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Prefer of course needn't mean better. Say you were the publisher/editor of the "Ultra Audio" magazine. With your business identity and target audience, one of your many jobs would be determining which product merited appearance in your pages before committing any of your writers to review it. So what makes one product ultra and thus worthy of your focus; and another a reject on principle?

If it's a monster price tag, luxury traits or extreme specs; the Ampino doesn't make your cut. That was the easy part. But if it were sterling performance -- with tighter prerequisites than drive-anything muscle amps of course -- the Ampino very much is an ultra component; and one that belongs in any magazine granting coverage to high 5-figure goods. There simply is no way of predicting this. Hence any editor of a serious hifi mag doing her due upfront diligence on paper would have to overlook the Ampino. DIY-oriented mags might single it out for the same reasons upscale hifi rags wouldn't. Yet DIY-based writers miss the bona fide comparative context or street cred to have high-enders take them serious. The usual solution for a hifi maker is to arbitrarily raise the price until it meets perception. Then they throw in some cosmetic bits and bobs to justify the price and season the stew with certain audiophile-approved parts (which may or may not perform better). The routine is well established. Price equates seriousness. Most everyone fishes the same waters. To catch a customer, one goes with the flow even if the waters are rank. Then like a piranha, something like the Ampino shows up small and deadly to the status quo. And I had unwittingly signed up to get bitten.

Ouch. All this was driven home to an admittedly extreme degree by the coincident arrival of the 20-watt Swedish valve monos. On my ultra speakers with their linear 6-ohm impedance below 1kHz, Ampino did in fact outperform the Swedes in specific performance aspects. That's where preference entered. More importantly however, its overall performance -- this can happen with very benign loads -- was on par with the luxury spread. Different but equally persuasive, the Serb would have been preferred by about 50% of prospective listeners if not more. That made it ultra audio.

Of course the comparative context the Swedes were placed in became asinine for the Ampino. But what does one say if, after taking out a €76,000 pair of monos leashed up with thousands of dollars of cables to a $30,000 ultra source and €20,000/pr esoteric speakers, a €220 amp holds its own when nothing else is changed? Again, the ancillaries were comical or criminal depending on your mind set. The cost of a single interconnect far eclipsed the little amp. Should that invalidate its showing? Not in my book. The notion of the weakest link in the chain acting as bottle neck for everything else makes sense to me. Plainly put, there was no bottle necking despite all my rubber necking to spot any.

There's little sense in dwelling on the differences against the push/pull 300B monos save to say that those were rather darker, projected weaker across space, had lower on-string energy and duller separation to sound thicker and slower. The small amp had more live vibe and communicated better. That's why my wife preferred it. I did, too.

I compared the Ampino to my FirstWatt F5 whose 25/50wpc into 8/4-ohm spec is equivalent. On the Tango Rs, the F5 was a bit more suave, its presentation a bit more substantial or heavy. But the overall sound was very much of the same class or sonic religion. Inserting the Blumenhofer Acoustics still nameless back horn instead granted the FirstWatt a bigger lead of fullness and density - far less than the price
difference would suggest but more than over Franck Tchang's speakers. On the 97dB Zu Essence, that shrank back to truly negligible. More on its own turf, I pitted Ampino on the desk top against Glow Audio's Amp One. On their matching Voice One speakers, the Ampino demolished the Glow with more treble, more bass, more resolution, more energy, more scale, size and dynamics. To a lesser extent but in the same areas, the same held true for Miu Audio's 805s.

Ampino with Stello CDT100/DA100Signature, Miu Audio 805s and Glow Audio Sub One

That doesn't mean the Serb sounds like a tube amp. Far from it. On the miniature widebanders of Glow Audio's turned wood ovoids, the incisive wideband character, higher separation and greater drive of the Ampino was simply superior to their 5-watt tube mate. Ampino has a 3L sound: lit up, linear and lithe. It's fast, PRaTty and fresh like sparkling water. The AudioSector Patek SE has more mass and tone density for example. It's more robust. The F5 is ultimately more resolved and refined and as drive power requirements increase, the plainly more endowed operator. Power supply rules.

The point is, the margin of superiority, of far pricier amps into speakers light years beyond the Ampino's sticker, is rather less than expectations and marketing spin-sters would have you believe. Outside the fact that I had to retighten its binding posts which began turning (lock washers would prevent that) and that the pot's long shaft through the internal heat sink all the way back to the rear panel doesn't make the volume control turn as smoothly as on designer gear, there's no criticism of any sort even jaded reviewers should level. For the money and well beyond, Ampino offers far more than we deserve if one applied generic status quo conventions. To put it as plainly as possible, Ampino's return on investment is as ultra as it gets on the usual price/performance index. No corporate jets here.

