Aesthetix • Atlas Signature Stereo Amplifier and Janus Signature Preamplifier

by Roy Gregory | September 23, 2014

© www.theaudiobeat.com

High-end audio seems built on a presumption of proliferation -- the one with the most boxes wins. It might have started with Naim Audio and their multiple external-power-supply options for every single box they made, but these days it’s a universal tendency. Leaving the still-common presence of external supplies aside, the natural progression in system upgrades seems to lead inevitably to separate line and phono stages, multiple-box digital replay solutions, and you are definitely not a real man (with a real hi-fi) unless you use mono amplifiers. Cynical observers are quick to point out how multiple boxes can multiply profits, but even if you recognize the sonic benefits of the approach, it is high time that we also acknowledge the all-too-real costs and challenges. Each extra box isn’t just adding the (not inconsiderable) price of extra casework and another power supply to the bill. It also mandates another shelf for your expensive audiophile rack, another power cord and more interconnects -- all things you need to take seriously if the potential benefits of that box are actually going to be realized.

Which flies in the face of both the real world and economy of effort. If performance really is the only consideration, then such constraints needn’t apply (ignored, along with budgets), but few if any of us enjoy such a charmed and financially comfortable life. For most of us, considerations of price and practicality are all too real -- and simple two-box amplification systems (a full-facilities power amplifier and a competent stereo power amp) are not only what we can afford, they’re what we can actually accommodate. Yet despite that reality, the audio industry is, as ever, in denial. The answer to every problem takes the form of either another or a different box, while two-box, truly versatile solutions are generally hopelessly compromised in terms of performance or ambition. Preamps that actually include a phono stage don’t take it seriously ("Well, if you really still want to play records. . . "), mainly, one suspects, because it’s easier -- and definitely cheaper -- not to. Meanwhile, the majority of stereo power amps offer a choice of power or quality -- but seldom both. Given the kind of speakers that audiophiles with cash and accommodation limitations can actually employ -- especially if they want anything approaching full-range performance -- that presents an insoluble dilemma. Do you go for the quality option that won’t actually drive your speakers, the beefier but brutal alternative, or the smaller speakers that won’t truly satisfy? This situation is challenging enough in the world of solid state, but if you are a lover of vacuum tubes, then, let’s face it, you are in real trouble.

Unless that is, you have lucked out and discovered just about the only really high-end, high-powered, genuinely versatile two-box vacuum-tube amplification option out there -- the Aesthetix Janus Signature and Atlas Signature. I’m sure that there are other products that compete on paper or use more vacuum tubes (time to come clean -- the Atlas is actually a hybrid design, although you’d do well to pick that fact by simply listening to it), but I’ve yet to hear anything that offers the Aesthetix combination's mix of virtues: its astonishing versatility, remarkable (all-tube) phono stage, its operational elegance, unbelievably tractable power delivery, engaging musical charm and almost affordable pricing. Where so many products seem like mere stepping stones, operating on the assumption that they’ll tide you over until you can work your way up the range to the units you really want, the Janus and Atlas Signature offer a genuine endgame, a promise of long-term satisfaction in a world of (often) unrequited longing.

Even the simple physical facts set these products apart. One look at the rear panel of the Janus Signature reveals a unit that’s not just dual mono, but fully differential, with six line-level inputs (including tape) and two sets of main outputs, all of which are both balanced and single ended. There’s also a single-ended tape output and a pair of RCA inputs and a grounding post for the phono stage. Essentially the company’s Calypso and Rhea units built into a single chassis and sharing a single power supply, the Janus Signature is built around a 12AX7 and a 6922 for each channel. As well as the tape loop, it offers a phase switch and a bypass mode, with all functions available on both the front panel and the handheld remote. The discrete resistor ladder volume control offers either 23dB (single ended) or 29dB (balanced) of overall gain, adjustable in 88 steps, along with mute and balance functions.

