Review: Ars Sonum Filarmonia SE Tube amp


Category: Amplifiers

I hesitated before posting this review because the Ars Sonum, paired with the Merlin VSM-MME, has such a synergy that the results are beyond everything I've heard in this price range and much higher. My hesitation came from the fact that I don't know how the Ars Sonum sounds with other speakers (I have no reason to think it doesn't sound as amazing, though), and from the fact I don't want to sound pretentious or aggressive by saying "I see no reason to spend more if you're looking for a state of the art amplifier, whether separates or integrated, regardless of price". Yet that's how I feel.

The secret here is synergy. There's something a little bit crazy buying a pair of speakers then trying to find an amplifier from another manufacturer which is going to be a good match. The Filarmonia happens to be perfectly suited to the Merlins, and goes a long way showing how system synergy and design optimization (only the best, matched components are used) can produce astonishing results.

To the defence of other manufacturers, it is also my understanding that Ricardo Hernandez, their very humble and sweet designer, builds them as a side-job himself, one by one, and doesn't rely only on them to make a living. As a result, you spend 3500 dollars and get something that would normally retail for at least twice that amount. Then there's the talent of the designer, and I believe you would actually have to spend more than five times that amount to get this kind of sound quality. Last time I heard something as good was a pair of 20.000 dollars Lamm monos.

If I put them side by side, maybe the Lamms would sound even better, I don't know. Somehow, I hope so. But the thing is, I have no desire to compare. In absolute terms, the Ars Sonum satifies me on every level. The soundstage is enormous, full of details, and both frequency extremes are served equally well. Midrange transparency is top notch. The tone of this little wonder is up there with the best. The amp is fast, very dynamic, life-like. The sound has that tube sense of easy and serenity, without sounding tubey at all. If you're looking for something euphonic to tame overly bright speakers, this is not the one for you. The Ars is transparent and neutral, and will give you warmth if there is warmth on the record. Most of all, it will reproduce music in the most natural, relaxed way.

I keep shaking my head at the end of every listening session. There doesn't seem to be a limit to the Ars Sonum's magic. As I said, maybe you can have a little bit more of this of that, although I'd be hard-pressed to say what without doing a side by side comparison. Oh yes, maybe it doesn't have that utter blackness of the best solid state designs. But that's really nit-picking and more of an audiophile than a musical criteria.

I really hesitated before going for such a "reasonably" priced amplifier, and such a small one at that. How could it rival bigger, much more expensive machines? What would be the trade-off? Well the proof is in the listening, and I can happily and honestly report that there's no trade-off. The Filarmonia made me a happy audiophile, which probably means I'm not an audiophile anymore. Thank you Ricardo @ Ars Sonum (and Bobby @ Merlin for insisting I wait!).

PS: it should be said there's a long, long waiting list for this amp, hence a lot of waiting. So make sure you have something to listen to music with in the meantime. Every minute of the wait is worth it anyway.

Associated gear
Merlin VSM MME
Esoteric X-03 SE
Nottingham 294 VDH Condor XGM
Cary PH302
Au24
jbcortes
Very nice statement JB of your thoughts regarding the Filarmonia. Seems to be coming from your heart and that says something in itself. Hope to get an email from BP anyday now telling me mine have shipped.......

Enjoy,
Thom
Thanks Thom. I can tell you all your frustration will be gone in no time!
JB
JB,

Would you mind terribly if I just copied and pasted your review and put my name to it :)

Your review pretty much hits the nail on the head with my thoughts and feelings as well, especially this:

"I really hesitated before going for such a "reasonably" priced amplifier, and such a small one at that. How could it rival bigger, much more expensive machines? What would be the trade-off? Well the proof is in the listening, and I can happily and honestly report that there's no trade-off. The Filarmonia made me a happy audiophile, which probably means I'm not an audiophile anymore. Thank you Ricardo @ Ars Sonum (and Bobby @ Merlin for insisting I wait!)."

Oh, hold on now... with respect to that "audiophile" comment, didn't you just purchase that Esoteric? :)

Here, the pot is calling the kettle black. I figured that with this reasonably priced integrated, this freed up some money so I bought a VPI turntable (the HR-X).

What did you have previous to the X-03 SE? I really like that SACD player as well.

Regards,

David
Hi David,
Actually, I did copy that bit you mention on you from AA... ;)
As far as the Esoteric is concerned, I went for it for two reasons: first because my brand new Audio Aero Prima Mk2 died one week before I received the amp, and second because after hearing what the Ars Sonum was doing with my turntable, I figured I might as well use the money I saved with it on a better digital source! So far, the X-03 SE sounds very impressive, but the sound changes almost everyday so hard to make final judgement. It becomes smoother and smoother as it breaks in. It does some things which really make my head spin and which I'd certainly never heard from digital before. Also, once you've seen and touched this machine, it's hard to go back. Even 20.000 dollars wouldn't get you that build quality from any other manufacturer... You would probably get much more chrome and gold though... :)
Congrats on the HRX, very nice turntable!
Best,
Jean-Baptiste
Hi JB. I'm at the stage where you said,"I really hesitated before going for such a "reasonably" priced amplifier, and such a small one at that. How could it rival bigger, much more expensive machines? What would be the trade-off?". I've ordered the ARS and will be comparing with my Placette Active and CAT JL2. I too hesitated to do this and asked myself how could it be possible to beat (or at least be comparable in terms of musical satisfaction). Well we'll see, but I do buy into the idea that the CAT might be more amp (a truly world-class amp that can make almost any speaker sound glorious) than is necessary to drive the VSM-MXe (easy to drive)and the ARS may be so well matched to the needs of the speaker that it just might pull it off. I would love to go smaller and simpler if I don't have to compromise on sound quality.
Will be interested to hear about your discoveries. I have the latest Merlin VSM-MXE here and have been running them with many types of equipment. I'm interested to simplify things so the ARS seems a good contender.
Great review! I love my Filarmonia! I am now listening to classical music like never before. A new world for me. It just gets better and better...

Roar
Just heard the Ars-Sonum at the NYC Stereophile show. Your review makes perfect sense to me now, and clearly this integrated has to be considered by all Merlin owners - it is a special pairing that certainly produced one of the best sounds of the show. A simpler path to great audio. Get on the waiting list now, you won't regret it IMHO.
I own Living Voice IBR-X speakers,and i like lush,delicate and resolving sound,will filaromania,give me the sound i want with my speakers
I don't think it is lush for an EL34-based amp, but it is a EL34. Are those LV speakers very sensitive and tube friendly? I think 300B will genrally give you lush.
I've just placed my order for the Filarmonia. I also have Merlin VSM-MM's upgraded to no-lead, super-BAM status.

Anyone have a synergistic phono preamp recommendation (under $3,000 used) that can handle a lower output MC cartridge (0.5 mV)?
I used a Cary PH-302 with great satisfaction. It handled a 0.35V cartridge so you're perfectly fine. I thought it complemented the Fila perfectly. Might not be the best if you're looking for slam in the bass, but it not loose of boomy in that department either.
Jb - great description. Which Green Mountain's did you own? I'm very interested in those as well as the Merlins, and it would helpful to know what model was your reference .
Thanks-
Koho
Any further thoughts from Ars Sonum fans?
ars sonum gran filarmonia
60 watts?
Is the Filarmonia SE 4ohms or 8ohms????
Thank you
8 omly