In William Styron’s 1979 novel Sophie’s Choice, the protagonist is forced to choose which of her two daughters must be surrendered to the Nazis and which one should live. An horrific tale which – when adapted for the big screen in 1982 – saw Meryl Streep pick up the Best Actress Oscar gong. Her portrayal of being forced to make such a life-shattering decision saw her shoot the “choice” scene only once (due to its emotional terror).
In this post-post-modern world, context is everything. Prior to the arrival of the Red Wine Audio Signature 30.2 LFP-V Edition integrated (what a mouthful!), I had spent a good few months utterly enamoured with the holistic synergy between the previously reviewed Trafomatic Experience Two and Omega Super 6 XRS. There is no mistaking two quality products working in harmony when you hear it. In fact, the output transformers on the Trafomatic are of such high quality that its eight single-ended watts per channel proved to be more than sufficient for quite a number of loudspeakers: Wharfedale Diamond 9.1, Usher S-520, ATC SCM 11. Obviously, it DID favour more efficient loads but there was little to complain about when each of the aforementioned speakers were paired with its organic 300B wholesomeness.
Make no mistake, this “LFP-V” revision of the 30.2 Signature integrated is a major one. Chief vintner Vinnie Rossi has moved from SLA batteries to Lithium-Iron Phospate – they offer greater longevity and better withstand faster and deeper discharging. “SLA batteries do not like being deep-cycled and doing so greatly reduces their cycle life.”, Vinnie told me. The other motivator for a battery-type change was to accommodate customer requests to be able to listen and charge (the amplifier) simultaneously.
Vinnie continued, “Earlier this year, about 7 or 8 months before the release of the LFP-V Edition of our products, I knew I needed a custom (OEM) battery pack. I needed a battery pack that would be indifferent to deep-cycling, that had much greater energy density (more capacity in a smaller size), and still offered a flat discharge curve and very low output impedance for high-current capability required by our components. But it also had to sound better than SLA. After much research, I determined that the best choice for this was Lithium Iron Phosphate (LiFePO4, or “LFP” for shorthand), which is very expensive compared to SLA – but offers numerous technical advantages.”
A tube buffer stage has also been be added to the mix. Apparently, this is something Vinnie had been moving towards for some time: “Since they take up half the space of SLA – they were perfect for allowing me to fit the LFP Tube Buffer stage in our products.” LFP (battery) and V (tube output stage). Done deal.
[The new LFP-V edition has also been designed so that existing 30.2 owners aren’t left out in the cold – their units can be upgraded.]
Little has changed on with the externals of the box: the LED-lit, touch-sensitive on/off switch and volume pot still gracefully adorn the front panel. The rear (obviously) sports loudspeaker binding posts, RCA input, RCA output (for subwoofer connectivity) and the battery on/off toggle switch: flip it to the down position and you are disconnected from the mains grid – you are flying in a vessel marked “battery powered”. As the fuel tank begins to run dry, the power switch on the front of the unit flashes and the user should flip the rear switch upwards to reunite the unit with the mains-powered trickle charge.
During our email exchange Vinnie informed me that “…for $100 more, we also offer the option of adding a second set of RCA input jacks to the back panel (with a mini toggle switch located next to the RCA jacks for a very short and clean circuit path. Switch UP = Upper RCA jacks used, Switch DOWN = lower RCA jacks are used. And if the customer still needs volume controlled RCA output jacks, we can install those as well.”
The Red Wine Audio case is standard across the range and is understated to the point of indifference – a simple box that would pass for an aircraft in-flight recorder unit. My first thought was, “Yeah, this amplifier might be good, but it won’t be as awesome as the Trafomatic that it’s about to replace in my system”. In short, the Red Wine Audio had much to live up to and – as per usual – I was skeptical.
The Red Wine Audio packaging is as thoroughly thought out as I’ve seen with any product; the unit is incredibly well protected by layers of thick foam on all sides (and is double-boxed). The supplied plastic remote control is small, simple volume-up-volume-down device – again nothing too flashy and no complaints from me.
