If you are looking for the perfect combination of great sound, zero maintenance, and elegant packaging, look no further than the Primare I21 integrated amplifier. Delivering a conservatively rated 75Wpc, the $1495 I21 should have enough power to drive, at reasonable levels, all but the most insensitive speakers. And with its centrally located volume control, LED status panel, and pushbuttons, this amplifier would be right at home in the Museum of Modern Art—or in a vodka ad.
My review sample came in Primare’s new titanium finish. Build quality is outstanding; this is a very solid little amplifier. Removing the cover revealed a massive toroidal power transformer and a layout that is as tidy as my Power Mac G5. Kathleen Thomas, from importer Sumiko, told me that Primare’s designers are constantly refining circuit topologies and that they don’t buy into any particular trend. In the case of the I21, the designers found that one large power supply offered better sound.
The follow-no-trends philosophy is also applied to the amp’s dual faceplate design. If you look at the I21 from above, you can see a gap between the thick, machined front panel and the beginning of the chassis. This is where Primare placed the switching and housekeeping circuitry, isolating it from the gain stages and making for an extremely quiet amplifier.
Even after spending a whole night on my doorstep in the chilly Pacific Northwest, the I21 sounded great right out of the box. I noticed a slight improvement after about 20 hours of use, but nothing more after that. As with most solid-state electronics, the I21 sounds better if always left on.
To give the Primare a fair shake, I evaluated it with a few speakers that would be logical candidates for such a moderately priced amplifier. Because the Primare is so neutral, perhaps even a touch reserved, all the speakers sounded as I had originally expected. My reference Vandersteen 2Ce, with its relatively low 86db sensitivity, played very loudly and had great bass control, possibly due to the amp’s high-current capability. Even though it costs twice as much as the I21, the Naim Ariva was also a good match and, due to its higher sensitivity, played the loudest of the bunch. Moreover, the highly detailed Arivas were not at all constrained.
Thanks to its high-current design, the I21 did a great job on my favorite bass test records, in particular Kruder and Dorfmeister’s The K&D Sessions [!K7] and Tommy Lee’s Never a Dull Moment [MCA], revealing a lot of texture in the lower registers and subtly reproducing mids and highs without drama or coloration.
But the I21’s relaxed neutrality made both of my tubed CD players sound a bit too relaxed. At first I feared it was the amplifier, but a call to John-Paul Lizars at Sumiko brought me the companion CD21 CD player (see sidebar), which woke things up and proved to be the best counterpart for the I21.
I again got great results when using my Rega Planar 3 for analog playback. Those of you with (or considering purchasing) a reasonably priced ’table will not be disappointed playing records through the I21, though its lack of a phonostage means that you’ll need to purchase an outboard unit. (The $549 Pro-Ject Tube Box pairs incredibly well with the I21.)
The most difficult aspect about reviewing equipment like the I21 is its neutral and inoffensive sonic properties. While the amp doesn’t have earthquake-like bass or the last degree of finely etched detail in the highs, it does extremely well everything an integrated amplifier should. You simply hook it up, turn it on, listen to music, and enjoy. While your audiophile friends are adjusting this and tweaking that, you’ll already be on your fourth CD.