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June / July 2010
Superior Audio Equipment Review

World Premiere
Luxman CL-88 Vacuum Tube Control Line Amplifier
Prepare to be awakened!
Review By Anthony Nicosia
Click here to e-mail reviewer.

 

Luxman CL-88 Vacuum Tube Control Line Amplifier  Luxman Corporation, a recent subsidiary of IAG Corporation, is responsible for the production of the traditional line of audio equipment under the Luxman name. Lux Corporation was first established in Osaka Japan back in 1925, by surprisingly enough importing pictures and picture frames. Afterwards an in store display of radio receivers sparked the interest of the Japanese public in the direction Luxman audio products. The first electrical components manufactured were switches & transformers for the imported radio kits. In 1928 the company introduced the LUX-735 Hi-Fi radio receiver and today has an entire line of high quality audio products for the world to enjoy.

Back in the late 1970's I had gotten my hands on a beautifully slightly used Luxman T-110 tuner which unfortunately for me is no longer in my possession. It was a pleasure to have in my audio system with its stylish looks and accurate tuning ability. It stayed with me for a long while until I foolishly lost interest in radio broadcasts.

Today I once again listen to music using a separate tuner and now wished the T-110 had never left my possession. So when the opportunity arose to contact Philip O'Hanlon of "On a Higher Note LLC", the US distributor for Luxman Corporation, in an effort to set up a review it was indeed a happy day for me. Luckily for all of us Philip O'Hanlon, through a network of audio dealers, is helping to reintroduce these Japanese built product to those of us here in N. America. It has been my pleasure to not only experience the Luxman CL-88 Vacuum Tube Control Line Amplifier, today's review piece, but he was also kind enough to send along the Luxman MQ-88 vacuum tube amplifier. He rightfully suggested trying both together, even though the review would center on the CL-88 only, as he found great synergy between the two. After having heard both together it would be easy to imagine a system comprised of a CL-88 and an MQ-88 with the buyer being absolutely delighted with the purchase of each. My observations started out using a Monarchy Audio SM70-PRO solid-state amplifier for a point of reference as this was something that was quite familiar to me. Later the MQ-88 was switched in and further results were noted.

 

Basic Information
There were two things one would probably notice upon first seeing the Luxman CL-88. It has a small footprint, with an external size of about 10" x 3.75" x 15.2" (WxHxD), and it is very distinctive looking, in an attractive way. Though it is quite long, about 15.2 inches, its narrow 10 inch chassis allows for one to easily place it in most audio racks and still leave room for the matching phono stage, the Luxman EQ-88 at a compact 4.3" x 4" x 12.4". This was good planning by Luxman who must know audiophiles are most often cramped for space. Between components, spare cables, cleaning solutions for records, CD's, connectors and various extra isolation devices plus a great deal more objects we just love to have close by real estate within our racks is usually at a premium.

Luxman CL-88 Vacuum Tube Control Line Amplifier InsideWhen looking at the front plate one sees a large ALPS precision brass, four gang volume control knob located just off center. It is both recessed into a cut away space in the faceplate as well as protrudes just slightly out from it making it easy to turn. In a dark room a thin circle of blue light emanates from this well sized knob indicating the power is switched on. Glide your finger over the center of the knob and music is temporarily interrupted as the mute feature is activated and the blue light will continually pulse. When you move the volume knob either way, left or right, the mute feature is deactivated. Or you can glide your finger back over the knob, hold it there for a moment and the mute will deactivate. It should be noted that as you move the volume control to the left the numbers decrease all the way to zero, not increase, yet that is the correct direction for turning up the volume on this preamplifier.

So when you insert the unit in your system for the very first time do not be fooled into thinking of putting the volume setting at the lowest denomination zero and then increase it from there. When you first turn it on I would turn towards the higher numbers by turning it all the way to the left and then gradually increase the setting from there moving towards the lower numbers. While the rotation of left and right are quite common, the numeric sequence of soft to loud is reversed. On top of the unit is a power on/off button and an input selector knob. Signal switching is performed by a golden switch immersed in a nitrogen container placed near the input terminals to maintain a low signal to noise (SNR) ratio.

Looking to the rear of the CL-88 one sees an IEC connector receptacle, a fuse holder and four inputs as well as a pair of outputs to connect to a power amplifier. All input and output connectors are high quality Kappa Alloy RCA jacks. This custom made unique RCA socket is made from a blend of copper and brass with the thought of both keeping sound deterioration to a minimum and to provide a secure connection of cables to the CL-88. On the top left hand corner facing the rear of the unit is a grounding connection as well as another connector for attaching a Luxman EQ-88 phono stage to the CL-88 if you like spinning vinyl which hopefully you do. This DC powered outlet has a built in power supply for use with the phono stage, another unique idea and one that saves having a separate power supply box for the Luxman phono stage. Once again saving more precious real estate in our audio racks. What comes next was also quite unusual and pleasantly welcomed.

