CLONES AUDIO: AP2 ‘giant killer’ preamplifier test review by Neil McCauley

Please share this...
Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditDigg thisShare on LinkedInEmail this to someone

 

  • UK importer is LW Audio (Mr. Iain Borthwick)  http://lwaudio.co.uk/clones-audio
  • iainborthwick@me.com
  • UK RRP £937.49 including VAT @ 20%
  • This is part #1 of a two-part test review and is an investigation of the product in use without its logical partners, the 55PM mono power amps
  • Part #2 is the AP2 / 55PM in combination and will appear next week

---//--

Clones who?

A good question. A new brand in the UK, this Hong Kong based organisation was founded on 12/12/12. This is what they say on their minimalist (another word for a bit dull) website:

Our goal is creating affordable components bringing you closer to the soul of music.

Our goal is producing ELEGANT, AFFORDABLE audio gear, carrying you into the HEART of MUSIC.

“But thou shalt remember the Lord thy God: for it is he that giveth thee power to get wealth, that he may establish his covenant which he sware unto thy fathers, as it is this day.” - Deuteronomy 8:18

The capitals are theirs, not mine!

Cynical? Who, me?

Well okay, fair enough – it’s easy to be cynical. Doesn’t every maker state something like this? Moreover the initial impression from the weighty but as yet unpacked carton was not entirely encouraging. Plain cardboard. Hardly an Apple product in this respect. The instruction manual is rudimentary, to put it mildly. Hardly an auspicious start.

But then it gets better; very much better in fact

Once out of the box I was struck by the superb build quality from the black anodized bolt-together case and the first class rear panel connections. Beyond superb in fact because within the price band (I'll be using this phrase regularly here because this review is written with this in mind and should be read as such please), this quality of construction is outstanding, possibly exceptional.

So, back to the maker’s blurb – ‘AP2 offers a significant step forward in capturing the subtleties, nuances and emotions of music. All aspects of the signal flow are enhanced with lower noise and distortion figures, offering a rich and vibrant audio experience.’

It’s easy to pick statements like this apart; all too easy in fact. So there’s no point other than to explore and possibly disassemble the phrase ‘a significant step forward in capturing the subtleties, nuances and emotions of music.

The vagaries of descriptive text

A decent copywriter with audiophile knowledge might sensibly have added the phrase ‘within its price band’. Without this caveat all manner of absurdities spring to mind such as …….. are they really implying it can hold its own against say an Accuphase C-3850, the LFD Anniversary Linestage, the best Krell can offer and so on? Of course not.

Before I get into the meat of the product I'll offer part of my conclusion and summary now. In my direct personal experience I am not only convinced that the AP2 really does ‘offer a significant step forward in capturing the subtleties, nuances and emotions of music’ within its circa £1k price band but at least into the £2k band and close to a £3k band.

Is this a genuine giant killer?

I'm assuming here that my sample is representative of the quality an end-user would buy off the shelf rather than ‘blue printed’ i.e. a non representative example purposefully built for a review situation. You think it doesn't happen? Well, think again! If my piece is truly off the production line and not 'breathed on'– and I have no reason to doubt otherwise – then I have to say that this is a cast-iron, copper-bottemed giant killer. If you’ll let me continue then I'll give my reasons for this statement.

The look and the feel

In a word …’ sturdy’. It looks and feels classy; expensive but austere. There’s not a milligram of bling here. I like this. I find it elegant but others might not. Everything feels substantial right down to the tri-point feet. The input and output terminals feel state-of-the-art and have a reassuring snugness when plugs are inserted and removed.

Operation is very simple and straightforward which is just as well as the laughingly misnamed user manual comprises a couple of poorly produced laser-printed sheets of cheap paper. Feeble is putting it mildly.

I suppose, like the uninspiring packaging the makers have decided that the majority of the investment should be in the product itself and that everything else is peripheral to the point of being irrelevant. I can understand that point of view but … personally I find it uninspiring. Anyway, that’s my issue rather than yours and I mention it for your information.

Ah ha – a design philosophy not dissimilar to LFD Audio. Cloned perhaps?

I'm putting the cart before the horse here, a bit. Later you’ll read how I used this pre with various power amps and ended up comparing it to two, the LFD Audio Linestage 2 (a vintage product, courtesy of Howard Popeck) and a brand new Musical Fidelity M6PRE courtesy of a friend.

