Primare I15 Prisma Integrated Amp Review
Perhaps you need a little Swedish sensibility in your life?
What is the Primare I15 Prisma?The Primare I15 is a compact integrated amp and part of the 15 Series of components from Primare - the smallest models in the company’s range. Historically, Primare product has been relatively conventional in design and functionality - although by ‘conventional’, I don’t mean ‘simple.’ The company builds the products it wants to in the way it wants to and generally does so to an exquisitely high standard.
The I15 might be seen to be representative of the new requirements of a stereo amp in 2019 and, as we shall cover, the functionality is extensive. The I15 sits at the point where it could just as easily be seen to compete with the Naim Uniti Atom as it does the Exposure XM5 and Cyrus One HD. This is a canny piece of positioning on the part of Primare - in this day and age it helps to appeal to the widest group of people you can. Of course, this counts for nothing if the I15 doesn’t provide a satisfactory challenge, so is this svelte Swede the audio equivalent of a lovely plate of well-cured gravadlax or a threatening mass of lutefisk? Let’s get cracking.
Specification and DesignThe I15 is available in two variants. Both share the same amplifier stage (more of which in a bit) but differ in their input provision. There is a ‘straight’ I15 that features line inputs and comes complete with a moving magnet phono stage and the Prisma version seen here. The Prisma version dispenses with all but one of the analogue inputs and substitutes five electrical digital inputs - three optical, one RCA coaxial and one on a 3.5mm coaxial connection.
You then additionally get a USB-A type connection for use with computer sources, and networking functionality available via both wired and wireless options. AirPlay and Chromecast are also equipped and Bluetooth is also provided too. The result is a product that, as noted, needs no other source equipment and functions more in the manner of an all-in-one than an integrated amp. It warrants being described as an amp though because, unlike a more traditional all-in-one, it has matching source equipment. This is quite cleverly thought out too. If you aren’t ready to give up CD, you can attach the CD15 CD transport to a digital input, avoiding doubling up on decoding or you can bolt on the R15 phono stage to the analogue input.
The decoding is undertaken by an AKM AK4490 DAC. This gives the Primare the ability to decode PCM to 384kHz and DSD128 - or to put another way, it can handle pretty much any normally encountered audio format. The streaming module and UPnP section have the same decoding capability but the UPnP section adds Spotify Connect and internet radio to the mix too.
The amplifier that partners this is a Class D unit so if you’re one of the subset of people reading this who firmly believe that this technology is incapable of performing well, you can save valuable time and stop at this point. In the Primare, it delivers 60 watts into 8 ohms and 100 watts into four which is entirely competitive in the context of this price point. It also ensures that the I15 has no vents and runs pretty much at room temperature even when being driven hard. It’s worth pointing out that Primare also has a fair amount of experience in the field of Class D and this doesn’t appear to be a module in a box.
This is an extremely comprehensive specification and there isn’t much to complain about spec wise. I would personally trade an optical connection for another analogue input and the lack of headphone socket is potentially an annoyance but this is still a very well specified device for the money.
The specification only tells half the story though. Something that Primare has made an art form over the years is their ability to produce equipment that feels special. Now, in the same way you can’t measure joy, the ability of devices to make you feel this way is a deeply subjective area. Nevertheless, I think that the effect of the I15 on most people will be entirely consistent. Let’s start with the aesthetics. The Primare sits between half and full width in size. It’s roughly two thirds of a full sized device. It’s beautifully proportioned though with a real eye for the distances between controls and the display.
The display itself is a white on black device and it looks elegant and while I find the album details it brings up to be a bit small to be truly useful, everything else looks extremely smart. It then sits in casework that is truly beautifully made. I won’t insult anyone’s intelligence by saying that £1,600 isn't cheap because it’s obviously a lot of money. The thing is, here you really can feel where quite a bit of it has gone. Compared to the more workmanlike Cyrus and Exposure, it feels like a cut above again and while the aesthetic is different again to the Uniti Atom, I’m going to stick my neck out and say that it is the equal of that too.
I have some minor gripes of course. I miss having a volume knob (especially as Primare knobs are a thing of unbridled tactile joy) and while it is possible to prevent it always starting at the same volume level rather than the one you last used, it’s a bit of a faff to sort. These are little things though and I would say that my general response to using the Primare is one of consistent happiness - helped in no small part by there being a decent remote control present too.
The Prisma app is also a nice piece of work. It presents a slick and good looking library that is quick and easy to browse. There are some neat touches too. I like that you can select the streaming services you want in the side menu rather than simply having all of them and it feels cohesive and well thought out rather than a collection of bits shoved together. It isn’t perfect - it has lost sync with the amp once or twice and I’m not sure what its parameters for album art are but they seem quite choosy. I would still happily place it towards the upper echelons of control apps I’ve used in the last twelve months though and I’m told that full Roon compatibility is imminent if you want to gild the lily.
Something that Primare has made an art form over the years is their ability to produce equipment that feels special.
