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Reviewer: Michael Lavorgna
Analog: Rega P3, Denon DL-103 cartridge, Auditorium 23 moving coil step up, Fi Yph phono stage
Digital: Audio Aero Capitole MKII
Preamp: Déjà Vu Audio, Exemplar Audio Exception II [in for review]
Amp: Fi 45 Prototype, Fi X, SAC Thailand Minute
Speakers: Cain & Cain Abby (Normal) and Cain & Cain Bailey, Tonian Acoustics TL-R2 Super Tweeter, DeVore Fidelity Super 8
Cables: PHY interconnects, Shindo interconnects, Auditorium 23 Speaker Cable, JPS Labs Digital AC Power Cable, Audience PowerChord, ESP Essence Power Cord, and Z-Cable Heavy Thunder V2 on the Blue Circle MR, Stands: pARTicular Basis Rack
Powerline conditioning: Blue Circle Music Ring MR800
Accessories: Symposium Rollerblocks Series II under AA Capitole, Yamamoto Sound Craft PB-10 Ebony Bases under Abbys and Bailey, PS Audio Ultimate Outlets and AudioPrism Quiet Lines. Room damping provided by lots of books.
Room size: 13' w x 14' d x 9' h
Review component retail: $,2500, introductory price $1,995
|The insult that made a man out of Mac
I can remember being in a fashionable audio salon in the 90s where the bigger = better mantra in high-end amplification was still in full swing. This particular shop carried the big names with the even bigger prices. I was piggybacking with some serious listening on someone who could actually afford this stuff. The shop owner -- who only sold out of the 'back room' -- was waxing lyrical about the need for lotsa power. Think mid-3 digits. Minimum. There was a certain swagger that accompanied his pitch as though fewer watts meant less man. He was kicking more sand in the face of the first watt than poor 'Mac' received in the old Charles Atlas ads. At some point, I went out to get some air (aka restrict my oxygen intake). One of the guys working the heavy lifting shift came with me. After a few drags, he admitted to how he owned the same speakers being auditioned - except he was driving his with an Aleph 3. The real admission? He preferred his Aleph to the manly gear on display. By a long shot. At a fraction of its cost and power. "Don't tell." We were laughing as we went back in and joined the chain gang to maneuver a different watts=weight monstrosity into place.
|Aleph J the Third
The First Watt Aleph J is a direct descendant of the Volksamp Aleph 30, itself a descendant of the Pass Labs Aleph 3. The Aleph series was given birth by Nelson Pass and Pass Labs back in 1991. The first offspring was the Aleph 0 followed by the 1 through 5. Stereophile reviewed the $2,300 Aleph 3 in 1997, two years after it came out. To quote reviewer Muse Kastanovich: "So three cheers for the Pass Aleph 3 for coming frighteningly close to sounding like the perfect amplifier." John Atkinson found that it
|bettered his reference amps of that time, the Mark Levinson 333 ($8,495) which caused a shake-up in the Class A Recommended Components list due to the 3's price/performance ratio. Self-avowed toob man Dick Olsher reviewed the Aleph 30 for Enjoy The Music in 2001 and proclaimed "...it's imperative that you audition this amp before you make any purchase decision - at any price point. Its performance/price ratio is simply astounding." And here I sit in 2006 with the newly minted Aleph J direct from the hands of Nelson Pass. Reading through the manual, I couldn't help but notice -- and now quote -- "I consider it the best of the Aleph series", signed "Nelson Pass". For those readers inclined to prefer the short story, that's a dozy.
Like its 3/30 forbearers, the J delivers 30wpc into 8 ohms and is a "regular sort of amplifier like the ones you already know and love" - as opposed to First Watt's other offerings which aren't (for more on that score, see Srajan's reviews of the F1- F3). The J does not stand for junior. Rather, it refers to the use of JFETs (junction field effect transistor) in the input stage that drive the MOSFET output stage. The use of JFETs, one of the changes from the original design, lowers the amount of noise and negative feedback by 15dB as per Mr. Pass. The J is a two-stage design operating in single-ended Class A just like the original 3/30 and its "distortion character is still 2nd harmonic". Other updates and improvements as listed in the Aleph J manual include: "Improved power supply filtration with about 20dB less voltage ripple; reduced gain on the active current source, giving better overall performance into 8-16 ohm loads; even greater stability, operating without lag compensation; and no electrolytic capacitor in the signal path."
