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Positive Feedback ISSUE
X 2A3 amplifier
as reviewed by Danny Kaey
All images by Danny Kaey
Ah, there's the new Men's Vogue. Heh, these guys are funny, nothing but ads in here! Oh well… wait a second. What is this? (looking at last page of MV) This is a funky looking amp… hrm… rather intriguing. Let's see, oh, I see, it's called the Fi X 2A3, made by Don Garber. I think I will send him an email, this thing looks way cool!
That is exactly how I ended up with a review sample of the Fi X 2A3. Don Garber has to be living exclusively off word of mouth advertising. There is no website, no listing, nada. Had it not been for the MV article, I would have been in oblivion. Funny thing is that amongst die-hard single-ended tube folk, Don Garber is a legend. Some say he single-handedly resurrected that end of the tube franchise in the US in the 80s. Says Don "I really got back into audio in the late 80s (not the 70s) when I heard a Western
Electric 91A, an old movie projector amp. It was the first single-ended amp I'd heard. If I had anything to do with anything, it was the popularization of this technology in new forms in this country. The shop I had in SoHo in the early 90s also had a lot of reconditioned old tube stuff—far better than anything commercially available at a comparable price then, though those things are now harder to find and more expensive now." That's the American spirits right there! Personally, I'd rather buy something from a guy like that than a multi-national conglomerate with fancy ads in coffee table rags.
I sure do have an apparent knack for discovering these guys—LessLoss DACs from Lithuania, Telefunken M15a studio reel to reel machines from Germany, Fi X amps from a garage in NYC, Lavardin solid-state from France—well, you see my point? None of these companies are name brands, even amongst audiophiles, save that little company Telefunken, you may have heard of those guys. Being that Don sells exactly the quantities he builds, it is no surprise that I too had to wait my turn for this review. The Fi X 2A3 doesn't exactly hang around in mass quantities. Turns out the X is Don's entry level bonanza, costing a paltry $995 in stock (Hammond 125E transformer) form, though you can specify an upgraded transformer from Magnequest which brings the price up to just under $1400. Neat! Even neater is the absolutely out of this world physical design of Mr. X.
You see Mr. X has his name because, well, the amp is laid out in exactly such fashion. Bent sheet metal forms an X, on to which he then mounts the tubes, transformers, RCA's and speaker connectors. The effect is cool—no, make that way cool. There was not one person coming in for a visit—audiophile or not—who didn't inquire about that funky looking thing on my rack. As the name would by now suggest, the Fi X is a single-ended design featuring a compliment of 2A3 Sovtek tubes. If you fancy a mono block that's available as well, though the mono's look like a traditional chassis design. Finally, a matching pre-amp is available also. Rumor has it that the X is one of the least expensive ways to get you into a 2A3 design these days. Though visually the amp is a total knockout, I was also interested in the X factor because of the 2A3 tubes. You see, 2A3 amplifiers are supposed to be amongst the most musical and cherished for that sort of listening.
What's a man to do with 3 watts of power?
Let's face it: the guy who has mega-watt solid-state, medium sensitivity speakers isn't really going to spring for something like this 2A3. First, the X has only about 3 watts of output power; second, it just simply isn't designed to drive music to ear-bleed levels with rock bottom bass control and dynamic extension. This amp is made for high sensitivity speakers, relatively easy listening levels, but most importantly it is supposed to be the amp for musicality, sweetness and warmth that will make you drool over your favorite vocalist. As it so happens, I happen to have just the right prerequisites to truly enjoy Don's creation. 101dB efficient Zu Def2's will do the job nicely, in particular because they have separately powered subs, thus they take a lot less from the Fi X and give you a whole lot more in return.
