by Steve Folberg
The Vinnie Rossi LIO
I couldn’t be more pleased about once again reviewing an integrated amplifier for Part-Time Audiophile, especially since I’m currently searching for an integrated amp for my own system. If you want to know why I’m set on an integrated rather than separates, my PTA review of the Luxman L-550AX II, a physically gorgeous amplifier that made some impressively beautiful music in my system. I was, in fact, quite reluctant to pack that baby up and ship it back to Luxman USA, if for no other reason (and there were others) than how much I admired its swanky looks and luscious sounding phono stage. This time around, we’ll be exploring the Vinnie Rossi LIO. The LIO is a customizable, modular, integrated amp sporting some distinctive features and innovative technology. Its name, LIO, incorporates the first initials of Vinnie’s daughters and wife. He told me that “It also sounds like “Leo,” and I am (astrologically) a Leo – but that had nothing to do with it ;-)”
Anyway, let’s start by talking about that innovative tech.
For one thing, the Vinnie Rossi LIO is an all-out assault on the perennial problem of “dirty power.” The electric current that flows from your typical domestic AC outlet carries voltage fluctuations from the power grid and contaminating currents and signals from appliances and other electronics within your home. Additionally, the current is impacted by power demand from other homes and businesses on your part of the grid. That helps to explain why many audiophiles report that their system sounds best at night (when usage by other electric utility customers is generally lower).
To combat the issue of “dirty,” flakey current, audiophiles have been known to invest in all manner of power purifying devices, including power re-generators and even (for the particularly well-heeled among us) a dedicated electric line reserved exclusively for the stereo system, so that microwave ovens, computers, dimmable lights and other noise generating culprits are isolated from the rig.
The Vinnie Rossi LIO eliminates the need for all this futzing around with outboard, power-purifying gizmos and electrical contractors. Instead, the music making innards of the LIO are, by design, completely isolated from your wall socket. The designer has accomplished this by situating two banks of very large, current-storing ultracapacitors within the LIO’s diminutive metal case. These two rows of capacitors deliver pure, DC current to the amplifier (and to whatever optional modules have been installed). When one capacitor bank is discharging its stored DC current as it powers your LIO, the other is being recharged from the external power supply plugged into your AC outlet.
Somehow or other, Vinnie Rossi has managed to make this capacitor bank switching routine totally silent and transparent to the listener. Not once did I hear a glitch or a hiccup that I could attribute to that switchover from one ultracapacitor bank to the other. That said, after removing the top of the chassis to get a look at those two rows of gigantic capacitors, I started wondering about the LIO’s long-term reliability. After all, capacitors are known to leak after a while. Vinnie reassured me that “the ultracapacitors are not electrolytic and will not dry out. They are rated for about a million cycles, so they are not something that will need to be replaced.”
Power cord upgraders take note: the PDF manual for the LIO goes out of its way to mention that pricey, boutique power cords are completely unnecessary. (Do I hear a “Hallelujah”?) The sole function of the LIO power cord is to carry AC current into the external power adapter, which then sends DC current on its merry way to be stored in the two capacitor banks. So, no matter how cruddy or compromised the AC power in your locale might be, the LIO will never “see” it, powered as it is by the clean, steady DC of the discharging capacitor bank. As Vinnie Rossi explains,
The ultracapacitor bank… keeps the AC line noise out of the LIO. In fact, the power input jack to LIO is 24Vdc, so there is actually no AC/DC conversion taking place inside of LIO. That happens in the external power adapter external to LIO, which is used to charge the ultracapacitor bank that is not currently in use. The one that is in use is internally disconnected from the power adapter via silent MOSFET switches. The banks swap approximately every 5 to 10 minutes, depending primarily on the load of the speakers and how loud / demanding the music being played is.
How all this translates into what you’ll hear coming out your speakers is something we’ll deal with later, but if I’m correct, this capacitor-powered system contributes in large measure to the very special sonic character of the LIO.
