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Lavardin Model IT Review by HiFi+


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HiFi+ - Issue 37 - Mar 2005

The Lavardin IT Integrated Amplifier

By: Roy Gregory



Section 1


Long ago, in what seems like a former life, I worked for an importer of exotic record players, a producer and distributor of audiophile vinyl. Like all such operations we received our fair share of unsolicited offers from overseas manufacturers looking for UK representation. More often than not they never got beyond the phone­-call stage.


Imagine my surprise then, when arriving at work one morning I discovered a rather battered, French registered Renault 5 parked outside, complete with sleeping Frenchman; surprise that quickly turned to embarrassment as I realised that Fordingbridge might be able to provide most things but a decent cup of coffee (as defined by the French palette) wasn't amongst them.


Still, Jean-Christophe Crozel (for it was he) took the lack of coffee in his stride just as easily as the fact that the partner in the company who'd arranged the visit had forgotten to inform anybody else about it, or even put in an appearance. He was, he announced, here to demonstrate his integrated amps. Thinking on my feet and wanting to appear at least polite, I rapidly arranged a visit to Pete Christie at Movement Audio, purveyors of many things integrated, including the well-regarded Shearne amps.


On arrival J-C unshipped two cardboard boxes containing small, yet expensive amplifiers of a design and presentation so plain as to please the Amish. No, we were informed, they didn't require warm-up, although a bit of care in connecting the speaker cables would pay dividends, as would a wooden support.

With no such shelf available, our indomitable Gaul seized the grill from a suitably large speaker and inserted it between the smaller of the two amps and the glass shelf of the Sound Style rack. Announcing himself satisfied he sat back with a beatific grin and bade us listen.

The rest, as they say, is history. The little IS integrated promptly demolished the Shearne (along with its second power amp for bi-amping). Indeed, it left just about everything in the shop sounding muddy and confused. Except that is, for its big brother, the IT.


Half again as powerful, twice the height and around half the inputs and no line-level outputs, this was the stripped down hot-rod of the range, and if we thought that the IS was good, the IT frankly left us flabbergasted; this from a product that had arrived unexpectedly and unannounced.

It was one of those hi-fi epiphanies that are, in reality all too rare, and all too often reveal themselves as false dawns. Yet we were far from the only ones duly impressed.

The performance of the IT was sufficient to open a serious fault-line in the edifice of PM's 25-year devotion to Naim electronics, a response that was echoed in one form or another by all who heard it. Here was a true, audiophile gem.


With stunning and brutally apparent sonic superiority on its side, along with the reviews to support the fact, the rest should all be plain sailing, no? No indeed! Lavardin amplifiers, through no fault of their own, were about to embark on the rockiest of roads.

First the importer imploded when the same partner who'd overlooked the original appointment managed to overlook rather a lot of company funds as well as his other responsibilities. Not a good start for a fledgling brand. Dealers grew understandably suspicious of the repeated assurances they'd been receiving, and the products they hadn't.

Then, tragically, the amplifier's designer was killed in a traffic accident. J-C was facing melt­down. The problem was that the Lavardin amps depended on a new topology and understanding of distortion artefacts in electronic circuits. The simpler IS could continue in production, but reverse engineering, even servicing the IT was so complex as to be almost impossible, at least in the short term, leaving the company without the jewel in its crown.

However, one dealer had kept the faith and Audiocraft duly worked as the UK distributor to shore up and slowly re-establish the IS, the tweaked and refined IS Reference and the pre-power spin-offs.




Section 2


Meanwhile, Lavardin got to grips with the IT and in the process of deciphering it and developing the IS Reference, realised that a new design combining the original hot-rod concept with the newly acquired body of knowledge could produce an amp that was even better than the original; which is what we have here.
Lavardin's original IT was as simple as an integrated amp could get. Four line-level inputs only. No tape or line outputs (because it sounds better that way): Only one pair of binding posts per channel (because it sounds better that way): No balance control or any other additional facilities (Because it... oh, you get the picture).

A squat, solid block of an amplifier with two rotary control knobs (for volume and source select), an on-off switch and serious heat-sinks on each side, it was prosaically basic yet somehow rather elegant.

But with only 45 Watts per channel and no remote control (and you know that it sounds better that way! *Although, JC is about to relent and offer a remote control option that will be retrofittable to older amps as long as they are the newer model) along with a £3200 price-tag, it was always going to be greeted with initial disbelief - matched only by the disbelief when you finally got the sceptic to take a listen.


Well, the current model, still known simply as the IT, is the same in every important feature, except for the power output which has been boosted to a more "acceptable" 55 Watts a side. Otherwise, the two amps are externally virtually identical.


The new version has a slightly nicer front-panel, with better profiling, while the surface finish has improved throughout. It also now has silver knobs rather than the original's black. If in doubt the only conclusive way to tell the difference is that the new model serial numbers all start with a 2K2 prefix.

Otherwise, set-up is just as it used to be. The amp still reaches full performance within 30 minutes, sounding absolutely fine within around five. It still prefers a wooden support, with glass being an absolute no-no.


