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Positive Feedback ISSUE
the P-22 amplifiers and C-22 preamplifier
as reviewed by Lester J. Mertz
"Pristine" was the first word I jotted down in my notebook after inserting the LA Audio P-22 amplifiers into my system in place of my regular power amp. I was immediately awestruck by the P-22s. The sound was so pure it was almost crystalline, and it floated away from the speakers just like it does with high-priced gear. This was tube sound at its best—clean and revealing, without the warmed-up sauce in the midrange and the flabby, fuzzy bass of yesteryear. This was not what I was expecting from Eastern tube amps, many of which try to resurrect the sound of period amplifiers. The P-22s were not broken in, and I wondered if some of that pristine character was due to fresh tubes or hard capacitors (which are formed by having a working voltage applied over time), so I let the amps play continuously for three days.
At the time, I was listening to a large number of 80s-era classical CDs that a friend had brought over to keep me busy. In the 80s, everything was being digitally remastered (just like now, as the recording industry remasters recordings into the new formats), but almost all of the original recordings were analog, and many had excellent analog engineering. They took on new life with the P-22 amps. Later, when I added LA Audio's C-22 line stage into the system, that lovely analog sound became even more pronounced. I kept digging through those old CDs, and enjoying them more than I could remember. Although I felt that the amps and preamp were still breaking in, not only were they sounding better every day, but the sound remained pristine. The music had more weight, but no new coloration. The added musical weight made those classical recordings sound like a dream, even at low volume, with sound pressure levels of about 75 to 85 dB at six or seven feet from the speakers. (You have to protect your cilia—the tiny hairs that make your ears work—by listening at reasonable volumes. Once damaged, cilia cannot be replaced. I've often wondered why audiophiles keep turning up the sound to mind-numbing levels and keep buying more powerful amplifiers. Might it be the result of failing hearing? Be careful out there.)
LA Audio, located in Taiwan has been making tube gear since 1988. They employ about a hundred people. That's a lot. I have visited many high-end audio manufacturers, and none have half that number. LA Audio has a full-time R&D staff of up to twenty people, with sales approaching five million dollars a year! In other words, this is not just another quick-start company trying to cash in on the tube craze. They also make transistor amplifiers and loudspeakers, but I have not seen any of these.
LA Audio claims that the company is known for its high quality. Even the C-22 preamp ($590) and P-22 amplifiers ($1250 per pair), which are part of their "starter" line, are hand wired, and all LA Audio tube products use hand-made output and power transformers developed in house. The output transformers, which have been an ongoing R&D focus, use OFC wire and specially designed iron cores in the modern toroidal shape. This may be an important ingredient in the LA Audio house sound. The little P-22s' specs quote full output power of 40 watts out to 50 kilohertz, with low distortion. It sure sounds as though these babies have bandwidth well past that of most of the gear I have heard in this price range. (I haven't heard everything, but I have heard a lot.)
Another aspect of LA Audio's transformers is something they call "ambisonics." The company says that this technology allows their amplifiers to "perform original sounds perfectly," but I have not seen any explanation of how this is accomplished. (Wasn't Ambisonics a recording technique from the four-channel audio days? I think there was even an amplifier company named Ambisonics from somewhere back east.) LA Audio also claims that their transformers permit truer sound when used in simple circuits such as the P-22's classic push/pull design. Other features of the C-22 and the P-22s include metal film resistors, thin film capacitors throughout, and specially selected high-quality coupling capacitors for the amps.
The appearance of these components is modern, solid, and handsome. All have matching gloss black front panels and long chrome chassis with the tubes up front and the round transformer cans at the back. The units are narrow (about 6.25 inches wide), and all three will fit across my 19.5-inch equipment rack with room in between. None is heavy—each amp weighs about 15.5 pounds, the line stage half that. Because of their light weight, I wished that the feet were stickier so the components could not slide around. If you have kids, it is easy enough to keep the components out of harm's way.
With every control on the front panels for good access, there isn't much for the user to do except turn the components on and adjust the level. The only controls on the front of the amps are the power pushbuttons, with small blue lamps indicating whether the units are on or off. The EL34 output tubes (two per amplifier) require no bias adjustment. (Do they have fixed cathode bias? A circuit description was not provided.) Each amp also has two twin-triode, nine-pin 12AU7 input tubes. There's nothing exotic here to fritter away your precious hard-earned dollars. For you green-minded folks, the amps are also efficient, drawing less than 98 watts while operating. If you want to save electricity, and possibly the planet, consider power consumption in your future choices of audio gear. On the practical side, less power means less heat, and fewer tubes to replace.
