MADE IN CHINA
Stig Arne Skilbrei
Audio enthusiasts often have intimate knowledge of
their favourites, either they are well known brands
such as Audio Research, Conrad Johnsen, Mark Levinson,
etc., or our domestic favourites such as Electrocompaniet,
Doxa, Dynamic, etc. But at the time of writing this
there is very little I know about Consonance from
China. I will probably know more the next time I sit
down at my Mac computer, because China is a nation
to reckon with in the future. More and more, for me
complete unknown brands, get excellent reviews in
our old hi-fi magazines. Is this the biblical prophesies
being fulfilled? Will the yellow race take over the
Consonance is not of my favourites - yet. I had barely
heard of it. But these products could become my favourites,
because the power amplifer a100plus appeared to be
a very comfortable surprise, and may possibly, after
some deliberations, end up one of my top 5 amplifiers;
Electrocompaniet AW-250R, Electrocompaniet 25W, Holfi
integra 8, the power part of of NAD 3020, and now
also Consonance a100plus.
Honestly, my interest for Consonance was aroused
by a positive test in a competing magazine, where
the integrated amplifiera100 was tested. This is in
reality the same product as the power amplifier we
are testing here. For this test we wanted a little
more exciting and flexible setup, with a pure power
amplifier and a separate pre-amplifier, where Arild
Berget of Hi-Fi Guiden at Hamar recommended his cheapest
tube pre-amplifier T-99. Arild is an old (excuse me:
experienced) and knowledgable audiophile whom I unfortunately
was not able to meet at the hi-fi exhibition this
year. But I have talked to him previously - over the
telephone. He has promised a follow-up of the system,
but this time I can only write what I have found out
so far, after a relatively short time of listening.
But nevertheless, I have heard what this amplifier
is capable of, and this is almost scary as far as
the power amplifier is concerned.
The pre-amplifier T-99 is small and sweat, slim and
very shallow, with volume and selector on the front,
and 2 tubes, as well on/off switch on the top. It
reminds one of VTL's cheapest pre-amplifier many years
ago; you may have seen a picture of this long time
ago in a Norwegian hi-fi magazine. I know, because
I took it! T-99 is built up according to the SRPP
(Shunt Regulated Push Pull) principle, and has two
tubes, both Sovtek 6922. These correspond to ECC-88,
or more precisely the least noisy variant of E88CC.
The input impedance is 50kOhm, as it should be, and
the amplification is 24 dB. The weight is 6 kg, and
the power consumption is 40 watt; dimensions 430 x
80 x 120 mm (WxHxD). There are 4 inlets and 2 outlets,
alt. RCA, not balanced. Price NOK 7500.
a100plus power amplifier
The power amplifier reminds one of a Holfi, and is
probably not so different. Soundwise they are quite
similar! Again, this amplifier I do not know well,
but according to the brochure it is, as 99% of all
others, of class AB push-pull solid state power amplifier.
The on/off button I searched for a long time, and
eventually was able to locate it underneath and to
the left. That I have not seen before! Really a practical
location, easy to reach, and at the same time out
of reach busy fingers. The weight is a little less
than 10 kg, and dimensions are 430 x 70 x 320 mm (W
x H x D). The input impedance is 440 mV, in other
words less than 1/2 V. Conventional studio equipment
is 0.6 V, and home equipment around 1 Volt, but there
is, unfortunately, not standard.
Integrated amplifiers are for cowards; separate power
and pre-amplifiers are for professionals. This may
sound stupid, but there is an element of truth in
it. The trend lately has possibly leaned towards integrated
amplifiers, and if you have no idea you are perhaps
better off buying pre- and power amp. of the same
make; adapted to each other. Because at the moment
you run separate solutions, there is much to look
after. The components have to fit together both with
regards to sensitivity and impedance. Here it is only
partially successful. The pre-amplifier T-99 has relatively
high amplification, 24dB, and at the same time the
power amplifier's input is relatively sensitive. This
yields masses of sound by just touching the volume
control. This leaves you with little room for adjustment.
But this can be compensated by inserting a voltage
separator between the pre- and power amplifier, but
this required some technical knowledge, or help by
the supplier. The combination high gain on the pre-amplifier
and high sensitivity on the power amplifier also result
in a slight hiss in the loudspeakers. Furthermore,
the pre-amplifier's output impedance should be as
low as possible, at least less than 1000 Ohm, and
the power amplifier input impendance should be as
high as possible, preferably 100 kOhm, as is the case
here. The pre-amplifier's output impedance is not
given, but it is possibly around 600 Ohm.
