First Impressions of a First Watt - the Aleph J

I'm a devotee of the high-efficiency speaker/low-powered amp paradigm. Up till now I've been dedicated to tube amps, but I've always thought that I'd like to have a really good, low power solid state amp to act as comparison and counterpoint. When I heard about the Aleph J from Nelson Pass and his new company First Watt I was intrigued. I've never owned a piece of Nelson's gear before, so when I found out the price I decided to order one and see what the fuss is all about. I purchased it through Reno Hi-Fi, and there were no glitches getting it built (on Nelson's kitchen table?) and shipped across the border into Canada. I've had it only a day, but I thought some first impressions might be interesting.

The amp arrived in good order, even making it through the UPS punt-pass-and-kick machine unscathed. When I got home I immediately put it in the system to start warming up. You can see my system at the link below, but here's a synopsis. It's a redbook-only system consisting of an Audio Note digital front end (CDT-2 transport and a 4.1x Balanced Signature DAC), Fab Audio Model 1 speakers (ultra-resolving, wide-range, 97db, 2 1/2 way dynamic speakers), a pair of ACI Titan subs and the top grade of Kimber Select signal wiring throughout. My normal amp is an ultra-tweak Audion Silver Night PX25 Special Edition. It's stuffed full of goodies from the factory - Black Gates, tantalum resistors, Audio Note silver foil signal caps, Vishay Dales in the stepped attenuator, and full silver wiring including both windings of the output transformers. That amp cost about 10 times what I paid for the Aleph J. The room is a medium size (12x19) dedicated basement room, symmetrical, quiet and very neutral due to being well-treated with EchoBuster products.

A bit over two hours into the warm-up I started playing around with preamps. I tried three - a Bent Audio Noh (a transformer-based passive), a Morrison ELAD (a well-engineered minimalist transistor unit) and an Audion Premier (a 6922-based two-box line stage with silver wiring and SS rectification). The Audion gave the best combination of dynamics, resolution, extension, transparency, harmonic development and tone, so I settled on it. I listen to a lot of singer-songwriter stuff (blues and folk music) as well as a lot of classical violin (solo, chamber and concerto works). I played a bit of everything over the following two or three hours.

The executive summary is that for my musical tastes this is the best SS amp I've ever heard. It's the first one in my experience that renders voices with that sense of intimacy and believability that top tube amps provide. In addition it has a dynamic capability that is just captivating - the pulse of the music is rendered intact, and the rhythmic drive of the amp is remarkable. Once it warmed up there was a sense of ease to the music that came from a very natural and relaxing tonal presentation. The amp has very high resolution and gives very black backgrounds. It has plenty of power for my speakers (as it should, since they do fine with 8wpc tubes). The bass is very similar to what I get from my PX25 - it's more about tunes than slam. All in all I was impressed beyond expectation. This is one lovely amplifier.

I haven't done a head-to-head comparison with my Wavelength Triton 300B SET amps yet, but I've been listening to them a lot over the last week with the same Audion preamp. I think the Wavelengths offer more midrange bloom - that luscious tubey sound - but in every other regard I think the Alephs are equal or superior. Equal in resolution and transparency, superior in extension and dynamics. Given that the Tritons are $12,500 amps this is one hell of a performance from the little Aleph.

I did a head-to-head with the PX25 amp though, and there the story is different. The PX25 is unquestionably better all around. Part of that may come from the system configuration - I don't need to use a preamp and an extra set of cables because it has a built-in attenuator. But a lot of the superiority comes from the PX25 tubes themselves and the ultra-exotic parts. The most important difference for me is the purity of tone that the PX25 provides. That combines with an even higher resolution and greater transparency than the Aleph to give what I call a sense of "spooky presence" - the feeling that you are listening to the original event instead of just a reproduction of it. It's hard to explain, but it's obvious when you hear the effect. I think amps like the Ongaku probably have it as well, since that's the kind of reaction I've read in reviews of that amp. In comparison, the Aleph sounds a touch rougher and seems to shave off some of the very subtle sonic cues that provide that final sense of realism. In addition it's more matter-of-fact through the midrange. While the PX25 is more linear than the 300B, it still preserves just enough of that tube sweetness to suck you in emotionally. While the Aleph is less sweet than either of those tubes, it does much better in the midrange than your average bipolar, push-pull, Class AB transistor amp, and that's one of the things that makes it so listenable for me. I will admit to missing that bit of extra tonal something I get with the PX25, though. I guess you should get a bit more when you spend ten times the money :-)

