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Equipment Review
August 1998

Symfonia Opus 10 Amplifier

by Todd Warnke

Who

At CES ’97, in the off-site exhibit space of the incredibly eerie Debby Reynolds Hotel, I stumbled across the Symfonia room. While their name is largely unknown in the States, I have a friend who spent some time in the company’s native Australia, and based on his opinion, I figured I ought to look in. The display was manned by one Victor Testa, company president and as personable an audio-dweeb as has been my pleasure to meet. As we talked and listened to the setup, I warmed to both him and his products. After the show we exchanged several e-mails, but considering the distance, we were unable to set up a review.

Then, at CES ’98, while busting a hump just to cover my assigned rooms, word reached me that Victor needed to talk to me. So on my way out of town, I literally ran to his room. After a hearty handshake and an explanation of my rush to catch a plane Victor asked if I had room in my luggage for an amp! Now, I don’t know about you, but I usually plan on leaving Las Vegas with less than I came with -- worries, and especially money. But even with a pocket considerably lightened by the one-armed bandits, I didn’t have room for a 39-pound amp, so I had to pass. But, fortunately, we were able to make other arrangements which resulted in the show unit, an Opus 10 amp, making its way to me about the first of February. Since then it’s seen service with many speakers and preamps -- first because of its impressive sonic skills, and second because trying to pin down its defining characteristics has been a pleasant but difficult task.

What

The $3700 Opus 10 is easy on the eyes. While very solid looking, it has neither the ostentatiousness of a Rowland, nor the small-gravity-field look of a Krell. Rather, like a Brooks Brothers suit, it is clean and classically lined. In fact, the front plate is exceedingly clean, having neither a power light nor a power switch. The only marking on the 3/8"-thick, gun-metal gray fascia is an inlaid brass strip that runs the width of the plate and which intersects the brass name plate near the lower-right corner.

The back of the amp is just as sharp. The hefty Neotech five-way binding posts are, from a reviewer’s viewpoint, the best I’ve come across. The post has an integral locking nut that makes hand-tightening nearly as effective as soldering. With a pair of these posts a side, I biwired using the spade and banana connections. Other than a name plate, an IEC power jack and a pair of gold-plated RCA jacks, that’s it for the rear. As for the power switch, it’s mounted on the bottom of the amp near the front, and it includes an internal light that reflects off the surface of your equipment stand. I really like this mounting location. It keeps the amp face very clean and elegant looking while avoiding the hassle of finding an on/off switch on the back.

Rated at 100Wpc into an 8-ohm load, the Opus 10 is capable of 200Wpc into a 4-ohm load. Since the speakers I have on hand are relatively easy on amps, I was unable to test the amp’s "grunt" ability. However, I am happy to report that it drove the Platinum Audio Studio 1s (at 87dB/W/m, the least efficient speakers on hand) to near insane levels without the slightest of ruffled feathers.

Where

As I said, the Opus 10 saw duty with a menagerie of equipment. Analog sources were but two: a borrowed, full-boat Linn setup and my own NAD 533 with Sumiko Blue Point cartridge. Digital sources were my Theta Miles CD player, a Sony ES20 player, and a JVC XL-1050 used as a transport feeding an Assemblage DAC-2 (upgraded and modified). Preamps were (in alphabetical order) Audible Illusions L-1, Balanced Audio Technology VK-3i (review in the works), Joule Electra LA-100 Mk III, Kora Eclipse (review on the way), Thor Audio TA-2000 and Transcendent Sound preamp (review upcoming). Comparison amps were the Blue Circle BC6, Warner Imaging VTE-201S and Assemblage ST-40. Speakers included the Dunlavy SC-III, Triangle Antal (review in a bit), Platinum Audio Studio 1, Kharma Ceramique 2.0, and Greybeard KB/2/2 (just arrived for review). The various systems were lashed together with wire from Audio Magic, Cardas, JPS Labs and Nordost, and with power cords by VansEvers, Audio Magic and MIT. Equipment was set on the SoundRack Reference stand and usually on a combination of Golden Sound DH cones and squares. Power is filtered by an Audio Power Wedge 116. House Scotch is either Lagavulin or Macallan 12 year (thanks Les for the recommendation), taken straight-up.

