In our increasingly homogenized, MTV techno-culture, it's getting harder and
harder to tell the differences between things that used to be reassuringly opposite.
Even with hi-fi gear, it is no longer uncommon to find certain tube amps behaving
like macho-tough transistors, while transistor stuff wantonly parades about
like sensually glowing glass bottles. Is nothing monochromatically clear anymore?
For your cluck-cluck perusal, we present two such offenders of all that used to be black-and-white, clearly right and distinctly left: the Woodside Electronics ISA230 twenty-five watt, tube-powered, integrated stereo amplifier; and the fifty watt, solid-state stereo, YBA DT Integre (integrated), from Phlox Electronique. The he-man tube gear comes from England-a country whose TV audiences give top ratings to any comic that skits about in reverse-gender garb. And the trannies in glass audio drag are from France-a place long given to wanton pursuits of pleasure, simple sexual distinctions be damned. So it comes as no surprise that these two electronic emigres to America are such blatant audio cross-dressers. Indeed, so well do they pull off their sonic transvestitism that the Republicans may have to put another anti-immigration plank into their '96 presidential campaign platform. How else can these subversive threats to the established high-end order be kept out of our public audio salons?
The YBA's overtly sensual behavior begins the moment you open the shipping carton and the warranty card falls out, bearing the salutation, "Chere Cliente, Cher Client." From there, it's right down the slippery, gender-bender slope. The transistorized YBA has two sets of speaker outputs on its rear. The set on the right (of course) offers a traditional sound, while the second set on the left (where else) "have a different damping factor, and give a smoother sound," i.e., this rive gauche pair of outputs is prepared to give you a looser, tubier effect. Shave the beard, and put on a little mascara, Cher/Chere.
[The YBA does its standard/soft sound routine by linking internally the two different outputs to a large inductor coil. The "standard" sound outputs are at one end of the coil, while the tube-like set are at the other end. At this latter end, the coil decreases the bass damping factor. The designer of this amp, Yves Bernard Andre, obviously has too much time on his hands.]
Of course, the all solid-state YBA does a few things that tubes can only dream of, like jumping in output from 50W/Ch at 8 ohms to 90 watts at 4 ohms, and featuring a damping factor of 300 at 100 Hz-the latter being important for a nicely tight bottom end. With its six inputs, silky smooth, stepped volume control, cleverly concealed on/off switch, built-in 47K ohm MM phono input (optional MC input also available), and sleek, brushed chrome fascia, the YBA is also a real looker, and flexible enough to fulfill most of your audio processing needs.
Naturally, hooking up a relatively low power amplifier like the YBA requires some thoughts about speaker pairing. If your speakers are in the 85-to-89 dB sensitivity range, the earth will probably not move under you, as the available wattage is too low to reach planet-shattering levels. However, with the 94 dB sensitive Impulse Ta'us horn-loaded speakers, we could easily crank up the YBA to imminent, high-rise tenant-riot proportions.
Our recent adoption of Nordost's "Red Dawn" wires as our reference cables also made interconnections between the YBA and other components much simpler. These .999999 OFC silver-plated speaker wires ($699.99, per 2.0 M pair) and OFC extruded silver interconnects ($399.99, per 1.0 M pair) are silvery flat ribbons. (Nordost, 508-879-1242, is local to the Boston area, where we live.) Easy to handle (plus easily hidden under carpets), and as clear and clean in appearance as in their sound, the Red Dawn cables are a price/performance steal when compared to the other wiry exotica out there. Top octave to bottom, these flat cables are excellent. The Nordost wires blew away the water-hose-thick cables we had been using. Perhaps our biggest surprise came with the speakers' improved bass response. The same lowly thing also happened when the Red Dawn wires were connected to our Hsu subwoofer (not used with the Ta'us). All kinds of sub-51 Hz information suddenly appeared, courtesy of Nordost. Even more unexpected was the sudden change in Gordana's tune from "Cables, schmables-they don't make any difference," to "These are never going out the door." Chalk up one more for tweako husbands.
Rounding out this YBA/Impulse system was the quite wonderful "Meridian 508.20 CD player, and the equally wonderful, recently upgraded, "Wilson Benesch turntable. The latter has just been fitted out with the WB Carbon One cartridge, and Stage 1 internal phono pre-amp. (Reviews on the Meridian and upgraded WB system are in the works). Both audio source components are British in origin. Finally, the whole lot of kit sat on an adjustable Base audio rack cum excellent isolation shelves. The nicely handsome Base rack is also from the UK. So with the exception of the Red Dawn cables, this entire s/he man rig was sourced from outside the U.S. Indeed, we were almost overwhelmed by the thought of hordes of electron-infested immigrants invading our national energy supplies. Finally though, we calmed ourselves down, and turned everything on.
