The iPad has made me green. It has almost replaced all of the print magazines and newspapers I used to subscribe to. It has, in a way, similarly reinvented the way I experience music, enhancing the experience with large beautiful graphics and liner notes from an album, bringing them to life with intelligence and interactivity. Viewing digital booklets that accompany recordings. Reading (and following along) with lyrics. Comparing and contrasting related artists, those influenced by, and those being influenced. The plethora of music blogs, twitter feeds and Facebook posts have me more into music that ever before in my many years of listening.
I’d like to say that this enhanced focus on music has majorly reduced my interest in gear specifically, but I think it the focus on music has as much to do with the gear I have finally put together over the last few years, as it does with the new ways I’m experiencing music.
It’s been a while since I’ve written a review on a piece of audio equipment. It’s been just as long since I’ve read one. It’s been a few years since I’ve been to an audio show. The staples in my system over the past few years are the Audio Note An-E/Lx loudspeakers, Transrotor Leonardo turntable and Heed Quasar phono stage. Cables are from Shunyata for power, Van Den Hul for interconnects and Straightwire for speakers. The stand is a Finite Elemente. For the past year, I’ve had the privilege of utilizing the new 47 Lab 4733 USB Dac/Pre in front of my Mac Mini for all tunes digital.
That same Dac/Pre for the past six months has been feeding the subject of this review, the beautiful Margules Audio U280sc tube amplifier. The U280sc I have is the 20th Anniversary edition of this classic amp, the latest evolution with improvements in the power supply and output transformers.
I’ve never been one to dwell on the technical. Heck, I can barely operate a drill without wrecking something. What I can tell you about the amp is that it’s heavy! It’s a workout just getting it out of the wooden shipping crate and into position on my equipment rack. And all of the weight is in the back where the massive transformers sit, neatly enclosed in a black steel rectangular box. Viewing from the top, you can clearly see the duplicate sets of tubes and controls for each of the stereo channels. Each channel has its own analog volume control. There’s also the ability to set impedance per channel. On this, Ben Goldman, U.S. importer of Margules Audio has the following to offer: “The independent impedance switch for each channel was designed to couple impedance and as a damping factor when you are using two amplifiers to biamp, one channel for the highs and the other for bass. This setup is very practical if you want to use active crossovers.”
You can even switch from Triode to Ultralinear for slightly different tube flavors on the fly. I’m a set-it-and-forget-it kind of guy so I’ve set the impedance to 4 ohms to match my speakers and after my initial time with the amp, settled on Triode as my choice in tube voicing. I’ve set the volume output for each speaker at 12 o’clock and control the volume with the one knob on the 47 Labs 4733 Dac/Pre.
Personally, when I look for tube amplifiers, I look for self-biasing ones. The U280sc, being self/active-biasing, allows you to swap tubes at will until you find ones that fit your sonic fancy, without having to take out a voltage meter and tiny screwdriver. I’ve done some tube experimentation in the past, mostly when I had Rogue Audio gear. But for this period of time with the U280sc I’ve stuck with the supplied tubes, such as either STR or JJ KT88 and 12 AU’s from Ruby Tubes. I adjusted the voicing (Ultralinear vs. Triode) and speaker impedance settings, both of which were subtle enough that I stuck with the ones that best fit my efficient Audio Note speakers.
Recently I moved houses… smack dab in the middle of my time with the U280sc. My old listening room, aka my Living Room, was 11x17x9 and 90% enclosed. It was an older house with suspended wood floors. My new listening room, funny enough also known as the Living Room… no room for Listening Rooms in my house, is quite a bit larger at 18x24x11 and only has 3 walls, one of which is old stone with two openings in it. My new room is much more lively and I think it suits the U280sc better than the old room. Understand also that the amp arrived brand new and was breaking in at the old place for about 90 hours before I moved. It now has over 400 hours and counting on it. For tube amps with giant transformers, I believe the hours on the unit, not unlike miles on a new car, make a noticeable difference.
