Antique Sound Lab AQ1003 DT Integrated
Ive never owned a tube
amp -- for me, solid-state gear has always been too convenient, too affordable, and too
reliably adequate. Adequate isnt exactly a ringing endorsement, but when
youre just starting out or dont know the difference, "good enough"
is probably just that. One of the main benefits of a good solid-state amp is its ability
to reproduce recordings with accuracy, removed from an identifiable sonic signature. In
the solid-state era, "neutrality" has become a high compliment for an audio
system. How much more you get with a $1000 solid-state amp than with a $400 solid-state
amp is a separate discussion, but the problem with solid-state gear is that it tends to
have little personality of its own, particularly in the GoodSound! price range. The
Antique Sound Lab AQ1003 DT tube integrated amplifier ($1250 USD), however, has
personality to burn. If youre curious about how much magic tubes can bring to your
listening, now might be the time to find out.
Twenty years ago, Antique Sound Laboratory and its
affordable tube amps probably couldnt have existed. Founded in Hong Kong by Joseph
Lau, the company is a United Nations of electronics, employing Chinese manufacturing,
Russian parts (in the form of EL34 tubes), and North American distribution through
Canadas Divergent Technologies. Prior to the partnership with Divergent, Lau offered
tube-based amplifier kits, specifically low-watt single-ended-triode (SET) power
amplifiers. However, Lau had limited reach in the marketplace, and his distributors were
hesitant to support his plans for more ambitious design and production.
About that time, Tash Goka of Divergent Technologies had
received rave reviews for his high-efficiency Reference 3A loudspeaker, specifically for
how beautifully it responded to SET amps. Unfortunately, most SET amps were expensive, and
Goka was looking for a low-cost alternative that would mate well with the 3A. After
hed talked with Lau and tested his designs, the two agreed to combine
Divergents expertise in speaker design with Antique Sound Labs fine
workmanship and ability, to jointly produce affordable electronics that would make
musically sophisticated tube systems available to a wider range of buyers. To further its
goal of attaining audiophile levels of performance in its products, Antique Sound Lab
makes its own transformers, and operates its own metal shop, powder-coating paint
facility, and tube-electronics assembly and testing group.
I was surprised at how large the AQ1003 DT is -- and
lifting it, I felt every ounce of its 45 pounds. Removed from its double boxes, the
polished steel chassis measures a manageable 15"W by 12"D, but its 9"
height made for a tight squeeze in my entertainment center. Everything was meticulously
bubble-wrapped and Styrofoamed, and each tube -- four large EL34s and four small 12AU7s --
was snug in its box, packed securely under the amps protective tube cage. One thing
that steers potential buyers away from tube amps is the initial setup. But once the cage
was unscrewed, the boxes opened, and the tubes exposed, assembly of the AQ1003 DT was
simple, each tube fitting easily into its socket.
On the exquisite brushed-aluminum face, to the left of the
Antique Sound Lab logo, are a remote-control sensor and a Power lever with a blue
indicator light. On the right are two sturdy aluminum knobs: one for volume, and the other
to select among three input sources (CD, SACD, DVD). The firmness and solidity of the
knobs, and the nifty remote control of carved wood (which handles volume, source, and
mute, but not power), were the first indicators of the AQ1003 DTs outstanding
build quality; another was the point-to-point wiring inside. And the workmanship was just
as impressive around back, with three pairs of gold-plated RCA jacks, a set of subwoofer
outputs (a nice contemporary touch), six five-way speaker binding posts (to accommodate
speakers with impedances of 4 and 8 ohms), and the socket for the detachable power cord.
The wooden remote control, subwoofer output, and tube cage
all come standard on the current version of the AQ1003 DT, but the single most
ingenious upgrade is the built-in bias meter set into the center of the chassis platform.
Unlike transistors, tubes can perform inconsistently or behave a bit temperamentally as
they repeatedly heat up and cool down. The meter measures the output performance of each
tube set (a dial switches among four positions). You can then recalibrate a tube set by
turning one of four small screws. My tubes were pretty evenly balanced the moment they
were inserted, but I had to bias them once during the first few hours of listening. Such a
simple, intuitive method of evaluation and calibration not only worked superbly, it
removed one layer of anxiety associated with owning tubes.
The AQ1003 DT replaced the NAD 325BEE integrated in my
system, which also included an Oppo DV-970HD universal player, Monster Cable
interconnects, and a pair of Axiom M22 speakers connected to the AQ1003 DT with
9 runs of Element Cables Double Run cable, terminated with banana plugs.
The Axiom M22s proved a beautiful match, their overall
neutrality kissed with a hint of warmth from the Antique Sound AQ1003 DT. The
combination thrived on music that nods to the organic sound of tube-based studio
equipment, even if that equipment is digitally simulated, as on Amp Fiddlers Waltz
of a Ghetto Fly [CD, Genuine 64715]. On "I Believe in You," the bubbling
bass, dipping keyboards, and thud of the kick drum maintained a harmonic balance and
structure that was completely free from the excessive brightness common with CDs. The
AQ1003 DT offered outstanding midrange performance enhanced by clearly audible
details. Fiddlers whispery vocals on "Eye to Eye" and
"Possibilities" were precise, and the female singers backing him up on
"Unconditional Eyes" sounded soft and sweet in just the right measures.
