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To remain with the CIA joke just a moment longer, a CFA-1 psych profile would read "Yamamoto A-09S meets NuForce". Peter Steinfadt's claims for unique sonics are spot-on. There is very surprising kinship with direct-heated triode sound. But close means not identical. What the Crayon amplifier adds and thereby changes is captured in the NuForce bit. That's deliberately second place since the Yamamoto qualities are dominant. The NuForce seasoning relates primarily to the fore/background simultaneity of focus that's a signature trait of the ultra-detailed NuForce Reference gear. What one notices first however is the connective tissue action of triodes as a completely unexpected and very non-transistory quality. It makes space
audible with interpenetrating auras around and thus between performers.

Hearing the shadows is a very tubular thing. It creates a natural hologram in which dimensional placements aren't derived from hyper focus against blackness. Instead, our perception of recorded space comes from 'presence halos' which surround the musicians as reflections and decays. Those are secondary and tertiary shadows that create relief and nuance. This type of lighting isn't the white brightness of high noon where everything is super crisp and sharp as in the NuForce sound. Compared to triode sound, such whiteness feels stark and stripped of the half-life stuff that creates interconnectedness. Once we reduce the white level with its extreme contrast against the inky blackness of silence, half tones of mixed light reappear. Contrasts tone down, outlines soften but the tonal palette and space get deeper.

Whatever you want to call that action, the CFA-1 does it exactly like a direct-heated no-feedback single-ended triode amp. I referenced this directly against my A-09S Yamamoto to eliminate all doubts about overactive imagination and wishful thinking. I also referenced it against the Pass Labs INT-150, a machine that's far closer to the brighter, crisper, sharper NuForce sound. There was no mistake. The Crayon Audio amp is a virtual stand-in for triodes in matters of depicting audible space which isn't the same as soundstaging per se. To tease out the remaining differences between triodes and transistors was very interesting. It raised some relevant questions to which I didn't have the answers. That I find illuminating.

Versus my customary ModWright DM 36.5 | Yamamoto A-09S combo, the CFA-1 seemed to enjoy even faster rise times. This translated into hair-raising depictions of stringed instruments. Anything plucked had intense instantaneousness in which initial metallic violence, then the woody resonance and then the disbursing swarm of harmonics were even more real and compelling than over my tubed pre/power reference. Wondering whence this perception of greater realism arose, I guessed on superior speed and timing and just perhaps an even lower noise floor which gave the finest of fades a fraction more endurance.

The valve combo held the edge on vocals though. They had more emotive expression. This was most peculiar. After all, signal is signal. Machines cannot distinguish between vocals and stringed instruments. All are processed alike. Yet time and again, song had more pathos and substance over the ModWright/Yamamoto while instrumentals were quite similar though I held a small preference for the CFA-1. Feeling stumped as to why I had this flip flopping allegiance, I replaced the fixed-output APL Hifi/Esoteric source with the variable-output Ancient Audio Lektor Prime. Now I could extricate the ModWright preamp from the equation so the Yamamoto had to compete even Steven. I fixed the analog attenuator on the Polish top-loader to accommodate the tube amp for the levels I wanted, then trimmed the Crayon machine with its pot to give identical output without altering the CDP's setting. If the ModWright preamp created a signal conditioning advantage for the Yamamoto which was withheld from the Crayon, this was now eliminated. Conversely, I also ran the Crayon with the ModWright ahead of it.

In fact, while still on my ECC99-powered 20 x 32-bit AKM DAC source, that scenario was the first I explored. Lo and behold, vocals over the Crayon now matched the Yamamoto's. Yet something about that thrilling suchness of plucked strings subdued a bit. Somewhere a small layer of thickness or hesitation inserted itself. So the preamp addition wasn't a completely unqualified advancement. Also,
the Crayon's bass now exhibited more wiriness and striations. Compared to the homogeneity of the Yamamoto's registers top to bottom, this now betrayed a small textural discontinuity. On its own, the CFA-1's bass had been so very (unexpectedly) similar to the Yamamoto's - beautifully rotund, with just the right bloom and fattiness. The preamp addition now added a noticeable dose of 'nuforceness'. Wiry really is the best word for it. This became more apparent at higher levels. I cannot explain why it behaved nonlinearly with volume, just that I heard it.

Switching to the Polish granite player levelled the playing field between Yamamoto and Crayon to an extent I have not before heard between tube and transistor amplifiers. The silly money NWO 3.0GO Peychev-modified universal player is my usual source in the big rig. Hence I never listen to the A-09S without preamp. To say it as it is, I remained blissfully ignorant that the vocal sex advantage of the 300Bs was codependent on the ModWright's 6H30s. To get real, it is exceedingly unlikely that a shopper for an already full-featured €3,000 integrated amplifier would want to add an $8,000 preamp. Hence my 300B SET, unfairly or not, still enjoys the advantage which perhaps only tubes can give when it comes to spine-tingling voices. Something does flatten out in our emotional response when the Crayon takes over solo.

I deliberately used the plural. As soon as I'd fired up the Crayon for the first time and cued up Hector Zazou's final masterpiece In the House of Mirrors (Crammed Disc 300583 - the artist sadly passed away shortly after its release), my wife descended from the second floor. She grabbed the second rocking chair in the listening room and commented "that sounds amazing. What are we listening to?" I pointed at the silver box between the speakers. "How much is it?" I named the number. "That's all?" Those who find Ivette's reaction somewhat disingenuous or haughty -- three grand in Euros isn't chicken feed after all -- must remember that ours is the house of the revolving door when it comes to (often very) expensive gear. Her reaction simply implied that most of the far higher priced amps never sounded this good before. And right she was.

Peter Steinfadt in fact prefers his Ocellia speakers on the CFA-1 over the valve amps he carries. Being a seller, not maker, he suffers no political or religious allegiances other than making the best sound he can. That's what sells, not conceptual notions based on what audio technologies match up best. It reconfirms why he signed up with Crayon. To return to personal impressions - once the preamp was out of the picture, what sonic attributes were different between the Crayon and Yamamoto machines which, as determined already, operated within the same overall gestalt?

The Crayon is more lit up in the upper ranges, more brilliant in the sense that a cut-glass decanter refracts the light. This creates sharper crystallization and keener separation within the soundstage. Plus, background clarity becomes coincident with foreground focus. There's no attenuation of subjective focus as distances increase. That's the NuForce quality. Simply, the SET isn't as defined and sorted. Its snappier response comes with the preamp addition. The Crayon has it naturally. Lastly, the Crayon stages very powerfully into the far corners. The density of its images is equal in the center as it is at the outer edges. The SET doesn't stage as spookily broad.

In regular hifi parlance, the Crayon has higher resolution and more bandwidth. The unusual element is simply the completely thermionic gestalt whereby it handles space, interrelatedness and flow, the intangible organic aspects writers default into poetry for to capture. Here the Crayon is the complete antithesis of any transistor amp I've ever heard. So, to prevent even the smallest chance of misunderstanding - if the Lektor Prime direct was my default source and a preamp not part of my inventory, I'd own the Crayon Audio CFA-1, not the Yamamoto. And, the Austrian piece is not only cheaper, it includes an -- apparently ambitious -- phonostage, is an integrated to not require a preamp, comes with remote and offers an unusually stacked software menu of adjustments. It's an outrageous combination, this machine from an unknown company. It warranted further tests over different speakers to see whether, in matters of 1st-wattiness and heftier load fitness alike, it behaved equally ideal and commendable. Acoustic Plan's 98dB open-baffle Veena tested one, Mark & Daniel's Ruby Maximus the other end of that scale.