Art Audio Gill Signature Amplifier
Mighty powerful single-ended
Review By Todd Warnke
here to e-mail reviewer.
Most single-ended amps start the
game with two strikes. First, the nature of the circuit as well as the
tubes most commonly employed therein result in low single digit power, and
that means that the average audio-adventurer has to significantly
reconfigure their system before sampling SET sound. And second, even if
you end up liking what you hear, re-tubing with those esoteric NOS tubes,
or even with many of the current production tube types such as the 300B,
is a real budget-breaker. The fact that the Art Audio Gill Signature amp
squarely addresses those two issues is the first thing that caught my
attention when Joe Fratus of Art Audio talked to me about his new amp.
With 15 watts of power, and as long as you have fairly sensible speakers
placed in a fairly sensible room, the Gill Signature has enough pop to get
you SET sound without having to throw your current speakers away. And
second, by using EL34 output tubes, re-tubing the entire amp costs less
than the price of a single Western Electric 300B. 'Course, we all know
that the significance of an amp is not in the design spec nor the rated
output but in the listening. So when Joe offered to send the Gill
Signature out to the wilds of Colorado, I eagerly accepted.
Art Audio, while fairly young has built quite an enviable
reputation, based primarily on their single-ended designs such as the Jota
and the PX-25, although the company has always had push-pull and EL34
based designs as well. As such, the integration of single-ended and the
EL34 was inevitable.
At $3,800, the Gill Signature is the most affordable amp in the Art Audio
stable, but like the others is still built to a superb level and fit and
finish. The casework is finished in a luxurious black paint. The
transformers, which run in a row across the back of the amp, are covered
with a single case, which is topped off with a chrome plate. The front
fascia also sports a chrome plate with a subtle blue power light. Round
back are a pair of high-quality input jacks, one situated on each corner
of the unit allowing for your choice of interconnects, and 2 pair of
Cardas binding posts, also separated so that you can use any speaker
cables I know of without getting too bunched up.
The insides are built to equal standards, with extensive use of Hovland
and Axon capacitors and Roderstein resistors, separate polypropylene
filter capacitors for each tube section and ceramic tube sockets and
silver Teflon wiring. The tubes stand out for all to see, which I like.
The input/driver tube is an NOS 6SL7 while rectification is courtesy of a
5V4. Power is supplied by a pair of Valve Art EL34B tubes per channel.
Lastly, for an additional $200 the factory can add a front panel, passive
volume control, something that Art Audio offers across their line. I know
a good many folks who have tried the passive volume control in other amps
and feel that as long as you have enough gain in your system that you
would need to budget of at least $3000 for an active pre-amp to beat the
quality of the passive Art Audio design.
The Sound Of An EL34
Pushing And Not Pulling
The Gill Signature occupies a rarely inhabited land
between push-pull pentode and single-ended triode design. Using the
pentode EL34 but placing it triode operation will certainly offend many of
those in the SET old guard. But wiring the EL34 up in a single-ended
configuration and thus reducing the power output of a pair of tubes from
somewhere around 40 watts to 15 will equally offend push-pull stalwarts.
Of course this simply means that each camp is listening with
preconceptions and not with their ears. We, being of sterner stuff will
cast aside preconceptions and just listen. And, fortunately, the Gill
Signature makes listening very pleasurable.
The first part of that pleasure comes from the way the new Art Audio amp
handles harmonic information. As opposed to my brother-in-law, who is
annoyingly dense, the Gill Signature was gloriously dense, at least in the
harmonic sense. With this amp it's not merely the breadth of harmonics
from saxes, vocals and pianos that is captivating, but it is also the
weight of each step in the harmonic envelope that is portrayed with superb
I'm a really horrible amateur piano player, but I have the opportunity to
play a wonderful instrument. My piano teacher has a dedicated studio with
a lovely baby grand that I abuse with regularity. Still, in spite of my
ham-handed, off beat frightening of that instrument it establishes a
reference point that is simply beyond the reach of every system I have
tried at home. Sure, some get closer to the ideal than others, but I have
yet to hear a system that truly captures the harmonic density along with
the separation of individual notes and the awesome dynamics of the piano.
