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October / November 2008
Superior Audio Equipment Review

Aaron No.1.a Integrated Amplifier
Handcrafted for the friends of fine Music.
Review By Rick Becker
Click here to e-mail reviewer.

 

Aaron No.1.a Integrated Amplifier UnitNot even our editor had heard of Aaron before — and Steven R. Rochlin covers the Munichshow where you would certainly expect to find this German company.  How significant is that? Well, Canadian companies Coincident Speaker Technologies, Tetra Speakers and Bryston often don't show at Montreal. And I can name a number of outstanding American furniture manufacturers that have no presence at The High Point Show, the largest of its kind in the world. Such is the nature of commerce. But at 3490€, the Aaron caught my attention, particularly since I was in need of a high quality solid state rig to review several loudspeakers that were coming my way.

Aaron is owned by Sovereign, an ultra-high-end audio manufacturer with roots in Germany going back to 1985, but now developed and manufactured in the Netherlands. Formerly known as Neumann Audiotechnik, Aaron is maintained as a separate high value company. Their products are few in number — like... five!  The original Aaron No.1 had a production run from 1989 to 2002 before the introduction of the No.1.a.Aaron is a small high-end company, so its sales were not huge, but apparently it has developed a significant following in Europe and will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year. The Sovereign line gained international recognition from the Guinness Book of Records for its top of the line amplifier. The United States importer for both brands is Nawrocka Distribution, who also distributes the very highly regarded Canadian loudspeaker company Gemme Audio. They maintain offices near Chicago and in Poland. Cole Hatfield at Nawrocka (pronounced Navroska) told me that the Sovereign/Aaron website is intentionally minimal and uninformative, unlike most audio manufacturers' sites. They believe that listening to the product is their best advertisement, and I would certainly agree. Specs and photos do not begin to tell the story of what I heard with the No.1.a. A 30-day money back guarantee of satisfaction accompanies the Aaron products, but I doubt you will use it.

 

A Matter of Trust
I probably should have stated with the initial request that I'm a tube-loving audiophile, not to be trusted with solid state amplifiers. I love the emotional connection I get with music played on tube gear. The sense of three-dimensional space that comes with single ended triode amplification is also enticing, along with the air of the venue and the bloom of the notes. It is noticeably easier to achieve that "you are there" experience with live recordings, and that "they are here" experience with studio works. Yet, for all the tube vs. solid state arguments we hear, one of my favorite amplifiers over the years has been the KR VA340 integrated hybrid amplifier with a solid state front end and a single ended Class A tube power section. Maybe I straddle the fence more than I care to admit.

Reviewers tend to have separate pre and power amplifiers to give their system more flexibility, but I certainly have no prejudice against integrated amplifiers. A vintage Tandberg 3012A graces my primary video rig in the family room. So that is kind of where I'm coming from.

 

Getting Started
The initial astonishment came when I opened the very modest size cardboard shipping box. With the lifting of the first flap of the box I stared directly at the component, wrapped in a clear plastic bag, surrounded almost entirely by open air with only ingenious foam corner blocks holding it aloft and away from the sides of the box. I've heard that inEurope , shipping and packing materials must be returned to the manufacturer for recycling — at least in some instances. The cardboard box (which was double thickness on the widest sides) and clever corners looked like someone's PhD thesis in packaging design. Minimal material, minimal weight and not a dent in the box or a scratch on the component — truly amazing! Only the enclosed white gloves did not work for me — they were way too small for my hands — but it was a thoughtful touch.

When I first fired up the Aaron, it sounded like a decent amplifier, but not great. Leaving it powered up overnight proved to be a good idea. In fact, I left it powered up constantly when I was actively evaluating it. There is a prominent button in the upper right corner of the remote labeled "P" that seemed to be an on/off switch. It was not until the end of the review process when I was taking photographs that I noticed the fine print engraved on the silver faceplate (but not filled with paint). Beneath the conical volume control on the right side of the unit it read: VOLUME, Push for STANDBY. This allows you to leave the amplifier warmed up all the time, drawing very little power. With the increasing importance of conserving energy this feature scores a big point for going green. From the Standby mode, it seemed to take about a half hour for the amplifier to begin to really sing. The "P" on the remote also drops the amplifier into Standby mode. No owner's manual came with the review sample. On the black anodized version of the No.1.a the silver engraving stands out very clearly.

The other conical knob on the left was labeled INPUT SELECT, and below that, Push for PROGRAM. Doing that revealed that you can preset the sensitivity of the input, as well as individually preset the sensitivity of the R and L output, effectively giving you a balance control.

