Obscure Chinese company makes superb budget-conscious valve amp that will appeal as much to your inner munter as your sophisticated jazz afficianado.
YOU’D BE FORGIVEN for having never heard of Line Magnetic Audio before, but do a quick Google image search and you will see some mighty interesting photos – just don’t expect to find out much about the company themselves. You will see that the stunning range of amplifiers and loudspeakers (including field coil woofers and reproductions of Western Electric woofers and horns) have a wonderfully retro-modern-industrial-chic look with glowing dials on the amps, full sets of valves and all-metal chassis’ featuring superb silver hammer tone finishes. They are as much works of art as they are functional pieces of audio equipment and they look particularly splendid on all-wood racks and cabinets.
Line Magnetic is a Chinese company, based in Guangdong Province, China, and their products are gaining attention – and much interest – around the world. Tone Imports of America bring in Line Magnetic for the US market, and much of the range is now available here in NZ thanks to Turned On Audio of Onehunga.
And that’s about all I know or could find out. Even asking the boys at Turned On Audio got me little more than a shrug, and this is from two of the most knowledgeable and helpful lads in the industry. Thankfully, what they do know is a good thing when they see one, and they graciously supplied this lovely little review sample, practically fresh off the boat.
Build & Features
The LM-211IA is second from the bottom in the amplifier range (there is a little 3wpc mini amp which comes in below) and it looks and feels just as beautiful and well built as its more expensive family members. It’s fairly compact, measuring 376 x 345 x 191.5mm, and will of course require plenty of ventilation because those valves do get hot (though admittedly not as hot as some). Weighing around 20kg, this all-valve integrated uses four EL34s for class AB push-pull amplification, with two 12AX7s and two 12AU7s in the input/pre-amp stage – great news for tube rollers, though the stock tubes sounded wonderful so I wouldn’t be rushing out to get anything new straight away.
A chunky, boxy but attractive cover is supplied to protect the valves, though I preferred to keep it off. There are two wide bandwidth output transformers and a specially designed power supply transformer situated behind the valves. The amp is switchable between ultra-linear mode, where it gives a respectable 32 watts per channel, and triode mode, where you’ll get 15 watts. There are four linestage inputs – no in-built phonostage – and speaker taps for 4 and 8 ohm speakers. Bias adjustment is manual and very easy – just have your own flathead screwdriver at hand. The fine-looking ALPS volume control and source selector are machined from aluminium and the matching feet are padded with felt so the amp can easily be pushed around. The power on/off switch is located along the left side panel and the amp has a soft-start/time delay circuit, so when you turn it on the indicator next to the volume control will flash orange for 30 seconds before staying on to indicate normal function (let the valves warm up for at least 15 – 30 minutes before serious listening). The indicator will also flash when in mute, which is operated via the lovely little aluminium remote which also operates volume up and down and nothing else.
It’s worth mentioning that the amplifier is hand constructed and features the “finest point to point wiring” and I really believe that a lot of love has gone into its production. It really is a work of art, and who but the staunchest of solid state enthusiasts can’t love a full ensemble of hot glowing valves?
Most of us accept that a new component – whether it is an amplifier, phono cartridge or speakers – will need some amount of run-in before sounding its best, and while the LM-211IA was no exception, it certainly grabbed my attention straight out of the box. As I had the new Mission SX5 floorstanders (review on the way) running in my main room at the time, I set the LM up with my Spendors elsewhere in the house with an old iPod Nano followed by an even older Sony PS1 (with the appropriate CD player mods) running full time on burn-in duty. Every time I walked into the room I found myself sitting down, drawn in by what I was hearing, unable to tear myself away. The sound was big, rich and golden – the perfect antidote to a crappy day at work or any other of life’s stresses. Considering this was using far less than ideal source components, you might well imagine I couldn’t wait to get something more appropriate providing a signal. I suppose I gave the LM around 20 hours of run-in, but you could expect a good 50 – 100 hours to really get everything settled in.
So the Line Magnetic, along with the Spendors, was installed in the main room with my Well Tempered for listening to vinyl, while my Rotel DAC provided standard- and high-res digital music. At around 88dB into 8ohms and a recommended starting point of about 30wpc, the Spendors aren’t a particularly heavy load for the Line Magnetic, but more sensitive speakers could be worth considering. The majority of listening was done in ultralinear mode.