As You Like It
The other major technical innovation likely to be of interest to the end-user is the LIO’s modular (and thus easily customizable and upgradable) design. When you order your LIO from Vinnie Rossi, you specify which LIO modules you want in that chassis. Options include a phono preamp, a choice of two levels of tube-buffered line stages (a standard model with a resistor volume control and an upgraded model with an autoformer volume control), an input selection module for multiple analog sources that’s available in balanced and unbalanced configurations, and a headphone amp fitted with either a single-ended RCA type connector, or with a four-pin, balanced connector. As for DAC’s, you can choose either the DAC 1.0 or 2.0. The latter features more sophisticated and expensive AKM DAC chips that decode higher resolution DSD and PCM files and a femto buffer/re-clocking circuit to eliminate jitter. Finally, those with only-the-finest-will-do budgets can opt for Vinnie’s separate line stage component, the DHT PRE, featuring a pair of directly heated triode tubes. I’ve never experienced it, but knowing the magic that DHT tubes can deliver in the right context, I’d have high expectations for the DHT PRE. Plus, as those plucky British audio reviewers are wont to enthuse, the DHT PRE is “one lovely piece of kit!”
Customization options don’t end there. You also have your choice of colors for different parts of the LIO’s brushed aluminum casework. The front and top panels, as well as the source select and volume knobs, can be ordered in either black or matte silver. (The Vinnie Rossi web site shows a white, Corian option which I really like but which has, alas, been discontinued.)
On my review sample, I opted for black panels all around, paired with silver knobs up front. I think it looks understated and classy, but more eye-catching combinations are pictured on the Vinnie Rossi web site. I also requested that my review LIO be fitted with the DAC 1.0 module so that I could evaluate the LIO with both shiny silver discs (via the digital-out connector of my CD player) and high-res music files stored on my MacBook Pro laptop, via its USB port. And, since I still spin a good amount of vinyl, I asked for the LIO phono stage to be included, as well. Note that the end user can install some of these upgrades after purchase, although some additions, like upgrading from the 1.0 to 2.0 version of the DAC, require a firmware update and a trip back to the factory (if you want the sampling frequency of your high-resolution files to display correctly).
In a very clever design touch, the LIO case includes two knurled thumb screws on its two top, rear corners. Loosen and remove these screws and the top of the case easily slides back and off to give you full access to the modules within.
If the LIO’s many options strike you as confusing or overwhelming, note that most folks will begin with the base LIO configuration. It includes the RVC (the less expensive Resistor Volume Control), the LIO Tube Stage (two 6922 triode tubes, one per channel, part of the Class A line stage “buffer circuit”), and the MOSFET amp module (the Class AB speaker output stage) the Input module (with 3 pairs of unbalanced, RCA analog inputs – add $100 for a balanced input pair). You also get the power adapter and a gorgeous, hefty, all-metal remote control. This base LIO configuration currently retails for $5375. The LIO carries a 10-year warranty, and Vinnie Rossi offers a 30-day return policy. Lead time on new orders as of this writing seems to run about two weeks, which is eminently reasonable – even speedy – in the world of the small businesses that populate a lot of the high-end audio suppliers out there.
I was struck by Vinnie’s choice to incorporate “old school” tubes in the line stage of the otherwise cutting-edge LIO. Here’s what he said: “The two 6922 tubes in the linestage (one per channel) section buffer the resistor stepped attenuator volume control module (LIO RVC module) and add a nice tone and greater sense of spaciousness, as well as improved dynamics compared to just using a passive volume attenuator. I also much prefer to use tubes in the linestage over solid-state components (e.g. opamps, bipolar transistors or FETs) because they tend to offer a more fleshed-out presentation that I find mates very well with the LIO MOSFET AMP output stage. It’s much closer sounding to a tube amplifier than a typical solid-state amp, but it has better grip on the drivers because of the lower output impedance (higher damping factor) and lack of output transformer. Tubes also allow for… tube rolling, and many of my customers enjoy rolling tubes to fine-tune the sound (using NOS, or new production). All of these tubes are drop-in compatible: 6922/E88CC, 6DJ8/ECC88, 7308/E188CC, 7DJ8/PCC88, 6N23, 6H23, 6N11, and 6GM8.”
