High hopes for Mid-Fi gear squashed

When I still worked in audio retail, my wife ran a full-time facial/massage salon. I continued some deep-tissue massage work with favored clients on the side. Didn't mean to lose my touch. In the salon, a trusty old NAD integrated powered my endlessly circling custom tape compilations. They set the mood and helped folks relax. When the NAD finally bit the dust, a $600 Onkyo integrated amplifier bought from the store replaced it.

To give my resident Mesa Tigris tube integrated a well-deserved day off and perhaps satisfy some subliminal curiosity, I brought the Onkyo home one weekend. I parked it between the Meadowlark Audio Shearwater Hotrods and hit play on my CAL CD changer.

It musta been thenabouts that I forswore inexpensive solid state for good. The Onkyo was perfect to roll out sonic wallpaper in the office. But boy was it disappointing in the living room. The life and color drained out of the music like a dying critter. The tunes turned flat and uninvolving, fit merely to pawn off on Simba the cat who slept through most of it.

Not that the Onkyo was offensive, mind you. It didn't outright misbehave at all. It just refused to do the right thing, opting instead to loaf on minimum effort. The glorious midrange deflated. The treble grew colder. The juiciness in the midbass dried up like the bark on an old hickory tree. 'Twas boring. Music at Macy's. Hate those fluorescents. Get me outta here.

But there's hope after all:

Enter Les Amps hooked up to their stable mates, the SM6.9.

The sound is bold, colorful, well delineated yet full-bodied - the toned power of a gymnast rather than the brute brawn of a Venice Beach gorilla. In other words, despite the admirable headroom that evidences itself when things get rowdy, these monoblocks don't slow down. They don't suffer excess weight of bulging muscle. They don't drag, plump up or get ponderous and fuzzy around the edges.

Bass control is very good. There's no substitute for hefty power supplies. They grip those woofers and have 'em march in lockstep to the riot act. Add fleetness of foot and you grok the appeal of well-oiled silicon warriors handling drum kit and bass lines especially.

Surprisingly, the overall sound isn't as dry as I expected. True, it's not as velvety as good tube amps, nOrh's own SE-9 included. But it's not sterile either by a long shot. No cryogenically frozen stiffs deluding themselves into surviving into the 23rd century. In fact, the midrange is slightly on the warm side. It emulates a slice of thermionic glow without harmonic saturation. The relative treble refinement will shock you most. No sizzle, hash, stridency or flat-lined vacuum. No glare when you goose the volume even on red-hot recordings.

Only when you advance to a far more expensive amp like the Bel Canto eVo do you realize -- up there in the stratosphere -- that there's more air to be had yet. You held your breath when the air got too thin before. Now you inhale at the same heights and still discover plenty o' oxygen. This further refinement or elegance is like the difference between stone-washed deerskin and fine yet coarser-grained calf leather. Or goose down versus fiberfill. One is supremely comfortable, the other simply final luxury.

What's rather counterintuitive is Le Amp's refusal to get ugly when pushed. It's as though someone forget to tell the li'l guy to throw in the towel when pummeled too hard. "Would you rather get physically hurt or have your silly pride bruised?" Perhaps Le Amp don't speak English. Or perhaps he's one heroically prideful stubborner.

Regardless, even using some of my zippier Egyptian and Turkish Pop, the French pretender to the throne didn't cross the line into crudeness. If I could only compliment Curt Wishman on one audiophile wish list item for affordable solid-state, it would be this treble. Bravo!

Having the left and right channel keep separate power supplies and beds reaps considerable dividends in soundstage precision. No hanky-panky in the farther reaches of the aural scenery. No congesting when multiple musical lines would rather clump together and cry separation anxiety like Siamese twins. This precise mapping out of the soundstage front/aft and left/right is in fact silly good and nearly on par with the bridged eVo.

Where the $2,395 eVo-in-two-channel-mode clearly surpasses the nOrh/IRD at 1/10th the outlay is in the dimension of "moisture". I think that's related to harmonic distortion. In my personal universe of gear I own -- or am otherwise intimately familiar with -- the AUDIOPAX Model 88 rules by offering the most intense image density. It's that enhanced sense of color acuteness, which nature exhibits directly after a rainfall. The Art Audio PX-25 enters half an hour later when the reemerged sun has already dried off some of this moisture sheen.

Compared to the PX-25, the eVo is a bit drier again, yet anyone knowing the Bel Canto amp will agree it's anything but cut and dried. So this hierarchical sequencing is merely a silly exercise of degrees. It's a poor attempt at illustrating what I perceive as the single greatest possible gain that considerable added expense can purchase beyond Le Amp.

The eVo, it seems universally agreed, does this elusive "tube thang" better than nearly any other no-tube amplifier. While not the same as thermo-glow, it comes bloody close. Compared to Le Amp, my Onkyo of yore resided in one of the lower hells to where aural angel Gizmo Rosenberg relegates the moderate sinners.

