POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 36
Model IT integrated amplifier
as reviewed by Danny Kaey
LessLoss, Fi, Lavardin – what do these names all have in common? Yep, you guessed it: esoteric audio equipment you won't be seeing or reading much about in mainstream print publications. No fancy full-page ads, no fancy cocktail and Hors d'oeuvre parties at CES, well you get my drift. What does set these companies apart is an immediately apparent love for audio, no more, no less. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that even if a venture capitalist had approved a business plan for massive expansion, they would all politely say "thanks, but no thanks" (at least I would assume so!).
Having read a few blurbs around the web as well as customer feedback on the musicality and overall inspiring sound of the Lavardin line, I made it a point to discover what all the hoopla was about for myself. Thus my trek with this integrated amplifier from Lavardin began about 18 or so months ago, when I first contacted the lovely Walter Swanbon at FidelisAV, the US distributor. Now recall the aforementioned line of small companies, etc.; I suppose one can't have it all: a few back and forth's, holidays, wine tasting, and other such necessities of the French lifestyle later, I finally took delivery of the Lavardin IT sometime in early November last year.
Now admittedly, French origin and all, I was curious as to what made the Lavardin amps so special—or "tick" in lingua prima. In the months leading up to the amps arrival, Walter would always comment about this one specific and particular Lavardin technology: "memory distortion". Having been around high performance audio for some time, I was at first somewhat amused by the term. After all, high-end audio is full of such buzzwords; indeed some companies make it their raison d'etre spinning with such highly effective marketing speak to the unassuming consumer.
Naturally, with my curiosity at peak levels, I ended up spending some time on Lavardin's website in an attempt to satisfy my thirst for this buzz term. In short, memory distortion as it applies to Lavardin amplifiers, is best characterized by the following explanation. Jean-Christophe Crozel, the man behind Lavardin, found that what makes solid-state amplifiers sound comparatively veiled, grainy or grungy, is the fact that electrons passing through solid-state circuitry will leave behind trace elements, thus mucking up the sound. Compare that with a vacuum tube amplifier, where electrons pass through a vacuum (thus leaving nothing behind), you quickly begin to see where Jean-Christophe is coming from. While this elemental difference is by no means exclusive to Lavardin (I have in fact heard this explanation on differences between solid-state and tube amps from several sources), this particular execution and implementation is.
Of course, Jean-Christophe is well aware of so called "hybrid" amplifiers, which attempt to unify the concept and benefit of tube amplification and solid-state design, though he believes that Lavardin's execution of an all solid-state memory free design to ultimately be superior to such faux hybrids. In high-end audio circles one would expect such technology to be privy to some esoteric, top of the line mega-watt, mega-buck amplifier, but not so with Jean-Christophe and his crew. Fact is, this proprietary, "memory free" circuit is available throughout the entire line of amplifiers available from Lavardin. Pretty cool, if you ask me! So where does that leave the IT integrated? For starters, the amp is utterly minimalist in design and execution, similar perhaps to my trusted Brinkmann integrated I have been using for a number of years now. There are a grand total of three switches on the machined aluminum front plate: power on/off, four input line selector and a volume knob.
The rear of the 25lbs chassis (beautifully machined from solid aluminum billets) has the usual assortment of RCA inputs and speaker terminals as well as the IEC socket. My only gripe here is the omission of a line level output or tape loop, something that could come in handy in some setups, my very own included. In short, there's nothing special about this amp when at first you see it. That's right, no fancy blue LED's, no remote, nada. Hey, nothing wrong with that, considering there's plenty of bling-bling available at numerous price points elsewhere.
Being that the IT has no line level outputs, I was limited to using my reference Zu Definition 2's with their integrated Class A/B plate amp driving the woofer arrays. Fine by me, that's exactly how I drive them when using the Brinkmann integrated. At 50-watts per channel given an 8 ohm impedance, the IT is well within the range of driving the Zu's to absurd listening levels, so I wasn't really anticipating any issues in that department. Connecting my usual reference wires, the Kubala-Sosna Emotion speaker cables and interconnects, proved easy and fuss-free; vive la simplicity!
Eagerly anticipating the first note to come off my digital reference rig, the fabulous LessLoss system, I was under several typical assumptions as it would turn out: first, even though I was now familiar with why this amp was special, I assumed that I would hear a solid-state amp, more or less; second, that it would sound good and third, that it could prove a well designed solid-state amp would be the equal to the best tube gear. Come to think of it, E.A.R.'s Tim de Paravicini also famously claims that he doesn't prefer one design to the other, i.e. he could achieve the same results with either valves or solid-state designs. Looking back down memory lane, I did some years ago own a complete E.A.R. system, which sounded quite similar to my perception of what the Lavardin sound would be.
