Audio Space is a Hong Kong company distributed in the US by Gini Systems of Pomona California. They not only make a large variety of tube amplifiers but also a CD player, loudspeakers, a subwoofer, phono stage, and preamplifier. In fact their Reference 2 300B tube true balanced preamplifier has been getting rave reviews worldwide and would appear to be a worthy consideration for use with the Reference 3 amplifiers up for review today. My first experience with an Audio Space product occurred close to two years ago by way of a friend returning from a visit to China. While there he purchased a Houston integrated tube amplifier which had been converted to 120V making it usable in the United States. Now you see Houston audio products are a sub division of Audio Space, hence the connection. That little amplifier used four EL34 power and four small nine pin preamplifier tubes while putting out around 20 watts into an eight ohm load. The sound was so impressive that I purchased that particular unit from him immediately upon auditioning it. Unfortunately, like a lot of gear I have previously owned it was sold and replaced by the newest toy to catch my interest rather than any lack of faith in the product itself. Todayís review of the Reference 3 mono blocks are about an altogether different breed of Audio Space product in that it is farther up the audio chain than was that Houston amplifier of two years ago. For what you get at $7900 a pair it definitely falls under the "bang for the buck" category of high end audio gear as you shall shortly discover.
"Each Reference 3 mono block uses a 6SL7 small signal triode tube in the front end, parlayed into the 300B driver tube. The 6SN7 triode tube serves as a buffer between the driver stage and the 845 output stage. Both 300B and 845 tubes are top shelf OEM tubes that have been thoroughly tested in accordance with stringent Audio Space's design quality standards and branded with the Audio Space label. The capacitors in the Reference 3 are specially selected to accentuate the design goal of the amplifier. High end Jensen copper foil capacitors are used in the front-end and buffer stages to shape the sonic characteristics desired, while German Zero Cap high output voltage capacitors are used with the 845 tube to achieve the desired output performance. Transformers and inducting coils on all Audio Space products are designed and manufactured by Audio Space in house where the amplifiers are also manufactured and tested. All transformers are hand-wound and made with proprietary methodology and material."
They came well packed with each of their four tubes already inserted in their respective tube sockets. Not to worry though as the tubes were surrounded with ample packing material in order to avoid breakage during shipping. All the transformers, chokes, etc., were partially wrapped with material designed to be removed prior to turning on the amplifiers, a relatively simple process really. As for the tubes please be careful and note that if the need arises the 300B tubes in particular must be inserted the correct way. They have two thicker and two thinner pins and forcing them incorrectly into the sockets, large pin in small hole, could damage the amplifier. That of course is true with any 300B tube whether used with this amplifier or another. Placement of the Reference 3's on the floor was quite simple. With four spiked feet preinstalled one need only place each amplifier on the four factory supplied discs, or without if you so choose. I used those discs as the amplifiers were laid to rest on my wifeís precious hardwood floors and not a carpeted surface.
amplifier was placed in close proximity to its respective loudspeaker and looked
great sitting there openly displayed. Those factory supplied cones stopped each
of those seventy-two pound amplifiers from pushing their spiked feet into the
wood surface and damaging the floors, always a good thing. Both Reference 3ís
came with one 845, 300B, 6SL7 and 6SN7 tube placed in the front of each
amplifier. Located behind them was a very large output transformer sitting next
to two choke coils, a very large power supply transformer and three good sized
capacitors. The attractive front panel with its brushed aluminum faceplate
sports a power on/off knob, switches for feedback adjustment, meter range, rear
panel input selections (Balanced or RCA) as well an input source switch. There
is a volume control knob off to the right side and in the center a large meter
for adjusting Bias or to display output signal level depending on how you set
the controls. The back panel has inputs for either XLR or RCA cables as well as
loudspeaker connections of 4, 8 or 16 Ohms. Factory supplied power cords
are provided but I would think that like me most will wind up using their own
aftermarket cords to plug into the IEC outlet. For the purpose of this review
XLR cables by Monarchy Audio were used to connect preamplifier to amplifier and
later from a direct source when put into its integrated amplifier mode. This
will be discussed in greater detail later.
