Electrocompaniet is a company that has a special place in my personal HiFi history. This Norwegian brand of electronics has been around for about 40 years. As many of you know for many years, I listened to what we now call the QUAD 57 Electrostatic Speakers. I tried amps from QUAD, Marantz, McIntosh, Dynaco, Bedeni, and Electrocompaniet. Without a doubt the original Electrocompaniet Class A, 25 watts, 2-channel amplifier was the best amp for the QUADs I have heard. This little wonder designed by Dr. Matti Otala could really make them sing while never arcing them. Electrocompaniet emphasizes that all its amplifiers are still based on the principles laid down in the works of Drs. Otala and Jan Lohstroh. For this reason, Electrocompaniet products have always had my greatest respect.
The Electrocompaniet ECI 5 MK II is a DC-coupled, high performance, fully balanced, remote controlled integrated stereo amplifier that delivers 120 Watts into an eight-ohm load. It replaces the ECI 4 / ECI 5 that was originally introduced in 2000. In this MK II version, Electrocompaniet says they are using their newest technology to enhance the details and dynamics to such an extent that, in many ways, this is a brand new amplifier.
It has a more powerful output stage and twice the number of output devices, compared to the original ECI-5. They claim this leads to improved bass control and stability when driving heavy loads. The ECI-5 MkII has a large bank of reservoir capacitors rated at 80,000 micro Farads, which are fed by a powerful 500Va transformer. This power allows this little integrated the capability of producing incredible dynamics. Like all Electrocompaniet products, it is a fully balanced design. It has a total of six inputs that consist of two balanced (XLR), three single ended (RCA) and one direct Home Theatre input. The input stage is built from discrete class A circuits with no feedback. The output stage runs with moderate amounts of negative feedback, though they have managed to do this without robbing the amp of life. It also gives the amp good bass extension and control.
It’s not a very large amp by today’s standards, though it is quite heavy at 44 pounds. Its acrylic face plate looks very much like most modern Electrocompaniet products. The ECI-5 MKII has a new, larger display that improves readability; and most importantly can be dimmed. It has on the front plate what they refer to as a navigator display which confirms your chosen input and will give you error messages when it doesn’t like what you’ve done. There are four control buttons on the right where left and right selects INPUTS and up and down adjust the VOLUME. It has no balance control.
Setup and listening
I mostly used the ECI-5MKII with the remarkable Lindemann BL-10 stand-mounted loudspeakers. For a source I used the Shindo 301 Vinyl Playback System with the TubeGuru phono section. Everything in the setup was straight forward and as would be expected.
From the very first, it was obvious that the ECI-5 MKII was a very special transistor amplifier. It has a consistently full-bodied sound but is still nicely detailed; it has a very powerful sound but is relaxing to listen to. To borrow from Harry Pearson’s lexico, the character of the ECI-5 MKII tends toward the yin side of the sound spectrum, tending toward dark and warm in comparison to the brightly lighted, yang side of the spectrum. It also has very full blown soundstage that is both deep and wide.
Midrange and Top-End
The top-end is extended with nice layering and sparkle. It is fairly relaxed and softer than most transistor amps. Cymbals sounded like cymbals, violins were silky and airy. The ECI-5 MkII’s top-end passes my personal test in that it doesn’t draw attention to itself by sounding too bright or sounding too rolled off.
If an audio system doesn’t get the midrange right nothing else really matters, at least not to me. The midrange of the ECI-5 MKII presents great leading edges, with good decay, and very good detail and definition without sounding the least bit “transitory.” It is very coherent from the midrange to the higher treble regions. It also sounds tonally accurate with voices, and it has very natural timbre and ease. Guitars played over the ECI-5 MKII had good body and weight. I thought saxophones sounded exceptionally smooth and airy. I found this more captivating and emotionally involving than I thought possible from a transistor integrated. Horns sounded brassy and vibrant without being bright; a trick that is difficult to pull off for any amp at any price.
What about voices though, could a transistor pull off voices that sound alive and have body? The answer is yes, but not quite like a great 300B amp. The ECI-5 MK2 errs on the warm side with voices; which I much prefer to having voices sounding sterile. It also has a bit of the bloom in the midrange that I most often associate with tubes. I found its midrange to be more to my liking than from other great solid-state integrateds I’ve heard, even better than the Plinius 9200 that I like so much.
Like every Electrocompaniet amp I have heard, the ECI-5 MKII has outstanding bass. The bass line of any recording is presented with a force and weight that help the overall sense of realism greatly. This is an amp that will never leave your system wanting for a powerful bottom end if your speakers are up to it. It was amazing what it did for the little Lindemann BL-10 speakers. Part of this comes from the sheer power the amp has, it seems to have more power than any 120-watt integrated transistor amp has the right to have.
Scale, Dynamics, and Power
The ECI-5 MKII is also a great fun to listen to. It’s incredibly dynamic and powerful, but it never sounds overbearingly so, and it never seems strained. Instruments have a near life-like size. What amazed me most is how it allows the music to come to life even on less efficient speakers. Yet, while it’s such an incredibly dynamic amp, it can also play soft, whispering, and gentle music when that’s called for.
Micro-dynamic were equally impressive, giving the amp a very quick sound with really exceptional PRaT for a transistor amp. The amp also had exceptional transients but which never intruded on the realness of the music. Truth is, with the Lindemann speakers and the B&W 805S, I preferred the ECI-5 MkII to any of the tube amps I had on hand.
Soundstage and Imaging
In so far as soundstaging and imaging, the ECI-5 MkII is classic Electrocompaniet. When called for, the stage is extremely wide, seeming to extend well beyond the physical placement of loudspeakers. The depth seems to go on forever, and there is very good vertical size. It does a great job of placing musicians and instruments coherently in relation to one another. To me, it seemed that large soundstage was sometimes there, even when I least expected it, but most audiophiles will love this. They will love the sense of realism that the ECI-5 MkII can bring to recorded music. Imaging was equally good with individuals and instruments were precisely placed in the soundstage.
I reviewed Electrocompaniet’s wonderful little ECP 1 RIAA/ Phono Preamplifier, so I really wish they had at least offered a built-in phono section along this line, at least as an option. I had this same complaint with the Oracle SI 1000 integrated, and one of the most impressive things about the Plinius 9200, another solid-state integrated, was its built-in phono section.
Conclusion and Comparisons
I like integrated amps, principally speaking. I have owned quite a few, including a couple from McIntosh, a couple of Creeks, and the Joule-Electra VAMP. I have always thought a well-designed integrated amp built throughout with high-quality parts should provide better performance at a much better price than separate amp and preamplifier of the same design, though it seems this is seldom the case.
Even though I like them, I haven’t reviewed that many integrated amps. The one closest in price to the Electrocompaniet was the Allnic T1500, a 10-Watt, 300B single-ended stereo integrated amplifier that cost $5,700. The closest one in performance was the $9,250 Oracle Audio Technologies SI 1000 integrated amplifier. If I was looking for a great sounding amplification for under $10K, the ECI-5 MkII would surely be on my short list.
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