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Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Source: Accustic Arts Drive-1; Audio Aero Prima SE [on loan]; Consonance Droplet CDP 5.0 [on review]
Preamp/Integrated: Bel Canto PRe2; ModWright SWL 9.0SE; Eastern Electric MiniMax
Amp: Red Wine Audio Clari-T Custom [on review]
Speakers: Zu Cable Druid Mk4; AKG K-1000s with Stefan AudioArt wiring harness
Cables: Stealth Audio Varidig S/PDIF, Stealth Audio Indra (x2), Zu Cable Ibis speaker cable; ZCable Hurricane power cords on both conditioners
Stands: 2 x Grand Prix Audio Monaco four-tier
Powerline conditioning: 2 x Walker Audio Velocitor S
Sundry accessories: GPA Formula Carbon/Kevlar shelf for transport; 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; Musse Audio resonance dampers on DUO subs
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
Review Component Retail: $499 for integrated version; $699 for stand-alone Custom amp

Anyone who's ever turned over a car engine on a bitterly cold, bone-jarring winter morning knows that batteries can provide current. If you own a gas-guzzling V8 SUV and live, say in Colorado's mountain range between Durango and Telluride, you also know that it's recommended you install a special battery with even greater crank power. That's to reliably waken the beast from its daily hibernation during annual ice age season. With our thinking thus properly attuned, we are prepared to concede that battery-powered amplifiers -- into the right loads like V4s -- can not only get us off (the power grid) but also into the necessary current supply to control speakers. Not just any speakers, however. There is good reason why DC-powered phono stages à la Sutherland and even preamps like Reflection Audio are an existing if esoteric category while battery-powered amplifiers are essentially from Venus and audiophiles from Mars.

That's because most amplifier makers anticipate manly men's speakers to be wired up to their creations. They always err on the side of excess grunt and power reserves - just in case. Driving a 4-ohm 88dB speaker requires powa. Getting it from batteries would likely mandate some sort of battleship monstrosity. Its recharge protocol wouldn't be the only aspect unwieldy about it. But some audiophiles are from Venus and their speakers highly sensitive femmy affairs. Their needs are copasetic with micro power. It's for this forward-thinking contingent of listeners that Vinnie Rossie of Red Wine Audio has launched his underground and very descriptively christened Clari-T amp.

Michael Lavorgna's refusal to get down and Neanderthal with brutish speakers awarded him feature review honors of today's units. His 95dB Cain & Cain Abbys are just the sort of speakers the Clari-T was made for. As the owner, publisher and Editor of this little ship, I'm naturally supposed to be able to one-up my crew when the occasion warrants. You pick these opportunities carefully to assure victory, of course. Proudly owning Zu Cable's break-out 101dB Druid Mk4s, being boss made this one of those times. Not only did I have a 6dB efficiency advantage on Michael, I had a 12-ohm load to boot. The man who would be king - for a day. The only open question in my mind was whether the Tripath chip's impedance vs. frequency specs would boost or prematurely roll off the uppermost treble.

The standard Clari-T as an integrated with shunt-mode passive volume control is challenged in the spatial/ dimensional domain and harmonically bleached; fast, very resolved, rhythmically endowed; and a very potent 6 watts - exactly as Michael already reported. Being a valve man, I concur with him further that the Clari-T is an amp in search of a buxom (valved) pre. In Vinnie's christening vein, we shall call it the 2-B. Mind you, for the price asked, these Tripath amps are silly good. Alas, true greatness eludes them until their harmonic envelope gets an endowment fund from the valve camp and the rather compact soundstage opens up into the depth dimension.

I had just the perfect pardner - Dan Wright's SWL 9.0SE remote-controlled 5687-based tube pre. Okay, that's 2,200 bucks, on paper a rather stouter sum than seems warranted to bequeath on a $699 amp. But I also had the $799 Eastern Electric MiniMax hi-gain preamp. Now here's a trick that can extend my superior results with the SWL to other tonally padded tube preamps that are less good at being quiet than the ModWright piece. You see, the Clari-T Custom's two gain-set resistors on the Tripath chip are identical to those on the passive integrated. This equates to 26dB of gain and an input sensitivity of 0.5V. That input sensitivity is far too high to be truly copasetic with most active preamps. It curtails useful volume range and, especially with valve units, drives up the noise. I suggested Vinnie reduce the Custom's gain and simultaneously lower its input sensitivity. All that was required was changing the two resistor values on the chip. Vinnie loved the idea and will henceforth incorporate it as a custom-tailored adjustment, by asking his customers what preamp they wish to use and what the sensitivity of their speakers is.

