It was never Richard Dunn's intention to set me on a chase to find the cheapest tolerable mock-audiophile system one could muster. But he did submit for review the NVA AP10 single-input amplifier selling for a paltry £160 and decided to name it - after the photos were taken - the NVA Personal. And personal listening is what this baby is all about; it just happens to cost next to nothing. What NVA is offering with the Personal almost single-handedly creates a new genre of amp. Indeed, the only thing which preceded it with anything like a similar philosophy was the NAD3020, also billed in its day as an ideal starter amp. But I can assure you that what cost £89.95 in 1979 would sell for way more than the NVA's £160 in 1997.
And another thing: the NVA can be purchased as an easy-to-build kit for £30 less.
Where the NVA departs from the NAD3020 is that the latter offered a full range of inputs, pre/power separation for upgrades or the insertion of processors, a balance control and so on. The price paid by the user for these extras was some of the nastiest assembly quality this reviewer has ever seen, verified by the nightmares I still recall from my days in retail: projectile press buttons, snapped-off phono sockets and other ills. By worshipping instead at the altar of minimalism, NVA hits its price point without compromising build quality.
What you get with the Personal boils down to this and nothing more: A volume control. An on/off switch at the back. A headphone socket. A pair of speaker terminals. One set of line level phono-type inputs. That's it. If ever an integrated amp appealed to the fundamentally British notion that the presence of any creature comforts means cost-cutting somewhere else, then this is it.
There is but one concession to luxury, and - again - it distinguishes the NVA from its NAD forebear. Unlike the nasty NAD, the NVA is built to impossibly high levels for the price, right down to a handsome perspex front panel, a recessed red LED to indicate 'on' (which truly disappears when the unit is switched off), reasonable socketry and a pukka 3/4in headphone output instead of the increasingly popular stereo mini-jack. A case that's screwed together properly, wooden end cheeks, a chunky captive mains lead, real speaker sockets - this is the antithesis of the NAD3020. The Personal's 250x210x60mm (WDH) case design, like those of other NVA amps, was determined by sonic concerns, so it's glued together and insulated to stop induced circulating currents, and high frequency and high voltage static charge problems associated with less substantial case designs. Nothing looks like it's gonna break, fall off or do anything to rival the 3020's tackiness.
Performance also separates these amplifiers: the NVA can actually drive hungry speakers, even though it's only rated at 15W/ch. However much I thought that its size/cost/power/design brief might limit its use to that of a glorified headphone amp which happens to have a pair of speaker terminals, the reality was something quite different. It actually allowed me to put together a killer system for way under £400.
But first, some salient philosophical points from The Edited and Condensed Richard Dunn Polemic, provided free with every unit:
'This amplifier is designed as a low-cost, high-quality, low-powered amplifier for use in a second or "bedroom" system, or with high efficiency (89db or over) loudspeakers. It is equipped with a standard stereo 6.5mm headphone socket on the front panel. If dedicated headphone listening is required, then the loudspeaker cables should be unplugged (just the positive can be disconnected). We tried all forms of headphone switching, both mechanical and electronic relay-based, and they all compromised the sound quality.'
Dunn makes no outrageous claims for this amp, but he insists it's a 'proper' NVA product, just like its dearer siblings. Inside, the single input is routed directly to the volume control with silver-plated cable, the signal then fed to the amplifier PCB, also hard-wired with silver-plated cable. So paramount is the selection of cable in NVA philosophy that the company takes the brave/contentious step of listing the cables it deems acceptable for use with its products. And while its wires own top the list, the remainder include a selection ranging from Ixos to Chord to Rega to Qed to XLO. So NVA isn't above recommending products from direct competitors. Cool.Read more about the AP10 on Page 2.