Pouring a Glass
Quickly, bring me a beaker of wine, so that I may wet my mind and say something clever. –Aristophanes
As impossible as it seems, there was once a time I was unaccustomed to wine. – Tyrion Lannister
Digression #1: Before I got into writing about audio, I was all about food. Like many folks, I got sucked into Top Chef, Good Eats, Iron Chef and other foodie TV shows. As a result of all this late-night drooling, I spent two years attending L’Academie de Cuisine, got some papers, and learned quite quickly that there was absolutely no way I could eat like that on a daily basis and not stroke out in a matter of months. But what started that extended detour through food porn was a discovery that wine could be made better by pairing it with certain foods. I hadn’t really thought of that, at least, not before finding Andrea Immer. Let’s just say she opened some doors. The story goes back farther, of course, to college and those brain-damaged 5-buck-chuck parties where everyone would bring a bottle and we’d stay till they were all empty. Whew. Interesting fact: the buzz you get from alcohol varies by type. Did you know that? I didn’t – until I started drinking wine. Wine, for me, is a mellow, rich, happy buzz. Which is probably more than you need to know about me. Anyway ….
When I first ran across Red Wine Audio, I was immediately and inappropriately struck by the name. I mean, it’s wine, what’s not to like? I gobbled up a few very enthusiastic reviews and awards and ended up bringing in a Reference 30.2 integrated to try out with my Merlin VSM-MMe loudspeakers. That was 6 years ago, and I’ve been a fan ever since.
For the noobs: Vinnie Rossi, the chef de cuisine at Red Wine Audio, has been steadily exploring the limits of battery-powered designs for the better part of the last decade, moving from Class-T to Class A/B amplification with the latest iteration of his thinking about power delivery. Now using high-powered/low-resistance LiFePO4 batteries, Vinnie is able to get extremely fast current delivery even into troublesome loudspeakers and do it with none of the noise and grunge that plague wall-powered systems.
Let me help you out: this is the real deal, folks.
A Matter of Synergy
Digression #2: The job of an amp is to let your loudspeakers do what they were made to do as well as they possibly can. It’s really not any more complicated than that. They’re not there to “get out of the way of the music” or “weave a soundstage” or to “transport you to magical realms of mystery and magic”, though that would be freakin’ awesome. No, the amp and the speaker make a system, a circuit if you will, and there’s really only so much you’re gonna get out of that pairing.
When things go right, you kinda know it right away as it’s pretty much a cliché free-for-all. When things go not right, however, it’s not always obvious. There may be a softening of the bass frequencies. Or a rolling off (or worse, a hardening) of the high frequencies. Or maybe there’ll be a suck-out (usually at a crossover frequency) that will make the whole presentation sound flat or boring or strained or [insert audio crime here].
It’s a matter of synergy.
Some speakers are just pigs to drive well. Some amps are just a bit panty-waisted and really only sound their very best with particular speakers, usually, particularly easy-to-drive speakers. There’s a bit of a two-edged design thing going on here. On the one hand, there are speaker designers shooting for some kind of notion about “the ideal sound”, something they’re likely carrying around from some magical experience in their childhood. Maybe they’re targeting some particular response-curve measurement. Something. But whatever baggage it is, it leads them to make some spectacularly unhelpful design decisions with their speakers. They build them and tune them and tweak them, all the while using some absurd amplifier with equally absurd output parameters. Little do they realize (maybe) that failing to recreate “laboratory settings” will lead to less than satisfactory experiences. Personally? I call this piss-poor speaker design. On the other hand, obviously, is the amp designer that only ever uses a particularly easy-to-drive loudspeaker that demands next to nothing. Throw that into the shark-tank of reality, and it gets torn apart, the shredded remains drifting on the current as a warning. So, I guess it’s possible that everyone can be blamed for a particular failure in synergy. But that doesn’t mean you have to settle for it. Your speakers and your amp have to work together, and all this is a long way to go to say that a “good” amp really ought to be good with a lot of different loudspeakers.
One of the first clues that you’re on to something nifty has to do with how it deals with problems. Most amps are able to provide some amount of current into a stable load. Of course, that isn’t what a loudspeaker is. They’re variable loads, and with a variable signal (i.e., music) being fed into them, their performance is likewise variable. A good amp will feed the loudspeaker. A great amp will be like a super-duper sports bra — everything will be exactly where it’s supposed to be, whenever and whatever is being asked.
So, that’s one of the things I look for in an amp: power delivery, especially in the low and the high frequencies, and anywhere near the crossover frequencies. If an amp can sail through those areas, the battle is pretty much won. How can an amp overachieve here? Well, honestly, it almost always a matter of a big ass power supply (BAPS, for short). This is the whole Class A and Class A/B (“I weigh a ton”) amplifiers come from — creating a large enough capacity to deliver whatever the speaker requires to make the music. Too little or too late, and you get weak/anemic tone, poor timbre or blunted transients, cats and dogs living together, you get the idea. All that is bad in the audio world flows from this one sin. Repent! Repent!
