Published On: January 11, 2009

Arion Nemisis Power Amp Reviewed

Published On: January 11, 2009

Arion Nemisis Power Amp Reviewed

SET amps are all the rage, and the Nemisis from Arion has a lot going for it to distinguish itself from the crowd. First, it's cheap(ish) compared to many, it also looks pretty different from the rest. Is it any good? We find out.

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In a remarkably short time, the world of single-ended triode amplification has created its own set of niches. Calling it a 'hierarchy' would suggest some sort of pecking order - and I'd rather not be so egotistical as to assume the right to creating it - so let's just say that 'lines have been drawn'.

At one end of the spectrum, there exists a group you might think of as The Establishment, companies like Audio Note, Alema, Cary, Unison Research and a few others which, by virtue of either influence, size or longevity, seem to determine the flow of the S.E.T. market. Another group is the still-young-but-bound-to-have-impact band of manufacturers from China (and there are enough to form a genre of their own). Yet another consists of brands which are thought of mainly for their push-pull amps but which also offer S.E.T.s, companies like EAR/Yoshino and Jadis. There are the original pioneering brands from Japan, the wares of which we rarely get to see over here. There are kit-only manufacturers. And lastly, there's the biggest group of all: the myriad small makes which hold special appeal for the sort of solderhead who wouldn't be caught dead owning a piece of equipment anyone's ever heard of outside of a show report.

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• Read more stereo amplifier reviews from HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Find an AV receiver to pair with the amp.

Far be it for me to discourage the cottage industry; indeed, I'd rather champion it and will, on my deathbed, remind my critics that I wrote about Croft when it couldn't get arrested, GRAAF when it was known only to a small group of Italians and scores of others. I say this only to let readers know that whenever we (not just I) publish stuff about small-ish companies, the big boys and the retailers go ballistic because they feel that the column inches are better spent dealing with hardware that you can actually buy in most shops. That aside, the object of this preamble is to point out that no single (hi-fi) sub-culture in recent memory has inspired the birth of so many new companies in so short a time in the way that S.E.T.s have. And Arion is one of those hoping to move from cottage industry to Establishment status.

Arion's Nemesis has two things going for it, which make it stand out in a crowd so large and so overpopulated that I'd like to nuke half of it. The first is that it's remarkably inexpensive for a two-chassis, quasi-integrated, true single-ended triode amplifier bearing a quartet of those holier-than-thou 300B valves. £2999 is still a lot of money to a lot of people, but it's not a amount to spend on an amplifier that will drive all manner of speakers (not just f***ing horns) and still give the customer that required sense of smugness which accompanies S.E.T. ownership. The second is that it doesn't look like every other S.E.T. on the market, by virtue of its granite-like trim. I didn't say that it looked good, just different. But, gawd, does it smack of built-in-a-garage, designed-on-a-napkin, hair-shirt hi-fi funk. And I'm one of those who's outgrowing audio primitivism, in the same way that my middle-aged spine and backside have determined that I'd rather own a Mercedes SL500 than a dirt-bike.

Nemesis (talk about an immodest nomenclature) consists of an amplifier section with a 330x390mm (DxW) footprint and an outboard power supply in a chassis measuring 230x230x130 (WDH). The latter contains the on/off switch and is connected by a fat umbilical cord to the main chassis. It's a multi-way connector like the one CAL used to connect the two halves of the Tempest SE, with 25 individually-screened strands. The main chassis contains two pairs of 300Bs delivering 18W/ch of pure Class A single-ended power (hear those swoons...), these output tubes driven by a 5687 per channel. The valve line-up is completed by a mil-spec 5814 per channel to handle the input signal.

As the front of the review sample contained a volume control (it can be ordered without one), I ran a single source straight in via the phono sockets on the back and by-passing the intrusion of a pre-amp for most of the listening sessions, in order to give the Nemesis its best shot. Input sensitivity is 250mV/1W, and I drove it directly off the Marantz CD12 K.I., the Marantz CD63SE and the Theta Data III/Pro Gen Va combination, as well as trying the various players through a couple of pre-amps (GRAAFiti WFB TWO, Krell KRC-3). The volume control also adds an element of flexibility in that the user can set the input level to match all sorts of pre-amps, as well as controlling the volume in a single source system.

Among the design details are such niceties as paper-in-oil capacitors made especially for Arion, an ALPS volume pot connected to the rear input terminals via pure silver wire, screened OFC copper hard-wiring used throughout, branded goodies including Beyschlag 1 percent metal film resistors and Nippon Chemi Con caps, and input valve bases featuring gold-plated sockets. The Golden Dragon Titanium 300Bs output tubes reside in locking ceramic valve holders, and all of the valves have separate high and low tension supplied individually. The power supply and mains transformer are completely isolated in their own housing. Two groups of three gold-plated speaker terminals to allow connection of 4 or 8 ohm speakers.

