As a matter of fact, I do want to open up the Circle Labs A200 integrated amplifier review with another statement about why I love integrated amplifiers. This time, I won’t talk about interconnects or separate power supplies or anything other than this: I love the way they look.
What, regular old integrated amplifiers? A single chassis with two knobs, maybe a power button? What’s sexy about a plain old integrated? I don’t have the answer to that, although I suspect it has something to do with my journeyman audiophile days where I’d lust after any potential upgrade and often that involved an integrated amp. The next one. In fact, there’s something about integrated amplifiers, even contemporary ones, that remind me of ‘70s receivers. And I love ‘70s receivers.
Sure, that borders on fetish. And yes, there are some truly beautiful integrated amplifiers out there from a number of brands. Those gorgeous and distinctive integrated amplifiers, the Vinnie Rossi L2i-SEs and the Allnic Audio T-2000s and the Margules I-240s, all depart from the box-with-two-knobs-and-a-switch formula in intriguing ways. But the Circle Labs A200 integrated amplifier is a box. With two knobs. And a power button.
It’s an absolutely beautiful box.
I suppose that had something to do with the reason I decided to review the Circle Labs A200. It had so many distinctive touches to the box formula, the way the volume display is backlit by those dots in the logo, the gold-ish brass hinge that bends over the top of the unit and houses that all-important power button, and most of all the glass faceplate. This isn’t just McIntosh-style faceplate glass but a thick slab that gives the entire face of the A200 a three-dimensional feel, which is what it is. Look through those thick glass edges. It’s quite the striking detail, especially for a mere box with knobs.
In the world of high-end audio, of course, I need more than a pretty face. You probably agree. Integrated amplifiers aren’t supposed to draw your eye away from your gorgeous speakers or your stunning analog rig. Now let me whisper something to you out of earshot of the way-too-serious audio geezers: a pretty face can go a long way in this hobby, even when it comes to simple boxes. Of all the boxes I’ve had in my listening room over the last few years, the Circle Labs A200 might be the purdiest. I walk past my equipment rack, and it stops me every time.
In addition, the Circle Labs A200 is yet another integrated amplifier that seems to follow the same recipe as the AVM Ovation 6.2 or the Balanced Audio Technology VK-3500—provide plenty of power and features in a somewhat easy to manage box while pushing the envelope when it comes to sound quality. In other words, sound like separates or go home.
One more interesting detail—Circle Labs is in Poland. Remember in the Ferrum Audio review where I suggested that Poland and Greece are hotbeds of high-end audio activity right now? This is part of that two-pronged campaign. That’s when I made the connection that would stick with me during the entire review period, that the A200 is the Chopin of the world of integrated amplifiers. It evokes ballrooms with opulent chandeliers lit by candles. Let’s put on some old Artur Rubinstein LPs and find out if beauty is more than skin deep, or perhaps another hoary old cliché that’s marginally less embarrassing.
Inside the Circle Labs A200
First of all, the Circle Labs A200 integrated amplifier is a hybrid design—tube preamp section and solid-state power section. I went more into my history with hybrid integrated amps when I recently reviewed the Balanced Audio Technologies VK-3500 a few months ago.
I continue to notice a few new hybrid designs are appearing out in the wild. Maybe it’s a growing trend, but I’ve always felt that hybrids give you the best of both worlds—tube sound coupled with the power to drive most speakers. Best of all, the tonality is somewhere halfway between valve and transistor, sometimes in a neighborhood adjacent to pure Class A solid-state. It’s a nice area to live and raise kids.
The A200, at $9000, isn’t quite as loaded with features as those other high-end integrated amps. You won’t find an excellent inboard phono like the BAT, or the stunning class A headphone amplifier of the AVM. You get one balanced set of inputs, and four more RCA inputs. You get a power amp in. You get 100 watts per channel into 8 ohms and 200 into 4. You get a nicely machined remote. This is somewhere between “one-box solution” and minimalist, old-school integrated amps like the Margules I-240.
What you did get is a lot of proprietary tech, especially in the Circle Labs approach to hybrid amplifier design, from designer Krzysztof Wilczyński :
“The minimalist preamplifier based on the Siemens nos tube is combined with a solid-state power amplifier in Circle Power technology. This solution combines the advantages of tube and transistor amplifiers. The low output impedance of the final stage, and thus the high damping factor, ensures appropriate dynamics and good drive for most of the loudspeakers available on the market.”
The first thing you might ask after reading this is, what’s this Circle Power technology? When it comes to the minimalist preamp with those NOS Siemens ECC8100 valves, these proprietary technologies are described thusly:
“Volume regulation implemented through the usage of a resistor ladder provided by the prestigious company Khozomo. Resistors with a tolerance value of 0.1% are switched using state of the art relays which guarantees the highest possible presicion and durability unreachable for traditional potentionometers. The regulation has a remote control.
“Single-stage amplifier is designed using a tube with a stable polarisation. This solution allows for the use of the lowest possible amount of passive components. This system is structured to use one lamp, a resistor and a state of the art capacitor made of solid copper foil, which directly influences the neutrality of sound and dynamism of transmission”devices.”
On the power amplifier side of the design, you’ll find the following:
“This stage usues an asymmetric input stage and current steering of BJTs. This solution combines the detail and precision characteristic to asymmetric systems with the efficiency and dynamism of symmetric systems. Power amplifiers are built using the dual-mono technology with seperate toroidal transfromers and power adapters with a combined condensator capacity of 200000 µF.”
