Luxman, is a brand name of the company Luxman Corporation (Japan), and rose recently like a phoenix from the ashes. Initially managed from Hong Kong, where its management was located, is now a completely Japanese company. There are probably some affiliations with China, at least in the area of chassis production (but those are just my assumptions, not confirmed by any proof) or at least their elements, but the design of the devices and their manufacture is done in Japan. We have tested some Lux products, and I have in my reference system the power amplifier M-800A since half a year, so I have some cognition of the company’s offerings, what is the direction it is headed to and what are its ideals. The tested amplifier L-550A II is quite a fresh device, its first version was presented together with the L-590A in 2005, for the 80th anniversary of Luxman. Since that time some modifications were made, mostly due to the necessity of RoHS certification. But we have to tell, that during the CES 2009 in Las Vegas two even newer products were presented: the tube integrated amplifier SQ-38u and a SACD player D-08. Returning to the tested item – the model we are looking at now, is an integrated amplifier, where all amplification stages work in class A. And yes, also the power stage, capable of delivering 20W at 8Ω and 40W at 4Ω. This draws parallels to another Japanese company, which is a reference point for Luxman recently, Accuphase, and the amplifier A-550 in their portfolio, also an integrated amp with the power stage in class A. The latter is 50% (10W) more powerful and 100% more expensive.
Like I mentioned, the L-550A II is an integrated amplifier. In case of Luxman (and Accuphase, and McIntosha, and also the Leben CS300 falls in this category) this equals being the center of a system. This is an approach, that powered probably all the companies in the 70-ties and 80-ties, something that is no longer the case for most of them. Let’s just have a look at the recently tested model No.1.a Aaron, or even better, at the tested in this issue Belles IA-01, and we will know what I am talking about: now the top devices have absolutely minimal amount of functions, and a shortest possible sound path. And I must say, that I understand this trend completely, and with top hi-end it cannot be done differently. But at the level I am talking about, things are different. Many people, related to audio, point out that this getting rid of the controls (tone controls, balance, mono switch, recording selector) was not related to sound quality, but with cost cutting, at least in the beginning. This due to the fact, that well made tone control is expensive, what we can see in Accuphase and McIntosh amplifiers, as well as in the preamplifier Cambridge Audio Azur 840E, so leaving it aside could mean significant cost savings. It was much easier to get rid of that section and keep on talking about the sound. Because in most instances this resulted in bettering of the sound. But if somebody can propose a device for given money, royally equipped and the sound qualities are similar to the stripped down, functionally cripple competition, then the choice will only be a matter of taste and followed rules, and not fully due to the sound.
And good – very good! Pluralism is a value added, and we need to accept, that there is no one true path reaching to our dreams – sound nirvana…
Music used for testing:
If we assume, that the quality of audio devices is described by their ability of DIFFERENTIATING an audio signal (recordings, cables,, sources, etc.), then the Luxman L-550A II will be on top of amplifiers up to 20000zl, residing there with the Aaron No.1.a. What means “differentiating”? This is quite simple: the more the differences are manifested by a given device, the lesser obstacle it is in the sound path. In other words it is more transparent, it messes less with the signal. This is one of the best – but of course not the only one – methodology of conducting listening research. A splendid article covering the topic, and at the same time showing the way of thinking of the people making the American internet magazine “EnjoyTheMusic”, you will find under the title Are You On The Road To... Audio Hell? Their authors, Leonard Norwitz („EnjoyTheMusic”) and Peter Qvortrup (Audio Note UK) show in that article, that this is the only ‘scientific’ way of comparison. Comparative tests, having as reference devices from the same price level, or a much costlier equipment, are flawed in their essence, as the reference points are not perfect, and this method does not tell much about the reference of the device to a live event. The last one is only partially helpful, as we can rely only on a memory of what we heard, and this does not correlate to the individual recordings (creations). And there is much truth in those statements. Data gathered in the process of evaluating the differentiation are really strong, and at the same time easily accessible. This method is, in my opinion, not the whole truth, because it does not tell anything about many aspects of the sound, for example tonal balance, but is a valid part of my tests.
