Audio Analogue Maestro Anniversary Integrated Amplifier
When I was asked if I would like to review Audio Analogue's newest integrated amplifier, I exclaimed "Yes!". Why? Because even on paper it seemed as if it was an extremely well-designed integrated amplifier, and also could easily power my reference speakers with a healthy 150 Watts per channel into 8 Ohms, its power doubling each time its impedance load is halved – and besides all this, I love equipment that's made in Italy. Even if some of this gear isn't a perfect match for the system in which it would be auditioned, I never have been disappointed in the sound quality of any of those components. Plus, I have always been very impressed by the design of Italian audio components.
I apologize for stereotyping, but this component almost perfectly into what I'd expect from an Italian design. Even though the Audio Analogue Maestro Anniversary integrated amplifier is housed in a rectangular cabinet, it certainly didn't disappoint me in the looks department, as the design of the heatsinks on its side look anything but a typical. And anything but typical can also be said for its front panel, with its extremely smooth running, large center control and its indicator lights extending to either side of this large control knob.
The Maestro Anniversary also comes with a very nice looking, intuitively laid-out aluminum encased remote that sat comfortably in my palm when using it. Its design is again, anything but typical.
I used the Maestro Anniversary in my second system located on the first floor of our home. It was a perfect time to review this integrated amplifier, as their audition period overlapped with the very impressive Kharma Elegance dB7-S speakers. I had other moderately sized floorstanding speakers in-house at the time of this review, but the three-way, time-aligned-ported Kharma dB7-S's were an excellent match. But that didn't mean I didn't try other speakers with the Maestro Anniversary (or other amps with the Kharmas), as I spent time with this integrated amplifier connected to the about three other pairs of speakers. But the Kharmas clearly demonstrated that they were best suited to reveal the Maestro's sonic characteristics.
The analog front-end of this review system sounded great and was my preferred method of auditioning the Audio Analogue Maestro Anniversary integrated amplifier. Relatively new to my system was a Pro-Ject Debut X2 turntable with its integral 9" one-piece tonearm tube with a carbon/aluminum sandwich construction. It originally shipped with a fine Sumiko Moonbeam Moving Magnet (MM) cartridge pre-mounted to its tonearm.
As good as the Moonbeam cartridge is (and it is good for an affordably priced cartridge) I thought the Audio Analogue Maestro Anniversary deserved an even better phono cartridge, and so, I made a few phone calls to my friends at Ortofon and was able to borrow an Ortofon Windfeld Ti Moving Coil (MC) cartridge. I've heard many audiophiles praise this cartridge, both in print and in conversation, and I feel exactly as they do. At $4400 one would expect the performance of this cartridge to meet certain expectations. The Ortofon Windfeld Ti exceeded those expectations by quite a bit. I could easily veer off and discuss the excellent sound of the Windfeld Ti at length. The phono preamplifier was my reference Pass Laboratories XP-17, with its loading settings changed to accept this new phono cartridge.
I used a few different types of speaker cables during the Maestro Anniversary's audition period, including models by Cardas, Kharma, two different types of Kimber Kable, Art Audio, and DH Labs. All sounded slightly different, but all were more than good enough to give me more than a good sonic picture of the Audio Analogue integrated amplifier. But it was easy to hear why Kharma's own brand of speaker cable was best suited for this review.
I played disc after disc, file after file, and I kept on changing my mind as to the best way to sum up this integrated amplifier's traits. Eventually, I determined that one of the greatest sonic qualities of this amp was its chameleon-like character, as it seemed to change in order to serve the music it was reproducing, "listening" to the signal it received from the preamplifier and simply raising its level in order for the speakers to reproduce it, with very little change to the character of what it was "hearing". At least it seemed that way to me, and because its sound kept changing according to the program material that was passing through it, I kept crossing out paragraphs of my listening notes after changing the musical selection.
But it was on recordings such as Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, specifically a UK pressing on Warner Brothers, which seemed to be one of the best ways to show what the Maestro was about. Astral Weeks is only Morrison's second album, and it showcases Van Morrison's voice and his compositions by backing him up with a few of the best jazz musicians they seemed to be able to find at the time of this 1967 recording, released a year later. This album features Bassist Richard Davis, who plays on countless Blue Note Records jazz recordings, many of which are on my LP shelves, and a whole lot more.
It has drummer Connie Kay, besides spending his time with the Modern Jazz Quartet, has also backed-up just about every jazz player one can think of that was deserving of his presence. Guitarist Jay Berliner is a very important element of this recording, he spent much of his time with Charles Mingus and Harry Belafonte before sitting in on this Van Morrison album, and there is also percussionist Warren Smith, who has been appearing on jazz albums since the late 1950s. Saxophone and flute player John Payne had a successful career as a sideman even before teaming up with Van Morrison, and backs him up on this album.
