Audion lo sfizio headphone amp - Home Theater Forum and Systems -

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Audion lo sfizio headphone amp

Audion Lo Sfizio Headphone Amp Reviewed
* January 4, 2009

Occasionally - but thankfully not too often - a product comes along that is so pregnant with 'issues' that any review is nigh on worthless. The last time I was faced with such a perplexing situation was the Audiopax 88, which, by virtue of its 'tuning' control lacking any centre position, was impossible to assess. Why? Because the user simply tunes it to his or her preference...which may not be the amp's nominal setting. There was no nominal setting. Audion's Lo Sfizio presents a completely different but equally confounding situation: its raison d'etre is European xenophobia.

Even its name tells you that this is no run-of-the-mill project: Lo Sfizio is Italian for 'The Whim', and whimsical it is. In the words of designer Luciano Macri, Lo Sfizio exists as one man's bulwark against...China. And if the words 'into', wind' and 'piddling' spring to mind, then we think alike.

Macri, the obsessively passionate purist behind Italy's vintage hi-fi magazine, Audion - he owns a shrink-wrapped EMT turntable - is absolutely furious with the way that so many great brands from America and Europe have bowed to economic reality and now make their products in Asia. It's easy to see what he means: hardly a month goes by without another brand's native production biting the dust and its proprietors biting the bullet.

Compounding this is Macri's background: he's fervently Florentine, a booster of the Chianti region, and particularly proud of the great strides Italy has made in the past two decades in grabbing a big chunk of the specialty audio business. But ask for his product sheet, and you will see a closing paragraph that borders on the politically incorrect. And I want to kiss him on both cheeks for it: "Lo Sfizio is designed and built entirely in Italy in the Chianti wine region, amongst the olive groves and vineyards of the Florentine Classic Chianti. No China, no India, no Cambodia !!! This is not a marketing device but pure 'Made in Italy', in the shadow of Giotto's bell tower and Brunelleschi's dome. The true Florentine Renaissance continues, no 'Made in China'."

Right now, some sweet person lawyer in Brussels or Strasbourg (or, more likely, Hoxton) is thinking of some way to make an example of Macri. I think he deserves sainthood for wanting to preserve European manufacturing skills. What's so brave-cum-weird is that he's trying to fight fire with fire: Lo Sfizio is a genuine all-valve amplifier with a decidedly offshore price. He sells it direct to the consumer for €1200 - which is a mere 845 at today's rates.

He designed Lo Sfizio as a 'deluxe entry-level amp integrated amplifier, dedicated to all those amateurs who desire superior reproduction quality but have to deal with both a reduced budget and restricted space.' The choice of the amp's name has nothing to do with the previously-detailed commercial socio-political motive. In fact, it doesn't translate well, because 'a whim' to me is an act or idea based on a dream or a fantasy. Macri says this amp is designed for 'whoever desires high quality music reproduction without having to resort to mega-sized, major listening-room-type equipment, [who] finds in it one of the most valid alternatives.' If it's any consolation, there's also an upscale lingerie shop in Milan named 'Lo Sfizio', so will we soon see an amp called 'La Perla'?

Anyway, Lo Sfizio is a wholly functional, aesthetics-be-damned construct so un-Italian in looks and finish that Macri seems to be in self-contradictory mode. It is, however, so cute - in a pug-nosed dog way - that you can't argue with its whimsical qualities. The off-the-shelf, painted, folded metal case measures a compact 165x150x250mm and it weighs a whispy 6kg. Macri wanted to make it 'suitable for placement in minimal spaces,' and he succeeded: it's roughly the size and shape of a loaf of bread.

Its origins as the brainchild of a vintage valve tifoso start with the valves. Macri fitted Lo Sfizio with a quartet of genuine PCL86s, 'designed by Philips strictly for audio use.' He explains that, 'This is a very rare characteristic for a tube of this power range but it's what makes it unique amongst other general purpose and more economical tubes of its class. During its production, many "consumer versions" of this tube, less expensive but also performing less well than their original project, were put out by Philips. Obviously, Lo Sfizio fits only high quality versions of this tube, the kind you don't usually find in a radio-TV repair shop. Its working parameters are set to assure long tube life, even though their substitution wouldn't be a strain on anyone's budget.'

