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Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Source: Zanden Audio Model 2000P/5000S; Opera Audio Reference 2.2 Linear; Raysonic CD128 [on review]
Preamp/Integrated: ModWright SWL 9.0SE; Music First Audio Passive Magnetic; Bel Canto Design PRe3; Wyetech Labs Jade
EQ: Rane PEQ55 active merely below 40Hz
Amp: 2 x Audiosector Patek SE; Yamamoto A-08S; Canary Audio CA-308s; FirstWatt F3 & F1; Bel Canto e.One S300; Eastern Electric M-520; Butler Audio Monads [on review]; Canary Audio CA-339s [on review]
Headphones: AKG K-1000 w. hardwired Stefan AudioArt harness; audio-technica W-1000
Speakers: Zu Cable Definition Pro in custom lacquer; Anthony Gallo Acoustics Ref 3.1
Cables: Zanden Audio proprietary I²S cable, Zu Cable Varial, Gede, Libtech and Ibis; Stealth Audio Cable Indra, MetaCarbon & NanoFiber [on loan]; SilverFi interconnects; Crystal Cable Reference power cords; double cryo'd Acrolink with Furutech UK plug between wall and transformer
Stands: 1 x Grand Prix Audio Monaco Modular five-tier
Powerline conditioning: 2 x Walker Audio Velocitor S fed from custom AudioSector 1.5KV Plitron step-down transformer with balanced power output option
Sundry accessories: GPA Formula Carbon/Kevlar shelf for transport; GPA Apex footers underneath stand, DAC and amp; Walker Audio Extreme SST on all connections; Walker Audio Vivid CD cleaner; Walker Audio Reference HDLs; Furutech RD-2 CD demagnetizer
Room size: 16' w x 21' d x 9' h in short-wall setup, with openly adjoining 15' x 35' living room
Review Component Retail: $1,399
"It sounds like a SET amp that is perfect!"... "I never heard that layering before in that musical piece"... "I never knew there was a second voice in that song" ... "fantastic detail" "...smooth, very smooth..." "the horns sound fantastic"... "I have several SET amps in my house - actually, the best SET I have ever heard thanks to Roger Modjesky; and the best SEP I have ever heard (even Roger likes it though he did not design it)"... "I cannot take the Signature 30 out of the system...it is addicting...seductive... beguiling...fantastic"...
That's not a paid-for review. That's a paying customer talking. Here's another: "I think it is interesting to note that right out of the box, Richard and I both notice that there is no disconnect in refinement shifting gears between the Signature 30 and the other amps, Music Reference 45 in Richard's case [above quote - Ed.], Korneff 45 in mine. That this thing can hang with those amplifiers right out of the box should tell you something. The 45 tube is well known as audio crack. It is that addictive. It is also well known that Roger Modjeski and Jeff Korneff don't exactly suck at amp design. This comparative example right outa the gate is probably the best review one could offer. Off to a very impressive start here..."
For most critical punters, identifying a non-tube amp that could satisfy tube amp lovers long-term -- and not just tease before showing cracks -- has been the quintessential chase for the end of the rainbow. Finding one that's affordable? Yeah, right. But when actual owners of superior valve amps report a sighting, the wise yet weary take note. My closest personal discovery in this game has been the F3 by FirstWatt. No, it doesn't sound identical to my Yamamoto A-08S. But it's unreasonably close. Those remaining areas that are different are mostly that. Different. At $2,500, the F3 costs exactly what it should for today's utopian project brief. And yes, my tube amp is a bit wetter still. It also does that breathing wax'n'wane thing in a more palpable way. And the Power JFET amp is quieter, more dynamic and even purer.
Red Wine Audio's battery-charged, Tripath-powered 6wpc Clari-T has already made the underground rounds. It's proven itself an exceptionally affordable, highly credible attempt at the same utopia. I wouldn't say that it succeeds as brilliantly as Nelson Pass' creation. If abolishing tubes for good were the new apartheid rule. But for $499? Come on. It's simply silly. Good. With his new Signature 30, Vinnie Rossi -- whose mafiatorial nickname surely has to be "Get Off (the grid)" -- has packed everything he's learned into a solid but frill-free black box. Variable outputs allow for bi-amp or subwoofer scenarios. A premium DacT attenuator -- remote volume a $299 option -- allows for (but doesn't mandate) source-direct connection. A minimum of high-quality parts include Jensen paper-in-oil copper coupling caps instead of the Mundorf Silver Supremes of Vinnie's TEAC mod. And the essential Tripath TK2051 chip. Plus of course Red Wine's secret weapon: sealed, user-replaceable lead-acid batteries. To abolish the vagaries and noise of AC dependence. One more thing. There's now thirty 8-ohm watts on tap, not six (no 4-ohm rating given). That transforms this integrated amp into a veritable power house, in the genre where the underground buzz claims it competes: micro-power SETs. Excited yet?
