Offensive, I know, but I'm about to rave about a product to a point where it may seem that I'm suggesting it has no rivals. But such is hi-fi. Every once in a while a berserker rears its head, wreaking havoc in its market sector. But what is the YBA Integre's market sector?
Think about it. £999 integrated amplifiers aren't all that common, and for a very good reason: you can buy decent separate pre/power combinations for under £500. And there ain't an audiophile on the planet who'll tell you that an integrated amplifier is a wise choice when you can afford separates. At the very least, separates offer better upgrade capability. And they provide dedicated power supplies for pre and power amp duties.
But the YBA is something else. First, it addresses a real need that many audiophiles choose to ignore regarding their less fortunate colleagues: the Integre is tiny, so music lovers short on space (or mains outlets) can add it to their shopping list. Not all of us have the space or even the inclination to house lots of boxes. The Integre is a 1U, 430mm-ish box the size of most high-end pre-amps. And yet it houses a superb 50W/channel stereo power amplifier as well as a pre-amp.
Secondly, it reeks of high-end touches. Those of you who have examined YBA products will know that the build quality is superb, the component selection of gourmet standard and the styling elegant in a way that only the French can achieve (when they're not being Citroenishly bizarre). So, for under a grand, YBA is offering you a ticket to heaven. And you need only one mains outlet.
As with most modern, intellisgently 'balanced' specialist products, the YBA is minimalist without being ridiculous. Its beautifully finished fascia contains but three knobs. To the left of centre is the record selector accommodating five sources (including phono) and an 'off' position. Next is the power-on LED. Then there's a second rotary control to select the five sources plus tape. Lastly is the volume control.
The on/off toggle is situated underneath the left hand corner of the panel, almost willing you to leave it on all the time. This isn't bad advice because the Integre takes a good half-hour from ice-cold to reach optimum operating conditions. At the back, it's all nicely finished with YBA's own proprietary socketry, the hardware well-spaced and solidly fitted. There's an extra pair of speaker terminals to facilitate bi-wiring.
Under the lid, yu can't help noticing the hefty 'double C' transformer for improved mains filtering and compression-free behaviour under adverse conditions; it's situated as far as possible from the main circuitry. The seeming surfeit of space is deliberate, by the way, as YBA's design philosophy includes strong feelings about the relative positioning of components and the breathing space allowed for each section. Still, the signal paths are short, with wiring kept to a minimum and with the components mounted to the double-thickness circuit board with special, high-silver-content solder.
The use of the words 'special' or 'proprietary' may start to sound boring, but YBA does manufacture an inordinate amount of the innards, or the company sources components unique to its own applications. Among the ground rules for YBA products, shared by the Integre, are star earthing, extensive use of non-magnetic materials, custom-made YBA metal film resistors and YBA polypropylene and copper capacitors, YBA's own OFHC long-crystal copper cabling for all internal wiring, the aforementioned special solder, custom-made transistors, 'triple' potentiometers and on and on. Which makes you wonder how the company can produce such a relatively inexpensive unit with minimal use of off-the-shelf (and therefore money-saving) ingredients.
Actually, it shouldn't be too surprising, as YBA's track record as a manufacturer is half-based on whole units and half-based on cables, components and accessories. In a sense, YBA-branded hardware acts as an advert for the company's sockets, wires, resistors and so on, while demonstrating the company's faith in its own products.
The Integre is a no-mystery product, requiring little in the way of tweakery. There is an optional 'MC Module' available for phono cartridges needing more gain than the standard 47k ohm input provides, but that aside, you can plug in and go. One unusual touch is that the Integre rests of three rather than four feet, so leaning on the top will tip the unit, but that and the underslung on/off switch are all that's there to remind you of its Gallic origins.
Despite a reputation as one of Europe's weirder tweakers, designer Yves Bernard Andre (remember his hanging-thread-at-the-headsheel bias device?) is surprisingly sane. Rather than produce a temperamental or too-radical product, Andre has merely exercised most modern practices and featured them in the design. The power supply considerations, negligible feedback, the basic topology, the calibre of the components -- this is all good stuff which should be the norm. In the near-decade that I've been observing YBA the only reservations I've had have been concerning the company's speaker cable, which I find too sharp and toppy.
