G•LAB Design Fidelity
ew audio brands emerging on the market have become an everyday experience. Each year I come across new brands, names and designs, the same with new ideas for a product. Less often, one can say scarcely, I come across new business ideas. The transition from a “device” (speakers, accessories, cables etc.) to a product is a long, painful and pricey process. Few can achieve success. Great many manufacturers stop at “civilized” DIY, i.e. an audio component manufactured in a few pieces a year without proper technical documentation, not to mention any safety certificates. The most important factor here is money.
G LAB Design Fidelity is a brand owned by CCI (Comp Innovation Center). The amplifier itself is manufactured by ELZAB. ELZAB was founded in 1969 and now it manufactures cash registers, among others. Both companies belong to the COMP S.A. capital group. The person responsible for venturing into the audio territory is Mr. Julian Kozankiewicz, the executive director of CCI.
The Block (trademark BLOCK) is an integrated tube amplifier with a solid state power supply. It is divided into several segments, each containing a section that should be separated from others by the longest distance possible. It is notoriously difficult to achieve it in an integrated affair but, apparently, not impossible.
A few simple words about…
PR Konieczny Wojciech Pacuła: Who is the manufacturer and the owner of the brand?
Dionizy Konieczny: The owner of G LAB Design Fidelity is Comp Centrum Innowacji Sp. z o.o (Comp Innovation Center Ltd.) and the manufacturer of BLOCK is ELZAB S.A. Both companies belong to COMP S.A. group.
Whose idea was to make such an amplifier? Who assembled the design team?
Julian Kozankiewicz came up with the idea of making the amplifier – he is an executive director of Comp Innovation Center Ltd. – after reading a note about Mateusz Główka in Wired magazine. He got Dionizy Konieczny (Sales Manager of G LAB Design Fidelity now) interested in this venture, who at first stages of the project gathered all the interested parties and convinced them that this project made sense and could be a source of pride for all. Those two gentlemen are responsible for this great project of Mateusz Główka to come true. Now G LAB Design Fidelity is a three men team.
The output tubes work in a pentode or triode mode?
Which tubes drive the output ones?
The phono amplifier is a solid state design?
Tubes only, no silicon.
Are there any plans to extend the series? If yes then what are they?
We are currently working on a new project. The team is the same – we count on cooperation with Mateusz Główka and we have a prototype of product that is complementary to the BLOCK. We hope to launch it in May 2015 in Munich.
The BLOCK is a dream-come-true for me. The dream of my own project sold from “the shelf”. One of my passions, apart from cars, is music and its impeccable quality. On my third year of studying Industrial Design at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow I joined the Development of a New Product Workshop. Then I met Mr. Marian Kopecki who worked with students sharing his knowledge and experience. Under a careful supervision of Dr. Marek Liskiewicz there came to existence a project and then a prototype of a tube amplifier.
It was important to me to have a fresh approach. It was only logical to put the heaviest elements as low as possible. This in turn created a possibility to separate the sources of noise and distortion, i.e. transformers, from the electronics. Obviously the high requirements concerning electronics set by Mr. Kopecki had to be met: good isolation, the shortest signal path possible and accessibility. With these in mind, the design is a functional one and very modern at the same time.
As time went on, the BLOCK still remained somewhere at the back of my head as something yet to be done. One day I published the design on a well-known design website – yankodesign.com. It gained a lot of interest from other sites publishing information about the amplifier so I decided to show it during the Salone del Mobile fair in Milan. The design attracted “Wallpaper Magazine” and then it was published in “Wired World”. One afternoon I got a phone call from Dionizy Konieczny, a man who knows the world of music and is a DJ with a very sensitive ear himself. That was the beginning. It took almost two years to prepare the design for production with all the details. The metallic click of BLOCK’s input switch will haunt me forever.
Recordings used for this test (a selection)
How would that sound on headphones, I wonder, was the first thought that entered my mind just after the first notes of Klan’s Z brzytwą na poziomki reached my ears. The thought had some intensity as the great part of my private auditions, which I have time for only in the evening and at night, is done on the headphones. It is of paramount importance then that the quality is as close as possible to what I can hear during the day via the speakers. I, then, do have a collection of the best available headphones and quite a few headphone amplifiers. The moment I spot a 6.35 mm headphone jack in an amplifier or a preamp, I always first check the sound from this output, not from the speakers. Some of the integrated amps turn out to be really good in that area. The best example is the Leben CS-300 in many of its incarnations, which together with the HD-800 from Sennheiser, the K701 from AKG or the T1 from Beyerdynamic is my reference system. My recent discovery is a hybrid amplifier from Mr. Czyżewski, the Linear Audio Research IA-120H, the missing other half of the HiFiMAN HE-6 magnetostatic headphones that are too demanding for most any other amplifier. The Block wouldn’t be capable of properly driving the magnetostats, either, I have no delusions here, but the Sennheisers, the Ultrasone Edition 5 (my most recent purchase), the Beyerdynamics, the AKGs and perhaps even the Audeze LCD-3 would have been more than happy to have a go at penetrating the little hole of the G LAB amplifier (if there was one, that is).