Having recently heard a Jeff Korneff 45 SET with mercury vapor rectifier in Cyprus perform even better than $40,000 custom tube monos and a famous single-ended 300B OTL, I took the above chat room quotes quite serious. That Korneff is one hellaciously good amplifier. It's on par with the Yamamoto, possibly preferable if you value more tone. To see the Tripath mentioned in the same breath as the Korneff was pretty heady stuff then. To me. Naturally, I also had my doubts. Having heard Tripath, Toccata and ICEpower analog switching amps, none thus far have compelled me to give up valves. Mind you, I would give 'em up - and good riddance in a heartbeat. Why? Premium 45s or 300Bs are expensive. They age so gradually that you can never be sure how far your sound quality has deteriorated. That's an insidious whisper always at the back of your mind. Or, tubes mysteriously fail (one of my Emission Labs solid-plate 45s just did, thankfully still under warranty). And there's more.
Valves throw off heat to compete with my chosen Mediterranean climate. They can be noisy especially over the high-efficiency speakers I favor. I'm thus perfectly prepared to embrace set-in-stone transistors. If they'd just make me bloody stop hankering after valves sooner than later. Altogether. If they killed off all infatuation, lust and glorious memories like a fatal computer crash. I'd be happy to reboot my audiophile psyche with a new operating system that didn't glow in the dark. Alas, that's been Utopia thus far. I've come close but in the end, I've always reverted like a diehard junkie. Now on-line trouble makers with no other agenda than to share personal excitement claim... what, exactly? That for all of $1,699 fully remoted, there's a demure black box that might unplug our kind terminally from the vacuum matrix. This I simply had to hear for myself...
|Just as with chip amps, waxing poetic about a Tripath amp reeks of hyperbole. There's the prefab angle - an op amp on one side, a digital power processing IC on the other. There's inherent simplicity which invites DIY. Which couldn't possibly compete with the professional big guns sez the mainstream. It's not complex enough.|
|It's not esoteric enough. That means, it's not sexy enough. Never mind not expensive enough to be taken serious. You see the issues at hand. Which shouldn't stop value-conscious, performance-hankering 'philes. Still, perception being what it is, it often does. That's a big reason for 6moons to go after such stuff. To give it enough credibility and comparative context. In the end, you may prefer something else. Fair enough. But at least you begin to know, there in the back of your mind, that underground solutions exist to address the same old problems. If you read about 'em often enough here and there, you'll eventually assume that it couldn't be all fluff and puff. You'll investigate for yourself. Bravo.
So on with the 30 (and by the way, think of 'thirty' here not just for output wattage but also gain which is 29.5dB). Plug in the mini-jack battery charger, flip the rear toggle to let it see the batteries. For listening, sever the AC connection with the same toggle (no unplugging of the charger necessary). Off you go with a small pop as the caps charge up. To preamp or not will be a question. And speakers that come on song well before 30 watts max out without being bear to drive. Don't strap on low-impedance, reactive phase-angle monstrosities that should have never left the prototype stage. That's simply common sense (or not as it were). The rest? Self-explanatory. Hit play on your source and kick back. Think to yourself... what, exactly?
First off, you wonder. Why still Tripath? After all, it's by now merely one of many OEM solutions for analog-controlled class D switching amps. There's ICEpower, uCd, TI and NuForce, never mind many more less prominently positioned variants. Having come to audiophile attention with the first Bel Canto eVo amps (since superseded by ICE-powered e.One models), Tripath is arguably the eldest kid on this block. Could seniority mean asset in an evolving technology sector?
