I really admire a company with a mission. Not the mission to make the most money in the shortest time, of course - but to take a particular house design and to develop, refine and perfect it with utter disregard for what the rest of the world's doing. With his series of active speakers, Bob Stuart at Meridian has been on this mission for as long as I can remember; and there are many other examples in the audio field, and in many other manufacturing areas for that matter. Porsche, with their 911 series, is an outstanding example.

New Zealand manufacturer Perreaux has quietly followed this same path. And half an hour in front of the fire with the instruction manual for the Radiance 200i amplifier will be enough to convince you of the Perreaux team's dedication to build a better mousetrap, then explain just how and why they built it, and how you may determine whether it indeed is a better mousetrap. The first chapter of the manual is entitled "The Decision Making Process". It advises you to:

Read hi-fi and audio visual magazines, particularly the equipment reviews and letters to the editor sections. Use these as a general guide only, and try to read "between the lines". Remember no one specifically sets out to downgrade a particular piece of equipment, so what is not included in the review is often as important as the actual printed content.

The second chapter is an introduction to the Perreaux Radiance Series, personally signed by the Managing Director, Martin van Rooyen. Martin highlights the key features of the amplifier in these words:

  • Compact
  • Stylish
  • High-powered design
  • Dual mono, linear power supply construction
  • Enhanced audio design, featuring noninvasive protection system, fill DC-coupling, minimal internal wiring, non-magnetic componentry and advanced MOSFET output stage
  • Fully microprocessor controlled, featuring high level control, protection and display options
  • Remote controller, custom designed and built
  • Phono and USB options
  • Fully software upgradeable.

The manual also has chapters on "The Power MOSFET" and "Maximizing System Potential". You get a further sense -- for the missionary zeal propelling this company -- from an examination of their website. Here you learn that Perreaux has been producing MOSFET-based amplifiers since 1979. And you'll find this extraordinary statement: "In the entire history of Perreaux and after the sale of many thousands of units, warranty claims have been virtually nil". The web site outlines the strategy used to keep those claims low, and a comparison of the Perreaux sound with the sound of its competitors. Perreaux claims that many others roll off the high and low frequencies while they instead maintain a flat response at all frequencies (specifications: preamp 5Hz-100KHz ±0.25dB, amp 5Hz-30KHz ±0.25dB). This leads to a sound that may, by comparison with amps which are more rolled off in the frequency extremes, appear itself depressed in the vocal range. All this makes for fascinating reading. But then I've heard good stories -- and good sound -- from other manufacturers, too. So for now, we'll take all this as advertising.

The Radiance series sits at the top of three ranges of amplification which Perreaux produces. At the entry level is the E series [upper right], in the middle the Reference series [lower right]. The Radiance R200i is a clean-sheet design, which reputedly took three years of development. Every aspect of the design is said to have been rethought, with a special eye on future-proofing your investment.

Perreaux has recently appointed Audio Advisor as its new North America distributor. You can buy the products on-line, with a 30-day money-back guarantee. That also means you won't be hearing this integrated amplifier in your neighborhood stereo store. $4000 seems like a lot of money to be spending on an item you haven't even seen, let alone heard. There's plenty of competition at this price point. Musical Fidelity, Jeff Rowland, Krell and fellow New Zealanders Plinius come to mind. You can surely afford to skip on this one. Yeah. Or can you?

An amplifier would have to be pretty special to stand out in this market segment. The design team would have had to come up with an astounding design, something to make other designers sit up and think. The key word then? Minimalism. This amplifier is no bigger than it has to be, has no more controls than it has to have, with a signal path no longer than absolutely necessary. In fact, there's virtually no wiring in the signal path at all.

You may be familiar with the unconventional looks of some earlier Perreaux Products, especially the curvaceous Reference 200i amplifier above. To these eyes, that design was over the top. The R200i [left], the first member of the new Radiance series, certainly has a futuristic look to it, but it's one you might expect from B&O or Sony. Top quality finishes are applied in a cosmetically fetching manner. The cover is a thick acrylic, the external heatsinks run the amp's full depth on each side. There are just five tiny controls on the unit itself: A button for on/off; volume up and down respectively; menu/enter; and mute/exit. These tiny controls are inset, along with a status display, into a wide oval window in the satin or black chrome aluminium faceplate. Unless you kept the amplifier at eye level, I don't think you'd be using these controls very much.

