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How hot did the CA10 get? I had to wake up our Cyprus stray Blondie for this photo op. She'd fallen asleep atop the fully cooking amp. 'nuff said - nicely warm but nowhere intense enough to fry eggs on or cause a furry critter to abandon her beauty sleep (Blondie only lasts about 5 minutes on my FirstWatt amps).

Having just reviewed Shigeki Yamamoto's A-010 3-watter with rare VT-52 direct-heated triodes which had cottoned to Bent Audio's autoformer Tap X passive preamp like Romeo to Juliet, inserting the CA10 demonstrated perhaps the fundamental difference between valves and transistors: a wholesale stripping away of between-the-notes stuff that's really high 2nd-order harmonic distortion in action. This takes some listener recalibration if you fancy that effect. Should the enhanced small-signal resolution but starker presentation of these transistors not convince after some acclimatization, insert something like my ModWright LS100 6SN7 tube preamp (its plastic remote turns out to operate on the same volume-change and mute code as John Chapman's fabulous all-metal wand for the Tap X). Tone textures deepened, bass weight if not wiriness increased and black levels moved up. Predictably the crystalline clarity and absolute detail-freak resolution of the autoformer passive combo with the Audioprojekte amp diminished as did broadband transient kick even in the bass but non-adrenaline junkies would probably find the tradeoff perfectly palatable.

Even so do let me suggest that to fully appreciate just what type of electron-microscopic magnification the German amp can throw on densely layered music will require at least a short tryst with a top-notch passive or variable analog source. While slightly cool and detached in ambiance and feel, you'll enter a truly immense tableau of immaculately sorted needle-work detail. It's quite overwhelming. On Suren Asaduryan's Vuslat [Kalan] for example, the opening "Kayikçi" runs Armenian duduk and Turkish ney flute in parallel. This nets a composite timbre just as Schubert did it between clarinet and oboe for one of his later symphonic adagios. Suren Asaduryan and Şenol Filiz play their woodwinds so precisely matched that all seams are erased. Yet the CA10 had no trouble separating the hybrid timbre into two overlaid constituents. Anyone could tell the trick and hear two instruments in perfect unison.

On Ali Cihat Aşkin's Umutsuz the Desperate [Kalan again], the solo violin blends gorgeously into the voluptuous string ensemble - except when Aşkin really leans into the high registers. Suddenly his emphasized upper harmonics from greater bow pressure trigger more intense venue interactions and the entire space lights up just around him.

Similar illuminated treble effects occurred on always superbly recorded Vollenweider cuts where the drummer maintained a constant firefly swarm of cymbals in the air to create shimmering effects in the room like so many angels dancing on pins.

Popular preconceptions notwithstanding, here premium power transistors with broad bandwidth and ultra-low noise floors outperform vacuum power tubes in finesse and informativeness. While valves might have the weightier treble, the transistors will have the cleaner top end with deeper insight into tone modulations and acoustic reverb. On raw purity and harmonic fidelity they win and the CA10 was a prime example of this superiority.

Personal proclivities had me vacillate between the slightly denser ModWright preamp and the more quicksilvery Tap X. The Mod's contributions had things seem louder at lower levels. To me this always indicates enhanced body/density. Particularly for townhouse living with wall-to-wall neighbors on either side, incarnation factor at low volumes is a delightful and necessary thing if you want to feel involved. For a slightly more observer's hear-everything perspective at truly subdued levels, the passive preamp remained king. With the Tap X now sadly discontinued, I can highly recommend StereoKnight's unit from hands-on experience (available with or without remote for a very fair price) if you desire a TVC with freely combinable RCA and XLR i/o ports.

The French Hadouk Trio* can always be relied upon for interesting music well recorded and Shamanimal is no exception. Amongst many attractions it contains very low bass in certain sections like "Dragon de Lune". The ultimate celebration of its true infrasonic and dynamic energies came from running Burson's HA160D converter amp direct. 4 to 5 clicks up on its precision stepped pot netted all the desired SPL (remember the CA10's high gain). While a 10-watt amplifier rating might inspire little confidence in successful low-frequency mining, the German into copasetic loads proved seriously endowed and very dynamic.

*I highly recommend obtaining one of the trio's DVDs. Each time we play ours for visitors they're utterly transfixed. Lou Ehrlich's antiques on his African desert bass and synthesizer, Steve Shehan's unbelievable hand-percussion solos and Didier Malherbe's fiendish blowing skills all add up to a lot more than just three guys jamming away. Seeing it all is quite different from just imbibing the aural aspects.

CA10 vs. J2: Because I've reviewed a number of FirstWatt amps for detailed comparative context, let's juxtapose two of them. Now I ran the amps converter direct to eliminate wires and preamp interactions and focus down—as much as possible—on the amps. With a max RMS swing of 10V the Burson is potent enough to get me evicted in this context. If it had remote control and 1dB volume increments on its stepped pot, I'd run it direct far more often.

Or as Hungarian reader/dealer Tibor Szegedi found, "I've just started with the Burson HA160D after your recommendations. It really is a giant killer and sounds exactly as you explained. We've tried it against a customer's €20.000 Linn media player and the Burson via USB was better. Afterwards we tried it as a preamp against the customer's $9.000 Manley and again the same result. This small music machine is a winner." Indeed. An iPod, Onkyo ND-S1, Burson plus Audioprojekte chain—or replace the iPod/Onkyo source with a Mac Mini/iPad if an AIFF-loaded digitally tapped iPod seems suspect to you—would make for a terrific minimalist rig of high value. From the following seven albums I used a track each to compare the amps:

The verdict was simple. Operating on the same extreme plateau of detail magnification and overall sophistication, the core difference between these amps pertained to 'just' harmonic distribution. This was a subtle yet obvious distinction not about quantities but flavors. Hence descriptions tend to run afoul of magnifying what fundamentally are mostly changes in overall lighting of the aural scenery. Keeping this in mind, the J2 should be called warmer without being warm per se, massier without being heavier. The CA10 would be leaner and more intensely focused. Crystalline vocals approaching sine-wave purity like Sœur Marie Keyrouz's; a clarinet's upper octave above high C; right-handed piano and such would approach the hollow or glassy quicker with the German. That same more pungent piquant flavor had bass transients wirier and more incisive to be a few degrees sharper than the now softer American. At very low volumes, the CA10 sorted and separated more surgically. At higher levels and with challenging voices, the CA10 would cross—or straddle—the line sooner. Heavily warbling coloratura soprano at full tilt there becomes the decisive mark.