On the back plate there is a line phase sensor for checking the phase of the electricity being fed the CL-88. It is recommended that you press the button upon first installation. If it lights up red the AC outlet in the wall is incorrectly wired and important to know as having live and neutral wires swapped in reverse could adversely affect the music coming from your audio system. Mine passed the test, but my outlets had already been checked with a product purchase from my local Home Depot. It is convenient though having this feature built in. If you try lifting the CL-88 be forewarned as this relatively small sized package weights in at a solid nineteen pounds. Underneath it you will find four rather sturdy cast-iron legs which help isolate the CL-88 from vibration that might distort the audio signal. In another effort to control unwanted mechanical vibration the top panel is 15mm thick and Luxman uses also solid brass supports making for a firmer suspension structure. Thinking even further ahead electronics are hung from this 15mm thick top plate in order to prevent vibrations from polluting the low level music signal. Further adding to this high quality preamplifier are Gold-plated 4N oxygen free copper cables, vitamin Q oil impregnation tubular type condensers and metal film type block capacitors

 

The Start Of Something Good
Listening to the DVD Audio disc of the Eagle's Hotel California [Pandor 60509-9] was done using a pair Monarchy Audio SM70-PRO Mono Block solid-state amplifiers with the OPPO Digital BDP-83SE (Special Edition) Universal player. Being quite familiar with the song, "Hotel California", this seemed like a great place to start for comparison. What really stunned me almost immediately was the powerful bass presence produced by this combination. It was as if my system had just been given a dose of steroids as it now sounded fuller and more prominent, quite unusual for a tube based preamplifier. With the band singing background vocals the soundscape was indeed spacious left to right as well as front to back. The ability of the CL-88 to extend both in front of and behind the loudspeakers was a much welcomed and quite unusual surprise. Not only did the music have a nice sense of space to it but vocals displayed a correct timbre to them reminding me of a more true to life presentation.

During the opening sequence of "Try And Love Again" the beautiful guitar work of Joe Walsh (Gretsch guitar) and Glenn Frey (lead guitar) was spectacular. Here the CL-88 did an excellent job with top end extension as notes rang through clear and accurate. Songs now felt new and exciting as if once again heard for the very first time. Performances sounded clearly balanced displaying a well correct set of pace and timing as well as a good amount of top to bottom presentation. On the Ultimate Luther Vandross [J Records/Epic/Legacy 88697 25687 2] featuring a duet with Beyoncé there is the song entitled "The Closer I Get To You". Right from the start, with the opening bass notes, the CL-88 established its presence showing extensive power and strong clarity. When Beyoncé whispers "Tell me more.", in a sexy toned voice, one is overcome with an intimate feeling of passion. You are immediately gripped by a sense of involvement and a strong "you are there" presence akin with listening to a live rather than a recorded version of the song.

On Carlos Santana's, Santana Supernatural (Arista 07822-19080-2), most good preamplifier's get the left to right spaciousness found on "(Da Le) Taleo and of course the CL-88 did also. However its display of a soundscape extending a good distance both in front and behind my Legacy Focus 20/20 loudspeakers was again an event worth mentioning. With Carlos Santa on guitar, accompanied by keyboards, bass, drums, percussion, congas, trombone, trumpets as well as vocal performers the soundscape can get a bit confusing. Fortunately with the CL-88 that was not to be a problem as images were clearly laid out before me. There was this feeling of being swept away in this incredible soundscape of instruments and vocals with its fast paced energy and rhythm that took my breath away. If you can sit still through this song without getting up to dance check your pulse and all your vitals. Thanks to the CL-88 even this tired old body had its head and body swaying to the beat produced by this talented group of musicians. The opening track from "Put Your Lights On" featuring the guitars of Everlast and Santana had a natural feel to it which had me delightfully listening to it again numerous times. There was a correct feel to the timbre of Everlast's husky styled voice that was brought out by the preamplifier's ability to add correct body to the presentation. A song I find myself drawn to numerous times to test a components bass impact on my system is "Maria Maria" with The Product G & B, Carlos Santana (of course) as well as Cello, Viola and Violin accompaniments. What struck me most here was not just the way the lower bass frequencies were correctly presented but also how well guitar and vocals were brought to the forefront. Previously the vocals and string instruments had taken a back seat to this song's serious bass presence where now there was a better balanced image and their own individual performances could also clearly be heard. This was a definite improvement resulting from the presence of the CL-88 in my system.

