A little intro (totally skippable):
I've been listening to music. Like, album after album. Buying new music, pulling out music I’ve had for a while. My feet have been tapping. I’m even prone to busting out some great chair-dancing moves at the head of my computer desk (I know I’m not alone in this, haha). Smiles and (yes) tears have graced my face while I’ve donned my headphones or pumped tunes from my desktop speakers. Chills have danced up and down my spine. All in all: It’s been downright fun to listen to music! And I’ve never had a hifi system until a few years ago, but the music playback devices of my more distant past have all been relatively respectable. And most importantly, they all helped me enjoy music and made me a happier person. But it’s obvious that the Red Wine Audio Signature 16 amplifier is gelling with my HiFi system in a way that is making music more satisfying than it has ever been for me!
My Panasonic “hi end” walkman with it’s bass boost and vibrating headphone pads used to make me happy in high school. The Aiwa stereo my cousin bought me with the slide-down front panel that revealed the slide-out CD tray (so cool!) was a joy for me in college. Until a fateful demo of some Shure earphones at an airport, my JVC micro stereo with it’s real wood cone drivers were my main choice for musical consumption post college. But something about the music through those Shure’s (forget which model it was) really stuck with me and it was time for me to look into getting a great pair of headphones. The intimacy they could offer was very appealing. And with some models purporting to deliver high end speaker-like traits in their detail retrieval and general presentation, I was completely sold on finding the right pair. Not to mention the $$$ I could ultimately save with such a purchase because many of us New York City dwellers ain’t got much space to play with, so headphones can be our best bet for a high end listening experience that won’t disturb the neighbors on the other side of our paper-thin walls.
It literally took me years of research, demos and general trial and error before I discovered Audeze. They had just came out with the first of their LCD headphone line-up. Initial reports were promising, but it wasn’t until they’d refined the LCD 2’s into what has become known as the “Revision 2’s” that I decided to give them a shot and postpone my purchasing of any portable headphones (earphones). Many headphone enthusiasts know at this point that the Audeze LCD 2’s are wonderful headphones. They are capable of letting so much of the soul of the music through, but they do this to varying effect. Your system as a whole will determine how great these cans can deliver your music. And it wasn’t until the Signature 16 was added to my system, that I actually knew how great these headphones could reproduce sound (let alone how good my desktop speakers would sound)!
What I’m working with (The goods):
-RWA Signature 16 integrated speaker/headphone amp (duh) [Click for specs via RWA's website]
-Resolution Audio Cantata Music Center (DAC/CD player)
-PC running JRiver Media Center 18
-Audeze LCD 2 Rev. 2 headphones
-Decware Silver reference IC’s
-Decware Silver reference speaker cables
-Decware Trapezium desktop speakers
-My vinyl rig is awaiting some upgrades and (thus) has been sitting idle for the time being :)
In my periphery (Wow...their grass looks nice):
I attended my first Head-fi meet a few years ago in NJ and I had a great time! I was eager to finally get to hear some of the gear I’d been reading about. My tube amp at the time had run the course of my patients with it’s endless (minor) issues and I needed something much more reliable, but could also "BRING IT" sonically. I brought along a couple of CD’s, my girlfriend and...an open mind. Meet conditions are, indeed, not the best place to do critical evaluations. Their really best to get a taste of what some gear can do with some tunes. Again, no final judgments were made but Vinnie’s amps left an impression. I’d always been intrigued by his products. From my periphery I kept abreast of his upgrades and would read various reviews that would pop up online. Then his Signature 15 came out to some very favorable write-ups and I thought “Ok ok, this could be a better amp from my desktop rig.” But there was no headphone output and my amp would have to do double duty with not only headphones but [desktop] speakers as well (ie: saving me space and dealing with less cables). THEN his Renaissance Edition lineup was announced and the Sig 15 got upgraded to the Sig 16. Some of the upgrades include:
-The ability to roll tubes in not only the 6922 family, but the12AX7 family as well (with the flick of a tiny switch inside the amp).
-Accessing the inside of the amp to roll tubes is easier than earlier models because of three top mounted screws that require no tools to maneuver the new black top (My black top plate was one of the first ones shipped and does not include the white circles around the holes that form the RWA symbol like the newer amps include).
-Purported better sound (never heard the Sig 15).
-A new look with wood panels on the front and sides of the amp. The wood grain will be different with each amp, ensuring a slightly unique look for each owner. I like how mine turned out. And there are also Chrome volume and input-switching knobs (very handsome).
