I started off by talking about fortitude - completely unexpected in an 845 amplifier. But that's only the beginning of the Carissa's charms. This is one seriously charismatic amplifier, with all the fine attributes that tubes have to offer. Those who favor the 845 beam triode will instantly find much to love. Those not familiar will be instantly impressed by an expansive, light and airy soundstage. Loyalists won't be bothered at all by slightly soft image outlines -- as compared to what 300B or even EL-34 fans may expect -- though they still exceed what live music offers. While depth is very good, the Carissa isn't exactly the last word in front-to-back layering.

A soft and romantic treble is another common expectation. Here the Carissa comes closer to conforming to expectations -- if only to a degree -- but still surprises. Like a Champagne Sabayon, the Carissa produces a treble that is crisp yet sweet and gentle, with a velvety smoothness that never bites. Not dark or closed-in, it's nevertheless not quite the ultimate statement in hyper extension. But, it's eminently satisfying and always forgivingly musical.

Through the midrange, the Art Audio Carissa has all the transparency and intimacy aficionados will expect of just about any SET amplifier, in this price range and beyond. It doesn't quite measure up to the standards set by some 300B amplifiers but far surpasses any EL34 or 6550 tube I've ever heard - and it comes with a combination of price and raw moxy that seems almost too good to be true.

From what I gather, an important priority at Art Audio is an amp's ability to drive real world speakers. I reckon that from reading their website, but mostly from living with the Carissa. This 16-watt amplifier drives like no other tube amplifier I've heard. Through the bass region, it reminds me of the push/pull Audio Research VS-55, a 50wpc amplifier utilizing the 6550 tube, well known for its bass prowess though less so for musical finesse and transparency. Not only does the Carissa do bass like the ARC but it sounds every bit as powerful. I never ran short of power. This shiny amplifier maintained a previously unheard-of control over my Silverline Sonata II's twin woofers - and through some very spirited listening sessions to boot.

The Carissa has, at least temporarily, changed my listening habits. It's got me pulling out Rock recordings that I either haven't listened to in a while, or that were sonically too disappointing to use as part of the review process. Two such CDs suffer from a multitude of careless mastering sins: Bowling For Soup's Drunk Enough To Dance [Silverstone/Jive 01241-41819-2] and Avril Lavigne's Let Go [Arista 07822-14740-2]. Both exhibit no more than the usual amount of Pop CD midrange veiling - but the tremendously transparent Carissa does a superb job of minimizing that annoyance. The amplifier further produces a meaty and harmonically dense presentation that lends superb body to both CDs to help propel the music. Not only do vocals project as they never did before, but they emerge from a huge wall of highly saturated sound that perfectly serves the music.

Of course these CDs are also well served by the Carissa's aforementioned bass prowess, so much so that I've enjoyed listening to this amplifier with hard-driving Rock more than any amplifier I've ever had here, my Herron M150s excepted - possibly. Remember all that talk about car engines and amp/speaker matching? The Carissa, by leaps and bounds, sounds more powerful into my Silverlines than my 500-watt Bryston 7B STs. It's not even close. The Brystons sound hollow and anemic by comparison. But before I give the impression that the Carissa is a bass-heavy monster superimposing its personality on every CD and system it comes in contact with, let me set that record straight.

One day I gave a spin to a Telarc copy of Hector Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique, Op.14 [Telarc CD 80076] and sat back for some bombastic fun. I expected the Carissa's usual way and looked forward to some plucked double basses energizing my room as maybe I'd never heard them do before, even if sounding a bit larger than life in turn. Didn't happen. It wasn't until the 5th movement when the fireworks commence [think of the repetitive segment throughout Julia Roberts' Sleeping With The Enemy if you don't know it] that the Carissa even started to show its metal. It was basically the same when I fired up Rostropovich, Return To Russia [Sony Classical SK 45836]. I started to realize that the Carissa doesn't add bass; it just makes the absolute most of whatever it finds. If the CD contains gentle shadings, that's what the Carissa delivers. But when the bass gets loud, powerful and demanding of amplifier current, the Carissa, more so than any tube amplifier I've ever used, steps up to give you what you paid for.

Through the midrange, or more specifically, through the upper midrange, the Carissa isn't exactly the last word in neutrality. Like a good Sauvignon Blanc, it has a crispness that is stimulating, refreshing and bold, making it the perfect complement to the Carissa's overall forthright and full-bodied character. It features a gentle upward-tilt through the upper mids that adds life, excitement and charged musical emotion. This deviation from linearity is minor in amplitude and no greater than found with highly regarded amplifiers of varying persuasions. While this aberration isn't nearly large enough to be characterized as bright, it does result in some added vibrancy to strings, brass, guitar and female vocals. It also brings the soundstage just a touch closer. In my room, the music just comes alive. The infusion of energy through this region can be absolutely addicting. It not only increases tonal saturation, it balances the bass for a really kinetic rush. Instruments through this range are more expressive and emotionally communicative and never detrimental to musical cohesion.

