Predator Integrated Amp offers value for money
BY PHIL GOLD
Vacuum tubes or transistors? Take your choice, or take both!
Valve Audio may be a new name to most readers, so a little
background is in order. Founder Schalk Havenga began as
an audio repair technician and worked on many familiar
brands such as Quad, Leak, Marantz and Audio Research before
setting up an audio repair shop with his friend Gunther
Graef. This company, HiFi & TV Services, became the
service agents for Jeff Rowlands, who inspired Schalk to
design his own amplifiers. He set up Valve Audio in 1994
with his first product, the Black Widow, a hybrid 200-watt
The marriage of tubes and transistors has always been a
hallmark of Valve Audio designs, since Schalk believes
each brings its own advantages. The Black Widow is still
in production today, and the full range now comprises four
integrated amps, three power amps and two preamps, all
machined and hand-built in Doornpoort, South Africa. The
Predator under review here is the top of the line integrated
True to form, it strikes a balance
the sound of tube and transistor-driven amplifiers.
This amp comes dressed in a simple but handsome case featuring an 8mm aluminum
faceplate, with push buttons for selection of input and power, and a large rotary
volume control. All the controls exude quality, as does the unusually shaped
and very heavy aluminum remote control. The inputs include one balanced, three
unbalanced and a tape loop. There are no other controls, not even balance, except
for a mute button on the remote control. The rear panel connectors appear substantial
and well spaced, with the exception of the binding posts, which are narrow and
rather hard to grip.
For this review the Predator joins a reference system comprising Nordost Valhalla
cabling (reviewed in Vol. 13, No.2) and Thor power distribution unit (reviewed
in Vol. 16, No 4), an EMM Labs CDSA SE digital source (reviewed in the last issue)
and modified Wilson Benesch Act 1 speakers — a very transparent and evenly
balanced system capable of dramatic dynamics with the right amplification. The
Predator replaces a Perreaux Radiance R200i (reviewed in Vol. 16, No.2) and another
200 wpc integrated amp from far, far away, this time New Zealand. You might suppose
the US $3,000 Predator would be quite out of its depth in this system, but the
idea is to match it with a set of high resolution components and cables to see
just how fine a job it can do. For these tests I used both the unbalanced and
balanced inputs, with a slight preference for the balanced.
The Predator, already well run in, is a pleasure to use. The controls are simple
and silky in operation, and the amp presents no extraneous noises when switching
between sources. True to form, it strikes a balance between the sound of tube
and transistor-driven amplifiers. You have the wide bandwidth of a silicon-based
component, but with none of the brittle or hard edge that is sometimes evident.
However, while it does a good job on detail retrieval and tonal color, it falls
short of the Perreaux in dynamic range and image depth. The bass is full and
warm but lacks the visceral edge of the best amplifiers, losing out in rhythmic
vitality. Distortion is commendably low, and you can turn up the volume to satisfying
levels without noticeable compression.
||So what kind of music suits
this amp? I’d say this is not the ideal amp for either
powerful symphonic music or heavy metal. It sounds a little
too genteel to do them justice. The frightening attack of a
Shostakovich symphony or the Verdi Requiem loses some of its
massive power. But folk, jazz and smaller scale classical music
are all well served. Here the Predator bathes you in rich instrumental
color and detail, allowing you to listen for many hours without
fatigue. With piano recordings it can sound most beguiling,
flattering the brittle sound of a Glenn Gould for example,
and revealing the richness of tone of a Rubinstein or an Oscar
Peterson. Female vocals are clear and bright with no added
sibilance. The sharp attack of Joan Baez in full flight is
toned down a notch, but the slower more sultry singing of Diana
Krall emerges warm and delicious. Best of all is its warm and
vibrant rendition of Haydn Quartets and Mozart Quintets, where
a well-defined acoustic space is projected against a silent
background. The magic of the music emerges and transports the
listener to the concert hall.
Synopsis and Commentary
The ideal amplifier excels with all types of music. It never editorializes or
adds warmth or transient snap to the audio signal, but does justice to the recorded
signal through accuracy, resolution, imaging, coherence and dynamics. Clearly
the Valve Audio Predator does not come as close to the ideal as the much more
expensive Perreaux, and it is much more comfortable in some roles than others.
