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Act 2. Having now reviewed every FirstWatt amplifier made save the Aleph J, something's plain. They all dance in a very small circle of freedom around a tether pole staked through neutrality: variations on a sonic theme; how to reach Rome from yet another direction. I'm reminded of the Indian saint Ramakrishna. He attained ecstasy following one line of esoteric teachings. Then he pursued an entirely different discipline only to encounter the same ecstasy. Again. All roads lead here became his personal verification. The ecstatic could thus assure devotees of various religions that their different beliefs didn't matter. In the end, they'd all get consumed in and erased by the Luminous.


But the material form remains a filter even with a highly sublimated personality. Flavors continue. Nirvana in the body isn't stark white. It's not neutral boring nothing. So the F3 is sweeter. A mini triode dose. As exceptionally transparent as it is to the preceding preamp literally doing the driving, the F4 is more limpid. It doesn't 'grip' but floats and flows. The F5 articulates. That very first impression held. I was spinning Instrumental 1, a custom compilation by the good doctor in Berkeley who had co-financed Alon Wolf's Magico Ultimate hornspeaker project as one of three original commissioners. The doc has the best musical tastes of anyone I've ever met - simply by perfectly overlapping with my own. Instrumental 1 is minimalist gossamer in-the-zone stuff expertly sequenced. Artists include Eleni Karaindou, Markus Stockhausen, Herbert Joss, Anouar Brahem, Arild Anderson, Paolo Fresu, Terje Rypdal, Ketil Bjørnstad and others.


Having come directly off intense inspections of Yamamoto's reference amp with various 300Bs when Nelson's second silver-faced model landed, I was shocked by how ridiculously low its playback level could be without causing any serious participatory losses. I got deeply involved at whisper levels without crank-reflex intrusions. Regardless of which 300B I rolled, the A-09S -- whose 27dB gain is far higher than the F5's -- needed higher playback levels to come on song. This demonstrated how the... um, purity of nano-level distortion in the transistor amp (which a valve lover would call a wholesale stripping away of benign and desirable THD) actually served the music better. It was more intelligible.


Allow me a brief detour to stress the point. Certain erotic movies celebrate their protagonists as pursuing ever more outlandish means to sexual gratification. It's as though their continued use of toys, fetishes, strangulation and pain severely desensitized them to require ever more bizarre measures of stimulation. The less one feels, the more effort must be made to elicit the desired response. The same occurs with junk foods' high saturation of salt, sugar and fats. Once a palate has been dulled by such assaults, eggs or veggies not tarted up with salt and sauces become tasteless and boring - for simply tasting like themselves. The F5 invites such ruminations and applies them to the habits of us valve addicts. Compared to a Halcro's nonexistent distortion, tube THD seems completely justified to our kind; in fact, outright necessary. Why then is it that faced with the F5's impossibly low distortion (impossible certainly for any tube amp), thermionic liberties suddenly seem far less justified or necessary? Are valvers addicted to unnatural stimulation?


I don't have the answer. It's an open question to point at something real but elusive. The technical purity of the F5 isn't flat. Its feedback causes no dryness; its proud specmanship has real relevance to the experience. But it certainly doesn't sound like my glowing amps. As you prime their pump, they come into their own with great tone density. Viewed from the F5's seat, there's less resolution within that density. There's less separation; less residual grunge around a faint muted trumpet, less swishiness on swirling cymbal brushes, less ephemeral glitter on bell trees. Something congeals. Greater loudness distracts from it but truly subdued midnight levels with the SETs obscure. One can no longer enter into the music. A door closes. One stands outside and removed. The glowing bottles clearly suffer when my wife is already dreaming and I'm still chasing the tunes and the most immaterial of fades.


Viewing things from the strengths of the glowing bottles when their amplitude is sufficient to skip over that get-real hurdle, the F5 is leaner. Less padding of tonal girth. But it doesn't sound lean per se. It's completely beyond threadbare (and granted, I ran the 12dB-gain tubed ModWright LS/PS 36.preamp at 3:00 o'clock + on the above Zu Presence). There's more treble tintinabulation to re-use Nelson's crafty term. That action doesn't saturate timbres like 2nd-order octave doubling does with tubes. It instead increases finesse of insight and subtle energy. After all, upper harmonics are high in frequency and subdued in output. To track them requires extension and ultra-low noise floor. Then the live factor survives when you dim the volume lights. Loudness is often a substitute to create the illusion of seeing more. Then we forget what we really don't see. It's compensation. It proves out insufficient illumination at quieter levels. In plain speak, that's inferior and ultimately insufficient resolution. The need for SPLs nearly always signifies it.


This segues back to the all-roads-to-Rome statement. To your tubular scribe, all FirstWatt amps are examples for how superior resolution can truly serve -- and not distract from -- the music. Tubes can serve in their own way. That makes for a different experience. It shifts the focus to tone colors, textures and a certain kind of inner voluptuousness. The F Series of Nelson Pass amps focuses instead on the 'outer' voluptuousness of contributing complexity riches. How many tiny spinning wheels and belts and gears make up the musical construct, make it all happen? Calling one inner and one outer is bound to mislead of course. It's all part of the same music.


Since I brought up Ramakrishna earlier, perhaps it's appropriate to speak in terms of perceptional doors from which the listener enters the experience. If the (good) tube experience is ultimately a melting in the heart for expanded feeling (anahat, the heart chakra), the superior transistor experience is an expansion of the mind where seeing occurs (ajna, the third eye). They're different experiences but not superior or inferior one to the other. This could be a meditator's attempt of describing the same phenomena which sound doctor Nelson Pass talks about as 2nd and 3rd-order type amplifiers. Needless to say, this is all quite subtle, dancing in a small circle of freedom around the center point of neutrality. Suchness as the Buddhists would say. Without filters. The remaining F amp filters are very transparent.


In the world of FirstWatt, the F1 had the strongest 3rd-order flavor. Super articulation. Separation. Crispness. And drive. The F1 sounded driven. Propulsive, a clear personality.
The F4 and F5 are rather more relaxed entries in that domain, with the F5 slightly more gathered up and sorted than the F4. The buffer/follower amp is the most kif of the bunch as the stamboulis would look for in an opium den - supremely relaxed, in a go-with-the-flow state. The F2 and F3 are sweeter and 'rounder', with the F3 deepest into that particular terrain, the F2 just slightly. In general, numbers 3 to 5 strike me as closer to the center than the first two.


Take anything massed -- a chorus, symphonic strings à la Samuel Barber -- and as predicted by Mr. Pass, the degree of sight the listener enjoys into that layered action from the 5 is brilliant. Take anything speedy and sharp -- rapidly plucked strings, blatty brass, drum kit workouts -- and the F5 is clear and incisive but never brutal and hard. Except for the F1, none of the FirstWatt amps struck me as bass monsters. As a transconductance amp, the F1 could only be properly used on crossoverless widebander speakers. Those are never really endowed in that sense, making what the F1 got from them just shy of freakish but still quite relative in the bigger scheme of what's ultimately possible from 15" woofers.