So there you have it. I think the character of the Aleph J is going to evolve a bit more as it burns in, and I'm eager to see where it settles down. In addition, it takes much longer than one evening to begin to understand an amplifier, and I suspect the Aleph is going to reward a longer courtship. Even now, though, it's a worthy addition to my stable of amplifiers, and the fact that a $2000 sand amp isn't embarrassed in the company of $20,000 tubes is something that Nelson should be extremely proud of.
Gliderguider, I compliment you both on your writing style and very precise information regarding this post. I believe that Mr. Nelson Pass is one of our hobbies greatest designers when it comes to amp designs going back to his Threshold days in the 70's. My system would not be able to function with his First Watt designs, but I use his X-350.5/Threshold SA-1 monoblocks in my system with great pleasure. Thanks again, for you review.
Hey Paul,

Thanks for that excellent review - always a pleasure to read.
Well, my first impressions drastically underestimated this little jewel.

I left it running for a day, and thhen spent about four hours listening to it last night. The result is that I have to take back all the caveats in my original post. The sound had really developed from the previous day, in all the right directions. It's smoother, sweeter, contrastier, even more transparent, and it's putting out bags and bags of detail - to the point that it's getting that "trompe l'oreille" effect I thought was strictly the province of my PX25. But especially, it got boogie. It now seems to swagger and strut, showing off an amazing range of ability. It continually surprised me all night, as if it was saying "Ha, you think that was good? Well, watch THIS!" Every piece of music I threw at it just riveted my attention.

This little amp is quite a bit more special than I had previously given it credit for.
Gliderguider, I have always been quite a fan of your Audiogon moniker. Now, I am also quite a fan of your writing style and, in particular, this review. Nice job. Bravo!

I am especially appreciative to your honest assessment in the initial post. All too often, I read not reviews, but testimonials.
Two questions:

What's the retail cost of the Audion pre-amp?

How does the Aleph compare to your former Canary amps?
Nice to hear your impressions of the Aleph J. I just received a First Watt F1 to be run with my Cain Abbys. I am still waiting for a preamp (a 6922 based Fi Y), and will post my impressions then.

Funny, I got mine shipped across the border to Canada (Calgary) as well. Another, surprising no problem transaction with UPS (except that the lost some of the brokerage documentation).

Enjoy your Aleph!

Thanks everyone for the kind words.

F1a, I don't actually know the retail price of the Premier I have. I bought it used, and it seems to be different from the models shown on their web site. It's most similar to the Premier Line, which retails for $2195 according to the distributor's price list at, but I think that model is a single-box unit, while mine has a separate power supply. I paid more than that for my used unit, whose original price was about twice that.

Compared to my Canaries the Aleph is smoother and sweeter, with more transparency and better imaging. Surprisingly, it also has better pace and dynamics, at least on the very sensitive speakers I'm using now.

Restock, I have a pair of Abbys sitting in a closet. I'll be trying them with the Aleph at some point, and when you get your setup running we can compare notes.
Hi Gliderguider

Any update on how it sounds now?

My opinion now is remarkably similar to my first post. It's still the best small SS amp I've ever heard, and it still beats my Wavelength Tritons, but it still comes in second to my monster PX25. It's still sweet, seductive and intensely musical. In fact, those qualities improved a bit over the first week.

