Believing your own predictions is dangerous. So all this flapping on about The New Integrated Amplifier that I've engaged in for the past year or so has been undertaken with some restraint. But, hey, the Bow ZZ-One and the Krell KAV300i are real products, not imaginary. They're in the shops, not just on the computer screen. Add to them the reappearance of a Beard integrated, GRAAF's Venticinque (launched at the Hi-Fi Show), the continuing success of myriad Coplands and you can see why trend-spotters might suspect that the humble integrated amplifier has gone from caterpillar to butterfly. But an integrated amp from Audio Research.
Why Krell but not ARC? Conditioning, I suppose. Maybe I thought of Krell as less conservative than Audio Research. So when I and others begged Bill Johnson to pen an integrated - for Europe if not for the USA - he probably assumed KK was munching on the cacti in the Las Vegas desert. But here we have the CA-50. The Audio Research team responded with an integrated which combines their latest thinking with a semblance of cost-consciousness. And it's pure Audio Research throughout, despite the downsizing.
What it isn't is an 'entry-level high-end' integrated, like the Krell or the Bow. At £3990, it's substantially dearer and its release probably an act of greater courage. Until recently, integrated amps meant 'budget systems', even though there have always been integrateds selling in the low four figures. The leap from NAD to Audiolab to Copland to Krell is incremental. Audio Research, according to Terry Dorn, responded more to the increasing demand in the USA for space-saving components with greater ease-of-use and to general overseas demand, as it did to any demand for less expensive products relative to the regular, separate models.
More recently, the lines have been blurred by power amps capable of accepting a single source by virtue of a volume control. Plenty of single-ended triode power amps wear volume controls for direct-driving by a single source. The Audio Research CA-50 (and the Krell, Bow and GRAAF), though, are 'proper' integrateds in that they accept a full complement of sources and feature at the very least muting facilities or tape loops or remote control or other niceties.
But back to the crack about 'courage'. The biggest market in the world is still the USA; for ARC and Krell, it's their all-important home market. And yet the USA does not absorb integrated amps in the way that Europeans (especially the British) do. Americans quite clearly prefer an either/or situation: Either you're a penny-pinching, low-life, scum-sucking peasant who buys a receiver (tuner, pre-amp and power amp all in one), or you're a Real Man who'll only entertain the idea of true separates. The tuner element is what makes the difference, given that Americans have access to an unbelievable number of stations, whereas what little radio we do get (in the UK especially) is a pile of air-borne ca-ca. So radio is not a priority here, hence the popularity of integrateds over receivers. (Think I'm exaggerating? Receivers and tuners have always been the worst-selling components in Europe,)
So it looks like Audio Research, as Krell before it, admitted that its best foreign markets - Italy, the UK, Germany, Hong Kong - are healthy enough to justify the presence of an integrated amplifier. And if the home market doesn't recognise the worth of the CA-50, well, there are enough audiophiles around the globe to buy all that the company can produce...because the CA-50 is the most cost-effective way yet of acquiring the Audio Research sound, short of buying second-hand. And that won't get you the computerisation.
Yes, the ostensibly humble CA-50 shares with the luxurious LS-15 and Reference One pre-amplifiers the microprocessor-driven volume control and source selector. This may be an all-tube beastie, but technically it's very much of the 1990s. All of the toggles, therefore, are of the spring-loaded instant-contact variety, while the two rotaries don't actually rotate. They're spring-loaded, too, and you hold them in the direction you want them to operate. Then again, this unit is fully remote-controlled (except for power on/off), so you'll rarely find yourself using the toggles or knobs.
At a glance, it looks like a current-generation Audio Research pre-amplifier, although heavier at 56lb and larger at 480x180x380mm (WHD). Like a no-nonsense ARC pre-amp, its rotaries handle level and source select, the latter choosing between five line inputs. (One is marked phono, to accept a device such as the company's own phono amps, currently undergoing modification for CE approval.) Again in traditional ARC practice, there's a recess below the rotaries containing four slim switches, for power on/off, mute, record out and tape monitor. And, like the latest generation of ARC control units, the CA-50 offers something of a light show.
When you switch on, the green light above the mute selector flashes for about a minute, indicating warm-up prior to the signal reaching the outputs. This is mildly amusing, in that it might suggest a typical valve amp run-in time prior to audio bliss. Not so. As the CA-50 has been designed for the real world as much as for audio casualties, and as real folks don't want to wait for a half-hour or more for the system to cook, the CA-50 has the distinct honour of being the 'fastest' tube product I've ever used, in terms of reaching optimum playing temperature. Indeed, it was - during the review period - a favourite party trick, switching it on from ice-cold for visitors who wanted to hear it. And every single one agreed that this is one amp which you can treat like most transistor jobs.
Read more about the MA-50 on Page 2.