JAMES L. DARBY
This is the third integrated amp we have reviewed by LSA, the Nashville based company that designs and makes the three integrateds pictured above and a line of very fine speakers. Each amp and speaker model has three versions consistently named to make identification and selection easy. The base model is always called "Standard", the middle is "Signature" and the top of the line is always called the "Statement".
As you can see, all three share the same basic external form and function, the only difference being front panel style. All three offer the same creature features as well, such as inputs, outputs, remote, etc. Where they differ is internally, building from the Standard and adding better and more expensive parts and systems.
Common to all versions: Integrated two-channel hybrid tube/solid state amplifier whose output is 150 watts per channel at 8 ohms and a whopping 800 wpc at 1.3 ohms. At 78 pounds, the amp is massively overbuilt in all stages, inside and out. The amplification stage is class AB solid state with special topology to reduce heat and yet produce a high linear output. The pre-amp section employs two 6922 tubes (one per channel) to give the sound a tube quality to mate with the very high output solid-state section. It also employs the use of the Cardas Golden Ratio bypass capacitors in critical circuit areas.
There are a total of five inputs. One is a balanced XLR, three are standard but high quality gold RCA's and there is also a phono input for MM cartridges and hi-output MC's. It is isolated from the rest of the circuitry to limit noise.
Front panels controls are elegantly simple. In the top half are four red indicator lights that tell you which input is active. The small red lamps buck the current trend of extremely bright blue lights that annoyingly illuminate a dark or dimly lit room. Heck, some of them can even make you squint in a fully lit room! Often, the first thing I do when inserting a new piece of electronics is to cover the offensive lights with black electrician's tape. No such application was necessary with the Statement. The red indicators are perfect and a model for the rest of the industry. They are easily noticed in a bright room, but barely seen in a dark room. There is one blue light positioned between the four red ones that lights when the amp is in standby mode. Again, the brightness level is perfect.
Standby mode is important because it allows a minimal amount of current to supply the circuitry so that the amp does not have to start up completely cold so that its full sound quality is available without a long warm up period - maybe 5 minutes as opposed to 30 or more without it. If your listening sessions are only and hour or two, this is a huge benefit. If you are going to be gone for extended periods, all power can be shut of via the rocker switch on the back.
A button on the lower left toggles the on/standby modes, while a matching button on the right selects inputs. In the center is a motorized, oversized disk which is the volume control. Like all of the switchcraft, it has a very smooth, elegant and expensive feel.
The quality construction extends to the remote control as well. It feels like it was cast out of a single block of metal. Solid. It is actually machined aluminum, the type one usually sees in much more expensive lines. The remote has the functions most needed without being complex and fussy. Two buttons turn the volume up and down; another toggles through the inputs with the last button used for taking the unit in and out of standby mode. The remote is big enough so that it is not easily misplaced or lost in a seat cushion, yet small enough to fit easily in the hand.
The design of the remote and the quiet volume motor allows for the ideal adjustment of volume – not to fast, not too slow. Sensitive to very slight increments so that the proper volume level can be set effortlessly. I have seen much more expensive amps that will not do that. Another huge plus is that the remote is not finicky about distance or angle.
The supplied power cord is not captive if you wish to upgrade. Jumpers allow either the preamp or power amp sections to be used separately.
Cosmetically, the front panel gets an upgrade to some real wood trim.
UNDER HER SKIRT
One look inside continues the ultra high quality theme. Look at those massive dual power supplies and the physical separation of the channels. It’s about as close to combining two monoblocks in one chassis as you can get. The two tubes are placed close to the inputs for low noise and distortion. Very high quality WBT-style
speaker connectors are used as well.
Clean. Neat and tidy. No wasted space or long circuit paths. Limited wires kept to shortest lengths. Substantial heat sinks to assure long life and low maintenance.
It is obvious that much thought and engineering went into the overall design.
In our review of the LSA "Signature", LSA President Brian Warford told us the improvements of the previously reviewed Signature middle model over the "Standard": “We upgraded all the capacitors in the preamp section to Auricaps for a cleaner sound, improved dynamics and soundstage. We also upgraded all the resistors in the preamp section from carbon film to the more expensive metal film. In addition, we upgraded the wiring from the amplifier section to the speaker terminals to SuperKonductor mono crystals cables. The most significant upgrade that results in the most improvement in sound is our Active Tube Load circuit – a proprietary circuit for the cathode follower section of the preamp. It is basically a management system that regulates the high voltage current going through the tubes that results in a higher impedance and a much higher bandwidth load”.
All of those upgrades are still present in the "Statement" which is the focus of this review.
