image: Music-6
Final Labs' Music 6 power amplifier. You might ask: 'Where is the AC cord?'
By
msnbc.com

Welcome to the world of low-power amplifiers, highly efficient speakers, and what is slowly-but-surely becoming a revolutionary force in the world of home hi-fi sound. Actually it’s a lesson in back-to-the-future engineering because this technology is not a new one.

InsertArt(1546471)DON’T GET ME WRONG. Modern technological advances have been added to these products making for some unbelievable-sounding items. But, the idea of mating 3-to-10 watt amplifiers to very high-efficiency speaker systems has been around for a long, long time.

First some personal background. I’m still finding things that were destroyed or broken in my home following last year’s 9/11 terror attacks. Living less than »-mile from what used to be the twin towers was tough on everyone and everything in the neighborhood, including my stereo system. When I went to power-up my speakers I found that one of them wasn’t working.

While the speaker was out being fixed I thought it would be the perfect time to check out what new items were available. I also thought it would be a perfect time to check out stereo equipment that was totally different from my 15-year old stuff — 200-watt per channel amp and highly-inefficient, monitor-sized, aluminum-enclosed, 2-way speakers. Everything sounded good before 9/11, but it was a chance to check up on the current state-of-the-business.

Many years ago, a store opened a block from NYC’s Holland Tunnel. It was a store on Watts Street (!) called Fi (as in hi-fi), owned by a nice gentleman named Don Garber. Don was into something I thought was extreme: flea-powered amps and strange speaker systems with only one driver. No separate woofers and tweeters, just one speaker cone inside a tall, thin cabinet.

The sound of Don’s system, while not as overtly hi-fi as my home system, did one thing really well — it made music. Voices sounded real. Music sounded right. His system may not have reproduced the lowest bass notes or high-pitched sounds only heard by dogs, but it did make you forget that music was being reproduced by electronics and mechanical devices and just let you concentrate on the music.

On one of my Fi listening experiences, a man came with his own home-made CDs to listen on Garber’s system. The music was breathtaking. Turned out to be one of the Chesky brothers, a legendary name in the world of high-end, quality music recording. If he was pre-auditioning his CDs on this kind of equipment there must be something to it, I thought.

Of course, not being smart enough at the time, I was one of the many people who came to Fi and listened but didn’t buy. As you might imagine, Fi closed a short-time later. I always wondered what happened to Don Garber.

Back to the present day. I did a lot of searching on the Web, making a lot of calls and meeting a bunch of great people along the way. With each contact I learned a lot more about these new products, based on a whole bunch of tried-and-true ideas. Here are some of the interesting items I’ve had the pleasure to listen to:

image: Amaze
The Loth-X Amaze loudspeaker contains one driver per box and with very high efficiency is capable of producing loud sound with small amps.
I read about Loth-X on the Web. The Singapore company makes a large line of horn-loaded speakers — usually one-speaker driver handles all the frequencies in specially designed cabinets. Very large, heavy cabinets. Horn-loading means the enclosure works to extend the bass frequencies of the enclosed speaker driver. Think of it as something like cupping your hands over your mouth when you shout to make yourself heard over a crowd. Loth-X also make some great-looking and expensive amplifiers and turntables. Yes, turntables and vinyl discs are still around and sounding as good as ever.

In the United States, when you deal with Loth-X you deal with importer Joe Roberts, truly a great guy, who spent a lot of time guiding through how to make his speakers sound great. Joe sent me a pair of Loth-X Amaze speakers with a suggested list price of $1,000 a pair. These are one-driver bookshelf speakers that make music when attached to low-power tube amplifiers. I don’t blame him for not sending me a 200-300 pound pair of his larger speakers. I’m getting too old to carry those in from the car.

In my crazy listening room, Joe’s speakers sounded best on speaker stands away from any corners. At low to moderate volumes, the Amaze made voices sound real. Drums had the right impact and I was able to get lost inside the music. At higher volumes, the speakers got lost in the room. Those were the only times I wished I could audition larger Loth-X boxes.

image: AV-8
Antique Sound Labs Wave AV-8 amplifiers are available with or without a tube cover. Either way, they are a great deal for the price.
When I received the Loth-X speakers I searched my sources for interesting tube amplifiers to use. I couldn’t believe what I found. Divergent Technologies of Canada made exactly what I wanted. Their Antique Sound Labs division produce a small, lightweight, 8-10 watt tube mono-block (one amplifier for each stereo channel) amp called the Wave-8.

