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Electrocompaniet AW220 Amplifier

Something Special

Dave Thomas

12 May 2003

Specifications

MBalanced Stereo/Mono Solid State Amplifier
Rated Output Power: 220 W @8 ohms (mono); 70 W @ 8 ohms (stereo)
Output impedance: <0.01, 20 Hz - 20 kHz
Maximum peak current: 60A
Input impedance: 165 kOhm (mono), 330 kOhm (stereo)
THD (1kHz half power, 8 Ohm): <0.006% THD (1kHz -1dB, 8ohm): <0.007%
Noise (both inputs shortened): <130uV Frequency Response: DC-65kHz -3dB Channel separation (1kHz-10kHz): >90dB
Shipping weight: 33.0 pounds
Dimensions: 4.3" H × 15.0" D × 19.0" W

Price: $2,495 (plus applicable taxes & shipping)

US Distributor: Jason Scott Distributing
Phone: 800.359.9154
Web site: www.electrocompaniet.no

Settle Down Big Al

One day last summer Alan Warshaw of Jason Scott Distributing, Electrocompaniet’s U.S. distributor, spent a weekend with Mike Holm and the fine folks at Holm Audio in the western suburbs of Chicago. He was there to introduce customers to EC’s new AW220 stereo/mono amplifier. I was already a big fan of EC gear and am currently involved in a love affair with many of their products including the 600-watt flagship Nemo mono amps, so I was filled with a great deal of skepticism when Alan matter-of-factly stated, “These sound better than the Nemos.” Now, my initial reaction was a rather acerbic “yeah, right.” I figured that Alan was just a little excited by a new product and had temporarily lost touch with reality. I can empathize with a distributor who is really high on a new product and wants others to see the same qualities in it that he does. But my gut feeling (and I have a really big gut) was that the 220’s stood about as much of a chance against the Nemos, as a plate of Veal Piccata has of getting out of Luciano Pavarotti’s dressing room untouched. Did my gut betray me? Read on.

To understand my affection for the more-than-$14,000 Nemos, you can read my February 2003 review of them. Suffice it to say that the just-under $5,000 (per pair) AW220 was really going to have to be something special, to keep from making a liar out of my man Alan. Now I’m not going to blow smoke here, I realize that there are simply some things that a 220-watt amplifier can’t do quite as well as a 600-watt amp. That the Nemos play louder and produce bass that is capable of going down somewhere near the vicinity of Dante’s third circle, as compared to the 220s, should not surprise anyone. What will surprise you though, is just how much you’ll love where these bad boyz do take you, and at about a third of the cost no less! The AW220 is actually a 75-watt stereo amp that a couple of simple rear panel adjustments can turn into a 220-watt monoblock. EC already has some wonderful products in the mid-power range, most notably the excellent ECI-3 integrated and AW120 stereo amp, so the most popular use of the AW220s will be as mono amps. Let’s face it, not everybody can drop $15K for a pair of Nemos, but with these amps, you may not need to. One of the great things about this product is that for just $2495, you can start out with one really nice amp (used in “stereo” mode), then add a second amp later and have yourself one hell of a pair of monoblocks—without pulling an Enron on the kids’ college fund. Also remember that having a pair of these amps gives you maximum flexibility, as they can also be used as a pair of stereo amps for bi-amping. Vive la choice!

A quick look at the AW220 and you’d think that it was little more than a beefed-up AW60 (the amp that it was based on). But peek inside and you’ll find what EC calls a “dual balanced symmetrical mono” design which uses two(!) of their patented FTT (floating transformer technology) transformers. This design allows the amp to achieve twice the ability to cancel low-frequency noise and harmonic distortion. Just as with EC’s other mono amp designs, the AW220 features a balanced “link” to additional amps. In addition, you can adjust the amp’s input level for matching with other EC amps. On the outside, the AW220 maintains EC’s timelessly elegant styling. A 3/8”-thick acrylic faceplate is attached to a black anodized chassis via four gold-plated screws. The company name and logo are centered on the front, above a gold 15/16”-diameter on/off power button. As I mentioned in the Nemo review, EC will be offering a very attractive silver, brushed aluminum faceplate as an option. There are photos of the new look on Electrocompaniet’s website. On the back, you’ll find an absolutely idiot-proof connection layout that makes all of this remarkable amp’s flexibility easy to use. From left to right are the balanced link outputs, balanced mono inputs, two sets of speaker terminal posts, and an IEC power cord receptacle. Transforming a stereo amp to mono is easily done by pressing the recessed “push” button (located between the balanced inputs and outputs) and adjusting the input “level” control. Simple, right?


