I-150 Integrated Amplifier
as reviewed by Kent Johnson
I heard Arte Forma's new I-150 integrated amplifier at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest this past October. It was driving Eggleston Fontaine II speakers with an Esoteric SACD player as the source. It sounded very good.
The I-150 is designed by Norman Yang and built in Taiwan or, as the instruction manual notes, Formosa. I think you have to be my age to have even heard the name Formosa. And I think the last time I heard it was during the Nixon-Kennedy debates. In any case, it is made in Taiwan.
The overall design of the I-150 is very simple. There are two remote-controlled knobs, one for Source, the other for Volume. While elegantly finished, the chassis is very simple; to quote Mike Gill, the head of North American Marketing and Product Development for Arte Forma, its styling is "1970s Kenwood." If you have been following the current prices for some of the equipment from that era, maybe using them as a styling guide is not such a bad idea. The I-150 measures 17 by 15 by 4.75 inches and weighs an extremely solid 45 pounds.
The I-150 has four line level inputs, good quality binding posts, and an IEC connector on the rear. There is no built-in phono section. Power is rated at 150 WPC into 8 Ohms and 250 into 4 Ohms. Other than some nicely finished fins for heat-sinking, that pretty much wraps up the external appearance of the I-150. The heat fins, by the way, never got more than just perceptibly warm during use. The Arte Forma amp conveys the feeling that it is considerably overbuilt for any sort or normal (or even abnormal) home use.
The I-150 comes with very solid all-metal remote control, which offers source selection, volume control, mute, and power On/Off functions. It also includes buttons for Channel Balance but these are not functional with the I-150.
When I was at RMAF, Mike and Norman informed me that they were considering some restyling of the I-150 but, electronically and sonically, any revised component would be absolutely identical to what I was hearing there as would the unit they were going to send me for review.
I had the AF amp for about a week when Mike called me and told me that he and Norman had reconsidered the restyling. They had decided to keep the amp's cosmetics simple, essentially the way it is, and cut the price instead. Instead of a list price of $1999, the I-150 will now sell for $1399.
Mike promised me that the I-150 would sound good right out of the box but would be fully broken-in after about 60 hours. I did some initial listening and was very impressed with the sound. I then ran the amp for about 60 additional hours without doing any listening.
When I sat down to do serious listening, I found the sound to be extremely musical and well balanced. The more I listened the fewer notes I took. I had used my Sony SCD-C333ES carousel player for burn-in and it sounded so good, so musical, with the I-150 that I just continued to listen to it. The interconnect and loudspeaker cables were Zentara Reference.
The I-150, run by the 333, did all the things I required of it. Treble was clean and airy, vocals lovely, and bass was tight and deep. Its soundstage was beautifully laid out across and behind my MG1.6 speakers.
Disc two of The New Crystal Silence (Concord CCD2-3-630) by Chick Corea and Gary Burton presented a very interesting soundstage. Chick is on the left playing piano and its sound extends from the left speaker across the soundstage just to the right speaker. The soundstage of Gary Burton's vibraphone extends precisely the opposite direction. These instruments pass through each other with the clarity of light. There was no smearing or distortion that I could detect even when both instruments were playing in concert. Their individual harmonic qualities were kept completely intact. The soundstage depth is fairly minimal, due to this instrumental orientation, until the audience starts applauding. Then you hear that there is also excellent depth present as well. I was impressed by the clarity of the performance, the ability of the I-150 to reproduce the harmonic envelopes of both instruments and keep them separate, as well as conveying a tangible sense of being part of this live event.
My notes regarding the Walton Symphony Number 1 with Previn and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Telarc CD-80125) mention excellent dynamics along with very clean treble. Also notable was the I-150's ability to reproduce delicate notes and small sounds within the orchestra with, again, excellent clarity even while reproducing substantially louder music at the same time. One factor contributing to this ability is that the I-150 is absolutely silent. Using my ear-to-the-speaker test, I could hear absolutely nothing in the way of noise.
The new Bill Frisell CD, Beautiful Dreamers (Savoy Jazz SVY17700) features drumming with lots of subtlety along with cymbals that sound like the real thing via the Arte Forma amp. Bass drum was tight and free of overhang and boom; it also had nice weight even at low volumes. The I-150's presentation at lower volume levels was good. It retains much of the dynamics of the music as you turn the level down.
The speed with which Bill Frisell's guitar was reproduced was exceptional. The entire guitar note was there to appreciate—the initial pluck of the string, the fundamental, and then the flood of harmonics diffusing out into space. The contrasts (and similarities) between the sounds of the guitar and viola require this CD to be well reproduced to appreciate the levels of interplay occurring between the performers. Through the I-150, no effort was required to follow everything that was going on.