It uses two inexpensive tubes in each amp to create what I consider one of the great bargains in hi-fi today. These amps cost $99 each — $119 if you want a cover for the top and a detachable AC power cord (I’ll explain about that below). I’m not quite sure how they get so much sound for this price, but because they make the components inside to order and assemble it overseas, it’s quite an amazing feat.

How do they sound? Very, very good for any price. Fine bass, smooth midrange and a pretty good high end. This is compared to a lot of other more expensive tube amps that I’ve heard. There is also a growing groundswell in the audio underworld about modifying the AV-8s. Do-it-yourselfers have reported amazing improvements by changing just a few of the capacitors, etc. inside. I’m told by other friends that it changes a good amp into one bordering greatness.

Divergent thinks of these as starter amps. They’re selling them at a price very close to the break-even point just to get you interested in their more elaborate, better sounding, and expensive products. I can tell you they now have my attention.

image: The Horn
Ed Schilling's 'The Horn' speaker -- simple design with stupendous sound. Ed will not only finish the cabinets to order, but he'll also put the speaker connectors on the back if you'd like.
The Horn Shoppe Horn: Ed Schilling and his father make a speaker called The Horn. Ed’s dad does the folded horn cabinet woodwork — Ed handles installing and tweaking the sole, 4-inch speaker driver and finishing the cabinet to your color specifications.

Ed offers two driver choices. With the standard drivers the Horns sell for $525 (plus shipping). With the upscale Fostex Fe108-Sigma drivers, the Horns sell for $700

The Horn is smaller in real life than the picture would have you believe. It’s only 30-inches high, 6 inches wide and 11 inches deep. Plus, unless you ask him to make it fire engine red, they will blend into your listening room easily.

Since this is a father and son operation Ed wasn’t about to send me a pair of speakers to audition. Basically every pair is spoken for soon after they’re made. So, Ed helped me find a well-broken in pair in New York. They sound better after they’ve been listened to for a few days/weeks/months (the longer you listen to them the better they sound). They pair I heard must have been breaking in for years because the sound I heard coming out of them was stupendous.

I brought my (un-modified) Wave-8 amplifiers with me and heard these Horns make some of the sweetest music I’ve ever heard. The width and breadth of the music reproduction was startling. I could spend the next dozen paragraphs describing what I heard but the idea is for you to hear them. If you can you should.

Ed, a great person to deal with on the phone, is threatening to sell a bass augmenter. Think of it as speaker that reproduces the lowest of low bass sounds, the only area where Ed’s small speaker could possibly need any help.

Ed designed The Horn after he purchased a Fi X amplifier. I was glad to hear that Don is still around — only now he’s making some incredibly reviewed flea-powered amps and other electronics in his home laboratory.

I called Don to say hello and ask him about his amp and what speakers I should be auditioning for this piece. Of course, Don didn’t remember me (don’t forget I never purchased anything at his store) but said he’d send me a catalog. As for speakers he ordered me to listen to Ed Schilling’s Horns — he said they were the speakers to hear.

As for Don’s X amp, it’s built on a X-shaped chassis (when viewed from the top) with the tubes and controls sitting sideways. It’s a striking piece of equipment. I only got to hear one for a few minutes. Needless to say the midrange was a dream. Voices and instruments produce most of their sounds in the middle range of human hearing and the Fi reproduces them amazingly well. The hand-made Fi X amp is a SET design — that means single-ended triode (as opposed to push-pull output amps that we all use in the many devices that reproduce music). It sells for $900. Check out the Fi Y pre-amp too (I bet you can figure out the Y’s shape). Don’s phone number is available on Ed Schilling’s Horn Shoppe Web site.

