The French Audio Refinement line, if youre not yet familiar with the brand,
currently consists of two parts. The Complete series combines the Complete integrated
amplifier ($995), the Complete CD player ($895) and Complete tuner ($695). It functionally
ties everything together with the Complete system remote ($50). The Multi series offers
several more expensive options, primarily separates. What well be looking at are the
Complete integrated amplifier and matching Complete CD player.
The Complete Story
The Complete integrated amplifier offers 50Wpc into 8 ohms and features six inputs
(Aux, CD, Tuner, Video and two tape loops), custom five-way metal binding posts, a
detachable power cord socket and a power switch. The front panel is dominated by a
continually adjustable volume control and a selector that routes the signal from one of
the six inputs to the recording jacks. A push-button power switch toggles between standby
and active modes, and small push buttons offer direct source access. The power and input
buttons have miniature status LEDs: The power LED changes from red (standby) to yellow
(active); the input LEDs turn green when the respective input is selected.
The CD player mimics the power-on scheme of the integrated amplifier: The power switch
is on the back and the standby/active switch on the front. The rear panel has one pair of
analog outputs and an RCA S/PDIF digital output.
Both components are available with black or silver anodized aluminum front panels. The
black version retains the silver buttons and silver CD drawer of the all-silver models.
The vented top and solid side panels are made of non-magnetic aluminum, entirely free of
visible screws and finished in flat black. The back panel is finished in gloss black with
clearly visible white silk-screening. Instead of the usual four rubber feet, each Complete
component sits on three strategically located custom footers (one up front, two in the
rear) that minimize vibration. These footers are aluminum discs with conical soft rubber
tips attached to the bottom. Ceramic-tipped footers are optional. The firm claims
enhanced resolution and speed for the harder substance.
Look under the hood of the Complete and
youll spot a custom double C-core transformer that the company claims smoothes the
incoming voltage. Designer Yves Bernard André is also proud of the low bias hi-spec
semi-conductors he uses, claiming that their low operating temperature results in long
life and better performance. The Complete components use the same German custom-made
capacitors and gold-tipped resistors that are employed in Andrés upscale YBA line
as well. Obvious to even the uninitiated are little details, such as the orderly layout of
the circuits themselves and the felt damping applied to certain internal components and
between the case lip and the cover. In short, the Audio Refinement components offer the
kind of bespoke details youd expect from a custom-tailored suit. Of course,
none of that is ultimately relevant if they dont give good sound. They do.
The remote is black with silver buttons. In
a departure from convention, and to avoid button madness, the four lower buttons each
control three different functions. Thus, depending on which component of the Complete
System (amp, CD, tuner) you are using, one button controls source up/down (on the amp),
track up/down (on the CD) or preset station up/down (on the tuner). This multi-layered
approach could easily spell confusion, but Audio Refinement provides an ingenious
solution. The yellow power light of whatever component the remotes been set to turns
green. Simple but telling.
A small screwdriver is provided to change batteries in the aluminum-cased remote. Had a
chamois cloth been included as well, to dust off the components, I wouldnt have been
surprised. The level of care that the company projects with the packaging and features of
its components is, dare I say, complete. The appearance of the Audio Refinement
components, in further keeping with their name, is one of refinement, elegance and
sophistication. Overall fitnfinish is very high and on a par with more costly
offerings. Are the sonics equally impressive?
Lets not mince words -- yes. The presentation of the Audio Refinement duo is one
of warmth and polish rather than sharpness and incisiveness. Using the Axiom Millennia
M3Ti loudspeakers, and connecting everything with our regular Cardas Crosslink cables, I
listened to "Hush, My Heart, Be Still" on Andreas Vollenweiders Cosmopoly
[Sony Classical SK 89096]. The overtones of the harp lost a fraction of their air and
metallic bite. In trade, the harp gained a slightly burnished quality that I found very
becoming. The oboe-like Armenian duduks inherent nasality was also softened,
sounding closer to the darker timbre of an English horn. These differences are rather
subtle. They manifest themselves as a minor tonal shift into the midrange, away from the
treble register. Individual notes are, perhaps, not quite as lithe and sharp as over the
Cambridge Audio system reviewed recently, but seem a bit fuller and more saturated, like a
photograph with intense colors and a strong three-dimensional feel. The sound seems to
have a slightly golden glow, which is apparent around Djivan Gasparyans voice when
he breaks into his plaintive song.
