Name the best-selling 'audiophile' budget integrated amplifier of all time. The NAD 3020, right? Even if it isn't – I wouldn't be surprised if it was outsold by some piece of junk from one of the Japanese majors, but I did say 'audiophile – the NAD 3020 brings a smile to most hi-fi nuts' faces because it raised the standards at entry level. Imagine if one of the key figures behind its success started all over again with the same formula for the 1990s.
But using valves.
Cynics would argue that you can't turn any valve-driven thing into a mass-market proposition. But Malcolm Blockley – for it is he – feels otherwise. And he's put his money where his mouth is by producing the AMC ('Another Malcolm Conquest') CVT 3030. It's a sly little bugger, too, looking for all the world like a modern 30W integrated amplifier designed to woo paranoid punters and suggestible reviewers. It could say Rotel, Marantz, Pioneer or – yes – NAD on the fascia and none would be the wiser. But it doesn't. It says AMC (Again, Malcolm's Company). And it's a godsend for impoverished tube wannabees.
You're looking at a black-finish (white is optional) , 430x112x290mm (WHD) box. At the front, bass, treble, volume, a true tape monitor and rotary source switches. At the back, gold-plated five-way binding posts. So far, it's standard formula, bar the recessed centre section which could be adjudged as a mere styling fillip. Then the details cause some head-scratching, even before you've lifted the lid.
Take, for example, the CD-Direct switch. It shuts of the speakers in headphone mode, or chooses between 'Normal' and 'Direct', the latter bypassing the tone controls. No big deal. Plenty of Oriental amps offer this. Then you notice that there's no balance control to bypass. What the designer did was choose the only sensible alternative: the volume control is ganged for left and right.
Still not impressed? Okay, leave the front panel after noting that even the headphone socket is auric-hued. Swing 'round the back. All of the sockets have been caressed by Midas, as have the three pairs of speaker terminals. Three pairs? Yes. This amp gives you the choice between separate 4 and 8 ohm connections. Closer inspection shows a phono section. Not adjustable, but then 47k Ohms is OK by me. But off with the lid.
Designer Peter Bath, whose long history in audio includes a stint with AR, squeezed in everything he could, resulting in a small box which weighs mere grams under 12kg. That's chunky stuff compared to the featherweights masquerading as penurious audiophile fodder. But lest you think that crammed innards mean hellish servicing, note that Malcolm Blockley learned his lessons after years with the NAD3020. That amp made a lot of people rich, but I'll bet that most of the benefactors were service engineers. Anyway, the CVT 3030 has a modular interior, right down to the tube installation, which I'll get to in a moment. Lots of computer cables and snap-fit connectors, daughter boards and sufficient space to swing a spanner.
The bulk of the interior is occupied by a whacking great mains transformer flanked by a brace of output transformers. These, it turns out, are hand-built by AMC's (And Malcolm Continued) American division In California, because the company wasn't happy with the pricing of outside companies. And, as you'll see, price has been an overriding concern. So read the rest of this while asking yourself, is this gonna be a cost vs sound trade-off?
All of the components are top-grade including (and I can't believe Blockley managed it) two pairs of bona fide, German-made Siemens EL34s for output duties. I didn't know that there were any left on earth, let alone quantities sufficient to satisfy a maker who intends to sell a few thousand of these suckers every month. But Siemens tubes or not, Blockley has no intention tube breakdowns adding to the collection of ulcers he harvested as the head of the late, lamented Hi-Fi Markets. For both sonic and servicing reasons, there are no valve bases. I repeat, NO VALVE BASES. The tubes are soldered directly to small daughter boards. If a tube goes, your dealer removes two screws, slides out the old board and slips in a new one, sporting a fresh pair of matched tubes. And Blockley – ever clever – has pointed out that this removes a connection from the circuit, all good, politically correct thinking.
(I don't want to suggest that Blockley is a salivating audiophile rather than a marketing genius. The removable boards also mean that the CVT 3030 can be converted to an all-MOSFET design using 1000V MOSFETS and will be marketed in that form alongside the glow-in-the-dark version. This will satisfy the pussies and wimps among you who can't bear the thought of tubes because of dumb-ass solid-state conditioning.)
Slip out the tubes and what do you see? I couldn't believe it, but the price includes a pair of whisper-quiet, top quality extractor fans. So the CVT 3030 runs cool, cooler than any Class-A solid state amplifier even though the CVT 3030 is pure Class-A throughout. Yes, kiddies, this baby makes all the right, politically correct noises, eh?