Read more about the Arion Nemisis on Page 2.

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Arion opted for a two-chassis set-up with outboard power supply and dual-mono construction on a single main chassis for a simple reason. According to David Campbell, a pair of monoblocks still has the power supplies and mains transformers on the same chassis as the power amps (unless you enter the heady realm of four-chassis systems, that is). With Nemesis, the two dual-mono audio channels may share the same chassis, but the power supply and transformers are completely isolated in that outboard casing.

None of which stopped this from being one of the buzziest amps I've used in years, a match for the Bees From Brazil. Fortunately, my room is large enough to allow me to sit well away from amplifiers during listening sessions, but that doesn't excuse the Nemesis. Nor is it exclusive to Arion, as it's an affliction which has affected most of the other S.E.T.s I've sampled, especially those suffering under the myth of the 300B-as-output-tube. (Or are the 845s in the Audio Note Ankoru wishful thinking on my part?)

After many hours of burn-in, as advised, I invited into my room the usual line-up of S.E.T. suspects: vivid three-dimensional imagery, sugar-sweet highs, a warm midband and bass that could do with 12 months on an exercycle. It was classic S.E.T. - no, make that 'classic 300B S.E.T. sound', but with a saving grace: the avoidance of a debilitating lack of power. And I don't mean only with the easy-on-the-amplifier speakers like the Wilson WATT/Puppy V.1 combination. I played with speakers as hungry as 86dB/1W, which is probably below the current international average sensitivity, and found myself just able to experience the 300B through various Sonus Fabers, LS3/5As (wonderful, despite the impedance mismatch, because they acted like high-pass filters), the old Quad ESLs (ditto) and others which just don't feel comfortable with single-digit wattages.

Remember the old gags about a form for writing reviews? With blanks to fill in for the brand and model number? For better or for worse, the Nemesis is textbook 300B-driven S.E.T., and you don't have to be a golden-eared veteran to hear the S.E.T. hallmarks of warmth and coherence and seductive highs and a lack of nasties. But then, that's why people buy S.E.T. amplifiers (except for the truly sad bastards who buy them not because of the performance but because they're almost terminally hip to own). And you can always restore the nasties by playing S.E.T.s through horns.

It's a curious mix of silkiness and lumpiness, a commanding midband and gutless lower registers. Even with its double-the-normal-complement of watts, the Nemesis is firmly of 2CV/Fiat 500 school of driving: yes, it'll do 70 on the motorway, but it takes a week to get up to speed. And so you learn to drive to accommodate that lack of power. So, too, with S.E.T.s: you either abandon proper speakers for the aggravating shite which travels under the horn banner, or you find fifteen big ones for a WATT/Puppy system, or you stick with 'regular' speakers and listen at lower levels. Although I have a WATT/Puppy system as a reference, I realise that most people who purchase 3000 amplifiers might balk at paying five times that for speakers. So I chose, without too much sacrifice, the third path for most of the listening. After all, I do not bang head. But I'm aware that others do, hence my carping about the sheer gutlessness of S.E.T.s. as a whole. It's almost like a return to that gawdawful, castrated NAD 3020 of yore, which also had people apologising in the exact same way. After all, Nemesis exists to combat that sort of utter powerlessness while staying in the context of a 300B circuit. And it succeeds up to a point.

The point is that of musical satisfaction . While the Nemesis will comfortably outrun most S.E.T.s of the 8W or 9W with a much needed extra 3dB of headroom, one is always aware that the limits are too easily reached. And that's a pity, because the Nemesis has a sound lush enough to border on the erotic. It's a bathtub full of whipped cream and a couple of willing partners of your preferred gender. But you can forget the S&M.

Given that - for a pound under 3000 - the Nemesis delivers all of the good bits of a 300B system plus an extra 9W, and it retains the weaknesses, all you have to keep in mind are the aforementioned provisos: either you go the horn route, spring for Wilsons or listen at lower levels. But the Nemesis (along with a few dozen other S.E.T.s in the 2000- 3000 bracket) is caught between a rock and a hard place. The rock is the EAR 859 integrated amp. The hard place is the Unison Research Smart 845 monoblock. And the only thing that eliminates the EAR or the Unison Research to favour the Nemesis is the incomprehensible need so many S.E.T. fetishists have for 300Bs above all other tube types.

Additional Resources
• Read more stereo amplifier reviews from HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Find an AV receiver to pair with the amp.

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