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Lavardin IS Reference Review


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Stereophile - Mar 2005

Lavardin IS Reference Integrated Amplifier

By: Sam Tellig, Sam's Corner


Do a Google search on Lavardin and, along with Lavardin Technologies, the village of Lavardin comes up - "one of the most beautiful villages in France," according to the French government. That should be easy to check out; the village is less than an hour from Paris by high-speed TGV train.


Overlooking the village are the ruins of an ancient castle called the Chateau. It is here that Lavardin Technologies was born and has its facilities. Heh-heh. Only kidding. Lavardin Technologies was launched in 1996 in the nearby village of Montoire. Four years later, the company moved into more spacious facilities near the city of Tours, in the Loire Valley. Tours is the very heart of France. If you recall your European history, Charles Martel defeated the Moors in the Battle of Tours in 732. The battle took place along the Loire River. Whatever the exact spot, it must be a stone's throw from where Lavardin built its new factory.

I love the way many European hi-fi firms are located in picturesque and historic places. Audio Analogue is tucked away in the heart of Tuscany, a few kilometers from Montecatini. Opera Loudspeakers is half an hour from Venice, not far from the beautiful city of Treviso. Pathos and Sonus Faber sit among the architectural splendors of Vicenza. Pathos' offices are actually located in a palazzo. Even Triangle, in seedy Soissons, is a mere 40 minutes from the champagne center of Rheims.


Does all of this affect the sound? Je ne sais pas.


I like European hi-fi for many reasons other than the sound. Most European hifi remains scaled to modest proportions, with the emphasis on quality over quantity. European hi-fi avoids the gargantuan, the grotesque, and, for the most part, the hideously expensive.


If you travel much in Europe, you've likely noticed that Europeans tend to consume less of everything than North Americans-including food. They live in smaller houses. They accumulate less stuff less quantity, more quality.


Meanwhile, on this side of the Atlantic, many people-those with money-appear to be on a luxury binge. The middle class gets squeezed while the filthy rich spend their money on gewgaws like the $17,000, Swiss-made belt buckle I saw advertised in the pages of The Robb Report.


No one will be impressed by a glimpse of your new Lavardin IS Reference integrated amplifier. You can't wear it on your wrist. You can't park it in your driveway for the neighbors to gawk at. You can't even impress your audiophile friends. They'll be impressed only if they sit down and listen to it.


"It's a plain black box," remarked one importer of European gear. No sex appeal."

"It sounds great, but I doubt if I could sell it," observed another distributor. Too much hard work.


Enter - once again - Walter Swanbon, of Fidelis Audio/Video, the very same importer-retailer who has made Harbeth Loudspeakers available - and a success - in the US. I'm sure he'll do the same with Lavardin Technologies.


Sure, the Lavardin IS Reference is a niche product. So are almost all high-end audio products. It's for those audiophiles - more for melomanes, or music lovers - who want something simple, basic, pure, humanly scaled, domestically unobtrusive. Any takers?


There are two versions: the IS and the IS Reference, the latter with better parts. Fidelis AV is bringing in the IS Reference for $2995. Add $400 if you want the factory-installed moving-magnet phono stage. Indeed, you might.


The Lavardin IS Reference might be a perfect choice for a small two-channel system in a den, library, or office. Add a decent CD player or DAC and get a Rega turntable with a good moving-magnet cartridge - a Shure, Ortofon, or Goldring. Bada bing, badaboom. Speakers? I'll get to them later.


For $3000, you get a bare-bones integrated amplifier that's completely free of frills - and, for the most part, features. (Features-isn't that an awful word?) A remote control is optional. There's no balance control. No tone controls. No preamp out. You get a power rating of 30Wpc into 8 ohms, with no rating specified into lower impedances. You get a single pair of ordinary-looking speaker connectors. There's a tape output. For tape in, use one of the line inputs. There are four line level inputs - three if you have the factory installed phono stage.


