Hi-fi reviewing is a dangerous
business. Not as dangerous as driving race cars mind you. But it is a dangerous business all the same. It is estimated that about every
six minutes a reviewer somewhere, somehow runs out of breath oohing and awing over
the latest audio goo-gaw. And we don't all suffer from emphysema either.
In most cases, the hapless reviewer wakes up about twenty minutes later with only a mild headache from oxygen deprivation, but he or she may also break their fall on a coffee table and suffer more grievous results. There is even a story, unverified alas, that a hi-fi journo journalist for the leading Romanian hi-fi rag Bucha-Radio impaled herself on a prototype solid silver tone-arm. It passed straight through her heart, rendering her mortal. And let's not even talk about the dangers inherent in the my triode is bigger than your single-ended triode game which for some is not so much about the absolute sound as it is an odd kind of high voltage envy.
But I Digress
Sometimes, and certainly not all that frequently, a box comes along that while perhaps not taking your breath away — though in this instance you could fry eggs on the case and ventilation was certainly the order of the day — does breathe real life into real music and that is no small feat. So was the case with the Etalon Musicante Examplissimo Amplifier, a hefty 20 kilogram silver box, until... But we'll get to that in a moment.
The Etalon Musicante Examplissimo Amplifier integrated amplifier from Etalon Acoustics of Hungary is very much a combination of old and new school. Sporting an absolute minimum of controls (two to be precise) and a single green led — which I only noticed working after the amp stopped working — the Musicante also sports the bare minimum of controls, one knob is volume and the other for source selection and power. Mercifully, there is a choice of five unbalanced inputs and a tape output. The amplifier is available in black, silver metallic, or wood. In wood you can have Beech, Cherry, Walnut, Ash, Oak or Rosewood. I received the metal one which was a shame really as I have never had a wooden amp before.
Etalon defines their integrated as a 'power amplifier with integrated passive amplifier,' believing that there are impossible sacrifices to be made by incorporating an active pre-amplifier in the same box as the power amplifier. And when you flip the hood — as I had too — that's pretty much what you get. As Etalon puts it:
We have discovered over the years that much knowledge is needed to determine all that is necessary for a good amplifier, but that much more knowledge is needed to decide which parts to leave out to improve sound quality even further.
Well I suppose that's all right then. But Etalon is also keen to make sure that the passive pre-amplifier inside is more than merely a volume and a selector switch.
On either side of the cabinet are two massive heat sinks. In the middle lays one of the largest toroidal transformers I have seen outside of a power station and inside an amplifier. In one Brit hi-fi magazine such transformers were described as mummified donuts — well they would know even if Canadians do eat more donuts per capita than any other nation. Although the amplifier is not a true dual mono design — a design feature that I believe is frequently overrated — it does not advertise itself as one either. It is also DC coupled throughout.
The left knob (source selection) is linked to a switch near the inputs by way of a sort of metal rail. The volume control is attached to a high grade ALPS Potentiometer located at the rear by way of a long nylon dowel. (This accounted for the slightly odd feeling of the control as you could torque it past its stop gap and it would bend back of its own accord. Neat, but weird, giving this amp an almost organic feel.)
One of the front selections is that of phono and indeed the amplifier has a ground plug on the back, but this example came without a phono-stage. This would have come in handy with my NAD PP1, one of the few phono-stages to not have a grounding post. As I mentioned last month in my review of the accompanying loudspeakers 'Carefully Handmade in Hungary,' I had it backward. While the loudspeakers were broken in, the amplifier was not. I therefore left the unit in the box for two weeks to let the already broken in loudspeakers break in some more.
And in both instances, and I am sure it just acquaintance and my observations of having broken-in (and indeed broken) the equipment would seem to confirm this observation that both sounded better with use whether they were broken in or not. I would say that they had broken in, but this was not really the case. It is more of a case of if you start to like something you may find yourself on the road to loving it. And then just when your love began to be confirmed, the electric G-ds — in this case a demon in the muting-circuit — conspired to take the amplifier away (and my breath) to my local shop.
First, A Matter Of Connectors
Many people, justifiably I might add, accuse Canada of being a 'nanny state.' Some even say the same of the US, but having visited Texas, I won't disagree except with any Texan. But whatever they say of us, or the US, us North Americans in our gas-guzzlers have not got anything on the European Union when it comes to nanny-loudspeaker-connector-mandates. Europeans bathe topless on the Med (nice country France). Europeans are allowed to smoke pot in Amsterdam (never been). But Europeans in their toy cars are not allowed proper binding posts on their amplifiers! Something should be done. Instead, they have to make do with what looks on one end to be a milk teat and the other a milker.
