Oh, the mind can play dodgy tricks on you. This is a fine new integrated valve amp with a lot going for it, and all I can think of is Toyah Wilcox lisping her way through “Ipth’s a myththery, oh ipth’s a myththery…” And now, that’s all you can think of too. Sorry.
Trouble was, the Mystère was a mystery to me. I had no knowledge of the product or the back-story behind it. In fact, this month I expected to be reviewing a CD player; which was why Simon Marsh (the photographer) looked slightly impressed when I offered to carry the product round London on the Tube. One heft of the 27kg ia21 later and I was in a cab.
The Mystère duo is one of the first wholly new products from Pistol Music, a division of Absolute Sounds. Pistol Music is made up of a collection of fine products that deliver Absolute Sounds quality without the stratospheric price tags some of the best products necessarily attain. Think of Emporio as opposed to black label Armani and you’ll get the drift.
Mystère and Absolute Sounds diffusion line… a connection forms. Sure enough, as information began to flow in, the Mystère started revealing its secrets. It’s designed in Holland, by the same people as the Prima Luna range. It has the same black piano laquer finish (nice and rich, nice and deep) and the same simple approach to amp making – one knob sits in front of a 24-step attenuator that controls the volume, one switches between the four line-level inputs and there’s an on/off switch on the side. Simple. Neat. Effective.
There are two amps in the Mystère line-up; this, the 50 watt ia21 for £1,850 while the 40 watt ia11 costs £1,250. Aside from a bigger, heavier cabinet and more power output, the two are functionally identical, even down to the valve complement. Both use four 6SN7 valves in the pre-amp stage and four EL34s in the output, although the ia21 has the option of using KT88s instead (there’s a switch on the side), all running in push-pull. As to why the output of the two amps varies, details are scant at present, but I guess all will become clear in the fullness of time; meaning after I’ve finished this review. Mystère has gone for valve simplicity. The circuit is self-biasing (called Adaptive AutoBias in Mystère-speak) and it has a soft-start power-up, to prolong the life of the valves. It also features fusing on the valve plate itself to protect the output stage in the unlikely event of a valve going pop while playing music. You’ll still need to replace both valve and fuse, but that’s a lot cheaper than a new set of caps or melted transformer taps.
There are nods to high-end componentry, with double-layer polypropylene coupling caps and lots of high-purity copper conductors throughout. However, the accent seems to be tilted toward good, solid engineering instead of audiophile frivolity. This is why the amp is fully hard-wired and uses robust low-noise resistors in place of delicate hi-fi-chummy devices. And it’s why most of the weight is at the rear of the amp, with that big central power transformer flanked by the two output transformers. That said, the 1mm thick steel baseplate (with it’s trio of aluminium spikes) makes a contribution too. And then there’s the valve cage – normally a token gesture to political correctness, Mystère has designed this from the outset to look right. The hidden tubes can just be seen behind thin slats cut into the cage, making it look like a Cylon from Battlestar Galactica. Not the cheesy 1970s Battlestar Galactica at that; the dark, brooding current version with suicide bombers… and hot ex- Victoria’s Secret models.
I have to confess a personal bias here. I’ve never been that enamoured with the Prima Luna models I’ve heard. Okay, I’ve not auditioned the range in anger, but the limited exposure left me feeling like I was in the presence of very obviously valvey sounding valve amps. An amplifier should strive for a sense of neutrality, albeit one that’s coloured by the choice of devices used in the design. I felt that the Prima Lunas instead went for the warm, romantic valve sound as a deliberate design element, or maybe as a by-product of trying to make a valve amp down to a price. There is also a suggestion of load-intolerance with the Prima Luna designs, which makes its presence felt by a change in tonality when you move from speaker to speaker. But, I didn’t know there were Prima Luna connections here – and I didn’t notice on audition. Returning to the amp in the light of the Prima Luna connection, this is all the more impressive a design because of its load-consistency and its completely different, not so immediately and deliberately valve-like sound.