Before we get to True Life Audio, I would like to tell you a story. Once upon a time there was this handsome young prince doctor busting his cojones working for the local health system trying to make living. Oh, he did reviews too and show coverage when night shifts allowed him to. Those days are over, the doctor moved to the Greek island of Zakynthos and set up a private practice and they lived happily ever after. And that’s that.
So nowadays my glorious ATC–ASR–Rockna-Garrard system is no more, details to follow. Time is a bit of an issue, the good doctor gained a couple of daughters in the meanwhile but he is looking to get back to one of his greatest passions, meaning listening to classic music. And over the last few months he found the perfect opportunity to return in style, with one hell of a system, even if on a loan.
Hors d’oeuvre and soup, cables and sources
Buckle up, this is going to be quite a feast. But before we get to True Life Audio, once again, let’s see what’s left from my previous system. For starters the cables are all pretty much the same. I kept the Signal Projects Golden Sequence power cords, the power strip and matching Poseidon power cable but I had to order some new, albeit of the same make speaker cables because…length. Same Signal Projects Hydra model in pure 9N copper but with slightly different geometry. Sonically very similar so I’ll call it a tie. For the amplifiers I managed to get another set of Signal Projects Hydra power cords which are as familiar as it gets, been using these for ages.
Interconnects come as always courtesy of Chris Sommovigo’s Black Cat, the mesmerizing Indigo is usually placed between the source and the pre-amplifier as I find this position to be the most crucial one while a Triode plays the sidekick part. A Signal Projects Atlantis RCA interconnect helped connect the pre-amp to the power monos, this is also a very familiar cable for me. For the tonearm I used a Das Klang cable in “seasoned” virgin copper. Don’t ask what and why, I’ll leave it there to sink in.
Digital front end remains the Rockna Wavedream, in its first iteration with the MSB Platinum modules paired to that excellent in house designed FPGA receiver. Over the years I had the chance to listen to all three versions of the Wavedream DAC and I prefer this early version, reason why I kept it. Streamer is also the same custom built Odroid C2 with linear power supply running Archphile OS and the library is still inside a Synology NAS. Most of the auxiliary pieces of my reproduction chain get their power through the Lab12 Gordian power distributor which doubles up as a diagnostic analysis tool.
All digital cables remain unaltered meaning I still run the
Das Klang USB cable and the Nordost Heimdall 2 ethernet cable. Not a single switching mode power supply to be seen on my system, even the router has a linear one.
My Garrard 401 made a safe journey from Athens to Zakynthos island but for this review I had the chance to use the Kronos Pro turntable with matching Black Beauty tonearm and a Lyra Helicon MC cartridge along with my ZYX 4D Ultimate. The Kronos came in fully fledged, meaning latest version of the external power supply and in house built tube phono stage, which translates into one of the best, cost no object, analog front ends money can buy. Pitch black background and ridiculous detail retrieval, I doubt there is someone who has laid an ear on this set up and didn’t find it sublime to say the least.
Side note, the Kronos tube phono stage is a True Life Audio design and the chassis used by TLA are a Kronos design, the two companies have a long standing partnership and have performed in tandem on various audio shows.
Speaking of spectacular, my ATC studio control monitors are no more but that void was filled by the S-P-E-C-T-A-C-U-L-A-R Avalon Isis speakers. At one point when owning a 100K pair of speakers was still considered insane this was the top of the line model from Avalon, with two 13” woofers, the notorious Accuton7” mid-range and the cost no object black Diamond tweeter. To be honest I was a bit concerned about the tweeter as most hard dome designs are harsh to my ears, this one was exquisite with extension beyond reproach and smoothness to die for. Can’t believe I said such words for a hard dome but this line of tweeters is Accuton’s best units to date.
Risotto alla Milanese
What holds everything together is a four chassis pre power set by True Life Audio. The company was founded here in Athens, Greece, more than 25 years ago from Vellisarios Georgiades who passed away unexpectedly days before the 2019 Munich show. His father was a transformer engineer, his son Aristomenis is now on the helm and things look more prosperous than ever.
The thing is True Life Audio was a tube only company up to a few years back, and good luck trying to move big modern speakers with single ended triode designs. Hybrid tube – solid state amplifiers on the other hand bridge and may I say combine the best of both worlds. Nothing new here, Lamm did it almost three decades ago, Michel Vanden Broeck launched Tenor which still today remain some of the best sounding hybrid amplifiers and more recently and always here in Greece Ypsilon Electronics made some excellent hybrid designs as well. As with cooking it comes down to the ingredients, the recipe and the execution.
The salad that tastes more like dessert; the True Life Audio SSA-P1 and matching SSA-PU power supply
The True Life Audio SSA-P1 pre-amplifier is a true class A dual mono design with completely separated power supplies, it necessitates of two separate power cords and comes with two umbilicals. Yes, you do have to buy two matching power cords but if you can afford the True Life Audio set, you will pony up for those cables no doubt.
The power supply is as you would expect tube rectified, with two separate chokes and a distinct power transformer for each channel, all made with OCC copper. At the heart of the pre-amplifier sits a pair of G.E.C 6JPG tubes in parallel configuration which are notoriously well sounding and unfortunately as expensive as you would have guessed, which is something to be expected from equipment of this caliber. The potentiometer is a motorized “break before make” discreet resistor one, so cross talk is down to zero and more importantly, you get only a single resistor in the signal path.
Being a former transformer company you would expect True Life Audio to pack some serious iron and you would be right, the transformers inside are some of the most exotic ones I have ever come across. Hitachi amorphous cores and enameled OCC wiring in custom configurations ensure low loss and high linearity for chokes, power and output transformers.
