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Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Source: Zanden Audio Model 2000P/5000S
Preamp/Integrated: ModWright SWL 9.0SE; Music First Audio; Hyperion Sound BEC-P25T; Eastern Electric M520

Amp: 2 x Audiosector Patek SE; Yamamoto A-08S; Canary Audio CA-308s; FirstWatt F3 & F1
Speakers: Zu Cable Definition Mk 1.5 Pro version with Rane PEQ-55; Gallo Reference 3
Cables: Zanden Audio proprietary I²S cable, Zu Cable Varial and Ibis, Zu Cable Birth on Definitions; Stealth Audio Cable Indra, MetaCarbon & NanoFiber [on loan]; SilverFi interconnects; Crystal Cable Reference power cords; ZCable Hurricane power cords on both conditioners; Furutech Reference III interconnects and speaker cables [on review
Stands: 1 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, DAC and amp; Walker Audio SST on all connections; Walker Audio Vivid CD cleaner; Furutech RD-2 CD demagnetizer; WorldPower cryo'd Hubbell wall sockets
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: $2,500 for F3 | $2,995/pr for Ref 3.1

"For shits and giggles." That turn of phrase I get. Sorta. But "are you shitting me?" While I know what it means, I just don't quite get it. Neither do I get the ongoing audiophile disputes over how much amplifier power we actually listen to. Doesn't anyone try this stuff out before argueing endlessly? Just for shits and giggles, I dropped the 10wpc FirstWatt F3 Power J-Fet amp into my rig last night. The chain was Opera Audio Reference 2.2 Linear into the Bel Canto PRe3 direct, then also via its digital output through my Zanden Audio Model 5000 Signature DAC into another input on the pre. Speakers were my 88dB sensitive Gallo Ref 3.1s, remote was in my hand for easy input and volume control adjustments.

Going through the 1V-max outputting Zanden DAC, my typical playback levels hovered around 85 on the preamp. 90 was plainly getting loud. 80 on the dial equals unity gain, i.e. what you'd hear if you connected your source directly to the amp. The remaining 20 digits above 80 up to the PRe3's ceiling of 100 relate to its x 10 voltage gain of 20dB. If you'd done the math, you'll be accusing me now: "Are you shitting me?" I can assure you, I'm not.

With the Opera direct -- it outputs 2.35V to be above the industry norm of 2V -- I hovered around unity gain pretty much on the nose and had enough headroom for WaterLily albums what with their higher dynamic range and cooler average recording levels. On an 88dB speaker driven from a 10-watt amp. With a speaker path length of 14' to the ear. In a room 21' x 16' x 9', with a 14-foot longer but otherwise equivalent space attached through the open archway next to the left speaker. Last time I measured, my typical listening levels live in the high 80s. Peaks max out at 95dB in the listening seat before I cry auntie.

What's that mean? It could mean that you perhaps listen a lot louder or in a far bigger space than I to drive that 10-watt amp six feet under. Or that you perhaps suffer more reactive speakers. Or that most of your recordings are of the audiophile sort, i.e. recorded softly to max out dynamics and require higher than usual amplification factors to achieve normal playback levels. Or that your listening fare includes plenty of Godzilla sound tracks and symphonic bombast to exceed the dynamic headroom on tap. In such circumstances, a 10-watt amp into 88dB speakers would be plainly insufficient. No shit. However. If your musical fare centers on the kind of -- well-publicized in our world music pages -- stuff I listen to, ten premium Class A watts of the F3's caliber will do you just fine. No embarrassed giggles, no shits, no nervous eye peeled on the volume control.

If you already did the math, you'll realize that in this particular setup, I only have about 15 to 20dB of headroom before clipping. Is that enough? For non-symphonic music played back at my levels, absolutely. Any day of the week, inspector, - and thrice on Sundays. Could you make this rig clip just for shits and giggles? Absolutely. It'd get pretty dang loud first on standard recordings but yes, you could. But if you weren't insane, you never would. Neither would you buy a huge Dodge V8 Magnum pickup just because one day, you might have to haul your neighbor's packed horse trailer on his behalf. Or would you?

Audiophiles often prepare for eventualities that never happen. If you know what you need and how you'll use it, you can save money and excess. You can acquire better-sounding power of lesser quantities. Mind you, I'm not saying that watt for watt and dollar for dollar, less power always sounds better than more. That would be generalizing and plain wrong. All I'm saying is that if you were to measure the voltage present across your speaker terminals during your favored playback levels, you'd likely see a far lower figure than expected (much of this will be a function of how much power your crossover soaks up, i.e. what Art Dudley calls speaker efficiency).

Especially if a low-power amp happens to be of the transistor variety, it'll sport vanishingly low output impedance and ruler-flat response far beyond the audible spectrum. Of course, it should also feature a stout power supply to not falter when asked to deliver short-term current peaks into bass transients. With these conditions met -- and the F3 meets them beautifully -- 10 watts mated to average-sensitivity non-reactive speakers and driven with a 20dB-gain preamp will play with higher SPLs and more control than might seem indicated on paper. Just to set the record straight. After last night's S&G session. Good reminder, no?

In the very specific context of the F3, I also feel prompted to remind our readers of something else. Given the above and the absolutely fantastic sonics of this affordable amp with the unusual output devices, shoppers for premium sound should not overlook this 'un just because the FirstWatt moniker might suggest something radical like "fit only for horns and Lowthers". Not. If you're on a realistic budget; admire modern tube sound but prefer transistors for long-term stability and zero maintenance; and share my listening levels, room size and friendly speaker load... well hello Dolly, the F3 belongs at the very top of your list. Even if you were on a bloated budget to swing something exotic and costly, the F3 still belongs on your list. Though it may not look it, it's bloody exotic in its own right. It's a sand amp this Yamamoto-loving, test-bench-condemned fossil not only adores but can throw right back at the test bench mavens with a grinning "Catch!". That's because unlike the micro-power triodes in the Yamamoto, its distortion specs and linearity are as credible as anything out there. And as my feature review stated, its sonics are simply superlative.

On the subject of righting wrongs -- perception-wise -- this also confirms that once broken in, the Gallo Ref 3.1s need less power than intuitive. Asylum poster Dave Pogue runs his "from 12wpc SET monoblocks (845 output tubes) and filling an 18' x 40' room with never a problem." His and my heads-up are not necessarily blanket endorsements. After all, there's no telling what you listen to or what you consider loud. Nirvana at teeth-gnashing, intestine-clenching SPLs? Move on. Alas, quite a few of us not merely get by in the first double-digit realm but are having a blast (and at 40 feet long, Dave's got one large space). You might do just fine too. Give it a try. It could save you a bundle. As with any task at hand, we first need to understand exactly what's required before we shop for the proper tool. Once you know your actual power requirements, shopping for just the right amp becomes a lot easier and might just open the doors to choices you never considered before or knew you even had. (Or as Nelson Pass would say: " I monitor my system with a scope on the amp outputs, and I usually set it on a scale such that a 4 watt amp can fill the screen peak-peak. My room is 30' x 30' and I'm not shy about levels, but I don't exceed the 4 watts with the kinds of speakers I like. It was partly this that prompted the direction and name for FirstWatt.") Granted, to fill that kind of space with rockin' tunes on a Twiggy amp diet does require speakers of higher sensitivites than normal. But that's a story for another day...