Audiomat Solfege Reference Integrated Tube Amplifier
Review by Bob Neill
I may be too old for this. I am
listening to a stereo integrated tube amplifier, 40 watts, "Class A"
all the way. It is the top of the line Audiomat integrated imported from France by
Mutine, Inc of Montreal.
It's "lesser" siblings are the extremely popular Arpege Reference (30 watts,
$2,390 - "slightly euphonic, rather sweet sounding, less bass grip than more powerful Audiomat
amplifiers") and the Prelude Reference (30 watts, $3,490 - "slightly forgiving, more bass grip"). Quotes from the importer's
website "The Arpege and Prelude use four EL 34 output tubes, the
Solfege, four 6550C's." As you go up the line, you get more power, the transformers get larger,
and according to Pascal Ravach of Mutine, the amplifiers get more
transparent. The Solfege is designated expressly "unforgiving." I am sitting here, my five times more expensive Canadian hybrid electronics and British monitors set aside, listening to a $4,390 French tube amp drive a pair of French Reynaud
Offrandes. And Rubbra symphonies, which have bored me all week long on my superb reference system, are like loin chops on a platter.
Can't leave them alone. I am definitely too old for this.
Let's back up a bit. I started out this audition with the Solfege and a pair of Harbeth Monitor
30's (reviewed here). A good match is what I expected and essentially what
i got. The Harbeths are a little insensitive (85dB) and a bit forward with
plenty of detail, though well-balanced overall. Based on its recent performance, in which it drove a pair of Spendor SP1/2's into hiding
(reviewed here), I consider the Solfege powerful, robust,
and compared with hybrids with their solid state outputs, slightly tube rich. With the Monitor
30's I heard a robust, dynamic, spacious, moderately smooth, and full sound. It was a little unrefined on top. This quality has been called "transparency," but I note that the fairly recent very favorable review in
Ultra High Fidelity, which to be fair was auditioning a Solfege with Sylvania tubes which are no longer the stock tube for the Solfege (current tubes are Phillips Military Grade), also heard it the way I do, calling it "less velvety" than their reference amplifier and "somewhat dry." This mild criticism aside (See "A Note on Refinement" at the end of this review), tonality and timbre were true, clarity was first rate, and there was lots of brio - enough so that it may have colored the audition of the Monitor 30 in my bedroom last month where
the 30's were a bit overwhelming. (I still believe the Compact 7's are better suited to small rooms but perhaps a less feisty amp would have narrowed the gap some.) Woodwinds barked crisply and convincingly. The violins, while not exquisite, seemed sufficiently smooth. Bass was clear and firm. The overall effect was clean, weighty and nicely earthy. I
was not excited but had the feeling the Solfege was getting most, if not all, of what the Monitor 30's had to offer.
This impression was gained from a variety of music - Mozart piano concertos on olde instruments,
"Bachiana" by Musica Antiqua Kohn, Schubert Piano Trios, Rubbra symphonies, Wayne Shorter. The Shorter, recorded (on tubes very likely) in the early 60's, was especially good; less objective, polished, and clear than on my reference system but more atmospheric and jazz-clubby. After this run, I thought I had a pretty good read on the
Solfege. Not so fast, Buster.
Enter Reynaud Offrandes
I am doing a review of the Offrandes this month too, but at this point (late February),
they are barely out of the box and arrived with very few hours on them - and
they are still waiting for the Reynaud stands. But what the hell, I thought,
let us see if the French like the French.
Damn. I am much too old for this. What is this? I do not yet know the Offrandes very well, but with
them sitting on my 75-pound utility stands, the Solfege seemed to change its colors. It was clearly not the same
amplifier. My first impression was that somebody had got hold of a Spendor SP1/2 and re-designed it to make the
Offrande. Maybe even changed its gender. There was that reach out and grab you, tactile midrange but no slightly over-sweet high end or soft bottom to give it the characteristic Spendor yin-like sound. Very good bass foundation
(Offrandes have more foundational bass than the Monitor 30's, which is part of what another
$1,000+ and ingenious engineering will get you); and while the upper mids and highs clearly seem down a bit, the effect is more pleasing than confining. This is definitely a mid-rangy speaker as the Spendor is, but there is a lot more going on.
