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Positive Feedback ISSUE 64
audio power lab
50TNT Tube Amplifiers - Shedding, Burning, Grooving, and Killing with Ferocious Precision
as reviewed by Jim Merod
Getting the Landscape Straight
I'm now one hundred per cent certain that the reason I pursue this back-breaking drudge of a task—writing about audio gear—is because it's the best way to get rich.
On reflection, I'll revise that preposterous hope. The dedicated audio reviewer's life is constructed on three fundamental principles: choose very carefully what you want to review; be prepared to get less sleep than ordinary folks since it's hard to tear yourself away from the best of the very best equipment; and, not least, complain to anyone who listens that you're underpaid, overworked, and mad as hell that you never get your paws on the big ticket, high-priced, completely over the top stuff that Bob Harley and John Atkinson routinely snag. I like those guys, believe me. They are both muy bueno dudes. But, enough is enough.
As Shakespeare noted: time to ponder, time to pander, never time enough. Something like that.
No matter what, the under-educated reviewer's grind is a misery of pulchritude’s, platitudes, solecisms, clichés, and dangling ironies. Who in his right brain would sign up for bucket duty on Stalin's eastern front? That just about sums up the lost hope a non-compliant audio recidivist faces on a constant schedule. You surely feel unburdened now that you're aware of the inside darkness. You voracious readers get good and bad outcroppings from us guys plowing weedy fields where audio pieces sprout like drool from an infant's belching grin. You care less what the labor of the zealously over-taxed reviewer cost him in man hours drained away. Or rest deprived and focus mangled by strained nerves after three dozen attempts to get Kobalt Kable's "Zowie Wowie" spade connectors to stay in place. And a dedicated reviewer blows kiss cool now and then with much too determined refusals to soak in a tub when the over-hyped state of the art Boffo Clarity DAC persistently inverts polarity. You should drop everything and pop a Bud or Guinness open because you, Innocent Reader, Savvy Listener, have surely chosen loftier, far less idiotic pursuits. I'm here to remind you that, while you believe you love High End Audio and its "perfect music, perfectly rendered in glorious 16/44.1 forever," you're merely indulging subconscious sadism for which the diligence of slogging audio cognoscenti—Herr Atkinson's saintly signal measurements excruciatingly crafted; Maestro Harley's immense technical and auditory discernment eloquently scripted—become gruel for cantankerous misunderstandings. We over here have met your types in droves at CES each year. And yet we carry on, stupidly, half-lobotomized, resembling poor versions of Monty Python imitating John Cleese.
We know who you are. And still we seem to love you. Or ignore your sadistic peccadilloes. We, on this side of the battleground, have our slight warts or farts and other unnamable oversights and concoctions... which get me to the heart of the matter here: my good luck, after decades of youthful yencing around in search of Marilyn Monroe next door or maybe Sophia Loren. Finally, the "powers that be" left my fantastical hypotheses unsurveilled to fleece rare mother lodes of luxurious opportunity.
And find it, I finally did... just up the street, in truth. Around the corner, a short trek over the hill, then sharply to the left.
Your Basic Xmas and Birthday Presents in One Pair of Dazzlers
Christmas-time is upon us and the season has delivered my next birthday gift congruent with an old guy's pent up desire. I'm telling a truer Truth than devilishly Deconstructing Readers will care to absorb. Here it is: Audio Power Lab’s smaller (only 50 outrageous tube-driven, class A Triode watts) monoblock amplifiers, priced at a modest $47,500/pair. While their subtle warmth, with whatever kickapoo joy juice resides in multiple humungously-illuminated tubes, can heat a good sized room on a blustery autumn night, this "baby" version of Audio Power Labs' premier ($175,000/pair) 833TNT (200 Wpc, class A Triode) is sonically ferocious to a hurricane-like maximum. These tubes leap tall speaker loads as if they're on steroids. For several weeks I've driven my adorable Magnepan 3.7 speakers (not easy to tame) with these "little" Audio Labs powerhouses. Whoa! Just ridiculous what this match creates for a dyspeptic audio bloke. Let me clue you in.
