The recent explosion of audio products manufactured in China seems to have included a high proportion of valve based equipment; in itself no mystery if one considers the amount of hardware involved in an average tube design when compared to its solid state equivalent. The necessity for output transformers, chokes and bulky components rated for high voltage and elevated temperatures around valve bases veers off in the opposite direction to miniaturised, mass produced surface mount technology and robotic construction, but the utilisation of cheap labour suits old fashioned construction methods rather well. Well enough to be able to produce equipment that even after the costs of shipping and import duty to Western shores, allows a selling price that as one ex-UK based amplifier manufacturer put it “has completely shafted the idea of manufacturing valve amps in the UK”.
While a lot of the indigenous Chinese valve amps do not stray very far from the path of predictable and rather unimaginative design, there are a number of companies that have been quick off the mark in combining the low cost material and production skills of the far east with design carried out closer to home with interesting results. But while there are plenty of integrated designs and power amplifiers to choose from, they tend to be single-ended or single pair push-pull designs of limited power. What is missing from my personal radar is product with the more usable output of a hundred watts or so. Sure, there are highly desirable – and expensive – examples from Audio Research, Conrad Johnson and the like, but there seems to be a shortage of more adventurous designs at an affordable price. It might have been no more than coincidence, but shortly after lamenting this fact with RG, the Almarro arrived on my doorstep. The somewhat awkwardly designated A50125A would seem to fit the bill almost perfectly, a chunky 125-watt per channel stereo power amp for considerably less than three grand, although ironically it doesn’t come from China, but Japan. With no prior knowledge of the company or the design, I had no preconceptions regarding the Almarro’s sound, but within a very short space of time it was clear that it was going to appeal to me. Driving the little B&W 805s and fed from the Audio Research SP10, there was an immediate and palpable sense of excitement; the Almarro has a body and drive that readily kicks into gear, endowing music with life and a sense of purpose. I will admit to a sense of déjà vu with this particular combination, as the Almarro reminded me very much of the Audio Research D115, an amplifier that seemed to have boundless energy, or to put it crudely, a real sense of balls when the occasion demanded. That it was often partnered at the time with small Sonus Faber loudspeakers was no coincidence; it was a similar synergy that I was hearing with the Almarro and the 805s.
With the arrival of the big Spendor SP100 loudspeakers the A50125’s abilities at the bottom end were thrown into focus, and it proved an illuminating combination. The extra bandwidth revealed more of the enthusiastic drive that the amplifier was capable of, and although it did not reach down to sub-type frequencies, nor possess the ultimate grip and control that some really good solid-state amps are particularly good at, there was a degree of camouflage that in practice, meant you rarely noticed it. Upon hearing his loudspeakers in the system, Philip Swift, the MD of Spendor (and previously responsible for Audiolab – about as solid state as you can get) was heard to comment “I don’t generally like valve amplifiers” but I am fairly sure he thoroughly enjoyed himself listening to music for that afternoon! While admittedly the Spendor is an easy load, the Almarro had no problems in generating really quite antisocial levels without losing control and more importantly, maintaining that infectious sense of kick that makes it genuinely fun to turn the volume up occasionally – an occupation I thought I’d grown out of.
Almarro is an offshoot of a small, family run business that for thirty years has specialised in the design and production of OEM electronics for the communications industry; they have been quietly making amplifiers and loudspeakers since 1999. In a way it seemed inevitable when one looks at the scenario. Head of the company is Yoshihiro Muramatsu, a selfconfessed music lover and audiophile who is not averse to building truly scary amplifiers using enormous industrial Russian transmitting tubes. Combine that with long experience of sourcing electronic components and the constructional expertise gained from his commercial enterprise and the results begin to look interesting, particularly as Muramatsu-san has some refreshingly down to earth views when it comes to high-end hi-fi. He has a preference for well-specified, easily available components from large companies as opposed to ‘audiophile’ grade types, where he considers consistency and quality control to be an issue. Similarly there is a refreshing lack of ‘glitz’ or additional cosmetics to flatter the basic construction; what you see is what you get.