The REF160M monoblocks were a radical change for the venerable Reference Series, and now they have been transformed into a single, spectacular stereo chassis.
It has been Audio Research's practice to deliver stereo versions of its monoblocks after a suitable passing of time. In theory, the differences should relate solely to general monoblock-vs-stereo amp arguments: total isolation of left-and-right channels and separate AC sources for both, versus shared elements in the stereo edition.
But here it's not straightforward because the new model – hitherto called the REF160S – is almost too good. At first glance, this looks to be exactly what a stereo version should be: same rating, but a single chassis and a massive cost saving – roughly 30%. Otherwise, it's the same in operation and practice, again with the pain of valve housekeeping reduced thanks to auto-bias and the delicious user option of switchable Ultralinear and Triode operation on the fly.
Installation was utterly straightforward. The rear of the amp is fitted with stout 4mm binding posts with nominal 16, 8 and 4ohm taps and an array of toggles to select single-ended or balanced inputs, fan speed and auto-shut off. Tube hours are indicated on the back.
Initially, I didn't even bother to check whether I was in Triode or Ultralinear mode, the power differences between the two never an issue for me as I'm no headbanger. I couldn't wait to hear the thing but impatience is an ugly trait, and switch-on involved the usual waiting for the unit to settle down and come out of its mute condition. I was chomping at the bit. Those two minutes or so seemed an eternity...
It was worth it, for what issued forth was so extreme a jump in performance that I immediately thought about selling my wine cellar so I could acquire a REF160S of my own. As there had been so many changes to my system since I reviewed the monoblocks, I threw out the notion of using the same LPs and CDs in an attempt at repeating precisely the same test. Instead, I trusted my ears (and hundreds of hours with the rest of the system) to decipher the charms and merits of the REF160S. And it started with the bass.
Anyone who's heard the remastered, 50th anniversary edition of The Beatles' Abbey Road [Apple 02508 00744] knows that opening track, 'Come Together', is an exercise in bass quality, extension and expressiveness. Again, without looking at the colour of the LED to tell me which mode I was in, I wallowed in lower octaves I have never heard from this album. I even dug out an original copy to determine how much of it was the amplifier and how much was the remastering.
Suffice it to say, the REF160S amp will immediately gain recognition for obviating any arguments about solid-state versus valve bass. It was extended, taut and fast-sounding, but most of all it proved to be rich with detail in a way that elevates one's respect for Paul McCartney's playing to an even higher level. (Bass Player magazine places him No3 among the world's best.)
This amp creates a foundation for weighty material that I can only liken to moving from an 8in to a 12in woofer. And, that had nothing to do with power, because – once I had revelled in both versions – I checked the illumination to find I was in Triode mode. So I replayed both, this time in Ultralinear, and heard only a minuscule gain in impact and tautness.
Before passing judgement on one versus the other, I slipped ZZ Top's 'Gimme All Your Lovin'' [Goin' 50; Warner Brothers R2 591567] into my treasured Marantz CD12/DA12 CD player. It was the first time I had the strength to switch it on after the passing of Marantz's brand ambassador, Ken Ishiwata, knowing that he'd have preferred Julie London, but would have gotten a kick out of this peerless power trio. I wanted to hear that track both for the utter perfection of its percussive opening, and the raunch of Billy Gibbons' guitar playing.
Blow me down, for while I expected the Triode setting to be flabbier, the Ultralinear punchier, the difference was so subtle that it became a matter of personal preference. For me, the midband is king/queen, the extreme treble the trickiest bit if sibilance or edginess is to be avoided, and bass is something that usually reminds me of Goldilocks' porridge choices. And so it was here – the Triode setting favoured the guitar and vocals, while Ultralinear suggested an erg or two more power. But this needs clarification, because we are talking minute differences so barely significant that they almost gave me a headache trying to identify their strengths and weaknesses.
This is, I hasten to emphasise, not to suggest they are inconsequential. I prefer to stress vehemently that the two offer preferential choices, not absolutes. In practice as most bombastic music will mask the variances, personal taste will always win (the Triode mode is generally sweeter and less aggressive), one's partnering speakers will play a part, and you'll probably hear wider variations between, say, a standard LP and a 180g pressing.
Why, then, am I going on about it? Simply put, anyone investing this kind of money and commitment to a piece of hi-fi equipment – no, make that anyone who cares enough about sound to read this magazine, regardless of their fiscal standing – will deem this important. But I do not want to mislead because, whichever setting you use, the REF160S belongs in that category of amplifier that defines the uppermost calibre of performance. And it proved to be breathtaking when fed half-track, 15ips tapes on a recently-refurbished Otari 5050 reel-to-reel.