That doesn't mean it can't be improved. One reader already ordered his Ampino with a capacitor upgrade which Dejan Dobrin recommended since an extra €60 was no issue. DIY savvies might replace the pot with a costlier Alps version. But that's really beside the point. The point is that Ampino is so craftily balanced that nothing sticks out to net complaints even compared to expensive amps. While you will hear the extras a lot more money offers, coming back to the Ampino is very much like turning the volume down a bit. The flavor is the same. There's simply a bit less intensity or fullness.

Transistors sound fatiguing compared to tubes. Having read it somewhere, that's really how one reader countered my recommendation of the Dayens over costlier tube amps like the Glow Audio. Run some nasty bright speakers? Then absolutely. But don't make the mistake of assigning to the Ampino a flat, hard, steely annoying anything. It just ain't so. This amp is quiet, finely resolved and particularly in how the treble is elucidated, a real high point in a sector defined by T-class amps of far lesser power and drive (Virtue Audio seems an exception). This Serb very much is a real, not toy amp that should be ideal for the 88dB speakers common in the up to $1,000/pr market where most of Ampino's prospective owners will likely shop.

Professional reviewers ought to keep an Ampino in their tool box to stay honest and mindful of what's really possible. It might temper their next runaway enthusiasm when a far more expensive piece is found to not offer enough extra to warrant the excitement. I no longer had the Sutra 1.3 from Italy to perform direct A/Bs but my hunch is that the Ampino takes the lead in detail retrieval and will remain unfazed into bigger loads longer before it too is overshadowed by beefier power supplies. I also think its treble might be superior.

Completing the picture
The obvious shortcoming of this review is my lack of appropriate ancillaries. You know, cheap cables, a $750 pair of Canadian speakers, a $400 Japanese receiver and so forth. It's hard to predict how much of this amp's ultimate potential might compromise in such company as compared to how splendidly it performed for me. Experience suggests that in the context of ancillaries priced five times as much -- €1,000 CD players, €1,000 integrateds, €1,000 speakers sold through dealers and made in the US or Europe -- the Dayens Ampino will never be the weakest link.

Because of its wide bandwidth, the critical upper frequencies aren't bedeviled by the usual phase shift to give incision without pain and that unfettered 'top down' air that increases spaciousness, de-clumps performers from each other and makes room for the fine reflections and decays of sounds. Small cymbal work in the background retains harmonic spray rather than devolving into flat plincks and pings.

What the Ampino won't do is imbue the proceedings with the kind of mass and oomph you get from far bigger and warmer amps like ModWright's KWA-150. Ampino's personality is lighter and sprightlier. That includes the bass. It's articulate and dances gracefully but can't quite muster the whomp and heft of the heavy-duty equipment. As my ASI Tango R showed, that's mostly a function of reactivity however. A nicely linear impedance curve in the bass without steep phase angles or low-impedance dropouts does wonders.

It was outright gosh darn when my Zu Essence moved back in. Its big, boisterous and meaty sound combined awfully brilliant with the Ampino's character. Though it's usually not warranted to imbalance your budget this way, I'd heartily recommend a prospective Essence owner short on cash to allocate just $300 to amplification by way of Serbia. He might be far from impatient trading up once the wallet has recovered. The most meaningful characterization to describe Ampino in a nutshell is to call it 'FirstWatt Lite' when the F5 stands in. But none of the mentioned speakers ended up in the dryer to shrink from XL to S. With the Essence, it was at most a half size, with the Tango R perhaps a bit more. If you dislike that Nelson Pass sound, you're naturally out of luck. But if you do, this little overachiever from Serbia gets you very close for 1/10
th the cashish. In today's economy, dreams are made of that stuff. What a discovery!

Quality of packing: Sufficient.
Reusability of packing: At least once.
Ease of unpacking/repacking: Easy.
Condition of component received: Perfect.
Website comments: Presently in Serbian only but the English starter page has an e-mail link and the designer speaks English. The Ampino sells Internet direct exclusively so send an e-mail inquiry and take it from there.
Human interactions: Prompt and forthcoming.
Pricing: Unbelievably low. A humdinger of a steal (probably illegal outside Serbia - just kidding).
Final comments & suggestions: Put lock washers behind the speaker post mounting screws to prevent eventual turning.

Dayens website