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Beyond reason: For a best-case scenario, I picked the currently N°.1 source in Casa Chardonne, the new Metronome machine and for comparison, the WLM Acoustics Minueta. All cabling was the usual ASI Liveline, passive power delivery by Walker Audio's Velocitor S wooden box.

With the Zu Essence domestically selling for $3,495/pr to be within reach to an SQ-N100 shopper, the combination was most copasetic. Gain settings for either amp hovered around 9:00 for the usual room volumes, 10:00 already was too loud. The amplifiers behaved like brothers from the same mother, with the WLM ultimately the first-born but as virtual twins by a few minutes only. It was on hard-hitting, very bass-endowed and/or highly complex fare where the Austrian had the advantage of apparent spare reserves to perhaps hint at even better transformers. Otherwise these machines were mostly equals if we disregard the latter's triode option. That more than halves power, goes sweeter, a bit softer around the edges, casts a shallower but more close-up stage where vocals are more highlighted and is a mellower take on the same aural scenery. For comparison purposes however, the WLM ran in UL just like the fixed Mullard-based Luxman circuit.

With high-impedance speakers and negligible crossovers, the Luxman had it all. The sound was positively huge and very clear, indicating low phase errors and good speed. The treble was very extended if not outright brilliant, the bass firm and lithe rather than fat and massive, the vocal band richly textured but capable of edge if required, say on Yasmin Levi going emphatic or Térez Montcalm doing her Voodoo. It's precisely with this capacity for baring the blade and delivering transients that separate out of surrounding mass and transmit through the air undulled where the UL-connected EL84 one-ups many a designer triode. I refer to it as the bluesy bite that renders the right guitar properly twangy.

A second virtue were the very diluted remnants of inter-note furriness we know from single-ended triodes. The SQ-N100 veered into the more transistory crystalline and away from plush texturizing. Yet image density and tone colors when fronted by a superior source were very high. This shrunk when the source output stage stepped down as was demonstrated with its D-N100 stable mate. Those aspects leaned out then and the stringed accompaniment to Jagjit Singh's ghazals on Inteha [BigMusic] became rather thinner, less elastic and soaring.

Having just heard Indian flutist Rakesh Chaurasia with the four virtuoso drummers of India's Sacred Drums ensemble during Lausanne's Divali celebration, I spun a few tabla tracks to compare their attacks against that very memorable evening two rows removed from the musicians. There's still a large gap between playback and real acoustic transients. Playback is either softer or artificially sharpened but in either case less than live. The Luxman predictably erred on the side of softness but much in its favor, not nearly to the extent of many no-feedback triodes.

If —justifiably or not——some triodes are classified as producing a pipe 'n' slippers sound, that's decidedly not the case with the SQ-N100. It was endowed with more fire and brio but sidestepped glassiness which the small single-ended Decware could occasionally default into. Staging was of very high caliber, of truly gargantuan proportions when so recorded and well sorted. Images were sized proportionate and of good but not unnatural focus. Microdynamic fluctuations were tracked well, bigger swells lacked the immense violence and gravitas a muscle amp will muster. That latter aspect was driven home by material with wide recorded dynamic range such as the Yannis Parios tribute to Jacques Brel's "Ne Me Quittes Pas" [Wind Records].

With a microphone close to the singer, a delivery spanning the gamut from whispers to emphatic peaks while facing a large audience and being backed by quasi symphonic impacts of big drums in the far rear, this type of material showed the limitations of the amplifier. Nothing compressed or strained. Instead, the outermost markers of how much SPL differential was spanned moved closer. The full gravitas and impact of the crescendos' tops diminished when compared to muscle amps of Octave MRE-130 caliber. That's no surprise and intrinsic to the concept. Fare of standard dynamic range but well recorded—take Asita Hamidi's Bazaar Blue Ark for example—showed no such stops. Cymbal work was very lit up with proper brightness, plucked and popped bass had proper growl and e-harp surprising blister and pop on the shorter strings.

With accommodations granted for diminished dynamic range and low-end crunch as well as an acoustic center slightly above middle C, the Luxman SQ-N100 made few other concessions when operated into copasetic speakers. While the WLM Minueta proved marginally superior and more so as material grew more complex and demanding, the Japanese countered with ar rather more comprehensive feature set—phono stage, headphone socket, tone controls, stock remote and tube cage—and a lower price. For that reason, it walks away with a well-deserved award. To obtain this level of sound from direct-heated triodes takes a lot more money yet it usually nets less power and often more noise. Even then, these EL84s will most likely win on top-end extension, liveliness, inner clarity and linearity. Add the truly outstanding headphone performance and Luxman has a multi-tasking winner on its hands.

Quality of packing: Multiple cardboard boxes.
Reusability of packing: Repeatedly.
Quality of owner's manual: Good.
Condition of component received: Second amp sample perfect, first intermittent on one channel.
Completeness of delivery: Perfect, includes remote control and power cord.
Website comments: Not as informative as it could be. Luxman might take a cue from the revised Esoteric site.
Human interactions: US importer very responsive and well informed, French colleague less so.
Pricing: Very competitive against the many Chinese imports and considering its Japanese origins, outright confounding.
Application conditions: Limited by power to higher-efficiency speakers. World-class headphone amplifier.
Final comments or suggestions: None, this is a truly 'dialed' product from one of the oldtimers in this category.
Luxman global website
Luxman NeoClassico Japanese website