The man responsible for the design and sound of the LSA amps is John Tucker. I call him "Big John" because he looks like he could be a star as a heaveyweight full contact Ultimate Fighter or the younger brother of "Mr. Clean".If that name rings and audiophile bell, John is also the brains and talent behind Exemplar Audio where he builds, designs and sells all kinds of high-end products from modifications of existing electronics to his own designs of amps and speakers.
He is well known in the audio industry for his uncompromised designs and mods, but he keeps a rather low profile and is not as well known by the average audiophile simply because he does not turn out thousands of products each year. He hand builds everything one at a time, but the fortunate people who own his products know all about him mostly by word of mouth from people who have tried "the rest" and found his stuff to be the Holy Grail. It is a testament to his skills that LSA and Exemplar brands are hardly ever seen on Audiogon or other second hand audio boards. People tend to keep them and if they do list them, it is almost always because they are upgrading to another LSA or Exemplar.
John spent 8 years in the Navy working on advanced Avionics systems before moving up to the Johnson Space Center first on the Shuttle program and then on the Space Station program. He began work there as an electronics engineer and when he left 15 years later he was doing advanced Systems Engineering Management and Program Management. He did a brief stint at Compaq, consulting on Program Management and then in 1996 came to Redmond, Washington as Chief Operations Officer running a small software company. In 2001 he started Exemplar Audio as a full time endeavor. In April of 2006 he came onboard as VP of Operations for the LSA group.
POWER OUTPUT VS. POWER SUPPLY
A little personal example of the difference between the two. The year was 1996 and we had just moved into a new home a few months earlier. We had designed one room to be a small, dedicated stereo listening room. I needed to purchase a small system that would work well in it. The current darling in the bang-for-the buck audio review sweepstakes was an integrated by Rotel, the RA-985BX. It sold for $800 at the time as I recall and it featured 100 watts per channel. The reviews were all raves. Of course, Al Gore hadn't invented the internet yet so there were a very limited number of sources for info and none that were very trustworthy. Even back then, almost every review was a rave and the Rotel was another in a long list of "best I've ever heard anywhere near this price".
Nevertheless, Linda and I went to the nearest dealer that carried it, determined that I would be bringing it home no matter what else a salesman would try to foist upon me. Upon arrival, I told the salesman (a guy I knew very well since I had spent a lot of time there over the years) that I was there to purchase the Rotel. I just wanted to listen to it first in a small room about 10x12. He took us into one and set up the Rotel with a pair of Thiele speakers. I had brought several of my own CD's and a couple of LP's. We listened to them all, the last being Reference Recording's "Testament" by the Turtle Creek Men's Chorale. The Rotel sounded fine and I said "we'll take it". As I expected, the guy said, "OK, but let's listen to one other thing before you decide. It's the new Linn Majik integrated. You won't believe how much better it sounds.
"How much is it?"
"Well", he said, "It's $1,400 but it includes a great phono preamp that the Rotel doesn't."
"No thanks", I smiled. I knew he was just trying to do his job and upsell me.
He finally wore us down and I watched carefully as he replaced the Rotel with the Linn to make sure nothing else was changed. It wasn't. Since we had just played "Testament", I handed it back to him to insert in the same CD player. At the time, I was director of 200 voice adult choir. I had recently heard the Turtle Creek guys live at a conference I had attended. It only took about 10 seconds - the thing handn't even warmed up yet - for Linda and me to conclude that the Linn was far better than the Rotel. Just the soundstage alone was bigger, deeper, wider, more detailed, layered and spacious. Most importantly, it sounded much more like real music rather than just good hifi. The Thiele's have never been known for their efficiency, but the Majik was playing at pretty realistic levels with no strain.
"What's the rated output", I inquired, expecting to hear a sizeable number.
"Uh...33 watts per channel at 8 Ohms", he replied.
"Hold on...the Rotel is 100 watts and costs $800 and the Linn is 33 watts and costs $1,400?"
He went on to explain that the two major differences were the phono stage that the Rotel lacked, but the biggest difference in the sound was the Linn's bigger, better and fully regulated power supply. He had me pick the smallish integrated up. It felt like a cement block compared to the Rotel. We talked more, listened more and walked out the door with a new Linn Majik with a 30 day return guarantee. it never went back. In fact, it was in use here until just 6 months ago when I gave it to a friend who is using it now to power his new Strata Mini tower speakers in a very large, thirty foot long room. He and his wife love it.