My initial impressions upon taking the LIO out of its shipping carton for the first time included admiration and some surprise: admiration for the handsome case work (the Vinnie Rossi logo is engraved into the top panel, and there’s a subtle, arching contour at the bottom of the front panel) and surprise at how relatively petite and light (about 25 pounds) the LIO is. Heck, my 12-watt-per-channel “Technics by Panasonic” receiver from the late 1970’s was heavier and chunkier than the LIO! Indeed, having recently nearly seriously injured my back trying to heave a couple of monstrously heavy integrated “muscle amps” onto my stereo cabinet, I was grateful for its refreshingly light weight, this perception of lightness also led to a moment of dismay. “Oh, no, is this thing Class D?!” I wondered. (It’s not.) More on my Class D trauma later on…
When you plug the LIO in for the first time, even before pushing the power button, the red LED display lights up with the letters PCA, which stands for Pre-charging Capacitor bank A. For about the next seven minutes, the display alternates between “PCA” and an ever-increasing number as capacitor bank A charges. When fully charged, the display switches to “PCb” and the second capacitor bank begins to charge. After both banks are fully charged, the display goes black and the LIO is ready to power on. Note that your LIO only needs to do its ultracapacitor charging routine once, or when you plug the LIO in after having it unplugged for a while. Under normal conditions, you leave the LIO plugged in all the time, and it draws about 5 watts of power in standby mode to keep the capacitors charged and ready to go. In that typical situation, a press of the power button on the front of the LIO (or on the remote) brings your LIO out of standby, and after about thirty seconds, during which the line stage tubes warm up to optimal temperature, a relay clicks, and three dashes appear in the LED display. This means that the LIO is powered on with the volume muted, ready for volume adjustment and music making. Note that there’s a second “Amp” button underneath the Power button, which can be used to disengage the speaker outputs for headphone listening if that module is installed.
I mentioned earlier that the LIO impressed me as so lightweight in comparison to the monstrously heavy amps I’d been testing that I momentarily thought it might be based upon Class D switching technology since such amps tend to be both very light and very powerful. I mention this because when I started listening seriously to the LIO (after Vinnie Rossi’s recommended 100 hours of break in), the first adjectives that came to mind were “clean” and “clear.” There was an immaculate, unsullied, grunge-free quality to the music that some people might associate with Class D amps, but that was where the comparison fell apart. Here’s what I mean.
Last year I purchased a very well-reviewed, Class D integrated amp, but after about 300 hours (!) of break-in, I lost patience and sold it on the used market. Like the LIO, it, too, sounded “clean,” “clear,” and could play plenty loud. And yet… there was nothing fun about the way it presented music. It had a dry, lifeless quality that sucked most of the pleasure out of the listening experience. To this day I can’t quite articulate why it sounded so competent and clean, yet so utterly joyless!
But, ah, the LIO! It sounds clean and clear, yes, but its sound is lit up with everything that the aforementioned Class D amp lacked: rich color, realistic instrumental texture, fleshed-out tone, quickness and agility, and an unforced, relaxed quality that brought me closer to the recorded material, which was presented as a coherent artistic endeavor. Whereas that particular Class D amp played sound, the LIO delivered music, with all its power to move the heart.
As a matter of fact, the LIO turned out to be the best sounding amplifier I’ve ever heard in my system. Let’s see if I can communicate why I’ve reached this conclusion, without resorting to dissecting the sound into the usual audiophile categories.
First, the LIO is dead silent. It generates no audible self-noise at all in my rig. Given that the rated sensitivity of my reference Spatial Hologram M3 Turbo S open-baffle speakers is a revealing 95 dB, it’s extraordinary that the LIO, powering the Spatial’s, is so completely quiet. In fact, I can switch on the LIO and press my ear against grille cloth of the M3’s big, upper coaxial driver, and hear nothing at all: no hiss, no hum, no crackling or tube rush. Even at maximum volume, the LIO is completely silent. I have to attribute at least some of this utter silence to that ultracapacitor isolation from the vagaries of home electric current, as well as the effect of a one-box solution with the shortest possible signal paths between components.
