This review page is supported in part by the sponsors whose ad banners are displayed below

Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Financial Interests: click here
Source: APL HiFi NWO 3.0-GO; Ancient Audio Lektor Prime; Yamamoto YDA-01
Preamp: ModWright DM 36.5, Esoteric C-03
Amplifier: Yamamoto A-09S, Trafomatic Audio Reference monos [on loan]; Allnic Audio Labs A-6000 [on review]

Speakers: ASI Tango R
Cables: ASI Liveline interconnects, speaker cables and power cord; Crystal Cable Ultra & Reference power cords
Stands: 2 x Ikea Molger, Ikea butcher-block platforms with metal footers
Powerline conditioning: 2 x Walker Audio Velocitor S, custom AudioSector 1.5KV Plitron step-down transformer with balanced power output option for 120V gear
Sundry accessories: Furutech RD-2 CD demagnetizer; Nanotech Nespa Pro; extensive use of Acoustic System Resonators, noise filters and phase inverters
Room size: The sound platform is 3 x 4.5m with a 2-story slanted ceiling above; four steps below continue into an 8m long combined open kitchen, dining room and office, an area which widens to 5.2m with a 2.8m ceiling; the sound platform space is open to a 2nd story landing and, via spiral stair case, to a 3rd-floor studio; concrete floor, concrete and brick walls from a converted barn with no parallel walls nor perfect right angles; short-wall setup with speaker backs facing the 8-meter expanse and 2nd-story landing.
Review Component Retail: €63,000/pr (€76,000 as integrated amplifier and reviewed as such)

At face value
By Thor's shiny hammer, theLars got chutzpah! That goes for amps and maker alike. To name them after himself with a royal 'the', Lars Engström shows balls of brass and a healthy ego. To price theLars from €63,000 to €76,000 when the entire nation of Iceland is bankrupt raises questions as certainly as the cosmetics are bona fide haute couture. Though it requires no further stressing, these fully balanced 20-watt class A 300B amps aren't for the faint of heart.

Value is relative
In fact, reader Pär Wiklund's ticker worked overtime: "Are you sure you have the pricing correct? The exact same amplifier was shown at the Stockholm HighEnd show in 2008 and then priced at around €13,000 for the integrated. For the performance I heard then, even that price was pretty steep. Maybe you can ask the manufacturer what made the price increase? It said 140,000 SEK in 2008 and now €76,000. That's around 840,000 Swedish kronen or a price increase of six times. Astonishing! This hobby is crazy and I participate myself. But this is a new level."

Only a partial explanation
"Yes, this question had to come up sooner or later. When I had finished the design of the amplifier, I wanted to show it at the Stockholm Hifi show. I had no idea what the price should be. The Swedish paper Metro wrote about me and the amplifier, then asked about the price. The price I mentioned to them was just material cost, construction work and Swedish VAT. Nothing for rent of premises, tools, administration, logistics or return on investment. I now find that my factory price must be twice that first price. When I add marketing, shipping and distribution, the retail price is thrice my factory price. The high manufacturing cost is partly because of the expensive housing which is like hand-crafted furniture. I also build the amps myself one by one so it takes many hours to make a pair. The speakers and CD player I used at the first show was only because I had no money to buy more expensive equipment. Now there are many manufacturers of good hifi equipment interested to show with theLars."

Somewhat more of an explanation
Did reality triumph over naiveté and a man set a price on what his labor was to be worth? Not quite. When Lars Engström announced a one-day visit to Chardonne to hear his amps in situ, I subconsciously expected the man to go with the price; exude the associated life style. Engström however proved to be a soft-spoken, almost painfully shy and not at all self-assured gent who was dressed exceptionally modest. As is so often the case, he'd built these amps to please himself. A frayed photo showed a completely conventional design with tubes and trannies on deck. A few friends and acquaintances had heard it to pronounce the sonics exceptional.