This is not a universal amp and you must examine your own musical tastes to see
if they coincide with the areas in which the Predator excels.
Can you do better at this price? In some ways you can. There are more open amps
around, with exceptional dynamic qualities, such as the Creek Destiny (US $2,395)
or the Bryston B100 SST (US $2,995). However, both of these are less powerful
at 100wpc than the Predator’s 200wpc. To comfortably exceed the performance
of the Predator you can look to the more expensive Edge G6, which runs US $4,691
and outputs 135wpc. The toughest competitor may well be the Krell KAV-400xi (US
$2,500) which matches the Predator’s output into 8 ohms and combines high
resolution with a ruler flat response and tight control down to the deep bass.
If you’re interested in hybrid amps, you should also consider the Unison
Research Unico SE (US$3,150) with its 140wpc output. This amp combines excellent
all-round performance with a rather more modern look than the Predator and may
be its closest sonic competitor. Of these alternatives, the Edge and the Unico
come closest to the expressiveness and musicality that are the Predator’s
forte. You can also look at separates but once you’ve paid for the extra
power cord and interconnects, the financial advantage is usually with the integrated
amp. You also have the possibility of less than ideal impedance and level matching
between components, so the integrated wins most of the time in my book. We are
long past the days when integrated amps were looked down upon by most serious
audiophiles. There has been an explosion in the number of attempts at statement
integrated amps, from the Jeff Rowland Concentra to the ASR Emitter amp. I feel
the same way about transports and DACs. Give me an integrated CD player any day.
The argument is less compelling at the extreme high-end, but that’s a topic
for another day.
This is the first South African component I’ve had in my system and it
has never embarrassed itself. I’ve enjoyed my time with the Predator and
believe it offers good value for the money. I recommend you take the time to
search out and audition the Predator if you are looking for a simple high-quality
remote-controlled integrated amp in this price range.
|Predator Integrated Amplifier
Audio Basics Inc.
|In the US
|17.25 in (w) 4.75 in (h) 12.75 in
The Predator is driven by the single large power supply, a
625 VA toroidal transformer made in South Africa by Toroidal
Technologies. It features a copper screen between primary and
secondary windings and the entire transformer is impregnated
with a special resin. The input stage comprises a dual triode
for each channel, configured as a differential mode amplifier to accommodate
a balanced signal. The two driver-stage tubes are plate loaded by six pairs
of new generation MOSFETs. The hand soldered circuit boards are neatly and
symmetrically laid out around the power supply and the limited point to point
wiring appears well routed and of high quality. High Yield Rectification
(HYR), a concept used in all Valve Audio products, ensures a low impedance
supply. A minimal amount of capacitative smoothing is designed to give the
power supply an excellent recovery rate for quick and stable transient response.
The tubes are mounted vertically, which may account for the height of the
box. The four tubes are the mechanically reliable Sovtek 6922 dual triodes
with a rated life of at least 15,000 hours (around two years non-stop). The
amp features a star earth system for low noise, while power management and
signal switching are accomplished using logic rather than mechanical control.
Special audio relays with palladium/gold alloy contacts are employed for
source selection, and an Alps Blue Velvet Pot controls the volume. A Shunyata
Research Venom 12 AWG power cord is supplied. The Predator looks like a repairman’s
dream, not that you’re likely to need one. The company also offers
a three-year warranty exclusive of tubes.
The amp puts out 200 wpc of continuous power into 8 at <0.1%
THD, 350 wpc into 4 with a power output peak of350 wpc into
8 ohms at <0.1% THD. Power consumption is quoted at 140VA
at idle, 950VA maximum and peak power is 1000 watts into
1 ohm. Input impedance is 47 kOhm minimum each phase, and
absolute polarity is non-inverting.
The amp goes into a standby status for up to 60 seconds
on power-up, with the power LED flashing, after which you
will find the volume has been reset to zero. Valve Audio
recommends waiting at least an hour for peak performance
potential, and advises users of the initial burning in period
of up to 100 hours.