The Gill Signature didn't get their either, but to its credit, as well as
my gratitude, the Art Audio amp, with both the Soliloquy 6.2 and Merlin
VSM-SE speakers, got the first two parts, harmonics and separation, right
in a way I have never heard before. With a recording such as the Jacques
Loussier Trio playing Satie [Telarc CD-83431], I could relate to
the sonority of the piano as more than something captured on tape, and yet
each note was distinct. With the Gill Signature and by virtue of its
amazing harmonic structure this recording stopped being a recording and
became a living thing that occupied real space and was played by real
Part and parcel of the harmonic beauty of the Gill Signature is the way it
handles details. Rather than thrusting sonic information at me in a
aural-pornographic bump and grind, the Art Audio laid down details with
the delicate touch of a lover. For example, on the Loussier recording,
unlike many amps that project certain frequencies into the room and away
from their source, each note of the piano emanated from the same plane but
with distinct detail and presence. This trait, combined with the harmonic
richness of the amp, gave the Gill a laid-back but inviting character,
drawing me forward into the musical moment rather than forcing the
performers off the stage and into a lap dance.
Further still, details were in complete harmony with the level of clarity
of the amp so that music heard through it seemed complete and organic. Put
another way, when listening with the Gill Signature I never felt that what
I was listening to was but a part of the recording - nor that the amp was
obscuring details that would occasionally peek through the veil. This is
not to call the amp perfect in terms of clarity as I have certainly heard
amps that peer slightly deeper into recordings, rather it is to say that
the scaling between detail, clarity and presentation was in complete
harmony. An example - the level of clarity and detail richly rewarded tube
rolling. I started with the stock Valve Art power tubes but also tried
Sovtek, Svetlana and EH EL34 tubes, and was easily able to hear the
differences in each, but the amp also allowed me to enjoy the strengths of
each power tube. So the better bass of the Valve Art, which came with a
loss of midrange richness as compared to the Svetlana, was a change of
pace without ever becoming a penalty.
Dropping back into more standard audiogeek descriptions, the Gill
Signature has a broad and fairly accurate tonal response. As with most
EL34 amps, you give up some of the bottom octave (although the standard
Valve Art E34L tubes surprised me with how deep they went, as in this area
they easily out pointed the EH, Svetlana and Sovteks) but you also get
that wonderful EL34 mid and upper bass. A note to prospective owners, the
amp can use either the 5V4 or a 274B as a rectifier. Joe Fratus shipped me
the amp with a 5V4 but later sent along a Valve Art 274B for comparison.
With the 274B bass extended a bit deeper had tighter articulation. Not
that the 5V4 was bad, as it wasn't, with a speaker that had nice extension
on its own but was slightly bass heavy, it would be a perfect match.
Still, with most audiophile speakers I imagine that the 274B would be the
better choice. Of course, one of the joys of tubes is that you get to roll
it your own way.
Going up top, the treble range was very even and extended but not at all
bright. One of my all-time favorite ambient disks is the live, 1996
Biosphere/Higher Intelligence Agency album, Polar Sequences [Beyond
Records RBADCD17], recorded at the annual Tromso Norway Music Festival. It
opens with the sounds of festival attendees riding the gondola from the
town center up the mountain to see the show. The mechanized sound of the
lift is used to create a very long and slow rhythm but the track also
includes high frequency clanks and creaks. A great many amps
over-emphasize these high frequency sounds and so create the sensation of
a gondola on the verge of falling apart. The Art Audio didn't, instead it
got it perfect. How do I know? While I've never been to the Tromso
festival (something I hope to rectify soon), I am a long-time Colorado
resident with years of familiarity with the gondolas at Vail, Keystone and
Winter Park. And this amp nails it. When listening to this track, except
for the wafting scent of unwashed 'Boarders, I was in a gondola.
As for the mids, they were, in a word, glorious. I have previously
documented my not so secret and not so pure infatuation with Joni
Mitchell. Part of that lust comes from the sound of her voice, child-like
but knowing when young, and traveled but still hopeful when older. With
the Gill Signature I found several new details to luxuriate in. Another,
and altogether different female voice I love is Me'Shell Ndegeocello's.
With the Art Audio in the system the depth of her voice was readily
apparent. On Ecclesiastes: Free My Heart from the Peace Beyond Passion
album [Maverick 46033-2] when she sings "Free my heart so my soul can
fly, free my mind of my worldly wants and desires … take my hand, come
and take my hand", I had chills running down my spine, and was eager
to take her up on the offer.
