The implementation and build is as exotic and tweaky as it gets. For example, the power transformer’s secondary windings are made from Echole’s silver/gold/palladium wire. Even the solder is custom, made using an alloy similar to that of the Echole conductors. The coupling capacitors are customized Mundorf Silver/Gold/Oil types. The output binding posts, are made from pure silver, and the RCA sockets are 20u gold-plated tellurium copper. The parts quality is identical to that of the Passion products, which is to say the finest available. Rather than using a potentiometer for a volume control, the Integrated features a custom 48-step discrete series-type attenuator with a CNC machined body and custom resitors. When changing volume from the remote you can hear the stepped function in action as a gentle whirring sound.
The chassis is a 3mm-thick piece of aluminum that is laser-cut, folded, and then welded into the final shape. A CNC-machined outer shell mates with the aluminum inner chassis in a way designed to reduce resonances. Thick interior walls delineate the subsections and provide isolation.
I encourage you to read my review of Absolare’s Passion Preamplifier and Passion 845 Power Amplifier in Issue 234 for more detail on the company’s background and approach. To summarize, and quote from my previous review, “Absolare’s approach is to assemble an international team of the best designers, find the highest-grade parts from vendors around the world, pursue absolute minimalism in the signal path, exploit synergies between components, wrap all this up in lavishly made and easy-to-use products, and provide a level of customer service commensurate with that of the world’s finest luxury brands.”
Absolare very much takes the system approach to audio systems, creating cables through its sister company Echole (established in 2007), building custom furniture in a factory in Turkey that makes high-end furniture for hotels, and devising its own vibration-isolation products. Absolare wanted me to hear the Integrated at its best, with an Echole Limited Edition Series power cord, interconnects, and speaker cables. These are the company’s top models, newly introduced in 2017 after two-and-a-half years of development. As I’ve mentioned, all the Echole cables are made from a custom alloy that incorporates silver, gold, and palladium. Dozens of different alloys were tested, each requiring hundreds of meters of hot extrusion for the evaluations. The Limited Edition cables are extremely thick and heavy; most of the bulk is the conductor, not the dielectric. The cables are heavier and less pliable than most; the solid-core conductor is so thick that if it were any thicker it would be a rod rather than a wire. The cables are also designed for minimum resonance. When they’re used as a complete system, the same alloy is in the signal path from the AC wall outlet to the speaker’s input terminals. Absolare believes this system approach creates the greatest synergy with all its products. That’s one reason why the Integrated features full-blown Echole interconnects, speaker cable, and AC power cords inside the chassis rather than pieces of bare wire.
When I first heard the Absolare Integrated at the Munich show (driving Rockport Altair speakers) it struck me that the amplifier sounded very much like Absolare’s Passion preamplifier and Passion power amplifiers, products with which I was intimately familiar.
Back in my listening room, driving either Rockport Lyra loudspeakers (briefly) or my long-term reference the Magico Q7 Mk II, the Integrated had all the hallmarks of Absolare. I heard a remarkably similar presentation to that offered by the Passion products, particularly considering the Integrated’s solid-state output stage, single chassis, and significantly lower price. I don’t know whether the Integrated was designed to sound as much like the Passion products as possible, or whether the Integrated simply reflects Absolare’s sonic aesthetic.
Whatever the reason, the Integrated is characterized by a tremendous sense of body and texture, as though it were a living and breathing entity rather than a mechanical reproduction. This quality derives from its midrange-centric presentation, which is in keeping with the Integrated’s heritage derived from its predecessor, the Passion SET amplifiers. Jonathan Valin has written about a system being “top-down” or “bottom-up.” That is, a bottom-up presentation has a solid bass foundation, while a top-down sound has more emphasis on the top-end transparency and detail, with less weight and solidity. To expand on that concept, the Absolare Integrated could be characterized as a “midrange-outward” sound. That’s not surprising given that the Passion SET amplifier, which is the Integrated’s conceptual, visual, and technical antecedent, has a very midrange-centric presentation. Like the Passion 845, the Integrated has a glorious texture, body, and harmonic density through the mids that brought instruments rich in those frequencies to the fore. The midband was somewhat forward, but not in the usual sense of appearing toward the front of the soundstage, or of having an exaggerated presence region. Rather, I found my attention drawn to the midrange for this amplifier’s extraordinary sense of clarity, combined with warmth and sheer timbral gorgeousness. Heightening the experience, the Integrated’s rendering of timbre was utterly liquid and grain-free. Subtle textural details that convey instrumental timbre and musical expression were beautifully conveyed. The Integrated is as close in sound to a pure tube amplifier as I’ve heard from transistors. Also like a tube amplifier, the Integrated had a wonderful feeling of bloom and “action,” with a palpable sense of air expanding around instruments’ dynamic envelopes. I can best describe the Integrated’s sound, and midrange in particular, by comparing it to the sound of Ben Webster’s tenor sax on, say, Gentle Ben, or Soulville—rich, creamy, and sensual.
The previously reviewed Passion 845 SET amplifier had remarkable bass extension, control, and authority for an SET, but understandably didn’t plumb the depths the way a big solid-state amp can. That’s not the Passion 845’s mission in life. But the Integrated marries much of the Passion 845’s midrange magic to a more solid and powerful bottom end thanks to the transistor output stage. The Integrated took control over the Magico Q7 Mk II’s woofers and provided a tighter rendering with greater pitch precision. The Integrated wasn’t quite as adept as the Passion at depicting the density of texture of bowed doublebass, bass clarinet, or bassoon, for examples. Nonetheless, the mid-to-upper bass was more nuanced and filigreed than most solid-state amplifiers, even expensive monoblocks. The midbass region also had a richness, warmth, and bloom that were the antithesis of dry and sterile. However, the Integrated—in keeping with its overall SET-like character—didn’t have quite the extension, slam, and visceral impact of my reference solid-state monoblocks. Although built around a transistor output stage, the Integrated still sounds very much like a tube amp in its midbass warmth, bloom, and emphasis on instrumental body and textural details rather than bottom-end slam.