|Inspired by my still fresh dream of an evening with Alice, I popped Greg Brown's Honey in the Lion's Head [Trailer Records TR0035] into the transport. As I listened to "Railroad Bill", I began to tap my foot to the beat, and felt more like I was with friends jamming in the living room than listening to my hi-fi. The only thing keeping me from jumping up with my acoustic Gibson AJ guitar to play along? It was in the shop getting the action adjusted. I found it hard to think about the sound of the Almarro A205A. I just wanted to settle in and enjoy the music. I realized how much I like the old US depression era songs on Greg's album, how incredibly good Greg and his band are at performing them. I took time to notice that Greg's acoustic guitar sounded believably like it was being played in front of me, albeit more rounded in tone and slightly less percussive and present than the real thing. I listened in fascination to Bob Black's banjo playing, noting how well I could hear the strings interact with the taut banjo head to give some of the finest recorded banjo sound I have heard.
The banjo reminded me of a recent performance by the Badger Mountain Dry Band at Battelle Auditorium. Between songs, the mandolin player said to the banjo player, "Do you know what you call a thousand banjos at the bottom of the river?" The banjo player responded, "Okay, I'll bite. What do you call a thousand banjos at the bottom of the river?" The mandolin player quipped, "A start!" which caused the audience to erupt into laughter as the band started into another song. Humor aside, I found myself really enjoying Bob's banjo playing on "Railroad Bill" and marveling at how right it sounded through the Almarro A205A. Whether guitar, mandolin, banjo, bass, or harmonica, the A205A rendered each instrument as a tightly focused image on the soundstage, with good front-to-back and side-to-side separation. There is an intensity and density to the imaging on the soundstage that puts each instrument into its own identifiable acoustic space, yet there is also a sense of a greater recorded space for the whole band -- a space around a space -- that integrates the musical contributions of the different instruments and voices in a most satisfying and beguiling way.
|I decided to indulge my Jazz Jones and cued up "Polka Dots" and "Moonbeams" from the JVC XRCD of The Bill Evans Trio's Moon Beams [VICJ-60214]. I was struck by the beauty of Bill Evans' piano tone through the little Almarro A205A which rendered the notes with a percussive and bell-like purity, yet also with a slightly rounded tone and a preservation of the complex overtones that infuse the music with an uncanny naturalness and a refreshing ease. The Almarro A205A presented a wide soundstage, with Chuck Israels on bass to the far right, Bill Evans in the center, and Paul Motian on drums on the far left. Motian's light-handed stick and brush work on the cymbals elicited appropriate metallic shimmer with plenty of musical detail. It was easy to hear the individual contributions of the wires on the brushes, and the decay of cymbal strikes was very realistic. Israels' bass playing
|created well-delineated notes with an appropriate amount of musical texture. With the Almarro A205A in the system, I listened with a deep musical satisfaction, enjoyed every moment, and only with effort could force myself to focus on the sound for reporting purposes. After listening to the entire album, I felt refreshed and edified.
|I went on to listen at length to Gillian Welch's Revival [Acony Records ACNY-0101], Igor Bril and the All-Star Soviet Jazz Band's Live at the Village Gate [Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab MFCD 861], Shelby Lynne's Identity Crisis [Capital 724359050829], the Cash Unearthed box set [Lost Highway B0000TLA9Q], and a variety of other albums. Rather than boring you with tedious blow-by-blow accounts of my impressions with each album, I'd rather just tell you that the Almarro A205A is a great amplifier in its own right and stands shoulder-to-shoulder with any of the great SET amplifiers I've heard in my system, some costing as much as $15,000 - and the Almarro A205A costs a paltry $800.
When I heard the Almarro at this year's CES, I knew it had a spark of magic about it. Still, I was unprepared at how good it would sound with my Duos, and more importantly, how well it would play music and preserve the timing elements that make the rhythm and melody come alive.
|It gets the beat right. There's nothing in its construction that would hint at stellar performance. It is not constructed of exotic designer parts nor sports a fancy handmade chassis. All parts contained are listed in the manual as being available through Parts Express should you need to make a repair at some point in the distant future. To completely re-tube the Almarro A205A will set you back the princely sum of $25 for its two Sovtek EL84 output tubes and one Sovtek 12AX7 input valve.