My 30-watt Audiopax monos at 18dB of gain and with an input sensitivity of around 1.4V make the SWL preamp truly silent on the 101dB Druids. Minutes after my call, Vinnie had already assembled a spread sheet of different resistor values accompanied by how they'd reduce gain in decibels, from a possible 27.6dB all the way down to 15.56dB. Using my Audiopax experience as a gauge, I requested 17.84 which reduced the original 34kOhm resistor to 13kOhm. Off the Custom went back into wineland for its sex change and a few days, she was back with a far less aggressive gain structure. Baby. Vinny had included two load resistors to wire across the terminals if I wanted to experiment with my 120-ohm AKG K-1000 winged earspeakers. On paper, this looked like a perfect match and I set up a miniature headphone system with the Consonance Droplet CDP 5.-0.

With the Custom's gain knocked down for my Druids, I had just enough juice for stout playback levels, the attenuator of the Droplet (50 equating to zero attenuation) around 45. However, I ran into occasional "crinkling cellophane" distortion, the same kind I've noted before with oscillating tube amps that didn't like the AKGs' impedance. It's something that occurs around the edges and sounds like a whitish rustling noise. Time to insert the regular Clari-T with its inbuilt volume control to ascertain whether the lowered gain of the Custom induced clipping.

Yup. A little gain can make all the difference when you need it. Now 10:00 o'clock on the integrated's control equated to the same listening levels as essentially running the Custom source-direct without any attenuation. If you're a K-man or K-itty, opt for the standard 26dB. You'll need it and never mind noise issues - there ain't any. However, even having tubes in the CDP didn't entirely ameliorate the AKG's innate tendency to whiten out the sonics a bit. I didn't have any "fat" interconnects on hand and the Crystal Cable Piccolos do not
add body. As a reviewer, I favor neutral cables to hear what components are doing. Owners on the other hand should certainly season to taste with some deliberate cable-induced enhancements. If I settled on the Clari-T as an AKG headphone amp, I'd get a warmish cable to pack some more meat on them bones. At $499 for the stock Clari-T, that's a very attractive proposition. Since Vinnie insists that the hot-running 5-watt 4-ohm load resistors should be used into the K-1000s' load, I'd ask him to permanently mount them on the Clari-T's insides if you were to use it as a dedicated integrated for these specific headphones.

And no, the Clari-T does not exhibit the otherworldly control and bass oomph of FirstWatt's F1 current-source amp. At a fraction of its price and eliminating the need for a preamp if your source doesn't have variable outputs, that's simply par for the course. It detracts nothing from the Clari-T as a very credible and affordable solution that can properly drive these unusual headphones. The Wine amp does not suffer any HF issues to exasperate the AGK's intrinsic weakness, one of the first items to check when shopping for a K-1000 amp without valves. What it doesn't provide by way of additive enhancements is harmonic bloom. Should you favor some of that, look for it in a preamp, tube-powered CD player and/or the right kind of interconnect. More importantly, the Clari-T commits no sins you'd first have to exorcise. It simply lives up to its name, telling you honestly what to expect - detail, speed and transparency (without any subliminal inner-ear ringing on my headphones). Time for the big rig.

As you can see, even the bigger Custom Clari-T amp nearly disappears compared to standard full-width components. Defiantly in opposition to the all-American motto of bigger-is-better, the Clari-Ts won't bolster insecure audiophiles one wit. If it's sex appeal rather than black-box drab you're after, you'll have to cough up about $1,200 and order one of Vinnie's Lotus amps. That packs the Custom plus further refinements into one of Louis Chochos' Makassar Ebony wood enclosures, adds a cool "classic style stainless steel 12V battery gauge with polished gold bezel, crescent moon pointer and incandescent backlighting" and gold knobs. But if you go out into the back parking lot for a quick show-me-yours-and-I-show-you-mine, you'll still come up well - er, short.

Back in the sound room meanwhile, the other guys will suddenly feel very sheepish. Fed with tubulous DAC and preamp juice and as part of a now dead-quiet high-efficiency system, the little Clari-T kicks royal bloody arse. So the little fella needs a little care in how it is matched. That's no different from any other 6-watter. The fact is, once you give it what it needs -- some help in the tone department, some assistance in the spatial depth perspective -- it delivers with a vengeance.

Certain previous reviewers have openly admitted that they didn't quite get the Clari-T. That was likely due to its power limitations. 6 watts will go plenty loud even into more standard speakers but control and drive will fall by the wayside. That prematurely bleaches out timbres, compresses on peaks, suffocates the soundstage, compromises the bass and leans out the sound. Once you're playing in the 95dB leagues, however, everything that got skewed and screwed below those efficiencies gets unskewed again. And yes, sensitivity is only one aspect - there are also phase angles and impedance fluctuations, all common-sense stuff really.