What is the point to this anecdote? First, sound quality does not live by specs alone - especially output numbers. It is interesting that all three models of the LSA amps have identical listed specs - not just number of watts - yet anyone could easily tell the sonic differences between the three. That reinforces the first commandment of audio shopping: "Thou shalt never buy anything based on published specs alone!".
You might be asking, "That's great James, but what does that have to do with the LSA Statement and this review?" Good question. I asked John Tucker what the major differences are between the Signature and the new Statement. Let's let him answer your question and my question at the same time;
"We looked at every aspect of the amp and chose to improve every area where we could. The Signature already had a great sounding circuit design and excellent parts upgrades from the Standard amp. The biggest area for improvement was the power supply. We’ve added additional transformers and rearranged the power supply circuitry to provide a dual mono design within the single chassis. In addition we’ve double the number of regulators with very high performance designs. Every stage of the amplifier with the exception of the final outputs is now independently regulated".
PRICE VS. VALUE
This is always the toughest part of any review - determining the bang-for-the buck of any given product. Fact: The $9,000 Statement costs $3,000 more than the $6,000 Signature. For many people, that fact might generate two questions: Are the parts upgrades worth the price increase and is the improvement in sound worth an extra three grand?
FIrst, we all should know by now that parts come in all price ranges. One part could cost a few cents while it's replacement upgrade could cost many dollars. Honestly? I don't know how much each new part costs. I do know that price disparities in power supplies and regulators are among the widest in any parts category. They can run from about $30 to thousands. Just an optional upgrade "power supply boost" for an Atma-Sphere MA-1 Mk.III monoblock amp costs an additional $2,400. But you also have to factor in the time it takes to make all the changes John described. Then there is one other factor that is illustrated by this little story:
An assembly line at a major manufacturer went down. It was costing the corporation $200,000 per hour to have it out of service. Their in-house technicians worked for 6 hours to fix it. They failed. The CEO called in experts from another company. They too worked for hours, tearing apart the huge operating panel to find the problem. No luck. They gave up and put the panel back together. Another team of experts were called in. They also gave up after several hours. They had no clue what the problem was. The line and several dozen employees had been idle for 24 hours, costing the company $4,800,000 in revenue. Someone mentioned to the CEO that the guy who designed the enormous system lived nearby. A call was placed.
The man who designed the assembly line came in and took one look at the complex wall of meters, switches, knobs and levers. He smiled, reached out and pushed one tiny button. The whole assembly line sprang to life. The entire repair took less than one minute.
The designer promptly handed the CEO a bill for $200,000.49. The executive was stunned. He addressed the designer angrily, saying "What is this?! All you did was push one button!" The man calmly replied, "The forty-nine cents is for pushing the button. The two-hundred-thousand-dollars is for knowing which button to push".
The bottom line is, it doesn't so much matter how much the parts cost individually, but how they sound as a whole. Call it synergy. Anyone with basic soldering skills can throw together a few circuits. Our many DIY readers know there are plenty of schematics and parts lists available all over the net. So are the two questions mentioned above - are the parts upgrades worth the price increase and is the improvement in sound worth an extra three grand - really important? It seems that the only real questions are, how does it stack up against the competition and ultimately, how does it sound to YOU?
SIGNATURE VS STATEMENT
You need to know that I have been using the middle-of-the-line Signature as my reference amp in the small room system for several months. You can see (left) that my Signature is the older style with the handles on the front and a more two-tone face. The Statement is the new more rounded look without the front "ears". It is ideal in that room because, being an integrated, it saves space.
Even though it is not small, it is still more space efficient than a separate amp/preamp. It has plenty of power to drive most anything that gets thrown at it, even the very difficult load of the Maximus Monitors reviewed a while back. It does not generate a lot of heat which, in South Florida in a small space, is very important. It is pretty hard to endure long listening sessions in a room where the temperature can quickly soar to near ninety degrees. Two bodies (me and Linda) at 98.6 degrees and an amp that acts like a space heater can over tax the best AC system.
Its hybrid tube/solid state design gives me a good compromise between all-tube and all solid-state while the overall sound is pretty close to neutral. It is pretty darn linear from top to bottom with no major coloration. It's accurate. It's musical.
It saves time (and money) because I don't have to deal with so many cables. It has a balanced input for CD players that are so endowed and a very good phono section that comes in handy when a new 'table or cartridge needs to be broken in before critical evaluation. And sometimes I just like to retreat to the small room just to listen and read a book.
Got some old vinyl in the basment or boxed up somewhere? Curious as to why so many people, even kids, are buying LP's in record (pardon the pun) numbers now? The phono section in this and the other LSA amps will give you an excellent excuse to explore the analog universe.
