Review By Trond Torgnesskar
(Full review translated in English)
Mention the word «cloning» to the ordinary man, and he will probably start shivering. But from a music lover´s point of veiw, it´s all a bundle of joy. Say hello to the musical lunchbox from Clones Audio.
A Chip? Can that be proper HiFi?
Some years ago, hyperminimalist hifi artisans 47labs presented the Gaincard, an amp based on a National Semiconductor chip, a substantial transformer and power supply and a few, but select components housed in a small, solid aluminium enclosure. It soon gained a large following for its open and natural musicality, but some reacted to the rather steep price for such a simple piece of equipment.
It surely put 47Labs on the map, and furthermore, it put people´s conceptions of amp design virtually upside down. A chip in a serious audiophile amp? Most people could not beleive their ears. As it happens, a chip can provide musical magic when used right, and the Gaincard turned out to be the most mythical japanese piece of hifi since the original Audio Note Ongaku and the first Koetsu.That says quite a lot.
Of course, the danger of making such a simple product with quite a hefty price tag is copying. That is the highest form of flattery in hifi circles, and sure enough, the Gaincard spawned a plethora of deeply inspired products.
This situation makes it highly relevant to listen up when a new version of the Kimura-san classic with the shockingly honest name of Clones Audio comes along. The man behind the company once owned and used a Gaincard, being very impressed by the way it sounded. When his father wanted one for his system, the price had risen and the availability was a bit scarse, so this sharp grapic designer made his own version, staying true to the original down to each part and even internal cabling.
This was how the object of this extensive listening test, the Clones 25i, was born.
One box, but no boxy sounds!
It arrived at my humble abode courtesy of our often not so great Postal Service,but with solid packaging and sturdy build quality, it had survived with flying colours.
The simple and slightly austere looks might not suit everyone, sporting a volume pot, a source selector and a single green diode, but I find it has an honest kind of allmost industrial beauty. This should appeal to all that do not go for the latest audiophile bling!
The mains switch can be found at the back, along with provisions for three sources and one pair of speakers. The terminals look very much like WBT and complements the seriously competent feeel of it all. I felt the Clones begged for constant mains supply, so I left it on at all times during the three week trial period. After four days of burning in, the listening started.
I am thinking that three inputs is enough for most of us, and a passive ALPS volume pot is a simple and musically transparent route for the signal to travel. For the real couch potato, the Clones 25i can be had with a remote, but that costs a bit more, of course. The little black amp was used along with my usual references, the Impulse H2 horn speakers, my APL Dac S / TentLabs CD-player and my Oblivion cables to hook it all up. Oblivion Tecnology allso provided mains filtering.Quite expensive stuff, but the 25i proved to feel right at home nevertheless.
It is not often that I have so-called budget components in my system, but there has been a few over the years. The price of the Clones 25i tells me it is such a product, but that is the only thing budget about it.
In such a simple construction, parts quality becomes paramount, and in this instance, it is all done by the book.
With Joni Mitcells allmost monumental retrospective «Both sides now» playing, it was clear that this is one very special amplifier. The sound had an open and very transparent quality, but at the same time, instruments had real body and texture that makes music come to life in a way I never associated with such a resonable price. On top of all that, the sheer size and dimensions of it all would be impressive coming from an amp at four times the price! Unbeliveable!
Playing through the Clones, music had a coherent, easy and very natural flow that made it easy to listen deep into the complex fabric of the music,much like I do with my reference 300B-based class A monoblocks. Making that kind of comparison is not something I thought I would ever do, but that is the case, even so.
25 watts of quality gets you a long way when put to work like it is here. The midrange was grainless and ekspressive, with a slight focus that will suit many speakers and make them open up.
The Clones exhibits a rythmic drive that makes it really fun to listen, do dive into your record collection our after hour.
Again, the resulution of this amp really impresses, and has such obvious qualities that it needs to be partnered wit really good components to show what it can do with music. The mantra here must be not to get fooled by the low price. That is often the case with really good components. They can really handle ambitious partnering, and they are difficult to outgrow. That is most certainly the case with the 25i.
The way tis little amp handled large orchestral works, timbre and sheer musical drama was a joy to listen to. It really shows you what «High end on a shoestring budget» is all about. Leif Ove Andsnes´rendition of Haydns piano Concerto sounds a tad lighter and more forward than through my reference tube amps, but who ban blame them? They still sound marvellous, but costs peanuts! Get yourself a competent speaker that knows its way around tone, ambience and timbre, and does not require too much juice to sing. Tannoys, for instance. Then you could well be set up for life soundwise.
The mid bass has a bit of exrra focus here, and that makes it all sound like the Clones has a bit more control and drive than it really has.It has both pace, rhytm and timing that makes you stomp your feet to the music in a way associated with Naims, but do so with more dimensionality and insight.
Deeper into the sonic abyss it still has control, but it has to run out of power somewhere. Bass has both naturalness and a bit of grunt, it never turns one-note and lumpy. Kudos again!
So then, is the Clones 25i all you need? It depends on where in the loop you are situated.It sounds frighteningly good, and as soon as you mention the price, it sets new standards. It is products like these this industry needs to attract new blood and more enthusiasm. To make music lovers get the point of hifi and the quest for natural sound. This is a knee in the balls of overyone in the habit of pricing quality hifi like houses or classic cars.When the hifi bug really bites and you grave for big tube amps ore something wildly exotic, the Clones makes a star of a backup amp.
I mentioned that the qualities of the Clones reminds me of a really good SET amp, and I stand by that. A set amp has far more tone colour, resolution and insight, but then we are talking serious money. My own amp places musicians in the room in a more convincing way. The layering is of a different class. The Clones struggles a bit there, but what it does, it does with style and bravado. It communicates the soul of the music like an amp of many times the price.It goes about its business with grace and musicality, and you never really think of the stuff it is not made for. It does not seem to matter, somehow. It might be a midget to look at, but musically, it is a giant.
Until someone shows me something even better, and that is going to take a long, long time, this is my personal reference at this price point and far into more expensive territory."