This review page is supported in part by the sponsor whose ad is displayed above
In operation, the I2A3 proved shockingly quiet. At first, I suspected DOA in fact. Yes, the yellow power LED came on as advertised. Yes, the filaments duly followed too. Yet an ear on my Zu drivers elicited zero feedback. "No way José!" was my instinctual reaction. It didn't yet occur to me that Mr. Wang hadn't pulled a Münchhausen about eliminating noise to essentially inaudible levels. Then I hit play on the Raysonic CD128. Tunes. Bloody marvellous. This from a 60lbs beast that had crossed an ocean to Cyprus with all tubes installed. There was only one issue. Since mine is a bi-amped system -- below ca. 40Hz, the frontal speaker array is augmented by a passive rear-firing quartet of 10-inch pro woofers that are driven, in my case, from bridged AudioSector Patek SE chip amps -- I had to create a signal feed for the latter since the Melody lacks a pre-out. Music First Passive Magnetic to the rescue. A less not-there preamp than this passive TVC hasn't been built yet. I fixed the Melody's attenuator at 12 o'clock and then used the TVC about 6-10dB below unity gain. Not only did that put me seriously in business, the price matching of components was realistic as well. After all, who'd mate my customary $43,000 Zanden front end to a $3000 integrated?

After I'd worked through Michel Camilo & Tomatito's superb Spain Again [Universal 060249 8781364] to take a first pulse of my gleaming patient, the initial diagnosis was uncannily specific. The Melody sat smack between the speed, transparency and microdynamic finesse of the Yamamoto A-08S 45-based SET and the tonally fuller, macrodynamically more endowed Canary CA-339 push/pull 300B monos I'd just reviewed. The Melody was much closer to the Yammy than Canarys yet somewhere in-between. It wasn't as lit up on top but equally resolved in the ambient dimension as the Japanese, with a bit more midrange bloom but not as much as the WE-fitted Californians. After this character sketch had formulated itself without any voluntary bidding, a disappointing realization followed. Wasn't that exactly how devotees of direct-heated triodes always rate the 2A3? They call it a bridge betwixt 45s and 300Bs - the
best of both worlds. Drat. Once again, there wouldn't be anything novel to report safe to confirm what the informed public has known all along. Except that keeping up with the overachieving Yamamoto was a small miracle all by itself. Offering nine times its power plus an inbuilt preamp upped the ante something fierce. Hey, that was newsworthy. Phew. No reason to resign the review beat just yet.

Intuiting already that the Melody would turn my crank in a big way and spell tailor-made to my aural specifications, I next threw at it the kind of unhinged vocals I always use for testing. This is to see whether a component under review can convey the energy and edge of passionate singing, without homogenizing or otherwise undermining the emotive charge encoded by the vocalist. My favorite harvesting grounds for that are the male Cante Jondo in Flamenco; the Pakistani Sufi tradition called Qawwali made famous in the West by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan; Portuguese Fado sung by women; anything by Dhafer Youssef, Dulce Pontes, Lila Downs, Sezen Aksu, Yasmin Levy and George Dalaras; and heroic tenor in the operatic tradition.

First up was a surprisingly successful concept album whose project brief reads Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan meets Cameron de la Isla. Except the Qawwali contingent is headed by Faiz Ali Faiz whom many connoisseurs of this Sufi tradition consider the most likely heir to the Nusrat legacy. On the Flamenco side meanwhile, there's Juan 'Duquende' Cortés, the contemporary Spanish vocalist who most recalls the legendary Camaron. There's the youthful cantaor Miguel Poveda who also works well outside Flamenco as his latest album Deslaç [Discmedi
DM4125-02] shows off beautifully. And then there's the glue holding together Flamenco and Qawwali ensembles, the guitarist Juan 'Chicuelo' Goméz. His artistic direction makes this experimental encounter of disparate traditions far more persuasive than the precursor project between Enrique Morente and the Sabri Brothers.

Qawwali isn't about pretty. It's about transporting the audience into states of heightened emotional shining. The solo singer and backup chorus are in charge of navigating whatever psychic obstacles they may sense in their listeners. Then they build up intensity once a proper opening has been created, stirring the embers into roiling flames for as much heat as possible. In that, Qawwali is like Southern gospel where the faithful join the chorus and are often brought to tears. The focus is on shared faith in the Divine; making it tangible as bodily presence. The descent of the Holy Ghost as Christians would put it. The winged heart of the Sufis. Top-of-the-lungs singing becomes the catalyst. In Qawwali's case alas, the burden of this dimensional shift rests entirely on the performers. The audience simply listens, dances or claps. Fame in this tradition then is directly proportionate to the profundity of the shift. How far down into the other dimension can it project fellow travelers in the aisles?

