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Feedback ISSUE 74
MILLE Line preamplifier + power amplifier
Products from countries with no traditions of high-end audio are going up the creek without the paddle. In each and every respect. At the very bottom is the lack of any tradition. That means everything must be built from scratch. As everybody knows, you can see much more standing on the shoulders of the giants. Hence, the lack of experience is the first and foremost problem—the inherent problem of the audio industry. The other "external" problem has to do with a hard time to find subcontractors that manufacture the enclosures, knobs, transformers and other parts. You cannot even imagine what kind of problems audio manufacturers have to face when they want to move from a prototype phase to a real product! Search for anodized plant, for people with CNC expertise and transformer winding specialists bring to mind wandering around Kafka's "castle" and you have to deal with similar absurdities and paradoxes. And then, last but not least, this business needs to be recognized by the outside markets that have over 80 years of tradition to back them up. The British, American and Japanese markets are the most interesting among them and a slightly less known—French one. The Polish one has almost no resemblance to any of them.
When I talk to people from abroad, let's say from Japan or the USA, after I introduce myself I mostly hear compliments—either about classical music of Chopin, Penderecki, Lutosławski, Górecki and others or pointing in the direction of musicians like Krystian Zimerman and Piotr Anderszewski—that commend the Poles for a superb musical sensitivity and their familiarity with classical music. Many of them know about Urbaniak, Komeda and Stańko and speak well about Polish jazz. I do not try to correct any of that information just taking it all as a general recognition for the whole "package". When I ask, though, about Polish audio brands only those really well versed come up with the name of our countryman Mr. Stefan Kudelski who created Nagra and sometimes the names of Michał Jurewicz, owner of Mytek (more HERE) and Andrzej Lipiński, owner of Lipinski Sound Corporation. The problem is that all of them left Poland, which was the secret of their success, and that they fought for their own either in Switzerland (Kudelski) or across the Big Pond (Mytek and Lipinski Sound). After them, there is silence.
We have a lot of experience, however, in fighting for what is ours. In the course of a dozen years we have done more than others in several decades. Through hard work and making use of the talents that once used to profit others, we are able to surprise the world with something extraordinary. Perhaps that will be the fate of elinsAudio from Sosnowiec. The company started a couple of years ago with an amplifier based on Bang & Olufsen modules and this is what I wrote under the picture from the Audio Show 2010 (misspelling their name):
I have to tell about some devices that I deem most interesting, I cannot control myself J Elins Audio is a completely new company to me. It manufactures amplifiers. This one here—a power amplifier with 2 x 500W power, the current output 45A max and a transistor preamplifier with a hybrid power supply (line and battery), and it was tuned to work best with the powerful loudspeakers Magnepan model 3.6. The system used also a HDCD player Linn Ikemi and Linn Sondek turntable.
Elins Audio is a completely new company to me. It manufactures amplifiers. This one here—a power amplifier with 2 x 500W power, the current output 45A max and a transistor preamplifier with a hybrid power supply (line and battery), and it was tuned to work best with the powerful loudspeakers Magnepan model 3.6. The system used also a HDCD player Linn Ikemi and Linn Sondek turntable.
The second generation of the amplifier.
I was equally enthusiastic about the next launch, the elinsAudio AMP 1000 amplifier with thimble-shaped knobs that was presented at the show in the following year (see HERE). We had yet to wait two more years for the system to move from a prototype phase to a full product sold to public. The company is now closing deals with dealers from very interesting corners of the world and is therefore ready to provide their components with different supply voltages.
I use the world "system" on purpose. The Mille consists of three units that are sold together: a preamplifier and two monoblocks. This is a rather extreme way of achieving the end effect. A very similar approach is presented by Ancient Audio in its flagship system, which includes a CD player/preamplifier (one box) and two monoblocks. For even though one can set up a good sounding system from the parts coming from different manufacturers, this is not an easy task and one never knows if it brings out the maximum performance of individual components. In this case we get products that have been designed to work together.
