As soon as I spun up my first disc, I knew that something special was afoot. Music playback was transparent, incisive, visceral and fun. Snare drums exploded with a solid crack and the pitch definition and punch of bass notes enhanced the forward thrust of music. With this Canadian combo, music flowed like water over Niagara Falls. Leading edge attack and the decay of each note were exceptional and the illusion of a live performance was uncanny. I'm sure this was a result of lightening fast rise-times and incredibly short signal paths. Heck, said pathway is less than 5 inches long, the feedback loop less than a half inch! How's that for preserving signal purity and wickedly fast transients? Like the Unison Research Unico with Underwood HiFi's Level-2 Mod, the AMP-2 also had bodacious image density; a fat rich sound that wasn't the slightest bit slow or bloated. The AMP-2/PRE-T1 did not sound like traditional solid state at all. There was no grain, no pinched highs, no slight truncation of air and space, nothing that would suggest the presence of silicon. On the other hand, this trio did not sound euphonic like some tube amps either. No spreading of thick treacle here. If Zen Buddhists designed audio gear, it would sound like the AMP-2/PRE-T1 combo; pure, clear, focused with a near fanatical pursuit of spiritual enlightenment, or in this case, musical truth.

Aural perspective was equivalent to sitting in row E or F in your local hall. For those of you who prefer a more distant, ephemeral presentation, you may find the AMP-2/PRE-T1 a wee bit too upfront and solid. On the other hand, this combo certainly wasn't aggressive or the least bit tiring. It was child's play to relax into the music when I wished to.

One of my favorite works of Impressionist Art is Seurat's pointillist masterpiece Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of Grande Jatte. This delightful piece was created not with the broad strokes of a brush but by thousands of tiny dots of color. Look closely at the incredible detail and observe how the shades of the tiny points complement and contrast with each other.

Now stand back and take in the entire work, marvel at its natural freshness and how it perfectly captures the play of light and shade. Now, if you look at a warmer and romantic work such as Seurat's View of the Seine, the tiny dots are replaced by broad, sweeping brush strokes. It's still great art, full of rich, colors and shading, but the exacting detail of Grande Jatte is obscured and veiled. Thus the brain works a little harder to make out individual components in the painting. Most amplifiers I've heard paint an aural landscape not unlike View of the Seine - recognizable but slightly fuzzy, like a photograph taken with minor hand shake. The Audio Zone trio's effect is similar to Grande Jatte by comparison. One marvels at not only the amazing detail, but the entire blend of tonal color, light and shade of the music.

Musical details like the resonating body of a violin, cello, the sound of fingers gliding up and down a guitar neck and the throat and chest cavity of a singer were clearer and more three-dimensional. Some amplifiers tint the aural window with a rosy veil or leave a fine film of grit. This Canuck trio just didn't wipe the dirt off the glass; it threw those windows wide open. Interestingly, poor-sounding recordings were not rendered unplayable. Instead, I got more music out of them. The AMP-2/PRE-T1 allowed me to hear right into any recording, whether it was a purist, audiophile quality recording or a heavily manipulated studio production. They did not obstruct the musical message, be it Hip Hop, Tchaikovsky or even, oh horror of horrors - Celine Dione.

With the AMP-2/PRE-T1, my system's noise floor seemed to have dropped considerably to unearth previously buried aural jewels. For example, Mick's intake of breath before singing the opening verse of "Love in Vain" [Abkco 90042] - I'll be darned if he wasn't singing the lyrics off a piece of paper because I could hear it rustling. Or Garth Hudson's and John Simon's subtle instrumental flourishes in The Band's self-titled classic [Capital 25389] - their veritable kitchen sink of saxophones, horns, accordions and keyboards, previously obscured and flat even on my Bryston B60, became vibrant, three-dimensional entities.

Levon Helm's woody-sounding drum kit was also better realized. This cleaner acoustic backdrop allowed me to reap greater musical riches from this album. I marveled at how five musicians -- six if we include producer John Simon -- could create such a cohesive and unique vibe. This exceptional low-level retrieval was in no way unnaturally bright, clinical, hard, or etched. Like Goldilocks, it was just right.

Transient fidelity was prodigious; it was well nigh impossible to sit still and not get up and move to the delicious, captivating WorldBeat groove of Bob Holroyd's "Confluence" [Without Within, Six Degrees 657036-1085-2] or Zawose & Brook's "Kuna Kunguni" [Assembly, Realworld 72438 11284 2 8]. Classical music too was exhilarating. I found myself on the edge of my seat completely entranced by the glorious score and hilarious bantering between the main characters of Verdi's autumnal masterpiece, Falstaff [EMI 5-67162-2].

