It was years ago that we got a hint of what Chinese high end audio might be like. A Shanghai company came to Summer CES with what must have been two dozen tube amplifiers, stacked on crates in a room at the Hilton in Chicago. We ran a picture of one, and we got flooded with phone calls. Where can I hear one? How much?
There were no answers to those questions then, but there are now. The AQ-1003 is a classic tube integrated amplifier, using a pair of EL34 output tubes in each channel for a rated 30 watts. External jacks let you adjust bias yourself, using a voltmeter. It is beautifully built, with ceramic tube sockets and connectors that wouldn't look out of place in a $10,000 amp. Only it costs less than a tenth.
The catch? The factory doesn't give anyone exclusivity. Become a distributor for these amplifiers, and a competitor may have a near twin to it. But that's not our problem, right?
We opted for Compact Discs for these tests, since most of the amplifiers reviewed don't have phono stages. But to get the maximum quality (and the biggest challenge!) we chose mostly HDCD-encoded discs. Despite the anti-HDCD sentiment popular in alleged high end circles, we consider the process to be the best digital medium available today for which there is more than a handful of recordings. That will change, it is true, but the time is not yet.
The first recording in our series is the Minnesota Orchestra's remarkable interpretation of Bruckner's Symphony No. 9 (Reference Recordings RR-81CD). We used the Scherzo, one of the most dramatic symphonic passages in the literature. It begins slowly and discreetly, with violins and woodwinds, and then the brass and the violas open up with devastating fire. It is thrilling to hear, and a challenge to any stereo system.
And not excluding our Alpha reference system. The Minnesota's wonderfully dissonant brass section (but dissonant only when it should be) has bite that would do a crocodile proud, and the full orchestral passages could easily turn to confusion. On the first run-through with our reference system, even our unflappable YBA1 power amp flapped a little. We listened again, more softly, remembering that a 30-watt amp might have trouble with very high volumes.
What we heard from the AQ-1003 frankly astonished us!
Of course non-audiophiles think a three-digit price tag is high enough, and four-figure prices must appeal only to economic show-offs. However we know what the chances are of finding real hi-fi for under a thousand (feeble) Canadian dollars. There are some nice entry-level integrated amps in that range, yes, but there's not much (read: zilch) that can compete with...
(Note: The entire review appears in the print issue of UHF No. 58)
PARTIAL TEXT: The Microgroove Laundry, Antique Sound Lab AQ1003, Passion I-11, Rogue 88, Jadis Orchestra Reference, Linar 250, Four Headphone Amps, Filters and Cables
FULL TEXT: Watching DVD on a Computer, Passion Kit I-10 Amplifier, State of the Art
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