Pathos Classic One Mk II Integrated Amplifier

Equipment report
Tubed power amplifiers,
Integrated amplifiers
Pathos Classic One MK II
Pathos Classic One Mk II Integrated Amplifier

Every now and then a product comes along that to see it is to want it. Sometimes it’s the “cute” factor—remember the diminutive Metronome 7 speaker with its designer grilles? Sometimes the “cool”—Henry Kloss’ nifty, retro-looking table radio, now marketed by Tivoli. Sometimes the “aesthetic”—their excellent performance aside, I’ve often thought a large part of the appeal of Peter Walker’s fabled Quad 33 preamp and 303 amp was their compact size and unique olivegreen/ orange/off-white fascias, so refreshing after the endlessly boring black or silver with an occasional nod to gold of most electronics design.

So it is with the Pathos Classic One Mk II integrated amplifier. Garth Leerer, whose Bay Area-based Musical Surroundings imports Pathos products from Italy, had no sooner extricated it from its packing materials and placed it on the shelf than all who saw it exclaimed, almost in unison, “I want one!” Sitting there on what appears to be a slab of gleaming polished-chrome topped by a black Plexiglas cover, with red filter caps that pick up the red of the alphanumeric display, gold knobs, a wooden fascia, chrome-topped transformers, it looks so like an object (“sort of like a high-tech insect,” said one wag) that I could imagine it being purchased by someone who didn’t know and couldn’t care less that it’s actually a functional piece of sound-reproducing equipment. Of course, the very uniqueness of its aesthetics makes for a glaring mismatch with other components. (Does Pathos have at least a CD player in the works?) And though compact, it is oddly dimensioned: just ten inches wide but 19 inches deep without cables (add another three inches for my Kimber XLRs). I don’t know about Italian homes, but over here depth is at a greater premium than linear shelfspace— not that such mundane concerns are likely to deter anyone attracted to this unit.

And this is an amplifier to which all serious music listeners should be attracted, because with the Classic One, beauty surely does as beauty is. Right out of the box it’s more rough than ready sonically, rather edgy and slightly bright. But 24 hours of continuous run-in with Reference Recordings’ burn-in CD is enough to allow its true personality to emerge—just maybe the sweetest, most musically natural ambassador around for the tube/transistor hybrid approach.

I began with Beethoven’s first piano sonata in Glenn Gould’s scintillatingly baroque-ish reading, astonished how persuasively Gould’s piano was transported to my listening room, not quite life-sized, but a remarkable illusion of reality, the reduced scale notwithstanding. As I’ve observed elsewhere, this recording offers a number of useful tests. For one thing, though

Gould was known for preferring a closeup, dry perspective, there is nevertheless a small envelope of air in this recording that serves as a cushion against any brittleness. Accurate components will reveal it; less accurate ones will make the recording sound drier than it is. Then there is the matter of Gould’s vocalizing. It should be distinctly audible apart from the piano, but if it’s too present, suspect frequency-response anomalies that are accentuating detail. Gould was sometimes a notoriously loony interpreter of Beethoven (e.g., the first movement of the Opus 111), but here his touch is exquisite, his control of dynamics and contrapuntal clarity beyond criticism. When the bass register asserts itself at the end of the first movement, it is firm, strong, and confident, the Classic One retaining impressive composure as the dynamics rise. But what about a thundering romantic virtuoso? Well, you don’t get much more big-boned, extrovert, and powerful than Van Cliburn in the piece that put him on the map: Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto in the new RCA SACD transfer. The Pathos reproduced Cliburn’s piano in all its glory, front and center, yet revealed that whatever the musical excitements of this legendary performance, the recording is not one of RCA’s vintage best, the orchestra brass sounding rather pinched (especially in tuttis) with stereo spread somewhat exaggerated.

The onset of the holidays upon me as I write this, I played Comfort and Joy: Volume 1 [Clarion], John Atkinson’s beautifully recorded program of Christmas music by Cantus, the tenvoiced male choral group. Atkinson has dovetailed focus and atmosphere to perfection here in one of the best-sounding, best-engineered recordings of a small chorus. The result is an unusual purity of presentation; if you hear any edginess, suspect your system. There’s also something else that’s unusual about this recording. Most of the time I find that with classical music, especially, there is an optimal playback level for a convincingly real presentation. Lower it and the musicians are too distant; raise it and they’re artificially close, compressed, even congested. That’s not true of this recording, or, rather, I found the window of the optimal level to be considerably wider than is the norm. Play it on the loud side and you’re brought closer to the group, as if you had moved up in the hall; reduce the level, and you’re farther back. Both are satisfying, yet in either case the sense of atmosphere around the performers remains recognizably the same.

Notice that so far in this review I’ve been resisting the temptation to divide the frequency spectrum into the usual tripartite range. As with certain other electronic products I’ve found to be musically and sonically outstanding over the years (Quad’s, McIntosh’s, the late, lamented Croft-designed Carver amps), so with the Pathos One—it’s always the gestalt that commands the attention. To allay any fears about bass response, I’ll admit that the unit’s relatively small size led me to assume its low-end response would follow suit, but the bass on the vast majority of what I would call normal music is superb, by which I mean in just proportion to the rest of the spectrum. Though the power output here, 70-watts-a-side, is not going to give you slamming bass in large rooms with lowsensitivity speakers, at reasonable levels even Mahler symphonies buttressed with organs don’t leave me wanting a whole lot more. But then, sheer loudness as such has never impressed me. I can’t tell you the number of systems I’ve heard, typically hideously expensive, capable of generating levels of playback that would fill small auditoriums and yet tonally so compromised that any resemblance between the sounds of instruments they were supposedly reproducing and the sounds of actual instruments was purely coincidental.

If sheer scale and loudness as such are priorities, the Pathos One is not for you. This is an amplifier that always gets the tone, timbre, and balance of music right, but only if played at what I would call natural levels or lower. The scale is undeniably reduced, but this is a negligible price to pay when the reward is reproduction of instruments and voices that sound recognizably real.

One of the things that used to worry Peter Walker about subjective reviews of amplifiers is that reviewers all too often failed to operate the amplifiers within their ratings. If you’re constantly running an amplifier beyond its ratings, he used to point out, you’re not evaluating the performance of the amplifier as it was meant to be used; you’re merely evaluating its behavior under overload conditions. Not that this is unimportant, but Walker’s point is that if you’re listening preferences require that your amplifier spends a lot of its time beyond its limits, then you shouldn’t be blaming the amplifier if you don’t like what you hear; you should be using a more powerful one or higher-sensitivity speakers.

The Pathos One is far from a lightweight, but it is a product for a very special kind of listener or listening situation. Two-channel to start with—yes, there are still some of us Luddites left— and as the heart of what I would describe as an essentially purist system of modest dimensions. By modest, I most emphatically do not mean compromised. I mean, rather, a system that is dedicated to listening seriously to serious music in moderately sized rooms with appropriate speakers in which the goal is accurate reproduction of music at civilized levels.

The Pathos is a great match for my Quad 988s, likewise with any number of high-quality compact speakers in the classic British-monitor mode such as Spendors and Harbeths. I don’t have a set of LS3/5as on hand, but I expect they would make a formidable combination as well. Under these conditions, the Pathos Classic One is not only a fine amplifier, it is one of the most beautiful in every sense of the word: physically, aesthetically, and sonically. Drop in something like Anonymous Four’s Wolcum Yule [Harmonia Mundi] or cue up Classic Records’ vinyl reissue of Ben and Sweets, and the worst of days will be cleansed in a blissful wash of beautiful music.