Since I almost always do the most serious listening in total darkness, the Statement's minimal illumination is ideal. Its standby mode means I don't have to go in, turn the thing on, put on a CD and let it play for 40 minutes while I leave the room to do something else, just so it warms up fully. Oh...and I don't have to constantly worry about tube life because its proprietary Active Tube Load circuit regulates the high voltage current going through the tubes. That very cool circuit results in a higher impedance and a much higher bandwidth load while significantly increasing tube life.
One other thing that I have learned about the LSA "Siggy" is that it is practically bullet proof. Any veteran reviewer will tell you that occasionally mistakes are made. A cable plugged in the wrong place or one that you thought was plugged in isn't. Reviewer's reference amps get a lot harder unintended treatment (abuse) than any normal home system. The LSA has never faltered. If it did though, it's good to know there is a generous and confidence inspiring five-year warranty.
When I was first introduced to the new Statement at an audio show, I asked LSA president Brian Warford how he thought it compared to my Signature. He said, "The Statement makes the Signature sound like it is broken!". Now, I'm used to hearing heaps of hype at audio shows, but that utterance set me back, which undoubtedly registered in my facial expression. Brian responded, "No...really. The first time we listened to the Signature after the prototype Statement, we all thought there was something wrong with the Signature; there was that much difference. We actually tested it to make sure it was operating right - the difference was that big!".
Well, I wouldn't go that far to say my "Sig" sounded broken, but I think I know exactly what he meant. In terms of all the basic audiophile descriptors - soundstage, detail and the like, the Statement was superior, but not by huge gobs. The gobs of differences were no so much in what you hear as what you feel. There is a significantly bigger sense of solidity which is usually due to better low end control, but that's not what I'm talking about. It's not about weight or better sounding bass guitars, it's not even increased transparency, though that is certainly the case, it's more than that. There is an overall perception of structure and organization as if some invisible framework had been added to each recording. The Statement just reaches out, grabs andcaresses you and pulls you into the performance in a way few amp at any price or configuration can acheive.
In the Rotel versus Linn experience I described earlier, I said the Linn sounded "much more like real music rather than just good hifi." That is similar to what I am describing now, though my Sig never has sounded like hifi, even compard to the Statement. The Statement just reaches deeper into the well of realness and fills some voids that were not previously apparent. Trying to describe it is like trying to write this review in a stream of running water with my finger. Maybe what I am perceiving is the real definition of "Mojo"! A deep cognizance or awareness that defies description. Soul. Comprehension. Call it what you will, but it is something that is rarely experienced in the realm of recorded music playback to this level.
The LSA Statement is almost the polar opposite of the Plinius 9200 reviewed by Andrew Dubitsky and myself. We evaluated it in two different systems, two different rooms, located in two different states of the Union. We both were impressed by its ability to extract large amounts of detail, both macro and micro as well as other audiophile qualities. But it just did not convey a sense of musicality. It sounded rather academic and mechanical. And you know what? Some people love that. The Plinius has plenty of fans. But the Statement retrieves just as much detail without sounding the least bit edgy or bright, much less academic or mechanical.
In the Large Room, I have been using a Halcro separate pre/power setup for a few months. The power amp is 400 wpc of exceptionally well designed, low noise Class D. The combo prices out at about $13,000. In the review of LSA Signature (not the Statement reviewed here), here is what I said about it:
"Though it is out powered, the LSA Signature does not seem to suffer a lack of drive and headroom. Bass is delivered with unbridled brawn and moxie underscored by complete control with a iron fisted grip on those sometimes unruly low frequencies. Think Mike Tyson after a brain transplant from Michael Jordon. The midrange was just as rich and powerful as the Halcro’s with maybe a smidge more color intensity – a bit warmer than the Halcro. At the very top, the LSA Signature was actually superior in terms of ultimate linearity and noise. Listening to the LA4's PAVANE POUR UNE INFANTE DEFUNTE (LP on Eastwind) you have a consummate jazz quartet with vivid bass, drums, guitar and sax. The sax in particular was more burnished with the characteristic and difficult brass with reed sonority. Both the Signature and the Halcro possess remarkable speed and dynamic contrasts, though the Halcro may excel a bit when reproducing well recorded acoustic guitar".
So, the $6,000 Siggy was very much in the league of $13,000 separates. The $9,000 LSA Statement is a significant cut above Halcro combo.
