Call it 'chutzpah', that Yiddish form of cheek which has no equal. Naming your product 'Einstein' -- as with the naming of Southall's superb Indian dinery, Mahur's Brilliant Restaurant -- is a show of supreme confidence. The name, after all, implies 'genius'. And how charming of a German company to name a product after a Jewish notable. You've just gotta smile.
But this is not the cutesy use of names, no ephemeral labels like Soundburgers or Ninja Turtles. There's nothing at all corny or funky or trendy about the Einstein integrated amplifier. Name aside, it's deadly serious. It has to be, because the market is growing crowded with integrated amplifiers selling for four figures; in this case, it's #1350 inc VAT.
I'm at a loss to explain why big bucks integrated amplifiers are making such a strong comeback. The late, lamented Lentek, periodic offerings from Marantz and a few others always struck me as peculiarly British (despite their origins); our market is just about the only one which doesn't assume that the halves must separate above a specific price point. So the 1990s could be witnessing the growth of a new downsizing sector, one which prefers to have its pre-amps and power amps in one box. The Copland, Michaelson Audio's Odysseus and now a hefty solid-stater. Is it simply the NAD generation upgrading and not wanting to locate another mains outlet?
Whatever the rationale, the Einstein is designed without compromise. My first exposure to it was a couple of years ago at the Berlin Show, when the company launched the brand with a step-by-step display of -- get this -- how it manufactures the face plate. Frivolous? Not at all. They showed how a 25mm thick slab of aluminium was shaved and shaped into a gorgeous curved panel, finished in luxurious gloss black. Okay, so maybe it wasn't your usual audiophile chatter, but it made a lasting impression.
The final product oozes quality, with styling that rivals Primare, Gryphon and B&O for sheer domestic friendliness. All that breaks the sweep of the curve are an on/off button with red LED and two large rotary controls for volume and source select. The Einstein legend is etched in white. Behind this is a stainless steel case, the aesthetics of which I find dubious.
I know, I know: German hi-fi buyers love shiny metal. (You haven't lived until you've seen your favourite UK-made drab -amp facelifted with chrome plating...) But the company says that the stainless steel case serves another function: it's supposed to eliminate high frequency interference by acting as a 'Faraday collector'. They forgot one other detail: it's also a fingerprint collector.
The case forms a hood over the socketry on the back panel, which is a pain in the kiester if you're the sort who likes to reach over the amplifier when making connections. This won't affect you if you're double-jointed. Not that you have too far to reach: overall dimensions are only 133x430x335mm (HWD). Facilities include m-m and m-c phono inputs with adjustable capacitance and loading, a specially configured CD input, a normal line input labelled 'tuner' and two tape inputs/outputs. A switch selects between m-m and m-c. The speaker terminals are in the middle, near the heat sink and packed tightly together. Beware: the congestion means that it's easy for stray strands of cable to make contact with the chassis, so use banana plugs. (The Einstein comes with four, er, novel plugs but any will do.)Read more about the Einstein on Page 2.
Underneath -- yes, you have to look below -- is an IEC mains socket; the company provides a lead with a right-angle plug on it. The fuse is accessed from below, too. And then you notice a toggle switch on the underside, near the right-hand corner of the face plate. It's known unofficially as the 'turbo switch'. I prefer to think of it as the Dr. Strangelove Option. Which I'll describe shortly.
The Einstein uses bipolar devices, is dual-mono and not short of a few talking points. The main circuitry resides on two large boards, one above the other, with nary a scrap of wire to extend the signal's path. Source selection is via relays, as is level control.
The rotary knob is connected to a high quality regulation device which controls an array of switchable resistors mounted directly on the mother board. Set in two banks of 31 steps, it needs a switch to convert the control from silence-to-medium gain (normal) to medium-to-high gain (turbo). I hated, nay despised this facility, which I found positively dangerous. Had it taken out the drivers on the Sonus Faber Extremas when I switched on for the first time without knowing the review sample had a 'dicky' turbo switch, I'd've been predisposed toward dropping the amp on the nearby third rail at the BR station. But the designers are convinced that the relays/stepped attenuators make a vast difference in sound quality, so you have to learn to live with the turbo setting if you need the higher gain potential.