One of my preferred commercial pressings for review purposes is the remastered Columbia "Ellington Jazz Party" on both vinyl and disc. This is an extraordinarily "resolved," astonishingly difficult to accomplish recording. Columbia's recording engineers were among the best ever and, in the glory years of their magic work (1958 - 1964), the tricks they invented and the execution of their artistic logistics continue to bless our lives while remaining secrets forgotten and/or genius difficult to emulate. Ellington's brigade of strutting marimbas and xylophones that inaugurate this session are cheerful to behold. I've not heard anything like this, a ragged martial percussion corps of high octane waifs propelled by subversive sonic mania. No less amazing, the recording PRECISELY NAILS each thump and clatter and its boisterous, skipping mayhem. The recording is transparent. You "are" there. With a superior sound system, you are THERE !
The first challenge I threw at these Audio Labs "little guys" not only passed muster. It kicked my butt. I've heard this recording on mega-expensive MBL speakers with their proprietary amps. Pretty bloody impressive... cartoon-like sonic images; bigger than life reproduction of each Ellington band member; crystal-clear tonalities and not to be believed dynamics. What's not to like about all that, you ask. Not much, unless you prefer "real life" sound and accurate image sizes. Such a truly impressive recreation of Ellington's accentuated harmonic flair and hilarious music is an audio experience not easily lost in memory's infinite sewer.
And yet... the "small" Audio Power Lab amplifiers joined forces with the magnificent and inexpensive Maggie 3.7s to put me directly in the front row middle of a "concert for the ages," recorded with unrivaled sonic fidelity, ambient musical texture, and audio intelligence. From the opening foray—as I sat "with" the 1959 Ellington aggregation, experiencing that elusive feeling of sonic proximity better than ever (including direct ear-witness immediacy to that band on both coasts) I knew that my speakers as well as my listening room had just met their most princely partners.
The Absolute Ultimate Test
My own recorded work poses the greatest challenge for any equipment I review, since (a) I know that music more intimately than any other; and (b) for the most part I'm using master recordings (first generation, born under my gaze, torn from my sweaty palms) which provide an ultimate degree of sonic detail and nuance. Would, for example, my Kenny Barron with Buster Williams and Lenny White masters expose the Audio Labs-Maggie pair in some inadvertent way not possible otherwise?
Au contraire, mon ami!
Serendipitously, the musical relaxation and precise sonic contour offered by the Maggie-Audio Labs tandem opened a further degree or layer of sonic information. I now hear, on playback, the exact spot where we set up Lenny's drum kit for the sake of minimal percussion bleed into Buster's bass mics and Kenny's Steinway piano. I can discern a slight trace of reflections from the clear plastic baffle that isolated Buster's big instrument during our direct to tape and hard drive "in concert" capture. I also hear greater overtone complexity in Buster's attack from his unique string techniques. Maggie 3.7s are not a speaker for just any amplifier. They are demanding and the more amplifier control they receive, the more they perform like musical thoroughbreds. I've know a long while that the 3.7s are very special. That's why I own them. With the Audio Power Labs amps beguiling and teasing them to their sonic best, my faith and certainty have been reaffirmed.
Perhaps one of the finest, most stunning tests I could throw at these 50TNT howitzers is the job of supporting my re-mastering of the great Bob Florence’s 1995 big band "live at the Moonlight Tango" in upper Los Angeles [the valley]. Bob's great aggregation was loaded with all star musicians goaded on by Hollywood movie moguls and film "stars" of various eras as well as a collection of wheeler dealer agents and hangers on. Bob's big band was a roaring, delicate, astute and gorgeous jazz vehicle that purred like a Rolls Royce engine and growled like a hungry panther. It was (and, here, still is) a magnificent musical organization.