What this silence means in practice is that you’re hearing nothing but what’s in the recording, and the effect of that purity is startling. The music rendered by the LIO is indeed “clean and clear,” but with an effortlessly joyful, free-flowing musicality that is totally enthralling and nothing at all like that aforementioned Class D integrated amp. Okay, here I’ll indulge in a reviewer’s cliché: I had a hard time writing this review because I hated taking notes while I listened; I just wanted to keep enjoying the sweet, seductive music cascading out of those M3’s. Here’s some of what I heard when I finally gathered up the discipline to take detailed listening notes.
I raved about the phono preamplifier section of the Luxman integrated amp that I reviewed for PTA last year, and I believe that the LIO phono section is at least its equal, perhaps a smidgen superior. In any event, this led me to spending time with a good deal of vinyl, including Sade’s albums Promise and Stronger Than Pride. The performances, both vocally and instrumentally, are just terrific, and the recording and engineering are very strong, especially for big, multi-tracked albums of that era. I’ve never heard the thumping, background drums on the title track of Stronger Than Pride sounding as startlingly impactful and realistic as they did with the LIO in my system. The tremendous quickness and transient speed of the LIO rendered the striking of the drum heads, as well as the pluck of the repeated electric guitar figure on this tune, sound delightfully real. I was literally bobbing my head and tapping my feet as I got lost in what I was hearing.
Later on, listening to “Is It a Crime“, the opening track of Promise, I was first struck by a quality of the LIO’s presentation that would make me smile again and again as I listened to all kinds of well-recorded music. The LIO not only casts an exceptionally wide soundstage (as when the keyboards enter at the beginning of “The Sweetest Taboo”), but its capacity to render soundstage depth and layering is fabulous. On “Is It a Crime“, the singer’s voice emerges from very, very far back in the sound field, awash in studio reverb effects, just as it should. This points to another experience that the LIO constantly provided: a deeply rewarding sense that I was hearing something very close to the full intention of the recording engineer, working with the artist to achieve a particular aesthetic impact.
You might think that an amplifier rated at “only” 25 W per channel into 8 ohms (45 W per channel into a 4-ohm load like my Spatial M3’s) would sound anemic or run out of gas, or even begin to generate audible clipping distortion on more demanding material or at higher volumes. I never found this to be the case. The LIO never seemed to strain, even on big, orchestral crescendos. Furthermore, the LIO displays convincing bass authority, not just “for an amp of this wattage.” Turning again to Sade, when those fat, three-note bass synth figures enter several bars into “War of the Hearts” on Promise, they are authoritative, musical (you can, for example, hear some vibrato in the synthesizer programming) and pitch-perfect. The LIO does extremely well, in fact, with all sorts of bass-heavy music, even electronica and hip-hop. There is nothing wimpy about the diminutive LIO.
With good reason, audio aficionados tend to want to hear how a particular system or piece of equipment deals with the sound of the human singing voice, because it can be so challenging to get right. In this department, as well, I found the LIO to perform beautifully. On Sade’s sad and poignant song, “Jezebel” from Promise, the emotion in the lead singer’s smoky voice comes right through in such a way that I couldn’t help but feel the sadness behind her performance.
Now for a brief digression on the topic of “audiophile classics.” You know what I mean: certain albums by Supertramp or Jennifer Warnes or Rebecca Pidgeon or Diana Krall, or by some obscure world music ensemble, or orchestral classics from the RCA “Golden Age of Stereo.” You buy the album because it’s high up on somebody’s list of “records to die for.” You open the package. You play the recording. And you discover, crestfallen, that you have purchased a record consisting of impeccably recorded music that you can’t stand. I imagine that many of our record collections are littered with albums like this, and I hesitate to offer the following example, because I know from reading various online forums that this particular recording is likely to be deeply cherished by many of you.
