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
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.
Steve, I couldn't follow that.

I think the question at hand is not integrated vs. separates but an active preamp section vs. a passive preamp section in an integrated. It certainly seems logical that eliminating the additional gain stage of the active pre would be advantageous. Many peoples' experiences, however, have been that the extra gain of an active preamp section seems to provide some musically valuable benefits, such as greater "drive" and better dynamics. Now, this tends to happen with separates, where there can very well be an electical mismatch between the output of a passive pre and the input of a power amplifier. With the Panache, this is almost certainly not the case. But because people may have had the experience of being disappointed with a passive pre in the past, they may be skeptical of it even in an integrated design.

By the way, it is possible to be active and have no gain, which is the way it is with the Placette active line stage.

But the question occurs to me why anyone would design an integrated with preamp gain. I assume many do, so maybe there is an argument for it.
Steve - I understand what you're saying, I just don't see how it applies to what I had to say about the Panache. I only as to how it applies to separates -vs- integrateds.

Which is fine, I guess - but I'm not sure this was the place to bring it up and attempt to flesh it out.

I still think the Panache is unique in its design and sound and I'll stand by that.

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

Ahhhhhh - I think I've located the root of the issue that sparked you to respond....

I wasn't "putting down" audiophiles, Steve - if anything I was elevating them to a level which I have not attained... sorry if I unintentionally offended your delicate nature.
"...but an active preamp section vs. a passive preamp section in an integrated."

There is no passive stage in an integrated just like there is no passive stage in an active preamp (active preamps are never mentioned with the volume control called a passive section.) Definitions are being changed with respect to integrateds.

One can't use one description to describe an external active preamp and a different description to describe an integrated when they both contain the same stages. That is where the confusion lies. The stage before the volume control is simply yet another stage.

"Many peoples' experiences, however, have been that the extra gain of an active preamp section seems to provide some musically valuable benefits, such as greater "drive" and better dynamics."

I think you are refering to a separate volume control outside the integrated. (the active gainstage is still in the integrated.) The problem arises in the capacitances of the ICs between the volume control and the gainstage. That is why either one of two things should happen. One, the external volume control should have the gainstage in the same chassis, or two, the volume control should be incorporated into the integrated. This rids of the capacitance problems of the non needed ICs.

>>"With the Panache, this is almost certainly not the case.">

Yes, you are right. That is not and never has been my concern. It is better to include the volume control in the same case as the integrated.
My concern is with the changing definitions that Sam and others seem to be using. The Panache could very well be a nice component.

>>"By the way, it is possible to be active and have no gain, which is the way it is with the Placette active line stage.">

What you are describing is a buffer stage, which has a high input Z. But you still need a certain amount of gain to drive the outputs. So the amp (not trying to pick on Portal, it could be any integrated brand) has just added yet another stage, with no signal gain. (and another loop of feedback)
So what you have is a two stage preamp, a buffer followed by the gainstage. An external preamp could also have this, especially if it is solid state design.

>>"But the question occurs to me why anyone would design an integrated with preamp gain. I assume many do, so maybe there is an argument for it.">

Because an amplifier needs a certain amount of signal gain in order to drive the output stage to full power. Whether it is an external preamp and amplifier, or internal preamp inside the amp (called an integrated), it is needed. Without it, you don't get full power.

Looks like some want to change the definitions and call the internal preamp just an amplifier stage because it is housed in the integrated chassis. Just hype,in my opinoin, and misleading.

My main point is the changing of definitions, confusing the public. All audio systems contain a linepreamp gainstage somewhere, either external or internal. But if we can change the wording, then all of a sudden we can "eliminate the preamp" which sounds good, but we still incorporate those stages of gain. Seems very deceptive to me.
Why, because one isn't really eliminating any gainstages, although the public gets that idea. Afterall, you did.

Hope this helps.

May I ask, what is sasaudio? Is it just your
e-mail moniker, or do you have an audio company?
Just curious.

Slate1 (and others),
Thanks for in-depth descriptions of the Panache. I'll definitely have to put in on my list for future audition.