October 2000Pathos Classic One Integrated Amplifier
by Marc Mickelson
In a world of so many black boxes, audio equipment from Italian manufacturer Pathos sticks out. It's elegant and stylish, eye-catching but not ostentatious -- at least to my sensibilities. The first time I saw the Classic One integrated amp, at CES '99, I was immediately drawn to it, for a myriad of reasons: chrome, black acrylic, walnut accents, and glowing tubes. In fact, its good looks can distract from its sonic performance, turning heads for reasons other than the sound it produces. So the Pathos Classic One is a looker, but is it a sonic keeper?
The skin and what's beneath it
The $1795 USD Classic One is longer than it is wide, measuring 9"W x 17"D x 6"H, and weighs in at 25 pounds. Using it is decidedly simple. On its front are two knobs for volume (which is motorized for remote control) and input selection, the on/off switch, and a power-indicator LED. That's it. Even the Classic One's remote, a longish, thin wand of walnut, is simple: only two small buttons for increasing or decreasing volume. Around back are the inputs -- three sets with RCA jacks and one that uses XLRs -- and tape-loop connections. There's also an IEC power-cord receptacle. The sturdy all-gold binding posts are actually on the top plate of the unit, flanking the chrome-domed power transformer. One non-feature of note is the absence of input names on the front panel, which is obviously an aesthetic choice. No biggie -- the movement of the input knob corresponds to the layout of the input jacks on the back panel.
In terms of circuitry, the Classic One is a hybrid -- class-A/AB solid-state power output and class-A tubed input stage, which uses ECC86 tubes, a 6GM8 equivalent; 6922s are also possible (and something I tried -- read on). It offers 50Wpc into 8-ohm loads in stereo mode, but it can also be bridged via the flip of an internal switch and thus outputs 130W (no load specification is given, but I assume this is a 4-ohm rating). This is a neat feature, an alternative to using an integrated that offers preamp outs with a more powerful separate amp. Just buy another Classic One and you're good to go -- and remote controllable too. The Classic One is utterly silent in use -- no hum from the unit itself or hiss through speakers connected to it.
The Classic One powered a wide array of speakers, including Merlin TMS-SEs, Silverline SR12s and SR15s, and for a short time the Speaker Art Proklaim IIs. Source components were two Panasonic portable CD players, the SL-321C or SL-SX300, or a Pioneer DV-525 DVD player. Cables were from DH Labs (BL-1 Series II and T-14), JPS Labs (Ultraconductor) or Silverline (Audio Conductor), and power cords were many, including models from ESP, PowerSnakes, and Audio Magic. I used a Richard Gray's Power Company part of the time and ESP's The Essence Power Distributor at other points. The Classic One sat on a Bright Star Big Rock base that in turn sat on the floor.
A classic one?
So much of a reviewer's understanding of what good sound is comes from listening to live music -- and life itself -- but this is certainly filtered through the equipment we get to hear and write about, much of which has its own unique way of reproducing the signal fed to it. Over the past few years, I've reviewed integrated amps from Arcam (two different models), Bel Canto, Linn, and Onix. The Classic One fits into this group at the upper end of the price scale -- but nowhere near the cost of the Bel Canto SETi40, which is the only other unit of those mentioned that uses tubes. This grouping is all over the map sonically too -- from thumping solid-state sound to the gentility of SET tubes, with stops in between.
And this review of the Classic One would prove to be a journey of sorts, one that began with the Merlin TSM-SE speakers, Silverline interconnects and speaker cables, and the stock Golden Dragon ECC86 tubes. In terms of its overall sound, the stock Classic One is distinctive: a little lean but with a touch sweetness through the midrange, where the unit offers some of the glory of tubes. The bass is quick and present, albeit not particularly weighty. But it does offer depth that's about right given the Classic One's circuitry and price. As I did with the Linn Majik integrated amp I reviewed last year, I listened to a lot of small-ensemble jazz and folk music with the Classic One, preferring the way it handles such music to its way with more raucous fare like The Presidents of the United States of American or Sublime. Greg Brown's newest disc Covenant [Red House RHR CD 148] sounds very good overall but especially nice on the Classic One, which delineates the various instruments nicely from Brown's chesty voice.
But as this description implies, the stock Classic One, used as it was initially, was competent in terms of its sound but unremarkable. I listened to it for over a month while I wrote reviews, edited reviews, and created HTML pages for posting on SoundStage!. In very few instances did I feel compelled to listen to the music playing. Given that I had encountered Pathos equipment at various CESes and liked what I was hearing, I first wrote off my apathy to a lack of break-in and then to being too busy to listen anyway. But I was puzzled.
So I did what audiophiles do -- I experimented, tweaked. And I found that with a few changes of speakers, cables and tubes, I was able to raise the perceived sonic performance of the Classic One quite a bit, turning it from a undistinguished integrated amp into the heart of a very good system. I started my reviewing with the Merlin TSM-SE speakers, which are quite revealing of whatever is fed to them. Thus, the Classic One's initial sonic signature was easy to discern. However, after wondering if there was more for the Classic One to offer, I switched to the Silverline SR12s and then SR15s, which have more of a sound of their own. Thus the system's character took on more tonal weight and color, offering up Greg Brown, for instance, with a greater sense of Brown being in my listening space -- as opposed to him being at the end of a chain of electronics and cables.
