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Still Audio EL84 Integrated Amplifier: Affordable Handcrafted Exotica!

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

Unlike the circa 1957 vintage Altec 832A Corona loudspeakers that were designed with domestic use in mind, my vintage Altec A5 "Voice of the Theatre" loudspeakers were intended to provide professional sound reinforcement specific to the needs of small-to-medium sized movie theaters.

The Altec A5 Voice of the Theatre loudspeakers were introduced in 1945 at about the same time that the Allied forces kicked Hitler's Nazi fanny into oblivion and ended WWII. That's a good vibe sign if there ever was one!

My particular A5s have restored Altec 825B cabinets, Altec 515B Alnico low-frequency drivers, Altec 1005B horns, and Altec 288C Alnico high-frequency compression drivers, which were a typical Altec-Lansing A5 Voice of the Theatre combination of components back in the day, and is a very desirable combination of components for collectors even now.

The big pro Altec A5 loudspeakers need a little help in the form of different crossovers to make them suitable for a domestic listening environment. My crossovers are an adaptation of Jean Hiraga's superb 16-Ohm crossover design for the Altec A5s, but with a variable resistor and L-pad added to the high-frequency circuit to get them dialed-in for my particular combination of components and relatively near-field listening setup.

Once equipped with the new domestic friendly crossovers, the vintage Altec A5s are impressive loudspeakers that are surprisingly flexible and room friendly, and they adapted remarkably well to the rather small spare bedroom in my home that I use as an audio-video room, with dimensions of 11-feet x 12-feet x 9-feet (ceiling), with a 6' x 3'5" x 9' foyer on one end.

The big vintage Altec A5 Voice of the Theatre loudspeakers make movie soundtracks come captivatingly alive (as you would expect), sounding totally immersive and wondrous, and they are remarkably musical for music-only listening as well, whether digital or analog, so you get the best of both worlds from them.

If someone tells you the big pro Altec A5s can't be stunning in small rooms don't you believe it for a moment—big vintage pro Altecs with appropriate crossovers and voicing have become one of my favorite small room loudspeakers!

I installed the Still Audio EL84 integrated amplifier into my A5 system in place of my usual Leben CS-600 integrated amplifier, and all other associated equipment in the A5 system remained the same as articulated in the "review systems" section above.

The Still Audio EL84 integrated amplifier is rated at 10-watts per channel, but seems more powerful in use, and drove my big Altec A5 loudspeakers to live-like SPLs just as satisfyingly as my Leben CS-600 that is rated at 28-watts per channel.

Now let's go through some listening impressions from my system based on my vintage Altec A5 Voice of the Theatre loudspeakers with the Still Audio EL84 integrated amplifier providing the amplification needs.

I'm really thrilled that the Gillian Welch & David Rawlings albums that previously have been available only on compact disc are now being made available on vinyl as well. First was The Harrow & The Harvest, now it has been joined by Soul Journey (above), and I'm looking forward to the rest!

I admire Gillian Welch and David Rawlings as guitarists and musicians, and love the cool vintage-instrument musical-vibe that they used on some of their albums, as well as the more contemporary instrumentation they used on Soul Journey.

One thing I find particularly intriguing and endearing about Gillian's and David's music, is that while their music is oft' described as a blend of Americana, bluegrass, folk, country, old-time, and roots music, I am particularly drawn to the haunting beauty that their jazz voicings add to the music.

Their background as graduates of the Berklee School of Music (known originally for educating students in jazz, as well as a variety of historic and contemporary styles more recently), is abundantly apparent with their complex and artful incorporation of jazz voicings into their music, which elevates its emotional content & impact to another level, and it gives their dark & jazzy Americana-like ballads an ethereal and almost haunting feel that really appeals to me.

While listening to "One Monkey" I was struck how musically natural the Still Audio E84 integrated amplifier sounded in the system. I could really hear Mark's background as a musician coming through, and the Still Audio EL 84 integrated amplifier "just sounds like music" is supposed to sound, engaging, exciting, and musically natural. The beat came through loud and clear, driving the music forward, and I loved the tapestry of accompanying instruments.

The timbre of the instruments was naturally rendered, vocals were natural and without any exaggerated sibilance, and I could believe Gillian was there singing in the room with me if I closed my eyes, so natural did the music-making sound.

I love "One Little Song" on Soul Journey, it's a simple arrangement of guitar and Gillian's vocals, and carries a somewhat gloomily emotive message that there is always a small chance for hope when the odds are stacked against things working out, and the full emotive impact is readily revealed with the Still Audio EL84.

As I listened to the music on Soul Journey I kept coming back to this: The Still Audio EL84 integrated amplifier is made by someone who knows what real music sounds like, with all the realistic timbral textures, vivid tone colors, the portrayal of convincing melodies and tempos, and it just nails the feel of the music. 

