The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I love that expression. It is truthfully the very foundation upon which this hobby is built. Speaker A + Amplifier B + Preamp C + Source D = “Ahhhhhh.” Scientifically it is an impossibility; 2+2 will always equal 4. Yet in the world of high-end audio, science and emotion intertwine, skewing the laws of physics like the singularity of a black hole (or too much single malt Scotch). So, would a directly heated triode 2 plus a solid-state Class AB 2 still equal 4? Vinnie Rossi clearly believes that the answer is a resounding “No”; it equals “joy.” I admit my application of the laws of nature and science may not be 100% mathematically sound, but only because we have yet to ascertain the method by which emotional engagement can be objectively measured. For now, we prove the theory in the most subjective yet simple, elegant, and enjoyable of ways…we listen.
Vinnie, for those who have not had the pleasure of meeting him, is 54% heart, 40% soul, 4% great guy (this is actually too low a value, but I’m trying to make a point here), 1% realist, and 1% nerd (also too low a value). His equipment has garnered a loyal following over the years and earned the reputation of being insanely high value. The nerd in Mr. Rossi pushed him into unfamiliar territory—the magical world of “what if.” His first “what if” led to the creation of the Signature series Class AB MOSFET monoblock amplifiers and the dual-mono, Class A, directly heated triode (DHT), zero-feedback preamplifier—both implementing an absolute reduction in circuit topology and both truly wonderful, emotional, and beautiful products in their own right. The heart and soul in Vinnie then jumped to the next obvious “what if.” What if he took both units and combined them in a single chassis, while sacrificing next to nothing in performance? Thus, the L2i-SE “Signature Edition” integrated amplifier was born. There is a non-Signature L2i available as well, which utilizes a pair of 6SN7 tubes in the linestage instead of the directly heated triode pair. The standard L2i integrated retails for $13,995, and the SE version bumps the price to $18,995. An additional $3495 buys you an optional phonostage or DAC, and there are slots for both—not one or the other. As an aside, the 4% great guy tried to lower the price to $39.95, but the 1% realist just wouldn’t have it.
So how did Mr. Rossi cram a preamplifier and two monoblocks worth of bits into what is essentially the beautifully crafted casework of the Signature preamp? My original assumption was that he used that shrink-ray machine from Willy Wonka or Despicable Me. When my wife finally convinced me that neither of those really exist (I’m still not 100% buying that—something about having a hard time distinguishing reality and fiction), I was left with one obvious solution…magic!
For the sake of thoroughness, the practical bits around back offer two pair of RCA inputs and one pair of XLR inputs, as well as one pair each of RCA and XLR outputs, should you want to bi-amp or use the preamp section alone. The speaker posts are lovely, and clamp down to hold the heaviest of speaker cables with Hulk-like grip. Two removable panels allow insertion of either or both a built-in phonostage and/or built-in DAC. There is also a small switch that allows you to adjust directly heated triode (DHT) filament voltage, giving the owner the ability to roll in 2A3, 45, 300B, PX4, 101D, 205D, and SV811 DHT tubes. As an interesting feature, you can remove the tubes and flip an internal switch to enter “DHT bypass mode,” bypassing the tube stage entirely and making the L2i a completely solid-state unit using a Class A JFET circuit. The tube cages up top are optional.
The front features a large source-select knob on the left and a volume control on the right. You can power up the preamp section with or without the amp section powered on. The design is unique and meticulously machined. Stillpoints Minis come standard as outriggers fitted into the base plate. I did not try to use any other feet as the Stillpoints did the job with surety. The L2i Signature comes in black or silver and the build and finish shout luxury item like a C-class Mercedes. I loved the feel of the large knobs in my fingers, and they were luscious to slowly rotate (yes, I said “luscious”). Small changes allowed meticulously adjusting the 64-step ladder volume control to exactly my desired level. And the remote control was equally well fabricated and implemented. The complete unit looked and felt every bit the part of a $20k piece of kit, which makes the non-signature version (built to identical standards) a knockout value at $14k.
The Signature version comes with a pair of EH300B Gold-Grid matched pair DHT tubes. Power output, no matter the DHT, is a flexible 100Wpc into 8 ohms and 170Wpc into 4 ohms. Voltage gain is about 32dB with DHT tubes and 24dB in DHT-bypass mode. The integrated weighs a hefty 50 pounds and has a quite reasonable footprint of 17¼” wide and 14½” deep. I am not too much a man to admit that I was drawn to its looks—a combination of retro sci-fi, modern art, and Robby the Robot meets atelier Ulysse Nardin.
A quick comment on the DAC and phonostage options. My review sample came with both installed, and I had the opportunity to extensively compare them to external options. Although you can see the specs of the DAC and phono- stage below, I will confirm that the DAC is compatible with everything it’s supposed to be compatible with, and immediately connected with whatever I offered as digital source, functioning without issue. The phonostage allows on-the-fly cartridge loading from 10–1000 ohms with as much flexibility as you would ever need. Both units compared favorably to standalone components around $5k. And in most cases it took a $7–$9k external device to justify the increased cost of additional power cables and interconnects. Read that as a damn good value at $3495.
