AU­DIA FLIGHT FL THREE S IN­TE­GRATED AM­PLI­FIER

Australian HIFI - - CONTENTS -

This Ital­ian-made am­pli­fier com­bines the best sonic traits of valve am­pli­fiers with the best tech­ni­cal traits of solid-state, plus can be op­tioned-up to suit your ex­act re­quire­ments.

This year seemed like a good year to re­view Au­dia Flight’s FL Three S in­te­grated am­pli­fier, be­cause it’s ex­actly twenty years since this Ital­ian com­pany re­leased its first prod­uct, the Flight 100 power am­pli­fier (re­leased 1997) and I wasn’t about to wait around un­til the twentieth an­niver­sary of Au­dia Flight’s first in­te­grated am­pli­fier (the Flight One) be­cause oth­er­wise you would have been wait­ing un­til 2021 for this re­view. THE EQUIP­MENT With so many man­u­fac­tur­ers try­ing to build in added value to their prod­ucts th­ese days by of­fer­ing ‘fea­tures’ that most au­dio­philes ac­tu­ally don’t want (built in DACs, phono am­pli­fiers and such­like), it was truly re­fresh­ing to find that Au­dia Flight’s FL Three S is, at heart, just an in­te­grated am­pli­fier. Sure you can op­tion-in a USB DAC (add $580), and an MM/MC phono in­put stage (add $620) if you want, but they’re op­tions, not sup­plied as a ‘ fait ac­com­pli’. The price for the ba­sic am­pli­fier is $4,900. (Both the phono stage and DAC can be retro-fit­ted if you buy the ba­sic am­pli­fier and change your mind and de­cide to add one or the other… or both at any point in the fu­ture.)

Why do I think that most au­dio­philes don’t want th­ese cir­cuits built in? I reached this con­clu­sion sim­ply from ob­serv­ing the make-up of hun­dreds of au­dio­philes’ sys­tems over the years. Most vinyl lovers pre­fer to use a ded­i­cated phono stage, usu­ally one that al­lows them to cor­rectly load their phono car­tridge (for re­sis­tance and ca­pac­i­tance) and to ad­just the gain.

Sim­i­larly, au­dio­philes try­ing to ex­tract the best from dig­i­tal files, whether they’re be­ing served up by a sil­very disc or from a hard drive, al­most al­ways have an ex­ter­nal DAC. This mostly gives them op­tions of fil­ter se­lec­tion, phase switch­ing and so on, and also makes it less ex­pen­sive to up­grade when some new cir­cuit comes along… or some new for­mat: MQA be­ing the most re­cent ar­rival, but from far the first, and here I’m think­ing of the many dif­fer­ent im­ple­men­ta­tions of DSD, just for starters.

That said, I’d equally ob­serve that there are many mu­sic lovers who pre­fer ‘sin­gle box so­lu­tions’, and th­ese are the folks that will love that they can buy a plain Au­dia Flight FL Three S, or one that’s been op­tioned-up with a USB DAC and a phono stage. One thing you should note, how­ever, is that in­clud­ing a phono stage means los­ing one of the Flight FL Three S’s un­bal­anced line-level in­puts. In stan­dard form, the FL Three S comes with four line-level un­bal­anced in­puts (via RCA), plus a sin­gle bal­anced in­put (via XLR). Op­tion-in the MM/MC phono stage and this drops down to three un­bal­anced in­puts and one bal­anced in­put.

One of the neat fea­tures of the Au­dia Flight FL Three S is that you can as­sign one of the in­puts so that any com­po­nent con­nected to it will by­pass the pream­pli­fier sec­tion to di­rectly drive the in­ter­nal power am­pli­fiers. This makes it easy to use the FL Three S to in­te­grate your main stereo speak­ers as the front-left and front-right speak­ers in a multi-chan­nel home theatre sys­tem, but also use them for stereo lis­ten­ing via stereo sources con­nected to the Flight Three S.

I was pleased to find that the Au­dia Flight FL Three S has a so­phis­ti­cated elec­tronic pro­tec­tion sys­tem built in…

Yet another neat fea­ture is that the ‘pre-am­pli­fier out­puts’ on the rear panel are not or­di­nary out­puts be­cause if you have an ex­ter­nal power am­pli­fier con­nected to th­ese, you can op­tion­ally turn off the FL Three S’s own in­ter­nal power am­pli­fiers, which means the en­tire ‘heft’ of the FL Three S’s power sup­ply can be de­voted to ‘pro­cess­ing and pream­pli­fy­ing’. Well, not strictly ‘sup­ply’ but ‘sup­plies’ be­cause the FL Three S ac­tu­ally has eight power sup­plies that are fed by a 500VA toroidal trans­former, in­clud­ing high-cur­rent stages for the out­put tran­sis­tors that are sup­ported by 72,000μF-worth of stor­age/smooth­ing ca­pac­i­tance… and that’s not count­ing the ad­di­tional 13,200μF that’s avail­able to the other stages.

In terms of vis­ual ap­pear­ance, Au­dia Flight has come ahead in leaps and bounds in re­cent years. Look at the chas­sis of the Au­dia Flight FL Three (that is, not the ‘S’ ver­sion) and if there were no logo present, you’d be hard-pressed to iden­tify it from any one of a hun­dred other in­te­grated am­pli­fiers, whereas with the FL Three S, I reckon I could pick one from one hun­dred me­tres away! I par­tic­u­larly like the quirky de­sign of the front panel dis­play, which has been formed into a shape that re­sem­bles a smil­ing mouth. It’s so dis­tinc­tive that when I cropped a shot of it and pasted it into Google’s ‘Im­age Search’ en­gine, I was ex­pect­ing it to re­turn thou­sands of im­ages con­tain­ing smil­ing mouths. I was to­tally sur­prised when Google sim­ply ad­vised: ‘ Best guess for this im­age: au­dia flight three s’ and provided three pages of links to re­views and re­tail out­lets for this model.

The ‘smile’ on the front panel dis­play is carved into a solid chunk of alu­minium al­loy that’s 10mm thick, and the dis­play it­self is a to­tally mod­ern OLED type with let­ter­ing large enough to be clearly vis­i­ble from quite some dis­tance. Press­ing the (+) and (–) in­put but­tons below the dis­play let you cy­cle through the avail­able in­puts with the re­spec­tive in­put names (In­put 1, In­put 2, In­put 3 etc) be­ing shown in the dis­play as you cy­cle through. Not that you’re stuck with the de­fault names: the FL Three S al­lows you to re-name all the in­puts to re­flect your per­sonal pref­er­ences and/or the names of the spe­cific com­po­nents you have con­nected to it. The only lim­i­ta­tion is that only ten char­ac­ters can be dis­played, so if you have a com­po­nent with a par­tic­u­larly long-winded man­u­fac­turer’s name and/or model num­ber, your skill at ab­bre­vi­a­tion will be re­quired.

To the right of the in­put se­lec­tor but­tons is a Speaker On/Off but­ton, a ‘Set’ but­ton (used in con­junc­tion with in­put la­belling, direct/ by­pass se­lec­tion for In­put 4, set­ting mon­i­tor func­tion for the record out­put, check­ing the loaded soft­ware ver­sion and re­set­ting all pro­grams back to fac­tory de­fault) and a Mute but­ton.

The in­frared re­mote con­trol provided with the FL Three S is pow­ered by two CR2032 lithium bat­ter­ies and the con­trols on it du­pli­cate most of those found on the front panel, plus adds con­trol over the bright­ness of the front panel dis­play. You can choose to switch this dis­play off en­tirely, but it will still turn on briefly when­ever you press one of the but­tons on the re­mote or on the front panel.

I was pleased to find that the Au­dia Flight FL Three S has a so­phis­ti­cated pro­tec­tion sys­tem to pro­tect the am­pli­fier in the case of short cir­cuits, ex­ces­sive cur­rent draw at the speaker ter­mi­nals, ex­ces­sive heatsink tem­per­a­ture (>80°C), d.c. at the out­put ter­mi­nals, sup­ply fail­ure and even in the event that the am­pli­fier de­tects that its own pro­tec­tion cir­cuit is not op­er­at­ing nor­mally. In the case of a fault, the FL Three S will go into pro­tec­tion mode and show ‘Pro­tec­tion’ in the front panel dis­play. Re­set in­volves turn­ing the am­pli­fier off com­pletely by re­mov­ing mains power, then re-es­tab­lish­ing power and switch­ing on.

The Au­dia Flight FL Three S mea­sures 450×110×440mm (WHD), weighs 16.5kg and draws less than 0.5-watts in standby mode. In Use and LIs­ten­Ing ses­sIons My re­view sam­ple Au­dia Flight FL Three S came with the op­tional phono board in­stalled, and I have to say that it’s a truly won­der­ful unit. In ad­di­tion to of­fer­ing sup­port for both mov­ing-mag­net and mov­ing-coil car­tridges, it also of­fers (via DIP switches) ad­justable ca­pac­i­tance for MM car­tridges (50, 100, 150, 200, 300 and 400pF) and ad­justable re­sis­tance for MC car­tridges (20Ω, 30Ω, 70Ω, 100Ω, 250Ω, 330Ω, 1kΩ and 47kΩ). And if none of th­ese re­sis­tances is suit­able for your par­tic­u­lar car­tridge, there’s even a space on the PCB for you to in­sert a re­sis­tor to par­al­lel the 47kΩ load to drop it to the spe­cific re­sis­tance value re­quired.

I should also make it clear that if you op­tion in the DAC board, you don’t lose an in­put, as you do with the phono stage, but in­stead gain one, so the USB in­put be­comes In­put 6. Au­dia Flight doesn’t pub­lish de­tails about the DAC it’s us­ing other than to say that it’s a 24-bit 192kHz de­vice that’s iso­lated from your com­puter by an ADuM from Ana­log De­vices. Says Au­dia Flight: ‘ When the USB is used to­gether with a player ap­pli­ca­tion such as FooBar or WinAmp, the user can trans­fer stream mu­sic files to [the] in­ter­nal con­verter at 192kHz/24-bits max­i­mum fre­quency/res­o­lu­tion while avoid­ing un­de­sired PC or MAC au­dio mixer data pro­cess­ing dur­ing the data trans­fer from hard disk.’

Since I’m clear­ing things up, I should also make it per­fectly clear to read­ers that the full-sized 6.35mm stereo head­phone socket on the front panel of the FL Three S is your ac­cess to a fully-fledged dis­crete high-per­for­mance head­phone am­pli­fier—it’s not just hived off the speaker out­put or a driven by a cheap IC. It drove all the head­phones I had on hand per­fectly, so I al­ways had more than ad­e­quate vol­ume lev­els, to­gether with very low noise and dis­tor­tion. So there’s no need for you to in­vest in a sep­a­rate head­phone

am­pli­fier… if you were think­ing you might need one.

The Own­ers’ Man­ual provided by Au­dia Flight says that ev­ery FL Three S is pre-con­di­tioned by be­ing run-in at the fac­tory for 50 hours, but goes on to rec­om­mend that you should run yours in for a fur­ther 100 hours be­fore do­ing any se­ri­ous lis­ten­ing, at the same time em­pha­sis­ing that ‘run­ning in’ means ac­tu­ally run­ning a mu­sic sig­nal through it… not merely leav­ing it ‘switched on’.

Since my re­view Au­dia Flight FL Three S ar­rived al­ready op­tioned-up with a phono in­put, the very first thing I did was change the front panel dis­play to re­flect this, by re-la­belling it PHONO. The process of re-la­belling proved to be quite a la­bo­ri­ous one, be­cause you have to cy­cle through the al­pha­bet(s) con­tained in the Au­dia Flight’s me­mory via re­peated but­ton-press­ing to as­sign each let­ter. Luck­ily I only had to do five let­ters rather than ten. And ac­tu­ally, when a phono stage is in­stalled, it should be manda­tory for Au­dia Flight to pro­gram the dis­play to Phono at the fac­tory, rather than re­quir­ing cus­tomers to do it.

Since I have men­tioned the but­tons on the front panel of the Au­dia Flight FL Three S I should say that they’re very un­usual: tiny spring-loaded dome-headed but­tons that not only click when they’re pressed in, but also click when they’re re­leased, with the dou­ble click al­most al­ways ac­com­pa­nied by yet another click from a re­lay in­side the am­pli­fier.

The ‘mute’ cir­cuit on the Au­dia Flight FL3S is im­ple­mented rather strangely, in that when you press it, the vol­ume con­trol (which is mo­torised) turns all the way down (which takes about 4 sec­onds), and it’s only after the vol­ume has been ramped all the way down that the word ‘Mute’ fi­nally shows in the front panel OLED. Press ‘Mute’ again and the op­po­site process takes place. If the vol­ume con­trol is al­ready at its min­i­mum po­si­tion, the mute cir­cuit doesn’t work at all. So it’s more like a ‘wind the vol­ume con­trol back to zero then back to where it was’ con­trol than a true ‘Mute’ but­ton (i.e., one whose cir­cuit is in­de­pen­dent of the vol­ume con­trol.)

The ‘Speaker On/Speaker Off’ func­tion is also im­ple­mented rather strangely. Press the ‘SPKR OFF’ but­ton and after a slight de­lay, the front panel dis­play shows “SPKR”. It may just be me, but this word­ing seemed coun­ter­in­tu­itive. I’d have pre­ferred the dis­play to read ‘SPKR OFF’ (which luck­ily just squeezes in within the 10-char­ac­ter dis­play lim­i­ta­tion). The de­lay in op­er­a­tion is also a tad an­noy­ing… even though it’s only about one sec­ond. Why couldn’t it be in­stan­ta­neous? (And hav­ing said that, be­cause the FL Three S is soft­ware-con­trolled, Au­dia Flight could eas­ily re-write the soft­ware for new mod­els, and to up­grade older mod­els, so this may be pos­si­ble in the fu­ture… if enough users think it’s de­sir­able.)

Dur­ing my lis­ten­ing ses­sions I tri­alled sev­eral dif­fer­ent pairs of speak­ers with the FL Three S and while the am­pli­fier didn’t seem to care too much about the ef­fi­ciency of the speak­ers it was con­nected to, driv­ing low-ef­fi­ciency speak­ers and high ef­fi­ciency speak­ers with equal aplomb to their max­i­mum per­for­mance ca­pa­bil­i­ties (and with more than suf­fi­cient vol­ume from even the low­est-ef­fi­ciency mod­els) the over­all ‘feel’ of the sound from the Au­dia Flight seemed more re­laxed when it was driv­ing speak­ers with higher im­ped­ance rat­ings—in the 6Ω to 8Ω range.

My lis­ten­ing ses­sion started in a very re­laxed way, en­joy­ing Diana Krall’s new­est al­bum, ‘Turn Up The Quiet’, which should be in­stantly recog­nis­able to au­dio­philes be­cause of the McIn­tosh turntable that fea­tures on the al­bum’s art­work (with Ms Krall ly­ing lan­guorously along­side it, it must be said.) You know you’re in for a mu­si­cal treat when you hear Chris­tian McBride’s bass lazily kick­ing off the in­tro track Like Some­one in Love (Jimmy Van Heusen/Johnny Burke), then you know you’re in for a real sonic treat when you hear Krall’s slow in­take of breath be­fore she sings: ‘ Lately, I find my­self out gaz­ing at stars’. The Au­dia Flight FL Three S de­liv­ered the sound so nat­u­rally, and so re­al­is­ti­cally, that I lit­er­ally went limp in my chair with the pleasure of it. ‘ This is how an am­pli­fier should re­pro­duce mu­sic,’ I thought to my­self. And it wasn’t only the qual­ity of the sound, it was also the tim­ing of her de­liv­ery, and the pitch­ing of it. Can you tell all this in less than 22 sec­onds? The fact that you can sim­ply proves the qual­ity of the Au­dia Flight FL Three S. The pro­duc­tion qual­ity of this al­bum is great, and all the in­stru­ments (as well as Krall’s voice) are beau­ti­fully recorded. If Krall and Tommy Lipuma (who pro­duced it) were aim­ing at a ‘pi­ano bar’ sound—and I think they were—they’ve suc­ceeded big-time. Darken the lights in your lis­ten­ing room and you’ll eas­ily be able to imag­ine your­self in just such a bar, with Krall tick­ling both the ivories and your fancy.

Lon­don Gram­mar’s re­cent re­lease (‘Truth is a Beau­ti­ful Thing’) re­minded me how good an al­bum ‘If You Wait’ was, so it’s been do­ing some fairly heavy ro­ta­tion en mi casa. Lis­ten­ing to Wast­ing My Young Years had me in ad­mi­ra­tion at the way they can con­trol