If mondo power were the issue, say 100wpc minimum, Vinnie would be the first to call ICEpower superior. For lower power alas -- and battery drive ties into this choice -- the Tripath chips he favors offer something unique. His preference is thus application-specific, not a universal endorsement of one specific Class D implementation. Should the Signature 30 offer statement performance for a song -- we get to that momentarily -- it's only fair to stress again how this is not a load-invariant fact. To build a statement amp that measures and sounds identical regardless of load is a far more challenging task. To do so with tubes is well nigh impossible though Wolcott has perhaps done it. By focusing deliberately on transistors and sane speaker loads with medium to low power requirements, Vinnie has opted out of getting bloodied up in the he-man arena. Obtaining superior results in the refined sensitive leagues can be easier and cheaper as long as the user plays by the rules: don't ask such an amp to behave like a muscle amp; and regardless of power demands, try to stay above 4 ohms with impedance dips.
|Secondly, you could assume that battery power and current delivery couldn't possibly see eye to eye. What starts your car in the dead of winter? Make no mistake - if bass transient articulation and general weight, slam and control down low are the classic arbiters of amperage rule, the Sig's hi-current batteries have what it takes. Don't go Thiel, Aerial or big Maggie to disprove this observation. Abide by the "easy is right" amp/speaker matching rule and any reservations about batteries for amplifier drive evaporate into thin air. To this vanishing act, add a non-mental kind of noise - power line grunge and 60Hz transformer hum with its harmonics. This amp is 100% absentee in that regard. Noise is only an issue by how utterly and altogether not present it is. Kevin Scott of Definitive Audio in the UK has authored one giant DC bank to power an entire system with [left]. People whose hearing I trust report that getting off the grid with all components is such a dead-obvious affair that it's well worth the rather steep cost involved.
|I'm convinced they're correct. The let down for us ordinary folks is simply the serious coin and space requirements to install Definitive's DC power station. Enter the Signature 30. By settling on simpatico speakers, you can exercise both performance smarts and economic restraint to get very upscale designer results. By using the Sig as an integrated, you can pull another component off the grid so to speak -- the preamp you'd otherwise be using -- to further lower the noise floor. If you want all that for $1,400|
and a stunning centerfold physique, Vinnie could probably have stuck the minimalist guts into some eccentric gold-plated chassis, bolted a cast-iron plate to the inside bottom for hyper weight beyond the current 12 pounds sans charger and called it the Trophy 30 in curvaceously engraved lettering. Add some Platinum-tipped pointy feet and a leather-bound spin manifesto aka owner's manual and he could easily charge us triple. As is, fancified looks and spare change remain where they belong - on Rodeo Drive and in your wallet respectively.
Third, you might assume that the Signature 30 is nothing but a gussied-up Clari-T. It's not. It's a whole nuther ball game. Whether it's the increased power; better parts; some special synergy of all of the above... only Vinnie would know (and he shouldn't be telling). But anyone who's heard a Clari-T to enjoy it for what it is while duly noting certain limitations -- harmonic leanness in particular that makes it a bit thin and threadbare when mated to Tripath speed and transparency -- will instantly know the difference. I'm betting the choice of 2.5uF Danish coupling caps in the 30 is a big contributor here. In my AudioSector Pateks, designer Peter Daniel swears that what you choose for the few remaining parts in a minimalist circuit makes far more of a difference than seems sensible. I'm sure the same could be said for the Red Wine Audio amp.
Fourth, someone somewhere will want to know whether the 30 can be bridged. "The TK2051 chipset can be configured for mono (outputting around 70 watts into 4 ohms) but this will require a new board design." Fifth, you might think that to get the best from the 30, you'd have to run some luxo preamp and make up for whatever the amp surely must be lacking considering price and concept. You'd be wrong. You can add a preamp to flavor the stew but you might prefer the 30 straight up with the integral DacT CT-2. As I've found with superior SETs and TVCs, if your amp/speaker interface works, you're often better off not adding upstream flavorings so as to not dilute the magic. The decision is between ultimate transparency, speed and musical energy versus additional body and enhanced holographic image float.
Lastly, once you get the 30 topless, you'll curse. Or whistle. "Where's my bloody amp? This can't be it?" Don't fret. It's all there. And yes, the actual circuit once you disregard the batteries is tiny. It's an effrontery to complexity. It asks that if this is enough, who needs all the other stuff you get -- and dearly pay for -- elsewhere. Some head scratching follows.
After the insult of such minimalism wears off, you're ready to dip your toes into battery-powered Tripath magic to see how that wears - on, not off. Let's roll the sonics.
The scuttlebutt is true.
