Declaring a clear victor from among the latter two equaled free reign in the Sultan's harem - you smile regardless. The Philips 6SN7WGTA was a mite leaner and nimbler, the RCA 5692 a smidgen more saturated yet at least as dynamic. Both exhibited phenomenal smoothness and subtle detail. Neither flinched a black eyelash even facing the most brutal of Prokofiev's slugger feints. Both were the epitome of grace, bloom, finesse and control.

I settled on the RCAs as the brunette. This high-rolling tube selection also confirmed what I earlier described as a minor shading in the uppermost treble. It is part of the amp's overall voicing or an aspect of this particular tube family. Calling it dark would be overstating as coercion what instead is a much more elegant refusal of ever getting harsh or edgy - think gracefully rounded as opposed to lit up.

The Aria's spatial recreation of width, depth, layering and separating intricate tangles was world-class. Large-scale voltage swings seemed buoyed on an endless reservoir of The Force. I was welcome to pull out all the stops. Talk about weight in the bass! The critical 100-200Hz power region, often leaner than realistic, was fully realized. Control extended firmly into the nether regions.

The quality of this bass was distinctly tube, more lifelike than most high-power solid state at least to these ears, full and warm rather than dry, of weighty impact rather than explosive slam.

The quantity was solidly transistor, extending as low as a room can contain without leaking it all next door. To ascertain this transistor statement beyond what my ears already knew, I would have to eventually harness the eVo in a side-by-side comparison (in regular 120wpc mode to level the playing field), and driving the nOrh SM6.9s as well as the DUOs -- even though the latter, despite the active subwoofer, are extremely revealing of amplifier bass performance.

A few more terse Prokofiev bits first: No hyper-realistic etched image outlines; monstrous depth; astonishing woofer braking on fierce kettle drum thwacks and brass blats; more on the relaxed than urgent side of communication; distinct tubular bloom but not the last word in airiness; nearly visible image density; the antithesis of bleached-out or ethereal; seemingly limitless macrodynamics.


The chaps at Mesa/Boogie I worked for many years ago knew all about tone. They had developed an amazing arsenal of fresh language bursting with 'tude to describe all its stylistic permutations. Michael Elliott had contacted me at the time looking for a Blue Angel head to sweeten his live guitar gigs. He too was a devotee of tone. The Whole Tone Aria amplifiers of today are his living testament to that effect.

Take piano, that most difficult of all instruments to capture believably. Whether it was patrician Maurizio Pollini violently hammering out Beethoven's Presto Agitato from the 14th Sonata in C-sharp minor [DG 427 770-2]; Nojima's flawless rendering of Ravel's fiendishly challenging impressionism of Gaspard de la nuit [Reference Recordings 35]; the stunning Rachmaninov recordings by Ashkenazy and the Concertgebouw under Haitink [London 414 475-2] or Volodos with the Berlin Philharmonic under Levine [Sony 64384] - the pianos' inflections leaned on the burnished rather than metallic percussive side, tremendously meaty and with macrodynamics to bend my ceiling beams, but -- especially on the subtle ebb and flow of Nojima --with somewhat curtailed microdynamic finesse.

The human voice

One of my favorite singers is the Greek Yannios Parios. The opening track of Alli Mia Fora is a prime example of his romantic emotism, vocal flexibility, and powerfully heroic reserves that hoist a massive sail against even the tides of a full symphony.

Again, the very subtle inflections of emphasis, of minor phrasings inside larger ones where the voice moves out of the chest into the skull and slight air pressure changes convey hues of artistic nuance, were overshadowed by the larger dynamic crests that took on truly epic proportions.

On Soeur Marie Keyrouz' Cantiques de l'Orient on the ever-excellent Harmonia Mundi label [HM 90], this same core trait of timbral saturation, emanating slightly beyond instrumental or vocal performer's outlines to obscure minor accentuations -- bare expansions and contractions of these very outlines -- repeated itself.