Exhibit version prepared for the Audio Show 2011.
In the above quote from the Audio Show I touched upon a matter that elinsAudio remains faithful to its owners are in love with Magnepans. Not that they sneer at other ways of moving the air in the listening room. It's just that the way the Magnepans do it seems to be superior to them, the most proper. The problem they had to face having this kind of speakers at home is the ability to drive them. Everyone who owns these speakers knows how difficult that is. One needs a system that is fast, resolving, high output current capable and saturated with harmonics, with no trace of problem with high frequencies. I know from my experience that the "hedgehogs" from Pass—the Aleph 0 monoblocks operating in class A—proved great in that area. Messrs. Janusz Sendek and Ireneusz Chwstek strived for more. That is how the idea of an amplifier that can meet these demands was born.
The Mille system with 1000W monoblocks is the first commercially available outcome of this idea. The next two are being designed right now—the 2 x 500W Mezzo and 2 x 250W Piccolo. Soon their offer will also include MM and MC phono stages (both owners are avid vinyl enthusiasts). All the power amplifiers are based on the latest Bang & Olufsen modules that operate in class D. The company altered them in some way that is their secret and is not to be disclosed. The preamplifier is a solid state design with the shortest possible gain path and custom made beautiful volume attenuator based on a switch with multiple resistors. The power supply is a rather unconventional hybrid system using both battery and AC power. It works in such a way that the AC voltage is rectified, filtered and controlled and fed to the battery terminals. The preamplifier circuits are then powered from the same terminals. The people from elinsAudio claim that neither the AC power nor battery alone has been capable of giving the same set of sonic characteristics as they give working together.
I asked Mr. Ireneusz Chwastek for the introduction to the company's history to have a starting point for the audition part of my review. Instead, I got a text written by his wife. Great! I believe that the look from outside the box will benefit us all.
Janusz Sendek and Ireneusz Chwastek with their audio components.
A few simple words from…
Agnieszka Chwastek, elinsAudio manufacture
…Passion and perseverance are the keys to the success in all fields. It is no different in this case, because designing and launching into the high-end market the Mille amplifier and designing the other models, the Piccolo and Mezzo, has been nothing but successful.
Before the amplifier was created, however, we all had to meet. That happened in 2001, and let me add here that it was the wives who orchestrated it—we who had known each other for years taking our daughters to the same playgrounds and schools for all those years.
When we met on social grounds, Janusz—an electronic engineer—had been the owner of ELEKTROINSTALACJA company and Ireneusz—a dentist—was managing dentist offices. It seemed that, considering totally different fields of interest, our acquaintance, however nice, would remain purely social one. And yet…
Janusz, beside his many designs of tube and solid state amplifiers had a great and beautiful hand made tube amplifier from Burdiak&Sikora that enchanted Ireneusz to the point that he is now its happy owner. Already at the first meeting over good music and alcohol it became evident that both gentlemen had a very similar if not identical musical taste. They both like good old rock, female vocals of Diana Krall type and most of all they both liked natural almost physiological good sound. And they were able to tell if the sound of this quality is or is not there…
Good sound—to hear that one needs proper recordings as well as proper equipment which is able to bring it out of the media and deliver to the listener as if they were couple of meters from the real source of sound. Like in the tenth row in a concert hall with superb acoustics.
It soon turned out that even though a range of high-end products is very wide, they could not find the one that would fit their taste. You would say—vanity! You would be right to some extent. Every creator is a bit vain when he believes that he is able to create something that was not created before… But if not for them, where would we be today?
What was important was that it was the first incentive. The second one was an amplifier built by Janusz for Ireneusz. It was his proprietary design based on the ICE Power 500A modules that had once been bought for another purpose. It turned out to sound no worse from the high-end amplifiers whose names cause shaky hands among audiophiles. The fact was corroborated during several listening sessions in surrounding high-end audio stores.