Instead of focusing on the most minute of details with microscopic and detached
precision, the Audio Refinement rendition goes for a generally more emotional and less
analytical approach than the Cambridge Audio. I found this particularly appealing when
listening to poorly recorded older pop tunes such as "Ill Write a Song For
You," on Earth, Wind & Fires 1977 All n All [Columbia 34905].
On a brutally revealing system, the liabilities of the mediocre recording quality (a flat
"cardboardy" presentation without much body or dimensionality) overshadow the
gorgeous musical message. Through the Audio Refinement stack, Philip Baileys
masterful falsetto exploration gave me goosebumps. Although better-engineered recordings
might go even further in highlighting the contributions of the Audio Refinements
electronics, the truly enjoyable Afro-power funkiness of the song points clearly to the
Completes strengths. Theres a dimensional expansion that transforms the
flatness into a three-dimensional space of considerable depth. Theres a physicality
to the sound that makes the performance seem more robust and "there."
Theres also a certain prettiness thats awfully appealing here.
Cheikh Lôs Bambay Gueej [World Circuit/Nonesuch 79570-2] is a funky
mélange of Malinese, Senegalese and contemporary Parisian influences that also adds Fela
Kutis Afro-beat, reggae and soukous inflections. On "NJarinu Garab,"
Lô reaches far into his upper vocal register and strains just a bit. This causes a
certain back-of-throat glare that can distract when heard through systems that emphasize
such details. The Audio Refinement minimizes this glare in favor of warmth. On the guajira
track "MBeddemi," Lôs idol, Cuban flautist Richard Egües, makes an
appearance and, overblowing, rips into his flutes overtones. This slightly shrill
wildness and underlying exuberance is perhaps a touch toned down through the Audio
Refinement when compared to the Cambridge Audio gear. The sense of vivacious get-down
spirit that Lôs band elicits from their talking drums, percussion, guitars, bass
and saxophone also loses its character ever so slightly when the disc is played through
the Complete components. The raw sense of jammin propulsion and get-up-and-dance
funk is replaced by a less driven integration of the voluptuous elements of the music.
Call it a minor change of perspective, from rawer to more refined.
If you like your music highly detailed (or hi-rez as its sometimes called), with
lots of obvious drive and a certain inner tension, the Cambridge Audio will fit your bill.
If you prefer a more relaxed and smoother presentation thatll open up more space in
the soundstage and intensify tonal colors, the Audio Refinement is the ticket.
But keep in mind that it comes at a cost. You might want to know what else you get for
your money. Clearly, more impressive and heftier build quality, more sophisticated looks
and a certain high-end cachet. An aura of luxury is apparent in the smoothness of the
controls, the cleverness of the aluminum (not plastic) remote, the finish and texture of
the surfaces and all the little details already mentioned.
Once youve passed a certain point in the oft-quoted law of diminishing returns,
the added improvements purchased by rising prices grow smaller. Thats a given. As
you venture beyond the Cambridge Audio gear, you can no longer buy twice the performance
for twice the price. Instead, you buy sophisticated styling, higher quality parts and
increased pride-of-ownership. You also buy incremental sonic advances that grow ever
smaller the farther you move upscale.
So while the Audio Refinement gear is quite a financial step up from the Cambridge
Audio, if -- like me -- you like its softer, warmer sound, the combined enhancements (as
long as you understand the inherent arithmetic of the law of diminishing returns) are well
worth it. In fact, for most intents and purposes -- in normal-sized rooms, using speakers
of common sensitivity, at sane playback volumes -- this gear sits at the very edge of what
most of us will ever need. Beyond this point, the potential further refinements become so
subtle that it is questionable how important they really are to a simple but heartfelt
enjoyment of your favorite tunes. Highly recommended then as a high-end budget system.