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Do you ever think to yourself, "I just want to hear something beautiful"? If so, stick with that impulse. This particular collection of songs from Messiaen, Debussy, Golijov and Fauré fits my bill a lot of the time. And no, not all the time. My definition of beauty shifts depending on mood and time of day (or night). From Ms. Upshaw's liner notes: "Olivier Messiaen's opera Saint Francois D'Assise includes a mysterious angel whose main activity is knocking on monk's closed doors, singing her spirit into their consciousness." Ms. Upshaw knocked on my door and reminded me that thinking only tubes deliver the beauty and glow was just half the story. Ms. Upshaw's voice had sweetness about it, sensuousness that tickled more than my intellectual fancy. I completely connected through the J and 8 combo. Light, air, breath, sparkle and what a beautiful body this partnering imparted on Mr. Kalish's piano.

"Am I trying to emulate a tube amplifier?", Nelson Pass asks in the J manual. "No, but I make use of some of the principles that make tubes sound good - simplicity and linearity." Is that it? Simplicity and linearity? Is the Aleph J sounding tube-y through the DeVores?

Steve Earl's El Corazon [Warner Bros 9 46789-2] is a great CD. I read through the liner notes and checked on Amazon to make sure it wasn't a greatest hits collection. Steve Earl goes from folk to country to harder core from track to track and it's all just soulfully good music. His duet with Emmylou Harris on "Taneytown" highlights each voice as near opposites; he's raspy and chesty, her clarity cuts through like a knife. The J amp handles these differences deftly. And the harmonica on the opener is as good as any digital portrayal I've heard. That killer tweeter on the DeVores with its 40kHz extension lent an essential hand in this department. The harmonica is a harmonically rich instrument. From my experiences with super tweeters -- what the Super 8s extension makes it in essence -- treble energy gets fuller and richer with their added extension, not zippier. Combined with the J's judicious rendition of these frequencies, the typical digital nasties were absent. No glass in this blues harp. If I go back to the Fi 45/Abbys, what I get is more tonal flavor and the music comes from a bigger, fuller place. It's rich and creamy and oh so dreamy. But -- and this may be becoming my favorite word -- but the harmonica has some bite and while I have absolutely no problem differentiating the various players at work, their outlines are a tad fuzzier. Not as distinct as through the J/8.

I've never met Mr. Earl nor Ms. Harris but I assume neither is fuzzy around the edges. But I have been to my share of live events and performers sometimes are (and that's before any evening enhancement). Where the Fi/Abby combo diverges some from my sense of naturalness -- or how I've heard it when I was there -- is on larger symphonic music. Why not go straight to the big one, Ludwig Van's 9th as performed by the Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert Von Karajan [DG 415 832-2]. (If you used the Böhm CD on DG for the same test, you'd think every system you owned was broken, so poor is the recording) "Oh bliss! Bliss and heaven! Oh, it was gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh. It was like a bird of rarest-spun heaven metal or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now. As I slooshied, I knew such lovely pictures!"... As I slooshied, what I heard was a bit of blurring through the meatier bits, causing the various players to merge even more than Mr. Karajan would have liked is my guess. That's not to say I can't get into this like Alec de Large, but when we trade the J/8 and hit play, oh da joy. Strings, tympani, oboes, triangles and flutes snap into focus.

Articulation or timbre. Aha! Solid state or tube. Plain or peanut? That's kinda neat and tidy. Does the Aleph J sound like tubes? To tell you the truth, I'm pretty sure I could hunt around and find a tube amp that would sound more like the J than the Fi 45. The tube guy would wager a guess that it would be of the pushin' and pullin' persuasion. Beyond the tone-monst'rousness of the Fi 45, it also lingers over and around decay for a noticeable while longer than the Aleph J. And this grabs me where the sun rarely shines. Down deep. But that's just me and it can be viewed as romantic or bloomy but I'd argue that point till the taps run dry. The J is more interested in what comes first, attack, conquer and move on. You could view this level of articulation as being hyped-up. My guess is that the guy who wants to take my bloom to task would be just the guy to argue this point. What's funny -- or frustrating if you're trying to make sense of it -- is that I find both amplifiers to have great rhythm & timing. The Fi 45 is a boogie monster but I swear my wife just danced by to Nina Simone's "My Baby Doesn't Care for Me" playing through the J/8.

For clarity's sake, let's cross out the question "Does it sound like tubes?" and ask instead, "Does the Aleph J capture your attention and avoid any bumps, humps, or shouts that break the spell of listening? And does it have that extra bit of ___ (you fill in the blank since this varies from person-to-person) that keeps you coming back for more?" Through the DeVores, the J came damn close to making me not miss my Fi 45/Abby. What's more, the J/8 partnership allowed for a wider range of music to flow with greater ease on less than ideal CDs than my customary rig. Lloyd Cole and the Commotions' Rattlesnakes [Capitol cdp 7 91182 2] from way back in 1984 is a great CD. Every track is a gem and I even like the heavy production, strings and all. But I've heard those strings get strident - yet not on the Aleph J/Super 8 watch. Even the screech of Jimi Hendrix's overdriven strat on "Voodoo Chile" from ElectricLadyland [Reprise 6307-2] is delivered with body and richness. Where I'm usually tempted to turn this down when Jimi's feeding back at his mostest and you can actually hear someone in the recording studio laughingly say "turn that thing down", I turned it up.

Can you tune a fish?
In some ways, a successful system is like a house of cards. You never really know what’s going to happen when you pull out one piece or add a new one. The whole thing might just fall apart. I don’t view this as a shortcoming, just the all-important issue of system synergy at work. On that subject of balance, my Fi amp dovetails with the Abbys’ frequency response squiggles and minor shoutiness in a more complementary fashion than the probably more linear Aleph J, making me both grateful that the Super 8s were in-house to prevent blaming the wrong component (sorry tube guys) and considering the likelihood that to properly get on with my reviewing gig, I may have to keep at least two pairs of reference speakers around. Come to think of it, an even three may be just the thing. And a few amps, another preamp and a passive pre should do it. You know, for reviewing purposes.

Balancing that first watt
All caveats and cuteness aside, the First Watt Aleph J is a stunner; extremely well balanced from top to bottom, with a sense of pace and timing second to none and a harmonically rich presentation that lights up the members of the orchestra or the boys in the band so you can sit back and get lost in whatever musical mood you wish. While the Aleph emphasizes articulation over timbre especially compared to the Fi 45, this subtle softening of tonal color is more than compensated for by a tighter, more focused presentation. While the Fi 45 gives everything a bit more room to breathe, this comes at the expense of delineation most noticeable on complex, dynamic orchestration. The tighter, more extended and controlled personality of the J comes across as musically just right on the Gibbon Super 8s. Smooth, cool and collected.

So I've taken the long road to declare the obvious - which is to say that the Aleph J was not a perfect mate for my particular single-driver Abbys. Nor was it meant to be. That's the point of the other First Watt efforts, which have been custom-tailored for that genre of speakers. Does the Aleph J sound like a tube amp? Well no, not mine. But I have a feeling that since more people listen to the Aleph J on multi-driver speakers like the ones you already know and love, the question to ask may very well become, does your tube amp sound like the Aleph J?
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