The advantage of this modern microprocessor control is to allow you to program your inputs so your sources all function at about the same volume. Of course, different CDs will be recorded at different volumes, and different radio stations will vary in signal strength, but you should be able to program them to be reasonably close. The volume control on the remote can then be used for fine tuning the volume. Pushing the INPUT SELECT knob a second time brought up PROCESSOR, No, presumably indicating that no processor was in the loop. Again, a manual would be helpful.

Six sets of RCA gold plated inputs, a tape output, a preamp output (for bi-amping) and a processor loop are on the back side, along with a single set of gold plated speaker connectors that accept spades, banana plugs or bare wire. No evidence of Euro-regulation plastic was seen. The standard speaker connectors were easy to use. In spite of the small diameter, they held snugly throughout the review. Those who are drawn to brand names may wish to order theirs with WBT speaker connectors, a $200 option. The EIC power connection concealed access to the active fuse, as well as a spare.

 

Enjoying The Music
When fully warmed up, the first thing that grabs your attention is the outstanding focus of the music. No one note seems to mask another. Every musician is heard not only because their notes are clear, but because their position in the soundstage is nailed down, at least in the horizontal dimension. Fore and aft positioning is foreshortened, probably because it is solid state, but also possibly because more distant musicians are as clear as those in the foreground. The distant gospel singers in Lyle Lovett's "Church", for example, are clear and easily heard, but seem closer than when heard through less resolving tube gear, or even highly resolving tube gear. On poorly recorded live CDs (Dylan's Real Live or Hendrix' Live At Winterland) the Aaron makes you feel like you're listening to a microphone feed rather than sitting at the back of the venue, drowning in distortion. Likewise, the Aaron gives cognitive traction to smooth female voices like Norah Jones' and sorts out the affect of pop singers like Rickie Lee Jones. The bottom line here is: Where I had trouble deciphering lyrics with my reference rig, with the Aaron, I had almost no problem.

After the outstanding focus comes awareness of the outstanding transparency of the music. And this too works against the perception of soundstage depth. Everything seems visually bright and evenly lit on the recordings. There are no dark corners in the soundscape. Everything in the distance is in such clear focus and so present that it seems closer than we expect it to be. The audible sense of depth is determined in part by focus, transparency and volume. Think thunder, for example. Distant notes are thought to be less sharp, more dimly perceived and lower in volume than that same sound would be if played by a closer musician. The Aaron messed up my familiar equation by vastly improving the focus and transparency of distant notes. My brain was forced to pay more attention to the volume of an instrument in determining its distance in the soundscape. With the Aaron, a lyric or musical phrase has to be really obscured to seem truly distant. The refrain "57 channels and there's nothin' on" in Bruce Springsteen's "57 Channels" is such a line, and it appears has clear through the Aaron as I have ever heard it. Yet because it is so buried in the mix and low in volume, it is easily perceived as coming from a more distance source.

In most other regards, the vivid transparency of the Aaron delivers immediate connection with the music — both cognitively and emotionally, which is a big plus in my book. On the downside, this ultra-transparency seems to illuminate and thereby erase some of what we call tonal shading that comes across with tube amplifiers. The timbre of the instruments, however, was clearly revealed. And if you know the difference between an American Steinway, an Austrian Bösendorfer and the Australian Overs with its evolutionary grand piano action, the Aaron will let you hear that difference. Ditto for electric guitars and megabuck violins.

The third virtue that became evident was the excellent dynamics of the Aaron. The focus and transparency combine to give lightning-like attack which is central to the perception of dynamics. Without a crisp attack, the dynamic of a rim shot is compromised. (Some would say an inverted phase would be just as disastrous as a soft attack, which makes me wish there was a second "P" on the remote to control the signal phase). Likewise with the decay of a note which was focused and brief. When a note was over, it was gone. And when a particular instrument (or the music as a whole) called for large sudden shifts in volume, the Aaron delivered... which leads me to the fourth virtue... power.

I knew going into the review that the Aaron was rated at 95 watts per channel @ 8 Ohms. This is a lot more powerful than most amps I've dealt with, except my Plinius and the KR Kronzilla, each with 100 wpc, Class A. But the power always served the music, never capturing my attention by jumping out in front of it. My reaction was always "This is really good music," not "This is a really powerful amplifier." Partly, this is because I listen at relatively sane levels (80 to 95 dB peaks at the listening chair, depending on the music). With relatively efficient and easy to drive loudspeakers like the Kharma and Coincident this does not require megawatts.