They yield 12W/ch in Class A, with a frequency range 'well extended beyond your classic 20-20kHz.' Macri isn't kidding when he adds that, 'The apparent dynamic range is quite remarkable thanks also to the extremely low hum, resulting from exasperating research on signal paths and overall shielding.' As aesthetics and finish obviously were of little concern, the design priorities were maximum sound quality through a straight-forward, uncomplicated circuit design.

Macri explains that, 'The circuit is simple yet high-performance. It uses what I call a PUB structure (Paraphase + Un-bypassed Ballast) that reduces to a minimum the use of electrolytic capacitors - just two in the entire amp - and this allows a standard push-pull output stage to acquire many benefits typical of SE triodes, without having to give up some of its own. And the printed circuit board has been designed by experts in analog audio circuitry, very hard to find nowadays in our digital electronic times.'

Audion designed and built the power and output transformers in-house, direct derivatives of their high-end amplifiers. The rather prosaic chassis is actually made from a special aluminum alloy, completely non-magnetic. And the amplifier demonstrates minimalism without masochism: three line inputs, a line out for recording, IEC mains input and decent 5-way binding posts for speaker connections on/off switch at the back, and up front an on/off rocker, yellow power-on indicator lamp, rotary volume control, rotary source selector, tape monitor toggle and a 1/4in headphone jack, 'which makes Lo Sfizio a unique example of real headphone tube amplifier.' Sorry, Luciano: without effort I can think of four others....

With such limited power, I restricted my sessions to the PMC DB1+, Wharfedale Diamond 8s and other speakers that can get by with little juice. But I couldn't resist trying it with LS3/5As, which it drove to listenable levels. Hey, you don't need me to tell you how a 12W/ch rating limits your options. Sources included the Musical Fidelity X-RAY v3 CD player and the SME 30 Mk II turntable, Series V arm, London Super-Gold cartridge and Audio Research PH5 phono amp. Not, I admit, the analogue source one would expect to feed into an 850 integrated.

Squashing as best as possible my pro-Italian/pro-tube prejudices and my admiration for anyone taking a stand like Macri's, I was able to sit back and enjoy many hours of low-key, humble but wholly pleasurable listening. I was reminded of a friend's defense of the Citroen 2CV - the antithesis of a Ferrari but a moo baby moo lot of fun for little outlay, with the total removal of unnecessary complexity. And, , is this amplifier musical and sweet, if utterly lacking anything in the form of grunt or kick. It is, indeed, very much like a good single-ended triode, and I wallowed in the vocals of the Hi-Los and the Crew Cuts (mono and stereo 1950s LPs), some Prima and Dino on LP, and the new Mamas & Papas 4CD anthology to listen through those peerless harmonies. Without argument: this amplifier caresses the human voice.

All I could think of was the old STAX F81 electrostatic speaker: you fell in love with it despite the fact that it could never provide bass or level. What remained was so nice that it was irresistible. So, too, this little amplifier sings, like Macri's neighbour, the ghost of Caruso at Villa Bellosguardo. It is devoid of nastiness, it is open and transparent, and it creates a jewel-like soundstage reminiscent of a Victorian puppet theatre. If that sounds twee and precious, it isn't meant to: that's simply Macri's notion of down-sizing. As I once said of the LS3/5A, it's like sex with a dwarf: small, but wonderful.

Even so, can I recommend this to you in the face of the Asian-made PrimaLuna Prologue One, which costs less, looks great and will even drive WATT Puppies? Recommendation depends on one thing and one thing only: your concern for Europe's and America's loss of their manufacturing capabilities. If you do care, and are prepared to vote with your wallet, go for it. Remember: you're being advised by someone who has denied himself of his favourite fruit because the only blueberries he's found in the UK are French. So look to your heart and repeat after me: 'This isn't an amplifier. It's a political statement.'

deacongreg is offline  


audion , headphone , sfizio

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