The name “Hautonga,” given by the New Zealand-based Plinius company to its new integrated amplifier, is a coinage of two Maori words that together are meant to suggest “a strong clean wind” or “breath of fresh air.” Not an inapposite moniker, as it turns out, for control, resolution, and strength triangulate the virtues of the Hautonga, to which can also be added high transparency, low noise and distortion, and an impression of immediacy that commands attention. I’ll anticipate my conclusions by saying that it is exactly what it appears to be: a wholly contemporary solid-state design of impeccable behavior that brooks no quarter to the tube contingent.
But first, a trip around and through the unit, which retails domestically for $5750 and generates 200 exceptionally robust and stable watts per channel into 8 ohms. Styling follows Plinius’ fashion these past few years with a thick aluminum fascia that curves around the sides to mitigate an otherwise severe industrial look and, it is claimed, provide increased strength, the chassis impressively solid, rugged, and heavy (also deep enough to render shelf installation impossible unless it’s a shelf considerably deeper than any bookcase I’ve ever seen). This severity carries over into the control complement: only one knob (for volume) and several identical pushbuttons for sources, one labeled “Phono,” another “CD,” and the rest identified only as “Line,” plus a number and an indicator light (mercifully dimmable, as the default is bright enough to be annoying). Phono and CD are likely to be the most frequently used, but if you have an SACD player and also want to use an outboard DAC plus some other sources like a tuner or an outboard phono preamp, you’re going to have remember which component is assigned to which input. Jacks are RCA except for the CD input, which can be switched to XLR if desired; the audiophile-caliber speaker terminals accept bananas.
A choice of black or silver finishes is available, the black very svelte but with labeling that is difficult to read even close to the unit, so if this is a concern the silver may be a better alternative. The ruggedness of the unit extends to the handset, which seems to be milled out of a solid piece of aluminum and is the size and weight of a three-cell Maglite. (Like that product, perhaps it should also be registered at the police department as a deadly weapon—I wouldn’t want to drop this thing on an unprotected foot, though it would certainly prove handy in the event of an unwanted intruder!) The remote also controls the Plinius CD player.
Taking cognizance of the rising popularity of vinyl these last several years, the Hautonga comes outfitted with a phonostage that can be made high or low gain via internal jumpers (in other words, you have to remove the top cover, which requires undoing nine screws); loading is fixed at 47k ohms, which means that no low-output moving coil known to me can be absolutely correctly terminated (I am aware that many audiophiles prefer to run mc’s this way, but I am not among their number). The Hautonga also lacks a balance control, which seems to me a mistake in any control unit, particularly one with a phonostage (given how many pickups, even very expensive ones, do not have equal channel-to-channel output, to say nothing of the LPs themselves). But the Hautonga does have a number of useful features, including the ability to operate the preamp and power amp sections independently, a bypass for home-theater setups, and remote mute and volume functions. One especially sensible decision places the main on/off switch on the rear panel, while a button on the handset puts the unit into standby mode, powering down the circuit (thus reducing power consumption) while keeping critical components charged so that the need of a lengthy warmup is obviated for the next listening session. Plinius’ literature doesn’t say much about the circuit of the Hautonga, but this is a company that has built its reputation on the excellence of its designs and has an extremely good record for both high performance and reliability. Suffice it to say the unit performed flawlessly during the review period and provided countless hours of musical enjoyment.