When and Why

When the Opus 10 arrived here, I was deep into several other reviews, so the amp sat for a week or so. After stubbing my toe on it a couple of times, I figured it was time to get it off the floor and, at least, into the office system. So one night, just before bed, I popped it in the office system with the Sony CD player feeding it directly and with it powering the Platinum Audio speakers. When I got up the next morning I put a CD in, hit play and left to see a client. When I got home, I opened a Pepsi and wandered back to the office. My first reaction to the system was that someone had stolen in during the day and wired a moderately sized subwoofer into the system! After checking that I wasn’t drinking Jolt Cola instead, I sat down and did a bit of serious listening.

The Platinum speakers are capable of bass performance that belie their size, but what I was hearing was beyond anything they had shown me in the past. Bass was deep, powerful, detailed and controlled. Did I say deep? It was as deep as the hole that Hoffa’s hid in. Powerful? We’re talking V-12 here. Detailed? Like Microsoft’s plans to take over the world. And controlled? Like Tina Turner before she left Ike. Best of all, it didn’t matter whether I played funk with popping electric bass, jazz with upright acoustic bass or a full classical orchestra. If it was on the recording, it was in my room.

And as good as that sounds, the clarity of images, regardless of frequency range, was also astounding. Each layer of sound was concrete, but didn’t obscure what lay behind. Images at the back of the stage were vividly portrayed and fully fleshed out. An example. My wife Robin has difficulty hearing depth. To her, the softer and slightly rolled sounds that are one of the aural clues of positioning are no more than muffles. With the Symfonia in place, for the first time she heard depth, no doubt due the exceptionally clear and open view the Opus 10 serves up.

Well, after this performance I could hardly wait to move the amp into the main room, but I had to wait until other components had finished their time. Surprisingly, when the time did come to move the amp, I found it hard to do. While the office system is not as fine-tuned for ultimate listening as the main room is, of necessity I spend a lot of time there. So when something gels like the Platinum speakers and Symfonia amp did, it‘s hard to break them up. But, being your humble servant, I did it.

For its first go-round in the main room, I paired the Symfonia with Kharma speakers, Thor Audio preamp, sources by Theta and Linn, and a combination of Audio Magic and Nordost wire. Call me good or call me fortunate, but this proved to be an absolute jewel of a setup. The control the Symfonia exercised over the bass of the Kharma speakers was revelatory. I simply could not resist dragging out all the deep-tone show-off tracks in my collection. Peter Gabriel’s Passion (music for The Last Temptation of Christ) [Geffen M2G 24206] has many, many deep bass parts, some very natural, others synthesized, but all well recorded. The tracks "The Feeling Begins," "A Different Drum" and "Zaar," especially showcased the skill of the Symfonia/Kharma combo. Both natural and studio-effect bass were easily felt and distinctly different. And the physical punch that ends "The Feeling Begins" was near Tysonian in impact.

Over the rest of the frequency range, the Opus 10 proved to be nearly as outstanding. The midrange was detailed, exactly as it should be in order to fully convey the illusion of music. The highs were ever so slightly tilted up and a tiny bit dry as well, but, in this system, this was more of an observation than a criticism.

Depth was as equally adept. As I said earlier, Robin was able to hear layering as a natural thing with the Opus 10 in the system. For my part, the way the amp threw layers up made it very easy to visualize the layout of every single recording I played. With live, minimally miked recordings, this was a joy. On the other hand, studio, multi-miked and EQed hack jobs sounded precisely like the assembly-line products they are.

With the power reserves of the Opus 10, dynamics were never an issue. The amp drove any speaker I used with the grace and power of a Gene Kelly dance number. Micro dynamics, if anything other than perfect, were a bit too broad, in that same sort of way that Gene danced with obvious style but not quite the absolute precision of Fred Astaire.