The third incentive was Ireneusz's admiration for Magnepan speakers, for which the amplifier turned out to be what a proper cut is to a diamond. Everything seemed to sound great – the midrange was exactly as should be, the treble did not lose its natural sound and there was no lack of bass, either… With no subwoofer.
It took couple of years to come up with a finished product. In such a way the gentlemen arrived at the point when they could say they had a real product. On the foundation of Janusz's company they created a daughter company, elinsAudio. There is a product and the market presence started with the Audio Show in Warsaw in 2010 and 2011. And there is a mission—"Custom tailored sound".
"We boast to be The Tailors of Sound because to us the sound is a fabric which we bring out of soulless media and that we shape it to render the original character" says Janusz. "The sound that we want to listen to has beauty in it"—adds Ireneusz. With the amplifier designed by elinsAudio the beauty goes to the listener in a pure, natural form and the room transforms into a concert hall where you—the owner of the amplifier—are the only and most important and satisfied listener. This orchestra or that soloist today perform just for you, in your home studio, as they would in La Scala, Carnegie Hall, in Berliner Philharmonie or in a jazz club…
Ireneusz Chwastek with the latest version of his amplifier A.D. 2014.
If it is true, it means that the dream we had a couple of years ago has been translated into a success.
Albums auditioned during this review
• Rachmaninoff Plays Rachmaninoff, RCA Red Seal/Sony Music 8697-48971-2, "Zenph Re-Perfomance", CD (2009).
• Anita Lipnicka, Vena Amoris, Mystic Production MYSTCD 244, CD (2013).
• Artur Rojek, Składam się z ciągłych powtórzeń, Kayax Music 071, CD (2014); reviewed HERE.
• Diary of Dreams, Elegies in Darkness, Accession Records A137, "Limited Edition" CD (2014).
• Ella Fitzgerald, Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie!, Verve/Victor Entertainment VICJ-011-4052, XRCD24 (1961/1998).
• Frank Sinatra, Sinatra Sings Gershwin, Columbia/Legacy/Sony Music Entertainment 507878 2, CD (2003).
• Haendel, Duetti da Camera, La Risonansa, Fabio Biondi, Glossa GCD 921516, CD (2014).
• Bach, Sonatas & Partitas. BWV 1004-1006, wyk. Isabelle Faust, Harmonia Mundi HMC 902059, CD (2010).
• John Dowland, Lachrimae or Seven Teares, Jordi Savall, Hespèrion XX, Alia Vox AVSA9901, SACD/CD (2013).
• Krzysztof Duda, Altus, GAD Records GAD CD 012, CD (2013); reviewed HERE.
• Krzysztof Duda, musical material for the album Altus, CD-R (2013); the album reviewed HERE.
• Martyna Jakubowicz, Burzliwy błękit Joanny, Universal Music Polska 376 131 8, CD (2013); reviewed HERE.
• Mel Tormé, The Legend of Mel Tormé, Going For A Song GFS360, CD (?).
• Miles Davis, Bags Groove, Prestige/JVC JVCXR-0046-2, XRCD (1955/1987).
• The Hilliard Ensemble, The Hilliard Sound. Renaissance Masterpieces, Erato 4632795, 3 x CD (1985, 1986/2014).
• Włodzimierz Nahorny, Jej portret, Polskie Nagrania Muza/GAD Records GAD CD 006 (1965/2013); reviewed HERE.
• Yoko Ono, Open Your Box, Astralwerks ASW 88710, CD (2007).
Successful high-end audio products share a common "basis". Actually, all successful products share something like that. This involves a kind of "coherence" of all the elements and is expressed in the ultra-satisfying listening experience. The difference between the high-end and what is below would just came from the listener's experience, the effect of would be the same. We listen to such a product or system and do not need nothing more to be happy, do not feel any immediate need to upgrade. Such a conclusion can be reached either by a long audition, which is necessary to understand what we hear, or in a flash of illumination, when we receive and accept the presentation at once, at the same time. In my experience, there is no difference between the two and in the case of conducting a high-end component review what is really important is the sensitivity of the journalist (reviewer) to certain stimuli, not the sound itself. The elinsAudio belongs to the latter category.
