Oh, the mind can play dodgy tricks on you. This is a fine new integrated valve amp with a lot going for it, and all I can think of is Toyah Wilcox lisping her way through “Ipth’s a myththery, oh ipth’s a myththery…” And now, that’s all you can think of too. Sorry.
Trouble was, the Mystère was a mystery to me. I had no knowledge of the product or the back-story behind it. In fact, this month I expected to be reviewing a CD player; which was why Simon Marsh (the photographer) looked slightly impressed when I offered to carry the product round London on the Tube. One heft of the 27kg ia21 later and I was in a cab.
The Mystère duo is one of the first wholly new products from Pistol Music, a division of Absolute Sounds. Pistol Music is made up of a collection of fine products that deliver Absolute Sounds quality without the stratospheric price tags some of the best products necessarily attain. Think of Emporio as opposed to black label Armani and you’ll get the drift.
Mystère and Absolute Sounds diffusion line… a connection forms. Sure enough, as information began to flow in, the Mystère started revealing its secrets. It’s designed in Holland, by the same people as the Prima Luna range. It has the same black piano laquer finish (nice and rich, nice and deep) and the same simple approach to amp making – one knob sits in front of a 24-step attenuator that controls the volume, one switches between the four line-level inputs and there’s an on/off switch on the side. Simple. Neat. Effective.
There are two amps in the Mystère line-up; this, the 50 watt ia21 for £1,850 while the 40 watt ia11 costs £1,250. Aside from a bigger, heavier cabinet and more power output, the two are functionally identical, even down to the valve complement. Both use four 6SN7 valves in the pre-amp stage and four EL34s in the output, although the ia21 has the option of using KT88s instead (there’s a switch on the side), all running in push-pull. As to why the output of the two amps varies, details are scant at present, but I guess all will become clear in the fullness of time; meaning after I’ve finished this review. Mystère has gone for valve simplicity. The circuit is self-biasing (called Adaptive AutoBias in Mystère-speak) and it has a soft-start power-up, to prolong the life of the valves. It also features fusing on the valve plate itself to protect the output stage in the unlikely event of a valve going pop while playing music. You’ll still need to replace both valve and fuse, but that’s a lot cheaper than a new set of caps or melted transformer taps.
There are nods to high-end componentry, with double-layer polypropylene coupling caps and lots of high-purity copper conductors throughout. However, the accent seems to be tilted toward good, solid engineering instead of audiophile frivolity. This is why the amp is fully hard-wired and uses robust low-noise resistors in place of delicate hi-fi-chummy devices. And it’s why most of the weight is at the rear of the amp, with that big central power transformer flanked by the two output transformers. That said, the 1mm thick steel baseplate (with it’s trio of aluminium spikes) makes a contribution too. And then there’s the valve cage – normally a token gesture to political correctness, Mystère has designed this from the outset to look right. The hidden tubes can just be seen behind thin slats cut into the cage, making it look like a Cylon from Battlestar Galactica. Not the cheesy 1970s Battlestar Galactica at that; the dark, brooding current version with suicide bombers… and hot ex- Victoria’s Secret models.
I have to confess a personal bias here. I’ve never been that enamoured with the Prima Luna models I’ve heard. Okay, I’ve not auditioned the range in anger, but the limited exposure left me feeling like I was in the presence of very obviously valvey sounding valve amps. An amplifier should strive for a sense of neutrality, albeit one that’s coloured by the choice of devices used in the design. I felt that the Prima Lunas instead went for the warm, romantic valve sound as a deliberate design element, or maybe as a by-product of trying to make a valve amp down to a price. There is also a suggestion of load-intolerance with the Prima Luna designs, which makes its presence felt by a change in tonality when you move from speaker to speaker. But, I didn’t know there were Prima Luna connections here – and I didn’t notice on audition. Returning to the amp in the light of the Prima Luna connection, this is all the more impressive a design because of its load-consistency and its completely different, not so immediately and deliberately valve-like sound.
The Mystère ia21 has a far more fast-paced, far more up-beat sound than most of its valve peers. In other words, where most valve amps at this level have an old-school conradjohnson rose-tinted sound, the Mystère is more like Audio Research – big, bright and fast. No, it’s never going to sound as crisp or as upbeat as the transistor superstars (the Naim Supernait costs not much more than the ia21 and holds all the rhythm aces) but for a valve amp – particularly a valve amp that costs the right side of two grand – this is good stuff. It means the ia21 is pacey enough to keep up with the quicksilver dynamics of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances or motor-mouth Eminem rapping, but always manages to keep a beat no matter how difficult things become.
Don’t think this amp loses the advantages of valves for that tighter, brighter sound. The amp almost behaves like a hybrid, with the air, space and coherence of a good valve amp and the upbeat tempo of transistors: especially coherence, something many people seem to overlook in the pursuit of starkly precise and often arid transistor sounds.
It must be because coherence is one of the most abstract elements to get across. We tend to compartmentalise our world and the same applies to sound. It’s why soundstaging is all important to many hi-fi enthusiasts – if it’s easy to separate out individual sounds within an image envelope, they can be categorised, logged and defined (and, incidentally, the ia21 does deliver a very good soundstage – slightly wide of the boxes, projecting deep behind the speakers and relatively far forward, with some height). Coherence, on the other hand, is less easy to fit into a neat pigeonhole, because it plays a long game. You listen to 20 seconds of music and will hardly notice whether the instruments appear to play better together. You won’t be able to tell whether the character of an instrument voice remains consistent across its whole range and in front of a range of instruments. Only time will tell, and it’s that time that does wonders for the Mystère. There’s an organic sense of flow here, which many amps struggle to maintain. The more you listen, the more natural the Mystère sounds and the more you relax into the sound. Naturally, such a luxuriant coherence can only occur when an amplifier has remarkable articulation, and here every nuance of the playing or singing is reproduced with precision and élan.
Where the limits begin to show is in the control at the bottom end. This is not an amplifier for full-range speakers, especially those presenting a difficult load. The pace is a result of slightly curtailing the lower frequencies. This has a knock-on effect in the solidity of sounds within an image. The sense of rootedness you get when playing a beefy powerful amp is not that strong here; it’s not unnerving, and images do not float around the soundstage, but there remains a vague sense of dislocation, particularly with percussion.
All things are a trade-off, however, and if the trade is some solidity for a more honest and more up-beat sound, it seems more than worthwhile. This may not be the amp for those with vast speakers, but I suspect the intelligent vast speaker buyer will be spending far more than the cost of the ia21 anyway. This is a welcome addition to the lower price valve pantheon; it brings much-needed pace to the party and sacrifices little to get there. That it comes from the Prima Luna stable and manages to sound so very different from that range reflects both the designer’s skill and his conscious decisions. If you always hankered after something that combines the pace of transistors with the richness of valves – but were not prepared to go the hybrid route – there’s no Mystère… this is the amp to go for.