Review: Portal Panache Integrated Amplifier

Category: Amplifiers

First, let me start by saying I’ve never written a review before and I find it to be quite a daunting task. It scares me to no end that someone might actually base their purchasing decision on what I write here but at the same time I feel compelled to put fingers to keyboard. Who am I to declare if an amplifier is a worthy contender or not for someone’s system though?

Am I an audiophile? Certainly not! Am I a man of much experience with vast amounts of high-end equipment? With a wife, two kids, and a mortgage – you’ve got to be kidding, right?!? Am I a music lover? You bet! I find nothing more pleasurable than sitting for a couple of hours in front of a pair of speakers with a favorite piece of vinyl spinning… I’ve had this passion for decades.

I listen to mostly rock exclusively on vinyl – not the modern stuff, but primarily 70’s and some very early 80’s material. My associated equipment is:

- Rega Planar 25 Turntable

- Dynavector 20xL Moving Coil Cartridge

- Dynavector P-75 Phono-stage in PE-Mode

- Von Schweikert VR-1 Monitors

I started a journey early last fall to replace my aging, but much loved, Musical Fidelity A300 Integrated amplifier. I always enjoyed the A300. I found it to be warm, very involving, with nice frequency extremes.

At the same time, the A300 wasn’t the most detailed amplifier I’d ever heard. I found the bass and mid-bass to get a bit muddy on more dynamic passages, especially if the volume was pushed and I also found that some instruments found in rock music, like crash cymbals, sounded a bit “off”. I wouldn’t call it sibilance, but cymbals sometimes had that “tearing paper” hiss to them that I found somewhat distracting.

After researching a fair amount, I sold the A300 and picked up a Creek 5350SE on Audiogon. The bass on the 5350SE had an incredible amount of definition and detail but lacked any real weight in my system. I ultimately found it to be an incredibly detailed and refined but an exceptionally boring amplifier for rock. It didn’t involve me in the music like the Musical Fidelity had. After living with the 5350SE for a while, off it went on Audiogon too.

Enter the Portal Panache. An integrated I had never heard of, but that was mentioned by a couple of responders to my tale of woe and plea for help on Audio Asylum and, here, on Audiogon. I started researching the Panache and lo and behold, Portal Audio resides not 20 minutes from where I live. All the reviews seemed to indicate that from a performance standpoint the Panache may be just what I’d been looking for.

Portal has a 60-day “in-home trial” policy, so I figured I had nothing to lose. I called Joe Abrams of Portal Audio up and made arrangements to purchase one of his demo units he had listed on Audiogon. I have to interject here that Joe is one of the finest people I’ve ever met in my short time with Audiophile gear. Willing to answer a whole host of mundane and novice questions I threw at him and even went so far as to meet me at a local coffee-shop so he could personally deliver the Panache to me – where he proceeded to buy me a cup of coffee and spent a good half-hour talking audio with me. My only contribution to the whole affair being parting with an embarrassingly small check for such a piece or equipment.

So, “get to how it sounds already!” I hear you cry…

The Portal Panache has, in my opinion, all the warmth of the A300 with all the definition and detail of the 5350SE; with the added necessary “oooomph” to bring out the excitement in more dynamic pieces of music.

The bass is well extended and has a great deal of slam yet I can distinctly pick out minute details that were clearly not there with the Musical Fidelity A300. Every pluck of Geddy Lee’s bass comes through as if he’s right there in the room with me – it’s not one big lump of one-note bass lines, I can hear every detail. The bass extension is deep too. My speakers are a limiting factor here although they are exceptional for a monitor with regard to bass. Kick drums are distinctly heard and “felt” in as much as the VR-1’s will allow.

The midrange is warm and detailed as well without being over-emphasized. One professional reviewer stated that the Panache had a tube-like midrange not unlike the Manley Stingray, and he’s correct. The midrange is where this amp really shines and where many solid-state amps I’ve heard waiver, including the 5350SE.

