Lavardin Technologies IS Reference Integrated Amplifier
|Lavardin Technologies IS Reference Integrated Amplifier|
A first glance at the Lavardin IS Reference integrated amplifier gives no hint of its French origin. A simple black box with just two knobs on its front panel, the IS Reference could easily be mistaken for a purist, hair-shirt, English design where the inclusion of even a balance control is taken as a decadent frill. The French are well known for making the small details of life an artistic experience. You just have to love a culture where the government subsidizes the baking of baguettes and where small talk is usually a detailed and loving description of a wonderful meal of two nights ago. That “joie de vivre” has entered English despite the equivalent of “joy of life” speaks loads about the special attitude of French culture. Using the Lavardin’s volume control and selector knob is a tactile pleasure, a sensual fillip of the aesthetic into everyday life. It is a gentle hint of the sensual pleasure the Lavardin evokes when playing music.
Lavardin’s designer, Jean Christophe Crozel, is one of that small group of idiosyncratic designers who have developed strong followings among music lovers worldwide. Lavardin’s initial entry into the US market earned the highest praise from both eye-listening/sonic minutiae oriented audiophiles and from music-oriented listeners. A change in US distributorship has meant the absence of Lavardin from the US for a while. Now being imported by the very capable Walter Swanbon of Fidelis AV, Lavardin is back to stay (and with very attractive special introductory pricing.)
Crozel never forgets that audio engineering and design always serves the aesthetic end of music. To achieve this presupposes that the designer must have an aesthetic sensibility to start with, and that technical education and training augment and serve as a means to that end. Typical engineering studies, particularly in the USA, tend to be technoid to the point of being philistine. I recall in-print remarks from engineers of this a-musical technoid school in Audio and Stereo Review stating that it would be nice to eliminate the subjective listener from design considerations altogether. One can just see the Gallic lip curl at such insanity.
The sensual aesthetic experience, both in the sonority of the instruments and of the artistic message they relate, is sine qua non for music-oriented designers. The subjective listener is paramount. Crozel’s investigations have focused on the elimination of ‘memory distortions’: the tendency of transistor designs to leave ghostly trails after the signal has moved on. The multi-path ‘ghosting’ on antennae-fed TV gives a conceptual equivalent: fine-tuning the antenna to eliminate even the most minute shadow of the doppelgangers is necessary to snap the picture into focus. I remember talking with designer Ralph Karsten of AtmaSphere some ten years ago about why he worked exclusively with tubes. One of his prime criteria was this very ‘memory effect’ limitation of transistors. The Lavardin amps claim to produce far less of this type of distortion than even the best tube designs.
The IS Reference produces 35 watts per channel and differs from the regular IS model largely by its internally suspended power supply. An internally mounted moving magnet phono stage is a $500 option. The phono stage is designed to ground through the RCA plugs; there is no separate grounding post. Users of arms other than Regas have to undo a chassis screw to ground the turntable/arm. The Lavardin rests on three rubber feet. Lavardin also produces dedicated AC cords, interconnects and speaker cables, which I did not have on hand for this review. After turn-on, the IS Reference comes into song within ten to twenty minutes. No need for energy-wasting and agonizing warm-up periods.
The signature sonic impression of the Lavardin integrated amp is that of a complete lack of edge, harshness, false brightness, and nastiness. If this freedom from the common electronic-sounding negative attributes of most hi-fi gear is the result of the elimination of those ‘memory effects,’ then the Lavardin is a complete success. The complete absence of that false hash, while much to be applauded in basic terms of reducing listening fatigue and in eliminating the most common complaint among audio enthusiasts about their systems, serves a much larger musical purpose however. It is more than obeisance to a quasi-Hippocratic “First, cause no pain.” It allows an exquisite portrayal of the finest details of sonics and performance to emerge, creating a natural sound that is easily among the best available. In fact, wracking my brain to think of an amp that does it better yields a blank. The Lavardin achieves this rarefied performance with a grace that makes it look easy.
The Lavardin’s reproduction of timbre is superb: no need to squint with one’s ears to differentiate an oboe from an English horn, an alto from a soprano sax, a Stradivarius from an Amati. The ease and certainty of instrument identification produces a relaxed listening experience. Freed from listening through false and smeared brightness, one wastes no mental energy trying to guess what instrument is playing. One’s focus can rest purely, as it should, on what the instrument is playing and how it is playing it. The Lavardin’s resolution of fine low-level detail and nuance sets new standards: one hears details of instrumental performance – slight dynamic shifts, changes in inflection, subtle application of rubato, the fine details of the beginning and ending of notes that lesser gear obscures and leaves out. Moreover it does this without sounding labored, analytic, or superficially spectacular. It does it with amazing grace.
