This review page is supported in part by the sponsors whose ad banners are displayed below

Here too I must find out whether the Abacus is at the end of its leash since certain parts get awfully shrill. Or does Hollis intend that? The Denon says yes but I doubt that all is 100% according to design. On one hand, Hollis wants to torture the listener and lead him through hell to the other side of paradise when the music calms down. Catharsis, abandon, a transformative experience. Allowing it means getting enthralled. Tchaikovsky knows it too. Just try the opening movement of his 4th Symphony under Mravinsky. From hell to redemption. On the other hand, some shrillness must be due to the engineering. The analog tape is remastered during the late 90s. Apparently not that well. It sounds overamped and peaky. We shall never know whether the emotional suffering (Mravinsky's old Tchaikovsky cover is equally hard) would feel equally intense without the sonic edges. Do we need to know though?

In my comparisons, the far more expensive Denon beats the Abacus in only one discipline. Very subdued fare. Take Arvo Pärt's "Spiegel im Spiegel" from Alina. The violin manifests in the middle of the room, each up and down stroke of the bow obvious, con arco pressure hyper present. Fully fleshed out, warm and redolent are the woody resonances below. Farther back to the right is the piano, Bösendorfer or Steinway I can't tell but cognoscenti surely would. Dumbfounded by the horsehair noises on the string, an irritant suddenly absorbs my attention. The pianist is late. He bloody hangs behind the violin. He catches up, falls back, catches up... I want to push him forward to stop going against the grain. Suddenly the violin misses a bit, presents the next tone a tad late and presto, the piano is on the beat again. Bliss. It's now that I realize I've been had. That was no mistake but fully intentional. Classical players taking lessons from Jazz. I crack a grin, settle back. Soon my thoughts unmoor and I'm off daydreaming.

Our man is losing it, you think. But he is firm. If the Abacus grabs the speakers with a lock jaw, the Denon grabs my heart. Literally. My heart tries to keep the meter which the pianist deliberately misses by a hair's width. If a system can do that, it must be really good (ditto for the music). I've had the Pärt forever. I never got it and essentially filed it under 'B' for boring. With the Abacus, I take note and start to appreciate it. The music comes alive and I delight in discovering unknown pearls in my collection. The Denon then adds even a tad more. With such fare, it's fully in its element. A wonderful machine. On subdued fare, it offers a bit more than the Abacus.

Apropos subdued music, Mark Hollis' eponymous last album is tailor-made for the Denon. Spinning the breathy "A life (1895 - 1915)" with full attention resets the bar for hifi systems. And my earlier notion that this CD isn't as good as Spirit of Eden. However, the really
surprising discovery of the last few days is that €660 are sufficient to spend on an Abacus. What this amp can do is truly astonishing. It'll give back what it is fed in the honest true meaning which is a trick and a half. Music comes alive. The amp is well balanced and casts grand space. Small detail is elucidated and when called upon, bass will have the neighbors up in arms. The very next moment goes all fluffy and airy and it's well nigh impossible to miss the focus on what's essential: the music.

The Denon is no different but perhaps the scrape of hair on metal is hairier still and a large orchestra gets sorted even better when the brass lets loose. Perhaps. I'd not swear with my hand in the fire. It's tough to be certain at this level of performance. About the boxes, yeah, it's more sensible to spend the longer green on them. That's where the real progress is made. While I enjoy my B&W 804 very much, I'm of a mind to experiment. If it starts to rain coins.

A few days later, I have enough and am ready to send the Abacus back. But just five minutes with the Marantz and I have the hots for the Abacus again. One more day. And then the Denon? I do mind the looks of the Abacus. Perhaps I'm just not cool enough to shrug it off by insisting that this amp makes music so significantly better, it's not expected to look but play. Yesterday some friends drop by unannounced for a quick espresso meet in the kitchen. Those are hard-core design freaks. They want to know what plays next door. I'm not too keen to be taken to task for its looks. What looks? "Cool" they allow after some tunes, "looks home-brew but plays like a pro." Caressing the bolts that hold the box together, one even goes "understatement at its best". Redemption.

Wolfram Sundermeier

Abacus Rieder website