Clones Audio API Preamp and 55PM mono amps
Up for review are affordable separates from Clones Audio. The 55pm mono block amps and AP1 preamp are minimally designed and handcrafted in Hong Kong. They appear very well built, considering their affordable prices (AP1 preamp $775, pair of 55pm mono blocks $1400). Their smaller form factor will allow greater placement options than components of traditional size. All three members of this somewhat diminutive trio match in size, proportion and esthetics.
The 55pm mono block amps are rated 50 watts per each into 8 ohms (100 watts into 4 ohms) and they proved quite powerful for their size. As reviewed, the mono blocks were provided with upgraded WBT binding posts (a $97 charge) and are also available with wooden and cooper Nasotec posts as an upgrade as well, which Funjoe, the designer and builder, considers the best. You can also upgrade the RCA input jacks to Cardas for a little extra. Each component sports solid nicely working jacks, power switches and an IEC connector allowing for power cable upgrades. Each unit has three metal cone feet permanently attached to it’s base. One quibble is that I wish the top of each unit had three depressions to allow easy stacking, but that’s just me.
The Clones Audio AP1 preamp is a seemingly simple affair with a single volume control and one three position selector knob. No remote, no problem (i just learned that the AP2 comes with both display and remote). The preamp’s design is minimal and thoughtful - it’s pared down feature set is what’s most attractive here. Each component sports a pale green LED on it’s front that’s not to bright or distracting and a Clones Audio logo that’s not too large. Nicely done.
I’ve lived with this Clones Audio trio for some months, as I had to put this review on hold to complete a tv project, and finally returned to get my thoughts down. I’m very glad that there was a delay in gathering my impressions. Additional time and a little experimentation proved most rewarding.
When the Clones Audio 55pm mono blocks arrived I was told they already had 100 hours of break-in. Still, I set them up with a db systems db-1b and a pair of Spica TC-60’s speakers and a digital source and broke them in further to be thorough. I liked what I initially heard but didn’t take anything too seriously and didn’t listen too closely, trying not to form to early an opinion. The AP1 preamp came a few weeks later and I switched that in place of the db-1b. With this trio now in place and burned in, I reviewed a pair of Langerton Configuration Holograf monitors ($5960). There seemed to be a nice synergy with these ‘financially mis-matched’ components. The sound was impressive, with nice impact, deep bass and expansive soundstage. Ultimately though, the Langerton’s proved a better better match for a higher powered stereo amp, the PS Audio 200CX… it’s hard to disagree with a 200 wpc beast when it enters the room.
Still, the match between the Clones Audio components and the Langerton Holograf’s was quite good in our large space. Both Clement andDennis found the parring to offer s nice synergy. ‘I think you’ve got something here,’ Dennis offered, and I agree. The Langerton’s can move a lot of air with ease and produce an impressive bass foundation. I mean m-o-v-e! Those woofers really pump, though I never had the volume up past the 1:00 position. Truly impressive for a pair mono blocks providing 75 watts into 6 ohm for the Langerton’s in a 32’ x 42’ space with 13 ceilings! While my Eminent Technology LFT-8b’s provide better bass, the Holograf’s and LFT-8b’s had a similar sonic signature though with very different designs. The sound that the Langerton speakers provided with the Clones Audio components was surprisingly robust and satisfying.
After the Langerton’s left, I once again installed my Spica TC-60’s. While they sounded quite good, something seemed a bit off to my ear. The Spica’s didn’t seem to have their usual zing that grabs your attention. Had I been spoiled by those lush, immaculately-made German speakers? I was puzzled.
It seems that this trio responds better with some speakers than others. During my time with them I switched different speakers in and out of the set up, some old, some new, ranging from from stupid inexpensive to luxurious and extraordinary. The results, to my ear, were surprising.
