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Of stripes and spots.
As Henry is an analog man, I'm a tube man at heart. These are allegiances I've never been shy to admit. You is what you is. That's how the man upstairs wired you. You can't really change your own stripes in that matter. However. Some of my stripes are getting spotty. Truth be told, I'd love nothing better than to eliminate valves in high-level circuits where applied voltages induce that insidiously gradual tube aging that has you perennially uncertain about how far down that slippery slope your sound has already degraded. Tube amps are always noisier. Then there are the usual concerns over tube failures right when it's least convenient. Additionally, tube amps require a warm-up period to thermally stabilize. Transistor amps do too but especially the high-efficiency Class D breeds can be left on indefinitely while consuming a measly 10 watts at idle. They're ready for action whenever you are - just like a hot-n-heavy new relationship.

So I've kept my ears to the ground to identify a transistor amp I could be happy with. I am fully expecting it to not equal my Audiopax Model 88 monos but to instead present me with a fair and fully satisfactory trade, taking something away here, improving something over there so that at the end of the day, I'd feel like having made an equitable sideways move. This clearly telegraphs my mind set. I cannot -- yet -- conceive of unequivocally going upwards in such a transition from glass to sand. But ever since hearing Peter Daniel's AudioZone AMP-1 chip amp, I've been convinced that my kind of solid-state amp was hiding out there in the bush waiting to be baited and trapped. The ICEpower technology ended up on that radar. Ditto for Lavardin. Ditto for Nelson Pass' forthcoming XA30, an apparently substantial refinement over the original Aleph 3 and subsequent Volksamp Aleph 30 concepts which were the best transistor amps of their time for someone of my particular bend. Ditto for Daniel's new Patek micro amp. That represents his latest dialed-to-the-max thinking on chip amps.

I felt it important to precede the following commentary with the above qualifiers. This includes an admission of relative ignorance about high-power solid-state in my own four walls. I've been on the high-efficiency speaker kick for years. This has naturally undermined explorations of muscle amps. I also have conceptual issues with the whole high-power notion. If easy can do it, why go the maximum effort route? Devotees of that approach will naturally tell you that maximum power equates to maximum ease. But that's really true only if you used an overkill ratio of major amplifier power into high speaker efficiencies. The simple truth in the hi-eff scene seems to be that more simply isn't better. If a 1/4 watt can produce 90dB listening levels, a total head room of 6 watts is sufficient. Anything much above that is not only wasted but heavy baggage holding you back.

I purchased the Gallo Reference 3 speakers after my review specifically because they represent a median speaker sensitivity rating of 88dB and, due to their sealed minimum-cavity long-throw woofers, require current to truly shine. That's what I needed to credibly review high-power amplifiers. Better yet, I simply love what these speakers do. A true win/win. 8wpc tube amps like the Eastern Electric MiniMax mated to its own high-gain preamp sibling can drive the Ref 3s to unhealthy levels. Clearly though, some significant performance potential is left on the table. There's can-drive and there's drive. Today's contenders were ideal candidates to demonstrate the specific strengths of high current, high power and maximum control into a load freely welcoming it. Since I had just come off Eastern Electric's M520 valve integrated into the very same speaker setup, inserting the H2O M250 Signatures now became a poster child exercise of epic proportions. Bel Canto's PRe2 served preamp duties since it allows for balanced operation and the JJAZ amps -- in blatant disregard of conventions -- do not offer single-ended inputs (though Cardas converters are provided as an after thought). This setup allowed me easy amplifier swaps without introducing any possible handicaps.

The M250 presentation was utterly different from that of the M520. It was a thoroughly modern sound - exceptionally transparent and open, with very dynamic full-bandwidth clarity bottom-to-top. That inverted last description was deliberate. The H20 amps erect their sonic castle from a subterranean 3-story parking garage. No dedicated bass amp was needed for that transformation. It's something my "Gold Dust Bacchanalia" bass track from Mychael Danna's fantastic Kamasutra soundtrack [TVT Soundtrax 8100-2] demonstrated with a "Holy Crap!" reaction on my part. Naturally, those used to muscle amps will shrug their shoulders. So what? That's what we do. Another qualification is thus needed. Certain amp/speaker combinations produce the equivalent of sex with a robotic alien. Especially bass becomes so brutally chiseled and overdone that beyond a short-lived shock reaction, most listener used to real music would feel condemned to live forever after with cyborg drum machines pounding out endless synthetic techno. In my book, that's due to hyped transients accompanied by overdamping. It simultaneously dries out and sharpens the bass to leave reality and become something perhaps impressive in its own right but pretty artificial too.

All the H2Os did was to tighten the "skins of the bass drums". Bass notes had faster rebounds, impacts and definition but the audible size of the "resonating drum cavities" didn't shrink. This imagery attempts to describe a significant increase of articulation without the common shadow of unnatural dryness. Upright bass still resonated and rung out properly. The range below the acoustic bass -- blurry and only hinted at with the 24wpc tube amp -- snapped into focus to provide an unwavering foundation and properly opened the doors on ambient acoustics. The infrasonic trickery on the Kamasutra track (a must-have based on predictable reactions each time I play it for others) no longer wavered. Neither did it excessively bloom because woofer motion was now under control. Appropriate damping factors on high-mass bass drivers that thrive on it are a great boon when it doesn't shrivel up what happens past the initial leading edge. The M250s were truly exceptional in that regard. They maintained portions of what -- good -- tubes do in the bass but added extension and control that are clearly beyond (most?) valves.

