Electrocompaniet ECI 6 DX MKII
Int. Streaming Amp Review
You may have heard of Dr. Matti Otala of the Tampere University in Finland. Even if you haven't, the fine sound that the best transistor amplifiers are capable of today is a direct result of his pioneering work in the seventies on Transient Intermodulation (TIM). This is a type of distortion, previously unidentified, produced by early transistor amplifiers which made them so tiresome to listen to. Per Abrahamsen and Svein Erik Børja read Dr. Otala's paper and set out to design a transistor amplifier that would minimize TIM. Their 25 Watt amplifier, introduced in 1976 really did change the world and won their new Norwegian company, Electrocompaniet, many fans and customers including Bruce Swedian (Michael Jackson's producer). He used Electrocompaniet amps to master Michael Jackson's albums HIStory and Invincible. Electrocompaniet amplifiers found their way into many recording studios around the world including Abbey Road.
But things eventually went wrong for Electrocompaniet and in 2004 they went bankrupt. Three years later, the company was bought by the Norwegian company Westcontrol with their offices and production then moved to Tau, which is outside Stavenger in Norway.
To compete with Chinese sourced products, Westcontrol built a large and highly automated production line for Electrocompaniet components, which greatly reduced labor costs and improved construction quality and reliability. Their Classic Line has a restrained appearance and covers separates and integrated amps, CD Players, streamers, all the way up to the 600 Watt Nemo monoblock amplifier which weighs over 90 lbs. They also produce a wireless lifestyle range called EC Living.
The rear is much busier with mains input, loudspeaker binding posts, and five digital inputs (TosLink 1, USB, Coax 1, Coax 2, TosLink 2). For analog inputs, there are three unbalanced RCA input pairs plus one XLR balanced pair. For music streamers, two streaming inputs are USB and wired LAN. Other jacks on the back include unbalanced RCA and balanced XLR preamp outputs, RS-232, and in/out 12 Volt triggers. You can't see it, but the unit also links to your network wirelessly via Wi-Fi and through Bluetooth. That's an ocean of connectivity.
I had one stroke of luck when using this amp in my system. The remote control for the Electrocompaniet just happens to control my EMM Labs XDS CD/SACD Player. With one exception – when you press "Stop" the transport does stop, but the input on the Electrocompaniet automatically switches to MEDIA because it thinks you've finished with that source, and now you want to stream. Not a bug – a feature.
I ran into one problem with Electrocompaniet's ECI 6 DX MKII that you certainly won't experience. If you use spade connectors with an inflexible stretch of cable close to the spade, such as on my Nordost Valhalla 2 speaker cables, the left speaker negative cable may obstruct the mains input, and the right speaker negative cable may obstruct the left balanced preamp out connector. This is because my unit came fitted with European safety compliant WBT binding posts, which only accept spades at one particular angle. I raised this issue with the company. They contacted the Norwegian distributor of Nordost to discuss and they said they mostly sold bananas rather than spades in Europe because of this issue.
Electrocompaniet said they would immediately change the production for North American units to use standard binding posts without the plastic protective collar which dictates the angle of the spades. Apparently this is an issue that many European companies face because of EU safety regulations. I looked inside to see if I could remove the collar myself, or rotate it to a better angle, but because of the way the binding posts are connected internally, this turned out to be a dead end. I switched to banana cables and avoided the problem altogether. I am very happy with how responsive the company was to this issue, which they had never come across before. I took this picture to illustrate.
You all know what an integrated amplifier can do. This one offers 125 Wpc into 8 Ohms, 200 Wpc into 4 Ohms, and 370 Wpc into 2 Ohms. That means it must have a substantial power supply, and you can feel that when you lift it up. Despite its relatively compact dimensions of 19.3" wide by 16.9" deep and 5" high, it weighs a good 45 lbs. Much of that weight must have gone into the power supply and rigid chassis.