The line stage employs two 2AU7s and two 2AX7s. Like the P-22s, the front panel is minimalist. Controls include a pushbutton power switch with blue indicator light, a three-position input selector knob, and a volume knob. Turning on the C-22 creates a flash similar to the one I see when I fire up my 1960 Mullard 12AX7s. Nothing ever got hurt by this momentary flash, and my Mullards are still around after more than thirty years of service! Space for the connections on the back of the amps is tight, and I suggest that you install your interconnects first, especially if you're using locking RCAs. Then connect the speaker cables to the terminals. Even though these terminals are large, and look monstrously solid, I had trouble getting tight connections because of the close spacing. I would have liked to see standard hex nuts that can be tightened with a nut driver instead of knurled nuts that chewed up my fingers. Slide the power cord in last. While space is not quite as tight on the preamp, I recommend the same sequence there.
The amps get going within minutes, without any popping or image wander while they get warm. Same for the C-22, but it likes a longer warm-up time—the usual thirty minutes or so. After about five weeks of break-in, the LA Audio combination sounded fabulous in every way. I was drawn into the music for hours, with classical music especially wonderful. LA Audio's product literature talks about this three-piece set having "thrust," and the music they produce certainly has the kind of drive and toe-tapping rhythm that makes for great listening. I like classical music, jazz, and world music, and all of it sounded like it had been kicked up a notch through the LA Audio gear. With these components in my system, it was more listenable than usual at low levels, and even more listenable when driven at moderate levels.
I'm not going to describe every recording that impressed me (a practice of many reviewers, but one that seems redundant, even boring, when they use the same music to review every piece of gear, sometimes for years). Instead, I will discuss how certain instruments are portrayed by the LA Audio components. Guitars sound voluptuous—round and wooden, with vibrating soundboards. It is easy to discern different brands of guitar, and the players' different techniques. I used to play guitar, and nearly always go for my current guitar favorites when selecting demo discs. Nothing lacking here! Other stringed instruments, like violins, cellos, even harps, have that same wonderful, wooden, vibrating quality that makes them sound alive.
Female voices sound realistically solid, like there is a real person moving air, not that thin, ethereal sound that you get with some gear. Men's voices have an appropriately chesty quality, especially when the singers get close to the microphone. John Prine's voice has mellowed and picked up a caramel tone since his throat cancer cure. I immediately knew it was him, but he sounds richer now. Large vocal groups recorded in large spaces sound believable if they are recorded that way. If they are recorded from far away, it is obvious. I get very emotionally involved with these kinds of vocal pieces, and the LA Audio gear demands that I sit and listen to the whole performance.
Orchestral works have that lower-end bloom that you expect when lots of instruments are being played in a large space. Brass and horns have good bite and convincing blat—the kind that turns your head if you are not ready for it. Whenever I dig out Claudio Roditi (trumpet and flugelhorn), I think of my good friend Carlos Espinoza—trumpet maker, jazz player, and avid audiophile—who turned me onto his playing. Carlos and I spoke on the phone a few weeks back, and I asked him, "What's the first thing you listen for in a system?" (For me, it is tone—not image depth, soundstage, or any of the other stuff that reviewers rave about.) Carlos thought for about ten seconds before he answered—tone! Without great tone, you don't have anything. I listen to all the great trumpet players, and they always have great tone. That's what makes them great. Anybody can learn to play the notes, but not all learn how to get tone. In the guitar world, tone is about the only thing that is ever talked about—the tone of a certain guitar, of an amplifier, speaker, pick-ups, and so on. The C-22/P-22 combination has tone. I think you can only get great tone with tube equipment. Sorry, folks.
If you will allow me one of my usual crazy divergences here, I see a lot of audiophiles (many of them friends) running out to buy the latest, greatest, and most expensive amplifiers they can afford, only to put them into systems with ten-year-old (or older) CD players, sometimes in systems using even older speakers. Many are so personally invested in these "classics" that any mention of change will get you shunned. It's as if discussing the sound of someone's loudspeakers, whether it is mellow (archaic) or hyper-detailed (modern) is forbidden! My suggestion is that before you consider spending those big bucks ($5000, $7000, $10,000, and more) on one of those super amps, ask yourself: Will it make as much difference as spending the same amount of money on a modern front end? Probably not! Whatever happened to financially balanced audio systems? The audio magazines used publish spending schemes, with ratios determining how to spend your dollars wisely—say 25 to 35 percent for the front end, 25 percent for electronics, 25 to 35 percent for speakers, and the rest on such things as racks, wire, etc. These days, CD players are essentially computers, yet no one admits to using a ten-year-old computer, so why aren't you getting that new front end and the pristine-sounding, modestly priced electronics package I've been describing here? You've convinced yourself that you need a new amp, haven't you?
I think you'll be impressed, to say the least, by the LA Audio sound. The starter set—the C-22 preamp and P-22 monoblock amps—will cost you less than one of today's highly recommended Red Book CD players. You may even have enough cash left over to consider saving for some new speakers. (Tweeters are so much better these days that it isn't even a contest.) LA Audio will surely be around after Red Book players have been pushed from the marketplace (if, indeed, they ever are). And tubes are not going to go away as long as people love to listen to music. You must listen to the LA Audio gear, even if you're ready to spend a lot more money. Lester J. Mertz