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.
Probably the greatest contribution to the Personal's sonic signature is made by its entirely passive pre-amp stage. The input to the power amp section has minimum capacitive and inductive coupling, as Dunn states, 'designed correctly to operate with the variable impedance output of a passive pre-amp stage.' Passive pre-amp fans, take note and glow smugly; this stage helps to make this a transparent and quiet runner. A 'current mirror' operates at the pre-driver stage to ensure that the voltage rails track each other correctly. The driver stage has both current and voltage amplification using devices '...that could be used as output transistors,' a fave NVA party trick. The output transistors are two 12A Darlingtons per channel.
Because NVA fits neither protection circuitry nor filtering on the outputs, it's best to follow the company's directives. OK, so this is the antithesis of entry-level practice, which dictates that budget gear should be moron-proof, but NVA wants to do nothing more than provide maximum sonic for minimal outlay. And if it means treating the amp like a high-end thoroughbred, well, that's part of the appeal: for only 160, you'll have the same kind of set-up concerns which make S.E.T. users so edgy.
I quote NVA: 'Do not short circuit the output. Do not use bi- or tri-wiring or high capacitance or Litz-type loudspeaker cables. These could damage the amp as they create a virtual short circuit at very high frequencies. As a rule of thumb, avoid cables with a capacitance per meter of more than 200p.' In another instant of disarming honesty, the literature states, 'The basic circuit of the amplifier is very stable but it is not unconditionally stable. Anybody can make an unconditionally stable amplifier. You just put capacitors everywhere, but it will sound terrible.'
Hence the Personal uses the minimum number of capacitors, no inductors and low negative feedback in a Class AB circuit design, which NVA describes as 'unique'. The power supply is designed around a 50VA transformer with a 6A bridge rectifier and 'good quality' capacitors. (Again, the disarming honesty; others would have described them as 'designer caps.') As stated before, output is 15Wch, and NVA errs on the side of caution by recommending speakers with 89dB or better sensitivity.
Which didn't stop me from using the Personal with my beloved Quad 77-10Ls, LS3/5As,
Sure, I used the Marantz CD63 SE Mk II CD player and nifty tweaks like the Musical Fidelity X-10D and the Theta TLC, both of which are designed to lift budget systems out of the mire. But that wasn't the point. Pretending that I was yet again - God forbid - a student, with financial problems, flatmates and the need to have a system which could be packed up in a moment and fit in the boot of a Mini, I thought in terms of bargain hunting. Far be it for me to tell a company like Tandy how to do business, but some silly twat decided to dump the awe-inspiring Lineaum-equipped Genexxa Pro LX5 speakers for 99 a pair. For sources, I picked up a 'B Stock' Panasonic RQ-S25 personal tape player at Canterbury Hi-Fi Centre for 30. Brand-name personal CD players? 79 or so, with 'B Stock' for under 50.
Add it up: 160 for the Personal, or 130 in kit form. 100 for a pair of Pro LX5s. 30 for a 'B Stock' cassette player or 60- 80 for a portable CD player, both of which will come with a 3.5mm stereo-plug-to-two-phono cable. Even allowing 50 for some good 24in speaker stands and as the same again for two 3m lengths of speaker cable, by my reckoning, that's as little as 360 for a system which, with the Personal at its core, can do the following: Boogie.
Notice I said 'boogie', not 'bang head'. If you want to antagonise those living above, below or on either side of your crib, talk to some poor schmuck who's swallowed all the S.E.T. guff about '3W is all you need'; maybe they'll know of a speaker with 96dB sensitivity for 99 per pair. Even so, in a listening area which could qualify as either a normal person's bedroom or the kind of sty most students inhabit - 12x16ft - the NVA had absolutely no problems driving the Tandys to satisfactory levels.
But the sound? Sweet, smooth and surprisingly transparent, and that applies to both speaker and headphone listening. The sound is robust, with well-rounded, well-extended bass, and it wasn't embarrassed driving through B&W's PB100 Sub-Woofer. Stage width and depth were truly thoroughbred, and it kept reminding me of the dear, departed Rogers Cadet III which started me on the valve route when money was tight.
The NVA bounces along, sort of a Citroen 2CV of amplifiers, merrily making music but never pretending to be able to do the impossible. What it lacks in absolute retrieval of fine details, exacerbated by slightly dulled transients, the Personal compensates for with an absence of 'active' nasties. The downside consists entirely of sins of omission, exactly like the NAD 3020, which never sounded nasty. The NVA, though, never sounds anorexic, either, as did the gutless NAD. This is not a case of Amplifier Lite. The NVA Personal is a real amp for high-end wannabees lacking deep pockets.
Here's my advice: If you just cannot stretch to 300-plus for a complete system and you're dying for some sounds, run - don't walk - to NVA and beg 'em to sell you a Personal. Then, before the imbecile at Tandy learns the error of his ways, buy a pair of Pro LX5s. Next, go to any hi-fi dealer other than a multiple where the prices are as fixed as at M&S, and ask for a B Stock personal CD player. Don't let them lie to you: all hi-fi dealers in the UK circa 1997 are dying for business, even your paltry 50. Seriously broke and prepared to live with headphones for a while? Then don't buy the speakers until you can afford them, going instead for some 49 Grado SR40s.
There you have it: an amplifier for use during a Labour regime.