You might think that as editor and captain of this merry ship, I would pick only the best audiophile equipment to review. So what if we have extremely well qualified, longstanding and authoritative writers such as Dick Olsher, Alvin Gold, Wayne Donnelly... This is my proverbial "sand box" and as such get to be "king of the hill". In reality, though, my desires lead me to what i feel are greener pastures.
As i have said in previous articles, it is easier to design great sounding products when one does not have budget constraints. To offer an impressive product at near bargain prices is another matter entirely. Gone are the ultra-exotic silver wired transformers with equally expensive lamination. Forget about using hand made by Vestal virgin silver foil capacitors. And those $400 stepped attenuators... as my friends in New York would say "forgetaboutit". So when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Oh, and before i forget, we want an amplifier that also includes a pre-amplifier stage. So this leads us, my friends, to the Almarro A318A integrated amplifier.
Cutting to the chase here and now, the retail price of $1,500 means that corners need to be cut. Just when, and where, these measures are taken can either spell success or a dismal failure. Naturally extreme care in listening to each and every part is in order, as virtually every DIY builder will attest the sum can be greater than the parts. Simply using "the best" parts do not guarantee the "best sounding" unit. In fact there are times a less expensive part will yield a subjectively more enjoyable sound from a unit! And this is something the exotic Japanese manufacturers appear to get right time and time again. They are very passionate about music and desire to further enhance their pleasures accordingly.
Externally, biasing is done manually via top-mounted terminals and some consider this a better sounding alternative to auto-biasing circuits. On the rear appears three pair of gold plated female RCA jacks while the loudspeaker binding posts are also gold plated. In the photo above you can see to the far left the fuse holder and also IEC power jack. This allows for using the standard lead or your favorite exotic power chord.
While most products under $2,000 will use circuit boards, Almarro wisely eschews from this in favor of hand wired point to point wiring (as seen above). In fact extreme care has been taken in wire routing and bundling. The more i looked inside the unit, the more i pondered how they can offer such a product for only $1,500. There has been much care and attention paid to the power supplies while high quality ceramic tube socket bases insure a reliable grip. The chassis is especially solid and wrapped in lovely natural wood. In fact the woodwork took me by surprise for a unit in this price range. Those seeking the Almighty WAF (wife acceptance factor) will be glad to know various wood finishes plus an assortment colors are offered.
Yes, there were some parts internally i might consider updating. Just replacing the stock volume pot with a stepped attenuator, like that on my fave DACT unit, could cost a few hundred dollars! Then again simply swapping parts is no guarantee for better sound. Being as this may, my job is to review the unit in stock form. The great news is, unlike many lesser units, the loudspeaker binding posts are of the all metal variety. This may seem minor, yet as a reviewer i have had to endure the stripping of those hideous plastic with metal insert units. These usually strip after only a few uses. Almarro's use of gold plated all-metal posts is a welcome relief. And to prove they build a very reliable unit, a five-year warranty is included (one year on the tubes).
Turning on the Almarro A318A is one of anticipation as there is an internal two minute timer that allows the heaters of those big 6C33C-B tubes to reach temperature before the remainder receives signal. And yes, those big tubes do produce heat (250 to 350 degrees Centigrade) so make sure this integrated stereo amplifier is placed in a well ventilated area. Once everything was up and running, and with the standard few hundred hours of burn-in, i was ready to sit back and truly hear if this was $1,500 bargain or a dud. Enough foreplay, let's get to the reviewing already!
If there is a single word to describe the Almarro A318A is would be listenability. Hmmm, is that even a word? Well, as the editor will gladly take liberties with the English language. One of the main qualities i seek with any system is midrange smoothness, cohesive harmonics, good timing, and prefer errors of omission rather than commission.
Going from top to bottom, the uppermost frequencies, while smooth and clean, do not quite have the last word in extension. My guess would be from around 10kHz upward (cymbals, bells, triangles) did not quite have sheen of my reference Wavelength Cardinal X1 monoblock 300B amplifier ($7,500). Given the huge price difference one would hope the Cardinal, also being a true monoblock, would be superior so we need to keep things in perspective. Fortunately the highs are indeed very smooth and it does have very good extension, just not the "last word". What i have found to be true is that most bargain audiophiles tend to choose like-priced cables and loudspeakers such that the uppermost frequencies can be a bit edgy. Since we need to remember that in the end we have a system, what may be a deficit in my reference system (custom digital front-end, Voyd turntable with Clearaudio Reference cartridge, conrad-johnson premiere 17LS pre-amplifier, Cardinal X1 amplifiers, Audio Note AN-J/SPx, and Kimber Select cables) could very much be an asset is another arrangement. Reality is, just one of the interconnects retails for more than the Almarro A318A.
So before i continue to the midrange and bass, this indeed begs the question shouldn't a reviewer use a system that is more in line with the product reviewed. My simple answer is no. To further comment, how would i truly know how a product sounds if the equipment mated to it is not ultimately transparent? This is akin to having a race-tuned Ferrari (without driver aids such as active suspension, ABS, traction control, etc.) and then substituting parts. Naturally such a car will tell a driver virtually everything so a proper conclusion can be rendered. Now where were we?
Ah yes, the critical midrange. After many hours of both vinyl and CD including the usual audiophile goodies, there is a natural; smoothness to way massed strings, horns, and acoustic guitar is portrayed. In fact this unit seems to have a good deal of "speed", meaning that the entering transients are fast. i would describe the harmonics as more on the accurate side over the rose colored glasses variety. Therefore the Almarro A318A integrated amplifier leans more towards neutrality versus chocolaty rich thickness.
As for bass, there is no shortage here! Those of you seeking a low powered amplifier with strength should find this unit a ticket to happiville in this regard. Quite tuneful with plenty of strength and impact. In fact a brief encounter with dance music proved this unit can keep up. My estimation is that the combination of powerful 6C33C-B output tube combined with Almarro's impressive power supply brings about this attribute. In fact the unit did not hiccup during the unrelenting bass notes on Prodigy's Fat Of The Land!
As for imaging and soundstaging, everything is portrayed within a nice even space. While not the last word in any category (as rated below), i find that having a uniform ability on all accounts to be superior over an uneven alternative. Why? Because my ears prefer to hear consistency without one thing running over, or under, another. For me, this imparts a relaxing and more natural musical experience that can be enjoyed hour after hour, not just a momentary whiz-bang that becomes fatiguing over time.
As mentioned earlier, transient response with the Almarro A318A integrated amplifier is fast. Bass had an abundance of strength and power while the midrange is smooth and clean. The slightly recessed highs could be a blessing for those with systems that are a touch tilted upward. As for inner resolution, within this price range i have not heard anything coming close. The high quality construction with point to point wiring in concert with clean layout surely aids in this respect. There is little to dislike and much to admire. Given the $1,500 price, excellent build quality, and stunning wood chassis, in my mind a high bar has been set for others within the under $2,000 price range to overcome. The included five year warranty is a show of confidence in the unit's reliability. Feeling how solidly constructed plus sheer heft (over 30 lbs) of this unit, you can truly see, feel, and (most important of all) hear your investment in musical bliss.
Frequency Response: 20Hz to 20kHz
Tube Compliment: two 6C33C-B for output, 6SL7 for line stage (SRPP), and 6SN7 cathode follower
Power Output: 18 watts per channel in triode with zero negative feedback
Inputs: three stereo sources via gold RCA plugs
Output Terminals: solid all metal gold binding posts
Output Taps: 4 and 8 ohm
Dimension: 37 x 27 x 20 (WxDxH in cm)
Weight: 15 kg
United States Distributor