Strictly speaking, I do not have the sense that we getting everything in natural proportions - the M30's may be telling us more about the Solfege
in itself. Coming directly from the M30's, music seems initially less clear, slightly opaque. But amps do not exist in a theoretical vacuum. What is going on here is clearly a special kind of amp/speaker synergy. The Solfege sounds a little less robust on the Offrandes than on the Monitor 30's, less earthy. It is also a little less assertive. The
Offrandes' prominent midrange seems to diffuse the slight richness of the
Solfege, giving everything more bloom. And these speakers' seemingly shelved down upper mids and lower treble banish some of the Solfege's moderate lack of refinement. Low level detail is very nice: delicate and clear. Synergy: both the Solfege and Offrandes are
expressive components. While the highly accurate M30's RADIAL midrange driver brings this forward - as if to critique it, the softer Offrandes seem to complement it, making it a kinder, gentler virtue. This is an excellent match that has more romance in it than the
The Solfege does not do exquisite, liquid, or refined beauty with the Offrandes any more than it does with the Monitor 30's; but, as I said, this characteristic is far less noticeable with the
Offrandes. With the Offrandes, we hear brio and what some will call 'aura.' While there is plenty of detail in quiet passages with just a few instruments playing, the
Solfege/Offrande combination's forte is blending, though imaging is sometimes strikingly clear and spatial depth - and for that matter space as a whole - are outstanding. 'Aura'? There is a focus on the warm glow rising off the surface of musical sound - for some folks, one of its most engaging aspects. I understand now why people call them "emotional," and why reviewer Bruce Kennett found it fairly easy to gravitate from Spendor BC 1's to
Offrandes. (Kennett drives his with the Prelude Reference and its EL 34's, so I expect he's getting more "sweetness" and a bit less gumption.) On the Rubbra symphonies I referred to above, this combo is irresistible. On Jordi Savall's latest,
"Ostinato," Alia Vox [# 9820], I miss some of the Blue Circle/Harbeth Monitor 40's refinement on the treble viol. It is not quite as exquisite as it can be; but I get the sensuousness of it and an overall, very beguiling, softness. Something in my youth is being called to here. I recognize it. But I am too old for this.
Down To Business
Associated equipment. Front end is the Naim CDSII cd player connected to a dedicated 15 amp line with an Electraglide Reference Triglide AC cord and to the Solfege with Nordost Valhalla interconnect, RCA/RCA. The Solfege is plugged into a dedicated 20 amp line with an Electraglide Fat Boy Gold, which seems to increase overall dynamics over the stock cord. (The Solfege draws 120 watts at idle, unlike its less powerful siblings, which draw 70.) Speaker cable is the very decent and very affordable Blue Circle BC92 - 16 feet of it, which explains what it's subbed in for my usual meter of Valhalla. The Solfege takes 45 minutes to warm up (Class A) and runs hot (Class A). It uses a total of seven tubes - four 6550C's for output. Its 53 pounds makes it reassuringly heavy for an integrated amp; it seems sturdy and well made and is fairly handsome if you like dull brushed aluminum. I prefer the black finish of the
Arpege, but so what? It has both 4 and 8-ohm speaker taps. I tried both on all speakers and found that, even on the 4 ohm
Offrandes, I preferred the 8's.
The Solfege comes with a remote which I'm told performs its functions admirably, but since I don't like remotes, I asked Mutine not to send it along and they complied. Okay, on to the music.
Listening to the recent Hyperion recording of the incomparable Florestan Trio playing
Schubert's Piano Trios [A67273], on the Solfege/Offrandes, I realized I have not heard such a delicious violin in a
l-o-n-g time. The cello
is not quite as incisive as a cello is and the piano is a little softer and not quite as open and clear as a piano should be; so there isn't the marked contrast among the three instruments that is a lot of what piano trios are about. The
Solfege/Monitor 30's do the drama better. But there is a sense of Schubertian serenity that is very pleasing that is absent from the
Solfege/Harbeth show. I missed the drama but found the Offrande's version intoxicating nonetheless.
On the first piano version of Rameau keyboard music I have heard, new from Harmonia
Mundi,  , the piano is less percussive and again not as clear as a piano is the way the
Solfege/Harbeths portray it; but the softening, which I am beginning to see as a constant with the
Solfege/Offrandes, is subtle and endearing. With the latter combination, the whole presentation is as lyric as it is baroque. French pianist Alexandre Tharaud's interpretation of Rameau is somewhat modern French ( he concludes with a tribute to Rameau by
Debussey), and the Solfege and Offrande are helping it go that way.
