Electrocompaniet PI-2 Prelude Integrated Amplifier Review  
Home Theater Power Amplifiers Integrated Amplifiers
Written by Todd Whitesel   
Wednesday, 23 December 2009

The southwest of Norway is a region best known for its rugged coastal scenery. Consult any travel guide of the region and you'll be lavished with descriptions of towering fjords and images of landscapes almost indescribably beautiful. It's unlikely you'll read anything about transient intermodulation distortion (TIM), why it's bad for audio and how one company operating in the little village of Tau, Norway, has been on a mission for more than 35 years to make sure you don't have to hear about TIM, in the most literal sense. That company is Electrocompaniet, an early leader in research and developing solid-state gear that addressed the problems of distortion unique to that design, when previously the audio world was ruled by tubes.

Electrocompaniet managing director and CEO Mikal Dreggevik relates, “Electrocompaniet introduced their first amplifier more than 30 years ago. That design was based upon a new approach to transistorized amplifier design – developed by Dr. Matti Otala and Jan Lohstroh. The result of their innovative design work was incorporated into the first Electrocompaniet design: the legendary 25-Watt amplifier (The 2 Channel Audio Power Amplifier). After that, Electrocompaniet wanted to create more powerful amplifiers with the same transparent, neutral sound found in their first amplifier. This led to new and innovative ways of using feedback in the circuitry. Since then Electrocompaniet have experienced few design limitations. After years of research and testing this have led to our current Dual Mono Class A balanced design. This design uses a different approach to the output stage, which you will not find in any other amplifiers out there. A new technique called Floating Transformer Technique (FTT) has further improved the design. That leaves us with a series of products that fulfill the primary objective of any Hi-Fi component: the faithful reproduction of music.”

PI-2 in SilverThe aforementioned 2 Channel Audio Power Amplifier created quite a stir in the audio community, particularly when, in 1976, the publication Audio Critic proclaimed, “This is the world's best sounding amplifier.” To own that amp and most others that have followed since required a sizable investment – Electrocompaniet has never let price stand in the way of execution. But now the company has introduced an entry-level line of components called Prelude, which includes the PI-2 Integrated Amplifier and companion PC-1 CD player. Both give consumers a taste of Electrocompaniet's Classic Line components at much reduced prices, although at its suggested price of $3,135, for most folks the PI-2 is at the high end of entry level.

Features

Before I get into the PI-2's features, it's worth noting that each Electrocompaniet component undergoes a three-step inspection, by real people, prior to being shipped to customers. My review model included a card initialed by two different folks; one tested the PI-2 for electronic performance and listening, another gave it a final inspection and personally packed it. Such accountability goes a long way to ensure the product arrives trouble-free, as mine did.

The PI-2 is offered in two finishes - black and silver – and its design is the epitome of Scandinavian aesthetic. A minimalist front panel features just five control buttons and blue LED display. It's spartan and clean as a Norway spring breeze. The PI-2 doesn't offer tone controls – an option I personally like – so one sound must necessarily fit all. Under the vented hood lies a large linear power supply and 400VA toroidal transformer. Its rated power output is 100 watts x 2 at 8 Ohms, 150 watts x 2 at 4 Ohms and 220 watts x2 at 2 Ohms. The PI-2 is a fully balanced stereo integrated amplifier that Electrocompaniet built using modern surface mount technology (circuit components are mounted directly to the surface of circuit boards) to cut manufacturing costs yet maintain the product's audio integrity. In a country such as Norway, with a ridiculously high standard of living and taxes to match, it's not easy to keep the production in-country and make products affordable - or even available - to outsiders.

I'm not sure what other cost-saving measures went into the PI-2, but the remote control must be one of them. It's an underwhelming plastic shell with zero pizazz or design connection to the Prelude components. If the sticker bearing the Electrocompaniet name was removed, the remote would be lost in a sea of generic, black plastic remotes. I've taken other companies to task for producing gear whose controls just don't match. The PI-2 should have a remote of solid metal with likewise solid rectangular lines. It gets the job done, and that's my highest and only praise.