Chasing the Dragon's Big Band Spectacular [no catalogue number] featuring the Syd Lawrence Orchestra is one of the most natural, powerful recordings I've heard in years, with transient attack, blasts of brass and eye-watering dynamic swings that elevate it to reference standard levels – it's the kind of album that shows off a system the way our 1950s forebears used steam railway recordings.
Again, the choice of mode was down to user preference (a whisper more air and scale in Triode, a tad more incisive punch in Ultralinear) but the overall sensation – and ultimately that's what matters most – was one of an iron fist in a silken glove. The sheer scale and presence of a big band is something to behold, reason enough to account for the preponderance of LPs and tapes produced by the genre in the early days of stereo, and the REF160S delivered it with the needles rarely passing the midpoint, unless a crescendo so demanded it.
More telling were the massed voices in Mahalia Jackson's version of 'Go Tell It On The Mountain' from Home For Christmas [Columbia House DT3 5610, 3¾ips tape], which were spread across the room in a proscenium arch of clearly-defined shape and dimensions. Vocal textures? As lifelike as I hoped. Handily, the next track was the acoustic guitar version of 'The First Noel' by Charlie Byrd, and it was this solo instrument that revealed even more about both the amplifier in general and its choice of modes in particular. Simply put: it shimmered. In every way.
Hi-Fi News Verdict:
Even if I didn't have to think about cost/space considerations, Audio Research's Reference 160S has shot to the top of my Fantasy Sound System League Table. It does everything I want, with style, grace and – like a pussy cat suddenly discovering its inner lion – power to spare. It's not often I feel a gnawing tug when a review unit is collected, but waving goodbye to the REF160S was a wrench I didn't anticipate.
Source: HiFi News Review by Ken Kessler, Lab: Paul Miller, Apr 28, 2020
JL Audio's 'little' E-110 made quite a splash last year. Capable of producing agile and impactful bass, it surprised us by what could be accomplished with a relatively small driver. As good as it was, however, it couldn't dig down to the lowest frequencies, which remain the domain of larger drive units.
So what of its bigger brother, the Fathom F113 V2?
The manufacturer claims a frequency response of 20-86Hz (±1.5dB), 18-127Hz (-3dB) and 16-154Hz (-10dB), and so it promises good things…
Silvio Pupino, JL Audio's International Sales Director, assured me the Fathom is capable of achieving flare-flapping bass without overpowering the subtlest of recordings, going on to say that – as someone once said – “it floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee…”
The big Fathom uses a sealed enclosure to house its 13.5” driver; in fact, it's the same unit seen in the larger Gotham series subwoofers. Model design similarities aside, as with all JL subs it doesn't use off-the-shelf components – its driver, enclosure and electronics are all developed in house.
The W7 driver, for instance, is covered by no less than six US patents, among them the Fathom's large OverRoll Surround. This, Silvio explains, maximises the cone's radiating surface and provides huge excursion capability by bringing the surround to the outer edge of the driver frame. It also results in a larger cone surface. The driver, which uses JL's proprietary W cone design utilises a patented architectural reinforcement technique which allows rapid changes in speed and direction without distortion.
The frame uses a rigid cast aluminium design coupled to a powerful magnet assembly. Powerful magnet systems such as the one found in the Fathom, tend to generate excessive heat which in turn causes distortion or even premature failure. To avoid this, the F113 V2 uses JL Audio's Elevated Frame Cooling system which delivers cool air from slots above the top-plate directly to the voice coil of the speaker. It receives further cooling from JL Audio's Radially Cross-Drilled Pole technology, Silvio says. This not only enhances thermal dissipation and power-handling but improves sound quality and linearity by minimising dynamic parameter shifts and power compression.
Of course, moving a driver of such power and speed necessitates enormous amounts of energy. To this end, the F113 employs a Class D power amplifier capable of delivering a claimed 3,000W RMS peak power – yes, you read that right! Along with upgraded input and output circuits for superior signal linearity and better noise performance, the F113 V2 sports a twenty per cent increase in power over the V1. Unlike the smaller E-110, the F113 V2 offers parametric EQ in the form of JL Audio's proprietary DARO or Digital Automatic Room Optimization.
