"Evenhanded and self-effacing" 1000-watt mono amps.
he most conspicuous feature of the Analog Domain Artemis monoblocks -- more than their gleaming surfaces or enormous front-panel meters -- is something you'll find in the spec sheet for these extremely expensive solid-state mono amplifiers. Their power output is a cool 1000 watts at 8 ohms -- each. While that figure is attention-grabbing, the Artemis is only the third-most-powerful amp in the Analog Domain line. The Athene offers 2000 watts into the same 8-ohm load, and the Apollo delivers a mind-boggling 4000 watts.
Such gaudy power outputs raise an obvious question: Does one need such power, especially with so many contemporary speakers having sensitivities at or above 90dB? "Need" is not really the issue for Angel Despotov, the designer of all Analog Domain equipment. Instead, such power is vital to realistic reproduction.
Any audiophile who has done his homework knows that the relationship between amplifier power and sound pressure is logarithmic. That is, double the power does not equal double the output in decibels. Double the amplifier power translates to a mere 3dB increase in loudness. Ten times the power means a 10dB increase. Now, if you've ever owned an amplifier with an output meter on the front, you know that for any given music your amp may be delivering just a handful of watts -- or less than a single watt -- even to play at loud levels. In such case, ten times a handful still equals a comfort zone for your amp, even if it's not as massively powerful as the Artemis monoblocks.
But what if you don't want to settle for "a comfort zone"? What if the goal of realism is taken literally and you want to, for instance, reproduce the full grandeur of a Kawai EX, purported to have the widest dynamic range of any concert piano? You may then need 100 or 10,000 times the power of your fraction of a watt to reach SPLs that top out at 110dB.
This is the premise with which Angel Despotov began designing amplifiers, his reasoning peppered with terms like "crest factor" and, of course, "dynamic." He reasons, "If you look into the nature of music, it is a highly dynamic signal whose average level is way below the peaks. . . . When you play a recording, if you want a realistic experience, you need a system that can provide the dynamic relationship at realistic levels." "Realistic" means power, and "power" means a lot of power -- measured not in watts but kilowatts. Each Artemis uses 60 output devices to produce its 1000 watts. Despotov's design specifies that these bipolar transistors be used within their most linear region, which reduces distortion and lowers impedance, and provide enormous peak current capabilities, so the amps can cope with even demanding speakers at high power.
Some of this reverence for power may come from Despotov's background. He cut his teeth in terms of audio design in the pro arena. He designed sound-reinforcement systems -- electronics and speakers -- before founding Analog Domain. His products are currently limited to four mono amplifiers, but a similarly ambitious preamp is in the works, with a launch date sometime in 2013. I've actually heard a vastly scaled-down version of this preamp -- or more specifically its circuit -- and I can say that it does pretty much what a preamp is theoretically supposed to do: attenuate without adding anything to the signal.
Analog Domain amps take the big-and-beautiful aesthetic to new heights. The glass front panel flows cleanly into the rounded corners, the heatsinks set into the top panel, not merely bolted to the sides, all joints right and tight. Around back are pairs of wingnut speaker binding posts, which are made for tightening by hand, along with balanced XLR and single-ended RCA inputs. The Artemis is fully balanced, so for the sake using the parts redundancy you paid for, not to mention taking advantage of the common-mode noise rejection inherent in a balanced circuit, the XLRs are the recommended way to connect the amps. One novel feature is a signal pass-through, allowing the connection of a second pair of amps for biwiring. I like the gain-reduction switch, which will make the Artemis a mate with a wider array of preamps, especially tube units whose inherent noise might be amplified to the point of annoyance by the Artemis at full gain.
There are also two undeniably cool user features. The first is the way you turn the amps on and off. Once the mains breaker on the back is engaged, instead of a pushbutton or switch on the front, there is an illuminated circle the size of a nickel. You touch your finger within the circle to power up or down, the circle changing color depending on status. This preserves the amp's modest, modern front panel. Second, while the lighting for the meters is adjustable in just two increments, it doesn't need to be any more complex, given that a third choice engages an ambient-light sensor, which adjusts the meters' illumination based on the light in the room.
Altogether, the Artemis represents an impressively finished package. Visually and functionally, it exudes refinement and quality -- unique in my experience for a product from a relatively new company. Some serious forethought went into these amps, and surely the others in the line as well, and it definitely shows. Of course, some will point out that you should expect all of this for the price of these amps, to which I would answer that you get it -- at least here, if not with other equally expensive mono amps, whose numbers seem to increase with every new audio show.