What of tube rolling, you ask? Vinnie sent me a pair of KR PX4 tubes and a pair of WE 300B tubes to play with. I had to try the DHT-bypass mode, as well. DHT bypass sounded great, to be honest. I found the stage to be ultrawide, and tonal reproduction to be meticulous, but the L2i-SE lost its soul without valves in the signal path. Some may call it distortion; some may call it psychoacoustics; and others may call it poppycock. But I preferred the L2i-SE as it was intended to be heard, with those glowy glass things doing their job. To that end, the 300Bs opened up the stage behind the speakers, thickened the midbass, sweetened the midrange, and softened the treble just a hair. They also imbued the integrated with a sense of soul and a palpability that was hard to stop listening to—an infusion of passion, if you will. The PX4s were my personal preference. The stage moved forward significantly and widened, with ever so slight increases in instrumental definition and tonal density. The sweet sensuality of the 300B remained with added layers of transparency and low-end extension, and highs flying a bit higher in the clouds. In fact, the mental images of birds in a blue sky actually came to mind during a selection from Yanni Live at the Acropolis (yes, I listen to Yanni, and you should to). The glass makes a difference, and I was glad it was there, both visually and sonically.
I typically find myself describing specific passages and sonic attributes connected with those passages to best convey how the unit sounds and where it stands in relation to other products of its kind and price range, but the L2i-SE was a performance of passion, gestalt, and simplicity. The unique amalgamation of a directly heated triode-fed preamp section with a MOSFET solid-state amplifier stage left me wanting for very little. There was nary a musical genre that was misrepresented. Dynamics were bold and bountiful without ever being overstated. The low end had the proper timing and control. To be honest, I have heard more expensive monoblocks that would have been jealous. The midrange was luscious when it was supposed to be, and laid-back when so directed. Those overused terms “fun” and “engaging” popped into my brain several times. Highs were eloquently presented and never overwhelming, with an immediacy and clarity that allowed the overall presentation to flow completely unimpeded, like the waters of Niagara. I have no negative comments to make; it is that simple.
As I mentioned, Vinnie is 94% heart and soul. Clearly using magic (others refer to it as engineering and science, but I know better), he has taken an ever so tiny portion of himself and embedded it in the core of the L2i-SE. The sum of its parts only hint at what this integrated amp is capable of.
In comparing this, quite expensive integrated to its brethren in class, I can say that it holds its ground with aplomb. Is there better performance to be had with high-end separates? Of course. Is there better performance to be had in other integrated amplifiers? For more money, yes, there is. But in its price class I believe it’s an apex predator. I struggled to pull myself away from every listening session, and was frequently overwhelmed by the emotion and majesty it had the capacity to convey. And isn’t that, truly, what a device intended for the reproduction of music is supposed to accomplish? Bravo Mr. Rossi. Bravo.
Specs & Pricing
Output power: 100Wpc into 8 ohms (170Wpc into 4 ohms)
Output impedance: Approx. 0.1 ohms
Input impedance: 10k ohms (RCA and XLR inputs)
Frequency response: 0.5Hz–150kHz (±1dB)
Voltage gain: 32dB (with stock EH300B tubes), 24dB (DHT Bypass Mode enabled)
THD+N (with stock EH300B tubes): Less than 0.5%
THD+N (DHT Bypass Mode Enabled): Less than 0.01%
Dimensions (with tube covers and isolation base installed): Approx. 17.25″ x 8.88″ x 14.5″
Weight: 50 lbs. (23kg)
Optional DAC Module
Inputs: USB, coax on BNC, TosLink
Output voltage: 2.0V rms
Output impedance: <100 ohms
PCM playback: Up to 768kHz
DSD playback: DSD64, DSD128, DSD256 (DoP)
Optional Phono Module
MM gain settings: 40dB, 46dB
MC gain settings: 60dB, 66dB, 72dB
Output impedance: <100 ohms
Noise (3Vrms output, 1kHz): <90dBV
THD (3Vrms output, 1kHz): <0.002%
RIAA accuracy (20–20kHz): ±0.5dB
Analog source: Lyra Atlas SL cartridge, VPI HW40 turntable and arm, Manley Steelhead phonostage
Digital source: Laufer Teknik Memory Player MP64, Light Harmonic Davinci 2, NAIM Uniti Star
Amplification: Absolare Signature Integrated, GrandiNote Essenza Integrated, Octave V80SE with Super Black Box Integrated, Musical Fidelity TriVista Integrated, NAIM Uniti Star
Speakers: Dynaudio Consequence Ultimate, Laufer Teknik The Note, Zu Audio Druid Mark V, Elac UniFi B5, pair of Vandersteen Sub Three w/M7-HPB
AC Power: Dedicated Square D 125 amp panel w/10 gauge runs to each outlet, Furutech GTX-D-NCF Rhodium outlets, dedicated circuits for each outlet, Environmental Protection EP-2750 ground filter on each circuit, EP-2050 surge protection/waveform correction
Power conditioning: Shunyata D6000, Richard Gray 400S, Torus RM20BAL
Rack and shelf support: Adona SR4 & Nemisis ALGC racks, Symposium Ultra shelves, Symposium Rollerblocks 2+ doublestacks, HRS Nimbus, Shun Mook Giant Diamond Resonator, IsoAcoustics Gaia 1 & 2, IsoAcoustics Orea Bourdeaux
Interconnect: Crystal Cable Absolute Dream 1.0m XLR, Analysis Plus 1.0m Micro Golden Oval XLR, Shunyata Anaconda S 8.5m XLR, Cable Crystal Connect Reference Diamond 1.5m RCA phono w/ground cable
Digital: Light Harmonic Lightspeed 20G USB, Wireworld Platinum Starlight USB, Empirical Audio 1.0m Spdif
Speaker: Crystal Cable Absolute Dream 2.0m (spade to banana), Analysis Plus Big Silver Oval 2.0m (spade to spade)
Power: Shunyata Z-Tron NR 15 amp, Shunyata Z-Tron NR 20 amp, Enklein DAVID 15 amp
Acoustics: Dedicated room, Vicoustics, GIK, Acoustic Wings, Auralax,
Room: 15’1″ wide x 18’5″ long x 9’2″ high
LP cleaning machine: VPI