Lavardin IT Integrated Amplifier Review and Test

Full expert review and laboratory test of the Lavardin IT Integrated Amplifier by Australian Hi-Fi Magazine.

The following review consists of a full subjective evaluation of the Lavardin IT Integrated Amplifier written by Marc Leroy, as published in Australian Hi-Fi Magazine, September/October 2016. At the end of the review is a link to a complete set of independent laboratory tests conducted on the Lavardin IT by Newport Test Labs and a report about those tests written by Steve Holding.

Some say there is nothing new in the world of amplifier design. They’ve obviously not heard of what’s happening with Class-D amplifiers. But until this Lavardin IT integrated amplifier landed on my doorstep for review, I had certainly never heard of French designer Gérard Perrot, or his theories about amplification, or that when discussing his theories on the internet he supposedly went under the mysterious name of ‘Hephaestus’. I can only assume he assumed a pseudonym because at the time he developed the circuit used in the Lavardin IT he was working for the giant French electronics manufacturer Thompson (now Thales), which perhaps does not permit its employees to make public statements… and in Perrot’s case not least because he was leader of the team at Thompson responsible for designing radar installations for the military!

Perrot identified a new kind of distortion, which he called ‘memory distortion.’

He posited that in any conductor: ‘new electron flow is continuously affected by the pattern of the immediately preceding electron flow.’ Perrot claimed it was memory distortion that is the primary reason valve amplifiers sound so different to solid-state amplifiers, because in solid-state amplifiers, electrons travel through solids, whereas in valve amplifiers, they travel through vacuums.

 Perrot is quoted as saying: ‘Memory distortion is the property that is the dominant factor in causing solid-state amplifiers to sound shrill and mechanical. Tube technology allows electrons to travel through a vacuum which leaves no storage or memory effect, but solid-state amplifiers use silicon components which keep a trace of current flow that has gone through.’

Perrot claimed to have developed a method of building solid-state amplifiers that did not exhibit memory distortion, with the result that, in his words: ‘all the improvements that transistor technology brings, such as high output power, accuracy, very low harmonic distortion and extended and linear frequency response, can be added to the most alive and silky musical rendition of the best single-ended monotriode designs.’

Unfortunately, Gérard Perrot is no longer with us to explain exactly how his solid-state amplifiers eliminate this memory effect, having died tragically in 2000, aged 50, as a result of his motorcycle being hit by a car, leaving his business partner, Jean Christophe Crozel, to run the company, which he does to this day.

There is very little information in print. I could only find a paper titled ‘Measurement of a Neglected Circuit Characteristic’ that he delivered to the 100th Convention of the Audio Engineering Society and a US Patent (#5,635,874) for a ‘Stable Distortion Amplifier for Audio Signals’ granted in 1997 which showed how to put his theories into reality. Neither of these give much away, and Lavardin not only keeps its circuit diagrams secret, but also prevents ‘reverse engineering’ by encapsulating the IT’s critical circuitry in epoxy, as I will review further on in this review.

The Equipment

Both Perrot and Crozel were adamant right from the outset of their project that their amplifiers would be built entirely in France. ‘Our products are not built in Asia, nor are they merely “assembled” here in France,’ says Crozel. ‘These are home-grown, made-in-France products. The electrical parts used come from all over the world, but most are made in the USA, in the EU and in Canada. Notable exceptions are the power transformers, which are made in Italy, and the Nais/Panasonic relays which are made in Japan. The circuit boards are fabricated in the south of Paris area, but all components are hand-selected by us, hand-inserted by us and then wave soldered in our own factory.’

That factory is in the Loire Valley, near Tours, but the company’s first factory was in Montoire, near the medieval castle of Lavardin, from which the company took the brand-name for its amplifiers. The company behind Lavardin is CEVL, which also manufactures Okki Nokki record cleaning machines, Lecontoure loudspeakers and the rather unfortunately-named ‘K-Rak’ equipment racks.

The front panel of the Lavardin IT is 10mm thick and made from black anodised aluminium. The chassis is made from 3mm thick black anodised aluminium. Also black anodised aluminium are the two 340mm-long heat sinks that run down either side, all of which contribute to the IT tipping the scales at 12 kilograms. The amplifier itself measures 135×430×340mm (HWD).