Right out of the box -- well, mine had been preconditioned for 100 hours by the man himself -- the Red Wine Audio Signature 30 does behave like an unusually ballsy, dead-quiet micro-power SET in the Jeff Korneff/Shigeki Yamamoto vein of ultra-modern 45 valve amps. In other words, changing leads from my Yammy to the Siggie caused no disconnect, no sudden seams, no step down, no shift in overall flavor or gestalt. Damn! The Signature 30 thus joins a very exclusive secret society of transistor amps whose handful of members include the exceptional Nelson Pass FirstWatt F3. These amps sport the microdynamic finesse, textural purity, treble elegance, beat fidelity and tactile suchness we expect from no-feedback direct-heated triodes - plus the obligatory voicing restraints to remain high-fidelity machines rather than pleasant distortion generators. There will be others in this club. I simply haven't met 'em yet to know who they are. But the Signature 30 no doubt has the same secret handshake as the F3 to belong in the inner circle. And its eerie operational silence (especially uncanny on vocals) creates a special quality of fully manifested solidity and amazing smoothness that has one more perceptional hurdle -- of stuff to overlook or listen around -- go out the window.
While the archetype of this society's charter -- cloning direct-heated triodes with transistors -- creates like-mindedness, it doesn't mean carbon copies. Differences remain. What those are can't be identified in the limbo of abstraction. One needs the relative arena of comparisons. Enter the 2wpc Yamamoto A-08S with solid-plate Emission Labs 45s and the 15wpc Power JFET F3. Neither of those sport volume controls. They were thus run with the sonically invisible Music First Passive Magnetic transformer attenuator. This would, as closely as possible, match the 30's own passive attenuator. Because my Definition Pro speakers must be bi-amped, the bass half of the amplification circuit was established with a custom Zu Cable RCA-to-XLR interconnect. (The bass leg usually connects with a fully balanced cable through the TVC's XLR outputs). The frontal driver array has output below 35Hz to become a useful indicator for amplifier bass performance. To test the 30 truly full range, my 88dB Gallo Reference 3.1s would substitute. To comment on preamp or not, my new 6SN7-powered Wyetech Labs Jade would make an appearance to determine, again via A/B context, whether die-hard tuboholics could live with the 30 pure or still require upstream flavoring with tubes for long-term satisfaction.
The Signature 30 completely lacks unnatural sharpness around climactic vocal edges and plucked transients, of the kind that are staples in the Flamenco fare I fancy to instantly show up when an amp misbehaves. Yet this minor warmth doesn't soften the presentation such as to undermine pop, crack and sizzle when appropriate. Life and warmth coexist. That's a mean balance to strike and walk. If anything, I'd call this amp a skoch laid-back rather than forward. Brilliant voicing decision in general and especially for an everyman-priced solid stater. Also lacking are those occasional instances where charged leading edges assume a kind of wiry behavior that's discontinuous and inappropriate. Put differently, the Signature 30 doesn't suffer what I think of as foreshortening. That's when undue emphasis on the transient attacks prematurely "clips off" the musical event by rushing the decay portion. This may not be an actual shortening as much as a perceptional shift when the beginning of the event is overemphasized to make the follow-through appear less than it should. Either way, the end result is a front-heavy presentation. In my experience, this is common behavior for transistors. It's one reason why they can sound somewhat flat and lean compared to tubes. The 30 does not exhibit this. It's also free of sibilant sizzle. Close-miked recordings display sibilants without treble-leading hissies. Very untransistory of the Signature.
That doesn't mean it blooms like a typical valve amp. It doesn't. But then neither does the Yamamoto. Which is a valve amp, simply not typical nor part of the deep triode school. This bloom -- a certain waft and wane of extra dimensionality and atmosphere -- can be instantly added with the 6SN7-based Wyetech Jade. If you want that quality, think premium tube preamp. For the Signature 30 as well as the A-08S. If the Yamamoto preceded by a TVC lights your wick as it does mine, the Red Wine piece used as an integrated with passive attenuator will as well. They are soul brothers. Add the F3 into this family picture too. The genetic material of these three amps is the same. Both transistor amps in fact have a kind of textural purity that goes beyond even the 45 triodes in a somewhat androgynous asexual way. The Yamamoto does exude a bit more Eros. But that also renders it a bit less pure (and nearly guaranteed equates to more distortion). These are subtle distinctions. They are very challenging to put into words.
