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Photon AmpliCables by Inex Innovation
as reviewed by Robert H. Levi
Harmonic Technology has been working with Inex Innovation to develop and distribute their Cyberlight Interconnect cables. These are the powered photon fiber optic cables (ultra low loss non-metal audio cables) that are in use by many audiophiles today. I use them in one of my review systems. But ever since these cables hit the market, audiophiles have been asking this question: can there ever be a fiber optic cable developed to go between the amps and speakers?
Well folks, Inex have done it. (Well not really as they do terminate into a box that connects to your speakers via conventional speaker cables - Ed.) Inex is an audio engineering company and while developing this high current fiber optic cable as a speaker cable they discovered something amazing, you didn't need a conventional amplifier any more! That's right …your preamp now drives your speakers directly by means of the Photon AmpliCable amplifier modules. (It should be noted that these are in fact some form of an amplifier that is using the signal being carried as light to produce power to drive your speakers. How they are doing it is the question - Ed.) Inex's products are distributed exclusively by Harmonic Technology. Harmonic Technology is headed by Jim Wang, their very friendly and brilliant CEO.
I'll also report right now that they work extremely well if, and only if, you have an excellent sounding preamp! I've heard them demonstrated in an all mbl system, Marten Design/E.A.R. system, with passive preamps, with active preamps, in my main review system powering my Avalons, and connected to my new reference E.A.R. 912 Control Centre. The Photon AmpliCables mimic your preamp. That is they create the illusion you are listening to an amplifier with nearly the identical musical characteristics of your preamp. Some of this will be explained by the various cable components which are a bit complex, but not overly complicated by any means. I'm certainly not a technician …I'm an audiophile.
First, the AmpliCables come in 2 models: LA09 costs $9k, and the LA36 cost $11k. The LAO9 is rated at 9-watts into 8 ohms for smaller speakers or for the tweeter section in a bi-amp setup, if so desired. The LA36 is rated at 36-watts into 8 ohms for larger speakers, and easily powered—without clipping—my 87dB efficient/4 ohm Avalon Eidolons. I have no idea why they are rated at such low-watt levels, but they must have truly tremendous real time current output. Even Jim Wang was uncertain about this watt-rating thing, so the best way to think about these two models is that they are a high output and low output versions. By the way, the high output model is referred to as the Elite; the lower output model is called the Standard. There will be a Basic Model with lower power available, too.
Input sensitivity is .35 volts and 1.2 volts for full power for the two models, respectively. Your preamp doesn't need to work very hard; high quality passive types working well here too. Input impedance is 30,000 ohms, and output impedance is .1 ohm. Peak current is 3 amps and 6 amps, respectively. Frequency response is 1Hz - 6MHz. Gain is 27dBs. Cable length provided is 5 meters!
Here's how it hooks up. There is a 5-meter single-ended Cyberlight cable for each output on your preamp. These are powered by their own cable battery—the Inex 4000, which stays powered up full time by being plugged into the wall. The two Cyberlights plug into individual "Amplifier Modules" 8 inches from each speaker. These modules are only the size of a single cigarette package, but are newly designed and miniature class AB solid-state amps. Also, connected to each Amplifier Module is an Amplifier Module Power Supply, this being the largest component in the system. Each is 8 x 4 x 2 inches in size and beautifully finished in thick aluminum [weighing 1.8kg.] These plug into the sides of the little amps and then plug into the wall. I'm told these are linear power supplies. The amps connect to each speaker by the supplied 8-inch long Magic speaker cables. Numerous terminations are available to fit any speaker in the world. Everything is included, even the power cords. The whole bundle arrives in a single aluminum aircraft case …very slick.
Warm-up time to serious listening is overnight. There is a bit of improvement over 2-3 days, though they sound very, very good in just 2-3 hours of use. While they stay all time, I heard nothing but silence whether the main system was off or on and not playing. I did like the sound the best when the various Elite components were lifted off the floor with soft shoes or cones.
Here's what I heard. With the complete mbl system and the big mbl loudspeakers [84dB efficient], substituting the enormous mbl amps with the Elite on the bass and the Standard on the top revealed a musical presentation that sounded quite similar. I'd say the sound was 85% as convincing as what we heard with the megabuck amps. There is a mbl family sound and by mimicking the mbl preamp, you hear the illusion of the mbl amps still in the system. The sound was a bit less bold and full bodied, but that was about it. Textures were undisturbed and I heard no new sonic anomalies. Amazing. We had substituted a few pounds of parts for over 200 pounds of amplifiers!
