pl | en
Line preamplifier + power amplifier

Price: 2850$ + 3375$

Distributor: none

Don Garber
New York


WWW: none

Text: Marek Dyba
Foto: Marcin Olszewski
Translation: Krzysztof Kalinkowski

Regardless the fact, if we consider Joseph Wilson Swan as the inventor, or Thomas Edison (like every American would), I can place any bet on that, they could not imagine all the uses of their inventions. Probably they could not even think, whether in 1860 (Swan) or in 1879 (Edison), how their invention, the light bulb, will be modified. First modification, adding a second electrode was made by the Englishman John Fleming, and then, in 1906, another inventor – Lee de Forest, added a third electrode, changing the function of the bulb – the modified one should not make light, but amplify a signal passing through it (while still shining a little bit). But let me digress a little – probably many tube lovers know the name Edison, some maybe Swan, but how many of them know the name Lee de Forest? You can call that an irony… I hope, that after reading this intro, some of the tube lovers will remember that name.

But I will not continue this journey through history and will switch directly to a living legend of American tube making – Don Garber. This name will probably ring a bell only with people, who read American audio forums. In Poland, there will not be many people, who had a chance to listen to products, that came out of his hands. Why? This is a result of the way he makes business.

Don became known in the States in 1992, when he opened a small shop in Soho (New York), on 30 Watts Street, named Fi (an abbreviation from Hi-Fi)

This was a small, triangle shaped room, with a large show window. Inside, the central place was occupied by a table, where he made his creations. Today, in times of renaissance of tube technology (at least in audio) it is hard to imagine, that in USA, in the beginning of the 90-ties of the 20th century, there was almost no market for SET amplifiers. So Fi was a place, where the new era of tube amplifiers started in pains – this is a kind of a “womb” for tube enterprise. This was the time, when first steps on that market were made by people like Noriyasu Komuro, JC Morrison, Gordon Rankin or Herb Reichert. Some of those people sold their first products in Fi, for others Fi was the place to meet, to exchange ideas, to create together.

This is how Don advertised the gear sold in his shop:

Don was putting together tube kits many years before founding Fi. However the shop, and the group of enthusiasts gathered around him, made him try to propose his own constructions. In the beginning together with JC Morrison, or Noriyasu Komuro, and later on his own. The first design, he decided to create, was an amplifier based on the 2A3 tube. The work took a long time. When a good result was achieved, Garber started to simplify the circuit. Every subsequent simplification improved sound. Finally such a good amplifier was made, that he decided it could be placed on a shelf for sale. It was called The Fi 2A3 Stereo. The first one was bought by a person just passing by, who came inside the shop, listened to it and just put $1475 on the table. Then came subsequent units and improved versions, which established the name of one of the biggest tube gurus of America.

Why not many people heard about Don Garber outside USA? Because not many people could listen to his products. Again, why? This comes from his, quite specific, sales “policy”. In the 21st century, it is hard to imagine, that a company does not have a web page, a distribution network, advertisement or even reviews in specialist magazines. And this is exactly how Fi operates. Today the shop on 30 Watts Street isn’t there anymore. Don moved to Brooklyn, and he is only constructing amplifiers. “Word of mouth", is all the advertisement he uses. All his products are hand made by him, the pricing is very reasonable (for US of course) and the waiting time is about… 6-7 months!! This does not look like a dying business. What means – reasonable pricing? The tested, top monoblocks 2A3 cost $3375, and the line amplifier added to the set $2850 (for a Pole this is plus 3.5% customs fee, 22% VAT, shipment, and we don’t earn our salary in US dollars…). For me those are reasonable prices, and those are possible only because Don makes the amplifiers himself, he is an advocate of minimalism – the fewer elements in the audio path, the better, and he sells his products directly. Distributors would probably sell those products in prices 2-2.5 times higher, what would probably change the group of buyers, but it probably would not diminish the demand. Now, Don’s products are there for almost anybody, who cares for the quality of sound, and not only the price tag. And this seems to suit the constructor. One short anecdote (but a true one). Don created a preamplifier, regarded as one of the best preamps ever made. He sold it for $4500, until his accountant calculated, that he should have asked $10000 to make the deal profitable. But instead of changing the price – Don just stopped making it. I am curious, if we could find another person, who would approach the way he earns for a living is such a way.

