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Product Review - Audio Aero Capitole Class A Tube Power Amplifier - October, 2001

David Wurtz - Editor, Australia


Specifications

MFR: 7 Hz - 35 kHz (-1dB)
Power Output
:  50 W Class A / 8 ohms
Input Impedance
:  22 Kohms
Input Sensitivity
:  0.8V
Rise Time
:  1.7 µs
SNR
:  70 dB
THD
:  < 0.2 %
Power Supply
:  100 / 120 / 230 / 240 VAC, 50 / 60 Hz
Power Consumption
:  400W
 
Tubes
:  6SN7GT, E34L, KT88
Inputs
:  Single-Ended RCA
Outputs
:  Gold Plated Five-Way Binding Posts
Chassis and Bottom Plate
:  15/10 Steel
Upper Plate
:  30/10 Polished Stainless Steel
Size
:  (W x L x H): 520 x 395 x 285 mm
Weight:  38 kg or 82.5 Pounds
MSRP
:  $11,300AUS (about $8,000 USA)


AUDIO AERO
2, rue Louis Bréguet 
31700 Cornebarrieu - FRANCE
Phone: + 33 (0) 561.851.421
E-Mail: jpc@audioaero.com 
Web: http://www.audioaero.com

Distributed in Australia by Osborn Loudspeakers
http://www.osbornloudspeakers.com.au/ 

Introduction

Audio Aero, created in 1997, is one of 5 subsidiary companies of the French high-tech firm Mazères Aviation. This company is probably a little better known for producing airplane parts, carbon fibre bicycle frames and competition "motorX" bikes. Their range of Audio products starts from the "Prima" integrated amplifier and CD player ($3200AUS and $2400AUS respectively), "Capitole" amplifier and CD player ($11300AUS and $8300AUS respectively) and the high end "Prestige" mono blocks @ about $35000AUS a pair. Add to this the “Capitole” Preamp, Capitole CD transport, and “Prima” DAC, and they have most bases covered. The unit I have under review is the Capitole amplifier, so buckle your seat belts and I implore you, please read on.  

The Product

In my humble opinion, the Capitole is by far and away one of the most physically attractive units I have ever seen. As you are aware, looks aren't any indication of sound, but why can't you have both? Lots of black, chrome, and gold with the "elegantly lit" tubes topping it off, 12 of them no less, simply stunning!

The amp is physically large and heavy, coming in at 38 Kg (about 85 pounds). Being 520mm wide, it will not fit in your standard equipment rack, so it requires a place all of its own, which on looks alone, deserves it.

The fascia is a semi-gloss black with a single, large, gold plated power knob with two two LEDs below it. When switched on, the red LED lights up as the unit allows the tube’s heaters to warm up (about 5 seconds), then it switches to the green LED when it’s ready to go. Note: Although the amp only “warms up” for 5 seconds, it is recommended to allow ½ to ¾ of an hour before the unit is at its optimum operating temperature.

The top of the unit gets a little busier. On a 15/10 solid polished steel chassis, sits three large black transformer housings and the twelve valves. The housings conceal the mains transformer (the larger center one) and valve output transformers (the other two). They have elegant gold plates glued to the top of them in which the Audio Aero signature has been inscribed.

The twelve tubes are sonically matched and shipped in their own boxes in the exact order in which they are to be inserted when first setting up the unit. The six on the left are the matched pairs for the left channel and visa-versa, these being, from front to back, the 6SN7GT pair, the EL34, pair and the KT88 pair. The six black cylinders in the middle of the tubes are Felsic 330µF 480V capacitors.

The valve sockets are quite firm when inserting the tubes and feel as sturdy as any other high quality fitting that I have felt for this particular usage. Audio Aero spent two years developing the Tube Relay Amplification Concept (TRAC system) in which the tubes are configured. It is based on a 50's triode-pentode amplification design. The E34L is triode wired and relayed by the KT88 pentode when power is needed. The total power output is 50 W in Class A into 8 ohms.

The bottom of the unit has three large gold and black feet, two at the back and one at the front. Interestingly, the unit does not sit directly on the feet but on the bolts through the middle of the feet. It was found in the manufacturer’s testing that the Capitole sounded better when used on the bolt ends compared with on the feet. So, consequently the bolts stick out about 2 mm below the feet and the unit sits on them. Not really a worry unless you try to slide the unit. Being 82 pounds, it must be gently placed in the correct position or you will damage the furniture with the unit. Let's just say I have learned from experience and my wife may let me move back into our bedroom sometime soon.

The rear of the unit features twelve large, gold plated binding post, two pairs for 4 ohm, two pairs for the 8 ohm winding, and two pairs for common (ground). These are of exceptional quality as are the left and right gold plated RCA input sockets. The IEC socket is the only thing left to mention which is located on the right as you look at the back. On reflection, every fitting on the unit is of an exceptionally high quality.

As with most valve driven units, a minimum of 30 - 60 minutes is required for the unit to warm up.  All testing was done with this firmly in mind. When I say “warm-up”, I also mean it literally - this unit gets quite hot after a few hours! Being a Class A amplifier, when powered on, it is exactly like having a 400W heater sitting in your room. Nice in winter, but a little less than pleasant in summer!

And how did I hear about it?

