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Equipment Review
July 1999

Audio Refinement Complete Integrated Amplifier

by Srajan Ebaen

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Full, involving sound and enough power to drive most speakers for an amazingly low price.

audio_refinement_complete.jpg (11547 bytes)

Audio Refinement Complete CD player on top of Complete integrated amp


Review at a Glance
Sound Images "acquire more body and substance, rendering a presentation that’s robust, corporeal and full of color"; "appropriates in a subtle fashion that which is most compelling about SE triode sound."
Features High level of fit and finish and many custom-made parts; all-aluminum remote control; six inputs and two tape loops; on/off and standby switches.
Use Its 50Wpc should drive most speakers; remote operates Complete CD player and tuner too.
Value Exceedingly high; "you may come away dumbfounded by what can be done these days for less than a thousand smackers."

What would you do if you were asked to redesign an existing line of highly regarded electronics to lower retail pricing by a factor of two? A savvy marketeer will tell you to replace every conceivable metal part with plastic. Substitute ICs and other cheap components for discrete and custom parts. Chuck remote control unless absolutely essential, such as on a CD players. Use high-gauge captive power cords and run-of-the-mill connectors and never mind quality control.

The Complete is part of a new Audio Refinement-branded line designed and marketed by YBA, a French electronics firm widely admired for their rigorously, if sometimes unconventionally, applied engineering. The blue "laser" diode common to all but one of YBA’s CD players might arguably be the most outlandish and thus widely known of Yves-Bernard André’s unconventional solutions to engineering challenges. A closer inspection of any YBA components, however, reveals a plethora of uncommon items, all of which speak loudly of a nearly fanatical concern for, well, a completeness of the design down to the most minute details.

Enter the Complete

Even the most casual glance at the Complete reveals that our clever marketeer’s recipe for cost-cutting has been disregarded with outright defiance. There’s no plastic in sight. Rather, an 8mm-thick brushed-aluminum faceplate is CNC machined to close tolerances. The top cover is 2mm-thick non-magnetic aluminum. The remote -- yes, there is one -- is all aluminum and not plastic, and it is entirely custom made with ALPS miniature contacts rather than commonly used semi-conductor rubber contacts. The remote controls the amp as well as the CD player and tuner in the Complete line. It features two smartly executed sets of multi-function buttons that adjust volume/input when in amp mode, track selection/fast skip forward and reverse when in CD mode or station/presets when in tuner mode.

The Complete offers separate source and record-out selectors via two sizable, well-contoured rotary controls and a total of six inputs, including two tape loops, which are accessed via small front-panel push buttons or by remote. Miniature green status LEDs confirm selected inputs. So the thing looks great from the front, especially in the silver finish. But they probably skimped around back, right? Not so. Note the high-quality removable power cord, solid gold-plated RCA connectors, custom-made gold-plated speaker binding posts and the on/off switch. Wait, wasn’t there a power switch in the lower left-hand corner of the front panel? Indeed, but it toggles between standby and signal-ready, confirmed by a change from red to green of the attendant pilot light. Solid-state devices, it is commonly agreed, can take extraordinarily long before they thermally stabilize -- 48 hours is not unheard of. By including a standby feature, YBA went decidedly upscale on the Complete, ensuring superior sonics and long-term reliability.

Before we act hastily and proclaim with a sigh of relief that obviously the innards must then all be junk, let me save you some embarrassment. The all-important capacitors are original YBA issue, as are all the output terminals, AC socket, internal wires, AC cord and fuses. Fuses? You bet. Yves-Bernard looks at every parameter possible when he designs, and if his vendors can’t supply the parts exactly as he requires them, he has them manufactured to his own specifications. This includes fuses. Think about it: Audiophiles go through the nth degree to optimize signal transfer via exotic cable terminations and contact solutions. The actual cables then often sport sizes and price tags that send full-blown engineers into gleeful spasms of uncontrollable laughter. Nonetheless, there, in every amp’s power supply rails, are these little pernicious things called fuses, with wire the size of a human hair. When Yves-Bernard claims fuses affect sonics, I’m inclined to concur. As far as chassis support goes, the now-familiar YBA triangulation scheme is in effect in the entire Complete line, using three non-magnetic aluminum footers damped with a special rubber material. Lifting the Complete into place reminds you quickly that nearly 20 pounds seem pretty stout for its diminutive size.

