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Positive Feedback ISSUE45
as reviewed by Francisco Duran with a brief sidebar by Dave Clark
There were three products in audio that I have felt very passionate about in the last year. These products have brought me closer to the music than many others in quite a while. The Tonian Labs line of loudspeakers, anything from Herbie's Audio Labs, and the new Almarro A340 mono block tube amplifiers. These amplifiers have stirred me so much, that I almost feel that this article should go into our Audio Discourse section instead of the Hardware Reviews section. But I will try and restrain myself. Going out on a limb, and at the risk of being lynched by a mad audio mob of audiophiles and manufacturers, I feel that there are many high end systems and products that bring one closer to the high resolution and expensive side of audio, and plain and simply away from the music. While the Almarro A340 amplifiers are definitely high resolution, they are definitely as musical as anything I have ever heard. Are they affordable? Well, they are the most expensive products that Almarro has manufactured, but I feel they are quite affordable for the working man or anyone with a passion for the audio arts.
The A340 amplifiers from Almarro Audio are a mono block design. They sport two 6C33C-B power tubes, one 5687 and a 6DJ8 per amplifier for an output power of 40 watts per channel. Input impedance is 100k Ohms and frequency response is stated as 10-30kHz (-3dB). Their dimensions are 9.1 inches wide, 7.2 inches high and 15.2 inches deep. They weigh in at 30 pounds each. With dimensions like these the A340's are very easy to move around and install in one's system. But beware those two 6C33C tubes run hot. How hot? How about between 250 and 350 degrees centigrade hot! But do not stress. The owner's manual is filled with plenty of information and cautions in the care and installation of these amps, and there is also a built in fan on the back of each amp to cool them down. During my time with the A340's the fans ran so quiet that you literally had to put your ear very close to the amp to hear if they were actually working. Believe me, they were.
There is also some good information on tube handling and installation in the manual. For those who have never installed the big 6C33C tubes, there are some very clear pictures especially for the guide pin in relation to the ceramic socket. Sometime I will share a story with you on how I installed a 300B tube bass-awkward in an amp. But that was a very long time ago. On the top front of the amplifier on each side there are also two knobs facing straight up. The left knob has indentations from 1 to 5 and is for the adjustment of the damping factor. The right knob, marked NFD also with indents from 1 to 5 is to adjust the negative feedback. By changing these switches, NFB and damping factor can be changed up to 36 ways and ultimately, the sound of these amplifiers. I found the sweet spot and left the setting there for the duration of the review period. The owner's manual states that due to the tubes running so hot the tube cage should be left on when running these amps. Of course I did no such thing. I just can't hide the beautiful glow of these tubes. Along with the exquisite craftsmanship of the front wooden face and side heat sinks, I felt these amps looked quite handsome in a dimly lit room with the tubes all aglow. One more thing is that both amps have a volume control front and center of the faceplate, and I put that to good use while they were in my system.
I am going to start with two great strengths these amps possess, and with what I feel distinguish them sonically from the crowd. They have the ability of presenting music in a very holographic way. Music has dimension and air around instruments and people that fleshes out music in a realistic manner. Although the music is very clean and detailed, it is also very grainless with just the right amount of sweetness. This precision is heard in the way they track dynamics. Please excuse me if it looks like I am beating a dead horse here but since this review closely followed the Soundstring review and the same stack of CDs I used for that review were still sitting on top of my rack, I though why not. OK turning once again to Doug McLeod's, Come To Find CD on JVC/XRCD, once again his steel guitar sounded naturally fast, clean, and dimensional. Compared to the two solid state amps in residence, the Almarro mono blocks sounded so much more open with greater depth and space to the soundstage. There was richness to McLeod's voice and the whole band's timing was spot on. Vocals had a realistic harmonic texture to them that made them sound so natural. That pure tube holographic dimension and bloom was in full swing.
There is a Rolling Stones song that has the line, "Lay some solid rhythms down". That phrase sums up the pace and timing of the A340's. Vocals sounded clean and dimensional without sounding artificially fast. There was absolutely no smearing, be it a single voice as in the beginning of track seven of Milton Nascimento's Nascimento CD or a full chorus as in either Hush, The Angels are Singing on FIM Records or the first track by Paul Rogers on his Muddy Waters Blues CD. Also on track five of the McLeod disk, his strumming of an acoustic guitar sounded clean and articulate and full with the literal sensation of air coming from the guitar body. Yet with all of this there was an ease to the presentation that got you very involved with the music. The A340 wouldn't be mistaken for a Naim but neither was it sluggish.
At this point I was pulling out CD after CD that I haven't played in quite a while. Two victims of my passion were from the EMI label. Evegny Kissin Mozart and Schumann Piano Concertos with Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra and Sara Chang playing the Vivaldi Four Seasons with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Kissin's piano sounded at times delicate, dynamic, and fluid. Sara Chang's solos sounded passionate, nimble, and strong yet the A340 amps made this music sound solid and very coherent. These amps tracked the dynamics of these two CD's with solidity and precision. Yet these amps had a grip on the music with a delicacy that let the music flow. After looking at the CD cover with Ms. Chang wearing a beautiful black evening dress, I joked to my son that she probably came into the studio wearing sweats, my son replied, "Does it really matter"?