True Lossless 24-bit/192kHz Streaming Music
Electrocompaniet's ECI 6 DX MKII integrated streaming amplifier can even act as a Roon endpoint. You can control the amp from the front panel, its dedicated 51 button plastic remote or the EC Play app on your phone, my preference. With this, I can access the library of files I have stored on the exaSound Delta Server, Radio, Qobuz, Spotify, and Tidal through the Media input (USB). All things are well laid out and easy to learn.
I will divide my listening tests into two sections. First is a review of the ECI 6 MK II integrated amplifier – the ECI 6 DX MK II without the digital module. The second half will audition the DAC and streaming module – the DX in the amp's name.
Since the amplifier does not have line-level inputs, I treated it as an integrated amp rather than testing the preamp and power amp sections separately. And I'm delighted to say that the performance was impressive across all frequencies and decibels. It isn't the most dynamic amplifier out there, but it does a fine job of controlling the ultra-revealing and current-loving YG Acoustics Hailey 2.2 speakers. The bass is strong and deep, the treble extended and non-fatiguing, the midrange revealing, while the spatial characteristics were strong for this price point, if somewhat flattened compared to an ultimate reference.
To test out this performance I used the EMM Labs XDS1 both directly as a CD/SACD player, and again as the transport to an EMM Labs DV2 DAC. I also used a Meridian G08 CD player, but I will talk about this later within the digital section of this review.
So it is with Electrocompaniet ECI 6 DX MKII integrated streaming amp both through its balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA inputs. Certainly when the EMM Labs DV2 is converting the bits to analog. Yes, there is a drop in realism and dynamism when you allow the EMM Labs XDS1 to perform D to A conversion, and a markedly bigger drop when the lower performance Meridian G08 is handling that task. But the fact that these source changes are so noticeable is testament to the superior abilities of this Electrocompaniet unit.
Now it's not perfect. Nothing is. Its' biggest shortcoming is the subtle flattening of both dynamic range and attack, and the smaller and less coherent imaging compared to the reference Soulution 511 power amp fed by the variable output of the EMM Labs DV2 DAC. But this is a different price point altogether. Having had multiple integrated amps pass through my system, I would place this a little ahead of the excellent tube-based Copland CTA408, and well ahead of the $20,000 Yamaha C5000 Pre and M5000 Power separates in terms of musicality.
But as you would expect from the size of the box, it is not designed for high volume output on low-efficiency speakers. There are bigger amps in their line-up designed for that task. Specified distortion levels (THD < 0.004% from 20Hz to 20kHz) and bandwidth (1Hz to 150kHz) are excellent. I heard nothing that would make me think otherwise. Maximum peak current exceeds 100 Amperes, which attests to its ability to cope with the massive transient demands of a Mahler symphony without breaking a sweat.
The second part of the auditioning is a different story. Now we are talking about the DAC and Streamer section, which is in my view not quite in the same class as the analog sections. Using CDs, I compared the same music decoded by the XDS1, The DV2, and the Meridian G08 to the TosLink digital input from the Meridian G08 and to USB replay of stored files on my server.
Time Marches Onward
Compared to the $30,000 reference DAC, an obviously unfair comparison if I am not taking price into consideration, I found the imaging shrinking in towards the speakers, with less texture on the instruments. Overall, it offers a less relaxing and involving experience. Foot tapping dropped proportionately. The extent of this step down in realism varied from disk to disk. Artur Rubinstein playing Chopin Sonatas on JVC [JM XR24008] is a wonderful performance but a recording that is very difficult to bring to life. On many systems it can sound heavy and rolled off.
Using the DV2 DAC, the piano sings with a firm bass and an extended upper range above a luminous midrange. The Meridian G08 DAC maintains a good deal but far from all this realism, and the Toslink input on the Electrocompaniet a little more, but in neither case can you really appreciate the superb tone that Rubinstein could coax from his instrument. Heard this way, the recording sounds its age (1961), and you wouldn't go out of your way to buy this much sought after XRCD24 release.