The most important thing to stress by way of reference to the Clari-T is the utter absence of harmonic thinness. Where valved amps do their thing with THD, the Signature 30 -- I assume -- does it solely with the Jensen paper-in-oil caps. Since most tube amps are capacitor-coupled as well, this theory suffers huge holes. Still, the 30 isn't lean, bleached, papery or whitish by any stretch or in any way. Yet the Clari-T suffers echoes thereof. So the 30 isn't a Super-T. It leapfrogs into a completely different class of performance. This seems to signal Vinnie's maturing into not just a "clever cheapskate DIYer" but a bona fide Hi-End designer. He now recognizes what those of us spoon-fed on the really good stuff want. And he has, somehow, figured out how to give it to us by using deceptively simple -- and few -- ingredients. If that's an accurate statement on Vinnie's evolution as a designer, he's come scarily far in a very short time. Watch out!
The charging nightmare
What nightmare? Things couldn't be more elegant. Leave the 1000mA charger plugged into a live mains outlet and the mini plug jacked into the 30. The two 12V, 5Ah SLA batteries will be in parallel 12V mode when the rear switch is flicked to off/charging and in series 24V mode when on. These batteries do not want to be drained before being recharged so continual topping off after listening sessions is recommended. The charger automatically defaults to float charge mode when max charge has been reached (its LED will confirm status). The only caveat is to not turn off the charger's AC supply with a switched outlet for example. This will cause the charger's internal resistance to slowly discharge the battery. Keep live the AC outlet the charger is plugged into. As far as standard audiophile habits are concerned, the rear-mounted switch is simply an on/off switch. That's it. Listen all day long, recharge at night. A full charge will support 20 - 24 hours of non-stop play in fact. How much simpler could it be?
The short of it
The sneak preview announcement of the Signature 30 has generated more reader requests for tipping my hand than anything in a long time. For those who can't wait for the drawn-out descriptions, the answer's "Yes. Yes. And yes!" The Signature 30 does rewrite the score sheet. It is what early owners claim it is. And it's nearly handicapped by the inevitable association with Vinnie's Clari-T. Folks who've heard the T won't believe that a "slightly bigger" version of the same recipe could be such a different animal. I'm not dissing the Clari-T, mind you. I'm simply saying that this, the Signature 30, is serious without any prequalifications save for power output. That should hold over the impatient who're on the cusp of a triode purchase and need to know whether the 30 is a contenduh. It's more than that. It could be the reigning champ in its performance/price class. With a 30-day return policy, anyone can afford to give it a go and determine how it fares against their under-consideration direct-heated valve amp.
The longer version
The abject operational silence of the Signature 30 creeps up on you even if your system was already dialed in that regard. This becomes salient when you revert back to what you listened to before. We've become so inured to reading "just the music" that when it is presented in a slightly new fashion, we're flat out of verbal ammunition. So make it "just squared". Or perhaps a Sam Tellig-ism minus two 't's? There's more here here. It's like the freshness of perception after intense but joyful physical exertion. Your bio system is open, vibrant and pulsating. Your usually busy mind has retracted. Intense hereness becomes the flavor of things. Yet this isn't a distorted trick from polarized sun glasses or an altered state from mind-expanding drugs. It's a very relaxed, natural presence triggered by heightened awareness from deep physical exertion. What's left is things as they are, not as we interpret or avoid them. It's an introductory taste of what Buddhists call suchness. And the key condition for it to arise is relaxation. Musically speaking, it's not a charged state that adds tension and excitement. It's a relaxed state that takes away crap and leaves you with something natural and very very ... well, easy.
The best low-power SETs do this. The 30 does it too but perhaps even better. In this, it joins the F3 by establishing a new purity, one that's nearly a new class of sound. It leaves the music alone to speak for itself. Tube amps can be additive in ways that render them drama queens. That's similar to how stage actors overdo small movements to telegraph across audience distance. Body gestures become grander but tiny facial expressions are bypassed. In that regard, the 30 is more like modern film. You're close to the actors. They needn't overact. You can see their every motion, even the faintest suggestion thereof.
"Operatic" listeners -- those who thrive on excessive drama and big gestures where, figuratively (as in other genres) or literally, a guy gets stabbed in the back only to burst into ecstatic song -- those listeners will perhaps slightly diverge from the Signature 30 presentation. They could favor a more enhanced or tensioned sound. In other words, the appearance of the Red Wine Audio piece does not render traditional valve amps obsolete that excel in those parameters to serve listeners who need their kind of additive, interpretative, glorifying expander action.
