The Italian high-end audio manufacturer Goldenote is based in Florence, perhaps the world’s most beautiful city as well as the birthplace of the Renaissance. That beauty and history is reflected in the company’s S-1 Signature integrated amplifier and Koala CD player reviewed here; both units exude an aesthetic consonant with their birthplace.
The S-1 Signature is the first step-up in Goldenote’s extensive line of electronics and the Koala is the company’s entry-level CD player. Goldenote offers eight integrated amplifiers, ranging from the $1436 S-1 to the $28,727 Demidoff Diamond. Goldenote also makes an entire range of products that includes turntables, tonearms, cartridges, cables, and loudspeakers.
Although budget-priced by Goldenote standards, the S-1 Signature and Koala look anything but. The units are finished in beautiful high-gloss black faceplates and are solidly built, weighing 22 and 17 pounds respectively. Both are minimalist in features, with most of the parts-budget spent on the audio circuits, and particularly, the power supplies. This is classic high-end design: No-frills operation and a simple signal path coupled with innovative circuits and generous power supplies.
S-1 Signature Integrated Amplifier
The $1866 S-1 Signature is a higher-end version of Goldenote’s entry-level S-1 ($1436). Both units are functionally identical, with the Signature offering better sound quality. The Signature version increases the output power to 60Wpc (from 40Wpc) by virtue of a larger power supply. Other differences include hand-matched output transistors and upgraded parts throughout.
Five line-level inputs are offered along with an optional phonostage, which can be added after the initial purchase (it’s an extra $200 whether purchased with the S-1 or retrofitted). The S-1 Signature is minimalist, clean, and simple to use—only a large volume control and rotary input-selector switch adorn the high-gloss front panel. A small round remote control offers volume up/down buttons. The unit is very nicely made inside, with a dual-mono architecture, high-quality parts, and a hefty build. The chassis is quite sturdy and the top panel thick. The entire unit rests on large feet. The power supply is built around two custom toroidal transformers, one for each channel. A third transformer powers the housekeeping functions and the motorized volume control.
The S-1 Signature’s input stage is based on a Goldenote-developed circuit called “Mirror Amp” which reportedly reduces distortion. This differential circuit is built around discrete transistors (rather than op-amps) and operates in pure Class A. The output stage is a single pair of transistors per channel, with each pair cooled by its own generous heat sink. The signal path is direct-coupled, with no filters or protection circuitry. This approach was taken to maximize sound quality, but you should be aware that without a protection circuit, shorting the speaker outputs will damage the amplifier. The S-1 Signature looks inside like a high-end preamplifier and power amplifier, but scaled down in output power.
Koala CD Player
The $2296 Koala is Goldenote’s entry-level CD player. The unit features a tubed output stage and balanced as well as single-ended analog outputs. A digital output on an RCA jack allows the Koala to function as a transport.
The Koala is built around the ubiquitous Philips transport mechanism, but the motor is driven by Goldenote’s “Electro Power” power supply that reportedly reduces speed fluctuations to less than 0.0001%. The Electro Power power supply is said to provide absolutely stable and clean DC voltages to the player’s analog and digital circuits. The DAC is the new Burr-Brown PCM1796.
Goldenote makes some claims about its “Zero-Clock” digital filter that I didn’t fully understand. For example, the company literature suggests that the “Zero-Clock” is part of a custom digital filter, but I didn’t see a DSP platform inside the player. I assumed from the name that “Zero-Clock” is Goldenote’s re-clocking circuit, but the company says “Zero-Clock” is the filter’s name. Answers to my repeated follow-up questions didn’t shed any light on exactly how the Koala’s filter is different, and how “Zero-Clock” works. (The explanation in the manufacturer comment on page 60 doesn’t clarify the issue, at least for me.)
At any rate, the Koala’s power supply features three separate transformers, generous filtering and regulation, and a separate supply with its own transformer for the tubed output stage. This stage is based on one ECC88 dual-triode per channel.
Although nicely built and attractive cosmetically, the Koala has an ergonomic quirk: The front-panel buttons are tiny points that require precise finger placement and are uncomfortable under the fingertip.
Starting with the S-1 Signature driven by my reference sources, I was taken aback by the sheer musicality of this “entry-level” integrated amplifier. The S-1 in no way sounded like a sub-$2k integrated. Rather, it had the resolution, dynamics, and timbral liquidity of mid-priced separates.