Obviously, loud bass can be very demanding and one such passage on my compilation CD proved enlightening. The final seconds of a segment of Chinese drum music has always seemed muddied during several notes in quick succession from the largest drums. I had assumed it was the recording that had been over-driven and that the volume was falling off because of the fade-out used in assembling the compilation disc. With the Aaron, these deepest drum notes were clearer and tighter. Furthermore, the volume did not seem to fall off as much as in the past. I was impressed. The opening minutes of the Fourth movement of Mahler's First Symphony, by comparison, were a piece of cake with the entire orchestra completely in focus. Contrary to its modest size, the performance of the Aaron simply stands tall. And it does so at lower impedances as well, putting out 160 watts into 4 Ohms, 250 watts into 2 Ohms and 400 watts at 1 Ohm. The Aaron should be able to drive much more difficult loudspeakers than the benign loads presented by the Kharma and Coincident. Normally, I would suggest figuring out what room and what loudspeaker you would be using before making an amplifier choice. But with the Aaron's substantial power and ability to drive low impedance loudspeakers with high current demands, your choice of loudspeaker is fairly wide open.

A late night listening session at low volume (70 dB at the listening chair) was thoroughly enjoyable with the focus and transparency sustaining the illumination of the soundscape.

At that level, only a fraction of a watt was employed. In the "old days" a "loudness" control would have boosted the bass and treble to compensate for the ear's roll-off in sensitivity at low volume. The thought of having that kind of control with the No.1.a was certainly intriguing.

Given the corporate tag line (Handcrafted for the friends of fine Music), that would not be a huge transgression. Plan B is a separate headphone amp.

So much for the analysis — how about the feel of the music? Pace, rhythm and timing is spot on. It rocks, it swings, and it engages both cognitively and emotionally. The mind thinks, the toe taps and the soul is moved. My love of live performance recordings was greatly rewarded. The Aaron is so physically compact and does what it does so well that it effectively removes itself from the listening experience. It's just you and the performance. We talk about the ability of loudspeakers to "disappear". The Aaron pretty much pulls off that trick, too.

 

Tube Phono Stage
Running the tube phono stage from the "record" output of my CAT preamplifier allowed me to access my LP collection and opened the door to a lot of fun. (The Aaron has no built-in phono stage). The clarity of my LPs took a very large step forward in focus. Lyrics which were vague in my reference rig when running the CAT preamp into my Manley Mahis became nearly crystal clear, freeing up a lot of mental energy and allowing me to relax and almost effortlessly enjoy the music. I say "almost effortlessly" because the musical image was so clear and revealing of the recording, that I sometimes engaged in a fantasy of how the instruments could have been better miked and the master could have been better mixed.

Jerry Lee Lewis' The Session was recorded in Londonin 1973. The upper octaves of his piano were recorded hot, and he has a very heavy right hand to begin with, so you can imagine the results. And of course, to match his ego, his singing and piano playing were mixed in the forefront, in spite of the fact that there were a lot of other great musicians contributing to the recording. It is nonetheless a record to take to the proverbial island for listening ever after, but the focus and the transparency of the Aaron hides very little. The fact that my cartridge is a moderately priced moving magnet Clearaudio Virtuoso Wood points first to the valuable contribution of the Aaron, and second, to the speculation of how great a more expensive moving coil cartridge might sound. There was so much music in the grooves of this 35-year-old pressing that it was truly enlightening.

My friend Tom Lathrop came over for a listen, bringing with him a copy of Diane Schuur & the Count Basie Orchestra (picked up for $1.00 at a garage sale) that was even more stunning. And his $25 re-mastered audiophile pressing of Joni Mitchell's Blue album held us both spellbound. (We both own copies of the original LP and the original CD of this album, so it was quite familiar to us). The other insight gained from running the tube phono stage of the CAT was to hear the contribution of adding tubes to the system. That the benefit was slight indicates to me that the Aaron lies very close to the point of convergence between tube and solid state gear. This convergence is a trend that has been going on since I've been involved in the high end. Both camps have made very significant gains in focus, transparency and tonal balance. Tom and I both felt the CAT's tube phono stage made a small but welcomed improvement to the overall sound. I take this to mean that the Aaron still lies in the solid state camp, but close to the border of TubeLand.

 

Star Wars On FM
My Sunday night ritual of listening to Hearts of Space, the syndicated radio show heard on National Public Radio across much of our land and across the globe via the internet, was a different story. Known by their moniker of "Slow Music for Fast Times," they bring us the...

