Posted on Mon, 08 Dec, 2014
Posted by Peter


icon-audioLet’s face it – the transistor (i.e. solid state) amplifier is the King. It has been for a number of years. But that doesn’t mean that the valve amplifier doesn’t still reign supreme in terms of sound quality, aesthetic and overall desirability. Despite the slight wane in  mainstream popularity, the valve amplifier is still very much alive and well – much like the turntable despite the rise of digital downloads; it has seen a cultural revival in the last few decades now members of the public are realising just how much it has to offer.

Just in case the term is a little alien to you, a valve amplifier is an electronic amplifier that uses vacuum tubes (which form the iconic bulbs you can see protruding from most valve amps) to increase the amplitude or power of a signal. The use of a vacuum means the signal is amplified completely free of distortion or interference, resulting in a beautifully clean sound. A high quality valve amp offers a sound much clearer than even the highest-end solid state. Their downside? They use a lot of power and generate a lot of heat. But that hasn’t stopped them from maintaining a prominent fan base – who consider the valve amp, despite its slight shortcomings, to be the absolute pinnacle of audio amplification.

valve-amp-glow

If you are a dedicated audiophile, you will have already heard of Icon Audio. Dedicated producers of a wide array of valve amplifiers with a very simple philosophy: ‘Valve reproduction systems still have as much to offer in the world of Hi-Fi as transistor counter parts’, and they have been going to great lengths to inarguably prove that since their formation. Their build quality, use of high-grade components throughout – including at the bottom end of their range – and irresistible lushness of sound has resulted in them being revered across the hi-fi community. We have compiled a list of our five favourite Icon Audio Amplifiers to show you just how far valve amplification still continues to go. And yes, it’s evolving!

Remember, all prices were correct at the time of publishing and may be subject to change.

1. Icon Audio MP3 Integrated Valve Amplifier – £449.95

Icon Audio MP3 Integrated Valve Amplifier

The perfect place to start if you’re new to the world of valves but don’t quite wish to jump in the deep end. What’s nice about the MP3 Integrated – aside from its price – is has been designed to specifically pay attention to the finish of mp3s and is incredibly versatile in the number of ways it can be connected to your system. On top of its narrow width stainless steel casing, it’s very eaily slipped discreetly into your set up.

Why do we like it?
It’s the perfect entry-level. If you’ve always wanted a valve amplifier and you want to discover that wonderfully warm, lush sound you can get from valves, this is where you want to start. We’ve had many customers start on the MP3 or the Stereo 25 (see below) and part exchange in the future for the Stereo 40 or Stereo 60 (also below).

 

2. Icon Audio Stereo 25 MkII Valve Amplifier – £999.95

Icon Audio Stereo 25 MkII Valve Amplifier

Another entry level – but perhaps for the music lover who is a little more sure about taking the valve direction. The Stereo 25 is the entry-level version of the award winning Stereo 40 – which we will be moving on to shortly. The 25 – however – is not diminished in quality in anyway shape or form – it simply does away with some of the 40’s more expensive features. Inspired by the technology of the 1950’s, the 25 boasts traditional design, excellent valves, audiophile components and customised transformers and power supply.  What seperates it from the old school valve amps of the past is it has been engineered to create very little heat under the chassis. This means it will last much longer than the older models, but still carry that lush warmth of yester-year.

Why do we like it?
It takes everything that was good about the old technology and tweaks it just enough that it will last much longer. One of the major downsides to valve amplification is regular heat damage – so this clever little unit gets our thumbs up.

Why do they like it?
This Icon amplifier delivers an awful lot for the money. It’s not the best all-rounder for the money, but for those who crave the magic of valves it’s a fine starting point.’ (What Hi-Fi? Magazine)

3. Icon Audio Stereo 40 MkIIIm Valve Amplifier – £1599.95

Icon Audio Stereo 40 MkIIIm Valve Amplifier

The Stereo 40 is the beast that the 25 mKII was derived from – but this is a much bigger beast. With the same 1950’s technology forming the base workings, the 40 MkIIIm is packed full of clever features, all designed to give the warmest, smoothest sound possible – all the while being a very user-friendly unit. It boasts a Valve Rectifier (centre valve) – which is normally reserved for much more expensive models and aids a smooth sound. On top of that, the power supply is choke regulated, diminishing the chance of background interference, there is a third (or tertiary) transformer, which reduces distortion. The result is an incredible and true valve sound that we all adore.