The true surprise occurred further up the audible range. Niki Reiser's throaty vocals on What's a Woman [Vaya Con Dios, BMG 74321 56318 2] redefined immediacy and focus with a brilliant mix of body, warmth and projection. No, not like valves, exactly - that peculiar heightened 3-D thing wasn't there. But the clear stripping away of fuzz and stuff which made the Eastern Electric valve integrated sound slightly thick didn't cause me to now think lean, bare and bereft of density. No sir! These amps had body alright. It just wasn't an emphasized quality to make up for cloudier skies elsewhere. This same tight rope act -- between directness, deep visibility and harmonic substance -- extended into the treble to completely avoid the relative non-elegance most solid-state exhibits when compared to good valve amps. Hmm. Had I stumbled upon a solid statesman I could finally get chummy with?

I couldn't even take credit for this discovery. One of my readers had suggested that Henry's amps should appear in my scope and made the necessary motions to introduce us. Gracias. Being a proud owner, this reader was naturally apostolic and excited. Alas, he also clearly pegged my fancies. He rightfully concluded that these sonics would be right up my alley. And right he was, too. I'd live with these amps in a heartbeat. That doesn't mean they're tube-like. While I'm clear on what I hearing, explaining it properly so that other tube lovers can see it will be challenging but here goes:

Tubes create a certain texture which these amps don't. Tubes can be very transparent but to my ears, it's a transparency modified in different frequency bands and modulated by certain layering and soundstaging effects. The latter are highly addictive ( consider me a major addict). But they are effects. They simply do not ever arise in real life. They add a visual dimension that makes up for the purely auditory focus of the playback experience. Where tubes have beat all solid-state comers in Taos until now has been in the microdynamic arena. This translates as very nuanced and thus emotional expressiveness. Combined with the spatial enhancements of valves, this has always tipped me in their favor. However, I don't believe these H2O monos play second fiddle in the dynamic speed and finesse domain. Additionally, their transparency isn't modified. It's like Kevin Costner's Open Range flick - wide-open panoramas as far as the eye can see. That's both a visual and feeling sensation of unlimited musical expanse. There's less density or compacting of molecules than with valves. Wetness isn't the same either but elegance most certainly is, making for a definitive sense of liquidity. Liquidity without texture - that's the difference. How you react to that depends. It can appear cleaner or a bit less enhanced and seductive.

Lesser recordings sound "more lesser" because these ICEpower amps don't provide an additive crutch to prettify that which isn't pretty on its own. That's a certain price to pay, I guess. But I've saved the personally most appealing part for last. It's not any one specific isolated attribute but the overall balance of qualities. There's clear warmth but divorced from fuzziness. There's a very slight softness which doesn't induce any blurring whatsoever. There's consistency of leading edges from the vocal range all the way down into the abyss. There's fluid scaling of volumes which simply get louder without
inducing any shifts in frequency or tonal colors or any subliminal expectations of hitting any stops. There's truly stunning low-level detail with vanishingly low noise floors equally perfect for subdued background listening and serious get-swept-away sessions. There's articulation without hype or edging that simply makes it easier to follow the action. There's unmistakable instrumental and vocal body which clearly changes depending on how the performers were miked. There's an amazing level of accuracy and precision which remains subliminal, never mechanical or as sensationalist proof of excellence. There's tremendous low-frequency weight appearing seemingly out of nowhere as during the big orchestral breakers in the "Allegro Apassionato" of Vladimir Ashkenazy's reading of Brahms' 2nd Piano Concerto [Haitink and Vienna on Decca 410 199-2]. I once participated in this piece as principal clarinetist with Alexis Weissenberg on piano and I still get a contact high after all these years. Then there were certain electronica albums which revealed infrasonics that were MIA before or loose and indistinct.

In conclusion, I love these amps for different reasons than my tube amps. They clearly do not sound the same though there are plenty of parallels. More importantly, both are very compelling. What Henry Ho's monaural creations take away versus what they contribute over and above the tube amps puts them on equal footing - different but equal. The emotional connection is still stronger with the valves but the gap has clearly shrunk. The ICEpower amps are cooler but not cool per se and, most importantly, not guilty of harmonic bleaching which I'm personally pretty intolerant of. The vistas of the transistors here are vaster, separation and articulation greater, such as on the 8-minute solo workout of Cuban congas and Peruvian cajon on Jerry Gonzales Y Los Piratas Del Flamenco [Sunnyside 1135]. This number relies on very
fine individuation of finger pressures, where exactly the skins and box are struck and how hard. There's a whole parallel universe of details hidden in this percussion exchange. The H2Os approached it in such a way as to have me appreciate the performers' finesse involved and inhale the palpable energy generated by their mutual inspiration, rhythmic feints and parries and nearly psychic anticipation of the next move.