What's more, as I don't normally user loudspeaker connectors, my not particularly thick bare wire wouldn't work. The supplied connectors would only take the puniest of wire and the internally located screw to lock the wire was so deep within the connector that I could not find a bladed screw driver that had a shaft long enough to reach to the bottom but was not so thick as not to fit at all. I ended up auditioning the amplifier with lamp cord, apologies to Etalon. In any event, the amplifier did not seem to mind.
First impressions were that this was one hot running bastard of an amplifier. I am accustom to hot running tube amps. But most of them have been topless and have caressed the occasional top of a solid-state amplifier with that smug satisfaction that tells you 'this amp is warm and perhaps should give it some more ventilation' but never have I had a solid-state amplifier on hand that was uncomfortable to touch. Obviously this unit's bias was tipped towards "Class A" operation. Now this is not to say we were in frying-egg territory and, anyway, I have disliked eggs since birth. I simply didn't feel like melting the plastic on my cheap CD transport and transferred the amplifier to pride of place on my Fabreeka Isolation platform (reviewed a while back in these same pages.) In any event, my turntable is in the shop receiving a new plinth.
The platform was placed on the floor. A judicious pump or two and I had the amplifier wobbling nicely. Now I won't say it was like when you are driving in the summer and you see the ripples coming off the highway, but at one moment I could have sworn, while in a particularly post-parched state, that there was a desert oasis complete with date tree hovering beside the hi-fi.
You might think with using such non audiophile cable as lamp cord that one could have placed the loudspeakers anywhere with this cost-no-object stuff. But in fact I had to place my loudspeakers much closer together than usual as I did not actually have that much lamp cord on hand. This in the end though turned out to be a positive and feel that I have always placed my loudspeakers too far apart. Live and learn I suppose. I fooled around a bit with moving the couch a little forward but realized I was being boneheaded and brought the loudspeakers forward.
Back To The Dangers Of Reviewing Hi-Fi
As ever, and as with many things, I never really get down to seriously listening for a bit and I began by feeding the amplifier a healthy dose of badly recorded early Ska courtesy of the local university radio station as it was Caribana Week here and better recorded but far less fun classical courtesy of the CBC. What a great thing it was when Sheilagh moved out west — you Canadians, except for you westerners, will know what I mean.1 And because the Etalon speakers I was using with the amplifier were not overly keen on classic rock (and I am, particularly in the morning) they were not fed that much.
What were my impressions? Sweetness and light, lots of light I should say, and no saccharine basically. It was a sound or a version of a sound that I have not really had a lot of acquaintance with but soon became very enamored with. Gobs and spits of detail. Not a lot of bass, but what there was as tight as a Scotsman's billfold, and I think that shortcoming can be laid at the door of the speakers. And nothing really tubey or faux tubey or solidstatey about it. To me the amp seemed sort of like the equivalent of a Quad electrostatic. The amp never delivered the 'Absolute Sound' and I did not find myself front row at Kingsway Concert Hall in London2, but the experience was always a pleasure and very little of the listener fatigue that is sometimes the bane of listening to poorly executed solid-state never set in.
If the amplifier was less than neutral, it was ever so slightly tilted up and obviously a match for the matching speakers. No surprise there. With at least 80 watts per side at 4 ohms before clipping on tap power was never an issue and as I used quite benevolent speakers, I never really was able to test how the amp did with tricky loads. I suspect there wouldn't be much of a problem, but I am not sure how such an amp would do with Apogee Duetta's or some other short circuit — of which, by the way, I was being very careful to avoid knowing the amp had come all the way from Hungary and was without protection circuitry.
Etalon is not very keen on protection circuitry, something I like. I sleep better. As the manual states:
[T]here is no reason why the absence of a protection circuit should cause any problems. In fact, there is no satisfactory protection circuit. Those which are used place us - strongly stated - before the choice: absolute safety (which cannot really be achieved) in very rare problematic situations combined with loss of sound quality or no loss caused by the protection, but with some uncertainty which requires us to rely or our own alertness and the reliability of the components.
Then the terrible thing happened that which took my breath away and rendered me insensible. The next day, after a nice afternoon of listening the day before, when I went to turn on the amp all I could hear was a faint clicking. A quick shut down, recapturing my breath (after all, I already hinted that this was to be a breathless review), and shut everything down again.
I have blown up solid-state amplifiers before, but never one that was not my own and what if I took out a pair of loudspeakers that weren't mine either? Some may love the smell of fried tweeter in the morning, but not me. At this point, the lack of oxygen got to me and I passed out on the floor, luckily averting a nasty bang on the marble topped isolation platform or a chip on the noggin from a corner of the fat metal face plate.
I Told You Reviewing Was Dangerous!
After regaining consciousness... and did not smell the sickening fried electronic component odor, I went about checking to see if I hadn't somehow short circuited the automatic-milk-teat loudspeaker terminals. They looked in a sort of bovine way just fine. Then I went to see if the input terminals had shorted. Looked good. A check of the AC also looked good. Well, as good as AC can I suppose. And no other gimcrack in the crack seemed to have gone down with Moses either. There was only one thing to do, try it again. But all that was to be heard was a clicking minimalism that made Phillip Glass's music seem busy. Then some words of Schiller (by way of Beethoven) came to mind:
"...Oh Friends, not these tones! Let them be more pleasant and more joyful!"
