Adjusting timbre

To hint at what you might expect from this feature, I picked "Django a Bagdad" [Un Ciel de Cuivre, by Thierry 'Titi' Robin, Naïve Y225091], a heavily tremolo'd improvisation between Thierry's oud and Francis-Alfred Moerman's Selmer guitar. It showcases a tremendous amount of agitated metallic harmonics bursting off the dissimilar timbre'd strings like glittering fireflies against a velvety black night sky. The difference between setting both controls to 7:00 o'clock (minimum) and 5:30 (maximum) was akin to the difference between white light with a blue tint versus a yellowish tinge. The former was cool, emphasizing the silvery upper harmonics; the latter warm, shifting the harmonic envelope into more red-gold territory to flesh out the wooden components of the instruments' sounds. The former gave added insight into the overlaid decays between both, thus concentrating on micro resolution. The latter focused on more corporeal, denser images.

Returning to my customary DUO setting -- 9:00 and 1:00 o'clock for two blank diodes between left and right controls -- retained warmth while simultaneously returning the scintillating fizz of metallic shimmer around the strings. In other words, it allowed a judicious blending of either pole's qualities. I arrived at a natural balance. On one hand, I enjoyed definition between both lute variants (which, over-pronounced, could become subtractive by sharpening performer separation to the point of placing each into his own distinct spatial bubble, rather than appearing jointly in an acoustically shared space). On the other hand, I now also admired a cohesive musical context (which, when over-dialed, could blend things into a more homogenous pureé - individual ingredients relinquishing some of their distinct personality).

These asymmetry calibrations were most noticeable in the intensified expressiveness of vocals. Take Azam Ali's Galician song "Aj Ondras" [Portals of Grace, Narada World72438-11390-2-8]. It floats above mournful duduk, breaking waves and powerful keyboard drone. There's an intrinsic element of downcast monotony mingled with hope, of a woman looking out to sea longing for her faraway lover. The proper opening of the TImbrelock window (the amount of departure from identical values) expanded tiny fluctuations of dynamic emphasis in both the Armenian oboe and Azam's medieval delivery, to reveal a wealth of subtle meaning hidden behind structural plainness and minimalism. While perhaps unexpected from controls presumably addressing timbres alone, these benefits are very real, repeatable and easily noticeable. Simply trust your ears. When it's right, something clicks - neither in hyped relief nor washed-out softness.

I think of this effect as the aural salt shaker. Just a dash, and suddenly there's more life and energy, more acute contrasts, enhanced contours of emotive scope, more musical interest. Unlike during kitchen duty, you can reduce the sodium hit if you were too heavy-handed at first. Simply back off the knob a click or a half. Once you've found the magic setting, leave it alone and walk away. You'll hardly ever return, safe for perhaps checking bias stability every few months. After the first few days of settling in, and until your tubes have eventually aged too much to retain their trim shape, you'll likely won't see these settings drift at all - unless you were to suffer power line fluctutations. In that case, you may find that the impact of the offset is senior in effect to what actual value it's affixed to. Compensation becomes less important then since voltage drops or rises obviously can't alter the angle of asymmetry but merely raise or lower its starting point.

On the ca. 87dB nOrh SM6.9, standard playback levels at 81 still meant remaining 3dB below unity gain on my PRe1, while streaming the lower-than-standard 1V output from the Zanden DAC. Using the colossal doowop and acapella charm of So Cool [Take 6, Reprise 946795-2] to fine-tune the Timbrelock, I ended up at 8:00 and 9:00 o'clock, not surprisingly much closer to the "blue" pole to match the speakers' warmer character, slightly laid-back upper treble and thicker, less dynamic texture.

The 6-driver 3-way Triangles with their contoured treble lift and very agile while not ultimately extended low bass preferred 11:00 and 3:30 o'clock, a slightly larger offset than the Avantgardes and set two clicks "hotter". On this subject of heat -- and while switching to the group's newer and bass-heavy album Beautiful World [Warner Bros.,948003-2] -- the 88s showed their low-frequency mettle.

Taking the measure

While controlling the triple-woofer'd paralleled bass array of the Ventis 222 in a manner far more sovereign and self-assured than 5-watt micro-power SETs could dream of, the 88s do not possess that "cyborg" brutal slam factor certain audiophiles fancy in the bass. For that, you need mujo current. What the 88s give you is bass that sings rather than hammers, with the mild bloom and consequently less chiseled edges you'd derive from nylon versus steel strings. In the realm of the Three Tenors, call it the equivalent of Jose Carreras rather than Placido Domingo - more lithe, supple and elegant, less massive and thick but of equal reach. As any ambient album like Al Gromer Khan's sitar-synth Black Marble & Sweet Fire quickly proves [Hearts of Space 11061-2], it's not a matter of quantity but quality.