While Flamenco singing lacks Qawwali's and Gospel's spiritual center and is far more earthbound like the Blues, its implicit goal is to drop into the self-forgetful consummation of duende and transmit that raw depth to the listeners as a space they get drawn into. You could say then that both traditions are about raising hairs. Whether those hairs happen to grow on the nape, the chest or occupy the short'n'curly nether regions becomes rather immaterial.

Unlike the 300B Canarys -- single-ended and push/pull -- which diluted some of the bite and energetic piercing that transmit across the empty space between speakers and seat and burrow straight into your heart and between the eyes, the Melody's 2A3s squarely hit their targets. Whether on "Tango al mar" with its endless standing audience applause at the end or the Nusrat special "Dam mast qalander" which here is performed at a very ambitious clip, with the heavy-metal scatting the master made popular all executed with a fiery and fresh young voice at full power in its uppermost register, the music most assuredly raised hairs. Making sure my wife was still in her studio -- this music drives her crazy -- I raised the volume and accompanied Faiz Ali Faiz on his heavenly trip. No illegal substances required for full lift-off.

I don't know about your listening preferences. But this kind of thing -- getting triggered into an altered space by the sheer force of unrestrained vocalizing -- sits at the top of my charts. I don't really care what does it for you as long as something does. If a system or component doesn't accommodate that transmission of energy, the highest reason why one should listen has already vanished, the true audiophile goal abandoned. Doing pretty and civilized just doesn't cut it. And the Melody I2A3 gives you the energy uncut, easily clearing that most important and in many ways highest hurdle.

Transient fidelity is the proper audiophile term for this phenomenon. Prerequisites with speakers, among others, are lack of phase shift and good damping. Then percussive events are rendered with proper incision and intensity. Even minute ripples on Lake Music translate as living entities rather than canned and frozen remnants of what could and should have been. With tubes, this is the special providence of single-ended circuits due to the challenges of keeping push/pull valve amps precisely biased. Melody's trim screws are deliberately lazy. You have to turn a lot for little response. That might be frustrating but becomes necessity to securely lock in a fixed value just so. The lack here of paralleled valves -- which would raise the chances of misbehavior especially under dynamic transient conditions -- must be considered an added bonus in this regard.

With challenging material like Dulce Pontes' collaboration with Ennio Morricone for Focus [Forum 980 829-0], dynamic crests always present literal edge walking. With female high notes at full tilt, you'd rather err on the side of caution. It prevents instances of glare. Where the 45s in the Yamamoto can take such risks occasionally over the edge, the Sovtek 2A3s of the Melody walked on it. If you know the challenges Dulce Pontes in particular can present, you'll appreciate the accomplishment. Incidentally, Focus sets to song Morricone's most famous movie melodies. As such, it walks another kind of edge - that between pathos and schmaltz, especially because Westerners demand lyrics. While a certain dose of Celine Dion kitsch thus becomes unavoidable, the album makes the cut especially as an audiophile test CD that will quickly lay bare shortcomings. And a golden-throated lady of Dulce's immaculate Fado-steeped musical instincts is glorious even when she crosses over while the massed strings get turned on.

In one important way, the Melody integrated produced the best sound I've yet enjoyed in my new Cyprus residence. It didn't diminish a single virtue that led me to purchase my Yamamoto review loaner. Yet it added just enough body above and beyond the leaner 45s to not affect ambient recovery one wit or weigh down innate speed. Spinning Oleg Ponomarev's Master of the Russian Gypsy Violin [ARC Music 1977] was another great example. Rosin; varying degrees of glinty upper harmonics dependant on bow pressure and drawing speed; true brilliance on flageolet or edge-of-bridge bowing; the illusion of a master fiddler standing in my room to turn a mellow Moravian doina into a diabolically virtuoso showcase of conservatory-trained speed and flawless intonation was quite spooky. Especially at 2300 hours with a fat moon hanging over Coral Bay. Lev Atlas was scraping a heated Gypsy rhythm on his violin, John Gilligan doubled it below on his upright bass while Oleg traversed the full breadth of his violin's registers in swoops, glissandos and trills, occasionally followed by Drazen Djerek's guitar. Truly riveting stuff.

