Resplendent in a thick acrylic front panel, gold anodized switchery and blue-lit display, the overall effect of this trio of components from Electrocompaniet’s covetable Classic Line is rather more pleasing, and rather less ‘footballers wives’ than you might expect. I suspect this casework is somewhat less expensive to produce than some of the more baroque offerings the high end has championed lately. Certainly the price of this system is, in high end terms, fairly low, so what about its performance?
The preamplifier has been here before, at the heart of the system reviewed by AS in issue 69. It’s Electrocompaniet’s top of the range two-channel preamp, here partnered by the AW250-R stereo power amplifier. The source is the EMP1/S CD/SACD player, a stereo-only version of the six-channel audio/video multiplayer EMP-1 (and is convertable into the EMP-1 via a hardware upgrade), but still boasting a pretty respectable logo count on the front panel, including SACD, DVD-audio and DVD-video. This is without doubt a versatile unit; the most valuable logo for 2-channel audio purposes is the SACD one, a facility not available in the EMC-1UP reviewed in issue 69.
The EMP1/S has the opulent presentation which seems to be a characteristic of the Electrocompaniet brand; not unlike many valve-based systems, the kit will appeal to those who like to luxuriate in their music. This can also be perceived as a shortcoming in that it sometimes manages to sound a little laid-back, somewhat lacking in attack. It’s certainly something of a mixed blessing, more apparent on CD replay than SACD but, to be fair, it’s still among the better-sounding CD players I’ve come across at its price. But if it’s life and passion you’re after, rather than warmth and colour, this mightn’t be an obvious first choice. On the Abdullah Ibrahim track "For Monk", for example, the piano had a bewitching sonority, but lost some sense of attack and a degree of the ‘Monkishness’ of the piece, the sense of sprightliness yet always on the point of imbalance, was simply glossed-over. The Tord Gustavsen Trio piece "At Home" failed to capture the sense of stillness in the music, despite there being no shortage of lusciousness to the piano.
You might think of the player as majoring on the sustain and decay parts of each note, rather than the attack. This makes it less definitive in its timing, lacking impetus and poise compared to players such as Cairn’s, notably cheaper, Fog 3 which I preferred for CD playback, largely due to its ‘danceability’ and fun. In Saint Saëns’ Symphony No.3, for example, the grandeur of the organ was not in question, but the strings were sometimes a little wayward, while paradoxically the brass felt a little held-back. The Cairn, in contrast, sounded almost raucous (it isn’t, which may tell you something about the Electro’s somewhat Jeevesian manners), but at the same time the cheaper player showed the strings and brass to be more intensely and skilfully played, with a better sense of the give and take between the various parts, albeit the organ failed to generate quite the same sense of awe. The Electrocompaniet gave the bigger vista, more expansive and, superficially at least, was the more impressive. For me, the Cairn’s better sense of music-making won the day, and even if the strings were a little more shrill, it made more sense of the orchestration; this was a trade off I’d willingly make.
However, this is only part of the story; the Electrocompaniet also offers SACD playback where it excels with a confident, measured performance. Even though I consistently preferred the Cairn player for CD playback, Hugh Masekela’s "Stimela (Coal Train)" on dual-layer CD/SACD was informative; the Electrocompaniet revealing that the SACD gives vocals more convincing depth and subtlety of inflection, so that the overall performance is significantly more affecting. The CD, by contrast, fails to convey quite the same degree of anger in the vocals and percussion.
Time and again, the SACD playback completely redeemed the EMP1/S. Eric Bibb’s "Wrapped Up in Her Arms" had a better sense of balance, more measured pace and flow; the CD layer lost a degree of the stride in the rhythm. You could be forgiven for wondering, with some SACD players, what all the fuss was about. The EMP1/S is not one of those, its SACD playback is unequivocally superior to CD.
There are niggles: response to ‘open/close’ and ‘play’ commands takes rather more than a moment or two and working from the remote control was even worse: for the first six weeks I thought they’d sent me the wrong handset.
Turning to the AW250-R stereo power amplifier, which is essentially a pair of the company’s AW180 monoblocs in a stereo chassis, uprated to 250W per channel. The AW180, and AW400, are themselves less powerful derivatives of the awesome AW600 Nemo monoblocs seen in issue 69, so there’s a great deal of Nemo DNA in the AW250-R. This is immediately obvious, from the moment you set this system off. It has a solid and expansive way of going about its business. There is a feeling of unlimited resource, a bombproof, unflappable capability, certainly when driving normal loudspeakers at even quite antisocial levels, so this is definitely an amplifier you might want to consider for your team if your loudspeakers are difficult to drive.