Then again, my Luxman MQ-88 has proven itself a worthy reminder of the E.A.R. sound, i.e. offering me what I believe to be the best of both worlds: just a touch of valve sourced sweetness, yet most of the drive a well designed solid-state amp has. How would the Lavardin IT fare, I wondered? Burn in period not withstanding (Walter, in a previous communiqué indicated that one other benefit of Lavardin's "memory free" technology is the fact that burn in and overall warm-up periods between playing have been cut to bare minimum, i.e. the amp should be ready pretty much out of the box), I embarked on my usual music rollercoaster—hey, all this tech ain't worth a dime if it don't sound good!
"Pretty interesting" was one of my first mental pictures as I sat through a dose of James Taylor's latest re-mastering [Warner Vinyl] effort, Fire and Rain. What struck me first was the overall spot-on neutrality, tonal accuracy and grain free extended presentation which I wasn't quite expecting. Cut six, the evergreen "Fire and Rain", in this remastered version at least, has a complex mix of drums, JT's masterful voice and an overall "busy" arrangement. Yet, the Lavardin IT never faltered and managed to extract each individual instrument as a whole. The drums in particular, appeared with force, authority and the right amount of attack, sustain and decay, a sign that the IT does what solid-state does best and that it controls the 10" full-range drivers of the Zu Definitions without any strain.
Audrey Morris's fabulous Bistro Ballads [BMG/RCA Japan] served as another demonstrator to the musical qualities of the IT. Apparently, "memory free" does work and work well, particularly and cunningly well, with female vocals, which can be rather delicate in nature (when recorded as good as this album). Well, memory free or not, this amp shot right to the top on this album. No kidding, none of the other amps I have in my home were able to present Audrey's gentle, joyful vocals with such finesse as the IT. It was as though you took a hot knife to cut through butter, save the mess that would leave behind.
Dynamically, the amp was a champ as well— if a tad more so with micro-dynamics as a whole. Frank Sinatra's Fly Me To The Moon [Hear Music Compilation] sounded particularly free flowing, smooth, hash and grain free. As the song makes it through its ups and downs you don't lose any sense of scale, size or complexity of the arrangement. Indeed, fly me to the moon! The feeling of hearing the Lavardin IT play is akin to getting that premium Euro quality gallon of gas for your R8. Sure, the V8 pumps out its ponies much the same when using our gas, however, you can feel it develop a bit more umpf with that Euro stuff.
Of my half dozen amps, the Lavardin was superior to any with precisely this quality of being able to offer ultimate resolving power without the expense of attributing resolution with boosted and artificial treble extension and other some-such artifacts. Sure, the Threshold for example still managed to outperform the IT with ultimate dynamic slam, bottom-end extension and power resolution; the flip side of the coin was that the IT was the tighter, more neutral and overall less fatiguing amp.
Speaking of neutral, the Lavardin—it is safe to say—is the most neutral of any amp I currently have in my system. What I mean by that is simply put the fact that the Lavardin was closest to the neutral line: the Luxman MQ-88 a smidgen to the warmer side; the Threshold a smidgen to the cooler side; the Brinkmann ever so slightly warmer than the even the MQ-88. Compared to these otherwise great amps, the IT appeared well, right smack in the middle. This would be the ultimate studio amp, allowing the engineer and mastering guru to adjust EQ levels to a T (oh wait, Walter tells me that studios do use the Lavardin amps for that very reason).
As a result, some may even accuse the IT as being dry, or too smooth: balderdash I say! What you have been listening to are colored and most definitely less than neutral amps or systems. Hey, that's fine, we all have our preferences and hence the reason I own so many different amps: one day it's this flavor, the next it's young grasshoppers. What's one to say: that's the perfect excuse to tell your significant other: "but honey, we don't always drink one flavor of wine!" Beautiful, ain't it? Of course, you can shift the Lavardin around by varying degrees of this and that with your choice of cables and interconnects; so there's nothing to complain about.
Indeed, the IT appears to be the perfect hybrid—ultimate proof that you can design a solid-state amp to have the lushness and delight of the best tube amps (MQ-88, E.A.R. 890, original Quad II), whilst still offering precise dynamics, timing and perceived resolution, attributes one most often associates with solid-state design. Most importantly, let's not forget that near perfect neutrality. I had previously said that the Luxman amp was the closest I had in terms of giving me that hybrid character: alas, the Lavardin IT manages to raise that bar a few clicks higher still.
Ta-da! As mentioned earlier, memory free circuit or not, this amp is fantastic. It's built to last, looks at home in most any décor or system and has that cunning ability to disappear. Audiophiles are a funny bunch at times: "I want only the music to come through!" Ok, so here it is: the Lavardin IT—in other words: wire with gain? About as close to it as I've heard in my system. That's it. Genius, simply genius, well done Jean-Christophe!
PS: my wife would positively throw me out had I purchased this amp… on the other hand, patience is a virtue; she can't possibly notice one more black box amongst the many already in my room… umm… Walter?! Danny Kaey