I found that the 211IA was very quiet in terms of noise floor, which could well account for the great sense of transparency and tonal quality I experienced. It presented a nice big soundstage with a great depth of field in which performers occupied their own space.
I started off by listening to Ryan Adams and the Cardinals’ ‘Withering Heights’ from Jacksonville City Nights, Nils Lofgren’s ‘Keith Don’t Go’ (perhaps a little too obvious, but I couldn’t resist) from Acoustic Live and Kings Of Leon’s ‘Dusty’ from Youth And Young Manhood (can’t believe that album is ten years old already). What these songs demonstrated was the amp’s striking ability to give the listener a great impression of the recording environment, as well as somehow seeming to illuminate the space between and around the performers. I could almost feel the venue in my living room on ‘Keith Don’t Go’; the reverent hush of the audience followed by their enthusiastic applause sounding so authentic. My room was lit up by the sparkling guitar sound and Lofgren’s vocal was grippingly natural, albeit with a slight tendency to be a bit bright as it reached the upper regions of the frequency range, something I did notice from time to time, though it never became unpleasant or fatiguing. I’d wager that further running-in may alleviate this and of course tube rolling could help too.
The drumming and particularly the metal brushes striking and caressing the cymbals sounded amazing on the Ryan Adams and Kings Of Leon tracks. There was a great sense of perspective with the performers firmly placed in position, from well behind the speakers and out in front and there was a clear distinction between Adams’ and the female backing vocalist’s voices – both of which sounded superbly clear. The piano sounded full bodied and natural and the percussive sounds of the individual keys being struck were fully evident. I’m not sure where or how ‘Withering Heights’ was recorded but it seemed to be coming from a vast, dark and quiet theatre, and this was despite the slightly annoying tape hiss which is present on and throughout the album. I was a little concerned that the last part of this song would sound messy and overbearing, especially at high volume which is how I like to listen to it, but despite that little bit of brightness, the Line Magnetic delivered it superbly, literally giving me goosebumps as a result of the stunning scale and realistic soundscape.
As I expected, jazz sounded great, with the LM 211IA presenting plenty of layers and textures for the ears to explore with an excellent range of tonal colours which brought recordings to life. Detail retrieval was some of the best I’ve heard at this price while the amp was even-handed across the frequency range. Nina Simone’s ‘Sinnerman’ from her 1965 album Pastel Blues had a great natural drum and piano sound with crisp cymbals, meaty hand claps and spectacularly rousing vocals, though at higher volumes the sound did become a little too intense in terms of cohesion, each instrument becoming slightly overwhelming as they reached climax-like heights. I suspect this was probably the intention of the artists, however, such is the nature of the song. At normal, family friendly listening levels, the song was rich, smooth and fiery – a real pleasure.
An album that has recently gained favour around the Witchdoctor castle is Om’s Advaitic Songs, and I was keen to hear how the 211IA would handle heavier sounding music. Best described (by me at least) as a melding of drone-metal and stoner rock with Arabic tendencies, I highly recommend getting this album – the band’s fifth – on vinyl. It’s a handsome package with the music pressed on two 45rpm 12-inch discs, and to say the recording is very good is an understatement. My favourite track is ‘Gethsemane’ which features powerful full-scale drumming and a driving, rhythmic bassline along with some good heavy riffing. It’s reminiscent of certain work by mighty New Zealand bands HDU and Dimmer. I wondered if maybe I was expecting too much of the wee valve amp but when the track kicked in after its long intro, the soundstage was huge with exceptional channel separation, quick transient response and surprisingly solid, tuneful bass . The guitar was suitably meaty, riffing along hard and giving rise to unfortunate munter-like urges. Sure, I couldn’t feel the bass or the hard hitting drums vibrating through the floorboards or damaging my internal organs, and I didn’t feel quite the same level of excitement swelling within the depths of my beer gut as I usually do but the performance was impressive nonetheless, especially at this price point. Although the LM held it together quite nicely at higher volumes, hints of brightness could creep in, as mentioned earlier, but this never detracted from my enjoyment of the music in any major way. I didn’t rush to turn the volume down; it was just something I noticed from time to time.