Leonard Cohen's final disk You Want It Darker [Columbia 88985365072] is another disk that can sound bass heavy unless you have an excellent replay chain. On the G08 and through the Toslink input, the sound never really opened up. It sounded somewhat tired and morose, but through the XDS1's DAC section and especially through the DV2 DAC, the music came to life. Cohen is opening his soul to you – it's a privilege to be experiencing his final testament, just as it was a privilege and the thrill of a lifetime to hear him at close range during his final tour with his handpicked musicians and backing singers.
It's the clarity of the high frequencies, the solidity of the bass and the exceptional dynamic range that distinguish the good DAC from the great DAC. But on Astor Piazzolla's great recording Tango:Zero Hour [JAM 9110-2] the difference between the various DACs narrowed significantly and I was very happy with the DX section's execution. The same can be said of Haydn's Quartets Opus 20 [Astree E8786] which kept me fully involved. Buena Vista Social Club [Nonesuch 79478-2] fell somewhere between these two extremes. Yes, the DV2 was better, but the Electrocompaniet's TosLink input was pretty damn good too. Love that disk!
Now a switch to higher resolution music, some wirelessly through Qobuz accessed directly through the EC Play app and others from high res files stored on my exaSound Delta Server and accessed through the USB input. I also compared the same tracks (some DSD and some 24-bit at 192kHz or 96kHz) to the DV2 DAC using SACD disks played on the transport in the XDS1. Note that the two EMM components are connected using EMM Link, a version of ATT glass, which transmits the DSD signal from transport to DAC without conversion.
Compared to its performance on Redbook, I could certainly hear a significantly sweeter and more musical sound playing hi res tracks of all types through the Electrocompaniet's DAC, with no difference noted between Qobuz and my server's version of the same tracks. The imaging improved quite a bit, filling in the hole between the speakers. Sound quality exceeded that of Redbook from the Meridian G08 – maybe a 7.5 on that 10 point scale. But that high res sound was still not as refined as a Redbook track converted to analog on the XDS1 or on the XDS1/DV2 combination. It could not match the spaciousness or the blackness between the notes, although the imaging now matches Redbook through the XDS1. But the sound of SACD through the DV2 and into the balanced inputs of the Electrocompaniet showed an even bigger improvement. And you would expect nothing less.
Electrocompaniet's ECI 6 DX MKII Overachiever Impresses
I haven't mentioned price until this point because I want you to understand what you are getting before you judge what kind of value is on offer. In fact, until this exact moment, I have not checked the prices myself. My guess is around $6500 for the base ECI 6 Mk II and $8500 for the ECI 6 DX Mk II.
And the actual prices: $6000 and $7500 respectively. I think the analog-only ECI 6 Mk II is fully competitive on features and specification and offers unusually good sound for the price, while the DX version, at just $1500 more, is an overachiever. It has all the great sound of the base model with all the convenience of a good flexible streaming DAC. It's $7500 well spent.
As to your friends, if they are Hi-Fi Mavins, they will be impressed that you own an Electrocompaniet. If they are not, they will be equally impressed once you start playing them some music. Not flashy here but thoroughly musical.
Interview With Electrocompaniet's
Phil Gold: Lasse, can you tell me how you came to work in this industry and in your current role? And can you explain what that role is?
Lasse Danielsen: I have always been a music geek and an amateur musician (drummer), and I started my career as a second engineer in a recording studio. I ended up in the IT industry as a network and communications engineer and had a successful career. When I was asked to join Electrocompaniet as a Sales & Marketing Director, this was a dream come true and another bucket-list tick.
My job is to market our products worldwide: distributors, dealer shops and end-users. There is usually a lot of traveling involved and HiFi show attendances, except for now with the pandemic.
Phil: Electrocompaniet is a company well known in the world of HiFi but has not always had a strong presence in North America. Can you tell me how the products are now distributed here and how important the North American market is to the company?
