I remember my first Audiophile. That isn’t as odd as it sounds, I’m talking about the UK magazine called Audiophile (long since defunct) that was briefly the new face of high-end audio. The reason I remember it was it was in the early 1990s and featured the Audio Note Ongaku amplifier on the cover. I wanted one because it was so fantastic, like something from a parallel universe. Unfortunately, it’s price was from a parallel universe too: I remember it costing slightly more than the house I was living in at the time, I believe. But the idea of a single-ended triode amplifier with huge power tubes never quite left me.
Fast-forward to 2015 and Kondo Sound Lab Ongakus are still way above my pay grade, and while Audio Note UK brings the prices of SET amps to a more real-world level, that level is still more than I could bring myself to pay for every watt.
Enter the Audion Black Shadow 2 mono amps: pumping out a surprisingly meaty sounding 25W from each channel’s lone 845 power tube in no feedback, single-ended Class A triode operation, these amplifiers take minimalism to the edge. Technically, you could use these babies as a one-source, two volume pot amplifier without a linestage, but in reality this is likely used with either a source component with built in gain control or some kind of active or passive preamplifier. There is a rear ground lift switch to help reduce any earthing hum that may occur in a system. There are also four and eight ohm tapped loudspeaker terminals (with, strangely, two sets of black terminals for the return) – but these are not marked as such: four-ohm is next to the black terminal and eight is to the far right of the terminal block. We suggest experimenting anyway, but eight ohms is a good starting place.
The circuit is very simple, with just an E182CC (a kind of super-grade version of the ECC82 double triode) in the line driver stage, partnered with the 6922/6H23N as a pre-amp input and the big 845 tube as power amp stage. The latest Black Shadow 2 differs from its predecessor in terms of adding an additional buffer stage, as well as some clever tricks to drop its noise level even lower than its predecessor. It is fully hard-wired with high purity silver cabling throughout. The valves are exposed and run hot, so site the amps with care!
Like many SET amps today, the Black Shadow can be upgraded through improved components. Given there is a relatively low component count in any SET amp (it’s part of their charm) this is a logical way to improve on a good amplifier design and the Audion can be turned from its Standard specification, through Insignia and Excelsior, to the full Signature level experience, where all the components (right down to the replacement silver-wired transformers and case wiring) are ‘no compromise’. Of course, you can buy your Black Shadow 2 in whatever configuration you choose or can afford at the time, knowing that – unless you went right to the top, there is always more possible.
Let’s get this out of the way first. You don’t buy a SET amplifier for its neutrality. You buy it because you like the sound of its sound. If that does not compute, there are other amplifiers that will be a more perfect fit, and you should lose no sleep over the continued existence of amps like the Audion Black Shadow 2. I know this is a forlorn hope, and what really happens is people who don’t like the concept of SET amps go all Victor (“I don’t believe it!”) Meldrew on audio forums. But this is a little like those people wearing a grey suit telling those wearing a blue suit that their suit isn’t grey. The blue-suit wearers know their suit isn’t grey and they are perfectly comfortable with that. Similarly, people who like SET amps know they are higher in distortion than push-pull ultra-linear pentode or solid-state amps. They just like what that distortion does to the sound.
While we are in full disclosure mode, a SET amp isn’t going to be perfectly compatible with every loudspeaker, even one as powerful as the Audion. And we’re not talking difficult loads; even some potentially perfectly compatible loudspeakers (Monitor Audio for example) seem to require an amplifier with more damping factor than the Black Shadow 2’s provide. A pair of ProAc’s Response D20 Ribbon speakers loaned from the Hi-Fi+ offices, on the other hand, might seem a less perfect partner on paper, but the two sing sweetly together. If in doubt, put your trust in the dealer or distributor or amp manufacturer; they will likely know what works and what doesn’t.
The Black Shadow 2 draws out the harmonic richness of music and its natural sense of dynamic range. This is the kind of sound that makes you argue over pianists, not cables, because it perfectly shows the playing dynamics of different virtuosos. If you have an opinion about Haifetz vs. Ricci, or Casals vs. Rostopovich, or even Argerich vs. Barenboim vs. Brendel, the Audion amp will be your friend. If you ‘like a bit of Mozart in the evening’, this is probably not for you. The Audion’s unforced dynamic shading and ability to move from fff to ppp without a hesitation makes music something that must be engaged with, not played in the background.
SET amps are frequently praised for their great soundstaging abilities, and the Audion shows why this is the case. The dimensionality of the soundstage in width, depth, and even height is preserved perfectly, and alters as you move from a small, almost claustrophobic jazz club (Art Blakey’s A Night At Birdland on Blue Note) to the scale of an orchestra in a huge studio. There’s a simplicity and lack of artifice to the sound that makes most audio equipment sound fake and mechanical. This obviously works best when working with music that is ‘naturally’ recorded and not too electronic.
All this being said, dub reggae sounds wonderful through the Audions. In truth, I’m probably not the right man to judge this, having only a handful of reggae albums in my collection, but like many of my generation I own a copy of Garvey’s Ghost by Burning Spear [Island/Mango] and ‘Black Wa‑Da‑Da (Invasion)’ is a bit of an occasional favourite. Fellow Hi-Fi+ writer Jason Kennedy periodically refers to bass as ‘chewy’ and I never quite understood what that meant until hearing this track through these Audions; there’s a real shape and thickness and texture to that deep dub bass that you feel you want to get your teeth into and take a bite from. Yes, you find yourself nodding along in that slow every other backbeat way you are supposed to when listening to dub, but those bass notes give this track a sense of real effortless flow.
That’s the word that best sums up the sound of the Audion Black Shadow 2 – effortless. There is no sense of electronics getting in the way of the sound, more like musicians have been fed into your loudspeakers (without the inevitable icky mess this would cause in reality). Whether it’s the lack of global feedback, the increased amount of even-order harmonic distortion, the limited number of components between input and output, or the quality of those components in the signal path, the net result is that this amplifier simply sounds great in a kind of “gets out of the way” manner.
In ultimate terms, the Audion Black Shadow 2’s effortless and openness means recordings that are not sympathetic to those musical goals sound thin and flat. The downside with living in 2015 is there are a lot of recordings from the last 20+ years that have heavy signal compression. While the classical and jazz idioms are mostly free from this blight, rock and pop recordings suffer greatly, and the Audion amps do not take kindly to this form of compression. Where less open-sounding amplifiers mask the horrors of this kind of peak loudness recording style, the Audion leaves nowhere to hide, and that will make a lot of new recordings hard to hear.
SET amps aren’t for everyone, but the Audion Black Shadow 2’s show just how seductive they can be. This is a beguiling amplifier, with the sort of effortless sound that wins people over. Correctly partnered and used with music not plagued by peak loudness, this hot running amp will inflame the passions.
- Type: Zero feedback, single-ended triode mono power amplifier
- Tubes: 1× 845, 1× 6922/6H23N, 1× E182CC per channel
- Power output: 25W Class A into 8Ω
- Loading: four and eight ohm nominal
- Frequency Response: 13Hz–34kHz ±3dB
- Distortion: < 0.1%
- Noise: < (CCIR) –90dB
- Sensitivity: Variable > 150mV full output
- Dimensions (W×H×D): 26×25×46cm (per channel, excl. tubes)
- Weight: 12kg per channel
- Price: From £7,000 per pair
Manufactured by: Audion International
Distributed in the UK by: Deco Audio
Tel: +44 (0)1296 422224