Top Spec

Note: Review translated from my original Norwegian text on www.audiofidelity.no

Spec? You haven’t heard of them, either? After an unusually enlightening listening period, I almost wish I had not heard of them in my entire life. ‘Cause now we’re in for a new world order. Again!

RSA-F33EX_front

Spec is a Japanese audio manufacturer with a small, but exciting portfolio; mainly comprising 4 amplifiers, a record player and a RIAA. I had a certain interest of the most affordable model in the product range, but, through various coincidences, I ended up in the opposite end. Unfortunately, I would say, the tested product costs much more than I enjoy thinking about.

In true Japanese tradition,  the model name consists of one (for me, at least) meaningless series of letters and numbers, presumably the producer has some systematic thought behind it. So, here we are with an integrated amplifier with the lovely name Spec RSA F33EX.  I actually know  what RSA means; Real-Sound Amplifier. Yes. I guess any hifi constructor on the planet would say they make just that. But I also assume that very few of them are as much right as just Spec in this case, ’cause the word “real” you can memorize immediately. Such level of realism I have previously only experienced on very rare occasions, mostly from live music, by the way, and, experiences like that have a terrible tendency attack my personal economic prospects. Especially when the  figures on the bottom line shows as much as in this case. Damn it!

Real sound

Spec has four different RSA’er to choose from, and I suppose R’s in the name becomes more and more in line with reality, the larger opening you find in your wallet. The least expensive model is a shamelessly light-weight 2×50 Watt MOS-FET amplifier,  with a half decent price  tag (in the area of € 4000), the next model up takes us into Spec’s core technology, the three models cost  around 6, 7 and 14 000, respectively (the latter being the tested object). All having moderate power output, meaning 50 or 60 watts in 8 Ohms, doubling in 4 Ohms. The weight is, referring to “normal” class D  amplifiers, substantial; tested model weighs in at 20 kg. As an example, this is way more than a previously tested Gato, for example, even if the latter easily supplied us with 250 watts on each channel. I guess a lot of the weight is to be found in Spec’s unique power supplies, and transformer solutions on the outputs. I also think a lot of the sound signature (or perhaps we should say lack of such) also can be related to these solutions. Anyone having heard a good interstage valve amplifier will get my drift.

Spec RSA F33EX is an obvious no-nonsense product. All key parts in the construction are naturllay taken extremely good care of, including a particularly thorough selection process on the component side. Much listening has been part of the development, which has also led to widespread use of certain wood veneer types, in search of dampening abilities, and sound structure. (Anyone remembering the Danish professor Steen Duelund? He was onto exactly the same in many ways, also using wood and other natural materials in his search for ultimate sound reproduction). Here, Spec has found practical use of both European spruce, Japanese maple and American hickory, each for specific purposes.

The main switch induces great memories from my time in the airline industry, we’re looking at a so called “guarded switch of the type of a normal cockpit is full of, “the feel” of the quality is almost physical, already at power up. After a short period, we are ready to play, and, even if the sound from a cold Spec is not particularly exciting, it takes no more than half an hour before we are at a level very few even have been close to. On the front we also find a high quality source selector switch, and a volume knob. The latter can be controlled via a nearly useless add-on remote solution, best forgotten. On the back we find powerful speaker terminals and 4 line inputs, one being XLR. In addition, we find a switch that controls the brightness of the light surrounding the volume control, then there is not much more to say. So let’s listen to what this small, but costly amplifier has on offer!

Startup

To be honest, I was not particularly friendly being faced with this amplifier. I had planned for reviewing something more mainstream than this, and had the clear opinion that this would be yet another super expensive unit from Japan, approximately half as funny as my playful McIntosh MA 8000. If lucky, I thought maybe the Spec also could be almost as good as the huge american, if caught in an especially good moment. Thus, I was ready to play, and get bored. Thought I should just play a bit to warm up the amplifier, but to wait for the Spec to become hot, you can just forget about, it never will. Even when pushed hard for 2 hours straight, it’s just as cool on the outside. But it should be switched on 24/7, since it clearly changes in timbral character the first few hours. Moreover, it has approximately no consumption at idle. Well started, I literally fell directly into trance. I sat there like a question mark, or “looked like a nesting box” as my Swedish wife says, since this amplifier delivered something completely different. It took some time to let this sink in, but when it dawned on me what I was hearing, I immediately mailed my Editor, asking him to get ready, ’cause I will bring something from another world!

Earlier, I have heard a very few components that reminds me of this Spec. The Norwegian company Doxa’s recent creations, as well as Audio Note and The Lars Interstage amplifiers, springs to mind. The latter two are fitted with 300B valves, and cost a quite a lot more than just a little. Just so you know what landscape we operate in here. And, to those of you who by coincidence own a pair Tannoy DC10t, I’ll hereby inform you that those speaker holds considerably greater resources than I was aware of, and I’m not exactly sorry for the quality level we can trick it into delivering. Spec + Tannoy = True! Unbelievably true!

