Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Gear & Review
Tag(s): Integrated Amplifiers
For far too long, I had harboured the suspicion that integrated amplifiers were ill-equipped to captivate our imagination to the same extent that separate units could. However, I must confess that this was mostly true in the years before I had ever heard a well-constructed integrated amplifier at work. Perhaps my misguided opinion had originated from the fact that I had mostly known integrated amplifiers from the run-of-the-mill gear sold by electronics superstores or your average online discounters. Since this had mostly been price-driven equipment of the kind that followed current market trends, audiophile pleasures had been hard to come by.
Luckily, the sleek-looking Italian amplifier that is the subject of this review had an utterly different story to tell. Instead of having been a mass-market product, the Performance 1.0 was designed and manufactured by Fase Evoluzione Audio in Italy, towards the end of the 1990s. It was, to a great extent, based on the craftsmanship and engineering philosophy of Fabio Serblin. Fabio himself was the nephew of the legendary Sonos Faber founder Franco Serblin and had previously designed the rather successful QUID amplifier for the Sonos brand. Fase Audio products, too, were created for the audiophile market, manufactured in small numbers, and of higher-than-average quality.
The Performance 1.0 was based on a simple circuit board design that was in keeping with the audiophile 'less-is-more' philosophy. The unit’s 60 watts per channel came from a decent-size, low-noise toroidal transformer and four high-quality Phillips capacitors. The pair of power transistors per channel were of the Mexican-made Motorola 'MJ15022' type. The unit's front panel featured input and recording selectors, as well as a high-quality Japanese-made Alps 'Blue Series' potentiometer for volume adjustment. The Performance 1.0 offered excellent RIAA correction for phono and was even capable of handling higher output MC cartridges. The rear panel featured solid speaker terminals for spades or bananas, a convenient IEC power socket, and a ground-lift switch that could come in handy in case of humming or similar grounding issues in connection with other equipment.
The unit’s sides were tastefully flanked by solid wood panels, a measure taken to dampen the effect of transformer humming on the electronics and housing. The overall design was of Italian understatement and crude simplicity. For example, the screws that secured the top and bottom of the cabinet were visible from all sides. Even the wooden panels themselves had visible screw heads peeking through. Perhaps this was done with the aim of highlighting a Bauhaus 'design-follows-function' philosophy, or it was simply to keep production costs down during the assembly in Italy. Even when I was not listening, I could not help but glance over to the position where the Performance 1.0 was standing from time to time, wondering what Fabio Serblin had been contemplating when he designed this unit. And so it happened: I had finally come across an integrated amplifier that did captivate my imagination.
I would have normally started my listening journeys with CD as source and then turned to phono once I had developed a feeling for the dynamics and dimensions. However, this time around, I started out by connecting our trusty Dual CS 505-3 to the Performance 1.0. The Dual, with original Ulm cartridge, had just been revised and fitted with cinch/RCA connectors, improved isolating feet, and new drive belt. I loved this simple Dual player for the no-frills attitude with which it presented music and really did not expect too much from the Performance 1.0. All the more, I was surprised how well the little amp highlighted the Dual’s inherent strengths by contributing to its clean and honest sound. If at all, the Dual seemed a little smoother than before, and it also seemed to pack more punch. Despite its modest dimensions, the Italian did not sound tiny or frail at all. It presented its music with great tonal richness. Bass was full, perhaps a little more on the thumping side than deeply extended, but nevertheless instantly amiable.
Katie Melua’s “Album No. 9” was presented with a slightly fuller voice than I was otherwise used to. This actually served to make the sometimes overly revealing and at times even harsh and sibilant recording more enjoyable. On the downside, vocals did sound less alive, realistic, and airy. Bass notes had a slight thickness to them and were more soothing to the ears and body than analytical to mind. This effect may have been accentuated and accumulated by our choice of low-capacitance silver solid-core interconnects and Belden 9497 speaker cables or by the resistance combinations of the devices. In and of themselves our Tannoy XT8f speakers and Dual CS 505-3 turntable were not known to be lacking in top-end or transients.
The impression of a mild top-end congestion, perhaps for the sake of reaching a fuller sound, remained unchanged when I made the transition from vinyl to CD. One thing struck me as particularly odd: On our current testing system, we were running a Cambridge DacMagic 100 in conjunction with a Marantz CD-17. All connections were based on solid-core silver cables. The DacMagic had an output impedance of 50 Ohms, and this simply did not match the Fase Audio’s expectations. Taking the DAC out of the equation, I was able to raise output resistance to 250 Ohms. The improvement was instantly noticeable, however, I made the mistake of also changing from our silver solid-core interconnects to an older pair of Fast Audio interconnects. For direct comparison, I should have just changed on thing at a time. Finally, changing back to our silver interconnects, I found that this created an even more natural top-end with vastly improved transients. The result was highly enjoyable, although I now noticed that the stage still seemed a little flatter and more recessed than I was used to. Such is the nature of our hobby that when one phenomenon is understood and put aside, the next one pops up from underneath, thus presenting another riddle to be solved.
However, further exploration will have to wait for another day. This particular Italian is going to play its tunes at Landon's house. Landon has been doing the proofreading for eiaudio and has been waiting for a proper amp to power his system for the longest time. Given some further exploration and clever matching, I can see the Performance 1.0 becoming the trusted heart of a passionate home Hi-Fi setup. With four line inputs and one very capable phono input, as well as lots of cross-recording functions, the elegant Italian offers the looks, power, and tonal richness that one would expect to result from a family production that has long since become royalty in Italian Hi-Fi. And although Fase Evoluzione Audio closed its doors some years ago, Fabio continues to manufacture Hi-Fi equipment under the brand of Serblin & Son. His uncle Franco of Sonos Faber died in 2013 leaving behind a flourishing loudspeaker manufacturing business. His life and achievements are commemorated by Serblin and Son’s through their current range of Hi-Fi equipment that is simply called — ‘Frankie’.
Note: Before handing the Performance 1.0 to Landon, I had the chance to test it on our newly acquired vintage Epicure EPI 500 loudspeakers. Playing in conjunction with the 4 Ohms EPIs, the Fase Audio seemed instantly more at ease and was able to drive them with superior tonal balance. The formerly punchy bass blended more seamlessly into the music. Following this experience, I would personally give preference to a 4 Ohm speaker to reach the Performance 1.0's full potential.