There is something magical about tubes. The glow and sound of the glass in your system can be something quite … remarkable.
There’s a price. Well, there’s always a price, but in this case it might not be terrifically obvious — and that’s maintenance. Tube gear is, if you’ll pardon my painting with a broad brush, fussy. You need things to be just-so, and your tubes must be just-so, and if so, then you may be rewarded.
Putting aside the question of “good distortion” versus “bad distortion”, I think the question really comes down to what you’re willing to put up with. Yes, you can get great sound with tubes. But contrary to the tube-o-philes, you can also get great sound with solid-state.
To wit, on a whim I borrowed a Luxman integrated from my friendly neighborhood dealer, Jeff Fox over at Command Performance A/V. His Luxman L-590aII was just getting a wee bit lonely over there, so I thought I’d give it stretch, see? His main rig is driven by the upscale/upmarket M-800a and C-800f pair (retailing for $19k each), so there’s not much call for “mere” $9,500 integrated. Which is a shame, because this thing is dynamite.
At 30wpc of pure Class A, the L-590aII sports all manner of dork knobs and enjoys all the implied flexibility that attach to those knobs. There’s tone controls (remember those?) for those that need to tame unruly systems, as well as a bypass, a loudness filter and a rumble filter. Oh, which reminds me — there’s also a full phono section, with selections for MC and MM — and two tape loops and two sets of speaker outputs.
It’s a beefy box, too. Every bit of 65lbs, the fit and finish on the casework is audiophile as you could ever want. Thick aluminum faceplate? Check. Heavy-duty grillwork? Check. Glowing meters showing you current output? Double-check! Hot as a griddle in a greasy spoon diner? Check, check and more check.
Did I mention it runs hot?
I have my Legato-fed Alpha DAC pumping the tunes into the Luxman right now, playing back over my Merlin VSM-MXR speakers and the sound is … enchanting. Luxurious. Full. Delicate. Beautiful.
Earlier, with the Ortofon Cadenza Black cartridge on my Feickert Blackbird, feeding into the MC input on the Luxman, the sound was … pretty much the same. Gorgeous. Obviously, this is no throwaway phono stage.
Which brings me to some comparisons. With the Joule-Electra Marquis amplifiers ($15k retail), the sound was very different. Not surprising, since the Marquis amps are not only tubes, but OTL tubes. The sound coming out of my Totem Shaman speakers was full, fullsome, and extended. On the Merlins, the Marquis were able to do near-miraculous things to the treble — it went on, forever and ever with decays like I’ve never heard. “Stupendous” is a good word for what I heard with the two, though “stupefying” might also qualify.
Where the OTLs fell down is the midbass and bass. Yes, there is extension — and with the Totems, the bass had actually never sounded better than with the OTL Marquis. But with the Merlins, by far the more resolving of the two speakers, the mid bass was simply not as fleshed out. Vocals had a purity that was unbelievable, but the speakers lacked presence with the OTLs. Quite frankly, the OTL+Merlin combo simply didn’t fill the room with inviting sound on anything that wasn’t bass-light. Dynamics, treble clarity and extension, and liquidity — yes. But bass? Not so much.
Part of this has to do with my room. It’s odd — 14′ across the front wall and 40′ back to the rear, with an 7′ ceiling and a large 16′ x 20′ alcove off to one side — there’s a lot of air to pressurize. And the Merlins, while remarkable speakers, are really just a two-way, with mids and bass handled by a 6″ driver. How much can it really do?
Well, it turns out that with a transformer-couple amplifier, they can do quite a lot.
With the Luxman, the Merlins finally got a grip on my room. What I’m calling “the presence region” (mid-bass and bass) finally became a thing worthy of note. In fact, hooking up the Luxman, I wasn’t expecting any sort of revelatory performance shift as I had become completely comfortable with the Joule-Electra OTL sound. But boy-oh-boy did I hear a change right away. The overall system’s sound went from achingly beautiful, pure and clean to inviting, warm, intimate, and sexy. Bass? Check. Mid-range? Check! Treble extension? Check?
This is probably the part that’s going to be hardest to capture. The Luxman does have a very nice treble. Sure, it’s Class A, so you expect a bit less than a treble-laser (Class A is commonly known to blunt both deep bass and roll off high treble), but that isn’t it. It’s the comparison between an OTL and a transformer-coupled amp. And quite frankly, that’s unfair to both. There isn’t an amp made (that isn’t an OTL) that can even touch the Joule-Electra in the treble. Can’t be done. It is, to leverage a cliche, in a class by itself. And that’s bad, because once you go there, it’s impossible to judge any other amp by anything less than this — and by comparison, they all fall short.
The question becomes, well, how far short?
Well, with this Luxman, it’s definitely short. But — not achingly so. Comparing it to my Plinius SA-Reference, I’d give the Luxman the edge. The little-Lux has oodles of finesse and clarity up top. But it’s just not an OTL.
