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Positive Feedback ISSUE 9
as reviewed by Fransico Duran
An integrated amp is a handy device. A system based on an integrated amp requires fewer interconnects than a separates-based system, and a properly-designed integrated amp should equal or even surpass the performance of separates. With the amp and preamp in one box, impedance mismatches are a thing of the past. As rewarding at it is for some of us to swap metal boxes in and out of our systems, an integrated amp is definitely more sensible.
GW Labs, which started selling vacuum tube amplifiers in 1996, is located in San Francisco. They pride themselves for making good-sounding, affordable products with simple circuitry and quality parts. They also stress that synergy, or the ability to match components in a given system, is crucial to good sound. The Cyclops from GW Labs is one of several low-watt, affordable tube amps that came my way early this year, following the Sophia Baby, the Acoustic Masterpiece, and the Armonia Nightingale.
Godfried Wong of GW Labs has come up with a fresh approach to the integrated amp. Instead of the low-slung, wide design typical of just about every other amplifier, the Cyclops stands slim, tall, and deep (3.93 W x 13.78 H x 9.96 D). Companies like Mark Levinson and Theta design some of their amps with the column look, so the GW Labs Cyclops is in good company, though it is smaller in size. The Cyclops fit and finish is also very high on the scale. While the transformers are covered up by the lower part of the chassis, the tubes can be seen through the louvers of the upper part, where two 12AU7s, four EL84s, and one 6AL7GT glow brightly.
Some of the construction details include dual power transformers, along with custom, low-loss, multi-section output transformers. A zero-global-feedback design is featured, along with a single tube input and phase splitter. The Cyclops is a push/pull design with a self-biasing output stage. The amp puts out twelve watts per channel. It has two line-level inputs and a pair of high-quality speaker binding posts. One feature that sets it apart is its headphone jack, mountedalong with the inputs, the on/off switch, and the volume controlon a nicely finished silver faceplate. I almost forgot to mention the green "eye" tube from which the amp gets its name. In my opinion, this raises the amps cool factor quite a few notches.
Once the Cyclops is turned on and the eye tube is bright green, you are ready to play music. I let the little amp warm up for about twenty minutes before beginning any serious jamming. Twelve watts might not be enough to drive many speakers, but it drove my Spendor 2/3s quite nicely. (With the modifications in place, my speakers are easier to drive than the stock models.) The first thing I noticed was the Cyclops low coloration. I also felt it sounded a tad cooler than the Nightingale and the Acoustic Masterpiece. The character of the amp was brought forth when I played Bebel Gilbertos CD, Tanto Tempo. The Cyclops held firm, with neutrality and an articulation of the vocals that kept my attention focused on the music. The speed and detail of the music was reproduced very well. The interplay of shakers, percussion instruments, and delicate acoustic guitar was rendered cohesively, with inner detail integrated into the whole. Some amplifiers, especially ones of the solid state variety, might bring out inner detail more sharply, but often this is at the expense of the natural feeling and body of the music. Are you thinking if detail when you listen to music? It is there, but it is interwoven with the rest of the sonic spectrum. The Cyclops brings you wholesome liveliness, yet doesnt sacrifice the details.
Moving on to more dynamically challenging discs proved interesting. The next two selections were the Gladiator soundtrack and Ralph Vaughn Williams Antarctica Symphony. These discs tax my more powerful amplifiers in the bass, so it was no surprise that the little EL84-based, 12-watt GW amp did not have their heft and fullness. Nevertheless, the Cyclops did a credible job. Another disc that was recorded impeccably was the JVC XRCD version of the Luke and the Locomotives CD with leader Robert Lucas. One of my favorite tracks, "Good-bye Baby," has a boogie rhythm that bass player Al "Bedrock" Bedrosian really locks onto. On this track, and several from an Art Pepper CD, the Cyclops didnt have the bass authority and grip of its bigger cousins, but it wasnt that far off. The bass was sure-footed and articulate enough to satisfy me. I didnt get the feeling that low bass was being cut off, although impact and heft was somewhat shortchanged.
In the treble, the Cyclops smooth, clean presentation was evident on some quite challenging music. One disc that showcased the upper ranges well was the soundtrack to The Last Action Hero. There was a noticeable lack of grain and etch that belied the price of the little Cyclops. The guitars on this CD were reproduced with air and sparkle to spare, yet they never sounded bright or thin. The Cyclops never overextended itself in the upper ranges.
The Cyclops integrated amp from GW Labs acquitted itself very well in my system. Although my speakers are pretty easy to drive, they do respond to more power, therefore any perceived shortfalls no doubt fall right into that lap. The potential purchaser of the Cyclops would be wise to heed the advice given by GW Labs, which is that system matching is crucial to getting good sound. With sensibly chosen speakers and a good source, the Cyclops could bring many happy hours of listening. The little Cyclops makes the grade as an affordable, good sounding, and really cool-looking amp. Francisco Duran