Le Amp is oblivious to any hellish existence. It has never heard of harmonic hunger strikes. Rather, it's astonishingly well-nourished in this regard, just not fed on as choice a high calorie diet as the eVo. This is compliment #2 to the man from IRD. He's banished the hungry ghost of threadbare Mid-Fi solid-state.

I'm keeping these descriptions deliberately lighthearted. I want to get across how much fun listening to Le Amp is. And I also need to remind myself and you that there's something fundamentally wrong with applying High-End standards and context to evaluating a Circuit-City priced component. It's the bane of getting along in this review game, into pricier and pricier waters. Murkiness. Soon you forget what the short green can purchase. Your grip on reality relaxes. Then it looses its hold for good. Time to change my initials.

Fortunately, my GoodSound.com days aren't that far behind. Timely appearances by the likes of nOrh's SE-9 and today's Le Amp -- and the in-house reminders of nOrh's Model 4.0 and SM6.9 -- keep my critical muscle tone in reasonably good shape. To translate today's findings into hard numbers (and remember: I ain't the pope and infallible, and percentage figures are tricky business) I'd call the AUDIOPAX a 10 as the best I've yet had in-house. The PX-25 is an 8.5, the eVo an 8. The Onkyo was a 3, may it rest in pieces.

Hey, what about Le Amp?

Somewhere between 6 and 6.5.

Now assign dollar signs to these values: $10,000/pr for our Bo Derek 10; $6,000 for our 8.5; $3,795 for our 8; $595/pr for the 6 to 6.5; and $600 to the 3.

You'll appreciate why I just hesitated there for a wee moment to recover my breath. You see, the law of diminishing returns usually kicks in above 5. Double the money, get ahead by 15%. Double it again, gain another 7%. And so on to ever-shrinking degrees. It's madness. High-End audio.

Le Amp's beyond this line of diminishing returns but jumped there for less money than any other amplifier I can think of - except its li'l brother, the SE-9.

And in summary, that's the most important impression you should take away from this review. Le Amp is as good as the word on the street. As spoiled as I am, I could and would live with it in my second system in a heartbeat.

This makes it my top-of-mind recommendation for folks who are as yet uninfected by the High-End virus of endless upgrades. It makes it into the choice destination for those with limited budgets (or not quite as limited) who want something that doesn't hum, buzz or steam while sitting on the floor; that turns on without going bump on their speakers; that's overbuilt, under-hyped and as good-looking as any rectangular black box can manage; that bends over backwards to get out of the way of musical enjoyment and offers performance unreasoanbly close to its golf-playing rich relatives in America. And of course you get 100 watts. That will drive any matching-budget speaker and beyond with aplomb.

You nearly hate to add this to prevent passing our terrible virus along - but Le Amp doesn't embarrass itself at all as stand-in for big-name stars in the truly big leagues. (If you value your sanity, now immediately forget the notion that there even is such a thing as higher leagues beyond Les Amps!)

Chances are, the folks who frequent 6moons are already beyond them in terms of what's financially tied up in their amplifiers. Chances are that the ones who should really know about the Thai champs -- the Electric Avenue punters -- don't know about this site or would find it too bizarre and, ahem, otherworldly in its concerns over aural esoterica.

That leaves me with a request - or plea if you will, to atone for otherwise telling you about expensive stuff in these pages.

Tell a friend. Tell a newbie to this hobby whom you know to love music. Steer him in Le Amp direction. Rest assured that years from now when the pesky horsefly of audiophilia has sunk its teeth into your buddy, when his speakers go through growth spurts on a yearly basis, Le Amp will happily stick around and do its thing.

It's really that good. I shouldn't have been entirely surprised after my prior exposure to nOrh products. Still, it comes as a bit of a shock to put its goodness into the bigger perspective. It makes me realize once again how obsessive our lot must be to pay so much for such shrinking returns.

Now the question remains what giant-killer preamp (or affordable CD player with resolution-safe volume control) one should mate Les Amps with? Perhaps a preamp from the Channel Island folks? If I come across something, I'll let you know. And - IRD's Curt Wishman himself seems just about set to release a few line stages that would likely be custom-tailored brides to today's hunks. Keep an eye on his site.


I now wanted to ask Michael Barnes specifically about his tie-in with IRD to insure proper credit for this product. He explained that Curt Wishman is not merely a tech but a full-blown engineer with a very strong physics background and knowledge of filters, life support systems and other complex and serious matters. Curt uses more than $80,000 worth of test equipment during his R&D phases and operates his own factory. He was already involved in nOrh's MultiAmp and ACA Audio Control Amplifier projects. Le Amp and the MB-100 were designed exclusively by him but developed along mutually sketched-out lines for appearance and final pricing. Upon completion, both companies would share in marketing this product under their respective brand names.

Sure sounds like a very equitable arrangement for either party - Curt gained access to nOrh's established visibility and reputation for high-performance value-priced gear; nOrh added a rock-solid performer to their product offering, in a category outside their core focus on loudspeakers.

nOrh website
IRD website