Where I described the E-110 as svelte, the F113 V2 is anything but. When the 100kg box containing the Fathom arrived, it was abundantly clear this was a piece of equipment that wasn't going to come and go without raising eyebrows. For those hoping to sneak the Fathom into their system, you have been warned. It was also apparent JL Audio wasn't taking unnecessary risks when it came to transporting the big sub. The bottom of the box is reinforced by a purpose-built wooden pallet and 'doughnut style' feet, upon which the sub and its packaging rest. As you might imagine, unpacking the Fathom isn't a solitary undertaking. Free from packaging and the cloth bag which protects the finish, it weighs in at a back-breaking 60kgs. At 419x489x489mm it's anything but inconspicuous, yet rest assured that it's a beautifully crafted speaker, with a finish that's second to none. And while piano gloss-black wouldn't have been my first choice of finish for a home theatre due to its reflective nature, it does give the Fathom a striking appearance. The infinite baffle cabinet is finished with rounded edges that you don't see in many subwoofers, and the fabric speaker grill is magnetically affixed to the front of the Fathom. Removing it reveals the business end of things, that chunky woofer snuggly nestled into the OverRoll Surround. You'll also find all the controls under the grill. These consist of level, power and input modes, as well as controls for the low pass filter mode (off and 12dB or 24dB), a variable crossover from 30 to 130Hz, polarity (0 or 180), variable phase from 0-to 280-degree and trim controls. DARO's control panel also resides here, which along with an input for the calibration microphone offers all of the necessary controls to calibrate the Fathom. It's at the back of the sub that you find unbalanced RCA connections and balanced Neutrik combo XLR/TRS jacks. There's also an XLR output to connect a second Fathom as a slave unit. My hardwood floors were grateful for the absence of spikes and the inclusion of four sturdy rubber feet upon which this sub sits. With limited placement options, this big box ultimately found itself in the left-hand corner of my room, roughly 400mm from the back wall and 600mm in from the sidewall. The subwoofer's internal crossover was defeated, the Fathom connected directly to the sub output of my Anthem MRX-720 AV receiver.
JL Audio recommends that DARO calibration is run before any other room correction software. And while I did audition the Fathom with and without DARO, it couldn't be any simpler to use. Plug the microphone into the corresponding input on the sub, press the calibrate button and you're away, at least after a ten-second pause, giving you time enough to find your seat before the test-tones start. The process takes just a few minutes to complete.
Additional room correction (EQ) was completed with ARC Genesis. ARC also weaved its magic with the other loudspeakers in the system – VAF Signature i91 front and centres and i90 rear and overhead speakers, making for a 5.1.2 speaker layout. The video was handled by a Sony VPL-VW270ES 4K projector, Panasonic UB-9000 4K Blu-ray player and Apple TV with images projected on to a Severtson Cinegray 100” 16.9 projector screen.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, the big Fathom couldn't quite match the speed and grip of my usual 10” VAF Veritas subs, or for that matter JL Audio's smaller E-110. What is surprising is how little the bigger sub yielded in terms of speed to the smaller ones. Its speed ensures that it complements the extension of the main speakers, without overwhelming them. Able to fill the listening room with powerful, visceral bass, it has real ability to dig in to lower frequencies, making for an exciting listening experience. Action films are what typically come to mind when evaluating subwoofers, yet a good one can add an extra layer of detail to even the subtlest of movie fare. Unusual for horror movies, Anabelle Comes Home has its share of ambient cues designed to unsettle the viewer, intermingled with the soundtrack and of course, more than a few jump-scares. Here it added welcome extension to the eerie Dolby Atmos soundtrack without getting in the way of the other speakers. More often than not, the extension was felt rather than heard, making for a more engaging and exciting – if somewhat terrifying – listening experience.
Although many will favour the Fathom for its low-end extension, some may find the more tactile experience a little overwhelming. Such was the experience of my wife, herself no novice and usually at my side to audition/review gear in our own home theatre. When asked to be, this subwoofer can be the politest of guests, never intruding where unwanted. Yet feed it the likes of Fury and all bets are off.
As ferocious as the exchange between the American Sherman tanks and German infantry and AT guns, was the ferocity and speed with which this sub reproduced it. Watching this film on a good home theatre system is an experience that needs to be experienced to appreciate. Fed with a constant stream of material such as John Wick and Ready Player One, the Fathom F113 V2 continued to show its prowess in creating some of the most memorable home theatre experiences I've had in my listening room.
Loftier even than the Fathom F113 V2's asking price is its ambition to combine visceral bass with the speed of a smaller driver. This is an audacious goal, yet one that the JL Audio team has successfully pulled off. Okay, so it isn't quite as fast as the 10” subwoofers that we've had in through our home theatre of late – but the difference is surprisingly small. Coupled with its ability to dig into the lower octaves, this subwoofer engages the viewer on a whole new level, one that's more felt than heard.
Source: Stereonet Review by Tony O'Brien, Apr 1, 2020