Published On: January 11, 2009

Pathos Twin Tower Amps Reviewed

Published On: January 11, 2009

Pathos Twin Tower Amps Reviewed

Pathos Twin Tower power amps were named long before the reference would carry another meaning. Their sexy, Italian styling appeals to Anglophile and audiophile Ken Kessler much in the same way that Unison research does. See which amp is better.

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During the worst - no, make that 'during the most obsessive' period of my love affair with Italy*, a pompous British wag railed at me that its entire industry suffered from a lack of imagination and a fetish for retro. He argued that, gorgeous styling aside, the Italians contributed nothing whatsoever to our passion and that I was guilty of glorifying a 'packaging job'.

Suffice to say, he was a manufacturer of boring two-way loudspeakers.

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Despite citing Unison Research's single-ended triode amps, GRAAF's success in making OTL amplifiers which work in the real world, Sonus Faber's patented crossover in the Extrema and its prescient sub/sat system of over a decade ago, myriad novel A.R.T. accessories and cables, Audio Analogue's severely under-priced electronics and more, he was unmoved. So I stopped arguing. And now that the dispute is long-forgotten by my detractor, I find proof-positive that the Italians do innovate.

Why it took so long for me to get around to reviewing a Pathos** product is down to distribution. However much free marketeers wish to crow about about 'borderless' Europe, few of you really want to import products on your own, sacrificing all local support. Now that Pathos is handled here by Italy's virtual British-based embassy - UKD - I need wait in torment no longer. Did I say torment? Sure did: the Pathos goodies are among the sexiest, sleekest, most beautifully-assembled gems I've seen this decade; admiring them at shows for the past few years but having to decline the offer of a review has been torture indeed.

On the surface, the Pathos Twin Towers could be described as a tube/solid-state hybrid, and our friend above could argue, 'So what's new in that?' But Pathos developed a topology to make it behave quite unlike most of the hybrids I've heard. With rare exceptions like the Radford TT100 (solid-state front-end but tube output), most hybrids use tube drivers to add a frisson of valve-like warmth. It's worked so well that companies like Luxman have been tempted to use it in near-mass-market applications. And while some have come remarkably close to that ideal of 'tube sound with solid-state convenience/size/cost/cool running', most have sounded like what they are: mongrels. No, I don't mean that in the pejorative canine sense, because there isn't one; any true dog-lover will tell you that mutts are far more intelligent, friendly and loyal than prissy pure-breeds. What I mean is that a keen listener can identify the DNA strands.

Pathos' INPOL circuitry is the latest in a history of audio cross-pollination, but this one has earned a world-wide patent, and it seems designed to confront purist prejudices. (See box.) MOSFETs or not, its demeanor is that of a tube amplifier, however minuscule its glass complement of two small tubes. As Italians understand the worth of visual impact, Pathos wisely positioned them at the front of the chassis in their own cages, serving as crafty sirens to distract anally-retentive valve purists. Behind the valves are four massive capacitors flanked by enormous black heatsinks, followed by the mains and output transformers, all superbly finished and resting on top of a chromed top plate. The Twin Towers' edges are solid rosewood and the unit sports gilded details.

Around back, a row of beautifully appointed, gilded sockets accepts four line sources plus tape out (a phono stage is in the planning), alongside an earthing tag, hefty multi-way binding posts, two user-changeable fuses and an IEC mains input. Beneath? Massive cones at each corner. All straightforward, but ask your dealer to unload the thing. Packed in a reassuring solid wooden crate, the Twin Towers is not something to be installed on one's own. Its overall dimensions are a manageable 482x450x300mm (WDH), but they hide a backbreaking 32kg weight. It's all that solid metalwork...

A curved front plate contains but two rotary control; recessed below it are an on/off toggle switch and a red power-on LED indicator. At the right are the input selector and the rotary volume control, sited on either side of a small display. Here's where the palms grow moist and where even rivals are driven to utter an involuntary 'Cool!!!': the Twin Towers comes with the slickest volume-only remote I've ever seen, a wand made from rosewood and gold-plated metal, bearing only up and down buttons in the form of tiny gold dots. The window in-between provides a numerical read-out of the level setting in bright red.

It's here that I must bring up the price tag because the model I'm describing is the top of three versions of the Twin Towers. But, as the price difference between the non-remote, 24-step entry model, the same-plus-remote and this, the remote control-with-64-step-resistor volume control, is only £325, or 10 percent of the £3250 total, the lesser models are not being imported. (The phono stage will sell for the UK equivalent of 900.) And you'd have to be some kind of masochist to skip the better volume control and the remote level setting just for the cost of two nights in a civilised hotel. The volume control is made in-house by Pathos using 1 percent metal layer precision resistors, driven by a bank of vacuum-packed reed relays with thorium contacts. Note that all internal connections are made with the company's silver wiring.

Given that we're talking about proper stepped controls, the act of level setting has its own by-product: audible clicking which at first seems out of place with such a refined device. But you soon use it as some form of confirmation should 1dB steps seem to small to your ears; conversely, you might feels that it's so delicious on its own that you find yourself running up and down the volume scale just to hear those clicks, reminiscent of the finest mechanical cameras running on long exposures. Yummy...