Soul Journey is another terrific album from Gillian and David, and I hope you get a chance to hear it too. I might add that while I was taking notes for this review I actually listened to the album three times before coming up for air, which is a good indicator of the Still Audio EL84 integrated amplifier's engaging musicality in listening sessions will keep the listener happy for the long term.

The new compilation release of the Wonderful Sound of Female Vocals by Chad Kassem at Analogue Productions is such a great idea.

Typical Analogue Productions quality (great musicality and sound), along with some well-chosen female vocal tracks from Joan Armatrading, Joan Baez, Patricia Barber, Nancy Bryan, Holly Cole, Judy Collins, Ella Fitzgerald, Janis Ian, Patsy Kline, Julie London, Rickie Lee Jones, Diana Krall, Shelby Lynn, Nina Simone, Phoebe Snow, Dusty Springfield, and Jennifer Warnes—lots of heavy hitting talent here! 

The vocalists on this album sounded musically natural and engaging with the Still Audio EL84 integrated amplifier supplying the juice to the big A5's, and I really was quite impressed.

Julie London's signature song "Cry Me A River" had gorgeous, rich, vocal tone, and it doesn't hurt that one of the greatest jazz guitarists of all time—Barney Kessel—was accompanying, along with Ray Leatherwood on bass. Barney's guitar sounded tonally natural, having realistic timbral textures, and easily discernible tone colors. Ray's bass had nice pitch definition and an excellent sense of beat that was nicely engaging.

Phoebe Snow singing "Poetry Man" is another favorite cut of mine on this album of favorite cuts. I've long enjoyed listening to Phoebe Snow, she was a great vocalist, songwriter, and guitarist. I'm impressed with the Still Audio EL84's resolution of all the accompanying instrumentation coming through, making "Poetry Man" a real audiophile spectacular, with lots of interesting nuance across a wide soundstage, including images with a "reach out and touch it" visceral presence, an expansive sense of recorded space that disappears into the depths of the soundstage, and just really spectacular music-making that'll draw you into the experience of listening to music.

The Still Audio EL84 integrated amplifier really served up an impressive listening experience with the Wonderful Sound of Female Vocals. While I know a fair number of you will be thinking about sonic prowess with regards to these particular songs, as they really are sonic spectaculars, the fact that the Still Audio EL84 integrated amplifier was able to serve up all the sonic wonders in such a convincing way, and also be so uncannily musical was a real testament to the soundness of Mark's design and voicing of the amplifier—it's a sweetheart of an amplifier.

I haven't listened to Peter Frampton for ages (about 1975 to be exact), and so when I got a text message from my buddy Leo saying Frampton's 2016 album Acoustic Classics (Phenix Phonograph ‎864252000252) was an excellent recording, I ordered up a copy of the 2LP set through Amazon so I could give it a listen.

Frampton does all the vocals, plays guitar and acoustic bass guitar, and is joined by Gordon Kennedy on "All Down to Me".

Acoustic Classics was recorded in Frampton's Nashville studio, and was mastered by Bob Ludwig at Gateway Mastering. The recording quality is really nice, and I love to see these sorts of acoustic albums, as they really show off a rock musician's musical virtuosity in an enjoyable and insightful light, not unlike what was done with the MTV Unplugged albums, giving an intimate "closer to the artist" perspective.

The Still Audio EL84 presents the timbre of the instruments beautifully with lots of nuance, great tone and dynamics, and this is another of those albums that puts the musician realistically in the room with you.

I remember listening to Frampton's "Baby, I Love Your Way" back in 1975 when it first came out and really liking it. I like this "acoustic" version even better (there's an electric guitar on it too, so it's not quite all acoustic). The Still Audio EL84 really brought out the best in "Baby, I Love Your Way", and really allowed me to connect with the music, and get a real feel for Frampton's technique playing the guitar.

That's a continuing theme in my listening notes with the Still Audio EL84 integrated amplifier, by the way, in that it lets the musical come through in a particularly convincing way. Sometimes I listen to audio equipment and I'm really impressed by one aspect or another of its performance, maybe it's resolution, or imaging ability, but with the Still Audio EL84 integrated amplifier the signature trait is letting the music come through in such a listenable, natural, and enjoyable fashion.

"The music just sounds right" through the Still Audio EL84 amp, and I found myself not really thinking about equipment, or audio, but rather how good the music or musicians were, and how much I am enjoying my listening sessions. That may actually be the ultimate compliment for any piece of hifi gear—that it enhances music listening significantly without calling attention to itself in any overt way.

David Rawlings' Poor David's Almanack is a beautifully recorded album of "old timey" music. David Rawlings is the other half of Gillian Welch's success, and in this album, David is at the forefront with Gillian backing. It's a decidedly different feeling album from Gillian's usual dark and brooding lyrics, as with David as the lead there is a more upbeat vibe, yet it features the same excellent musicianship by David and Gillian as on Gillian's albums.

Again, the Still Audio EL84 integrated amplifier served up a natural, musical, and enchanting performance of the songs on Poor David's Almanack. The sense of tempo, dynamics, and the intended emotive feel is superb, and it made me able to easily fall into musical reverie as I listened.

