Do integrated amplifiers ever go out of style?
I have professed my love of the integrated amplifier many times so readers know my answer to the above question is a resounding “No!” If you add a designer who cares about sound quality and appearance, my answer becomes, “Hell no!”
The Ensemble Solo B-50 “Tiger” Hybrid Integrated Amplifier is housed in a compact trapezoidal chassis (14.75″ w x 8″ d x 4.25″ h) where a pair of ECC81s in the preamplification stage hand off the signal to a solid state amplifier offering 50 watts per channel of output power into 8 ohms. The rear panel hosts line-level RCA inputs labelled Tape (In/Out), CD, Video, Tuner, and Aux, a pair of speaker connectors, and the captive AC cord. There’s also a small connector located under the speaker connectors which powers Ensemble’s outboard Phonomaster Phono Preamplifier. As you can see, the rear panel is rather tight on space so you’ll want to avoid monster cables (pun intended).
The Solo’s front panel includes a volume control knob, input selector buttons for each input which glow red when active, and a rocker switch power control. Pressing the active input mutes the output. As you can see, the Solo sports heat sinks down either side which do the trick as the unit runs cool to the touch. To my eyes and tastes, the Solo is a treat to behold from every angle and a joy to use.
As I mentioned in the In Barn post, this particular Solo was manufactured in 1991 and comes courtesy of John DeVore of DeVore Fidelity so I paired it with John’s O/93 speakers for real-world synergies. The totaldac d1-tube DAC/Streamer did the digital thing while a Rega P3/Nagaoka MP-110 MM Cartridge handled the records.
The Ensemble Solo B-50 “Tiger” Hybrid Integrated Amplifier is among the friendliest integrated amplifiers I’ve had in Barn as it eases music into the room with silky smooth realness appeal. The Solo is also a midrange champ, drawing one’s attention center stage, nicely highlighting the lead.
While I would not call the Solo rich in the 300B sense of the word, it is on the lush side of the sonic spectrum with a ripe, warm, and inviting sound that lends instruments and vocals a nice fully formed feel. I easily slipped into listening-for-pleasure mode with the Solo at the helm, and spent more time than I’d planned just enjoying music.
Slapping my reviewer cap back into place, the Solo’s silky smoothness comes at the expense of über resolution, spotlit detail, and ultimate upper frequency sparkle. While bass is well-formed, I’ve heard more convincing body and slam. Back in the plus column, the space of the recording is reproduced by the Solo with speaker-defying presence and the sound image portrayed can be positively huge if the recording holds that kind of spatial information.
The recently reviewed Kora TB140 hybrid integrated amplifier makes for an interesting comparison for a few reasons. Both hybrids hail from France within regions specifically referred to by both companies as the “Silicon Valley of France.” Of course the Kora is a different kind of hybrid as it uses its 12AX7s in conjunction with Motorola transistors as amplification whereas the Solo is your more traditional hybrid with tubes in the preamp stage mated to solid state amplification. In terms of sonic similarities, I’d say both integrated amplifiers serve music up with a lovely smooth richness but the Kora digs in deeper in terms of resolution while also sounding more snappy and in control of micro-detail. I have to say that the Kora impressed me during its stay and memories of its particular sonic strengths remain vivid.
John also sent along Ensemble’s Phonomaster PA-2 “De Luxe” phono preamplifier ($490 in 1991), which I put to good use with my Rega P3/Nagaoka MP-110 MM Cartridge and within minutes it was clear the Solo loves vinyl (so do I). The PA-2 supports MC and MM cartridges (internal switch) and offers a number of loading options which are set using internal jumpers.
Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher, on “Blue with Kind of Swirly Silver Vinyl” mind you!, was simply exquisite with her voice sounding soft, hushed, sweet and nearly perfectly pink. I don’t know about you but there are times when sounds sound like colors and this was one of those times. I spun through a bunch of vinyl from Martha Argerich’s Bach, to Miles’ soundtrack to Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows, to Waxahatchee’s lovely St. Cloud and more and there was no doubt that the little Ensemble Solo plus Phonomaster sounded punchier, more detailed, and overall more engaging than its digital counterpart. Color me surprised, especially given the price difference between the relatively inexpensive Rega/Nagaoka combo and totaldac where we’re looking at a roughly $7500 price differential.
Back in its day, the Ensemble Solo B-50 “Tiger” retailed for $1980 which amounts to about $3700 in today’s dollars with the Phonomaster PA-2 “De Luxe” phono preamplifier adding about $960 in 2021 dollars. There are literally scads of wonderful current production integrated amplifiers to choose from in this price neighborhood, like the wonderful and wonderfully-priced $2,000 Hegel H95 (see review), but people in search of something with vintage appeal that’s uniquely lovely looking and sweet sounding may want to add a Solo to the hunt. Don’t tell anyone but that Phonomaster is a smashing bargain!