Their happiness would have been based on an exceptionally good sound offered by the amplifier and its great tonal balance. Five and a half Watts it delivers is less than nothing; that much power is usually delivered by ordinary amps in pure class A before they enter class AB, whereas here it is the total power output. And you know what? I would have never guessed it is only a few Watts at work. My Harbeths M40.1 are a very difficult load and even though they sport quite a leveled impedance curve, to achieve their full potential they need a powerful top quality amp like my Soulution 710 or the Accuphase A-200 monoblocks that I happened to review for “Audio,” or like the Octave MRE-220 monoblocks or the amps from Vitus Audio.
The sound of the Polish amplifier can bring one to one’s knees with its holistic approach to the music material. Any kind of material. We deal here with a design that lends a helping hand to the recordings which we would probably have rejected with many other amplifiers or at least would have found something to complain about, at the same time being dead serious about the best ones that deserve our respect.
Actually, the amp has its own approach to the problem of space in general. The foreground is strong and large, the background is equally large and saturated but is shown closer. This is a modification of which one needs to be aware. The recordings from Naim such as Patrick Noland, for example, presented from a distance and in a slightly dark manner, were shown closer by the Block, almost tangible. The piano from Piano Gathering Light was close and more distinct. But not by overdrawing the edges or contouring, nothing of the kind. The piano’s body was so saturated and thick that one was under the impression of being “there and then”. The space was preserved, though, and it was spacious, with low reverb. The grand piano was simply closer.>
There were quite a few such paradoxes and each one of them added to an extraordinary satisfying experience. The high frequencies were strong, with a high energy but there was no sharpening or brightness. In a blind test I might point to the Block as a tube amp, because of its silky like cymbals and natural sounding strings and wind instruments. Surely not because the sound is “warm.”
I cannot find any other explanation except that we are dealing here with exceptional resolution. That would also explain extraordinary differentiation. The instruments play together as well as each one separately in their own space, tonality and articulation. And this happens both on Midnight Melodies, a great recording of a jazz concert from the Smoke club and on the great album Neu!75 from the 1956 recording of Jim Hall Trio as well as with the electronica of Krzysztof Duda and Przemysław Rudź on Four Incarnations. The amp gives the music rhythm and swing, and makes it interesting. Even such a boring material as that from the newest Pieter Nooten’s album Heaven (I am his loyal fan so I have that one) was listenable and I could find something of interest in it from time to time.
The Block does not attempt to correct the recordings. One might think the other way round from what I have written so far but that would be just a general observation, from a distance. Looking up close, one can exactly see the problems of any recording and identify its weak points. But it takes some effort as they are not exposed. They are sort of hidden behind what is good.
And then the rhythm! If someone thinks that to properly show the rhythm amps require hundreds of Watts they do not know what they are talking about. Most of the concerts mean thousands of Watts and most of them is a bang up job as far as the rhythm is concerned. Strong attack is not the same as the rhythm, the edges are not equal to timing. 5.5 Watts from the Block is enough to move the song and turn on its internal atomic clock.
Hell then, we know one limitation of this amplifier. However, it directly results from the technical specification, i.e. from the selected design concepts. The things that cannot be seen are also connected with the choices made. Like selectivity, which is only one-dimensional here. The sound is deep and full with excellent resolution, but the ability to present edges and different planes, and to separate the instruments is not so good. The amplifier shows large planes rather than holography. Lower bass is strong, which is really surprising, and there is lots of it. It also has a very good tonal quality. The tightness of the bass range and its definition are, however, only conventional. It is hard to talk about differentiation of the bass guitars, bass drum or the deeper extension of the grand piano. It is barely audible, though, because higher harmonics are very well reproduced and coherent, which suggests otherwise. This is a common denominator of the great many single ended amplifiers with a single low power output tube and nothing can be done about that, c’est la vie. This is not disturbing, however, and I am pretty certain that had I not written about it most music aficionados wouldn’t give a…
As I have already mentioned, this is a special amplifier directed to special type of users: aware of themselves, their own needs and abilities; mature. Pair it with highly sensitive speakers and have a ride! We give this amplifier the RED Fingerprint award.