I nearly had to pinch myself, temper my mounting excitement. What would a quartet of Emission Labs premium 2A3s add? I was listening to standard Sovteks. Was this circuit deliberately voiced around "commoner's variants" just as Mick Maloney of Supratek does? It saves audiophiles the often silly expense of NOS or current designer glass. Vis-a-vis the solid-plate EMLs in my Yamamoto, the Russians tubes certainly acquitted themselves with bravado. Checking valve supplier Aydn, a pair of matched Electro-Harmonix lists for $85, Valve Arts starts at $41 and TJs in mesh or mesh/globe variants go for $239. TheTubeStore lists a pairs of Sovteks for $65. KRs command $375/pr, EMLs $348. The reason why even Sovteks sounded so good in the Melody might have been the other tubes on deck. That complement of 101D and 6SN7s recalls the mondo Supratek Cabernet Dual preamp from Oz. Too neat to be coincidental? Regardless, the Melody has clearly been voiced by a very gifted designer. If it thereby covers ground others have as well, it only proves that great ears hear alike. And agree on the ingredients to achieve their goals. Especially once you factor in that the Supratek is $8,000 and still requires separate amplification.

Because the lure of premium valves remains hypnotic, let me stress it once more. The Sovteks here did not betray their affordable roots with coarseness or steeliness as might be expected. Also recall the premium Jensen paper-in-oil capacitors. They're one big reason why the affordable Red Wine Audio Signature 30 has its Tripath chip sing as it does. The I2A3 is anything but shy in its use of these upscale Scandinavian parts. The sonic end result must be considered the sum of everything on board and possibly multiplies in steep logarithmic fashion. As an aside, the 101D is notoriously microphonic. Over my speakers, it rings like a bell on the Supratek whenever tapped. No such speaker transmission occurs over the Melody since it's not the 101D but rather, four 2A3s on its outputs.

Let's tally the score so far. The Melody is just a skoch softer around the edges than the Yamamoto. In music player parlance, that leans forward on its chair a bit while the Melody sits fully upright (and the aforementioned Canarys lean back and slouch some). Dimensionality of soundstaging is first-rate. Upper-frequency air is fully evident on strings and percussion. Rhythmic elan is unhampered by the thickness often evident with push/pull valve amps. Bass seems exceptional for a valve amp, self noise MIA. The I2A3 is a subjectively fast, pristine and very transparent amp. Damper pedal detail on piano is dead obvious. You hear and see the physical action. Reflections in the recording venue are easily heard, decay trails nicely elongated.

Microdynamic agility is very good while not quite as charged as with the Yamamoto. Macro swings are bigger, likely due to the power increase. Articulation in the 100Hz power zone of the upper bass is impressive, ably demonstrated on piano by Joan Brossa's "Final!" tango on Miguel Poveda's latest. The harmonic envelope around vocals and its modulated spray is very apparent, always most interesting with singers who deliberately go hoarse or raspy on peaks (or, for an extreme, who have cultivated the eerie art of Tuvan throat singing). Fans of Leonard Cohen or Paolo Conte gravel too will appreciate this aspect. Such voices are complex, like the facial maps of old farmers brutalized by decades of intense sun exposure. The Melody is very astute in rendering such character and personality fully intact, wrinkles and all.

A very practical benefit of low noise floor and good dynamics is the ability to play this amp at low volumes without losing much. Conversely, you can also play it at rather intense levels. It won't compress. Sure, 18 watts can be made to eventually clip if you use the wrong speakers. Prospective I2A3 owners should be savvy enough to understand such matters. The 480mV input sensitivity shows that the machine has plenty of gain to be suitable for a wider array of loudspeakers than the far more limited options my A-08S presents.

This is a smooth operator with virility and life, something that's often mutually exclusive by varying degrees. It's fascinating and sobering just how much it mirrors the Supratek plus Yamamoto combo. In one box. That it costs as little as it does by comparison, is built like a bomb shelter and as quiet as only true world-class valve amps tend to be are add-on perks for smart shoppers. Plus, these are powerful arguments in favor of simplified box count. Add the Raysonic CD128 ahead -- the German Stereo magazine just heaped serious praise on the Ayon Audio CD-1 version in its October issue -- and something efficient like a DeVore Super 8 or Zu Druid aft. You'll have yourself a truly first-rate system that common sense can embrace without making any concessions to upscale audiophile aspirations. There's nothing the Melody can't do that copasetic speakers would ask from it. I could bore you with album listings of complex orchestral war horses to document proof. Instead, rest assured that such tests took place and evidenced nothing to the contrary.

Even after running 12 hours nonstop -- what goes for a normal work day around here -- the amp chassis didn't break a sweat as some Class A amps will which can get hotter than sin. Add the integral tube cover and even domestic disputes are preempted. Though 'merely' an integrated amplifier, the Melody HiFi LLC I2A3 is a full-fledged, ultra-serious machine. Its only limitations -- for some -- are the lack of remote, pre-out and upper-digit output power. What else is new? Entire fiefdoms have been built on low-power tube amplifiers with these exact qualifiers. Few of those cut as classy a profile and perform as uncompromised.