Hmmm. Absolutely no signs whatsoever of overt or sly cost-cutting measures to be found. To the contrary, the level of fit and finish, the features and audiophile details, all suggest a suit from Saville Row such as .007 would pick up over martini and lobster rather than the off-the-rack coats we commoners purchase during lunch break.

When all else fails, go subjective

Must be the sound then where the unit will show its true colors. Indeed so, but other than you suspect. I should tell you that prior to HI-FI ‘98, I called a retailer who sells both YBA and Audio Refinement. As a friend of mine, he knows better than to pitch me hype. When queried about the Complete, he confided that he had opted to return his $ 1950 YBA Integre to the factory for the dual transformer upgrade, in effect making it dual mono -- and $2350. The sonic differences between Complete and standard issue Integre were too subtle and would adversely impact sales of the dearer unit. He also claimed the Complete’s transformer was more substantial than the single Integre’s and, to his ears, offered even better bass performance. On top of which, the Complete was better looking, especially with regard to the logo lettering and silk screening.

On second thought, objective seems better

To evaluate the Complete’s performance and add something meaningful to what’s already in print, a comparison with some known and reviewed gear was called for. A local audiophile in the midst of a major house remodeling made available his entire system built around the Nelson Pass Aleph L preamp and Aleph 3 power amp. The Pass Labs combo retails for about $5000. At $995, the Audio Refinement Complete would be the neighborhood underdog that not even his own family would dare bet on. My resident Meadowlark Audio Shearwater speakers plus a pair of hyper-fast, soundstage-til-eternity Gallo Acoustics Nucleus References passed the Complete’s signal to verify its verisimilitude to real music.

But is it objective?

Once matched playback levels were established, I alternated multiple times between both the Pass Labs components and the Complete before changing CDs. A distinct pattern emerged and confirmed itself in all subsequent selections. To begin with, the Pass combo and Complete integrated are cut from a very similar, evenly spun cloth. Both are utterly devoid of grain or glare and exhibit none of the typical solid-state artifacts that compel many, yours truly included, to descend into the warmer climate of vacuum-tube valley. The Pass gear is a prime example of the most refined-sounding of solid-state gear, eliminating all its traditional weaknesses without attempting to sound valve-like. It throws a cavernous three-dimensional soundstage with superb delineation of image outlines and a tremendous amount of ambient micro-information that leaves long decay trails surrounded by cubits of air. In comparison, the Complete’s soundstage has a bit less depth, and the performers’ outlines aren’t quite as defined.

Associated Equipment

Loudspeakers – Anthony Gallo Acoustics Nucleus Reference, Meadowlark Shearwater.

Amplifier – Pass Labs Aleph 3.

Preamplifier – Pass Labs Aleph L.

Digital – Theta Data transport, Dodson Audio 263H DAC.

Interconnects – Kimber Hero.

Speaker cables – Kimber Monocle XL.

Accessories – Naim Audio-supplied basic power strip.