The thing is that sonically the AP2 sounds virtually indistinguishable from the Linestage 2. A bit surprising and so I did a bit of investigating. I got an insight into the brand name Clones. I thought it an odd name and put it own to either (a) eccentricity or perhaps (b) a misunderstanding due to the difference between Hong Kong’s understanding of the word when compared to ours. I was wrong on both instances.

It turns out that indeed Clones’ design philosophy is to be “inspired” by successful and innovative circuit designs that deliver on the promise but possibly have emerged from state-of-the-art cottage industries. LFD Audio is such a brand. The implication being, yes you guessed it – a clone.

I'm certainly not implying a direct copy of the LFD Audio design. That said, they share a similar design ethos. Minimalist, uncomplicated and thoroughly well engineered circuitry that probably hasn’t evolved in decades but –  and this is the crucial aspect – loaded with the finest components that can be purchased within the financial build-plan.

How does it sound?

On and off, I used the AP2 for over six weeks. Using CD the sound was characterized by its clean, very detailed presentation. The low frequencies were tight and well-defined, but lacked the lower-midrange bloom of the much more expensive LFD and the very new Musical Fidelity M6PRE. Though this gave the LFD the advantage when it came to reproducing classical orchestral music, the Clones Audio edged out ahead on rock music, where its cleaner low-frequency presentation and greater subjective bass extension enabled it to score big time.

On the Tracy Chapman first album, the bassist does some real deep octave-dropping riffs. Via the LFD, it was relatively hard to hear the changes in pitch; the AP2’s pitch differentiation in the lower octaves was superb. I heard clarity and weight – two aspects of bass reproduction that so often are mutually opposed –which combined to give an excellent sense of musical pace. This was the area where the AP2 also consistently outperformed the LFD which otherwise offered similar upper-frequency transparency.

The AP2 also offered slightly but only slightly greater clarity in the highs, the LFD top octave sounding a little shut-in in A/B tests. (As an aside, the now discontinued LFD Audio Linestage 3 rectified this.) This clarity was sometimes a little too much of a good thing, however. While I would never call the AP2 high frequencies "tizzy," they were always noticeable in a way that wasn't so with the LFD. This was also true in comparison with the somewhat (to me) dark-sounding M6PRE, though this had rather more of an electronic edge to the sounds of voices, violins, and brass instruments than the Clones. Please note that the M6PRE was not broken in prior to its usage; being brand new and straight out of the box.

In fact, the Clones sonic ‘signature’ was refreshingly clear of hash, sizzle, grain, chalkiness, and all those other descriptive nouns that signify something delinquent in non valve designs. Its midrange sounded very liquid, its high frequencies clean.

The M6PRE low-frequency presentation and overall tonal balance were also more akin to those of the Clones, but with greater lower-midrange clarity as indeed it should at its elevated price. It also offered more image depth than the AP2, though, to my surprise, I could actually hear more ambience and longer reverberation tails with the AP2.

For example, the entry of the baritone soloist in the excerpt from Elgar's Dream of Gerontius, on the second Stereophile Test CD, illuminated the acoustic of Ely Cathedral to a noticeably greater degree with the LFD than with the AP2, yet the latter presented both baritone and choir as being farther away and better differentiated depth-wise. The AP2’s overall sound was the cleanest, most detailed, and most transparent of the three preamps, yet its presentation was not quite as palpable, the LFD consistently winning out here.

Where the LFD scored over both the AP2 and the M6PRE was in its presentation of image height. I know, I know, this phenomenon isn't supposed to exist. But on the Gerontius recording, I could quite clearly hear via the LFD that the choir was standing on tiered risers, compared to the orchestra, which was placed on the floor of Ely Cathedral. Via the AP2 and M6PRE, the singers sounded more in the same vertical plane as the orchestra. Weird.

To sum up the AP2’s sound with CD: On the very positive side, it was clean, clear, and transparent, with liquid-sounding mids, tight, extended, superbly well-defined low frequencies, and a good sense of pace; on the slightly negative side, the overall presentation occasionally verged on sounding lean, with slightly tipped-up highs, which could become a mixed blessing on recordings that were already overcooked in this region. Also, in absolute terms, image depth was not as well-developed as I would have liked. Nevertheless, it offered silver-disc sound that was consistently enjoyable and frankly – for the money – truly astonishing.