The four aspects I try to assess in my doings are:
Anyway, regardless of the method used, the ability to differentiate is on the first place in the best systems I know. They are not the best, because they differentiate best, but this element is always important in their case. That is the reason why, when I hear a device like the Luxman capable of something like THAT, I become careful, like a worker returning home, to his wife, with a paycheck. The Japanese amplifier is brilliant in this aspect. This does not mean it is flawless, that it can be blindly recommended – not that, I will tell about a few devices, from a higher price level – mostly – that are equally interesting, but different (during the test, the Luxman was available for 10900zl, based on the yen to zloty exchange rate. This price will be kept for a while, and then will rise to 14900zl. This is the reason I treat it as if would cost 15000zl from the beginning). I am just telling, that the resolution of the Luxman is splendid. Because just a moment ago I tested the equally interesting, but twice as expensive, Belles IA-01, and I had the Aaron for comparisons, I could determine the cause of this phenomenon exactly. I’ve put together, for example, two different pressings of some discs, and I want to recall two of them, that summarize the experiment nicely: Herbie Mann & The Bill Evans Trio Nirvana and Peter Gabriel IV (or Security). I wrote about the first one some time ago, but it is nice to return to it. The ‘regular’ version from the company Rhino, issued in Germany, is very nice, but the instruments sound as if the disc would be mono. In contrast, the newest Japanese pressing SHM-CD is stereophonic, with instruments scattered between channels. And it is much worse. Belles showed that very thoroughly, without a trace of doubt I preferred the European version, but even with it was not fully clear, without a trace of doubt, why it is so. I mean, something was known, but without exaggeration, and only playing those recordings with the Luxman allowed for sitting down quietly, and analyzing it. The Japanese amplifier does not so much show WHAT is happening, but also at the same moment, WHY it is so, and WHAT is the EFFECT of that. And this is a big difference. A bit like in deconstructionism, the sound gets disassembled first, then it is examined, and finally pub back together. Seemingly this is the same recording, the same sounds, but our perception is radically different, we perceive everything deeper, not that superficial. This is why the Luxman is an outstanding device. And this is not about being detailed, as this is equally good, or better, in devices like INT-150 Pass or A-550 and E-450 Accuphase. I mean playing in way, that is resolved, detailed, thorough, etc., but does not degrade the recordings due to the quality of mastering. It was a complete surprise for me, how good the disc …Calling All Stations… Genesis sounded. Ray Wilson voice was still very badly recorded, but it did not pose any problems. Due to a very well built treble and the coherence of harmonics, the flaws of realization, although present, did not get in front of the music. This is similar to a good turntable – clicks, noise are shown ‘next’ to the music, are a part of another plane of happenings, what makes them less offensive. The brain does not get tired with them, trying to catch the music, it ‘knows’, that it is something different. It was similar with the Luxman.
Now it is not a perfect amplifier, and has its own, clearly defined character, that must be taken into consideration, while composing your system around it. Its timbre is rather light than saturated. This might seem surprising to those, who were raised on the legend of the A1 amplifier from Musical Fidelity, with its warm, like Crete in summer, a thick sound with rather meager dynamics – this is not class A. Or rather this is one of the possibilities of that class, not showing the most important aspects of it: resolution, transparency, lack of coloration, dynamics. A sound similar to the Musical has for example the power amp A-30 Accuphase, But the models A-45 and A-60 are completely different, closer with their timbre to what Luxman presents. Placing the L-550A II in a transparent system sometimes we will miss the midrange saturation, what underlines its upper part. This is not a brightening per sé, but in this range the energy of the sound is a bit bigger than in the part directly below that. This is why you need something capable to reproduce the splendid dynamics and (almost) unbeatable resolution of this amplifier, and at the same time capable of adding some ‘body’. For example you can go along this path: add transparent loudspeakers like Marcus Harpia Acoustics, or something from the Gold series Monitor Audio, and a rather warm player, but one, which would not muffle anything. This could be for example the Recall Trigon (a version Mk II is now available) or Prologue Eight Prima Luna, or – this would be a phenomenal combination – the small player Luxman D-N100. The last one that looks a bit like a toy will surprise many music lovers. A good choice could also be the Japanese TRV-4SE TRI. Then add cables like the Supra and you are done. You could also follow a different way – adding less ‘warm’ source and warmer loudspeakers. From floorstanders you could choose the ART Loudspeakers Stiletto 6 or something from Dynaudio or Harbeth.
We will always get a very thorough, dynamic sound, with splendid rhythm and coherence. The lowest bass will not be especially strong, and the sound stage especially deep. Inside that, what the Luxman shows, the localization of the instruments, their ‘description’ relative to other elements on the stage, is simply fantastic. Either classical music from the disc Kathleen Battle Grace, or jazz from Solveig Slettahjell Silver, the instruments had always a nice acoustical environment, with reverbs, echoes, etc. Like I mentioned, the depth of the stage was lesser than with for example the Belles or Accuphase amplifiers. The vividness of the latter, as well as of the INT-150 from Pass, were also better, but in their case were the result of softening, ‘sweetening’ of the treble. This way of doing promotes elements from the midrange, that seem more three-dimensional. The Luxman does not soften anything, does not round anything, and this is why it escapes the trap you have to face with the E-450 and A-550 Accu, namely the slightly raised upper bass. It gives big sound, but you have to be careful not to exaggerate, because it may become over-induced. With Luxman it is exactly the opposite – we need to add some of the flesh. But we may be sure, that nothing will be droning or buzzing. And the dynamics will be better.