NOTHING BUT THE MUSIC
For quite some time now I have been buying older records from Naim Label, both issued on CDs and LPs. What determines my choice is whether the recording was made by Ken Christianson, ideally in the True Stereo system, and whether the album was produced by Julian Vereker, the founder of Naim. That is what I came up with and I try to stick to it. Each record collection requires some initial assumptions, and in this case I chose these and not others. I also collect albums from other small labels, because I know a lot about them, I like the music they present, and I'm happy with how their discs are recorded. That includes Hi-Q Records that issues XRCD24 discs remastered in the analog domain (AAD), whose producer is Mr. Kazuo Kiuchi, the owner of Combak Corporation (Reimyo, Harmonix, Bravo!). It also includes Esoteric remasters issued in the MasterWorks series on SACD/CD discs, carefully prepared in Japan. Or Gold-CDs and SACDs from Audio Fidelity. And Tacet vinyl LPs. Of course, I also collect albums issued by – relatively – large record labels like ECM, ACT, Alpha and AliaVox. Here, however, the selection is much more judicious because these labels churn out tens or even hundreds of titles each year. That's why I am most interested those labels, whose output I can quietly buy, listen to and evaluate.
Rarely do I come across a label that meets all of these premises, and is interesting enough for me to add it to my still growing monthly bill. But sometimes I manage to strike gold. My recent discovery was made through an article in the August issue of "Stereophile" (Vol. 37, No. 8, August 2014, pp. 53-57). In Smokin 'Jazz, Robert Baird described the label that prepares its recordings in the Smoke Jazz Club, located on the Upper West Side (Manhattan, New York). The sessions were initially held during concerts with an audience participation, and more recently also before the opening of the club. The authors are business partners Paul Stache and Frank Christopher. The label is called Smoke Sessions.
Smoke Sessions SSR-1408, CD (2014)
Born in January 1963, Cyrus Chestnut is an American jazz pianist, composer and producer. As a pianist he played together with Jon Hendricks, Terrence Blanchard, Donald Harrison, Wynton Marsalis and Betty Carter Trio. The list of jazz musicians with whom he recorded is incomparably longer and includes Freddy Cole, Freddie Hubbard, Jimmy Scott, Chick Corea, Dizzy Gillespie, and even Kathleen Battle, an opera diva who also made recordings with Marsalis.
Sound quality: 8-9/10
I must admit I have never seen something like that, even though it seems to be a simple solution. However, it is the simplest ideas that are most brilliant and we only realize how close they have been to us when someone invents them for us. This solution has been known for years: it involves the separation of the power supply and electronics sections. This is usually done by moving the power supply to a separate chassis, coupled with the main unit using a multi-core umbilical cord. A lot of manufacturers do it this way with good effect. While the manufacturer can deal with the negative impact of additional wiring in the path, the bulkiness of such a system and its dubious aesthetic value remains a problem.
The basis is a wide cylinder with solid walls. It houses the power supply, including a large transformer. The lower part of the cylinder also makes for the amplifier’s base, hence there is no separate feet. On top of the cylinder there is a flat cuboid which is the actual enclosure in other amplifier designs. Its top panel features vacuum tubes and other electronic components are assembled on a PCB inside. The signal is amplified in the three tubes per channel: the JJ E88C dual triode (MM phono stage), the 6N6P, another dual triode of Russian production (input stage and driver) and the JJ E34L pentode (output stage). The faceplate sports a large, flat volume knob and four push buttons: one of them turns on the power and the other three are used as input selector. The buttons needs some strength to be pushed, which is a conscious choice on the designer’s part, who wanted such a "physical" feel to it, and there is no visual indicator of the selected input or power-on state. The latter is only indicated by the glowing vacuum tubes’ filaments.
At the bottom, the four small cuboids placed in the corners around the cylinder house output transformers and a plate power supply choke. In a single ended triode circuit, the output transformers are key to a good sound as they shape the overall sonic characteristics. The ones used in the Block have been designed by Mr. Marian Kopecki and made in his company MarioVox, just like the whole electronic circuit. It is attested by an appropriate logo that features on the circuit board.
Input signal connectors and speaker terminals are located in a deep recess on the back of the unit. It may not be very convenient but one can live with that. It is evident that the designer aimed to shorten the signal path and to separate the different amplifier’s sections. Coupling capacitors are large Wimas and the potentiometer is an ALPS model. Inputs are switched with reed relays, also used by McIntosh, among others. These are top quality components.