Backstory: I replaced my long-in-the-tooth desktop system with an inexpensive (under $60) pair of reconditioned Pioneer SP BS21-LR Andrew Jones-designed monitors (the previous version of the much lauded BS22) driven by a 30 wpc, 2-input Topping TP2.2 solid state integrated. My wife thinks the 21’s a bit large for a desktop, but my big desk inhabits a good-sized loft space, so the set up works for me. The sound is surprisingly good for such a modest cost and it’s nice to have decent midrange while at the computer. I spent 2-1/2 months with a pair of Pioneer SP BS22-LR’s, after curiosity got the better of me I had to hear these inexpensive speakers that were receiving such good press and loved them. I never wanted for a sub while listening in our 542 square foot basement. All the hype you hear about the 22’s is well deserved and the 21’s are quite special as well, especially at their cheap reconditioned price.
I switched the Spica’s out for the Pioneer 21’s, and was shocked at how much punchier the presentation sounded. Was the bass better? No, but there was something special going on, even with such bargain speakers, some sort of synergy was afoot. While the Spica’s have a sensitivity of 87 ohms and present an 8 ohm load, the Pioneers are less sensitive at 84db with an 6 ohm load. This is what I think is key with the Clones Audio 55pm mono block amps: to my ear, they respond better to the lower ohm load; perhaps making the amps work just a bit harder yields a more rhythmic and punchy sound. The music just sounded a bit more alive.
I emailed Mark Sossa, the distributor of the Clones Audio components, in the hopes he could shed some light on what I was hearing. I quote Mark here:
‘The Clones Audio 25i/25p/25pm/AP1 line up are loosely based on the 47 Labs gaincard amps and similar gain clone designs. Funjoe utilizes the AD815 chip (which he found in an old Jeff Rowland amp) in the AP1 pre-amp and it is essentially a power amp circuit with a regulator. It is an active line stage with 9 dB of gain. 100k input impedance and 33k output impedance.’
2.5x Sossa continues: ‘The 55 mono's were redone to accommodate a larger circuit board for heat dissipation purposes and does not share the same platform of the 25 series. The amps are built around the Overture LM3886 chip and are able to produce 55 watts in 8 ohms and 100 watts into 4 Ohms while retaining the same 30 dB of gain found on all power amp models.’
Replying to my question regarding ohm load, Sossa said ‘As to why the 55's seemed to favor 6 Ohm loads, my only guess is that it may have something to do with the fact that Funjoe voices the amps with Volent Paragon VL-2s which are rated at 88dB/4 Ohm with a crossover point of 1900 Hz. I am not sure of either the Langerton or the Pioneer crossover networks but they both seem to have similar specs.’
Concluding his reply, Sossa wrote ’The simple circuit design, short signal path, and masterful hand of Funjoe assembling each unit with pinpoint accuracy and consistency formulates much of the magic behind the sound.’
I played a bit of the Esbjorn Svensson Trio’s "Retrospective: Very Best of EST" (Act Music & Vision 2010) track 1 From Gagarin's Point of View. The Spica TC-60’s sounded great, with nice bass, presence and tonality. Dynamics were there and, referring to my notes, ‘very good imaging.’ I moved the volume up slightly to the 12 noon position on the AP1 and was rewarded with a bit more punch. Yet a play of my personal rip of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 by Reiner and the CSO (Classic Records RCA LSC-2364 reissue) proved a touch dry. Moving on to The Pink Panther soundtrack (Record Store Day Legacy issue on pink vinyl), my vinyl rip sounded somewhat sterile at 11:30 position but warmed up with the volume moved up to noon. I continued to play a couple of my usual demo tracks and tweak the volume as needed.
