Aric Audio Transcend Push Pull Amplifier Review
In today's machine-driven, highly commoditized world, the sheer number of hand-crafted artisanal products appears to be ultimately going the way of the dodo bird — heading toward extinction. Thankfully, the Aric Audio Transcend Push Pull amplifier from the genius of Aric Kimball is an exception to this rule. Another exception that comes to mind is Rolls-Royce. While it now exists under the corporate umbrella of parent company BMW, Rolls defiantly maintains a great level of independence, continuing to offer buyers an unusually wide array of customization options to satisfy each buyer's unique desires.
And so it goes with Aric Audio. Based out of a small suburb in western Massachusetts, for more than 15 years Aric Kimball has specialized in custom, hand-built, superbly crafted audio gear. Fortunately, due partly to Aric's direct-to-consumer business model, one need not have a Rolls-Royce budget to afford the luxury of such exceptional quality audio components. This is a high-value proposition indeed.
The Aric Audio preamplifier and amplifier review samples represent a wonderful combination of modern visionary designs. Their construction is based upon classic circuit layouts, utilizing a unique blend of new and vintage vacuum tubes, as well as some of the finest parts (resistors, capacitors, diodes, etc.) available today. The wide variety of model choices offered by Aric is represented with excellent descriptions of their features, technical specs, and clear images on the Aric Audio website. By contacting Aric directly, a prospective buyer is encouraged to discuss his or her current system configuration and decide which model will best serve their needs and budget.
Lately, I have had an increasing appreciation for refurbished, older equipment such as my 1990s-era Conrad-Johnson Premier 8A monoblocks and fully restored Quad 57 and 63 model loudspeakers. By enlisting the services of highly skilled technicians such as Steve and Ray Leung at VAS (Vinyl Audio Science) for turntables, cartridges, and analog electronics, along with Sheldon Stokes (SDS Labs) for the Quads, they have aided me over the years in performing regular maintenance as well as upgrades on older equipment. This has in many instances improved upon the sound quality of the original design.
The Aric Audio approach pays homage to traditional electronics but with the added benefit of being newly built from scratch, instead of restoring an older design and substituting various upgrades and tweaks for the original parts. Spending time with these components, it became obvious that Aric has a deep understanding and appreciation for vintage tube equipment. In some ways, the experience takes me back to the golden days of my dad's era of the 1950s and 1960s as a television repair person and builder of various amplifier kits.
The Details Behind The Design
Aric Audio's Transcend Push Pull amplifier came in a lovely walnut wood case, with the inner frame lined with copper along with black powder-coated thick aluminum top and bottom plates. With the Transcend an integrated volume control may be optioned to allow direct input from a source such as a DAC to minimize components in the signal path.
Aric Kimball has spent considerable listening time over the years continually evaluating and refining his designs. According to Aric, "Going with a toroidal transformer provides low EMI along with a quieter and cooler regulation compared to the previously used magnetic core unit." Aric commented "Vishay low noise precision two-Watt metal-film resistors are now used throughout the tube circuits and the bias points for the input stage and phase splitters that have been optimized. Copper-foil and paper-in-oil capacitors are used in the plate circuit to drive the power tubes, and a single copper foil film coupling capacitor per channel provides the signal to the second triode in the phase inverter."
Furthermore, "This combination of coupling capacitors excels in bringing forth minute details while providing the pure sound of copper. It was not an arbitrary decision to use these specific capacitors in these locations, they were chosen after extensive trial and error to find the best sonic blend to allow the amplifier to breathe and sing with whatever signal is fed to it." These are the words of a true artisan who is justifiably proud of their craft.
Aric Audio's Transcend Push Pull amplifier uses an auto-bias circuit eliminating the need for user adjustments during switching from triode to ultra linear modes or distinct types of power tubes. While it may seem obvious, it is worth noting the amplifier should always be powered down when switching modes or tubes. The 6SN7 input tube is direct-coupled to a 6SN7 LTP phase splitter. The amp uses Japanese-made ALPS input and feedback potentiometers with a continuously variable negative feedback loop for optimum speaker matching.
There are dual chokes in the power supply which help provide excellent, low-noise performance. The pair of 4 or 8 Ohm speaker taps are standard issue although Aric can alter the output transformers to provide a 16 Ohm tap upon request. It is best to use your ears (along with your speaker's nominal impedance rating) to decide which taps sound best, along with using the adjustable feedback setting. In my review system I used the 8-Ohm taps and after some experimentation, ended up setting the dial to provide no, or very minimal feedback.
The Transcend by Aric Audio also has an input level potentiometer on the rear panel to allow an owner to fine-tune the gain to match various preamps so that a person can get a good rotation of the preamp volume control. This is the reason there is a five-position output level control on all the Aric preamps as well. Providing this level of flexibility is a useful design concept, allowing their components to match well regardless of what they are paired with since output levels are not consistent throughout the audio industry. The Transcend input sensitivity also varies depending on whether it is in Ultra Linear or Triode mode, and how much feedback is applied. Aric Kimball added, "In UL mode with no feedback (which isn't usually a realistic scenario), the input sensitivity is only 1 volt, whereas in Triode mode with full feedback applied, the input sensitivity is 2.75 Volts (possible, but again not a common scenario)."