the Music Play Commence
As with all good quality systems it is important to put your best foot forward and on the thicker, 120,150,180, and 200 gram records the Reference 3's really strutted their stuff. Here they showcased all that my turntable/cartridge combination could retrieve. By digging deep into the recordings from these high quality vinyl records the 845 power tubes added just the right overall sense of you are there liveliness to each performance. There are so many great songs from Bob Dylan's The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan [Columbia/Sundazed LP 5115] that it was difficult choosing just a few to use as examples. The biting edge to Dylan's voice on "Blowin' In the Wind" reminding me of the sixty's with all its youthful turbulence and hope. The realistic presence of his vocals, three dimensionality of his guitar and truth of timbre to the harmonica on "Girl from the North Country" took my breath away. Not only did the Reference 3's appropriately display imaging within the soundscape but did so with a good sense of warmth as both instruments and vocals were portrayed with true to life heart and soul. Do not take that wrong, the tube warmth was quite appropriate and not in overabundance lacking in focus or detail. Source material had a good sense of presence sounding true to live music as great amplifiers tend to sound. This occurred both on vinyl and CD making each medium sound all the better when heard back through the Reference 3's.
Night after night passed rather quickly as I
became lost in musical bliss without ever feeling the need to take any type of a
break. In fact it became necessary to watch the clock as the hours swiftly flew
by without a thought to their passing. These amplifiers took a bit of the edge
off of Bob Dylan's vocal presentation making it a tad more pleasurable to hear.
With "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" there were moments when he would
normally sound a bit shrill but these amplifiers from Audio Space helped yield a
sound more pleasing to these ears. The Reference 3's especially gave my CD
collection a little added boost as its tubes took the edge off this somewhat
harsher musical medium. Easing the transition from vinyl to cd came via Michael
Bubleís It's Time [143 Records/Reprise]. This is a great recording
that would be nice to have had on vinyl. "Foggy Day" had musicians
imaging on a very clearly defined soundscape with each easily identifiable.
Bass, drums, guitar, percussion and that oh so wonderful voice were each given
their own space within which to shine. Michael Bubleís vocal presence
definitely came alive with the addition of the Reference 3's to my reference
system. Closing my eyes to imagine myself in an intimate setting, perhaps a
small club somewhere off Broadway, was very easy with the aide of those lushes 845
On "You Don't Know Me" their ability to
exhibit a proper decay of vocal and piano notes created a magical moment in my
room. The duet with Nelly Furtado along with the accompanying saxophone solo was
out of this world good. Their performance was intimate, realistic, spatially
well-defined and with a proper amount of detail. The Reference 3ís did well
with Cat Stevens, Bob Dylan and Michael Buble but now it was the time to see how
they would fare with Rock and Roll or large Orchestra music. On Carlos
Santanaís Supernatural CD [07822
19080-2 Arista] there were plenty of percussion, congas and drums all on the
same stage together. The question was how they would handle this large mix of
performers playing simultaneously. Actually these twenty-six watt tube
amplifiers fared very well, much better than anticipated with my medium
efficient Von Schweikert VR-35 loudspeakers. Here on "Da Le Taleo" a
large soundscape full of talented musicians unfolded before me to display images
both clear and distinct. Tube amplifiers of lesser quality might come across
slow and plodding lacking in precise imaging, not so with the Reference 3's.
They handled the many musicians onstage as well as the lightning quick guitar
work of Carlos Santana with apparent ease. Nice wide soundstages, good
three-dimensional imaging, quickness, tube magic, all can be used to describe my
time with the 3's.
I particularly like hearing "Maria,
Maria" with lead vocals provided by The Product G & B. Not only did
they sound realistic but mid-bass definition was strong and distinct. The only
place where one need be careful will be in matching the amplifiers power output
to appropriate loudspeakers. When playing them through my Martin Logan Sequel
IIís it was easy to push them hard enough to hear distortion as the amplifiers
hit their limits. Those however are very power hungry loudspeakers and there are
many amplifiers that would find them difficult to adequately drive. With the
medium efficient Von Schweikert VR-35ís this did not become a problem. In fact
they pushed the VR-35ís to levels I felt truly satisfied with. Still it would
have been nice to see how well the Reference 3's would have sounded if connected
to my Klipsch Klipschorn loudspeakers. They unfortunately are no longer with me
having found a new home somewhere in Germany where I envision them playing
beautiful music for their new owner.