But there are bold people in Poland. Mr. Maciej Chodorkowski from Soundclub bought the top monoblocks 2A3 and the preamplifier. I am writing “bought”, because there is no distribution option. The Fi 2A3 Monos, are a kind of curiosity in Soundclub, but also a rare opportunity to listen to the gear, otherwise not available outside of US. An I am a bloodhound when it comes to audio, and when I heard, that Mr. Maciej is waiting for Fi to be delivered I did not let loose. Fortunately, the only thing I needed to do was to get in a line of people waiting to listen to this amplifier. And so I did!


Discs used for testing:

  • Pepe Romero, Flamenco , LIM, K2HD 022, K2HD.
  • Arne Domnerus, Antiphon Blues, Proprius, PRCD 7744, CD; recenzja wersji K2HD here.
  • Pink Floyd, Wish you were here, EMI Records Japan, TOCP-53808, CD.
  • Midnight Blue, Inner city blues, Wildchild, 09352, CD.
  • Wiener Philharmoniker – Böhm, Beethoven: Symphonie no 9, DG, 445 503-2, CD.
  • Metallica, Metallica, WEA, WEALP98496, 45 rpm, 4 x LP.

The whole set did not spend enough time at my home, for me to being able to analyze the differences between various tubes, so I will just tell about a few impressions. I exchanged the Sovtec tubes in the preamplifier after 15 minutes of listening to my Siemens E88CC – the difference was really big. The sound gained on clarity and detail most, but in fact all aspects of the sound got better – this is why I recommend to exchange those tubes immediately (there is a lot of different 6922 tubes on the market, in all flavors). A next step was to change the rectifier to ones borrowed from my friend – both were Sylvania made, but had different base colors – those from Don were brown, while those from my colleague were black. The black were more musical, so they remained plugged. And finally I jiggled around with the power tubes. I used the Sovtecs for a very short period, because changing them to KR Audio made the return obsolete. This change made a curtain fall off the loudspeakers. A curtain, I had no idea, it was there, when listening before the change. Actually, this is a curious thing in audio – we think it sounds good, and we actually do not know, what to change to make it better. Until a new element appears – in this case the power tubes – then it becomes apparent, that the sound was not as good as we had thought.

Please do not misunderstand me – it was good with the Sovtek tubes, you could listen to music without problems. But when you are already accustomed to the sound of this amplifier, you might search for ways to improve the sound, by changing the power tubes to KR Audio, or to my favorites (anticipating facts a bit) – the mesh Emission Labs ones. The KR Audio tubes open the sound, a lot of air appears around the instruments, the acoustic surroundings are reproduced very well. The mesh EML have slightly bigger gain, what results in an impression of bigger dynamics, in micro and macro scale.

This can be heard splendidly on the Arne Domnerus Antiphon Blues disc – this is a specific recording, with sax and an organ, recorded in a big church – the Spanga Church. This disc is my basic test for reproducing the acoustic environment of the recording – listening on a good system we can “see” this big room – a person not knowing the disc will “feel” it immediately, and if the systems does not sound very well, this will just go unnoticed. I think, that this is more or less the difference between the Sovtec tubes and the KR Audio or EML – an I am of course talking about the most audible difference – we can be in a medium sized room or in a big church respectively. Differences are also to be noticed in the timbre of the saxophone, which becomes more “organic” with better tubes, or in the might of the organ sounds, which is not reproduced so well with the Sovtecs. Another disc, the K2HD Flamenco Pepe Romero – showed also significant differences between the basic and upgraded version. The guitars, clapping and tapping – a beautifully acoustic, comprehensive test of an amplifier. Fi show the assets of a very good tube – holography, splendid reproduction of space, timbres of voices and guitars, where we hear a full sound – strings and body, and this with such a precision, that somebody with better hearing and knowledge, would probably be able to recognize the maker of the guitar and strings. Despite the 3W of power, Don’s monoblocks show, that they have not a slightest problem in reproducing the power of the sound – they show tapping on the floor splendidly – the recording itself, and probably the K2HD mastering, allow the floor to vibrate, as if the flamenco dancers would be at our home, provided the volume is set on appropriate level. Unfortunately, Andalucía is far away, and it is not so easy to go to a flamenco performance, even when we love the music. This disc can be a substitute of such a journey, to an extent possible for a recording, and the Fi will make sure, that the illusion of a small, smoked (the Spaniards are heavy smokers) room will be almost perfect.