And with LPs, my minor complaints are of a slight lack of depth and overall palpability via the otherwise outstanding Clones PA1 phonostage (£772.35). Note though that I was comparing using the latest LFD MMC (£2,300) which means that within the price band it offered pretty much the best sound from LPs I have heard in my system. I used the vinyl issue of the first Tracy Chapman recording and sonically it swept me away. The CD may be excellent, but the LP rocks like a good'un.

What equipment did I use?

  • PS Audio P3 Power Plant (mains regeneration) and PerfectWave Power Base.
  • Harbeth SHL5 speakers on anonymous cheap but rigid wooden stands and occasionally Burton Somervell hybrid ribbon / cone floorstanders. Also JPW Minims
  • Stereovox and LAT speaker cables
  • LAT, Cassiel and LFD power cords
  • Black Rhodium interconnects
  • Modified Pink Triangle PT1 with Linn Ittock and Dynavector 17D cartridge
  • Clones Audio PA1 phono stage
  • Clones Audio 55PM mono power amps
  • LFD Audio PA2M (SE) twin mono power amps with LFD Audio Linestage 2 (thanks Howard)
  • Musical Fidelity M6PRE
  • PS Audio PerfectWave Memory Player with DirectStream DAC using i2s connectivity via a very expensive AudioQuest USB cable

The room

  • 5m x 4.1m. Height 2.9m. Fully carpeted. Curtains. No room treatment.

The music (mainly CD)

  • Christine Collister Live
  • Brahms The Symphonies Gewandhaus Orchestra / Riccardo Chailly
  • Tracy Chapman first album (both vinyl and CD)
  • Elgar's Dream of Gerontius, on the second Stereophile Test CD
  • REM (various)
  • Stereophile Test CD #2
  • Squeeze (various)
  • Buddy Guy Rhythm & Blues (Disc 2)
  • Dvořák String Quartets Op 106 & 96, 'American' Pavel Haas Quartet (Supraphon SU40382)
  • Wendy Carlos (various)

Conclusion

In just seven words? Okay, I can do this! Yes, this really is a giant killer.

A bit more? Well, though I can quite happily live with any number of loudspeakers (I have my favourites, of course), I’m more fussy about the electronics that grace my system. Perhaps because electronics act as a bottleneck on the signal, the quality of an amplifier or preamplifier being far more important than that of a loudspeaker when it comes to preserving or destroying the musical values of that signal. (I can adapt fairly easily to the tonal signature of a loudspeaker; I can't accommodate to a constant layer of electronic grain and hash.)

The AP2 joins that select group of components that I would live with in the long term, offering a very respectable sound especially coupled with the PA1 phonostage and 55PM mono power amps. Highly recommended, particularly for an LP-based system. I shall miss it – or I might buy it.

Epilogue

A slight nervousness, but not about the equipment itself. While many of us can appreciate, if indeed that’s the appropriate word, the economy of scale of Far East production, it seems with Clones Audio that this has been taken to a higher level than usual. Can their currently unbeatable value be maintained?

The importer Iain Borthwick (LW Audio) could not be more effusive in his enthusiasm for the Clones Audio brand and yet he wasn’t intrusive. I appreciate that. Clones have chosen to work with a low-profile UK importer and commercial reality means both parties are taking a risk.

My colleague Howard (our features editor) only met Iain once and believes his enthusiasm coupled to exceptional performance in the price band (and one, possibly two bands above) can make the brand a great success in the UK. That said, the industry is littered with examples of hard-working dedicated importers who having established a brand then finding the maker deciding to sell direct to end-users or move to a higher profile distributor and elevate the prices.

I've not a shred of evidence to suspect this might happen here. That said, I've observed this elsewhere. Were this to happen then it would be a pity.

The AP2 I had was a privilege to live with and is so good that baring similarly priced vintage pre-owned preamps in a similar price band I cannot recall a more intelligent way of spending £937 inc vat.

For LFD owners in particular who find the cost of their entry-level preamp, the DLS at £4,300 to be prohibitive, the AP2 is THE logical alternative given the synergy as a consequence of what seems to be similar design philosophies.

Technical

  • 3 unbalanced inputs with 100k input impedance
  • 1 output
  • 170(w) x 100(h) x 170(d) mm
  • Weight 4.5kg
  • Remote control

Please click HERE for everything we have on Clones Audio

Please share this...
Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditDigg thisShare on LinkedInEmail this to someone