used the Artemis monoblocks exclusively with Wilson Audio Alexandria XLF speakers. Back to the issue of need: these very sensitive speakers -- 93.5dB -- present a rather easy load to the partnering amp, with a 3.2-ohm minimum impedance, and therefore don't require the massive power that an amp like the Artemis can deliver. They can sound glorious driven by a mere 18 watts, as I proved when I used them with Lamm ML2.2 SET monoblocks. Yet, as I noted in my review of the speakers, the best amps I used were also the most powerful: the Artemis and VTL Siegfried II monoblocks. It wasn't a matter of sheer watts that made these powerhouse amps such adept mates for the big Wilson speakers. Instead, I'm convinced, it had to do with capabilities -- amps and speakers being similarly wide-ranging, pushing each other's boundaries, accentuating qualities that other combinations didn't. Yes, I am talking about dynamics here, as well as bass expression and grip, midrange holography, and the ability to reveal the differences that each recording inevitably presented. While I would never say that the Analog Domain and VTL amps sounded identical (because they surely didn't), all of this contributed to the impression that the amps (my review of the Siegfried IIs is forthcoming) and speakers were interlocked in a continuum of matching and then exceeding each other. That's the best way I can summarize it: a contest of one-upsmanship between products whose capabilities often seemed limitless.
The results were reproduction on a massive scale, even as, in the case of the Artemis monoblocks, the amps didn't sound particularly massive themselves. Don't take this the wrong way -- it's a very good thing when it describes an amplifier. The Artemis monoblocks got out of the way, letting the music and equipment around them dictate the system's sound. This was the first thing I observed -- and admired -- about the amps, even as it made the job of describing their sonic disposition more difficult. We often believe that the highest goal for a preamp is to sound like no preamp at all, and the Artemis monoblocks were the first amps in my experience to accomplish this lofty goal. More than any amp I've heard, they were truly soundless, not there.
But there still were "capabilities" at play -- characteristics they achieved without effort or fanfare. The amps were evenhanded and self-effacing -- tonally, spectrally and dynamically -- but this didn't translate to the showy dynamics and cold, emaciated tonality that defines so many of the amps that are considered "neutral," which, through overuse and misuse, is a nearly meaningless term now.
Along with this, their spatial signature was not power first -- that is, it wasn't dominated by the amps' tremendous power output, creating a presentation that was forward and blustery. Its muscle was kept in reserve, and the reserves had reserves, the front-panel meters bobbing but the amps seemingly never feeling stress. The music only got louder as the volume rose, the soundstage never shoving forward, the sound remaining composed. Immediately out of their well-wrought crates, the amps lacked depth, flatly stringing the soundstage between the speakers, but this changed for the better over the first twenty hours of play, after which it became easier to hear into recordings at a nearly microscopic level.
Some music. Running parallel with the vinyl revival of the past few years has been a similar one for SACD. Once considered (within Sony at least) the future of digital music, SACD almost disappeared a few years ago, but it is now getting its second breath, and it may become even more significant once DSD, SACD's native digital language, can be streamed in abundance. Of course, this will require the ability to rip cuts from SACDs, saving them in raw DSD, but that seems plausible if demand is great enough.
We are now seeing more and more SACD reissues -- titles that were released in the first wave of the format being re-released by Analogue Productions and Mobile Fidelity or as SHM SACDs -- new versions that boast of (and often deliver) improved sound. I did a fair bit of comparative listening to first- and later-generation SACDs with the Analog Domain amps in my system, and the differences were always apparent, even with software that was all supposedly superior by its very nature. At the time the Artemis amps were in my system, I had two different SACDs of Miles Davis's seminal Sketches of Spain: the first release [Columbia/Legacy CS 65142] and a later Japanese reissue [Sony Music Japan SICP 10084]. Since then, Mobile Fidelity has added a third, and I wouldn't be surprised if an SHM SACD materializes at some point, proving once again that we audiophiles really will rebuy music we already own.
Of course, given that I now own three versions, I can't point fingers, but I can say that the Japanese reissue is definitely better-sounding than the first SACD, and the Artemis monoblocks were integral in revealing this. It was a matter of detail retrieval and spatial resolution, the Japanese SACD simply sounding more open and having more finely drawn instrumental lines than the domestic issue. No one would consider Sketches of Spain power music, but it is dynamic, though more micro than macro. Here the Artemis monoblocks showed that dynamic agility isn't simply about soft to loud, as they handled the range of very soft to soft extremely well, no doubt due to their own low inherent noise. But most important was how all of the subtleties of the music were presented -- in expert relationship to each other and without undue emphasis, which can be the bugaboo of highly detailed amps.
On the other end of the music-format spectrum, my love affair with mono LPs continues. Finding so much of this old, forgotten music on CD is impossible, and the sound is unique. Mono becomes a format unto itself when you play the LPs with a mono cartridge. I also have to admit that the lack of availability appeals to me; the sense that I can hear a jazz session, for instance, that is essentially lost to our world today is another reason to love mono analog, although oddly enough some obscure music has become available as MP3 files. This is the case with The New Billy Taylor Trio [ABC-Paramount 226], a 1958 session featuring Billy Taylor on piano, Earl May on bass and Ed Thigpen on drums. I've seen a stereo version of the LP, but I have doubts about its sonic worth, as 1958 was very early in the stereo-recording game.