The next disc was one of the latest Japanese issues of Wish you were here Pink Floyd. It is true, that this edition was extremely successful, what can be easily verified by looking at the prices it reaches on internet auctions. For sure there are a few vinyl editions that will be better, but when looking at CD editions, then this one is among the best. And although the first thing, that comes to mind is “despite the power of only 3W…”, but I should stop with reminding you about their low output power. I just need to agree with the engineer of Avantgarde Acoustic, who, during the last Audio Show, told me, that with a certain efficiency of the loudspeakers, it does not matter, if they are driven by a 1W or 1000W amplifier (he also said, that it does not matter, if the amplifier is tube or solid state, but here I tend to disagree), what matters is the quality of the first watt. I own horn loudspeakers, a modified Jerycho project, with an efficiency around 100dB – so the first watt should be enough to achieve all what is to be achieved from those speakers. And indeed, if not only the first watt, but all three offered by Fi, were used, still the effect was fantastic, with all those discs. And it was also splendid with Pink Floyd. A solid rock piece, played with pep, harsh when Gilmour’s guitar sounds, heavy, when Water’s bass lines dominate, with appropriate attack of Mason’s drums and percussion, with an incredible, palpable sax from Dick Parry in Shine on you crazy diamond. Mastering of this disc is in my opinion splendid – something was achieved, what I thought was not possible – with the same recording we can sit down, and be 100% relaxed, or we can flow with the music and live through the emotions. The amplifier plays a big part in that, which can play this all in a relaxed way, or, when the volume is turned up, becomes a volcano, spitting out red hot emotions. Inner city blues Midnight Blue is a disc to evaluate rhythm & pace, but also how an amplifier handles human voice. And it does handle them just like only a brilliant tube can - Serena McDay and Artie Sherman singing the classic Ain't no sunshine create an unforgettable musical show. Fi reproduces the coarse texture of “black” voices in a truly authentic way. The instruments, that accompany the voices, are splendidly placed on a wide stage. You can easily find Selena sitting on a high stool in the front, next to her Artie at the Hammond and behind them the rest of the band. The disc was recorded in the Mapleshade Records studios, yet it sounds as a classic, small, American music-club. A big kudos to Fi for reproducing brilliantly, what was recorded on the disc, but also that, what could not be recorded – a thick, juicy atmosphere – one we usually associate with music clubs, which I envy the Americans…

Now I needed to check, how those little units will deal with much more difficult music. I started with my favorite performance of the 9. Symphony of Beethoven. Recorded by the Wiener Philharmoniker under Karl Böhm it is quite problematic for many amplifiers. A big orchestra, soloists, choir, big dynamic jumps – this all makes the amplifier to stretch his legs, to control the speakers and not allow any chaos to appear on-stage. In my system this means, that the amplifier needs to control only one driver per channel, what on one hand makes it easier, on the other hand reproducing the full band by only one, not so big membrane, and keeping it in order, is quite a task, and not many amplifiers succeeded doing that to date. Until now, there was one thumb rule – the more watts, the better. 20W KR Audio or 30W Ayon fared in that music better, than my 10W amplifier. The Fi 2A3 is not an exception to that rule, the mentioned amplifiers handle that music better, but this does not mean, that Fi does not fare at all – a slight chaos became apparent only at higher volume levels. When you listen at reasonable level, then the reviewed amplifiers will do just fine. Placement of the orchestra in space was not a problem, the dynamic also not. Human voices were reproduced with high precision, splendid timbre and clear articulation. This is more than we could expect, even from much stronger and much more expensive amplifiers.