One argument against digital amps, from a tube lover's perspective, is that they can sound too clean, sterile nearly. As we all know, the opposite of clean is dirty. Does that mean tube lovers favor a 'dirtier' sound? That's a loaded question. Yet it points at the stuff that hangs between the notes to give sounds their peculiar tubular context. It holds them together rather than erects them in or against a vacuum. Suffice to say that the Signature 30 is very clean yet completely avoids antiseptic sterility. There's no cobwebs hanging between the notes but they're not divorced from audible space either. How that's accomplished, exactly, is really difficult to nail. Yet in the end, it's precisely the fulcrum around which the Sig 30's particular magic turns.
How it treats details, for example, is not like many Class D amps do it. There's no aloof hyper realism at work. We're back at the previously noted warmth. Its uncannily balanced with the energy factor. That's neither pushed forward nor subdued but simply, laid bare. It's warmth without sluggishness or undue thickness. By comparison, my beloved AudioSector Patek are more driven and wiry. They're more muscle and jump. The 30 is relaxed and direct. It's a matter of discrete flavors. You pick the one that suits - or both if you enjoy them equally for their subtle differences.
In the bass, the 30 has lead-filled brass balls that go beyond the F3. To indulge this image for one precious micro moment... they do hang just right, those cojones; heavy, solid, properly damped (that lead) and with very good but not exaggerated articulation (the brass). Here the 30 transcends what comparable micro-power SETs are capable of. It's quite a trick, too. The Signature 30 now behaves not like a solid-state but tube muscle amp, say a big 6550-fitted push/pull job. That's an important qualifier. Don't mistake the 30 for "SET with transistor bass". It's a SET with powerful push/pull tube bass. There's no discontinuity of textures with the remainder of the spectrum.
|To pre or not. Inserting the -- excellent -- valved Wyetech Labs Jade into the chain did shockingly little. And the little wasn't clearly preferable. Things did get a touch heavier and weightier especially in the lowest bottom (not really necessary but welcome) yet also a mite less direct (a more questionable turn in my book). The Yamamoto's signature is a bit leaner overall and benefits nicely from jade-fication. Clearly, the Signature 30, on tone monsters like the Zu speakers, is very happy to be run solo. That's also considerably cheaper and simpler all around. Candidly speaking, this bollixed up my expectations the fiercest. I'd not have thought that a valve pre of the Jade's caliber wouldn't seem mandatory once sampled in a direct A/B. Yes, some people may vote for it or the general direction it introduces. But personally? I ended up taking it back out. It's no big deal either way, testament to the speed, transparency and linearity of the Wyetech. Yet coming down between a skoch more weight vs. a degree more suchness, I found myself inexorably drawn to the latter.|
On my more lit-up and far less efficient Gallo Ref 3.1s, I clearly favored the Jade in the mix though I could live with the 30 pure in a small room. For some reason, the additive math of the tube pre worked out with a higher multiplication factor than on the Zus. I got noticeably more heft and grip in this application, probably because of the higher crossover point of the woofers compared to my Def Pros and definitely because of the additional gain. If I harbored any secret concerns over battery-power current though, the Gallos put 'em to rest. Their sealed 10" woofers responded with more snap and pop than over the 38wpc Onix SP3 which itself is quite the overachiever in its sub $1K tube integrated class. It's also a piece I've repeatedly recommended on the Gallos, with very pleased owner feedback to know that it works well not just to my ears. Add the Signature 30 to the Gallo list but do plan on an active preamp to condition the low-level signal for maximum drive and current and to build in enough headroom.
Compared to my Bel Canto Design e.One S300, the Signature 30 is fleshier and perfectly happy without preceding valves. The cooler S300 really cottons to the 6SN7s of the Jade in the chain. For the now discontinued AKG K-1000 earspeakers, the Signature 30 shares the stage with the FirstWatt F1 current-source amp as an ideal partner. The latter's otherworldly control in this context is ultimately more resolved and accurate and would thus be the choice for a recording engineer. The 30 is warmer and slightly mellower to perfectly suit endless pleasure listening sessions.