The Zu Druids are the perfect Clari-T speakers. Once you hear this combo, you will scratch your head and other prickly appendages. In this context and even at party levels, the Clari-T operates in cruise control. It rewards with impeccable detail retrieval, fast reflexes, microdynamic nuances and (with proper care!), a completely unhyped, relaxed, easy-peasy presentation that's transparent as hell and capable of subtleties that escape most affordable tube amps due to noise. It's not a giant killer in the sense that a true dragon slayer takes what comes and isn't picky about who to fight. The Clari-T has to handpick its opponents carefully or it'll get beat. But when things are right, it's sudden death behind its fist and time to cash in on the big odds stacked against it. Here are some examples and one Achilles heel:

Using Stealth Indras, I knew my cabling was the flat-out best there is. I knew as well that it wouldn't add warmth or mellow out any imperfections but call a spade a spade. If there's one recording that tells it as it is, it's the superlative The Ground by the Tord Gustavsen Trio [ECM 1892], possibly the best piano trio working today. Think lyrical ballads reminiscent of the best long-arc Metheny meditations; think Manfred Eicher recording quality. I'm not sure whether my 12-ohm load caused some frequency-domain shifts but the upper midrange of the piano had a slightly peakish, hot and sharp character which grew more pronounced with rising volumes.

It's as though the Zu drivers had rubbed shoulders with Lowthers. Nothing else suggested anything of compromise and was in fact truly impressive. But this sharpness in the upper midband on piano and, subsequently and to a somewhat lesser extent, on the key range of the flamenco guitar on Jason McGuire's wonderful debut album Distancias [Bolero Records 7116] prompted me to suspect that the Tripath chip might react in a somewhat non-linear fashion to non-standard higher impedances. Vinnie's load resistor into the 120-ohm K1000s clearly did not elicit a similar response which the AKGs would have not only ruthlessly revealed but emphasized. Perhaps the Druids would prefer just a dash of tailoring by way of an optimized resistor value across the amp's outputs as well? I decided instead to insert the price-matched Eastern Electric MiniMax which is a somewhat more vintage-voiced component (though extremely sensitive to tube-rolling and thus capable of morphing into multiple personalities).

Cowabunga. This was the ticket. Though slightly noisier -- but not at all objectionable and audible only as grunge-free white noise from within a half foot of the Druids' drivers -- the MiniMax's more classic THD spectrum warmed up the proceedings (which could have also been achieved with cabling and the ModWright but I didn't have anything suitable on hand). The inclusion of the Eastern Electric preamp introduced what acted as a slight tilt in the tonal balance. Suddenly everything was spot-on. You could say that the ModWright is the more honest of the two preamps. Seeing that if anything, the Clari-T errs on the side of excessive honesty, a slice of the lush life was just what the doctor ordered. Here now was the perfect balance between fast yet not zippy, precise yet not bland. Now the Clari-T was truly playing in the big leagues and living up to the sizzle on the forums.

Even better, the pre/power combo now weighed in at a combined $1,500, less than the ModWright preamp by itself. This match-up I can recommend wholeheartedly as long as you provide the proper speakers (something that Vinnie Rossie and his enthusiastic owners on AudioCircle's Red Wine Audio forum can certainly help you with). Mind you, further system tuning is available by rolling tubes in the pre and cables in general. While the Indras were wildly beyond overkill, they did serve as perfect reviewer tools. They simply don't introduce their own colorations which would overlay and interact with the component under evaluation. For cables, think plenty of copper for warmth and body and you'll be all set.

In conclusion, Red Wine Audio's Clari-T is a unique niche product with specific requirements to truly sing and bloom. The stand-alone amp has true potential for greatness when matched up with a tubed preamplifier like the MiniMax to complement its strengths and play to its weaknesses. The standard Clari-T is a bit more idiosyncratic to tube maniacs who'll appreciate its glacial purity and directness yet will miss their customary glow and dimensionality. To hear Vinnie's product at its "giant-killing" best, the stand-alone amp is mandatory. Be sure to match its gain to the preamp of your choice and the efficiency of your speakers. Then think tube pre like the MiniMax or the brand-new and very promising $1,295 PrimaLuna ProLogue 3 from Upscale Audio's enterprising Kevin Deal. For not a lot of scratch, you can then play in the big leagues and let no one tell you otherwise.
Red Wine Audio comments:

Hello Srajan,
Thank you for your follow-up review of both the standard and custom Clari-T-Amp. You certainly had a solid pair of high-efficiency speakers to show off what a clean 6 watts can do and after you added the tube preamp, your review went from good to "warm and glowing!" :-)

I also appreciate you taking the time to review the Clari-T-Amp driving the AKG K1000 headphones, making for a great little portable, noise-free headphone amp!

Again, a big "thank you" to you and Michael Lavorgna for your insightful, well-written Clari-T-Amp reviews (and lively photography that puts mine to shame)!


Vinnie Rossi
Red Wine Audio, Inc.

Manufacturer's website