Treble is well extended but not the least bit harsh or edgy. Cymbals sound correct – they have that wonderful metallic shimmer to them that was missing with the A300 and it’s quite detailed. To be honest, this is the one area, however, that I felt that the 5350SE outshined the Panache. The 5350SE had a bit more detail and extension to the high-end than the Panache but not so much so that I’d call it a deciding factor or that I feel like I’m missing anything.

Soundstaging and imaging are not exactly a top priority for most rock recordings but the Musical Fidelity A300 had a real problem keeping a stable soundstage in more dynamic passages. The 5350SE and Panache both are stellar at setting up a wide and deep soundstage and maintaining it no matter how dynamic or congested the music gets. I hear this especially on certain works like Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” and it is quite an amazing experience.

So, everything’s wine and roses – right?

Well, yes – actually! For me that is, but the Panache is a bit of a quirky beast and not for everyone. Many people will find the spartan cosmetic design of the amplifier not to their liking. It’s basically a big black box with three knobs and a power switch on it – the only light is on the switch itself. It’s truly built like a tank though – weighing in at around 35 pounds and everything, while simple, looks, feels, and screams quality. I love it – it’s exactly what it needs to be and no more.

As Sam Tellig pointed out in Stereophile, it’s a bit of a misnomer to call the Panache an integrated amplifier. The pre-amp section is passive so it’s basically an amplifier with a volume pot, a balance control, and a 4-point selector switch on it. No remote, 4-inputs, one output, “whumps” when you power it up.

It appears the designer, Joe Abrams, wanted the guts of the amp to be much like the aesthetics of the amp – for it to be as “pure” and simple as possible. That means not including much of the circuitry found in many modern amplifier designs. Such “jewelry” as a remote control, soft-start circuitry, etc. are nowhere to be found.

My understanding is that when Joe had the amplifier engineered he wanted there to be as little as possible between the source and the speakers. All the less to impart sonic-signatures along the signal path would be the mantra of the design philosophy. By all accounts that philosophy has paid off in spades to my ears!

There are some oddities that the spartan design philosophy yields though. For example, due to the passive pre-amp design, if you have a recording device attached to the outputs that device has to be powered on while listening or you have to disconnect the device from the output of the Panache. Otherwise sound quality is severely diminished.

The Panache also is also more sensitive to ground-loop hum than the A300 and 5350SE were. Something I found out while spending an entire Saturday hunting down the rogue device in my home that was imparting a low-level buzz through the speakers that wasn’t present with prior amps. The lack of remote control is going to be a deal-breaker for some too. For me, though, these were all minor nuances that the sound this amplifier emits more than outweighs.

If you’re looking for a simple, detailed, musical, slightly warm integrated with fantastic extremes and rock solid soundstaging you can’t possibly go wrong with the Portal Panache at $1,795. If you’re lucky enough to snag a demo at $1,295 consider yourself a thief and I seriously doubt anyone will be taking advantage of Joe’s 60-day return policy - I know I’m not!

Associated gear
Click to view my Virtual System

Similar products
Musical Fidelity A300
Creek 5350SE
Marco, Re your photography analogy, if I tell you I can take a fairly expressive photo in B&W using an "old" Minolta with a 50mm lense how many Nikons and Nikon lenses can I own before my facination about what I can do with them mechanically, overwhelmes my interest in being creative?

Interestingly, I often find that using a system with restrictions sharpens my interest in the subject. But then, I can hardly remember much of the time to advance the film til I press down on the shutter button. I love that auto advance feature. Can't stand autofocus, and I always use a reflective meter when I can make an "educated guess". Some how I feel that all of that applies to my audio system and appreciation of recorded music. Go figure. :-)
I understand, I also want the music, not what equipment I use. Of course some don't like live music, so be careful.

First off, I wanted to give my credentials. I have an electronics engineering degree, about 45 years in tubes, and decades, off and on, with audio design. Trust me Slate, you are being suckered with marketing hype. And definitions seem to be changing, as I mentioned in my earlier post.