And finally I placed on the platter of my Gyro SE the Metallica Black Album – this is the recently issued four disc edition. I am not a big fan of such music, but this recording is a classical one, many people like it, also people, who do not listen to metal on a daily basis. Issuing it on four 45rpm discs is not only a marketing quirk, made to sell additional xx thousand pieces. This new re-master really means new quality, especially in terms of dynamics. This is a truly difficult disc to play for my system, which handles it well enough – enough for me to be able to listen to The Unforgiven, or Enter Sandman with true pleasure. The Fi gently “softened” the bass, and this is actually the only flaw I could find. There was perfect order on the wide and deep stage – this is also an element, that differentiates this edition from the CD ones, where there is chaos on stage, the sounds combine making listening to this disc truly hard. With this vinyl there was a very good separation of instruments, the cymbals were vivid, the bass drum was heavy (to the extent possible in my system) and there were splendid, harsh guitars.

Of course, a system like mine, will not reproduce a full scale of sound with dense recordings, regardless, of what will be used to drive my speakers, and this can be annoying for people used to a 15” woofer and a minimum of four drivers per loudspeaker. Nevertheless, the monoblocks and preamplifier from Fi give the system the magic of tubes, in the best possible meaning of that word. Holography and spaciousness are on the best possible level, timbre, facture of instruments (especially the acoustical ones) and human voices is hard to beat. Better tubes add lots of air, lots of space, what adds realism, and makes this one of the best amplifiers, for a reasonable price, to listen to music. Listening to music? Yes – this is not a mistake. Theoretically all amplifiers are made to do that, but they don't perform equally well. Some of them allow to analyze the recordings in depth, reaching to the smallest details, serving them on a silver plate. Others can appeal only to a very specific taste, underlining one or another part of the sound spectrum. The 2A3 monoblocks from Don Garber will appeal to everybody – for some they could be the end of the search, the end of the audiophile way, for others only a nice amplifier, with which you can listen to music with pleasure. In addition there are the handling aspects, described so well by Don in the ad, I placed in the introduction. Fi glow nicely in the dark. Their timbre can be shaped freely by exchanging tubes. And when something fails, any person, that knows how to use a soldering iron can replace the faulty parts, without troubles in obtaining them. And the sound… well, I just told you about the sound. It is clear for me, that Don Garber earned his esteem of American Tube Legend fully. His approach to business, meaning making the best devices possible for reasonable money, is also very appreciated. I also have to mention the company Soundclub again – not many distributors can make such gestures – the purchase of interesting, not so easy to obtain devices, not for strictly commercial purposes, but as something interesting, is really something. People eager to learn how Fi sounds do not have to buy blind, or search for some happy owner in the US, or visit Don in New York – they only need to visit the shop in Warsaw.

Because I had also 45 tubes from Tungsol at my disposal, despite them not being a perfect replacement for this amplifier, I tried them too. I must add, that this was my first contact with the 2W 45 triode, but I will do much, for it not being the last one. The 45 tubes make vocals, especially female ones, become very sensual. The timbre of the voice becomes deep, we can almost see lips touching the microphone, a bit more imagination and… we look in the half closed eyes of Cassandra Wilson (as an example). Incredible palpability and timbre is also gained by acoustic instruments. I think, that if I were an owner of those monoblocks, I would listen to acoustical and vocal recordings with the 45 tubes, and with the 2A3 to all the others. We can treat this as another asset of this amplifier – an easy exchange of tubes and we get a device, that sounds even better, or at least different, with some of our beloved recordings.

Technical data:
Output power: 2x3W
Dimension: 279x254x178mm
Weight: 7,6kg

g     a     l     l     e     r     y

Reference system: