April, 2014

Acustic Arts Preamp I MK3  $5,530

& and AMP 1 MK2  $6,490

 

 

by

James L. Darby

If it's one thing I've learned in this life, it is that we have to control our expectations. If our expectations are too low, we can set ourselves up for failure. If our expectations are too high, then disappointment and frustration can follow.

 

Transparency to us at Stereomojo is something other than an audio quality. We strive to be very transparent with our readers when it comes to reviews, so I must admit I was not looking forward to this review and my expectations were rather low. Why? Over the 50 or so years I've been involved in high-end audio, I have developed a rather strong bias towards tubed amplification, especially in preamps, rather than solid-state, so I’ve tried not to personally review solid-state amps for that reason. We have reviewers that prefer solid-state and I simply assign such equipment to them.

 

Enter Charlie Harrison. Now Charlie owns a huge operation that sells or distributes mostly tube gear like Ayon, Lumenwhite, Lamm, Atma-Sphere, Cary, AVM Audio, Accustic Arts, Gauder Akustik, BAT & VAC to name a few. Oh yeah, the name of the business is USA Tube Audio. Now I've known Charlie and his beautiful wife Susan for nigh unto 10 years and Linda and I like them both a lot.Really great people. I've also never known Charlie to never over hype something or act in a way that many others in the high-end audio industry behave; or misbehave to be more clear. So when Charlie told me he'd discovered a company in Germany that makes really good amplifiers and asked me to review some, I said sure since we are always looking for great new companies for our readers. When I later found out he was talking about a transistor preamp and power amp I told him of my concerns. He smiled, shook his head "no" and simply said "just listen to them". I shrugged my shoulders, sighed and said okay, but I was more than a little apprehensive.

 

DECISIONS, DECISIONS…

 

When approaching a new piece of gear, one of the most intriguing aspects is observing the design decisions and the trade-offs that had been made; that delicate balance between cost and performance. With these two samples those decisions were very apparent. Starting on the outside, the front plates are thick and rather elegant looking with a chrome-imprinted logo lending an aire of "Hey look, I'm expensive!" But behind the front plates are very plain looking cases, the type that usually ring like Big Ben when you wrap them with a knuckle which I proceeded to do forth with. There was no ring but rather a decidedly solid thud. They had saved money with the cases, but obviously lined them with anti-resonant material for a cleaner audio signal. The Beach Boys “Good Vibrations” title is antithetical to any kind of electronics. Vibrations = Bad, so the designers gave a great first impression with the casing – a good trade off of cost vs. performance. The knobs on the front are nicely chromed over solid brass, not plastic. Nice touch without being too pricey. They’ve given us the appearance of a bit of class without the horrendous cost usually associated with it. Another nice choice at this price point.

 

One of the most telling features of the two pieces is that they are both fully balanced. You don't normally do expensive fully balanced circuitry unless you're very serious about sound quality, in the same way you wouldn't put Costco's cheapest tires on a Porsche you intended to race at Le Mans. In fact, for the preamp there are three fully balanced inputs via XLR and two standard RCA's for total of five inputs. Then there is one RCA configured as a surround bypass. There are two balanced outputs for bi-amping and one unbalanced that could be used for a powered subwoofer.There’s no headphone jack or meters or balance controls. Good features for a sound purist without going overboard.

 

Simplicity and frugality reign on the front with one knob selecting sources, the other volume. A push button activates mute, another controls the pass-through. All feel smooth and solid - expensive. There is a bright blue light that lets you know power is engaged.

 

The power switch for both units is located on back, upper left. Not real convenient, but another cost saving and sound enhancing decision and if stacked, you can turn both on with one reach since they’re about and inch apart. All signal paths are designed to be the shortest possible and care has been taken to isolate noisy bits from those that require very low powered signals that are so susceptibleto noise.

 

There is a metal remote control, but it only does volume up and down; no on-off switch or selectable inputs. Volume only. Again, some very interesting trade-offs and the remote works very well. Not so small as to get lost easily, but not large and clucky, either. Nice.

 

The brochure claims "extremely low distortion Class A output stage. Class A, eh? Not AB? Ok, we’re playing with the guys with big boy pants on. It goes on to say “…using technology derived from studio engineering".

 

Schunk & Sons

 

Studio engineering? What does that mean? Here's where we need to talk about the company itself for a minute. It is owned by the Schunk family. You can see front the corporate office that it’s no big conglomeration. The roots of Accustic Arts go back to 1990 when interest in music production, recording and sound playback was born in the Schunk household. The backbone of Accustic Arts is provided by a typical German middleclass family business. Senior partner Fritz Schunk ran the Fritz Schunk GmbH for over 30 years. It was a world leader in industrial robotics and industrial handling. Customers included Audi, BMW, Mercedes Benz and Porsche.In 1997 Fritz was looking for a new direction and sold the company. Then, together with his sons Martin and Steffen, launched SAE - SCHUNK AUDIO ENGINEERING to focus on his big passion - music. Now father Fritz has all the hi-tech background while son Martin is a mechanical engineer. Second son Steffen holds a degree in technical business administration and since 1990 has been working as professional producer for international record companies. He's even part of a label called Accustic Arts Audiophile Recordings.

