Review: ASR Emitter I Exclusive Amplifier
Note that this review is of the 2005 model "Version Blue". I have also heard the 2006 model in both of my systems; both versions are very similar sonically. You probably can't go wrong either way unless you are already an ASR snob, in which case get the "Version Gold" that is due in 2007. :)
The short summary of this review is: BELIEVE THE HYPE.
The long version: my friend who has been a life long audio freak (and excellent loudspeaker designer BTW) insisted that I listen to this new amplifier he had bought. He told me the amp was from this German company called ASR. I vaguely recalled this name from another audiophile acquaintance I met in 2004 (who happens to be German and studying in the U.S.) I had a vague flashback to his completely see-through integrated amplifier with lots of LEDs and TWO outboard power supplies. He played it for me on his Focal speakers (IIRC), and I was impressed. But we were mainly playing movies on his system, and I had no idea about the sonic qualities of his system when used just for two channels. So I let it pass...
Fast forward to October 2006. Let me preface by saying I had not been following TAS and Stereophile for a while, so I had no clue about the buzz surrounding ASR. So, even though I was skeptical about my friend's claims about this amp, he hauled over his Emitter I Exclusive Version Blue (2006 model) to my house. A few curious friends, my girlfriend, and some fellow audio freaks also come over for a listen. Well, we listened first to the Bryston 14B-SST on the Nearfield Pipedreams 18s. It was a nice sound, pleasant, laid back but capable of massive dynamics as needed. Recordings from Imogen Heap, Muddy Waters (SACD), Pink Floyd (SACD), Nitin Sawhney, Donald Fagan, Bjork, and many others were in play.
We switched to the ASR, and everyone's jaws synchronously dropped to the floor. The speed, clarity, and power of this amp was transfixing. We reconnected the Bryston just to make sure we had not connected something improperly. Nope, the ASR was that much better.
In the upstairs two channel system, the magic continued. The Dunlavy Alethas are apparently more forgiving of "lesser" amplification than the Pipedreams, so the gulf between the Bryston and the ASR was narrower, but still very obvious. One of my long time audio friends put on a Nitin Sawhney recording he thought he knew well (Tides from 'Beyond Skin'), but came way shaking his head from the extra nuances he had never before heard that were retrieved from the recording.
The best way I have come up with to describe the qualities of the ASR Emitter I is that it seemingly transforms your loudspeakers into a really good set of headphones, but without the imaging problems. In other words, people always talk about the extra little things they hear through headphones that are muted when listening through loudspeakers, even great ones. Well, this amp can project those details clearly into the listening room.
I'm not going to elucidate the sonic qualities much further because you really must audition it for yourself, AND arrange to have it on loan for some listening in your own system.
A mere two months after hearing my friend's ASR I picked up an Emitter I Exclusive (a 2005 model with battery) on the 'gon. It is simply a dream to listen to, and will probably reside in my system for many years to come. I can't find any big weaknesses, except that it is expensive and takes up a lot of rack space. Also, it responds sluggishly to the remote. It is worth noting that the markup for the 120V U.S. model is considerable. A bargain-hunter might do well to pick up a used 220V European model, buy a 2-3kW step up transformer, and save thousands. I did not take this approach because I simply don't have room for four boxes (and if I did, I would have to consider the Emitter II). So, I can't imagine how this amp will be toppled, except perhaps by a newer, even more tweaked ASR product...
Recently I have come to learn that the Pipedream speakers somehow magnify the different sonic qualities of various amplifiers. Even though it's an easy-to-drive speaker, it is difficult to master. In a separate listening session, another friend and I could easily tell the differences between four (!) amplifier models we had on had. It may be no surprise to the seasoned audiophile, but after the ASR experience my friends and I have a new-found appreciation for the importance of good amplification.
System I (home theater):
Denon DVD-3910 universal player
Integra DTC-9.4 pre-pro
Bryston 6B-SST amp (for subs + center)
Nearfield Pipedreams 18 loudspeakers
System II (2 channel rig):
Marantz SA-14 SACD player
Denon DVD-9000 DVD-A player
Classe DAC-1 D/A converter
Tandberg TPT-3001A FM tuner
Primare SP 31.7 pre-pro
Bryston 14B-SST amp
Dunlavy Aletha louspeakers
Bryston 14B-SST (personal amp)
numerous CES and dealer auditions from mbl, Burmester, GamuT, BAT, Levinson, Boulder, Pass Labs, etc.