POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 19
as reviewed by Jim Grudzien and John Brazier
I have been trying to get this integrated amp for over a year. I made the request after CES 2004, only to be put off. When I contacted the distributor one last time, in November 2004, I was informed that he no longer carried the line and was referred to Scot Markwell of Elite Audio and Video. I dropped him an email, and he suggested that we hook up at CES 2005. I received the 9100 a few weeks later. Was the amp worth the time and trouble? Read on, and you'll find out, but first a little history.
Peter Thomson founded Plinius Audio Systems in August 1980. His first amplifiers were designed for the New Zealand market, and enjoyed mild success during the first few years of the company's operation. During the early 90s, Thompson realized that Plinius had to be accepted in either the U.S. or the U.K. to gain worldwide credibility. These countries are recognized as the homes of hi-fi, and credibility elsewhere is largely based on reviews originating from those two places. Connections made at the 1993 CES led to a distribution agreement with Victor Goldstein of Fanfare International. With Victor's help, Plinius started to establish itself in the U.S., and to come to the notice of the major magazines. Fanfare and Plinius have since parted company, but the relationships developed during those first couple of years are firm.
I won't bore you with the technical stuff—I'll just insert it her for you to take a look at:
The amp is finely finished in brushed aluminum, and has a very solid feel. As you can see from the photo, the review unit has a silver faceplate, but I'm told that it also comes in black. I prefer black components, but a lot of companies are producing silver components as a sort of fashion statement. When unpacking this unit, the first thing that struck me was the size of the remote control. It's about ten inches long, one-and-a-half inches square, and it weighs about two to three pounds. I jokingly told Scot that it could make a good weapon in case you had an intruder. By the way, despite all that size, the remote only controls volume and mute.
On the back of the amp are two parallel five-way binding posts for bi-wiring that appear very solid. There are five sets of inputs—tuner, tape, CD, VCR, and auxiliary—and one set of preamp outputs. On the front are record, source, and volume controls. All controls and inputs are laid out in a sensible fashion. Yeah, but what about the sound? I gave the Plinius a good workout, with all types of music.
Fleetwood Mac, Rumours
The sound was nicely textured, but I detected a slight graininess, as I do with my Nait 5i. This did not take anything away from my musical enjoyment, but it is worth mentioning. While the voices had a natural timbre and ease, the women sounded a little cool. The guitars had more body and weight than they do with my Nait, and the drums were solid and full. The soundstage reached beyond my speakers. Though the 9100 offered an enjoyable performance, the upper registers were a little hot at times—as compared to what I am used to hearing from the Nait 5i.
Jane Monheit, Taking a Chance on Love
The first cut, "Honeysuckle Rose," opens with an upright bass solo that really sounded nice, with lots of texture and solidity. This track hooked me from the start. Monheit's voice was well represented, but was perhaps a tad harsh on some crescendos. While I would not consider this a fast amp, it is certainly not slow. There was a good balance of instruments and vocals, in which one never overpowered the other.
Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole, Facing Future
This is one of my favorite CDs, and an excellent test of gear. Iz's ukulele was precise, clear, and very musical. His singing can sound on top, but I never experienced that with the 9100. He voice had clarity, plus all the weight that I've come to expect. It never sounded strained or forced, just relaxed. Once again, the amp possessed a natural blending of instruments and vocals. It had delicacy, yet was strong and powerful when necessary, with a nice sense of naturalness.
The Plinius 9100 bested my Naim Nait 5i (see that review here) in most respects, but not by a whole lot. It sounds slightly warmer and more laid back. It was also a bit more detailed, which I liked, and the music had good harmonic structure. The fact that it has a lot more power was evident at higher volumes. Not being a high-volume guy, that didn't concern me too much, but the 9100 would be an excellent choice for harder-to-drive speakers. It sounded quite smooth, which was a bit of a problem with my Dali Grands, as they are also smooth, lush, and laid back. Sometimes you can have too much of a good thing.
The combination proved to be a little too soft for me. It never really demanded my attention. I think that this amp will be better suited to speakers that are on the leaner or detailed side than my Dalis. Something else that bothered me was the fact that the highs were bit hot at the top, mostly with female voices. It didn't happen with male vocals, and I do own some discs that contain male voices that can sound crispy in the upper registers. Again, perhaps an issue of system synergy.