On a completely different audio front, let me tell you how the Still Audio EL84 integrated amplifier fared supplying the juice for audio-video sound in my Altec A5 Voice of the Theatre based system.

As I've mentioned, the big Altec A5s were designed to provide sound reinforcement for small to medium sized theaters, and let's just say that the mighty A5s bring a certain magic to film that is hardwired into our DNA "memory" from the Golden Age of audio that you just don't hear from any other loudspeaker.

The Still Audio EL84 integrated amplifier fared as well with film as it did with music, and I never ever heard it put a foot wrong in delivering the full drama and excitement of films—it delivered excitement and drama in spades!

With the Altec A5 Voice of the Theatre loudspeakers the Still Audio EL84's 10-watts of power was enough to raise the roof on big film dynamics, and it was never wanting for relaying satisfying nuance as well.

Again, when I was watching film in the big A5 system everything just sounded "right" with Still Audio EL84 integrated amplifier, just as it did with music, and I suspect it will do the same for you.

Summary & Conclusions

I really enjoyed my time with the Still Audio EL84 integrated amplifier by Mark Still. The voicing is spot-on for my tastes, with a blend of performance of audiophile-style sonics and musicality that is about as ideal as I've ever come across in an amplifier.

It is readily apparent from the Still Audio EL84 integrated amplifier's voicing that Mark has a background as a musician, and the musical aspects of its performance like timbral realism, the resolution of tone color, the portrayal of melodies, harmonies, beat, rhythm, tempo, dynamics, and the ability to play naturally at live-like SPL levels appropriate to a piece of music, are all naturally realistic and impeccably in balance.

From an audiophile-style sonics perspective, transparency, resolution, soundstaging, the sense of acoustic sense of 'space' from the recording venue, and imaging, were all excellent and satisfyingly portrayed, and never overtly called attention to themselves in such a way that was a distraction from the music, which really is important to long term musical satisfaction.

Compared to my long-time reference integrated vacuum tube amplifier, the Leben CS-600 (~ $6500 USD), the Still Audio EL84 integrated amplifier fared very well. The Leben CS-600 emphasizes audiophile-sonics a little more than does the Still Audio EL84 integrated amplifier, being a little more resolving and transparent, having a greater sense of recorded acoustic "space", and a little sharper defined imagine. Additionally, the Leben CS-600 is a little brighter and smoother in the upper midrange.

Musically, the Still Audio EL84 integrated amplifier was more naturally "real" sounding in the way it portrayed timbre, tone color, melodies, harmonies, beat, rhythm, tempo, dynamics, and the ability to play naturally at live-like SPL levels appropriate to a piece of music, than was the Leben CS-600.

Both are superb integrated amplifiers. However, I preferred the combination of more naturally balanced audiophile-style sonics and musicality of the Still Audio EL84 integrated amplifier on a lot of music to the Leben CS-600's more overtly "hifi" style of presentation, and as a testament to that, during my listening sessions the overwhelming theme was that I pretty much forgot about everything else and got caught up in the music I was listening to with the Still Audio EL84 integrated amplifier, even to the detriment of taking notes at times, which is perhaps the greatest praise an audio reviewer can bestow upon a piece of audio equipment.

The parts and build quality of the Still Audio EL84 are superb, and I love its industrial design (appearance) and artisan nature. The only nitpick I have about the Still Audio EL84 amplifier is that it has only two inputs, which is one short of what I needed to hook up all the sources in my Altec A5 Voice of the Theatre based system. In looking at the back panel of the amplifier there appears to be plenty of room for three sets of inputs if they were arranged vertically instead of horizontally as they were on my review unit, so perhaps you could persuade Mark to include three inputs on yours.

Who should consider buying the 10 watt per channel Still Audio EL84 integrated amplifier?

If you are lucky enough to own vintage Altec loudspeakers (or other reasonably sensitive loudspeakers) you should definitely consider the Still Audio EL84 integrated amplifier. Mark tells me he has customers with much less sensitive loudspeakers than my Altecs that are getting excellent results as well, so you might want to check with Mark about compatibility if you have any questions about the suitability of your own loudspeakers.

Also, I love the Still Audio EL84 integrated amplifier's compact footprint which makes it really easy to place in a room, on a bookshelf, or a sofa table, or an audio equipment rack, making it ideal for those living in smaller spaces like apartments or condominiums.

At $2895 the Still Audio EL84 is a remarkable bargain for a boutique handcrafted amplifier with a superbly musical balance, and I love the fact that it is so affordable to keep up and running due to its EL84 tubes. 

Highly recommended for music lovers everywhere!

Still Audio EL84 integrated amplifier

Retail: $2895

Contact Information

You can visit the Still Audio website to learn more about the Still Audio EL84 integrated amplifier HERE, or contact Mark Still HERE.

All images are by Jeff Day unless noted otherwise.