Carnival Hi-Fi Italia arrives once more in town, folks, and leading the parade is none other than that jester, ANDREW 'PASTA THE SAUCE' WONG
WE ALL know what the Italians are famous for -- sports cars, pasta, leggy bambinos and of course, the Mafia. So it certainly comes as a surprise to find them taking such efforts to impress the world with high-fidelity audio equipment which others can only afford to marvel at. Just take a look at most Italian-made hi-fi products available locally -- notice the painstaking craftsmanship and eye for detail that goes into their birth and you stop wondering how they can stand among the best and not feel out of place.
In recent years, the Italians have taken the local hi-fi scene by storm; much like the invasion of Normandy, a stream of Italian gear has made its way onto the shelves of several local high-end dealers. First came the immovable Sonus faber, then the busloads of others, especially amplifiers of the tube-driven variety with their dainty, avant-garde looks.
The influx of brands has certainly caused some amount of confusion when it comes to choosing a good amplifier to live with, and among the immigrants which deserve serious consideration is a relatively new name to the hi-fi scene -- Unison Research, a relatively small outfit based in Creazzo, Italy.
Now, they may be the new boys on the block in the global hi-fi city, but their Mystery One single-ended preamp and Smart 845 power amps have won wide acclaim in such a short span of time both in Britain and the United States, so it shouldn't be too difficult to guess what the Simply Two on review here is capable of.
UNCOVERED . . . . the simple truth behind the Simply Two
The Simply Two oozes classic appeal in a 250mm x 375mm chassis with two wooden chunks of walnut which decorate the front of the unit making it unmistakable even at a glance. It has a brushed stainless steel plate which surrounds the base of the tubes but whether it's to dissipate heat or to see the reflection of your grimace when your fingers touch the blazing hot tubes is still a mystery to me.
This single-ended design sports ECC82/12AU7 double-triodes and EL34/6CA7 pentodes for the output stage, one each per channel, configured in pentode mode running on pure Class A mode. Maximum output power is rated at 12 watts RMS per channel and output impedance is adjustable at four or eight ohms via separate speaker terminal taps at the rear.
There's also a DIN power supply output at the rear for an external phono preamplifier -- very thoughtful of them. Weighing a hefty 15kg, the Simply Two has four inputs excluding the tape monitor -- these being auxiliary/phono, tuner, AV (?!) and CD. The RCA inputs located on the left side instead of the back are gold-plated, and build is as good as it gets for the price with solid-to-the-feel volume and source selector knobs, chunky gold-plated five-way speaker binding posts and really heavy transformers encased in a black nextel-like finish casing.
The Simply Two features a unique feedback control flip-switch which allows a choice of running it in minimum feedback mode, yielding a higher sound level, or running it in a higher feedback mode which theoretically produces lower distortion figures but usually doesn't sound as good. It also comes with automatic valve bias adjustment, so potential owners will have no worries about delinearing bias as time goes by, or when a new set of valves are finally needed.
Sources used were a Marantz CD63SE CD player and Rega Planar 3/RB300/SumikoBlue Point Special record playing system, while the residential Copland CTA401 provided for comparison. Speakers used were Epos ES11 and Mirage M290, hooked up with XLO Type 5 and Cardas Crosslink 1 speaker cables. Interconnects were van den Hul MC-D102 MkIII Hybrid, Kimber PBJ and Cardas Crosslink 1. For analogue playback, the Copland's phono stage was used through the tape monitor loop to facilitate the necessary step-up.
As with all valve amplifiers, a short period of warming up is necessary, but the Simply Two takes quite a while -- some one to two hours of operation -- to get fully in gear for some serious music making. Now, while it may not be that practical, you do get rewarded with a luscious listening experience if you're willing to sacrifice some electricity and time.
That's what I paid to enjoy Classic Record's Alternate Blues featuring Dizzy Gillespie and friends. The textures of sound were fluid, with a flowing presentation that demonstrated excellent bass and a sweet, euphonic midrange. Soundstaging was good and intimate, but in comparison with the Copland, it wasn't as deep.
The Simply Two also displayed transients that grab you by the neck with trumpets that sounded ethereal, highlighting muting techniques so vividly with a sense of cohesiveness reminiscent of what I remember hearing through the Mark Levinson No331.
Yes, it has the liveliness and speed of a good solid state amplifier, but also a sense of warmth and control heard only on good valve designs, a striking balance not easily attainable. Details like bass plucks and twangs were portrayed with clarity and when solo passages got heavy, it retained the composure of a very well-mannered amplifier; the Simply Two had no problem playing at sustained high volumes and showed no signs of strain.
One of its characteristics that shines brightly is the way it preserves spatial detail, giving ample breathing room around musicians. If you're one of those who like a front table in a small jazz club, I think you'll like the immediacy of the Simply Two. It wasn't long before I had the itch to get my "killer" LPs together for what I call the "goose-bump" test.
Here, the Simply Two handled Sonny Rollins' Way Out West with finesse and pomp -- brushes on cymbals were well defined and Rollins' saxophone took on a very life-size image. To gauge its absolute driving strength, I played Carl Orff's Carmina Burana by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. This piece really made the Simply Two sweat; it lost some steam on crescendos and the tympani wasn't as forceful as I've heard on more powerful amplifiers.
However, Maurice Ravel's Tzigane and Jules Massenet's Meditation by Anne-Sophie Mutter communicated emotions very well on the Simply Two, with a sense of air and decay that were excellently captured.
In many aspects, the Simply Two creams the Copland and the only fault it otherwise has is running out of steam on extremely demanding recordings. Its resilient character doesn't intrude or seemingly add anything to the sound; I'd term it very transparent by nature. And the Simply Two, well, simply plays music so well that you'll sit through record after record.
It's certainly one of the best valve integrateds I've heard to date, and you definitely get your money's worth here -- in fact, you'd be crazy not to audition it if you're considering a sub-RM5,000 valve integrated amplifier. This is a dynamic and detailed amplifier which isn't fussy about cables or partnering equipment, and whose very essence of being is to provide audio nirvana through the music it makes.
Model: Unison Research Simply Two tube integrated amplifier
Source inputs: Five
Maximum Power Output: 12 watts RMS per channel
Review sample courtesy of TONG LEE COMPANY (05-691-1049), 13/14, Jalan Lekir, Kampung Koh, 32000 Sitiawan.
For: Sparkling standard of performance with a remarkable character that conveys the heart of the music.
Against: The gawdy choice of typeface for the legends; the rather hot tubes?