Listening to the Polish amplifier, what came to my mind was various other products of this type, in their nature or in some of its aspects reminiscent of the Mille. And though I'll drop a few clues soon, none of them is identical to the system under review and not even all of them combined make up what I heard. Here's my clues: the Abyssound ASX-1000 power amplifier (price 29,000 PLN), the Accuphase E-600 integrated amplifier (price 43,900 PLN), the Jeff Rowland Continuum S2 Integrated amp (price 35,900 PLN), and above all, the Jeff Rowland Corus + 625 preamplifier and power amplifier (price 49,900 PLN + 53,900 PLN).
It's a very mature lineup. Mature in the sense of being sophisticated, well thought out. Its main distinguishing features are: the absolute density of the midrange, especially its lower part, fantastic selectivity (with resolution), and good control over the speakers.
The latter might seem natural, ultimately we are talking about amplifiers capable of delivering 1000 Watts (into 4 ohms), right? No, not really; I know from experience that amplifiers operating in class D are prone to problems with bass control, especially at the very bottom, below (let's say) 60 Hz. The problem of this topology is the low-pass filter in the output stage, and the resulting interaction of the amplifier and speaker cables that form part of the filter, and the same speakers themselves. On top of that, there is not too much "headroom" power in terms of transient response. But this is not only the problem of Class D amplifiers—all the amplifiers referred to earlier had a similar problem to some degree, despite operating in class A, AB, and D. The thing is that, in addition to a given technology, what matters is also its application and the assumptions adopted by designers (trade-offs and choices).
The Mille sounded different. On the one hand, the Soulution 710 power amplifier used as the reference point showed that bass could be even better focused and define, and presented in and even more velvety and natural way but, on the other hand, the Mille was not that far from the reference. What counts in high-end is each and every "millimeter" of improvement, so I have to say that there was a difference. However, if you are not willing to spend 80,000 USD on an amplifier (the Ayon Polaris III Custom Version + the Soulution 710), there is nothing to talk about.
The quality of the Polish amplifier was most evident on the albums from, seemingly, different galaxies: Włodzimierz Nahorny's Jej portret and Isabelle Faust performing Bach's Sonatas & Partitas. BWV 1004-1006. The former started my auditions, the latter concluded them. Although I learned much in between and gained a better understand of the philosophy behind the amplifier sound, my perception of Nahorny's music, a total acceptance of what I was hearing, regardless of the price (in other words, unconditional) was repeated in exactly the same form with Faust's violin.
The violin is truly unique—the "Sleeping Beauty" Stradivarius from 1704. Musicians, even the best ones, cannot afford an instrument of this class. Those who play them either inherited them from their rich ancestors, or have received them from a benefactor, or have them on a temporary loan (usually for life), having been blessed with the loan by an institution. They become its ambassadors and ensure that the instrument is in use—if it is not played, it dies. Such is the case of the "Sleeping Beauty", owned by the L-Bank in Baden-Württemberg. I am writing all this because it is a perfect instrument. Stradivarius violins sound in different ways, and this one sounds deep and velvety. The Polish amplifier unmistakably showed this characteristic of the violin, additionally drawing its large "portrait", with a substantial volume. And with a great space. The violin was positioned slightly behind the speaker line, but the amp showed a tendency to promote on-axis elements and to present them closer to the listener.
All this was repeated when I listened to Nahorny's album. The material recorded over two days in 1970 is a beautiful example of the lasting power of Polish jazz compositions from that time. At the same time, it leaves no doubt as to the limitations of Polish recording studios. Originally issued by Polskie Nagrania Muza, the CD was carefully remastered and released late last year by GAD Records (see the interview with its owner, Mr. Michael Wilczynski, HERE). The Mille amplifier showed its best side, complementing the midrange without its coloration. This is characteristic for high-end audio equipment—the warmth and fullness result from great resolution, which builds the "body" of the sound.