As you can see from the photographs, the front panel has only three controls: a silver aluminium source selector that switches between four line-level inputs, a black aluminium power on/off button, and a silver aluminium volume control. I personally found the silver knobs rather incongruous and would have preferred them to be black anodised, but that’s a personal call. I’d make the same call about the four silver hex-headed screws that attach the front panel to the chassis. The knobs are not available in black anodised aluminium, despite information to the contrary on Lavardin’s website.

At the rear of the amplifier are four pairs of gold-plated RCA terminals for the line inputs, a pair of gold-plated RCA record-out outputs, two pairs of gold-plated multi-way speaker terminals and an IEC 240V mains socket. Although serviceable and of good quality, the multi-way speaker terminals are fairly ordinary: I would have expected much better on an amplifier at this price.

Internally, the amplifier is spread across four different PCBs, all of which use through-hole components: left- and right-channel amplifier PCBs, a power supply PCB holding the smoothing capacitors and diode bridges, plus a PCB containing eight relays that are used to switch between inputs.

 The amplifier boards are rather strangely laid-out, with rectangular holes cut in them for no apparent reason, plus some of the components on each board are completely encapsulated in epoxy—presumably to prevent industrial espionage but also making non-factory repair of the encapsulated components impossible, should it ever be required. Given this limitation, and the price of the amplifier, a lengthier warranty period than the two years currently offered would have seemed to be justified.

The left- and right-channel amplifier boards are identical, rather than mirror-imaged, and so one had to be positioned ‘wrong way around’ which puts the two power output transistors at the top of the heat sink for one channel, and at the bottom of it for the other. This PCB orientation also makes accessing the 2A protection fuse for the left channel much more difficult than accessing the fuse for the right channel. On my sample, the amplifier PCBs were installed poorly on their stand-off pins, such that they’d been forced into a curve, rather than sitting straight.

One possible explanation for the PCBs not being mirror-imaged is that Lavardin apparently does not use computerised layout programs to design its boards, they’re all laid-out by hand, so creating a mirror-imaged PCB isn’t simply a matter of pressing a button.

In Use and Listening Sessions

Despite the work that Lavardin says goes into making its knobs (the company says each one is machined from solid high-grade non-magnetic aluminium bar and undergoes six stages of machining, hand polishing and, confusingly, ‘black anodisation’) the silver aluminium volume control on my review sample had a slightly ‘scratchy’ feel, and did not rotate smoothly. Electrically-speaking, however, it worked perfectly.

The source selector knob felt nice under my fingers, but I was marginally disconcerted to find that the amplifier turned itself off whenever I switched inputs, only to turn itself back on about two seconds after I’d finished switching to the input I wanted. This action is accompanied by a clicking of relays and the red ‘power-on’ LED on the front panel extinguishing and then re-illuminating.

I first listened to the Lavardin IT without any source playing at all, just to hear how quiet the amplifier was, and was reassured to hear that even with the amplifier’s volume control maxed-out the amplifier was completely silent… no circuit hiss, no mains hum, just beautiful silence. When I started playing music, I was simply stunned to hear that it seemed to me not as though I was listening to a solid-state amplifier, but instead listening to a valve amplifier, but a valve amplifier that had no distortions whatsoever: not even that lush ‘octave-like’ rich second-harmonic sound that is prized so highly by valve aficionados… a collective that includes your reviewer.

But in delivering this ‘valve sound without distortion’, the Lavardin IT did not fall into the usual solid-state trap of delivering the sound clinically. Instead the sound was just ‘clean’… pure and miraculously smooth. When playing my all-time favourite recording of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, (the CD version of Karajan’s 1963 recording on DG), for example, the sound just flowed from the speakers as if it were gifted to my listening room by Beethoven and the Berlin Philharmonic. The delivery was absolutely effortless and the performances from the featured vocalists exceptional… as was the sound from the choir. I also felt the overall sound was more balanced from the Lavardin than I hear from all solid-state amplifiers… exactly the same balance of bass against midrange against treble that I hear when playing my own valve amplifier.