"Timeless world of space, ambient and contemplative music." It is a relaxing way to end the week. With my tube powered reference rig the mostly synthesized music creates an enormous soundscape that is often very transparent and liquid. With the Aaron, unfortunately, the music hits the wall, losing the spatial dimension of the music. It is as if the second or third harmonic is being stripped away. It is still acutely focused and exemplary in all other aspects, but the music does not expand beyond the boundaries of the room like it normally does. In contrast, Music for the 21st Century, a locally produced show of modern music played mostly on conventional instruments follows Hearts of Space. On this program the music springs to life in three -dimensional glory with the Aaron. I'm baffled. If you covet New Age synthetic music or Hearts of Space, I strongly recommend you get with the program and listen with tube gear.

I should point out that my Sony ST-S550ES tuner is solid state, though it has been tweaked with a shielded captive power cord, a sheet of ERS paper, SoundDeadSteel IsoFeet, Boston Audio Designs Tuneblocks, and probably has received a brushstroke or two of AVM Anti-Vibration Magic (Blue Tube Goop). The signal is captured by a Fanfare FM-2G antenna mounted indoors by a window. I don't feel deprived at all. It is in a league far above the stock unit.

 

Party Time!
As frequently happens when friends gather at our home, Linda informs me when one or another guest would like to "hear my speakers" as if that was what the listening experience was all about. The particular configuration on that summer evening included my CD front end, and the Aaron amplifier driving my Kharma loudspeakers. I dropped in Two Rooms — Celebrating the Songs of Elton John & Bernie Taupin, figuring their classic songs performed by a wide variety of artists would satisfy several requests. We skipped around, each person taking a turn in the listening chair, covering about half of the sixteen songs. Surprisingly, the biggest hit for the group, which was comprised mostly of women, was Tina Turner's rendition of "The Bitch Is Back". This marked the first time my reference rig has triggered a Karaoke response. Go figure.

The group of non-audiophiles raved about the clarity of the music and the presence of the performers in the room. Every note was audible, some said. There was no place for any musician to hide. My visual observation captured people bobbing their heads, tapping their hands and feet, indicating a real emotional connection was being made with the music. This was not news to me, having had the same experience in both critical and casual listening. But it was certainly validating, coming from people who would not know an electron if they saw one.

Of particular note was the one male guest whose hearing is somewhat impaired. From the prime listening chair, he listened transfixed, amazed at what he could hear. Knowing that his hobby is building beautiful wooden kayaks, I planted a seed, informing him that with his skills he could easily build a loudspeaker that would bring him much of what he heard that evening. I'll let you know if anything sprouts.

 

Getting Under The Hood
As the review period came to a close, my curiosity finally got the best of me and I took off the folded metal top cover — no expensive extruded sidewalls or thick machined top plate here. Only the square engraved plate was added to quell vibrations. Inside was additional proof that less is more. The layout was tidy, signal paths were short, but something seemed to be missing. I mean, there was a lot of empty space inside. The two transistors per channel were easily spotted, but the logo and numbers had been sanded off. It was time to contact the manufacturer. Not being an electrical engineer, I needed further explanation.

Only two emails later, Thomas Hoehne, owner of both Sovereign and Aaron, as well as another company or two, called and graciously spent a half hour in conversation with me. The identification of the Motorola bi-polar transistors was removed because he does not want end users replacing them with off the shelf parts. The pairs in the Aaron are as perfectly matched as is humanly possible — something that must be done at the factory. Anything less would degrade the quality and undermine the brand name. As for what was missing, most of it is protection circuitry that degrades the sound in typical amplifiers. There are no relays to protect the output side of the power section, for example. He also pointed out that the printed circuit boards followed the power transistors. These PCB's reduced the electromotive force between the amplifier and the loudspeaker, allowing the Aaron to drive speakers rated below 1 Ohm, in case you own a pair of Infinity IRS Betas. The amplifier, he told me, runs DC coupled from input to output, so care must be taken to shut it down when changing cables and making connections.

The No.1.a is a completely new design from the earlier No.1, which was rated at 80 wpc vs. 95 wpc for the 1.a. Total capacitance was also boosted from 40,000 microfarads in the No.1 to 60,000 in the 1.a. The microprocessor control of the line inputs with the accompanying blue screen on the face is obviously a very modern approach in the preamplification section — likewise, the two push & rotate conical controls on the face. The remote control is also introduced with the No.1.a. In contrast, the power amplifier section remains a more traditional approach.

