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Audio Note (UK) Amplification - Infinite possibilities

Audio Note manufacture such a vast range of amplifiers, both integrated and pre and power that it is potentially easy to suffer confusion and a sense of "why ?". Once you gain a little of the understanding of the levels that Audio Note use to differentiate increasing levels of performance, then it starts to make a little sense.

 

The first thing to understand is that you get what you pay for and there are always sweet spots.

 

Integrated Amps 

The integrated amps actually range from the I Zero at $3,100 to the Ongaku at $151,000 with 40 different options between both in finish, componentry and input and output configuration.

 

For example, take an Oto, push pull or single ended, with phono or just line stage, standard or signature edition, brushed aluminium or black acrylic. Line push pull is $3,870 and $5,100 with phono. Line SE is $5,100, $5,800 with Phono. Line SE Signature is $6,900, $7,900 with Phono.

 

Standard & Signature Explained

The main difference between the standard and signature version is the choice of componentry as the circuit design is identical. The Signature uses AN tantalum resistors while the standard use the Beyshlag metal film resistors. It uses higher quality capacitors in the power supply and AN copper foil capacitors and double C-core output transformers over the standards IE core transformers. The wiring harness is upgraded as are the switch's and connectors. There is a definite difference in sound and if you were able to afford the Signature, then it really is one of those sweet spots, but having said that, my very first piece of Audio Note equipment was a standard Oto SE and I still own it 21 years later. It was a magical sound back then and when I think back on the revelation it was, we all have to start somewhere.

 

The SORO takes exactly the same path as the Oto in it's variations and increases the power available by using 6L6 tubes instead of the EL84 tubes. The price range runs from $5,400 for the Soro Line PP to $10600 for the Soro SE Phono Signature.

 

The Meishu is only available in the single ended configuration  but now with a Standard SE , Silver SE and Silver Signature SE version ranging from $10,200 line stage, $12,400 phono, $13,500 line stage Silver, $15,500 phono and $21,300 line stage Silver Signature and $26700 for the Phono Silver Signature version. The Meishu uses 300b tubes in the output stage  and is packed with so many high quality components it defies lifting without a back brace. Great amp and great sound, just use bloody good shelves to carry the weight.

 

The JINRO is the first of the 211 tube integrated amplifiers and provides a whole 22 watts per channel but with tremendous drive and finesse. Only available as a line stage unit, $32,900 buys you a hell of a lot of amplifier.

 

The TOMEI is exactly the same as the JINRO with the exception of the components being substantially upgraded and the output transformers using a higher grade core lamination material and silver windings on the secondary rather than copper. It weighs more and costs more at $61000 but all those who have heard it consider this one to be one of those sweet spots.

 

Rounding up the integrated's is the ONGAKU from which there is no escape. Only hearing one briefly will bring years of torment and broken sleep patterns as you try to decide which child to sell first and how much you can get for that spare kidney. Seriously, it changes your perception of what recorded music is capable of. No matter how many years of the ins and outs of hifi ownership you have enjoyed, this is a scary moment for anyone. That silence before the first note is played is just as important as the relationship between the trough and the crest of an ocean wave and that incredible effortlessness is the justification for this amplifier.

 

When you look at the pre and power amps, again the range is significant and prices vary from $2,800 for the M1 Line with the M1 Phono at $3,500, the M2 Line at $4,800, M2 Phono at $6,200 and the M2 Line Balanced at $8500 and the M2 Phono Balanced at $9,700. The Balanced versions are the first of the pre's that use the transformer coupling circuit rather than capacitor coupling and a more sophisticated power supply arrangement.

 

The M3 Line is another of those sweet spots and really starts to shout the AN "house" sound in all it's glory. The AN tantalums come in and the copper foil caps and ELNA's and Cerafines along with the C-core transformers. Selling for $10,800 as a line stage only version, the M3 Phono runs to $13,500. There is another option with having a proper balanced CD input using a balanced interstage transformer arrangement added to either model with the M3 Line Balanced CD Input being $13800 and the M3 Phono Balanced CD Input being $16,800.

 

The M5 Line again steps up the part quality count and introduces the AN stepped attenuators, ELMA contact switching, ELNA SILMIC capacitors, AN copper foil caps, Bakelite board material point to point wiring, high quality valve sockets, higher quality C-core lamination material [IHiB] for $13,500, $16,200 for the Phono version. Balanced CD input versions are also available as is a special production M5 Phono Signature pre for $19,900 which uses the 3 valve phono stage seen in the M6 and M8 and a much more impressive power supply.

 

Next is my personal favourite pre, the M6 as a line stage unit for $21,700 or with phono for $25,700. The M6 Phono that I have on the floor is just a sheer joy to use and a delight to listen too. Originally bought to work with the P4 Balanced monoblocks, it now spends it's time controling the P4's, the ONGAKU KENSEI, the Conqueror Silver Signature and the Vindicator Silver Signature and really allows the character of those different amps to shine whether the valves be 300b's, 211's or 2A3's. There are again the options of the Balanced CD inputs for both models as well as the M6 Line Signature which is the first of the 2 box pre amplifiers with 1 chassis containing the power supply and the other the signal circuit. This brings the design elements of the flagship Signature models to an attainable and affordable level at $37,000.

 

 

The Twilight Zone

We now start entering the twilight zone where one off indulgences are part of the strategy.

