The Portal Panache Integrated Amplifier

The Portal Panache Integrated Amplifier

A Sleeping Beauty

Jon T. Gale

20 September 2002


Rated output: 100 Wpc at 8 ohms; 200 Wpc at 4 ohms
Distortion: 20 Hz-20 kHz both channels driven @ no more than 0.1% THD
Bandwidth: 5 Hz to 100 kHz
Gain: 20 dB
Input impedance: 22 k Ohm
Slew rate: >20 v per microsecond
Phone: 1-888-737-HIFI
Price: $1795.00 US factory direct 

6626 Charter Hills Rd.
Charlotte, NC 28277

Enter: The Portal

Street rodders have a term for an automobile that is not quite what it seems to be on the outside; they call it a “sleeper.” Such an automobile would be kept factory stock in appearance, while any number of performance modifications would be kept hidden under the skin. In regards to audio, the Portal Panache is a product I have found to be the perfect embodiment of this term, if taken slightly out of context. Stripped of all that glitters and excess accoutrements, under the hood lies a performance that is far above its price point, and for this listener, above its targeted audience.

As you may have gathered, the Panache is a rather unassuming box measuring 17″W × 5″H × 11.5″D, available in any color as long as it is black. Aesthetically, the side-mounted heat sinks running front to rear add a certain look of refinement. The addition of a set of control knobs more elegant than the norm complete the only “design statements” to be found on this unit. I belabor the aesthetic point here as it plays to the actual design brief of the Panache. Designed for, and targeted at, the discriminating buyer with one or more of the following needs: One who requires a simpler, high quality second system, an entry level audiophile assembling a honey of a starter system, and last but not least, the purist headphone listener.

Unfortunately, this review, at least in regard to the headphone section, will have to be left a bit unfinished. The Panache sports a very purist headphone section that consists of a simple protection device that taps straight off the speaker binding posts. As I happen to be blessed with a dedicated listening space, I simply have no use for “cans” and have none on hand for evaluation.

The Panache Integrated Amplifier is actually the combination of a passive line stage and a high gain, dual mono class A/AB solid-state amplifier in a single chassis. The logic behind this combination was, to quote from the website:

“many good free-standing [passive preamps] just don’t sound that good when connected to solid state amps. Most of them sound lifeless and lacking in dynamics. Reality is that the very high output impedance of the passive unit is being asked to drive the (generally) low input impedance of a solid-state amp. Making the situation worse, is that the signal has to travel from preamp to amp over a length of reactive interconnect cable. What if you connected the output of this preamp directly to the input of a high-gain solid-state amp designed expressly to receive that specific signal? That’s the guiding design principle of the Portal Panache.”

The resultant signal travels through just the controls, which consist of Alps pots for input selection, balance and attenuation, and a few inches of pure copper wire before reaching the amplifier section. As to the amplifier section, I’ll quote again from the website.

The amplifier section is a dual mono design. The toroidal transformer, custom built for us in California, has separate windings and separate rectifier bridges for each channel. After the transformer, the two channels are completely separate, each with its own bank of filter capacitors (40,000 MFD/ch), and each channel physically isolated to prevent interaction with its twin. The transformer itself is rated at 425 VA and is capable of producing twice its rated power for extended periods. With a potential 400 watts of power dissipation per channel – 4 pairs of high-speed bipolar output devices rated at 100 watts/12 amps per device – the rated 100 watts per channel into 8 ohms is very conservative. Operation is A/AB, with all stages before the output transistors operating in single-ended Class A mode.

The front panel consists of a rather beefy power switch to the left of the input selector, balance and volume controls. Also on the front panel is a headphone jack. More about this special little deal a bit further on. Rounding out the rear are five pair of good but not excessive quality RCA jacks, comprising four line level inputs and one fixed level record out. Far right/left sides are the locations for the 5-way speaker binding posts, with a standard IEC AC socket mounted dead center.

The review context was a bit unorthodox. Other than the use of a sturdy Just-a Rack amp stand, the Panache was used in the “Run What You Brung” mode, to use the street rodding parlance. No fancy power cord, no fancy feet. It went head-to-head with my Bryston 4B ST, a pair of Manley Snapper monoblock tube amplifiers, (in for review), and a borrowed Krell KSA-100 I had on long-term loan from a friend during the construction of his new listening room. Thanks again DiscTwin!