I am writing this just three days after returning from Kansas City where I heard a glorious performance of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony by the Kansas City Symphony in Helzberg Hall. Still in a Brahmsian mood, I am now playing the Bruno Walter recording from his famous Indian summer sessions in Los Angeles with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra (a label orchestra consisting mostly of players from the Los Angeles Philharmonic) on my Marantz 8004 CD/SACD player going through a Benchmark DAC, feeding Quad 2805 speakers. Despite the experience of the past weekend still resounding in my ears, what I am hearing is a very convincing simulacrum of an orchestra. This is a kind of acid test, I think, for any component or system. Of course, the recording does not, nor should it, sound like that specific concert performance, but this is not the point. The point, rather, is that on its own terms the home experience does not disappoint in the comparison. It helps too that these Los Angeles sessions yielded some absolutely magnificent recordings sonically. In particular, the strings, so often too bright in Columbias of that period, are here rich, sweet, and lovely; and I hear virtually no trace of that presence boost, again typical of Columbia in those days, while the bass response is satisfyingly full and well balanced. Soundstaging and imaging dovetail width and depth without exaggerating either; the impression of a concert hall is very persuasive.
For comparative purposes, and to see how the Plinius handled a very different recording, I put on the SACD release of Bernstein’s performance of Appalachian Spring, also on Columbia. For me this is by far the greatest performance of the suite ever recorded, but for all Bernstein’s fervor and lyricism and the color, liveliness, and dynamism of the orchestra, the strings and brass remain very brightly lit (one reason I continue to prefer preamps and integrateds that have bass and treble controls). The soundstage here is notably wide, even a bit exaggerated—though this makes a very exciting affair of the gunfight section in the companion piece, Billy the Kid—with depth somewhat shallow. However, owing to the multimiking, the imaging—that is, the placement of individual instruments, winds in particular—is impressively precise. I’ll have more to say about the Hautonga and this recording later.
These impressions suggest that the Hautonga’s tonal profile is basically one of neutrality, which held up through dozens of recordings. This is to be expected from a contemporary solidstate design that doesn’t aim for a specific character (e.g., Bob Carver’s Sunfire amplifiers), and it’s evident on voices as well. For example, Ella Fitzgerald on “Do Nothing ‘Till You Hear from Me” has the right combination of lightness and richness, and when Ben Webster’s sax comes in, it’s recognizably big, fat, and voluptuous. This is a mono recording, but despite their proximity the mikes still caught a good deal of air and atmosphere, especially when Webster comes in, and the sense of immediacy is tactile. On a real torture test for midrange resolution like the Anonymous Four’s Gloryland, where you have four similar-sounding voices, the Plinius resolves them with respect to position and timbre: You can easily point to each singer and concentrate on her to the exclusion of the others if you like, yet also sit back and enjoy the blend. By the way, there is a character to the sound on this recording that is vital to the music and the performances, a certain cold, sometimes even chilly quality: If it sounds warm as such, let alone too warm, it is not being reproduced accurately. This coldness is in fact an effect of the material and part of what makes it so beautiful—think a gray late autumn day in Appalachia or the Deep South and this recording should sound its equivalent. The Plinius passes this crucial test impeccably.
In the areas of rhythmic drive and sheer force the Hautonga can comfortably advance to or very near the head of the class. Stokowski’s scintillating Liszt and Enesco rhapsodies on his Rhapsodies album (vinyl, Classic Records reissue) offer staggeringly powerful reproduction of a full nineteenth-century symphony orchestra, recorded with extraordinary dynamic wallop and stunning definition, especially in the lower registers—the Hautonga’s bass is truly prodigious. And the way the Hautonga reproduces Stokowski’s inflection of the rhythms will have your toes tapping to a fare thee well. Rock music doesn’t figure much in my listening and headbanging never, but I had a great time with the likes of classic Rolling Stones, Simon and Garfunkel, and Simon alone. “Paint it Black” the Plinius dispatched with spine-tingling verve and vigor, and it unraveled the thick textures of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” with welcome clarity yet without sacrificing timing or pulling it apart.
