As the name suggests, here’s a valve-based amp that excels in nuance and subtlety, not musical power calisthenics.
IT’S BEEN AWHILE since I had a valve-based integrated amplifier in for review – it was way back in August 2010 that I reviewed Prima Luna’s Prologue Classic (reviewed here). At $3999, Opera’s Consonance Cyber-100 15th Anniversary is a more upmarket unit than the PrimaLuna, and it certainly looks the part: it’s a lovely looking piece of audio gear, there’s no doubt about that.
The Cyber 100 is a special anniversary edition of Opera’s 15-year-old M100 series push-pull integrated amplifiers. This version dates back to 2008, but it’s a current product in the Opera stable, and is said to be Opera’s statement as to how a push-pull pentode-based integrated amp should sound.
Features and Construction
Like my Well Tempered Simplex turntable (also made by Opera, and reviewed here), the Cyber 100 is shipped in a big, heavy-duty double box, and ensconced in Opera’s usual pink foam. The easily removable valve cage conceals another thick layer of pink foam to protect the valves; the review unit arrived with valves installed and was ready to run in minutes.
It’s a self-biasing design using KT88 or 6550 tubes, with a NOS 5687 drive stage and a rectifier circuit based on 5AR4 EH tubes and Philips electrolytic capacitors. The exact tube complement is 1 x ECC83 input, 2 x 5687 driver, 2 x 5AR4 rectifier and 4 x KT88 or 6550 output tubes (it arrived fitted with KT88’s). Every component has apparently been chosen to improve sound quality, even down to the German-made power switch. According to Opera, these amps have been engineered with over-specified output transformers, which are hand-wound in-house.
The Cyber 100 offers 35 watts of power, so it’s not a gruntmeister. This is a purist amp, so the feature count is limited to five line inputs, 4 and 8 Ohm speaker taps and a line output – there’s no phono stage, no headphone stage, no balance or tone controls or any other bells and whistles beyond one of Opera’s chunky metal remote controls, packed with little round silver buttons and able to control all manner of functionality on other Consonance components.
A lot of attention has been applied to its finish, and it looks every inch a $3999 amplifier. The brushed silver faceplate is home to chrome-plated volume and source selector knobs, five source indicator LEDs and a little remote sensor, so the appearance is kept clean. The silver paint is smoothly applied, and the curved wood top panels add a degree of class to the amp’s presence. The tube cage isn’t a thing of beauty and doesn’t really do much for the look of the amp, but it’s not hideous, so leaving it attached to fend off kids and pets won’t offend. Of course, the Cyber 100 looks far more dramatic without the tube cage, so if you can, leave it in the box.
This isn’t a humungous amp as far as valve amps go, being no wider or deeper than the Cambridge Audio 851A that I had in for review at the same time (reviewed here), but the nigh on 20cm height might give some audio racks pause for thought. It runs hot: not scorchingly so, but it’ll definitely need some space around it in order to keep its cool, so forget about stashing it away in a cabinet or an enclosed rack.
Even while I was giving the Cyber 100 some extra run-in time before I started any critical listening, this amp impressed. Van Morrison’s The Philosopher’s Stone was playing in the background when the sax on ‘Naked In The Jungle’ grabbed my attention. Even at moderate volume, there was an agility and a rasp to the sound of the horn that I really liked, and the dynamic range was lively.
With a couple of days of operation under its belt, I set the Cyber 100 up with Monitor Audio’s over-performing little Gold GX50 stand mounts (reviewed here) and a Cambridge Audio 851C CD player/DAC (reviewed here), all hooked up with a selection of copper cables and then Nordost’s new Blue Heaven II cables. The result was more than just pleasant – the 851C’s impressive knack of retrieving detail is easily matched by the speakers’ ability to cleanly reproduce it, especially at the top thanks to that superb ribbon tweeter stashed in each cabinet.
For example, ‘Nature Boy’ from Liza Ekdahl’s Heaven Earth And Beyond is a great track for those who want to study the sound of the double bass (and a cool song for those who just love good music). The instrument roams freely up and down its register, and while some systems add weight and sacrifice discernment, here I could clearly distinguish the vibration of the strings, and follow the harmonics of the instrument and the decay of the notes. The same level of clarity was audible on the sound of the softly played piano, while the vocal was light and surrounded by space, whisper-quiet at times, yet always impeccably formed with not a trace of sibilance. While the GX50’s can’t reproduce the full weight and depth of the bass, the quality of the low frequencies is undeniably accurate and taut.