If you've been following the unfolding First Watt story on 6moons or elsewhere, you'll see the familiar First Watt chassis (which also bears a striking resemblance to the Aleph 30). Measuring 17" x 14" x 5½" (w x d x h), the look of the various models changes only with the stenciled name and font used on the faceplate. Nelson Pass describes First Watt as a "kitchen table effort" so sharing the chassis throughout the line makes perfect economic and common sense. While the look of the Aleph J does not capture my eye as much as the original spiny cube did, I appreciate the no-nonsense approach. Mr. Pass personally designs, assembles and tests every First Watt amplifier. That holds a specific appeal since he is about as close to an audio godfather as you can get. "ESS was the first real company I worked for. I arrived about a week before Oskar Heil and left in 1974." Mr. Pass left ESS and started Threshold, left there and started Pass Labs, which he's still actively involved in, with First Watt a more intimate, personal, "non-corporate" venture. Naturally, I've skipped over a few decades of innovations, patents and probably some that are currently pending but heck, I hope you got the gist. It's called major legacy and bloody legends.
In terms of day-to-day use, the Aleph J runs hot to the touch but you can leave your hand on top of the chassis without any expletives or pain. Plan to let it sit in a well-ventilated place. 5-way binding posts, RCAs and a pair of balanced inputs are standard as is the non-captive IEC. RCA users, make sure the supplied jumpers remain inserted between pins 1 and 3 of the XLR connector or you'll get no gain. Power up sends a minor pop through the speakers and I did notice that some warm-up, at least 30 minutes, allowed the Aleph J to settle in. I ended up leaving the power on for those days I knew I'd be doing some serious listening.
Zen and the art of the DIYer*
The Pass DIY Audio forum and the Pass Labs forum on DiyAudio.Com is another interesting aspect of the work of Nelson Pass. Beyond being an active poster, Mr. Pass promises to publish the service manual aka schematics for each First Watt design once the initial run has sold out. This continues his long tradition of authoring designs for the DIYer and I wholeheartedly applaud this generous attitude. Beginning with the single-stage Zen amplifier first published in Audio Amateur in 1994, followed by Son of Zen (Audio Amateur 2/97) and the preamps Bride of Zen (Audio Amateur 4/94) and Bride of Son of Zen (Audio Electronics 5/97), Mr. Pass' legacy of controversial -- and by most accounts supremely musical -- designs are available for anyone so inclined to build their own. I encourage anyone who is not familiar with this site to have a look and a read. What I found on the DIY boards beyond some interesting and candid discussion are the following quotes from the pen of Mr. Pass that seemed worth repeating here:
"...complexity tends to be the nemesis of musicality..."
"If you have my personal taste and listen to the music I do with the speakers I have (and so on) you will prefer the J."
"I don't happen to think that Zens or Alephs (or anything else) represents the pinnacle in reproduction. They are interesting approaches in minimalist thinking and they offer aesthetic value on more than one level."
For those readers inclined to prefer the straight-shooter story, that's a dozy.
* "Personally, I don't care for cute section titles." Nelson Pass from the Pass DIY site
|Cute section title here
The Aleph J is a troublemaker. Make no mistake, it may look harmless and unassuming but stick it to your system unawares and I'm here to warn you, there may be trouble. And if you have any preconceptions about high-power solid state stuff -- we're talking a 'mere' 30 watts after all -- you may as well send those packing too. Trust me on this; it'll save you some headaches. Go ahead. I can wait...
Oops and out
When I first put the Aleph J into my usual rig replacing the Fi 45, I thought something was broken. This combo made for a bad tasting sonic stew and the first flavor not to pass muster was some very noticeable hum. But I'm a lucky guy and Srajan is a patient boss and as luck would have it, the Exemplar Audio Exception II preamp arrived for an upcoming review mid hum witch-hunt. I always like to connect up just-arrived gear to make sure it made its journey through FedUp or Oops in one playable piece. So in went the Exception II and out came music without a hint of hum. Well, maybe just a tad but now we were talking ear-at-the-driver level. My Déjà Vu preamp stayed on the sidelines for the duration of this review, its gain and self-noises making it a less than ideal reviewing tool.
But the Aleph J wasn't finished cleaning my house. My first reaction to the Aleph J was to assume it was broken. When I replaced my preamp with the Exception II, my next thought was that the Aleph J sounded thin and crinkly. Not exactly what I expected from a direct descendant, and purportedly improved upon version, of what really is audio royalty.