Your main plate, the True Life Audio SSA-300
The True Life Audio SSA-300 mono power amplifiers pack a healthy 150Watts into 8 Ohms and double that @4 Ohms, hence the name. The power section draws current from an in house designed and wound 800VA UI transformer and makes better use of hand matched premium low noise Toshiba bipolar transistors. The buffer section is a EZ81 tube choke rectified 6J5 capacitor coupled class A no feedback design and that is a mouthful I don’t recall using in a review, like never.
In plain man’s words you have tubes driving two transistor stages but in no plain fashion. All materials are carefully chosen, all transformers and chokes are again in house wound, all capacitors are selected for their sonic virtues and the whole sits inside a solid, well finished aluminum CNC’ed chassis offered in silver or black finish and weighting in at 36kgr. Both single ended and balanced inputs are available.
If all this sounds expensive, well, it is. I glossed over the price so far but let’s grab the bull by the horns. This is a 106K euro/ $121K set and that is a lot of mullah no matter how you cut it. This would be a major cause of embarrassment if it wasn’t for the sound.
Sound made perfection?
Going hybrid is definitely not a panacea, or else every designer and their mother would have done so. The solid state stage not always enjoys the tube one telling it what to do, the impedance matching can be an issue and the parts involved can be financially cumbersome. Proper transformers if one wants to do things adequately are hard to come by, they need to have excellent characteristics in order not to ruin the frequency response nor the speed of the amplifier.
Let’s see the two extremes of the bandwidth, the bottom octave and the higher audible one. If you want to embarrass an amplifier and you know your speakers have two humongous 13” woofers that reach all the way down to the 20Hz abyss you go on and play a large scale symphonic passage or some deep house electro music and you get that sensation of where the bass is? Here, while playing Skrillex (Bangarang) and Schubert (8th Symphony, Unfinished, DSD64, Carlos Kleiber on the podium) there was absolutely nothing missing from a concert hall or your favorite Funktion-One equipped dancing stage. Bass is deep, fast and undistorted, and the True Life Audio power amplifiers could be easily used for a sound-fest. They showed no sign of thermal instability even after hours of continuous loud use. Like really loud. Really really loud. Georgiades Jr and his team of engineers paid me a visit and they insisted on me giving it the beans, so I did, and then some. What a pair of beasts these amps are. If you are not into classic music skip to around the eighth minute mark and let the crescendo from the strings and the wind instruments submerge you, let Kleiber rain fire from above, but make sure you have the amps for it.
Then it came to the other usual issue with tube and hybrid tube–SS designs, the treble extension. Many if not the majority of tube designs suffer from roll off and this would be inexcusable for such a pricey set, the problem usually relies in the preamplification and the output transformers connecting it to the power amps. No way you would believe this is a hybrid combo while auditioning Anna Netrebko in Donizetti’s Ancor Non Giunse!..Regnava Nel Silenzio from Lucia di Lammermoor. The harp intro was so tactile and life-like, let me get back to this in a bit, and Anna’s divine voice sounded crystal clear in all her amazing trills. I came to think that the True Life Audio set sounded more neutral and as extended as my ASR Emitter I exclusive amplifier, on par with the most celebrated solid state designs from CH Precision and Soulution.
And then came the music. I found myself listening to a selection of my favorite Enigma Variations by Elgar (Sir John Barbirolli conducting the Philamonia Orchestra) and through these intimate and touching pieces I came to realize what the fuss was all about, why would you pay this amount of money for a touch of saffron on your risotto.
Some might think saffron is a bit of an acquired taste but so is music reproduction. There is rice and there is Carnaroli, go on and taste a proper risotto alla Milanese with a hint of saffron and you will know, not all amplifiers are created equal. Unfortunately you have to pay for your spice, saffron retails at $5000/kg or more. Achieving this delicate balance between the warm and the neutral, the mighty and the intimate is a rare feat, one that sets apart the True Life Audio SSP-1 and SSA-300 monos from the pack. It’s saffron to you.
True Life Audio Specifications
True Life Audio SSP-1 stereo tube pre-amplifier with matching PSU-1 power supply
Dual mono design, 2 power supplies (one for each channel).
2 transformers and 4 chokes with M6 lamination
2 output transformers with OCC copper and nanocrystalline C-Core lamination
OCC copper solid core conductors
Class A, No feedback
Frequency response: 10Hz ～ 110KHz
Vacuum Tubes 6J5Gx4, GZ32x2
Input/impedance: RCA 3 pairs / 50KΩ, XLR 1pair / 50kΩ
Output/impedance: RCA 1 pair/270 Ohm, XLR 1 pair/270 Ohm
Power consumption: 60W
Dimensions: 440mm(W) 430mm(D) 200mm(H)
Weight: 30kg + 26kg
MSRP: 41.000 euros, $46.000
True Life Audio SSA-300 Hybrid mono power amplifier
Maximum Voltage Input: 1.5 Vrms
Wattage: 150w @ 8ohm, 300w @ 4ohm
Input Impedance: 100K
Voltage Gain: 23dB
Frequency Bandwidth: 330Khz
Tubes used: 6J5G (6SN7 can be used with an adaptor or set in factory upon request)EZ81 rectifier
Voltage Options (Factory Set): 230-240VAC or 110-120VAC
Color Options (Front Plate): Silver or Black
Unit Dimensions (W x D x H): 440 X 445 X 192 (with feet)mm
Unit Weight: 36 Kg
MSRP: 65.000euros, $75.000