In Arne Domnerus’s audiophile classic, Jazz At The Pawnshop, the vibraphone gets a lot of airtime. Regardless of how you feel about the vibraphone as a “valid” jazz instrument, on the first few songs on this disc, the vibraphone has a really clean tone to it. And given how well recorded this session is, that clarity really stands out — at least, it does on the OTL. With the Joule-Electra amps, the vibraphone has an almost spooky quality, like strikes on a glass bell. The purity is startling, and each note jumps out of nowhere, full, glistening, and then falling away. On the Luxman, the vibraphone falls back into the mix a bit more. The spooky quality is gone. Instead, the portrayal is more seamless, integrated, and all the instruments sound more or less on a par. Don’t get me wrong, they all still sound great — but with the OTLs, this specific instrument was electrifying, and on the solid-state, it merely sounds great.
On a related note, I find the OTLs to be more “resolving”, something I never attributed merely to treble response before. But there it is. The OTLs were more resolving than the Luxman. Of course, it’s an open question as to whether this is a good thing or not. One of the things I became painfully aware of with the OTL+Merlin thing is how bad most of my music sounded. With the Luxman, bad recordings are no longer painful. I can hear the difference, clear as day, but less than optimal recordings, say Lester Young recordings from the 1940s, still don’t sound good, but they are no longer unlistenable.
So, let’s talk about the flipside. At 30wpc, you’d expect that the integrated wouldn’t have much slam. And … you’d be wrong. As I mentioned above, the bass response on the VSM-MXRs now is exemplary, and in fact, it’s quite a bit more than the VSM-MMEs that they replaced. This is interesting, because after taking delivery of my brand new piano black Merlin beauties and wiring them into the rig with the Joule-Electras, I was a bit non-plussed. Bobby P, the main man over at Merlin, was very surprised by my lack of overwhelming enthusiasm with his new speakers. Yes, they were good said I, but no, they were not revolutionary over the models they replaced. The hell they aren’t, says he, your ears must be full of shit! That’s Bobby P for you, ever the shy one. Anyway, after about an hour with the Luxman in the rig, I called him up and told him what I’d heard. Uh, huh, said he, I told you so! And to be fair, he did.
Over the summer, I bought a pair of Rythmik F-12G subwoofers to “fill out” the Merlins in this big room. The Rythmiks are crazy-good as subs, they’re as fast as you could want, and musically, they’re a great match for the Merlins (they also get Bobby P’s hearty recommendation as the best you can do, at least until the Merlins with the active subwoofers come out next year, that is). I bought them on a bet (to myself) that they’d be a great way to get that last octave out of the system (the BAM unit that ships with the Merlins has a filter that rolls off output at 6dB/octave below 29Hz). And with the Luxman, yes, they do fill out the lowest registers … but there’s less point. The Merlins are simply doing more “down there” when hooked up to the Luxman than they were when hooked up to the OTLs.
As for the mids, well, this is really where Luxman shines. The 590aII is an all-Class A unit, converting all those watts into heat and mid-range magic. Yes, the Luxman really does own this space, and I’m finding no reason to miss the OTLs when listening to vocals.
So, what about LPs? Well, the long and short of it is — it’s good, but it’d be better if my cartridge had a higher output. What little documentation there is suggests that the phono section should be good for carts as low as .3mV — which is convenient, as that’s what my Ortofon Cadenza Black is rated at. Unfortunately, the gain, when set to MC, isn’t quite enough to get the phono section to level with the other inputs when driving .3mV. I’m thinking that .5mV might be a better bet. But as to the actual gain? No idea. Can’t find it anywhere! Oh well. So, aside from the level difference (about the difference between 9 o’clock on the dial and 11 o’clock), how does it sound? Good! Actually, quite good. But if my memory serves me, I think the Steelhead outclasses it by a goodly margin (not surprisingly). But that said, I think that if you’re looking at this unit and considering a move to vinyl, you could be very happy — very happy.
All in all, this is a great amplifier — and should be so in just about anyone’s book. It pretty much does it all — and opened my eyes up at the same time. Quite frankly, I love this amp. And how many interconnects and power cords did I “save”? The wiring behind my rack is almost neat!
A little bird told me that some of the integrateds in the Luxman lineup are about to undergo a revision. One source claims that the newest amp in that lineup, the L-507u, introduced a new topology change that produced shorter, cleaner traces or something, with the upshot being that the L-507u is probably the “best” sounding amp among the Class A/B integrateds right now — at least for another couple of months as those topology changes are supposed to be ported over to the rest (L-505u and L-509u) as well as all the Class A integrateds (L-550aII and L-590aII). Of course, prices will go up at the same time.
To clarify and dispel any cloud of confusion, I called Philip O’Hanlon, the US Luxman distributor. According to Philip, there is a change coming — to the Class A integrateds. Apparently, there problem is sourcing parts — specifically, the volume pot, which simply isn’t available anymore. So, a change. At the same time, Luxman will remove the hinged front panel to bring it more in line with the L-505u aesthetic (Philip is mortified) and also make the units a bit wider, to bring a bit of commonality to all Luxman devices, settling on the width of their players (ie, just a tad wider than it is now). As for sonic improvements in the new revs, well, Philip isn’t holding his breath — he’s very enthusiastic about his L-590aII and isn’t looking for anything to mess with its audio goodness.
So, if you’re interested in the latest and greatest, sit tight. If you’re willing to forgo that, well, I suspect some dealers will be having a fire sale in the coming months. Just something to keep in mind.