 

In Steps The Luxman MQ-88 Tube Amplifier
It was now time to check out something in the Luxman line that could be considered a close kin to the CL-88, that is the MQ-88 tube amplifier. The MQ-88 consists of four KT88's, two 12BH7's, two ECC83 tubes and pumps out a solid fifty watts of all tube power. Priced at eight thousand dollars, or just two thousand more than the CL-88, I can see it being a strong candidate when looking for a matching amplifier. Especially from the point of view of potential synergy and or cosmetics similarities, this might be just the ticket for you. Right away the MQ-88 placed me into a more upfront soundscape making me feel as if the music were a tad closer than when heard through the Monarchy Audio SM-70 PRO amplifier. While the bass impact remained strong there seemed to be a better balance within the overall musical spectrum lending more to a truer sense of realism at higher frequencies. At fifty watts, driving into an six ohm load, the MQ-88 could produce about 3dB more sound pressure levels than Monarchy's twenty five watts and this too was noticeable. While not an altogether fair comparison as the SM-70 PRO costs much less than the MQ-88 it was good to note that the extra money gave you more in the way of added enjoyment.

It was time to turn up the volume to see how the CL-88 would react during load passages and so into the CD player went the DVD Audio Greendale (Reprise 48533-9) featuring Neil Young & Crazy Horse and on came the track for "Devil's Sidewalk" . Happily there was never a problem as music and vocals rang out clearly even when played at levels loud enough to make me consider lowering the volume or leaving the room. There really was not much to be said about this preamplifier that was negative as harmonica, vocals, drums and guitar all had a rightness to them that was hard to fault. Whether played loud or soft the CL-88 brought great joy to what was being played, more so than with many other preamplifier's that have trotted in and out of my home in the past. There have been a few that could produce a slightly larger soundstage left to right (not that the CL-88 was a slouch in this department), but none yet to give me that more important deeper soundscape making for a truly special musical event. On "Grandpa's Interview" the chorus of background vocals singing along with Neil Young displayed such an effect, while the guitar slides were reproduced with realistic accuracy and a nice sense of decay with notes slowly fading away. The line "Someday you'll find everything you're looking for." had a ring of truth for me as this preamplifier from Luxman fit well with my other components. In fact at times it had a startling effect making me look up to see if someone was behind my loudspeakers rather than just being reproduced artificially between them. "Sun Green" was one such song when recreating the sound of a person calling through a megaphone made me sit up and take notice as well as producing excellent imaging with the chorus in the background. The drum set seemed right there in the room with me giving off a nice three-dimensional image to its presence. It seemed no matter what type of music was played pace, rhythm and timing all meshed well together making for a joyful experience with the listener.

Philip O'Hanlon sent along a CD called Philip's Demo XII which is a collection of music from various artists (it is not for resale). This CD helped show the power and strengths of the CL-88 with an assortment of different types of music by some incredible artists from around the world. Those who are familiar with Joel Grare know he is a world class percussionist. On "La Femme de L'Eau" he introduces the effect of the sound of water dripping which when played at high volume brought a smile to this old face. The decay of the drip, dripping as well as that from the bow moving across the Chinese violin was enough to be worth the price of admission alone. There was much more however when Archie Shepp (saxophone) and Horace Parlan (pianist) teamed up for "When Things Go Wrong". This reminded me of my Uncle Joe playing the saxophone in his living room to my amazement as this electrician from Yonkers New York sounded so good to this then seven year old boy.

The sound of the saxophone heard through the CL-88 sounded almost as real to me as the memory of that day in Yonkers. It is time now to pull up a chair and to take a listen to Nat King Cole (vocals) and George Shearing (piano) as this recording is going to take you just about as close to sounding real as you can expect to get. It came across as a small club setting with the rest of the audience behind you as you sat front row. The fullness of Mr Cole's voice accompanied by Mr. Shearing on piano presented a holographic imagery that was almost too good to take. It was like a private performance just for my listening pleasure, now how much more hedonistic can you get. Actually that question leads us up to the next selection with the California Guitar Trio playing the "Bohemian Rhapsody". This trio of acoustical guitarists consists of Paul Richards from the USA, Bert Lams of Belgium and Hideyo Moriya from Japan. If you have yet to hear them let me sum it up by saying their performances are, fun, electrifying and quite magical, which is exactly how the CL-88 presented them to me. Each guitarist could be clearly heard in his own unique space on stage sitting side by side in a straight line with the appropriate distance between them. Simple, yet beautiful. There is something about the sound of an acoustic guitar played back through tubes that makes for an eye opening experience and with three guitars this was even more breathtaking.

