The Audio Geek!

My First Watt Aleph J Review

While my beloved valve power amps are off being repaired, I thought I should have a 'reliable' standby power amp for everyday listening / backup. So after some searching and a stroke of luck I was able to purchase a second-hand, factory configured 240v First Watt Aleph J solid state stereo power amplifier from the very pleasant folks at John's Hi Fi Exchange in Melbourne. For an older amplifier (Serial number 011 of 100) which was first introduced in 2005, it is in mint condition with original manual and box and is a credit to the original Sydney owner.

An imposing product, weighing over 10 kilos, sporting two serious side mounted heat sinks and simply purposeful to behold, it contains some 25 Class A watts per channel (30 watts at clipping) this beast runs very warm and sounds, not surprisingly, very much different to my Red Rose Music and Supratek EL34 push / pull amps. But not in the ways you might imagine. And I should add that this is the first solid state amplifier I have had in my system for over a decade.

L1000373
Simple front plate - 2011

My current system configuration is the Wadia 861SE, balanced into a Supratek Sauvignon (tube) pre-amplifier running single-ended into the First Watt Aleph J. Cables are Kimber Select interconnects, Kimber Monocle X speaker cables with a Furman providing the power conditioning.

So what is good about the Aleph J? The Aleph J is extremely quiet with a very low noise floor allowing it to dredge the very last ounce of detail out of my recordings. A big plus. This transparency also seems to assist in rendering the intonation of voices extremely nuanced, with even well known discs giving something a little extra with greater vocal articulation. There is no sign of any solid state grain or top end harshness at all. The mid-range is almost tube-like (didn't want to really use that cliche) rendering an overall sound that is extremely smooth and musical. In comparison to my valve amps which can leave the listener with the job of re-creating the musical event in their head (I had previously blamed this sonic trait on the Zu's, my apologies), the Aleph brings the detailed and disparate parts of the recording back to a whole engaging presentation leaving the listener with the simple task of enjoying the music.

Anything not so good? While vocals are extremely detailed, Phil Manning 'Two Roads' sounds a little more hi fi-ish and less like Phil sounds 'live'. Some timbre & richness is missing. Update 1: This has been partially resolved today by increasing the pre-amp gain on the Supratek and the vocals are now slightly warmer with greater timbre and just a bit less articulation. No detail has been lost and the net result is a significant step forward. Surprisingly the Aleph also lacks the PRAT of my previous valve amps. The finger snaps on Patricia Barber 'Ode to Billie Joe' lack sparkle, the guitar and drum attack on SRV's 'Tin Pan Alley' is more reserved. I was expecting more top end clarity and extension lending the feeling of greater dynamics. Maybe this may be improved by some system synergy tweaks as well. Update 2: A change of the Wadia decoding algorithm (from B to A for those in the know 'wink') has improved this area of performance tangibly as well.

Imaging is excellent with plenty of space around the instruments while I would say that the soundstage is only marginally smaller in both width and depth than previously experienced.

Bass response is similar to what I am used to, probably no surprise given the powered drivers on the Zu's.

L1000379
Serious heatsinks - 2011

All in all, a very nice, inexpensive, 'collectible' solid state amplifier. It does somethings better and some things worse, and some things different to what I have been used to. My wife Robin sat down with me for a few tracks last night and immediately heard the same differences as I did. We agreed that the overall sound was probably less flattering to good recordings but gave a fairer presentation of lesser ones.

In summary, the overall sound is (now) extremely good, but clearly different to what we had become used to over the last twelve years. What I can say with certainty is that it is a very engaging and listenable amplifier which connects you to the music and doesn't rely on any audiophile pyrotechnics to deliver the goods.

Follow Up - Interestingly, the Aleph J reviews that I have read indicate that speed and top end are strengths of the amplifier. There must be something in the synergy of my rig limiting this. I look forward to fixing it. Time for some serious tuning methinks. Some options include:

- Supratek Sauvignon Pre-amplifier changes

  • Replace SE connectors to Balanced from the pre-amp to Aleph;
  • Add caps/plugs to the unused RCA points;

- Wadia CD player changes
  • Increase the output voltage on the Wadia to lessen the load on the pre-amp;
  • Add caps/plugs to the unused RCA points;

- Environmental changes
  • Run the Wadia direct to the Aleph;
  • Add some vibration control / cones under the Aleph;
  • Add some vibration control / cones under the Supratek;
  • Add some speaker spike cups under the Zu's to stabilise the speakers further;

L1000377
An early serial number - 2011

A formal review of the First Watt Aleph J by Michael Lavorgna of SixMoons can be found here.

Disclaimer: I have no financial interest in any of the companies / products mentioned. Also my findings and thoughts are based on my ears, my music, in my room, with my BAC level and mental state. YMMV.