The Lavardin’s purity of tone can be quite disorienting in effect. Speakers, cables and recordings that one has always experienced as bright or edgy are suddenly transformed into organic natural-ness, the revelation of the finest details proving that the freedom from edge is not the result of dumbing down the signal. Playing the budget priced Celestion F15 ($220/pair) and my antique Infinity Qb’s revealed a natural treble reproduction that I frankly did not think the speakers capable of. Running very revelatory and high-resolution speakers like my reference Sound Lab Dynastats and the Ambience 1600 Reference ribbon/dynamic hybrid revealed the Lavardin’s mastery of tone, detail, and resolution and ability to reproduce the full musical bandwidth. Equally stirring was the Lavardin’s performance with the Harbeth HL-P3ES-2 mini-monitors (Fidelis is US distributor for both Lavardin and Harbeth.) The superb musical resolution of the two resonated together so sympathetically and harmoniously that one can easily imagine a music-loving audiophile dropping out of the high-end hobby forever after hearing a Harbeth/Lavardin combination. Amazing grace? How sweet the sound!
Getting the best out of the Lavardin was not difficult or expensive. A garden-variety AC cord was up to the job; more exotic and expensive after-market cords offered no musical improvement. Terrific and affordable interconnects and speaker cables from DNM/Reson and Origin Live’s Reference line were again clearly revealed as the music-making wonders they are. The Lavardin is definitely congenial to varying speaker cables, but care should be taken to use cables that can dance. How do you know what can dance? Connect it to the Lavardin: if it can’t dance there, chuck it! The smaller than US-normal speaker binding posts might preclude ocean liner-mooring cable lugs; I had no problem with the banana plugs I use.
My reference isolation devices for amplifiers – the Stillpoints, Townshend 3-D Seismic Sink and the Ganymede VCS – proved excellent icing on the Lavardin cake, though many of the typical improvements heard through cutting-edge isolation are already present in the Lavardin played neat. The Lavardin’s lack of remote control should guarantee a ten-pound (plus or minus 1.67 lbs.) weight loss over one year.
The Lavardin phono section is of a piece with its line level reproduction, showing only a slight diminution of bass transient control when compared to more expensive outboard phono sections. Considering the wide choice of truly excellent and truly musical moving-magnet cartridges available (Shure V-15 VxMR, Reson Reca, Rega Exact, Garrott Optim FGS and The Cartridge Man MusicMaker III) the Lavardin’s MM- only phono stage is no hardship. Crozel recommends an outboard moving-coil transformer for low-output moving coil use.
After I finished listening to my usual batch of test records and CD’s (the Lavardin passed with flying colors,) I spent a lot of listening time with virtuoso classical music performances. The level of insight into performance offered by the IS Reference was exhilarating. I suddenly was able to “get” works and performances that have eluded me somewhat in the past. Beethoven’s Last String Quartets became almost as accessible as Mozart. The more complex and subtle the composition and performance, the better the Lavardin liked it. As a tool to expand one’s musical appreciation, the Lavardin is unmatched. Moreover this amazing revelatory grace applied to virtuosi in all kinds of music. John McLaughlin, Leo Kottke, Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, Roy Buchanan, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Ry Cooder, and Misssissippi John Hurt were all revealed as the geniuses on their instruments that they are.
“Getting” the subtleties of performance was equally strong in non-Classical music. The musical ‘conversation’ of quartet jazz became less a metaphor and more a literal description. Listening to skilled vocalists (ones who can use their voices as true musical instruments) easily led to marathon listening sessions. One particularly stimulating session involved tracing the violin back through time and then across the world to its Central Asian roots. The differences and similarities of the instrument and of the musical and historical cultures through which it passed was deeply moving: it didn’t matter if it was David Oistrakh, Celtic folk music, Muzsikas’ Hungarian/Transylvanian music or the Mongolian horsehead fiddle. The fiddle’s kaleidoscopic range was as evocative as the individual music meant it to be.
The Lavardin’s hipshake production and boogie factor were not quite as sinuous and infectious as the best British amps (e.g., the Creek A50i and the Rega Mira.) The Lavardin slightly favors the Rock over the Roll. The difference in hip fluidity between a 20-year-old belly dancer compared to one in her late 30’s might serve to illuminate this slight shortcoming. British amps are noted for their boogie factor and both of the amps mentioned have twice the power of the IS Reference. Those who don’t consider Bo Diddley a god probably won’t be bothered though.
The Lavardin IS Reference is a true reference that every music lover should make a top priority to audition. A word of warning though: after experiencing the Lavardin’s grace and resolution, otherwise very good electronics will sound crude and false. The ease with which it opens the aesthetic world of music to the listener is priceless. At $3000 it has to be considered a bargain.
Inputs: 4 on gold plated high quality cinch connectors.
Input impedance 10Kohms.
Input sensitivity 330 millivolts
MM phono input factory option.
Input selection sealed relays Relay contact gold, silver, palladium alloy.
Output power 2×35 W RMS on 8 Ohms
Harmonic distortion 0.005% @ max output
Technology: High Speed and low Memory Distortion
Solid State Circuits
Size (mm) H 80 L 430 P 340
Finish Black anodised and painted
non magnetic high-grade aluminium
Weight 6,5 Kg net (13 lbs)
Power consumption 32 watts idle ; 180 watts maximum
Special suspended PSU
Price: Special Introductory price – $2995. Phono section – $500.
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