Onix A-60 Integrated Amplifier
by Marc Mickelson
I picked up a baseball the other day for the first time in a half-dozen years. I was immediately struck by how perfect it is -- form following function to a high degree. Its weight and roundness make it the perfect object to throw at great velocity or for great distance, and the laces give someone skilled in the pitching arts the ability to make the thing rise, dip, and curve, thus making those who try to hit it look foolish at times. However, as anybody who followed the exploits of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa knows, not all hitters are alike.
Like a baseball, an integrated amplifier is a finely executed design -- nothing superfluous. Why have two boxes when you can have just one? Many audiophiles buy preamps and power amps from the same manufacturer anyway, and the idea of "house sound" is maximized in an integrated amp. The best reason to buy an integrated amplifier, however, is the amount of music you can get for an affordable price. In the coming months, I will be reviewing a series of integrated amps ranging in price from $399 (the price of the Onix A-60) to $5200. So far, the integrateds Ive heard all share a high price: performance ratio, something that cant be said about speakers or CD players in the same price range.
The Onix A-60 is rated at 60Wpc into 8-ohm loads. Its big brother, the A-120 ($599), doubles its power output. The A-60 is a line-level-only unit, with six inputs, one set of tape outputs, and two sets of speaker binding posts -- one "switched," which cut out when headphones are connected, and the other "unswitched," which continue to play in this instance. Onix recommends the unswitched set -- the absence of additional circuitry being the reason, I bet. All connectors are gold-plated, but the pair of CD input jacks are more substantial than the others, presumably for improved sound.
Operation is a breeze -- turn the A-60 on and it plays music. I found that it needs very little warm-up time, if any at all. On the front panel are the volume control, input selector, balance control, power button, headphone jack and a pair of protection LEDs that glow when the speaker outputs are shorted. The power button has a small LED in the center thats lit when the A-60 is on. The faceplate has a glossy black finish, which the A-60s large gold knobs accent nicely. The unit weighs 27 pounds and fits with room to spare on a Target amp stand, which is where it sat for the time I used it.
I used the A-60 in my budget reference system: Merlin TSM speakers (which are a great evaluative tool) on top of 24" Osiris Audionics Osiris speaker stands, sand-filled; two Technics portable CD players, models SL-XP7 (which is ten years old) and SL-S321C (which Greg Smith has written about); I used the cheapie miniplug-to-RCA cable that came with the older Technics SL-XP7 to connect either player to the A-60; and DH Labs Silver Sonic speaker cables, two runs to biwire the Merlin speakers. The A-60 responded very well to an API Power Link power cord, so that is what I used after trying the stock cord, which worked respectfully. I briefly tested the quality A-60s headphone output with a pair of Grado SR60s.
As Greg Smith will tell you, reviewing budget gear isnt a simple matter of putting the less expensive component in your reference system and then determining how close the sound comes to your big-buck equipment. People looking to buy in this price range have ears too, and so they want to know what the piece of equipment sounds like, just as cost-no-object buyers do. A $399 integrated amp reproduces music as a part of an electrical and magnetic chain, as do a set of $20,000 separates. As Greg might proclaim, "Budget gear is hi-fi too!"
So in keeping with this, I purposely didnt insert the Onix A-60 in my over 100-times-the-price (!) reference system, even though I know this system better than the budget system. I wanted to discover the A-60s sonic characteristics in its own neighborhood, not one in which it wouldnt live.
First and foremost, the Onix A-60 is powerful, never sounding taxed at sane levels. And I was especially surprised by the A-60s bass, which wont worry Krell but can nonetheless grunt when the music demands it. The Merlin TSMs are not particularly efficient speakers, rated at 87dB/W/m, but the A-60 drove them well just the same. CDs with low-end drive, like Joe Elys Twistin in the Wind [MCAD-70031], an atmospheric Mex/folk/rock melange, were well served by the drive of the A-60. However, Twistin in the Wind also shows the A-60 to be a solid-state unit to the bone -- no sign of tube warmth to be found. Of course, theres no tube cost or maintenance either. Also, the Merlin TSMs and DH Labs cables dont give such sound anywhere to hide.
The A-60 throws a very spacious soundstage and paints image outlines very well -- better than I expected, in fact. The sound with remastered jazz classics like The Gil Evans Orchestra Out of the Cool [Impulse! IMPD-186] and Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass Take Love Easy [JVC JVCXR-0031-2] has ample air and presence, which dont always go hand in hand. This indicates, to me at least, that the A-60 is balanced in the treble, neither too sweet nor too hot. Of course, there are the proverbial more expensive components that dont have this sort of balance. In fact, Adcom sold truckloads of GFA-555 amplifiers, including one to me, that didnt offer the sort of neutral treble that the A-60 has.
Using the A-60 to drive headphones only further convinced me that my impressions when using it to drive speakers were correct: good bass, big soundstage, strong image outlines, and an overall "transistory" character. The headphone output didnt noticeably add to or subtract from the source, although it did drive the headphones to louder levels than either of the Technics portables could. No surprise here, but this will make the A-60 a good choice for listeners with headphones that arent as easy to drive as the Grado SR60s.
If you manufacturer a integrated amplifier thats reasonably priced, especially in the UK, its only a matter of time before someone asks how your amp compares to one from Arcam. Luckily, I can tell you because I have the new Arcam Alpha One 35Wpc integrated amp, which also costs a meager $399, in for review too.
The Arcam Alpha One is button-down British sound -- nothing calls attention to itself, but nothing seems deficient either. In comparison, the Onix A-60 has more low-end growl, but also sounds more congested through the midrange and a little more forward. The Arcam, on the other hand, sounds clearer, more polite and not as powerful as the A-60 -- which its not. I enjoyed rock through the A-60, more intimate jazz and folk with the Alpha One, but these are generalizations. Both are fine pieces of high-end equipment that should unseat mass-market schlock in the systems of music lovers everywhere.
Getting back to my baseball analogy, the Onix A-60 is sort of like Mark McGwire, a power hitter, while the Alpha One is more like pitcher Greg Maddux, a master tactician with pinpoint control. And as we know, head-to-head confrontations reveal advantages for both -- as well as strikeouts and home runs.
In the end...
There are so many possible ways to end a review of a $399 piece of audio equipment -- by relating what else you could buy in the high-end world for the same amount of money, by explaining how the component in question is much more than 1/nth as good as my references (Ive used this one before), and the king-daddy, arguing how overpriced everything thats more expensive is. In the end, however, the point is more simple: At $399, the Onix A-60 is a deal. If you want an inexpensive integrated amp with drive and some oomph in the bass, the A-60 is your man. As a bonus, it throws an impressive soundstage and draws images very well. You could do much worse for your money at the local Electro-Mart.
The real question here is how to get high-end neophytes and those just plain apathetic to our pastime to find the Onix A-60 -- these are the people who need to hear it. The $3000 list price of the system the A-60 powers here is still a lot of money to a lot of people. Ah, lets just hope that Yahoo! and Alta Vista hit on words like "budget," and "music" and "good" strewn throughout this review. And to increase the chances: The Onix A-60 makes good music and wont break your budget.
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