I tell you all of the above, from the staple gear to the room situation, to the break in time, to give some sort of reference as, really, this can only be a report on my particular experience with this amp – one that would be practically impossible to replicate by anyone else at any other time. I think what’s most important in anyone’s account of their time with any piece of audio gear is to share a glimpse into the experience of using that piece of gear; my experience with the U280sc has never been anything but a pleasure.
It’s a very consistent amp. Turn it on and it takes about 10 minutes to warm up and about three minutes for music to play. There is a small multipath meter in the middle of the amp that shows tube bias as a way of informing the user of the readiness and health of the amp. In playback it has a very even-tempered character that does not lay too much influence, style or character on the music. There is a slightly greater sense of air and space than with solid-state amplifiers I have used. That sense of atmosphere is also less exaggerated than I have experienced with some other tube amps. There’s no real bounce or give in the rhythm as everything is very tight and controlled. The low end is impactful and driving and the top end is open and light. The midrange is realistic and melodic with no part of the music sounding more exaggerated than another.
Robert Plant’s latest, Band of Joy, is a perfect album to help illustrate the strengths and sonic interpretations of the U280sc. The album has an overall ambience that the U280sc treats with accuracy, making sure you notice it, but only in the way it brings the listener to the recording event. Robert Plant’s lead vocal is very well balanced with all the instrumentation and background vocals. It’s clear and articulate. The low end is very natural with a feel you physically experience but again in no way overwhelming. The top end is airy and open again helping the ambient effect, but also allowing vocals, percussion and textured instrumentation to be heard as part of the overall musical experience. You know when you go to a show and notice the sound as being good quality? That is the same feeling you have with the U280sc. It is recognizable immediately as quality sound reproduction, and you just let it go and get into the songs and performance.
The U280sc is clean and clear enough in the way it feeds my speakers that I can easily hear the difference in settings in my digital or analog playback. I can hear the differences in recording and mastering quality quite easily with the U280sc. What it doesn’t do, that I am particularly happy about, is highlight any of the attributes I mentioned above to the point where it distracts me from the music itself. I’ve had components in the past that have been so ultra realistic (or even the opposite: ultra colored) that I have been unable to listen to a song for its musical expression, energy, performance, message and emotion. The U280sc simply gives me what it gets and allows me to experience the music as a result of the combination of songwriting, performance, time and location that the artists and producers work so hard to perfectly balance.
Margules Audio is in Mexico City. They have been making audio equipment for over 20 years. Their founder and chief designer Julian Margules, has a love for craft only topped by his love for music, and it shows in both the quality of craftsmanship and design of the U280sc, as it does in the sound it produces. It is clear Julian loves music because he has designed and built a tank of an amp that’s sophisticated and functional, flexible and beautiful and most of all respectful – respectful to the musical artist to which it will be honored to play for you.
The U280sc retails for $3,800. If that’s in your current shopping range, I cannot recommend highly enough that you get some quality auditioning time with the U280sc 20th Anniversary amplifier. It’s designed and built with the kind of passion our music would be honored to be reproduced through.
Distributed in the USA by Ben Goldman: Margules Group USA, 820 Elm Drive, Petaluma, CA, 94952. Phone number: 707-581-1830. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
The 47 Labs 4733 headphone preamplifier/DAC
The 47Labs 4733 is a wonder box for me. It’s a four-input preamplifier – two digital and two analog – with a headphone output, pre out and even speaker outputs at 2 watts per channel. It’s two digital inputs – one coax and one USB – go through a super simple circuit layout similar to the highly-regarded Shigaraki DAC.
I’ve been a fan of 47 Lab gear for many years. I love the direct sound of their DACs. The 4733 has that clear, clean, unaltered sound that I’ve come to know from 47Labs. It’s completely invisible and pure as far as I’m concerned. That’s what I look for in a DAC and in a preamp. Speakers and amps can impart enough character to a systems’ overall approach to sound reproduction – no need for it in a pre/DAC.
The 4733 is a small, attractive looking, very functional piece of gear that has the 47Lab purity of sound. It’s a great front end to a wonderful amp like the Margules Audio U280sc (and many others).
The Model 4733 Midnight Blue Headphone/DAC/Pre-Amplifier retails for $2,000. More info here: 47 Laboratory / Sakura Systems: http://www.sakurasystems.com/news.html
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