The Integre's DT's (Dual Transformers), and its perfectly symmetrical, dual mono layout yielded an open, grainless, no-edge-to-it sound. Phlox attributes these highly desirable qualities to the faxt that YBA's output stages uses no local feedback, as well as to the amp's very low overall feedback (less than 20 dB). Even running off its "standard" outputs, the YBA shamelessly vamped about like a set of well-heated tubes, and also did great female vocal impersonations-for example, on the Billy Holiday Body and Soul CD from Mobile Fidelity [UDCD 658]. This disc is scorching testimony to Holiday's angst-filled life. When Billy sings about emotional pain, you know it's not just some well-paid lyricist's idea of a hook. Her obvious hurt can sometimes make you wince. And the YBA does nothing to hide or color her too-human troubles. Joan Baez's Diamonds and Rust, again from Mo-Fi [UDCD 646], is another instance of this amplifier's accurate way with emotion (with the YBA, this description is not an oxymoron). In the CD's eponymous cut, the opening rush of guitar strings don't grate, and Joan's semi-sweet bitterness (about Bob Dylan, it is said) is wistfully transparent. Once again, this all transistor, tube-like amp had the decency to step out of the way, and let this unrequited lady clearly have at it.
But the YBA's sonic androgyny only went so far. The solid state "Semper Fi" tattooed on its muscular transistor arms couldn't be overlooked. The YBA had the sinew to dig down deep into the low notes without breathing hard. The unit could also throw up a huge soundstage, and deal with large orchestral pieces without breaking a sweat-a perfect example being DCC's recent reissue of composer Victor Young's music from the movie, For Whom The Bell Tolls. This sumptuous LP was made from the analog three-track master tape. Its Cinerama of a film score sweeps you up and across civil-war-torn Spain. The YBA's sonic presentation, from the opening bells to Roberto's farewell, is as emotional as anything you may find in glass bottles. In sum, the YBA DT Integre is remarkably transparent, offers great neutrality, and yet can still seek out the soul of music. A class act, even if it is a flagrant amplificateur gender-bender.
And now, it's time to answer the Big Question: What did the left set of amplifier outputs, with their "tube-like" damping, sound like? In three words, not very good. The Impulse speakers are Quad-like in their ability to reveal a component's characteristics and foibles, and the Ta'us horns cared not a bit for these blatantly Cage au Folles transistors. The sound was simply too loose. In short, we heard neither the advantages of transistors, nor the benefits of tubes. Instead, we suggest you take advantage of the YBA's special feature that lets you rewire and bypass these under-damped outputs, and use them as a second pair of normally damped binding posts. This way, you can easily bi-wire your speakers.
Any other complaints? Well, just a few minor nits. Upper octave energy was somewhat slighted, and plucked bass could sometimes verge on the monotonal. Finally-and this is not a criticism-for a solid-state unit, the YBA's sonic presentation tended to the laid-back. This very sophisticated amplifier does not do lap dances. Discreet behavior is something that the Woodside ISA230 Integrated amplifier will never be accused of. This all black metal beast with glowing innards gets in your face and stays there. From top to bottom, it boogies. Its stout English heart comes from a pair of 5881 power tubes per channel, yielding 25 watts at 8 ohms (30 watts at 4 ohms). Combined with its unusually high-for a tube amp-damping factor of 40, the Woodside produces a most un-valve-like bass. So once again, we are confronted with an amplifier that likes to confuse your perceptions. You take it home, expecting to hear a sweet, soft thing, and then, when you pull down the power switch, whoops! This is not what we expected!
The Woodside's appearance is also in complete contrast to the elegant, rounded-corner look of the YBA. The Woodside's black frontispiece has a squared-off jaw, albeit modern and clean in appearance. The unit's on/off switch and tape monitor selectors are also nothing sophisticated--just simple, chromed toggle switches. And the four input selector switch (line/optional Phono, CD, Aux, Tuner) has a ca-chunk, ca-chunk feel when rotated. This clunky sensation is likely caused by a poorly designed selector rod which, like the YBA's, runs the length of the unit, from front to rear. Put these two amps side by side, and talk about tube/transistor gender confusion! Externally the Woodside looks for all the world like "stay outta ma face" tough guy. Needless to say, the Woodside warranty card doesn't begin with Chere/Cher.
Once again, the 94 dB sensitivity of the Ta'us came through for us. Even at twenty-five watts, the Woodside never really had to strain into this load, even when pushed. However, there were some hints that on lower sensitivity speakers, at high listening levels, it might clip hard, as opposed to softly fading off like other tube gear. Well, that's how it is with macho guys, right? When they break down, they just go all blubbery at once. This is totally in keeping with this amp's character-or out-of-character, if you prefer.