Another design quirk is the use of dozens of tiny capacitors instead of a few big'uns. Despite the extra joins and the need to select numerous components instead of a few, this method is employed because the designers feel that the sound is faster, with hotter transients and more rapid recovery. Speaking of recovery, the Einstein does feature a protection circuit outside of the signal path.
The 'tailored' CD input is almost soft-sounding. Whatever magic the designers wrought, all of the digital sources sounded better through the CD input than through the normal line input. Best news, though, is that the phono stage is not a token effort. In addition to featuring adjustable settings, the phono section is devoid of any capacitors or op amps in its signal path, and the RIAA correction is passive. The resultant phono stage is wonderfully quiet and precise enough to make it a boon for reviewing cartridges. Too bad that cartridge surveys are all but a thing of the past...
Fed with signals from the Sequerra tuner, the Lyra Parnassus and Clavis, Koetsu Urushi and Ken Chan Koetsu cartridges and a mix of CD players, the Einstein was asked to drive the Sonus Faber Extrema (not enough grunt), the Celestion SL700 SE (ideal), the Monitor Audio Monitor 1 (overkill but interesting) and the Apogee Stage (bliss). Like its most obvious rival, the Odysseus, the Einstein will drive all but the most hungry loudspeakers, which anyway begs the question, 'Who uses a #1350 amp to drive #6000 speakers?' As for facing off against the Copland, forget it. The Danish beauty remains a special case, working well only with hypersensitive speakers, or for people who find 60dB levels at two metres to be akin to an ear assault.
So unlike the tube integrateds is the Einstein that I don't see any but the most unsure of customers even bothering with comparisons. The sound, or rather its presentation, is so different as to make them mutually exclusive. And it's not merely a case of classic tube sound versus classic solid-state sound, as both technologies grow closer together the nearer they are to achieving perfection.
The most distinguishing feature of the Einstein's performance is its precision, and I'm not stretching the point to encompass its Teutonic origins. Its sheer power, or sense of dynamic freedom, is matched by the Odysseus with ease. The Copland possesses the same delicacy and finesse. But what the Einstein provides which neither of its most obvious rivals can is a sense of absolute consistency once it's passed a half-hour warm-up period.
Maybe I'm getting old, the passage of time causing me to lust after a Mercedes rather than a Morgan. But there's something about the removal of drama, the thought that one can expect something and not be disappointed, which I find appealing. This has nothing to do with, I hasten to add, reliability but consistency of performance. The Einstein is not moody. It doesn't vary from source to source or music type to music type. It's like a piece of laboratory equipment: neutral, steady, even-handed.
But it's never boring.
In a way it's amusing that this lack of emotion, of unpredictability, should prove so enticing. No, that's not the right word. It's not enticing or appealing. It's reassuring. The Einstein lets you get on with the activity at hand: listening to music. This doesn't mean, however, that it's (sonically) invisible, for the Einstein does have a 'personality'. However holographic the imaging, however rapid the transients and deep the bass, however breathtaking the slam of percussion, the Einstein does have a coolness which will make it sound too clean, too clinical to some ears. Maybe we need to see some sweat on the athlete's brow -- I dunno.
However you slice it, the Einstein is a remarkable debut. With the exception of power-hungry animals like big Apogees or rooms the size of shopping malls, the amp can fill most domestic needs; forget the 60W/channel rating. Its transparency means that it can extract the maximum from any source. But it just may be too good if you want some typically cranky hardware with occasionally surprising behaviour and intermittent vices, equipment which forces you to remain alert.
On the other hand, you can transform Dr Einstein into Mr Hyde. Just reach for the switch underneath the right corner of the fascia...