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Grommes 360 Monoblock Amplifiers

Old school excellence meets modern day execution.

October 2005

               



Finding a new old friend
I was in one of my favorite audio “watering holes”, Holm Audio, in Woodridge, IL, when a blast from the past came in with his normal buzz of audio activity. Albert Schippits, marketing director of Grommes Hifi (and one-time sales manager at Holm Audio) was out making the rounds. I hadn’t seen Schippits for long time and it seemed as though he was in rare form. He had brought in this little shrimp of an integrated/headphone amp called the Grommes PHI-26. He had it hooked up to and was driving (yes, driving) a rather large pair of Coincident Technology. To honest, I had not been impressed by these speakers until now, but this little amp made them sound surprisingly pleasant. Of course, Schippits said it would do so, and do it better than anything else in the store. We, of course, we did not believe him, and as usual, he proved to be right again. I trust everyone has a friend like Schippits. He’s the guy who seems to know a lot about what’s going on in the world and has inside information on everything else. Pretty much like Mel Gibson’s quirky character, Jerry Fletcher, from the film “Conspiracy Theory.”

Schippits will tell you that he really does knows who assassinated President Kennedy, what’s in Hangar 18 at Wright-Patterson AFB, and about every other conspiracy that’s currently being put upon the American people by all kinds of subversive interests. I usually find all that to be just so much hyperbole, but there was no denying the fact that the guy could hear music, and I’ve learned to trust his ears. Schippits has this habit of explaining how a piece of equipment would go through various stages while it was warming up or breaking in and making it all sound so incredible that it was impossible to believe. I would just accept his explanations as those of an audio lunatic who was going through burnout. However, on more than a few occasions, I came away from discussions with Schippits thinking he had lost his marbles, only to get a piece of equipment home and being amazed to discover it doing exactly what he said it would. He’s even been by my house and made some suggestions on how to enhance the sound in my listening room that proved to be quite helpful. Schippits explained to me how he decided to leave the retail arena for a more fulfilling endeavor in the marketing end of the manufacturing business.

Grommes-Precision Electronics, Inc., as Schippits explained, has been around for quite a while, making home electronics from the 1950s to the 1970s right here in Illinois, just north of Chicago in Franklin Park. They then began to focus on the professional audio segment of the market, making equipment for bands and studios. Within the last few years, they moved their operations to Gurnee, Illinois, and thankfully, came back to the home audio market. Personally, I had not heard of Grommes and I’ve lived in the Chicago area all my life. So this was an eye opening experience for me as well.

Looking back into the future
Initially, I was not overly impressed when I finally got to see the Grommes 360 monoblock amplifiers that Schippits was so high on. They just did not look like serious contenders. But lead designer, Alan Kimmel, is one of those guys you could spend hours talking audio with, and I was very impressed with him. He has a pure knowledge and understanding of how audio equipment should work and how it should do so without breaking the bank. He’s very thorough and tests everything to make sure his amps perform up to specifications. He’s very protective of his circuit and there is no compromising for doing a thorough job. I questioned Schippits on the Grommes design goal to which he responded: “On design goals, #1 is reliability. It all sounds alike when it doesn't work! #2 is consistency. Our 500th amp measures and sounds like our first. #3 Musicality over specs. If a good spec makes the amp sound worse don't care about that spec. Like THD, this spec leads to bad sounding equipment more than anything else. We feel a lot of amps are lazy designs that measure well but lack musical value.”

These amps really do look like something that was designed in the '50s. The Grommes 360s won’t win any beauty contests, but if I’ve learned anything in audio, it’s not to judge something based solely on looks. After taking a closer look at the 360s, and living with them for a while, they slowly began to win me over.

The 360s are vacuum tube based amplifiers that are rated at 60 watts per channel. Grommes proudly declares that the 360s will produce their 60 watt output flat from 20Hz to 80kHz. Visually, the amps most distinctive features are the large transformers sitting on the top. According to Schippits, Grommes puts most of the cost of the 360s into the transformers. They are made exclusively for Grommes to some very high specifications and are instrumental to the performance of the amplifier. The amp will take many different types of output tubes from EL34s and 6550s to KT-88s and KT-90s and everything else in between. This is accomplished by biasing the amp for the type of output tube you use and can be done on the fly by using the biasing switch and adjustment pots on the front of the amplifiers. You also can run these amps single ended or balanced with a flip of a toggle switch. The 360s do have a volume control and can be used with or without a preamp. Both ways sound just fine. I split my listening time with it between driving them with my preamps and driving them directly through the balanced inputs. These amplifiers were well behaved during my time with them and gave me no cause for alarm with any thumps, hums or cables coming loose. Please keep in mind that before I received them, Schippits hauled these amps all around the midwest and whatever other states he frequented. For a tube amplifier, to get moved around like that and not have anything go wrong with them is a testament to their build quality and design.

