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Positive Feedback ISSUE43
the L-550A MkII integrated
as reviewed by Danny Kaey
DK is back. Well, DK never really left, alas, he's been on hiatus assignment. Heck, let's just fast wind sixty-six paces: this past year was a bit of a life-changer. Single is the new name in town for myself. Yep, you heard right, we are solo. As in esteemed bachelor. Having moved to two new homes and endured the growing pains of this newfound self, it is natural to understand, nay, see why it took a while for this first of a series of articles to appear under the new ol' bandwagon.
"The times they are changin'" sang Bob Dylan: they sure are, sings DK! Thus, without further ado, my first review is the Luxman integrated L-550A MkII amplifier. A brief rundown of the usual suspects yields the obvious: Luxman is back and bigger, badder, and more hip than ever. Kudos to one clever observer, Philip, of the O'Hanlon fame, fortune, and family tree, for recognizing the obvious. Reviewing the mighty MQ-88 KT88 based valve amplifier a few years back left me yearning for more. The more came in the form of various fancy monoblocks and do-dads, alas, most of the stuff is well, pricey. I like keeping things under the legal limit whenever I can, hence my interest in sub $100k, er $10k components.
The Luxman L-550A Mk II jumps the gun at a relatively affordable $4800 US; yet doesn't seem to skimp on features or build quality. Wait, did I say features? Features?To be frank, I don't know of any more full-featured integrated amplifier period. From multi-speaker terminals, to 6 inputs (2 of which are balanced), a full fledged dual tape monitor loop, pre-main in-out, MC/MM phono stage, classic style balance, bass & treble controls (!) and the coup de grace: those oh-so-swell looking VU meters gracing the front faceplate. Can you say features? Alas, a machined aluminum remote control, replicating most important functions also comes as standard equipment.
The packaging is also Luxman-ish first rate: everything has its own little place inside the double-boxed packaging and from the sheer look and feel of it all, you'd be a fool to toss the boxes in the recycling bin since they'd prove useful for oh perhaps twenty years or so. Setup is as straight forward as can be. It's an integrated amplifier after all. My usual setup of Zu Presence with various front-ends (computer, Brinkmann LaGrange, LessLoss DAC 2k4 MkII and slaved Squeezebox 3, a mighty fine Yamaha CD-S2000 compact disc player [review forthcoming!] to name a few) all cabled up with Kubala-Sosna Emotion interconnects and power cords were standing by as I began to futz around with all the bells and whistles ...er knobs, pushbuttons, and other trinkets the 550 graces on the front panel.
So that's the outside of the box. What's the inside harbor? Fancy you should ask... 'tis actually a full fledged Class-A amplifier! To those of you who are trippin' over the recent Class-D craze, this Luxman is about as juxtaposed to those do-dads as can be. Yep, that's right: all output transistors are running under full current even when the mighty VU meters are barely blipping the ponies to 1w of output. My experience with these types of circuits is that most of the components I've reviewed and played with thus far have had tremendous dynamic and bass handling capabilities, putting to shame many far greater output power enabled Class-AB or, shock!, gasp!, awe!, Class-D amplifiers all together. Might I also add that this fine piece of engineering from Nippon also manages to be as opposite to my reference Brinkmann Vollverstärker as grapes are to noodles. Rated at a substantially and most definitively underrated 20W (!) of output power at 8 Ohms, the 550 had better push some current if it were to deliver on the promised goods.
Now, the Zu Presence loudspeakers with their 101dB efficiency don't really help matters, in a positive sort of way. Heck, I recall reviewing the iMPAMP for the now defunct Canadian The Inner Ear Magazine, which with barely 1-watt (!) of output managed to elicit music out of my old pair of Zu Definition Pro's. Now that's some insane accomplishment. Alas, the 550 isn't really rated at 20-watts of output. That's more like Japanese humility speaking instead of facts man! Having given the volume knob a proper beating in DK's sub-prime bass business, I'd venture to guess that the actual output of the 550 is more akin to 70-80-watts, if not even more. So gut-wrenching is the performance of the Luxman in that department that one could easily mistake it for a much more powerful solid-state brother.
