“Hi-fi’s best kept se­cret”

FOR Fluid and dy­namic sound; im­pres­sively de­tailed de­liv­ery AGAINST Re­mote costs £380; prod­uct lacks lux­ury feel

What Hi-Fi (UK) - - Temptations -

Lavardin must be one of hi-fi’s best-kept se­crets. Never heard of it be­fore? We don’t blame you. It’s a tiny French com­pany that spe­cialises in am­pli­fi­ca­tion, mak­ing a small range of one-box and pre/power com­bi­na­tions.

The com­pany rarely changes its prod­ucts, mak­ing just a cou­ple of re­vi­sions over the past two decades. That kind of ap­proach hardly makes a rip­ple in an in­dus­try that’s used to prod­uct rein­ven­tions and is al­ways fran­ti­cally search­ing for the ‘Next Big Thing’.

Another rea­son for Lavardin’s un­der-the-radar ex­is­tence is that the com­pany’s prod­ucts barely con­form to any of the usual high-end norms. They’re just plain, usu­ally black, rel­a­tively slim boxes with no more aura of lux­ury about them than the typ­i­cal grand’s worth of elec­tron­ics.

On a more prac­ti­cal level, they’re sim­ple to use and ac­tively dis­cour­age the use of ex­otic ca­bles and sup­ports. But most of all, they are about sound qual­ity, in which they set a stan­dard that few high-end al­ter­na­tives can ap­proach.

The ISX Ref­er­ence is the step-up in­te­grated in the com­pany’s line-up. It’s the lat­est ver­sion of a de­sign that has hardly changed over the past 20 years. Lavardin claims that this lack of ac­tiv­ity is due to the orig­i­nal be­ing so good, rather than any lack of am­bi­tion on the en­gi­neer­ing team’s part.

Nor­mally we would scoff at such claims, but in this case we can tes­tify that the orig­i­nal (called the IS Ref­er­ence) was in­deed a su­perla­tive prod­uct. In fact, Lavardin can point to a sur­vey where 99.2 per cent of Ref­er­ence own­ers were to­tally happy with the prod­uct and didn’t want the com­pany to change any­thing about it.

Op­tional ex­tras

So how does a com­pany im­prove a prod­uct like that? Very care­fully, it seems. The most ob­vi­ous dif­fer­ences be­tween the two gen­er­a­tions of IS Ref­er­ence are the ad­di­tion of a sil­ver plate on the front panel and the avail­abil­ity of re­mote con­trol. Even hard­core purists (it seems) will no longer put up with hav­ing to get­ting up from their favourite chair for ev­ery change of vol­ume level.

But here, it is – rather sur­pris­ingly – an op­tional ex­tra that will cost you a hefty £380. For that sum you get a slim me­tal hand­set with just two but­tons: vol­ume up and vol­ume down. We have no is­sue with such sim­plic­ity, as that’s all our am­pli­fier’s con­trol usu­ally gets used for. How­ever, we do ob­ject to the poor fin­ish on the hand­set. Its sil­ver front panel’s edges feel more the work of a GCSE met­al­work class than a prod­uct of an es­tab­lished high-end com­pany.

Un­usual de­mands

The au­dio cir­cuitry has had an over­haul, the aim be­ing to im­prove on all as­pects of the per­for­mance with­out spoil­ing the things that made the orig­i­nal so good. Lavardin is rather sketchy about the de­tails, but the com­pany con­tin­ues to min­imise what it calls mem­ory dis­tor­tion in its cir­cuitry.

Lavardin claims mem­ory dis­tor­tion is a ma­jor prob­lem in tran­sis­tor-based cir­cuits and leads to the hard­ness and lack of flu­id­ity that many still hear in such de­signs. The lack of such a dis­tor­tion – caused by elec­trons leav­ing a trail in the sil­i­con, Lavardin says – is one of the rea­sons the valve-sound still ap­peals to many.

The com­pany claims its cir­cuits min­imise the ef­fect and de­liver an ideal mix of valve and tran­sis­tors sig­na­tures. That’s quite some claim.

The ISX Ref­er­ence, like other Lavardin am­pli­fiers we’ve tested, is un­usual in its de­mands of sup­port and ca­bling. These prod­ucts sound best on wooden shelves – thick ply­wood sup­ports are op­ti­mal – and with ba­sic multi-strand cop­per ca­ble. Lavardin of­fers ded­i­cated ca­bles that are rather pricey and look or­di­nary in the ex­treme, but do the job very well.

The am­pli­fier’s fea­ture list is rather short. There are four line-level in­puts that go down to three if you have the op­tional phonos­tage fit­ted. There’s also a tape out­put and a sin­gle set of stereo speaker con­nec­tions and… well that’s about it. We would have liked a head­phone out­put, but be­yond that we still think this stripped-down am­pli­fier will fit com­fort­ably into all but the most com­plex of stereo sys­tems.

Once up and run­ning, this am­pli­fier needs just 10 min­utes or so to come on song. When it does, the ISX Ref­er­ence sounds ex­quis­ite. It’s a fast and fluid per­former that re­solves a moun­tain of fine de­tail, or­gan­is­ing it bril­liantly.

Lis­ten to Ge­orge Michael’s Pa­tience set and the unit has no trou­ble un­rav­el­ling the dense pro­duc­tion. Each in­stru­men­tal strand is free to flow with­out be­ing dis­turbed or over­shad­owed by louder or more prom­i­nent sounds. We’re im­pressed by the ag­ile and ar­tic­u­late way it de­liv­ers Michael’s vo­cals, par­tic­u­larly on an emo­tion­ally charged track such as My Mother Had A Brother.

There’s so much re­fine­ment here, but it isn’t brought by round­ing-off tre­ble bite or adding rich­ness to the bass – it’s much more sub­tle than that. The ISX Ref­er­ence sounds crisp but sweet with it, sound­ing pre­cise and in­for­ma­tive with­out ever hint­ing at over-anal­y­sis.

Lost in mu­sic

It times bril­liantly too, mak­ing the most of the in­ter­play of in­stru­ments while con­vey­ing the chang­ing mo­men­tum of the mu­sic su­perbly. This qual­ity comes to the fore with Stravin­sky’s The Rite Of Spring where the Lavardin brims with drama and ex­cite­ment.

Stereo imag­ing is lovely and pre­cise. The Ref­er­ence has one of the most spa­cious and un­clut­tered pre­sen­ta­tions we’ve heard. Its dy­nam­ics are strong and ren­dered with en­thu­si­asm, though there’s only so far 50W per chan­nel goes when it comes to scale or de­liv­er­ing the full force of the mu­sic. Push too hard and the sound loses its im­pres­sive sep­a­ra­tion and starts to clog up.

Our re­view sam­ple has the op­tional mov­ing-mag­net phonos­tage, which costs £550. We’re pleased to re­port the Lavardin loses lit­tle of its sparkle through this in­put. Nick Cave’s The Boat­man’s Call comes through with all the grit, wit and pas­sion it de­serves.

Into My Arms sounds full-bod­ied and warm, and is de­liv­ered with a gen­tly flow­ing mo­men­tum that makes it easy to get lost in the mu­sic. Ev­ery­thing we’d want is here; there’s an or­ganic qual­ity to the dy­nam­ics com­bined with del­i­cacy and bite on Cave’s grav­elly vo­cals. It keeps us lis­ten­ing for hours on end.

There are more glam­orous al­ter­na­tives avail­able for this kind of money, yet if you put sound qual­ity first we can’t think of any that can match this Lavardin. It’s the most in­for­ma­tive, en­ter­tain­ing and mu­si­cal in­te­grated am­pli­fier we’ve heard in re­cent years.

”Ev­ery­thing we’d want is here. There’s an or­ganic qual­ity to the dy­nam­ics com­bined with del­i­cacy and bite. It keeps us lis­ten­ing for hours on end”

Lavardin makes plain black boxes, with an em­pha­sis on sound qual­ity TEMP­TA­TIONS

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