This last performer, Vienna Teng, is a Taiwanese-American pianist, singer-songwriter who also plays keyboard, and guitar. She was born in Saratoga California and while chasing a degree in computer science at Stanford University joined a student Acapella group where her career took off from there. Actually though she started playing classical piano at age five so she was not really "new" to a musical background. The pounding bass notes from the keyboard shook my floor as her smooth passionate voice trailed off displaying a proper decaying effect. With the violin playing in the background off to the left it was easy to close ones eyes and experience the beauty of this tube combination from Luxman.

 

Conclusion
My time with the CL-88 seemed far too short as its many positive virtues has brought great joy to my reference audio system. Not only was it a space saving component, with its welcomed shorter than normal footprint, but its uniquely styled physical beauty was one that caught my eye as well. The CL-88 was able to retrieve a good amount of information from my CDs, some of which had previously been obscured within the background of the music's soundscape. While good at uncovering details, within a song's instruments and vocals, detail alone was not where its magic lies. No the CL-88 was much more than that. Add to this a truer sense of space with a deep front to back soundscape, an alive type of presence that renewed the spirit of previously heard performances and a strong foundation in the lower registers of bass notes, then you will begin to understand its effect on ones system. Give the CL-88 the best associated equipment you can, like the MQ-88, add to that some exceptional recordings and sit back to enjoy this truly magnificent tube preamplifier from Japan.

 

The Listening Environment
The review room is eighteen feet eight inches long by thirteen feet wide with the loudspeakers and equipment kept on the short wall. The cathedral ceiling starts at eight feet and sloops up-wards to thirteen feet at its peak in the middle spanning across the short length of the room for the full thirteen feet width. The hardwood floor has a nine by six foot oriental rug lying down the long ways facing toward the system placed dead center in between, yet not under, the listener and the review equipment The room has no doors but there are two openings. One opening is in front of the right loudspeaker giving access to the hallway while the other is behind the listening position which opens to a formal dining area. The room is treated with three floor standing acoustical panels, one behind each loudspeaker and one in front of the fireplace (although I have been known to move them), while all audio equipment is located in a Cherry Synergy Twin S30 Salamander audio rack against and in the middle of the short wall. I have two power conditioners which plug into a PS Audio Power Port receptacle located behind the audio rack. I also use two Blue Circle Audio MKIII Power Line Pillows one on each of two outlets on the long walls next to and behind each loudspeaker. The loudspeakers are located about six feet seven inches from the rear wall measured to their front panel and twenty one inches from the rooms side walls to the middle of their front panels. The loudspeakers are placed twelve feet apart forming a triangle with the listening position that is also angled at twelve feet from the center of the front of each loudspeaker to the center of the listening position. In the corner of each short wall behind them are a pair of Klipsch Klipschorn loudspeakers which are also sometimes used when reviewing audio gear. If the Klipsch loudspeakers are in use I would then reposition the three acoustical panels to slightly behind the listening position one to the left, the other to the right with the third being placed in the opening leading to the hallway just right of the right loudspeaker.

 

Review Equipment
Luxman MQ-88 Amplifier
Monarchy Audio SM70-PRO Solid-State Class A Amplifier
Oppo Digital BDP-83 Special Edition Universal player
Loudspeakers: Legacy Focus 20/20
Audience aR2p-T power conditioner
Acoustic Revive RPT-2 Ultimate Power Distributor
PS Audio power port receptacle
Two Blue Circle Audio Mk III power line conditioners
Loudspeaker cables: Cardas Golden Presence
Interconnects: Cardas Musician's Reference (two pairs)
Power Cords: Cardas Cross
                     Tek Line PC-8 Signature
Cherry Synergy Twin S30 Salamander audio rack

 

Specifications
Type: Stereo tubed linestage
Tube Compliment: ECC83S, ECC82
Frequency Response: 5 Hz to 100 kHz (+0, -3.0dB)
Input Sensitivity/Input Impedance: 100mV / 90kOhms
Output/Output Impedance: 1V / 1kOhms
Total Harmonic Distortion: @ 1kHz (rating), 0.013% or less
SNR: 93dB
Dimensions: 10" x 3.75" x 15.2" (WxHxD)
Weight: 19 lbs.
Price: $6000

 

Company Information
Luxman Corporation
Overseas Sales Dept
Level Three
Three Pacific Place
1 Queen's Road East
Hong Kong

Voice: 852-2584-6218
Fax : 852-3585-1213
E-mail: info_global@luxman.co.jp
Website: www.luxman.co.jp

 

United States Distributor
On a Higher Note, LLC
P.O. Box 693
San Juan Capistrano, CA 92693

Voice: (949) 488-3004
Website: www.onahighernote.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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