They say the way to a man's heart is through his stomach. While I won't argue that point, I'd say that giving him the gift of this little-big Luxman may sway a few hearts here and there too. Let's examine further, shall we? Unless otherwise noted, all listening points and notes are referencing all tone controls (including the defeatable loudness switch) set to flat, i.e. out of the signal. One of the many great qualities all Zu speakers share is their keen ability to reproduce vocals, male and female, rather well, giving them a human like quality. Many a great recording has passed through my system that has showcased this exemplary feature all too well.
As Philip the O'Hanlon, left me with [Luxman] box in hand and warm handshake, he handed me a mysterious, padded envelope. Says the Irish One to the Serb: "Danny, if you care to hear the Luxman at its best, I highly recommend you replace the supplied pre-out main-in U-turns with these here… Synergistic Research custom made these for me, insisting them to be superior to the stock units." Say what? Philip, I do like you and all, alas, that's a bit too much audiophilia for me to handle. Custom made $600 U-turn Synergistic Research RCA interconnects all less than a foot long are supposed to make a difference in how the amp sounds?! "Where's that other neglected genius Serb, Tesla when you need him!" was my shrugging reply.
Alas, if the O'Hanlon insists on something, you better follow suit. Hence, the sonic virtues of the 550 quickly discovered, I proceeded to replace the stock U-turns. I mean, what the heck sort of difference will that do anyway… Lo and behold, my jaw dropped at the first sight, nay sound of said upgrade. Can this be?! Folks, fellas and countrymen, this is not some silly-billy tiny upgrade—this is the real deal. This is akin to spending gobs more money on ball-bearing feet, equipment racks and other such paraphernalia. Everything was elevated to such a clearly superior sonic performance that I promptly decided to henceforth review the 550 only with said upgrade in place. On the calibrated percentage meter scale, I'd say we are talking in the realm of say 20-30% performance improvement. Yeah, that good.
Cueing up Johnny Cash's "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" from his The Man Comes Around (2002) Rick Rubin produced album, you are presented with a mesmerizing and classic Cash performance. Sure, the man is old here alas, the body, weight and soul of his voice is unmistakably reproduced with such uncanny realism (on this vinyl version of the title played back on the all Brinkmann frontend) that once or perhaps thrice, I had to pinch myself to realize that Cash wasn't in the room. The 550 presented a nicely extended soundstage with gobs of depth and width. Frequency extremes were portrayed with full extension on both sides, if perhaps with an added sense of fullness in the lower octaves. The top end was beautifully rendered, just the right amount of shimmer surrounded the high frequency extremes, though I have no bones in saying that it is the Zus here which are the main driving factor in that range.
Given the historic evidence from my time with various Luxman components, the 550 falls right where it needs to be: it's a bit of a valve amplifier; a bit of a solid-state amp; it's a bit of flesh and fish, all rolled out in one sumptuous, delicious package. Recently I have been getting back into electronica, an old DK favorite. One such album featured in heavier than usual rotation, is Junior Boys and their second smash So This Is Goodbye. The first track, "Double Shadow" opens up with a minimalist synth bass line and various sequencers, splitters and glides. The Pro-Tools recording itself is a smidge bright, though, unlike what is common in modern day releases, it retains dynamic range i.e. isn't squashed to bits with 1db of headroom. What you have then is a thoroughly enjoyable track, which should explode from your system. 'Tis the type of music which makes you yearn for a full range system! Alas, the Zu's driven by the 550 do just that: explosive dynamics coupled with razor sharp focus and timing present this sonic aura probably better than even the Junior Boys may have heard in their studio.