But whereas my own valve amp does add subtle distortions (and it’s these subtle distortions that I enjoy), the Lavardin IT added no distortion at all and definitely sounded the better for it. (Should you want this 1963 recording, it’s now available only as part of a complete set of Beethoven Karajan symphonies, so if you want an alternative on a single disc—and a hi-res disc at that—go for Karajan’s 1977 version, as re-mastered on SACD.) The Lavardin IT reproduced Beethoven’s Ninth so naturalistically and generated such super-charged emotions in me that I was inspired to follow-up with another great choral symphony, Mahler’s Resurrection, this time with Claudio Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, but again on Deutsche Grammophon (DG4770582). Yet again the Lavardin’s performance in re-creating this work simply sent chills down my spine. Particularly telling about this work is that when playing it, almost all amplifiers make you feel like you’re simply being overwhelmed by a mass of noise, which is why this work sounds so good in live performance (these are few and far between and usually—at least for me—a long, long way away, but if one is on offer, go!), but such is the quality of the Lavardin’s unique sound that I instead heard all Mahler’s music ideas with crystal clarity, despite the interweaving nature of the parts.

It’s a belief of mine that if an amplifier can deliver the goods with symphonic works, it won’t even raise a sweat with other musical genres, but this being a review that’s likely to be read by people who don’t listen to classical music at all I felt obliged to evaluate how the Lavardin IT handled other genres, and for the female vocalist category, what better test than the throaty contralto sound of Joan Armatrading, who’s still a hugely under-rated talent despite an 18-album career and last year’s world tour. I still return to my first copy of her self-titled album and most particularly the opener, Down to Zero, but also Love and Affection, both of which end up on every ‘Best Of’ Armatrading compilation (but, sadly, are badly remastered on all of them). On Down to Zero, the Lavardin IT showed its impeccable control of pace and timing, and just listen to the entry of B. J. Cole’s pedal steel, then his continued contributions. Everything sounded insanely good… especially the Hammond organ on Love and Affection… and the ‘funk’ of this track is delivered with true ‘bob’ feel by the Lavardin IT.

To trial the sound of the piano (and introduce another genre) was just a matter of popping on Chris Cody’s ‘Not My Lover’, the CD for which has been popping in and out of my player for months now. A combination of originals and re-works in jazz style (think Satie, Gainsbourg and Cole Porter) it purports to be Cody’s reflection on his sojourn in Paris, but for mine it evokes memories of cool jazz in any city in the world. The highlight of this album is Cody’s luminous piano playing—and, thanks to the Lavardin IT, the sound of that piano!—but Brendan Clarke’s bass is another highlight, not just for the tone, but for the beautifully underplayed playing. And if you want to hear a superb tenor sax sound, it’s here, courtesy of Karl Laskowski… and again courtesy of the Lavardin IT. Once again, the Lavardin just stays completely out of the way of the ebb and flow (and the occasional stab!) of the dialogue between the musicians in a way I have not experienced with any other amplifier, ever…

One proviso about the Lavardin IT is that it is by no means powerful. My personal experience after using it with several different pairs of speakers is that you’ll have to listen at moderate playback levels—unless you’re using very efficient loudspeakers—if you want to avoid clipping on peaks. On the plus side, the Lavardin IT brought out the absolute best in every single pair of speakers I trialled.

Conclusion

It’s not powerful, it’s not impressively large, it’s not pretty, it’s not particularly well-built, it has only four line level inputs, there is no phono stage, it isn’t able to be remote-controlled and, if the Lavardin IT were merely the sum of these observations, its asking price would be impossible to justify. But one audition with your favourite track will instantly reveal to you that the Lavardin IT is far more than just the sum of its parts… it’s an enigma, an amplifier that produces music that sounds so ‘right’ that you just know that all other amplifiers must be wrong.  Marc Leroy

Readers interested in the full technical appraisal of the performance of the Lavardin IT Integrated Amplifier should click on the button to the right to download the full original magazine pages from the Setpember-October 2016 issue of Australian Hi-Fi, which includes LABORATORY TEST RESULTS including graphs, square waves, power output measurements, spectrum analysis of distortion and more.

Brand: Lavardin
Model: IT
Australian Price: $10,500 (RRP)
Warranty: Two Years
Australian Distributor: Audio Magic Pty Ltd

PLUS: Unique sound
             Superb mids
             Bass delivery

MINUS: Power output
               Price
               Warranty