If you have a moving-coil cartridge, you'll need a step-up device. French audiophiles tend to prefer a transformer. For that matter, many French audiophiles seem to favor moving-magnet cartridges.


Under the chassis are trois pieds (three feet). You cannot rock a tripod. The on/off switch is on the back. Indeed, the IS Reference likes to be left on and runs only slightly warm - enough to attract Maxim, our cat. (He's a Korat.) Be sure to turn the IS off during thunderstorms or when lightning is expected.


The parts quality of the IS Reference looks to be high - the parts visible, that is. Nor are the visible ones readily identifiable. The identification marks of some of the transistors have been removed, while other parts are potted inside four internal black boxes, two per channel.


Over the years, I've found that many of the best-sounding solid-state amps - the most tubelike, if you will - use a single pair of output transistors per channel. I've assumed that this has to do with the difficulties of matching multiple pairs of output transistors, but maybe it has more to do with the business of timing errors, of kicking the harmonics out of register-what Lavardin Technologies calls "memory distortion." Memory distortion-Lavardin's raison d'etre.


Lavardin claims to have discovered memory distortion, as well as ways to measure and eradicate it. Of course, they keep these secrets to themselves - potted inside those four black boxes, I presume. According to Lavardin, there's something magical about tube sound. It is said that a tube's vacuum (no air there) allows electrons - and, thus, musical signals - a free and easy flow. A signal that has to slog its way through silicon, on the other hand, has a much tougher time; the electrons leave behind ghosts of their former selves, which affect the music that follows. The result is that harmonics are knocked ever so slightly out of register - enough to be audible, if not measurable by conventional test-bench techniques. (I hear John Atkinson snorting down his English nose.)


"Audio circuits are not time independent," states Lavardin. They also state that changes - or time shifts - cannot be detected with traditional measuring techniques because such techniques measure static situations. The dynamic behavior of music is quite different. "Memory distortion occurs each time that the dynamic behavior of a system is different from its static behavior." And: "[T]he main difference between noise and music is their organization in time."






How often do we find that electronic components that measure well don't sound particularly good, and vice versa? Quite often, according to Professore Leopoldo Rossetto, of the University of Padua and Italy's Unison Research. The same is true of speakers. A ruler-flat frequency response-carefully crafted with the aid of a computer, perhaps - does not ensure a satisfactory sound.


Melomanes - music-lovers - suffer in two ways. They suffer at the hands of certain audio engineers, know-every things and hear-nothings who design by the book. They likewise suffer at the hands of barbaric audiophiles who don't know a piece of equipment that sounds like real music when they hear it. Is it any wonder that so few serious music lovers are into serious hi-fi? And I don't even begin to mention the expense, the size, the ugliness, the intimidating masculinity... (I like to give John Atkinson something to delete.)

Call it memory distortion or harmonic smearing or timing errors - it doesn't matter. I like to think of it as keeping the harmonics in register. I think this is why most tube amps sound more like real music than most solid-state amps, and why single-ended triode (SET) tube amps sound the most musical of all.


Think of a poorly printed color section of your Sunday newspaper, with the various color separations out of register. This may be akin to what ordinary hi-fi gear - the stuff that sounds electronic - does to music. If you keep the harmonics in register, if you preserve the truth of timbre, note by note, then the musical flow will take care of itself. Transients come across clear, clean, crisp. What do some of the French hifi scribes talk about so much? La restitution sonore.


Certain British critics, meanwhile, rattle on about PRAT (pace, rhythm, acceleration, timing), while Americans enthuse over soundstaging and imaging - and, of course, detail at the expense of music. Detail is nice. So is a good sense of pace. But not if you forgo la restitution sonore. This is the main reason I am such a fan of European hi-fi. Nor is la restitution sonore an exclusive fiefdom of the French. Italian hi-fi designers are onto it, too. Even some British.


