Audio Research I/50 – The Road Less Travelled
Every once in a while, I get treated to a product that subverts my expectations to such an extent that I find myself thinking about it long after my listening session has finished. Much to the annoyance of everyone around me, I have found myself distracted over the past week whilst contemplating my time with the Audio Research’s new £5,200 I/50 integrated amplifier.
I’ve long since enjoyed Audio Research products, in fact, I think that if I was forced to name my all-time favourite sound to pound amplifier, it would very likely be the legendary REF75. The REF75 combined a speed and alacrity rarely found in valve amplifiers with an authenticity and passion rarely found in transistor amps. Long story short, I loved the REF75 and I had some very high hopes when it came to their new entry level integrated, the I/50.
Despite our recent bout of astonishing weather, as soon as the I-50 arrived it was dutifully ripped open and the team at Oxford Audio could have only seen a blur as I sped upstairs to the demo rooms ready to get it up and running. I already had a vivid image in my head of how the I-50 would sound; an expectation that largely it would echo it’s predecessors but less grippy and perhaps less insightful and sweet. It would certainly be a tough act to follow, living up to the REF75.
To put the amplifier through it’s paces, I moved the £4,999 Martin Logan Electromotion ESL-X into position alongside a Naim NDX2 streamer as front end at £5,499. My thought process being that the Naim would serve as a suitably transparent source to allow us to hear the differences downstream and the electrostatic loudspeakers acting as the perfect foil to see how much of the nuance and emotion of the music the I/50 could convey.
Immediately, and as some others have found, I was struck by the notable absence of sound. After some minutes checking my wiring and the output settings of the Naim, I rather embarrassingly discovered that the I/50 is muted upon start-up. Once the amplifier had been unmuted and my heartrate had returned to normal, it was time to get some music playing.
The first track that I tried through the I/50 was Rage against the Machine’s Renegades of Funk. I could not have picked a better track to show off the strengths of the amplifier as Tom Commerford’s bass guitar explodes into the room and I’m left grinning like a Cheshire Cat. Zack de la Rocha’s vocal energy and intensity is projected into the centre of the room, the amplifier showing a startling sleight to imaging and depth of soundfield. Before I know it, the track has ended and I am left alone again in a quiet room. In some four short minutes the I/50 had managed to convey more soul, verve and musicality than any £100k system I had played with in months.
Playing Friday Night in San Francisco by Al Di Meola, Paco de Lucia and John McLaughlin, the I/50 expertly paints a image of the Warfield Theatre and, in particular, Meola’s absolute mastery over the steel strings of his guitar. There’s a level of clarity allied to an exceptionally low noise floor that seems at odds with the valve amplifier producing it. Moving on to Bobby Womack’s Across 110th Street, the I/50’s rhythmic talents and musicality leap once more into the forefront. The weight and depth of Carol Kaye’s electric bass is matched with a pace and pep that cannot help but get me snapping my fingers along with the beat and grinning once more.
As the name suggests, the I/50 provides a fairly modest 50wpc into a 8ohm load thanks to the two pairs of 6550’s, a specification belied by it’s dynamic snap when playing Hugh Masekela’s classic Stimela! As with most valve amplifiers, Audio Research have provided separate taps for loudspeakers with either a nominal 4 or 8ohm impedance. I would recommend some experimentation with these as I found the ESL-X to conjure up a more open and uncongested presentation on the 8ohm outputs rather than the 4. A further glance at the back of the amplifier finds one pair of balanced inputs and three single ended line inputs, whilst this may seem a bit mean, in practice it’s likely more inputs than 90% of users actually use in practice.
Going back to my initial point about the I/50, I don’t think I was far off the mark in my initial presupposition; the I/50 certainly shares a lot of traits with Audio Research amplifiers like the REF75 power amplifier I had mentioned previously – however there is a reason that the I/50 stuck persistently in my head like an earworm over the past week. The I/50 managed to draw me in in a fashion that very few amplifiers have recently, for example – I WANT to take it home to listen to Zero 7’s Simple Things album end to end, uninterrupted. I have heard so many products recently that offer a performance so immaculate and polished that it seemingly loses the ardour of the music that it reproduces and in doing so leaves you, the listener, cold.
This unfortunate trend is seen none more often than in amongst the competitors to the I/50 around the £5,000 mark that invariably offer excellent measured performance but miss out on the elusive something that I am struggling to describe that the I/50 delivers in droves. The I/50 subverted my expectations by being exactly what I was expecting it to be and then simultaneously being so much more. The I/50 is an amplifier for those who are seeking an amplifier that makes a profoundly personal connection with the listener, It’s an amplifier for those who prefer to trust their own ears over tedious specification lists and more so its an amplifier for those brave enough to take the road less travelled.
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