When it comes to developments with Class D amplifiers, I seem to have missed an important meeting. I had been occasionally listening to the Red Wine Audio 30.2 LFP-V Edition for a good few weeks before I delved deeper into the Red Wine Audio website: this integrated amplifier is rated at 30 wpc and uses a Tripath chip. You what? Are you kidding me? Clearly not. So – why my astonishment? After all, I had recently witnessed the magic audio carpet woven by the Virtue Audio crew. Even casual listening revealed the Red Wine Audio amplifier to be deceptively powerful and punchy.
Critical listening began with the amplifier in mains power mode. I fired up The Irresistible Force’s irresistibly slinky Fish Dances EP and immediately noted a tighter bass (than the Trafomatic). The 30.2’s sound was upright, straight of spine and unflinchingly proud. The timbre of woodwind instruments on Sufjan Stevens’ Age Of Adz sounded spot on the money. Horns connoted unbridled triumph. This was clearly an expressive amplifier, an eloquent amplifer…the Richard E Grant of amplifiers? Clean of tone with impeccable enunciation.
Instrumental separation was also superior to the Trafomatic’s thicker, denser presentation. If we think of these two amplifiers in terms of alcoholic intoxication, the Red Wine Audio possesses the alertness that only sobriety can bring whereas the Trafomatic is already one large glass into the evening (and is starting to sway). The Trafomatic has a certain swing that might better suit those looking for late night audio romance. If you seek a more self-disciplined aural seduction, the 30.2 is your guy. The Red Wine Audio is the Belgian to the Trafomatic’s Frenchman; both can seduce, but do so differently. The 30.2 is more of a straight talker, an intellectual conversation with some peripheral flirtation.
The remastering on The Best of Joy Divisiondoes little to smear the industrial bleakness of this pioneering bands finest work. The less rounded corners of the 30.2 give Pete Hook’s low-slung bass more room to breathe in the mix. Maybe it’s the tube buffer, but the Red Wine’s separation and definition was thrillingly transparent and will suit listeners looking for laser-guided precision without a sound that’s harsh or edgy. The Trafomatic offered a thicker midrange, a more coloured version of events and is definitely the more forgiving machine. “Transmission” is a poor garage recording that comes off far better when filtered through the 300B euphony…and…and yet…the swirling cymbals that introduce “Shadowplay” shimmer into life with greater sheen at the hands of the LFP-V 30.2.
Geneva were one of the most overlooked British bands of the 90s, their debut album Further was a glorious piece of understated indie rock. Their vocalist Andrew Montgomery was classically trained and his soaring vocal often took melodies skywards and across continents. Budget amplifiers tend to make a mess of this record, stripping it of its autumnal air. The LFP-V edition of the 30.2 (and the older Signature 30 which I had on loan) both brought a tear that little bit closer during the opening lines of “The Fall Apart” button. Pushing the exact same song through my reference Aaron XX revealed more air and more exuberance, but less refinement and austerity.
Taking it in turns to hook up each Red Wine integrated to a pair of ATC SCM 11s shows that 30 wpc goes a very long way in Vinnie’s world. The original Signature 30 struggled to drive the 85db curmudgeons, but the new LFP-V edition had no such trouble. Its superior dynamics, punch and drive were immediately evident. I reached comfortable listening levels with the volume pot at midday, with things topping out loudly at 2pm. Winding the wick still further saw no increase in SPLs nor any distortion.
(A side note: my experience with Class D amplifiers powering ATC loudspeakers has been decidedly mixed: the Virtue Sensation M901 sounded wonderful only with its top-drawer, AU$200 linear PSU and rolled-off at the top end with a Bel Canto S300iU. I think it’s safe for me to conclude that the ATC/Class D synergy ain’t always a successful one.)
But SPLs are probably the least of Vinnie’s design concerns and most likely why Red Wine Audio owners partner their amplifiers with more efficient noise makers. In doing so, the listener can tap into one of the LFP-V edition’s many strong suits – it’s PRaT. It’s lightning fast with electronic music, can turn on a dime. Running through Redshape’s Resident Advisor podcast left me reeling. Here was an Tripath integrated masquerading as a tube amplifier, but without the bottom end sluggishness. Redshape’s incessant bass drum was tidily defined, tight and speedy. The reproduction of the lower frequencies is the one area where the Red Wine integrated starts to pull ahead of the Trafomatic.
