No, there was still plenty there by way of harmonic shadings, density and color. Speaking of density - where the Mambo really shone was in the area of soundstaging and imaging. It created a sound field that was completely free of the speakers both wide and deep. Image delineation was at least on par with what I would think the competition capable of. These observations left me perplexed. I just could not come close to replicating the disappointing performance our own "candyman" reported. I now wondered whether the 100dB-efficient speakers were just not taxing the amp enough. Perhaps the Mambo's 50 watts per channel didn't react well to more demanding loads? Out went the Rethms, in came a pair of Ohm Walsh 4s. These 20-year old omnidirectional speakers present a fairly even 6-ohm load but a more challenging 89dB efficiency. Additionally, the Ohms' basic character is 180 degrees out of phase with that of the Third Rethms. Where the Rethms are forward, highly focused and extraordinarily detailed, the ancient Ohms put up a much more distant perspective that trades some inner detail for roundness of tone, ultra smoothness and more space than NASA's Spirit rover has yet encountered. The Ohms also have very respectable bass down to 32Hz and an extended treble. If the Mambo was going to show me sluggishness or blunted leading edges, it was going to do so with the Ohms. If it was going to prematurely run out of grunt, it was going to do so now. It didn't.

Actually, though the presentation couldn't have been more different than with the Rethms, it was completely captivating - just in different ways. Where previously I was up close and personal, the Mambo/Ohm combo put me about midway back in the hall and gave me a bird's eye view of the music.

Rather than micro-managing the music, the Ohm 4 is more of a big-picture speaker. That picture had never been clearer than when running with the Mambo. I mentioned earlier that the Mambo had a slightly mechanical nature about it in the upper midrange/ lower treble when compared to my tube gear. It did so particularly upon initial listening. But the more I listened, the less it bothered me. In fact, I quickly acclimated to the Mambo and can say that I thoroughly enjoyed it top to bottom. After a while I couldn't remember what I was supposed to be missing.

Speaking of bottom, the Mambo sounded very good down low as well. Bass was well balanced and naturally portrayed. Here it didn't seem to go after making the same kind of name for itself as it did in the midrange. I can't say that it had the same degree of slam or lucid microdynamics that more powerful amps do. In fact, this was my only clue that the Mambo wasn't a much more powerful amplifier - while good, it just didn't put the hammer down. But neither does the Mambo have to make excuses when among amplifiers of its own class. Significantly better bass performance is out there but likely will cost you. It may cost you in terms of dollars. It may cost you in terms of compromised performance elsewhere. But cost you it will, one way or another.

Paganini's "Moto Perpetuo" from Sony's Rostropovich, Return to Russia [Sony Classical SK 45836] is one of my favorite classical torture tracks. Frenzied violins and basses are why. It's a test of detail, micro-dynamics and the ability to sort though a complex musical passage. Again and over both the Rethms and Ohms, the Mambo did an admirable job. Brooks Williams' Little Lion [Signature Sounds SIG 1255] was also very fresh in my mind as reproduced via the Silverline Boleros. Again, the Ohm/Mambo combo

produced a seductive combination of spatial soundstaging, almost surreal images and a smooth and flowing tonality. The Mambo also unleashed its mojo on a number of raunchier recordings to show chops that serviced both Rock and Grunge alike. Nirvana's Nevermind [DGCD 24425] had been very instructional with the Rethms before the arrival of the Mambo and its presentation went essentially unchanged once the Mambo arrived in the system. Rhythms had solid impact, vocals were lucid and the distorted guitars had tremendous bite.

DMP Big Band's Carved In Stone [CD-512] is a modern recording of big band performances presented in the "classic arrangements as originally performed by the Count Basie, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton and Glenn Miller Orchestras." It sounded so good, I listened to it four times in two afternoons. The brass had a wonderfully forward presence and an authentic yet non-irritating bite. Acoustic basses were wonderfully weighty, resonant and tuneful. The soundstage was as big as the beat was lively, with the Mambo demonstrating that it could indeed bust a move. The instruments before me went wall-to-wall. Just wonderful.

A few words on the Mambo's built-in DAC. To be very honest, I completely finished writing this follow-up when I realized that I had forgotten about the DAC which can be accessed via both Toslink and Coaxial inputs on the amplifier's rear apron. Well, it may have been my afterthought, but it wasn't one on the part of Parts ConneXion. When I connected the inexpensive Pioneer DV 563 universal player to the Mambo's coaxial input, I was actually rather surprised. Simply put, it's a very respectable DAC. Was it better than my Bel Canto DAC-2 that costs half the price of the entire Level-2 Mambo? No. Was it better than your DAC? I don't know. Who cares? It's free.

If you're assembling a system from the ground up, I can wholeheartedly recommend the purchase of an inexpensive SACD, DVD-A or universal player for use with the Mambo, even if only for interim use while you save for a truly great player. Even the inexpensive players exhibit surprising performance on SACDs and DVD-As while their Redbook CD performance is generally less exciting. Thus use the player's analog outputs when listening to high-rez formats and its coaxial digital output into the Mambo to take advantage of the built-in DAC when listening to CDs. I'll guarantee that it's markedly better in performance. If you already own a mass-market CDP that was pretty good in its days but now is getting long in the tooth, there's a pretty good chance that the Mambo will kick up its performance a notch or two. No matter how you slice it, this feature can be put to great intermediate or long-term use. And as I said, it's free.

For those counting, the Level 2's DAC scored right between my Bel Canto and Pioneer. Tonally it was similar to that of the Pioneer which made it brighter and slightly (but importantly) more harsh than the Bel Canto. As compared to the excellent DAC 2, music had a slightly obscuring silvery veil and a touch of grain along with that added brightness. But in comparison to the Pioneer, the Mambo's internal DAC scored high for a much wider and better layered dimensional soundstage which the universal player rendered flat by comparison. In general, the Mambo's DAC had much better believability and I' hasten to point out, the Pioneer already sounds better than most budget machines I've heard.

Was the Underwood HiFi/Parts ConneXion Level-2 Music Hall Mambo the equal to my thrice-the-price separates? No. Did it miss the mark by much? No. Did I thoroughly enjoy my time with it? You bet. Aesthetically, the Mambo is absolutely terrific with excellent build quality and a reassuring feel to its controls and hardware. I wish I could transplant its volume control into my own preamp because its taper worked just great with high-efficiency speakers. Musically I couldn't ask for much more of the Mambo without feeling downright greedy. I thought it could have had a little more muscle in the bass but maybe I'm just spoiled by my own much more powerful amps. From the midrange on up, I thought the Mambo combined an admirable degree of transparency, tonality and beat that could make spending more money seem less than prudent and possibly unnecessary. Imaging and in particular soundstaging could be spookily good.

In the end, I'm glad to have been able to share time with this modified integrated amplifier as it brought home just how good a relatively inexpensive integrated can be these days. Frankly, I wouldn't have predicted that it was going to be this good. And there's no way I would have thought that I'd be this sorry to see it go. Who knew something so simple could be so satisfying? Now I do.

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