But there’s a flip side. The images per the Complete acquire more body and substance, rendering a presentation that’s robust, corporeal and full of color. Electrostatic speakers usually match the Pass’ transparency prowess, but to my ears they do so often with a concomitant ghosting effect that vaporizes substance, in extreme cases white-washing the music and robbing it of some energy. I never felt the Pass combo to be a phantom menace, all see-through transparency with no red meat. My personal reaction to its looser fabric weave merely had me follow individual instrumental threads with phenomenal ease and precision. I’d notice hitherto veiled interactions between instruments and their physical surroundings. I grew aware of the most minute of fluctuations within the delivery of a voice or instrument. This extraordinary resolution prompted a somewhat abstracted, observant mien, however. The Complete’s minor lushness, accompanied by a subtle darkening of the upper treble and simultaneous warming of the midrange, evinced a more emotional response that had me less involved with observation and more with absorption into the music. Its minor tradeoffs in ultimate resolution made for a very compelling, musical and utterly involving experience as opposed to an analytical one. Described in lighting terms, the Complete’s soundstage is suffused with a late-afternoon sun-hue of pale gold, while the Pass illuminates its signal with an autumn high-noon silvery white -- more revealing but a shade cooler. The Complete appropriates in a subtle fashion that which is most compelling about SE triode sound, especially those modern iterations that eschew the traditional dark-golden glow that eliminated too much detail under a pleasing patina.

Jan Garbarek’s delivery on sax can approach a Middle-Eastern reed oboe’s tendency for stridency and has a piercing, clear-as-glass directness. On Visible World [ECM 1585 78118-21585-2], it was delivered in all its immediacy by the Pass combo, while the Complete ever so gently rounded off some of these edges. In the bass, this slight thickening gave Manu Katche’s drums tremendous weight and warmth while their bloom and trail through the ambiance remained better-preserved by the Pass gear. Ditto for Eberhard Weber’s bass. While a shade slimmer in sonority through the Pass, exact pitches especially in the nether regions were more precisely rendered than via the Complete.

On the piano recording of Rachmaninov’s original music rolls transferred to a Bösendorfer 290SE reproducing piano [Telarc CD-80489] the famous Prelude No. 2 assaults with dense, two-handed chords that require the pianist to raise his hands rather high off the keys to come crashing down with the requisite thunder. One climatic passage descends from the upper to the lower registers in furiously alternating chords that maximally punish the strings. Under such attacking conditions, you expect a high level of metallic upper harmonics. While preserved in their fleeting shooting-star glory through the Pass combo, especially at concert-level near-field conditions, the Complete worked a very subtle romanticizing which was, truth be told, more pleasing to the ear though ultimately less resolved.

Taj Mahal’s title tune on Señor Blues [Private Music 01005-82151-2] is a seriously rollicking romp that has solo trumpeter Darrell Leonard launch a blaring full-throttle assault that is absolutely exhilarating in its rawness, bite and raunchy intensity. Later, John Cleary’s piano, positively huge, rumbles and rolls from the heavens like a giant thunderstorm while Taj sings the tale of the vagabond who’s done gone away by the time the senoritas fall in love. The Complete went under my skin and prompted my hairs to stand on end. The Pass had me in awe. Both are valid responses from different ends of the psyche and, of course, peculiar to this listener at the time. You might well react entirely differently, and it’s important to remember that how a listener reacts is a very subjective thing that can easily muddy a useful review.

Loreena KcKennit’s gorgeous voice on The Mask and the Mirror [Warner 9 45420-2, 1994] was equally served by both electronics. The Pass rendered her upper-range delivery more breathy and allowed me to see more of the singer as tangible presence, while the Complete focused again on a denser, more felt material replication of the artist. Both amps offer very realistic tonal balance, superbly extended, taut bass that isn’t dry and comes, as it does in real life, with more weight than impact. Voices sound lifelike, and neither amp gets confounded by complex material even though ultimately the Pass has an edge there over the Complete, as well it should. Where the Complete edges out the Pass is in the transmission of the music’s energy. That’s very palpable and can be downright electrifying. What mechanical/electrical aspect could possibly be responsible for it is utterly outside my ken to fathom, but as an observation it was easily repeatable. In my much-larger-than-average listening room, the Complete’s volume control never needed to go past 11:30 to satisfy the party animal in me. The Complete does boogie, so never mind its petite sophisticated appearance. Its 50Wpc/90Wpc output rating into 8/4 ohms should mate well with most speakers apt to be used in conjunction.