Above, I told you about the Wave AV-8 amps available with detachable AC power cords. That’s because a number of golden-eared hi-fi enthusiasts have realized that AC power from their local utility was a source of noise that affects home music reproduction. Some add special AC circuits just for the stereo. Some spend $1,000 for “better sounding” AC cords. Some spend lotsa money on AC power line filters/conditioners. Some upgrade the AC wires in the wall — or even add hospital-grade sockets for their stereos to plug into.

image: battery boxes
These are the battery boxes for Final's Music-6 amp -- each holds 18 D-cells. Final's Music-6 preamp has one power box which uses C-size batteries.
The people at Final Labs in Japan have come up with a unique solution. Their transistor amp and pre-amp (along with a preamp just for phono equalization) don’t use AC power at all. They run on batteries — C- and D-cell batteries — dozens of them. And not just any kind of batteries. Regular, old-fashioned “heavy duty’ dry cells. Final found that alkaline batteries don’t sound as good.

The Final Music 5 pre-amp and Music 6 power amp are two of the best sounding components I’ve ever had the pleasure of auditioning in my home. They were the best sounding power combination on the Loth-X Amaze speakers — better than the tube amps I tried. They sounded great on my old, inefficient Celestion 700 speakers until the 10-watts of power ran out of gas. Actually, the Celstions really need 100-watts to come alive — so the Finals did a marvelous job with their clean 10 watts. Great bass!

A fresh set of batteries is said to last a pretty long time. The first set of batteries I received had a few dozen hours of listening time on them and added a few dozen more during my testing. They still had a lot of juice left when I sent the amps on to another reviewer. Final’s importer claims 100-150 hours of battery life for the Music-6 and more than 200-hours for the Music-5. If you search online you can find the recommended “heavy duty”, carbon-zinc batteries for as 25-cents each — in the long run a lot cheaper that replacing tubes on some of today’s super amps on the market.

The amps themselves aren’t cheap — nor should you expect them to be — not with the sound quality and technology you’re getting. Music 4 pre-amp sells for $3,250 — the same for the Music 5 amp. The battery boxes or very elaborate AC power supplies are extra.

Thanks to importer Brian from Venus Hi-Fi who spent hours with me on the phone. He also turned me onto Living Voice Auditorium speakers. These are a British floorstanding, tower design with a pair of midrange/woofers and a tweeter in each tall cabinet. The speakers are pretty efficient and driven quite nicely by the Finals. Brian knew that I’d like the sound (based on the speakers I own) and he was right. I recommend a listen.

image: Gallo
Anthony Gallo Acoustics' Nucleus Micro loudspeaker is only 4-inches in diameter but puts out an amazing amount of sound. The spheres come in 8 colors, including wine.
I’ve saved some of the best for last. Gallo Acoustics Nucleus Micro speakers. These are 4-inch balls with one driver inside. Designer Anthony Gallo does some fantastic thing to get these little globes to sound amazingly good. The entire system comes with a powered subwoofer and not only looks good, but sounds great.

I tried two of these Micros and the subwoofer in a two-channel stereo system. The sound was very, very good, especially with lower-priced transistor equipment, like the old Quad 33/303 amps I own — and even your old stereo receiver. They were designed to sound that way. The only fault I could find was that the very, very high treble notes weren’t reproduced as well as some other speakers I’ve heard. But those other speakers weren’t as great looking and cost way more than the Gallos. I also tried 5 little Gallo ball speakers with the subwoofer in a home theater set-up. These sounded terrific too.

For the record they’re small and cute but they’re not toys. Gallo speakers systems are sold in some of the best stereo shops in your area. Price-wise they’re $150 for each sphere (they come in some great colors/finishes), $750 for the subwoofer (and the great looking Wallflower stands are extra. A 5.1-channel system retails for $1,500. These are highly recommended.

Anthony Gallo told me he has some new speaker designs coming later this year. I’m asking them to sign me up now for a listen.

The Sony SACD (Super Audio CD) player I’ve been testing was one of the best sounding sources used in these reviews. It’s so special it deserves a column on its own — coming soon to a computer near you.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank Creston Funk of Concert Sound in San Antonio - importer of the terrific DNM cables I’ve been using for this round of testing. DNM, a British company, have been perfecting their single-strand-of pure-copper speaker wires and interconnects for nearly two decades - and it shows. With the amazing, minimalist, plastic Bullet Plug RCA jacks - these wires helped bring out some the best sounds coming from the auditioned speakers.

© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments