SoundMag - - Review - Writ­ten by Ja­cob Heil­brunn - The Ab­so­lute Sound

Clas­sic Mar­que, Mod­ern Sound

The phrase “Swiss Army Knife of au­dio prod­ucts” gets bandied about a lot in the high end, but the Au­dio Re­search GSi75 truly is it. ARC mod­estly de­scribes the tube-based GSi75 in its user man­ual as an in­te­grated am­pli­fier. Well, yes. But talk­ing about bury­ing the lead, as they say in jour­nal­ism.

Af­ter pop­ping the GSi75 out of its box, I quickly dis­cov­ered that there is a lot more to it than 75 watts per chan­nel. The GSi75 has a wealth of con­trols and op­tions packed into its rel­a­tively mod­est-sized chas­sis. It con­tains both a DAC and phonos­tage. Each is of high qual­ity. The DAC pro­vides you with up­sam­pling op­tions, or you can just stick with the na­tive sam­pling rate of 44.1kHz. I found I liked stick­ing with the ba­sic sam­pling rate best. Will it sound dif­fer­ent at other rates? Yes. But bet­ter? I’m not so sure.

Then there is the nifty phonos­tage sec­tion. It of­fers the op­tion to al­ter the in­put im­ped­ance on the fly with five dif­fer­ent loads—100, 200, 500,

1k, and 47k ohms. If you like to fid­dle with—or to put it more po­litely, tailor—the sound, then you can play with this unit to your heart’s con­tent. It’s also im­por­tant to note that this prod­uct, to my sur­prise, of­fers sin­gle-ended in­puts only. No big deal. Some de­sign­ers will tell you they con­tinue to pre­fer sin­gle-ended, while oth­ers swear by bal­anced. Most ARC gear th­ese days seems to fall into the lat­ter camp. ARC also of­fers the op­tion to em­ploy the SE3 in­put of the GSi75 as a stan­dard volume-con­trolled in­put or as a “unity gain” in­put. This per­mits the user to com­bine the GSi75 with a mul­ti­chan­nel sur­round-sound pro­ces­sor.

But th­ese as­pects are, of course, only part of the story. The other half is that all the gee-whiz fea­tures of the ARC are al­lied to a bunch of KT150 out­put tubes cou­pled with the Rus­sian high­transcon­duc­tance 6H30 tube on the in­put. Au­dio Re­search likes to drive its gear hard, and the 6H30 al­lows it to do that. The KT150 is a tube that’s come on strong in the past few years, dis­plac­ing the ven­er­a­ble KT88 and the not-so-ven­er­a­ble 6550.

The ad­van­tage of the KT150 is sim­ple: It can take a lot higher plate volt­age and you can get more watts out of it. Fewer tubes equals sim­pler cir­cuitry, al­ways a good thing in the high end. ARC sup­plies a plas­tic tool to ad­just bias to 65mA via volume pots on the side of the am­pli­fier. Neg­a­tive feed­back is pre-set at a ju­di­cious 4dB.

So what does the GSi75 ac­tu­ally sound like? Not what I ex­pected. My mem­o­ries, ad­mit­tedly from years ago, of the ARC Ref II Mk. 1 were of a very full-bod­ied and bloomy sound. I know that ARC has moved some­what to­ward a more neu­tral pre­sen­ta­tion and that it’s some­times ac­cused of hav­ing a whitish sound. Still, I wasn’t pre­pared for the crys­talline clar­ity, cou­pled with pretty much zero tube rush, that em­anated from the GSi75. This is one of—maybe the—qui­etest piece of tube gear that I’ve heard in re­cent years. Maybe it’s a func­tion of no in­ter­con­nect from preamp to am­pli­fier, but some­thing dandy is go­ing on with the GSi75. If you’re one of those peo­ple who turns up his nose at in­te­grated units, then the pu­rity of the ARC might help change your mind.

Un­like the Jadis DA88S that I re­viewed for TAS last year, the ARC doesn’t com­mand your at­ten­tion with whiplash dy­nam­ics or tremen­dous bloom. In­stead, it stages more of a dis­ap­pear­ing act. It’s al­ways firmly in con­trol and may have a lit­tle less per­ceived power than the bliss­ful Jadis. But I wa­ger that it’s more neu­tral. Top to bot­tom it sounded of a piece, with noth­ing in the fre­quency spec­trum pro­trud­ing.

Ini­tially, I was some­what stumped by the sound of GSi75, which I found a lit­tle an­ti­sep­tic. Af­ter an hour of warm-up, which I have come to think is es­pe­cially es­sen­tial for the GSi75, it re­laxed and con­veyed with pre­ci­sion one of my re­cent CD ac­qui­si­tions, Bach’s vi­o­lin con­cer­tos played by Alina Ibrag­i­mova on the Hype­r­ion la­bel. For what­ever rea­son, I’ve of­ten found that record­ings of the orches­tra on Bach’s vi­o­lin con­cer­tos can sound turgid, re­cessed, or con­fused. While the Hype­r­ion record­ing is not per­fect in th­ese re­gards, there can be no doubt­ing that Ibrag­i­mova plays with real verve and orig­i­nal­ity, qual­i­ties that came through beau­ti­fully with the GSi75. I was es­pe­cially struck by the unit’s abil­ity, on cut af­ter cut, to un­ravel with im­pres­sive fi­delity the sin­u­ous and in­tri­cate or­ches­tral lines. Not once did I have the im­pres­sion that it was tread­ing into steely sonic ter­ri­tory, sac­ri­fic­ing tonal rich­ness for ac­cu­racy.

Some­thing sim­i­lar can be said about the GSi75’s ren­di­tion of an­other of my fa­vorite CDs. On a re­cent Har­mo­nia Mundi record­ing, the mar­velously tal­ented cel­list Jean-Paul Queyras, whom I lis­tened to when he used to play at my grand­mother’s home in Freiburg, Ger­many, when we were both teenagers, per­forms Haydn’s cello con­cer­tos with the Freiburg Baroque orches­tra. This en­sem­ble has won renown for ded­i­cat­ing it­self to baroque per­for­mance prac­tice, but adding a good deal of verve to the pro­ceed­ings. Put bluntly, Queyras’ per­for­mance is, to bor­row from Don­ald Trump, high en­ergy. Once again, the GSi75 con­veyed with great gusto the hair-rais­ing pre­sen­ta­tion. At one point, Queyras, in the heat of the mo­ment, whacks his cello with his bow—a non­mu­si­cal event, to be sure, but I have to tell you that I was shocked by how much of the hall space the ARC cap­tured. You could re­ally hear that whack re­sound­ing in the record­ing venue. This was, in its own way, a tribute to the abil­ity of the GSi75’s tubes to open up the sound­stage so that very small de­tails are never lost or ob­scured. In­stead, the imag­ing of the GSi75 is spot-on. Queyras’ cello was in per­fect pro­por­tion to the orches­tra, and I could hear all the way into the back of the hall.

As en­joy­able as dig­i­tal was, I re­main first and fore­most a vinyl afi­cionado, partly be­cause it sounds so darned good, partly be­cause it re­minds me of my child­hood spin­ning black gold. It’s com­fort­ing to know that not ev­ery­thing from the good old days has gone by the way­side; in­deed, vinyl is mak­ing a come­back. So onto the Con­tin­uum Cal­iburn I plopped that won­der­ful disc, The Per­sua­sions’ We Came to Play, as soul­ful an al­bum as ever was recorded. Ad­mit­tedly, this al­bum may not be for ev­ery­one; my buddy and fel­low re­viewer An­thony Cordes­man sat in stony si­lence when I played it a few weeks ago. Nev­er­the­less, this gem, which A.J. Conti of Ba­sis brought to my at­ten­tion sev­eral years ago at his fac­tory in New Hamp­shire, is one of my ref­er­ence discs. On the cut “Gypsy Woman,” I rev­eled in the su­perb imag­ing, the pel­lu­cid­ity of the voices, and above all, the abil­ity of the GSi75 to faith­fully re­pro­duce Jimmy Hayes’ bass. The in­to­na­tion was about as good it gets, and the GSi75 com­mu­ni­cated the emo­tional ex­cite­ment of the lyrics as they reach an im­pas­sioned crescendo. There was no blur­ring, no smear­ing, no over­lap­ping of voices with the GSi75.

An­other al­bum that I’ve been de­ploy­ing with some reg­u­lar­ity is Shelby Lynne’s Just a Lit­tle Lovin’—the 45rpm ver­sion, I should add, re­cently re­leased by Chad Kassem’s Acous­tic Sounds. The sound is pretty much im­pec­ca­ble—tremen­dous pres­ence. What more is there to ask for? The

GSi75 locked onto the en­sem­ble and never let go. Cym­bals came across with just the right amount of metal­lic sheen and the gui­tar ac­com­pa­ni­ment was per­fectly de­lin­eated. No, it wasn’t the kind of jet-black back­ground you get with solid-state gear. But the flip­side is that you get that glo­ri­ous 3-D imag­ing that only tubes seem able to pro­vide.

No, the sound was not as big and volup­tuous and pow­er­ful as with my ref­er­ence Yp­silon gear. But that shouldn’t come as a sur­prise ei­ther. The GSi75 isn’t meant to go against the heavy­weights. For that you would go to ARC’s ref­er­ence gear. This is a stripped-down, lithe, nim­ble performer that de­liv­ers the goods. Whether you han­ker for a lit­tle more bloom or pul­chri­tude is a ques­tion that you can only an­swer by demo’ing the GSi75. On the yin-yang con­tin­uum, as HP used to say, this def­i­nitely lands on the cooler side. This is em­phat­i­cally not an old-school piece of tube gear.

But when you hear how quiet the back­grounds are with the GSi75 and its com­mend­able fi­delity, it’s hard not to be smit­ten by this su­perbly en­gi­neered new piece from ARC. Cou­pled with a loud­speaker that’s rel­a­tively easy to drive—I used the 4-ohm taps with the Wil­son XLF loud­speak­ers—I never found it want­ing. With the GSi75, ARC has pro­duced an in­te­grated am­pli­fier that is more than wor­thy of its il­lus­tri­ous her­itage.

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