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Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Source: Accustic Arts Drive-1; Audio Aero Prima SE
Preamp/Integrated: Onix SP3 Melody [on review]
Speakers: Gallo Reference 3
Cables: Crystal Cable Reference speaker cables and power cords; Stealth Audio Cables Indra and Sextet
Stands: Grand Prix Audio Monaco four-tier
Powerline conditioning: 2 x Walker Audio Velocitor S
Sundry accessories: GPA Formula Carbon/Kevlar shelf for tube amps; GPA Apex footers underneath stand and speakers; Walker Audio SST on all connections; Walker Audio Vivid CD cleaner; Furutech RD-2 CD demagnetizer; WorldPower cryo'd Hubbell wall sockets;
Room size: 30' w x 18' d x 10' h [sloping ceiling] in long-wall setup in one half, with open adjoining living room for a total of ca.1000 squ.ft floor plan and significant 'active' cubic air volume of essentially the entire (small) house
Review component retail: $999

"Holy F-hole!" (I've wanted to say that forever. It's got such a nice - er, musical ring to it.) Even though I already knew that the Onix SP3 5881/6L6 integrated performed well beyond its sticker price when asked to drive the 95dB Cain & Cain single-driver Abbys and its own Onix Ref1MkII 2-way bookshelf stable mate, I wasn't quite prepared for what it would do when asked to power a serious load like the 88dB sealed Gallo Reference 3-ways with those monstrous long-stroke 10" woofers. Mind you, I had suspicions. They cried out for today's match up, simply to prevent folks from not according this Chinese-sourced affordable piece the respect it might deserve. So I threw a $10,000 front-end at it, a pair of $6,000 interconnects, designer speaker cables, super-fancy power cords, a known load that thrives on massive transistor current - the whole overkill works just to see what would 'appen.

For reference, I know what the Gallos will do in the bottom register even without bi-amp assistance from their woofers' 2nd voice coils. The H20 M250 [right] and JJAZ ICEpower monos currently in-house do things in the bottom octaves not matched by any other amplifier topology I've had through here yet. Think combination of iron grip and black-leather whip that redefines notions about low-frequency transients, control and articulation, never mind adding reach. I also know that the 8wpc MiniMax push-pull amp mated to its hi-gain MiniMax preamp has no trouble driving the Gallos in the relative near-field louder than I can stand. In fact, Gallo's Kiwi importer routinely demoes the Ref3s with the MiniMax amp - and not just to be contrarious or weird but simply because it works really well and for a relative song.

But as they say, hearing -- for oneself -- is believing. Count me among the Melody believers now. The SP3 and Gallos tangoed as well together as the two impossibly intertwined professional young dancers during the closing credits of Robert Duvall's Assassination Tango that make the otherwise questionable movie. The 8-ohm tap created the best power transfer and bass control was so good that I opted to face the Gallos' woofers outwards. This is more linear and honest but also removes a bit of reinforcement that can warm up the midbass power zone if a room is so sizeable as to make the other orientation a bit lean. The SP3 didn't need no stinkin' reinforcement, thank you very much.

No, leading edges below 80Hz didn't have that peculiar tensioned gestalt the ICEpower amps impose but in terms of articulation, the SP3 wasn't far off at all. Where the Eastern Electric begins to show its limitations into this load's low bass performance by getting a little bloomy, mellow and indistinct, the Onix amp did not. This non-tubey behavior extended across the entire frequency range for clear evidence of a modern, taut and very grippy valve amp.

It's got tone in terms of image density and intensity. In fact, heft, fullness and dynamics are shockingly good. But this is not an EL34 amp that billows and washes out the edges. It's also not a PX25 amp with that mysterious lit-from-within quality. The SP3 is about brass balls and linearity and, apparently, very real drive. It's about scale, big waves and solidity. It's slightly phat in a very good way -- endowed, blustery -- that's got nothing in common with the lush life and its general softness. Paolo Conte's piano and gravelly voice sounded manly and massive, full of juice and beard stubble and irreverence. While the SP3 is arguably not the last word in separating the finest of lines like the best SETs, its own charm is one of muscular swagger, can-do attitude and a constant sense of displacement. On certain lesser recordings, the stock 5881s telegraphed occasional glimpses of minor midrange brightness, something clearly on the recording but not prettified though tube rolling might well inject a skoch of gentility.