One more detail to mention about the Circle Labs A200—those fins on the side-mounted heat sinks are sharp, which means you have to take care when lifting the amp. The A200 is only 44 pounds, but it’ll still bite you if you’re not paying attention. One more compliment—the A200 is beautiful up front, but that back panel is laid out really well, with plenty of spaces to route and dress cables accordingly.
After an extremely productive and busy 2021 reviewing season at my place, the piles are starting to vanish and I no longer feel like the City of Tigard, in tandem with the production staff of Hoarders, is no longer interested with what’s going on in my listening room and office. So I’m getting to the point where I no longer have to say “I reviewed Product X over many months, with dozens of loudspeakers and sources and cables.”
That said, the Circle Labs A200 spent time with a variety of loudspeakers. My two bookshelf reference speakers, the Brigadier Audio BA-2 and Trenner & Friedl ART monitors, spent considerable time with the A200, as did the Rosso Fiorentino Pienzas. The Circle Labs also spent some quality time with Harbeth, Fern & Roby and Nola. We’re talking about high-efficiency and low-to-medium efficiency designs, and the Circle Labs was an elegant companion to all.
My favorite match? Possibly the Harbeth Compact 7 XD monitors. I was treated to an overflow of textures and mental images and an extraordinary sense of refinement with this combo.
Circle Labs A200 Sound
“I know it’s pretty, but how does the Circle Labs A200 integrated amplifier sound?”
That was on my mind a lot in the beginning. Quit raving about the looks, is this hybrid integrated the real deal? Yes, it is. At first the overall sound quality reminded me of the BAT VK-3500, with a very neutral presentation that offered just a hint of extra color, enough to remind the listener that there are NOS tubes inside. With the BAT, I thought of velvet. With the Circle Labs A200, however, I thought less of feeling and touching and more of “seeing” light in the music. Again, this is not synesthesia—although that would be exciting. It’s more about moving the lights around on the performers, maybe seeing different shades of color than before. Same performers, same performance, slightly different seats.
The Circle Labs A200 did excel at size, as in knocking down the walls and making my listening space expand and contract with the recording. At times, the size was breathtaking—especially when I used loudspeakers that were really brilliant at soundstaging and imaging (like the Trenner & Friedl ARTs).
One more general observation about the Circle Labs A200 sound—it really surprised and delighted with its rendering of the human voice. I consistently heard so much more of those physical cues I demand from my system, that feeling of human bodies moving in a way to allow those sounds to flourish.
One particularly memorable listening session with the Circle Labs A200 at the helm involved an unusual and yet fascinating new album from harpist Jacqueline Kerrod, 17 Days in September. Kerrod manipulates her acoustic and electric harps in the same way as pianist Satoko Fujii, not so much by “preparations” as just pushing her instruments to their physical limits. There’s a lot of buzzing and vibrating and noise in general, but the Circle Labs A200 succeeds in drawing out the tremendous sense of dynamics, the way a single acoustical (or electronic, for that matter) can energize an entire room in a surprising way.
I was similarly impressed with the way I was sucked into the very serious and dramatic solo piano recording Piano Blossoms from Marcos Ariel. I say serious and dramatic, but in the best possible way—I’m struck by the beauty and the melodies. I found something peculiar about the soundstage, particularly the width, and then I realized this recording had been mic’d to sound like you’re standing just behind him, almost leaning in over his shoulder as he plays. Any closer, and this recording would mirror what Ariel hears as he’s playing. I’m not sure how intentional this is, but the Circle Labs A200 provided so much detail that the aural clues were right there in front of me.
So I’ve mentioned some harp music and some piano music. Didn’t I say that the A200 had 100 watts per channel? Yes, the Circle Labs A200 had plenty of intestinal fortitude when it was required. Even though the A200 spent most of its time tethered to one bookshelf monitor or another, there were at least a couple of them, specifically my Brigadier Audio BA-2s, that have impressive dynamics and a generous frequency range—don’t forget it has a Raal ribbon tweeter, which goes way, way on up there.
Two words: Sea Change. Dave McNair always pulls out this album for his reviews, and now he’s got me doing it. With the Circle Labs A200 and the BA-2s hooked together, those expansive soundscapes just stretched out forever, with so much drama and fury. This was one of my favorite renderings of one of my favorite recordings.
Circle Labs A200 Conclusion
I’ll admit one thing about the Circle Labs A200, and it may or may not have been a break-in issue. My initial reaction to this lovely Polish integrated focused far more on the looks in the beginning—as in I really dig the way this amp looks and I can’t think about anything else yet. When it came to sound quality, I didn’t have much of a handle at first. It took some time before I noticed the sound of the Circle Labs A200. It took a little bit longer for me to decide that I liked the sound. And, after that, I started to really enjoy this integrated amplifier.
Those feelings, of course, intensified over time. That’s what you, as a potential owner, should think about when you audition this integrated amplifier.
As I mentioned, I’ve been listening to some exceptional integrated amplifiers lately that are priced right around the Circle Labs A200, and most of them offer tons of features AND great sound quality. Yes, that comes at a price, but it’s not a crazy price. It’s a very reasonable price for what you get. And, over the last few years, that quality has gotten better. Much better.
The Circle Labs A200 certainly fits that description. But those cosmetics, supported by the ergonomics, give the A200 an edge. While most of those two-knob boxes are best described as handsome but utilitarian, or even industrial, this looks like a machine that makes beautiful music. That’s exactly what it is.