Some of the otherwordliness of these Byzantine songs was rendered with more earthiness of tone, anchored more strongly in the senses than spirit, shifting ethereal purity further into the body.

The holistic gospel of tone according to Michael Elliott seems to value solidity, robustness and richness over that last iota of air or "inner" transparency. There's plenty of detail -- such as Nojima's occasional nail on ivory -- but it's as though the textural weave of the music was denser than via my reference amps, reducing the innate amount of both air and light to illuminate from within, and instead emphasizing the Grande arc over the tiniest embellishment, a kind of illumination from without. Or, as my friend Chip Stern of Stereophile would quip in oenophile terms, Bordeaux versus Zin flavor.

Weight, slammage & control - the signs of sensitive machismo

On the subject of reference amps, specifically the much-reviewed and accoladed eVo which thus also serves as a somewhat universal reference, I now parked the WT unceremoniously atop the overly deep 200.4 to fit them both in closest proximity on my rack for quick'n'dirty A/Bs. Show-and-tell speakers would be the nOrh SM6.9 two-ways, still in residence from last month's review. I'd be shown conclusively how a speaker that decidedly loves power and reciprocates with phenomenally agile, tuneful and extended bass from a small yet ridiculously inert non-box would highlight the differences of our manly headline subjects betwixt the two contenders.

For a high-energy edgy trance/ambient/techno kick into the gonads, I picked Temple of Sound's People's Colony No. 1 [RealWorld 7243 8 50789 2 7], for acoustic and electric bass Jimmy Haslip's Red Heat [Unitone 13702-4802-2], and for rollicking WorldBeat, Natacha Atlas' Halim [Beggar's Banquet 1078].

Temple's "Wheel of Heaven" offers room-pressurizing drones, serious synth drum whacks, the sharp impacts of hollow e-tablas, growling bass pedals - fun stuff that kids hope terrorizes their parents and wilts their plants. The WT amp cracked a whip every bit as mercilessly as the eVo. In terms of machismo, neither gave quarter, very un-tube like of the WT. Still, even with material this stark and cold, the Aria amp sounded subjectively fatter while the eVo had more air and triggered spatial awareness with finer-tipped cues. In terms of slammage, both amps were positively pugilistic.

On "Los Feliz", the uptempo Cuban-flavored opener of Red Heat, the WT portrayed Haslip's bass with more resonance, the eVo was drier and thereby rhythmically more incisive and dust-kickin'. When Steve Taglione started to mate with his saxophone in the most intense of convulsions, the eVo portrayed that event as raunchier, the WT with more timbral wetness.

"Ya Weledi" on Halim opens as a techno tango with a twangy guitar right out of a Morricone spaghetti western before Egyptian strings do the bellydance snake charming bit atop a groove firmly grounded on the dancefloor and Natacha performs a gyrating vocal striptease: heavy drums, heavy erotic vibes.

The bass via the eVo went "thump" and "pow" via the WT. The strings had better separation with the eVo, and Natacha's voice was surrounded by a clear aura of individualized space that the WT blended into the overall scene. This made the eVo somewhat more visual or in thermionic terms, more SET-like, while the WT mimicked really good push/pull valves. The very unconventional aspect of this part of the Aria's behavior was how it threw low frequency punches with the reach and sock'em muscle of a bonafide solid-state champ.

Talking in terms of crass categories is always bound for overgeneralization. Still, it seems perfectly safe and fitting to call the hybrid Aria WT100 an amplifier with the tone and soul of a first-rate push/pull valve amp but the self-assured take-all-comers moxy of a high-current silicon beast. That's a rare constellation of traits indeed.

It can shine the glow and warmth of tubes into the type of dark places that incompatibility with their speaker loads has cornered many frustrated music lovers into - especially the sort who abhor audiophile-approved fare and like the option of cranking the dial for serious get-down funkiness, massive bombast and pummeling Techno, but also need the romance of a string quartet or Chopin recital. The WT100's reach encompasses it all.