First talks with the manufacturer regarding this test were started over one year ago – during the Munich High-End show in May 2014. The guys from G-Lab Design Fidelity, who presented the prototype during the show, was full of enthusiasm and optimism, that they will have everything in grip in shortest of time, and the final, fully certified and approved by the Brussels officials (you know, those of the curved bananas) will reach us and, most importantly, the international markets. Unfortunately the reality turned out to be less optimistic, and more brute – they spent dozens of months on paperwork and bureaucracy. Fortunately, at the time you are reading those words, the integrated tube amplifier BLOCK, the device we are talking about here, is available in normal sales.
The looks of Block can be described as unusual and intriguing at the same time. It has something from a primate roughness – the chassis is made from stainless steel, as well as something from cubic-futuristic fantasies from George Lucas’ “Star Wars”. It is controversial, ambiguous, and once you have seen it, it stays in your head like Gaudi’s architecture. Just look at it. The central element, a spine if you wish, is a thick, black pipe, which houses the main transformer and other elements of the power supply. Inside the four steel cuboids ‘levitating’ in its orbit output transformers and choke were placed, designed and made by Mr. Marian Kopecki. The main PCB was placed in another cuboid chassis, only this time much flatter.
Despite the modern, and at the same time unique, design, what is not so common in audio devices lately, Block is very minimalist in its setup, one may say even orthodox. Please do not be mislead by the popular 34 tubes you see – instead of the popular in inexpensive products push-pull design, the tested integrated uses a purist class A single-ended design. The amplification is done using three tubes per channel – double triodes JJ E88CC in the phonostage, double triode drivers 6N6P, and the mentioned JJ E34L in the output stage. Each tube has a dedicated ‘cage’, what gives the whole a very industrial look, but also satisfies the EU officials in terms of safety.
I am sorry that I made a kind of switch, messing up the usual order of the review, but having the technicalities described and out of the way, I can fully concentrate on the aesthetic values. As you already noticed, the Block does not resemble typical amplifiers found on the market. It is not another version of “we have the electronics ready and just need to pack it into some chassis” approach. Nothing like that. In case of the, to date, only product of G-Lab Design Fidelity, the external design probably begun in the head, but later on the drawing board of Mr. Mateusz Główka, a graduate from the Academy of Fine Arts, and only later it was adapted to the audiophile needs, so close to our hearts.
On the comparatively low, and at the same time fitting more the midi category in term of width, front, there is a turned, massive volume knob, placed in a small recess, right next to it there is the power switch and three buttons for input selection. No descriptions, no LEDs or other visual attractions. Just raw austerity doubled, or even tripled, as there are three buttons, and above each one of those there are small rectangular signs, that allow us to connect the depressed button (please listen to the characteristic click) with the RCA input on the back. Well, the back panel. It is worth mentioning, that there are signatures of its creators there, and all interfaces were hidden in a special bay, what may pose some questions about ergonomics. However I tested myself, that it is not so bad, and even mounting of the massive spades of the Hydra Signal Projects posed no problems. There are three line inputs, with the middle one leading to a MM phonostage. There is no remote, and there will be none, so if you want to change inputs, or volume, you have to get up from your chair and do it manually. But exercise is good for your health, isn’t it?