In that it frankly, simply represents a wider truth by revealing that much more clearly exactly what glass shelves actually do - apart from looking nice. Speaker cables are best connected as bare wire through the binding posts, and interconnects should ideally be either Lavardin's own, the technologically similar Chord Signatures or Nordost.


Avoid at all costs high-capacitance flat ribbon speaker cables of the Goertz type as they can actually damage the sound of the amp, and in some cases its output stage. Check with your dealer before going for something exotic. I relied on my standard Valhalla leads and finite elemente HD-04 rack, a combination that suited the IT perfectly.


When it comes to listening it's immediately apparent that things are also pretty much the way they used to be. The IT's strong suit was always its phenomenal resolution and clarity, an effortlessly clean sound that made music lucid and lyrics intelligible. It's a quality that allowed it to seriously embarrass some seriously heavy­weight competition, and nothing has changed.


Of course, it's one thing having phenomenal resolution and detail - it's quite another being musical with it, and so many high­resolution devices over the years have strayed into the realms of the clinical, even the sterile. But the beauty of the IT was that for an amp with so many of the classic solid-state strengths, it was also fluid and engaging enough to charm a valve aficionado. It's a neat trick, so how does it do it.


The IT's secret is its ability to define not just detail, but also dynamics, not just space but also time. Take a track like the delicate and intricate `Bridal Ballad' from the Merchant Of Venice OST. The ability to precisely scale and place musical energy, to map tiny changes in level against time, means that the IT easily reveals the subtle technique in Hayley Westenra's vocal, as well as the perfect counterpoint from the lute that underpins it. The beautiful accents used in the three note phrase that close the first verse are absolutely beautiful, minor in themselves but so expressive in the context of the song as a whole, bridging as they do from the almost unaccompanied opening into the entrance of the full band. It's a critical point in the song if you are to appreciate the full expressive breadth of the performance. With the IT there's no chance that you'll miss it.

In this respect the French integrated amp is a match for The Vibe/Pulse and RADIA. It equals them too in terms of separation, overall clarity, transparency and focus – aspects in which the far more expensive (nearly four times the price!) pre/power combination is genuinely world class. In case you haven't got the point, this is a very impressive and very musical amplifier indeed.




Section 3


It is also one of the world's great all-rounders. Large-scale classical works like the Dvorak Cello Concerto are handled with aplomb. Murky modern recordings like Stewboss are unraveled with such effortless ease as the IT cuts directly to the core of the music that you completely forget the dubious quality of the recording. Rhythmically expressive, the music is underpinned by a tactile, agile and sure footed bass that keep things mobile and moving in the right direction.


The problem with replacing a legend is that there will always be those who question whether the new model is quite as good as the old one. Actually, it's largely irrelevant as the messy distribution history means that there are very few of the original model in this country, despite the number of people who wanted to buy them. It's also irrelevant because the new IT builds noticeably on the strengths of the old one. This is a significantly better amplifier.

What it adds to the mix is slightly greater power which translates to greater control over the energy budget. The current IT has more in reserve and that translates into greater musical poise and presence; the new design has all the strengths of the older model but a more graceful and solid presentation. It makes the performers sound like they have more time; it makes them sound like better players.

In fact, if forced to criticize the IT, which is frankly churlish at the price, I'd look at two areas. Despite its greater presence and solidity the new version still can't quite match the tonal range and accuracy of the very best amps. It has a slightly washed out tonal palette, better in truth than the vast majority of amps (at any price) but still a failing in absolute terms.

Secondly and in common with the original design, I'd dearly love to see a pre-out to allow for bi-amping. Given the relatively low power of the IT, it would broaden the range of possible speaker matches significantly.

Of course, the IT shares the Lavardin trait of exceptional load tolerance. Exceptional in the sense that asked to drive an awkward load you don't lose transparency, control, dynamic range or the frequency extremes the way you do with most, especially low-powered amplifiers. Instead you just lose a little maximum level.

Having said that, the IT's clarity and dynamic coherence is such that you can listen far quieter anyway!

By now, you should have got the idea that the original IT was a superb performer at a bargain price and that this model continues the tradition. In fact, it's gone up less than 10% in six­ years, while the fit and finish have improved considerably.

£3495 for a 55 Watt integrated amp that's devoid of facilities save the absolute bare minimum might not seem like much of a bargain but look at it another way. How about £3495 for an amp that can live with the highest of the high-end (and beat a lot of them hollow) ? Sounds like a bargain to me.


Because it makes listening so easy the IT also makes it inviting. This amp is just as accomplished musically as it is in technical, cosmetic, hi-fi terms.


There are better amps, but very few that are better in every respect, and all of them are vastly more expensive. If I ever get to the point of giving up my expensive toys, this is the amp I'll buy to replace them. Will I listen to any less music? Not hardly Will I get any less enjoyment out of it? Not so's you'd notice.

The IT really is an amp that's good enough for anyone, and it's nice to have it back.