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POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 1
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final labs

Music 5 preamplifier and Music 6 amplifier

as reviewed by Dave Clark, Mark Katz, and Francisco Duran

 


Music 5 preamplifier

 

 

 

DAVE CLARK'S SYSTEM:

LOUDSPEAKERS
Reimer Speaker Systems Tetons.

ELECTRONICS
Clayton Audio M100 monoblock amplifiers. E.A.R. 834P phono stage. Blue Circle BC3000 preamp w/Tunsgram tubes, and BCG3.1 power supply.

SOURCES
EAD T1000 transport and EVS Millenium II DAC with Audient Technologies’ Tactic and Audit, and Taddeo Digital Antidote Two. Linn Axiss turntable with K9 cartridge and Basik Plus arm.

CABLES
JPS Superconductor+ interconnects, digital, and NC speaker cables. Sahuaro Slipstream, Blue Circle BC63, Clayton Audio, and JPS Kaptovator AC cables.

ACCESSORIES
PS Audio P300 Power Plant.
Dedicated 20 and 15 amp ac circuits. Shakti Stones and On-Lines. EchoBuster room treatments. BDR cones and board, DH cones, Vibrapods, Mondo racks and stands, Townshend Audio 2D and 3D Seismic Sinks, various hard woods, etc.

 

one.jpg (6551 bytes)Products like these do not come along every day. Sure, there are lots of simple, low-watt amplifiers on the market, as well as smattering of minimalist preamplifiers that stress function over form (though in the case of the Final Lab products, I am fairly sure that their looks have a lot to do with their design). And yes, there are other DC-powered units. What sets the Final Lab amp and preamp apart from the crowd is that both are both DC-powered, and both are small and minimal in design.

That’s not all. When Final Lab said these units were DC-powered, I was thinking I’d need to plug them into the wall in order to charge and recharge their internal NiCad batteries, but there in the Final Lab shipping boxes were bags of D and C cells. You’ve got to be kidding! When Final said "DC," they really meant it. You can look at this in two ways—either Final has taken the idea of DC power to the extreme, or simplified it to its most basic level. I opt for the latter.

There are three elegant boxes to load the batteries—the DC-5 box for the preamp and two DC-6 boxes for the amp. As I said, there are quite a few batteries to load, 36 D cells for the amp and 28 cells for the preamp. One of the amp boxes is marked negative and the other positive. These are first connected together and then to the amp via an umbilical. Each unit should run for up to 150 hours depending on speaker sensitivity. Use a speaker around 89dB or lower and the amp’s batteries will run out of charge considerably faster than with a speaker rated at 94dB. I used the combo for close to 100 hours with no glitches or problems. Final suggests about six months of use with high efficiency speakers. Also, Final does not endorse using expensive batteries; el-cheapos from Radio Shack will do. To make things even easier, there is a meter on each unit that displays battery strength. Really cool!

Both units are easy to use. They are dead silent, with no hiss, hum, or other noise, even with one’s ear pressed up to a speaker. Neither unit ever got warm to the touch, no matter now long I listened to music or how hard I pushed the amp. These are two of the most unfinicky products I have had the pleasure to audition. The only glitch is that it is necessary to use the mute switch when turning the units on or off to avoid a loud thump. Final Lab also sent their speaker cables and interconnects. These are also very minimalist, featuring a thin OFC conductor housed in a cotton jacket. The cables look identical, except for termination, and are extremely thin, though not so thin that you have to treat them with kid gloves. They should stand the test of time with reasonable care.

Substituting this entire setup for my normal amps, preamp, and cabling was a real eye-opener. I used the Final products as a complete system, but at the end I did try each piece individually. Differences were audible when I auditioned the units this way, but because they were consistent with my results when I used the complete system, my review will be based on the full setup. Also, I presume that most customers will opt for the complete package. To describe the sound of the system in the simplest terms possible, this stuff rocked! All forms of music were launched from the speakers with an amazing amount of speed and clarity—not clarity in the sense of ultimate transparency, in which music is cold and sterile, but clarity that retained the warmth and fullness that makes music real and involving. Disc after disc was just fun to listen to, though of course part of the experience was thinking that these smallish boxes were making all that noise. I kept thinking to myself, "Ten watts?? Ten watts!!" Such big sound, so much "You are there" perspective. Horns took on the blatty presence one hears live, with no superficial colorations. Trumpet blasts could pin you against the wall! Air, space, dynamics, this setup did it all.