Arto Lindsay’s "Subtle Body" (Bar/None Records 1996) has long been a favorite CD, Its’ mix of basso-nova rhythms sprinkled with experimental production textures and guitar sounds just does it for me. ‘4 Skies’ offered up a nice midrange with chesty vocals thru the Pioneers. Nice minimal instrumentation. Child Prodigy had very nice imaging and a wonderful tom-tom sound. The production was appropriately thick and robust when required to deliver such range, texture and timbre. On ’Soul Animal, the music got a touch dense and the textures seemed to get a bit compressed, with a snare that was a bit muddled, but the Clones Audio components proved to be still quite responsive. The following track had a vocal that was far more open and a piano with very nice body. The variety of small percussive effects were quite directive in this intimate and involving work. Perhaps each track was mic’d and recorded a bit differently, which would explain the variations I heard.
Playing one of my go-to demo tracks Jungle Boldie, the first track had it’s usual outstanding depth and warm and inviting sound and snappy, playful bass clarinet. Here and there the bass clarinet’s parts seemed a bit hidden in the mix but the performance and musical presentation opened back up when I moved the volume knob again to the noon position. Nice dynamics throughout. Riding that volume control is key.
I switched to my iPad Air, using the Onkyo HD app to play tracks from the "Audiogon Wake Up Your Ears Sampler 2, Powered by Chesky" and played a few 24 bit 192kHz tracks. Jan Chapin’s rendition of Stevie Wonder’s You Haven’t Done Nothin' from her 2010 release "Revisions" was nothing but fun. My wife loved the minimal and funky arrangement and Chapin’s heartfelt, foot-tapping performance. The Herbie Hancock classic Cantaloupe Island from White/Williams/Colligan/Wilson on their "Hancock Island" release was a lively and wonderfully rhythmic effort with great imaging, ample soundstage and an alluring, seductive sax tone.
Peter Gabriel’s ‘Intruder’ from "Live Blood" (Eagle Records 2012) thru the recently returned Arcam irDAC I reviewed previously, the trio yielded a soundstage with very nice depth and pinpoint imaging. It’s a creepy fun track full of suspense and texture, a vocal of good depth and admirable dynamics that sounded quite impressive in the lowly Pioneer’s sweet spot.
Prior to hearing Gabriel’s first orchestral experiment, I was concerned that some edge would be lost, that I’d miss the synths and percussion so prevalent and exciting in his past work. There was no need for concern, his albums with orchestral accompaniment are every bit as textural and engrossing as his previous work. I can’t wait to hear future work blending both old and newfound instrumentation, should such a project be in the works. Sadly, one fan on Amazon wrote a scathing review, accusing Gabriel of being too old and selling out - an old man past his prime, resting on his laurels. He clearly didn’t get it - I hope you do.
Trying something else to shake things up, I switched in a found pair of circa 1991-1994 AR M1’s into the mix. Yes, they do have hot tweeters, which I’ve modded a bit to take the edge off. Upon hearing the M1’s fire up, my wife remarked ‘Hate those speakers. They sound wrong.’ She doesn’t offer may opinions but, when she does, she’s right. Those hot tweeters brought the highs too forward and a playful seductive backing sax far too front and center. Back downstairs they went. Even the Clones couldn’t help those speakers… time to mod those tweeters further.
To my ear, this Clones Audio trio of components performed very well with speakers at a wide range of price points and somewhat snappier with speakers presenting a lower ohm load. To be fair, their performance with 8 Ohm speakers was far from a disappointment and adjusting the volume control appeared to be the key to getting more out of certain recordings. With the AP1, the volume control is your friend, especially at lower volume - a slight tweak of the knob works wonders. I’d certainly be curious to hear a pair of 4 ohm speakers on these babies.
If in the market for affordable, well-built separates, the Clones Audio components are a great place to start. Your search might just end there. Good work, Funjoe!
Clones Audio 55PM monoblocks: power: 55W per channel @ 8 Ohms -100W per channel @4 Ohms
Input impedance: 22 kH ( unbalanced only)
Gain: 30 dB, input impedance: 22k
Signal to Noise Ratio: Weight: 4.2kg/each
Clones Audio AP1 Preamplifier:
Three line level inputs
One pair of line level outputs ( a dual line level output is an option)
Weight – 2.5 Kilo