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Test #3: F1, F2, Canary Audio CA-308 and Audio Sector Patek SE on The Horn Shoppe The Horn:
Because of its surprisingly potent showing, the friskily christened The Horn netted its own review. To recap how those findings applied to the FirstWatt amplifiers, let's take a quick look at the speaker.

It's a crossover-less 4-inch Fostex FE108EZ rear-hornloaded and heavily folded affair. It's based on the Bushhorn design, 30" short and aims its horn mouth backwards. It's specifically designed as a corner horn to take advantage of boundary reinforcement. The Fostex driver has a resonant frequency of 77Hz and a claimed upper extension to 23kHz. It's a midrange that requires considerable acoustic amplitude support from cabinet and room loading to make good on its full-range claims. Add specific amplifier attributes while we're at it.

As it turns out, the primary ace both the F1 and F2 held over my 50wpc Audio Sector Patek SE chip-amps -- which recently entered the picture as my new reference voltage-source transistor amps -- was high output impedance. Sonically, Patek and F2 were far more similar than not, with the Patek offering more image density and incision, the F2 a subtly softer though no less precise demeanor. Alas, the Patek exasperated the Fostex driver's propensity for a rising response above 1KHz to inject considerable bite into female vocals and saxophone in particular. Neither placement nor toe-in ameliorated this bite which, though not as pronounced as with the DX4, was still hotter than long-term comfortable.

The F2 sublimated this bite without essentially changing anything else - but the simple subtraction of this bite made all the difference. It turned the li'l horn [to left situated directly adjacent to the rack for perspective, the CD atop displaying further how narrow this speaker is] from somewhat of a freak into a bona fide performer.

By freak I mean counter-intuitively high and clean SPLs and even and linear bass response without the typical rear-horn lag, hollowness or ringing. Nearly unnaturally endowed -- hence freaky -- in the bass and SPL department, the midrange peakishness on the Patek prevented this freak from becoming a true mensch to remain more of a curiosity.

The shoutiness was simply in the way. Since I hadn't heard it during the horns' break-in on the Canary Audio CA-308 300B SETs, I reinserted the valves. While the bass got a bit plummy and overall articulation took a backwards step or two, the bloody shout evaporated. What the FirstWatt amps reintroduced into this picture over and above the 300Bs were the dynamics, articulation and faster rise times of the Patek - but no shout. All three solid-state amps further enabled me to pull the horns out from the corners into a more conventional free-air placement, i.e. with the toed-in speakers' closest rear corner nearly 4' removed from the front wall. Though no longer benefitting from their design objective as corner horns, bass response remained more than respectable and solidly good to 50, with surprising life into the mid 40s. The miniature horns essentially became a reasonable man's 'conventionally acting' no-subwoofer floorstander.

Since the performance between the transistor amps was very level (minus, naturally, subtle flavorings) except that only the Patek SEs released the dreaded shout; and given that the tube amps didn't raise the shout either; I concluded that the common denominator for the non-shouty amps was high output impedance.

I don't believe that current drive in this particular speaker scenario offered any other advantages over conventional voltage drive than very high output impedance and hence, extremely low damping factors. While usually viewed as a significant handicap and design flaw by the mainstream, in this case something clearly either set off or tamed the 108EZ's amplitude aberration. My guess is high output Z was the benefactor while high damping factors had retrograde results.

One other observation deserves mention. The F1, though not really extending the horns to reach any lower, had the most weight and saturation in the low end of all the amps tried. The F2 and Patek essentially ran a dead heat. Why the F1 proved superior I don't know. Ed Schilling, the horns' designer, owns an F1 himself. He confirms that it eliminates the need for corner placement due to its "freakish" endowment in the nether regions - on this speaker.

Test #4: F1 balanced vs. single-ended and F2 on Zu Cable Definitions
Nelson Pass himself has pretty much summed up precisely already how the F1 and F2 differ. What I have to say on the subject is nothing new. The F1's full 3rd-order character is revealed only when running it balanced, something that in my case required substituting the Bel Canto Design PRe2 for my tubed ModWright SWL 9.0SE to add the requisite XLR pre-outs.

In balanced mode, the F1 gains pungency and urgency and reins supreme at separating musical threads during complex convoluted passages. It's then also rhythmically the most driven and snappy though it tonally becomes nearly a bit leaner than my tube proclivities fancy (especially because my tube pre was out of the picture). In single-ended mode, the F1 takes a step back and hence closer to the F2. No matter, the F2 is still a bit warmer and more relaxed and temperamentally a bit more languid to feel if not sound more like tubes.

While not layering like valves, both F amps are masters at spatial reconnaissance. If there's a rear-wall to be heard in a recording -- I'm speaking of the ambient reflections that suddenly place a singer or instrumentalist in full context within the miking session venue -- you hear/see it. While I personally don't own a Q-Sound album, people whom I trust tell me that the F1 (the F2 is too new for them to have heard yet) is positively eerie at unravelling the spatial trickery outside the speakers and occasionally even behind the listener. While that's hearsay, I have no reason to doubt it based on the dimensional precision both amps displayed in Taos with completely ordinary (though good) recordings.

Meanwhile, FirstWatt has issued the Aleph J. Plus before the year's out, there will be a JFET power amplifier (like the Aleph J, now a 'conventional' voltage source amp though the words FirstWatt and conventional don't entirely see eye to eye). I'm keen to listen to the Aleph J, a 30wpc Class A successor to the Aleph 3, 30 and Volksamp with less feedback and JFETs for inputs. The 30-watt Alephs have achieved near legendary status in certain circles and in Nelson's mind, the J is the best Aleph yet. If you're a DIYer, the concept and schematic for the basic JFET amp have already been published on our site. Be advised, however, that the 'turnkey' FirstWatt version will feature refinements and subtle tweaks over the published circuit. After all, even quasi sainthood -- referring to Mr. Pass' generosity to the DIY community -- doesn't mean simultaneous stupidity to undermine the modest commercial angle of FirstWatt. As it stands, the F1 schematic is published by now so listeners who either sat on the fence or waited to roll their own can, now. How many companies -- small or big -- do you know who publish full-on schematics of production models once a mere 100 units have sold?

F1s lasted about 9 months, with a few stragglers reappearing on the scene now as present owners trade in for F2s. If you have your heart set on the newer F2, it stands to reason that this run might not even last nine months before the F2 has achieved unobtainium collector's status 'cept for intrepid solder slingers.

Over and out, finally, on this excessively long but hopefully informative multi-part review.
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