One specific application where the Signature 30 would shine like no tomorrow is ultra-sensitive hornspeakers. Traditionally the focus of micro-power valve amps, the innate self noise endemic to such devices when spotlit by 110dB+ speakers makes them simultaneously unsuitable (hum and hiss) and attractive (sonics). With similar sonics and zero noise, the 30 now becomes the winning lottery ticket. Plus, its built-in attenuator makes gain matching for multi-way horn systems with varying sensitivities per driver child's play. And the double plus - to get all this for the money asked rather than the steep fees premium micro-power SETs tend to command is simply designer gravy with buckets of cream in it. The same holds true for any bi- or multi-amp scenarios without the gain matching provisions of active crossovers.
The final swan song
Plainly put, I predict that Mr. Rossi will be a busy man filling orders on the Signature 30. Outside of ultimate power, his latest is quite an 'ultimate' achievement. This modestly priced, single-input integrated amplifier (an external input switcher will be available) runs with the big dogs and puts many of them to shame. More than that, it joins the FirstWatt F3 in defining a new sub category of sonics that live between the two camps of valves and transistors. Their shared ground is different from the latest generation of high-power Class D amps as represented by NuForce and Bel Canto. Those are cooler and a bit whiter. Especially the NuForce presents micro detail in ways I find somewhat unnatural and not entirely convincing (though other listeners including Edgar Kramer on staff are ecstatic).
The Signature 30 does detail amazingly well. This you can confirm when you go looking for it. You'll spot tiny little shadows behind a singer's voice for example or ultra-low "tape hiss" you may not have noticed before. However, the amp never prompts any "Eureka, what an overabundance of information" reaction. Due to its phenomenally low noise floor, it's got all the details in its back pocket. But that's where they stay, not thrust at you to dazzle and blind. It's a very mature balancing act which Vinnie has somehow stumbled on. It dances happily between warmth and energy, resolution and musicality. For listeners who share my proclivities, it's the bull's eye hit smack in the center of the iris. For all of $1,400. As an integrated. Just add a source like the Raysonic CD128 or one of Vinnie's battery-converted and otherwise modified Olive hard-drive servers, stir and shake and presto. That's plain spooky!
Who would have thought that the Sonic Impact T-amp concept hid this kind of potential in its little digital power processing heart? The Signature 30 is a true breakthrough. It takes its place proudly beside the similarly groundbreaking FirstWatt F3 as a true equal while lowering the price of admission and box count significantly enough to belong into our -- still very short -- list of Realsization winners. Thanks to Audio Circle's Richard and Dmason for hipping me to the 30's existence and potent promise with their gushing but well-measured chat room commentaries. And on behalf of all audio cheapskates with enough wallet squeak to just stretch to the Signature 30, thanks to Vinnie Rossi for bringing the real thing -- the full Hi-End Monty -- to this music-lovin' audience. It's not that we suffer less people today who care about music. Quite the contrary. There's simply less who are so fixatedly addicted to the audio hobby that they can justify spending what amounts to silly money with their priorities. Products like the Red Wine Audio Signature 30 build a bridge. This one happens to be gold-plated and ruby-studded in all but appearance and cost. That's quite an accomplishment.
Just think - Vinnie Rossi as a modern-day Robin Hood who needn't steal from the rich to make the less affluent richer. Brilliant stuff then. This is one of the three best transistor amps I've heard yet. If rumors about 40-watt single-stage Power JFET F4 monos are true, it'll still be one of the best four. Now that's one small wee group. Welcome then, Vinnie, to this very exclusive club of a new sound class: single-ended transistors. SET II. "We're SET too" they whisper if you pay attention; if you're open to finding satisfaction in completely unexpected corners of the HiFi industry, namely the audio underground whose most outspoken promoters aren't professional reviewers but actual owners. Can you see and say the changing of the old guard? It's happening right now, right under our noses. The leaders in this solid-state revolution are folks like Peter Daniel, Nelson Pass and now, Vinnie Rossie. It's the audiophile Da Vinci code. Without the blood shed...
Red Wine Audio replies:
I would like to thank you for your time and effort in writing such a comprehensive and highly complimentary review of the Signature 30. I am very proud to win the Realsization Award (whose virtues I highly value and strive to reach in my designs), and I am very pleased to read that you found the Sig 30 to be one of the best three transistor amps that have you heard yet - regardless of price. I couldn't ask for a more gratifying review!
I also wish to thank all of my customers for their continued support, and I'd want to give a very special thank you to Audiocircle members Dmason and Richard (the first Signature 30 customers) , whose initial reporting grabbed your attention and first shed light on the new "exclusive, underground SET II club" Signature 30!
Very truly yours,
President/Owner Red Wine Audio, Inc.