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Still Audio EL84 Integrated Amplifier: Affordable Handcrafted Exotica!

09-16-2018 | By Jeff Day | Issue 99

The speaker cables used were Duelund DCA16GA tinned-copper, with Acoustic Revive RCA Absolute FM interconnects (above, in for review) connecting the CS-600 integrated amplifier to the Leben RS-30EQ phono preamplifier, which in turn was connected to a Thomas Schick 12-inch tonearm mounted on an Artisan Fidelity Thorens TD124 Statement Long-Base turntable.

The phonograph cartridge used for this review was the new Soundsmith Carmen Mk II (above, reviewed HERE).

The power cords used for the Leben CS-600 integrated amplifier and the Leben RS-30EQ phono equalizer were the new Acoustic Revive Absolute Power Cords (above) that are in for review.

Listening Evaluations

Before I delve into my listening impressions with the Still Audio EL84 amplifier in the above two systems, allow me to provide you a brief overview of what I listen for when I evaluate component performance during reviews, to help give you some additional context for the aural observations I'll provide.

I find it useful to partition my perceptions into two broad (and somewhat overlapping) categories while listening: musicality and sonics.

The musicality aspect of a component's performance is related to its performance on the basic elements of music. I listen for how close a component comes to presenting recorded music realistically compared to live music, in terms of timbral realism (the unique 'voices' of instruments), the resolution of tone color (the ability to distinctly hear the chordal variations resulting from adding additional pitches to three tone triads), melody (the tune you 'whistle while you work'), harmony (treble & bass accompaniments to the melody), rhythm (the steady beat that determines the tempo), tempo (speed), dynamics (variations in loudness), and loudness (the ability to play naturally at live-like levels appropriate to a piece of music).

The second category of performance I listen for is sonics, which describes the performance of a component in reproducing the non-musical artifacts of the recording process, like transparency (the ability to 'see' into the recording), resolution (the amount of detail in the audio signal that is audibly presented), soundstage (the ability to discern the three dimensions of the recorded space in width, height and depth), the soundspace (the ability to convey the acoustic sense of 'space' from the recording venue), and imaging (the ability to localize instruments & musicians on the soundstage).

Finally, I listen for the ability of a component to integrate musicality & sonics in a way that evokes an emotional response similar to that of a live music listening experience.

I find components that are capable of playing naturally at realistic loudness levels, are dynamically realistic, have a lot of presence, and can realistically portray timbral textures, tone color, tempo, and beat will be more emotionally engaging and musically satisfying. 

I suppose that every hifi system and listener will be a little different in what they need and prefer to achieve for their perfect balance of musicality & sonics, but that's my take on reviewing equipment's audio performance in a well-rounded manner.

Listening Impressions 

Let's start with some listening impressions from my system based on the vintage (circa 1957) Altec 832A Corona loudspeakers.

The Altec 832A Corona loudspeakers are quite rare, with their cabinets being custom made for Altec by the furniture craftsman at Glen of California in the "California Modernist" style. Customers could order Corona's and they were styled to complement the Glenn of California furniture they had in their home, and as such were intended to "disappear" into the room corners as functional furniture, so they weren't too room dominating. They were considered to be high-performance "art speakers" for a well decorated Glenn of California furnished home.

Physically the 832A Coronas are as wide and deep as my Tannoy Westminster Royale SE loudspeakers, but at 39 inches tall the Coronas are not nearly as imposing as my 55-inch-tall Westminsters.

When tucked into the room corners as intended the 832A Coronas are surprisingly room friendly, taking up little more floor space than mini-monitors on stands would.

There's nothing mini about the sound of these vintage Altec 832A Corona loudspeakers, however, with a component complement of Altec pro-audio 15 inch low-frequency 803A drivers (1947-1958), 802D compression drivers (1957-1972), 811B HF horns, and N800E crossovers, the 832A Coronas can effortlessly fill a room with live-like SPLs of music with only a few watts.

Keith Aschenbrenner of Auditorium 23 told me some years ago that the 803A Altec driver was one of his all-time favorite low-frequency drivers, and when you listen to the Coronas play music it's easy to understand why, as it is rather remarkable how lithe, nuanced, and natural sounding the 803A is—truly a work of loudspeaker driver art by Altec.

The Corona's sold for $762 a pair in 1957, which in 2018 dollars would be about $6700. A Chevrolet Corvette sold for $3176 in 1957 as a comparator.

I don't think you'll be surprised to read that the Still Audio EL84 integrated amplifier is a match made in heaven for vintage Altecs, with its 10-watts of EL84 vacuum tube muscle able to easily drive high-sensitivity Altecs like my Coronas to live-like SPLs.