-And most importantly to me, the optional single ended headphone jack on the front. Sweet!
The amp seemed to have it all and a dealer not far from me had one to demo so I brought music and my amp at the time (Decware Taboo MKIII) and did a shoot-out. Long story short, the Sig 16 made my demo tracks sound a little more detailed and the bass was tighter. I was also won over by the luxury of having a remote control for volume and more power on tap (16 watts per channel vs 4 watts. The Sig 16 doubles to 32 wpc with 4 ohm speakers like mine). This increase in power could give me more options when the time comes to purchase some high efficiency speakers (won’t have to be as efficient). You know, when I have my LARGE apartment in Manhattan and I’m sitting SO far away from the amp that a remote will be essential ;-) Three weeks after I ordered my unit with the cherry wood option, it arrived at my local UPS for pickup! JUST as Vinnie had promised.
Perks (The country club):
Here are just some of the coolest things about having a product from RWA besides (the most obvious) running off batteries and not having to worry about getting the most out of your product with power cords and power conditioners.
-GREAT communication with founder Vinnie Rossi (EVERY question was answered within a very reasonable time frame, no matter how big or small).
-A new 10 year warranty. It just tells me that they stand by their work in a major way. Well done.
-When upgrades are available, he offers them for reasonable prices.
-100% trade-up policy on certain models. Here is what Vinnie explained to me in an email:
" We offer a 100% trade up on the Signature 15 and Signature 16 towards the Signature 57 (or Liliana Monoblocks).
But not all combinations apply (e.g. can't go from an Signature 16 to a Bellina HPA). It is best for customers to contact me and I'll see what we can offer. The same is true for upgrades, but I do have some upgrade info posted here":
In the year 3000 (Go the distance):
Let me speak about upgrades for a sec. There is something that drives many audiophiles, and that is having the best sound they can possibly have with their setup. Many manufacturers make improvements to their products over time and these better sounding components can fill us with such ENVY. But we don’t want to shell out big $$$ to make the upgrade and lose money by selling the old model. What’s great about what Vinnie has done with the Renaissance Edition lineup (and some of his previous upgrades) is he hasn’t alienated those who want to upgrade to the newer better sounding product by requiring a completely new purchase of the latest model. Owners of a previous generation RWA component can simply send their model in and have it retrofitted with the new magic he has brewed. This gives some aspect of “future proofing” to his products and nowadays this is HUGE because competition is high and all the great designers are not resting on their laurels. It’s easy to be distracted by the latest greatest thing from some other audio-gear maker. Vinnie provides a way to keep audio interests in house. Sweet! One less thing for me to worry about.
The makers of my DAC/CD player (Resolution Audio) are committed to upgrading my model for the next 10 years! This is VERY important in the digital realm of high end audio because advancements seem to be happening every other week. Having a DAC that is future proof (for a while anyway) is just reassuring. And I have the same reassuring feeling with my Sig 16 amp. I don’t want to buy a different DAC or amp every other year….Some other slab of metal with fancy buttons on it. I just want what I’ve invested in NOW to work well NOW and ADAPT when the time comes (cuz it’s coming alright). I may not even choose to take advantage of the improvements (I probably will) but I want my manufacturer to basically tell me that they are not turning a blind eye to certain “advancements” from the world of audio or within their own cocoon of exploration. Do your best to keep me in “your camp” guys/gals. Yes, you there holding the soldering iron! Just make your stuff future proof….at least up until the year 3000.
The Journey (Safe travels my sweet!):
The amp was well packaged. Though the 4 rubber feet under the unit had come off during shipping. This was apparently because it was supposed to ship with the top of the amp facing the bottom of the box so that the bottom of the amp would be the first thing I saw after removing the cut-out foam. The rubber feet were all in the box...though the 4th one took a while to find. This was a mistake on RWA’s part and Vinnie sent me 4 new feet to attach as well as 4 additional ones that he used to use on older models, just in case I liked those better.
Let’s talk music! (FINALLY):
Where do I start???......OK I’ll just start with what I’m listening to right now. And BOY is it sounding sweet! It’s the 2005 album “GIMME FICTION” by Spoon (CD) [LCD 2’s]. Now that I have this album to compare to 2010’s excellent “TRANSFERENCE” it’s more clear to me that Spoon is not a band that is doing anything particularly new musically. Upon my first pass of “GIMME FICTION” in it’s entirety, only a few tracks grabbed me (great albums can take a while to really hit you sometimes though right??). Much of what comprises Spoon’s core sound has generally been covered by other great musicians (I’ll leave it to you to play the they-sound-like-this-group game). But the “special sauce” that Spoon uses to pull it all together can be really appealing.