Princes Musicology [CD, Columbia 5171659] is
characterized by sharp separation of the instruments and a spacious three-dimensional
soundstage. Through the AQ1003 DT, the title tracks bass line began with a
crisp snap that decayed into a soft, deep ring, while the horns jabbed the foreground with
their brassy framework. "A Million Days" and "Cinnamon Girl" were
dense and complex, but the AQ1003 DT was consistent in its ability to translate the
musical information contained in these tracks into sonorous beauty. It dealt with
"Life of the Party" with ease, effortlessly slamming the beat and tracking the
tunes transient energy, while the slow drag of "Call My Name" had body,
and its dynamics were rendered without stress as Princes voice swooped from one end
of its range to the other.
The temptation to serve the AQ1003 DT a steady diet of
acoustically rich, expansively liquid recordings was hard to resist, and I thought I was
doing just that when I put Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaints The River in
Reverse [CD, Verve Forecast 6660] in the Oppo player. I expected the Antique Sound Lab
to convey the driving backbeat and electric buzz of the guitar on "Six-Fingered
Man," the plaintive frustration in the vocal on "Freedom for the Stallion,"
the accusation and instrumental sting at the core of "The River in Reverse," and
the gentle soulfulness of "Nearer to You." And it did -- the AQ1003 DT
deftly handled all of these characteristics. But with this recording, an excess of
coloration began to creep into my listening experience, a noticeable muddiness that
stopped just short of unpleasantness and reminded me of the large, unsophisticated
three-way speakers of my youth that favored heft over agility.
But this woolliness occurred only with The River in
Reverse; the recording itself must possess characteristics that the
AQ1003 DTs tubes accentuated instead of optimized. When I listened to
"Part I," from William Parker and Hamid Drakes First Communion [CD,
Aum Fidelity 039/40], in which the duo perform in an apartment for a small audience, the
AQ1003s tubes infused their collection of handmade drums with a nuance and an
in-the-room tonality that were remarkably arresting and true to life. On "Part
III," the pair engage in over 50 minutes of bass/drum interplay, and the
AQ1003 DT supported Parkers resonantly woody and powerfully immediate bass, and
the cracking explosiveness and effortlessly controlled attack of Drakes traps,
without ever tripping itself up or succumbing to the kind of congestion thats
possible when an amp comes under this kind of musical barrage.
The NAD 325BEE (and its predecessor, the 320) is a
well-known bargain among integrated amplifiers at its entry-level price of $400. In terms
of inputs and operability, it offers a wealth of conveniences. Its unabashedly
transistor-based 50Wpc boost the bass just enough to let you know theyre there, and
extend the treble to just short of brightness. The 325BEE discards none of the intentions
of whichever musicians made the recording at hand, and puts the solid in solid-state.
Antique Sound Labs AQ1003 DT, if not the NAD
325BEEs opposite, represented an entirely different approach to the reproduction of
music. Its engineering emphasized a lush midrange, which accounted for the exceptional
naturalness and old-school warmth that made it wonderful to listen to. I found that its
30Wpc were comparable to the NADs 50Wpc, particularly when I remembered that the
NADs power rating is widely believed to be conservative. At volumes that tested the
limits of listenabilty, the AQ1003 DT introduced nothing in the way of audible
distortion or breakup. But with the AQ1003 DT you sacrifice input options, a tape
loop, a headphone jack, and the low-heat, trouble-free operation of solid-state. You also
pay three times as much as you would for the NAD.
The knock on tube sound is that it suffers from a soft,
rolled-off top end; mushy, undefined bass; and a loss of detail due to excessive midrange
coloration. The AQ1003 DT avoided all of these while offering a more natural timbre
and a ripely melodic and rhythmic drive. Those parts added up to a lovely whole.
Among Antique Sound Labs line of pre-, power, and
integrated amplifiers, the 30Wpc AQ1003 DT is a step up from smaller, lower-powered,
entry-level integrateds, while pleading guilty to the qualities that caused tubes to lose
out to transistors in the first place: Its big, its heavy, it requires
assembly and some maintenance, and it runs hot. In fact, its tubes generate enough heat
for you to question whether youd want to use it during the summer months. In
addition, biasing tubes is a nuisance (although with the AQ1003 DT I had to do this
only once). And while the tube cage is a nice touch, its bars are too far apart to provide
much protection to prying little fingers.
On the positive side, in addition to its warm, graceful
sound, the AQ1003 DTs cosmetics are first-rate, its point-to-point wiring and
overall fitnfinish are miraculous at the price, and its wooden remote control
is a minor work of art.
At the end of the day, owning a tubed integrated amplifier
isnt about which amenities you lose or how much it lightens your wallet. Its
about the pleasure you get from your music collection, and the enjoyment thats added
to your listening sessions. Hour after hour, Antique Sound Labs AQ1003 DT made
music that provided me with relaxation, joy, and simple diversion. The sheer delight
youre likely to get from this tubed integrated should render all else insignificant.
Price of equipment reviewed