Why do we like it?
It’s a fantastic modern valve amp that has proven to the most popular one in the range. It’s very easy to uise too – there’s even a remote control!

4. Icon Audio Stereo 60 MkIIIm Valve Amplifier – £2399.95

Icon Audio Stereo 40 MkIIIm Valve Amplifier

Stepping up, suddenly everything gets much bigger. The latest version of the Stereo 60 is the largest of Icon’s integrated amplifiers and boasts a sound and a striking appearance that will blow the minds (and ears) of anyone lucky enough to hear it. It has a big power supply, big output transformers and an abundance of very useful features. It also uses the excellent KT120 valve which boasts 50% more power than the KT88 – and in the world of amplification, that makes a pretty serious difference. It’s a versatile device too, working effectively as two amplifiers in one! You can use it in triode or ultra linear mode. The triode sound is preferred by most, but the power is always lower. With our Triode/ultra linear switch you can change from 80 watts to 40 watts of pure triode sound at the flick of a switch. And it can function as both an integrated and power amp too. Phew!

Why do we like it?
It ticks every box we can think of and boasts some very clever trickery to bypass the faults typical of valve amps. Not only that, it sound as good as it looks. A simply stunning amplifier which takes pride of place in our demo room.

Why do they like it?
‘More powerful than most and built the old-fashioned way: no printed circuit boards here!’ (TechRadar)

5. Icon Audio Stereo 845 PP Integrated Amplifier – £5999.95

Icon Audio Stereo 845 PP Integrated Amplifier

Icon Audio’s Flagship model – and one of our favourite amplifiers – valve and solid included – to date. Perhaps the ultimate purchase for those who desire the warmest and most luxurious sound available – the 845 PP is the result of Icon’s years of expertise, passion and skill, accumulating in something that is something of a wonder to behold. It’s unique design – it’s possibly the world’s first Pure Triode 845 push/pull integrated amp, and the use of the 845 valve, has resulted in a a more three dimensional sound stage, where the imagining is more precise and the unique texture of each instrument is a little more apparent.

Why do we like it?
We’ve never heard anything quite like it. It’s pure audiophile-grade bliss – and we can’t recommend it enough.

Go on, one more…

6. Icon Audio HP8 MkII Valve Headphone Amplifier – £649

Icon Audio HP8 MkII Valve Headphone Amplifier

Yes yes yes, we know. This is a top five list – but here’s a sixth item. What can we say? We’re rebels! Getting back to business, we couldn’t go without mentioning this unique little valve headphone amplifier. As you can probably tell from the picture, it’s a miniaturised valve amp which features a custom wound output transformer which means it is the perfect match for virtually any headphone load. It is everything good about Icon’s exceptional build and sound -but in the perfect form for headphones. It’s simply too good not to mention.

Why do we like it?
It’s so good we have broken the rules of the list blog – once again! An excellent little headphone amplifier that will bring a whole new level of warmth, depth and emotional engagement to your headphone listening. It can be used with pretty much any headphones – but we’d recommend the Sennheiser HD650 and Grado SR325e to even the Sennheiser HD800 and Grado GS1000e  and pretty much everything in between (and before. And beyond!)

A BRIEF HISTORY

Pioneered by the amplification aficionado – and bloody nice chap – David Shaw, Icon Audio began doing what it does so well in 1999. Based in Leicester (where it remains to this day). Shaw started the company after growing tired of modern solid state amplifiers simply ‘not offering the sound [he] was looking for. So, being an engineer by trade, he gave up on solid state and built his own. The result was so good he decided to share it with the world – and so, Icon Audio was born!

The aim was to replicate the sound of the old fashioned British and American valve amps – like Leak, Quad, Macintosh and Dynaco – which the members of Icon felt offered a far superior sound to any modern solid state. Shaw and his team of audio engineers only ever make pure valve amplifiers and hi-fi equipment, and have done so from the get-go. This means there are no transistors or micro chips to be found.

Over the many decades – roughly 80 years – that valve amplification technology has existed, there have been a myriad of different types of valves – all of which Shaw and his team wish to build an amplifier around! The result? A huge array of incredibly beautiful amplifiers, many of which have scooped up several awards.

Valve amplification does have its pitfalls – but there is something undeniably magical about it. Steeped in history and tradition, the modern valve amplifiers have proven to any who hear them that, despite the ever changing world of hi-fi, the truly good never dies. And something as good as valve amplification deserves to be kept alive. And when it’s being done as well as the likes of Icon Audio? Well, it’s only going to get better,