from an internal "spring",
controlling everything from behind the scenes and removing from us a requirement
to listen to the recording more closely than we do during a live performance. It
As I said, the new Swiss amp sounds a bit
different than the Series7. The new sound brings some elements I now find
missing in the 710. In this respect it behaves as an absolute high-end two-piece
design, not an integrated amp. Such calm in presentation, such disappearing from
the process, leaving us face to face with the performer/performers, has usually
been the domain of expensive tube designs. Solid-state did not seem capable of
As with any product, it is possible to identify
some elements that other manufacturers do differently; sometimes better.
Granted, you will need to pay more money or will have to agree to other
trade-offs, but what we need to know is what kind of compromises they are. There
is no such thing as "uncompromising" product; the designer always has to choose
between, often conflicting, values.
In the case of the 530 it is primarily a slightly
lower resolution than the 710, 300B single-ended tube amplifiers, or the
Accuphase A-200. Higher series Soulution amplifiers are truly unique in that
regard and I have never ever heard anything like that from solid-state devices.
The reviewed integrated amp thus faced very high standards. It coped incredibly
well and to be honest I did not miss anything. It’s a part of a larger whole,
which means that the amplifier will be a perfect fit for almost any system and
will comfortably drive nearly every speaker. Its power output and current
efficiency allow driving everything that moves, while its color and the way it
treats musical material will grip our hearts, also with speakers regarded to be
bright and "light".
However, one must be also prepared that the
presentation will be creamier than and not as dynamic as the Series7 models. It
will still be outstanding dynamics and stunning transparency, especially for an
integrated amplifier, but in direct comparison against more expensive equipment
one cannot miss that. Low bass, as I said, is a bit rounded and not as resolved
as I got used to with the 710. And again, no tube amp, regardless of its power
output, is able to combine such calm of presentation of double bass, the piano,
bass guitar, with musicality. Similarly, no integrated amplifier, regardless of
the technology. Best solid-state amps such as the Soulution 710 or the A-200
monoblocks from Accuphase simply do it better, best there is.
General tonal balance closely reminds me of what
I heard from the D-Premier AIR digital amplifier on the one hand, and the Tenor
Audio 175T hybrid amp on the other. It is silk, dark background, slightly
softened sound attack. The 530 is, however, better from both these devices in
its deeper background, better speaker control and something elusive that makes
us wait in anticipation for the next track even if we know the album very well.
The dynamics is similar to the Accuphase A-200 and the Soulution 710.
The above two are the best solid-state amplifiers I know. They have a little deeper bass extension; they are a bit more defined and selective and better differentiate color and instruments bodies. Please take note, however, that we are talking about power amplifiers that are more expensive than the reviewed amplifier which is, after all, an integrated design! In other words, we compare a two times more expensive pre/power system against an integrated amplifier. I do not know any other integrated amplifier at this level that could present its point of view so consistently, present – with great success(!) – its own interpretation of what it receives from the source.