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What makes a good amplifier? On the lowest level we deal with tonal balance, dynamics, resolution and soundstage holography. Those are the basics. On a higher level one combines these attributes, then adds the ability to differentiate. Differentiation shows clear differences between recordings, pressings, versions and, within one disc, the native timbres of any given instrument which shift from track to track, sometimes even within a track if it was edited and spliced from many different takes. The main enabler for differentiation is resolution but without the earlier mentioned aspects, it would mean absolutely nothing.

That’s exactly the Tenor sound. The ability to look inside the finest tissues of a recording, even into a certain structure of a recording session, was incredible. With just a few exceptions (top models from FM Acoustics, Spectral, Soulution and Vitus), only 300B amps like those mentioned above could do this as convincingly as the 175S. In a beautifully subtle yet unambiguous way, it demonstrated what makes the HiQuality, Blu-spec and SHM discs special. Smoothness, depth, coherence, proper instrumental sizing - I had it all within easy reach. This was best demonstrated in direct comparison of the HiQualityCD Jazz Selection and Feel the Difference of the Blu-spec CD samplers. The true magic only really came to the fore when I listened to entire discs like June Christy’s Something Cool, Julie London’s Julie is Her Name. Vol.1 or Chet Baker Sings and Plays. The sound was full and intimate, close, slightly warm and tonally fully saturated. Yet it didn’t dumb everything down to a common pleasant denominator. Often beautiful sounding amps like the ASR Emitter II—probably the most affordable such transistor amp—present such recordings in a fluent passionate way but do the same to all discs. Even my Luxman M-800A, which I love unconditionally, evens out the sound, albeit in a different direction by enhancing things. The Tenor goes further. It does what 300Bs do - present every voice and instrument as separate entities but then shows them also as belonging together on the same recording.

I mentioned resolution. At first one might think that the Canadian warms things up a little. This was not the case but it took me time to understand it fully. I never heard it before except with the Ancient  Audio and Reimyo valve amps. I did not think it possible with transistor outputs. The Tenor clarified everything within the first minute of each recording. With resolving but analytical amplifiers, one must work for some time to recombine everything into a whole. They transmit plenty of information but connect it only loosely. Although we do not notice it consciously, our brains work a lot making sense of it all. Such presentations become strangely fatiguing even to the point of agitation. The Tenor presented a cohesive whole from which one extracts the musicians, instruments and their relationships to reproduce a certain event. I think this is exactly how it works with live events. This amplifier simply tries to duplicate what we know from real life – facing us with the totality first, then dividing it into constituents should we feel so inclined.

I could immediately hear where the tape was spliced in Chet Baker’s Let’s Get Lost and why the sound engineer did it - to have the percussion stronger with the voice and softer behind the trumpet. It was very obvious. Yet this track—arguably somewhat manipulated within the boundaries of the technology and techniques available when it was recorded—remained coherent. The Tenor didn’t dissect it by laser. Usually solid-state devices present micro evidence instantly. We need to, almost impossibly, put them back together again. The Tenor did this in reverse.

But this really was only the first level. At the high end’s very top, something else becomes even more important. That is related to differentiation and resolution but shows recordings such as to only extract their best attributes. It’s not about extracting everything. Don’t confuse this with homogenizing to cover up flaws and problems. The Tenor could do that in seconds. Yet it went about resolution in a fashion that was far more refined than all other transistor amplifiers in my experience -  and most tube ones too. Perhaps I should have started my review with this realization? I simply wanted to approach things in an orderly way to not get unduly excited right off but show a growing understanding just as it grew in me over the review process.

For a long time now I had tired of listening to music at home. Everything was fine, I had a system I’d always wanted to have. Alas the music no longer was as pleasing as it used to be. This was extremely tiring since I listen a few hours 365 days a year, analytically and for pleasure. I know this state and experienced it many times prior. The possibilities of a given system had been exploited and my expectations exceeded what was possible from it. Now I wanted more. I knew what I was looking for and what lacked annoyed me the most. This is why I’ve preferred listening to inexpensive or even cheap gear like last month’s Pro-Ject. Expectations and actual results snapped back into place for perfect alignment. With the Tenor I could at long last listen for hours again. That was good news. I listen for a living after all.
The Canadian was slightly soft yet absolutely precise. If we dig as deeply as possible, we should realize that this was a slightly different presentation than from other top offerings like Solution, Spectral or even Vitus Audio (although the last one would be very close). If I would have to identify a matching pure tube amplifier, the Tenor would be closer to the Reimyo than Ancient although on raw resolution it would actually be closer to the latter. That’s proof positive that here we’re dealing with the absolute highest end. Those two postulates are commonly mutually exclusive – resolution and sonic goodness. Here the first one was fulfilled at each possible level and perhaps best appreciated when comparing different versions of the same disc. I have an original edition of Julie is Her Name. Vol.1 for example, perhaps not in mint condition but good enough. As I said previously, the HiQualityCD patent brings much good to digital sound but compared to good vinyl there’s still much left to do; surprisingly little if we look at how CD players sounded just a few years ago but still enough to justify the return of music lovers to vinyl.

The 175S brilliantly showed these differences with the deep warm sound of the original tending towards an emphasized lower midrange or even nasality; and the more precise lighter sound of the digital version. Both were acceptable for different reasons. Although the result of the comparison was different, I could hear the same with Tomasz Stańko’s Music for K. I received a new Stańko box set for my birthday, which contains five discs spanning the years 1970-1988 (1970, 1975, 1984, 1986, 1988). Under the first year we find Music for K.  Of that I had an earlier version individually numbered 0042 and issued by Polskie Nagrania. Listen to that to appreciate fully how to butcher a reissue. Music for K in the boxed version was simply tragic. The Polskie Nagrania version wins massively. You’ll hear the warm full sound of the PN version and the thin copy of the Metal Mind Productions box. The Tenor again showed it thoroughly but I picked the PN version only in direct comparison. When I listened to the boxed version on its own, I thought it okay and felt that the original recording had been cut that way. It wasn’t.

I purposely haven’t written much about the sound yet which is how I’d usually start. As I said already, all that is hi-end kindergarten and matters nothing in the end. If there’s something wrong at that level, we cannot talk about quality sound at all and certainly not about high end. But to fulfill expectations for my usual reviews, I will get to the sound now. The 175S played warm and slightly soft at least compared to other edgier devices. None are ideally equal to live sound and all exist within their margins of error. That’s also true here. The treble was not softened in the sense of withdrawal but strong, full and expressive when needed - even more than my Luxman, which isn’t veiled either. Yet the Tenor’s was the nicer treble. It was richer in its hues, warmer due to a higher amount of harmonics yet capable of differentiating everything. One would say the same about the midrange. It was highly saturated and extremely energetic. The bass was so rich that it seemed as though the all-metal woofers in my Dobermanns were being heated from behind by a big oven. Extension exceeded my reference in that regard, the Krell EVO402. Yet the attacks were softer and more physiological, working more unnoticed and attracting less attention. Timbres were very natural – Paul Chamber’s upright on the Wynton Kelly disc Kelly Blue and the electronic passages from Depeche Mode’s Playing the Angel had a very distinctive individualized sound that was thorough yet not hardened just as it should be.