Do I recommend this amplifier? You bet! Was it worth the wait? Yes. As you should with any amplifier, be careful when matching it with your other gear. Although the Plinius 9100 has a lot of competition at its price, it is a really solid performer. It provided trouble-free operation and very good sound. The 9100 will be a great addition to many a system. Jim Grudzien
A pair of B&W DM3000s on sale at San Francisco Stereo around 1983 was the beginning of my life in audio. They were a fun pair of speakers that injected uber-energy into many parties during my early 20s. Over the years, many audio systems passed through my apartments, culminating in a very satisfying rig in ‘97, but the bug to reinvent my system led me to my current simple-but-awesome-sounding setup. At that time, I had no less then ten components involved in my music making. The system sounded great, but I felt that simplifying could get me equal or better sound, so I liquidated most of that system, keeping a few essential pieces and pocketing some cash for my post-law-school relocation. For the last four or five years I have been researching, listening to and comparing the best integrated amps, loudspeakers, and one-box CD players I could get my hands on. This has not been an exercise in saving money or seeing how little I can spend to have decent audio. On the contrary, I am willing to spend what I can afford, and will spend more for the right product. Currently, my integrated of choice is the Edge G3 (review forthcoming), with the YBA Passion a close second.
Now I finally get a shot at a Plinius integrated. Plinius opened their doors in 1980, and for their first few years fed the marketplace with a few products per year, ultimately developing a full electronic product line. Their first integrated to make waves was the 8100, way back in 2000. For me, the buzz around the 8100 made the integrated amp a viable component. Prior to that—and on this I think I speak for the audio community in general—an integrated amp was a sub-audiophile-standard product for the unsophisticated buyer. Of course, the Jeff Rowland Design Group had been marketing their Concentra integrated since the mid 90s, but at over $6000, this was not a viable product for most of us. No matter how much I lusted after the Concentra I and II, I knew that at that price I could do very well with separates. The integrated amplifier market has exploded since then, and now they often exceed the sound of separates at their price points.
As a Business Economics graduate from UCSD and an observer of the business end of audio, I have found it exciting to watch the competitive level of the integrated amp market. Most major manufacturers of audio components now offer one or more integrated amps, but for me it started with Plinius. As I read those early reviews, I decided that I was going to pursue an integrated-centered system, but ironically, it was not until 2005 that I had a Plinius integrated in my home. With the 9100, I expected to hear a tube-sounding solid-state amp with a price lower than that of separates offering similar sonic characteristics.
The Edge G3 had been on board for only a couple of months, and I had just begun to get comfortable with its sound when I swapped in the 9100. My first moments with the Plinius were discouraging, and dramatically different from what I had been accustomed to with the G3, but it didn't take too long to settle into the new sound, and the 9100's first sounds soon faded in memory. The amp was fully broken in by fellow PFO reviewer Jim Gruzdin, yet Plinius recommends an hour of warm-up when the amp is first plugged in, which accounts for the scary sounds I first heard. This was fine, as it gave me time to touch and feel the 9100. New to this amp is a more sculpted box. Prior to this, Plinius integrated amps looked banal at best—they were nothing more than rectangular black boxes with a couple of knobs. Nevertheless, the design team didn't go out on limb with the look of the 9100. They rounded the corners, and that's about it. It does look a bit more pleasant on the shelf, but it lack serious panache. Then there is the remote, which is 7 or 8 inches in length and 2 to 3 pounds in weight. It can serve as a weapon in a pinch, but will damage your furniture if used without care. The consensus at my house was that it was too unwieldy, yet it does what it is intended to do, and passed muster on that level, anyway. On to the music.
First up is the 17-year-old Joss Stone. Born and bred in England, she has a voice like no other soul singer. Her current CD, Mind, Body and Soul, is her second release, and is considered by many to be merely a more refined, extended version of her first, but it has some really great tracks among some decidedly pop-ish ones. The first track, "Right to be Wrong," comes at you right off the bat. This is the type of track on which the Plinius has gotten its "tubey" reputation. Soft and soulful, with an edge of youthful sophistication, Stone sings of being young and entitled to be wrong, and the 9100 captures all she has to say. I think Miss Stone has a brilliant future as long as she stays her own course, sticks to her instincts, and avoids doing commercials for the Gap—dang, too late.