 

The M8 has long been a benchmark for other pre amps to aspire to and is the first of the all silver componentry from wiring harness, silver foil capacitors, silver wired interstage transformers, mains cable and now, maybe silver resistors. The line stage is $58,000 and phono version is $70,000. It is never easy to describe why manufacturers choose to do certain things as all choices are so much dictated by years of personal experience and belief and this is where you let go of the reality and just drink the Kool-Aid. I don't know what makes this level of equipment sing. Andy Grove will tell you one thing from a technical perspective and Peter Qvortrup will tell you another reason from an intellectual perspective and as both love music, both will be absolutely right and that's why you just give up trying to rationalise it and just go with the flow. Much like the ONGAKU, the seduction began before the notes began. Music just sounds right.

 

 The M8 Line Signature pushes harder with the 2 box arrangement and applies the blowtorch just for kicks, $90,000 worth of excruxiating beauty.

 

 The air is so thin up here at the M9 Phono level that it's almost oxygen mask material. I heard the M9 in Peter's own personal system in Hove and with the new ladder DAC feeding into the M9 and then on to the GAKUON's with the ELROG 211's in parallel SET into the AN-E SEC speakers all wired with SOOTTO and SOGON LX-96 and i can honestly say it's a system that could scare the pants off you. The dynamics were trying to shut down your breathing system while the bass was massaging your heart into mush and your brain just decided "this is the end my friend" in its best Jim Morrison voice. When you start playing with these numbers it's because you can. That will be $182000 sir and would you like that gift wrapped. There is a Signature version available as well for $250000 if you feel the love.

 

But we are almost at the end of the pre's and just 2 models to go. The M10 Line at $149,000 and the M10 Line Signature at $192,000.

When you have the desire and ability and personnel around you to manufacture a product like these 2 then the obvious thought is why wouldn't you. if Peter only had 2 made, one for him and one for Andy, then i think he still would have been happy. However the number may be over 50 by now and still orders keep on coming, One day.......

And Pandora's box reopens with power amplifiers.

 

Having the ability to use higher efficiency speakers give so much breath to the imagination for playing with high quality tubes and high quality components, particularly transformers. There is beauty in that marriage and a hell of a lot of fun especially playing to people who can't equate what they are hearing with what they are predisposed to from years of being told it won't work.

 

Audio Note power amps start with a push pull baby called a P1 PP and a P2 PP, $3,350 and $4,150 respectively,  a great match for the AN-AZ Three's. Engaging and fun, perfect for an apartment setup and easy to use.

 

The next up are the P1SE and P2SE both parallel single ended, the P1SE using EL84 tubes and the P2SE using 6L6 tubes, 12 watts and 20 watts respectively. Sweet and controlled, powerful sounding, detailed. The P1SE is $4500 and the P2SE is $5670. There are Signature models available as well that use the AN tantalums, silver wiring, copper foil caps and Double C-core output transformers. The P1SE Signature is $6,100 and the P2SE Signature is $7,500.

 

Now for the specialised amplifier range starting with the Paladin, a 45 type tube based stereo power amplifier that output a whole 2 watts of power but if used with horn speakers or high efficiency speakers, sings most brilliantly and with real authority. Audio Note do not supply  new or NOS 45 TUBES so factor that on top of the following prices. Given that most 45 tubes were made in the 20's, 30's and 40's, it is still possible to find stock of them in lots of locations. The standard model is the Paladin using the Beyshlag resistors and the IE output transformers for $4,770. The Paladin Silver brings in the AN tantalums, copper foil caps and AN-V signal wiring along with the C-core output transformers and is $6,700. The Paladin Silver Signature improves the wiring to AN-Vx. Higher quality parts, better lamination material for the output transformers and is $9500.

 

The next one is a personal favourite and that is the Vindicator which is a 2A3 tubed stereo power amp raising the bar to 3.5 watts of output juice. We ordered this power amp not knowing anything really about the sound of a 2A3 tube and figuring we need to represent the range more, we decided to go the full monty and get the Silver Signature version and the proof was evident straight away into the AN-J SPe, paper cone, as this seemed to be a perfect match. Surprising as the Vindicator controlled the speaker so well and filled the listening room. We were so delighted with it we use this combination at the Hi Fi show in Melbourne in 2014 and had the best feedback from enthusiasts as they clearly responded well to equipment they could afford and wives who could see speakers in corners rather than out in the middle of the room and no big room heaters masquerading as audio amplifiers. The Vindicator models comprise the standard unit at $4,770, Silver at $6,700 and Silver Signature at $9,500. Stunning little amp and worth every dollar.

 

Next comes the greatest contradiction in all of the amplifiers but only in a particular combination and the greatest chameleon. The Conqueror is the stereo 300B power amplifier and we brought in for our demo unit the Silver Signature which is the $11,300 version as opposed to the standard at $6,770 and the Silver at $8,560.

The contradiction comes from how far you can push this power amplifier to sound absolutely first class. Straight out of the box and it's like having been flying economy all your life and them you get upgraded to business and you can't stop smiling. Today was fun finding a delivery at the front door containing a collection of NOS tubes from Langrex tubes in the UK including a brand new GEC U52 rectifier to use in the Conqueror along with a pair of 1944 Raytheon VT-231 tubes. 

 The Quest is quietly becoming a really popular model as more and more high efficiency speakers come on to the market.