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POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 8
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acoustic masterpiece

AM-201 integrated

as reviewed by Fransico Duran and Roger McNichols, Jr.

 

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FRANCISCO DURAN'S SYSTEM:

LOUDSPEAKERS
ProAc Response 2 with Osiris 24" stands or Spendor SP 2/3.

ELECTRONICS
Monarchy SM-70 (ran as monoblocks), Antique Sound Labs MG-SPM25DT monoblocks, Canary CA-301Mk-II amplifier, and Reference Line Preeminence lA passive  and Canary CA-601Mk-II preamplifiers.

SOURCE
NAD T531 and Antique Electronic Supply CD-1 (temporary) CD players, and a Taddeo Digital Antidote Two.

CABLES
Either JPS Superconductor+ and FX interconnects and a double run of JPS Ultraconductor speaker cables, or Analysis Plus interconnects and Oval 12 speaker cables, and Monarchy and various DIY AC cords.

ACCESSORIES
Balanced Power Technologies BPT 4SE, Brick Wall Series Mode Surge Suppressor, Audio Prism Quiet Lines and Noise Sniffer, Vibrapods, Black Diamond Racing Boards and cones, Final Labs Daruma-3II Isolation Bearings, various ferrite rings, Target rack, Yamaha KX-380 cassette deck, custom made wooden cable lifters by Mr. Clark senior, and all the NOS tubes I can afford!

 

one.jpg (6551 bytes)The Acoustic Masterpiece AM-201 integrated amplifier has a sonic tradition to uphold—Acoustic Masterpiece's parent company, Air Tight, is known for producing very high-quality electronics. The last Acoustic Masterpiece unit I encountered, the M-101 amplifier, came our way back in issue 6 of audioMUSINGS (http://www.positive-feedback.com/ambackissues/AcousticMasterpieceM101.htm). At the time, I was surprised that eleven watts could drive my speakers so well. I was also surprised that the Acoustic Masterpiece units weren't Air Tight's top-of-the-line products, as the M-101's fit and finish was on a par with the best.

The AM-201 carries on that tradition. It is gorgeous. The tubes and transformers are hidden under a beautiful louvered wooden bonnet. The tall, brushed aluminum faceplate is mounted to a chassis which is powder coated with a blue/gray metallic finish that is one of the handsomest I have seen on a piece of audio equipment. The amp is fitted with four inputs and very high-quality speaker binding posts. The fine craftsmanship is carried through to the amp's sleek interior. The transformer caps are painted the same metallic color as the chassis. The mounting of the four EL-84 power tubes and connection hardware is very sturdy. The controls and switches feel solid to the touch. This is a sleek, well-built amp that is designed to be the centerpiece of a high-quality audio system.

My first impression of the AM-201 was that it sounded warm, sweet, and inviting. This was not a bad start. When trying to get a handle on the sound of an amp, I play many familiar discs. With the AM-201, it was easy to get lost in the music, sonics be damned! My son and I are Vangelis fans. One recent purchase is his Oceanic CD—a 1996 release, but hey, it's new to us. As usual, Vangelis plays a number of electronic and acoustic keyboards, and the dynamic range can go from soft to quite loud in one song. At my volume preference and louder, the AM-201 tracked dynamics quite well, although transient attacks sounded a little soft. Track two segues into track three with a beautiful melody on solo piano. While the slight softness was evident, the piano sounded full, weighty, and clean. This track is so beautiful that the sweetness of the amp was icing on the cake!

bond.jpg (27302 bytes)It might sound like a contradiction to say that the AM -201 sounds sweet and warm yet reproduces timbre accurately, but there you have it. A good example is The Best of James Bond, a recent release on Capitol. The sonics of this recording, which has some very interesting pictures of Bond girls in the booklet, are head and shoulders above those of The Best of James Bond 30Th Anniversary Collection on EMI, which sounds simply awful. Vocals on the Capitol release, from Shirley Bassey to Sheryl Crow to Louis Armstrong, sound clean and natural. There is a satisfying sense of coherence to performances that are patched together from many different master tapes. If you are a Bond fan, this is a must-have.

I then turned to something a little snappier—Wildflowers, Tom Petty's release of a few years ago. Cymbals and the sibilance from Tom's vocals were not as sharp as when I listen to these tracks through either of my amps, but there was enough air, sparkle, and detail to balance out the rest of the musical spectrum. On track five, "It's Good to be King," the cymbals and the upper end of the piano did sound slightly polished. I'm not complaining, since I didn't get the feeling that anything was missing. What was there, though, was grain-free and clean.

herrman.jpg (49680 bytes)On to The Fantasy Film World of Bernard Herrman, an Ultradisk II recording from Mobile Fidelity. This great recording has the National Philharmonic Orchestra on an open-sounding soundstage. The little AM-201 reproduced this soundstage with great accuracy. Its performance in this respect was almost on a par with that of my Antique Sound Labs monoblocks, as well as the much more expensive Canary 300B-based unit, though the AM-201's images were not as finely etched. Some listeners feel that finely etched images are not a part of the live musical experience, so this won't be a sonic liability to them.

The AM-201 and the Zu Druid speakers, with their 101dB sensitivity, were a very good match. The Druids are designed to work with amps from 10 to 300 watts, and the Acoustic Masterpiece drove them with headroom to spare. The sound stayed clean and undistorted at levels much higher than I cared to listen, even with discs that had unbridled dynamics. The AM/Zu combo also locked on to discs like Easy Now, Jeb Roy Nickol's 2002 release. On the songs "Letter to an Angel" and "Heaven Help Me," the music bloomed all around these tall speakers. The music was sweet and warm, yet detailed, and the presentation was most inviting.