Sufficient YBA cable was supplied with the unit but it did nothing (to my ears I hasten to add) to show off the Integre. So, despite my upcoming, closing paragraph, the intial listening was not enjoyable. Then I swapped the YBA wire for Symo and all was well as far as linkages were concerned.
Trying to be sensible about the assessment of a 50W stereo integrated, even one selling for a pound shy of 1k, I spent the first week or so using the Integre with easy, affordable loads. The Sonus Faber Minuetto, the TDL Studio 0.5, the Celestion SL700 SE -- these struck me, both in terms of price and impedance/sensitivity, as likely candidtaes. By dint of a minor accident, though, I hooked up the Integre to the Wilson WATTs/Puppies and the Integre acquitted itself with style. Figuring what the heck?, I then tried it with the Sonus Faber Extremas, Apogee Stages and even the MBL 101. No problems. Which
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With sources including the Marantz CD12 and California Audio Labs Tempest II SE CD players, the Day-Sequerra tuner and the Michell Gyrodeck/SME V turntable/arm combination, I ran the YBA for two solid weeks without ever feeling the need to reconnect my big bucks behemoths. And the phono section, fed from various Lyras, the Transfiguration, the Koetsu Urushi and the Denon 103 Gold, proved adequate for most of the time. As one who prefers 47k ohm loading for most m-cs, I found this a source of great relief, but I would still caution anyone interested in the Integre to make certain that the phono section is auditioned with the same make and model of cartridge as it will be used with at home.
Landing at my studio hot on the heels of the Metaxas separates, the YBA inspired schizophrenia. It was the exact opposite of the hyper-critical MAS pairing, proving utterly noise-free, untemperamental and almost immune to its surroundings. This is a testimonial to YBA's high-integrity design and quality control, the latter including individual listening sessions, adjustment and a 24 hour bout at full power into a capacitive load after which it is (I kid you not) 'shaken'.
Provided that the YBA is matched to sonic peers (you really won't have to worry about its drive capabilities unless your speakers are particularly vicious or your room abnormally large), you will hear what has to be one of the most neutral, clean and transparent performers of any type for under the thousand pound mark. And the brochure's babbling about musicality is not mere hype. YBA has balanced the solid-state strengths of background silence, superb detail retrieval and speed-demon transients with a fatigue-free top end that almost qualifies as 'sweet'. But sweet implies a type of euphonic coloration, and coloured is not a word I'd use to describe the Integre.
In addition to solid, coherent and confident portrayal of both the sound and the imaging, the Integre shines in one particular area. And I didn't even discover it until I wired it up to the MBLs. These are not the speakers I'd prescribe to Integre owners as they're quite hungry and cost as much as a half-dozen Integres, but the YBA can just about cope. Rather, I tried them because the are the most consistent top-to-bottom performers I've ever heard, rivalled only by true full range/single driver systems lacking the intrusion of a crossover network. This brief experiment showed the Integre to be absolutely coherent from its deepest bass output up to the highest trebles, and that's a remarkable achievement at the price.
Only one thing keeps the Integre from obviating the need for larger systems and it's a wholly practical consideration. Given that one learned audio scribe once said that all of the best amplifiers he'd ever heard were rated below 60W, the Integre -- if treated as a healthier-than-normal 50-watter -- will not disappoint. But it can be overdriven and you will know it. Amusingly, it doesn't turn coarse or harsh when forced into overdrive, but it does sound compressed and (this puzzled me no end) the soundstage blurs a bit at its extremities.
Given that proviso, all you have to do is make certain that you audition the Integre in a room no larger than the one you use at home, with the exact speakers you use at home, playing at your preferred levels. If you're lucky, your room/speaker requirements will fall within the range of the Integre's capabilities. In which case, you will be listening to what has to be the very best 1000 solid-state integrated amplifier I've ever heard.
But I'd feel a lot better about it if the French weren't so nasty about British lamb.