With all the equipment I see in a year, its rare that a component really impresses in such a way that causes me to do a double-take. When it happens, it's usually not with average-priced gear. More often than not, it is some whizzy new product with a price tag that would look more appropriate on a car, or even a condominium. However, sometimes these little miracles of life happen with less expensive products, like the Vecteur I-4 integrated amplifier from France (manufactured by Galaxy High End Electronic Systems). The $1120 USD I-4 integrated amplifier is obviously designed by people who understand home audio thoroughly. They know that you not only listen to a piece of equipment, you live with it too. For whats a very reasonable asking price, the I-4 is an extremely good-looking, well-built, fine-sounding integrated amp with some impressive features that will turn some heads.
Getting to the nuts and bolts, the I-4 is a push-pull MOSFET design that the company rates at 60Wpc into 8 ohms. The I-4 isn't necessarily a powerhouse, but is beefy enough to drive the majority of the speakers on the market to sufficient volume levels. No speaker of mine ever gave it a problem, but if one of yours would, there's also a Vecteur I-6 integrated amp, which offers more power and costs a commensurate $2295.
Pick up the I-4 and youll immediately notice that it is built, weighing in at more than 25 pounds. The faceplate is thick, solid aluminum and available in black only. The large volume knob flanks the right-hand side, which gives the unit a serious, but elegant look. Cosmetically, this level of quality and refinement is what you see on pieces costing $2000 or more.
Solid design and construction aside, what really sets the I-4 apart is that it mixes audiophile niceties with music-lover practicality. Theres a heavy-duty, detachable power cord with a Hubbell connector; good-quality speaker binding posts; solid, audiophile-approved RCA plugs; and big silver footers on which the all-aluminum chassis rests. These are just some of the things audiophiles with a penchant for detail will notice.
There is a main power switch on the back thats left on for the long term. On the front there is the Standby switch (also on the remote) that is used for regular (i.e., daily) powering on. Simple enough -- but theres more. Despite the I-4 being a relatively low-priced unit, a lot of care and attention went into the ergonomics and operation, and these give it its top-flight appeal. The manufacturer supplies a full-featured remote control that not only controls the I-4 but other Vecteur products too, like the company's CD players. It all works without a hitch -- not always the case in the audiophile market.
The I-4 has one feature that so seriously impressed me that I wanted to give it a standing ovation. Instead, Ill just talk about it. Ever have some careless person leave the volume control up way too high so that when you come along and power up the system and then press "play" the music BLASTS you out of the room? That wont happen here. Every time you power up the I-4, it first winds down its volume control to 0, then it goes through a turn-on phase for a number of seconds, and only then does it gently click to say it's ready to play music. Sure, you may have to reset the volume control to your old listening level every time you power on, but who cares? This is a lot safer since youll never blow your speaker drivers out of their cabinets. Nice work!
The sound of the I-4 is easily identifiable -- clean, clear, lively, and punchy. Its rated at 60Wpc, but sounds more powerful due to its impressive dynamics. Vocals are very clear, high frequencies are extremely extended, and the lows are deep and taught. This is not a romantic-sounding integrated amp in the way, say, a traditional tube amp is. Most will be able to identify the I-4 as high-quality solid state -- not a bad thing at all.
The soundstage is well defined and precise. Images are locked solidly on the horizontal plane, depth is generally good, and overall spaciousness is also good. In comparison to some other amps that cast a soundstage a little back from the speaker plane, the I-4 is a little more up-front and direct. Voices emanate at or a little ahead of the speakers, similar to the portrayal of Simaudios I-5. For a clear demonstration of this, I turned to "Everest" on Ani DiFranco's Up Up Up Up Up Up [Righteous Babe Records RBR13-D]. Her voice, placed firmly to the left of the stage, sounds just a wee-bit closer to the listener (more or less at the speaker plane), whereas with some amplifiers, it sounds just the slightest bit back.
On an absolute scale, I noted two caveats regarding the I-4. First, some may find it a tad dry-sounding. What this means is that it is not necessarily a lush component -- some amps are warmer and more sultry, particularly through the midrange. However, you can tweak that in your system by matching the I-4 with speakers or cabling that have such sound characteristics. Second, in comparison to more expensive electronics, the dimensionality of the presentation is somewhat compromised. Instruments are not as fleshed out and robust, and image depth is just not quite whats heard when you go more upscale. For example, with the choral tracks on the soundtrack to the movie The Mission [Virgin 90567-2], the myriad of voices can be heard to extend waaaay back and to the sides. This can make a small room sound like a vast, open space and be quite awe-inspiring. The I-4 shows reasonable depth of stage, but not the vast spaciousness some other integrated amps can muster. Keep in mind, though, that Im starting to compare the I-4 to some much more expensive competition.
Comparison to the featureless but excellent $1700 Redgum RGi120 proved interesting because the two are so different. As a result, theyll likely appeal to very different listeners. While the Redgum integrated is certainly attractive in its own distinctive way, I would wager that more people would find the I-4 to be the looker of the two. And as far as features go, the decidedly minimalist RGi120 simply gets smoked -- its definitely catering to a different category of consumers, those who dont care about even having a remote control. The I-4 may not have all the features of a "everything-but-the-kitchen-sink," mass-market receiver, but it does have more features than we see with even some of the best high-end electronics.
In terms of sound, they are again as different as they look. The RGi120 is the more powerful of the two, but I never taxed either, so this wasnt really a factor. As I mentioned, the I-4 is clean, lively, and dynamic -- it has a punchier sound (and subjectively seemed more powerful). The Redgum, on the other hand, is more sultry and seductive. It has a smooth and easy nature that is enchanting, something like tubes. The I-4 presents images in a more up-front and visceral way, while the RGi120 is more relaxed and expansive. Depth of stage with the Redgum is stronger, and it can squeak out a little bit more resolution. Which is better for your system will likely be affected by the nature of your other components, particularly the speakers. I like the sound of both, but favored the RGi120 when judged solely on sound and liked the I-4 when factoring in things like ease of use and ergonomics.
Finally, the I-4 does respond subtly to tweaks. Surprisingly, I found (through insistence by North American distributor Pascal Ravach) that the unit likes to be plugged directly into the wall as opposed to being used with an AC filter or conditioner (or at least the ones I use). As well, the I-4 comes with its own high-quality power cord that is wholly suitable for the task, but as an upgrade you may wish to try something else if it suits your fancy, although its hard to say whether it will really improve whats there. Finally, watch what the I-4 sits on. I found it sounded better on a rock-solid surface than something that is soft or not so stable. Cones and isolators can also be tried. For example, Nordosts Pulsar Points gave it a wee-bit more solidity in the low end.
Sense and sensibility
The I-4 is an attractive centerpiece for a fine music system. It's also an excellent choice for price-conscious audiophiles with discriminating sonic and aesthetic tastes. The key to its success lies in the fact that it is an outstanding combination of sonic performance and excellent build quality, with strong features and outstanding appearance -- all offered at an extremely reasonable price. It makes perfect sense for those who want something really good, but dont want to re-mortgage the house or sell the car to get it. If the I-4 retailed for, say, $2500, it would find itself facing stiffer scrutiny and start to be compared to competition in that range. However, it retails for about half that amount, and in my book, this makes it a sure-fire winner.
Copyright © 2001 SoundStage!
All Rights Reserved