Life in this sector of the hobby is very good. Kudos to Mingus Chu and Shi He Wang, for not pricing their exotic integrated in accordance with what the market would bear based on sheer performance. A lot more for sure. Three grand isn't exactly chopped liver yet no more than a fully bells-and-whistled-out Denon home theater receiver. Need I say more? Let's just hope that Melody can grant its new US distributor sufficient time without applying unrealistic sales volume expectations. Those have a tendency to retaliate. Sooner than later, the seven dwarves and all their illicit offspring violate promised exclusivity and sell by hook or crook from all directions. That invariably destroys a brand's hope for credible dealer support and demonstration facilities. If the Melody I2A3 doesn't move on its own merit, it'll be because of dealer mistrust based on precedents; because the American audio boulevards are no longer lined with gold; because competition is fierce; because iPods, cell phones, PDAs and personal computers have replaced the lifestyle necessity which a high-performance audio system once occupied. It won't be because the I2A3 isn't a full-blown stunner.

I'll put it to you differently. Many amps have come through my digs since I acquired the Yamamoto. Many more before that. None of the sincers have created serious itch to own 'em. That's because the little Yammy fits my current system context like a peg with zero wiggle room. It's a perfect Japanese woodworker's lock joint, no compensatory nails or glue necessary. All the other review amps left wiggle room, somewhere, making me impatient to get the Yamamoto back in the rack, eventually. This Melody upstart is the first amp I'd have to buy if the Yamamoto wasn't paid for. If instead, it had to return to its maker. That's how brilliantly it matches my notions of persuasive music making and superb sound; how perfectly it fits the pre/power amp slot created by my ancillary reference choices. In fact, in the realm of tone, it exceeds the Yamamoto by a small but meaningful margin. That becomes apparent on upper piano ivories tickled very lightly, for example. Where the Yamamoto then focuses on the percussive elements only, the Melody manages to preserve a higher timbral aspect. It adds more tone to the tinkle. And, it's even quieter than the A-08S - which seems very hard to do. It's thus a five-star recommendation for those who've lusted after an A-08S but didn't have efficient-enough speakers to accommodate it nor the wallet to add a premium tube preamp. Welcome to the US, shiny black Melody champ. Finally!

In Cypriot Dan's system, the little Melody proved dead-quiet into 110dB+ ALE compression horns. When I say dead-quiet, I mean completely and utterly inaudible. With the head in the horn. Dan's collection includes numerous cost-no-object valve amps that won't remotely ace that brutal challenge.

What's more, the Melody's performance in his rig was so sterling that Dan ordered one for himself, to run a pair of 108dB Avantgarde Duo Omegas in another room. Dan disagreed with my findings on only one count. He owns many different 45, 2A3, 300B, 845 and 211 amps and has an enviable collections of 10s, 50s and other exotic valves. And the amps to use all of that glass with. "The Melody does not sound like a 2A3 amp. At all!" This a few short moments into the first track. "People are mistaken for how they characterize the tube. 2A3s belong between the 45 and the 845, not the 300B. 2A3s go fuzzier, grainier and slower, just not as much as the 845 does. Unless you refer to the original Kondo Ongaku which breaks the rules below 10KHz. 300Bs are altogether different. They don't belong in this comparison."

It seems the only thing you shouldn't take to the bank about my review is assuming that the Melody is representative of the customary 2A3 genre. Apparently it's truly atypical for the amount of crystalline clarity it shares with the 45 and its total refusal to go even subtly soft focus. My ears told me plainly that it was a virtual stand-in for an EML 45. I just didn't realize how unusual this seems to be. Chalk it up as merely another feather in the I2A3's plumed cap.

Postscript 2:
A recent opportunity to hear a pair of Fi 2A3 monos in my digs proved the humble Sovteks to be somewhat coarse all around and minorly bright and harsh in the lower treble. These aren't qualities I associate with Don Garber's creations at all (unfortunately I had no premium 2A3s on hand to out the Sovteks for certain). Still, the exercise proved fruitful since the same Russian output tubes are the epitome of elegance and poise in the Melody I2A3, convincing me further that its circuit was specifically voiced around these affordable tubes. This might truly be a case where fancy bottles will do little more but dig a hole in your wallet. Granted, it's not a popular thing to believe yet the Melody seems to indicate a very successful exception to the rule that rare and expensive tubes are mandatory to hear any amp at its best. That's excellent news indeed.
US distributor's website