Soulution and Merrill Audio, and a host of others, have chosen their technologies carefully in order to be able to deliver their trademark whip-crack power slam, and the switch-mode power/Class D topologies they use are well-known for being able to deliver, making the system sound like it’s cornering on rails. This choice leads to a more modest-sized amp (hooray!), too. The problem is that such approaches also tend toward a presentation that favors speed over tone. Not always! But often enough that there’s a reason for the cliche.
Well, the Liliana was something that was relatively new to me. A contradiction. A completely nonsensical entry that seemed to subvert all my half-assed understanding of what an amp is or does. Here was a Class A/B amp that weighs less than 20lbs that delivers a huge wallop to any speaker asking for it.
Red Wine Audio’s current monoblock amplifiers, the Liliana (cheefully named after Vinnie’s youngest daughter), are the most powerful they’ve delivered to date, providing 115 wpc into 8 ohms and doubling down into 4. These feature a tube stage and follow the new RWA aesthetic with a stylish wooden faceplate, which adds a retro and classy look to these very maneuverable amps. Big iron? Bah humbug! Seriously — my back was just loving this amp! Pardon me while I go bruise my foot, attempting to kick a 125lb stereo monstrosity to the curb. Ha HA! Ouch.
Recently, I wrote a bit about these amps in comparison to a few others, and my conclusion there was that this offering from RWA made a really strong case for both the technology and the value. It not only works, I found that the sound of my system with the $6,000/pair Liliana in play was just special. Overall, the presentation tilted to the warm side of the spectrum, but not overly so, and perhaps less so than my recollection of past offerings from Vinnie. My system put on a show that was clear and grainless, very open, and showcased a conspicuously broad and deep soundstage.
Black backgrounds cradled staggering swings and kick-you-in-the-chest bass; I was able to happily and cheerfully drive my Magnepan 3.7 loudspeakers well past tolerance and do so without strain or compression. I mean, how else would I play the entire 6-disc Van Halen Studio Albums 1978-1984 in 24bit/192kHz from HD Tracks? Right: LOUD. The Magnepans are 4 ohm loudspeakers, quite extended, and even though that last octave is left to a larger model, what is there is really surprisingly big and coherent — that’s the virtue of a panel loudspeaker. The Prevailing Wisdom is that you “need” tons of power to make these loudspeakers sign. This is hogwash, but whatever. Most Maggie owners know that you can happily drive them with just about anything — what’s at risk is how loud you can play them. So, they lay in on the watts, which gives them tons of overhead and dynamic range, ready for that fateful day that they turn it up to eleven. Legendary amp designer Nelson Pass takes a slightly different take on the problem of power — he focuses on the quality of that first, all-important, watt. If you screw that up, you’re done! Extrapolating from that, I tend to hold to the notion that the right amp for a loudspeaker is the amp that makes that speaker sound best the way I actually listen to it, not how I might one day be tempted to do so. With that said, 230 watts is plenty of power to make the inefficient Maggies sit up and bark like well-trained sled dogs. There was no issue with power here. Think you need more? For the love of all that is holy — why? No! Just — no.
On the other end of the sensitivity spectrum, I was impressed by the Liliana’s sense of grace when handling the very transparent DeVore Fidelity Orangutan O/96 loudspeakers. I typically run these with a SET amp from BorderPatrol because 8 watts drives them hella loud. The issue, with these, is the temptation to use an amp with no balls. SET amps are not generally known for sporting big brass ones, if you know what I mean. I generally don’t run solid-state amps into these loudspeakers as most tend to kill the soundstage, especially those that seemed tuned for more “modern” (i.e. 4 ohm) loads. At 10 ohms, I want to come a little closer to what the designer wanted and what the design seems optimized for. What struck me, with the RWA amps on these “tube speakers” was what they didn’t do. Namely, they didn’t kill the sound stage. Bass performance took a step down in seeming reach (or would that be “up”, as in “better performing”?), with good mid range transparency, excellent detail and some truly lovely airiness to the very top end. Interesting ….
So, here they are: loudspeakers that seem completely uncaring about who fills their dance card — but whoever it was that stepped up was in for a ride. Ahem.
Back to HD Tracks — did you know that Dreamboat Annie was available in high-res? I didn’t, I mean, now I do … anyway … “Crazy On You” has one of the best openers I’ve ever heard, with picked-guitar giving way to strummed, and wham, that electric slams in … does music get better than this? The guitar is alive and airy under Nancy Wilson’s finger tips and when Ann comes in silky-smooth and her voice whipsaws into a snarl, I am undone. Bass tracking through tunes like Jem’s “Come On Closer” off of Finally Woken is crisp and punishing. The decays from Greg Brown’s slowly picked guitar on “Who Killed Cock Robin?” are lingering and forlorn and his close-mic’d vocals are immediate, intimate and all-knowing. Freaky.
Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, a high-res selection off the Reference Recordings sampler, is a dynamic and challenging piece, yet the Lilianas showed no compression or hesitation. This track has some serious dynamics, and with the backgrounds as quiet as they are with the RWA amps, music sails out, gets LOUD and falls back, and then hits the rinse-repeat cycle until it’s over. Heavy-breathing stuff, here.