What the Pass amplifier’s higher price of admission buys you is clearly a few extra degrees of resolution. Delivered without clinical sterility, it allowed me to see and understand the most minute of inner workings of the musical fabric. My tube-derived insistence on a tangible sense of immediacy was utterly satisfied, while bass control and subterranean intelligibility were quite beyond what most vacuum tubes are capable of. Contemplating the differences in my personal response between both systems, I feel compelled to describe them as a function of a mind/heart balance. The Pass’ overriding attributes stimulated a higher percentage of my mental powers while the Complete’s delivery talked more directly to my emotions, less to my mind. Lest you think this was a cut-and-dry affair, I openly admit that my loyalties shifted depending on whatever I was listening to. After all, both mind and heart need nourishing. I also noted that the Shearwaters are cousins to the Complete, being a smidgen dark but eminently musical, while the Gallo References with their electrostatic speed and clarity mimic the Pass. If you think in terms of system-matching, it’s evident how the poles of this detail-versus-gestalt balance could be further stretched apart or brought together, depending on what speakers are mated to the electronics.

High praise for the Audio Refinement amplifier indeed! Its errors, if such they can be called, are of very minor omissions. Essentially this budget king on steroids marries tube and solid-state attributes in such uncanny balance that nary an individual strength of either camp is relinquished, and none of their weaknesses inherited. At one-fifth the price of the Pass Labs ticket, hair-splitting seems ridiculous. Now what?

Probing more deeply

If you’re a dealer, the Complete will kill sales of more expensive equipment, especially in direct comparisons. To alleviate this, you might resort to handicapping the Complete with maybe a poorly matched set of cables. Or you may park it in the entry-level room that most "serious" shoppers walk right past. Easiest of all is not to carry it in the first place. But there are courageous dealers who proudly defy market wisdom and the golden cows of the establishment. They will support new products they believe in and make a market for them -- if their customers let them.

I remember years ago when I auditioned a pair of smaller Magnepans. The amp driving them was so well beyond my means that I requested a change. The sales guy smilingly obliged. I was soon to understand his smile. The preposterously unassuming little grey box he inserted was a positively puny 40Wpc Creek integrated amp. And I couldn’t tell the difference. Not that I tried terribly hard -- the speakers simply sounded too terrific. Now, if you can’t tell the difference.... You know, it’s similar to dying. Those people worried about after death fail to consider that if you expire and that’s truly the end, the black hole, kaput, there won’t be anybody left to notice or worry. If there’s good news of some sort, there again is nothing to worry about. This, of course, doesn’t hinder most folks from doing exactly that -- worry. Ditto for audiophiles; they worry regardless. This will be the main reason why the Complete wouldn’t enjoy the kind of success it deserves. At its price, it’s just too easy to afford worrying that something better might just be around the corner.

Against better wisdom

I could tell you not to worry until my printer runs out of ink, but more importantly, will you believe your own ears when you hear the Audio Refinement Complete properly set up and matched? Like the Vandersteen Model 1C, the Rega Planet, the smaller Magnepans, the VTL Tiny Triodes and Quicksilver Mini Mites, the Audio Refinement Complete integrated amplifier is one of high-end audio’s great secret weapons. Do yourself a favor and holster one, even if you can afford to buy the bigger and heavier guns. You may come away dumbfounded by what can be done these days for less than a thousand smackers.

...Srajan Ebaen

Audio Refinement Complete Integrated Amplifier
$995 USD.
Warranty: One year parts and labor.

US distributor:
Audio Plus Services
P.O. Box 3047
Plattsburgh, NY 12901
Phone: (800) 254-2510
Fax: (450) 585-5862

E-mail: imcarthur@audioplusservices.com
Website: www.audioplusservices.com

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