Motoring journalists, recently faced with the possibility of low-priced BMWs and Mercs, are torn between two types of conditioning. The forthcoming 'budget' Benzes and Bimmers (budget = VW Golf money) will mean that the two brands will have access to a far wider market, while peasants such as myself will be able to own a Merc or a Bimmer. The conditioning? There's the politically correct, egalitarian pose which suggests that 'it's about time', while the other states -- convincingly -- that every time a luxury brand goes 'down market', it's a disaster. Believers in the latter can cite the myriad badge-engineered cars like the VW-Porsche which found favour in neither camp, and can even turn to other fields, like photography, where you find plastic compacts from Asia masquerading as Leicas. So what happens in audio, when the purveyor of automotive-priced amplifiers introduces a tchatchke costing Britamp money? Can an entry-level weenie wear the same badge as a behemoth?
Me? I'm not convinced that it's impossible for a brand (whatever the product) to succeed at both ends of the marketplace, but I won't bore you with examples of broad price structures in the watch-world, and there are many. For the sake of this argument, those of you with a memory for price stickers will be able to name a number of hi-fi brands that span wide price points. But for Unison Research of Italy, best known to hi-fi show-goers for a floor-filling integrated amplifier with a tariff not unadjacent to that of a decent Audi, to introduce a budget amplifier which is redolent of the dearer models and which suffers no obvious corner cutting...well, I think it calls for a celebration. The baby of Unison's range, if imported into the UK, would sell for just �1000, hardly a bundle for an amp which looks like a billion lire.
Like other models in the range, this is an organically appealing device, meaning that there's enough real wood on board to provide a wondrous break from the cold and clinical styling of nearly all other amplifiers. The stunning Italian walnut upper surface and (right-hand) fascia make this a natural mate for any of the Latinate speakers constructed from the same material; because of the wood, it seemed so much more 'of a whole' when driving Sonus Faber's Minima Amator, as if they were, truly, speaking the same language.
This tiny unit -- it measures a scant 400x270x165mm (DxWxH) -- doesn't seduce its prey with visuals just because there's walnut above and in front. The entire layout is 'different', with all the socketry on the left hand side (tape in and out, CD, Aux, AV), the source selctor on top and the volume at the front. Additional controls include a source/monitor toggle next to the volume control, power on/off on the right hand side of the chassis and a 'feedback control' toggle on the top surface near the source selector. The rear section contains heavy-duty, multi-way binding posts for speaker cables terminated in just about any kind of connector you can find, with three posts per channel: a choice of four or eight ohm connection. A captive mains lead completes the link to the outside world.
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On top of the basic rectangular chassis is a metal enclosure protecting the circuitry from the elements, but the heart of the amp is on display for all to see. To the right of the source selector panel are the four valves, one EL34 and one ECC82 per channel, each fitting into a ceramic valve base with gold contacts. Not a lot of glass, I hear you thinking, but then this is no monster amp. The Simply Two is, after all, rated at a mere 12W RMS/channel. But it's an interesting dozen watts: pentode, true, but pure Class A. Which reminds me of another wee Class A integrated amp, one which by my reckoning deserves all-time 'classic' status, and that's the Marantz PM4...the SImply Two's solid-state antecedent. Conceptually, they're the same: small, affordable yet genuinely high-end integrated amplifiers for those short of money or space.
There's nothing too out of the ordinary about the Simply Two other than its styling and shape. One novelty other than the styling deserves mentioning, and that's the feedback selector, which either applies or removes feedback according to the position. What, where and how much I don't know; suffice to say that your ears, room and speakers will help you decide whether you want the extra damping/control of one position or the improved transparency of the other.
Despite my penchant for trying products in combinations that they're never likely to be part of, I resisted inserting the Simply Two between a �20,000 CD player and the kind of speakers which would eat it for brunch if not breakfast. What's the point when the company is not proclaiming Goliath-killing status for its David? Then again, why not give it its best shot, with a peerless source? So I compromised: I did my listening with the Krell MD-10/Reference 64 CD player, but stuck with less-than-ravenous loudspeakers.
Then I realised that I was missing the opportunity of assembling my annual 'Best Budget System', so I also factored in the Marantz CD 52 MKIISE, the Audio Alchemy DAC-In-The Box, the immortal Sony Walkman Pro and whatever other less-than-a-grand source-bits came along. What I did not do at all is tamper; in other words, I stayed with the standard valves, no tube dampers, no Flux Dumpers, no Harmonix bits and only 'affordable' wire in the form of the least-expensive XLO models for both speaker wire and CD-to-amp connections.
Ecologists and other tree-huggers will be pleased to know that, despite a lack of sheer grunt and the complete absence of exaggerated claims on the part of the manufacturer, the baby Unison will drive speakers other than Klipsch Heresies and Cerwin-Vegas. So pleaser forgive the death of a tree. Whatever this amp contributed to the plundering of a forest, it makes up for with relatively economic use of power. Its 12 watts drove, in order, the aforementioned Minima Amators (ideal combo for small rooms), LS3/5As and LS5/12As (preferred the former to the latter), Extremas (though only just), ATC SCM10s (ditto) and Lin LFXes (lovely). The idea? To find a great space-saving combo; I picture the Simply Two as the core of a 'budget high-end' package not just for the financially-challenged but for those short of acreage. Or, to put it another way, condo-heaven.*
Simply stated, the Simply Two is vintage tube sound encased in real wood. It is Italian styling and the essence of luxury with a price tag which will upset only those pathetic, bitter sorts who are anachronistic enough to think that Marxism Today deals with current events. It is an objet d'art and a practical, real-world appliance. It will satisfy the audio fringe element and interior designers all at once. Maybe the 'two' in the name refers to the number of personalities it possesses.
But enough of the philosophical worth of the Simply Two. Sonically, the little amp is something of a godsend, a little treasure to be grouped alongside the previously cited PM4, Musical Fidelity's A1 and a slew of under-a-grand UK-made tube amps. What's been needed all along are tube equivalents of the PM4 and A1, but ones which don't suffer made-in-a-garage finish. And that's what you get.