Conceptual aural synopsis

To characterize the 88 sound in a conceptual nutshell, bereft of actual music samples? You'd be struck by what might seem like mutually exclusive observations. From the 300B camp of qualities comes absolutely phenomenal, full-focus, reach-out-and-touch-the-musicians image density. Call it the antithesis of cheap transistor or digital flatness. But then you notice a classic deception. These bandwidth-limited sacred cow 300B bottles achieve their tactile intensity by down-shifting the tonal center. Away from the treble. By contrast, the Model 88's publicized bandwidth is 15Hz to 90kHz. (Depending on the particular transformer batch, this is said to in fact extend beyond 100kHz.)

This ultrasonic and very tube-atypical reach minimizes phase shift distortion to -- within our human hearing's far lower 2000Hz-and-up treble threshold -- avoid clearly audible timing blurs and subliminal confusion of timbres when portions of the harmonic envelope are rendered out of phase. Imagine yourself then an aural horticulturist. Graft a very natural, silkily refined while vastly unclouded, stratospheric HF band atop the aforementioned image density. This injects an aerated quality of lightness, top to bottom. It's elegance rather than burden of sheer mass that coexists with this density of presence now. And instead of remaining a pleasant while identifiable, unrealistic and eventually limiting coloration -- an artifact of imbalance -- this midrange emphasis expands its tactual quality upwards and downwards. In this bandwidth explosion, the entire notion of emphasis evaporates. Yet the innate quality remains.

A 300B amp on steroids then? Sorry, no Dominican Macanudo cigar, amigo - just a barely flickering match.

You see, a distinct second trait that now utterly precludes the 300B-on-steroids categorization is an acute absence of recognizable texture. In arcane audiophile jargon, this goes by grain on the more obnoxious end of the spectrum, by mist or unrealistic saturation on the less objectionable end. Such textures create a distinctive feel of tonal fabric. It has you spot "electronic" or "tube" signatures without realizing how you identified such colorations so readily. To my ears, the AUDIOPAX monos lack any such identifiable textures. This -- unless you overdo the Timbrelock -- includes the intense inner glow that certain overly lush tube amps give off like ripplin' heat flimmer. While voluptuous, it ultimately becomes its own distracting signature to taint everything it touches equally, from Patricia Kaas to Phalanx, from Poulenc to Peter Gabriel.

From the single-ended simplicity camp of "no phase splitter, no subsequent recombinant signal splicing" comes the third attribute. It's a powerful lucidity and unweighted lightness that separates most properly designed SE amps from the thicker, meatier, more muscular but also less translucent mien of push/pull designs. This extends naturally into the bass. It's wonderfully supple, melodical and natural while clearly lacking the striated, pronounced leading edges that l find artificially hifi-ish on most high-current solid state.

Now add the above absence of texture to what I shall dub an existential Milan Kundera-esque "lightness of being". You arrive at a less easily named quality, one that has become more important to me as I've slowly exhausted the fascination with the endlessly spinning treadmill of audiophilia.
Eduardo de Lima Milan Kundera

(Said obsession remaining perpetuated, needless to say, by our very own vagabond proclivities no matter how much we may render lip service to settling down permanently). This "nameless", verbally vague while tangible quality is made up of ease, textural relaxation and a kind of carefree non-pushiness that doesn't sell the lost-in-the-music listener on anything audiophile. What all of this amounts to is, in my book, a breakthrough amplifier that just so happens to use tubes. It rabidly avoids all the tiresome old valve clichés. It selectively focuses on the best of single-ended strengths (elegance, harmonic completeness, timbral purity, directness, micro detail, soundstage perspicuity). It then broadens the scope of usefulness -- more copacetic speakers, higher output levels and hence free-for-all musical tastes -- with real-world power, to venture where traditional micro-power amps didn't and still don't go. It allows critical end-user calibration with no-brainer simplicity.

Last but certainly not least, it uses ordinary Svetlana KT88 bottles and JJ Electronics 12AT7 small signal tubes, not $900/pop limited reserve exotica. And while it does certain things I haven't yet heard any solid-state amps do, it does not sound like a tube amp. Which is to say, hidden behind a curtain like orchestral applicants during live auditions, you would not identify the type of output devices due to euphonic colorations. It simply sounds real.

The amps' specifically designed-in THD behavior and how a measurement technician would feel forced to interpret it based on textbook logic squarely point at the perennial conundrum: "Paper" versus "ear" distortion. Jim Smith, the North-American AUDIOPAX distributor, makes a valid point. It's frankly perverse to assume that so implausibly many listeners of experience worldwide gravitate toward the better of the thermionic devices because they prefer higher over lower (or zero measurable) distortion. Incidentally, a brief query, about what types of amps customers had replaced with Model 88s, netted a veritable who's who of top shelf candidates: Art Audio Jota and PX-25; BAT VK-150 SE monos and VK-75SE; Carver's 15xKT88 200-watt Silver 7; various Conrad-Johnson; Goldmund; Joule Electra; Lamm ML-2; Nagra PP845; Pass Labs Aleph 3; Spectral; and Viva Aurora. The ultra-wide bandwidth, super-low distortion Goldmund and Spectral solid-state amps in particular emphasize Smith's point.

De Lima meanwhile talked scientifically about partial distortion cancellation. It results from the measurable fact that loudspeakers and single-ended amplifiers exhibit very similar second-order harmonic distortion behavior. By observing proper polarity between the inverting amp and speaker, this can be exploited. The listener is advised to not take this lightly. The "correct" polarity interface -- contingent on the particular speaker of course -- will sound distinctly superior. Why? Because rather than becoming additive, the way the speaker's native distortion interacts with the amp's "genetically engineered" curves turns subtractive. More becomes less. In case you got confused, less distortion, after all, does sound better. Which finally brings us to the real reason why anyone in their right mind would acquire any kind of expensive amplifiers ...