Astral Weeks is an album teeming with talent, and luckily Van Morrison's compositions on this album a seem more than up to the task of exploiting this, and lucky for us audiophiles, this album is worth using as a musical example when discussing the sound of the Maestro Anniversary integrated amplifier. This amp easily reproduced Van Morrison's distinctive voice, to the point where I could easily imagine in my mind's ear him standing in front of the microphone in a padded sound booth in the studio. The album's closer, "Slim, Slow Slider" I like almost more than any of the other magnificent tracks on the album, perhaps because it's the only one that doesn't have a string section over-dub. The strings don't detract from the music on the other tracks, but their absence somehow makes it melancholier, as it puts more focus on Van Morrison's voice, here singing about watching a young female's death, perhaps from drug use.
The instrumentation on this track is simpler than the rest of the album, only Jay Berliner on acoustic guitar, Richard Davis on double bass, John Payne on flute, and Van Morrison's vocals. All the instruments and the vocals are bathed in reverb, which creates an eerie sensation, as the Maestro Anniversary easily breaks down each sound and presents it not only as it was recorded, but somehow seems to know where each should be placed in its huge soundstage. The reverb becomes an instrument itself. As reverb from the flute in the right channel bleeds into the left, the reverb becomes its own sound in the vast soundstage, blending with the reverb from the other instruments and the vocals. I love this track, as I'm enveloped in sound, it not only transfers to me the sentiment and implication of the vocals, but how the instrumentation interprets the vocals and the lyrics, as well.
Later on, I played some more aggressive program material through the Maestro Anniversary, which might be an understatement, as I played the RCA "Living Stereo" recording of Charles Munch's Boston Symphony Orchestra playing Saint-Saens's Symphony No. 3 (Organ). To me, this symphony is a guilty pleasure, especially when playing the second half of the symphony were the pipe organ kicks in, and playing it at what might be as close to concert volume as the system I'm listening through at the moment can handle. I spun both the SACD of this symphony, and the Classic Records reissue. A few times.
The Maestro Anniversary sailed through this test, but not without first reminding me that this integrated amp can reproduce the quiet sections of this masterpiece, too, and let me bask in what was one of the best string sections in the world, conducted by one of the best orchestra leaders in the world. I had quite a time that afternoon, first playing the SACD, then the vinyl, then the SACD again, marveling how the Maestro Anniversary never lost its cool even during the loudest fortissimos the organ and the entire orchestra could throw at it.
Even though the specifications of the Kharma Elegance dB7-S claim that their low frequency range "only" goes down to 28Hz, their sound went through my body before it reached the back of my listening seat and let me know which objects in the room weren't securely fastened. More importantly, the Maestro Anniversary sounded as transparent as any amplifier I've ever had in this system. It also acted as an as an almost perfect attenuator rather than an amplifier. Anyone who has had a family member or friend play a trumpet in their home can attest, or better yet, when hearing one practice drums in the home's basement knows, it can be easily understood that the actual sound in Boston's Symphony Hall was much, much louder than it was in my lowly listening room as I listened to it on my two-channel system. All the Maestro Anniversary seemed to be doing was bringing the music that was recorded down to a level where it wouldn't cause any physical damage, to my hearing or otherwise.
Reproducing an entire symphony orchestra and pipe organ in an average sized listening room with any sound system is the impossible dream of my audiophiles. But chasing this pipedream (excuse the pun) is what being an audiophile is all about. The Maestro Anniversary brought me that much closer, reproducing the gestalt of the orchestra, by reproducing the sounds on this recording in a manner which only the best need apply. The Audio Analogue Maestro Anniversary integrated power amplifier did this by committing as few additive or subtractive errors as possible, given the cost constraints put upon its engineers. The Maestro Anniversary isn't inexpensive, but it certainly isn't a cost-no-object design.
Again, this is not an inexpensive amplifier; lots went into designing and building this sonic wolf in sheep's clothing. And yet it can be called affordable when comparing it to many other high-end integrated amplifiers. The only thing that might keep it from being considered is its size and weight, which are obviously unavoidable when using this class of integrated amplifier.
I determined through my rather lengthy audition period that the Maestro Anniversary integrated amplifier is worth every penny one spends on it. To have this solid-state amplifier as the centerpiece and center piece of a high-end system would be a smart move for any audiophile that is able to afford it. and has or will have the associated equipment that is able to take advantage of its very high-end sound. Recommended.