I mentioned at the outset that the Hautonga brooks no quarter with tubes. By this I mean, first, that the Hautonga generates absolutely no bogus warmth. It will reproduce warmth if it’s in the recording—as the Walter Brahms demonstrated—but it will not add any of its own, which means that if you’re one of those audiophiles who likes a little extra warmth or romance, a careful listening is recommended, and equally careful componentmatching. Second, to draw upon Harry Pearson’s continuingly useful metaphor, the Plinius is unquestionably on the Yang side of the Yin/Yang continuum, i.e., the light, clear, and “masculine” as opposed to the dark, warm, and “feminine.” It’s not edgy, hard, or cold, but there is something ever so slightly cool and subtly forward about the reproduction that results in a presentation notable for its crispness, clarity, and brilliance, in addition to the strength and power I’ve already observed. For example, the Bernstein Appalachian Spring is brighter with the Plinius in the system than with some of my reference electronics. The same is true of Doris Day on Hooray for Hollywood (vinyl and CD): Day’s voice sparkles, all lightness and clarity, though, again, with the Hautonga it is also subtly brighter and her sibilants are a little accentuated, not offensively so, but noticeable in critical listening.
Although this characteristic of the Hautonga is by no means consistently in evidence, I heard it enough throughout the evaluation period to be convinced that it is real. Nor do I think this residual brightness, if it is that, is necessarily a tonal aberration; the effect, rather, is of moving somewhat closer to the performers, which will always make them sound a little brighter. In all of this, of course, the Hautonga is very much in line with contemporary tastes for an upfront, immediate, and incisive presentation. And I may be overly sensitive to it because most of my current reference units are either dead neutral or go a bit in the opposite direction.
What about the phonostage? Well, from a certain point of view, the specs cited earlier tell the story: no provisions for loading apart from a constant 47k ohms, which, as noted, will not properly load any low-output moving coil I know, including my Ortofon Windfeld. For much of the listening, I used it through the magnificent Zesto Andros phonostage about which I waxed ardently in TAS 222. In some respects, because the Zesto is a tube unit canted in the Yin direction, which slightly softens and warms the overall sound, I found this combination yielded some of the most pleasurable hours in all the listening sessions.
But surely it’s not fair to compare a phono preamp costing about eighty percent the price of the entire Hautonga to its built-in phonostage. Perhaps not, but before you cry, “Foul,” let me point out that it was by no means humiliated in the comparison. There’s a certain sacrifice in sheer presence and dynamic range, the noise is higher (though not all that much), Day’s voice has slightly less body and more top end, with sibilants more pronounced and a little more nasality. But I’m not talking gross effects here. Going to back to Stokowski’s Rhapsodies, I found the strings brighter than they should be, but also the same strength, power, and rhythmic alertness. The tonal anomalies, in other words, are textbook frequency-response aberrations that result from not loading a moving coil, which is perhaps another way of saying a moving magnet would likely yield more consistent results (but I didn’t have one on hand).
But I must stress that, once I got the evaluations out of the way and began listening just for pleasure, I found the phonostage perfectly acceptable and perfectly enjoyable and I didn’t think much about the reproduction as such. Running a low-output mc straight in requires the volume control be fairly well advanced, but it’s an indication of how really low in noise the Hautonga’s circuitry is that this didn’t seem to matter. And keep in mind that my observations obtain only as regards low-output moving coils: They might vanish with a moving-magnet pickup (indeed, some them might vanish with a different moving coil).
It’s obvious that the Hautonga joins the ever-expanding list of high-quality integrated amplifiers that warrant serious attention by anyone contemplating separates but attracted by the ease of setup and the convenience. If its particular collection of features, styling, price, and performance characteristics appeals to you, put it on your short list. It does most things right, nothing wrong, and its ability to grip, control, and reproduce music with extraordinary power and clarity is impressive by any standard.
Specs & Pricing
Power output: 200Wpc, 20Hz—20kHz at 0.05% THD
Number and type of inputs: One phono (mc or mm selectable), four single-ended inputs, one single-ended/balanced input (selectable), theater-bypass, preamplifier output, trigger in/out.
Phono input impedance: 47k ohms
Gain: Line, 40dB; phono low, 60dB; phono high, 66dB
Dimensions: 17.75″ x 4.75″ x 15.75″
Weight: 30 lbs.
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