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SIT versus J2: To keep the signal path of these comparisons simple—experiments with active preamps for deliberate flavor enhancements would come last—the only component between my iMac and amps was April Music's Eximus DP1. This DAC/preamp was set to zero upsampling whilst PureMusic 1.81d5r4 in memory play upsampled to 176.4kHz in NOS mode. A/B amps remained powered up to guarantee that both were thermally stable. Quick cable swaps and very minor volume adjustments to compensate for gain differentials did the rest.

Starting with the piano and cello duo of Vassili Tsabropoulos and Anja Lechner plus U.T. Gandhi on minimalist percussion ambiance ["Promenade", Melos, ECM], the key difference was space. From the first few piano keys onward, the SIT captured more venue sound. What was around/behind the instruments and how piano and cello triggered/illuminated their environment with acoustic reflections became more pronounced. Of course more ambient action doesn't stand alone as though it were isolated. It bleeds back into tone. The crudest example is Joe Sixpack in the still empty bathroom of his brand new flat. He quickly loses his Pavarotti pipes when standard furnishings move in to damp the acoustics and with it the echo in the voice.

Of course here it was rather more subtle. The SIT amp didn't add artificial reverb. But by retrieving more ambiance—true micro signal—it did feed a parallel perception of richer tone as well as higher contrast ratio. Some might call this stronger image pop or sharper focus. Outlines were more specific and the sense of presence, of an object taking up space, was greater. By comparison the J2 was slightly softer and not as preternaturally distinct or here. Knowing where to look now, greater distinctiveness quickly telegraphed with Anja's bow work too. Time for vocals and Sera Una Noche's La Segunda [m.a. recordings].

As a typical Todd Garfinkle production that's recorded minimalist/purist in richly reverberant space, this album emphasized the SIT's prowess at most finely delineating the soundstage. This didn't mean staging bigger or deeper per se. It meant more holographic relief work. It seemed as though the SIT amp simply dealt with more dimensional reference points. This also scooped the performers out from the background more. Particularly the voice of "Cuando Silba el Viento" illuminated this effect. While no hifi ever completely extricates virtual sources as free-standing entities—like wood carvings they remain attached to the background—the SIT amp went farther than the J2. This was another secondary observation belonging to the same bundle of interconnected qualities (separation, focus, contrast, audible space).

I was following Nelson's foot steps and what he called "being able to drill down" into any sonic event to inspect it as though through a loupe. Audiophile lingo might call that extreme image specificity and suspect it to be a function of very high detail magnification with superb separation power and minimal phase shift.

Moving to fierier Latin fare with Oscar Hammel and his Fatal Mambo formation confirmed first impressions of greased reflexes. Be it hammered power chords of Cuban piano, blaring Salsa trumpets, clattering rim work on the timbales or anything with blistering transients for that matter, the SIT amp was the sharper and more incisive operator of the two. Manouche guitar duels between Romane and Stochelo Rosenberg or Bulgarian ruchenitza equivalents between violin and accordeon [Balkan Messengers] gained in peppery energy, overcooked stuff became more obviously overcooked.

My takeaway from the J2/SIT session was of a very similar flavor. Obviously both amps are based on power JFETs. The SIT dug a bit deeper into the same groove. It was fresher, crisper and keener. Those who couldn't imagine worthwhile advances by living very happily with the J2—moi—would have to admit that the SIT amp does push the envelope. Sweetness particularly in the treble is minor but remains present. Speed has gone up. The live-wire sensation on close-mic'd strings is higher. If spatial articulation were needle work, the SIT amp moved to a thinner needle and finer thread.

SIT vs. F5: Until the arrival of the long-traveling Aries Cerat Gladius which its maker has since left on long-term work loan to address certain minor critiques for new production, the F5 was my mostly favorite FirstWatt. Occasionally the J2 would previously get the nod but more times than not the F5 was my go-to weapon. So I was particularly curious about this juxtaposition. As it turned out, I was to be particularly crushed when my long-term flame found itself trailing the SIT's level of immediacy, nakedness and energy transmission by a graver distance than the J2. Everything felt paler, greyer and less grippy when the 25-watter replaced the two-thirds weaker amp. This did not lend itself to a riff on flavors. Except for superior low bass on the given speaker, this was a far briefer deal of 'plainly inferior, next'.