This album has crunchy over-driven electric guitar sounds, deep muscular bass, shakers, standard drum-kit noises, various keyboard sounds and some occasional strings and even horns. And Spoon uses all these elements with a rock/punk[ish] energy to produces some catchy choruses and infectious rhythms. They also exclusively record to tape, which must play some part in the wonderful character of the album sonically (I know that merely recording to tape doesn't guarantee any sonic fidelity). The song “MY MATHEMATICAL MIND” starts with what sounds like an (intentional) effect of a tape reel running, which leads to some “plunky” piano chords. These chords manage to display great texture and fullness that’s akin to what I would expect to hear from a real piano with weighted keys. Once a cymbal crash/kick-drum usher in the rest of the songs main instruments, lead singer/multi-instrumentalist Britt Daniel comes in with his soaring vocal “IIIIIIIIIIII wanna change your mind”.....I’m always late to really zoom in on lyrics, but the one’s on “GIMME FICTION” eventually clicked with me big time! Later on in the song, he sings “Myyyyyy mathematical mind can see the breaks/So I’m gonna stop riding the brakes” in a song that could be alluding to a relationship that is going awry and rather than “steering” it in a certain direction, he ends up opting to let it go where it will. His voice has this edgy quality that the distorted strums of his guitar and a grainy organ flank very well. Daniel adlibs with the best of them too. His “Ohs” and “Ooos” give the song a bit of a “live” feel.
The drums on this entire album knock with authority. They were recorded really well! I have a great sense of the drummers touch with his kit (Jim Eno). The dynamics of his playing. And I even get the sense that the room they were recorded in was maybe a bit spacious. There is “air” and “room to breath” with each aspect of his kit. He keeps excellent time and I can make out his slight flourishes when he wisely chooses to implement them. The snare snaps & slaps so satisfyingly throughout and his kick drum really pumps. I always appreciate a drummer who can bring it with some authority and Eno certainly does. The bass bops around with the kick drum and intersperses some short slides here and there (nice touch). There is also some much needed “grovel” to the voice of the bass that gives it muscle to make it’s presence felt. Spoon is a band with fantastic groove and the “in-syncness” of the drums and bass are integral in conveying this (hence my chair dancing!).
“MY MATHEMATICAL MIND” ends with Britt Daniel screaming “No more ride the brakes/Instead I’m gonna see your stakes/Yeah I’m gonna see your stakes”. His guitar wildly sputters out of control, Jim Eno’s drumsticks ride his metallic hardware harder (I’m able to follow him hitting different cymbals, each with a slightly different pitch) and finally horns and subtle strings rise up and lend themselves to the vehicle-out-of-control feel that the lyrics allude to. It’s a very well assembled song that can touch a nerve when I get lost in it all.
More music! (Get on your feet):
What are some of the other artist’s I’ve listened to with the Signature 16 in my setup?? Fiona Apple’s “THE IDLER WHEEL…” (CD) [LCD 2’s]. This is a wonderful album! I’m hearing so much of the character of this recording as well. The recording environment. On the song “VALENTINE” I hear a chair creaking, clothes rustling, general room ambience, piano foot-pedal pressing. The piano itself sounds full and convey’s the somber feeling the song ushers in at the beginning. There are also some brass instruments that subtly fade in and out during this section. This is all before the song picks up and a cello is introduced. This album sounds different than Spoon’s GIMME FICTION. There is overall more texture to the sounds on the Spoon album. And both albums should sound different. First off, their different genres of course. Different people were involved in the recording of them, from the producer to the engineer to the folks who did the mastering. I’m learning that great gear can help to reveal the (again) character of different albums. Which is ultimately bringing me closer to the music. With the gear I grew up with, music would all sound pleasant. But my rig now helps the better recorded albums sound…..well, better! It’s great for me to get a sense of how far my rig can take my music sonically. Especially when a new piece of equipment is introduced.
