A new twist, amp comparisons
I haven’t said much to this point about the amps used because this is where the ABX testing got downright weird. Though I was able to differentiate between all other components and speakers with some assurance, if not absolute precision, I was unable to do so when it came to the amps. Just as I had compared individual components, I also compared the amps in isolation, that is, with one set system of components, speakers and cabling, and only the amps being switched.
One would presume that in a level matched case of ABX comparison the difference between amps would show itself just as each component and speaker had. They did not, and this caused somewhat of a crisis, as I was to conduct a review of the Wells Audio Innamorata Signature! I relished the idea of revisiting the Wells Audio products and fully expected a surge of new performance from the Signature. Instead, what I got from the ABX comparison was abject failure. Whether sighted and switching between them in real time using music I was intimately familiar with, or in ABX blind testing, I could not discern any difference in performance between them!
I will be perfectly honest here, as everyone in audio is subject to biases and “misfires” in judgment of gear. When the Innamorata Signature first showed up on my doorstep, I put it in the system and thought I heard a lovely improvement over the standard Innamorata. I was pretty sure the review would go well. Then, when I began to compare them level-matched the perceived differences vanished. The reader needs to understand a few things about this situation: 1. I have good hearing, as I can hear the filament in one of the sconces in my room buzz at certain settings of the light dimmer, and can pick out deep background noises in recordings, such as foot taps picked up by the mic, or voices off microphone. I can hear my thumb and index finger rubbing together lightly when extended fully to the side of my body. My hearing is acute enough to discern the differences between components easily. 2. My room is exemplary, judged by Bill Dudleston of Legacy Audio, who has done much recording, to be approximately 8dB lower in noise floor than the average quiet room in a house. I can hear deeply into nuances between components. 3. I’m not saying here there was a negligible difference. Rather, as when I wrote my Audiophile Law: Thou Shalt Not Overemphasize Burn In, wherein I compared an entirely new system to a “broken in” system and along with my well-experienced audiophile friend heard no discernible difference between them, so also in this case there was no discernible difference!
This caused a bit of a crisis in that here was a product with obvious enhancements, and I have always heard differences between amps, yet when at matched levels the two versions of Wells Audio amps were sounding identical. To make matters more confused, I listened once again to both amps without the ABX Comparator, and the impression of a notable difference seemed diminished. Had I overestimated the improvement of the Signature version? I was quite sure I heard accurately their sounding the same with the ABX Comparator, but what about them sounding more similar once the Comparator was removed? The situation had become messy and was no longer untainted for a normal review. It certainly would not be fair to Jeff Wells, to whom I shared my enthusiasm after hearing the Innamorata Signature the first time, to turn around and declare his higher end version of little benefit.
What was going on? The amps could indeed sound identical. But, this has never been my experience in 25 plus years of audiophilia and reviewing. Previously, no two amps have ever sounded identical, regardless of brand and model. Consistently when not in ABX comparison all amps carry their own sonic signature. The fallout from making a negative declaration about Wells Audio amps, which I adore the sound of, having bought the Innamorata after the review and use constantly, would be irresponsible.
I conferred with Constantine Soo, our publisher, and Jeff Wells, and notified them that I was recusing myself from the review. Something was obviously not right, and I strongly doubted the two amps actually sounded the same. I told Jeff at the time that I would not mention the situation in this review, however, something of extreme significance which exonerates his amps, and simultaneously implicates other amps and technologies, occurred, which I shall share momentarily.
At the time I made Jeff that promise I had not gone ahead with comparison of other amps, and I made a choice to pass along the Innamorata Signature to my colleague Greg Petan. I had to smile when his first private response about how he was enjoying the amp was ecstatic. I said nothing to him about this incident with ABX; I simply informed him I had reasons I would explain later why I was passing on the review. Now, he also will know the full story! The Innamorata Signature deserved a traditional review untainted by outcomes from ABX testing, and it received such treatment.
The story gets weirder
I would suspect a significant percentage of persons who are not familiar with my methods and work would at this point conclude there is something wrong with my hearing or a bias is at work. Neither is true, but in fact, the “plot thickened” maddeningly for me! For not only was I unable to discern sighted or blind between the Wells Audio amps, but when I conducted a level matched comparison between the Innamorata, a solid state design, and the VAC Phi 200, a venerable and self proclaimed gorgeous sounding tube amp using KT-88 tubes, again, I could discern no difference between them!
Trust me, I didn’t want to face such a dilemma, and I didn’t want to write that either. But I don’t bullshit the results; I share what really happened. Of course, some will say it didn’t really happen, that I’m delusional. Among them might be some amp manufacturers, who will not be happy that I had such results. Conversely, likely every hard-core objectivist who has ever argued vociferously that when level matched, all amps sound the same will declare that I am right. It seemed incredible, but I was switching sighted between a solid-state design and tube design of different manufacturers in real time, and when level matched there was no shift of any sort in any aspect of sound while listening to any piece of music!
My assessment was confirmed by ABX testing, as the only time I failed the blind testing consistently was when comparing level matched amps! I ran several blind trials and could not score beyond 50%, as would be expected of a random series of selections. This proved that I wasn’t “not hearing things”, that is, imposing a false negative on the comparisons. The results held even when I switched to the second set of speakers. The conclusion was shocking, but firm. The amp Zealots are correct; when level matched amps sound the same. As with other testing such as with Burn In, I feel the results are strong enough to extend in general, but cannot say definitively that the results apply to all amps, because I have not tested them all. I do suggest that mockers and nitpickers hold their tongues, unless they have conducted such testing themselves.
I must interject a curious aside here, which took place shortly after these revelations. In a call from Mary at Audio by Van Alstine, who was checking in on whether I was done with the unit in order to return it, I commented on my unusual results with the amps. I told her I was flat out unable to discern between level matched amps. She cackled in a wry, knowing way, “That’s what we find too.” Continuing, she shared that Frank finds it very difficult to make an amp that sounds distinctly different when level matched.
For the first time I began to understand the near contempt of some for the gushing enthusiasm for different amps. After all, if when level matched they all sound the same, why foam at the mouth about their differences? The logic chain of these individuals seems to be that if amps can be made to sound the same, then surely in a system they must be able to sound the same, ergo they do sound the same. I’m not sure I agree with such an extended conclusion, however.
I also felt closer to knowing why Frank was so adamantly against cables being efficacious. If level matched amp cannot be definitively distinct, then could a cable? Surely not, especially when his amps until recently had captured power cords! This will lead to what is perhaps the most unusual aspect of this review.
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