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
slate1
Newbee--well said. Steve is waving his arms excitedly but not making any sense, at least not to me.
Virtually all active external preamps have the source connected to the selector switch, then to the attenuator, then to the active gainstage, and then output to the amp.

Now, take the selector switch, attentuator, and gainstage and install it in an amplifier. Now we have an integrated amp, the preamp is incorporated with the amp on the same chassis.

So now, some don't want the active gainstage of the incorporated preamp to be called a preamp stage? Interesting. And now they call the volume control a passive preamp/stage? Interesting marketing technique/hype.

>>"Other than a phono pre-amp stage, I'm not aware of any other gain stages in a pre-amp that occur before the attenuator.">

Like you refer too, there is a phono section that uses a "head amp", sometimes called a "pre-preamp".

Like you stated, preamp active stages are virtually always after the volume control. If there is a source/cathode follower between the volume control and active gainstage in an external preamp, both are part of the preamp. When installed in an integrated, both active stages are still part of the preamp.

Look, it has already confused you into thinking you got away from a preamp gainstage. But you haven't.

Wonder how many others have been taken in by this marketing technique.

Steve
Okay - I swear this is my last post (he says for the 20th time...)

I've read your posts over and over Steve and here's my final conclusion and, granted, I seem to have had the order of some things wrong...

Like you said (I'll even quote...) "Virtually all active external preamps have the source connected to the selector switch, then to the attenuator, then to the active gainstage, and then output to the amp."

"Now, take the selector switch, attentuator, and gainstage and install it in an amplifier. Now we have an integrated amp, the preamp is incorporated with the amp on the same chassis"

Right, got it - this is 99% of the integrateds out there. MY understanding, and everything I can find research wise fleshes this out, is that the Portal and Creek 5350SE take a selector switch, attentuator, and install it in the amplifier - NO GAINSTAGE in the pre-amp SECTION of the integrated amp - and that's it.

So these are DIFFERENT in that they eliminate the gainstage in the pre-amp section of the integrated amp.

I presume there are some separate pre-amps out there too that are passive in design as well, so that there would be a selector switch and attentuator in the preamp that would connect to the amp. I dare not go down that road of debate though and am officially done.

My final word - the Panache beats anything I've ever heard, but, hey - I'm no audiophile....
>>>>>>>>>---Still in the running--->>>>>>>>---:^)
Again it is quite basic Drubin.

I will lead you through it step by step.

OK, you have a CD source. We start out with a Basic amp and it needs an external active gainstage preamp to drive it. All Basic amps do. If it doesn't need a gainstage preamp, then it is already an integrated amp. Clear so far.

Now you dissasemble the active preamp and install it, the
selector switch, volume control, and active stage(s), especially the gainstage, in the Basic amplifier. Afterall the Basic amp needs the gain from that stage. Is it clear so far?

Now you have converted the Basic amp to an integrated amp. The volume control is before the preamp gainstage added. The total gain is now enough for a CD player to drive the newly made integrated amp.

But wait, some are saying the newly installed active preamp gainstage, after the vol control, is now only a simple amp stage. They renamed it.

And, since we can rename the preamp gainstage a simple amp stage, well, then we can also rename the selector switch/volume control a passive preamp. How clever.
Real slick marketing. Do you grasp this so far?

Yet, the circuitry, looking at the integrated schematic, is the same as if we had separates. So why rename?

Ok, we just split the active preamp in two. The preamp gainstage is now just a simple amp stage. The selector/volume control is now a passive preamp.

How convenient to then claim only a passive preamp is used, and is very simple. Remember, the preamp gainstage had to be installed to make the Basic amp an integrated amp. So the amp is not as simple as even a Basic amp.

The preamp gainstage, after the vol control, was just relabeled so the volume control could be called a passive, and seem simpler. Slick marketing.
Do you still understand?

Now I hope you are honest and want to learn and improve on the integrated amp.

Here is one basic problem for you to work on. Hope you don't want to hide the problem but will try to solve it.

Integrated amps have feedback loops. (How many call their amps "no global feedback" amps when they aren't? Not by a long shot.)

With each new stage, all the other stages of the amp feed back to it, and visa versa, through the power supply (see RCA Radiotron Designers Handbook, 1940's, so over 50 years known).

So if we have two stages and add a 3rd stage, the first two feedback to the third and visa versa. The first stage also loops to the second and visa versa.

If we add a 4th stage, then we have three feedback loops to the 4th stage, and visa versa back to the 3. Remember, we still have the feedback loops when we added the 3rd stage, and the first two stages. This also includes output and interstage transformers connected, signal wise to the B+.

Wow, that is alot of feedback loops, which are frequency dependent, and each has a different and large phase shift.

If you are truly interested in music, start identifying problems and solving them, instead of just insulting people.
We need to build and help audiophiles with knowledge so they will be informed, not get scammed.

Take care.
Steve