Beck’s 2002 album “SEA CHANGE” sounds glorious with my setup! I have it in 88kHz/24 bit resolution from HD tracks and it’s maybe some of the best sounding music I have in my collection right now. Like, make you weak in the knees good. “IT’S ALL IN YOUR MIND” is a wonderful mellow track that I can just sink into. The rusty foot pedal of the kick-drum can be heard gently screeching in different sections of the song. The string section sounds so full and enveloping when it sweeps in. One of the string-sounds veers intentionally a little flat in pitch, which brings a slight eeriness to the song. The acoustic guitars sound so clean, crisp and clear. Beck’s vocals sound delicate, delivered simply with a touch of raspiness at the end of some phrases. The song is delicious! Over headphones it constantly makes me happy I invested in the LCD 2’s. With my desktop speakers I feel everything more...the cello rumbles the floor. Beck’s voice floats b/t each speaker. The sound of fingers sliding off of acoustic guitar strings is more palpable. And I basically get the same amount of detail as I do with the Audeze's, everything is just (naturally) closer sounding with the headphones. The Sig 16 is helping to make all this sonic wonderfulness possible!
How does the Signature 16 contribute to the sound of my system with music that maybe isn’t as pristine sounding as Beck’s “SEA CHANGE”? Let’s take Sam Cooke’s “MEAN OLD WORLD” on his 1963 album “NIGHT BEAT” (CD Reissue 2005) [LCD 2’s]. This song has it’s imperfections like noticeable hiss and what sounds like some slight old master-tape distortions (dips that pull the song out of phase for half a second). It’s not the best transfer of a recording that was originally released on LP (much better than some others I’ve heard though), but the song manages to still convey so much about the time period it was made in and the emotions of it’s main participant, Mr. Cooke. His voice is front and center in the mix, demonstrating his supreme vocal skills. His crooning is smooth with gentle yearning at first, and louder with a touch of “dirt” here and there. He mixes in some silky high notes as the urgency of the song rises. A true master of his vocal instrument. There is a nice touch of reverb on his voice that fades into the back of the soundstage when he ends his phrases. The organ is deep and trembles with a gospel-like quality, while the piano is playing bluesy chords and runs in the left channel. An acoustic guitar and an upright bass keep the pace chugging along very steadily in the right channel. The drummers rimshot pops alongside a triangle bell that rings brightly (right channel)...Instruments so close to each other in a mix usually can’t be easily discernible, but I’m able to follow each one I choose very easily. Or I can get lost in the whole song and let the chills run their course.
-The remote control! A remote is not that big a deal….until you have one as nice as this one! It contributes to the experience of interacting with the Sig 16 in such a positive way. Just two buttons, volume up and volume down. This thing is SOLID, with some heft and a satisfying click sound/feel when you depress the buttons. It’s very durable as well...I’ve dropped it a few times and it didn’t even sustain a scratch! Having a remote with a desktop system is not necessary but it’s a welcome addition. The increments the volume knob moves in when you use the remote are very nice though. Not too big a jump, but a noticeable one. It helps when volume matching something I’m a/b’ing. I can remember how many clicks I’ve used to move the knob and return it to a certain position afterwards. You also don't have to aim the remote in too specific a way. Whether I'm far away from the amp, or I'm just over to the side of it, the knob will register my input. All in all, I find that I rarely touch the volume knob anymore. Unless I need to fine tune my volume level.
-The speaker mute switch! This is a must for an amp that does double duty with headphones and speakers. Otherwise the headphone output seems like an afterthought to me. I don’t want to have to disconnect my speakers every time I want to listen to my headphones (like I did on my previous amp). The mute switch is located on the back which is not as convenient as having it on the front, but It’s a nice sized switch and I don’t have to look back there when I flick it on/off. It works as it should.
-The safety feature that automatically starts to recharge the unit when the battery power runs out. I’ve accidentally left it in battery mode before and thought I’d come back to an amp that was dead and would need a long time to charge. But all I had to do was turn it off, then back into ON-CHARGING MODE/SMART MODE and I was ready to play music. It did the charging for me...Sweeet!
-Value. The headphone output is a $500 add-on to what's first and foremost a speaker amp. For what it's helping my system bring to the table with my LCD 2's, that's some serious value. No need to have a separate headphone amp. Doesn't it feel good when you get a great deal?
-I just LOVE how the Sig 16 allows my system to be transparent enough for me to zoom into aspects of the music when I’m listening critically. But it also manages to not take away from the overall musicality, so I can get lost in the music when I’m not being analytical. I’ve been getting more chills listening to my music than I ever have before.
Yeah, not so much:
-The unit is very handsome (as I’ve mentioned) with those wood panels and the shiny chrome knobs on the front that feel solid. But it’s hard for me to see what position the volume knob is in when I glance over at it because the knobs are TOO shiny and the little black circle on the knob that should help you follow where it’s at should maybe be brighter so it can distinguish itself from the chrome better (it’d be cool if it glowed red or something, I don't know). I sit so close to the the unit (It's to my right, on my rack), and I can’t make out where the volume is at without moving really close. Sometimes I wanna see where I’m at on the volume dial as I adjust it accordingly. I have the same issue with the input selection knob and the OFF/ON-CHARGING/SMART (BATTERY) MODE knob. With the input knob, there are just 3 laser etched dark notches on the wood panel that line up with the black circle on the chrome knob.
Above the POWER knob are also three dark notches on the wood, but only the center one actually lights up red when the amp is in ON-CHARGING MODE and stays red in BATTERY MODE (never turns green for instance). The light will turn green on the charging unit, which should always be within viewing distance (the manual says so as well). Having the lights change colors on the amp itself and being able to keep the charging unit out of sight would be a bit more simple. Though it's not a big issue to keep my charging unit at the bottom of my rack.
The stock tube is great! I let my amp burn in for about 100 hrs before I even thought about trying a different one...so when that time came, I picked up 1 Mini Watt Dario (Mazda made) 7308 Large Halo Getter [$150]. And in order to try another tube family that the amp can use with it's Renaissance Edition distinction (by flicking the internal switch to auto-bias the tube) I got a Telefunken Smooth Plate 12AX7.
I let both tubes burn in for over 100 hrs. In short, the Telefunken sucked a bit of life from the music....not that it sounded bad by any means, but my foot stopped tapping and my head stopped bopping when I used it. I was just less engaged. Nuff said I think. This was surprising because that tube was supposed to sound a bit livelier than the stock tube. Moving on to the MW Dario, I was expecting MUCH more since this is a popular tube upgrade for owners of Vinnie's previous amp models....but it failed to distinguish itself from the stock tube. My tube dealer said it could require another 100 hrs to bloom, and it very well could have. But Vinnie and folks on the forums had reported that 100 hrs should be enough to get a sense of what the MW Dario could do in ones system and so that's what I planned for. I even gave each tube an additional 30 hrs before making my final decision. I had a 30 day trial on my tubes and not enough time to let each one burn in for another 100 hrs, plus the time it would take to carefully evaluate any possible changes/improvements (due to my schedule), so I returned them both.
Does this mean these NOS tubes are bad?? NO. Does this mean I won't try rolling any other tubes in my amp?? It does not. I'll give it another crack at some point, in order to see if I can mine some more of the attributes out of the amp that I'm already enjoying. There are a bunch of other tubes to try with this amp. I'm getting detail, warmth, punch, depth and wonderful dynamics with the stock tube right now so I'm happy. NO NEED TO SPEND TONS ON NOS TUBES. But the option is always there of course. I'll just stress that my findings with these particular NOS tubes are with my system. Let's all say it together: "Your mileage may vary!"
When I'm King (Nit picky):
-I'd have an option to order the Sig 16 with the single ended headphone output OR a balanced headphone output. Cuz you know I'm curious about how that might step things up a notch sonically (Cassabria owners need not fantasize). I know that's a lot to ask for...the amp already has a TON of very useful features that work really well (not all of them covered here) but...this is about when I'm king and can have things just the way I like em' :-P
-I'd also make dealing with the top plate a little less "clunky". The plate snaps into place well enough (I have to futz with it a bit sometimes) and can be removed and returned quickly (just as it's advertised). But it makes me a bit nervous when I do. I probably just need more practice, but I don't want to practice, I want it to work the way I want NOW (whines the young king). It should feel "softer" or "smoother" when it's placed on the amp. The sound of metal on metal is not very appealing. Some kind of soft lining around the edges of the interior that meet with the black plate could be a nice touch. How would that work exactly? How much would that add to the overall cost? I don't know, I don't make these things. I just want what I want. We're in nit picky territory for sure......where kings tend to reside. ALL HAIL!
-The front knobs would remain shiny, but it would be easier to gauge their positions at a glance.
The end (But really the beginning):
My personal short definition of an audiophile: Someone who is willing to invest in audio equipment that helps them gain a deeper emotional connection to their music. My system has never made my music-listening as enjoyable as it is now. The Signature 16 amplifier has helped to tie it all together in a very engaging way. It’s has more than enough power for my desktop setup. It looks great, is upgradable and plays well with the rest of the components in my system. Whether I'm listening through my speakers or my headphones, music is just so ENJOYABLE with this amp in the mix! Maybe it can bring more to your system as well. Do you want your gear to get out of the way so you can finally get back to the music? This amplifier could be your ticket!