Portal Audio Panache Integrated Amplifier 
Home Theater Power Amplifiers Integrated Amplifiers
Written by Thomas Garcia   
Tuesday, 01 October 2002

Newly formed company Portal Audio recently introduced their first offering, the “Panache,” a no-frills integrated amplifier with aspirations of offering high-end performance at a reasonable cost. Its main objective is to provide a platform for a simple audio-only system, one which will require minimal processing or switching of limited audio inputs and outputs. The Panache is priced at $1795 and is currently available via Internet direct. Portal Audio offers a 60-day risk-free trial period, taking advantage of a growing Internet model, allowing potential buyers to audition the unit in their own systems to ensure that their needs and expectations are met.

The Panache incorporates a passive line stage with a high gain dual mono Class A/AB amplifier in an attractive, somewhat minimalist package. The passive line section consists only of an input selector that routes the incoming signal through Alps volume and balance controls. The Amplifier section is rated at 100 watts per channel at eight ohms and 200 watts per channel at four ohms. Portal Audio specifies the unit as a dual mono design after the (separate) winding of the 425 VA toroidal transformer. Each channel has 40,000 mFd of power supply filtration, four pairs of high-speed bipolar output transistors rated at 100 watts and 12 amps per device.

As for appearance, the Panache’s front panel has a very clean, Spartan look. There’s an input selector that controls the four inputs, volume and balance controls, a "phones” jack for the use of headphones, and a power switch. The back connectivity is equally simple with four pairs of inputs, one record output and a detachable power cord. This relatively compact unit weighs in at 32 lbs. and measures17 inches wide, 12 inches deep and 4.5 inches tall, including the feet. During my evaluation, the Panache ran at fairly cool temperature, basically warm to the touch. This is in part due to the ample cooling fins located on both sides of the unit.

Portal Audio has sought to provide a component that would satisfy a number of consumers who find themselves in need of electronics that simply perform the task of switching an input source (such as a CD player, tuner, etc.) and amplifying this signal without adding any unwanted complexity or unnecessary circuitry. The Panache and its use of a passive line stage was designed to pass incoming signals through as few electronic parts as possible, with a goal of achieving the highest level of musical transparency while minimizing any potential artifacts or coloration to the original source.

One of the added features of Panache was its inclusion of an excellent headphone section. Portal Audio intended this to be a strong performance attribute and they have succeeded. I was able to compare the Panache headphone section to the Headroom Supreme Headphone Amplifier using the Sennhessier HD 600 and Grado RS 2 headphones. Both units were able to drive each of the headphones with ease, even at reference-plus volumes. The Panache had slightly better punch, inner detail dynamics and exhibited greater low-end impact and weight. It was very easy to pick out individual instruments and follow them on the Panache.

The Music
My listening session began with Chicago jazz pianist/singer Patricia Barber, whose musical ideology somewhat parallels the design criteria of Portal Audio. Both are minimalist in the way they approaching their respective art. First cut was Track 8 from Café Blue (Premonition Records), a remake of the classic “Ode To Billy Joe.” The Panache captured the rich harmonic structure, weight and attack of Michael Arnopol’s bass line while rendering Barbers vocals with a plush yet translucent quality. Free from grain or harshness, the Panache did a good job keeping any sibilance in Barber's voice in check during the vocal crescendo on Track 9, “To Rich For My Blood”.

Next up was Billy Idol’s former partner, guitarist extraordinare Steve Stevens, with his title song from the DVD Audio release Flamenco.A.Go.Go. This track, like most of the album, infuses a mesmerizing mixture of acoustic guitars and digital technology to create ambient sounds and textures that heighten and broaden both the aural and emotional impact of the varied performances. The Panache was able to decipher all the cues and nuances of this complex cut, painting a focused sound stage, while providing a soul-stirring presentation of this sonic potpourri. Transients were razor sharp, though bass control became less defined and somewhat compromised at higher volume while listening through the Revel Studios.

Emmylou Harris’ excellent live album Spyboy (Eminent Records) really brought to light the strengths of the Panache when used as a headphone amplifier. It was easy to follow the weave of the individual instruments and voices in the second track, “Where Will I Be.” Track 6, “Deeper Well,” demonstrated the Panache’s ability to simultaneously deliver the driving rhythm section of Brady Blade Jr. and Darryl Johnson, the growl of Buddy Miller’s guitar, and still not lose Harris’ sometimes delicate vocal delivery in the mix. The soundstage was layered, placing Harris solidly front and center, with supporting band members fanned out behind her. On the dramatic final cut, “The Maker,” the snap, detail, power and punch of Blades’ forceful percussion was entrancing, and completely convincing through the Panache. High-frequency extension was clean and effortless, displaying the sharp attack and shimmer of the cymbals.

Al Di Meola’s exciting CD Kiss My Axe (Tomato) also revealed the Panache’s ability to provide exquisite detail, as well as power and dynamics. Sitting back and enjoying the detail of “The Embrace,” followed immediately by the dynamic title cut was an exciting roller coaster ride that I felt compelled to repeat numerous times. The contrast of Di Meola’s melodious guitar and the crystal-clear percussion showed the Panache's ability to perform gracefully and at the same time articulate deep internal detail.

The Downside
The lack of a remote control will be an issue for some users, including this reviewer. This poses an inconvenience, as I often find myself controlling the volume, making changes for different songs during a listening session. In addition, the Panache may be well suited for a small-scale ensemble, but the limited number of inputs and outputs will eliminate it from consideration as the centerpiece of a complex audio system. If you listen at reference levels, some thought should be given to possibly matching the Panache with a loudspeaker that is relatively easy to drive at low frequencies.

While the current trend in consumer electronics is to include every option and feature possible, Portal Audio has chosen a different route. They have embraced the “less is more” approach and succeeded in providing a viable solution for individuals whose needs lean towards simplicity and quality rather then complexity. Headphone users will appreciate the dynamic ability and intoxicating musicality of the headphone section. For those who seek the minimalist approach, this design offers a short electronic path between the music and the listener. For Portal Audio’s potential core audience, those entering into high-end audio or who want to assemble a simple, well-designed system to a second room or office, the Panache could provide just the right solution.
Manufacturer Portal Audio
Model Panache Integrated Amplifier
Reviewer Tom Garcia

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