The PI-2 sports two fully balanced (XLR) inputs and two single-ended (RCA) inputs. Electrocompaniet supplied a pair of XLR cables to utilize the balanced connections. The amp is designed to perform best with XLRs, which have several advantages over RCAs. Unlike RCA connectors, which essentially “slide” over their respective inputs and outputs, balanced XLR connectors feature signal pins and a locking mechanism for robust connection. We often think of cables simply as signal conveyors, carrying signals from an output source (such as a CD player) to the input of an amplifier. However, as that signal travels, RF/EMI noise from outside sources is added to the signal because the speaker wire acts also as an antenna.

In unbalanced cables, which rely on a single conductor and some type of shield to provide the signal return, a combination of the source signal and the noise go into the amp. That noise may or may not introduce significant distortion, depending on several factors. Balanced cables employ two wires and two conductors, which respectively carry the main signal and its inverse. As such, any interference is balanced between the cable's signal wires, so no voltage change occurs that could introduce distortion into the audio chain. Any noise is canceled. Pretty cool.

Listening

When auditioning several components each month, I tend to be impatient with break-in but have also learned not to be hasty when forming an opinion about the sound of any component. The PI-2 made it easier, though, with a beguiling sound out of the box that got even better over time. Like most loudspeakers, the PI-2 is designed to be at its best after some initial burn-in. Electrocompaniet recommends at least 72 hours of burn time for optimal performance. Some audiophiles advocate always leaving components powered on, and if you're to believe Electrocompaniet's assertion that, “If the PI-2 has been switched off, allow two hours of warm-up for optimal sonic performance,” you may want to do the same to save 120 minutes before serious listening. Once warmed up, the Electrocompaniet sound reminds me of Marantz, with an extremely smooth mid-range, rich bass and an overall warmth and lusciousness that lets the music engage your senses like the best Swiss chocolate.

The PI-2 isn't the absolute word on crystal neutrality, but certainly paints the top end with a fine brush in fine-edged detail. Based on experience with Bryston's B-100 integrated amplifier, the similar-priced ($3,895) B-100 offers more definition and flat neutrality that cuts to the very bone of recordings. The Canada-made Bryston would never be confused for tube sound; the Electrocompaniet is much closer. In that respect the PI-2 can round and soften the edges of bratty recordings yet still leave the tattoos.  My best description of the PI-2 is “dry warmth,” much like the dry heat of the American Southwest, where residents gladly tell you, “100 degrees isn't so bad because there's no humidity.”

Out of the box, the PI-2 is a generally quiet operator; although, if I put my ear about 4 inches from the  top, I could hear hum but never to the detriment of my overall enjoyment. When I swapped the stock power cord for RS Audio's Kevlar Starchord Power Cable, the hum decreased dramatically. (More on RS Audio in an upcoming review.) My lone complaint is that sometimes the PI-2 doesn't have as much power as I'd like. Its volume output is displayed via LED, ranging from 0 to 127 (not that I played at that volume or even approached it). I still felt like a lead-foot for often pushing the volume into the upper 50s to “hear” the PI-2 and music, but the amp was also driving some fairly demanding speakers with sensitivities in the 85 to 87dB range. Electrocompaniet's own Prelude loudspeaker – the PS1 – is rated at 89 dB, which sounds like a better pairing to me and a speaker I would love to hear.

I went back to my recent reference CD, Jade Warrior's Now, for a re-appraisal with the Electrocompaniet. The album never fails to deliver; nor did the P-2. As many times as I've listened to the ethereal “Journey,” I always come away with something new. Glyn Havard's clean vocals, Dave Sturt's bopping bass lines and Jon Field's multi-instrumental wizardry make this a wondrous track and one where I'll hang my audiophile hat. The PI-2 brought the track to life, making it glow like steady embers without any loss of nuance or instrument sustain/decay.

