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red wine audio
as reviewed by Fown-Ming Tien
In order to make our audio systems perform their magic, we need electricity. Without electricity, all of our nice fancy schmancy gear becomes high priced paperweights or boat anchors. While electricity from the wall brings power, unfortunately it also brings noise. Therefore we add power conditioners to our systems in an attempt to reduce the noise. Although good power conditioning can greatly reduce AC noise, it is just not as good as getting away from wall power altogether. Of course, the only way to eliminate AC electricity is to use battery power. Using battery packs on audio gear is nothing new as Jeff Rowland was doing this as early as 1992, but in order to produce enough power to drive difficult speaker loads to realistic sound levels required batteries that were not only big and heavy, but also extremely expensive. Even with these drawbacks, the benefits of using battery power are hard to deny. In addition to eliminating AC noise, the need for expensive aftermarket power cords and conditioners is completely unnecessary.
Vinnie Rossi's Red Wine Audio Clari-T stereo amplifier based on the Sonic Impact Tripath amp is not large, not much larger than a compact camera. It is not heavy at approximately 4 lbs with the charger and not expensive at $499 with or without volume control in stock form without any upgrades. But with a power rating of only 6W into 8 ohms and 10W into 4 ohms, it is not capable and versatile enough to drive just any speaker loads so careful matching must be adhered to when choosing speakers to take advantage of the benefits offered by the Clari-T. Speakers with a minimum of 90dB sensitivity (preferably higher) should be used and the crossover networks should be minimalistic. If these two requirements are not observed, the resulting sound will not be ideal.
The Clari-T review sample I received was a base model without volume controls and had no upgrades. It was a basic black box with a blue LED on the front faceplate. The rear of the unit had two pairs of speaker binding posts, a toggle switch to move from charging to the listening, and an inlet to plug the AC charger. Listening and charging the unit requires no more thought than operating any other amplifier. Simply flick the toggle switch on the rear of the unit from the charge position to the listen position and enjoy. On a full charge the 12V 1.3Ah sealed lead-acid battery can offer around 8 hours of listening pleasure depending on volume levels.
The first speaker I paired the Clari-T amp with was the Von Schweikert VR-4 Jr. Although the 4 Jr's average sensitivity and complex, power hungry crossover network was not the ideal match for the Red Wine amplifier's modest output, I used the 4 Jr since they are extremely transparent and neutral to get a feel for the Clari-T's sonic signature. As I expected, the Clari-T driving the 4 Jrs did not have the hard-hitting dynamics other higher-powered amps deliver. Nevertheless, the inky black background due to the lack of noise was immediately noticeable and impossible to miss because music was emanating from an eerie and serenely black background. In addition, low-level resolution and details that usually masked by AC noise were revealed. The other benefit was the total lack of grain and glare when the amp was operating within its rated specifications. Albeit not as extended as my other amps, bass was surprisingly clean and tight from the 6 watt amp. Through the VR 4 Jr, it was easy to hear the benefits that come from a battery-powered component. Overall, I found the Clari-T to be very neutral without adding or subtracting anything from the source.
Another speaker I tried with the Clari-T was the Hyperion HPS-938. Although at 90 dBs, it had higher sensitivity than the Von Schweikert, it still clipped the Clari-T when driven to louder levels. However once again, all the positives I had experienced with the amp earlier were reinforced with the Hyperion.
Since I did not have any speakers that were ideal for the Clari-T to drive, Vinnie asked Louis of Omega Loudspeakers to send me a pair of Mini ME speakers as these were voiced with the Clari-T. The Mini ME is a small bookshelf speaker with a single full range 4" driver. They have a 90 dB sensitivity rating and an impedance of 4 ohms. While the 90 dB rating is identical to that of the Hyperion, the absence of any crossover in the Mini ME makes it a much easier load to drive. And starting at only $389 a pair, they could make a perfect system for a small room given that the Clari-T could be ordered with a volume control. Simply add a source and you are good to go. And to top it off, Vinnie and Louis teamed up to come up with a killer deal. They are offering $100 off when purchasing a Clari-T together with the Mini ME.
Driving the Mini ME, the Clari-T was more in its comfort zone. It was able to achieve 85-90+ dBs rather cleanly before running out of breath. Once again, the Clari-T was supremely neutral in tone while maintaining some of the highest levels of transparency, detail, smoothness and quietness that I have heard from any amplifier regardless of price. In fact, the Clari-T exhibited even less noise than my Rowland! However, as neutral as it was sonically, images lacked the solidity and density; instruments lacked the weight and body of all the higher-powered amps and integrated amps I have heard in the past. Dynamic peaks sounded restrained missing that wonderful sense of ease clearly indicating the amp was straining. Even though the Mini ME was an easier load to drive, the Clari-T still needed speakers with a higher sensitivity rating. As a result, spatial cues were not as well delineated and focused. Unfortunately, I did not have any other speakers on hand that would be a better match for the Clari-T.
I did set up the Clari-T and the Mini ME speakers in a smaller secondary bedroom using the Endler passive attenuators for volume control and found this setup to sound more robust. A setup like this could easily serve as a simple, great sounding system for an office or bedroom.
Ultimately, I wish I had some more efficient speakers on hand that would have allowed me to hear the Clari-T play up to its full potential, but nonetheless, I was duly impressed with what I heard. By removing the AC feed from the signal path, noise from the amp was eliminated which resulted in a complete lack of grunge and harshness to pollute the sound. The fact that a $499 amplifier was able to surpass amplifiers costing over 10 times more in some ways is high praise indeed. However, as my experience indicates, care and diligence in speaker matching is a necessity to fully take advantage of the Clari-T's strengths. This niche product will not be for everyone, but for those who already own or plan to own extremely high sensitivity speakers, the Clari-T belongs on the list of amplifiers for serious consideration because the sonic benefits of battery power are too great to ignore. Fown-Ming Tien
For another take on this amplifier, read Ed Morawski's and Gary Beard's review here.
Thank you for taking the time to review of the stock Clari-T-Amp.
I was glad that you discovered the benefits of removing AC power from the equation, and I totally agree with you that this amp thrives on speakers with higher efficiency ratings (just like low-powered S.E.T. amps do). The Mini MEs are a great little budget speaker for a small room, but are just not capable of producing the staggering dynamic peaks of higher efficiency and larger speakers when driven by low powered amps. While we offer modified versions of the Clari-T that greatly enhance its performance from top to bottom, a good pair of higher efficiency speakers are strongly recommended to truly show off these improvements.
BTW, a higher-powered version of the Clari-T-Amp is in the works for early 2006!
Red Wine Audio, Inc.
Red Wine Audio