All right, if you got this far you're thinking, "great as far it
goes, but just another SET tone machine", and that's my fault as I
have so far burned a few kilowatts on the tonal and harmonic
characteristics of the Gill Signature. But there is more here.
Dynamics have nice, if not bone-crushing weight. Ndegeocello's remake of
the Bill Withers' tune, Who is He and What is He to You, is a real bass
workout, both in terms of extension and dynamics. The Art Audio amp, while
not in the category of the Atma-Sphere MP-3 mk. II which sets the tube amp
reference for dynamics around here, did far better with this track than I
expected as the impact of the lower octaves was tuneful, powerful and
With large scale classical pieces like Bruckner's 8th symphony (for
reasons not even a therapist could divine I occasionally sit down and play
my 3 favorite version of this piece back to back - Karajan with the VPO,
the Tintner recording on Naxos, and Celibidache with the Munich
Philharmonic) I was impressed by sense of size and power the Art Audio
conjured. An amp like the admittedly far more powerful Rowland Model 112
that passed through here a while ago was better able to convey the very
bottom of the orchestra, but gave up quite a bit to the Art Audio through
the mids and treble, enough so that I preferred the Gill Signature as a
late romantic classical music amp to the pricier Rowland.
Finally, this amp stages superbly. Width, breadth and height (when the
recording has it) is never oversized, but also never shorted.
All right, time for the debit side of the ledger. As I've alluded to
several times, the bass, while full of wonderful tone and mid-bass kick,
would still not be the first choice to power your next rave. And while the
amp carefully and beautifully balances clarity, detail and harmonics,
other amps I've heard extract more detail from recordings. Finally, 15
watts, even watts this good, will not work in every situation. Short list,
but then the Art Audio really is that good.
The Obligatory Comparo
$3,800 will buy you a lot of amps, and I happen to own of
them, my long-term reference, the hybrid, solid-state output device,
single-ended Blue Circle BC6 which retails for $3,750. With 25 watts a
channel it is a natural choice to place up against the Gill Signature.
Comparing the two, the Art Audio has the edge in harmonic richness while
the Blue Circle has greater clarity and slightly better dynamics. Both
give music a natural breath with the Art Audio emphasizing textures and
the Blue Circle rhythms. Each stages very well, although the Gill
Signature give players a tad more body and the BC6 a bit more specificity.
Finally, the Art Audio is slightly laid-back and the Blue Circle ever so
slightly forward. Overall, both amps work well in similar situations - mid
sized rooms, and with speakers of mid and higher efficiency - with the
Blue Circle able to drive slightly more difficult loads and the Art Audio
offering a greater variety of options to tailor the amp to your particular
The Long Goodbye
I am extremely impressed by the Gill Signature as Art
Audio has done a canny job of addressing the issues most audiophiles will
have in coming to single-ended triodes for the first time, or the last
time for that matter. With a broad variety and endless supply of
affordable power tubes to play with, you can roll tubes to your heart's
content. Nor do you have to save the amp for the annual playing of the
6-eye pressing of Kind of Blue, as you can use it all day, everyday.
Secondly, the Gill Signature has enough power to use in real listening
rooms driving real speakers. Best of all, neither of these virtues come
with a concomitant loss detail, harmonic power, refinement or musical
enjoyment. If you opt for the optional passive volume control, $4000 gets
you a single input integrated with amazing sound for next to nothing in
audiogeek dollars. So, an SET for everyone then. And one I feel everyone
needs to hear.
Type: Single-ended triode amplifier
Tubes: Four Valve Art EL34B output tubes
NOS 6SL7 for
Power Output:15 watts per channel, to channels
Input Impedance: 200K ohm.
Sensitivity: 1.25 volts for full output
High quality binding posts and input jacks
Standard 8 ohm tap with optional 4 ohm selectable
Parts: Hovland and Axon capacitors
Tube and solid state rectified high voltage supply w/ Hexfred Diodes. Separate Polypropylene filter capacitors for each tube section.
Ceramic tube sockets and silver wiring
Optional front panel volume control ($200)
34 Briarwood Road
Cranston, Rhode Island 02920
Voice: (401) 826-8286