Always a gleaming, never a gloomy affair. Unless you ordered black, that's the case, literally, with all designs of Art Audio. Like a running Wagnerian leit motif, they're wrapped in polished stainless steel, optionally available with gold-plated or chromed accents. US main man Joe Fratus adds luster by being a high-carat gentleman and cool cat character, something anyone who's ever met him (even just over the bloody phone) can attest to. Having owned and reviewed his Jota and PX-25 amplifiers -- jointly designed with the firm's UK founder Tom Willis -- I've met Joe multiple times at various shows. We even co-exhibited at the last NY Stereophile Show with me as Soliloquy's then representative. Add a few dinners and casual phone calls and you'll appreciate why today's sneak peek. I'll perform a quick overall assessment vis-à-vis my familiarity with the previously mentioned amps (to give a second opinion, create context and satisfy personal curiosity) while reviewer John Potis -- who's never spoken with Joe, much less met him -- will do the formal honors of the main review.

Named after Fratus' younger daughter [Joe shown right next to Terry Cain at HE2003], the Carissa's explicit raison d'être is to offer the drive of Art Audio's more expensive Diavolo and Jota jewels - but at a lower price point. The motto? Real-world rather than micro-power SET appeal to get more people with standard-efficiency speakers into the triode act. Hence the choice of the high-power high-voltage 845, otherwise a bit counter-intuitive since the Art Audio house sound tends to favor great dynamics and a fast, precise sound on the lean rather than fat side of things. The 845 is famous for power, drive and stellar midbass, true - but it's also fond of a very voluptuous midrange with slightly ponderous, muddy low bass and a somewhat hooded top end - sonic qualities clearly at odds with the Art Audio marquee.

The Carissa's design team was thus keen on pushing the 845's envelope - harness its power, refine and soup up its mien. Using a custom split-core output transformer, ultimate paper power (26wpc in the chosen circuit) was eventually throttled down to 16wpc by reducing possible plate voltages. This is said to have enabled significant distortion reduction yet concurrent gains in current delivery, the latter a far more important signifier for loudspeaker control and thus synergistic happiness than brute published power. The review unit had served duty driving Terry's Cain & Cain Fostex-horns at HE2003 and was thus decked out in upscale chromilicious, $4,495 optional finery. For $3,995, the budget-conscious music lover acquires identical sonics albeit in a black chassis, with the transformer cover's "Carissa" decal the only gleaming surface left. Valve Art power triodes (glowing brightly in the two right pix below) are standard, KR Audio substitutes optional (their different internal construction exhibits but a faint orange strip, and only when viewed sideways at the exact angle - see left-column pix).

Besides whetting your appetite for things to come, today's sneak peek will answer one overriding question: Despite the 845 triode used, does the Carissa stereo amplifier still maintain the firm's signature traits as embodied in the PX-25 and Jota amplifiers - and where and how does it differ. For the main review, John will delve into far greater detail and report on copaseticity (is that a word?) with his Silverline Sonata II and Maggie 1.6 speakers, as well comment on similarities and differences with the 15wpc same-powered but more expensive $5,970 AUDIOPAX Stereo 88.

To get right to it then in geographical terms: The Carissa is of a different aural zone than the Jota and PX-25 altogether. The latter two belong into the arctic circle. They live under a brilliant sun breathing crystalline, thin, crisp air. The clarity of high-altitude light without the ponderous heat of the lowlands engenders the kind of fast, precise, energetic, lean reflexes typical of peoples in moderate climates. The Carissa is a tropical beast. It exudes far more humidity. The air around it feels thicker and heavier, its physical movements seem a bit slower and more deliberate. The musical fabric gets denser, less transparent, more robust. Super-ballsy and potent low bass shifts the tonal balance into the lower midrange. Things become very saturated, the lack of overt high-frequency sparkle causes a bit of dryness. The 'carbonated fizz' of the PX-25's 60kHz extension is absent, as is the at times slightly brash, super-dynamic mien of the EAT32B-outfitted Jota.

The Carissa falls somewhat into the single-ended 'Cary Sound' camp, a more romantic presentation that unapologetically transmits 'NFB triodes'. Compared to the CAD-2A3 monos I listened to for a while, today's 845 design offers a truly macho, testosterone-happy bottom end. It's perfect for rocking down the house or moving large quantities of air for phat HipHop downbeats and massive symphonic crescendos. Rather than emphasizing micro-detail resolution and transparency, the Carissa goes for the emotional jugular. I actually backed off my DUOs' bass attenuators 3 clicks to account for the amp's unusual bass prowess. That made me wonder how it would transform slightly anemic 2-ways - into mean junk yard dogs, taking on counter-indicative programme material with vigor, enthusiasm and control completely uncharacteristic for their breed?

The optional KR Audio bottles inject a bit of 'cold air' for enhanced transient definition and clarity but don't alter the overall core impression of warmth and modest Gemütlichkeit, that hard-to-translate Germanic quality pointing at coziness and comfort which fellow pilgrim Chip Stern called meat-and-potatoes appeal in his Vandersteen 2ce review: Lumberjack portions, creamy sauces, honest-to-gosh feel-good food.

Within the Art Audio lineup, this positions the Carissa on the far side of the Gill Signature and Diavolo. Though using the Jota's VV32B, the Diavolo subtracts speed and detail while adding warmth and saturation compared to its more expensive sibling. The paralleled EL-34 Gill moves a bit further still in that direction and the Carissa becomes its close neighbor, though offering more sock-em muscle and low-end grunt. Compared to the Bel Canto Design SETi40 -- and if memory is to be trusted -- the Carissa strikes me as less euphonically aglow in the midrange. Though emphasized and thus very compelling with vocals, it's more dry than sweet. While on balance pretty atypical for Art Audio's signature trait as embodied in the two amps I've lived with for so long, four important qualities continue the tradition unbroken: Very low noise floor even on hyper-efficient speakers; first-class build quality; enviable customer support; and the ability to play even the raunchiest of music which lesser SETs would abhor by claiming it too primitive for their ilk but, really, just by way of diversionary justification - for their own lack of raw moxy and cojones.

Based on the design concept as recounted above, the Art Audio Carissa delivers admirably to minimize the known weaknesses of its chosen output tube, particularly the bloated midbass sector and the often excessively thick midrange. What even its special output transformer still cannot accomplish? To bestow the kind of frothy high-frequency air and lightness of being that are the hallmarks of its dearer brethren. Since those qualities are already represented in these models, it seems perfectly sensible that the firm's design team now addressed a different audience, one that wants its amplifiers to overtly communicate the presence of zero-feedback power triodes. This plays to more traditional thermionic expectations than those embodied in the Jota and PX-25, thus adding a distinctive new voice to the Art Audio canon. Considering its size, heft, power and detail work versus the other entrants of the line, the Carissa nearly screams loss leader. It's a term retailers put on ultra-low margin products priced with extreme aggression to drive traffic, the real money made on adjunct accessories - except that Carissa shoppers won't need accessories to enjoy their purchase without compromise. Call it a very high-value offering then, from a firm known for sonic excellence but also associated expense. This now concludes our sneak preview until John Potis reports his detailed findings on this very piece in a few months.

Manufacturer's website