Before I continue with the description of the sound of the tested amplifier, I would like to direct your attention to one, but very important, detail. The Block produces, according to the manufacturer (and we do not conduct lab tests to verify that), striking 5.5W per channel. There would be nothing out of the ordinary with that, it is a tube single-ended, if not for Mr. Dionizy Konieczny (Sales Manager) claiming, that this power would be absolutely sufficient to drive my Gauder. Although the Arcona are built around aluminum mid-woofers and an AMT tweeter, but as common with Dr. Roland constructions, they easily turn out to be a pain for less powerful amplifiers with their impedance curve and “sufficient” efficacy. So I had the choice of conducting the listening session in our OSLS (Official Soundrebels Listening Room) with the ISIS, get some highly efficient loudspeakers or … take the words of the manufacturer for granted and in case of a fiasco chose one of the first two solutions randomly. So I went for the third solution and „Bingo!”. Of course I started with appropriate delicacy as requested by the situation, as I do not have any born-in (I am an ogre weighing over 100kg). This is the reason, that the first album played was the moody Leonard Cohen “Popular Problems” http://tidal.com/album/34181830 , but the easiness of the repertoire was only apparent. The seemingly low, hoarse voice of the vocalist, who never was a master of expression, preferring soft and toned down forms to shouting, and as such it was not a very big challenge, but the synthetic bass supporting the piano, with all the delicate choirs and cymbals, can become muddy and cover the whole sound with a thick cover if the amplifier cannot deliver appropriate current. But this time nothing like this happened. Cohen, being the whole time in very good shape, was closer to the listeners, while the virtual sources being on the second and third plane had proper size. The space and gradation of planes were based mostly on favoring palpability, sometimes at the cost of losing the rigid rules of perspective, but I can live with that. The reason for that is obvious – the sound is enchanting with palpability and the musicians/instruments being close to the listener, at the same time not dazzling with overly sharp edges or textures, which we could not have observed normally. And I am not talking about more or less cosmetic, softening – blurring manipulations, but about being closer to the truth – reality, and not overly bright or artificial. Looking for analogies in photography – HDR is rarely working well in portraits, the same also true in music.
The sound was very dense, coherent and inversely proportional in terms of pace to the declared, theoretically very low power. Trying to locate it in terms of approach to sound, in terms of mannerisms with which it reproduces music, I must confess, that the Block fits in somewhere between the camp represented by the single-ended power amplifier Tellurium Q Iridium 20 II and a classic, but very lively tube integrated Leben CS-300F. The obvious common characteristic of the mentioned amplifiers and the tested integrated is the “seemingly” low power, which parameters do not fit with what we hear. Because how should we describe a situation, when we know, that the amplifier we are listening to has only a dozen watts, or even a few, like the tested amp, and it easily drives loudspeakers, which made many “muscular legends” sweat.
Now, when the Block fared so well with Leonard Cohen, so time came to play something more massive and dense – for example “Anastasis” Dead Can Dance. When the “symphonics”, lavishly decorated with electronics, being the background for the almost hypnotic vocals started to emanate from my Gauder, my esteem for the Polish construction rose by a few more points. Low reaching and yet very well differentiated bass was kept on a surprisingly short leash, and thus did not degrade the selectiveness of the rest of the sound spectrum.
I can also talk only positively about the smoothness and coherence of the musical spectacle. Instead of separated, not bound together sounds, the Block had an global approach to it. It started from the whole, defining the reproduction – the basic thought, on which the action was based, and then, completely fluently and naturally allowed to concentrate and follow the details – individual vocalists or instruments.
I kept the hardrock “War Of Kings” Europe for last. Swing, breath and truly epic pageantry were quite nicely reproduced, but when the volume knob went too far to the right, physics laws came to play, and the sound stage started to get smaller and in culminating moments you could even hear compression. But it would be childish for me to assume, that the Block will play everything, at every volume level in a system configured as it was. And this is what happened here, but when you chose appropriately high efficient loudspeakers for this integrated, you can go for even heavier repertoire than the “poodlemetal” legends.
One more thing. When everything was written what I wanted to write, absolutely outside the test, from pure curiosity and sentiment, I played the long not heard “Beggars Banquet” The Rolling Stones (24bit/88.2kHz). I think I do not have to tell, that this album is still great music-wise, but it is not so good in terms of mastering. Despite the high density of the file, the music is usually too dry and anorectic. It lacks true flesh, the bloody tissue and a kind of humane warmth. Yet the Block was able to extract, in a way only known to it, a kind of substitute, only a substitute but still, of analog-like organicity. The depth of the stage still was not bigger than the depth of a paddling pool, but the whole came together into something sensible in terms of composition, and most of all, started to fulfill the criteria of three-dimensionality.
