Review: Image Audio 65i Tube amp
I've had tube amps off and on over the years and always enjoyed them. About two years ago I sold the Dynaco Mk III monoblocks I'd rebuilt from scratch with modded power supplies and drivers and went with a Conrad Johnson MV60. That was subsequently replaced by a Bel Canto S300.
I have to give the Bel Canto full credit for being a wonderful sounding amp in my book. It had the "tube sound" I like with none of the harshness or edge that I heard in most transistor amps in my price range. Plus it had oodles of power, all in a package that weighed only about 10 pounds and ran extremely cool.
However, I missed the tubes. I had nothing on the sonic front I was searching to recapture, so it was simply an emotional urge. Put it all in the "art" category.
I started by looking for some more Dynaco Mk IIIs. I still have a basement full of test equipment suitable for tube work and I knew the Dyancos well. It would not be an issue to get a pair modded back to where I wanted them. However, in the process I stumbled across a very interesting looking used amp for sale on Audiogon earlier this year. I hadn't heard of the company before, but a bit of research showed that a Chinese gentleman named Mr. Nelson takes his audio very seriously and builds a range of tube amps under the "Image Audio" brand. At one time it appeared there may have been a US distributor (FS Audio) but I couldn't find one currently (Sept 2008). (The manufacturer's web site is http://www.imageaudio.cn and they do not list a US distributor.)
The amp in question on Audiogon was an Image 65i which is their 50 watt per channel integrated, and uses 6550 output tubes. In other words, very similar to the Dynacos. It was at a great price and was approaching the end of the listing with little apparent activity so I took a gamble and bought it.
My gamble paid off big time. This is absolutely a first class amp. I played it back-to-back against the Bel Canto S300 and found up to task; the S300 was sold. It was a perfect match for my Spendor SP1/2E speakers. The unit was quiet and had plenty of clean power. And visually it is a stunning amp.
The preamp side of the amp has two pair of Electro Harmonix 12AU7 and 12AX7 tubes. These run a quad of EH 6550 outputs. The outputs can be individually biased, but do require a voltage meter.
I recently disassembled the amp for a routine cleaning. One drawback is the tube cages do complicate anything more than a casual dusting. I removed the bottom panel to have a peak inside. The construction quality and parts used in this amp are simply first class. Even the screws used to attach the thick bottom plate are stainless steel. Tube sockets are white ceramic with gold plated connectors. The internal wiring and other parts are neatly and precisely installed. All in all, a very professional piece of work. No shortcuts on this amp.
How does it sound? Excellent. I'm one who gets a bit annoyed with the hyperbole one tends to hear in audio reviews. The best thing I can say about this amp is it is a perfect fit for the Spendors. If I find myself thinking the amp or speakers are sounding a bit soft in the highs, light in the bass, or missing that last bit of realism, I will almost always find myself surprised by the next recording. It wasn't the equipment that I was hearing, it was the recording. In many ways that is one of the highest compliments I can pay to a stereo - it lets me hear what is on the recording. This amp, as used in my system, doesn't disappoint. As I write this I'm listening to a CD called "Masters of the Acoustic Guitar", a 1997 complilation of some wonderful musicians. There is an ease and naturalness to the playback that simply sounds "right." I listen to a lot of acoustic music and look for a sound that is natural without being overemphasized.
While one should never say "never" when it comes to equipment upgrades, I am absolutely content with the performance of this amp in my system. There is just no urge to go looking for anything else, regardless of price.
It is a pity these don't seem to be widely available in the US. However, if you stumble across an Image amp, go for it. You'll be getting an excellent piece of equipment.
Squeezebox 3 with Lavry DA-10 DAC. Spendor SP1/2E speakers
Replaced a Bel Canto S300. Conrad Johnson MV60 and Dyanco MkIII (modded) used before.