Aaron Audio No.1.a Integrated Amplifier Review 
Home Theater Power Amplifiers Integrated Amplifiers
Written by Todd Whitesel   
Monday, 17 January 2011

I don't get to travel as much as I'd like to in the traditional sense, but every piece of audio equipment I review takes me on a journey of sorts. Whether it's embarking on a symbolic trip overseas to the component's origin or into the rarefied air of gear whose price exceeds my bankroll, the paths are always interesting and often enlightening. And sometimes they are flat out surprising. At the end of J.R.R. Tolkien's “The Fellowship Of The Ring,” hobbit hero Frodo Baggins finds life in his old homeland, The Shire, no longer possible. His quest to save Middle Earth from the dark lord, Sauron, has exposed him to things beyond his imagination and broken his innocence. Too many things have happened, and he no longer can dwell in the idyllic yet naïve world of his kin. Finally, Frodo boards a boat with his uncle Bilbo and friends to depart for the mythical Undying Lands. For Frodo, there was no going back to The Shire.

It's a metaphor that struck home with me as I spent the last couple months listening to Aaron Audio's No.1.a integrated amplifier. During the last two years I've had opportunity to audition several superb integrateds – amplifiers whose sound I could easily live with and be proud to display, too. I still feel that way, but the Aaron put me in a spot where “going back” to anything I'd heard before would be difficult. Everyone has their own personal sound nirvana, and the No.1.a was it for me. At $5,500, it's the most expensive integrated amp I've reviewed, yet I came away with no hesitations in recommending it, wanting it and wishing only that my audio finances were more robust – to keep it!

Background

Aaron Audio may not be a household name in the U.S., like Marantz, Yamaha, Denon and the like, but it's no new kid on the block, either. The roots of the company took hold some 25 years ago when Marita and Thomas Hoehne founded the high end consumer electronics sales company (High End Unterhaltungselektronik Vertriebs GmbH). As Aaron's website relates, its mission was “the production of hi-fi devices to meet the highest demands of serious music-lovers like the Hoehne family themselves – and thus the perfect reproduction of music. It was at that early stage, that it was decided to call these devices, which meet such high demands, SOVEREIGN. Yet it would be years before the first SOVEREIGN amplifier came out under the current technical reference – AARON products.” Within that line, the Aaron No. 1 integrated amplifier was introduced in 1989 and enjoyed a 13-year run before being retired in 2002. Today, the Elze, Germany-based concern offers the No.1.a, the successor to the original No. 1. Fortunately, you don't have to travel to Deutschland to audition the No.1.a, as Brian Ackerman of Aaudio Imports has brought the company's lineup to the States in his Parker, Colorado, showroom. Ackerman was my hook-up.

aaron front knobs

White Glove Treatment

The Aaron arrived at my door in a parcel designed to withstand  the most rigorous of handling,  consisting of a box within a box within a box and more padding between. I'm not sure Chuck Norris could have damaged the contents, unless it truly angered him. Most audiophiles are adamant about keeping the exterior of their gear looking showroom new, so Aaron includes a pair of white cotton gloves to wear while removing the amp from its packaging and during setup. After all, who wants a component freckled with fingerprints and other smudges? The amp is offered in two finishes: silver or night black. My review unit was the latter.

Design & Setup

The No.1.a has the stamp of German engineering and quality of build across the board. A brushed aluminum chassis houses a power supply backed by a 500VA toroidal transformer and six, 10.000uf capacitors. The amp is capable of outputting: 2 x 95 Watt at 8 Ohm, 2 x 160 Watt at 4 Ohm, 2 x 350 Watt at 2 Ohm and 2 x 410 Watt at 1 Ohm. An inside look reveals an elegant layout:  heat-dissipating fins on the right side of the amp, with the power supply set on the opposite side. The cover is dually top vented and also boasts a square metal “cap” placed in the center. The owner's manual, although nicely done with full-color illustrations, was worthless to me as there is no English language text, but there's little to confuse – after all, it's an integrated amplifier not a home theater receiver. The front panel is an exercise in moderation, with two cone-shaped control dials flanking a central LCD. One dial selects input, the other monitors power and volume. A nice touch is the “Standby” feature, which allows one to keep the amplifier perpetually “warmed up” while conserving power. An included remote provides full control over operations.

The rear panel sports a half-dozen gold-plated inputs: Aux, TV, Tuner, DAT, MD and CD; outputs for tape and preamp, should you want to bi-amp; and a processor. Gold-plated speaker binding posts, accepting banana plugs, spades or bare speaker wire, are capped with clear plastic. Like most high-end separates, the No.1.a features a detachable power cable. Ackerman didn't bother to include the stock cable and advises using an aftermarket power cord to ensure optimum performance. In this case, I connected my RS Audio Kevlar Starchord (6 foot) to the Aaron and settled in to listen.

aaron rear

My initial speaker setup with the Aaron involved a dear pair of Snell Type Ks. It so happened, however, that I decided to purchase the recently reviewed PENAUDIO Rebel 3, so I had those on hand along with a pair of newly arrived Mordaunt Short Mezzo 8s floorstanding speakers. This gave me the opportunity to put the Aaron through the paces with a monitor, full-size bookshelf speaker and a 3-way tower model. The Snells and Mezzos are moderately sensitive speakers, measuring 90db and 89dB respectively, with the Rebel 3s at 85dB. This amp has a reputation for being able to drive very demanding speakers, and though I can't attest directly to that I will say that it does drive less demanding models with barely a turn of the volume dial. The quietest setting is -60 dB, and by barely turning the volume up to 57 dB, I could enjoy the full spectrum of music through the Snells and Mezzos without strain or missing details. Give it a bit more juice and the fun really begins. As good as the Rebel 3s are, I think the Aaron amp deserves pairing with a speaker of fuller range, simply because the No.1.a sounds best when it can sing to full capacity.

