Aesthetix has developed an enviable reputation as a manufacturer of elite components at down-to-earth prices. The company’s earliest products, the all-tube Io phonostage and Callisto linestage, have long set the stage for what is possible in modern all-tube designs. As the mainstay of Aesthetix’ top “Jupiter” line, these products have received updates and modifications through the years and have developed a loyal following among audiophiles who value the sound of all-tube electronics. In their latest “Eclipse” finery, the Io and Callisto are major players at the highest echelon of the audio world. The prices have gone up, of course, but Aesthetix founder and designer Jim White still prices these units below the cost of most of the direct competition.
As the popularity of the Jupiter line increased, Aesthetix developed a second line of electronics in 2002, called the “Saturn Series,” designed to showcase the sound of tubes in less expensive and more user-friendly gear. To keep costs down, solid-state components replace some of the tubes, but it is fair to say that the Saturn line is predominantly tube driven. This series presently consists of phonostages, linestages, an integrated phono and linestage, an integrated amplifier, DAC and CD player combination. Jim has continued to improve most of these products with higher quality components and improved designs, the latest and best of which wear the “Eclipse” label.
Against this backdrop of an all-tube “Jupiter” lineup and hybrid “Saturn” series, sits the subject of this review, the Eclipse version of the Atlas, the only separate power amplifier manufactured by Aesthetix. First introduced in 2007, the Atlas resides in the Saturn series and utilizes a hybrid design featuring a tube input stage and a solid-state output stage. To my knowledge, the Atlas quickly developed a reputation as an outstanding, powerful, and reliable amplifier at a price that didn’t require a second mortgage. Jim believes, and I (now) agree, that the Atlas is a great match not only with other Saturn components, but with the all-tube Jupiter gear, as well. Of course, the Atlas also works well with front-end preamplifiers from other manufacturers.
At this point, a disclaimer is in order. I have been a friend of Jim’s since his early days at Theta, before Aesthetix was even a glimmer in his eye. Regular readers know that I am a big fan of tube amplification. I have owned one version or another of the Io and Eclipse for many years, currently in the Eclipse iteration. With this background, can I still offer a fair and unbiased review of the latest Atlas? I think I can. I hold Jim’s products to the same standards I hold all audio gear: How close do they come to the faithful reproduction of live, unamplified music? To this end, the fact is I always admired the early Atlas amps, but was not in love with them. I thought their tonality and power were great, but I could not overlook what I perceived as a very slight loss of transparency, especially compared to some other quality amplifiers at similar prices. I mentioned this to Jim, on more than one occasion. I’m certain he wasn’t thrilled with my assessment, and thus, even though we are friends, I was pleasantly surprised when he told me I must hear the Eclipse version of the amp.
So, what exactly is the Atlas? We know from Greek mythology that Atlas was sentenced by Zeus to forever hold the heavens above the world. Through the ages the name “Atlas” has been used to denote unusual or great strength. Does the Aesthetix Atlas Eclipse live up to its name? (Without trying to give too much away, after this review was written I suggested to Jim he should change the name of the amplifier.)
In terms of pure power, the Atlas is rated at 300 watts into 8 ohms and 600 watts into a 4-ohm load. This is certainly competitive rated power at its price point, but still less than the huge amplifiers offering 700+ watts into 8 ohms. From a different perspective, though, there is a giant price leap from the Atlas to any all-tube amplifier offering 600 or more watts into an 8- or 4-ohm load. In my audio world, power is at a premium because my speakers of choice are the very inefficient Magnepan 20.7s. As I have noted in many of my reviews, these speakers will certainly play music well with a 200–300 watt amplifier, but really don’t come alive without 500 or more watts per channel. By “come alive,” I mean sound effortless to the point you forget about the amplification, regardless of listening level. Parenthetically, I pause to observe what many other audio writers have noted: for whatever reason, a tube watt seems to have more juice than a solid-state watt. For example, a 150-watt all-tube amplifier such as the Zesto Eros 300, or a 250-watt all-tube amplifier such as the Audio Research REF 250 SE, do surprisingly good jobs of driving the big Maggies to reasonably high listening levels, on most types of music. But as good as these amps are, with my speakers they won’t shake the rafters playing Mahler’s Fifth.
Fortunately, the Magnepan 20.7s present a 4-ohm load to the amplifier, thereby availing themselves of the full 600 watts on tap from each of the Atlas monos.