Anyways, the story of how the Audio Aero Capitole came into my company, from the start . . .

I received a phone call from Greg Osborn asking if I was busy on the next Wednesday evening. He wanted to give me a quick demo of a new power amplifier he had in his possession. So he made the 5½-hour drive to my place from Melbourne and arrived around 4 pm "bearing his gifts”. After about an hour and a half, we were set-up, warmed up, and ready to go. I sent the wife and children shopping (which I found later to be not that good of an idea, as my Visa Card was much heavier upon her return), and Greg and I got comfortable.

Greg has explained to me that he found the Audio Aero Capitole whilse in Canada at a trade show and was absolutely “gob-smacked” (to use his term) by the performance. This was almost immediately demonstrated to me when it was fired up and played. I had previously never heard an amplifier project such a soundstage. We were listening to Andeas Vollenweider’s “Book of Roses”, where the first track has a raven flying around the soundstage. It turned out to be an excellent example of the three-dimensional performance of the Capitole. Width, depth, and height were all exceeded in my listening experience of any amplifier I had tested in my listening room. In the past I have felt some valve amplifiers can tend to lack really deep, “authoritarian style” bass. Not the Audio Aero though. Track 6 on the same Andeas Vollenweider disc has a “Ladysmith Black Mombassa” meets the “Caribbean” track named “In Doga Gamee”, which has exceptional examples of naturally occurring deep bass. This was where I felt the Capitole excelled over other valve units I have evaluated. The result was tight, deep, weighty bass of exceptional quality. This particular track is almost one of those ‘must listen-to’ pieces, as it is very revealing in all areas of sound. The vocals and musical instruments have been recorded very well, which transpires to the listener when played through high quality equipment. There are also several "other" instruments going on in the background which make it perfect to pick out and compare micro-detail between components.

About an hour and a half into our listening session, my wife returned home to find Greg and I sitting in almost darkness, music blaring, both with our eyes closed, in what she referred to as a trance. She turned the main light on in my listening room, and both Greg and I jumped with fright, as was the involvement of our entire bodies in this particular listening experience. I feel sorry for the lounge chair as Greg and I are not exactly small men. Greg later likened it to being hit in the face with a cricket bat. Funny story (or maybe you just had to be there?) I know, but it illustrates the Capitole’s ability to draw in and consume the listener.

Greg left later that evening with the amp and the promise of a brand new sample arriving on my doorstep within a week or two. It may seem strange to you that Greg was willing to go out of his way to introduce me to the Audio Aero equipment. But such is the man’s passion for products of this quality and his confidence in its performance that he thought I just had to hear it. I am glad he did and that I did too. 

More on the Sound

Throughout the evaluation period I played all of my reference discs and just marveled at the performance. It gave space to recordings that were flat, it gave feel to recordings I have previously written off, and gave me everything I needed and wanted when listening to all my favorite discs.

Rebecca Pidgeon’s recording of “Spanish Harlem” from the album named “The Raven”, was reproduced better than I have ever heard it. Her majestic voice chilled me, the double bass, guitar and piano moved me and sat beautifully behind Rebecca’s voice, and the shaker in the background (10 feet back I reckon by the sound of it) really set up the enveloping musical scene. This is a disc that I recommend should be part of everyone’s CD collection. It is stunning when played on a high quality system.

Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” Flute Concerto in D by “The Connecticut Early Music Ensemble,” really had me amazed as to the Capitole’s ability to reproduce highly detailed and focused musical notes. The Capitole highlighted the start and finish of each note played by the instruments on this disc. It was an absolutely emotionally uplifting experience to hear what the Audio Aero did to this piece.

Dragging out and playing Metalica’s, “Black Album” proved the Capitole’s ability to deliver high level, high transient sound, all without any noticeable distortion. The Capitole power through the big drum sounds effortlessly, and with the added soundstage that the unit provides, gave me a wonderful listening experience.  Being a 50 Watt amplifier, the Capitole also had plenty of power when needed. The “pentodes wired as triodes” design makes sure there is plenty of power available for more transient musical passages at more than modest listening levels.  

Australian performer Tina Arena’s album “Don’t Ask” is another shining example of a well-produced album that sounds fantastic through the Capitole. The Audio Aero’s perfect bass extension, well-rounded midrange, and sweet top-end had me again in awe. The Capitole soundstage was such that it gave a tambourine (in the second song “Heaven Help my Heart”) on the album the effect of being rattled just on top of my head. I must admit that it was a little daunting when I first heard it. What do I say now – Wow! Audio Aero has just made amplifiers manufacturers have to shift up another gear in my opinion.

Conclusion

In my opinion, the Capitole is the perfect amp for me. Its sound quality is AAA+, it offers a soundstage like no other I've heard, it has plenty of power especially when supplying those big bass notes, and it looks sensational, all while maintaining that lovely valve feel.

It’s not exactly cheap, but I realized very quickly that the Audio Aero Capitole is one those products that I just cannot live without. Consequently, I have purchased the unit I have under scrutiny. The unit now proudly sits in the center of my reference system, to have and to hold from this day forth. I cannot think of any better endorsement than that. Congratulations and thank you Audio Aero. Keep up the superb work.

 

- David Wurtz - 


© Copyright 2001 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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