Sometimes reviewers enter a project having no idea what to expect, as was the case with my research into the sound of USB audio (The Absolute Sound, Issue 194). Other times, we do have expectations based upon word-of-mouth, a manufacturer’s reputation, or prior experience—expectations that are subsequently confirmed or dashed depending upon the product’s actual performance. In the case of the new Aesthetix Atlas stereo power amp and Janus Signature preamp, I felt I knew them before I played a single note.
Back in January at CES, a mono version of the Atlas contributed to the stunning debut of Richard Vandersteen’s forthcoming Model 7 loudspeaker. Clearly the 7 could not have produced the level of resolution and life heard on that occasion without a similarly capable amp. As regards the preamp, several years ago Robert Harley and I gave the Aesthetix Calypso linestage two big thumbs up. The Signature version of that same unit, along with a similarly tricked-out edition of the Rhea phonostage (reviewed separately by RH in this issue), nestles within the Janus Signature.
Naturally I wanted nothing more than to connect these two beauties together and enjoy the music. But a reviewer is obliged to report on the sound of individual components, so first I dropped the 200Wpc tube/solid-state hybrid Atlas—Aesthetix’ maiden foray into power amps—into my Goldmund-based reference system. I played a few tracks: the “Overture” from Peter McGrath’s benchmark recording of Handel’s Water Musik; the percussive “Reckoner” from Radiohead’s In Rainbows; Mary Gauthier’s atmospheric “Falling Out of Love” from Mercy Now; and, perhaps most tellingly, the “Tin Pan Alley” bonus track from the stupendous remix of Stevie Ray Vaughn’s classic Texas Flood.
The sound I heard was good, but at this point not as good as I expected. On the plus side, the Handel was appropriately buoyant—following interleaved melodic lines was a snap. The same was true of the complex polyrhythms at the opening of “Reckoner.” On the Mary Gauthier track I was immediately drawn in by the opening guitar and the subsequent steady pounding beat. Her voice, recorded very close to the mic, was blessedly free of spit or sibilance. Every instrumental flourish—a sigh through a harmonica, a sweep of cellos—had impact yet did not disrupt the song’s overall momentum. On all these recordings, but especially on Stevie Ray, the Atlas created a mushroom cloud of air around each instrument and a deep sense of space.
Yet all was not well. My reference amp’s ability to localize images more precisely than the Atlas gave instruments greater solidity, authority, and just plain realism. And while I liked the Atlas’ rich full timbres, I did not like the upper-bass bloat that was making pianos and bass guitars entirely too plump. Dynamics lacked the ability to “startle” when called upon to do so. And the Atlas seemed to be both blunting attacks and truncating decays; on faster-paced tracks, the result was a timing train wreck.
I describe these failings not because they ended up applying to the Atlas—they didn’t—but to illustrate what can happen when electronics are mismatched. You see, I tried the usual tweaks to correct these problems, some of which, such as a good set of cones under the amp, helped significantly. But ultimately I had to think that, despite Jim White’s design goal of building an amp that will work with pretty much anything (see the accompanying interview), the Atlas just might not be compatible with my preamp. And so I discarded the noble scientific notion of changing just one variable in the system, jettisoned my reference preamp, and inserted the Janus Signature. What I heard then was nothing short of a transformation. In my listening notes, underneath the aforementioned catalog of complaints, I wrote, “Never mind.”