Read more about the Twin Towers on Page 2.
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Pathos rates the Twin Towers at 30W/ch into 8 Ohms. Its frequency
response is stated as 1-100kHz (+/-0.5dB), with an S/N ration of 90dB.
In keeping with both the company's direct and implied recommendations,
I stuck with non-difficult speakers including LS3/5As, the old Quad
ESLs and Tannoy's delicious R-1, while avoiding the ALR Entry 2M
because of its impedance. All wiring used was silver or silver-hybrid -
mainly Kimber Select and Siltech - because of Pathos' preference. And
I'll be damned if it didn't 'synergise' better with silver than copper.

And, oh! will you hear nuance and detail, naked enough to help you
to assess wire. This amplifier is so quiet, so delicate, so transparent
and so refined that I had to check and make sure I wasn't listening to
some ultra-precious, non-300B SET. Note that I said 'non-300B'; I make
that distinction because the Pathos does pee on its part of the
valve tree by dialling in excessive warmth in the mid-band. In this
respect, it sounds so explicitly like a modern tube amp of the ARC/C-J
variety that anachrophiles might take it as an affront. But then, in
keeping with the benefits of being a crossbreed, upstairs it
demonstrates a vintage tubey-ness through the kind of silky, sweet,
shimmering trebles you rarely hear this side of a Quad II or a Leak
TL12. Call it judicious use of retro if you must. It's so luscious that
a part of you wants to go into deep, irrecoverable denial, the kind of
psychological state which puts a Porsche in every shrink's garage: you
just will not believe that the guts of this baby are solid-state.

Then the bass kicks in and you just that no tube amplifier -
unless penned by, say, the iconoclastic Tim de Paravicini - could
provide the sort of damping, slam and bass extension as oozes from Twin
Towers. It's not that the sound is particularly transistory; it's more
a case of us never expecting a tube amp to deliver such chunky,
authoritative lower registers. And the all-tube amplifiers which
match or better the big solid-state amps tend to be rare, expensive or
huge. Think ARC Reference 600, the classic EARs with 509 tubes or
semi-pro units bearing a bushel of 6550s.

But, please, keep in mind that this is in the context of
easy-to-drive speakers with sensible impedance and relative efficiency;
I didn't dare try the WATT/Puppy system 5.1 or the aforementioned ALRs.
So, in a curious way, you have to treat the Pathos (unless you can
afford its beefier siblings) as you would an SET: fit mainly for
sensitive, kindly speakers. If words like 'kind' and 'sensitive'
suggest New Male warmth-and-fuzziness, please, spare me: we're talking
about Italianate behaviour here, not Californian.

An old joke about (admittedly American) Italians goes: What's
foreplay to an Italian? The joke-teller points to crotch and says,
'Yo!' The Pathos that kind of Rocky Balboa/Sonny Corleone
Italian. It's a product of the smooth, sophisticated gene which gave us
Dean Martin, most two-seater Alfa-Romeos, leather goods so supple that
you'd swear the crocodile still lived, and food so delicious that it
makes you cry. Tracks like Dino's 'Sott'er Cela de Roma' or Willy
DeVille's 'Assassin of Love' showcase its rich vocals, correct dynamic
contrasts, speed to cope with non-sequitur transients, and a
sound-stage so deep and wide that you'd expect pigeons to drop down for
a feeding. Try sparser works - solo piano courtesy of Otis Spann, for
example - and you learn all about the intimacy denied us by systems
which overwhelm.

Twin Towers is one of the finest amps I've ever heard, regardless of
price. And Pathos need never apologise for its limited utility,
especially not in a world awash with gutless single-ended triode amps:
this amplifier sings for itself. And, had I not just sunk my life
savings into my listening room, I'd be buying one right now. The Twin
Towers is almost too good, too innovative, too classy to be true. Just
like the Fiat Coupe, an Aurora pen,most Armani shmatte, a Morellato
strap, olive all'ascolana...

UKD, 23 Richings Way, Iver, Bucks SL0 9DA. Tel 01753 652669; FAX 01753 654531

*I've now settled into acceptance that I can never Italian...
**Twin Towers is seemingly named after an American architectural
achievement, while the company name is utterly invalid in this context
if you look up the meaning: to elicit pity.

SIDEBAR: INPOL
No sarcasm, please, for the lack of a circuit diagram: INPOL is a trade
secret, so the company does not offer diagrams to reprint. In the most
dry-roasted of nutshells, INPOL is a pure Class A, single-ended,
zero-negative-feedback output stage using power MOSFETs 'current
sourced' by a large inductor and loaded in parallel with a capacitor.
As you'd expect, the latter, while acting as a 'passive' current
regulator, prevents DC from reaching the outputs. A pair of
E83CCs/12AX7s serve as the drivers, and they mate with INPOL in such a
way as to determine pretty much its entire sonic signature; given the
near-ubiquity of the ECC83 and its variants, the sound can almost be
described as all things to all tube crazies - both modern and vintage,
all at once. A mix of both strengths and weakness, INPOL's downside is
relative inefficiency and hot-to-the-touch running (if not quite as
poor in these areas as traditional Class A transistor amps), the
requirement of a massive power supply and the need to face an impedance
of a nominal 8 ohms; Pathos recommends 5-6 ohms and above, and you
hear it cry if you connect it to anything dipping below that. INPOL
also means that the Twin Towers bears no protection circuitry, so
please, be nice to it.

Additional Resources
• Read more stereo amplifier reviews from HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Find an AV receiver to integrate with the amp.
• Discuss audiophile equipment on AudiophileReview.com.

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