The Klipschornís have a 104dB w/m rating and could rock even when connected to a pair of 4-watt Dignity Audio tube mono block amplifiers. Imagine how they would have sounded with these twenty-six watt "powerhouses" from Audio Space. On the SACD recording of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Requiem in D Minor K626 [BMG 82876 58705 2], Mozart's unfinished masterpiece, the 3's once again shinned. Each singer within the choir was showcased individually within the context of the larger whole. This large scale orchestra work never failed to thrill me with its portrayal of a large wide three-dimensional soundscape. The 3's were powerful enough to fill my medium sized room with the magic of tubes without running out of steam and this great recording became a pleasure to hear. As for timbre presentation of both string and horn sections the 3ís left me with a truly satisfied feeling with regards to each individual instruments. Rather than projecting images of loosely defined bass the 3's did a great job outlining lower and mid bass notes true to the correct musical content on hand at the moment. Listening fatigue never entered the equation as long late night listening sessions were again a pleasure to entertain.
Reference 3ís As An Integrated Amplifier
Running them as integrated amplifiers will not
only save you the expense of a separate preamplifier but the associated
interconnects and power cords (especially if you use high dollar aftermarket
ones as I do). If though your system needs more inputs or you feel you must have
a remote control then by all means go with a preamplifier as a remote is just
not part of the 3's package. Losing the mute feature was a different matter. If
the phone or doorbell rang or a family member called out from another room it
was just a matter of hitting the pause button on my CD's remote control to put
things on temporary hold. With the turntable though it necessitated getting up
to cue the cartridge off the record or if you prefer going over to lower the
volume on both mono amplifiers, yes a small inconvenience in exchange for saving
a bit of money. This was definitely something I found livable with especially
since my vinyl listening sessions are rarely interrupted. Do not let either of
these small possible inconveniences make you for even a moment to not consider
the 3ís for use as a stand alone unit.
In integrated amplifier mode while re-listening to the same above mentioned Mozart Requiem in D Minor K626 CD I was not able to detect any major differences. The soundscape still appeared wide as well as deep, clarity was constant, music had a feeling of a proper weight to it, and isolating performers was still one of its stronger points. With The Oscar Peterson Trio CD We Get Requests [LIM Records B002HTWYZ6] the focusing ability of the Reference 3ís was startling. This was the best I have heard from this song yet as each performers location was so clearly defined in a very wide soundscape. Dynamics remained intact, to a great extent, as swings from low to high volume were reproduced almost with the same ferocity as with a separate high quality preamplifier in place. All in all if budget constraints warranted I would not hesitate to recommend listening to them as stand-alone integrated amplifiers.
my $5000 preamplifier did take things to a slightly higher level but that
difference was ever so slight making me question cost versus need and to wonder
if that money could be better put to use elsewhere within my system. It would
certainly buy me a great deal more CD and or vinyl recordings, always a big
plus. It seemed that only those seeking out the highest degree of musical
reproduction would even question the need to look for a separate preamplifier.
For me listening without a preamplifier produced no regrets whatsoever. Given my
very positive experience with the Reference 3ís it did though spark my
interest on how their Reference 2 300B tube preamplifier might have sounded if
both were used together. Perhaps that would be a good place to start if one were
to opt for using them as mono block rather than integrated amplifiers.
On my very short list of concerns it can be said they produce only 26-watts of tube power and so must be carefully matched to appropriate loudspeakers as well as the size of your listening environment. Not having 450-watts of power like my reference amplifier it took a little while to get used to. Once I settled in to appreciate their sonic capabilities of imaging, layering of musicians in a deep front to back soundscape, delicacy, presence and focus the 3ís won me over big time. With the proper setup you can sit back to "Enjoy the Music" while the Reference 3's perform in admirable fashion. Without question these amplifiers from Audio Space are not only long on quality but a monetary bargain to boot. Save your money, use them as integrated amplifiers, run XLR cables long, keeping loudspeaker cabling short, then turn out the lights to enjoy not only the sound but the beauty of those 845 tubes glowing in the dark. Life is good and so are these amazing tube amplifiers from Audio Space, give then a listen.
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