For the moment, the sole source component in my vintage Altec Corona 832A loudspeaker-based audio system is my iMac streaming the fantastic sounding Jazz24 stream through the Mhdt Paradisea+ USB DAC.

The Still Audio EL84 integrated amplifier is much more evenly balanced bass-to-treble than my Almarro EL84 single-ended-pentode integrated amplifier, for example. In fact, I didn't realize the full extent of the superb bass quality of my Altec Corona 832A loudspeakers until I put the Still Audio EL84 amp into the system, and its bass quality and quantity are at a significantly higher level of performance than with the otherwise excellent sounding Almarro EL84.

The Still Audio EL84 integrated amp has a beautifully voiced mid-range and high-frequency presentation that is timbrally realistic, tonally beautiful, has a captivating level of naturally resolved nuance, and an overall musicality that makes it very rewarding to listen to music with.

I can really hear Mark's background as a musician coming through, as the Still Audio EL 84 integrated amplifier "just sounds like music" is supposed to sound, engaging, exciting, and musically natural.

While the Jazz24 stream goes by pretty fast for taking listening notes, I was able to jot down a few impressions.

"I Want To Be Happy" by Stan Getz from the Stan Getz and the Oscar Peterson Trio album, featuring Stan Getz on tenor saxophone, Oscar Peterson on piano, Herb Ellis on guitar, and Ray Brown on double bass, which is an all-star lineup if there ever was one.

The Still Audio EL84 integrated amp superbly rendered Getz's tenor sax timbre, as well as the speedy and vibrant tempo, in a way that I found really engaging and exciting. Oscar's piano playing was full of nuance and complexity, and with great tone, even playing at the breakneck tempo for this piece.

Another quick example was "Shake Ya Boogie" by Manhattan Transfer from The Junction album, an upbeat song that makes you… well… want to get up and shake ya boogie!

With the Still Audio EL84 integrated amplifier there was lots of nuance and detail, with lots of naturally rendered acoustic space. The harmonies were presented beautifully, and a nicely done beat as well.

The Still Audio EL84 amp really excelled in getting across the feel of the music to me as a listener.

"Carmen Habenera" by Frank Vignola and Vinny Raniolo from the Melody Magic album is a tour de force example of guitar playing at a tempo that is no mean feat to do, and the Still Audio EL84 gave a beautiful sensation of the speed and excitement the tempo brought to the music.

The tone of Frank's playing was gorgeous, with lots of little melodic ideas explored, and beautifully rendered tone color, all of which the Still Audio EL84 presented with aplomb.

"The Bitter Earth" by Irma Thomas off the Simply Grand album has beautifully presented vocals, rich and even a bit raspy at times. The Still Audio EL84 integrated amp presented the natural sound of shimmering cymbals with perfection, and there was absolutely gorgeous piano tone, all immersed in huge sense of recorded space.

I really, really, enjoyed what I was hearing from the Still Audio EL84 integrated amp from the Jazz24 stream. The balance of audiophile-style sonics and musicality that Mark has achieved in his amplifier is remarkable, and the result was that it drew me into the music and wouldn't let me go—I loved it!

There's something so naturally musical about the Still Audio EL84 amplifier on my Altec 832A Corona loudspeakers that it is uncanny, and addictive. There isn't any one thing that stands out regarding its musicality, rather it is the canny balance of the overall voicing that Mark has achieved with it, and it "just sounds like music!"

My solid-state reference SPEC RSA-M3 EX Real Sound Amplifier is a bit smoother and more laid back, with a little less timbral texture in evidence, and with less sense of recorded space, for example, than the Still Audio EL84 integrated amplifier.

The Still Audio EL84 has superb bass response and agility with my Coronas, even besting the excellent SPEC in that regard. The Still Audio EL84's presentation of timbre is more deeply textured, and images are presented with more vibrancy and presence than with the SPEC, but not by a lot.

Both the SPEC and Still Audio EL84 are superbly musical integrated amplifiers which make music a lot of fun to listen to, and I think any music lover would be delighted to live with either over the long term.

Their pricing is quite different though, with the SPEC hovering near $9500 USD, and the Still Audio EL84 being priced at $2895 USD, but they perform at what is basically an equivalent level of high-fidelity musicality and sonic prowess.

The bottom line is that the Still Audio EL84 integrated amplifier is a bargain for its level of performance, and it does my heart good to see such a lofty level of performance available for the "everyman" price of $2895 USD. "Quite an accomplishment," says me.

I was so enamored with the performance of the Still Audio EL84 integrated amplifier with my vintage Altec Coronas that I might suggest that if your loudspeakers aren't quite sensitive enough for this 10-watt per channel amp, it might be worth considering seeking out a pair of Corona's and ditching your current speakers. Just sayin'.