Small toddler

I started listening sessions by playing on an affordable and easily driven bookshelf speakers from Audio Note, they reply by starting to do things they’ve never done before. First and foremost there is a silky smooth  sound  you just can’t expect from speakers in this price bracket. Already on these, after all simple constructions, it’s easy to  distinguish the wheat from the chaff. Hey, they even played Deep Purple with a certain conviction, moreover they conveyed the rhythm and groove, so I was forced to raise my voice and join in, something tells that somehow this is works! In terms of Big Mac eaters (corpulent American amps and similar stuff)  Spec seems somewhat more restrained in the bottom octaves, but here we’re actually dealing with a slightly different phenomenon. We’re actually listening to an amplifier with an extremely linear frequency response curve, no cheating or additional mid bass, restraining the sheer brutality and drama somewhat, we’ll come back to that in the coming paragraphs. Midrange dynamic, however, is quite exceptional, giving the music a drive of another world, anyway.

Another interesting phenomenon I discovered is that way Spec play music, gives the source a large playroom, the source quality somehow seems more subordinate than I normally am used to. I don’t completely understand this phenomenon, as this type of revealing nature really should have done the opposite. Not sure why, but it might be that the complete lack of distortion somehow favors any incoming signal, instead of adding unwanted artifacts to problems already there. Thus, I challenge anyone to play Spotify through a sensible DAC, through a Spec RSA F33EX, and then afterwards tell me that what you listen to are inferior files. Despite the aforementioned restraint bass of the standmount speakers, here we find a virtually new presentation of the reality, orderly, insightful and with and incredibly elegant timbral character. And, while we’re on to to the timbre, anyway..:

With SACD in the drawer on Marantz SA11 S3 course is set for celebration. The music is totally present in the room, totally out of all boxes, soaring like the air itself; clearer, more communicative. Although we did not get the feeling of an uncontrollable force with the small speakers, it is surprisingly punchy. And brass… !! I can’t hide a hide my happy smile, I just enjoy! And, with a full classical orchestra I experience a whole new insight. The room is huge. I just shake my head in disbelief, witnessing what literally unfolds in the room in front of me. What a timbre!! And this from cheap, simple speakers?!? Just keep it coming!! The strings are here, this is not fake! And the crescendo…. Don’t know what to say, the size can’t be explained, and I move the small speakers out and Tannoy DC 10T in…

Big fellow

Already from the start we prove once and for all Spec has all the power you would want in lower regions. It is even deeper than expected, literally earthshaking. The top sores into infinity, while the dynamics are exceptional. And this time all the way down! I even dared to start off with Spotify this time, and guess what, we get high-end to Spot price! Lacking nothing, neither meat nor fat, I don’t miss my BigMac a second. And now we’re serving the purest duck fat, not a tad is given, quality wise. Add tho this a room of incredible dimensions, and a texture I’ve never heard before from Spotify, and you have the picture. Completely riveting. And incomprehensible.

Choral music is among the most challenging you can feed to a music system. When a certain amount of singers, especially female such, delivers a broadside, it is virtually impossible not to experience a kind of “harmony artifacts,” giving a kind of uncomfortable shrill in the midrange. Again Spec shows how this can be done; effortless and airy, without hardness. The Norwegian singing songwriter Ole Paus’ “Det begynner å bli et liv dette her, det begynner å bli en bønn“shows with all clarity that we are dealing with something very special here. The music is produced with large rooms and extreme elegance. New voices emerging behind Paus, while the man himself is totally present. You hear every single singer with big space, experiencing how the choir breathes as a team, backed by natural room acoustics, bringing the listener closer to the recording room. Saxophone also get all the air in the world, and even if it is sounding slightly slim, it’s allowed to sing free and unrestrained. The guitar shows new sound structures, conveying an experience in sound and emotion. Never has this music been more alive than right here and right now!

Spurred on by the Paus reproduction, I find Odd Børretzen “Syv sørgelige sanger og tre triste” (Seven woeful songs, and three sad) and puts on one I think is among the latter three, namely “Bekkelaget blues.” And just when you thought you had heard it all, this track graces your listening room. I don’t know what to say. Presence, done. Everything is just there. Sounding like eternity. It’s almost so I can’t bear the experience of all this sadness so close.

Into infinity

To dig out the final offerings of the combination, we put on a well recorded classical SACD, and allows Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana”, the brutal choral work, to thunder through the cables and into the room. This is a Telarc recording, these are often characterized by size and brutality combined with very good acoustics. The recording is in this case made in Atlanta’s Woodruff Hall, where Berlin Symphonic Orchestra work together with the choir from Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. This is a shameless demonstration of raw power. What a sound, what an efficiency…! The horns are literally totally brutal, and the dynamics…!

This experience calls out for more, so I continue along the same line, following up with Claude Debussy’s rather strange “Holiday Morning” from “Images for Orchestra”, recorded in Music Hall in Cincinnati, with the city’s own Symphony Orchestra. Again Telarc, so we are guaranteed lots of fun and big bangs. The most striking of this rather quirky musical expression, however, is the acoustic diversity, which puts any music system on a trial it takes quite a lot to get out of without serious wounds. Or, let me rephrase, I guess any sensible construction makes something of this, but once you’ve heard what Spec RSA F33EX can do with it, then you marked for life. The acoustics in the room, the depth of it, the sound in the walls, and the instruments, not least, is an ice cold demonstration of sheer and total control. Attack, timbre, overtones, everything is there, breathing freely in the listening room. The musical experience is organic and completely alive, I have never been closer reality in my own living room, to put it short and concise. And ,when the almost orgiastic ending thunders into the room, I am seduced, laid, eaten and digested, so I disconnect with trembling fingers and load the gear into my car. We are headed for the Fidelity set-up!