On Rickie Lee Jones’ cover of ‘Showbiz Kids’ from The Devil You Know, the tiny touch of the triangle on the far right was a stand out. Instead of sounding like a distant “ding-ding”; it had a vibrant harmonic texture that changed subtly each time the instrument was struck. The gently plucked guitar strings on ‘Society’, from Eddie Vedder’s soundtrack to Into The Wild, were well illuminated via the Cyber 100, maintaining the decay of the notes in the background as the new notes kept rolling over them.
Which is all to say that this amplifier has a butterfly-light touch when it comes to rendering tone, and a way of showcasing insubstantial detail that adds a lot to the enjoyment of acoustic music, even at the low volumes of a late night session.
As expected, it’s certainly warmer and more full-bodied than something like the Cambridge Audio Azur 851A that was in residence at the same time. The Cyber 100’s sound is best described as smooth, big and generous. The top end is well lit but all up, this amp is fairly accurate in terms of its tonal balance – there’s a touch of romance to the presentation through the mids and upper bass but the overall character isn’t suffused with the lushness that some might expect from a valve amplifier; especially one with what is basically a conventional topology.
It also offers a decent dose of speed and pace. It’s not as quick and it’s timing not as intense as a good solid state amp, but that’s not what valve amps generally do best. It has, however, got enough vigour to charge up some foot-tapping enjoyment. What valves do best though, is to convey that accuracy of tone and timbre, plus a tangible midrange that all adds a critical degree of realism to reproduced music, especially the acoustic stuff – the old “it sounds like music, not hi-fi” cliché comes to mind once again. This is where this amp excels, breathing life into vocals and instruments without sugar coating them. It’s an extremely entertaining sound with all kinds of well-recorded music, and one that allows recordings to shine at their best.
Some, however, may consider it an antique, and a fusty old remnant that can’t handle music played at real volumes. Believe it or not, old man Kramer also likes to rock out, so my set of much-used Theophany M5 Series 2 floorstanders went into the system to see how the Cyber 100 could cope with power music. The M5’s are easy to drive and sounded best hooked up to the 8 ohm taps on the Cyber 100 (they’re a 6 ohm speaker, so I tried both outputs) but at high levels, with heavy electric music, the output transformers were a bit unhappy. The low bass was looser than I’m used to hearing it – not dramatically so, but I was aware that the woofers weren’t under as much control as I like. Playing 10CC’s ‘Art For Art’s Sake’ from Greatest Hits And More with the volume way up had me wanting to turn it down, which isn’t the reaction I was hoping for. The song sounded good from the upper bass up, but the deepest notes had more waffle than an overpriced ice cream.
Just in case it was a synergy or damping factor mismatch with the M5’s, I also tried the Cyber 100 with Definitive Technology’s StudioMonitor 65 stand mounts (reviewed here), which are theoretically an even easier load, but I noticed the same thing at the bottom end – slightly less agile and controlled bass than I was getting from my own amps or the Parasound Model 2125 power amp (reviewed here) or the Cambridge Audio 851A.
The Cyber 100 does almost everything right, and the things it does well, it does splendidly, in that inimitable valve way. It makes beautiful music, but isn’t super accomplished at creating high power impact and slam. There’s are no hassles enveloping you in the beauty of a much loved acoustic track, capturing the soul of a jazz artist or spinning you along nicely with faster music, but there’s that moderate lack of control at the low end when you ask it to behave like a more muscular amp. This isn’t entirely a matter of power: the 25 watts per channel Perreaux SX25i integrated that I once owned had a way of taking charge of the bottom end that belied its modest power output and diminutive form factor.
Lower powered valve amps occasionally display this slightly wobbly control, which can be negated to a degree by careful speaker matching, but in the grand scheme of things, power is cheap, and even really high quality power need not cost the earth. If you want to rock out at high levels on a regular basis, then for $3999 (or less), you can buy a solid state integrated with real muscle. If you want subtlety, insight and a wonderful ability to render both fine detail and tone, then a good valve amp like the Cyber 100 is just the thing. With the right speakers on the end of it, the Cyber 100 will put a smile on the owner’s face most of the time, even when it’s powered off. Definitely worth a listen, if your tastes lean towards the sublime rather than the extreme. ASHLEY KRAMER