Seriously serious about record replay

But the pièce de résistance is the phono stage, about as far from an afterthought as it’s possible to get. Of course, Aesthetix started life as one of the few companies offering genuinely all-tube phono stages, so perhaps that should come as no surprise. Where the vast majority of the competition opts for J-FETs (Audio Research or VTL) or transformers (Zanden or Allnic) Aesthetix have long built high-gain MC stages that rely solely on glowing bottles for gain. There’s a reason that other companies do things differently, and in truth, asking tubes to work with the sort of voltages generated by low-output moving-coil cartridges is pushing things well outside their comfort zone, but there’s no denying Aesthetix designer Jim White’s track record with the approach -- and the Janus Signature doesn’t disappoint. With no fewer than four tubes per channel (two selected low-noise 12AX7s, one standard 12AX7 and one 6922) the phono stage takes the single-ended input and generates a true-differential signal, which is surprising in itself. But even more impressive is the range of adjustment available for optimizing cartridge gain and loading. The Janus Signature offers users nine load impedances spread from 47k to 75 ohms, along with eight gain settings (seven from 38 to 75dB as well as off), all selectable from the front panel, as well as the Aesthetix trademark, a demagnetization circuit for MC cartridges.

The shared power supply uses separate transformers, one for the high-current, low-voltage vacuum-tube heater supplies and the other for low-current, high-voltage solid-state and control circuitry. There is a choke-input power supply on the high-voltage transformer, while all of the vacuum-tube heater supplies are DC regulated. The transformers and AC input are carefully shrouded to minimize electrical and magnetic pollution. The microprocessor used to control switching functions activates only when in operation and is otherwise asleep, generating no clock signal or noise.

Now consider trying to cram all that into a single chassis and you’ll probably envisage something both bulky and agricultural in terms of proportions, but the Janus Signature is the very opposite. The wide, slim and beautifully styled front panel manages to accommodate no fewer than 15 precisely machined and rather stylish triangular control buttons and a super-legible display that can be read from across the room, without looking fussy or cluttered -- and that’s quite a feat! The volume control is incorporated into the display, the whole window being an up/down rocker switch. You can even dim the display or set it to turn off once an adjustment has been made -- and yes, you can hear the difference. With all that circuitry to accommodate, the chassis is certainly deep, but that’s the easiest dimension to house and the least visually obvious, resulting in a unit with none of the telltale aesthetic markers of a tube design. What the Janus Signature looks like -- and acts like -- is a sophisticated, modern solid-state product.

If I have a criticism of the physical arrangements on the Janus Signature it relates to the necessarily crowded rear panel. For the most part the layout is a model of clarity and logic, just like the rest of the unit. But beware two things: the dual-mono arrangement of the inputs and outputs is not mirror imaged, which is fine as long as you can see the rear panel, but making connections blind, with the Janus already installed in a rack can lead to confusion as you subconsciously look to "balance" your connection arrangements. No big deal (and a perfect example of RTFB -- Google it) it can be frustrating at first as you struggle to figure out why one channel -- or the other -- keeps dropping out as you switch sources. Sometimes the simplest things are the easiest to overlook. The second potential cause of frustration is the position of the grounding post for the phono input. This sits below the AC input and wedged between the phono input for one channel and the outputs for the other. It is also quite small in diameter. Factor all those things into the equation, along with the fact that tonearm ground wires never seem to stay where they’re put while you tighten the connection, and you’ve got what is pretty much a two-handed job in a two-finger space. Once again, the solution is simple, once you’ve figured it out: simply make the tonearm ground connection first, before you hook up any of the other cables. Either that or fit a banana plug to the ground wire.

The Atlas Signature power amp shares the same styling cues as the Janus Signature, but writ large -- very large. There’s no escaping the fact that this is a lump, both big and extremely heavy, but when it comes to power amps, size matters and the Atlas Signature boasts a serious 200Wpc into an 8-ohm load that doubles into 4 ohms. Like the Janus Signature, it is a zero-global-feedback, fully differential design. Input circuitry is solid state, with a single 6SN7 providing all-tube voltage gain, its B+ supply fed from its own dedicated, choke-regulated transformer. The five front-panel buttons and rocker-switch display allow users to select between the four different inputs and internal functionality. Four inputs? Internal functionality? Isn’t this a power amp? Yes, but it’s an Aesthetix product and that means that it covers way more than the usual bases. The inputs are both single-ended and balanced, with each offering full-range or high-pass options, the latter ideal for those increasingly common speakers with powered bass sections or biamped systems. The crossover frequency can be selected using one of the five front-panel switches; the others govern standby, input selection, display dim and (praise be) a mute function.

