While my first impressions of the Enigma amplifier came at the handy horns of the Avantgarde Acoustic Duos, the vast majority of the listening sessions was conducted with the Gallo Reference IIIs. Their 88dB load without self-amplified bass systems was a far better stand-in for likely speaker mates with this eAR amp. After all, few owners of hyper-efficient hornspeakers would match them up with 120wpc amplifiers of any persuasion - though it could be done if noise wasn't an issue (the eAR amp was a bit noisy in that application but not at all unduly so considering 103dB sensitivities).

Confession time: I would compare the Enigma against the eVo 4 GenII while being preceded by the over-achieving Eastern Electric MiniMax tube preamplifier. While I appreciate that certain folks relegate tubes to the scrap heap of distortion generators, I simply cannot live without their superior casting of three-dimensional space or harmonic rightness when both preamp and amp turn to sand. That said, I prefer my tube monos with the solid-state PRe6 and in general subscribe to the notion that the lower inherent noise floor of transistors is preferable in small-signal circuits such as digital sources preamps if you're into superior resolving power.

To get straight to the point now, the eVo4 had more control, punch and weight down low. That's entirely unsurprising if we remember that the modular eVo architecture assigns one monster toroid for 6-channel use but then makes that same tranny standard fare on the 2 and 4-channel variants. By the time you're down to using a mere two channels but remain backed up by a transformer spec'd for 6, the word 'overkill' comes to mind. That was likely the reason why the eVo amp outperformed the less expensive eAR with its far smaller power transformer. Such convenient correlations between specs and sonic performance don't always add up neatly. But when they do, the predictive "I told you so" wise-ass response can make non-engineering types feel as though they knew more than they do.

On the opposite end of the frequency spectrum, the Enigma took the slight advantage by sounding even airier and more effervescent overall which, combined with the Gallos' hi-tech omni tweeter, made for phenomenal spaciousness of the floating kind and as craved by electrostatic fans. I often feel that electrostats achieve their tremendous see-thru transparency by subjugating ultimate dynamics, density and robustness into the less important ranks. Clearly, the Enigma amp was not guilty of playing this cheap trick, of unduly emphasizing one performance parameter by downplaying others. Its general calling card simply said aerator but the fella handing it to you didn't look undernourished at all, just not quite as stocky or grounded as the eVo.

That said, tube maniacs would still accuse the eVo and eAR of sounding a bit lean - not threadbare, mind you, just not as developed or fulsome as what valve hounds consider reality. The flip side of this is low-level resolution. Unless you had a truly superior valve amp -- which is nearly synonymous with bloody expensive though not exclusively so -- super low-noise wide bandwidth transistor amps will have the clear edge in the detail retrieval races. They also do not suffer high-frequency phase shifts as a function of limited extension barely beyond 20kHz such as inferior output transformers can impose. The eAR amp is one such wide bandwidth low-noise design. It also wears less harmonic meat on its bones than thermionic competitors but offers extremely good micro resolution. The eVo is a smidgen warmer due to its added LF bass weight but not by much at all. Both amps would be considered cool-sounding by the glow-in-the-dark brigade. However, those very same folks would also have to admit that presence lock in the vocal range is nearly SET-like, just drier and without that peculiar bloom or aura of tubes.

Like the eVo, the Enigma is a champ in the lateral as well as front-to-back games of exceptionally well-developed and expansive staging, with the apparent soundfield far behind the speakers, never upfront. The holographic layering phenomenon of delineated realms of depth perception takes second seat to contenders like my valved Audiopax monos but the same holds true for the eVo and most every transistor amp I've ever heard.

Where this modern breed of so-called digital amplifiers breaks novel ground for non-tube designs -- and I haven't auditioned the latest TacT amps yet which StereoTimes' Clement Perry is so fond of -- is in their non-pushy presentation of intrinsic relaxation. When we call amplifiers like the Enigma or eVo SET-like, one shouldn't conclude that they're identical to zero feedback triode models. They're not. However, the ease and naturalness which some believe can only be obtained from tubes is in fact a hallmark of these new tweaked-for-the-HighEnd switchmode amps. In that sense, they are SET-like. Just don't call them SET-same - 15 seconds in my room would disabuse you of that notion in a hurry.

By lowering noise floors, shortening signal paths using surface mount technologies, raising operating efficiencies into the high 90% range to banish thermal non-linearities while sporting enviable distortion figures, the frontier of modern amp designs seems to have been a merry chase for more and more detail. And that indeed is how the original Millennium MKII struck me - heavily magnified in the detail domain but overwhelmingly, relentlessly and self-consciously so. The ICEPower implementation of the Enigma amp categorically avoids those earlier detours into hyped razor territory. Not only that, its supremely airy texture further undermines any theoretical attempts to clamp and grip the music rather than gush and set it free. Think carbonated water, not the way it goes down with bite but the way it looks, all sparkly, animated and light. The Enigma feels light in the sense of illumination and expansiveness, not light in terms of weight - though in ultimate figures (remember American Sweathearts?), it isn't as well-hung in the nether regions as certain others.

