Class A or not, based on their appearance and information from others, I was kind of expecting a rich and voluptuous sound much like a stereotypical Class A amplifier but this is not what is served here. The Electrocompaniet 180’s and 600’s are both very even-handed in their delivery. Not bright, not dark, not slow and not too fast, not smooth or warm but also not cool or clinical. The timbre is very natural and convincing and there is absolutely no electronic signature here, not even in the least. The bass is solid and confident and tonally full without becoming slow or thick. By these descriptors, they seem to thread a perfect middle road and while that is indeed the case, the amps are not necessarily universally applicable. In order to get the best result, they need to be partnered with well-matching loudspeakers. But that goes for many products and when the partnering is synergistic then they provide a non-fatiguing yet impactful and super-engaging musical ride. What follows is a description of how they work with various speakers.
Paradigm Persona B
Starting with the CH Precision C1 DAC’s output directly into the power amps, the Electrocompaniets make the Paradigm Persona B’s sound very powerful and with deeper and fuller bass than most of the alternative amps. They don’t quite have the CH A1.5’s tightness and articulation or the Lejonklou Tundra’s nuance and fluidity. On the other hand, none of the other amps have the Electrocompaniet’s body and tonal fullness. Great tonality aside, with speakers so utterly refined and transparent as the Persona B’s, it becomes evident that low-level detailing is not these amps’ strongest aspect, nor is treble air. Macro-dynamically, however, these amps are absolutely unphasable. They relay large dynamic swings with a seemingly infinite power reserve. In spite of the amps’ impressive power, however, there is also a certain sense of restraint in terms of lyricism and musical flow and I don’t find that the overall delivery with these speakers is very lively.
I think this has its source primarily in the amplifier’s enormous control, apparently too much of it for these speakers. When combined with analytical speakers that are extremely linear and transparent as well as very controlled themselves, such as the Paradigms, this can result in a relatively flat and uninspiring sound that doesn’t involve the listener as much as it should. Perhaps counter-intuitively, the 24-watt Lejonklou Tundra, which is softer and gentler, does sound more lively even if it doesn’t have the Electrocompaniet’s full tonality, midrange prominence or bass solidity.
Complete Lejonklou stack in the Artesania Modular rack: Sagatun stereo and Sagatun mono preamps and Tundra stereo and Tundra mono power amps. Around it, a flock of Bryston and Electrocompaniet amplifiers.
A change to another brand that makes very powerful amps provides some more perspective. The Bryston 4B and 14B Cubed both don’t have the same measure of midrange communication, as tight a grip on the bass, or as full-bodied timbre as the Electrocompaniets but their smoother and more relaxed delivery makes for a more involving listen with the very neutral Paradigms.
Between the Electrocompaniet AW180 and the AW600 Nemo, paradoxically, the latter provided the most lively and engaging sound. Even if the Nemos are more than twice as powerful, they don’t sound overly controlled and rather have more bounce in their delivery and an overall more energetic sound.
So far, the amplifiers were driven directly from the CH Precision C1 DAC using its hybrid analog/digital volume control which is arguably also a pretty “unforgiving” setup. When adding an analog preamp in the shape of the Lejonklou Sagatun dual mono or even the stereo version, at first, a subtle softening is noted along with a less apparent solidity. But along with this comes a very pleasant subtlety and fluidity and once having become accustomed to the more relaxed delivery, the Electrocompaniet does indeed work much more synergistically with the Paradigms. This seems to confirm my suspicion that these amps like to be partnered with less analytical components and speakers.
Graham Audio LS5/9 and LS5/9f
Keeping the Lejonklou Sagatun preamp in place but swapping to another set of speakers while using the AW600 Nemos, the result is now pretty much the inverse of the Paradigms! With the Graham Audio speakers, the sound is big, solid, and confident as well as free-flowing, highly involving, and emotionally captivating. This really is a sound to be immersed in and forget all about time passing. Another comparison with the Bryston 4B or 14B Cubed amps confirms that the Electrocompaniets have nothing to fear in the bass department, either. And since Brystons are widely regarded as being bass-champs, that’s saying something. I’d even say that the Electrocompaniets have more upper-bass slam and -solidity than either of the Brystons along with a more highly communicative quality in the midrange.
What’s worth noting is that pretty much throughout my listening tests, the Electrocompaniet amps seem to work best with an analog preamp (in this case the Lejonklou), otherwise sounding a little bit too factual when fed directly by the C1 DAC. The Brystons have a different point of operation and are happy to work directly with the C1 DAC directly or via a preamp. In terms of resolution, the two brands are not far off but the tonality and character in the midrange are very different. In a nutshell, the Electrocompaniets are darker and acoustically very convincing, the Brystons a little brighter and cleaner and perhaps even more neutral but arguably also cooler in spite of their more relaxed (less controlled) smoothness.
As part of the Graham Audio review (forthcoming), I also listened to the positively huge LS5/8’s. As this review is already getting long, suffice to say that with these models, too, the Electrocompaniet AW600 Nemos proved to be the perfect partners.
The bridged Bryston 14B improves on the 4B’s sound in a similar way as the Nemos improve on the AW180’s although the 14B is not quite as smooth and liquid as the 4B, making the 14B also a little bit more factual. The Nemos, on the other hand, improve on the AW180’s across the board, even in terms of emotional satisfaction.
One can argue over transparency and resolution and I certainly have a tendency to get stuck on this but this really is only part of the performance. With the Grahams, I find that the Electrocompaniets, and then especially the AW600 Nemos, provide the most outgoing, engaging and simply most fun performance. They really have a way with these speakers that simply communicates music in such a grand way that it makes me want to play more and more music while turning up the volume. Isn’t that the essence of what music should be about?
Kroma Audio Carmen
Although the CH Precision A1.5 is my favorite amplifier for the Kromas, the Brystons also work remarkably well. These speakers are quite rich-sounding themselves and for my tastes, they are best partnered with clean and articulate electronics. When judged in terms of resolution, tightness, and refinement, the Brystons are no CH, but the sound of this combination is neutral yet relaxed and a little smooth with enough resolution while being musically involving. It’s also a sound that, for better or for worse, does not really attract attention to itself.
Switching to the Electrocompaniet AW180’s tightens up the Carmens’ lower bass while adding extra solidity to the upper bass and darkening the timbre a little. It’s perhaps a fuller sound than neutral, but not in a detractive manner, and the Kroma’s certainly appreciated the extra grip that the Electrocompaniets exert over the drivers. Most notable is the magic that now happens in the midrange. Mind you, this is not a “tube” kind of magic. It’s not a sweet or rich sound but rather a very lifelike, live-band-like communicative power that becomes ever more invigorating the longer (and the louder:-) you listen. Listening some more the next day, I noticed that I did not perceive the sound as slightly dark anymore and neither did I feel that the resolution was lacking. So, while subtlety and resolution are now no longer state of the art, when comparing directly to the CH or other amplifiers that excel in these areas, this is of less importance than it may seem at first. And, of course, different things matter to different people.
Switching to the AW600 Nemos confirmed what I already knew at this stage. Basically, if one is in the market for Electrocompaniet monos but the Nemos are outside of the available budget, then I strongly advise to not even listen to them. The AW180’s really are great in their own right and you will not know what is missing until a comparison is made with the AW600’s Nemos, at which point it will be immediately obvious why they are the King of the Electrocompaniet mountain. Lest one think that these are merely doubled-up versions of the AW180’s, while partially true, they are also redesigned.