The G•LAB Design Fidelity BLOCK enchanted us already during last year’s Munich High End, with its unique shape and radical definition of its target audience. Without trying to appeal most people, it was absolutely clear, that it is not an ideal candidate for the first step in audio. But all people, who have enough of the never ending searches and ever growing list of devices owned, should sit down quietly and listen to the Block in their own homes. The chance of the quality of the watts coming from this charming integrated being much more important, than the amount of them, will be much higher.
System used in this test:
– CD/DAC: Ayon CD-1sx
– Digital input selector: Audio Authority 1177
– Network Music Player: Olive O2M; laptop Dell Inspiron 1764 + JRiver Media Center; QAT RS3
– Integrated amplifier: Electrocompaniet ECI5;
– Loudspeakers: Gauder Akustik Arcona 80 + spike extenders
– IC RCA: Antipodes Audio Katipo; Siltech Classic Anniversary 770i
– IC XLR: LessLoss Anchorwave; Organic Audio; Amare Musica
– Digital IC: Fadel art DigiLitz; Harmonic Technology Cyberlink Copper; Apogee Wyde Eye; Monster Cable Interlink LightSpeed 200
– USB Cables: Wireworld Starlight; Goldenote Firenze Silver
– Speaker Cables: Organic Audio; Signal Projects Hydra
– Power Cables: Furutech FP-3TS762 / FI-28R / FI-E38R; Organic Audio Power; Acoustic Zen Gargantua II; Ardento Power; Organic Audio Reference Power; Furutech NanoFlux
– Power distribution board: GigaWatt PF-2 + Furutech FP-3TS762 / FI-28R / FI-E38R
– Wall Socket: Furutech FT-SWS(R)
– Antivibration platform: Franc Audio Accessories Wood Block Slim Platform
– Ethernet cables: Neyton CAT7+
– Accessories: Sevenrods Dust-caps; Furutech CF-080 Damping Ring; HighEndNovum PMR Premium; Albat Revolution Loudspeaker Chips
It was exactly one year ago, when we, together with Marcin, visited the 2014 Munich High End, and found a static, at that point, presentation of the product described here. Yes, if something is allowed to be sold, it needs to fulfill many bureaucratic requirements, and the completion of it in our country, member of the European Community, takes approximately that long. But we should not complain, this time could also be used for the project to evolve into the final version, to be able to present the fullness of its sonic capabilities. And I am talking here about the tube amplifier Block, designed and manufactured by the company G-Lab Design-Fidelity, which was to be an uncompromised construction, offering only 5.5 watt per channel, in class “A”. What came out from the test, of this amplifier, seemingly destined to fail (as it costs less than any of the cables in my system), I will describe later.
Looking at the shape of the Block it is hard not to think, that being capable of placing a few stainless steel cubes around a cylinder in such a visually appealing way, you need to be a little crazy – in a positive way. An average representative of homo sapiens would build a boring structure from Lego blocks, and not such an appealing, spacious construct. You do not believe me? Then please try to design something yourself and give it to some independent reviewer. It will probably turn out, that you should leave designing to people competent in that area. But enough of this visual digressions, let us get to the topic.
Like I mentioned before, the design was centered around a cylinder, housing all the electrical elements, with four cubes placed around it and a big platform for the vacuum tubes. Simplicity and perfection incorporated. The lower cubes look like feet, but in reality, the whole construction rests on the middle cylinder. The top plate houses, in its central part, the whole set of electron tubes, hidden in special housings, ideally fitting to the rest of the design. On the front of this platform, to the left, a big volume knob was installed, next to an old-school power switch, while to the right, a triple input selector can be found. Using one of those switches immediately reminds me of my youth. A big kudos to you gentlemen. The back of the integrated is equipped with a power socket and a grounding terminal for the phonostage on the cylinder and three inputs – including one phono – as well as single loudspeaker terminals at the back of the tube plate. No fancy items there. And that would be it, regarding the exterior. So let us continue to the most important aspect of the device – the amplification of the sound, which was most interesting to me, due to the low power levels produced by the unit.