 

Aesthetics
My rig is normally set up with the power amplifiers on short stands on the floor between and slightly behind the loudspeakers. It was necessary to place the Aaron in that same position, rather than up on the rack with my source components. My JPS Labs speaker cables would not stretch any further. This meant I had to swap interconnects when switching sources. It also meant the Aaron was in direct sight of the listening chair. Great for the remote, but visually distracting with its large (10cm x 2cm) blue LCD display. At a distance of about 12.5-feet (four meters) it was not readable, given my pesky cataracts. I would have preferred it to be dimmable or even turned off, regardless of my compromised eyesight. The screen will certainly appeal to the techno-geeks among us, but for me, listening to music is a more emotional or romantic pursuit. I respond much more favorably to the warm candle-like glow of tubes.

The chassis design is basic, clean and minimal. The two conical knobs are unusual, but perfectly suited for the push-to-change functions incorporated into them. The rotational functions (source selection on the left and volume on the right) are equally precise, emitting soft clicks as it passes through the function or steps on the attenuator. Dry skin on the polished knobs call for a more tactile surface treatment…or hand lotion. The resulting design is minimalist, save for the machined square on top which is embellished with the name Aaron and the inscription "Handcrafted for the friends of fine music". The heavy decorative square plate is in all likelihood a vibration damper. Overall, the look and feel is basic, yet clever, and competent with the highest degree of precision. When positioned in a component rack, your attention will probably be drawn more often to the source components, or more likely, to the music itself.

The remote control is a very handsome unit milled from a block of aluminum. The vertical corners are visibly rounded and the top and bottom have just enough edge taken off to feel comfortable in your favorite hand and remove any fear of it scratching your leather listening chair. It is a hefty piece, definitely not to be thrown at children or pets. Four synthetic feet have enough drag to keep it from sliding around on wood, leather or mouse pads. The eight input selector buttons are placed in two logical rows, while the + and – buttons for the volume are on the right side, along with the previously mentioned button for power/standby in the upper right corner. The pattern is easy to learn and tactile enough to be easy to operate in the dark, a good thing since there is no light on it. Come to think of it, wouldn't it be cool to add a switch for a small LED that could be used for finding the songs on CD jewel cases when listening in the dark?

Obviously, you need to evaluate the relevance of these comments in the light of your own aesthetic values and ergonomic preferences…or perhaps those of your spouse.

 

Value
There is no question that it takes significant money to experience music at this level of quality. Yet there is an inherent value in an integrated amplifier, combining the cost of a preamplifier, power amplifier and a decent set of interconnects, while deleting one power cord. Aaron offers the No. 3 Millennium stereo power amplifier with slightly more power for 2490€. There is no pure stereo preamplifier, but the No. 22 Cineast preamplifier has connections for both stereo and a 5.1 surround system for 2490€. The No. 33 Cineast power amplifier is a three channel version of the No. 3 stereo amplifier for 3490€ to provide a cohesive surround amplification system.

But how "good" is "good"? Aaron, after all, is not a household word in audiophile circles on this side of the Atlantic . My exposure to mbl gear from Germany is fairly frequent, Burmester perhaps not so often, and Goldmund from Switzerlandalso comes to mind. These are players on Aaron's home turf and all three (plus others) offer at least one high end integrated amplifier.  It is obvious to me that Aaron plays in that coveted league. "Better or worse" comparisons would require formal reviewing of the others. Those other companies shoot into the economic stratosphere, just as Aaron does when you segue into the Sovereign line. That you are able to get into the High End game at this level for 3490€ with the Aaron No.1.a is remarkable. It may or may not be the prettiest of the bunch in your eyes, but when the lights go off and it's just you and the music, you know you're in the very high-end.

 

Closing Remarks
It is no secret that the high quality integrated amplifier is an expanding category. Saving space, keeping it simple or saving money would be contrived raison d'être if the quality of music was missing. With the Aaron No.1.a the extraordinary quality of music is undeniable. Sure, I found some ergonomic and aesthetic points to flesh out the review, and some audible characteristics that are primarily noticed only in comparison with tube gear. But with the right source components, and the right loudspeakers (which should be easy to find) the Aaron is capable of outstanding music reproduction that is both cognitively and emotionally engaging, What is most astounding is the Aaron line is a mere entry level to the Sovereign. I shudder to think how ethereal and how costly this path may become, but for most of the "friends of fine music" the No.1.a could easily become your final amplifier.

 

Specifications
Type: Integrated stereo amplifier
Power Output: 95 watts per channel
Dimensions: 17.25 x 15.5 x 4.5 (WxDxH in inches)
Weight: approximately 24 lbs. plus remote
Price: 3490€

 

Company Information
Nawrocka Distribution
Contact: Cole Hatfield
Chicago, IL USA

Voice: (224) 678-5287 
Fax: (847) 458-1780
E-mail: sales@nawrocka.us
Website: www.nawrocka.us

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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