But beyond the incredible practicality of the Atlas Signature, the real story lies in its unburstable power supply, dynamic authority and sheer musical enthusiasm. This is one amplifier that really relishes a challenge, and if you are looking to wring the last few Hertz of bottom-end extension and musical contribution out of some compact floorstanding three-way audiophile speaker system, with dubious sensitivity and an impedance curve that loiters somewhere between awkward and downright offensive (no names, no pack drill -- we all know the kind of products we’re discussing here), then this is your tool.

But as if all that weren’t enough, there’s one last trick up Aesthetix’s sleeve: the Janus and Atlas are available in standard guise or as Signature versions. The stock versions offer phenomenal value, priced at $7000 and $8000 respectively -- which is an awful lot of bang for anybody’s buck. But what makes the combination so special and unique (at least in my experience) is the Signature option. This litters both products with upgraded components in key locations throughout the circuit -- for a price. The Janus Signature will set you back $10,000 and the Signature version of the Atlas also $10,000. Not exactly chump change, but what you are buying is significant gains in resolution, transparency and detail, a drop in the noise floor and an increase in dynamic range, improved musical texture and a broader tonal palette -- qualities that move the combination’s capabilities firmly into high-end territory, adding a healthy dose of musical immediacy to the mix. Best of all, any stock unit can be upgraded after the fact to full Signature status and performance, offering users a lower threshold for access and an in-built upgrade path.

Did I miss something? When did high-end products get so downright sensible? Aesthetix had better tread carefully or they’ll get drummed out of the AHS (the Audiophile Hairshirt Society), an organization dedicated to the advancement of sonic performance through unnecessary excess.

Sensible and exciting?

There is so much urban myth and received wisdom embedded in the audio industry that it should come as no surprise that it also contains so many confirmed skeptics. Indeed, for a reviewer, healthy skepticism is a necessary shield -- but it should never result in prejudgments. Just because something hasn’t worked up until now doesn’t mean that the latest attempt/claimant won’t be successful. Indeed, if the history of audio tells us anything, it’s that successfully realizing the full potential of any technology or approach takes time. But that doesn’t stop us (any of us) from reviewing products with our eyes -- and discarding them out of hand, without even listening. "Ah, the Pan-Galactic Thud Buster III subwoofer: still using that cardboard-coned driver from Suck It And See Sound Systems -- it can’t possibly work!" Except that, even in something as fundamentally simple as a subwoofer, there are an awful lot of different elements that all need to work together if the product is going to succeed. Blaming its failure on the bits you can see is a massive assumption -- as is the conclusion that because you can still see them, the product will still be a failure.

Of the various prejudices infecting hi-fi, one of the most enduring is the notion that less is always more. Generally speaking, the more extraneous elements you can remove the easier it is to finish a design -- but the easier it also becomes to hear what it really sounds like and that’s not always pretty! But the more you take out, the less the unit can do. It’s almost inevitable that the first casualties of streamlining (not to mention cost cutting in the bill of materials) are facilities. We are so used to seeing and using products that make a virtue of limiting choice that we greet with innate suspicion anything that offers more than basic facilities. Take one look at a product like the Janus Signature, that not only crams a fully differential line stage and a phono stage into one chassis, but gilds the lily with a bunch of extraneous, extra settings and adjustments and you almost inevitably find yourself wondering whether it can possibly work. But while less often really is more it ain’t necessarily so -- and just because super complex, all-singing, all-dancing preamps and processors have disappointed in the past, this doesn’t mean that anything with more than basic facilities will automatically join that line of failures. Once again -- and as always -- it’s not what you do but how you do it that counts, and designer Jim White has retained the logic and engineering basis of his highest-end, separate-box designs while shoehorning that functionality into the Janus Signature.

So yes, the separate boxes enjoy the benefits of electrical isolation and dedicated power supplies, but at a price that extends well beyond the simple difference in cost between the integrated unit and the separates. Just remember the extra power cable, interconnects and support each extra chassis demands. Instead of Which sounds better?, the question instead becomes How close does the Janus Signature get to the Rhea/Calypso combination? The answer is way, way closer than you might think. Throw in the performance of the Atlas Signature, a sleeping giant if ever there was one, and suddenly it’s not hard to understand why this product pairing could be the answer to a lot of audiophile’s dreams.

