AFTER READING ANDREW Baker’s review of the Ekco EV55SE integrated valve amplifier (review here), I thought that I should probably take a listen to it. After all, here was a brand that I’d never heard of, manufacturing what seemed to be a world-class product. So rather than sending the EV55SE straight back to the agents, I whipped it home for a week of listening.
The EV55SE is impressive from the moment you try to lift the box, which weighs in at a substantial 33kg with 28kg of valve amp inside it. It would be a real help if there were some heavy-duty cut-outs on the side of the box, because lugging it around on sheer force of will and grip-power is all very well until you need to negotiate a steep ramp or stairs. That said, I managed to get it home and unboxed, which was when the next impressive moment occurred: this amp really is beautifully built. The front panel is thick, while the rest of the chassis is solid and tightly fitted. Much of the weight is at the back where the beefy transformers reside, which speaks of high-quality units with plenty of metal inside.
It’s something of a looker, too. I’m not really a fan of the curved bottom (Oh, come on! – Smutty Ed) and long conical feet but the overall finish is top notch – the gloss wooden side panels are lovely, as is the matt black heat resistant finish. At $3999, there’s no doubt that this amp is built to the highest quality standards and is entirely in keeping with the price. It’s not just a pretty(ish) face either, there’s also a huge amount of audio talent in there. All the technical details are in Andy’s review, so I won’t repeat them here.
I moved my StereoKnight passive preamp off the table and manhandled the EV55SE into place, hooked it to my Theophany M5 Series 2 floorstanders and Marantz SA8260 SACD player with Slinkylinks interconnect and speaker cables, and Nordost power cables. Then I turned everything on and pushed play. What I should have done was to first turn the amp’s volume knob down! While it wasn’t all the way up by any means, the first track on disc one of Van Morrison’s The Philosopher’s Stone ripped into the room with a vengeance. Instead of turning it down, I bolted for the couch and settled in to see how the Ekco handled this track. As it turns out, very well indeed. With the amp set to Ultralinear and Max NF (Negative Feedback), the sound was quick and powerful, with a great deal of bass weight, a grand rendition of scale, and an almost unfeasible amount of detail (at the price) making it through to the speaker drivers. Again at the price, the amount of transparency available here is quite spectacular.
It’s obvious from the start that the EV55SE is adding its own interpretation to the music to a degree, because the sound is warm, well-rounded and rich. Not as warm perhaps as the waves of heat coming off the valves, but pretty warm nonetheless. However, this is only an issue to people who listen to frequency graphs in preference to actual music.
In spite of (or perhaps because of) the EV55SE’s warm valve character, the amp does a fabulous job of rendering texture and tone, giving recordings that much appreciated “clean window” effect. Much like the Opera Consonance Cyber-100 15th Anniversary Edition amp that I reviewed recently (review here), the Ekco gives instruments and vocals a believable, almost tangible sense of realism. Drum strikes are fleshed out with deep, powerful impact, guitar bodies and strings open up with layers of revealed detail and the strings of a double bass or bass guitar fill the room with an ease that has to be heard to be believed. I found myself listening to tracks and then going back through them with the CD player’s remote just so I could hear how the EV55SE was rendering specific moments. Like Andy, I wondered if I’d been given the wrong price or if this amp had just been strangely priced by the importer (in a good way).
In Ultralinear mode with Max NF, there were no real negatives to the sound of the EV55SE through the easy to drive Theophany speakers. I found the bass to be tight, even at high levels and I absolutely loved the attack and speed, and most importantly the detail and transparency. In Triode mode or with the NF set to minimum, the EV55SE still sounded very good but I felt that the energy and immediacy of the presentation had been turned down, and I didn’t last long before heading right back to the settings I preferred. With another pair of speakers, the results may well have been totally different, so it’s nice to have the options available.
Another strength of the EV55SE was the precision of the imaging it produced through the Theophany’s. While the speakers are always fundamentally responsible for the overall imaging and soundstaging, the source and amplification do play a part, and over the years, I’ve seen (or heard) all manner or differences from the same pair of speakers. The EV55SE seemed to lock performers and instruments in space more so than many amps I’ve reviewed, although the soundstage width and depth were about typical for the room.
To summarise, this is a mighty special integrated amp, with no major flaws and many positive characteristics. There’s enough power to drive real world speaker loads, plenty of inputs, speaker A/B facilities and a classy little remote. The build quality and finish are outstanding, and the looks are distinctive, which adds a lot to the EV55SE’s appeal. Most critical of all, the sound is superb. Effectively, this amp looks, feels and sounds like a more expensive product than it is and I’d have absolutely no hesitation in giving it a five star rating in a full review setting. In fact, I’d say that it’s one of the finest amplifiers I’ve yet encountered at this price. I can’t wait to hear the soon to arrive Ekco EV55DP CD player/DAC.