Then industrial design relative Timo Engström entered the picture. He begged his uncle to let him dream up a fancy enclosure. Lars acceded. Trying to shoehorn his existing circuit into the tallish structure with the smallish foot print proved challenging however. Manufacture of the wooden slip cover alone involves hi-tech Scandinavian furniture molding. Very thin pliable wooden sheets are doused in glue, fitted into appropriately shaped steel molds, built up to the desired thickness, then squeezed and dried under enormous pressure. The end result is a curvaceous Ply wood equivalent that didn't start life as a flat sheet but was first shaped, then stacked and 'solidified'. Strangely, Timo insisted that theLars black out the edge. It looks like a veneered composite, not solid albeit manufactured wood. While by far the costliest part of theLars project, its final appearance unfortunately doesn't telegraph it. A thickly laid-on lacquer gloss with the edge reveal of the actual material might.

Led down the path to a glorified enclosure and encouraged to participate in a regional hifi show, Lars Engström continued to trust expert advice on price. Naturally, very expensive hifi does exist and sell. In this sector, Kondo, Shindo, Wavac and Zanden come to mind. Especially the two latter offer truly bespoke finish which theLars cannot match. The paid consultants who encouraged Engström's pricing duly forgot to nit-pick his creation's fit and finish to assure their contract's true competitiveness. With the two first Norwegian audio reviews focused exclusively on sonics, Engström must have expected the same from us. As a luxury punter by proxy, I now performed the thankless task which his advisors and previous reviewers should have. Engström clearly was insufficiently prepared. On numerous fronts.

Asked what he'd pitted his amp against to live personal certainty of A/B superiority, Engström couldn't come up with a single competitor's 300B amplifier. As current reference speakers, he named the Fostex-touting Gemme Audio Vivace. Waiting for a formal review to perform comparative evaluations against known but far cheaper genre leaders (and what I own and listen to aren't secrets) isn't smart business tactic when you have much at stake. Neither is designing luxury hifi without matched ancillaries for proper context. That's due diligence and proper preparation. Someone please do their home work!

Let's put it this way. When spotting another man in her bedroom, Jude Law's Alfie asked Susan Sarandon: "What's he got that I don't?" What's theLars got that other luxury-priced 300B amps haven't? In the movie, Alfie's boy-toy competitor is younger. It's the one thing the flawed hero cannot compete with. For a €76,000 20-watt 300B amp, theLars would have to spout premium parts such as Cobalt-core silver-wound output transformers, original Western Electric bulbs with NOS compatriots, Duelund capacitors, Siltech G6 wiring and such. It doesn't. For the glowing bits, it instead runs a Chinese NOS 6N9P input valve "selected for good balance between its two halves"; two triode-connected JJ 6V6GT pentode drivers; two JJ GZ34/5AR4 rectifiers; and two JJ 300B power triodes. Those who insist on more upscale EAT, EML, TJ or WE output tubes must provide their own. Ditto for fancier drivers and rectifiers. And so forth.

TheLars might retort with exclusive circuitry such as Blöhbaum patented for Thorens for example. It does not (circuit details to follow).
It could counter with absolutely flawless cosmetics including tempered glass à la Wavac, not scratch-prone Acrylic. Or class-leading power like Allnic's $18,500/pr 50-watt quad-paralleled 300B single-ended monos. Or performance that obliterates any second-guessing. Clinch the deal on sonics despite wallet pain as Vladimir Lamm seems to. Hearing my Yamamoto A-09S in Chardonne preceded by ModWright's DM 36.5, Engström quipped that perhaps he should buy an A-09S for personal reference. Brilliant idea. Presiding over this thankless demonstration -- nobody enjoys humbling an earnest man without guile -- I reminded Lars that some friends of ours had moved from Cyprus to Sweden. For less than his amp, they'd bought two furnished homes with a barn and fruit trees on a 25-acre country lot. I was hoping Engström would rebutt with some assertive and unique selling proposition; give us a good reason to part with such cashish. None came forth. If not from the maker, who then? His ill-advised advisors? Those better look for new jobs.

More Alfie
Given his power rating and preamp features, I told Lars Engström that his amp was competitive were it priced from $15,000 to 20,000/pr. Of the 5 pairs built to date, he has only sold one, incidentally at the old €15,000 price. This echoes my assessment. For competitive context, the reader is reminded of Art Audio's current Vivo, Allen Wright's Vacuum State differential DPA monos, Trafomatic's and Wyetech's and Canary Audio's monos. No such list could ever be complete but the point is clear. To justify its sticker, theLars has to redefine performance. To my ears, the Yamamoto outperforms it. Engström might have preferred his. He certainly acknowledged that the Yammy played on the same level. So, theLars might get by on being 'merely' very good to share the stage with others. Then it must bridge its colossal price gap with top-class Zanden/Wavac finish. As a bona fide object d'art, price can become immaterial after all.

