It may seem as though Chinese-made consumer goods are popping up everywhere these days, and of course having nearly a quarter of the population of the planet gives you a certain advantage in industrial output. But the Passion, the creation of a store in Québec City, goes back a few years. Rotac's René Laurendeau wanted to bring the sound of tube electronics within reach of the poorest audiophiles. The answer: offer do-it-yourself kits, and get them made in China. What he hadn't expected was the tidal wave of demand for the assembled version of the products.
There is an entire line of Passion tube products, ranging from a preamplifier to a power amplifier with larger 6550 tubes. However the I10 and the I11, whose review follows this one, are both integrated amplifiers. They both have EL34 pentode tubes operating in Ultralinear mode (midway between triode and pentode mode), putting out 30 watts per channel.
In most respects, the I10 is a near-twin of the amplifier in the preceding test. More than the front panel logo has been changed, however. Though one can simply order one of these amplifiers with one's name on it, Passion has in fact obtained modifications, including transformers with more steel, and a reinforced chassis. Indeed, the I10 is actually taller than its apparent twin, because the chassis is over 2 cm higher. Other mods: the Passion has four inputs instead of three, and both Passions come with cages to protect the tubes from probing fingers.
Other features are similar. A knob and a series of openings on the right side let you adjust biasing with an external voltmeter, which must be done when you change tubes. The connectors are of unusual quality for an economy amplifier. The line fuse is accessible from the outside, and the power cord plugs in with the ubiquitous IEC 320 connector.
You can still buy the amplifier as a kit. If you're not sure whether you're up to the task, however, you're not. The assembly manual is easy to follow, but you need to solder small, heat-sensitive components onto circuit boards, and this may be the wrong project on which to learn soldering technique.
We entered into this test series with a funny feeling. We have a house rule when we test equipment: we compare a product under test not to another product being reviewed, but to the reference system. If one product is superior to the other that will be evident, but our point of comparison is always our reference system. If it were possible, we could compare with the musicians actually coming into the room to play live, but the budget doesn't allow that, and our reference systems allow us to get as close as possible to that ideal.
Well, that's usually, but this was not the usual situation. Here we had an amplifier that was a virtual clone of the one in the previous tests. The front plate was different, and so were a few details added at the request of one or the other of the distributors, but how different could the sound be? Essentially, these amplifiers were similar enough to be twins, except for the chassis color. Having finished our review of the Antique Audio Lab amplifier (its original brand name, by the way), how could we review this Passion amplifier without referring to what we had just heard?
We began with the Scherzo from the Bruckner symphony. Was there a difference? Yes there was, but it was slight. We liked the "roundness" of the brass and the strings -- of course tube amplifiers have a reputation, deserved or not, for knocking the sharp edges off music -- but we were also impressed by the amount of detail that was audible. If this amplifier was rolling off the top end, it wasn't amputating much. Of course most of what we heard sounded like what we had heard, good or bad, with the other amplifier. Only the soft opening segment hinted at something more, a touch more of the magic that our expensive amplifier and preamplifier can reproduce.
Almighty God also sounded much as it had with the other amplifier, yet there were some identifiable differences. Albert and Reine noted somewhat more power in the organ's lower registers (though Gerard found the difference less than significant). Arne Domnérus's saxophone was slightly smoother, we thought, with a pleasing halo of reverberation surrounding it. This is a terribly fragile recording, and of all the recordings in the test it was the one most affected by the change of amplifier.
The I10 did quite well with the Schubert lieder, though Albert expressed reservations about the timbre of the bass voices. There's a lot of bottom end in this recording, or there should be, but the somewhat thinner sound of this amp shifted the vocal timbre upward, removing some of the piece's effectiveness. Was there any improvement at all? Gerard noted one: the esses of the singers were now less prominent, but a small increase in clarity made their "T's" more clearly audible.
Albert had fewer reservations over the jazz number Comes Love. This was the piece that revealed the more solid bass of the Passion version of the amplifier. That helped the sousaphone, and it also helped Kenny Davern's clarinet in its lively, sensuous solo. Indeed, all of the instruments had somewhat greater substance. However, the "chiff" of air from the clarinet, clearly audible with the reference despite the 1.5 meter distance of the microphones, could scarcely be heard. And Reine complained about some added harshness in the volley of clarinet notes at the very end of the piece.
We should add that the I10, like its near-twins, is no monster amp. Our 3a MS5 speakers have medium efficiency by modern standards, 87 dB. More efficient speakers, in fashion just now, would be more at ease. Remember also that driving an amplifier hard can not only harden the top of the register but also make the bottom seem thinner.
We ended with Doug MacLeod's joyful Papa John, which was enough to lead Albert to conclude that the I10 really did have the advantage. Though the music still sounded thinner than it had with our reference amplifier and preamplifier, it was somewhat fuller than it had been with the other amplifier. There was a slight but noticeable increase in "punch," and the violin had a little more life. We marvelled once more at the sheer variety of detail we would hear even during complex passages. Nothing seemed to faze this amp. Gerard wondered how many amplifiers in this price range could handle this recording with such ease. "There's nothing," said Albert.
In the lab, the amplifier performed well, putting out 36.3 watts into 8 ohms, with both channels driven (across most of the band -- though the 20 Hz distortion rose sharply above 22 watts). Noise was inaudible, dominated by a buzz that was not from the power line. Crosstalk between inputs was -62 dB at 1 kHz, rising to an acceptable -53 dB at 10 kHz.
An amplifier to listen to? Sure...but be sure to read the next review.
Model: Passion PAK-I10
Price: C$999 assembled, $699 as a kit (US equivalents $685/$479)
Dimensions: 38.5 x 29 x 22.5 cm
Warranty: 5 years transferable (assembled), except 2 year on kits and 90 days on tube
Most liked: Great musicality and value
Least liked: Reduced weight in the bottom end
Verdict: A lifeline for the financially embarrassed music lover
I had always liked the sound of this integrated amp when I had heard it at the Montreal Festival and I knew I was going to enjoy the listening sessions. What I didn't expect, though, was how good this little wonder actually is.
If you have reasonably sensitive speakers and not too huge a listening room, this is it, friends. And if you intended to pay more...well, get a better source instead, or better cables, or even both.
You like space, depth and great detail? I heard them all. You prefer massed voices to be naturally clear and well-separated? I heard that too. You love deep, earth-shattering bass? Look elsewhere.
Instruments had a palpable roundness and a warm resonance which is surprising anywhere near this price range. Highs didn't always work, however, becoming hard, especially when extra power was required. I could tell, of course, that we were not in our reference's territory but the enjoyment of the music was all there and that's what really counts.
I don't have much in the way of reservations over this tube integrated amp. The qualities it exhibited throughout the test session are on my list of essentials: a good sense of space, engaging rhythm, authoritative attacks, lots of details, and lots of finesse in those details, audible lyrics and good clarity.
True, compared to our reference this amplifier gives music a little less weight, and instruments seem somewhat more distant. Certain modulations I'm used to hearing with the reference amplifier, especially on the sax and organ recording, were absent. But the essentials -- lyricism and music -- were present and accounted for.
I still can't believe it. After the countless waves of inflation of past decades, can you still buy an amplifier of this quality and get change for a thousand (Canadian) dollars?
Yes you can, and it's a complete amplifier too. Add a source and a pair of speakers, and fire it up. What you'll hear may not be perfect, but it sounds so much like music that it will probably cut radically into your television-watching.
By the way, I've heard cut-rate tube gear before. It didn't sound like this.
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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