We have reviewed a number of all-tube integrated amps using several different output tubes like KT88's, 845's and 300B's to mention a few. Comparisons to the LSA Statement are a bit unfair because most tube integrateds max out at around 30 - 40 wpc, and that is in ultralinear mode. No all-tube integrateds with 100 or more watts output come to mind. Do you know of any? Generally speaking, the Statement more than competes with tube amps in terms of richness and midrange clarity and does a better job in the frequency extremes, particularly low bass below 150 Hz and highs above 5,000.
Speaking of tubes, I did ask John about the Electro Harmonic tubes which are new, current production models. I said, "John, it seems to me an amp of this cost and quality should include some tubes better than the EH's - the same ones you use in the Standard and Sig. Can you tell us why you chose to stay with the EH rather than some pricier NOS?
Tucker replied, "NOS (New Old Stock or vintage) tubes are a hit and miss proposition. With having to provide a production amplifier, we have to have a consistent supply of tubes available. We’ve tried about every current production tube available and the EH's were the best overall choice sonically. They even sounded better overall than many of the high priced NOS variants. Our circuit design also levels the playing field somewhat due to the control we maintain of the tubes operating point. That being said, there will always be differences in sonic characteristics that will enhance or detract from the overall sonics of a given system".
Tucker is the not the first manufacturer I've heard that from. Gary Dodd, who uses JJ's in his wonderful preamp, Jolida, Cary and several other tube mavens have said the same thing. You just don't want to spend all the time and money on R&D, manufacturering, shipping and so forth to have your precious product totally dependant upon some forty-year-old tubes. American and European companies now long gone are not going to stand behind WWII era bottles. Their reputations won't suffer if their tubes blow.
On their website, I found some recommendations by LSA owners of tubes they have rolled into the amps:
Bugle Boy 6922 - described by our users as having a very 'lush' sound
EL6DJ8 - '...very sweet, good bottom end...'
Siemens ECC88, Gold Pins
Telefunkin 6922 (NOS)
Be aware that if you or the non-factory tubes cause damage to the amp, you can kiss the warrantied repair goodbye. You break it, you buy it. That makes sense.
For what it's worth, Tucker had this to say about comparisons to other amps: "Our design for the new Statement amplifier was to make the amp the best we possibly could within the limitations of the existing units. We were limited to the existing chassis and circuit boards of the base unit. With that said we decided to build upon that already great design and make the unit the best possible available.We were out to make an amp that could stand up against the best units out there. We’ve listened to some of the best amplifiers in a number of different systems and were able to beat them all sonically and all the units we’ve compared the Statement to were at several times the price of the Statement".
Criticisms? Pretty hard to find, and we reviewers just love to criticise ya know... You do need to know that handling the 78 pound behemoth is not easy because there are no, well, handles. It would be nice if there were at least some detents on the sides to facilitate a good grip. As it is, you get a handful of heat fins. Either fortunately or by design, the fins are not the usual meat slicer type that will turn your hands into hambuger, but you still don't want to carry the Statement very far. Once I got this this one in the rack, it did not move and I'm not looking forward to boxing this one up and sending it back - for several reasons, but picking it up is decidedly one of them.
At the end of the previous review we did of the Signature model, I said, "The Signature proves that design and technology have advanced so far in the last few years that the delineation between an integrated amp and separate amp and preamps has definitely blurred if not eroded altogether. The only question left for me is, if the middle of the line LSA Signature is this good, how much better can the big boss LSA Statement be?"
Well, now I know. And so do you.
The advantages of using separate preamp/power amp components has all but disappeared, particularly in this model which has been modified to be completely dual-mono in one chassis. To achieve the level of performance the Statement offers would cost significantly more, even if you went with top models of no name brands made overseas with questionable reliability and warranties , and you would still end up with less power output. While the basic chassis is made in China, LSA does all the re-manufacturing and modding in Big John’s lab in Washington state. In other words, they import the Standard amp and then make it into Signatures or Statements themselves. Each and every amp, even the Standard, endures rigourous quality control checks before they go out the door.
LSA is an All American company which stands behind the products with a five-year warranty. They are not just an importer. There are no concerns over gray market warranties or parts availability. LSA has a very strong US dealer network. At last count there were about 85 dealers nationwide. Ask any amp maker (or speaker maker for that matter) how difficult it is to get a dealer, especially in this economic environment, to carry their products. Believe me, there are many very impressive products out there that have not been able to make a dent in the US high-end dealer network. To me, the fact that LSA has such a great number of dollar conscience mom & pops says a lot about their products and their company. LSA also has a very strong presence overseas, both in sales and in international reviews. The Statement looks solid, sounds solid and is solidly backed.
If interested, contact information is here. LSA has dealers all over the US (even in Florida!) and they will help you find one .
Back to HOMEPAGE