 

So here in this one German family we have almost a perfect storm of old school experience as well as current electrical AND audio engineers making real music. Is all that expertise reflected in the sound of their products?

 

 

 

 

 

 

We’ve described the Preamp I – MK3, so let's take a look at the power amp, the AMP I - MK2. The first thing you need to know is that it is rated at 140 W per channel at 8 ohms and 210 at 4 ohms. The literature says that it is also suitable for low ohm loudspeaker systems down to 2 ohms. That’s significant. It means owners or potential owners of electrostatics or Magnaplaner speakers should pay special attention. In fact, every speaker owner should pay attention to this because it indicates that the amp has a substantial, high current power supply which is the core of any quality power amplifier. Amplifier wattage ratings indicate the quantity of an amplifier while the power supply indicates the quality of an amplifier. Wendell Diller of Magnapan says that if an amplifier maker gets the power supply right, they probably did a good job in other areas of the design. As we'll see in a moment, Wendell's comments come to bear in this review in a very real way.

 

The innards feature a magnetically shielded and encapsulated 600 VA toroidal core transformer for high output reserves; separate windings for right and left channel. There are internal circuit switches that shut things down when clipping, high-frequency oscillations or too high DC offset occurs.

 

On the back you have a single balanced XLR input and one RCA as well. The speaker terminals are well placed and seemed to be very high quality, goldplated types that are suitable for any type of speaker wire termination. At 44 pounds, the amp is heavy enough to indicate high quality construction but still easy enough to move around when necessary. The front plate features a matching bright blue light that indicates power on.

 

LISTENING

 

I used the Accustic Arts combo with three very different speakers, ranging in price from about $1200-$18,000 with a $4,000 pair of monitors thrown in for good measure. Serendipitously, the AA combo arrived around the same time as the new Magnaplaner Super MMG. I had initially hooked the super MMG's up to my trusty, bulletproof LSA Statement integrated amp which has driven dozens and dozens of different speakers over the years with no problems. I was surprised that I didn't have to turn up the volume knob very high at all to attain listenable sound levels, indicating the little Maggie's with the subwoofer were pretty efficient when it comes to wattage needs. However, over a few hours time I increased the volume from moderate to normal listening levels. About an hour later, the left channel went out, the big LSA's protection circuit being triggered. That had never happened before with any speaker at any volume level. Interesting. The Super MMG’s didn't require a lot of power, but they obviously presented a difficult load especially when they were brand-new and stiff. It was about this time the Accustic Arts arrived and I figured since both the Maggies and the Accustic Arts needed breaking in, I just pair them up so they could burn in simultaneously. I moved the Maggies to the small listening room B and fired them up. Running continuously (in fully balanced mode of course) and eventually at levels approaching 100 DB, the Accustic Arts combo never faltered and drove the recalcitrant Maggies easier than Kim Kardashian.

 

After about 100 hours, I sat down to do some listening. Even though neither amps or speakers were fully optimized, what I heard was more than a little amazing. The first thing that jumped out at me was the way above average level of dynamic contrasts. Things that go crack, boom, smack and thump made me think of a fireworks display. Very visceral with initial transients exhibiting a high level of speed. The level of detail was way more than one would expect from a pair of $575 speakers with a little sub woofer. There seem to be more of a grainy texture than I thought there should be, so I simply changed the factory power cables on the amps to my Kimber's and immediately noticed a significant difference. Things still sounded a bit congested and closed in, so I let the system cook for another 200 hours or so.

 

The next listening session was much better. Every aspect had improved, especially the bass which now produced low frequencies with greater ease and dynamics as well as speed and texture that had no business existing in the speaker system this cheap, but the Accustic Arts were allowing all of this goodness to happen through these amazing little speakers and what surprised me most was what I was not hearing. Maggie's of all sorts are very revealing and transparent and if there was a solid-state glare, steelyness or all the other negative attributes usually associated with solid-state, I wasn't hearing them. I listened closer. I tried to hear a transistory signature somewhere in track after track, but it wasn't there. Remember what I said about expectations.

 

THAT WARM FEELING…

 

Everyone always associates tube gear with warmth or some romantic golden glow. Yes, that can be present in some tube gear that really isn't all that good. In the good stuff, all you hear is a high degree of musicality that is more associated with a real performance than a laboratory. Tube gear is sometimes described as warm simply because solid-state is often unnaturally cool or cold; analytical with an electronic rough edge around voices and instruments. This is precisely what I was not hearing with the Accustic Arts, so let's up the ante and try another speaker at about four times the price of the Maggie's.