The pre-amp only offers balanced outputs, so I mostly used the pre-power combination together, as intended. The combination is as sumptuous as its appearance suggests. Voluptuous and seductive, and yet, like the EMP1/S, it never really fired my enthusiasm. Some systems have a quality that makes you just want to listen to music, so the first thing you do when you get home is put something on. The Electrocompaniets never quite managed to take me to that place. Some of the shortcomings were noticeably improved by the simple expedient of taking the lids off (don’t try this at home, etc…). Used topless in this fashion, the system was considerably more willing to party. Many manufacturers use non-magnetic casework and I can’t help but wonder whether a move away from mild steel might similarly elevate the Electrocompaniets’ performance.
Messing around with the setup also helped, a move from the supplied balanced interconnects to Nordost Blue Heaven improved things markedly, particularly in the context of my all-Nordost loom, but try as I might, and despite the amp’s gutsiness, the system lacked tension and consequently, sometimes failed to hold my interest. Moral: don’t mistake scale for drama. This pairing is expansive, fast and detailed, but on my sort of music, it didn’t dig deeply enough into the musicianship and levels of performance that I know to be there. Joanna MacGregor’s account of György Ligeti’s Autumn in Warsaw had oodles of grandeur, but it should be almost apocalyptic, and wasn’t.
It’s a mixed message: along with the confidence-inspiring, and prodigious, power comes more than a hint of vagueness. There is plenty of detail, tonal colour is luxuriant, and, while we’re talking in hi-fi terms, a strong and solid bass underpins the ensemble very effectively, but overall focus and substance is diminished: instruments lack a little structure and form. Imaging is fine, but a little broad-brush. Orchestras are, again, opulent and lush, but somewhat blurred in the boundaries, more of an impressionistic than an explicit rendition. I put some of this down to the preamp, and using a dCS Puccini’s variable output directly into the power amp did gain a fair degree of vibrancy and immediacy, by comparison. While the finger of suspicion does point towards the EC4.8, a change to a much-admired preamp still lacked some focus, tension and drama. I find myself suspecting that the power amp is a wee bit more Schwarzenegger than Schwarzkopf (Dame Elisabeth, not Norman, in case you were wondering).
As it is, I have to conclude that I wanted to like this system rather more than I ended up doing. It isn’t actually bad at anything, and in many respects it is very good indeed: the SACD playback is as good as any I’ve heard at the price, the power amplifier is confidence-inspiring and unflappable, and the presentation would put a glow in the cheeks of your typical valve aficionado. And yet, it never quite made that unmistakeable musical connection. The sense of performance and musicianship which I know to be in my CD collection didn’t quite get through. I think the pre-amp might just be the limiting factor, heaven knows there are precious few excellent pre-amps out there and the EC4.8 is no worse than most of its peers and, actually, offers decent performance for the price. It is perhaps unfortunate that the Electro’ system arrived as the David Berning amps were leaving, and just before an Albarry turned up. Set between two such gems, it failed to shine. I’m left with the feeling that this system is nearly great but not yet quite there. If you want opulence and beauty, you’ll find plenty here, there is also no shortage of scale and grandeur, and authority by the bucketload, but that toe-tapping sense of fun and joy is elusive.
Electrocompaniet EMP-1/S CD/SACD/DVD player
Type: Two-channel upsampling CD/SACD/DVD player
DAC: Cirrus Logic
Outputs: 1pair XLR balanced analogue, 1 SPDIF 75 Ohm RCA
Output Level: 4.5V RMS (balanced)
Dimensions (WxHxD): 483 x 75 x 410mm
Available finishes: Black
Remote control: Yes, system remote
Type: balanced, dual-mono pre-amplifier
Inputs: 2 x balanced using XLR connectors, 3 x single-ended RCA , 1 x USB data port
Output types: 1 x balanced output, 1 x line (recording) output, 3 x SPAC (eg system control)
Input Impedance: 47 kOhm (balanced or single-ended)
Output impedance: 100 Ohm (balanced or single-ended)
Gain: -111 dB (min) to 6 dB (max)
Dimensions (W x H x D): 483 x 76 x 368mm
Weight: 9 kg
Available finishes: Black
Remote Control: Yes, system remote
Type: balanced, dual-mono power amplifier
Power Output: 250 watts per channel, 8 Ohms (measured at 0.2% THD), 440 watts per channel, 4 Ohms, 625 watts per channel, 2 Ohms
Maximum peak current: >120A
Input level for rated output: 1V rms
Output types: 2 pairs of loudspeaker binding posts
Dimensions (W x H x D): 483 x 210 x 450mm
Weight: 39 kg
Available finishes: Black
Manufactured by: Electrocompaniet AS, Stavanger, Norway
Distributed by: EC distribution Ltd.
Tel: +44 (0)20 8893 5835