This CD player and amplifier combination have a sound that’s easy to like. Even from cold it makes a powerful and compelling musical statement, especially with complex, dynamic material. It’s twenty-something years ago that I first enjoyed the original and well known 25-watt class A amplifier from this Norwegian company and I think it is fair to say that, at that time, sound-wise they were ahead of the game. But the thought of that experience still invokes some painful memories. I can never think of that particular amplifier without remembering the terribly sharp edges that they left on their casework – and the day that one of the faceplate handles came loose as I lifted it, causing the razor-keen edge to open my finger in a full-length precision cut a surgeon would have been proud of. I also recall that I had a practice session with a south London reggae band that evening and had an impossible time wedging the plectrum between my thumb and the copious quantities of plaster I had wrapped around the finger in an effort to keep it straight. Luckily I only had to play a couple of hours worth of offbeat upstrokes which, given my peculiar angle of attack, gave me tendonitis. In stark contrast to its casework, the amplifier sounded as smooth as silk.
Fast-forward more than two decades and here I am listening to more Electrocompaniet equipment, only this time the company is under new ownership. The range on offer these days is vast in comparison and I am pleased to say that the edges are smooth now, although from a personal point of view I can’t get too excited with their appearance. Marketing men tell me that we purchase with our eyes. I’d like to believe we use our ears too, because to me these components make a slightly awkward visual statement. They use an attractive black acrylic fascia, but here Electrocompaniet have decided to incorporate brass coloured buttons. They look too "bling", like fittings from a footballer's bathroom, and do the amplifier and CD player no favours at all. In attempting to give the electronics a classy look I’m afraid they have succeeded in doing the opposite. So, I humbly suggest that they stick to the steel versions as fitted to the lower priced models. But, that aside, they are conventionally functional with both the ECI-5 integrated and the ECC-1 CD player coming under the banner of their Classic Line. Delivering 120 watts into 8 Ohms the amplifier is a substantial and powerful proposition for a moderately priced integrated. Inputs are comprehensive with two sets of balanced sockets, single-ended RCAs for another three line-level components plus a tape loop and a unity gain home theatre input. There is also a set of balanced pre-amp outputs and single pairs of sturdy gold-plated speaker connections. It is fully remote operated and all selections are made via the navigation window on the front panel, while a neat display around the company logo indicates the volume setting. The CD player utilises the Cirrus Logic 24Bit/192kHz DAC and has both single-ended and balanced outputs, plus a S/ PDIF RCA digital output. It incorporates a Philips transport and a front-loading disc tray fitted with an internal suspension system.
With nothing in particular to distinguish them from the crowd externally, it was a pleasant surprise to hear just how bold they are when asked to do some work. This is no laid-back, cosy sound. From the very beginning this combination had a distinctive sonic signature, intrinsically linked with the speed and dynamic impact that the amplifier in particular brings to just about every piece of music. I believe that different systems lead you (subconsciously) towards playing specific types of music that suit them, and it was quite a while before I began to notice any real weak spots in their performance. The ECI-5 shows its speed and transient reserves at every opportunity and is something of a mini-powerhouse. Used as a pair they are full of momentum and drive. The bandwidth is excellent and it is both tautly controlled and focused too, applying its power with strength and precision. But don’t get the idea that the music is lean or remotely lightweight. The amplifier’s abilities when it comes to delivering the big transient swings are notable but its recovery for the next event is even more so. When the musical rhythms are hot and contain many percussive elements, this combination never drops a stitch. I was quite taken aback with the enthusiastic way it dealt with the title track of Antonio Forcione’s Touch Wood (Naim cd069), which is a bristling amalgamation of guitar playing and body slapping, as he becomes a kind of one-man-band of rhythmic and melodic interplay. This track is food and drink to the Electrocompaniet combo. The sheer tempo and the dynamism of the playing shows that Forcione has formidable technique, but it also poses specific questions of any system asked to make sense of the shape of the whole piece. Many will give you a breathless interpretation but substitute pure, furious excitement for musical focus. But I was impressed by the uncluttered way the Electros handled this, helped enormously by the persuasive way the amplifier kept its sense of immediacy and dynamism under control without over damping any of the guitar-thumping percussion. The track "Alhambra" is one of my favourites, featuring the fretless and complex Uddan guitar, with its unique voice and flavour. It captures the Spanish Sierras and the glorious city of Granada exquisitely and for me, shows Antonio at his best. I love the Flamenco-scented rhythms and flow of the piece. The swaying tempo, unusual shape and growing character of the leading edge of each unfretted note were impressively handled. There is a slightly bright shading to the tonal balance, but I don’t see it as a problem, just something to bear in mind when thinking about cables and speakers.
But, it was listening to Pat Metheney’s A Map Of The World (WB 47366-2) that I first noticed a very unusual character to his instrument: it sounded too twangy, lacking in its full sustain and almost a little banjo-like. The sweeping strings and the whole ambient presence of the orchestral backdrops were majestic and as pictorial as they should be, but that guitar sound had me stumped, sounding like a different instrument to the one I had heard so many times before. I began to run through some other discs that I thought might highlight the same thing and decided to use both the CD player and the amplifier in separate systems. The results confirmed my earlier impression that the amplifier is a little bleached at times and though it copes with the initial impact of individual energies and voices extremely well, it comes up slightly short when dealing with the tonal colours and hues of plucked strings and vibrating instrumental bodies. This is hardly noticeable on the vast majority of material but there are discs that will highlight it.