Perhaps you don't want a pair of 1000-watt monoblock behemoth amps that weigh a ton and cut your body every time you pass by those sharp-edged heat sinks? Would something like 24 tube watts from the little AM-201 fit the bill? A speaker of relatively high efficiency, with an impedance curve that stays pretty even, is in order for sensible partnering. The little Acoustic Masterpiece possesses a nice balance of musical virtues. It draws the listener into the emotional content of the music, which is one of the most important things a stereo component can do. The AM-201 is also a stunner in the looks department. When you get home at the end of the day, do you want to be beaten over the head with hyper detail, mechanical and over-tight bass, and musical timbre that is off by a mile? If you prefer warmth and musical satisfaction, you'll like the sound of the Acoustic Masterpiece AM-201 amp. Me too. Francisco Duran

 

 

 

ROGER McNICHOLS JR.'S SYSTEM

LOUDSPEAKERS
Sonus Faber Electa Amators and Acoustic Energy speaker stands. NHT SA-3 mono power amp & SW-P subwoofer.

ELECTRONICS
Rowland Design Group Concentra integrated amplifier.

SOURCES
Rotel RCD-975 CD player. Fanfare FT-1 FM tuner and Terk FM antenna.

CABLES
Transparent Audio MusicLink interconnects and MIT 750 bi-wire loudspeaker cables.

 

two.jpg (6646 bytes)California is currently in turmoil. The Sunshine State is experiencing an economic crisis, and its normally laid-back citizens are on the verge of recalling their Governor. Hundreds of people rushed to submit their names for consideration as Governor, from the state's Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante to Hustler Magazine's Larry Flynt to Different Stroke's Gary Coleman to Politically Incorrect's Arianna Huffington to the 1984 L.A. Olympic's Peter Ueberroth, plus a well-built guy from Austria who makes movies. What's a citizen to do? If you lived in California, would you feel comfortable about making any of the above choices? Will making a change fix the mess or not?

I imagine that many audiophiles are in a similar situation with their systems. Many face the turmoil of choices—some ludicrous, some intriguing, some worthwhile—but when it involves a tube integrated amplifier (or, for that matter, most tube gear) the process can be as daunting and intimidating as the high-stakes choices faced by the voters in California. When it comes to tube gear, you can audition everything from Gary Coleman-sized, low-powered tube amps to monstrously sized, powered, and priced Arnold Schwarzenegger models costing more than most new vehicles.

If you are looking for an integrated amp, or are considering replacing your current amplifier, there are many, many manufacturers vying for the job. Now, from the proven-over-time producers of Air Tight products, comes a small but serious contender, the Acoustic Masterpiece AM-201. The AM-201 is an eleven-tube, 24-watt (RMS) stereo integrated amplifier. This small but sharp-looking amp is totally hand crafted, with no PCBs employed. It sports an aluminum faceplate with an attractive bias balance meter in the center. The faceplate fronts a nice, dark wood case with ample vents to dispense the heat generated by the tubes. All of the switches and controls are clearly marked and straightforward: Power, Bias Balance, Volume, and Input Selector. The design and build quality are first class, attractive, and pleasing to look at.

I replaced my Rowland Concentra integrated amp with the AM-201, in the process substituting 24 tube watts for 100 solid state watts to drive my Sonus Faber Electa Amators. After it had an hour of warm up time playing music at a low volume, I sat down to listen. I found the music warm and lush, and relaxed to just listen. After one hour, then two, I got out a yellow pad to take notes, and upon close listening noticed that the sound was rather uninvolving. I had no major complaints, but the amplifier's presentation seemed middle-of-the-road and average. Upon listening to favorite tracks on the CDs I most enjoy, I anticipated special moments, but they seemed ever so slightly diminished. The amp was not overly sweet or euphonically colored. The bass was a tad on the light side. Dynamics were just above average, certainly not heart-stopping. The AM-201 is not a cost-no-object design, and while it deserves a serious listen, it also requires some toleration in certain areas. I also think that my speakers were not a perfect match because of their sensitivity rating.

armstrong.jpg (42552 bytes)Over the next several weeks, I tried classical, rock, jazz, Celtic, and blues CDs, and invited friends to enjoy the music. We listened to the wonderful soundtrack from Sleepless in Seattle (Epic Soundtrax EK 53764), along with classics from Jimmy Durante, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Joe Cocker, Harry Connick, Jr., and Rickie Lee Jones. Armstrong's "A Kiss to Build a Dream On" has been remastered, eq'ed, and smoothed out, and on this track the AM-201 was at its best, but on the HDCD Cello Crossover (Golden String Audiophile Repertory GSCD 025), the music's impact was not fully present. Doug MacLeod's Come to Find (AudioQuest Music AQ-CD1027) is as straightforward as any blues guitar CD can be. MacLeod sings with passion and plays with even more, but my time with this CD warranted "Just average" comments in my notes. The music was always good, but a nagging feeling that something was missing remained with me throughout each listening session.

The Acoustic Masterpiece AM-201 is a reasonably priced, well-designed tube integrated amplifier. I encourage any listener to carefully match it with speakers with plenty of sensitivity. In the upcoming recall election, I'm not voting for Gary Coleman or Arnold Schwarzenegger, but for now I am keeping my choices open. The AM-201 gets a nod of approval from me, but not my vote. Roger McNichols, Jr.

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Acoustic Masterpiece AM-201 integrated
Retail $2995

Axiss Distribution
TEL: 310 - 329 - 0187
web address: www.axiss-usa.com

 

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