Instead, you'll operate this baby from its remote control, made from cast zinc alloy. A lot of thought went into this remote. It is very heavy and well laid out, but for my hands, some of the less frequently used buttons are too close together. The remote is designed to control two future Radiance series products - a CD player and a tuner. There are buttons to adjust volume, balance, speaker B switching, mute, power, and to display the temperature of the left and right heatsinks! You select the source by pressing a number from 1 to 5, or you can delve into the menu system instead. After some practice, I learned how to control the amplifier through that menu. It is remarkable just what you can control: Adjust the initial volume after power up; set a maximum volume level; assign a label to each input to show in the status window; control the brightness of the display; set input 4 to bypass the preamp section for a Home Theater thru-put. There's also an energy-saver setting to automatically revert to standby if no user activity is sensed for a customer-specified period of time, from 1 hour to 2 days. Now that's quite a range of adjustments, brought to you by the power of microprocessors. I would prefer a larger remote control, with less cryptic markings on the keys making it more intuitive for less frequent users. For example, what would you expect a button marked T to do (hint: T=temperature)? There's also a button marked 'mono', meant to control the Radiance tuner, with no corresponding effect on the amplifier proper.

The R200i is a true dual-mono design, with two large toroidal transformers for the amplification circuits, plus a separate smaller toroid for all the control circuitry. Four filter capacitors are coupled in parallel to provide 40,000uF per channel. High grade dual-sided fiber glass printed circuit boards contain circuit tracks of 2oz copper, which is used instead of point-to-point wiring. The preamplifier i/o ports are soldered directly to the printed circuit board. The high-quality volume control has 60 settings and uses an electronically controlled resistance ladder. With no moving parts, this should provide excellent long-term reliability. Indeed, the parts throughout are of excellent quality, and mechanically this is as well put together as anything I have seen. Each output stage uses 3 N/P pairs of Toshiba high-current MOSFETs, with a maximum current capability of 36 amps. The power output is 200/360wpc into 8/4 ohms Roughly speaking, the first 10 watts are pure class A before power transitions to A/B.

200 watts per channel is a lot for an amplifier of its size [16.9" x 4.1" x 13.4"] and weight [30 lbs/13.5 kg], and there is no room for massive heat sinks. Instead, the amplifier incorporates thermal sensing circuitry. If operating temperature of a heat sink exceeds 85ºC, that respective channel will be disconnected and allowed to cool. An 'over temp' message will display. During my six months with the amp, I never saw any of these messages. Simply put, the heat sink temperature never exceeded 52ºC, hovering mostly around the 48ºC mark. If your speakers were inefficient and you enjoyed high volume levels, the amp would run hotter. You then might be better off with a cooler running amp for your system. The R200i additionally monitors catastrophic over-current events, such as the accidental shorting of speaker output terminals. The amplifier will shut down, displaying an 'over current' message. There's also an electronic clipping protection circuit to instantaneously scale back volume and display 'clipping'. It is this ultra-sophisticated protection system that allows the designers to safely build so much power into such a petite chassis.

On the rear of the amplifier are 4 sets of RCA and one set of balanced inputs. In my testing, I could not hear any difference between either RCA or XLR paths, though longer cable runs might emphasize this. There are two sets of high-quality binding posts per channel and twin sets of single-ended outputs. I would have liked to see greater clearance between the various connectors - some beefier RCA plugs will end up too close for comfort. There's also a remote master trigger input and 2 trigger outputs.

In case all this weren't enough for you, the amplifier can also be upgraded. You may add either a phono or USB/DAC module to stream audio directly from a computer hard disk. Neither option was available at the time of testing, so I hope to pen a follow up if I can get my hands on these upgrades.

As a function of <.004Ω output impedance, Perreaux claims an extraordinarily high damping factor of over 2000. So you might expect the amp to exercise strong control over the speakers while coping nonchalantly with difficult loads. I drove my Wilson Benesch Act 1 speakers and AKG K1000 headphones respectively, both of which have caused grief for lesser amplifiers. Let's start listening.