I’ll bet we all remember what our parents asked us before we went out to play on a Saturday afternoon. The fateful question was, “Did you finish your homework?” How this question applies to the digital wing of the high-end is just as fateful. As competitive and fast-moving as this segment is, pity the product that is brought out to play without having done its homework. After spending a lengthy period road-testing the new Primare I32 integrated amplifier, I can say without reservation that beyond its power, looks, and user flexibility, the Primare has done its homework and may even deserve some extra credit.
For those less familiar with this Scandinavian firm, Primare’s lineage can be traced to the stunning 900 Series and 200 Series products of Danish industrial designer Bo Christensen from the 1980s. More recently Primare has teamed with Xena Audio of Sweden—known for its Copeland and QLN brands—to bring together the talents of Primare’s Bent Nielsen and Xena’s Lars Pedersen. The final piece of the puzzle was filled in the late 1990s with the addition of brilliant engineer Bjorn Holmqvist.
Still, it’s been something of an on again/off again love story between the U.S. and Primare. Gaining a secure foothold in the American market can be a tortuous road for even the canniest foreign electronics manufacturer. Economic variables, marketing savvy, timing, or just dumb luck can make or break a company’s fortunes on this side of the pond. However, with the leadership of a new and highly experienced distributor in Kevin Wolff of Vana Ltd., my instinct tells me that Primare is here to stay on this go-round.
The I32 is a 120Wpc integrated amplifier, a rating that nearly doubles into 4 ohms with 230Wpc. Output power is achieved via twin proprietary Ultra Fast Power Device (UFPD) power modules, a Class D technology which has a consistent 26dB feedback-loop gain across the entire audio range and is stable way beyond the audio band like traditional linear, non-switching amps. In Primare’s words, “The UFPD amplifier actively adapts the loop gain to keep the total loop stable during start-up, clipping, and current limiting. It senses the changes to the filter output and applies the correct amount of feedback to compensate. [It] allows for several more dBs of constant loop gain across the audio band.” The claimed result is lower noise, lower output impedance, and lower harmonic distortion. Because it’s load independent it’s able to accurately drive even difficult speakers. The thermal efficiency of these designs is well documented, but many users will be pleased by their eco-friendly standby mode of just 0.2 W.
The I32 revisits the low-profile, small-footprint form-factor of earlier Primare models. It exudes quality and craftsmanship. It’s elegant to the touch—control buttons and aluminum knobs for volume and input selection have a nicely weighted feel. The OLED screen is very sharp (Apple-Retina-display-like in clarity). The smart screen illuminates brightly when an operation is selected and then dims to a softer light. A numerical value for the current volume setting is always visible but increases in size and brightness when volume is changed. Operationally it’s a dream, and menu navigation, the hobgoblin of complex “hub-style” integrated amplifiers, is comprehensive and intuitive. All inputs can be renamed and enabled/disabled and their outputs optimized.
Speaking of inputs, the I32 is available in two versions—the traditional integrated amp with analog inputs or with the MM30 multimedia-upgrade-module that transforms the I32 into a digital media central. With its 24-bit/192kHz DAC board it offers network streaming via Ethernet or wireless, plus Internet radio and gapless audio playback. The more common digital inputs haven’t been put out to pasture either; they include SPDIF, TosLink, plus USB-A and-B inputs (asynchronous for low jitter). Since the MM30 is compatible with UPnP controls like PlugPlayer or Asset UPnP, integrating the panoply of UPnP devices from PC/Mac/NAS to various iDevices or USB thumb drives is (with some patience) a relatively simple procedure. Consistent with Primare’s design philosophy, the digital and analog signal paths within the Primare have their own dedicated ground planes—a design feature that preserves the purity of analog signals. Similarly the electronics package in the front-panel display is electrically isolated from the chassis, and there’s extensive use of ribbon connectors and surface-mount circuitry for low noise.
The Primare tablet app (a free iTunes download) is graphically solid and is a good organizer of imported album metadata. But it could be easier to navigate. I’d like to see a more sensitive volume indicator, and ideally a way to input network settings from the app rather than entering alphanumeric characters via the front panel. As this review was going to press I was informed by the distributor that a newer, more refined app is in the works that should address these issues including source-selection, volume, and renaming functions. Lastly, this new application will also notify the owner of future software updates.