As for that indefinable term "musicality," it is here that we both enter fully the subjective and come to the most difficult part of the review. The Symfonia Opus 10 is more of an accuracy buff than a music-maker. In this respect (and in many others), it is the perfect counterpart to the Assemblage ST-40 I reviewed several months ago. Where the ST-40 is puppyish, the Opus 10 is a full-grown German shepherd. To put it another way, the Assemblage is a VW GTI, the Opus 10 a Porsche.

I love the ST-40 because of and in spite of this eagerness to please. It makes every listening session a "musical" one, but it also makes each recording, regardless of performance or sound quality, a musical one. The Opus 10, on the other hand, is even-handed. If, and only if, the recording and performance are musical will the playback be musical. It will not make up anything on its own, and it does everything within its power to reproduce exactly what it sees. Still, this is an inherently unfair comparison. At $699, the ST-40 has not been designed to compete with an amp like the Symfonia.

Closer in terms of cost and overall ability, the $3700 Blue Circle BC6 is a much fairer match, but it is also a very different beast. The two amps share solid-state output devices, but that’s about all. The BC6 uses a single 6922 tube per channel as an input driver. And, with 25 pure class-A watts, the BC6 is no match for the Opus 10 in raw power. This is an advantage that the Symfonia showcases to the utmost. In its ability to control bass and to show effortless dynamic swings, the BC6 is excellent. But in comparison, the Opus 10 is in a class alone. However, switch to the extremely subtle points of sparkle, breath and life, and the BC6 shows why it too is a world-class amp. Still, these are very fine points, and points that can only be weighed in the context of a complete system. The Theta/Linn/Thor/Kharma combination was clearly better balanced, more accurate and more musical with the Symfonia in it than with the BC6. The pure power and analytical skills of the Opus 10 were showcased to great effect in that system. On the other hand, use the same sources with the Joule Electra preamp and the Dunlavy speakers, and the Opus 10 was as exacting as the nuns at catholic school. For its part, the BC6 in that same setup was 99% as accurate and nearly that much more involving. Without getting too pedantic, this helps proves the point that components count, but context is everything. And in the right context, both of these amps shine, just as the wrong one is certain death.

Ultimately, I found the Opus 10 to offer every skill I expect from a great -- nay, from a world-class -- amp. Its frequency reach is from hell’s basement to, um, heaven’s gate. Tonally, it is slightly cool but makes up for that with visceral slam and power. Yes, it rocks, but it also swings, waltzes and meditates. And it images with the proverbial Gibraltar solidity. Given an appropriate partner, such as the Kharma Ceramique speakers, all the virtues of the Symfonia blend into music-making of the highest degree. I can’t begin to count the lost hours I spent spinning record after record on the Linn, and listening through the Thor/Opus 10/Kharma combo. And as much as it cost me to do so, not one of those hours would I take back.

Exit

It may appear that I’ve given the Opus 10 a powerful, stern and analytical cast. That is true, but perhaps it is more like a brutally honest friend, the kind who will tell you about the spinach in your teeth, the scratch on your new car, and your socks that don’t match. But this is also the kind of friend who is the first to show and last to leave when you move. Nothing gets by this amp, be it good or bad. And this is about all you can ask from any piece of gear. So, in parting, I want to caution you. Before picking up the Opus 10, ask yourself, "Am I ready for the truth?" If the answer is not a resounding yes, walk away. But if you are, and if you’re willing to adjust your system to accommodate it, run to the nearest dealer because this amp is made for you.

...Todd Warnke
todd@soundstage.com

Symfonia Opus 10 Amplifier
Price: $3,700 USD

Berkley-Testa Electronics
16 Hillcroft Drive
Templestowe, Victoria 3106 Australia
Phone: 61 3 9846 2407
E-mail: symfonia@ozemail.com.au
Website: www.ozemail.com.au/~symfonia/index.html

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