The Enigma amp takes upward of three months to fully break in. That's no myth or irresponsible guesstimate but on self-professed record with its maker. The before/after differences are akin to going to bed completely drunk and waking up with someone in your sheets you neither recognize nor remember - very bad in other words. The enigma before sounds two-dimensional, closed in on top and all-around congested when compared to the enigma of the months after. While some break-in transformations are subtle enough to benefit from vivid imaginations, this is not one of those cases but pretty drastic. How do I know? How do I know that the script to the left shouldn't read "may" but "will" damage the amplifier?

I'm embarrassed you asked. Still, honesty demands a straight answer. The first Enigma dispatched had been pre-cooked at the factory. It sounded excellent out of the box. I eventually opened it up to take the usual pictures of the entrails featured on the previous page. Upon slipping the triangular top casing back into place, I inadvertently and without noticing got one of the skinny lead wires (running along one edge past the transformer to the outputs) caught between cover and base plate. This shore off just enough insulation on said flying lead to make contact with the rail. Upon turning the amp back on and with no protection circuitry, poof! I had fried one channel to charcoal in less than a second. The cause of this misery became apparent when I popped the hood again for an anxious look-see and suppressed what-the-hey curse. Sudden and terminal death for that channel was the diagnosis.

The replacement amp arrived like Sushi - with zero oven time at all. While raw Sushi is my all-time favorite food ahead of Thai, raw Enigma didn't impress at all. By now, I knew what it should be doing. It clearly wasn't doing it. The delay of today's review is a direct consequence of this fishy incident. I had a clear imprint of sonic ability etched into my mind. Remembering landsman Arnold's promise to be back, I told myself to be patient. 8-ohm load resistors did the trick until sound checks indicated that the eAR amp had finally risen back to previous standards.

Like the eVo, turn-on results in a nearly instantaneous ready status - no lengthy relay offsets of B+ rails coming on late. And because idle power consumption is completely negligible, you might want to leave the amp powered on permanently unless you were to leave your house for weeks on end. That's what I did to avoid thermal stabilization issues inside the critical circuitry.

In a previous manufacturer's reply, Coda's Mark Ward had called Class A and tubes the "bedrock" of amplification designs. I believe this statement is no longer correct. The influx of so-called digital amplifiers -- e.g. variations on Class D -- is occurring at such a steady clip and has already persuaded stalwarts like Jeff Rowland to embrace them that, to remain with the imagery, one would have to call said bedrock as suffering from very serious erosion. Which doesn't render bedrock designs sonically obsolete. Not at all. Far more efficient architectures simply offer alternatives now that can no longer be written off as aural compromises fit only for computer, mobile or midfi users. Comparing Coda's latest S5 to the eAR Enigma -- I had deliberately requested to keep the Coda on hand for this very juxtaposition of bedrock Class A and upstart Class D devices -- merely took another splinter chip out of the continental tektonik plate in permanent drift mode.

The difference were audible but a matter of degrees, not dimensions. The Coda amplifier was more overtly jumpy and dynamic, with a stronger emphasis on transient impact, articulation and a parallel grippier way with image outlines. The Enigma unit was more relaxed, its emphasis unwaveringly on the aforementioned spaciousness.

If the Coda were dubbed an Avantgarde-type amplifier of excitement, the Acoustic Reality would be a Gallo amp of spatial relaxation. If the Coda were a car tuned for racing, the eAR would be calibrated for modern grand touring (not the ancient land-yacht ride of overly plush suspensions). One car feels a bit edgier, more muscular and driven, the other more geared for smoothness and comfort, all such terms not used in their literal audiophile sense but to convey a general feel if you were to envision the 'audible differences' between an Acura and a souped-up Mustang based on driving impressions, not muffler tuning.

Both amps are tweaked resolution machines but then take a few steps down disparate paths at the juncture between adrenaline and endorphins. As a reminder, it's easy to overdraw such distinction. In reality, these are mere flavors based on personal reactions. In this instance, it's impossible to declare a clear or even close winner. Neither amp suffers from any nasties though both are leaner/cooler/drier than my reference. Like the eVo, the Coda is more conventionally proportioned and makes attaching and disconnecting cables a snap while the eAR is a royal pain in the arse for anyone other than the one-time set'n'forget user for whom (and not reviewers) it was really designed.