I’m talking about The Trinity Session by Cowboy Junkies. This album begins with a song about underpaid, abused miners, dying young of silicosis from breathing in too much rock dust (and that’s one of the more cheerful tunes in the collection). In other words, after buying it, I found this anthology of morose, downtempo tunes to be nearly unlistenable. In some abstract sense I understood why it’s an Audiophile Classic: recorded in an old cathedral in Canada, using minimalist miking techniques, the record does capture the acoustics of the recording venue quite magically. And Margo Timmons’ singing, while not my cup of tea, does have a certain “rootsy” appeal, if I’m in the right mood.
That sums up my lukewarm relationship to this beloved recording. Then I got the LIO hooked into my system and started to understand why this recording is held in such high esteem by those who love it. First, the LIO was able to sort out a coherent, sonic picture of the musicians – singer, guitar, bass and drums – located in different parts of the church, each producing his or her own reverberant field within the larger venue, the effect of which is pretty thrilling. Second, I could appreciate the nuance in Margo Timmons’ singing that so many listeners admire. Even though I don’t picture this CD ever being in “heavy rotation” in my collection (although I could be wrong about that) the purity and revealing nature of the LIO made sense of this recording and revealed more of the artistry behind it.
So, this Vinnie Rossi amp does a remarkable job of rendering acoustic space when it is present on a recording. Likewise, listening to the title track of Buena Vista Social Club, I was thrilled by the convincing illusion that I was in the room with those soulful Cuban musical masters. I’ve never heard anything quite like it in my listening room. Ditto for Joe Jackson’s Body and Soul LP, also recorded in a large, reverberant space. The LIO’s rendering of the crashing drums and tinkling glockenspiel on “The Verdict”, bouncing off the walls of the wood and stone venue in which that album was recorded, sounded fantastic. Note that well recorded live tracks, like Paul Simon’s Live In New York City, are presented exceptionally well by the LIO.
Additionally, the LIO has a way of seemingly extracting everything in a recording and presenting it as coherent, musical whole. It won’t transform a crummy recording into a stellar one, but it’ll deliver whatever’s present without smearing, coloring or obscuring what’s there. And yes, this sometimes has the effect of surprising you, as when an old favorite is more alive, beautiful and compelling than you remembered. Yeah, it’s an obnoxious, trite reviewer cliché to say that a piece of gear had you digging into your music collection to re-experience familiar music anew, but with the LIO, it’s the truth.
I also found the LIO to excel when rendering busy, “noisy,” or complex music. For example, Alison Kraus and Robert Plant’s rendition of “Gone, Gone, Gone” (from their Raising Sand CD) prominently features snare drums, electric guitars and Kraus and Plant’s vocals, all closely miked and with a very “in your face” perspective. Lesser gear will jumble the arrangement together into a cacophonous mess, but the LIO sorts it all out so that (once again) the mix makes musical sense. The same goes for many of the tracks on Paul Simon’s percussion-heavy Rhythm Of The Saints, or pretty much any dense, complex arrangement with a lot of different things going on simultaneously. No matter what I threw at the LIO, it never lost this ability to remain composed, coherent and musical.
Bringing Out the Best
I did play a lot of vinyl while preparing this review, but I also tested the LIO with CD’s and high-resolution music files stored on my MacBook Pro. Getting my laptop to output via the LIO’s DAC was simple. I selected “JLsounds Hi-Rez Audio 2.0 Output” from the pop-up menu in Audirvana’s Preferred Audio Device setting, and my files played flawlessly. Sonic results were similar to what I’ve already noted regarding vinyl, with the added observation that while the LIO’s DAC 1.0 module didn’t noticeably “soften” less-than-stellar hi-resolution downloads, it did seem to show them off at their best, playing my PCM files with the LIO’s addictively organic, airy and open presentation, and doing particularly well with DSD files. For example, “Beat It”, from my HDTracks DSD download of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, sounded deeply holographic and excitingly punchy, rendering Eddie Van Halen’s slashing rhythm guitar with appropriate bite. I also got a kick out of the DSD download of The Carpenter’s Greatest Hits(a guilty pleasure which I purchased, essentially, so I could listen over and over to the fuzz guitar solo on Goodbye To Love).