"I usually suggest either Triode mode with no feedback, or UL mode with full feedback, and then start with the input level control set to the halfway point." He suggests getting the line stage/preamp volume to around two to three o'clock for the loudest level you will listen, and if it is not there yet, raising the input level control until it is", "Then use the preamp volume control as usual." For optimum sonic results, the goal is to end up operating all stages in their most linear region.
Transcendentalism: Good Quality Sound And Fun to Use
I take a similar approach with an audio system — such are the joys of a reviewer, always looking to evaluate, compare, and contrast the impact and differences of whatever new components are introduced into my system under review. I normally use high-powered 270-Watt Conrad Johnson Premier 8A ultra-linear monoblocks combined with the Quad 63s. For a different sound and review speaker need, I can switch to an 18-Watt Art Audio Carissa SET amp that is usually used for powering the Quad 57s. The wide variety of settings of the Aric Transcend Amplifier allowed me to use the same amplifier with either speaker and achieve highly satisfying results.
The name of this amplifier, Transcend Push Pull, implies and turned out to be a fine opener to the sense and meaning of transcendentalism. Transcendentalism describes a basic idea where people attain knowledge of themselves and the world around them that "transcends", or goes beyond what they can commonly see, hear, taste, touch, or feel. When I am listening to music at home on the stereo system, I need to mentally suspend what is immediately in front of me. Setting aside the 'hands-on' aspects of preparing a vinyl record for playback, along with the visual reality of looking at all the stereo equipment, cables, and loudspeakers. As many others have certainly experienced, once the needle drops and playback begins, dimming the lights at night or closing my eyes during the day can assist with the musical connection and ability to be immersed in the total sonic presentation.
However, when the lights come back up there is also a challenge in creating an equally compelling experience with equipment that has a beautiful aesthetic appeal — appealing to be seen, as well as heard. Beyond just the physical presence in a person's listening room, there is the tactile experience of functional knobs and controls that not only work and feel smooth but bring with them elegance and a sense of fine craftsmanship. The basic layout should be ergonomically logical. Naturally, the rear panel should provide accessible, reliable connections for cables.
Sonically I listen for a sense of excellent transparency, resolution, speed, and rhythmic pace and an innate sense of musicality. In all these regards, the Aric Amplifier was able to take me steps into the realm of an altered reality, providing me with active involvement — a real connection to the musical presentation, along with looking great on the equipment setup rack.
Appealing And Practical
The Aric Audio Transcend Push Pull's triode setting of the tube quartet is rated at 20 Watts, quite like the 18 Watts of SET output of the Art Audio amplifier which uses a pair of 845 tubes. I also used the KT150 tubes in the triode setting to double the power rating. However, in the case of the Quad 57s, at any reasonable listing level, the extra power was simply not needed. The KT150 tubes had a more straight-laced and linear sound that was noticeably clearer, but I preferred the extra roundness, saturation, fullness, and slight sense of warmth with the EL34 tubes.
When it came to the Quad 63s, the need for more power was immediately evident to inject essential life into the music. The ultra-linear setting producing 65 Watts with the KT150s established themselves as masters of the sonic universe with the 63s. Although the EL34 tubes were able to produce 40 Watts in U.L. mode, their sound had a portrayal with a broader brush that lacked some control and details in comparison to using the more powerful KT150 tubes.
The EL34s are wonderful sounding tubes with an especially sweet midrange, but they seemed too stylized and colored with the less efficient and very transparent Quad 63s that pushed the amps set up with the EL34's limited output and signal control. A somewhat minor sense of compression and distortion was beginning to be noticed in this mode of operation when the amps were being asked to play very loud.
Yet once the bigger KT150 tubes were placed into the amplifier, all was well and good for the demanding Quad 63s. Naturally, results with other speakers will differ. Such is the beauty of a highly flexible amp like the Aric — custom tailoring via a bit of experimentation to achieve exactly the presentation one seeks.
I asked Aric Kimball what his experience and thoughts are with using KT88 and KT120 tubes in the amplifier since they came provided with EL34 and KT150 tubes. I am used to the sound of a different power tube. My reference system CJ amps are set up in ultra-linear with 6550 tubes, although the CJ Premier amp can be factory or service tech adjusted to run in triode mode using EL34 tubes. Aric said, "The KT150's are very linear and neutral sounding and quite large-scale power tubes". "They are not on the scale of an 845 or 211, but hefty for a tetrode".
"I only run these in either triode or ultra-linear mode (never pentode), and in these two modes these tubes sound very transparent." He added, "Something also remarkably interesting is that they sound beautiful in an SE configuration as well, nothing like a 2A3 or 300B, but very surprisingly close for a large KT series power tube."
He further said, "On the tube complement, I've never really been a fan of the KT88s or KT120s in the Transcend Amp." "Perhaps the 120s, but 88s always have seemed to sound a little thick in the lower range and a little edgy in the upper midrange to me." The 150s are very linear top to bottom and very muscular sounding without being strident or too solid-state". "I really feel the best tubes to show what the amplifier is capable of are the EL34s and KT150s."