Meeting with Coltrane

We connect to Marten Coltrane, one of the most complete speakers on the planet Tellus. Furthermore, playing these in a large room with just 60 watts on the tap, you might quickly meet the wall, so to speak . We have previously played with Doxa 74 on the same speakers in the same room, and, despite a completely convincing musical experience, the dynamics and wealth vanished when we started to push harder in this setup. I was therefore excited about how soon we would meet the wall this time. ‘Cause you must remember one thing: 60 Watts will never be a cornucopia! Somewhere, and obviously way before a 300-Watt amplifier, the Spec will be forced to give in, but the way this amplifier keeps on delivering, soon makes the listener wandering about the reality of the perpetual motion. Those of you having heavy loads at the end of the speaker cables, please note that there is absolutely no guarantee given that this amplifier has anything to offer. Experience has also shown class-D to have a sinister tendency to completely fall hard and flat on the face, once they flip over the edge. This annoying behavior has actually costed me some money over the years as a writer. Well, enough of that.

After an hour we started pushing the Spec up against the wall in the big listening room, and this time it was the editor who had to swallow some new impressions. After a long silence, he said slowly and somewhat confused:

– Here we have something very interesting ….

One could assume the Editor is a man of few words. But I think it was an expression of genuine wander, taciturn would not be a fair description of Norway’s hifi veteran. We play Solveig Slettahjell “Blå salme” KKV, as expected we’re looking into a big room, unique, real sounds, and an eternal timbre. A wonderful recording, this. Further, over to the Linn-recording “I’ll be your baby tonight” with Barb Jungr, where the intimate ambience comes complete into its own. Simon Wallace’s piano chords sounds distinct, with an exceptionally black background and a remarkable timbre, which seems to last forever. Not a single hint of hardness and, each guitar string is given an almost unique location in the room. So this sounds somehow is greater than reality, then, but that’s how it was recorded! When playing some old old Sinatra songs, the latter is also clearly demonstrated; the old crooner stands out in the soundstage, while the orchestra sounds flat lifeless,  diffusely situated behind the vocalist. Next track from the same disc gives a completely different picture, a different palette, where the mixing is clearly more modern.

Phenomenons as described above, puts a finger to a particularly sore point in our hobby; namely the ability a hifi-system has to differentiate and distinguish the different recordings and sounds. Only a tiny minority manages this particularly well, and right here Spec shows us something completely unique. This is described as “Comparison by contrast” by Audio Note, characterized by the ability to let the music’s own sound and acoustics flow freely, without forcing the equipments own  colors or masking into the music. Almost no set-up fully manage this. But Spec is incredibly close!

Did we meet the wall? No. Absolutely not. It should nevertheless be said that I have heard amplifiers in this setup deliver even more power and control, such as the Hegel H30 power amplifier running in bi-amping mode. Moreover, I have heard even more “suddenness” and shocking effects, as when the whole crew of Fidelity writers were terrified by DarTZeel’s integrated. The point is anyway that Spec RSA F33EX manages every aspect of music reproduction damned well, even with this in mind. And even if we think of absolutely everything we have heard in the room through the all the years!

And finally …

Spec RSA F33EX is very pricey. Thus, it might be extremely exciting to listen to the smaller brother, who is actually in the same mold, but with small compromises on power and component selection. Any buyers should also have in mind that some of the components of the top model might need months before fully opening up, our test sample had played long and thorough before we got it in our possession.

And the reality is that my meeting with Spec represents something completely new and unique in my period as hifi writer. Yes, I’ve heard something similar, but I have never heard anything this perfect from a single, relatively small box. All kinds of music can  thrown on this amplifier without danger, it just reproduces it, without messing up any of it. Even more fantastic is that poor or imperfect recordings are often just as entertaining as the “perfect” ones, as you so clearly hear how it all done, still without being bothered by it. It is just music! Life, reality, as historical documents of how it was recorded, right there, right then. You surprisingly find that even recordings from Kongshaug and Rainbow studio sometimes miss the target. All of a sudden Bodil Niska has a saxophone the size of a dumpster, but does it matter? No, it’s just the way it was done! It represents no problem, as long as the music is som much alive! I find myself constantly enjoying music I have previously not  had no relationship to, or feelings for. And I steadily get goosebumps all over from ecstatic joy of music, and that is actually the best measurement that can be made!

The final magic touch is it that the immersive and vivid reproduction is still there even at very low volume, meaning I will have to conclude as follows:

Spec RSA F33EX is the best integrated amplifier I have heard up to this date . Maybe the best music reproducer I’ve heard regardless of technology, size and price. At least in this house.

Spec RSA F33EX, integrated amplifier, 2 x 60 W, approximate price € 14 000, –

 

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