Also, on this track anyway, you will delight yourself as you dim the lights and watch the power meters bounce around up and down, the amp pushes hard, pedal to the metal. Think screeching 8k redline Ferrari V8 power delivery. Yep, it's that good! Moving along to more sensuous, nay, sumptuous music, Shelby Lynne's smash hit record "Just A Little Lovin'" showcases the more subtle and sweet side of the Luxman. Shelby's voice is just simply stunning; Phil Ramone's direction and equally important production qualities shine with a beautiful glimmer and body, unlike most anything else in recent memory. Coupled with the Zu's inherent focus on dynamic realism and vocal performance, I can't imagine getting much closer to the producer's intentions as through this Zu/Luxman combo. The depth, width and sense of sheer realism exemplifies my fondness of Luxman gear and the L-550A Mk II in particular. Sure, with different setups you may hear more this and that, perhaps more air around the top end, or a bit more resolution in the vocal range,
One aspect for which the Luxman crew deserves special kudos is the inclusion of an old audiophile no-no, tone controls and a loudness switch. I can already hear some seasoned 'philes scream "How dare they?!"—hey, if it ain't your cup of tea, move on, no one's holding a barrel to your head, I say. No, I think most people are missing the point here entirely. Allow me to illustrate: New Order's seminal cult-classic double-album, 1987, features such hits as "Bizarre Love Triangle." If you have ever heard this original track, you will most likely run for cover. It's atrocious. It's awful. It's pure 80's early digital crap. Here, however, it's awesome! Musically, this is New Order at their prime: pop-ish, but not too much; well, ...er an instant classic. Having said that, I simply can't listen to this CD for any great lengths of time since it sounds so absolutely awful.
Therein lies the magic hand, the smoking ace, the bomb surprise of the Luxman 550: a gentle nudge on the bass (+2 @ 100Hz), a 3dB cut on the treble control (10k) et voila—one can actually listen to this classic! So profound is this newly found treasure that I actually sat through song after song listening for new cues and never before heard aspects of this production. Likewise, I have discovered that cutting treble by about 1db when listening to 128k mp3 radio streams off iTunes or other services for example produces a much more natural sonic picture. The differences aren't night and day; there's only so much one can do to a severely compressed track, alas, it does sound better.
That my friends are the true benefit of tone controls. The intent is not to go nuts and turn your listening room into that teenage mutant Honda low-rider with twin 18" woofers pumping out mind numbing bass—no, it's a far more subtle, civilized approach to tweaking that which is inherently in need of adjustments. Last I checked that would include a fair amount of releases, both old and new. Take that!
Much like out of date tone controls are purpose built integrated phono amplifiers. Yes, unlike those dreaded tone controls, you do find phono sections in some gear these days. Luxman's approach to vinyl follows a long lasting tradition of vinyl based memorabilia. PD-555 anyone? In case you didn't know: the 555 was Luxman's all out assault on state of the art vinyl playback, circa. 1978. A deck that has no equal, it commands a nice bundle even today. Several friends who own it swear by it. Alas, a record is nothing without a phono stage, hence I find myself switching out the phono leads from my trusted Brinkmann Fein phono-stage to the one integrated inside the 550.
Offering front plate mounted user switchable MM and MC loading, listening to your favorite vinyl rig is a breeze. In case of the Brinkmann EMT ti cartridge, the Luxman's MC setting proved spot on. Let's compare, shall we? The Fein is a $4500 stand alone discrete phono stage, purpose built with all the usual Brinkmann goodies and attention to detail. The 550 is a $4800 integrated all-in-one amplifier, preamplifier, and phono stage. Naturally, Brinkmann's Fein trumps the 550's phono input. It's better in every way, offering a clearer sonic picture on all ends of the spectrum compared to the Luxman. But the phono inside the 550 is not damaged goods either. In fact, if I didn't have the Fein for direct comparison, I'd be hard pressed to believe there's anything inherently missing from the picture. There isn't. You get great sound, record after record the 550 draws you in. Much like everything else about the Luxman sound, you get a well-balanced, if mid-range centric performance. All's well. Unless you have the aforementioned Fein close by. There, you get more of it all, with a bit more neutrality to boot. Take your pick. I'd go for the 550; spending serious coin on the Fein almost prescribes you having a decent set of amps, speakers and front end to begin with.
In the end, the Luxman proves the point to a T. Japanese high performance integrated amplifiers need not cost serious coin and they can very much hold their own when it comes to sonic virtues. Do I have better stuff in my arsenal? Well, the Threshold T400 behemoth for one will mop the floor the Luxman sits on when it comes to ultimate dynamic fidelity and extension. It is also the more neutral amp (something I had scribbled about during the MQ88 review); alas the 550 is a great performer and an all in one package which costs a reasonable amount of green backs. How can you beat that? Highly recommended and leaving me wanting to hear the 550's bigger brother, the 590A MkII. It is supposedly marginally more powerful (30-watts), yet costs more than double the price of the 550, ringing in the coin at a click shy of 10k. Something's up here... Danny Kaey
L-550A MkII integrated
On A Higher Note