The Block is a tube amplifier with solid state power supply. Rated power output is merely 5.5 Watts per channel, as the output stage employs a single EL34 power pentode operating in single ended Class A. The amplifier includes a quality power cord that has nothing to do with the plastic crap of PC power supply variety, which often comes as standard. Here we get the Ölflex Classic 110 CY, a thick braided shielded cable from Lapp Kabel. It uses copper stranded wire in the screen of tinned copper. It is equipped with quite solid plugs from Castorama. However, if you really want to use this power cord, you should terminate it with Oyaide or Furutech plugs.
The amplifier’s enclosure is made of stainless steel. The machine has a very distinct shape and stands out from all other amplifier designs that I know. Its owners will know that they have something special in their hand, also indicated by special inscriptions on the rear panel, with the signatures of its makers, Mr. Marian Kopecki (electronics) and Mr. Mateusz Główka (external design).
Specification (according to the manufacturer)
Power Output: 2 x 5,5 W
- Turntable: AVID HIFI Acutus SP [Custom Version]
- Cartridges: Miyajima Laboratory KANSUI, review HERE | Miyajima Laboratory SHILABE, review HERE | Miyajima Laboratory ZERO (mono) | Denon DL-103SA, review HERE
- Phono stage: RCM Audio Sensor Prelude IC, review HERE
- Compact Disc Player: Ancient Audio AIR V-edition, review HERE
- Multiformat Player: Cambridge Audio Azur 752BD
- Line Preamplifier: Polaris III [Custom Version] + AC Regenerator, regular version review (in Polish) HERE
- Power amplifier: Soulution 710
- Integrated Amplifier: Leben CS300XS Custom Version, review HERE
- Stand mount Loudspeakers: Harbeth M40.1 Domestic, review HERE
- Stands for Harbeths: Acoustic Revive Custom Series Loudspeaker Stands
- Real-Sound Processor: SPEC RSP-101/GL
- Integrated Amplifier/Headphone amplifier: Leben CS300XS Custom Version, review HERE
- Headphones: HIFIMAN HE-6, review HERE | HIFIMAN HE-500, review HERE | HIFIMAN HE-300, review HERE | Sennheiser HD800 | AKG K701, review (in Polish) HERE | Ultrasone PROLine 2500, Beyerdynamic DT-990 Pro, version 600 - reviews (in Polish): HERE, HERE, HERE
- Headphone Stands: Klutz Design CanCans (x 3), review (in Polish) HERE
- Headphone Cables: Entreq Konstantin 2010/Sennheiser HD800/HIFIMAN HE-500, review HERE
- Portable Player: HIFIMAN HM-801
- USB Cables: Acoustic Revive USB-1.0SP (1 m) | Acoustic Revive USB-5.0PL (5 m), review HERE
- LAN Cables: Acoustic Revive LAN-1.0 PA (kable ) | RLI-1 (filtry), review HERE
- Router: Liksys WAG320N
- NAS: Synology DS410j/8 TB
- Interconnects: Acrolink Mexcel 7N-DA6300, review HERE | preamplifier-power amplifier: Acrolink 8N-A2080III Evo, review HERE
- Loudspeaker Cables: Tara Labs Omega Onyx, review (in Polish) HERE
- Interconnects: Acoustic Revive RCA-1.0PA | XLR-1.0PA II
- Loudspeaker Cables: Acoustic Revive SPC-PA
- Power Cables: Acrolink Mexcel 7N-PC9300, all system, review HERE
- Power Distributor: Acoustic Revive RTP-4eu Ultimate, review HERE
- Power Line: fuse – power cable Oyaide Tunami Nigo (6m) – wall sockets 3 x Furutech FT-SWS (R)
- Power Cables: Harmonix X-DC350M2R Improved-Version, review (in Polish) HERE | Oyaide GPX-R (x 4 ), review HERE
- Power Distributor: Oyaide MTS-4e, review HERE
- Stolik: SolidBase IV Custom, read HERE/all system
- Anti-vibration Platforms: Acoustic Revive RAF-48H, review HERE/digital sources | Pro Audio Bono [Custom Version]/headphone amplifier/integrated amplifier, review HERE | Acoustic Revive RST-38H/loudspeakers under review/stands for loudspeakers under review
- Anti-vibration Feets: Franc Audio Accessories Ceramic Disc/ CD Player/Ayon Polaris II Power Supply /products under review, review HERE | Finite Elemente CeraPuc/ products under review, review HERE | Audio Replas OPT-30HG-SC/PL HR Quartz, review HERE
- Anti-vibration accsories: Audio Replas CNS-7000SZ/power cable, review HERE
- Quartz Isolators: Acoustic Revive RIQ-5010/CP-4
- FM Radio: Tivoli Audio Model One