 

AN EVOLUTION IN SOUND

 

Enter the Evolution MicroOne,one of the most talked about, buzz crazy speakers on the market and I just happen to have the first pair ever for review. Thank you Jonathan Tinn.  Since they were already set up in the Main Listening Room A, I moved the Accustic Arts there. That also gave me much better sources like my Qsonix music server running through my MyTek DSD DAC with ultra high resolution files including DSD. The little MicroOne’swere not fully broken in yet either, but they were about 80% there. The Accustic Arts were replacing components where the price of my Purity Reference preamp (tube of course) is roughly the same as the two Accustic Arts combined.

 

I let the AA’s settle into the system for couple of days before doing any listening. You may think it's crazy, but any time you introduce something new into your system whether it's fully broken in or not, the sound will change; almost always for the better after a few hours of playing together. I can't prove this and there's no science behind it that I know of, but trust my decades of experience that it's true. Many other experienced people in the industry concur, so take it or leave it, but because I'm always searching for the real truth, it's a practice I observe.

 

The Micro Evolutions are a lot different than the Mini Maggie's, but they're also very transparent and revealing. Even with the small stand mount speakers in a large room, the Accustic Arts drove them effortlessly. There was never a sense of strain or congestion even when playing very dynamic tracks with a deep bass at higher than normal levels.

 

In the big room, the music has much more area to spread out and develop a much larger soundstage. I love singers so how vocals are reproduced is very important to me. Once again I was surprised to hear how my favorite voices were rendered out front with lots of space between them and the background. There was no graininess or other artifacts to pollute the air in open spaces, just a beautiful black nothingness with the voice hanging in mid air very well defined in front of me. There was some shape to the voice as well, though not quite as 3-D as should be. That little bit of difference is what people pay the big bucks for. By the way, this might be a good place to comment that Accustic Arts makes a lower priced line of products as well as a higher-priced line with these models fitting right in the middle in what the company calls their "Top Series" while their real top series is their Reference Series which consists of… wait for it… A tube CD transport, DAC and preamp! Their Reference power amps however, are still solid-state.

 

While I could say more about the Evolution MicroOne’s, the real test came when I hooked up the AA’s to my reference and much beloved Legacy Ares speakers. If you haven't read my review of those, please do. This is an $18,000 pair of speakers that sounds as good or better than just about anything I've ever heard, anywhere, any time at any price. I honestly almost felt sorry for the Accustic Arts as I hooked them up. Again, I let them play for couple of days before any serious listening.

 

As we sat in the dark listening to DSD recordings of Blood Sweat and Tears, The Eagles, Pictures at an Exhibition and a few dozen others, one overriding factor became readily apparent that we had heard in now a third different system, and that is that these Accustic Arts completely exploded my stereotype of solid-state amplification. Yes, the soundstage was not as detailed or extended as the more expensive stuff and layers of recording such as large orchestras were not as defined as could be, but we were able to listen for three and four hours at a stretch with no fatigue or loss of interest which things like distortion, noise and other artifacts induce. The bottom line is, after a few minutes it mattered not whether we were listening to solid-state or glowing bottles; we were listening to music with all the passion, excitement, pathos and fun that entails.

 

The one thing I noticed that fell a little short, literally, was reverb trails. Instead of fading out gradually and naturally, they were more than a little truncated and overall ambience was somewhat less than expected, but then these are qualities to which I am very sensitive. I listen for them when I know they're supposed to be there, so for others this may not be a factor at all.

 

It's funny in a way because time after time I've demonstrated the difference between tubes and solid-state to many people, some who didn't even know "antiquated" tube gear even existed, with the result being the solid-state guy being astonished by what he was hearing. We even had one reviewer that had lived with solid-state for decades and I sent him a rather inexpensive tube integrated amp to review and he became a convert.

 

I can honestly say that my eyes and ears have been opened to the progress that solid-state has made, especially in preamps. Frankly, I look forward to the day when something other than tubes rises to the top at affordable prices. Living in South Florida, I really don't need the heat that tubes produce or the added dollars to my electric bill.

 

 

 

The Accustic Arts are serious high-end products and are an outstanding value especially when you factor in the balanced circuitry and their overall performance. The amplifier stands out in its ability to drive pretty much any speaker, even those with difficult Ohm loads down to 2 Ohms. Any speaker that goes lower that that shouldn't even be on the market. Owners of this amp can buy pretty much any speaker with confidence that you won't run into a nasty mismatch, leaving your field wide open when it comes to speaker buying time.

 

That's an important thing.

 

The preamp was made to match the amp so you don't have to worry about synergy there, either. If you were thinking you just HAVE to buy a tube system, the truly makes us think again.

 

Accustic Arts USA

8390 E. Via De Ventura

F110-194

Scottsdale, AZ 85258

1-888-593-8488

www.accusticartsusa.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

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