Getting real
Unless theLars sees a 4-ohm load, its power rating halves to 10 watts to revert more or less to any ordinary 300B SET. It's thus far from the cubic-inch leader. At 21kg per, it's quite hefty and the 30 x 50 x 38cm dimensions (W x H x D) follow suit though my $900 Melody SP-3 at 19.5kg is nearly its equal already. The current-production JJ glass regardless of performance is certainly a serious disconnect in the luxury valve amp league.

It gets somewhat more exotic below deck with input iron and a C-core interstage transformer between driver and output stage. "From the beginning, I planned to make power monos without controls. Because the phase splitter is an input transformer, it is not good to have a passive resistive attenuator in front of the amp. For the integrated version, I thus inserted a stepped attenuator behind the transformer from where I can control the latter's load impedance. Without the first tube, the input sensitivity was 4V. I wanted to be able to connect a CD player directly so I added an input stage where 150mV was chosen as a suitable sensitivity value. I had old line input specs in
mind. For the pure power monos, the input sensitivity lowers to ca. 500mV to suit a preamp."

In the 37dB-gain integrated form under review, theLars runs relays for input switching and attenuation over 60dB in 24 steps. Those relays are controlled from the dual-concentric rotary control of the master amp. The other amp gets slaved to it via the included relay control cable. That avoids dual-mono control hassles but forgets remote control. Asked about possible similarities to the differential 300B amps from Switzerland, "I didn't know about the Vacuum State DPA 300B. theLars is mainly three differential amplifiers in series. I don't use current sources, only common cathode resistors in each pair. Current sources can give higher amplification and better common mode rejection but I saw no need for that. Current sources usually incorporate Mosfet transistors to make things more complicated. If you make them long-tailed with negative voltage, one could destroy the tubes if the voltages were applied in the wrong order."

CES 2009 photo by Albert Porter from his AudiogoN online pictorial coverage

"In the driver stage, it is good to have the doubled transformer drive voltage. The first stage works with such small signal levels that resistor-capacitor coupling provides sufficient headroom. An IT needs low source impedance which small signal triodes can't provide. The 6N9P input tube was chosen for its high voltage gain, low noise and good balance. The circuit is auto bias because I wanted no adjustments in the amp. All 40W 300Bs will work. 300BXLS can be used but won't give more power. theLars is designed for 32W anode dissipation so the tubes are not driven to the limit."

Back on the amps' outsides, there are the magnetically fitted acrylic covers which, like the wooden chassis and website, were designed by Timo Engström. While stylish, Timo's website seems deliberately coy on technical specifics. "There aren't many technical details simply to make the text understandable to non-technicians." About Lars Engström, we read that he was involved in avionic radio communications equipment, systems control work for trains and was the chief technical consultant for the railway connecting Sweden and Denmark via the Öresund Bridge. He was a radio and TV repairman in his youth and garnered his EE degree later. He worked in early computers, telecommunications and radar but vacuum tube audio remains his first love. His collection of personally renovated old radios thus set the path forward for today's theLars.

Laboratory measurements during the design process pursued low intermodulation distortion in particular while insisting on zero negative feedback. For the measurable bits, frequency response (without stated output power) is specified as 10Hz to 40kHz -1dB, S/N under full power 70dB. Input impedance is 20K and a 600-ohm source impedance is referenced as giving the lowest distortion.

Prelim verdict
Let down the wrong path by his advisors, I encouraged Lars Engström to revisit his simple original stereo platform. Why not package this circuit in solid but 'un-outrageous' Yamamoto or Canary style cosmetics? Those are readily manufacturable. They'd also shorten signal paths. Then eliminate preamp functionality. If he could price such an amp competitively as earlier suggested, he'd not only have a contender. Creation and creator would be far more closely matched for emotional comfort and self assurance. Whenever you play outside your own league, things stretch thin. Soon they snap in errors of judgment and pervasive emotional insecurity. It's far better to operate from terra firma. That's at least the kind of advice this bloke would have expected and hoped his paid consultants had given Lars Engström. The man deserves a refund from his self-styled experts. They outright misguided him.