Okay, so the bass was not as deep, powerful, or well-controlled as with my reference amps (100 watts class A). The music was a bit less full or rich through the mids, and yes, my tube preamp offers a more dimensional soundfield, but the Final Lab sound was still sweet, and it was much more open. Even though these are transistor amps, they did not sound like either tube or solid state, just music. I found little to fault, as any differences between the sound I am used to and that of the Final Lab setup were a matter of taste or preference. The sound was leaner in the midrange, more up front, and had less bass slam and punch, but so what? I was not really trying to dissect the music into its audio parts. If you want to interpret any of the above comments as criticisms, go ahead. I could purchase these products and never look back.

A rave? Not entirely. There are some serious issues to consider with the purchase of these products. First, they will require new batteries every so often, which adds to the operating costs, and your perspective on the environment might be an issue. Second, the looks and ergonomics are as different as one can get. No one will believe that these two little boxes can make all that music, and you will not impress people with their looks. Third, these components need to be placed on the top shelf of your rack, since the controls are not on their faces. Fourth, the amp needs to be mated with a high-sensitivity speaker of at least 92dB. And fifth, these components are not inexpensive, especially if one opts for the tubed AC power supplies. But if you can get past all of this, this is a no-brainer. These are amazing products, and they are highly recommended. Dave Clark

 


Music 6 amplifier

 

 

 

MARK KATZ'S SYSTEM:

LOUDSPEAKERS
JM Labs Mezzo Utopias and Tannoy 12" Monitor Gold speakers in Lockwood studio cabinets (second system).

ELECTRONICS
Kora Cosmos monoblock amplifiers and Eclipse preamplifier. Custom 300B monobloc SE amplifiers and Loesch-Wiesner line stage preampilier (second system).

SOURCES
CEC TL-1 transport and Kora Hermes (latest version modified by Audio Magic). McIntosh MR-78 tuner. Cal Audio Icon Powerboss HDCD CD player, Luxman T117 tuner, and a   Nakamichi 680 ZX cassette deck (second system).

CABLES
Marigo Reference 3 digital interconnect. Tiff, Yamamura, and Marigo Gen II power cords. Kimber 8TC shotgun speaker cables and Goertz Triode interconnects.

ACCESSORIES
API Power Wedge 116 Mk II for sources. Amps are plugged into a dedicated 20 amp line.

 

two.jpg (6646 bytes)When Dave Clark told me about these battery-powered, solid state, ultra-fi Japanese components, my first question was, "What happens when the batteries go?" The answer was a carton full of C and D cell batteries—not alkaline or lithium or rechargeable batteries, just plain old-fashioned batteries! My next question was "Why do this review?" That became apparent after some listening. The Final Lab Music 5 preamp and Music 6 amp are valid sonic alternatives to my Loesch/Wiesner preamp and 300B SET amps with Tango transformers. No, they don’t sound anything like them, but they do sound very good in a different way. I spent a week with the set, always worrying that I’d need to change batteries.

The power comes from one supply for the preamp and two supplies labeled Plus and Minus for the amps. The power supplies are about the size of abridged dictionaries. They are designed so that you really can’t goof up the connections. The preamp and amp are attractive black boxes with Plexiglas covers and brass-colored controls on the tops and sides. An analog meter on the top of each unit allows one to check voltages from the power supply. The preamp has three toggled inputs, two line and one phono (really a line level input that encourages you to hook up a phono preamp, perhaps their Music 4). It also has gain trim pots on the side and a master volume pot on the top. The amp has a damping control to adapt to various speakers. Final Lab also sent a set of thin white speaker cables and two sets of interconnects. Their literature seems to imply a relationship with human body parts resulting in natural sound. I’m sure it makes more sense in the original Japanese. The instructions with the amps and preamps were also slightly odd and sparse, though I had enough information to get everything running.