I don't know where you heard or were taught that stuff but it is virtually all wrong, wrong, wrong.

>>"As for the passive line stage. Marco (jax2) hit it on the head as I understand it. The Creek 5350SE also sports a passive line stage and I can say that both of these integrateds have a level of detail to their sound that I can only attribute to the passive design."<

That is because the preamp gainstage is matched with the amp, and you have to purchase both together. But I heard enough of them at "The Show" and CES that I wasn't necessarily impressed with them. They sounded just as varied as the separates. And there were hundreds of manufacturers there.

AS mentoned in my earlier post, the preamp gain stage was merely moved into the amp. One can always tell by the input sensitivity of the amp, can't get around it, no way around it.

It is clever marketing, but, in my opinion, confuses the reader like yourself. Plus the problems of feedback through multiple loops thru the power supply, which no one ever mentions (See RCA Radiotron Designers Handbook if you think I am lying. It has been known for over 50 years!) So they either don't know the problems, or they are trying to hide the problems.

The integrated designs are certainly not optimum. One can get better sound from better designs than integrateds.
I suppose if I used a 2 foot by 2 foot, I could physically include a great preamp gainstage with an amp, although the design would be quite different that what is out there now, and call it integrated. But I have't seen anyone do that yet.

Your next post reveals more of the marketing hype some have fed you.

>>"One more thing - there is a difference, both from an engineering and sonic standpoint, between a passive and active line stage in an integrated amp - it's not a marketing trick."<

The engineering standpoint is easy, cheaper, less expensive etc.. The feedback problems are never addressed though.

The sonic standpoint is not established by any means. The integrateds certainly didn't reveal themselves as spectacular at the CES and THE SHOW last year.

It sounded like if you wanted a particular sound, you went with an integrated. If you were a music lover, and liked live music, then separates did the job.

Another point. The 1st active stage of an integrated amp is almost never optimally designed, so an external stage can easily be made superior to an integrateds 1st stage.

The hype that some claim the active preamp stage added to the amp is NOW part of the amp itself, and the volume control is "separated" and is now called a passive preamp.
Clever trick, trying to change definitions. Total marketing crap and hype though.

So the public is fooled into thinking the product is something simpler, when it isn't. Just re-aranged.
Clever trick.

Remember, Slate, the feedback loops increase with the number of stages, almost exponentially. So 3 stages have many more loops than two stages and 4 stages really produces alot of loops of feedback. And the feedback loops are phase shifted, so lots of sonic interactions with the music.

>>"Most pre-amp sections in integrateds add about 6db of gain to the incoming signal before routing the signal through the volume pot to further adjust gain. That's an active pre-amp section."<

So you are getting rid of two preamp gain stages down to one? Not quite true though as any typical preamp has the active stage AFTER the volume control, not before. So you still have a active preamp stage in the amp. Don't be fooled Slate.

And haveing two stages, one before and one after sounds even more complicated, not simpler.

Sounds like they are trying to fool the public into thinking they are losing a stage when they are not. So much for marketing hype and trying to get your money.

>>"The Panache and the 5350SE don't apply that additional gain before routing the signal through the volume pot - that's a passive line stage. Interestingly, the 5350SE offers an optional 6db gain card that can be added by the user to convert the passive line-stage to an active pre-amp."

Nope, Nope. Again marketing hype and definition changes. Talked about above in this post.

They already applied the preamp gainstage after the volume control just like ANY typical preamp. The 6db of gain on the card just adds even more gain, and another stage, adding complexity.

Changing definitions isn't too ethical in my book, or the publics. People don't like being lied to.

Don't be fooled Slate.

Take care.

PS. Get any old book, say 4th edition of the RCA Radiotron Designers Handbook, and you can read the truth.
Okay – this is getting a bit tedious….

I won’t even pretend to have the experience you’ve got with regard to electronics nor do I wish to get into a back and forth exchange regarding semantics.

Here’s the thing I don’t understand – if the volume pot is a passive means of adjusting gain and the “integrated” amplifier has nothing between the incoming signal and amplifier section other than the volume pot HOW can this not be different from there being an additional gain stage prior to routing the signal to the amplifier section?