Lasse: Our distributor for North America is David Jensen of Red Leaf Audio. For Electrocompaniet, the US & Canada is a very important market but also a difficult market, as there is some very strong competition. However, our pedigree and history being part of some of the most prestigious recordings and recording studios is a big plus.
Bruce Swedien of Michael Jackson fame and owner of Westlake studios was a huge fan of Electrocompaniet, and we are credited on the remastered version of Thriller and BAD, and other Michael Jackson albums.
Today we are also represented in the studios of LA-based Norwegian production team Stargate, who produce album for ColdPlay, Jay-Z, Pink, Sia, Katy perry, Sam Smith and a hoard of other contemporary pop artist, to name just a few. So we have a good name we can capitalize on.
Phil: You have two versions of the integrated amp I am reviewing, the ECI 6 MKII and the ECI 6 DX MK II. Can you upgrade from one to the other? If so, is this something the buyer can do, or is it a job for the dealer? And how much is that upgrade?
Lasse: The ECI 6 MK II can be upgraded to the ECI 6 DX MK II, but it must be done at a certified service center. This is because the main board must be reprogrammed, and this is not something the end user can do. The end user price is $1500 + shipping.
Phil: Can you tell me about the digital section of the amp?
Lasse: We use a precision clock source in combination with a Texas Instrument 4392 sample rate converter with a Cirrus logic 4392 DAC. These chips are very widely used in products performing A/D-D/A conversion in high end recording studios. For example - Prism Sound from the UK's products.
More importantly than the chip itself, is the analog circuitry use AFTER the Digital to Analog conversion. All our pre-amplifiers and output circuits, for example in CD-players, streamers and the like, as well as integrated and power amps, are a completely class A design.
It's one part of our design philosophy that transistors in these circuits work on high class A operating points. It is also correct for all circuits of our power amplifiers up to the output circuit. These are all Class A designs. The emphasis on the analog side (which is what we hear) is our primary concern and listening test have confirmed our assumptions in this matter.
Phil: There is a lot of competition today in integrated amps, where performance levels are now challenging separates. What separates Electrocompaniet integrated amps from the field, both in terms of design and construction?
Lasse: We use amplifier stages designed with Electrocompaniet classic circuitry design methodology where transistors are operated in high bias class A with low distortion and low noise.
The power amplifiers feature a high open loop bandwidth design using circuitry that at the same time preserves and takes full advantage of the modest applied negative feedback, resulting in low distortion across the full audio frequency band with very good bass control and a very smooth top end.
We use a fully discrete design with no op amps in the audio signal path.
Phil: The quality of the power supply and its regulation is very important to achieve excellent sonic results. Can you tell me how you have built the power supply?
Lasse: We use a 650VA shielded toroidal transformer with 7 secondary coils, 88,000 uF capacitors and all line stages have separately filtered and regulated rails for each channel with very little output noise. We have 16 different voltage regulated circuits for the amplifier and another 10 regulated power circuits for additional circuits, like digital converting, streaming, controlling and so on. Our PCB is produced with 2oz copper traces for improved current handling.
Phil: There is no numeric display of the volume level – instead there is an indicator light to indicate the volume level on a circular scale. How many steps are there, and how does the volume control work?
Lasse: There is no numerical display as the volume control is fully analog. It's a motor driven analog potentiometer so there are no "steps" as such – it's continuous. This way we do not induce any digital circuitry into any part of the amplifier (except the DAC).
Phil: How has your firm been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?
Lasse: We have been hit of course like everybody else, but not as much as we feared. The shortage of electronic components is a far bigger challenge, but here we have been able to secure ample supply of needed parts with our partners.
Phil: Thanks for this, Lasse. If there is anything else you'd like to add for our readers, here's your chance.
Lasse: I'd like to point out that all our products are fully designed, manufactured, assembled, and shipped from our own factory in Norway. Everything from the electronics (that we manufacture ourselves) to the chassis and transformers (and everything else) is sourced locally (where possible).
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