It also sounded beautiful because the treble was simply sensational. It came out as if from a quality tube amplifier. Its smoothness was confirmed with its sonority. Without any brightening or hardening. And everything was perfectly "glued" together; there was no artificial isolation of subranges. The same was true about the bass. It was significantly better than even from the best tube amps. It is not as important with small monitors as it is considerably sized speakers. My Harbeth M40.1 were a perfect match for the Mille. Paired together, they showed the level of differentiation that cannot really be expected of any of the previously mentioned amplifiers, except the Soulution, which goes even deeper. It was a smooth, well-saturated subrange with outstanding dynamics. Finally, I heard something I knew about after listening to it on the reference system, namely that Artur Rojek's album had been produced with incredible intuition, especially when it comes to the bottom end. Even the artist himself didn't hear so great sounding Kokon, I'm sure of that. There was depth, black background and the autonomy of each sound. Not for its own sake, but rather autonomous in the network of connections with everything around it. Full respect! And differentiation, i.e. the sensitivity to differences of production and performance, was equally evident as the depth, which I heard moving right after that to the album Open Your Box signed by Ono (Yoko Ono), a set of remixes of her songs recorded with John Lennon. Everything was great, and I was dragged in again by the hypnotic rhythm of Everyman Everywoman Basement Jaxx and a retro style version of Walking On Thin Ice by Pet Shop Boys. But Rojek's album beat them all hands down with its depth, blackness, dynamics and sensitivity.
The Polish system is extremely refined. I also liked as much. The RED Fingerprint Award is the expression of my special recognition, so it seems more than appropriate. However, one should also know how exactly it stands up to the other designs mentioned earlier and where other amps are better. Both Jeff Rowlands and the Abyssound sound warmer, have a lower tonal balance and are even denser, warmer. Although, let me emphasize, the elinsAudio amplifier lacks absolutely nothing here, and compared to many other amps sounds very, very warm. Their microdynamics is slightly better, although the Mille is unrivaled in terms of macrodynamics. The treble is exceptional on the Polish system and only such designs as the Accuphase A-200 monoblocks or my Soulution 710 show a markedly better differentiation, at the same time offering even greater softness and silkiness. The Jeffs and the Abyssound also show a slightly better three-dimensionality. But the difference is really small. Only the masters in this field, for example the Triode TRX-M300 Reference Edition 300B monoblocks can show the Mille the way for development. Not with the Magnepans, though. I know a couple of them and I am sure that they will purr with satisfaction when driven by the Polish system, without losing depth and showing great pulsing bass, rarely ever seen. Many American owners of these magnetostats may never have suspected them of that.
Be that as it may, the Polish system is fantastic. Bringing the foreground closer to the listener it makes it seem more intimate, at your fingertips. The space is large and extensive; the sounds around us and behind us (in counter phase) have good consistency and are not glued to the head. The foreground still remains most important, with a strong, dense and warm midrange and well above-average dynamics. The Harbeths, Spendors and—obviously—Magnepans should be among the first the Mille is worth hearing with. But you may also be surprised by the Raidho D-1 and Sonus faber Guarneri Evolution (or, alternatively, the larger Olympic series). Go Poland, go, go!
In audio, the distinction between integrated amplifiers and two-piece amplifiers (preamplifier + power amplifier) is one of the most fundamental. In the first case, the situation is clear—everything is housed in a single enclosure—with very rare exceptions, when the power supply is housed in a separate enclosure as in the case of the ASR Emitter II. The two-piece designs have a separate preamplifier and power amplifier sections, the latter often in the form of monoblocks. This is also the design of the elinsAudio system. Even such a seemingly simple separation adds a new dimension to the system. It allows you to set up the preamplifier and power amplifier any way you like, which I use myself. However, it takes many hours of auditions, patience and enthusiasm to find something that will surpass ready-made two-piece systems from the same manufacturer. That is why Polish company offers the Mille—a two-piece amplifier that we buy as a whole system. The separation of both sections has only a design purposes, and is intended to protect them from mutual interference.
