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Reviewer: Michael Lavorgna
Source: Audio Aero Capitole MKII
Preamp: Déjà Vu Audio
Amp: Fi 45 prototype (based on the Fi 2A3 stereo amp, optimized for the 45 tube by Don Garber); Red Wine Audio Custom Clari-T [in for review]
Integrated Amp: Red Wine Audio Clari-T [in for review]
Speakers: Cain & Cain Abby (Normal) and Cain & Cain Bailey; Tonian Acoustics TL-R2 Super Tweeter [on loan]
Cables: PHY interconnects, Auditorium 23 Speaker Cable, JPS Labs Digital AC Power Cable, Audience PowerChord, ESP Essence Power Cord, and Z-Cable Heavy Thunder V2 on the Blue Circle MR
Stands: pARTicular Basis Rack
Powerline conditioning: Blue Circle Music Ring MR800
Accessories: Symposium Rollerblocks Series II under AA Capitole, Yamamoto Sound Craft PB-10 Ebony Bases under Abbys, PS Audio Ultimate Outlet and AudioPrism Quiet Lines. Room damping provided by lots of books.
Room size: 13' w x 14' d x 9' h
Review component retail: stock Clari-T amp $499 shipping including 30–day money back guarantee; volume controlled output for use with a subwoofer adds $99; custom Clari-T amp (as detailed below) $699

$2 chuck
An excess of grapes in California and one crafty business deal led to the Charles Shaw wines sold through Trader Joe's for $1.99 a bottle a.k.a. two-buck chuck. There was a ground swell on-line, abundant buzz and many people writing their favorite reviewers all asking the same question: "How good is two-buck chuck?" The answer? Hey, it's cheap and dry. It's dry because there's no sugar added, just like real wine, say a Lafitte. You see, a lot of jug and box wines add sugar to appeal to the Coca Cola crowd. Not two-buck chuck. This is wine, baby - straight, no chaser.

Sonic Impact
Twenty bucks for an integrated amp that actually makes music? Go figure. I own the Sonic Impact T-amp and was mightily impressed by all its contradictions of size, weight, sound, plastic and price. It also gave me the opportunity to recommend something to non-audiophile friends and blow 'em away with price in a manner they were unaccustomed to. The stock SI amp based on the Tripath 2024 chip does have its drawbacks including a light-weight sound, those cheesy speaker terminals, the 1/8" input stereo jack and AAs for battery power. But for your hard-earned double sawbuck, you get a simple, straightforward little music maker: Twenty-buck chuck.

I'd been following some of the on-line buzz regarding the various mods and upgrades to the T-amp so when Srajan asked if I'd be interested in reviewing the Clari-T amp by Vinnie Rossi at Red Wine Audio -- it uses a hot-rodded version of the SI board -- I jumped on the opportunity. Word had it that some four-digit SETs were doing cellar time, their owners serving up some Red Wine Audio instead. One apology up front for the wine references. I have admittedly fallen prey to this low-hanging fruit.

The Vinnie mods
Yep, that Vinnie. The Toshiba 3950 modifications [below] were the subject of hundreds of posts and nearly took over Audio Asylum's Digital Drive for the better part of a year. The modded 3950 had many people selling off their high-end digital jewelry and Vinnie of Red Wine Audio a.k.a. the Vinnie Mods at the time was a driving force behind this movement. I asked Vinnie about this experience: "This proved that one does not need to spend a fortune to obtain a great-sounding product and that the Internet audio community is a great place to share information!"

Red Wine Audio: Life off the grid
"This may sound odd but my mother clearly recalls me opening up a Panasonic portable cassette player at the age of 4. After it chewed up a Santana cassette tape, the sprockets were no longer turning and I had to find out why. Armed with a screwdriver, I opened the unit and was able to put the belt back on the pulley. Success! However, my mother only found out about this because she heard me crying across the house from getting zapped by 120Vac. I wasn't smart enough to unplug the unit back then."

Red Wine Audio is a new company (est. February 2005) and Vinnie Rossi is its founder, designer, chief tweaker and word player (Red Wine = vino rosso in Italian). Vinnie is an electrical engineer by training and until recently by trade. He now devotes 100% of his time & abundant energy (he usually wakes at 5:00AM and works well into the night) to Red Wine Audio. Red Wine's first product, the Clari-T battery-powered amp, is an outgrowth of Vinnie's interest in and modifications of Sonic Impact's T amp.

