An integrated amp with the power to change perceptions.
very story begins somewhere, and Tube Technology's begins with a chance meeting. Zia Faruqi, the company founder, was a college student on summer break when he wandered into a London hi-fi shop and overheard a man asking the shop owner if, by chance, he had a drafting table to sell. Faruqi studied drafting in college and just happened to have such a table taking up room in his apartment. The fellow was interested, and off the two of them rode in the man's car, "a battered Peugeot which was ankle high in jettisoned Senior Service and Piccadilly cigarette packets." Zia went on, "I sat patiently and listened to my somewhat erratic driver, cigarette in mouth, as he explained that he was starting a company to build valve amplifiers. He had just sailed from South Africa in his yacht, which was moored in Portsmouth, and was trying to sell it to fund his new venture."
Who was this mystery figure? Zia revealed, "I had just met the magnetic and very engaging David Manley for the first time." Manley offered Faruqi an apprenticeship in his new enterprise, which became Vacuum Tube Logic, better known by its initials. Eventually, he became managing director of VTL UK and a shareholder in the company. Manley, who passed away recently, later started US operations in California with his son Luke, who continues to run the company today. "Eventually," Zia told me, "I started Tube Technology with my own ideas for power-supply design and my own modern take on how to implement tubes in an audio circuit." Some of these "ideas" can be easily discerned from a peek at the Tube Technology website. High-power tube amplification and power supplies with "big iron" dominate, but Faruqi has expanded beyond amps and preamps, having a robust lineup of digital products -- a CD player, a pair of transports and a DAC -- and even an AM/FM tuner. A headphone amp is in the works.
My first exposure to Tube Technology electronics happened at the CES last year. Before the show, Faruqi had written to introduce himself and let me know that he was sharing a room with another British brand, and one I knew well: ProAc. A Tube Technology Synergy Carbon integrated amp drove ProAc Response D40R speakers, a Tube Technology Fusion CD64 CD player acting as source. The Synergy Carbon is something more than an integrated amp. It actually comprises a pair of mono power amps and a stereo preamp on a single chassis. You can easily see each of these with just a casual glance: the amps line each side, with the preamp running down the center. Fitting all of this on a single chassis not only required some serious forethought but also some serious space. Accordingly, the Synergy Carbon is big: 18 1/2" wide and deep, and weighing 90 pounds.
Also in the center is the circuitry for biasing the output tubes. Whereas Tube Technology's standard Carbon integrated uses EL34s, the Synergy Carbon is optimized for KT77s, a throw-back beam tetrode output tube that's a substitute for the EL34 (specifications for the two are nearly identical) but possessing some of the drive of the 6550. A pair of 12AU7s and four 12AT7s are also used. Power output is a healthy 150Wpc, and Faruqi specs the amp for speaker loads as low as 2 ohms, meaning that its output impedance has to be low, or frequency-response aberrations could result. If you're an Apogee owner searching for a tube integrated amp, the Synergy Carbon seems ideal, at least in an electrical sense.
Back to CES. Complicated systems are plentiful at high-end audio's annual cotillion, but the ProAc/Tube Technology system wasn't one of them. The setup didn't even include an equipment rack; one of the tables in the hotel room supported the electronics. The system was, however, one of the best I heard at the show -- early on, after a couple of days of warm-up, and as the show was ending. The sound was rich and muscular, possessing an easy resolution that made listening for long periods a delight. Zia and I talked there and then about my reviewing the Synergy Carbon, and the integrated used in Las Vegas came home with me.
Beyond lifting the Synergy Carbon out of its crate and installing the tubes, there's not much effort required to begin using it. The dozen KT77s are all marked, indicating in which socket each goes, and biasing is easy. Each tube has its own pot, the central rotary switch and meter allowing for adjustments. Inputs are single-ended only, and there is a single pair of speaker binding posts -- no 4-, 8- and 16-ohm taps. The supplied remote controls input, volume and mute. The volume control is motorized and there is no numerical indicator for level, so you have to adjust by ear or eye. The Synergy Carbon has a healthy amount of gain, so a noisy phono stage or tubed DAC may be be more of a nuisance than with other integrateds and preamp/amp combinations.
The Synergy Carbon gets half of its name from the carbon-fiber parts that adorn its top plate. Tube Technology gets these from a UK manufacturer of F1 racing parts, and while they look great, their real function is resonance control. The Synergy Carbon used at CES came in a metallic red, but a number of finishes are available, each enhancing the sporty look of what is a massive integrated amp. Perhaps it's no coincidence that the Synergy Carbon looks a bit like a racing car with its metallic finish and transformer covers, which resemble wheel wells.
ith the sound from CES still firmly planted in my mind, I unpacked the Synergy Carbon and installed it immediately, though temporarily (I was in the middle of another review), in my system. The tubes were already properly biased, so it was literally a set-it-and-forget-it proposition. Because of the Synergy Carbon's size, I placed it on two pieces of Corian between the speakers instead of straining to heave it onto my Silent Running Audio equipment rack.
There was no straining required to understand what the Synergy Carbon's sound was about. Its forcefulness and drive were matched by an abundant liquidity, giving the music a grand physical presence. This was not a laid-back, demure kind of sound. It was resounding and emphatic, more about intensity than subtlety, though certainly not lacking in the small touches that help turn impressive sound into convincing music. Images were solidly outlined and generously filled in. As a result, the Synergy Carbon was impartial to the kind of music played. It all sounded highly resolved and well delineated -- vivid in a tangible way, not the result of a tonal shift to the treble or over-emphasized edge definition.
In the middle of my listening, I began to work on a review of Dave Brubeck's Time Out [Columbia/Analogue Productions AAPJ 8192-45] -- the 45rpm Analogue Productions version that was created from the remastering work done for the earlier single-sided Classic Records 45rpm release. While the review only mentions various original pressings in passing, I listened to some from my personal Time Out library, which includes six different copies: three stereo and three mono. While the Analogue Productions reissue makes the others seem superfluous, including the oldest six-eye copies, I can't part with them, and I still listen to them from time to time, either so I don't have to deal with the extra work involved with 45rpm LPs or just because I have them.
The Synergy Carbon made the superiority of the Analogue Productions reissue plain, creating a massive, corporeal presentation that my notes labeled "amazing." At the same time, it also distinguished among the other copies I have while proving that their similarities are far more abundant than their differences, even between versions that are 20 years apart. If I had to choose only one of them to keep, I'd pick the oldest of them all, a six-eye mono pressing with the first cover [Columbia CL 1397], which, perhaps due to its early vintage or the fact that it's a mono, just sounds a skosh more immediate than the others. The Synergy Carbon flexed its muscles here, though never to the point of obscuring the recording's essential nature. The layering and lateral spread of the mono image were intact, if not as expressive as with electronics that display greater definition of music in space -- like those from Audio Research.
In an absolute sense, the Synergy Carbon has some tonal characteristics that, while deviating from neutral (an increasingly indefinable quality) also enliven whatever music passes through it. Its slightly burnished midrange extends up to the point where the mids transition to the highs, giving voices in particular a well-formed palpability -- and making the Synergy Carbon somewhat forgiving of high-frequency sins of commission. It never becomes actual warmth, remaining a slight tubey radiance. This is not to say that you won't know about a recording's flaws with the Synergy Carbon, just that their nature won't be so intrusive on the music. There is also an authority bump (my term) in the midbass, giving the entire bass region a muscular power that, again according to my notes, was "thrilling," helping rhythmic lines chug forward.
A song from Thomas Dolby's latest (and in many ways greatest) album, A Map of the Floating City [Lost Toy People CD-LTP-001], has become an earworm for me. I can't get "Road to Reno," especially its sassy, Herb Alpert-inspired horn chorus, out of my head. It is ostensibly a doomed-lovers story, but there is some real fun with wordplay ("They shopped in malls for love" and "They ate Mars Bars for love" are especially delightful), and its ending leaves more questions hanging than resolved. I'll leave it at that, so I don't spoil the experience if you haven't heard it. Sonically, it's light, lacking a strong bass underpinning that would give it even greater drive. The Synergy Carbon helped complete the sonic picture, filling out the mids and especially the bass in a way that definitely improved on the mix, even if it's still just presenting the music that's on the CD. I always felt this sense of richness was more of a mental construct than a sonic issue, as the same things that were responsible for it shaded the sound of classical music and jazz in ways that were consonant instead of obviously additive. Put another way, the Synergy Carbon's personality enhanced the experience of listening to music with it.