The amp is rated at about ten watts, so I figured I’d better hook it up to my Alnico-based Tannoy Monitor Gold HPD 12" speakers in battered old Lockwood Studio cabinets, the ugly-looking but beautiful-sounding set of speakers that resides in my bedroom system. Presenting a flattish 8-ohm impedance with over 92dB sensitivity, they run well with amps of 5 watts or more. (My next-most-easily-driven speakers, a pair of Tannoy Saturn 8s, tend to clip under heavy load with amps of less than 15 watts.) For input sources, I used a Luxman T117 tuner and a California Audio Labs ICON HDCD Power Boss CD player.

The turn-on sequence goes something like this—mute the preamp, then turn it on. An indicator light glows red when the unit is muted and turns off when unmuted, to conserve power. Then, if you feel like it, push the test button in both positive and negative voltage modes to make sure they’re above the minimum voltage and about the same value. So far, so good. Next, turn on the power amp with the output muted, test the voltages, unmute, and watch the red light go off. At this point I noticed some background hiss coming from the speakers. Adjusting the preamp trim pots down to half allowed greater volume control range and reduced the hiss to a faint sound not audible more than a few feet from the speaker, and not at all when music was playing. I adjusted the amp’s speaker damping control until I found the best compromise between too loose and over-damped bass, about 2 o’clock on the dial for my speakers and taste.

What I heard was remarkable. Bass sounded almost sculpted, details were clear, and the sound was very balanced without any special emphasis. No grit, grain, or etched quality. Nor was there excessive warmth to hide sins. The sound was utterly relaxed. Plucked instruments had a fast leading edge and good overtones. Human voice had proper texture. I found myself listening for pleasure. On Telarc’s early digital recording of the Firebird Suite, the drum thwacks had visceral power. I really enjoyed the Classic Records reissue of Grieg’s Peer Gynt instrumental suite. Despite the age of the recording, the orchestra filled the room with rather convincing brass and woodwinds. On an EMI Classics reissue of Julian Bream playing Bach, I could hear the sounds of fingers brushing strings and the guitar body resonating. Continuing with Bach, the secular Cantatas on the Dorian label were a delight. Harpsichord and orchestra balanced tenor, soprano, and baritone beautifully in the Coffee Cantata.

Does the Final Lab combination outperform my custom tube-based gear? The only way to find out was to listen. I reattached the 300B SET amps and tubed preamp. The sound was noisier and lacked some of the detail and bass impact I had heard with the Finals, but it now seemed illuminated from within. I’ve heard this quality with only the best tubed electronics, rarely with solid state. It may well be an artifact of audio reproduction, but it is one that helps bring the music to life. The Final Lab gear delivered a natural, relaxed, yet powerful sound that allowed me to hear music without hi-fi artifacts. They are the first solid state components that I have enjoyed with the Tannoys. Nevertheless, I would be remiss not to point out that having to change out dozens of batteries every few hundred hours also makes them a bit impractical, not to mention questionable from an ecological point of view.

Naturalness, beauty, and an element of impracticality pretty well defines the essence of the audio journey for me. If you’re willing to put in the effort, and have efficient speakers that won’t drain the batteries too quickly, the Final Lab Music 6 amp and Music 5 preamp may help you hear what you’ve been missing. Mark Katz

 

 

 


DC-5 holds 28 C-cell batteries


DC-6 holds 36 D-cell batteries
 

 

 

FRANCISCO DURAN'S SYSTEM:

LOUDSPEAKERS
ProAc Response 2 with Osiris 24" stands.

ELECTRONICS
Monarchy SM-70 amplifiers (mono). Reference Line Preeminence lA passive line stage.

SOURCE
Musical Concepts’ Pioneer DV414 DVD Epoch VII Signature player. Taddeo Digital Antidote Two.

CABLES
Superconductor+ interconnects and a double run of JPS Ultraconductor speaker cables.

ACCESSORIES
Panamax power conditioning. BDR cones and Vibrapods.

 

 

three.jpg (8484 bytes)In audio, looks don’t always go hand in hand with musical performance. The uglier it looks, the better it probably sounds. The Final Lab MUSIC-5 Preamplifier and MUSIC-6 Power Amplifier look like remote controls for a model airplane, but don’t let their looks fool you. There is more to them than meets the eye. There are enough switches, knobs, and meters on them to attract a gearhead like myself. In each there is a meter to check left and right channel voltage. The MUSIC-5 preamp has three inputs, one output, and along with the main volume control, left and right attenuators. This makes it real easy to not only balance the sound but to dial in the volume settings for different discs. The MUSIC-6 amp also has an interesting speaker damping control that proved useful in finding the best sonic match with the various speakers I tried. Turning the knob while music is playing changes the sound noticeably.