I don't know what Lavardin Technologies knows that other hi-fi makers don't, in terms of secret circuits and proprietary measuring techniques. The thing that may be unique about Lavardin is that they have achieved this remarkably pristine, tubelike sound without using tubes at all. I hedge about this because I heard something quite similar a few years ago when I reviewed the LFD Mistral SE integrated amplifier. I wish I had kept it.


The Lavardin IS Reference pulls off the neat trick of offering tubelike linearity, truth of timbre, and lifelike immediacy - yes, palpable presence - while avoiding the heat, unreliability, and maintenance issues of tubes. It also avoids the severe power limitations of most SET tube amps - the flea-powered 3-1/2 Wpc stuff.


Listening notes?


I avoid all audiophile recordings and listen purely on the basis of performance and repertoire. I listen a lot to historic classical performances and pop music from the 1920s and'30s. Mono, of course. I find that, very often, the CDs taken from these older recordings - particularly when labels such as Naxos Historical and Naxos Nostalgia make the transfers - can tell me as much about a piece of hi-fi gear as whatever floats the boats of audiophiles. The Lavardin sounded marvelous with historic performances. And I can tell exactly when there has been too much noise reduction and excessive treble cut.


Aside from historical recordings, I listen a lot to solo piano, chamber music, and opera-areas where truth of timbre really matters. The Lavardin IS Reference delivered it.


This is not to say that the Lavardin sounded exactly like a tube amp - or a SET tube amp. It didn't. My revered Sun Audio SV-2A3 still does things that most other amps can't do in terms of immediacy of presentation. Perhaps SET amps produce an excess of second-order harmonic distortion, while the Lavardin doesn't. I don't know. But I do know that, in practical terms, 30Wpc is a lot easier to work with than 3-1/2 Wpc.


There's something else about the Lavardin, as British hi-fi scribe Edward Barker remarked recently on the Audio Asylum Internet discussion group. He was talking about Lavardin's larger integrated amp, the IT: "The Lavardin IT... was one of the few amps that can make the instruments hang each in their own individual space, and the speakers completely disappear."


Thank you, Mr. Barker. I couldn't have said it better myself. The performers and their instruments are right there, palpably present in space. This is why I intend to try out a Lavardin IT as soon as possible.


Ah, yes - speakers for the Lavardin IS Reference. Fidelis AV recommends the Harbeth Super HL5. This was a fine combination, though I could have done with a little more power in our living room. The bass response was tight and tuneful. I just thought it lacked a little impact. For the Harbeth models, especially in a larger room, the larger, more powerful Lavardin IT integrated, with 50Wpc, may be just the ticket.


With the Lavardin IS Reference, the great match-up, chez nous, was every model in Triangle's Es (Esprit) range, from the Celius down to the Stella. (Mr. Barker suggested that this might be so, and it is.) The Es models offer high sensitivity (90dB or better) and nominal 8 ohm impedances that don't dip below 4 ohms. More about Triangle in a second.


As I mentioned, the IS Reference's factory-installed moving-magnet phono stage adds $400. It's worth it. This phono stage is no afterthought. It's a gem. I hooked up my Rega Planar 25 with Goldring 1042 MM cartridge.I don't like to send too much business to Roy Hall, but I've always loved Goldring's MMs. Roy? He'll try to sell you a Goldring moving-coil. (The fact that Goldring cartridges, including the MMs, are still in production speaks volumes.)


It's amazing how good an MM cartridge can sound in a modest turntable. MMs generally avoid the zippy high-frequency response of some MCs; most MMs have higher compliance than most MCs-for less wear and tear on your irreplaceable vinyl. Some of those MCs are real groove-gougers. I recall, years ago, listening to some records at JA's house in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Some of the records were so worn. They wouldn't be so worn if you used a Shure, Chief.


"Yeah, sure."


Lavardin says that they listen to each piece of equipment before it leaves the factory. The ear, after all, is the ultimate measuring device.