Neither my Bel Canto eVo 200.4 (even bridged) nor the recently reviewed BVaudio PA300 (which I was offered to retain for future reference in upcoming reviews - gracias, Ivo!) go any lower. The main difference rests in the sharper leading edges and accelerated rise times that high-current solid state offers in the nether regions.
Rather than slam factor, the 88 bass might be more properly described as having whomp - excellent displacement, but one that, as the two soft consonants preceding the actual vowel indicate, doesn't come on as sudden. While we're on a sand-versus-glass juxtaposition, the 88's spectacular treble finesse really separates the angelic boy choirs from the fully testicled men's.

While rare falsettos or castrati can nail the same high notes, these feats (like cyborg bass) are again more muscular, effortful and overtly surprising exactly because they're somewhat unnatural. On the other end of this scale roam bandwidth-limited "glowing" tube amps that sound sweet in an equally obvious way because of their treble roll-off. The AUDIOPAX amps walk a different beat. They're exceptionally lit up. However (and critically important) this illumination is neither bright nor thin as I know some people characterize the Atmasphere OTLs. It isn't sweet either. Instead, it contains a quality of equilibrium, the sort of weightlessness you might image a tightrope walker to experience when he moves from out of the exact still point, no weight pulling on his left or right, all mass perfectly and effortlessly centered on that thin line. To be candid, words to describe this effect more accurately fail me.

This harmonious treble effulgence could well be what strikes newcomers to Eduardo's sound as most unique at first. It's the most obvious "different" quality. Amps like the 47Lab Shigaraki exhibit similar image density. The Art Audio PX-25 enjoys comparable harmonic abundance, equally admirably absence of detectable texture. This exact treble quality however, in my experience, is exclusive to AUDIOPAX. It's a highly critical area of playback performance where artifice is most easily spotted. It's likely why I'm so stuck on these amps. Now add the other qualities already described. You may begin to appreciate why I've settled down with them. The only listeners I could see not liking them? Those accustomed and hence trained to prefer the coarser while ballsier and "pushier" character of high-power push/pulls. Needless to say, this group of detractors would expand if the 30-watt Model 88s were asked to drive speakers beyond their power ken to properly control.

In closing, in my ongoing career as audiophile and music fiend -- blundering would-be philosopher a tame third to curtail the excessive behavior of the first two maniacs -- I haven't come across another amplifier yet whose potent virtues speak to me with this particular brand of seduction, brains and sheer believability. At $9,970/pr, they're expensive - no argument. But to play in these leagues doesn't come cheap. And then there's the just-about-to-be-released Stereo 88. Housed in the same chassis, it separates the twin-but-strapped architecture of the monos into two channels for exactly half the power. It'll sell for $5,970. It's said to be cut from identical cloth, merely falling a few inches short in the hem. Our man Stephaen (who's worked his way from Art Audio's Jota to the Diavolo before recently trading up for the PX-25) will do the honors on said junior, driving his strapping Cain & Cain Studio BEN double horns sometimes in the third quarter.

As for me? I'm done doing the honors 'round here. The burden of proof has long since faded. It's been replaced with what approaches a full year of uninterrupted pride-of-place pleasure. The fact that my 200 cruzeiros don't even buy a cuppa coffee anymore goes unnoticed. If I ever make it to Brazil, I'll buy my own. I'm told that a Stereophile review is imminent, with others planned for SoundStage! and two for the premier UK mags. Truly, it's high time these marvellous devices received the publicity and acclaim they deserve!

Eduardo de Lima comments:

"Hi Srajan,

This review is by far the best description of what I hear with the 88s. To be honest, I always thought all this but have never been able to say it one-tenth as well! Feeling it is one thing. Describing it is really quite another. Many thanks for putting it into words."

Eduardo de Lima, AUDIOPAX

Jim Smith comments:

"Naturally, we're delighted about this review. But frankly, we saw it coming. Srajan's fondness for Eduardo's sound, as documented in his prior writings about this Brazilian genius, is what compelled us to investigate becoming his North-American importer and distributor in the first place. That, and the reasons why we shouldn't have, and why we did it anyway, have already been covered in our reply to Srajan's EnjoyTheMusic review of the pre-production pair in January of last year. Rather than saying it all over again, we instead refer the interested reader to it. Thank you."

Jim Smith, Avantgarde-USA

Prior articles:

Background [SoundStage]
Technical article [SoundStage]
Review [EnjoyTheMusic]
Interview [6moons]

AUDIOPAX website