The small control boxes are hooked by umbilical cords to three larger black boxes full of batteries. No thick faceplates, no huge heat sinks, no (and thank goodness for this) power cords? Set the control boxes where you can read the meters (this is important), hide the battery boxes, and start listening to music. Don’t bother with your favorite tweaks, just listen! It has been said that a good system shouldn’t prompt you to see how good it sounds with different discs, but should prompt you to put on music for sheer enjoyment. The Final gear definitely prompted me to keep listening. The music coming through these solid state components had color, depth, and texture. Harmonics and timbre rose to a level that I have never heard with any solid state system. Remove the AC from the picture and solid state definitely jumps up a couple of levels in performance. I don’t believe you can experience true lack of grain and glare from a stereo system until you remove the AC from the picture. Sure, the inherent design of the component has to be good, but it looks like Final Lab has done this also.

One of the first CDs I put on was an oldie, Al Stewart’s Year of the Cat. This isn’t an audiophile remaster, but a regular old CD. While I sat there listening, I thought back to when I would spin my old LP of this, and Stewart’s other famous 70s release, Time Passages, on my AR ES-1 table and MMT/Grace Ruby arm and cartridge. The music flowed, with fewer digital artifacts and less coloration than a lot of gear that I have heard. On disc after disc, the music sounded more natural, with better tone and harmonics and a life-like, engaging sound. The music was so natural, alive, and coherent that breaking it down in audiophile terms seemed unnatural. Despite its ten watts, the MUSIC-6 amp has power, real power. U.S. distributor Brian Bowdle was concerned when he found out that it would be driving my 87 dB ProAc Response Twos, but there was no need for him to worry. The MUSIC-6 handled my speakers with no problem. The low end had definition. I didn’t hear the greatest bass heft, but that’s not what my speakers are about anyway. The 22-watt Canary 301 Mk.-II amp edged out the MUSIC-6 in the lowest registers, with a little more heft and authority, but stringed bass instruments had quick and clean sound and a full texture with the MUSIC-6. When an orchestra played the lower notes, the weight of a full orchestra was very evident in the context of my system and speakers. Dynamic shadings were also brought out with delicacy. Check out the interplay between Christian McBride and the late Billy Higgins on John Scofield’s Works for Me for this particular aspect of reproduction.

The battery-powered Final combo reflects the quality of the recording but invites you to listen and enjoy. Transients were clear and clean, as were vocals. The soundstage was naturally open, and didn’t sound hi-fi. Ted Hawkins’ The First Hundred Years was a pure joy, with clear highs, precise images, and a wide and deep soundstage. I closed my eyes and was transported to a little smoky bar somewhere in Venice Beach. The Final Lab combo launched me into such flights of fancy time after time. Forget about power conditioners and power cords and start imagining how the steel guitar player is holding the bar he slides across the strings or whether the singer is closing his eyes when he sings about his baby. You haven’t heard Pat Metheney and Charlie Haden’s Beyond the Missouri Sky until you’ve heard it through the Final gear, with dynamics, inner detail, harmonics, spaciousness, and great timbre in spades. It leaves most other gear colored and electronic-sounding in comparison.

I did try the Final amp and pre with other components. My Monarchy amp proved a very good match with the MUSIC-5, and once the Canary amp got warmed up, I heard a very dynamic, inviting sound coming from my speakers. I also heard very good detail and resolution. There was more of a see-into-the-music quality than with the Canary 601 preamp. Bass was a tad more full and dynamic. On the whole though, I preferred the Final combo together rather than split up. It was interesting to compare CD players with the Final gear. I had quite a few players in at the time, so what the heck, I tried them all, including the NAD CD 541, the Audio Electronics CD-1, the Norh CD-1, and the Metronome CD-1V. I could hear differences in sound quality, but they didn’t seem that important. I had a similar reaction when comparing recordings. The better ones were nice, but it didn’t seem to matter. The recordings didn’t get in the way of the music. There were times when the Final gear let me know that they were solid state units. Sometimes I thought it would be nice to have a little more warmth or harmonic richness, but then I’d put on a different disc and moments later would say to myself, "Nah." I heard many of the classic tube virtues, without the vices. The Final combo was dimensional, with harmonic texture and dynamics to spare, both micro and macro.

