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The detour: Reviews of premium affordable gear can manifest in a few ways. One, a writer most familiar with expensive stuff goes gaga. This could be more ignorance over what's possible for little coin than realistic. Two, he deliberately soft pedals being well aware of the risk. So he seasons liberally with tacky references on just how much better his expensive gear is. KO by too many kidney blows. Either way, balance is off. Plus, cash-strapped readers of the second review are made to feel like third-grade citizens. Are they fit only for rejects? That's not very welcoming to new would-be hobbyists, is it? Next there's the writer familiar only with affordable kit. He's patron saint to cheapskates but all his statements are limited by context. Serious audiophiles discount him on principle.

Now take a manufacturer with something cost-effective. Its performance should also interest the loftier brigade. Does he pursue a review with an affordable audio magazine? He'd definitely get a fair shake. He'd also miss part of the audience. Should he fry bigger fish instead? They might turn him down as beneath them. Or, they'll chew his component to bits with unrealistic expectations and badly mismatched ancillaries. $15.000 speakers on $600 amps. These are some of the potential pit falls. Knowing and admitting them doesn't equate to avoiding them all. But it's a start.

Back on track
: Coming off FirstWatt F5/J2 and Aaron XX level amplification on a load like the utterly fabulous new Gallo Reference 3.5, the Crescendo amp clearly plays in a lower league of resolution and drive. Energy, insight and impact all step down. Live with that for a few days however and you'll quickly adjust. It's part of being human and adaptable. It happens without volition or pain. It's only when you A/B directly that the involved "lightening the scale on both ends without upsetting the balance" telegraphs succinctly.

To be factual, going from the €2.000 Aaron XX to the €699 Audio Analogue Crescendo does invoke a commensurate loss. You get less. Realistically however, you'd only know that in a direct comparison. More importantly, you'd get very easily cozy with the Crescendo in just a few days or hours. Given the above, that's all I'm inclined to say by way of tacky references. More money at this stage still buys appreciably more (particularly if one chances upon true excellence of Aaron or FirstWatt caliber). So it does happen. That's that. Next.

The map
: Thinking about meaningful context, I decided on running the Crescendo first on my desk top. There it replaced the $995 Peachtree Audio iDecco driving Gallo Stradas. Source was my iPod Classic 160GB with WAF/AIFF files docked in a Sieben Technology stand. For apples to apples, the iDecco saw the iPod the same way. For pears, the iPod also docked in the iDecco's digital-direct slot. Then the Crescendo CD player duked it out against the iPod tapped analog and digital. Afterwards the Crescendo duet and iDecco moved into the big rig to drive the Gallo Ref 3.5s, then the Amphion and Swans monitors Helium 510 and M3. From what I had, this was the fairest and most relevant plan. A bit of upfront referee work is always important.

Arriving at destination N°.1
: With the analog iPod feed, the iDecco was somewhat crisper, dynamically broader and in general more lit up. The Crescendo was softer on the leading edge and also softer on top. Key clacks from Roberto de Brasov's chromatically charged accordion [Le Swing Des Carpates - Al Sur], double bass buzzes, guitar fingering noises and throaty hoarseness were more illuminated by the iDecco. This injected a tad more jumpiness and subjectively moved things forward closer to the listener. The Crescendo had the edge, literally and otherwise, in the lower reaches. Here the iDecco was more rotund and not as articulate, the Italian firmer and more definite. That was over the Stradas.

Substituting Grado's PS1000s, the tables inexplicably turned. Now the iDecco was clearly the softer and politer operator while the Crescendo had more - um, crescendo, cresting and crackle. In terms of color temperature, the iDecco was yellow-orange, the Crescendo silver-blue. On premium fare like Vassilis Tsabropoulos' ECM album Melos, there was no doubt that the Audio Analogue was keener through the looking glass. Focus was crisper and decays more acute. Feeling a bit flummoxed, I took a second read over the Strada. The verdict stood. Were it my money, I'd want the iDecco on these speakers, the Crescendo on the headphones. The iDecco's unfair advantage of course was the digital-direct iPod dock. This shifted the headphone comment back in its favor by no small margin. Going in analog however, Audio Analogue's headphone port was the more potent and resolved. Given that the iDecco is no slouch in that department, headfiers needing an amp that'll also do justice to speakers without breaking the bank should earmark the Crescendo.