There’s a certain anger out there on Carpenter’s fan forums (I kid you not) directed at Richard Carpenter, for his tinkering with and “improving” classic Carpenter’s songs via remastering and even rerecording parts of certain tracks. You can hear this clearly on the harmonically gorgeous background vocals of Goodbye To Love, which have a rough, sandpaper-like edge in these reworked versions that certainly wasn’t there on the original LP’s. The LIO’s DAC 1.0 doesn’t completely eliminate this edgy grunge, but it does have a way of rendering it a little less objectionable, which is a good thing in my book.
As for CD’s, here’s an interesting story. While working on this review, I had occasion to substitute a borrowed Musical Fidelity M1 CDT for the aging Music Hall CD 25.2 CD player that I use as a transport. The M1 CDT is a dedicated Redbook CD transport. I was completely taken by surprise when the M1 CDT produced “wow, that’s amazing” improvements in the sound of nearly every familiar CD that I threw at it. I even started a thread on Audiogon asking how it could be that two different CD readers, sending their output to the same DAC, could sound so different. (That thread soon devolved into name calling, acrimony and moderator censored posts, but that’s another story…)
Similarly, wondering how much of the musical goodness of the LIO was attributable to the LIO’s MOSFET amp, and how much was due to the qualities of the DAC 1.0, I dug out some RCA interconnect cables and tried playing CD’s through my Musical Fidelity M1 DAC (a fine but now antiquated “bargain” DAC that only plays up to 192 kHz and lacks DSD support). I was again surprised by what I found: I’d never heard my older, Musical Fidelity DAC sounding so great! In fact, I was surprised that the difference between the older and newer DAC’s on CD’s and hi-res files wasn’t as huge as I’d expected. The LIO seemed to allow both my M1 DAC and the borrowed M1 CDT to sound their best.
My experience with music files, DACs and CD transports led me to conclude that part of what makes the LIO such a superb performer is that it truly “does no harm.” You will hear the pure sound of whatever music you feed it and of whatever ancillary equipment you attach to it. And in doing so, you may, like me, be surprised at how good some of that music and gear sounds when the amp isn’t doing anything to screw it up.
As I Was Saying…
I was speculating at the outset of this review that the ultracapacitor power scheme of the LIO plays a significant part in the way it presents music. This seems like a good point to share Vinnie Rossi’s take on that question: “The ultracapacitor bank offers high output current… it is very stiff, but highly responsive to the demands in the music – even with lower impedance speakers like the 4-ohm Spatial Audio M3’s. The comment I receive most often about the LIO Integrated Amp is that it sounds more powerful than the specs suggest. That is because the ultracapacitor power supply does very well with handling the transients of the music. It quickly supplies high current, and the LIO MOSFET AMP is content with driving low impedance speakers that thrive on a lot of current …” That sounds about right to me.
Advantages and Deficiencies
A beloved grad school professor of mine used to like to say that “Every situation has the advantages of its deficiencies, and the deficiencies of its advantages.” Have I come away from my time with the LIO a Vinnie Rossi fanboy? Yes, absolutely! Is the LIO perfect? Not quite. Here, then, is my admittedly idiosyncratic list of wishes and niggles.
There is a design quirk (I verified this with Vinnie) in the AK chips used in the DAC 1.0 that results in some annoying ergonomics: although the LIO does “remember” which digital input you were using since the last time you powered the LIO down (that is, since putting it into standby mode), that input won’t be accessible when you first power it up. For example, if you were last playing CD’s through the optical or coaxial input of the DAC 1.0, you’d need to use the Source selector knob on the LIO itself, or the Source select buttons on the remote, to change the Source to something else, and then back to the desired digital input on the LIO, in order to “activate” the correct input each time you first bring the LIO out of Standby mode. Note that this source select issue only exists with the DAC 1.0, and not with the more expensive and advanced DAC 2.0.) It also only seems only to affect the TOSLINK and Coaxial DAC 1.0 inputs; the USB input I used with my laptop was active and functional at power-up, and there’s no issue with the phono, or line level, analog inputs.
