Circle Labs A200 Integrated amplifier review - It will appeal to both tube and SS lovers……
This review is a reflection of my desire to help those looking for purity of sound in the convenient package of an integrated amplifier. In other words, an amplifier that transcends the usual boundaries of tube vs solid state. The A200 integrated is a unique design and one that I don’t recall seeing before--more on that in a moment. I called my local dealer here in the Nashville area, Colin King of Gestalt Audio Design, and told him I wanted to look into an integrated amplifier. I had too many boxes with several LPS’s, switches and such on the floor next to my Sound Anchors rack. It did not look good in our living room, and since I live with THE Audiophile’s Wife, I decided I better simplify and tidy up our space before she took to the blogosphere and wrote about my slovenly ways.
I also liked the integrated amp concept, in general, as they can offer stellar sound at lower prices than competing separates. I knew Colin carried the Luxman brand, and it has always intrigued me, but to my surprise, he suggested the Circle Labs A200 made in Poland. I had not heard of it, but he felt it would fit my sonic priorities better. In a nutshell, I like beautiful tone and realism and am less concerned about sonic feats of strength that impress initially, but over time don’t immerse me in the music. I guess, for me, an integrated amp appeals to the heart and soul--not just the mind.
Prior to the A200, I had a wonderful sounding $15,000 Mark Levinson 532 preamp and two nice amplifiers. Here’s a little backstory on that:AMPS: One of the amps was a 50-watt per channel, pure class A solid state Clayton Audio amplifier. The other was a 1200-watt per channel, unique class D amplifier. Both appealed to me in different ways.PREAMPS: I recently built a very robust 6sn7 tube preamp that I enjoyed but ended up giving to my stepson as a housewarming gift. In addition to that, I owned a highly modified/upgraded Audio Valve Eclipse tube preamp that was also quite enjoyable.
Suffice it to say the integrated had a significant sonic hurdle to clear to make it onto my audio rack. On paper, the A200 seemed ideally suited to my sonic preferences. The design combines a tube preamplifier and a single ended, pure class A, solid state output stage. While hybrid integrated amplifiers are not new to the scene, one with a single ended, pure Class A output was unique in my experience. In addition, the builder was passionate and intensely focused on short signal paths and keeping the parts count to an absolute minimum. The end goal was sonic purity, in other words, the accuracy of the tone and overtones needed to be precise to the vocals and the instruments. It needed to correctly address the nuances of the recordings like the inflections of the voices, the emotion of the vocalist and the subtleties of each instrument.
The A200 is rated at 100 watts per channel into 8 ohms and doubles to 200 watts into 4 ohms. It uses the rather inexpensive Siemens ECC8100 tube--one per channel and they will last some 10,000 hours. You can read more about this amp online at the Circle Labs site as well as viewing several online reviews of the unit.
This design goal, in my estimation, delivers the sonic purity I find elusive in many pieces of audio gear. This hybrid is different from other hybrid amps I have owned from Blue Circle, Monarchy Audio and Aesthetix Audio. Their designs are wonderful in their own way. They have sonic strengths in areas like warmth, stage size, high power and such. In my opinion, the A200 stands out from the other hybrids in purity of sound and inner detail. The sound reminds me of the “illuminated from within” sound I heard on my past pair of 2a3/300b monoblock SET amps from George Wright. The A200 sonic strengths boil down to a wide open sound, purity of tone and a positively arresting revealing of inner detail and nuance. The bass of the A200 is stellar in both articulation and fullness. If the recording has a meaty foundation, the A200 delivers it, and this is a must for me to enjoy music. The amp does not homogenize recordings based on my experience. Every recording is delivered with its intended sound and personality.
Another aspect I really appreciate is how engaging this amp is at low to moderate volume levels. I think this is simply a reflection of its sonic purity. In the end, the A200 cleared my sonic hurdle, and then some, because it drew me into the performances time and time again. One additional note is the A200 is just plain fun. My wife joins me for pleasure listening, and it scores very high marks on the fun factor.
I have heard amplifiers with more exacting leading edges and crisper highs. I have heard amplifiers with more gut-hitting dynamics at high volume levels, though I suppose if you pair the A200 with highly efficient speakers you would achieve this. I have not often heard the purity of sound and overall illumination of the performance that this integrated delivers. Approximating it would typically require SET tube amplifiers of the 2a3/845 and OTL variety-- at least in my experience.
Colin is the importer and dealer located in Nashville. The retail price is $8995. He is easy to work with, no-pressure and very laid back. I liked my experience with him greatly, and The Audiophile’s Wife has said, and I quote, "she plans to adopt him into our family if one of our biological children goes missing."
Circle Labs A200 on Townshend Pods and with QSA blue fuses installed
Dali Epicon 6 speakers with highly upgraded crossovers
Mojo Audio Evo dac with most all the upgrades including Lundahl Amorphous chokes
Innuos Zenith 3 server
Hapa Audio ICs and Aero USB cable
Acoustic BBQ power cord and speaker cable
Purist Audio jumpers
Network Acoustics ENO ethernet cables and filter
English Electric 8Switch
Several linear power supplies for modem, router switch
Puritan Audio 156 and Groundmaster conditioning/grounding
Townshend Pod products under speakers and gear
Sound Anchors rack
Dedicated twin 20 amp lines
Various tweaks from Mad Scientist, PerfectPath Audio
Link to Circle Labs site,http://www.circlelabs.eu/a200_en
I should add I listen to most every major genre of music including jazz, folk, female jazz vocalist, classical, acoustic instrumental, solo piano etc…. I love Van Morrison and Rickie Lee Jones and would say they are my top two favorite artists.
Hope you find this helpful fellow Agoners.