EQUIPMENT REVIEW: Einstein 'The Tune' Integrated Amplifier
Entirely designed and built in Bochum, in Germany, ‘The Tube’ comes from what is, at heart, a family company. Volker Bohlmeier, who co-founded Einstein in 1988, is responsible for the management of the company, while his wife, Annette Heiss (a well-respected architect and interior designer), is responsible for the exterior cosmetic design. Rolf Weiler, the other founder, heads up electronic design. Their products are built by hand, rather than on a production line as such, so all Einstein’s products are built in small, bespoke batches.
The Einstein is certainly unlike any integrated amplifier you’ve ever seen before, because it’s totally feature-less: there’s not a knob, button or switch in sight: just a rectangle of curved black acrylic, fixed to a solid aluminium facing, with a single square display in the centre of the acrylic that’s blacked out when the amplifier is not operating.
Once the amplifier is switched on (via an inconveniently-placed rocker switch on the rear panel), the front-panel display will then light up after a period that’s directly related to how long it is since you switched the amplifier off. If it was only recently, then the display will light up almost immediately.
When the display lights, the available inputs (Phono, CD, Tuner and Line) are listed under each other at the left-hand edge of the screen, from top to bottom. The active input (which by default will be whatever input you were using when you switched the amplifier off ) is shown in a dark blue colour, while the other inputs are shown in white. If you have optioned in the digital input board (not yet in production at the time of this review), its three input options (USB, SPDIF, TOS) will be shown in the middle of the screen.
At the right-hand edge of the screen the volume level is shown at the top of the screen, displayed as a number between 00 and 63. It will show ‘25’ whenever the amplifier is switched on, because this is the level to which the volume control defaults when the amplifier is switched off. Beneath it is a ‘+’ symbol and, beneath this, a ‘–’ symbol. If you do not touch the display within eight seconds, the start-up display will disappear and be replaced with a much simpler display where the selected input is shown in large white letters in the centre of the display, with the volume level input shown in smaller white numerals beneath it. Touching the screen again reinstates the start-up display, allowing you to adjust volume level by touching the plus/minus symbols, or alter input source by touching the source you want to listen to. Volume control is via a relay-controlled switched resistor network.
Some users feeling limited by three line-level inputs might have been prepared to sacrifice the phono input in order to get one more; Einstein should certainly consider this as an option. Others may be disappointed that there is no headphone socket, though if this is a particular concern, you could organise to get one via the line output on the rear panel. Also missing is any way of adjusting channel balance, something that’s often useful in order to compensate for poor recordings and/or speaker level imbalances.
The remote control is just as elegant as the amplifier itself, in fact in design terms it’s nearly a miniature version of the front panel, because it’s CNC’ed out of a solid block of aluminium onto which has been attached (front and back) rectangular sections of the same black acrylic that’s used on the front panel of The Tune. The volume control has two buttons identified as ‘channel’ which actually control input source, two buttons for adjusting volume, and a single button for the muting function. The remote is powered by a pair of AAA batteries.
The phono stage on the Einstein The Tune comes pre-configured for moving-coil cartridges (optimum output of 1.2mV and optimum impedance of 200 ohms) but can quickly and easily be reconfigured for a moving-magnet cartridge (optimally with an output of 2.5mV and an impedance of 47kohms) via the removal of two internal jumpers, which Einstein says should be done by your dealer.
The Tune has a single line output which, as delivered, is configured as a pre-amplifier output, so that when connected to an external power amplifier, that power amplifier’s volume will be controlled by The Tune’s volume control… very useful in bi-amplified applications. However, if you’d rather, the line output can instead be configured as a tape output, so it delivers a fixed output voltage irrespective of the setting of The Tune’s volume control. This reconfiguration should also be done by your dealer.
Unlike most of Einstein’s amplifiers, which are full dual-mono hybrid valve/solid-state designs, The Tune is firstly a conventional solid-state Class-A/B design using two pairs of Sanken transistors as output devices, and secondly not a full dual-mono amplifier, since it uses only a single potted 360VA toroidal transformer —albeit one with triple windings, one each for the left and right channel power amplifiers and a third for the preamplifier section.
We had a few issues with the switched resistor network used to control volume. Firstly it’s very slow, taking 20 seconds to get from 00 to 63 (maximum volume). Second, there’s a range- switching glitch that sends a ‘tick’ sound to the speakers whenever the volume moves from 30 to 31 or from 32 to 31. And below 30, the volume level is mostly too low for practical listening: we mostly used levels higher than 40.
Although The Tune has a mute function, it can only be accessed by using the remote control, pressing the ‘Mute’ button once to mute the amplifier and again to unmute it. However, you can also unmute the amplifier by pressing either of the volume control buttons on the remote, which will simultaneously un-mute the amplifier as well as increase or decrease the volume by one notch. Should you mute the amplifier but then not have the remote control handy, you can unmute the amplifier by switching it off, then back on again.
Even from the start of our listening sessions, it was evident that the Einstein is a neutral- sounding amplifier. Einstein is obviously leaving it to other manufacturer to provide amplifiers that accentuate the bass regions, or the treble, or make the midrange sound anything other than natural. The Tune is completely even-handed to all frequencies from the lowest bass notes to the most extreme high frequencies, treating each exactly the same as any other. So when listening to Eric Satie’s ‘Gymnopedies’, for example, we heard the very lowest notes at exactly the same volume as the very highest notes, which is particularly noticeable when they’re the same note but several octaves apart. The slow pace of these three works also allowed us to make a detailed examination of the tonal quality of the piano, as reproduced by the amplifier, and we’re here to tell you that The Tune’s tonal delivery was perfect. These pieces are also good for hearing the silences ‘between the notes’ and here, once again, The Tune returned a perfect performance because all we heard was a true silence: no background hiss, or hum… not even any perturbations during the transitions from sound to silence and from silence to sound.
Reproducing solo piano is one thing; reproducing a full orchestra another entirely, and what work better to trial the Einstein with than one of Beethoven’s symphonies. No, not the Fifth (even we are a little tired of that), but the Seventh, written while Beethoven was convalescing in Bohemia. If you’re not familiar with it, you may have heard part of the second movement featured in the block-buster film ‘The Kings’ Speech’. The dark, sombre notes that start the symphony came across from The Tune with just the correct amount of foreboding, while at the same time the power and the majesty of the sound was awe-inspiring. The second movement was a revelation at its first performance (the audience demanded it be played again!) and it was no less of a revelation when we listened via The Tune — so we played it again too. You can hear the motifs that have gone before, and intuit those that are to come. The soundscape is immaculate. Then there’s the stunning, almost crazed finale, in which the musicians play as if their lives depended on their performance, and we were worried that the 80 watts of power might not be up to it. We need not have worried: the Einstein delivered all the power that was necessary and obviously had some left in reserve… exceptional dynamics indeed. So exceptional that we were compelled to follow up with Beethoven’s Ninth symphony in its entirety, which made for a long but truly satisfying session that for us cemented The Note’s place in the pantheon of first-class amplifiers.
You’re certainly paying a premium price for The Tune, but this is hardly surprising considering that what you’re buying is not merely an amplifier, but a work of art: a device hand-made in Germany from the finest materials, with an exterior finish unlike any other and a sound quality that’s unfailingly pure, clean and natural. #