Sometimes, I just love this hobby.
The high 96dB sensitivity of the DeVores did pull up a shortcoming – the hum from the chargers/mains, completely unnoticeable with the Maggies out front, had become distracting and detail-killing. Happily, there were two solutions. The first was the ground-lift button on each of the charging units – with three of these in play (one for each Red Wine component), it was a quick set of clicks to figure out which pattern produced the quietest at-speaker solution.
The second solution was even better – flipping the amps entirely over into battery-mode yielded the best background silences I’ve heard in-house! Not that you can actually hear a silence, Simon & Garfunkel notwithstanding … but whatever. This is probably the coolest thing about the Red Wine Audio product line-up and a differentiator that’s almost impossible to overstate. I love this. This setting – all-battery, all the time – immediately became my default, which also meant that power cords were entirely irrelevant — as was any kind of power conditioning investment.
Cheaper, and better? Um, hellooooo? Sign me up!
A Relevant Aside
A word about the play time. This may be an issue for you, or not, but all-battery mode did not carry me through my all-day in-office blast-a-thon. The manual says you’re likely to enjoy up to 6 hours on a full charge, and I find that this is a fairly accurate assessment, assuming you’re using the stock tubes at the default 12v setting:
The 6922 tube family (6.3V heaters) draws approx. 2x tube filament current than using the 12AX7 family (12V heaters). So the 12AX7 family should get you over 6 hours on a full charge, while the 6922 family will probably reach 6 hours.
For most folks, anything over 4 hours will be plenty, but for those that might find this a show stopper, I should mention that Vinnie may well have a super-duper battery solution for such situations. Best to ask him about it. But honestly, that is why there’s the option to run it directly from the wall. On the near horizon is a new linear power supply charger instead of the stock switching chargers.
Only one is needed for BOTH monoblocks, and the output is linear regulated and very clean. It’s the next best thing to running in pure battery mode. Additional pricing for this should be under $500, include the power cable and charger cables of course.
About those footers — they’re big. And spiky. Which means you’re going to need to use the rubber-bottomed spike-cups that come with them or your rack is gonna get chewed all to hell. Alternatively, you can sit the amps directly on the rack with the sharp tips unscrewed, but then, they’re not nearly as deadly and where’s the fun in that?
Obviously, I spent some time swapping tubes — and I’m glad I did. With different tubes, everything changed. Well, no, not everything, but any notes I might have made about detail or smoothness or airiness apparently got rewritten with each tube swap. Good times — and yes, swapping out the tubes in the amps through a variety of new and vintage selections yielded surprising results. You want air? There’s a tube for that. Want more tone? There’s a tube for that. Want more bass? Sure, no problem – there’s a tube for that, too. The trick is finding the “everything” with a single tube — a problem common to all tube rollers (and why this whole enterprise is so much fun). Coolest bit? Tuning to taste.
If you’re curious about where to start, I’d point you to my tube guy, Jim McShane of McShane Designs. He recommends the Tung Sol gold-pinned 12AX7 reissue:
I would tend towards a clear, clean tube. Tube/MOSFET hybrids tend to be warm, and I’m not sure I would want to exaggerate that. So I would tend to favor a tube like the Tung-Sol 12AX7 reissue, which has excellent energy both up top and in the bass.
My favorite trial happened to be a lucky find, a pair of NOS ECC83 tubes from Telefunken, but that hardly was the only tube I had a good time with. The 12AX7 has a lot of entertaining and inexpensive variations (in both new and old stock) that are available for exploration. Go nuts! Or just give your tube guy a call.
So, tube variation aside, there are several things to call out with this amp. First is a sense of heft. This is not a super-speedy adrenaline-junkie amp, like what I’ve heard with the new Job amplifier or the Veritas from Merrill. This is a steak-and-potatoes sort of sound, and no, I mean with red wine reduction, not just “gravy” — this is high-class sound, with a serving of awesome on the side. Yes, sure, you can use this to rock it out, but if that’s all you’re taking from that, then you’re missing the point — this amp can “do” anything you want it to. Jazz, classical — and rock — and also all that crazy electronica stuff (I’ll leave that for another conversation). And look Ma, no BAPS!
Want tone? Here, it’s just as dense and 3D as you ordered, courtesy of your personal preference in vacuum tube delectation. Air and separation are contingent on, and tunable to taste because of, the the extravagant silences and your tubes. But pretty much regardless of tubes I had on hand to explore, the bass delivery was strong, tuneful, and deep, with a sound stage that was easily on par with my personal references. I had absolutely no trouble making low-impedance loudspeakers dance and even with a high-sensitivity “magnifying glass” loudspeaker, the tunes were as delicate or as slammin’ as the performer required.
You cannot forget (or over-estimate) the impact of those silent backgrounds. Chances are, you’ve only seen this described in hyperbolic screeds from forum fan-boys or the generally incautious. To be fair, my describing this won’t make any sense at all until you actually experience it, but if I had to guess, this is the one “killer-app” feature for the entire RWA lineup.
At $6,000/pair, this is a wonderful amp. Highly recommended!