If you want to hear this session in all its glory, the mono LP is it, and the Artemis monoblocks brought it to life in understated but important ways. As with the SACDs, the amps' obvious lack of character made it easy to hear deeply into the recording, all the more important here because the recording doesn't have the emphatic quality of, say, a Blue Note from the same era. Tonality was uncolored but images were dense; as a matter of course, these amps walked a very fine line that didn't skew one way or the other, often embodying seeming opposites to equal degree. With The New Billy Taylor Trio, front-to-back layering showed minute gradation, even as the music gently flowed from the speakers, turning sonic analysis into work.
But it wasn't all gentleness. With Keith Richards' Main Offender [Virgin V2-86499], the most realistic rock recording I've ever heard, the amps propelled the drum whacks into the room like thunder claps, and the bottom end hit with massive force, especially on "Words of Wonder," with its reggae-rhythm underpinning. Again, as the volume rose, the music only got louder, never deteriorating into a stew of grain, compression and shoutiness. Composure, even at impossibly high listening levels, remained intact, making me wonder what those even more powerful Analog Domain amps could possibly offer. Greater headroom where it already seemed infinite? Again, perhaps with less sensitive speakers, 2000 or 4000 watts would be needed to reach the levels that I -- and possibly my neighbors -- was hearing, but with the Wilson XLFs, the Artemis monoblocks were an eternal fount of power.
And just as no music seemed to stress these amps, neither did partnering equipment, although I definitely preferred the Audio Research Reference Anniversary to the other preamps I had in house. The Esoteric K-01 CD/SACD player was also a sympathetic mate, its own sense of power mating well with the Analog Domain amps, though skewing them toward weight and forcefulness and away from their own "everything in moderation" mien.
The Artemis monoblocks simply were, without effort or drama, which they left to the music. You might think, as I did, that you're in for a dizzying ride when you add a pair of big, powerful, expensive monoblocks to your system, but, just as happened to me, you will discover something much more meaningful: amplifiers that don't exert themselves on the outcome. A roller coaster can be fun for a couple of minutes, but it soon grows tiring. Owners of the Artemis monoblocks will be in for the long haul.
he most telling comparison product for the Artemis amps would be one of the other fine solid-state amps I've reviewed, like the Luxman B-1000f or Ayre MX-R, but it has been too long since I heard either of them to make any meaningful comments -- other than that both together don't equal the cost of the Analog Domain amps. You can throw in the Audio Research Reference 250 monoblocks ($24,990 per pair) too, and I'm familiar enough with them, as they are still here, to talk a bit about the sonic differences they and the Analog Domain amps pose, and even some broad similarities.
First the similarities. In isolation, the two amps have an expressive and tangible midrange, and they portray space well -- though the Reference 250s, like all Audio Research gear, excel here. I would also say that both are fundamentally uncolored, although it's easy to hear that one uses tubes and the other doesn't. I praised the Reference 250s for their "unshakable composure and boundless capability," but this gets reset in relation to the Artemis monoblocks, which have a deeper well of power from which to draw. This signals the beginning of the differences, many of them coming from the basic difference in technology. The Analog Domain amps portrayed the music with sharper angles, especially transients like those on Main Offender, which had a greater sense of propulsion behind them. In this, they sounded more matter-of-fact compared to the slightly less rigid Reference 250s, whose presentation is defined, first, by the immensity of the soundscape they cast and then the slightly sweeter tonality of their tubes. They Reference 250s do bass very well indeed, but the delineation of the Artemis monoblocks makes it sound somewhat fuzzy at its lowest reaches.
In many ways, the Artemis and Reference 250 monoblocks represent the best of their respective technologies here and now, but they also reveal once again that solid state doesn't sound like tubes, and vice versa.
ne of the best things about the job of writing about audio gear is getting to hear products like the Analog Domain Artemis monoblocks and to meet people like Angel Despotov. Both were completely unknown to me earlier this year, but both seemed interesting enough on paper for further investigation. This led to discovery of a serious new brand of electronics -- new to me at least -- and the person who created it. But more importantly, both have modified my views on amplifiers in general and solid-state amps in specific. While the Artemis amps were undeniably powerful, they didn't flaunt it, remaining composed and even reserved, never exerting influence on the music as much as passing it to the speakers. They were elegantly designed, beautiful to look at, and unequivocally stable in use, even when I pushed them to the point where instability would set in with just about any other amp.
Still, there are almost certainly people reading this review who will want me to condemn the Artemis amps on the basis of their price, and I guess in the sense that I am surely not the target buyer, I could be justified in doing this -- if I believed it was warranted. My part here is listening and translating what I hear into words, not carping about cost, which is a delicate proposition for high-end products of all kinds. How does one spread the cost of R&D, let alone the built-by-hand nature, of products like the Artemis over the number of units that will be sold and not come up with a high price? Even if you object to amplifiers that cost six figures on principle, you would have to concede that the Artemis seems to be a select product within the rarefied sector of the market it inhabits.
And the market, such as it is, will take care of rewarding or scolding Angel Despotov for his amps and the choices they represent. On the basis of sound, and sound alone, I'd say he's off to a very promising start.
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