Then there is the 25-year-old violin virtuoso Hillary Hahn and her latest, Elgar's Violin Concerto and Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending. Here the highs get as high as most tweeters can go. Although I felt that my Reference 3As (see that review here)were being stretched to their limits, I did not feel the same about the 9100. The amp presented Hahn in a brilliant and convincing manner. It placed Hahn in the middle of the orchestra, and when the time came, spotlighted her and gave her room to breath while completely and beautifully maintaining the separation of the individual instruments.
Charlie Musselwhite has been playing his harmonica on the blues scene for many years and until recently, his CDs have remained true to his blues roots. His second-to-most-recent release, Sanctuary, deviates just a bit by adding some modern technologies and themes. "Shadow People" has a haunting harmonic entrance. With the 9100, the presentation was slightly more monochromatic than what I have heard via other amps. This is where the concept of tubeyness-to-a-fault may come into play. The instrumentation consists of a harmonica, bass, and drum kit, and, notes tended to meld into one confused tone on the lower end. Aside from that, the 9100 was true to its information, and really enjoyable. By the next track, "Snake Sound," it sounded as though the amp may have been fully warmed up. The soundstage and the bass improved over the earlier tracks. Unfortunately, toward the bottom end, tunefulness again melted into one pot.
It thought the problem might be CD-specific, but when I played the Gypsy Kings' Somos Gitanos I found it to be the rule and not the exception. "Felices Dias" exemplified the problem. As the track increased in intensity, determining who was playing what (and where) became more difficult. Granted, the Gypsy Kings can have five or more stringed instruments in the mix at any given moment, but the Brendensen IPO-80 (see the review here) and currently, the Edge G3, can handle this level of complexity quite nicely. Further on in this CD, "Poquito A Paco" revealed the strengths of the 9100. On this track, the Plinius exhibited a more organic separation of instruments, and the guitar picking was clean and natural. The vocals were clear and accurate, yet not fully fleshed out, though I am willing to concede that this was more a product of an overly compressed recording than an under-performing amp.
By itself, the 9100's bass is not bad, as long as it is not competing with other parts of the frequency range. One must take the good with the bad, and the tubeyness that made Joss Stone sound so wonderful also somewhat softened the bass notes. While they certainly were not bloated, they were not slamming or super-tight, nor did they reach the deepest depths. I am not a bass nut, and have been very happy with accurate, disappearing stand-mounted speakers most of my life, but I found myself wanting a tad more than the 9100 could give.
Modeski, Martin & Wood's Combustication is simple, funky, and jazz, all at the same time. The track "Hypnotized" epitomized the best of what the 9100 had to offer. Over the backdrop of synthesized harmony, the light, incredibly smooth fingering of bass strings entered the music-scape. I could hear the bass player's fingers sliding over and pulling taught the strings. Here, the bass was deep, but it had a fuzzy feel. I didn't think this was necessarily bad, just very different than the tightness of the Edge G3. Given the accurate stage the 9100 set, the inefficiencies of the low end, in this case at least, were forgivable.
The 9100 created a convincing and well-placed soundstage on each CD I tossed its way. The 9100 had a presence of its own. It seemed not to rely on upstream or downstream components, and was in complete control, with no excuses. Nor should it have any—the Plinius 9100 is a fine amplifier, offering tons of musical value. Other than its handling of the lower bass in my system, the 9100 is truly top notch. It has its tradeoffs, but no amp is prefect, right? I found the bass to be the "take" of a give-and-take relationship, where the "give" is wonderful highs, mids, and soundstaging. Not a bad deal.
The Plinius 9100 should be on the short list for anyone in the market for an integrated amp or separates near its price, even much more. It has a lot to offer, and can fit into many a system. I believe in integrated amplifiers. I think a good one is worth its weight in SACDs. Most are compact, save you money, and offer awesome sound, all of which answers the call of anyone that has a significant other or doesn't have a dedicated listening room. I'd bet that most audiophiles have one or the other, if not both. John Brazier
Elite Audio and Video