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Published June 15, 2001


Audio Refinement Complete Integrated Amplifier and Complete CD Player

A brief introduction

The French Audio Refinement line, if you’re 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 we’ll 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 you’ll 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 André’s 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 you’d expect from a custom-tailored suit. Of course, none of that is ultimately relevant if they don’t 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 remote’s 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 wouldn’t 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 fit’n’finish is very high and on a par with more costly offerings. Are the sonics equally impressive?

Sonic refinement?

Let’s 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 Vollenweider’s 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 duduk’s 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 Gasparyan’s 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 "I’ll Write a Song For You," on Earth, Wind & Fire’s 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 Bailey’s 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 Complete’s strengths. There’s a dimensional expansion that transforms the flatness into a three-dimensional space of considerable depth. There’s a physicality to the sound that makes the performance seem more robust and "there." There’s also a certain prettiness that’s awfully appealing here.

Cheikh Lô’s Bambay Gueej [World Circuit/Nonesuch 79570-2] is a funky mélange of Malinese, Senegalese and contemporary Parisian influences that also adds Fela Kuti’s Afro-beat, reggae and soukous inflections. On "N’Jarinu 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 "M’Beddemi," Lô’s idol, Cuban flautist Richard Egües, makes an appearance and, overblowing, rips into his flute’s 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 Lô’s 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 it’s 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 that’ll 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 you’ve passed a certain point in the oft-quoted law of diminishing returns, the added improvements purchased by rising prices grow smaller. That’s 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.

Prices of equipment reviewed:

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