Hookup and system setup was straightforward and easy to accomplish. While build quality is not quite audio jewelry level, the amp looks to be put together very nicely, i.e. no loose bolts, nuts or other such issues on such an "open" design. Connecting either of my reference wires and cables (Kubala-Sosna and Nordost) was not a problem at all, although I do wish that Don would include somewhat sturdier speaker binding posts. While this was no problem with the thinner, flat profile style Nordost Heimdall, the Kubala-Sosna cables seemed a bit overpowering on the rather small binding posts. Once connected, a simple flick of the power switch was all it took to get the amp playing. The amp was in fact just built prior to delivery, so I figured a hundred or so hours ought to be enough to get its true character to come out. Indeed, as the amp built up hours on the clock, it became considerably more open, transparent and musical. Pretty much exactly as I had expected.
Lush, liquid, sweet and warm midrange—this amp is a champ! Martin, Morris, and Sinatra sounded so relaxed and effortless through this fine example of American tube engineering. Textures are layered upon a colorful canvas, more so than my trusted original pair of Quad II's or my latest acquisition, the superb Luxman MQ-88. What the X does is quite different from said amps. Where the Luxman is all about neutrality and perceived solid-state power output, the Fi X is more about colorful imaging and landscaping. It reminds me of the vivid plus setting on my Nikon D300: for certain types of music, this works wonders, in particular early digital discs that are brutally cold and for lack of better word, without soul.
On an evening in Roma…
Late night listening sessions proved one of the X's strong points, as the amp sounds quite involving and moving at low listening levels. In particular, the combination of the Fi X and my pair of Zu Definition Mk2 is quite the combo. Take for example Eugene Istomin's performance of Schumann's Concerto for Piano and Orchestra [CBS Masterworks]. As I am typing these words, it's just shy of midnight; the Zu's are hitting me with about 75dB peaks at my listening chair. The X manages to extract just the right amount of lushness from the strings and piano. Sure, the soundstage isn't quite what the speakers and other amps are capable of; also you miss out on general precision and attack, which becomes quite evident in piano recordings. On the other hand, you gain those wonderful textures. Hey, it's all about give and take, you know?
Moving on to more upbeat music, say Yello or K&D with a dash of Corroboree, this is perhaps the Fi X's weakest link. Let's face it, the X was never intended to sway you with powerful, authoritative slam-dunk bass and Orwellian dynamics. How could it? With the two point something watts of power it generates from the 2A3 tubes it can't possibly handle such dynamic material anywhere near the level of even my 15-watt Quad's. What the Fi X does however is present you with a different perspective of listening to such demanding material. Hey, taking a Peterbilt around Monza isn't exactly going to produce F1 style lap times, if you catch my drift.
Do you Yello?
While I certainly prefer Yello and Varese at 110dB, listening to those familiar tracks at far lower volume proved at times equally satisfying, albeit from said different perspective. Instead of massive dynamics I focus more on individual instrument's textures and tonalities. Instead of pants flapping, I get midrange sweetness; instead of precise attack, sustain and decay, the principal components of a note, I get more of the sustain moment, less the visceral attack. Think more emotional connectivity to the heart of music. Truth is, all of us sometimes just need that over all other objections and shortcomings.
Apart from its absolutely out of this world styling (I think the only other component of similar polarizing values I have had in my system were the Anthony Gallo 3.1 a couple of years ago) which I am gaga for, the Fi X 2A3 is a special beast indeed. If you prefer that golden goose, beautifully vivid midrange sound and have the appropriate speaker system, then this amp's your champ. Piano solos, violins (try the stupendously good Cisco/Pincus/Grey/Milstein Dvorâk performance and you will literally melt) and vocals in general, the Fi deliciously serves up that very special X factor. Headbangers, decibel lords, and Yello pundits are probably better served with something more powerful unless they begin to listen to that music from a different perspective.
The final word… should I stay, or should I go?
I almost purchased the amp. Almost, because I already own a pair of original Quad's and have four other amps gunning for my various listening preferences and interests. Suffice is to say that Don Garber is one cool dude. Having been responsible for the revival of US tube designs in the 80s is no small feat. The fact that he keeps himself busy and occupied full time doing this speaks volumes of the following he enjoys. Heck, who knows, I may call him in a month or two and buy one after all; I miss the amp already! Danny Kaey