Am I being a bit enthusiastic about these products? You bet. The Final amp and preamp are the most musical devices I have had the pleasure to hear in my system. Were those other reviewers exaggerating? Since I’ve heard the Final gear for myself, I think they were restraining themselves! Highly, highly recommended. Francisco Duran

 

 

 

Final Laboratory
Retail
Music-5 preamplifier: $3250
Music-6 amplifier: $3250
DC-5 battery power supply: $450
DC-6 battery power supply: $700
Audio Cable (pair): 1 meter $229, 1.5 meter $269
Speaker Cable (pair): 1 meter $139, each extra meter $80

Final Laboratory
web address: www.finallab.com
e-mail address: mail@finallab.com

US Importer:
Venus Hi-Fi
TEL: 812. 320. 4004
web address: www.venushifi.com
e-mail address: info@venushifi.com

US IMPORTER'S RESPONSE

Dear Sirs,

Many thanks for your very thoughtful reviews of Final Laboratory’s MUSIC-5 preamplifier and MUSIC-6 power amplifier. As each of you observed, these components are quite unlike anything else in the realm of high-end audio. And it is true that the MUSIC-5 and MUSIC-6 sound neither solid-state nor tubed—with their lack of “familiar colorations”, they simply sound like music (hence their names!).

The Final amps are anti-establishment in nearly every way, from their visual appearance to their minimalist, hand-wired circuitry to their innovative use of op-amps. Of all their unconventional features, however, the one that seems most salient—and often most worrisome—to audiophiles is the battery power supply. Certainly, the theoretical advantages of pure DC power are obvious, but does one really want to go to such lengths to avoid the AC power grid altogether? Given that this was the only real concern raised in a couple of your reviews, I thought that it might be useful to put this issue in perspective by addressing three questions about battery power…

1) ARE BATTERIES IMPRACTICAL? No doubt the MUSIC-5 and MUSIC-6 will have minimal appeal to the plug-and-play remote-control crowd, whose motto is “convenience is everything”. In practice, however, the operation of these units is really a snap! It only takes about five to ten minutes to swap out a set of batteries, which is comparable to the amount of time involved in rebiasing your average tube amp.

2) ARE BATTERIES TOO COSTLY? Manganese or carbon-zinc batteries—which sound far better in the Finals than the more expensive alkaline alternatives—are readily available for between 25 and 50 cents a pop. Assuming that you have to swap out all the batteries every two to three months for the amp, and every three to four months for the preamp (the MUSIC-5 drains its batteries more slowly than the MUSIC-6), the total annual cost of running these components will be somewhere between $57 and $164. This means that you could use the MUSIC-5 and MUSIC-6 for three years (averaging two to three hours of listening per day) without exceeding the cost of a matched pair of nice NOS input or driver tubes for many tube amps. And you could use them for twenty years without even approaching the price of some high-end power conditioners!

3) ARE BATTERIES BAD FOR THE ENVIRONMENT? Well, yes, but not nearly so much as, say, disposable diapers. (If you happen to have any infants or toddlers about and are using disposable rather than cloth diapers, shame on you!) And if you think that keeping those power-hungry Class A monoblocks fired up twenty-four hours a day is environmentally sound, think again! The nice thing about batteries, of course, is that they can be recycled—and there is no excuse for NOT recycling used batteries!

Thank you again for taking the time to review Final Laboratory’s unique MUSIC-5 preamp and MUSIC-6 power amp. And congratulations on your new on-line publication! Positive Feedback and audioMUSINGS have always been among my favorite audio journals, being more passionate, more adventuresome, and MUCH more fun than the mainstream alternatives. It is wonderful to see your two journals join forces for this high-profile endeavor, and I consider it an honor to have these reviews appear in your inaugural issue!

Happy listening,
Brian Bowdle
Venus Hi-Fi

www.venushifi.com

 

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