On Jordi Savall's "La Voice Humaine," Alia Voix , a remarkable collection of solo baroque music for the bass
viol, the Solfege/Monitor 30's are straightforward, while the Solfege/Offrandes bring the sensuous side of Savall to the fore. With them, the viol is a bit less crisp than I'm used to hearing. It is soft, coppery, and seductive; and there is a lot of delicate but clear, low-level detail that is very attractive. I sense
I am getting less information overall than from the Solfege coupled with the Harbeths and a less objective presentation of what went on in the recording studio. Strictly speaking, the Solfege and Offrandes provide a slightly soft, translucent view of Jordi and his viol. But these 'compromises' from absolute truth clearly grow from a calculated design and add up to a very engaging and pleasing presentation.
Mozart Piano Concerto #9, played by the Jan Van Immerseel and the Anima Eterna chamber
orchestra [Channel Classics 0590], a little known but very Mozartian set of what I consider the composer's best music, is lighter, less bracing, less crisp, with less olde instrument tang on the
Solfege/Offrandes,; but here the forte-piano is clear and quite beautiful. I'd like a little of the chutzpah that the
Solfege/Harbeths give this recording, but I'd hate to lose the lyric quality I'm getting here.
On the Wayne Shorter CD cited earlier, The Solfege/Offrande combo is warmer and more appealing than the Solfege with the
Harbeths. Even more jazz club!
Rubbra' Symphony #4 [Hickox, Chandos 9944]. This is the recording that woke me up to the virtues of this amp. Here the Solfege's slight richness and brio bring this adequate but somewhat restrained recording to life. Rubbra's music is highly derivative and needs all the help it can get to live. The Solfege and Offrandes are the perfect ambulance!
I am enormously struck at how this doughty integrated amplifier can be as versatile as it clearly is. It helped a pair of highly critical Harbeth Monitor 30's be nearly as accurate as they can be and then turned around and literally made love to the more romantic
Offrandes. I also tried it on the Harbeth Compact 7's and, just for fun, on the huge and (comparably) difficult to drive Harbeth Monitor 40's - using the 4-ohm tap on the latter. The 7's are warmer speakers than the 30's and draw nicely on the amp's slight tube richness; also, they don't make such a federal case of the Solfege's less than refined treble. I can see how some folks who are attached to Harbeth accuracy but who also like tubes might like the
Solfege/7's match a good deal. The Solfege did not embarrass itself with the M40's, sounding much better on them than it did when it first arrived, as I suggested in the Harbeth Monitor 30 review last month. Harnoncourt's latest Bach's
St. Matthew Passion [Teldec 81036] seemed a little less lissome and the Rubbra came out a little heavier with voices not separated as clearly as they are with $25,000 worth of 150 watt electronics pushing it all along; but it was rich, smooth, and well-blended. Not a natural marriage but at least a tribute to our brave and spirited 40 watt hero, who had really nothing to prove. It may be comforting to know that the Solfege can bring some speakers into consideration that might be too much for either the Arpege or Prelude to drive - if not quite a 6 ohm/85dB limousine like the Monitor 40. Steve Klein, of Sounds of Silence, tells me he's heard the Solfege push Ariel 10-T's around too, which is no mean feat.
To my somewhat Apollonian ears there is some artifice involved in what the Solfege and Offrandes are doing together, but this combo makes a far more convincing case for it to my ears than the
Solfege/Spendors I talked about last month. This match is the most dramatic evidence that this marvelous amp can do what all good amps can do: change their tune. You can clearly hear the differences among the various Harbeth and Reynaud speakers with the
Solfege. And you can hear that given its druthers, the Solfege prefers a speaker that will respond to and not just accommodate its character. The various
Solfege/Harbeth combinations, as good as each was, in the end all sounded like compromises on my Blue Circle/Monitor 40 pairing. The
Solfege/Offrandes offers another take on music altogether.
What is this take? What are we engaged by with the Solfege when it's paired with what I find to be its favored mates? What is it that makes this combination an attractive alternative to more literally "truthful," monitor-like systems? I think we are not engaged by the whole musical experience, a whole in which, as I said earlier, everything is there in natural proportion to everything else.