How was the I15 Prisma Tested?The Primare has been connected to an IsoTek Evo 3 Aquarius mains conditioner and used in both wired and wireless network configurations taking a network feed from both a Melco N1A and Innuos Zenith Mk3 server. The analogue input has been connected to a Cyrus Phono Signature with Michell Gyrodec, SME M2-9 arm and Goldring Ethos cartridge connected to that. An LG 55B7 OLED and a Volumio Primo have been connected to the optical and coaxial inputs while an SOtM SMS-200 configured as a Roon endpoint has been used to test the USB input. An iPad Pro has been used to run the app and provide an AirPlay source while an Essential PH-1 has briefly been used to test the Bluetooth. Speakers used have included the Falcon Acoustics R.A.M Studio 10, Polk S15e and the Acoustic Energy AE1 Classic. Material used has included FLAC, AIFF, ALAC and DSD with Qobuz, Tidal and Deezer along with broadcast and on demand TV services.
Sound QualityThe Primare ‘house sound’ is something that has stayed fairly consistent over the years. This is not a brand that goes in for shock and awe and trying to blow you and your sensibilities away in the first few minutes of listening. Instead, the watchwords are refinement, accuracy and balance and the I15 doesn’t deviate from these tenets in any way. There’s an element of the long game to what happens when you listen to this amp. In the first 15 minutes, you might feel that the I15 is ever so slightly on the soft side. After three hours, you realise that the setup is conducive to spending at least this long (and I’ve done longer) listening to and enjoying the Primare.
This is manifest in a presentation that partners a top end that is supremely refined and almost impossible to provoke into brightness or aggression. Even listening to the unsettlingly magnificent score to Chernobyl by Hildur Guðnadóttir- a piece of music that even Trent Reznor might describe as ‘a bit industrial’, the I15 is a superb partner. It never loses the deliberately aggressive and arrhythmic nature of the piece but it sits at the threshold of unsettling and unlistenable as perfectly as I believe the composer intended.
Move to something that is more recognisably music and the Primare delivers in fine style. The gorgeous Diviner by Hayden Thorpe is absolutely spellbinding here. His rich, emotive and slightly wistful tone is perfectly captured and the sparse supporting instrumentation is tonally believable and does little things - decay of piano notes, allow for the point where lower midrange meets upper bass etc - with absolute assurance. This is not a complete transparent ‘window on the music’ style device as there are certain facets to its performance that have been present across the three very different speakers I have mainly used with it. Unless you’re speccing a studio though, I personally don’t feel this matters.
Unpicking the relationship between the decoding and the amplification is trickier though. After some time listening to vinyl via the Cyrus and Michell combination I know very well, I’m inclined to believe that some of this refinement and balance is present thanks to the decoding. The ‘fingerprint’ of AKM DACs is harder to get a handle on than something like the ESS Sabre but there is a sweetness to it that means that the Primare takes standard torture tracks and simply alleviates all of their worst excesses. Yes, it’s a slightly romanticised take but it’s endlessly satisfying to listen to. I will say that while the I15 is utterly unphased by playing Hi-Res PCM via either Ethernet or USB, the real ‘whoa’ moment comes from DSD. One of the reasons, I find DSD a bit infuriating is that it can be so variable but the DSD64 version of Depeche Mode’s Violator has rarely sounded better than it does here.
Beyond the technical virtues, there is also a proper and considered sense of fun to the Primare too. Listening to St Germain’s fabulous Rose Rouge, the I15 can really motor along. The low end is the right combination of light on its feet and usefully punchy. With my resident Acoustic Energy AE1 Classics, a speaker that is flawed but always able to find the energy in whatever you play on them, the Primare is the equivalent of a long leash. It lets them have a huge amount of fun while tempering their worst excesses. It would probably be possible to choose a speaker that resulted in the combination sounding a little dull but any degree of care will give you a system that really delivers on Primare’s ambition of long term listening satisfaction.
It’s also a brilliant partner for TV and film work. Connected to the LG B7 by optical, it has had to carry out a wide remit of work and I’ve enjoyed all of it. Some amps have never felt truly happy being used for this sort of task but the I15 has simply taken it in its stride. The functionality is helped in no small part by the presence of that elegant and flexible remote. It’s never a tricky business to flick it over to the optical connection and get listening instantly. The benefits of that refined top end and the spacious and detailed soundstage it creates are virtues that work well across a wide selection of material.
In the first 15 minutes, you might feel that the I15 is ever so slightly on the soft side. After three hours, you realise that the setup is conducive to spending at least this long (and I’ve done longer) listening to and enjoying the Primare.
- Refined but involving sound
- Flexible specification
- Excellent build
- Limited analogue inputs
- No headphone socket
- No shortage of first class competition
Primare I15 Prisma Integrated Amp ReviewAs you’ve probably worked out by now, I rather like the Primare I15. In so many ways, while I am perfectly happy to go with Primare’s classification of it as an amplifier, I actually feel it’s something else again. If we take Exposure’s wonderful XM5 to very definitely be an integrated amp, with its phono stage and partnering range of single function components, and the Naim Uniti Nova to be an all-in-one thanks to its standalone, app-driven nature, the I15 is an intriguing halfway house. It’s able to operate on its own but Primare has made a supporting family of devices to enhance the specification still further.
What results is a product that feels like a deeply clever solution to the business of making an audio system. Depending on what you need (always a loaded word) from your equipment, the Exposure’s sheer rhythmic involvement might be more your thing but the specification, build and abilities of the Primare are very considerable and it means that this singular Swede comes Highly Recommended.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £1,595.00
Ease of use8
Value for money9
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