The beginning of the test of such a hardcore product, as usual, brought some conjectures like: the high efficiency of my loudspeakers alone (90dB) does not guarantee good playback from a puny amplifier. Why? On one hand, the high value in the company materials does not necessarily need to be truthful, and even if it is, then it may turn out, that moving two 40-cm diameter woofers may be too much of stress for a 5 Watt amplifier. But let me not brag too much – the PR guys knew well, what they had to sell, so when I put the tested amp in my system, I must confess, that it fared well directly from the beginning. Of course, before I started to test the cooperation between the tube guest with the Austrian loudspeakers, I arranged for a few days of burning in, using my beloved old music for that, and following the direction, in which the initial harshness of the tested amplifier will go. When the tested unit reached review readiness, I decided for a sparring with highly efficient loudspeakers, in the form of 30 years old Klipsch, that can be found at the KAIM club. Unfortunately this combination turned out to be too flashy, too dry, as a consequence of the tube drivers used in the speakers. So I would like to warn all people from the audio world, that such stereotypes – high efficiency loudspeakers from the megaphone era and an amplifier with only a few watts are guaranteeing success – it may turn out, that this is just wishful thinking, and not an axiom. As a side note, we were able to create from this Klipsch speakers something like a Harbeth, but for that we needed an extended set of cables, which were used to temper those speakers, and cost many times the value of the speakers themselves. If somebody thinks, this is rational, then I tend to disagree – this was like curing a plague with a virus. The return to my exile revived some of the enthusiasm I lost during the described experiment. I expected playing with the upper midrange, with a tendency for exaggeration, and yet it turned out to be the effect of the KAIM club loudspeakers, which are too offensive, and not of the tested amplifier. The detail of the sound was supported by its swing; already during test runs in my system showed the potential of our test hero, and I only confirmed that with later listening tests. And yet my loudspeakers feature paper membrane drivers and a tube speaker, yet applied using current construction trends. Of course there is no smoke without a fire and such a presentation of information recorded on the disc sometimes resulted in a slight increase of the sibilants, which are often an issue with recordings of lesser quality. This was not really tiring, but when the sound engineer decided to place the microphone in the singers throat, then we could hear the increase of hissing in the sound. In the reference configuration this effect was not there, or was negligible, but let us say it – this was not a fair comparison. As excuse for the tested amp, I will add, that when the artifacts were there, they were not degrading the sound, but pointed to the mistakes of the sound engineer, where a less good unit would have problems. And I am not writing this to depreciate the tested component, but to let potential buyers know, that they deal hear with a very open playing amplifier, and choosing the right loudspeakers can be more of a serious task, than just a formality. Dealing with something as unique as the tested device, it is worth to spend some more time selecting the right accompanying components, to achieve full satisfaction from the upper registers. This needs to be a consensus of two synergistically fitting products, and not a random combination. But let me continue to describe the sound generated in combination with my Trenner speakers. When the Reimyo power amplifier was replaced with the Polish product, the base drum lost some of its weight, this due to the low power of the amplifier. It was not flat, but it generated less of that blow, like the 200 watt Japanese amp. What is important, that the temperature of the sound shifted a bit up, but still remained in the area of a warm sound. For sure I did not perceive it as brightening, but just a way of handling bass speakers the size of a swimming pool. To describe the sound, I will use a few records, starting with a disc often played by me, from the ECM John Potter compilation from the series “The Downland Project”, titled “Care-charming sleep”. A few motives of Monteverdi with some other songs from that era, sung in a non-typical way, with energy and swing, without being overly artistic, so that I can listen to this disc many times over in one session. This of course has its assets, as I know each of the phrases recorded on the disc by heart, but I also tend to be bored by this material quickly. But the manner of fresh presentation of the sound seemed to help this music, as a slight shift of the gravity towards the upper midrange resulted in spectacular, often praised by my