I think that we are engaged by an aspect of the whole - again, as I said before, the
'aura' that rises off the surface of musical sound - and drives directly for our emotions. The cliché that some audio components are more romantic than others may apply here, though not in the extreme. My Blue Circle AG electronics and Harbeth speakers are the best combination I have ever heard; but I am aware, in rare moments of objectivity, that they are relatively 'classical' in their approach: that is, they value all aspects of musical sound equally and render them in natural proportion to one another. The Solfege coupled with more expressive speakers like the Offrandes is a bit romantic. In and of itself, I consider it more Walt Whitman barking romantic than British Lake District romantic, which is why it is somewhat held back by the Harbeth monitors. But coupled with the
Offrandes, it is French romantic - French countryside romantic rather than French court romantic. There is a little more emotion than style, elegance, and grace. At any rate, their approach does not feature overall balance. It aims to take your heart, aspires to take you to the soul of the music. I truly understand the appeal of this approach - when it is executed this well.
I had several moments when I was truly lost in the music, "fell into it," as Mr. Kennett describes his experience with the Arpege (that preceded his Prelude Reference) coupled with
Offrandes. Barry in backwoods Ontario, one of my most valued set of alter ears, who converted to an Arpege a few months ago, suggests, without apology, that it may be "an idealized recollection of the event." I know, that sounds like Lake District Wordsworth, but I have the sense that the Arpege with its EL 34's is a less robust machine than the Solfege with its 6550C's.
When I climbed back out of this world and returned to my more 'classical' system, I felt more at home and was ultimately more satisfied. I was glad to have everything back in its natural proportion and with the main focus on the instruments rather than their emanations. But I did not regret the truancy anymore than I regret my youth.
Bottom line. The Audiomat Solfege Reference will tastefully warm, enrich, clarify, and enliven your musical proceedings. It will short you some on ultimate treble refinement, but only compared with far more expensive electronics. (I suspect the Arpege Reference and Prelude Reference are more refined but at a cost in brio and clarity which, having heard the
Solfege, I would be reluctant to trade in.) The Solfege will give you lots of low-level detail. With a stand-mounted British monitor, it will add a touch of often-needed fullness and testosterone but otherwise stay the hell out of the way. With something more expressive from across the Channel, if that is your taste, it could transport you to another world.
A Note On Refinement
I spoke at some length with Pascal Ravach to make sure I had all of the technical stuff right and to compare our takes on what the Solfege sounds like. For a while we were a bit hung up on my use of the term, 'refinement.' To Pascal, 'refinement' means overly refined, unnaturally processed (like white sugar) - so he had trouble imagining why I would
fault the Solfege for not being artificially sweet! To me the word used in audio has to do mainly with the 'finish' on notes: I think of smoothness, a natural soupcon of liquidity. Once we found we understood the word somewhat differently, we agreed we were talking about the same amplifier. Pascal considers the Solfege thoroughly cane sugar honest, without a hint of false beauty. I find that when edges are a little more finely turned, music sounds more natural - there is a bit more overall ease to the proceedings. But you already know that about me. So if your taste runs with that of M.
Ravach, this note is especially for you.
On the matter of relative value, I do not know the world of integrated amplifiers very well. I would say, based on the pairs of separates
heard which together retail for around $4,500, the Solfege Reference is a steal, which would make the Arpege Reference at
$2,390, an absolute steal.
|Sub-bass (10 Hz - 60 Hz)
|Mid-bass (60 Hz - 200 Hz)
|Midrange (200 Hz - 3,000 Hz)
|High-frequencies (3,000 Hz on up)
|Soundscape width front
|Soundscape width rear
|Soundscape depth behind speakers
|Soundscape extension into the room
|Fit and Finish
|Value for the Money
Power Output: 40 watts each channel, stereo
Class A: Up to mid-power (minimum)
Tubes used: One 12AUX7, two 12AUTWAH, four 6550C
Input Sensitivity: 350mV
Inputs: five high level
Tape Outputs: One
Over-rated transformers designed to Audiomat specifications. Direct coupling between the first two stages
Minimum Power Consumption: 120 watts
Weight: 57 lbs.
Dimensions: 7.5" x 17.5" x 17.3" (19 cm x 44.5 cm x 44 cm, (HxWxD)
Warranty: two years, tubes six months
1845, Jean-Picard #2
Laval, QC H7T 2K4
Voice (514) 221-2160