I've loaned it out to my dealer, who is a SET fanatic, to give a second opinion. He called me yesterday, and basically said "Holy Cow!" He seconds my enthusiasm, and says it could easily be his desert-island amp. He thinks Nelson might be overstating its power a bit, but that's based on his subjective assessment of when it started to run out of steam on a pair of Monitor Audio Studio 50's. I don't know what kind of music he used to form that opinion, but I suspect that the amp just may not have as much headroom as some other SS designs.

So my PX 25 remains my daily amp, with the Aleph J held in reserve for those headbanging moments :-) I still maintain that with sympathetic speakers it punches waaaay out of its price class.
Excellent, excellent review! Your's is the type of review that makes buying equipment unseen and unheard through Audiogon fun and rewarding. Thanks!
I read this review a long time and kept it in mind for future rference. I've been running my Merlin VSM MXe with the 100 Watt, Class A, Triode CAT JL2, and I can tell you that is a lot of power. I bought the CAT before the Merlins when I had speakers that required quite a bit of power. The Merlins are fairly sensitive at 89db, critically damped and have a very benign speaker load - which makes the ideal for tube amps. I was always thinking the CATs were some way too much amp for the Merlins - not that they did not sound outstanding. My first step was getting an Ars Sonum 30 watt integrated which are perfectly matched with the speakers and more important more than enough power. This gave me the confidence to try the Pass Aleph J (I use a Joule LA 150 MKII). I like the idea of simplicity, I like Class A, and I like the 282 Kohm input impedance which makes them very, very easy to drive with a tube preamp. Well, I've been listening for a few days and the J is everything Gliderguider says it is - a superb performer. Great detail and transparency, balance, and quite organic (body) compared to most SS (I suspect the XA series has this same quality). Unfortuantely for those that might want one, since this review was written the J is no longer made and is likely to remain fairly scarce on the used market -- unless Nelson comes out with a J.5. (Although I did notice there is currently one up for sale on Audiogon for $1,895 I think) I suspect there are not a great number of these units out there, and yet one has to think of these as a classic amp that had a brief shining moment. Now teajay has me thinking XA-30/60 hmmmm.
I'm now using the J on my Picquet-reburbished Quad 57s, driven by a Tom Evans Vibe/Pulse. It's a lovely match. Sweet, detailed, airy, pinpoint focus, lots of depth, lots of dynamics and a very natural sound. In fact it may even be a better match for those speakers than the Tom Evans Linear A. I sure am glad I have one.
Wow! That is some statement given the reports on how good the Tom Evans Linear A is. What is interesting to me is that I very much like the Ars Sonum and the Joule/Aleph J combo and they sound quite different - that suprises me a bit.
Pubul57, that just goes to show that you can't draw conclusions on any amp in isolation from the speakers it's intended to drive. The qualities the J displays though the Quads are quite a bit different from those I noticed when it was hooked up to the Fab Model 1's.

Part of this is that the Quads are just a better speaker and allow more of the amp's character to come though, but there's no getting around the fact that the two speakers are as different as chalk and cheese. The Quad's notorious impedance curve and low sensitivity contrast quite markedly with the Fab's 97db sensitivity and benign 6 ohm load (both in favour of the Fabs), while the Fab's cone/dome drivers are less intrinsically resolving than the Quad's panels (advantage Quad).

That said, yes, it was quite a surprise to me when I hooked up the J in place of the Linear A and had a long dispassionate listen to it.
Well, it has been a while since this thread has started. I owned the J (twice!) and sold them, since ultimately I still prefer my tube amps, but something keeps me interested in having an SS in the mix. I wonder if anyone has had a chance to compare the Aleph 3/30/Js with the new First Watt J2. I suspect at some point I'm going to own one of these again, or an XA30.5 (again) - just seems NP designs SS amps I like. Will be using one of these with the Merlin VSM-MXe (89db, smooth 6+ impedance).