With most things in life there are two places to start: at the beginning and at the bottom. With the Janus Signature/Atlas Signature system, there’s no better place. No product I’ve heard does everything -- at least not equally well -- and all products have their strengths and weaknesses. In this instance, what immediately grabbed me about the Aesthetix duo is its sheer, almost physical presence and the way it projects musical energy. A lot of reviews, especially ones written about big solid-state amps, will talk in terms of slam or punch. It’s an interesting analogy -- the equation of sound with something so much more visceral and more often than not rather less than appropriate. Let’s just look at what actually happens when a boxer delivers a punch. Contact is made by the glove, but how effective that contact is depends on a number of factors -- not just the speed with which the boxer moves his hand or the point at which the punch lands, but whether or not the boxer pivots his body while delivering that punch, whether he’s moving forward or backward as he delivers it -- and therefore where and how his feet are placed. Knockout blows come from the rear foot, firmly planted, and are transmitted through the torso and shoulders to the glove that finally delivers the punch.

What has all that got to do with audio equipment and amplifiers? The punch analogy actually works better than many commentators appreciate. When a reviewer says an amp has slam or punch, more often than not he's really referring to weight or speed. But in boxing, real impact comes not from hand speed or the weight of the blow but the combination of the two. The punch has to arrive in the right place and at the right time, with the weight of the boxer’s body behind it -- and it’s exactly the same in audio. Impressive slam and rib-shaking musical impact are more often than not the result of hyped bass, with transients that lean on the leading edge and lack shape and harmonic development -- like a punch that’s all about speed and lacks follow-through. Like a slap, it has the ability to shock, but it lacks the deeper impression created by the true knockout blow. (I’m not even going to bother with the clumping roundhouse swings that carry plenty of weight but arrive too late to find their mark.)

Listen to these Aesthetix products doing their thing and the stability, physicality and presence they bring to bass instruments, whether it’s Ray Brown’s upright or Pretender Pete Farndon’s electric, the massive doubled-bass section in the Gorecki 3rd Symphony, the vibrant underpinnings of the Gli Incogniti Four Seasons or the massive drum that features on the Thin Red Line soundtrack. They invest music with a sense of purpose and direction that transmits intent rather than simply impresses; these are notes and rhythms that project from a firm rear foot and have enough shape and touch to tell the listener just how much body went into them. If pace and pattern are the underpinnings of composition and performance, the Aesthetix Janus and Atlas Signature get those things just right, with a solid presence, shape and texture that give performances a sense of rhythmic progression, direction and life. This is a propulsive bottom end, a world away from the overdamped, high-definition, carved-from-solid/rooted-to-the-spot sterility that you’ll so often hear. It’s musically generous without being overstated or heavy-handed and reflects both the ability and willingness of the power amp to really drive speakers and the line stage’s easy sense of uncluttered and unforced organization.

The Atlas Signature can be relied on to get a hold of and musically integrate the most recalcitrant woofer in full-range systems, to liberate every last ounce of bass extension and meaning from smaller speakers. In fact, the only scenario in which it is less than comfortable is being asked to drive the sort of ultra-efficient, benign loads that pair well with single-ended-triode amplification. The Coincident Pure Reference Extreme and Living Voice Auditorium IBX-RW both leave the Aesthetix powerhouse sounding a little muscle-bound and inarticulate. But wind back the efficiency a notch and throw in a more conventional three-way crossover and the Atlas Signature comes storming back, its performance with the Focal Scala Utopia V2 being little short of sensational. Which just goes to show that not only is there no one universal solution when it comes to audio amplification, but just how well the Atlas Signature will dovetail with exactly the sort of speakers so many of us own -- or want to own.

With the musical foundations so well established, it should come as no surprise that the rest of the range falls so easily into place. These products major on the same sense of presence and dimensionality to instruments and performers across the midband that characterizes their bottom end. This is about shape and substance, volume and color, natural scale and a natural sense of perspective. Playing Reiner’s reading of Scheherazade (the JVC XRCD [JVC JMCXR-0015]) even with such disparate forces in play and such dramatic dynamic contrasts, the solo violin never sounds thin or insubstantial; the brass never becomes confused or congested, even the tuttis comprising easily differentiated instruments; the brass and percussion never climb forward or swamp the strings. The easy cross-stage ebb and flow of the music, so evocative of the swelling sea, the crescendos that bring those storm waves crashing home in a tumbling flurry of chaos -- the careful spatial and motive, almost visual effects in the score -- are beautifully clear and evocative without ever being overly obvious or explicit. There’s nothing of the etched, overdamped or overdefined here. The sense of the orchestra laid out in place is palpable -- as is the characteristic warmth and midhall perspective of the Living Stereo recording. This is all about presence and performance -- the sonic detail is definitely secondary to that goal. It’s not that the Janus Signature/Atlas Signature combination isn’t detailed -- a charge that might fairly be leveled at the stock models -- it’s just that they have the happy knack of binding that detail into a single meaningful whole, detail used toward a single and very purposeful end rather than as an end in itself. Listen in to the sound and the detail is there, it just doesn’t draw attention to itself.

Having said that, in absolute terms, resolution is one area where these Aesthetix electronics do fall short. Soundstages are not as deep or clearly defined as they can be, the air around and between instruments and voices not as transparent as I’ve heard it. That’s what the Aesthetix separates deliver, along with other more expensive options -- a point that underlines just how easy it is to forget that these units are only one rung up from the bottom of the Aesthetix ladder. In part, this observation is based on using the Atlas and Janus Signature to drive the Marten Coltrane Supreme 2, a €390,000 electron microscope of a loudspeaker system to which the term "absolute" most certainly applies. To say that these speakers take the Aesthetix products beyond their comfort zone is an understatement of heroic proportions. That the Atlas and Janus Signature can actually rise to the occasion as effectively as they did is equally heroic. What it tells you is that they succeed in having a place for everything and getting everything not just in its place but keeping it there -- fundamental aspects of consistently convincing musical reproduction, yet basic abilities that trip so many electronics. Once the pattern is established it becomes a question of how far into the performance these products will let you "see." The answer is: further than the stock models, not as far as their bigger brethren; but it is remarkable just how consistent that musical organization and easy-breathing character are across the entire Aesthetix line.

Strong and sensitive

Using the Janus and Atlas Signature in the context of the Marten speakers could be considered cruel and unusual punishment. Placing them in a more realistic context, alongside the likes of a Focal Scala Utopia V2, a Wilson Sophia 3 or a Magico S5 -- exactly the sort of speakers I’d expect them to be used with -- and that loss of resolution will be all but imperceptible. Instead you’ll be marveling at the sheer musical presence and sense of purpose the system projects, propelled by the sheer authority with which the electronics grasp both the fact and the sense of the signal. I’ve always had a soft spot for cover numbers -- but only the ones that improve on the original (Devo’s fabulous rendition of "Satisfaction," anyone?) -- and currently amongst my favorites is Ruth Moody’s deeply sensitive and personal performance of Springsteen’s "‘Dancing in the Dark" (These Wilder Things [True North TND577]). The Aesthetix/Scala system rams home the affecting combination of fragility and resolve that make this song so special and with which Ms. Moody really makes it her own. As well as you know the tune and the lyrics, somehow the familiarity of the shape, the anticipation of the words just adds to their impact, the almost physical presence of her voice coupling to the subliminal sense of recognition. Start the album over and her Wailin’ Jennys roots are firmly on show, the banjo and bluegrass of "Trouble and Woe" catching you up in that infectious hitch-kick rhythm, the mournful tones of "Pockets" effortlessly conjuring space and desolation, loss and regret. It comes as no surprise, as you find that haunting familiarity tugging again, that this time it’s triggered by Mark Knopfler’s guitar. Whether you listen to classical recordings from the ‘60s or the 90s, pop or rock, jazz or fringe folk, the Aesthetix electronics seem to find the voice and a rightness in the recording, a quality that lets you relax into the performance and allows the musicians to speak.

With digital sources, that capability is pretty much a given. You might have a choice of balanced or single-ended connection, but beyond that it’s a case of set the volume and sit back. But with the phono input there are several layers of additional performance to be gained -- and this is where the Janus Signature really comes into its own. Most of you will be familiar with the musical effects of loading, and the remote-control switching option on this preamplifier certainly makes it easy to appreciate just how loading a cartridge down applies damping and definition at the expense of air (overshoot?) and level. Less familiar will be the impact of overall gain -- and the fact that it needs to be balanced against loading and system gain, meaning that the settings you arrive at in one setup might need to be adjusted if and when you change other components in the system, but especially speakers or the power amp. Thankfully the Janus Signature offers more than enough gain for all but the lowest-output cartridges, which allows you to balance the overall gain in the phono stage against the headroom required. Less gain delivers a lower noise floor and that delivers greater dynamic range and discrimination, so the key here is enough gain and no more. The fact that phono gain and volume level are both expressed in terms of dB means that reducing phono gain by a 6dB step and increasing the volume level by exactly the same amount is simplicity itself, allowing you to clearly gauge the benefits (or otherwise) of the settings selected. Just choose a record that’s intimate and acoustic to get a handle on what’s happening -- but make sure that it has enough dynamic peaks to ensure that you aren’t running out of headroom.

I chose "Cocaine" from Jackson Browne’s Running On Empty [Asylum 6E-113], with its familiar voice, range of instruments and lively playing and attack. As you reduce phono gain, what you hear is a blacker background, more solid and dimensional images with greater presence and richer colors. Instrumental identity and detail, the precise shape and decay of notes, improve, giving a greater sense of the players and their playing. But it’s the sense of natural communication that enters the vocal that let’s you know when things are really dialed in. Starting at 68dB of phono gain with the Goldfinger Statement, I was easily able to back the setting off, first to 62 and then 56dB -- and that’s with the loading wound down to 125 ohms.

Now play something bigger with wider-ranging dynamics -- something really explosive like the 180-gram reissue of Basie’s Farmer's Market Barbecue [Analogue Productions APJ-023]. Right from the opening track, with its easy, loping bass line, rhythm-guitar fills and stabbed piano chords, the music immediately settles into its groove, its infectious rhythms, whether the upbeat energy of "Way Out Basie" or the mellow smooch of "St. Louis Blues" picking up that core impulse to move with the music. Even when the band’s whole brass section lets rip, that rock-solid-yet-subtle rhythmic underpinning remains intact, deft and delicate, beautifully weighted and paced. Playing records takes the organizational and communicative capabilities of the Janus Signature to a whole new level, adding harmonic and textural information and a temporal fluidity that simply highlight the challenges faced by CD in these regards. The phono stage built in to this product is not to be underestimated, and its DNA shines through, underlining just why records retain their fascination for serious listeners. Of course, the fact that the Janus can feed off their rhythmic articulation and dynamic integrity is crucial to that appreciation -- and crucial to what makes this one-box preamplifier so special.

A beginning and an ending

I could go on, delivering more examples and more musical tests, but by now you’ll be getting the picture. These Aesthetix electronics play whatever you throw at them, without fear or favor -- and with a grace and musical integrity that are really quite disarming. As much as you set yourself the task of unraveling their performance, you’ll constantly find yourself drifting off into musical appreciation, their expressive enthusiasm and dynamic gusto easily overcoming sonic considerations. Yes, I can point to their absolute resolution and transparency as possible weaknesses, I can name electronics that offer greater clarity and spatial separation, but that is to miss the point. Just like a great middleweight boxer, the Janus Signature and Atlas Signature offer a near-perfect balance of virtues, doing everything well enough for the shortfall to pass unnoticed, save in the presence of a serious heavyweight. That balance gives them a broad, stable stance and means that their punches carry home, reinforcing both their musical and emotional impact. It’s a little like getting hit by Marvin Hagler: Larry Holmes might land a heavier blow, but saving direct comparison, I’m not sure you’re going to notice what’s missing from Marvin’s right.

On the face of it, you could conclude that the Janus Signature breaks all the rules. That many buttons and an all-tube phono stage built into a single-chassis preamplifier -- it’s got to be asking for trouble, right? In one sense you’d be correct, but then Aesthetix have been at this for a while and they’ve clearly figured a few things out. Although the Janus Signature might look feature-laden, weighed down with a plethora of luxury (for which read "unnecessary and potentially deleterious") options, in practice not one of those facilities has anything less than a direct impact on the musical qualities of your system. Once they’re there, you’ll start to use them; once you start, you’ll wonder how you ever got along without them. In particular, you’ll question just how few phono stages offer real control over gain -- possibly the great forgotten contributor to record-replay performance. In reality and despite its apparent complexity, this is very much a straight-line, performance-orientated design -- as its musical integrity so amply demonstrates.

Likewise the Atlas Signature manages to confound expectations. With so many hybrid amplifier designs ending up as neither fish nor fowl, lacking the incisive transparency and load tolerance of solid-state designs, the energy, flow and musical momentum of tube amps, this Aesthetix amp succeeds in treading a middle path. Genuinely powerful and capable of dominating awkward loudspeaker loads, it also possesses the musical substance, rhythmic articulation and emphatic dynamics that mark out the best vacuum-tube designs. Unlike the Aesthetix preamps, the Atlas upgrade path is somewhat simpler: stock stereo amp to Signature version and finally to monoblocks. Just like with the preamps, what you gain along the way is increased resolution and transparency, dynamic range and temporal authority.

Which brings us to what is in many ways the most intriguing conundrum of all. With such an extensive range of product options, just where do the Janus Signature and Atlas Signature sit in the Aesthetix worldview -- or the world’s view of Aesthetix? In many ways, these units are the sweet spots in the range. More expensive than the base models, they offer performance that more than justifies the difference in price (while the option to upgrade softens the financial blow). But let’s not lose sight of the fact that there is a whole range of options above these two -- which is exactly what I mean when I suggest that they present a conundrum. Looking at the sort of medium-sized three-way loudspeakers that make up the core business of so many high-end audio stores and reside on the end of so many audiophile systems, I can think of few more versatile, practical, cost-effective or communicative ways of driving them -- especially if you have a record collection to play. The Janus and Atlas Signature models can form a solid, beating musical heart, right at the center of such systems. Listen to them and I think you will be shocked by just how much musical energy they deliver, the authority with which it arrives and just how much sense it makes when it does. Considering that, as far as Aesthetix are concerned, these products are one notch above entry level, I find it remarkable just how completely satisfying they are to use. For Aesthetix, they may well only be one rung up the performance ladder, but for many a listener they are going to represent an approachable, practical and musically satisfying endgame -- just the endgame many of them will have been seeking out for many a long year.

Prices: Atlas Signature, $10,000; Janus Signature, $10,000.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.

Aesthetix Audio Corporation
5220 Gabbert Road Suite A
Moorpark, CA 93021
(805) 529-9901
www.aesthetix.net

Associated Equipment

Analog: VPI Classic 4 turntable with SDS; VPI JMW 12.7 and Tri-Planar Mk VII UII tonearms; Lyra Titan i, Scala, Dorian and Dorian Mono cartridges; Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement cartridge; van den Hul Condor cartridge; Allnic Puritas and Puritas Mono cartridges; Nordost Odin tonearm lead, Lyra Connoisseur 4.2PE phono stage.

Digital: Wadia S7i and GWSC-modified 861SE CD players, dCS Paganini and Vivaldi transports, DACs and uClock.

Preamps: Connoisseur 4.2 LE.

Power amps: Berning Quadrature Z monoblocks, Jeff Rowland Design Group Continuum S2 integrated amp, VTL MB-185 Signature Series III monoblocks.   and

Speakers: Coincident Speaker Technology Pure Reference Extreme, Focal Scala Utopia V2, Living Voice Auditorium IBX-RW, Marten Coltrane Supreme 2, Raidho C1.1, Wilson Benesch Square Five.

Interconnects and speaker cables: Complete looms of Nordost Odin, Valhalla 2 or Crystal Cable Dreamline Plus from AC socket to speaker terminals. Power distribution was via Quantum QRT QB8s or Crystal Cable Power Strip Diamonds, with a mix of Quantum Qx2 and Qx4 power purifiers and Qv2 AC harmonizers.

Supports: Racks are Hutter Racktime used with Nordost Sort Kone equipment couplers. Cables are elevated on Ayre myrtle-wood blocks or HECC Panda Feet. Nordost Sort Füt units were used under the speakers.

Acoustic treatments: As well as the broadband absorption placed behind the listening seat, I employ a combination of the LeadingEdge D Panel and Flat Panel microperforated acoustic devices.

Accessories: Essential accessories include the Audio System SmarTractor protractor, a USB microscope and Aesthetix cartridge demagnetizer, a precision spirit level and laser, a really long tape measure and plenty of masking tape. I also make extensive use of the Furutech anti-static and demagnetizing devices and the VPI Typhoon record-cleaning machine. The Dr. Feikert PlatterSpeed app has to be the best case ever of digital aiding analog.

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