guests, lighting of the sound stage. Following this I would like to recall John Potter’s vocals, which sounded in such a way in my room, that its volume only lost with the ceiling and the walls containing it. This was a very instructive experience, giving the price of the device. It can be clearly seen that even on such a low price level, you can create something sounding at least interesting. But you do not live on old music alone, so I had to check, how many artists on one stage will be presented. So I fired up the turntable with the disc from Enrico Rava and Dino Saluzzi in a quintet called “Volver” and issued by ECM. Yes, yes, I am boring, but what can I do, when this label has a monopoly for high quality recordings, and you really need to search very thoroughly to find a glitch. This is why this label from Munich is for me the number one during reviews. But let us return to the topic. I took on this disc on purpose, because it is a very slowly, but consistently developing story presented by few artists. In the piece opening the disc, the musicians successively enter into a dialog between them, showing exactly the places, where the sound engineer placed them. A bit of silencing and then, somewhere in the distance we hear the musical phrases of a guitar, on the background of which, somewhat to the left Saluzzi’s accordion enters, and then we can hear the contrabass and percussion to the right. The apogee of this piece is when Enrico Rava’s trumpet enters, placed centrally. When this part finished, it turned out, that this maybe was not a true copy of the capabilities of my Japanese set, but for a debut on the audio market, and the moderate price, maybe even too low for the capabilities presented, it was really very good. Finally I must confess, that I found a repertoire, that defeated our hero. It is true, it stood ground till the medium volume levels, but after passing the “G” spot on the potentiometer, the musical reproduction lost on readability and gradation of planes. Please take a special margin for tolerance for this adventure, because the disc played was Percival, a folk-rock formation. This disc is a real problem for most of the tested devices. For once, it is not well recorded, and secondly, I regard this kind of music as something used for voluntary killing of your own brain cells, and I dropped this kind of experience some time ago. So please do not draw too far fetching conclusions from the last few sentences, but just take them as pure information from a reviewer, who tries to take his job seriously. I think, that with loudspeakers with smaller membranes, it would be much better, but let us not kid ourselves, no one will use a class “A” amplifier for a liver massage with Satan’s music. Such devices are for the educated music lover, which will appreciate the art of the manufacturers in reproducing their beloved music. I repeat, music, and not a combination of instruments and vocalists shouting one over the other, for what I would propose a few ideal amplifiers, but absolutely different to the tested one.
Conclusion? It is great, that there are people in our country, who want to create such products. Block, being a fusion of an idea for business, a good electrical construction and a nice external design, seems to be destined to reach final success. Why do I think that? Please take the product from the company G-Lab Design-Fidelity to your place, even with loudspeakers that are difficult, and you will find out, that the things I wrote earlier: openness of the sound, well defined sound stage, and what is important for our spouses, the design will convince you to it, so that you will try to find fitting loudspeakers for it. A five Watt amplifier in class “A” is another world in terms of enjoying music, and even if during a short contact with the device, you will feel a spark of romantics, then you may lose to it completely. I really recommend you trying it out, but I also warn all those, who are negatively minded, that they can be positively surprised.
Producer: G LAB Design Fidelity
Price: 5 000 €
Output Power: 2 x 5,5 W
Frequency Response: 30 Hz – 30 kHz/-2 dB
Power consumption: 120 W
Analogue inputs: 2 x line, 1 x phono (MM)
Tube complement: 2 x E34L, 2 x E88C, 2 x 6N6P
Weigth: 20 kg
Dimensions (WxDxH): 339 x 288 x 208 mm (without lamps)
System used in this test:
– Separate DAC + CD player: Reimyo CDT – 777 + Reimyo DAP – 999 EX
– Preamplifier: Reimyo CAT – 777 MK II
– Power amplifier:Reimyo KAP – 777
– Loudspeakers: TRENNER & FRIEDL ISIS
– Speaker Cables: Harmonix HS 101-EXQ (mid-high section); Harmonix HS-101 SLC (bass section)
– IC RCA: Harmonix HS 101-GP
– Digital IC: Harmonix HS 102
– Power cables: Harmonix X-DC-350M2R Improved Version
– Table: SOLID BASE VI
– Accessories: Antivibration stand for the power amp by Harmonix TU-505EX MK2, Harmonix Enacom improved for AC
– Power distribution board: POWER BASE HIGH END
Drive: SME 30/2
Arm: SME V
Cartridge: MIYAJIMA MADAKE
Phonostage: RCM THERIAA