So I was getting somewhere, but the sound was still a little off, the Silverline speakers introducing a slight bit of opacity to the overall sonic picture. So I played with wires, swapping out the Silverline interconnects and speaker cables I was using -- both made from the same wire -- to, first, the JPS Labs Ultraconductor and then the DH Labs Silver Sonic, which was the best cable yet. Next I experimented with power cords, choosing in the end the PowerSnakes Sidewinder "Venom."
The opacity was essentially gone -- it was something more obvious in comparison to the very clean and clear sound with the Merlin speakers in use -- and things were really starting to cook sonically. At this point, I had the urge to listen to a lot of classic jazz, especially the Blue Note RVG remasters. I've owned Eric Dolphy's great Out to Lunch [Blue Note 7243 4 98793 2 4] on regular vinyl, as a Japanese vinyl pressing, as a generic CD, and now in the remastered form. The RVG CD sounds the most lively of the bunch, and with the Silverline/DH Labs/Pathos combination, the instruments were very delineated in space, some of this coming by way of the hard-left/-right recording technique, but the system, which now had body and high resolution, was not hurting things a bit.
I then fiddled with the sources, none of which stood out from the others, so I settled on the Panasonic SL-SX300 portable. I thought the tweaking was done, but then Richard Kohlruss at VMAX Services sent me a set of 6922 tubes for use in the Classic One. He had gotten reports that swapping out the stock tubes could lead to better sound, so he urged me to give it a try and report on the results. The Sovtek 6922s that I received are nothing special in terms of their audiophile status, but they opened the soundstage of the Classic One up noticeably, adding both depth and width to the sonic picture. I can't say I was hearing things I never did before, but I was hearing everything in a different way, and I liked the result. Greg Brown was still in the room, but the room was less there, replaced by the sound of the recorded space, what little of it there is on the disc. And then I dug out my XRCD2 of Jacintha's Here's to Ben [First Impression Music FIM XRCD 020], which is awash in space and ambience. The Classic One with the 6922s made the piano notes ring with clarity like that of my reference setup. And even from in the back of the room, 20 feet or more away from the system, Jacintha's voice sounded very immediate. While the Classic One still sounded lean and a little sweet in the midrange, it had an endearing openness that allowed a good look into the recording venue.
While it's not desirable to jump through such hoops to get the most from every piece of review equipment, it was work that paid off with the Classic One, which seems made for Silverline speakers and cables that enhance clarity and resolution. No, this is not the most laid-back, euphonic system I have heard, but its slightly more energetic balance works well given the pieces that make it up. And the change from the ECC86 tubes to the more common Sovtek 6922s was a very worthwhile tweak. I would consider it as mandatory as pairing the Classic One with just the right speakers.
An all-Italy final
The unit to which I wanted to compare the Classic One, the Audio Analogue Pucinni SE with remote control ($1295), took a good number of months to arrive, which is why the Classic One review took so long to finish. I wrote about the non-remote Pucinni SE in a "Standout Systems" installment, and it's at the top of the integrated-amp heap as far as I'm concerned. It's a solid-state unit that offers tubelike sound, and it works like a charm with the Merlin TSM-SE speakers. Bobby Palkovic even has one around the Merlin factory.
The differences between it and the Classic One are pronounced, the Pucinni SE sounding richer and sweeter than the tubed-input Classic One. The Pucinni SE Remote also has weightier bass and a more enveloping soundstage, both of which fit in well with its overall character. The Classic One takes the prize for greater resolution, although it's certainly not hyper-detailed by any measure, and it sounds more nimble due to its more lean overall balance. The Pucinni SE Remote sounds more gutsy, the Classic One more delicate; in terms of looks, the Classic One wins hands down over the black box that is the Pucinni SE Remote, which does have a much cooler all-aluminum remote control. If I owned and loved Merlin speakers, I would choose the Pucinni SE Remote, while, again, the Classic One works very well with the Silverline SR12s and SR15s (and other speakers, too, I'm sure).
The moral of the story
It's hard to look past the Pathos Classic One because of its gleaming beauty, which makes it appear to cost more than it does, but its sound keeps up with its looks once you pay attention to the speakers you'll use along with it -- and the cables and tubes too. I found the combination of Silverline SR12 or SR15 speakers, DH Labs Silver Sonic cables, PowerSnakes Sidewinder "Venom" power cord, and finally Sovtek 6922 tubes to be the best match of the equipment and ancillaries I had on hand, but I'm sure there are other combos that would work well too, perhaps even better. The lesson learned seems to be to choose speakers that have some intrinsic sweetness of their own along with cables that will open up the Classic One's character, which is lean and a little sweet in the midrange to begin with. After that, the power cord and tubes only heap more sonic icing on the cake.
We audiophiles are system builders, so I don't suspect too many potential buyers will object to settling on an integrated amp like the Classic One and then building a satisfying system around it -- or just making sure beforehand that it works well with the equipment they own. I know I didn't. But if you're a plug-and-play kind of audiophile, play the field a bit -- although the classy-looking Classic One will likely catch your eye.
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