Then I auditioned the Elite AmpliCables with all E.A.R. gear and Marten Design loudspeakers…their new stunning $30,000 model. The amp was a single KT90 tube powered E.A.R. 890 running in stereo with the outstanding E.A.R. 868 preamp. With the substitution of the Elite system, I kept looking at the 890 amp and wondering why it was off and yet I still heard music! Yes, it sounded a bit cooler and a tad less detailed, but still very, very similar to the 890. It was not the 890 …you could detect that, but you had to concentrate to really hear the differences. Again, you got at least 85% of the sound of the original amp. Then we substituted a Channel Island Passive preamp for the E.A.R. 868. This inexpensive preamp is quiet, laid back, dry, rolled off on top, only moderately detailed and textured, and a bit polite. Guess what, that's exactly how the Photon Amplicables sounded! I was surprised, but I guess I shouldn't have been. By putting back the superb E.A.R. 868, the magnificent sound returned once again. Overall, I liked the 890 amp better, but could have lived with the AmpliCables quite nicely.
We now move to my listening room and primary listening system. Since I did not want to make any changes up front, I made much use of my E.A.R. Acute Tube CD player and the ModWright Sony 9100 SACD/CD/DVD Signature Truth Mod with newest tube power supply as sources. The new E.A.R. 912 served as the preamp. I took the E.A.R. 890 monoblocks out of the system and installed the Elite Photon AmpliCables. Jim Wang personally checked things over and approved the setup. Cables connecting the components to the preamp were my reference Kubala-Sosna Emotion interconnects. The E.A.R. 912 drove the Elites without any problem at all ...no pops or clicks on turnoff or power up.
Again, the performance of the Elite was about 85% as good as that of the E.A.R. 890 amps. I noticed a bit less organic textural nuance, a little less depth, and a little overall reduction in definition. The high band was excellent with a touch less air and not a hint of dryness or etch. The mids were a bit less involving and a little bit cooler. Stage width was unaffected. Although, the Elite, in all fairness, preserved much of the suave sound of excellent SACDs and CDs, they could only give you the feeling you were hearing melodious "ear candy" that only the top amplifiers can produce. Even so, I heard very similar bass impact and definition… though with a bit less textural layering. The Elite refused to clip even on mammoth orchestral or organ works. Voices were convincing though a bit less pure sounding and layered. Choral passages were excellent …a tiny bit compressed though not significantly. Jazz sounded really nice…I could take it either way here. The Elite was, again, very listenable and I did not mightily miss my tube amps as I have with numerous other review amps.
Is this just a solid-state amp in that tiny box? I'm told that it is, but it's all in the results, so no sense dwelling on this matter. Let's say this is an amplified solid-state unit with fiber innards and photon connections with dedicated power supplies…it sounds like sophisticated solid-state with a touch of tubes …it sells for $11k complete with interconnects and speaker cables. By comparison, my E.A.R. 890 amps plus K-S cables sells for $24k.
Would I choose the Elite over other big time audiophile amps? Here's what I think. The Elite mimics the preamp. If you have a fabulous preamp and you are shopping for a fine solid-state amp like those from Theta, Lamm, or Edge …wait and try the Elites. I'm less certain when it comes to great tube amps. I don't mean those $2.5k wonder amps from China you read about these days. I mean the big stuff from E.A.R., LAMM, VTL, or ARC. They will simply outperform the Elites by having more textural nuance and warmth. Otherwise, the Elites will significantly better those inexpensive tube amps if you have a top preamp already.
The Elites sound like superb modern solid-state amps. I have owned three Pass amp designs in the past and reviewed quite a few other brands. The Elite competes with the very best of them. The tiny Elite amps include some new technological thinking and the ability to use an 8-inch speaker cable versus 6 to 8 feet probably helps a lot. I like their quiet backgrounds and firm control over all the speakers I used them with. The Elites produced a very sophisticated, neutral, and unfussy sound.
During the review period, the left power supply went dead. There is a small drawer near the IEC connector with an AC fuse and one for backup. The fuse and popped, so I put in the backup fuse and the power supply came back to life. The Elite worked flawlessly during the remaining period of the review. There is also a 220V version for Europe. These are ultra quiet devices once the AC is properly attended to; there was a ground loop hum in my reference system, but once I floated the grounds of both Elite amplifier power supplies, the hum vanished completely. I did not detect this in the other two systems. By the way, I have to float the grounds of my E.A.R. 890 amps as well, so no surprise here.
There you have it …amplified fiber optic interconnects/loudspeaker cables that replace most amplifiers and yield compelling sound. Though priced for the well-healed audiophile, they are an attempt to be musically extraordinary using a brand new technological approach to high-end connectivity. They are sonically dependent on your preamp, by the fact that they will mimic it tonally and musically. The Photon AmpliCables are new and exciting. I enjoyed them immensely and did not miss my megabuck amps as much as I have when auditioning other amplifiers. Even those that cost as much or more! The Elites are very nearly the best use of solid-state amplification I've ever heard at any price, being consistently bested only by the finest tube designs in my testing. A work in progress, you ask? The Elite looks like a finished product, but you could wait a year or so and see how it goes. Or, you could buy it now, get off the amplifier/speaker cable merry go round, and live happily ever after. Robert H. Levi