The "Scherzo" of Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony is dominated by gentle and playful pizzicato string playing that is shattered by the thunderbolt assault of the "Finale's" heart attack opening. I have heard this work dozens of times and still was jolted by the sheer visceral impact of this lightening-fast gear shift. Surprisingly, I could play my system at lower levels without collapsing the sonic landscape. With my Bryston, music at lower volumes becomes a little flat and slightly vague. Not so with these monoblocks. The magic was there whatever the setting - due to the Audio Zones' lightening-fast reflexes?

As a result of extraordinary speed and timing, the subtle graduations between soft and loud were more pronounced. The tiny little dynamic fluctuations that separate one performer from another in a complex recording such as Stravinsky's Rite of Spring [Telarc SACD-60587] gave greater insight into the performance. The way a musician used the space between notes or little dynamic nuances to shape an interpretation were all there. These qualities are what separate routine performers who just follows the notes on the page from the great interpreters who extract the meaning of the text and the intentions of the composer, thus enhancing the experience for the listener.

Herbert Von Karajan's Mahler is criticized in many circles for smoothing over Gustav's more abrasive aspects by creating an emotionally somewhat aloof reading. Perhaps so, but with each exposure, I've steadily warmed to Karajan's legendary live recording of Mahler's 9th [DG 439 024-2]. With today's "dynamic trio", I could delve further into the most minute of musical strands and was surprised how consistent and indeed, passionate, this performance really is. Other interpretations can sound slightly disjointed, as if there was greater emphasis on orchestral fireworks than preserving the long line. Karajan's vision was more about the quiet acceptance of fate rather than the pain, anguish and bitterness of other versions I'm accustomed to. This is hardly what I'd call "aloof". His guiding hand and the Berliners' response was compelling and persuasive. The liner notes indicate that this was a live recording but I've found it hard thus far to detect evidence of this. Via the AMP-2/PRE-T1, I was startled by the presence of the acoustic. All the subtle cues indicating a live event were suddenly audible: Chairs creaking, paper ruffling, feet shuffling, throat clearing, eyes blinking (okay, I'm exaggerating). This fine performance was recreated in my room and moved me far greater than ever before. With previous reservations banished, I was impressed by this committed and unique performance, under the lead of Salzburg's mercurial son of whom one musician said "I'd rather mop floors than work under that man again".

Truth be told, tonal aspects of equipment aren't something I get too worked up over. I'm more after the vibe and excitement of music, its natural ebb and flow, the intent of the performers, and the sense of living, breathing people creating music. After all, who exits a concert hall, smoky club or a mud-soaked mosh pit complaining of a midrange suckout somewhere between 1 and 3kHz? Live music always sounds right. The Audio Zone combo got so close to the live event, tonal concerns really didn't enter the picture. I couldn't detect anything amiss. If you're into a more distant or euphonic presentation as offered by certain tube and solid-state class A designs, you may want to look elsewhere.

My wife's non-audiophile friend, Raff, who normally takes great pleasure in giving me the lip regarding the tangle of wires and boxes in my room, made an interesting observation during a recent visit. Without any prompting from your humble scribe, Raff volunteered how this was the best sound she's heard over here yet. She further noted that it sounded more like live music than anything else I've had through. She went on to postulate; when one passes an open door or window with music playing, it's immediately obvious whether it's live or playback. Raff indicated that when entering our house, it was difficult to tell the difference. My wife concurred and added that she found it hard to sit still when her latest favorite, Thievery Corporation's "Richest Man In Babylon" ([SL 60] was spinning. The impulse to get up and boogie was hard to resist. All fired up, Anne-Marie added that my B60 "doesn't quite do it" for her, sounding somewhat cold and calculating by comparison.

Since she's the musician around here, I trust her instincts - plus she'll kick my butt if I don't write nice things about her. Now realize that these are quick observations from two people who don't know a transistor from a valve and wouldn't dream of spending more than $1,000 on an entire system. When I tried to explain the upshot of very short signal paths and resonance control, both women's eyes glazed over and the topic was quickly changed to more earthy topics. Truth is, we cracked open some wine, hung out and grooved to tunes.

Since the pre/power amp sections of my resident Bryston can be separated, I pressed my reference into service with either its active preamp section driving the AMP-2s, or the PRE-T1 driving the B60's amp section. The Bryston's preamp was warmer, veiled and even slightly sluggish. This was a big surprise as the B60's preamp stage is essentially identical to that of the acclaimed BP20 which is highly regarded for its transparency.