My expectations for the analog iPod vs. Crescendo spinner favored the latter by pointing at a far beefier output stage and butcher power supply. Versus the digitalized iPod, I saw the cards heavily stacked against the Crescendo. That was my headspace going in. I was amused to hear how well every serious a-phile's favorite whipping boy did. I couldn't hear much of an advantage for the Italian machine despite thinking that I should. On this level of ancillaries, did magnetic streaming with lesser follow-up circuitry perform real close to optical read-in with superior follow-up circuitry? Yes. While the Audio Analogue had a bit more body and substance, it wasn't by much. Meanwhile the digitalized iPod run through the iDecco's fixed line out was more insightful than the Crescendo player. It had higher resolution and greater sophistication. It sounded more expensive and advanced in the areas you'd expect from a dearer digital deck. Again, that's the iDecco's unfair advantage. It should have competitors in nightmares. It's exactly why it walked off with our rarest award. No disrespect to the Crescendo machine. As a concept, it's saved by a low sticker and—like its amplifier mate—astounding build quality considering. Expensive CD players without comprehensive PC socketry are dying out. Where the Italians have positioned their player however still has solid life. Not everyone wants a PC-based system. Now a dedicated CD player remains logical yet few today would spend the long green on that. It's where the Crescendo makes a rather compelling point.

Destination N°.2: In the big system, the desk top repeated itself more pronounced. The iDecco was the more lit up, intricately resolved and seemingly also endowed with greater timing precision. The Crescendo amp again was softer on both top extension and its handling of transients and separation. Expectedly, neither machine was ripped on bass. The Gallos ultimately thus left a bit under the table on low-down wallop, crunch and impact. That said, the iDecco went somewhat farther. If I were to guess, I'd also say that the Italian's op amp outputs run higher feedback than Peachtree Audio's version. It gives the latter the edge on timing precision and speed. With speakers of the Reference 3.5's articulation, this becomes more relevant. As a result—even if my explanation is faulty—it was quite audible.

A worthwhile takeaway for standard civilized auditions was that the Crescendo's drive was sufficient into the Ref 3.5s. While I preferred the iDecco's faster more energetic reading to the Crescendo's more relaxed distanced take, that was personal. Living with something on its own merit, one quickly adjusts and stops comparing. Whether deliberate or not, the Crescendo's vitality felt a bit toned down. On overly fresh speakers, this could be a good thing. Time to judge the Crescendo solo, with the kind of monitor speakers it'd likely find itself matched to in real life.

The €2.000/pr Swans Speaker Systems M3 is an unusual 3-way monitor which couples a big dome tweeter plus ribbon 'super' tweeter to a 6.5" ported woofer in a gorgeous wood-clad enclosure with aluminum inset for the front baffle.

With its illuminated, informative and slightly forward upper register, this speaker was quite a good match for the Crescendo's cozier temperament. Likewise the ported alignment's intentional reinforcement in the mid bass. It too supplemented the integrated. While Audio Analogue's sticker is probably lighter than many M3 customers would allocate for their dream amp, they should check out this combo. It dovetailed well.

Things got better still with Amphion's Helium 510. Very cohesive and balanced, this speaker doesn't cheat and has very good relaxed timing. Resolution is high but easy. There's nothing pushy about it to make it somewhat spectacular in its own underhanded way. While necessarily limited in output and reach, bass is always admirably even-keeled, not spiked for effect. Just why this combo worked so well was mysterious. Frankly, I'd not have predicted it. Richard Kohlruss and Anssi Hyvönen were right though. This was affordable dream boat stuff. Since I had it, I leashed up Amphion's Impact 400 subwoofer. The Crescendo's fixed output went from nothing with the Amphion at zero volume to overdrive when the sub was opened just a crack. Sadly no joy then. Of course a variable output (cough) woulda made all the difference.