Damn. Had I been asleep at the wheel to now be so clearly overtaken by a newer slicker faster part? Of course there's component interaction. It's the lot we bag under compatibility and synergy. On the other hand, the superlative drivers in the Gladius—Raal ribbon tweeter, Fostex Alnico midrange, 12" sealed Acoustic Elegance woofer—had recently taken my transducer game to a higher level. Differences magnify, small things matter more. In hifi most of us don't really know what's possible. We don't know what we don't know until something better shows (us) up. The advantage which the SIT demonstrated so cruelly over the F5 reminded me of how collaborator Frederic Beudot had described the Gryphon Diablo beating his F5 a year ago in a feature comparing four different Blue Moon award-winning amp designs. Very different price points and power ratings had accompanied that particular outcome. Though I knew neither the SIT's final model designation nor sell price, I did know that it would follow established FirstWatt tradition. Superiority here thus wasn't a function of wildly bigger budget or far burlier power specs. Superiority here had to be the output device itself.

SIT vs. Lavardin: The French Lavardin Model IT integrated [$7.495 in 2008] is somewhat legendary in transistor circles for not behaving like a typical solid-state amp though nobody is quite sure what the designer's self-professed work on memory distortion elimination involves in practice. The relevant circuit module is potted to keep us guessing. A friend of mine traded me the 55wpc IT for some other hifi stuff. It's been pulling very happy duty since in our upstairs 2-channel video system. I still owed my friend an opinion on what I thought of the it. Here was perfect double-trouble cause to schlep it downstairs, create a formal data entry in a review and tuck some observations away for a one-on-one audiophile meet.

Same difference? In many ways this was an F5 rerun. Once again the fiercely hot-running static induction parts had tacitness, contrast ratio and immediacy by the shorthairs. El Cigala celebrating luxuriantly saucy tango in front of a live audience had patently more vigor, fire and tension. The Lavardin was more opaque and set back (the F5 difference) but also more lax. That latter quality recalled the F4 with its slightly negative voltage gain. Such leisurely ease, peculiar absence of inner tension or frictionless motion is very rare for solid-state. I've read various reports on the Lavardin and seen this signature aspect described various ways.

Now I'd met it myself. It's clearly present and distinctive. In this A/B however it ranked quite secondary to the impression that—had this been an indoor Zen garden of white sand and a few strategic rock islands—the Lavardin's rake like the F5's before it had shorter broader claws. It didn't demarcate the circles and waves as keenly. Simultaneously the SIT gardener worked with wet sand for really sharp clean edges. The F5 and IT chaps had to contend with dry sand to smear their edges with some slippage and put up with the softness and imprecision caused by it.

In the end my ears called the SIT's key advantage raw & unplugged. It removed intermediate opacity and cotton wadding. This caused the pseudo visual sense to see more (and also more clearly). Simultaneously it removed energetic restraints. This unshackling communicated greater musical charge and tension. I've always understood Nelson's focus to be on finessing circuit execution to the nth degree. Strip away complexity, hone the essentials, manipulate those maximally for the intended results. It's the antithesis of the parts-swapping modifier. That one throws money at fashionable designer bits but sticks to a found circuit which somebody else smarter than he designed.

With the silicon-carbide static induction transistor amp—SiCSIT for short?—Nelson has become his own modifier of sorts. The circuit is still king, the parts used are still reliable and industrial but no gold/silver Mundorf exotica. Even so the lone output device per channel no longer is 'off the shelf'. It's become a bona fide designer bit. In fact it's unobtainium to anyone else. It's also moved what the very basic circuit can do to a higher plateau. Against that backdrop, let's see how various sources and active preamps with and without valves might augment or detract from these basic qualities.