The Au­dia Flight FL Three S de­liv­ered the sound so nat­u­rally, and so re­al­is­ti­cally, that I lit­er­ally went limp in my chair with the pleasure of it

the dy­nam­ics of a song, so it doesn’t run the way you’d ex­pect. Ev­ery time the tempo picks up and you ex­pect a big fin­ish, it merely falls away, pinned only by Reid’s plain­tive vo­cal line that closes with the self-ful­fill­ing prophecy ‘ I don’t know what you want, don’t leave me hang­ing on’ in a per­fectly an­ti­cli­mac­tic con­clu­sion that’s not a con­clu­sion… yet is. The at­mo­spher­ics that make Hey Now such a com­pelling lis­ten are beau­ti­fully ren­dered by the Au­dia Flight FL Three S, and be­cause you can hear so deep into the son­ics, you know that the am­pli­fier’s noise floor is ‘way below that of the mu­sic, so it’s lower than you’ll ever need. The flu­id­ity of the am­pli­fier’s de­liv­ery is also demon­strated by the con­ti­nu­ity and ex­ten­sion of Reid’s vo­cals… does she ever draw breath?

I tri­alled the Au­dia Flight Three S’s power de­liv­ery and dy­nam­ics with another disc that’s in heavy ro­ta­tion at my place, sim­ply as a re­sult of me and mine see­ing ‘Baby Driver’ at the cinema. Don’t mind if I never see the movie again, but the sound­track is ab­so­lutely fan­tas­tic… and this from some­one who’s not a fan of the sound­track genre. On pa­per, the track list­ing doesn’t ap­pear to work— Un­square Dance (Dave Brubeck Quar­tet) lead­ing into Neat Neat Neat (The Damned) as just one ex­am­ple. Turn­ing up the wick on Bon­go­lia (The In­cred­i­ble Bongo Band) showed me I wouldn’t be want­ing for power if I owned an FL Three S. Bon­go­lia is pretty much all per­cus­sion, of course—and not only bon­gos—and even though I turned the vol­ume up as far as I dared, the FL Three S just pow­ered on, de­liv­er­ing the peaks and tran­sients without any signs of com­pres­sion or pre­ma­ture dis­tor­tion. I heard ex­actly the same when lis­ten­ing to the in­san­ity of Fo­cus’ Ho­cus Pocus, with its heavy bass lines, scream­ing guitar leads and the sound of a drum kit be­ing thrashed to death… with all the same ef­fects be­ing re­peated a few tracks later by Queen on their Brighton Rock… which con­trasts rather strangely with the Si­mon and Gar­funkel song from which the movie took its name. (Sky Fer­ri­era’s Easy sep­a­rates th­ese two tracks, so maybe not so strange, ex­cept for the strange­ness of Easy it­self!) My only dis­ap­point­ment was the pro­duc­ers clos­ing out the al­bum with a song that not only didn’t fea­ture in the movie, but also takes the glory away from what would have been the close-out track, Kid Koala’s Was He Slow? (which is also a great demo of the FL Three S’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties in the power out­put depart­ment.) Con­CLU­sIon This beau­ti­fully built Ital­ian-made in­te­grated am­pli­fier has all the fea­tures and fa­cil­i­ties you could want in an in­te­grated am­pli­fier, plus the op­tion to in­cor­po­rate a (very rea­son­ably-priced) DAC and/or a (very rea­son­ably-priced) MM/ MC phono stage any time you want, while son­i­cally it mar­ries the best at­tributes of valves with the best at­tributes of solid state to de­liver sound qual­ity that will have you smil­ing with pleasure with ev­ery al­bum you play… which is likely why they put the smile on the front panel in the first place. Aaron Flem­ing Read­ers in­ter­ested in a full tech­ni­cal ap­praisal of the per­for­mance of the Au­dia Flight FL Three S In­te­grated Am­pli­fier should con­tinue on and read the LAB­O­RA­TORY RE­PORT pub­lished on the fol­low­ing pages. Read­ers should note that the re­sults men­tioned in the re­port, tab­u­lated in per­for­mance charts and/or dis­played us­ing graphs and/or pho­to­graphs should be con­strued as ap­ply­ing only to the spe­cific sam­ple tested.

IN­TE­GRATED AM­PLI­FIER

The op­tional phono board of­fers (via DIP switches) ad­justable ca­pac­i­tance for MM car­tridges (50, 100, 150, 200, 300 and 400pF) and ad­justable re­sis­tance for MC car­tridges (20Ω, 30Ω, 70Ω, 100Ω, 250Ω, 330Ω, 1kΩ and 47kΩ) plus sup­port for cus­tom val­ues.

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