Jazz keyboardist and bandleader Sun Ra was a musical visionary whose works preceded and presaged the late-60's explorations of fellow jazzers John Coltrane and Miles Davis as well as the psychedelic-era of rock and roll. Even Ra's earlier albums are replete with exotic, boundary-stretching tunes that incorporate jazz, avant-garde, world music, strange rhythms and just plain “out-there” playing. The Futuristic Sounds Of Sun Ra was released originally in 1961 and still sounds mystifying and challenging today. Ra was a self-professed interplanetary traveler and always three steps (or parsecs) ahead of the pack. Who else would present the primitive tribalism of “Tapestry From An Asteroid”    and counter it with the late-night jazz balladry of “Jet Flight”? I think Ra would approve of his music played through the PI-2, where the balance and detail shine in elegant sonic light.

PI1 and PI2 Together
Over to vinyl...

I was very impressed with the PI-2's handling of vinyl. The Pro-Ject RPM 5.1 turntable and Parasound Zphono phono-stage are both overachievers in my book and became even better under the Electrocompaniet's tutelage.  “Gone Hollywood,” from Supertramp's Breakfast In America, sounded immediate and as lively as I've heard. The intro swirl of piano chords builds in volume before yielding to a punchy drum and guitar counter-riff.  Huge soundstage very nicely presented along with Roger Hodgson and Rick Davies' vocals. I've always touted Supertramp's Crime Of The Century as a great record and recording; I'm adding Breakfast to that list.

More than any other album or song, Kansas' Leftoverture turned me from a music “listener” into a music lover and wannabe musician. I can still remember spinning this record at best friend Steve Forte's house in 1976, as we grabbed his older brother Jim's copy of the then-new release, and playing it again and again and again. Kerry Livgren's  songs and Steve Walsh's vocals floored me, and I can't listen to “The Wall” to this day without getting a bit choked up remembering that magical time in my life. Hearing Side 2 closer, “Magnum Opus,” remains a transcendent moment. The PI-2 brought out the “vinyl” of my vinyl recording, and all the subtleties within. It made me wish Electrocompaniet made a Prelude turntable and phono-stage for further listening.

I figured it was time to connect my old Sansui T-60 tuner and see if the PI-2 could make it sing, too. Tuner enthusiasts will recognize the T-60 as a very modest unit, at the low end of a lineup of truly terrific Sansui tuners built back in the 1970s. The tuner is a reliable channel grabber but I rarely listen to it because it needs lots of juice to sound good; so, I was delighted when the PI-2 let my local public radio station (103.3 KUMD) bloom forth without requiring Who-like wattage. With the PI-2, I'd keep the T-60 in the audio rack all the time.

Final Thoughts


As a sucker, in general, for Scandinavian design, I fell for the PI-2's looks right away and sound soon after. This is a sweet-sounding amp that's made my short-list of favorites in its price range and beyond.  If clean, unspotted treble, neutral midrange and warmly dry bass be your cup of musical wine, the Electrocompaniet PI-2 be your vintage. Skål!


System Setup

Electrocompaniet PI-2 integrated amplifier
Electrocompaniet PC-1 CD player
Pro-Ject Audio RPM 5.1 turntable with Sumiko Blue Point No. 2 MC cartridge
Parasound Zphono phono preamplifier
Davone RITHM loudspeakers
Tyler Acoustics D4M loudspeakers
RS Audio Cables Kevlar Starchord Power Cable (6 ft)
RS Audio Cables Illume Silver Interconnects (1 meter)
RS Audio Cables Illume Silver Loudspeaker Cables (8 ft)
Sansui T-60 AM/FM stereo tuner
Valhalla Technology VT Amplifier Feet 25
Valhalla Technology VT Spike Feet Deluxe






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