The audio arts are flourishing and the best of today’s high-end audio products now inch enticingly closer to that ultimate goal of reproducing the grand illusion of hearing live music created in a palpable acoustic space. To hear an audio system that gets all the ingredients right (and succeeds in transporting the listener to the recorded event) is truly a transformative experience. This is what we audiophiles and music lovers crave and quest after. We attend listening sessions where we do nothing else but listen to recorded music on our systems and sit transfixed (and goosebumped!) in the wonder of the illusion spread out before us.
One of the advances in the pursuit of the reproduction of the “absolute sound” is in the area of amplification. Audio engineers and designers have found new ways to build amplifiers that have greater dynamic capabilities, lower noise floors and stability through out their frequency ranges – all improvements that can result in astoundingly life-like presence (if those amplifiers are partnered with loudspeakers that take full advantage of their capabilities). Experimentation with tube technology; solid state; Class A, Class D (and even Class G!) typologies; battery power and a hybrid combination of tube and solid state, has transformed the world of amplifier design.
Memorable new amplifier designs span the budget spectrum. For instance, an exciting combination of amplifier and loudspeaker was heard recently in a system that combined the easy to drive (and sensationally dynamic) Nola K-O loudspeakers ($9,800) (www.nolaspeakers.com) with a dual mono integrated amplifier, the Turbo 845SE ($6,000) from design maven Israel Blume, founder of Coincident Technologies (www.coincidentspeaker.com). The Turbo 845SE [and its smaller brother, The Dynamo 34 SE ($1,299)], drove the Nolas with beautiful clarity, crisp dynamics and a wholeness to their presentation that was inviting and natural.
The Nola K-O were also heard with the Jeff Rowland Design Group’s Continuum S2 Integrated Amplifier ($9500) (www.jeffrowlandgroup.com) a new-breed of Class-D topology amplifier. The Rowland has a different sonic signature: driving the Nola’s with streamlined clarity, liquid precision and a “reach out and touch” immediacy.
Another impressive combination was heard with Reference 3A Veena loudspeakers (www.reference3A.com) being partnered with PrimaLuna’s Dialogue Premium Integrated Amplifier ($3,399).
The Primaluna is a tube-based design that drove the Reference 3A’s effortlessly and with that elusive quality of inviting the listener into the musical action in all of its tactile, layered and inner details. It was a great match with Reference 3A, a loudspeaker known for its sparkling energy and coherency top to bottom.
Further up the budget ladder we have another impressive amplifier that has graced our own main listening room and has been, for more than one year, a superb partner with the Hansen Prince V.2 Loudspeaker (www.hansenaudio.com)- our long time reference that requires every strong watt to sound its glorious and soulful best.
The Aesthetix Atlas hybrid power mono block amplifier ($16,000 per pair) (“Atlas”) (also available in a stereo amplifier version in both standard and “signature” editions) embodies everything great about this California company’s proven track record for designing and manufacturing audio products that set the bar for quality and performance in their price ranges (www.aesthetix.net).
Before the Atlas arrived, experience with Aesthetix products had been gleaned from another Aesthetix product, the Rhea, the company’s tubed phone stage.
Partnered with a VPI Classic I Turntable and a Shelter 7000 cartridge for several years here in our main listening room, the Rhea has proved to be THE phone stage in its price range (to which all other phono stages are to be judged). The Rhea is a jackknife of functionality for the vinyl enthusiast. For example, critical phono cartridge loading settings, as well as gain and phase options, can be changed on the fly from the Rhea’s front panel or its remote. The Rhea combines this rich feature list with a sonic quality that can only be described as an unbounded enthusiasm for delivering every visceral aspect of vinyl reproduction – the medium that still reigns supreme in conveying the human qualities of music making in an acoustic space.
Like the Rhea, The Aesthetix Atlas monoblock amplifier is a thing of beauty (encased in an all aluminum chassis) with an array of inputs and features (high pass input crossover; mute and standby on the fly) that once again highlights Aesthetix’s care in product design and the offering of great functionality at its price point. Aesthetix’s amicable founder and chief designer, Jim White, comes from a design philosophy where transistors have their place (if used properly in an amplifier circuit) but still believes that vacuum tubes provide the best results for voltage amplification of audio signals. The Atlas incorporates White’s hybrid philosophy: each unit contains a bipolar output stage; a bipolar driver stage and a vacuum tube input gain stage. The tube gain stage uses 1 6SN7 tube per channel and this single gain stage provides all the voltage gain for the Atlas, conservatively rated at 300 watts per channel into 8ohms and 600 watts into 4 ohms. It is also a linchpin of White’s design philosophy that no feedback of any kind be used in his amplifier circuits and he believes his circuits measure well with zero feedback.
The best way to summarize how the Atlas performed here, partnered with the Hansen Prince V.2 loudspeakers, is to describe its delivery of a slice of musical heaven recently unleashed on the world after forty years of sitting on reels of Maxell UD tape.
We are talking here of the Grateful Dead’s performance at Winterland in San Francisco on February 24, 1974 and produced for release by David Lemieux and his dedicated crew as three limited edition (16,500 in total) CD’s, comprising Dave’s Picks Volume #13 [Rhino Records; Grateful Dead Productions, www.dead.net]. The recording quality of this newest release is very good. The downside is that vocals are a bit recessed at times but this is overshadowed by the fantastic live performance that captures the Dead’s instruments in all of their full sonic power and glory, particularly Jerry Garcia’s blazing and nimble guitar.