Listening

I'm always conflicted when I hear a new piece of audio gear for the first time. Anticipation and excitement are tempered by a desire to offer impartial ears and hope that I can aptly describe what I'm hearing. And I know not to form judgements too quickly before equipment has received the warm-up (burn-in) time recommended by the manufacturer. Still, I could not pretend that what I heard with the No.1.a – right out of the box – was special. The first disc I played was Glass Hammer's If, the most recent release from the Chattanooga-based progressive rock band. Everything, from Fred Schendel's new and old-school keyboard sounds to the metallic thump and ring of Steve Babb's Rickenbacker bass, was presented with a studio-like crispness and accuracy that gave the music a sense of “being born,” as if listening to the aural equivalent of watching a series of time-lapse photos of a tree growing from seed to seedling to maturity. There was nothing cold or clinical about the No.1.a; rather, its sound has a warmth that's ear-friendly without mellowing the music or turning it mushy. I would describe it as slightly “tubey” but in the best sense of it and more like a hybrid (tube/transistor) amp than straight up solid state.

Miles Davis' recordings of the early to mid-1970s are among the most challenging and exploratory of the innovative trumpeter's career. The compositions on the 1975 live account, Agharta, are a witch's brew of dark, heavy and explosive forays into the outer limits of electric music. Davis takes a relative side-seat to his supporting cast, and the results are mind- and ear-blowing. Guitarists Pete Cosey's and Reggie Lucas' six-string manipulations alternately sound like the cries of ravens, glass shattering and volcanos erupting; saxophonist Sonny Fortune's astringent lines careen over the driving rhythms of drummer Al Foster and percussionist Mtume. This is dense and intense music that can quickly go from interesting to uncomfortable, played through the wrong system. The Aaron not only captured the fiery beauty and sizzle of the performances, but distilled each musician's part into a focused sonic image within the overall bloom of the tune proper. Dynamics, tone and tempo shimmered in a gorgeous blooming fury, without brittleness or blending into a colorless cacophony.

Top down view aaron

Quieter fare, such as gentle pop-rock of Bread, proved equally engaging. If you're looking for an inexpensive but great-sounding LP, The Best Of Bread is easy to recommend. The platter is populated by the radio-friendly hits of David Gates, including “Make It With You,” “Diary” and “It Don't Matter To Me.” These arrangements rely heavily on acoustic guitar and the ultra-smooth voice of Gates, and the No.1.a proved up to the task of not just presenting the music but letting it “unfurl” like a flag in the breeze. You hear the emotion in Gates' vocal and the individual guitar strings being picked and strummed. It's that sense of “breath” emerging from the tune that separates great components from mediocre models.

We reviewers often tend to anthropomorphize components, using phrases like “effortless performance” and the like, but the Aaron really does perform with a grace and ease that justifies such description. It's almost as if the amp isn't even there, just the music soaring through the atmosphere around you. Music is presented with dimensionality and “air” galore. Bass and midrange are substantial yet never muddy; the upper end is chiseled with a hint of tube-like warmth that I found beguiling. Just on the warm side of neutral, the No.1.a may not be everyone's cup of chai, but I found it to be one sweet drink.

Final Thoughts

Warmth, power, detail and strong across-the-board performance – you get it all with the Aaron No.1.a. First-rate sound is the icing on the cake of this solid state amp that has a touch of the tube personality. Everything on the amp, and the remote, worked quietly and smoothly. I heard no hum or other unwanted noise coming from the amp at any time – just expressive and acutely satisfying sound. Frank Zappa once said, “Without music to decorate it, time is just a bunch of boring production deadlines or dates by which bills must be paid.” I wish all my time could be “decorated” by music played through the Aaron No.1.a – deadlines, bills and all.

System Setup


  • Aaron Audio No.1.a integrated amplifier
  • Emotiva Audio ERC-1 CD player
  • Pro-Ject RPM 5.1 turntable
  • Parasound Zphono Preamplifier
  • Snell Type K loudspeakers
  • PENAUDIO Rebel 3 loudspeakers
  • Mordaunt Short Mezzo 8 loudspeakers
  • RS Audio Cables Kevlar Starchord Power Cable 
  • RS Audio Cables Illume Silver Interconnects 
  • RS Audio Cables Illume Silver Loudspeaker Cables






Like this article? Bookmark and share with any of the sites below.
Digg!Reddit!Del.icio.us!Google!StumbleUpon!Yahoo!Free social bookmarking plugins and extensions for Joomla! websites!
 
Joomla SEF URLs by Artio