The soundstage ability of these mono block amps tracked whatever CD was in the Marantz tray. (LPs were out as my cartridge was kaput) That is not to say that with these mono blocks the stage was either shrunken or wide open as the Montana sky. Believe it or not my Antique Sound Labs modified mono blocks do create a very wide deep and squared off at the back stage. But they seem to create this on every CD to some extent, which doesn't seem real. I think much of this aspect of an amplifier's sound depends on your room and to an extent the other components in one's system. But yes, for the most part the A 340's displayed a pretty wide and deep stage yet not exaggerated in any way. Which leads us to the effect of layering. Again musicians played on a solid stage with that quality mentioned earlier of placing them in a holographic, airy and dimensional space.
Disk after disk displayed surprisingly deep solid bass which was again CD dependant. For the most part the bass was pretty well balanced from top to bottom. But it was at this point my newly upgraded Margules U280SC arrived fresh from Mexico City and slightly threw the timing of this review off. Sporting bigger transformers, slightly more power, and upgraded circuitry, I couldn't wait to compare it to these excellent mono blocks from Japan. After a 65 hour break in (100 is suggested) the show began. Both amps have their own volume controls so I ran my Marantz SA-15 SACD player straight in to each amp. This configuration made the music more immediate, direct, solid, and exciting! This eventually proved a bit tedious because both amps have a delay time upon turn on. The Almarro pair had more fullness in the bottom octaves, but was noticeably a bit slower overall, most noticeable in the bass region. The bass had more of a deliberate pace as opposed to "sounding" too fast and lean. The Almarro is slightly darker sounding than the U280SC, but it possesses a clean and musical presentation. While this slight darkness might be a coloration, I like the tonality of the Almarro pair very much. It was neither bright nor dark, just right. The difference here could be due to the Margules not being fully broken in. But the Almarro amps have a special or magical ability that draws one into the music. The music blooms in front of you and you are instantly involved. Not too many amplifiers can claim that quality. It is something that should be prized by its owner.
The Margules on the other hand sounded faster and more extended on top. It has an excellent tonal balance and a tad more inner detail or clarity. The Margules can be described as nimble, quick, clean yet holographic. And this is in triode mode. In ultralinear mode it sounded as if someone added a good dash of steroids. It had a solid grip on the music with excellent pace and solid bass. This proves that the competition is stiff for tube amplifier technology, a technology that some call old. But it can't be denied that this is very musical technology.
Bear in mind that my Tonian Labs speakers are good down to a solid 40Hz. How the A340s would perform with a full range and efficient speaker that plumbs down to the 20's (say in Dave Clark's system) is yet to be heard in the pages of Positive Feedback. Coupled to a sensible load, those forty watts prove formidable. In any case I liked the added fullness and foundation the A340's brought to the music. Then it hit me. Remembering the damping factor and negative feedback knobs on the top of the amp, I adjusted them till I got a tighter sound from the bass. This can be a bit tedious but is ultimately quite rewarding.
Back to my soap box. No matter how hard designers try, a tube is a tube and a transistor is a transistor. Yet I am sure you can design any given amplifier to sound one way or the other regardless of the technology. I have read many articles where the reviewer says amp A is better than amp B because it had better soundstaging, "tighter" bass, and greater resolution. Or "it should be because it is six times the money". But I ask you are better sonics in one area or the other or a higher price tag a guarantee of it sounding more musical? I would say definitely not. I have heard more than my share of high priced amplifiers say in the five digit or more bracket and sorry to say solid state that were completely out classed by a moderately priced tube amp. With their holographic spaciousness and natural tone the Almarro A340 mono block amplifiers are definitely tube amps. Yet their ability to deal with transients, dynamics, and accuracy make them a modern musical technological device. With an exquisite build quality, abundance of features, and their very strong ability to draw you into the music, they are a must addition for the music lover looking for an amplifier for long term musicality above all else. I would like to thank Mr. Muramatsu and Almarro for giving Positive Feedback the first opportunity to review their new amplifiers. The news is out, so go have a listen. Francisco Duran
Dave Cark adds a few comments of his own
I had these amplifiers for a few short weeks prior to Francisco getting his hands on them and can only say that these are truly wonderful amplifiers. As good as the 200-watt class-A Claytons (which at $10k is almost twice the change)? No, but not in any way that would detract one from the music.
In listening the A340s running direct from either the Cary 306 Professional or the Playback MPS-5 via the single-ended interconnects from either the tad darker Kubala-Sosna Emotions or the tad lighter Artisan Silver (I did prefer them direct as opposed via my Cary SLP-05 in that ran this way they were very transparent and more musically alive, if you know what I mean) the A340s rocked like they were close cousins of the way more powerful Clayton M200s.
Belying their modest 40-watts, I found that the A340 held its own in many musically significant (and important) ways: bass dynamics and slam (yes a touch looser and bloom-ier, though the damping and feedback controls do mitigate this to a very great degree), sweet and colorful in all the right ways (tonally wonderful with no one area drawing attention to itself), dimensionally palpable and enveloping (as holographic as only the best tube amps are), resolution and tacticality in spades without going over the top (simply well-balanced allowing the listener a chance to hear what is naturally there in the music), and so on.
Wow, way WAY nice.
Not much to complain about other than they do run very hot, so watch yer fingers and whatever to avoid burning down the house. Musically, yeah, that they do... burning down the house! They make music in a very beguiling way and in listening to these for too short of a period, I could easily add them to my list of must haves! No glitches, no burps, the A340s sang a sweet tune while they were here. Highly recommended for anyone looking to go this routeóbasically "monoblock" tube integrateds of a minimalistic approach (meaning that they only have one input). Stellar.