Embedded in this treasure trove on this Winterland evening is the Dead’s frolicking version of “China Cat Sunflower-I Know You Rider” – a version here for the ages. The key to this “China Cat-Rider” manifesto is its miraculous simple driving rhythm and pacing. The piece starts with just a scintilla of a Garcia riff joined by little sparks from Bob Weir’s rhythm guitar and accents from Bill Kreutzmann’s snare and Phil Lesh’s brawny bass. (Kreutzmann and Lesh are on fire through out this recording and their rhythm section is a cannonball express that never stops chugging). With the Atlas controlling the action, all of this preliminary simple and driving pace and rhythm is laid out clear and dynamic. This introduction to “China Cat” reveals the Atlas’ primary virtue: it is a rhythm and pacing king. All of the rhythmic foundation of this slowly evolving “China Cat” is released just as the band intended it: slowly, deliberately and with a fierce, building dynamic force like no other band in the land could ever replicate.
The swirl of this slowly evolving “China Cat” moves inexorably into a heightened state of propulsion as Garcia and Weir trade licks into a higher and hotter elevation. The Atlas captures Weir’s outstanding soloing as he comes out from his rhythm guitar shadow to hit some funky blues soloing on the left of the stage. All of this twisting and churning leads to a beautiful sweet culmination as the group hits a few positive stanzas from their classic tune, “Uncle John’s Band” with Garcia tender and light up on his highest frets. The Atlas ensnares all of this drama and kinetic action beautifully, including capturing the sparks of Garcia’s highest treble climbs. The Atlas immediately conveys the important lesson that everything the Dead is building onstage in spontaneous combustion depends first and foremost on their acute and marvelous way with simple pace and rhythm, the building blocks from which all other magic flows. The Atlas fleshes out this bone structure with its ability to control the Prince V.2 loudspeakers with an ironclad mid band and lower bass hand that fleshes out every propulsive turn on this wonderful ride.
“I Know You Rider” comes out of this “China Cat” cauldron in all of its frolicking, driving simplicity. With the Atlas controlling the action, every step of each leaping guitar solo and Kreutzmann drum catapult builds naturally from its foundation of pace, rhythm and dynamic contrast-exactly as it should in live performance. True, with the Atlas, there may not be the ultimate resolution in hearing low level textures nor do I think the soundstage is as wide as heard with other amplifiers (particularly with the imaging and soundstage champion, the Reimyo KAP-777 amplifier – www.combak.net– a story for another day). But the Atlas does have this effortless way with organizing every rhythmic underpinning and capturing the dynamic contrasts of instruments even at the height of their volume, say, as here, when the Dead hit their cataclysmic conclusion to “I Know You Rider”- blasting their final saluting chords. The Atlas clearly has a special way with getting to the heart of music and capturing and delivering the dynamic pacing, rhythm and drama of great performances, like this stunning example from the Dead of a surging slice of rock n ’roll heaven.
One more example- just to wet your whistle with what the Atlas can do with its special way with rhythm and pacing – this time, underlying female vocals of sassy or sweet filigree. For sassy vocal presence, look no further than the soulful Catherine Russell on her 2014 big-boned recording, Bring It Back [Jazz Village].
With the Atlas coiled and ready, Russell struts on stage and dazzles with her fluid vocal range while her driving band swings and punctuates her every vocal move. Russell’s music is buoyant and unfolding in great drama and the Atlas nails the pacing and unhurried unfurling of each vocal caress, trumpet punch or sax blurt.
In contrast to Russell’s brash and beautiful creation, grab a hold of Ruth Moody’s astonishing recording, These Wilder Things [Red House Records] and revel in her mercurial vocal lightness.
Here, the Atlas captures all the sparkle and radiance of Moody’s tender vocals and nails her brilliant acoustic orchestration. Moody delivers everything from measured sparseness to big pop grooves in her delectable arsenal and it takes a great amplifier like the Atlas to follow her every creative step: hitting dynamic bass notes (in an airy charged acoustic space) one moment and then, in the blink of an eye, delivering the lightness and treble sparkle from Moody’s sultry vocals in the next rhythmic frame.
With the Atlas, it is hard to not look forward to hearing the next piece of recorded music. It’s like looking forward to the next loop to loop of involving musical action (where kinetic energy builds and accumulates into a thrill ride before gravity takes over once again). The Atlas is the king of rhythm and pacing and it teaches that these basic elements, when captured right, are the very essence from which all great music is created and launched. The Atlas are the keepers of the sinews and bones of great music making and for that reason alone, they are special amplifiers indeed.
Digital Front End
EMM labs CDSA player
Aesthetix Atlas monoblock amplifiers
Reimyo KAP-777 stereo solid state amplifier
First Sound Presence Deluxe 4.0 MKII Preamplifier with Paramount Upgrade
Hansen Prince V.2
Nordost Tyr speaker cable and interconnects
Nordost Valhalla digital cable
Nordost Vishnu power cords
Nordost Q-Base 4 and Q-Base 8; Nordost Qx2 and Qx4
Argent Audio Dark Matter Base
SSBC large pucks
Nordost Quasar Isolation Points
ASC bass traps and sound planks
L’Art Du Son disc cleaner
Aesthetix Audio Corporation
5220 Gabbert Road, Suite A
Moorpark, CA. 93021