The performance of the new old technology
I did most of my listening to Grommes 360s through Almarro M2A speakers (a floor standing, dynamic, two-way design) but they also spent an ample amount of time driving my Martin-Logan Quests as well. These amplifiers are not like your typical tube amplifier. They have all the characteristics of a tube amplifier but they go about their business like a solid-state amplifier. They have the spaciousness and dimensionality of a tube amplifier, but it’s delivered with speed and detail. Transient response is very fast. You not only hear the articulation on string work but you feel it as well. Notes ebb and decay naturally and fade out as they do in real life without the feeling that they have been cut off before they fully propagated.

In a lot of respects, this amplifier reminds me of Tim de Paravicini’s famous Esoteric Audio Research 509 monoblock amplifiers. They were the first amplifiers I heard that I felt conceded nothing to solid-state designs in the bass region. The 360s high end performance is open and expansive. It’s more detailed and honest than what some would describe as being “sweet.” The midrange performance is definitely tubelike without sounding tubey. Performers do fill out the stage in their own space and are seemingly three-dimensional. Maybe not quite to the extent as some of your megabuck designs like those from Zanden or Lamm, but the 360s midrange performance, imaging and ability to bring the performance into the room is more than satisfying.

The 360’s low end performance is nothing short of stunning. Grommes puts a lot of its time and effort into the choice and placement of tubes, and transformer performance is vital as well. They must be doing something right because their bass performance on my Martin-Logan Quests has outperformed all but the BAT VK-1000s in the nether regions. I got a kick out of playing the Stargate DVD, especially the part where Ra’s spaceship comes in for a landing. It’s a prolonged landing as the massive ship takes a couple of minutes to dock. This scene has a prodigious amount of bass and the 360s handled it with aplomb. Don’t get me wrong, the 360s bass is deep and tight, but it’s also musical. The corroboration between Victor Wooten and Steve Bailey on the disc, Bass Extremes: Just Add Water, is a testament to that. On classical music, they were also a delight to listen to. Yo-Yo Ma’s mesmerizing cello performance of Edward Elgar’s, Cello Concerto, Op. 85 [CBS MK39541] with Andre Previn conducting the LSO, was rendered with a palpability that repeatedly caused me to remind myself that I was listening to a recording. It also rendered the air and atmosphere of Leonard Slatkin and the Saint Louis Symphony’s performance of Prokofiev’s Symphony No.5 [RCA RCD1-5035]. Female vocals were depicted as honest and genuine. Cassandra Wilson’s full, warm, and deep voice, with her smooth, uncanny phrasing shined on her tribute to Miles Davis called Traveling Miles [Blue Note]. The incomparable Carmen McRae, from her Carmen Sings Monk disc [Novus 3086-2-N) gives me goosebumps when I hear her sing, “Dear Ruby”, which is a takeoff from Monk’s “Ruby My Dear”. From the first bar of this track to the last, her signature style comes through with steady pacing, singing as though she’s carrying on a conversation with the audience, and all bought to tantalizing life by the 360s.


Winding it up
I thoroughly enjoyed my time with these amplifiers. They have a lot of flexibility in terms of the different tubes you can use, the ability to operate in balanced or single-ended mode, and the option of using a preamplifier or going straight in from your source. It partnered well with my Martin-Logan Quests. There was no way I thought a 60 watt tube amplifier would drive those speakers as well as they did, but it was there for the hearing. The bass performance of these speakers with this amplifier boggled my mind. The real magic, however, was to be heard when the Grommes 360s were driving my Almarro M2As. I had quite a few instances where friends and visitors came by and every time, the listener put on a wide, astonished grin and asked what was in the system that we were listening to. Grommes is doing a lot of very nice things in audio. Their offerings are true affordable excellence and deserve a wider audience. These amplifiers are highly recommended.

Michael Wright

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Specifications
Power Output: 60watts flat from 20Hz to 80kHz
S/N: 85db
Dimensions
16”W X 11.5”D X 8.5”H
Price: $4,000/pair

Manufacturer
Grommes HIFI
A Division of Grommes-Precision Electronics, Inc.
1331 Estes Avenue
Gurnee, Il. 60031
PH: 847-599-1799
www.grommeshifi.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grommes 360 Monoblock amplifiers