Actually, such words didn't come to mind, they were in the manual (it was now time to read it) which also re-reminded me that this was a solid state amp that I did not own that did not have protection circuitry. And odder still, was not the green LED illuminated, something that I for the life of me never saw before? Fuses seemed ok too. What gives? Or more precisely, what gave?
Things were beyond my purview now and I decided it was time to seek expert advice after seeking approval from the company. A drive out to Toronto's West End and my favorite radio repair shop of all time and the amp was in good, safe hands. In all my time knowing GJ at EE, the only thing he ever blew up was a Fisher Price mobile that I had asked him to convert to AC. The mobile was a battery eater of humongous proportions.
After the removal of a few screws and judicious poking around by someone who knew what they were doing and the cause of the clicking was found. Premature startupitis. I could now take a breath. As I write the amplifier is on the repair bench being fixed with the problem being either a blown diode or a faulty capacitor. No biggie.
Breath Restored, It Was Time To Write
Did I mention that this amplifier runs hot? It was designed to run that way. Simple as that. Just make sure, as the manual does, that you keep the unit well ventilated. Placing the amplifier on a shag carpet would not just be a bad idea aesthetically. Under the bed, too, would not be a good idea. My initial feeling that the amplifier ran hotter on one side other than the other was not confirmed on the test bench. Each channel drew identical amounts of current and delivered identical quantities of sine waves on the signal generator.
So how did it sound? Before the amplifier went deaf (mute?) it never failed to raise a smile and I played it for hundreds of hours here at the office on a steady diet of day time radio and CD. The amplifier did not abide by the warts and lets bring attention to the warts and all approach. While it did not disguise recorded broadcast imperfections, it never brought undue attention to them. No CD was unlistenable on purely sonic if not musical grounds. The MusiCante Examplissimo had a way of letting you see through (or should I say notice less failures in recorded material) into the music without being bludgeoned by print-through.
For me at least this was rather a new experience. Previously, I had thought there was a sort of have your cake or eat it Manichaeism in hi-fi. You could either have musicality or accuracy, though the balance could vary, but one was always at the expense of the other. More musicality, less accuracy. More accuracy, less Billie Holiday. Somehow, the MusiCante Examplissimo didn't make you take sides and (for me at least) this was new.
I maintain this is not an amplifier for the Swiss, but I believe the idea of exactly reproducing the recorded event before one's couch is so far from occurring in a normal domestic environment, that I don't think this is a bad thing either. This is not to say that the goal of neutrality should not be aimed for — even if we often fall far from it — just as justice ought to be aimed for in the courts and objectivity in our newspapers – even if it often appears, and in both cases in much more serious ways, that actual results fall well below theoretic ideals. It is just to say that this is a nice amplifier that I do not think someone would go too far wrong with if they neither prized musicality or accuracy. It is an amplifier, once the faulty diode or cap or both is sorted, will provide years of, dare I say it, easy listening for the listener. This unit is for those who wanted their cake and a place to bake it too.
A serious quibble I do have is the price. At $5,000 for an integrated without remote control of the ability to use as an arc welder is not chump change even for the biggest of chumps. Value, except at the market where the price ought optimally be set at whatever the market will bear so as to satisfy supply and demand, is of course a subjective thing and these pages are not unfamiliar with numbers like this. Sometimes you have to pay more for less and it can be argued that this is one of these cases. I am not, however, arguing it. I am just not going there.
Etalon is of course a very small manufacturer based in Budapest whose principal distributor in the way of the ever-ebullient Paulo Wang is in Brazil, but Mr. László obviously knows how to build an amplifier, loves music, and has tried to combine the two in the best way he knows how. And in this Mr. László has succeeded admirably. That the amplifier had to fail on my watch is just, I think, one of those unfortunate things that we cannot, from this sample of one, make too much of. If it was the third bad example, that would be one thing, but it's not.
2. If anyone knows the fate of Kingsway Concert Hall, the site of so many great Decca recordings, could they write me privately? I trampled the Kingsway between High Holborn and the Aldwych for years without ever figuring out where it must have been. Was I even in the right city?
Type: Solid-state integrated stereo amplifier
Inputs: High-level inputs only, minimum 100mV/10kOhm
Gain Factor: 44dB (+/-0.1dB at 1kHz)
Record Output: Minimum 100mV
Output Power: 80 Watt (at 4 ohms)
Dimensions: 460 x 135 x 330 (WxHxL in mm)
Weight: 19 kg
Price: €4,100 ($5,000 USD)
Voice: (3 61) 275-7095