I did wonder why this company has the name it does but a quick scan of founder Enrico Rossi’s background indicates that he’s a big fan of opera, and an Italian, so it didn’t take much of a leap to guess that the name comes from Bellini’s opera of the same name. Rossi’s company is based in Cremona, an Italian city that’s steeped in musical history thanks to the craftsmanship of Guarneri, Amati and Stradivari. Names that will be familiar to Sonus faber enthusiasts as well as those with a passing interest in violins and violas. There must be something in the water because this Norma amplifier is also extremely musical despite the absence of wood and gut.
Norma makes a range of electronics that largely consists of amplifiers in one or two boxes and digital sources in the form of a CD player and a DAC... alongside a unit that does both. The IPA-70B is a rather elegant integrated amplifier that sits just above the entry level HS-DA1 and forms the starting point for the IPA range. This amp is as impressive inside as it is attractive outside, as its internals are very neatly laid out and colour coded in black and red with the heavy-lifting elements of the power supply shut away in their own case, presumably to keep transformer radiation away from the signal chain. The asymmetric nature of the heatsinking reveals that the power transistors are on the opposite side to the transformer, which must also help with keeping the signal clean.
In its standard state, the IPA-70B has five line inputs and a direct or AV input alongside a record output, but it can be supplied with either an onboard USB DAC or an MM/MC phono stage which is a useful degree of flexibility. The DAC is a relatively old-school Wolfson type with a maximum 24-bit/192kHz sample rate. This choice suggests it was made for sound quality rather than specmanship reasons. The optional phono stage has multiple gain and impedance settings plus ‘spare’ options for both, so you can have a setting of choice within reason. The amp can be controlled with the single button and volume knob on the front or with an aluminium remote handset which is almost festooned with small switches. It does, however, fit easily in the hand and with practise you can find the volume buttons without looking. The only minor gripe with ergonomics is that it’s difficult to see how high the volume is in anything but bright light.
Being an opera nut, Enrico Rossi is very keen on the human voice and bases his designs on the getting it right, in his own words “I have never heard a system, with correct voice reproduction sound bad with other types of music. If you reproduce the voice well, everything else will be automatically reproduced well too.” I hadn’t read that when I first started using the Norma through Bowers & Wilkins 802 loudspeakers but one of the first notes made was about how good the voice sounded, specifically how much nuance and subtlety could be heard in Ishmael Reed’s voice on Conjure’s Bad Mouth album [American Clavé], where the cymbals were clean and open and the bass line muscular. This is achieved partly because noise levels are clearly very low but more importantly because this amp’s timing is absolutely bang on, yet it is also smooth and relaxed. It’s a bit of an enigma, usually this combination of qualities can only be found with planet busting Class A amps, and only the biggest have the bass capabilities offered by this 70 Watter.