However, there is nothing blubbery, or clunky, or awkward about the Woodside's music-making abilities. Quite the reverse. The overtly tough Woodside has the proverbial heart of gold. This amp makes liquid magic out of vocals. Emotionally it just grabs you and holds on. For instance, listen to John Lee Hooker singing "The World Today" from the Mobile Fidelity two disc set Hooker and Heat [UDCD 2-676]. When John Lee sings about the old folks getting out of the way of the young--so that, just perhaps, the world might turn out to be a better place--he is right there in your living room, delivering his from-the-gut musical sermon. We could also sermonize about the reproduction of vocals via the Woodside, but suffice to say, the magic was always apparent, no matter what we played.
But can 25 watts successfully produce a large orchestra in full flight? You bet! More than once we were pleasantly surprised by what a couple of dozen watts, when played through 94 dB sensitive speakers, could do. Say what you will about film music, it almost never holds anything back, so it's as good test of a system's dynamic range as any. (It's also nice if the musical sound track is a whole, organic piece, so you can listen to it from end to end, e.g., For Whom The Bell Tolls.) One movie music CD we recently got showed us just how far 25 watts can go. This was the big-screen music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold [DCC GZS-1094]. This CD has a selection of his scores from seven features of the late '30s and early '40s. In particular, the opening cut from the 1942 film classic, King's Row, is an ear-opener. Once again, we had an amplifier suffering from gender crisis, as the all tube Woodside relentlessly powered through the big, brassy, "Main Title" cut like a transistorized tank. (Interestingly, as you listen to this highly dynamic score, you suddenly find yourself thinking, whoa, this is Star Wars II! But of course, it is the other way around. Obviously, the composer/conductor John Williams must have been a big fan of Korngold's.) The other cuts, from such film classics as The Adventures of Robin Hood, are also terrific
What about the Woodside's bass, and that forty-something damping factor? Well, what is good bass amplification, anyway, if not the ability to tease out nuances as instruments go ever deeper? And simultaneously define those deep shadings, while layering glistening mid and treble octaves on top, like, say, some angelic voices? For an example, look no further than John Tavener's Thunder Entered Her [Virgin Classics, D106203]. After converting to the Eastern Orthodox Church, Tavener has produced a number of compositions that explore the mystical side of his faith. This extraordinary recording is one of them. On the opening two tracks, "Angels" and "Annunciation," we have a female and male choir, underpinned by the thunder of the mammoth organ at Winchester Cathedral. Tavener sets off to musically explore the text of St. Ephren (306-73), who wrote of the divine mystery of the Incarnation. Not a trivial undertaking-for either the composer, or a low-powered amplifier. But the Woodside, bless its highly-damped tube heart, pulled it off. Admittedly, the Impulse Ta'us only goes down to about 40 Hz, but this tube amp evinced a transistor-style gusto all the way there. The music's bass notes held firm while the organ stops progressively came out, and the angels steadfastly hovered above, never missing their beatific beat. Lovely.
But wouldn't it also have been nice if the Woodside's 3-D soundstage had extended further out from the speakers, even unto the heavens? Sure. And wouldn't it have been nice if the Woodside had even more thunder in the low notes? Sure. Finally, wouldn't it have been nice if its extremely quiet tubes had achieved total transistor transparency? Of course. However, to wallow in such reviewers' nits is to lose sight of the big picture: the YBA and Woodside prove that low-powered integrated amplifiers, when properly system-matched, are exhilarating and dynamic, and pack a big musical punch.
So, who cares that their respective amplification genders are not easily pigeon-holed? If transistors want to seductively slink across your soundstage, and tubes want to do a macho solid-state strut, more power to them. Indeed, when positively encouraged, multi-cultural, cross-over diversity can produce miracles of many different kinds.
Unfortunately, as we near the new millennium, many retro-politicians have yet to see the great power in this. But St. Ephren did, way back in the fourth century. He once wrote how one thing can magically, mysteriously, transform into something else, with the most amazing results: "Thunder entered her-and made no sound; there entered the Shepherd of all, and in her he became the Lamb, bleating as he comes forth. Amen."
Speakers: Impulse Ta'us
Tuner: Rotel RH10 'Michi'
Digital: Meridian 508.20 CD player
Analog: Wilson Benesch turntable, ACT Two carbon fiber arm, Carbon cartridge, and Stage 1 Phono Preamp
Other Amplification: Graaf 13.5b tube preamp, and Graaf GM 200 watt OTL tube amplifier
Cables and interconnects: Nordost Red Dawn
Equipment stand: Base rack, and Base Isolation equipment platforms
Tweaks: Black Diamond Racing, The Shelf, The Source, and Cones Mk 3 & 4; Shakti Stones
Woodside ISA230: $1895
YBA DT Integre: $2195
YBA Regular Integre sans DT: $1850
Note: neither price reflects the optional, extra cost phono stages that are available for both units.
Copyright 1996, Francis Vale, All Rights Reserved
21st, The VXM Network, http://www.vxm.com