What a special pianist, composer and band leader Bob Florence was, truly a sublime human who must ever and always be remembered with heartfelt adoration and amazement. On these occasions, Bob brought his placid yet impish demeanor by turns to volcanic force and whispered understatement. He and I conspired to record his brilliant gang bangers twice at The Tango, not an easy venue to carry out such hopeful work. Our agreement, rightly, was that Bob's genius and focus would be undisturbed by facts of recording. That meant that the things that would go bump during the night were in my domain.
Trouble began right away with the simple nuisance of the club's swinging doors into its kitchen. The Tango was a once fancy, then somewhat well-broken-in supper club—a throwback to the old Copacabana in New York and a gaggle of lesser imitators on La Cienega in L. A. The doors banged immediately next to the sax section each time a waiter went in or out. To compound the difficulty, my only viable recording station put me literally in the footprint of the swinging doors.
The entire project was at the mercy of that unfortunate proximity. Something has to give. So I approached, first, the club manager and, with his agreement, next the head waiter and, (seriatim) following that begrudging compliance, eight or nine waitresses and waiters, to persuade them that the evening's inconvenience for them was worth it all in the end.
Cicero rarely drew upon counter-intuitive rhetoric for the sake of the few at the expense of many so quickly or more intensely. Of course, Cicero never had to protect Bob Florence from the distraction of clattering gremlins.
As if that not inconsiderable obstacle was not more than enough to throw a purposive recording dorko off his feed, I was aware that the front would soon hold super-special, thoroughly self-invested all stars (Hollywood's "crème brulee" hot shots, such as Diana Ross, Liz Taylor and James Coburn) who, characteristically believed these evenings were more rather less "about" them. Inevitably, such glittering attention smeared across the club's front row on such evening’s diverted focus from the band and posed the ancillary problem of high-pitched yucking and undamped voices hitting microphones spread across the front of a first rank sax section.
That combination is toxic. The simplest gambit possible to thwart that train wreck dawned on me. After our sound check, I went table to table (chair by chair) to promise each and every mega-patron—special to the max; utterly significant in their lubricated universes, divinities of our collective commercial cultural mania—that, if their restraint that one evening helped me get a flawless recording, I'd make certain to cite their individual thoughtfulness on the album as central to the success of an indelibly beautiful night at the Tango. I also asked the bartender to slightly weaken whatever drinks went to the front tables. Twenty dollars went a log way that night.
Truth thrives on hope. Truth is an asymptotic flicker. Hope stalls it fleeting speed. Against the doubt of my desperate reach toward untenable persuasion, that fragile verbal contract rendered with a hand shake or knuckle knock held serve. The assembled glitterati actually listened... and applauded with focused zeal. No shouts or squeals. No residual drone of vocal blather which is an unlikely, but welcome victory. And, right here, I've kept my promise to the three who served as front row leaders. Bless each of them. Bob and I were given that most unexpected possible gift in such a context: a suavely polite house packed full to hear a premier jazz orchestra aching for release with its never-aging genius in command at the piano. No need to rouse his conspiring partner, somewhat younger then, who would've tackled any waiter banging in or out of the kitchen... and who, quite probably, would've found a way to embarrass any wayward star violating a sacred agreement of opposites. It fell in place, doubtless because of Bob's karma. But, emphatically, THAT EVENING BELONGED TO NO ONE BUT BOB FLORENCE.
Here I am (late November 2012), seventeen years later, re-tweaking music from that memorable night. RIP "Moonlight Tango." RIP my dear friend, Bob.
My responsibility now is to polish that hard-earned work. Here today, another stroke of karmic good fortune appears. These nonsensically great Audio Power Labs 50TNT amps make the work of sonic enhancement a task as effortless as a scalpel carving warm butter. Someday soon I hope Bob's versions of "Poinciana" and "Chelsea Bridge," will circulate where alert audiophiles dwell happily. Jim Merod
Audio Power Labs