The stainless steel finish of the Dane is highly sensitive to finger prints and not the world's most practical dress code but a definite hi-tech statement of chic especially if regularly polished with the enclosed Kema foam cleaner. As per May 12, 2004, the Enigma's asking price of 1,749 Euros converts to $2,082 plus shipping from Denmark. That's a very attractive value considering its competitors. Can you positively and conclusively prevent any and all possibilities of shorting accidents? Do you enjoy ordering Internet-direct across international borders? Can you promise to not judge sonics until you've got at least 3 months of use clocked in? Can you be happy with a skinny and flexible power cord since nothing else will fit into the con bay? If answered in the affirmative, the eAR Enigma Plus must be considered yet another prime example of a hi-tech Class D amplification application that, with selective parts upgrades by its licensee, has been rendered fit to perform well beyond a basic plug'n'play modular OEM solution and instead plays in the ultra-competitive ranks of affordable high-performance audio.

After my first encounter with ICEPower, I'm left with the distinct impression that, just as tweaked Tripath, this approach holds true HighEnd potential. Naturally, Jeff Rowland agrees.

If Peter Thomsen's understandably self-promotional excitement is correct, ICEPower is in fact implemented to a far more profound degree in his more expensive amplifiers. Unlike Enigma, those will be sold exclusively through a dealer network. No matter how you roll this dice of fortunes, Class D is here to stay. It's already earned a permanent spot on at least one of the six faces that make up the cube of Class A, Class A/B, Class B, SE and P/P amplifier topologies. At the rate things are going, someone might soon engrave the word 'digital' on a second face of this dice to further undermine the earlier bedrock assumption and throw the dominance of traditional architectures yet further out of whack.

Because this review is a bit overdue and has already generated several reader inquiries about its status, I want to deliver this amplifier portion before the preamplifier test. As a teaser, here's what its designer divulged about the Q-controller: "All eAR preamplifiers can be purchased with a built-in Q-controller (analog room correction) stereo module for ideal low-frequency integration in any room. This adjustable feature both dramatically improves the bass transient and depth response while significantly reducing acoustical distortion. Due to the room-specific nature of resonance and Q, the controller module is a universal device that works with all loudspeakers and rooms. The Q-controller can be adjusted for flat to 20Hz response in the position where the loudspeaker is actually placed, meaning the speakers can be placed close to boundaries or in the middle of the room. It exploits an acoustical phenomenon known as room gain or the fact that any enclosed space will reinforce frequencies below its resonant frequency by 12dB/octave. To be able to use the adjustable Q-controller, the port of a loudspeaker system must be sealed to give the module full control over the acoustic parameters of the loudspeaker system. A sealed box design has no acoustical phase errors in the bass area which a ported design suffers.

Furthermore, a sealed box system exhibits response below the free-air resonance frequency of its woofers. Because such a bass system features a 2nd-order roll off, it is possible to calculate complementary curves and Q values for the loudspeaker/room interface to obtain resonance-free bass response down to zero Hz. However, no calculations or measurements are required. Just adjust the two knobs on the rear of the eAR preamp. It is easy and fast. Once the system Q is adjusted to match the Q of your room, the bass frequencies will couple ideally and be reproduced in perfect phase with the upper frequency range. This unique analog room correction feature offers numerous very audible benefits".

In conclusion and for today, the eAR amp mated with a solid-state preamp like the PRe6 or its own Pre2 pyramid sibling gains further resolution especially in the ambient retrieval field made up of extremely small-signal data - decays, reflections, different qualities of silence. This kind of rebuilding the spatial characteristics of the recording venue (if there was one as opposed to everything being an artificial product of sound booth mixes) is different from the holographic way in which tubes handle space. The former is a function of raw micro data. The latter? You know it when you hear it but, like me, might have a hard time explaining exactly how it occurs. For my personal tastes, eAR + PRe6/Pre2 resulted in too much Nordic cool on the temperature scale - no etching or crystallization of sounds, mind you, but a lack of warmth, roundness and glow nonetheless. Inserting the MiniMax didn't equate to the sound of PRe6 + Audiopax but did pitch its tent somewhere in the middle between these poles. My greatest compliment for the Enigma Plus is a big bravo for its non-hyped SET-reminiscent way of letting you see deeply into the musical fabric; and another applause for its broad-spectrum infusion of expansive air which generates the sonic equivalent of whipped cream versus merengue - both have air pockets but one is soft and pliable, the other hard and stiff.

If those particular qualities are dear to you, this Danish addition to the circle of advanced digital amplifier solutions belongs on your shortlist of must-audition finalists. Stay tuned for the follow-up report on the Pre2 with Q-controller.
Manufacturer's website
US distributor's website