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Dot zeal
Expectations should be managed. "This amp blows away every tube amp except for the GotchaBad and that goes for 18K! Sounds as good as amps costing five times its asking price!" I tried very hard to let the Clari-T speak for itself and leave the entire buzz on the boards. While I was at it, I took my big-air and big-tone tube centric vibe and put that in a nice soft warm place next to my bed.

I just picked up the double album Ocean Memories [samba moon records 0890524] by Brazilian guitarist Bola Sete. Bola recorded these tracks over a two-day period and I frankly knew next to nothing about him or his style when I purchased this CD. I couldn't have been more pleasantly surprised by Bola and the music coming out of the little stock Clari-T. Delicate, subtle and fast describe the pair. Bola's style is hard to describe. It's actually a very personal blend of many styles. Classical, folk, bossa nova and flamenco are all rolled up, mixed up and played by an amazingly accomplished guitarist. The Clari-T was also hard to pin down. I knew I was in for some soul-searching when I heard Bola's first notes.

The newly released Journey [MA M068A] by the incredibly gifted 25 year-old guitarist Grzegorz Krawiec is particularly stunning. Krawiec's super-human fretboard speed and dexterity are captured by the Clari-T which never breaks a sweat and remains completely relaxed, never stressed. Any of the MA recordings are a fine match for the Clari-T as it thrives on well-recorded music. Sera una Noche's La Segunda [M062A] and Jiang Ting's Dance [M066A] delight in its detail and speed of presentation.

The Durutti Column's The Guitar and Other Machines [Virgin 7 90887-2] is a moody piece from 1988 featuring Vini Reilly on guitar, keyboards, machine programs and vocals, with accompaniment including xylophone, viola, mouth organ and trumpet. This is another fine recording and was actually the first to really lock in on the Clari-T's strengths. This music pulsates with synth-induced beats and the Clari-T gets the pace, rhythm and nuance from Reilly's guitar and other machines. Bass was also surprisingly controlled, rather belying the Clari-T's diminutive stature.

It turned out that the aptly named Clari-T amp in stock form is a sonic cleansing machine; music was scrubbed by the sheer speed and silence of the presentation, serving up detail as grand jefe in this orderly sonic kingdom. Alas, this Clari-T's sound was also a bit condensed and tonally ambivalent when things got dynamically and tonally complex. To be fair, if I were asked to review my Fi amplifier sans preamp by using the built-in analog volume of the Audio Aero Capitole player instead, I would notice certain similarities including a somewhat condensed presentation and delicacy at the expense of the big picture. With the Clari-T, add a subtle homogenizing of the tonal palette especially at lower volumes. On the Mozart Piano Concerto no. 18 and 20 [nonesuch 794392], Richard Goode and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra sounded a bit too much alike to be utterly convincing. Attack and decay sound were foreshortened, leaving out some of the breath of the instruments in this stunning performance.

What gets my particular aural interests flowing is being invited into the space of the recording, feeling the rhythm of the music and being treated to all its distinct voices. As it turns out, my likes and the stock Clari-T's strengths overlapped the most on PRAT. For those inclined to go the distance for more immediacy covering a broader range of musical styles and sounds, I'd say let's open up your minds and wallets and pick on someone more your own size. As it turns out, Vinnie has a ringer in his corner.

The custom Clari-T (or should I say this particular custom Clari-T)
While I had the stock Clari-T in-house burning in for a few weeks, I took advantage of the casual listening opportunity to do some reading on the latest news, posts and reviews of the Clari-T. It became readily apparent that the stock version of the Clari-T was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Vinnie has been making some tweaked-out versions destined to reside in some serious rigs coupled with preamps including some of the tubed variety of all things. As an admitted 6SN7 addict, I called Vinnie and in short order, one custom Clari-T arrived at my doorstep. Weighing in at a healthy 6+lbs, the 8.75" D x 3.3" H x 6.5" W Custom is indeed the visual and functional big brother to the stock unit - minus the passive volume control. Some details about this particular customized Clari-T according to Vinnie:
  • Black Gate power supply caps soldered directly to the TA2024 +12V power pins
  • Larger chassis with 5Ah batter for 24-hour use between charges
  • Larger 1000mA charger
  • Upgraded RCAs and binding posts
  • D.H. Labs silver wire for the signal path
  • Input coupling cap value increased for improved low-bass response

The extended battery time allowed for all-day play and overnight charging which completely eliminated any battery-induced anxiety. I also appreciated the upgraded binding posts that got a better grip on things.

Tube swapping. How hot.
When I first connected up my Déjà Vu preamp to the Custom Clari-T, they had a bit of a tiff. The Déjà Vu hissed at the Clari-T while the black box remained as silent as ever, stoic in its stealth-like demeanor. It turned out my usual 6SN7s were a bit too noisy for the dead-quiet presentation of the Clari-T. Coupled with higher than normal gain from the Déjà Vu, this spelled trouble. In fact, each and every pair of 6SN7s and VT231s in my stash was too noisy for this pairing. The arranged marriage of 6SN7 and 2024 chip was not to be after all. Not one to get in the middle of that cultural debate -- or was it a socio-economic thang, what with some of the 6SN7s costing nearly as much as the Clari-T -- I installed the stock Clari-T as a passive volume control by using its outputs but leaving it powered off. While this left the Cain & Cain
Bailey out in the cold, the hitched Clari-Ts got some well-defined, real bass from the Abbys.