Overall feedback is limited to 15dB, and the drivers for the tubes are high voltage (240V) MOSFETS; the pre-amp section contains 14 MOSFETs. Despite the high quantity of internal bits, the layout is tidy and the signal paths are short, with most of the wiring sprouting from the transformers. And – dig this – the CVT 3030 is the first amplifier of its kind to qualify for the SEMKO Scandinavian safety standards. So look elsewhere for carpet-immolating fireworks
So far, so good. I can live without the option of messing around with valves, even though I'd love to have dropped in a couple of pairs of Gold Lion KT77s or RAM EL34s. And I wish that I could have separated pre from power, as in the NAD 3020, but the added cost of valve bases and more socketry would have upset the pricing.
Read more about the AMC CVT 3030 integrated amp on Page 2.
But what does this 30W/channel introduction to tube glory cost you inc VAT? Believe it or not, we're talking 459. And it sounds and behaves like double that. No kidding.
Sanity gripped me, so I started out with sensible partnering gear. LS3/5As, a 400 CD player, AR M1 speakers, the Oracle Paris with the Blue Point Special cartridge, TDL 0.5s. Nothing taxed the CVT 3030. The sadist in me took over, berating me for giving this controversial, possibly-a-milestone product a too-easy ride. So I sandwiched it into a set-up costing 20,000, the CAL Tempest II SE CD player in front and the Wilson WATT IIIs/Puppy IIs behind, with lord knows how much ART cable connecting it all together.
It was like seeing The Circus of Dr Lao when I was a kid: pure magic.
Before you start imagining that this is a giant killer, let me tell you that Audio Research and Krell and Cello and Gryphon and Mark Levinson and the rest can sleep easy tonight. The CVT lacks the utter finesse and unlimited dynamic capabilities of the big guns which cost as much as two trans-Atlantic returns on Concorde. Stay within the bounds of a sane system, and the CVT 3030 is unlikely to be stretched to the limits. Apogee Stages and beyond will drive it into gentle clipping. But back to the Wilsons.
The WATT/Pup setup is sensitive enough to be treated like a 300 speaker and is driven easily by the CVT 3030 with its volume control reading 11 o'clock in my listening room. At 12 o'clock, it was loud enough to still any conversations without showing any signs of stress. What I heard with the dial backed down to Spinal Tap's favourite number was a simply delicious stew of vintage midband, digital-era precision and the feel of classic tube masterpieces. All it lacked (remember that I'm talking here about using the CVT 3030 well within its power range) was the aforementioned finesse. While it's far quieter than most vintage tube products and a match in that area for current solid-state products if sited properly and resting under three Flux Dumpers, the CVT lacks the absolute transparency which is de riguer among the four-figure-plus offerings. What you lose is a tiny amount of detail, subtleties which wouldn't pass through most sub- 300 speakers or budget cables, let alone escape from a 249 CD player.
But who gives a toss? The midband is luscious, with vocals (especially through bi-wired LS3/5As) so real that you want to smack Ella right on the lips. Okay, so you can't hear every trickle of saliva splashing against King Curtis' reeds, but I'm not about to complain when the price is the same as a basic ink-jet printer. Which don't sound half as nice.
The phono section is no mere afterthought, but it really doesn't justify high-end moving coils. A high-output, sub- 100 Audio-Technica or Ortofon offering will suffice, the combination being musical if not 'definitive'. But the line stages are just clean enough to warrant a bit more on a CD player than you'd expect to mate with a 459 amplifier.
Perhaps the best sonic feature of this amplifier, the aspect which makes it stand out above the crowd even more than its seductive if slutty midband, is its spatial competence. Whatever the speakers, the sound through the CVT 3030 was wide and tall and deep, so consistently and so convincingly that it played a major part in suggesting that you might be hearing something costing a whole heckuva lot more than it does.
Still, some of you won't be able to absorb the importance of this product. Maybe it's because you crave separates. Fret not as AMC's next product (after the matching CD player) is a separated pre/power version of the CVT 3030, giving you your bonus power supply and added credibility. Maybe you can't cope with tubes, even thought the only practical difference between this and all of those lame budget integrateds is that you can't stack anything on top of it. Maybe you're worried about tubes on reliability grounds, despite me telling you that this has classy glass, good for 3000-5000 hours and featuring tube replacement simple enough for any retailer to handle in minutes.
Or maybe you can't believe that something this inexpensive can sound so-o-o delightful.
Don't expect a stiffie just because somebody switched on a CVT 3030. It has to be matched to components with the same care used in setting up high-performance, leading edge, terminal psychoses gear. It's fussy, as was the NAD 3020, but not as forgiving. You have to treat this as you would 'proper' high end gear.
So take a tip from old KK, especially if you're after a CD-only high-end surrogate that won't cost you more than 1000. Strap a pair of Tannoy 603s to the CVT 3030, shove in the best 249 CD player you can find, drop 75 on good stands and the balance on cables. Can you go up to 1500? Good. Add in bi-wired LS3/5As, three Flux Dumpers and a better CD player.
And you will probably want to add the names Peter Bath and Malcolm Blockley to your Christmas list.