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Reviewer: Ken Micallef
Digital Source: McIntosh MCD 201 CD/SACD player [on loan], Sony Playstation One
Analog Source: Kuzma Stabi/Stogi turntable/arm combo, Denon DL-103 cartridge, Auditorium 23 Denon step-up transformer [on loan]
Preamp: Shindo Allegro
Amp: Art Audio Diavolo, Art Audio Symphony II [in for comparison]
Speakers: DeVore Fidelity Super 8s
Cables: Auditorium A23 speaker cables, Shindo interconnects
Stands: Salamander rack, 2" Mapleshade platforms (8" x 15" x 2"), Blue Circle custom amp stand
Powerline conditioning: JPS Labs Kaptovator, Shunyata Black Mamba and Anaconda Vx Powersnakes, Hydra 4 [on loan]
Accessories: Mapleshade Surefoot and Heavyfoot brass points and IsoBlocks; (8) RPG ProFoam damping panels/ceiling treatment, Mapleshade Ionoclast for static cling
Room size: 24' x 12', short-wall setup
Review component retail price: Diavolo, $7,000 | Symphony II, $6,000

Art Audio Showdown: Diavolo vs. Symphony II - twin brothers by different mothers?
Some readers just love the idea of a shootout. Maybe it comes from years of reading UK mags like Hi Fi Choice or What Hi Fi?, pubications that by the sheer luck of their location within a smaller land mass can more easily assemble five CD players or 10 turntables or seven pairs of speakers, assign a writer and have at it. That of course is a much more difficult proposition in the US where manufacturers are far flung and often committed to reviews within a broad spectrum of publications. But every once in a while gear crosses paths on the way to its final destination and writers such as myself have an uncommon opportunity to become John Wayne.

When I originally reviewed the Art Audio Diavolo, I was almost certain I wanted to purchase this lovely machine. But being the restless type and with Art Audio's Joe Fratus being the perpetually generous type, he was kind enough to respond to my desire to also hear the Symphony II which John Potis had so favorably reviewed in July 2004. I was fully impressed with the Art Audio Diavolo (which I eventually bought), but John's review of the Symphony II perked up my ears. John's praise of the Symphony II peaked near the review's end when he wrote:

"In the context of a low-powered SET amplifier, the Art Audio Symphony II amplifier is the most accomplished piece I've used to date. Within its power limitation and as used in my system, I have to conclude that the Symphony II is as near to perfection as I have encountered yet. I've heard and used a lot of amplifiers, many costing far more than what Art Audio is asking for the Symphony II. If it can be improved upon -- perhaps by more expensive amplifiers within the Art Audio line like the Diavolo, Jota or PX-25 -- I'd love to know how."

That brings to mind the closing words of my Diavolo review of June 2006: "The Diavolo is not colored in an overly lush, bass-flabby way, nor is it all saccharine and rolled off. The Diavolo is more about midrange beauty, buoyancy and, particularly with the 300BXLS, treble elucidation than syrupy [tones] and cellulite [sounds]. And we are talking serious power. Some might think its treble forward but none could deny the Diavolo's exceptional dynamics, high resolution and room-filling gusto. For 7K, the Diavolo is the kind of tube amp that a macho man could feel comfortable and stretch out with, whether rocking out with the classics, jamming with some alien electronica or zapping his solars clean with some swinging jazz bop."

Though the Diavolo and Symphony II look similarly gorgeous, their similarities end once you gaze under their glossy chrome or golden hoods. Though both amps are SET varietals (they sure put me in mind of a fine vino), the Symphony II is a 300B machine while the Diavolo runs either KR Audio 300BXLS or 842VHD tubes. The Symphony II pumps out a silken 10 wpc, the Diavolo is more powerful (and sounds it) at 13wpc. Fans of Art Audio know Fratus' SETs are more powerful than most by way of optimized current deliveries and can easily match with speakers of at least 89dB to produce wonderfully room-filling sound. Some folks prefer absolute neutrality to the source at the expense of room-filling bounty or a slight tug at their romantic head bands. Put me in the latter camp every time. The Diavolo consistently enables me to forget about those damned audiophile questions and simply get on with serious listening. I have heard tube amps that are more transparent, airy and simply gorgeous sounding than my hardy Diavolo but none, not even the behemoth BAT VK75 I once owned, can match it for its combination of SET beauty and serious low end wallop.