What I soon realised about the Line Magnetic was that it is very much a music lover’s amp. By this I mean that, while I could sit down with one of my more “audiophile approved” recordings and marvel at such things as the air between performers, the lifelike dynamics and so forth, I could also switch to less than perfect records and still get the same level of enjoyment. Songs, such as ‘The Classical’, ‘Hip Priest’ and ‘The Man Whose Head Expanded’ by The Fall – not to mention my personal favourite ‘No Bulbs’ – may sound a bit cacophonous to some ears but the LM managed to maintain a sense of order, allowing me to fully enjoy the eccentricities of the irascible Mr. Mark E. Smith. Likewise with The Clean’s catchy and exalted ‘Anything Could Happen’ which, incidentally, was recorded by Chris Knox on a Teac four-track (and it shows) in a small wooden hall. The music was fun, fast and thoroughly enjoyable, which is entirely the point. The beautifully full-bodied acoustic guitar intro was suitably jangly, and the drums and bass kicked in with a satisfying flurry. The vocal was a little thin but this was definitely down to the recording and besides, that’s the character of the era/scene we know and love and I wouldn’t want it any other way. This is an amp that will let you play whatever you like without being too fussy or pedantic about your record collection.
If you’ve ever read any of my other reviews then you may think that by now I should be well sick of Pitch Black’s Rhythm, Sound and Movement album but in fact the opposite is true. Every time I hear this ridiculously good electronic/dance album in a different system, I seem to hear things in slightly different ways – details I hadn’t heard before or more emphasis on different areas of the music. What I like about Pitch Black recordings is that they don’t seem to have been made in someone’s bedroom on a laptop. Rather, they sound like they have been created and recorded via a massive PA system in a large nightclub, which makes a lot of sense to me. So while few, if any home audio systems are likely to be able to entirely reproduce the sound of a nightclub environment cranking at full volume, you should be able to get a good impression of what is going on using any half decent stereo. The 211IA certainly gave the album a good and enjoyable crack. The all-important bass was swift and clear, if not entirely rib-rattling and the listening room was full to the brim with glorious sound. I seemed to be able to pick out little details – blips and percussion sounds and the like – and indeed heard a few things I hadn’t managed to focus my attention on in other systems. It was very hard to tear myself away to perform more domestic and sociable tasks.
While Triode mode lacked the raw power and punch of Ultralinear, it sounded somehow smoother; more silky and relaxing. Obviously there wasn’t really enough power to properly drive the Spendors, but I got a reasonably good impression none the less. Although the bass seemed a little looser – in that there wasn’t the same control of the lower frequencies as before – the sound was still pretty punchy and the finer subtleties of the music were in no way lacking, and there seemed to be more of that archetypal lovely golden lushness one would normally associate with valve amplification. In fact the 211IAs Triode mode almost made Ultralinear sound solid state, and I would’ve liked to have had some more efficient speakers on hand as I felt I could really spend a lot of time with it.
What a pleasure the LM-211IA was to come home to after a day of slaving. It is, at least in my humble opinion, a thing of real beauty – pride of ownership is very high – and fortunately it delivers in sound quality, too. Sure you could get better resolution, greater detail retrieval or better bass response, but this amplifier has so many other charms going for it for such a reasonable price that it must be worth an audition. A phonostage might have been nice, but as most enthusiasts usually like to have separates anyway, it isn’t much of an issue.
The LM delivers a fairly well balanced sound and what it may lack in some areas, it makes up for in others, yet it’s a good honest all-rounder in terms of presenting different music genres. I will say that if you live on a solid diet of rock and metal then you may wish to look elsewhere for that hard hitting rock experience, but if you have more diverse tastes, as I do, then I think you’ll be extremely happy; a bit of jazz, a bit of stoner-doom, a bit of electronica, you can’t go wrong. Conversely, if you live on, say, a jazz or acoustic staple and your budget falls within the $2k – 3k range then this has to be an amp for you to seriously consider.
The stock valves actually sound really nice, but the beauty of these things is that individuals can tune the amplifier to their own tastes by introducing different valves – and there is a plethora to choose from.
I really struggled to find anything seriously wrong with the Line Magnetic and I often forgot that I was supposed to be reviewing it; it was such a delight to listen to. But surely that’s the sign of something really good? So would I have one? You bet I would. ANDREW BAKER