Let’s get this out of the way first. You don’t buy a SET amplifier for its neutrality. You buy it because you like the sound of its sound. If that does not compute, there are other amplifiers that will be a more perfect fit, and you should lose no sleep over the continued existence of amps like the Audion Black Shadow 2. I know this is a forlorn hope, and what really happens is people who don’t like the concept of SET amps go all Victor (“I don’t believe it!”) Meldrew on audio forums. But this is a little like those people wearing a grey suit telling those wearing a blue suit that their suit isn’t grey. The blue-suit wearers know their suit isn’t grey and they are perfectly comfortable with that. Similarly, people who like SET amps know they are higher in distortion than push-pull ultra-linear pentode or solid-state amps. They just like what that distortion does to the sound.
While we are in full disclosure mode, a SET amp isn’t going to be perfectly compatible with every loudspeaker, even one as powerful as the Audion. And we’re not talking difficult loads; even some potentially perfectly compatible loudspeakers (Monitor Audio for example) seem to require an amplifier with more damping factor than the Black Shadow 2’s provide. A pair of ProAc’s Response D20 Ribbon speakers loaned from the Hi-Fi+ offices, on the other hand, might seem a less perfect partner on paper, but the two sing sweetly together. If in doubt, put your trust in the dealer or distributor or amp manufacturer; they will likely know what works and what doesn’t.
The Black Shadow 2 draws out the harmonic richness of music and its natural sense of dynamic range. This is the kind of sound that makes you argue over pianists, not cables, because it perfectly shows the playing dynamics of different virtuosos. If you have an opinion about Haifetz vs. Ricci, or Casals vs. Rostopovich, or even Argerich vs. Barenboim vs. Brendel, the Audion amp will be your friend. If you ‘like a bit of Mozart in the evening’, this is probably not for you. The Audion’s unforced dynamic shading and ability to move from fff to ppp without a hesitation makes music something that must be engaged with, not played in the background.
SET amps are frequently praised for their great soundstaging abilities, and the Audion shows why this is the case. The dimensionality of the soundstage in width, depth, and even height is preserved perfectly, and alters as you move from a small, almost claustrophobic jazz club (Art Blakey’s A Night At Birdland on Blue Note) to the scale of an orchestra in a huge studio. There’s a simplicity and lack of artifice to the sound that makes most audio equipment sound fake and mechanical. This obviously works best when working with music that is ‘naturally’ recorded and not too electronic.
All this being said, dub reggae sounds wonderful through the Audions. In truth, I’m probably not the right man to judge this, having only a handful of reggae albums in my collection, but like many of my generation I own a copy of Garvey’s Ghost by Burning Spear [Island/Mango] and ‘Black Wa‑Da‑Da (Invasion)’ is a bit of an occasional favourite. Fellow Hi-Fi+ writer Jason Kennedy periodically refers to bass as ‘chewy’ and I never quite understood what that meant until hearing this track through these Audions; there’s a real shape and thickness and texture to that deep dub bass that you feel you want to get your teeth into and take a bite from. Yes, you find yourself nodding along in that slow every other backbeat way you are supposed to when listening to dub, but those bass notes give this track a sense of real effortless flow.
That’s the word that best sums up the sound of the Audion Black Shadow 2 – effortless. There is no sense of electronics getting in the way of the sound, more like musicians have been fed into your loudspeakers (without the inevitable icky mess this would cause in reality). Whether it’s the lack of global feedback, the increased amount of even-order harmonic distortion, the limited number of components between input and output, or the quality of those components in the signal path, the net result is that this amplifier simply sounds great in a kind of “gets out of the way” manner.