"What would be interesting to find out," say may notes, "is if these things, along with the rest of the Synergy Carbon's character, are a matter of its design or merely the output tubes." While it can't accommodate 6550s, for instance, would EL34s bring more or less of the things I mention, and would that make for a better or worse sonic outcome? I can't answer this, but it's a question that popped into my head as I parsed -- and liked, truth be told -- what I heard.
Dynamic swings were big, the gulf between the micro and macro ends defined by quick starts and abrupt stops. The Synergy Carbon handled challenging recordings, like some of the finer Telarcs, without a hint of struggle, even as "Fanfare for the Common Man," from the SACD of Copland and Hindemith compositions [Telarc SACD-60648], inevitably marched from serene beginning to crashing end. The Synergy Carbon's power output would indicate that it has the necessary muscle for the massive bass-drum and tam tam strikes, but the piece, at least on this recording, requires that the stage be set with the opening brass flourish, which begins low and slowly ramps up. No issues with this tube integrated, although, again, other electronics portray the music more in a "you are there" sense (as opposed to "they are here"), emphasizing space over in-room presence.
You might be able to guess, given all that I've revealed up to this point, that in terms of perspective, the Synergy Carbon is slightly forward of midhall. Yet, I wouldn't say it sounds forward in an absolute sense, partially because it's only "slightly forward" and partially because its combination of traits makes for a more natural than hard-charging or aggressive presentation. Again, its sound is vivid, though not in the way this describes the sound of, say, a more clinical solid-state integrated that resolves at the cost of reducing the physical presence of the musicians. While the Synergy Carbon never sounds overtly euphonic, it certainly leans in that direction. However, because of the sheer force behind each note it reproduces, it doesn't sound flabby or cloying.
As with any electronics, in fact, matching the Synergy Carbon with the right speaker will bring out the most in both. In this instance, instead of trying to balance yin with yang, I would look for a speaker with the same tonal and physical qualities, the ProAc D40R making a great combination, as would, I suspect, the Wilson Sophia III or Sasha W/P. But having said all that, the most intriguing possibility would be the Magnepan 3.7, which just might respond in unique fashion to the Synergy Carbon's disposition, especially its grunt throughout the bass region. Magnepan's ribbon tweeter can be as unforgiving as it is airy and fast, and I suspect it would purr with the Synergy Carbon doing the driving. Magnepan speakers are not tough loads, but they are insensitive -- another area in which the Synergy Carbon may counterbalance a tendency, as it could make them come alive. The more I speculate, the more I'd like to hear this combination.
I didn't have an integrated amp of equivalent ambition and cost on hand to compare to the Synergy Carbon. In truth, there aren't many such beasts, as so many audiophiles with nearly $20k to spend on electronics will opt for separates instead of considering an integrated, even one as sophisticated as the Synergy Carbon. Given the connection to David Manley, I do wonder how the Synergy Carbon might compare to a VTL TL-6.5 preamp and S-200 stereo amp -- neither of which I had on hand, both of which together are just $500 more than the Synergy Carbon. In terms of the electronics I know well, the Synergy Carbon sounds somewhat similar to those from Lamm, specifically the M1.2 Reference monoblocks, which certainly portray music with an obvious physical presence and whose bass has great drive and density. The Lamm amps aren't as liquid as the Synergy Carbon, however, and there's also not the same kind of tonal shading -- the Lamm amps sound darker, perhaps because they're slightly less airy in the treble. They're also mono amps, so the cost of a preamp has to be considered, not to mention the more than $4000 extra the amps cost.
product like the Tube Technology Synergy Carbon can cause some rethinking -- and philosophizing -- about the goals underlying the building of a fine audio system. The idea that there's an absolute fidelity is about as valid as that of an absolute morality, and the Synergy Carbon upholds this, presenting music in a way that's not without its defining traits but also with such copious physical presence and sheer power that you may question your beliefs about what form reproduction should take. It makes much solid-state sound thin and gray -- even anemic -- by comparison, and it never runs short on power or rhythmic drive. One of its design goals was to compete with separates, and it does this as surely as it accomplishes its forceful sound.
I suppose Tube Technology can be considered a small part of David Manley's audio legacy, Zia Faruqi's products being distinct, and distinctive, additions to the audiophile market. Tube Technology is in the process of moving its headquarters, including all manufacturing, to the US, sharing space with another part of David Manley's legacy, Manley Labs. Soon, US audiophiles will have greater access to the Synergy Carbon and the rest of the Tube Technology line. There's always room in the market for equipment like this.
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