Albarry comes from that honourable tradition of small British hi-fi manufacturers, each ploughing an individual furrow and (hopefully) cultivating an enthusiastic group of adherents along the way. Some have moved up to a bigger league, others remain small, specialist and, largely, below the public’s radar. The particular blip that was Albarry burned brightly for a while, gaining many admirers in the 1980s, but faded from view years ago. Well now it’s back.
Fans of the original Albarry designs will recognise the red acrylic casework, and the gold screen-printing, not to mention the shoebox-style of the mono-bloc power amplifiers. It’s an individual look, befitting a range that is almost blatantly true to its roots. The translucent red casework is distinctive and attractive, and I particularly like the way the red monitor LED lights up the internals in the dark, although if I’m honest, the graphics do look a little dated nowadays.
Fans will also recognise the ‘house sound’ in these new units. The M608 mono amps derive directly from the older M408 and M1008 designs, offering 60 Watts into an 8 Ohm load and almost twice that into 4 Ohms. However, the implementation has been significantly updated, and the M608 comfortably outpoints the old M1008’s 100 Watts, largely thanks to considerably greater reserves in its power supply. Albarry’s designer, Neil Burnett, tells me the M608’s power supply is capable of delivering almost a kilowatt for transients and is only cruising at the amp’s rated output. He thinks its 60 Watt output is enough for most situations when you’ve got that sort of headroom for dynamics, and I believe he may be right. Big orchestral material, played loud, impresses by its extraordinary lack of congestion. For example, the Jansons/Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’s Dvorak Symphony no. 9, on SACD, retains depth, detail and texture, even in this most exuberant symphony’s more climactic sections.
The AP11 pre-amplifier is completely new; its form more closely resembles a duty-free bulk pack of cigarettes, and it doesn’t weigh that much more. It offers four line-level inputs including a dedicated CD input, recording loop, and a built-in moving-magnet phono stage. I don’t use a vinyl source, but the designer was keen to point out that this is much more than just a throwaway. Those with record players might afford it serious consideration before assuming they need an expensive add-on. The CD input has lower gain than the other line-level inputs, and one thing I really like is that the volume control has a sensible and usable arc of operation. There are a lot of amplifiers out there whose volume controls go from ‘is it working?’ to ‘Anti-Social Behaviour Order’ before you’ve got past the 10-o’clock position. With the Albarry, the music really starts happening from about the 8-o’clock position but, depending on the recording, is usable all the way round to 2-o’clock, and beyond. And, despite the modest on-paper figures, that 2-o’clock position will coax enough output from the M608’s to ensure that your neighbours have the local council’s environmental nuisance department on speed-dial. This is definitely the sort of combination where the numbers only tell part of the story.
And storytelling is what the Albarrys excel at. Whether it’s large-scale orchestral or girl-and-guitar; jazz, Gregorian chant or brass bands, the Albarrys get right to the heart of the musical message and bring you the performance. It’s a combination of lots of things, done well. Whether it’s timing, tunefulness, speed and dynamics, or pretty much any other touchstone of performance that matters, the Albarrys give you no cause to doubt them. Like the David Berning ZOTL/ZH230 combination, they are completely even-handed in their treatment of any music you care to throw at them. They are not a ‘poor man’s David Berning’ though, partly because, even at under a third of the price of the Bernings, they are still a costly prospect, but mainly because describing them in that way is trite, and fails to do justice to their remarkable capabilities. Still, if you’re lusting after the Bernings but can’t stretch the budget, seek out the Albarrys, and be happy.
They are extremely fast, having the lightness of touch that seems so often to be the preserve of relatively low-powered amplifiers but, in this case, there is a core of steel supporting that nimbleness. Earlier this year I heard Return To Forever play live at a jazz festival. Stanley Clarke’s bass attack is almost violent in its speed and impact, and very difficult to reproduce in a hifi system. ‘Sorceress’, from the live comeback album Return to Forever Returns starts with Clarke’s whip-crack bass and percussion, working together to create an effect which is almost a physical blow. The Albarry amps didn’t have the intensity of the real thing, but came close, kept the depth and impact of the percussion, and remained true to the pitch of the bass notes. The whole performance was considerably faster, more exciting and more enthralling than anything else I’ve played it through.