Other stats? Refer to my Diavolo review and John's Symphony II write-up but besides tube compliment and output power, the amps look very similar though my Diavolo has a volume knob up front if I ever care to run it sans preamp (wouldn't be prudent - my Shindo Allegro provides the perfect connective tissue in my rig). My search to plumb the depths of difference between the two Art Audio amps began with a CD I call Ultimate Cheese. This a homebrew disc taken from various sources covering all manner of 1970s esoterica: soundtracks like Roy Budd's Get Carter and Dave Grusin's Three Days of the Condor; UK library music composed
by Keith Mansfield, Neil Richardson, and Laurie Johnson; and the flowing sounds of Henry Mancini. Is this proper audiophile attire? Probably not. Does it provide me with plenty of lush Rhodes piano, sweeping string, and funky beats recorded most likely on all tube Trident or Neve boards? Most certainly. (Drop me a line and will gladly send you a copy of Ultimate Cheese, US readers only).

After living with the Diavolo for many months, I should not have been surprised when I dropped the Symphony II in line but I was. The Diavolo, as stated earlier, is a machine of muscle and power, yet holds most of the sonic keys SET lovers adore. But the Symphony II is even more of that good SET thing. Listening to Mancini's "Mr. Lucky" or Laurie Johnson's "The Avengers Theme", I basked in the Symphony II's brilliant midrange and beauty-to-the-treble magic that I associate with better SET designs. Did I miss the bass plumage of the Diavolo? Well, not really. It was just a different portrayal of the notes. The Symphony II didn't lack for bass though it didn't plumb the depths like the Diavolo. It instead focused its energy on the upper mid to treble region, infusing the music with a burnished glow (well, not that burnished) that made cymbals, vocals, and strings absolutely glisten. Like a frosted bulb on a wintery night, the Symphony imparted a wonderful glow from midrange to treble that was totally irresistible. Far from syrupy, fragile sounding or lacking in detail, the Symphony II was quite the opposite. The Symphony II seemed to illumine from within. It brought out spatial themes I didn't notice with the Diavolo. Its energy soared at every level, never lagging for one second to deliver a presentation of gusto and force yet with treble beauty the focus. Pinpoint definition, excellent decay of transients and a sense of aliveness made the Symphony II like a fireplace of audio fun. I just couldn't resist its lovely thermionic glow.

The downside? When I asked too much of the Symphony II, it simply pooped out. Ten 300B watts will only get you so far on the power demon meter. So when I dropped in a particularly hot recording, crack up seemed imminent. I raced to back down the volume before something, including my ears, would wilt. The 300B may be a beauty of tonality and timbre but powerful across the spectrum -- even in a mighty Art Audio design -- it ain't. Returning to the Diavolo after my Symphony II sojourn, I was curious as to where the sonic chips would fall. Would I hear a night and day difference between the two amps? Subtle differences in sonic shadings but essentially the same delivery? Or would it be clearly obvious that these are two entirely different amps built to take advantage of distinct tube designs?

Well, in a way, these amps are night and day. Each has those unmistakable Art Audio signatures - speed, power, finesse, excellent soundstaging ability. But there are also marked differences between the two. Where the Symphony II is sweet, the Diavolo is slightly dry. The Symphony II is a first row, intimate entertainer, the Diavolo is more second row and decidedly less colored (though the Diavolo itself is more colored than some tube amps I have reviewed). The Diavolo is kinder across the spectrums. It can play anything without strain and sounds powerful and very coherent regardless of source material. The Symphony II is more of a late night, get out the jazz, blues and classical recordings performer, lending tremendous romance and presence to trumpets, cymbals, strings and the like. The Symphony II's focus on upper mid to treble frequencies created pinpoint accuracy, well defined images and super fast response times. Decay trails went way back. The Diavolo was more neutral, powerful and somehow more relaxed sounding though not as luminescent, brilliant or light filled. The Symphony II only sounded lightweight by comparison with the Diavolo but with the right music it never missed a beat.

There is an undeniable magic to the Symphony II which I imagine comes from the renowned 300B tube. There is no escaping its almost mystical soundstage, its immediacy, focus and crystalline treble. It is easy to love. Except that I already own the Diavolo. Though that is slightly dry by comparison and perhaps not as magical as the Symphony II, its ability to portray all styles of music with
superb gusto, vitality and greater neutrality make it a better all round fit for this listener's needs. 300B aficionados -- that insider's club that seems to expand almost daily -- already know the benefits of that beloved tube and the Symphony II will certainly suit their needs. Conversely, the Diavolo offers greater power and almost equal SET transparency, coherence across the spectrum and an effortless sonic delivery. It is a brother from another mother indeed!
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