It took me a while to come to terms with my overall listening level. The I-150 is so clean, so seemingly distortion less, that I kept increasing the volume to a level where, after leaving and coming back into my listening room, I was shocked by how loudly my system was playing. As I mentioned in my RMAF report, when a system is working right and the sound is as clean as it is via the I-150, volume really ceases to be a quality of the presentation. You turn it up until it sounds "right" regardless of what the decibel level might be. Thanks to the available power, I can't image any speaker not giving its best with the AF.
The new Jane Monheit CD, Home (B0014700-02), is her best—in my opinion—since Taking a Chance on Love. Her voice on "There's a Small Hotel" is both gorgeous and sexy. While the reproduction of vocals via the I-150 is superb, the interesting thing is that it is completely in keeping with its reproduction of the rest of the frequency spectrum. There is a very balanced presentation here. Nothing is less than superb so nothing really stands out or seems deficient.
I listened to a lot of CDs with this amplifier. I have been accumulating them at a fairly frenzied rate lately and the pile was getting difficult to deal with. I enjoyed everything I listed to with the I-150 but did come to feel that there was a slight lack of detail in the presentation, although it was, overall, extremely musical. And I felt pretty sure that I knew the source of that deficiency.
I changed back to my reference Sony SCD-XA5400ES SACD player. The newer Sony upgraded the entire performance. Its detail and bass performance are noticeable improvements; vocals and soundstage focus are substantial improvements over the older 333.
The Arte Forma I-150 had no problems revealing these enhancements. One of the last CDs I listened to with the 333 was Feist's The Reminder (Cherrytree/Interscope B0008819-02), which tends toward borderline shrillness in places. The 5400 kept this tendency under control without losing any of the treble information or extension. The terrific soundstage on "Sealion" had much better focus and more realism through the newer player as well.
I didn't intend to discuss SACD players here. My point is that comparing the two players was extremely easy via the I-150. It does not alter the sound in any way that I can detect. It simply conveys the music in an extraordinarily natural way.
The most dramatic example of this naturalness came while listening to "Variaciones sobre el ‘Carnaval de Venecia' de Niccolo Paganini" on the MA Records SACD Sampler MA on SA. The guitar playing, the guitar sound, on this track is absolutely stunning. Trying to describe it with words is like describing a painting by listing the colors used in it. While I fully realize that the quality of sound present here is the product of the superb original recording, its reproduction by the SACD player, the total lack of interference from the cabling, and the speaker's ability to reproduce accurately what is sent to it, nevertheless, hearing this level of musical quality from such a simple and relatively inexpensive amplifier is simply staggering.
Yes, I am completely smitten by the Arte Forma I-150.
Mike Gill told me that I would love this amp. Love may be too mild a word for how it has affected me. I think the I-150 is an absolutely astonishing amplifier. It has the power to run the least efficient speakers, while being quiet enough to run the most efficient. It will make the music come to life to whatever extent the recording allows.
Its only drawback that I can see is that it needs the best source, speakers, and cabling that you can provide it—components that will probably cost more than it does. The good news is that you will be able to do upgrades around it long before you will reach its limitations. As equipment investments go, this is a great one.
The last CD I listened to before beginning writing was Yo-Yo Ma & Friends Songs of Joy & Peace (Sony Classical 88697-24414-2). This CD is one of the best sounding CDs that I have heard. Through the I-150, it was constant chills down the spinal column. The sense of being in the room with the performers has rarely been more tangible. If you don't have this CD, get it. Even the Grinch uses it as a reference.
And this is what the Arte Forma I-150 truly gets right. It is about the music and not about the sound. This amplifier gets the music from the source to the speakers with as little effect upon it as I think is possible.
At $1399 it is reasonably priced for all that you get sonically. Its features are pretty minimal, true, but once you hear it, I doubt that you will care. This is one of those pieces of equipment that leaves me feeling fortunate that I got to hear it. I want everyone else to get to hear it, too.
A Note to My Readers
I had this review finished in early December when I found out that, in addition to slightly different cosmetics, the production Arte Forma I-150 will have an upgraded volume control. I have been waiting for a new sample to arrive since then so that I can compare the two amplifiers.
It doesn't look like I will get this new sample anytime soon and I feel that this amplifier is too good, too important, to wait any longer to report on.
When the new amp arrives, I will do an update. Kent Johnson