It is a long time ago since I have used tube equipment.
I don't really know why I only use solid state equipment
today. As I find something better, I change equipment,
regardless of what it is made of. But there is some
work with tubes; they get worn, with loss of dynamics
and gain, and they sometimes break when least expected.
Always keep spare tubes! Small ones are cheap, but
if you want to chose the best, tested for noise and
microphone, it can become very expensive. My experience
is that tubes in the line stage is relatively unproblematic,
whilst tubes in the RIAA stage is more problematic
due to higher amplification (often more than 40 dB).
Then hiss and microphone noise often occur, and the
tubes are worn down faster, because they are run hard.
Also the T-99 confirmed all tube-haters' prejudices:
The made noise in one channel, so change of tube was
required. But they still played well. The power amplifier
behaved well - no noise, and no noise from the transformer.
Completely silent; albeit in combination with another
pre-amplifier with less gain - and no tubes.
Many people say that tube amplifiers have poor bass,
not by the tubes themselves, but due to the output
transformer of the power amplifier. The combination
of tube pre-amplifier (not using output transformer)
and solid state power amplifier is really ideal. Here
you get the vivid and detailed sound from tubes, combined
with the transistor amplifier's rock solid bass. And
from the first moment I heard there was something
special. I started to listen to this system without
comparing with anything else, just playing and listening
and playing. I concentrated myself listening to Robbie
Robertson's "Music for the Native American",
where I found soundtrack 7 particularly illustrating.
Behind each loudspeaker dancing indians are approaching,first
faintly, and then more and more loud. It is as if
they come sneaking upon you. I was almost frightened
the first time, since it was so realistic. Little
by little song and musical instruments are added,
and this piece is purer of sound that the other melodies.
I also noticed that the Consonance system followed
all variations to the music, down to the smallest
detail. Changes in tempi are easy to follow, as well
as placing. Here is good spread both in width and
depth. Instrument definition is very good, and you
detect easily and effortlessly which instruments play,
and where. The sound/tone is good; the system is playing
neither light nor dark, but rather dense. The system
plays very purely, and the bass is almost incredible.
It is extremely tight and precise, to the extent that
I jumped in my chair a couple of times. The bass is
neither as voluminous nor as strong as on larger amplifiers,
but really, this suffices! We are, after all, talking
about an 80W amplifier for less than NOK 5000.
Nevertheless I felt after a while that there was
something leaving a light grey haze over the remining
details, one that coloured the sound slightly lighter
than it should be. I changed to another pre-amplifier
(OK, Electrocompaniet EC 45 if you really have to
know), which I know well to be quite neutral and free
of distortion. I also tried directly from the CD player.
Now it plays beautifully, on par with the best I hear
around. This small 80W amplifier can of course not
measure up to the larger and more costly amplifiers
as far as bass and volume are concerned (strength
of bass and the ability to play unstrenously loud),
but I have experienced that even small and low priced
amplifiers can play seductively beautiful. Consonance
a100plus is such an amplifier. It has the ability
to play so that you recognize it from a concert. A
big, warm, dynamic and vivid sound. True to nature.
Only amplifiers with very low distortion manage this.
This must be a well designed amplifier, and as stated
in Audio Critic, the magazine that made Electrocompaniet's
25W amplifier famous over night all over the world:
"Good thinking is not necessarily more expensive
than bad thinking". Or something like that; I
am quoting from my memory. Maybe it was The Absolute
Sound about NAD 3020. The point is the same.
But please do not write off the pre-amplifier T-99
too hastily. It may possibly recover after change
of tubes and further adjustments. Time will show.
If the editors allow space you will probably hear
more about Consonance from me.
The amplifier system from Consonance was a challenge
and a shear enjoyment. Even if it evoked good memories
to try a tube amplifier, it did not take complete
off to start with. We think it needs new tubes and
further adjustment. The power amplifier, however,
WoW! It played extremely well, and may well end up
a classic - if there is space for more classics with
so much equipment on the market, and with the speed
of change. The input is so sensitive that it can be
run directly from any CD player with volume control,
if you want a very simple upset. Or from a good pre-amplifier
(or a passive pre-amplifier, as in the integrated
version). The sound is as you know it from the concert
hall; vivid, intimate, detailed, uninterrupted and
dynamic. Sound may not be delivered much better than
this, regardless of price. Larger and more expensive
amplifiers will of course play louder and with more
depth and authority in the bass, but this small amplifier
has the rare gift of making you forget all the equipment
and just listen to the music. Beautiful chinese food!
Stig Arne Skilbrei