That’s it. As you can see, the evaluation of an amplifier, or in general any audio component, relies on many elements, and will never be unequivocal. The thing, that a reviewer should do first, is try to describe the unit as truly as he or she can, adding assessments, but relating to specific devices. Nobody is perfect and Luxman is no exception to this rule. Accuphase and Pass offer a sound, that is much easier to accept, a sound you can live with until the end of your days in happiness and satisfaction. But the Luxman provokes searches – for a better source, for better loudspeakers and finally for better recordings. With the latter it is not so, that newer is automatically better, what I tried to show based on the example of the Nirvana disc, but it can be that way often enough, what showed the, also mentioned earlier, IV from Peter Gabriel, without a trace of doubt better in the new Japanese edition re-master. With the Pass and Accu the differences are clear, but do not pose the central point, they are rather softened. Luxman will play each disc as it is, maybe without trashing it, but also without concealing anything. So you need to define, make a decision, what you want from life: if it is peace and stabilization, then the Lux will not be of any help. It is a device for those that search and do not fear to take a risk or two.
Luxman L-550A II is an integrated amplifier. As usual with this manufacturer we deal here with a royally equipped amplifier. But first you do not see the many knobs and buttons, but the big, green, fluorescent VU meters, showing the output power. Between them, under the acryl cover plate, there is a red stand-by LED. I mentioned knobs – there are lots of them. The big ones - on the sides – are used to select one of the eight (!) line inputs and a gramophone preamplifier input and to control the volume. There are two buttons next to the first knob – they activate a balanced input and allow using a MC cartridge. Below the acryl plate there is a row of smaller knobs. The first one selects the input redirected to the record-out outputs (there are two, and can be switched off, what is recommended during listening), the second one activates one of the two loudspeaker outputs, or both, or none. There is also a knob for selecting mono mode, choosing stereo, left or right channel. Next we have tone controls for bass and treble (a compensating circuit developed by Luxman is used) and balance. The three last controls can be switched off by the ‘line straight’ button. It is accompanied by a ‘subsonic’ filter (to use low quality turntables) and loudness. To the left we see also a headphone jack (6.35mm).
The back plate is also very rich. We have a row of RCA sockets – the gramophone one with a gold plated ground contact, six line inputs and below them two XLR based inputs. The hot pin is nr. 3. They are however equipped with a switch, that can change the hot pin to nr. 2. Nice and easy – it sounded better with my Lektor when switched to the European standard (hot being nr. 2). Two line inputs are grouped with recording outputs. We have also a preamplifier output and a power section input, connected with clamps. This is a pity, it would have been better to install relays inside for this. Next we have two pairs of solid loudspeaker terminals and an IEC socket. I do not know why, but this model does not have the polarity indicator. Maybe due to the fact, that the socket has only two pins, without the grounding pin.
The inside is split in many separate chambers by rigid metal plating. In the middle we have the power supply – a big EI transformer with 540W power, made to order, with separate windings for left and right channel power section and left and right channel preamplifier section. Safety circuits and VU meters received also a separate power line. We see four big capacitors with the Luxman logo, probably made by Nichicon or Rubycon, and two big rectifying bridges for the power section (on an aluminum heat sink), which include ultra-fast Shotky diodes. The whole is not tightened to the floor, but to a kind of inner “shell”, that functions as an extra shield and dampens vibration. On both sides to that section we have the power amps – big PCBs screwed tight to the massive heat sinks. In each power amp two pairs of power transistors are employed, in class A push-pull setting. Unfortunately I could not see the type description of those elements. Luxman has significant experience in manufacturing such amplifiers because – at least that is what they write in the company materials – it presented a solid state amplifier of that kind as the first company in the world, in 1981. The PCBs for the preamplifier and the power section were etched differently than usual, without using the green mask, which – according to Luxman – negatively influences copper. All traces have been gold plated. The preamplifier section, based on transistors, is mounted on two PCBs, mounted vertically at the back plate. Here, on a second PCB the volume control circuit LECUA is mounted, based on JRC chips, which switch resistors – so that we always have only two in the sound path. This section is controlled by a black Alps potentiometer mounted on the front panel, but it is not in the sound path, it just sets the reference encoding for the chips. The circuit is not balanced, and the signal is de-symmetrized just after the XLR sockets. This is why I preferred the RCA inputs, even when the players were equipped with XLR outputs. The unit uses a patented negative feedback circuit called Only Distortion Negative Feedback (ODNF) in the 2.2A version, which gives only distortion back to the input and not the whole signal.
The VU meters have their own PCB next to the front panels and the meters themselves are shielded. Their lighting can be switched off. Let us add, that the resistors in the power amp section are metalized, and the precision capacitors in the whole unit are of the polypropylene type. The remote is a metal one, but the buttons are small, so it is not very handy to use. The enclosure is made from many materials – the company claims, that this allows for ‘breaking’ resonances’. And so the top cover is from steel, the slots is a plastic mold (the only thing I do not like here) and the side panels from thick aluminum. All is damped with rubber in many places. The top cover is bolted to the side panels, and those to the main chassis with only four bolts. The latter are not screwed tight, but with a given momentum – this allows the company to ‘tune’ the enclosure, not allowing for high frequency resonances to occur. The bolts are tightened with dynamometric keys – I wonder, if the Polish service has those…
CDs FROM JAPAN
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