Panache – The Encounter

The first thing the new owner of a Panache will notice is its heft. “Whoa”, you say, “This is no toy!” It does not behave as one either. The Panache set itself up as a little powerhouse of an amplifier and did not disappoint, firmly taking hold of all loudspeakers it was driving, including the low 3ohm load of one of the speakers used during evaluation. It very surprisingly did not give much ground to the Bryston and Krell amplifiers in the bass region, sounding only slightly less powerful and losing nothing in quality. This control stays steadfast into the upper bass where musically important things really start to happen, and good current/good damping really strut their stuff. This translates into the Panache being a very “rhythmic” amp, where drums in rock, growling double basses of an orchestra, ramped up effects of certain soundtrack blockbusters and Techno thrillers are all given their due. Sounding ever so tight in this region, with seemingly excellent damping and control of any woofer section used. This quality sonically translates into rock music having the correct pace and drive, never seeming to lag behind the rest of the performance. Orchestra recordings display a good bit of air and sense of hall volume, and solo piano retains a wonderful solidity deep into the lowest registers.

The midrange is where this “little” unassuming unit is going to downright shock many owners. It was fascinating going from the tubed Manley Snappers to the Panache. The Panache has a generous helping of the oft rumored “tube palpability” while still retaining proper drive and control. Close-mic’ed voice, guitar and piano displayed a wonderful roundness and tangibility that has until now been far above this price point. The combination of this midrange magic with vice-like low frequency grip gives the Panache the unique quality of making any loudspeaker sound “larger” than it seems. An important help in this regard is exemplary imaging. A real treat here is the reproduction of large horn sections in my favorite roadhouse blues music. Lesser integrated amps seem to squeeze the horns in size and dynamics, not so with the Panache. With its midrange palpability and generous headroom, horns are given a realistic bloom in the lowest registers along with the proper reedy bite up top. In absolute terms, depth is slightly truncated, and lateral spread seems to slightly tighten up deep into the bass, and to a much lesser extent, the highs dry up a wee bit. 

The treble region also speaks to what a stiff power supply and purist layout should do: deliver pure, non-fatiguing highs. While fully capable of revealing upstream sources, there is an ease of listening that only a pure, undistorted treble region can give. That said, again in absolute terms, there is a slight drying out, or whitening, to the treble region. Nothing off putting mind you, and certainly not bright, as this is a “sin of omission” that is perfectly calculated for its price point. 

To recap the comparison to the other amps on hand: The Panache has a generous helping of bass from the Bryston and Krell, a HUGE dollop of the midrange magic of the Snappers, along with a good hit of the treble purity of the Krell and Manley. Now what’s THAT worth to ya’?

Running the Gauntlet

If my Editor will kindly allow just a bit more space, I’ll run through some of the performance highlights of the Panache using the speakers at hand.

With the easygoing load of the Coincident Total Eclipses, as expected, the Panache had no trouble driving this large loudspeaker. To hear what this combo did with bass heavy techno-ambient mixes was a gas! Orchestral rhythmic underpinnings were cleanly delineated and at times had that “swelling of scope” effect that allowed the real majesty of the big works to come through.

The Coincident Partial Eclipse Series II offer yet another very easy load, and actually are more the size of loudspeaker that will most probably be coupled with the Panache. And couple it does! This new Partial Eclipse Series II already has the ability to sound far larger than its size would suggest. (And as a sneak peek, I’m finding this loudspeaker to be more coherent than its much larger sibling. Israel Blume has something goin’ on here!). When coupled with the Panache however, things get big in a hurry. Ably assisted by the Panache, the Partials flat out disappear as sources of sound. During break-in I immediately had an effortless wall-to-wall soundstage. And voices just HANG there in the air before you. There are certain times when components just come together, and this is just such a pairing. On paper, this particular pairing really shouldn’t happen. I never found the Totals to work well with MIT cables, whereas the Panache is said to have been voiced around them. At first hook-up, MIT cables are what were used. But there it was, some real music appearing at the end of my room. Music so good in fact, this pairing is now the basis for my “second system” in the family room. 

The Panache was the first amp I used to power the VR-4 during break-in. I HAMMERED the Panache into the punishing 3-ohm load of the 4’s for three straight days with never a whimper. The new Dual Ring tweeter used in the 4 showing just how pure a treble the Panache really has. The absolutely stunning midrange quality of the 4 allowed that midrange magic of the Panache to really show forth, with only a slight loss of bass power in comparison to the much larger amplifiers used. This presentation really put the hurt on my Bryston. And as I am presently looking around for a possible “super amp” to power the Vr-4’s, the Panache is going to fill my amplification needs in the interim.

There is NExit From the Portal

I simply see no way anyone is going to use the generous 60-day return policy Portal Audio offers. The Panache Integrated Amplifier is one of those oh-so-rare products that so over-delivers on its claims as to earn the appellation “Most Wanted Component.” I feel honored that this is the first review to introduce the Panache to its

Editors Note: 
The Stereo Times would like to make clear that Jon Gale has contracted with Portal to provide them with graphics for their web site. We only mention this in the interest of full disclosure, so that our readers may be aware of the nature of that relationship, and can be confident that his position as a graphic artist contractor should pose no conflict of interest whatsoever.

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