Looking for luv in all the wrong places - almost
I tried a variety of component combinations and tweaking: about twenty different tubes, ten different cable configs, a different source, super tweeters in/out, hissing tube preamp in/out, passive pre in, speakers farther out/in from the wall, sub in/out. Nothing was ringing my bell. I was ready for the "I love tubes so don't blame me for not liking the Clari-T" exit. Frustrated and ready to pack it in, I came home after a particularly long day and tried the Audio Aero Capitole MKII direct into the Clari-T, admittedly as a last resort since the Capitole direct into the Fi 45 pretty much kills most of what I like about the Fi. What did I have to lose? The combo of stock Clari-T as passive attenuator into the active Custom Clari-T did get some stuff going like detail, pace and bass but it was tonally still limited and spatially condensed. The stock unit was good for the price but hey, I'm not writing for Consumer Reports. I want to get juiced, not pacified.

One interconnect, the Shindo in this case working best, went straight from the Audio Aero Capitole to the Custom Clari-T. Simple, straightforward and holy shit - or cow if you prefer and break out the Lafitte. What we had here now was a $700 gorilla who really wanted to be fed directly by the Capitole's analog-domain volume control in the analog output stage along with a pair of 6021W subminiature tubes (you really didn't think I'd do without some glass somewhere, did you now?).

The straight jacket on tone and atmosphere with the various combinations I'd tried earlier was loosened. Detail retrieval -- almost a novelty before that seemingly aggravated an upper midrange spike -- was now rummaging through all of my familiar recordings and unearthing some gold nuggets. The Latin Playboys' self-titled album [slash/wb 9 45543-2] is a fiesta exotica and full of great percussion, sound effects and of course David Hidalgo's crafty guitar work. The Latin Playboys are parts of Los Lobos let loose with the addition of Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake joining Hidalgo and Louie Perez. Tracks like "New Zandu" got the Custom's strengths and the pairing gave me back a very convincing, driving, raunchily good ol'e time.

How about that Mozart? Richard Goode and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra were back in color. The opening movement of the Piano Concerto no.20 is big-scale drama and then delicate flutes until Goode joins in on the tail of their breath and the distinction of voices was there. Pace and timing were excellent and here the silence between the notes was something you'd hate to give up. Einstürzende Neubauten's Silence Is Sexy [Mute 69132] also works on a few levels. Let's take the title here rather literal in terms of sonic effect. Blixa Bargeld's vocals are whispered in your ear with the bass throbbing away behind: "I wish this would be your color/It is that black."

Although Neubauten's a bit toned down on this recording, we still have the odd assortment of zounds including Blixa on vocals and cigarette, jet turbine, chains, car tire and free-falling objects. Detail and delineation laid against silence conveyed the thrust here, leaving no sound unturned - a slow burn lit by the Custom's hushed presentation. My recommendation for the most appropriate T-shirt phrase for the Red Wine Audio crowd? Silence is sexy.

My only real quibbles with the Custom Clari-T fed from my Capitole was a tonality of lighter weight than I get with my usual tube pre/power combo and less of the spatial dimensionality of the recorded event. The added body and air of the Fi/Déjà Vu translates to more presence, a more emotionally engaging presentation in my book. With the Clari-T, Janos Starker's cello on Starker Plays Kodaly [delos DE 1015] didn't have quite the same richness of tone from its wooden body. The balance was tipped to where I had more bow on string, less wood. Where the Custom Clari-T came closest to the tubes was on more hard-driving music less concerned about tonal subtle-T than PRAT.

I'll just pick...
... from detail, pace, rhythm, bass control, dead quiet and a spatial presentation that's not thrown into your face or compacted but eased into the room like a breath from a Murano glass blower - steamed heat. While it took me some trial and error to get there, it was well worth it.

In the end, it turned out that the Clari-T/Tripath 2024 was one finnicky eater. I don't know about you but I sense a certain irony that it took an $8,000+ CD player with an $800 silver interconnect -- nothing more, nothing less -- to make the $700 Custom Clari-T truly sing for my ears. I have a hunch that you can get where I did for a lot less bread if you started with the Custom Clari-T and worked your way up the signal path once you'd gotten your speakers sussed out. Think simple and easy to drive. System building. The Ack! dAck perhaps? Vinnie's own non-oversampling Monica 2 DAC? The 3950 with the Vinnie Mods? I'd recommend something with a little glow to it but that's just me.

If you drink a bottle of Lafitte or two-buck chuck by your lonesome, the end result will be identical in certain respects. If you enjoy the ride more than the destination, you're going to move up the price/refinement ladder, with your tastes and budget dictating how far and where you want to go. If the house sound of the Custom Clari-T suits your musical tastes to a T -- or for those music lovers on a budget who like theirs served up straight, no chaser -- Red Wine Audio offers a rare combination of price, performance and customization options that allow you to tweak according to taste and budget. Combine this with a 30-day money-back guarantee, excellent customer service -- with Vinnie being a true professional and I dare say heckuva nice guy to deal with -- and I now understand what the whole buzz is all about.
Vinnie Rossie comments:

Dear Michael,
Thank you very much for writing your thoughtful and insightful reviews of both the stock and custom versions of the Clari-T-Amp! Your review was a real pleasure to read (my wife and I occasionally purchase a bottle of 2-Buck Chuck from Trader Joe's and we loved reading all the wine innuendoes ), and I truly appreciate your efforts to explore my past, present and future endeavors.

As you mentioned, Red Wine Audio has batch of new products and modifications coming out shortly and will continue to offer total customization options - the way our customers want it! It is important that I mention how much I appreciate all the support that I have received from my customers, members of the Internet audio forums, family and friends! Without their big push, I'd probably still be in my office cubicle, thinking about what I want to tweak when I come home. Thanks again!

Vinnie Rossi
Red Wine Audio website