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Fi "X" Direct Coupled 2A3 SE Amplifier
From Sound Practices Issue 15

 

  I could hardly believe my eyes with the "Xu ad spread out in front of me. First of all, you have to ask "What is it?" The answer is that it's a stereo 2A3 single amp. Who would have thought?

I don't usually get sucked in by slick advertising campaigns, but the second I saw the ad for the Fi direct coupled 2A3 " X amplifier, I immediately had to own one. As a homebuilder, I don't often get the urge to whip out the Amex card for store bought gear but the "X" really hit my button hard.

Despite all the charms of the 2A3, "best tube" according to many confirmed triode nuts, there isn't much perceived desire to own three watt amps yet. People just don't realize what they can do, yet.

Fi's Don Garber has always made 2A3 SEs and I think he always will. Among professional American amp makers, Don is alone in his unswerving dedication to the ancient 2A3, half-pioneer, half-keeper of the faith, and half-artisan-a man of many halves. Box. The insides of this amp are mainly on the outside. Actually, it's hard to say what is inside or outside. It reminds me of a revolving door.

Anyway, when my eye settled on that glossy b&w " X promo snapshot, I instantly decided that I could never be cool again until I had the "X" playing in my system. And, aside from the unquenchable thrust to maintain a hipster self-image, always the best reason to buy audio gear, I had just rebuilt my bi-amp horn setup, using TAD 2001s and Altec 1505B multi-cell horns. I knew that a single 2A3 would be just the thing to run that overgrown fifteen cell tweeter.

If one could say this amp is art, and I would say so, it is industrial art. It is meant to be plugged into the wall and turned on and used. And treated with some due respect the open nook and cranny construction and silky aluminum surfaces of the "X" invite the eye and hand, while the B+ terminals lie within reach, daring- the uninitiated finger to probe the mysteries of its forbidden interior...

"Mr. 2A3" Garber is also in a class of his own as far as visual design goes. You would think you might have to go to Italy or something to get this kind of symbolic object d'art approach to amp design, but Don just dreamed it up while riding home on the Subway, "A freakin artist," as they say in New York.

The " X Amplifier is truly The Death of the box. The insides of this amp are mainly on the outside. Actually it is hard to say hat is inside or outside. It reminds me of a revolving door. I later found out that Garber usually ship the "X" with a protective metal shield, but he shipped mine bare. Now I know he's try off me, before it was all just talk.

Back in early-80s NYC, the "X" motif was tied in with the whole punk sparseness aesthetic that was so hard to avoid if you lived in the city. Don might remember this, since the "Xu circuit adopts a staunchly minimal pose from the standpoint of parts count. This unit is a ruthlessly pruned-down version of Fi's regular 2A3 direct coupled amp, itself already a lean, mean, low parts count machine. The "X" is the Sid Vicious of 2A3 amps. Time to get out the New York Dolls records.

Minimalists take note: the "X" is almost the least hardware you can use for the job -- a pair of 6SF5 metal high mu triodes with the plates wired straight to the grids of the 2A3s, a couple resistors and a few electrolytic bypass and filter caps. If simplicity is a virtue, the "X" is a saint. There isn't one extra screw in the whole assembly.

On the other hand, Garber does spring for a tube rectifier, which I was very glad to see, because I know it makes a big difference in the musical flow of an amp's presentation. It's reassuring that Fi didn't skimp down to the I0 for $1 silicon rectifier level of minimalism, but instead chose the inefficient, wasteful, purist high road. This amp wouldn't be what it is without that tube rectifier- it's as simple as that.

The "stock trannys are $75 a pair Hammonds, with MagneQuest DS025s available for an additional buck-fifty per channel. When quizzed, Don seemed noncommittal on the value of the $280 upgrade, saying the difference was "not as different as some people might like to think."

I still don't know what the heck that means, but I detected the distinct musky aroma of a reverse-cool parts choice statement in there somewhere. So, I told him, "Look, I useta live in New York myself, just  hold the iron, cut the price, and I'll install my own pair of Magnequest trannys." Had some MQ TFA-204s I shook Mike LaFevre down for sitting idle on my workbench and  they were already paid for and broken in, know what I mean?

That may be, but now I feel like I lost out on the cheapo/minimo posture of using the Hammonds and now I wish I had those cheau Hammonds for the urban coolness factor. I know the MagneQuests are probably technically better transformers, but so what?

Visual aesthetics aside, in terms of musical refreshment, I must say that the Fi " X marks the spot. It's definitely worth the risk of painful electrocution to enjoy an amp with arich soulful presentation that quickly puts me in the right mood like this amp does.

To generalize, the Fi amp has more of a celebratory musical posture than an analytical presentation, and this is what I am looking  for to run my HF horn. It has a soft, seductive, whispery quality that makes me feel  like it is singing right into my ear.

I must say that nothing in my experience compares with a good 2A3 in terms of getting just the right balance between dramatic and natural. A 300B can be more dramatic in some applications, and done well that can be mind-blowing, but you always know you're getting a show. The 2A3 pose is perhaps a tad more restrained and a bit easier to believe most of the time.

That said, I wouldn't want to imply that the "X" is a neutral sounding amplifier at all. It delivers the full psych-o-delic special effect  that triode amps can produce. The "X" creates a narrative drive beyond the usual realm of realistic reproduction, edging into a kind of intimate hyperrealism, but don't knock it until you've tried it. No matter how long I sit there trying to understand and deconstruct the 2A3 illusion, it doesn't go away.

I expected top midrange out of a DC 2A3 and I got that with the "X" but the unexpected BASS performance on my Altec woofer definitely put some funk in my trunk, with grunt factor well beyond my expectations. I do get a bit more weight and control with my "big" 18W pp 6BQ5 Dyna ST-35 on the woofs, but in terms of punch and rhythm, the "X" was no slouch. A cute and effective rig up would be a pair of "XVs for a one-"X"-per-side bi-amp arrangement.

H'mmm, maybe I can work out some kind of involuntary payola arrangement with Don Garber, once he knows I know he usually ship the amps with a metal safety cover either that or "Move over Jimmv Hoffa. Mr. 2A3 going out to summer camp in the Meadowlands." They'll be saying, "Yeah I remember Garber, the guy made a helluva 2A3 before he went to Jersey!"

 

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