Dr. Funkenstein meets Andreas Vollenweider

I’ve always felt that one of the hallmarks of a good piece of high-end gear is its effect on what you listen to. What I mean is that when you put a new piece of gear into your system, whether it be an amp, speakers, cables, etc., it should transform your listening experience as well. If you put a new pair of speakers into your system and you’re satisfied with continuing to listen to the same music, then you’ve only made a marginal improvement in your overall music-enjoying life. Adding a new piece of gear into your system should not only increase the joy you get out of your current music collection, it should also make you hungry for some new musical experiences. This was the effect that the AW220s had on me.

I’ll admit that before I first got into high-end audio, my listening biases were heavily skewed towards the synthesizer and bass-saturated r&b, soul, and funk that I grew up on during the late ’70s and early ’80s. Parliament, Funkadelic, Bootsy’s Rubber Band, and Earth Wind & Fire were the most frequent spinners on my Pioneer rack system. But during one of my first visits to a high-end shop (Pro Musica, one of Chicago’s best audiophile hangouts), I was exposed to recordings by Pink Floyd, Pat Metheny, and Ricky Lee Jones. The shop featured gear from Linn, Naim and ProAc. They looked so neat and sounded so great that every piece of music they played for me was a treat. From that day on, my record collection took on a whole new character, and my appreciation for the effect good equipment could have on my ability to enjoy all kinds of music has remained intact. Don’t get me wrong, as I write this I’m listening to the AW220s fill my listening room with the brilliant guitar work of Funkadelic’s Eddie Hazel on a ‘live’ version of the guitar rock classic, “Maggot Brain” from the One Nation Under A Groove” CD [Priority Records, 72435-39378-2-9]. According to legend, George Clinton (a.k.a. Dr. Funkenstein) urged Hazel to play the first half of this instrumental as though he were at his mother’s funeral, and the second half as if his playing could bring her back. The result is an emotionally draining performance that the AW220s allow you to feel every bit of. These amps throw a wide soundstage with incredible height. At one point during this song, someone whistles across the stage and it momentarily made me look up and across the ceiling. From the more cerebral side of my musical palette is Swiss New Age harpist, Andreas Vollenweider’s masterpiece, Book of Roses (Columbia, CK 48601). This is a sixteen-track, four-chapter “listening experience” that is layered with every imaginable musical texture. From its huge orchestral opening on La Strega, to a wonderful performance by Ladysmith Black Mambazo on Passage to Promise to the haunting piano of Czippa and the Ursanian Girl, the AW220s render it all with crystalline highs and a well-articulated low end. Vollenweider is a master of blending instruments from all parts of the planet with strangely wonderful sound effects and vocalizations into songs that effortlessly morph from classical, to jazz, to rock, and back. An amplifier must not only possess great power to get the best out of recordings like this, but they must also be light enough on their feet so that they don’t sound sluggish, the way that some tubed amps do while trying to reproduce drastically diverse performances.


A Seat At The Bar

Another interesting effect that I experienced during my time with the AW220s was the way that they reproduced ‘live’ jazz. Chicago has no shortage of intimate jazz clubs and I try to make the rounds as often as possible. In many of these clubs, the best seats for listening to music are at the bar. Bar seats are often at ear height with the stage instead of down at the bistro-seat level. The AW220s put you at the bar. ‘Live’ recordings often sound best in systems that tend to have the types of sonic shadings usually associated with tubes. The AW220s, while not quite sounding tube-like, do a wonderful job of reproducing the percussive nature of piano playing and horn valve popping. The 220s open up the soundstage of live recordings and provide a level of detail and nuance that is stunning. Vocals breathe, and the room fills with a palpable sense of atmosphere—a sort of “being-thereness.” Nowhere is this more obvious than on Diana Krall’s recent Grammy-winning Live In Paris [Verve, 440 065 109-2]. Her steamy performance of “The Look of Love” has a breathy, lip-licking realness through these amps that’ll make you swear that you could taste what flavor of lipstick she’s wearing.

Now before wrapping this review up, I have to admit to using one major tweak that I felt had a significant effect on getting the best possible performance out of these amplifiers. Midway through my evaluation process, I replaced the stock power cords with cords from Dynamic Designs (a review will be forthcoming). These amps deserve these power cords. When I installed them, I thought that Alan was going to prove to be a prophet in his boast that these amps “sound better than the Nemos.” They actually did while I was using these power cords on the AW220s. But once I put these same cords on the Nemos, the pecking order was re-established. Even with the stock cords, these amps are true high-end contenders. And hey, given the right ancillary equipment and a little tweaking, the Electrocompaniet AW220 mono amplifiers are capable of sound that will surpass equipment that costs three times as much. Highly recommended!

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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