The Aric Super 6SN7 Preamplifier
The Aric Audio preamp also features all point-to-point wiring in a copper-lined wood chassis. It is an old-school approach without using circuit boards or solid-state regulators. Aric depends upon passive filtering with a good fundamental layout and optimized distance between parts on the chassis. This was an excellent complimentary combination which was a lovely overall enhancement to the musical presentations.
Music Demos And Evaluations
Plenty of listening sessions ensued with smaller ensembles like the Keith Jarrett Trio, Oscar Peterson Trio with Ray Brown or Niels Henning Orsted-Pedersen, and the various ensembles over the career of Bill Evans. Oscar made so many great records that it would take a separate article to write about a guided discography. The collection of five recordings that Oscar made with Basie on Pablo Records is another favorite of mine which the Aric Amplifier portrayed with clarity and ease to distinguish these two great pianists.
On the classical side of things, piano performances of Chopin, Debussy, Ravel and Schumann with Giseking, Eschenbach, Argerich, Michelangeli, Pollini, Rubenstein, Pogorelich, and Malcuzynski were all excellent and presented in ways to distinguish each of the recording engineering setups of mono or stereo and transparent enough to reveal various locations of studios and venues, even individual techniques and styles for each artist.
In the realm of Orchestra performances, the ranges and sounds of Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Bartok, Debussy, and Ravel were all nicely presented and portrayed with good control and balance. The timbre and tones of Philadelphia Orchestra records for performances that I know intimately and heard in person at work in the concert halls and recording studios were rendered and recreated very realistically.
Out Of Curiosity
Michael has a diverse musical ear and called up some of his favorite classic rock groups as well as some recently released albums. For instance, he listened to some classic Moody Blues; Beatles; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; the Who, and Grateful Dead as he listened to them on my various systems over the years as well as systems I was reviewing. He had the same reaction as me, which is that the Aric system brought out the best sound in classic rock music by enhancing the sound while remaining true to the artist's original intent. He said it was a transcendent experience, using the term I had introduced to him earlier.
Then he introduced me to some newer pieces like the incredible piece Tedeschi Trucks produced during the Pandemic; I am the Moon, a sort of modern-day rock opera. He said the sound on the Aric's was mesmerizing! Then he played the latest music by the Rolling Stones, their first studio album in 18 years which is an unbelievable throwback to their traditional style of music, quite analogous to what the Aric amp is all about.
Finally, we listened to Paul Simon's latest album, Seven Psalms; 33 minutes of a hauntingly beautiful spiritual-like collection of music that came to Simon via dreams over a period at his retreat ranch music studio in rural Texas. He showed me a YouTube interview where Simon explained the experience of having the music channeled to him, which explains that dynamic for all people with artistic talents, like my brother who is a cartoonist.
The Aric Business Model
Aric Kimball runs a one-man workshop with minimal overhead and self-distributes his products. Aric handles all the correspondence inquiries directly with customers. He even does the woodwork for the cabinetry. In this manner, he can allot a much higher proportion of production costs for premium materials and the time for laborious hand assembling his designs. His parts list has products used in other companies whose gear prices can be two, three, or four times more. He selects parts rated between two to four times the working current that the amplifier requires for better reliability, reducing the likelihood that anything will stress and fail after a few years. Aric manages expectations in this way while knowing he gets to keep all the sale proceeds to keep the business profitable.
This manner of individual piece-by-piece production costs compared to economies of scale of larger production distinguishes Aric from other companies that depend upon printed circuit boards to facilitate assembly or have products made overseas. The assembly all takes place at his separate dedicated workshop space in Massachusetts. It is also another benefit that I find quite appealing to purchase a product conceived and entirely made in the USA.
I asked Aric about his customer base and sales. He said he has many return customers who try different models of his equipment. He also receives new customers from recommendations made from his customers to audiophile friends along with endorsements and positive comments on audio forums. Every communication with Aric Audio is made by personal email or a phone call and usually entails multiple conversations to focus on exactly what the customer is seeking to achieve with their system. Of course, there are also complimentary reviews helping things along, this one certainly included.
The Challenge Of Being A Reviewer
In this case, the quality build approach and superb sonics from the Aric Audio equipment truly won me over. Since I already own two excellent amps, at the close of this review I decided to commission and purchase an Aric Audio Motherlode XL preamplifier as an alternative to the Ayon model that is currently used in my reference system. There is no higher compliment — I was just that impressed!
The Aric Audio Transcend Push Pull amplifier should be a primary consideration if you are in the market for a new amplifier that has a very distinguished traditional wood chassis with quality fit and finish and easily accessible tubes. It allows the flexibility to explore and experience various new and old tube types to help fine-tune and create your special sound.
Even greater fine-tuning is enabled through being able to choose triode or ultra-linear power along with adjustable feedback, an uncommonly found feature. The Aric Audio Transcend Push Pull amplifier is a reasonably priced (especially in today's highly inflated, currency devaluated world), new amplifier built by a true artisan that would be a superb addition to any system. Congratulations to Aric Kimball for doing such a splendid job with his preamplifier and amplifier!
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