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
I beg your pardon, but your "position", as I have understood it,
was not at all in putting down the product itself, and I never accused you of
doing so. Obviously you have no place to do so having never heard the piece
of gear in question. What you have done is to put down the manufacturer as
having used "marketing hype" to deliberately mislead the general
public. You have posted here at length to prove and reiterate your point ad
nauseum, and it was not until someone actually asked you, did you ever
reveal you make your living manufacturing amps and preamps and other
audio gear. Actually, they had to ask you twice in order for you to be so
specific. Actually, now that I look back at Howard's query, you did not
respond with your URL to him at all, nor to his question as to what you
manufacture. You did post well after he'd asked his question, but did not
address his query at all. It was actually
Howard who posted your URL and revealed that you manufacture amps and
preamps. So, as it stands, I see no need for any apologies Steve. I don't think
I've misrepresented your position.

Sounds to me like you are trying to justify yourself, Jax.

>>"Review: Portal Panache Integrated Amplifier
I beg your pardon, but your "position", as I have understood it, was not at all in putting down the product itself, and I never accused you of doing so. Obviously you have no place to do so having never heard the piece
of gear in question.">

Read my first post again Jax. Try to get it right this time. I never put down, or even commented on the Panche or manufactuer.

>>"What you have done is to put down the manufacturer as
having used "marketing hype" to deliberately mislead the general public.">

You just caught yourself Jax. My first post says nothing about the product or the manufactuer. In fact the manufactuerer was telling the truth. I only commented on being a music lover and Sams comments as hype. Get your facts straight.

Any other comments I made after that were in reply to the questions, negative attacks, and the information you guys posed AFTER I made my first comment. Try to tell the whole story Jax, instead of misrepresenting.

>>"You have posted here at length to prove and reiterate your point ad nauseum,">

Read the posts after my first post Jax. They had questions, didn't understand, and wanted answers, (look at suits me, he just demanded an answer.) Stop twisting and fudging on the truth, Jax. You guys wanted answers which I gave.

By the way, what would you do if you were attacked?

>>"and it was not until someone actually asked you, did you ever reveal you make your living manufacturing amps and preamps and other audio gear. Actually, they had to ask you twice in order for you to be so specific.">

And I have three posts, from yesterday afternoon, that were never put up. Where are they Jax? And it takes 4-8 hours for them to be posted anyway.

I was not attacking any product or manufacturer Jax. I made a simple first comment, and would have glad to leave then. And you could have just as easily have let my comment go, if you didn't like it, if you wanted too, couldn't you? But YOU guys wouldn't. You asked more questions, and I answered them.
So why don't you stop misrepresenting.

Only after the attacks did I ask if you guys are receiving any compensation. Interestingly, looking back, none has ever replied and said no.

But you guys had to keep asking questions because you couldn't understand. I didn't push it on you. Go back and get your facts straight, Jax.

Jax, you have left out or misrepresented

1) what my first post accurately says, and doesn't say. Nothing was even mentioned about the manufacturer. In fact Portal and I agree. So you misreprented that.

2) Questions, further information, comments, attacks posted time after time, AFTER my initial post, which you conviently left out to justify yourself. So I had to post the same thing over and over. So you misreprensated again.

3) So after misrepresenting me at least twice, you call me a hypocrit and conflict of interest? That is three times Jax.

I feel your actions are deceitful, sly, and outright lying, Jax.

I would say you owe me a public apology.


This is getting ridiculous…. MODERATOR - HELP!! I hate that this thread has grown to something that has nothing to do with the piece of equipment I set out to review. I would hope that after 63 posts, of which only a handful actually have to do with the Panache, everyone would agree to end this charade.

We get it Steve – you think Sam Tellig’s comment concerning not calling the Panache a conventional “integrated amplifier” is wrong and you were somehow offended by your misunderstanding of my “I’m not an audiophile but a music lover” comment. You find fault with the whole integrated concept – further bolstered by the fact that you are designing and selling separates. Fine.

I wish that this discussion had been moved out to the regular forum so that people interested in the Panache could come here, to the REVIEW section and find informative opinions on the Panache rather than finding an ongoing discussion surrounded around comments made by Sam and myself. Prompted by a designer and seller of competing equipment none the less.

As it stands right now, short of my review, someone would have to filter through 62 rants to find 3 or 4 actual comments on the piece of equipment. What a shame since my intent was to introduce a piece of equipment I found so satisfying that it prompted me to write my first review…

But, what the hell do I know - I'm no audiophile...
Maybe the Moderators could take this one away and you could repost the original? Then maybe with a little luck some people interested or curious about the Portal Panache products could easily review and give some input.

You did such a great job for your first review!

I dont know........I hate it too.
I agree with you slate, stop the thread. Maybe Slate can do a new review from a clean slate? The comment about "music lover" didn't seem to go far as it wasn't a big deal, at least to me.

I wish I would have never answered any questions posed after my first post. The questions got deeper and deeper, and more information was presented to try to explain the differences. I should have just let the questions hang, then the differences in topology wouldn't have surfaced.

Take care.