In other words:

Passive Integrated amp:

CD -> Volume Pot -> Amp Section -> Speakers

Active Integrated amp:

CD -> Line Stage -> Volume Pot -> Amp Section -> Speakers

How can eliminating the line stage section be a bad thing???

It seems all your arguments are in regards to Integrated Amplifiers in general, which you obviously are not a fan of, as compared to separates. I understand your arguments with regards to that all though I guess my other equipment isn’t resolving enough to hear the differences you describe.
Tedious indeed! My qualifications are very modest in comparison as well: I
am in posession of two ears and a wee brain. They may be defective, but the
Portal sounds great to me! I have had seperates for most of twenty years
now, mostly tube gear. My system of choice is currently 300B SET + horns.
Got friends too with great very expensive systems of all shapes and sizes,
some of whom are also proud owners of two ears and brains (some larger
than others). That's it. We all like music, of course. I could live with the
Panache for a long time the way it is set up at my home. That, in the opinion
formulated by my wee brain, is saying a whole lot. I can't really explain it in
terms of the pre-amp/amp/power supply interface, as distinct from
separates. Nor can I wax rhetorical on the merits of active vs. passive
preamplification, or proprietary designs vs. the crapshoot of separates,
synergy, etc. Nor can I point you to sine waves and various graphs and
curves that will support my preferences. It just sounds damn good to me,
and I really don't like many SS amps I hear (all of which, by the way, have
been separates).

Newbee, I bet you could take an expressive photograph with a Holga, with
your Minolta, or a Nikon or Hasselblad. I bet you know that well too! Hang
on to that's already an antique! A fine camera at that. It ain't the
meat, it's the motion!

Dear Slate,

>>"Here’s the thing I don’t understand – if the volume pot is a passive means of adjusting gain and the “integrated” amplifier has nothing between the incoming signal and amplifier section other than the volume pot HOW can this not be different from there being an additional gain stage prior to routing the signal to the amplifier section?">

Virtually all preamps (99.x%) has the CD player fed thru a selector switch and then the volume control, then thru the gainstage. Putting another stage before the volume control is just another stage added, in addition to the preamp gainstage already designed in the integrated.

The definition of an integrated is the combining of an amp and active preamp.

>>"CD -> Volume Pot -> Amp Section -> Speakers">

Should be labeled CD -> volume pot -> preamp gainstage -> amp -> speakers. This is what is actually occurring.

Active Integrated amp:

CD -> Line Stage -> Volume Pot -> Amp Section -> Speakers

How can eliminating the line stage section be a bad thing???>

The stage before the volume control is simply yet another stage. Sure, eliminating this stage is advantageous. The more stages, the more feedback loops thru the common power supply. But the preamp stage is already included after the volume control, as any typical active preamp does.

Typical seprates system, non-integrated system.

CD player -> external preamp consisting of a volume control and then preamp gainstage -> amplifier -> speakers

By the way, any external preamp or internal preamp, should be designed to accomodate a volume control ahead of it. That is just standard procedure, just like other companies.

Don't get me wrong Slate. The budget is, of course, most important and one can only spend so much. An integrated is fine for good systems as the price is reduced by the elimination of certain portions of the audio system. With the vast number of manufacturer's out there, many integrateds will outperform separates, and at less cost. I also heard some separates that didn't sound that good at CES. But don't expect the integrated that virtually all are producing to be the pinnacle of audio.

My main concern, Slate, is that

1) There are obvious disadvantages inherent to their designs, I have yet to see a design that addressed this problem in any satisfactory manner. And, from what I have seen and heard, the problems certainly aren't addressed. And the problems have been known for over 50 years.

2) The advertising/marketing I have seen lately where definitions that are changed. I wonder how many other audio people are confused?

Putting down audiophiles, in general, is ridiculous. The vast majority are true music lovers.

Hope this clears things up Slate.

Take care.