One area in which the ARNE really excels is vocal articulation and communication with the natural tonality and diction of familiar voices, whether singing or speaking being quite remarkable. So much so in fact that I decided to hook up the pairing to the TV, just to appreciate its impact on dramatic delivery. The results were seriously impressive: impressive enough just on news broadcasts, moving on to well recorded TV drama replayed from DVD or Blu-ray elevated the performance significantly, both in terms of clarifying the current trend towards mumbled speech and heightening the emotional and expressive range. If ever you want living proof of the “2.0 is the answer to AV” argument, this is it.
In an effort to discover just how much of the Lars’ surprising load tolerance had carried over to its little brother, I hooked the ARNE up to the Wilson Sasha DAWs – a bit of a stretch (in power terms) but instructive despite that. The first discovery was that (as noted above) the more demanding load – the DAWs get down to around 2.5 Ohms – and deeper bass extension really benefit from the more muscular output of the Emission Labs tubes, the added musical authority and dynamic control outweighing the loss of colour and expressive grace. The leaner, meaner balance allows the Wilsons to do their thing, with an expansive and impressively transparent soundstage. Images tend to favour focus over dimensionality, but there’s many a listener who’ll take that trade-off in a flash. Neil Young’s ‘Needle…’ takes on a sense of scale and presence that escapes the smaller speakers, further adding to the overall immediacy. Playing a track like ‘Word As Weapons’ [Birdy, Fire Within – Atlantic/14th Floor 825646351589] the simple voice and guitar opening is startlingly clear and present, while the piano entry arrives with crisp body and impact, the rest of the band filling out the soundstage in impressive style. The ARNE does a sterling job of driving the Wilsons, perhaps reflecting the DAWs’ easier load characteristics when compared to previous WATT/Puppies. But increase the scale and dynamic demands and you start to discover its limits. The Barbirolli Sibelius 2nd Symphony is a case in point (with the RPO, Testament SBT 1418): the ARNE never extracts the bass extension or power that the DAWs are capable of. This isn’t so much a criticism of the ARNE, more a recognition of its limits.
All of which makes the Living Voice OBX-RW3 the obvious match, one that delivers effective scale and dynamics and convincing musical communication, happily scaling all but the most Himalayan of musical peaks, while allowing performers and performances to breathe, irrespective of scale or intimacy. Overall it makes for a more musically versatile, engaging and satisfying partner for the ARNE, one that really communicates the energy and power in a performance. Playing the Barbirolli Sibelius 2nd on this pairing underlines the point, delivering emphatic and beautifully scaled musical peaks. Play the Fitzwilliam Quartet’s Shostakovich String Quartets [Decca Box 591108] or the Amandine Beyer/Gli Incogniti Seasons [Zig Zag Territoires ZZT080803] and the vibrant energy, tension and musical cut and thrust are as vivid as they are exciting. Alongside discs like Jackson Browne’s Solo Acoustic Vol. 1 [Inside Recordings 0094634494021] this is the material which shows the ARNE to best advantage, at once intimate and energetic, with immediacy and attack, natural colours and a broad expressive range.
To really understand and appreciate the ARNE, you need to look to its strengths while also accepting its compromises – and its key strength is its astonishingly musical and engaging performance. There’s no denying the appeal of the push-pull 300B topology – but equally that comes with limitations. However, the ENGSTRÖM amps (both the Lars and the ARNE) work those limitations remarkably well. It’s not that the ENGSTRÖM integrated won’t go ‘big’ (as we’ve seen, it delivers large-scale music with surprising impact when teamed with the right speaker), but ‘small’ plays to and reveals its strengths more readily. The ARNE might not possess the astonishingly lucid clarity and precision of the Lars, but it has enough of it to make it an intriguing proposition for the musically committed.
I feel the prototypical ARNE customer will value that tactile, naturalistic performance, will crave the intimacy available from small-scale (probably acoustic) bands and recordings, will probably live in a small(-ish) space, will probably hanker after something bigger and even more capable and so take the time and trouble to get the best out of what they have. That ‘jazz band mentality’ of the design runs deep.