As of the time of this writing, Red Wine Audio also offers a battery-powered passive preamp, a battery-powered DAC, interconnect and digital cables and -- in conjunction with Omega Speaker Systems -- the Lotus integrated amp (soon to be reviewed by Srajan). There's also a battery-powered transport coming so you could be 100% off the grid with an all-Red Wine Audio setup. California audiophiles take note. Summer is on its way. For Vinnie, no AC is pure joy. "I have fallen in love with the sound of a system that is completely divorced from AC power."

But that is not the end of the story. Not by a long shot. Remember, Vinnie started as a modder and tweaker. Those impulses are still very much alive at Red Wine
Audio. The web doesn't easily lend itself to a "build to order" approach but that's what Vinnie's after. You want Cardas binding posts? You got it. Eichmanns instead? Done. All silver wire, Black Gate caps and a DACT attenuator? Just say the words.

Some of the standard upgrade options for the Clari-T include:

  • Black Gate capacitors for the power supply pins of the TA2024
  • Upgraded input signal coupling capactors (ex. Auricaps)
  • Upgraded RCA jacks and speaker binding posts
  • Stepped attenuator
  • Internal wiring upgraded to silver wire
  • Volume-controlled subwoofer output jacks (like the unit under review)

Now don't let this list limit your imagination. Whatever you can think of, Vinnie more than likely can implement - dual mono, internal DAC with separate battery power supply, true mono block version, power amp only, just ask. In talking to Vinnie throughout the course of this review, one thing became very apparent and that's his attitude regarding customer satisfaction. Long story short? Don't worry, be happy. Vinnie is decidedly old school when it comes to customer service.

One other bit of news. Red Wine Audio and Omega Speaker Systems have developed an interesting and complementary relationship. They will be exhibiting together at this year's Rocky Mountain Audio Fest and they are offering some package pricing with amp/speaker combos starting below $800. Can you say value?

If you really want to know what Red Wine Audio is up to, I encourage you to check out their website since that's where they do business and the site is updated on a regular basis. I'd wager that within a week's time, the above product list would already be incomplete.

The Stock Clari-T with volume-controlled RCA out
The Clari-T is a battery-powered Class-T digital amp in a black-anodized aluminum box measuring 4" W x 6" D x 2.5" H that puts out a whopping 6 watts into 8 ohms, roughly 3 times the output of my Fi 45 [the larger 'un in the above photos is the Custom]. Overall, I like the stealth-like appearance of the Clari-T, a distinct no-nonsense, unfussy approach. The same can be said for the packaging - generic but it gets the job done. The front of the amp features an on/off/passive volume control and a blue light which indicates when the unit is running off the battery. Around back are the standard RCA inputs, a pair of speaker binding posts and a toggle switch for battery operation. The model under review was outfitted with a set of variable outputs so I could connect my Cain & Cain Bailey subwoofer with a low-level signal.

The amp comes with a 12-volt sealed lead acid (SLA) battery housed within the aluminum box and a wall wart charger with a green and red light. If you exercise good charging habits -- and if you brush your teeth every day, odds are you will -- the battery should last you about three years. Replacement cost is ca. $15. Flick the toggle switch, turn the volume to your desired level and you're ready to roll, dawg. The standard battery charge lasts about 6 hours and takes roughly an hour to replenish. The wall wart remains plugged in. When you power the unit down, it automatically goes into recharge mode. The red light confirms charging and the green light indicates that charging is completed. While the notion of a battery-powered amp caused some concern before I got it, the actual use did not. No hassles whatsoever. I found I could easily get 8 hours of use before a recharge.

No wall power means no AC tweaks. Since some of the power cords I own retail for a multiple of the Clari-T's asking price, I can relate to the savings. One word of caution: you need to burn this baby in for a good 100 hours. If not, you'll be listening to a different amp. That said, there's one quality immediately apparent regardless of burn-in. This puppy is dead quiet. Okay, I've seen tube and transistor amps referred to as quiet. As a matter of fact, I've commented on how quiet my Fi is. This quiet is in another league altogether. It's silent. Your bleeding heartbeat is noisier.