The S-1 Signature was extremely lively sounding (and I don’t mean bright). The amplifier had a natural sense of rhythmic flow coupled with an effortlessness on musical peaks. This was true over a wide variety of music, from blues to orchestral. Even when fed the extraordinarily wide dynamic range of Reference Recordings HRx 176.4kHz/24-bit files decoded by the Berkeley Alpha DAC, the S-1 Signature was up to the challenge, reproducing huge orchestral climaxes with utter grace and ease. In addition to correctly reproducing music’s dynamic structure, the S-1 didn’t collapse the soundstage during loud and complex passages. The S-1 Signature had a big, forceful (though not forced), and authoritative sound. This was remarkable performance for an amplifier of this power rating and price.
The S-1 Signature’s dynamic prowess was complemented by the unit’s excellent bass definition, pitch resolution, weight, extension, and tremendous sense of heft. The bottom end was full and rich without sounding thick, plummy, or overly ripe. Kick drum had powerful impact, and bass guitar was rendered with an extremely satisfying “purring” quality. Moreover, the S-1 resolved small tonal and dynamic shadings in the bass in a way that made other entry-level integrated amplifiers sound a bit muddled. The great Abraham Laboriel’s bass lines on the Victor Feldman LP Secret of the Andes were rendered with a razor-sharp precision that highlighted his musical contribution to this disc.
The presentation also had a wonderful transparency and clarity in the midband and treble. The sound was open and clean, with no opacity to diminish the sense of “seeing” through the soundstage. Similarly, this transparency contributed to the S-1 Signature’s excellent portrayal of timbre; tone colors were vibrant and deeply saturated in a way that made the presentation musically vivid without being sonically vivid. The S-1 Signature didn’t overlay timbres with a synthetic pall—a common characteristic of entry-level integrated amplifiers. In addition, instrumental textures were pure and free from grain and upper-midrange glare.
With the Koala driving the S-1 Signature or at the front of my reference system it was apparent that these two Goldenote products shared some qualities but deviated on others. The Koala had a fairly large soundstage with good delineation between instrumental images. The CD player also had a sense of presence fostered by a somewhat forward overall perspective. This perspective, however, tended to highlight the midrange the way some tubed electronics do, with reduced resolution at the frequency extremes. The extreme bottom end (the realm of organ pedal tones and kick drum) didn’t have the extension or dynamic impact that would reveal the S-1 Signature’s outstanding performance in this area. The midbass was a bit ripe and plummy rather than taut and defined; you’d never know the S-1’s potential for rendering dynamics with such vibrant musical energy if you heard that integrated amplifier driven only by the Koala. Similarly, the top octave sounded a little closed in—that sense of air riding on top of cymbals was diminished. Concomitantly, the upper-midrange was a little bright, forward, and had a glare and hardness, particularly during loud passages. Instruments rich in upper-order harmonics such as saxophone and violin took on a bit of a steely character.
The Goldenote S-1 Signature integrated amplifier is a real find; it delivers a truly compelling musical experience at a reasonable price. Although not inexpensive for an “entry-level” integrated, the S-1 Signature nonetheless competes sonically with higher-priced integrated amplifiers, as well as with the benchmark in the category, the $1625 Naim Nait 5i. The S-1 Signature has an extremely compelling combination of dynamic expression, purity of timbre, transparency, and resolution without sounding analytical. Moreover, it sounds more powerful than its 60Wpc rating by virtue of its large power supply and generous heat-sinking.
The Koala is, in my view, a less successful product. It has a different set of sonic characteristics than the S-1, with less clarity and transparency, a softer presentation of dynamics, and less liquidity in its rendering of instrumental textures.
Although I can think of several CD players at or below the Koala’s price that I would rather own (the $1599 Cambridge 840C comes to mind), I’m hard pressed to name an integrated amplifier under $2000 I’d rather listen to on a daily basis.
SPECS & PRICING
Goldenote S-1 Signature integrated amplifier
Power output: 60Wpc
Inputs: Five line inputs on RCA jacks, one phono input (optional)
Dimensions: 17.3" x 3.5" x 13.8"
Weight: 22 lbs.
Goldenote Koala CD player with tubed output stage
Outputs: Unbalanced on RCA jacks, balanced on XLR jacks; digital out on RCA jack
Digital-to-analog conversion: 20-bit Burr-Brown
Dimensions: 17.3" x 3.9" x 13.4"
Weight: 17.6 lbs.
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