I found this glitch to be bothersome because, although there is a button on the front of the LIO, and on the remote, that allows you to cycle the LED display through a number of different modes (volume level, phono cartridge load, digital file frequency, voltage and a “dark” mode that completely darkens the LED display) there is no pushbutton display option to simply show the Source (actually, the input) currently being used. The only way to get the LIO to display the current Source is to actually change the Source. In my humble opinion, the user interface of the LIO would benefit from a way to have the LIO simply display the current source. For example, I’d gladly forgo the Voltage display option to gain a selectable Source display mode.
One solution to this issue would be for both the remote control and the LIO itself to feature individually labeled buttons on the remote or labeled detents on the Source selection dial for each source. But here’s where it seems you get into the advantages/deficiencies conundrum that my late grad school professor quipped about. The customizability of the LIO means that pre-labeled input buttons could easily leave the end-user with nonworking detents on the Source dial and nonfunctional buttons on the remote if, for example, a particular unit did not have a phono stage or DAC installed. That’s a compromise I would gladly make for the sake of functionality, but I’m not the designer!
A second ergonomic issue (again, for me, and perhaps not for you) is that the LIO starts up muted, and not set to the last volume setting I was using before I shut it down. I understand what I’m guessing is the reason for this design choice: better to have the LIO muted when you first turn it on and hit the Play button on your source, than to have the LIO volume level accidentally turned way up and watch your speaker drivers emit wisps of smoke because you happened to be in the mood to dive right into “Baba Yaga’s Hut” from the Mussorgsky-Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition. Still, I’d rather have the LIO remember my last volume setting when I switch it on.
One last concern. The LIO features very high quality, Cardas speaker binding posts. The issue is that they are crowded together at the back of the MOSFET amplifier module. This means that using particularly large-diameter or “garden hose” speaker cables is probably a nonstarter. Also, the holes in the binding posts themselves, intended for use with bare, unterminated speaker cable (which is how I normally like to use my Supra Classic 6.0 speaker cable) proved too small in diameter to accommodate the 9 AWG gauge of my unterminated cables. Fortunately, I had a selection of Supra’s speaker cable terminators on hand, which are held in place with pressure screws, so I ended up using Supra’s spade lugs to connect my speaker cables. To be fair, you’re only going to attach your speaker cables to the LIO when you first set it up, after which, the odds are, you’ll forget about those binding posts entirely, but the somewhat cramped arrangement of those binding posts (as well as their close proximity to the power input jack that attaches the power adapter to the LIO)s is worth knowing about in advance.
The Bottom Line
Overall, I have found the LIO to be a brilliant integrated amplifier. It is a fabulous match with the Spatial Hologram line, and I’d reckon that its 25/40 watt output would mate well with many reasonably sensitive loudspeakers.
The LIO is by no means an inexpensive product, especially when you begin to add optional modules to the base configuration, but considering what you save in interconnects, after-market power cords and power conditioning equipment, it has to be counted among the truly great values in high-end stereo amplification.
In fact, if I were able to afford the LIO that currently perches atop my stereo cabinet, I would cut Mr. Rossi a check in a heartbeat and never look back, knowing that the sound of the LIO could keep me happy forever. I’ll be very, very sorry to ship it back to Vinnie. It is that gorgeous sounding, and I give it my highest recommendation.
[Editor’s Note:] Turns out, the temptation was too much to overcome — Steve did buy the review unit.
About the Author
Steve Folberg is a native Philadelphian who clearly remembers buying his first LP (Chicago Transit Authority) at the age of 12. He became fascinated with stereo gear shortly thereafter and has remained so ever since. His first “real stereo system” included a Technics by Panasonic 12 watt/channel receiver, a Technics direct drive turntable and a pair of Epicure 10 monitors. He has taken lessons on an embarrassing number of musical instruments over the years. As a high school trumpet player, he was devoted to the music of Blood Sweat & Tears, Chicago and the late, great Maynard Ferguson. He is also forever in love with all things Steely Dan.
Steve has his own little audio blog which debuted by documenting the entire build of an Audio Note Kits “Kit 1” 300B SET amp. New posts are still added “as time permits.”
In addition to the joys of being a husband and dad, Steve is blessed to be the Senior Rabbi of a truly wonderful congregation in Austin, Texas.