"And get a hold of this: it dishes out ample tube magic to satisfy even Toob Man." That's Dick Olsher again from his review of the Aleph 30 in ETM. Damn. Now I found myself in a somewhat awkward position. You see, I've sorta been pegged as a toob man too but this moniker doesn't really fit me very well. Now someone like JC Morrison is a tube man. Fact is, he knows more about tubes than anyone I've ever met, talked to, e-mailed or read. Bar none. From the Who, What, How, When, Where and Why to oil-cooled microwave transmitting tubes in the Stealth fighter, JC is a tube encyclopedia. He's the go-to guy for tube men with questions. If you haven't read his series on "How Tubes Work" and you don't think you can answer that question on your own, you should give it a read. Most tube men I know are just guys who like tube amps. And most tube amp owners I know have a certain tube they've grown particularly fond of. The family name triode or pentode doesn't even come close to corralling the tube guy since most 845 guys are not 2A3 guys and vice versa, you'll rarely see an EL34 hanging with an 84. Different graduating class. And those VT-52 and 45 users are nearly impossible to get along with. Don't even get me started on PP versus SET and parallel SET or triode-wired pentodes. One representative specimen of each type of tube guy could fill the biggest bar you can imagine and drink it dry.
You have to ask yourself -- at least I did -- what it is about the tube guy mentality that makes him want to piss on everything outside his own yard. Loyalty is my answer. Tube guys have a tendency to latch and hold firm. Like a bur. There are reams of posts to support this position so if you're not familiar with them, consider yourself lucky and please take my word for it. And as they say, loyalty can be blind - or in our case, deaf. You see, we all make compromises in our systems and the ultra low-watt (think less than 3) tube guys have their fair share and could be some of the most stubborn of the bunch. But that's only half this story. Of equal importance are the tube guys' speakers. Without the right speaker, you wouldn't have the tube guy to begin with. The lower the watts, the more that statement holds. I'm a Fi 45/Abby guy. There, that's better. While there are other places I can plug my 2 watts, I have to practice moderation and abstinence. While I'd love to hear 'em, Soundlabs will never land in my rig. The amp/speaker interface is so essential, we may as well make the amp and transducers one and the same phrase. Saying you love one without at least referring to the other is a cliffhanger. It's half the story. Once we put together our amp/speaker combo of choice, we're cultishly closed to further discussion. Conjoined. Inseparable.
And I have sinned. I bought a pair of DeVore Gibbon Super 8s a few months ago. Beyond the fact that I plain dig the DeVores, I thought it handy to have a more conventional multi-driver speaker in-house for reviewing purposes. (My wife loves it when I say that. "For reviewing purposes". Makes her giggle). So I replaced the Abbys with the 8s, put in a favorite CD and didn't expect much of anything and went back to work on my PC.
|Bachelor Number Two
Dawn Upshaw -- who I just can't seem to grow tired of -- and Gilbert Kalish on Voices of Light [nonesuch 79812-2] sounded ethereal on the Aleph J/DeVore setup. Huh? I had to double-take on that one myself since I did not expect an airy, breathy and completely captivating rendition of Ms. Upshaw's beautifully ecstatic singing from brothers J and MOS FET. I looked, I really did look to see if the J's dual blue lights were on and not the glow of my EML solid-plate 45s. Not that it sounded like the Fi 45 mind you, it just didn't sound like I thought it, the Aleph J, sounded. And I liked it. A lot. As a matter of fact, this pairing was a stunner. It slapped me out of my silly stupor of thinking like a tube guy and what that really meant - that I thought my Abbys were perfect.
|Well you know, perfect in the nothing's-really-perfect-in-audio sense. I wasn't thinking I'm a Fi 45/Abby guy. I was thinking I'm a tube guy with some damn near excellent speakers. And they are, for a listener. But they are not an entry in the ultimate reviewer's tool box The Aleph J with its I'd-bet-my-paycheck-on-it smoother than the Fi's linearity through more of the frequency spectrum aggravates the Abbys' peak in the presence region. I'd also suggest its attack emphasis (and decay de-emphasis) makes for an anemic presentation on the Abbys. Now a real tube guy wouldn't give up on his beloved gear so readily. A real tube guy would just blame the solid-state amp and move on. Yeah, that thing is bright, shrill, mechanical. Problem was, the music coming out of the Aleph J and DeVore Gibbon Super 8s was lovely. It was marvelous. It made me stop working. I sat up, listened and got lost.|
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