I found myself looking for road-house and boogie-woogie piano because the SP3 and Gallos really loved to rumble down low. Paolo Conte was the closest thing I had on hand. When the seductive Pink Panther trombone entered the humorous tango of "L'Avance" [Nonesuch 79818-2] and performed that spittle-in-the-throat lion's roar, I sat there entranced with the somewhat seedy nightclub vibe of it all, feeling juiced and inspired and in a slightly raunchy mood myself. It would be easy to pass up on the SP3 because it's - well, Chinese, affordable and kinda small. On paper at least, 38wpc don't sound terribly awe-inspiring either. Truth is, the Melody amp sounds more like the 80wpc I remember from my Unison Research Unico. With the Audio Aero DAC set to output the industry-standard 2V, I didn't manage to get the volume past high-noon. While SETs have cornered the esoteric in-scene, minimalist push-pullers (those that only use 2 valves per side) enjoy their very own appeal. They often can sound plain huge. The cancellation of 2nd-order THD and the usual inclusion of feedback -- which curiously doesn't seem to be the no-no it is with single-ended -- make for more concreteness, better drive and more useful power.

And while raw power often isn't what speakers need -- driving one with a lot less paper power than is intuitive can be an educational wake-up call -- many will respond in very audible ways when the controlling hands get bigger and firmer. The Onix SP3 makes this type of argument. Its 43 lbs of material oomph then also remind us that there's some serious iron underneath those anthracite-lacquered hoods - quality and quantity.

It runs barely warm, it doesn't hum, it's shockingly quiet even over 95dB speakers, it's extremely well built, it's got a resistor-ladder type attenuator, it looks good with or without the tube dampers and cage, it's affordable... and it's a serious HiFi machine, not a toy.

I'm always on the lookout for components I can recommend without thinking twice. Most affordable transistor amps this far just aren't as much fun and emotionally compelling as their thermionic brethren (though I'll be reporting on some very promising low-power battery-driven Tripath variants soon). Micro-power valve amps require just the right kind of speaker load and listening habits to mandate very specific match-ups. Those are impossible to ascertain from the kind of distance that's intrinsic to reviewer recommendations by e-mail and to complete strangers. Valve amps with rarefied output bottles can be expensive to maintain and many produce more heat than is acceptable in warm climates.

Enter the SP3. This Onix piece has enough raw grunt and real-world power to become a close-to blanket recommendation as long as you -- is you is or is you ain't -- talking Thiels, Aerials, panel speakers and other known power mongers. Being a 1st-order series design without a network on the mid/tweeter transition, the Gallos are arguably somewhat of a forgiving load. But the plain fact remains that a $1,000 tube integrated has no business manhandling 10-inch acoustic suspension woofers with Sunfire-type surrounds like today's babe managed as easy as humble pie. I feel comfortable that any normal passive 3-way without punishing impedance kinks will work just fine in a standard-size listening/living room.

To arrive at that personal assurance is pretty much what today's exercise was all about. While I need another amp like a hole in my head, I do like to collect a few affordable but choice specimens to have on hand for reviews (and for that second or third system whenever I finally move into a bigger house). I'm buying this review unit. It's part of both the job description and my passion for the hobby. Remember what Rocky said to Tali Shire's Adrian in 1976? Sure you do. Insert here then. Like Solomon in the days of old, heavy judgment has been passed. Except that in this instance, it didn't require fancy Solomonic -- or audiomoronic -- deliberations. Any old or young music lover off the street would have done (and that includes TripHop and other boombastic high-output fare). Certain things are simply dead obvious. So here goes: In its genre, the Onix SP3 tube integrated is my new no-brainer Recommendation Numero Uno. End of story, exclamation mark. Add a smiley face for good measure. Now where's my tired old wallet?
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