With greater refinement than the more boisterous Swans, the Audio Analogue/Amphion combo excelled at long-term comfort. Then it added a precocious dose of the 'hi' in fi. Naturally shortened on scale and impact compared to the big stuff, it nonetheless quite nailed spirit and essential qualities. The Finn's slightly cool and neutral persona didn't weigh down the Italian's genteel demeanor. Its minorly dark and somewhat soft nature got vitalized. At this level, personalities remain. Good matching is important. And this was very good matching indeed.

Some housekeeping stuff. Because Audio Analogue's remote serves three Crescendo components including the forthcoming tuner, some buttons run double duty. This requires familiarization or you'll not figure out how to for example get the CD player to repeat all or a track. Overall, the packaging is very clever however. From the remote, inputs can get shifted left or right so you needn't shuttle through them all if you want to go from 2 to 1. Whenever you change inputs, the volume momentarily mutes to avoid switching transients. A lot of thought went into these budget wonders and certain features like the volume taper options are flat-out unheard of.

The two Crescendos also weigh a bunch - a lot more than their stickers would suggest. Costs were shaved on the thin front panels where extra mass would do nothing for sound. The top covers meanwhile are far more substantial than usual and the fully enclosed TEAC transport on the spinner is quite a cut above the usual Denons and Pioneers in this sector. Just how Audio Analogue does it all in Italy seems close to Padre Piu miraculous.
1 + 1 = ? If I paid more attention to the amp, it's because as an unrepentant headfier, I was really impressed by its 1/4" socket and the flexible gain curves which are super handy for headphones. I also thought it acquitted itself rather well on the big $6.000/pr Gallos. With the Crescendo duo clocking in at essentially an iDecco + 80G iPod, Audio Analogue's CD player seemed somewhat less compelling. That's not dissing it. It's simply a reaction to the times and my current conversion to streaming tunes in the big rig. The best way to summarize my feelings is to say that—as I expect happens to you routinely too—our kind often needs a safe bet when solicited for recommendations from the sane ranks.

With their Crescendo components, Audio Analogue makes perfectly (re)commendable quality components of the kind one feels good to get friends and parents into. That's where any trouble or dissatisfaction becomes instantly personal. It warrants treading with care and conviction. No tubes. Nothing that runs hot or is too big. Nothing Chinese without proper service support. Remote vital. Upscale sound for a realistic budget. In so many words—and not to get too Zen about it—this is that! (The Italians even make their own cables. Avoid zip cord without getting silly with designer stuff.)
The bell curve. I'm reminded of a social study story that was organized by the Washington Post. On a $3.5 million violin in an inner-city subway station, Joshua Bell was busking for 45 minutes on advanced Bach on a cold January morning. Incognito. About 2000 people passed him, most on the way to work. Only a handful ever took the least notice. Nobody applauded. In the end, his case contained just enough coins to buy lunch. Two days earlier, he'd played a sold-out concert hall where the average seat sold for $100.

We're mostly too self-absorbed to notice when the good stuff virtually runs into us or serenades our ears for free. With these components, Audio Analogue runs a similar risk. Alas the losers won't be them. They've got plenty more expensive stuff to sell. The losers would be the many budget 'philes with ambitious tastes; and all your friends and relatives whom you want to get into performance audio without busting your own vacation budget.
Quality of packing: Very good.
Reusability of packing: A few times.
Ease of unpacking/repacking: A cinch.
Condition of component received: Flawless.
Completeness of delivery: Perfect.
Human interactions: Very responsive and helpful.
Pricing: Excellent value for money.
Final comments & suggestions: Convert fixed to variable output on the Crescendo integrated amplifier. Most prospective buyers won't record but they might want to use a subwoofer. The headphone output is very serious and not just there for convenience.

Audio Analogue website