The enclosures are made of bent, very thick plates. The front panel is a brushed, anodized aluminum. The manufacturer took care for it not to look like another boring box. Although the initial versions had an even more complex faceplate, including gold thimbles in place of knobs, their assembly proved very difficult and did not guarantee repeatability. The enclosure design in the final version is understated, but it looks very cool. The "paths" milled out in the front panel are the planets' paths, their orbits. The have been designed to form a whole when placing the units next to each other or on top of each other. Amber LEDs in these cutouts indicate connecting to the AC power. They are irregularly distributed, because the orbits are different among the individual units. I like that.
Gold plated (with real gold) knobs stand out from the black front surface. Their shape is reminiscent of thimbles and it was probably meant to be—the system is "custom tailored" for each particular customer. One of the knobs is the input selector and the other is volume control. The feet are gold plated, too—they are solid, pretty and really cool. However, since there are never enough improvements, I used the Franc Audio Accessories Ceramic Disc Classic feet under the preamplifier.
The power switch is integrated into the IEC socket on the rear panel. The company provides very solid power cords, made in-house of Klotz cable, with ferrite cores. For this review I used the Japanese classics—the Acrolink Mexcel 7N-PC9500 to the preamp and two Oyaide Tunami GPX-R to the monoblocks. RCA connectors are widely spaced, as in classic preamplifiers from Audio Research and Ayon Audio, but with the left channel at the top and the right one at the bottom. The connectors used are very good solid connectors from the American company CMC, although they bear the inscription "Swiss". There are six pairs of inputs and stereo output.
The preamplifier has an ultra-simple design with ultra-complex power supply and ultra-sophisticated circuitry. It seems that after selecting the active input with a relay, the signal goes to the volume attenuator—I have never seen one like this. It's a classic resistor ladder network, enclosed in a shielded box. At the back, there is a mechanism to set the resistance of the volume knob movement. The attenuator is mounted at the rear of the chassis, and is linked to front panel via a long shaft. After the attenuation, the signal is sent to a small PCB with four transistors, two per channel. After that there is a circuit consisting of resistors and capacitors. The latter are polypropylene capacitors with tin foil from the French manufacturer SCR. They are coupled to the exit.
The power supply takes much more space—this is the true "heart" of the unit. Behind a thick plate-shield we have a large toroidal transformer, with the size known from large integrated amplifiers. Such a massive transformer for the four low-power transistors! It sports two secondary windings—each channel has its own separate voltage controllers. As I said in the beginning, elinsAudio developed its own hybrid power supply system, using both battery and AC power. Stabilized DC voltage is fed to two big batteries and only then to the preamplifier circuit. At customer request, the manufacturer can mount an additional switch to completely shut off the AC power—the preamplifier is then solely battery powered. According to Mr. Ireneusz Chwastek, it results it a slightly less dynamic, but even more velvety sound.
The power amplifier consists of two monoblocks. They employ the Bang & Olufsen ICEpower 1000 ASP modules. People from elinsAudio claim to have them slightly tweaked. You can see additional large power supply capacitors, but it's hard to say what else is there. The monoblocks operate in class D and they are mounted on the same board with a switched mode power supply. The speaker connectors are solid CMC (gold plated copper) terminals, and the RCA input uses the same RCA connectors as those in the preamplifier. The XLR input uses Amphenol XLR connectors. The toggle switch is used to select one of the two inputs. The amplifier has an unbalanced topology. Like the preamplifier, it comes with sensible-looking power cords. The system set includes interconnects on Klotz instrument cables.
Technical Specification (according to the manufacturer)
Monoblocks – power amplifier
Price (system, in Poland): 60,000 PLN
MADE IN POLAND