In fact, of all the amps I've reviewed thus far, the Bryston has been among the quietest and most neutral of them all. The B60 didn't completely undo the magic; the PRE-T1 simply allowed music to flow easier and complemented the AMP-2s' stunning dynamics to a greater degree. The same was true as well with the PRE-T1 connected to the amp section of my B60. I guess that old audiophile adage that the best preamp is no preamp holds true because with the Audio Zone transformer-attenuator passive, the Bryston power amp sounded cleaner and more dynamic than with its own active preamp stage. I can only imagine how a 3B or 4B SST would sound with the PRE-T1. Suffice to say, the AMP-2 and PRE-T1 should be considered a synergistic pairing.

With highly transparent components such as the AMP-2, any change no matter how minor will have immediate effects. Just by placing the horizontal brass bar of the AMP-2 on a mouse pad dramatically altered the sound. The midrange became slightly warmer and thicker while the highs became a bit shut in. I wouldn't call it terribly worse but just different. The upshot? You can easily "tune" the AMP-2 to obtain whatever effect you want. I can envision some systems where the addition of neoprene or mouse pads might be preferable. For me, the AMP-2 au naturale was it.

Let's talk cables. The speedy, dynamic qualities of the Audio Zone equipment was better served with DH Labs silver-coated copper Q10, Air Matrix and especially the all-silver Revelation interconnects than my usual JPS loom. The Wireworld Aurora III AC cables were not a good match at all. While they dropped the noise floor a tad and cleaned up some AC hash, the midrange became muddier and dynamics were slightly impaired. The cheaper DH Labs Power Plus was far preferable. Background noise was attenuated without adversely impacting rhythmic flow. In fact, the Power Plus raised the bar on performance significantly, as though allowing the AMP-2s to draw more current.

As with my Kestrels, I got closer to the music with the AMP-2 and PRE-T1. There appeared to be fewer timing errors that upset the natural flow of music. Indeed, notes flow easier than with any system I've heard to date, for a lively and exciting experience even with over-produced studio albums. There appears to be a trend developing as I continue on my little journey started last summer; time-coherent loudspeakers with minimalist 1st-order crossovers; non-oversampling DACs with no digital or analog filters; no-nonsense cabling with low dielectric constant; and now amplification with hand-picked minimalist components, serious resonance control and extremely short signal paths and feedback loops. Maybe that's the trick to obtaining a quick and agile live sound? There are fewer energy-storing components in the signal path. Rise times are faster and all the subtle timing aspects of music are more acutely rendered. More complex circuits equals more caps, resistors etc to delay signals ever so slightly and blur the sound. Your brain will instantly recognize this fuzziness as being artificial; instruments and voices will sound less real and more like HiFi. Perhaps that's why SETs are so popular? There's less crap in the way of the music. Now, I'm not saying that the AMP-2/PRE-T1 or SETs offer the same rush as slamming into your neighbor in a mosh pit; or the thrill of sipping your favorite Shiraz during a performance of Die Zauberflöte at La Scala. I don't think any music playback device will ever entirely recreate the snap and excitement of live music - but the Audio Zone AMP-2 and PRE-T1 come closer than anything else I've heard to date; and that includes systems retailing for several times their asking price.

Are there any caveats? I honestly can't find any. However, George suggests that his monoblocks may not be a copasetic match with certain difficult-to-drive loudspeakers and recommends amp-friendly speakers such as the Reference 3A MM da Capo-i. My 89dB Meadowlark Kestrel 2s certainly loved these little Canadians and exhibited no signs of stress. Just stay away from the usual multi-way behemoths with a half-dozen drivers per side and life will be grand.

For this music-lover, the Audio Zone AMP-2 and PRE-T1 relay the sheer joie de vivre inherent in music and provide a conduit to pure, unadulterated pleasure. These are the finest and ultimately, the most enjoyable amplification components I have yet heard. They make everything else sound slightly lethargic and cluttered. In fact, these beauties aren't going anywhere - I'm buying them as my new reference electronics. In terms of musical transparency, resolution and transient fidelity, the Audio Zone AMP-2 and PRE-T1 perform in a class of their own and do so for not a lot of money. If you lust after the frisson and edge-of-the-seat excitement of live performances, this diminutive trio may well be your renewal-free passport to sonic nirvana. I just crossed the border and got my stamps. Time to forget about travel brochures and explore this new country called an awfully big slice of aural perfection.

Audio Zone website