Drinking from both the Freedom glassware of Wharfedale Diamond 9.1 and the finer crystal of the Omega Super 6 XRS, I took myself on an amplifier degustation. The Virtue Sensation M901 (AU$1200) showed itself to be a sound and spicy Merlot – plenty of punch and excitement – but not as thick as the 30.2 LFP-V which I found to be a fuller-bodied Shiraz Cabernet. The Trafomatic’s 300B was an unmistakably heady, weighty Shiraz. The vintage Signature 30 had not aged as gracefully: still a very drinkable Cabernet Sauvignon but less dynamic and more lightweight on the palette than its richer, more exciting successor.
Time to tube roll. As easy as switching light globes, I unplugged the stock JJ Tesla 6922 (E88CC) and inserted an Amperex Bugle Boy. It’s difficult to be rock solid certain on the performance gains without listening to the “new” tube for a week or so and then suddenly switching back to the stock tube. The Bugle Boy lifted a veil and threw open the windows – a significant improvement. And possibly more so than listening to the 30.2 integrated in battery mode. This LFP-V revision ensures that the internal circuits are always powered by the battery. In “mains mode”, the battery is fed by the main supply (as a trickle charge) and the battery powers the amplification. When battery mode is engaged, trickle charge is disabled and the amplifier is electronically isolated from the mains supply. I noticed little difference (if any) between the two modes of operation.
And frankly, I didn’t care. Even in mains mode, the 30.2 LFP-V edition had already convinced me that it is a freak of nature. This is an integrated that has it all: detail, separation, warmth, musicality, fluidity, tonal density and colour. It sounds so utterly right. It is clean. It is open. It is honest. It has coherence such that one would swear it to be musically conscious. Its musicality is (for once) not a euphemism for a dearth of detail and it kicks sand in the face of the more pious Tripath detractors.
Prior to concluding my listening sessions, I gave Sufjan Steven’s Age of Adz yet another listen. There it was laid bare: the exquisite layering of head-nod drum machine, orchestral flourishes and intimate, Young-esque vocals. It was positively three-dimensional. Tonal colours oozed rich, dark chocolate without bitterness or overt sweetness; timing mirrored the man-machine harmony of a Tour De France peleton.
Choosing between the 30.2 and the Trafomatic was my hifi “Sophie’s Choice”. Both are remarkable integrated amplifiers, but the 30.2 LFP-V edition offers something quite special. It is an amplifier for those that demand the best of both of worlds: the euphony of tubes AND tight, commanding bass. Listen to the Easy Star All-Stars’ Pink Floyd remix-rework The Dubber Side Of The Moon and tell me I’m wrong. Although it doesn’t have the magical, late-night swing of the Trafomatic’s SET design, the more powerful and dynamic 30.2 LFP-V edition will perhaps have the broader market appeal – it does so many things so very well and it certainly shouldn’t be dismissed for its plain Jane attire. It is lamb dressed as mutton for sure.
Anyone with loudspeakers of reasonable sensitivity contemplating their next SET tube amplifier purchase should give the 30.2 LFP-V edition an audition before making any firm decisions. It won’t sway those valve die-hards that like to admire little glowing glass bottles whilst they listen, but it might convince others that solid state amplifiers can still offer up surprises that are as close as we can get to being all things to all men for AU$3000: effortless, majestic, powerful and delicate. Red Wine Audio have made a near-flawless integrated amplifier that unflinchingly nails the holy trinity of detail, tube-like euphony and fast, tight bass. A stunning achievement and VERY highly recommended.
- Logitech Squeezebox Touch
- TeraDak Chameleon
- Red Wine Audio Signature 30
- Virtue Sensation M901
- Aaron XX
- Trafomatic Experience Two
- ATC SCM 11
- Wharfedale Diamond 9.1
- Omega Super 6 XRS
- JohnBlue JB4
- Sufjan Stevens – Age Of Adz (2010)
- Geneva – Further (1997)
- Joy Division – The Best Of (2008)
- Bola – Gnayse (2004)
- Reshape – Resident Advisor podcast (2007)