Before we finally move on from the subject of valves, a quick word on the subject of the drivers and phase splitters (those small, nine-pin valves at the front of the chassis). The unit is supplied with a quartet of Siemens 7721/D3a devices and, devoid of ready equivalents, I stuck with them, although one thing I did do was experiment with tube dampers on them – employing examples from EAT, Sicomin and (my personal favourites) Duende Criatura. Once again, these had a seriously beneficial effect on the clarity, focus, dynamics and noise-floor of the amp, a simple upgrade that’s well worth investigating. With the tube dampers installed, the benefits were obvious and that’s how the amp remained for the rest of the listening.
I paired the amplifier with a range of speakers, and not just the ones you might normally select when partnering with a 30W amplifier. This line-up included everything from the Focal Kanta One and Raidho DT1.2 to the Living Voice OBX-RW3 and Sasha DAW. The ARNE integrated quickly revealed its capabilities and, in particular, how closely related it is to the Lars mono-blocs. What sets those amps apart is their effortless clarity and musical articulation. The integrated may not match its bigger (and far more expensive brethren) but by any other standards this is a lucid, lively and tactile performer. Diction on spoken voice is brilliantly natural, while difficult vocals are rendered intelligible and meaningful (not always the same thing). In fact, the integrated, sitting somewhat closer to other 300B amps in terms of its sound, is more obviously emotive and demonstrative than the altogether more neutral monos. For many a listener that will be no bad thing, although the push-pull output topology still keeps things notably crisper, more planted and more rhythmically authoritative than the vast majority of single-ended implementations. It makes for explicit phrasing and expressive pauses.
Play the familiar Du Pré/Elgar Cello Concerto [UHQCD WPCS-28424] and the ENGSTRÖM brings an almost physical presence and passion to the performance, heightening Du Pré’s demonstrative, evocative playing to impressive effect. To extract such focussed energy and creative tension from this disc demonstrates both the virtues of the amplifier and the quality of the UHQCD transfer, but good as the disc is, it’s still the amp that has to deliver. In some ways what’s even more impressive is that it does so with the Focal Kanta 1s, a modest partner price-wise, although the nature of the combination is significant. Like a lot of low-powered amps, the ENGSTRÖM works best with an easy load and although (as we’ll see) it is surprisingly competent with more demanding three-way designs, it’s the less complex load presented by two-way speakers that make them it’s natural partners. Bearing that in mind, perhaps it should come as no surprise that the rich musical presence of the ENGSTRÖM integrated should dovetail almost perfectly with the transparency and dynamic precision of the Raidho TD-1.2. Whether the cascading slash guitar of Robert Smith on ‘Push’ [The Head On The Door, Fiction/Polydor 984 001-6] or the meandering intro to ‘The Needle And The Damage Done’ [Neil Young Live at Massey Hall 1971, Reprise 9362-43327-2] there’s an incisive, uncluttered quality to the ENGSTRÖM/Raidho combination that’s long on immediacy and direct of engagement. It plays straight to the ENGSTRÖM’s preferred (house?) genre of small-scale jazz and the convolutions of Coltrane’s Giant Steps (Atlantic/UHQCD WPCR-18247) or Pepper’s Smack Up [Analogue Productions CAPJ 012] have a punch and clarity that is absolutely compelling. If you want the up-close-and-personal, spit and sweat version of events then, when it comes to recordings like these you’ll do well to better the ARNE/TD-1.2 pairing – short of taking the expensive step up to the Lars monos.