The Almarro's coffee-colored transformers and crème-colored chassis portray a simple elegance that appeals to me. There's a power switch and volume knob on the front, a single set of inputs on the back. If there's anything to criticize, it's the tight fit 'round back, with the binding posts and RCA inputs spaced both closely together while inset into the chassis. My customary Nirvana S-L speaker cables with their small spades couldn't be depended on for a solid connection because of these tight confines. TASmanian devil Stephæn loaned me a pair of Monster Cable banana adapters to use with my Nirvanas for a temporary fix but I'd recommend speaker cables with banana connectors for a more permanent solution - such as those on the Blue Oval speaker cables that Mark Markel of Analysis Plus was nice enough to loan me for the review as a budget reference.
|The Almarro A205A is quiet in operation, with only a faint audible buzz through my 103dB sensitive Avantgarde Duos while idling and no discernable noise whilst playing music. The Almarro is in fact quieter than my reference Fi 2A3 monos which are almost noisy by com-parison. When matching the Almarro to loudspeakers, you have to keep in mind that we're talking about a 4.8 watt amplifier. You're going to need fairly efficient loudspeakers. The A205A drove Stephæn's 95dB sensitive Cain & Cain Double Ben horns with ease and I suspect it would also be a great match with the less efficient Cain & Cain Abbys though I didn't get a chance to try that pairing. I had originally hoped to tell you about the new Almarro loudspeakers designed to be the 205A's partner but production delays prevented a timely delivery. That report will have to wait to prevent holding up this amplifier review for an unduly long time.
The Almarro A205A worked wonderfully as an integrated amplifier connected directly to my Audio Logic 2400 DAC but its one set of inputs meant I had to swap interconnects between sources. The Almarro also worked great as a stand-alone amplifier with my Tom Evans Audio Design preamp. Using it stand-alone involved no downside I could hear and that's how I used it during the majority of the review. You could start a system with the A205A and then add a preamplifier down the road if you needed greater switching capabilities to accommodate multiple sources.
|Time to wrap up. What gives with the Almarro A205A? The A205A is an inexpensive 4.8 watt SEP integrated that is solidly and attractively built using high-quality rather than exotic parts. Its performance on my Duos is the equal of any of the great SET amps I have heard at any price. It is somewhat dark overall and sweet-sounding. It reproduces a vast sense of space with a wide and deep soundstage and solid imaging. It's a little grainy compared to an ultra-refined amplifier like the Art Audio PX-25 but not in any way that bothers or annoys me. It recovers almost as much detail as my Fi 2A3 monos but less than the superb Yamamoto Sound Craft 45. It's voiced cannily to become a music lover's amplifier that sounds good enough to captivate the attention of even sound-focused diehards. It plays music extraordinarily well and always delivered an intensely musical experience of emotive power.
This is the easiest audio recommendation I've yet encountered for those wishing to explore the world of single-ended amplifiers and high-sensitivity loudspeakers. Whether you are just starting and want a superior but affordable SET integrated to build a high performance system around; or you already own an ultra high-performance system and would like to explore what's possible on modestly priced single ended pentodes, I can't imagine anyone being disappointed with this Almarro - it's a peach!
After finishing this review, I cued Greg Brown's Honey in the Lion's Head back up for a little pleasure listening. As I leaned back in my listening chair to enjoy "Jacob's Ladder", I spied a butterfly flutter out of my cheval mirror from out of the corner of my eye, followed an instant later by a bounding black kitten in hot pursuit, and I knew I was in for a very enjoyable evening.
Jeff inquired with Yoshihiro-San of Almarro about US distribution. While the current distributor is still the US customer placing an order directly with Japan, Yoshi's US-based partner Hiro-San has already set up and registered the company Almarro Products. By May of 2004, this American firm is expected to become Almarro's head office, with the current Japanese manufacturing plant then acting as its branch office. For the exact details as they unfold, please check with the website below - Ed.