Every Breath You Take: The Classics, the Police compilation SACD [A&M06949 36072], made for an interesting experience. The first three tracks don't indicate much in the way of remastering and are sonic disappointments. Still, the transparency of the Carissa well illuminates the changes in recording techniques and venues used from track to track, imposing no personality in the process - the first three cuts indeed have very little in common. But by the time "Walking On The Moon" cues up, things change radically. There's that bass authority and power I was talking about earlier. Sting's bass line is as intense as Stuart Copeland's drum beat. And it's tight, resonant and articulate, with lots of air around instruments in a very expansive sense of space, Sting's voice incredibly present.

David Johansen And The Harry Smith's SACD [Chesky SACD 225] is an album that held few if any surprises since the Carissa wasn't called upon to create anything supernatural. But boy did it sound good. It's a very well recorded SACD (sounding good in multichannel as well) with transparency in spades. Not only did the Carissa get me up close and personal with Johansen's vocals, the bass lines, while not unduly heavy, just oozed authenticity with rich woody resonance and all the attendant string/neck buzz. The bluesy riffs from the acoustic guitar hung in the air like cigarette smoke in a bar.

While I was going though my lesser listened-to SACDs, I came upon Stevie Ray Vaughn's Couldn't Stand The Weather [Epic/Legacy ES 65871]. I'm a huge SRV fan. In my book, he's one of the best there ever was. But his is not the kind of music that you sit, eyes closed, in front of the speakers with. Half the time, I have to pick up my own guitar to play along, only to put it down in frustration five minutes later - but that's another story. Imagine my surprise when I sat at the conclusion of "Stang's Swang" to suddenly hear Stevie talking! It was then that I learned of five bonus tracks I'd never noticed before. In more than a year of owning the disc, I'd never sat still long enough to hear it all the way through. On this day, I apparently couldn't get enough. That's the extent of the Carissa's mesmerizing power.


At the conclusion of the Audiopax Stereo 88 review, I promised to compare the two amps in today's evaluation. Drawing distinctions between these two very excellent performers is easy to do. Choosing which one to take home? That'd be a whole 'nuther matter.

Both amplifiers are superbly transparent. The slight up-tilt in the Carissa's upper mids causes differentiation from the Stereo 88 in several ways. First, the Carissa's soundstage presentation is more up- front and intimate while the Audiopax moves it significantly behind my speakers. The Audiopax also throws more highly delineated images with more obvious degrees of depth, though both go nice and deep. Soundstage focus too is a touch better with the Brazilian. Perhaps it's the frequency response contouring, perhaps not - but the Carissa sounds just slightly more raw and raucous through the upper vocal range where the Audiopax merely exudes smooth refinement. Another listener may describe the Carissa as the more aggressive of the two, the Stereo 88 the more polite. Depending on the music being played, the scales could tip either way for me.

I don't detect a whole lot of difference between the treble performance in either amp. Both are first rate and I'd take their music-friendly nature and run with it any day of the week. Down low is where the two completely diverge. I characterized the Audiopax as being somewhat intellectual overall. The Carissa is excitable and exciting though always in control, emotionally charged and expressively satisfying, subjectively the more powerful and driven of the two. I likened the bass of the Audiopax to a subtly seasoned cut of fine Filet Mignon. By contrast, the Carissa is a thick juicy cut of Delmonico, Pittsburgh Rare with Red-Chile Béarnaise and crispy onions on the side - rich, flavorful and highly satisfying in a sinfully gluttonous sort of way. Yeah!


Readers who partook of Srajan's preview will no doubt have noticed that we seem somewhat at odds over the Carissa's sound. Having talked with our Editor who's owned both the Art Audio Jota and PX-25, we both agree on the likelihood that the amp's mighty 845 bottles will come into their own at a point higher into their power band than high-efficiency speakers would ever see. In other words, the meatier, slower, thicker presentation Srajan noted -- with probably half a watt of average output level into his 103dB DUOs -- caused his preference for the Jota and PX-25. With my 95dB Sonata IIs, the Carissa put out higher power to enter a more optimal zone of current/torque delivery. It thus rewarded me with the kind of sonics its designer intended and which I described above. This riveting performance must have eluded Srajan on his horn speakers which never allowed the amp to get out of first gear - if it ever even got into it.

I found the Art Audio Carissa to be one exceedingly fine amplifier. Her combination of muscular intensity and musical finesse puts her among the very best of amplifiers I've yet used in my system. Carissa has the transparency and intimacy I've come to expect from a good SET design and combines it with a spirited personality that's just plain fun to be around. She may not be the most neutral amplifier in the Art Audio line but seems so deliberately voiced and articulated that I have to think that she was not intended to be. And that works extraordinarily well for me.

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