I got bitten by an Acoustic Invader

I got bitten by an Acoustic Invader

AIP 1 small.GIF

A few months back, I watched this video on YouTube:

I’m quite partial to the iiWi (is it worth it?) channel, presented by Srboljub (Shr-bowl-yoob), a Serbian who speaks excellent English. I’d already bought my DAC from Richer Sounds based on one of his reviews, and was very tempted by his description of the price/performance benefits of the Acoustic Invader preamp (AIP). In the end, I couldn’t resist taking a bit of a risk and ordering it direct from Acoustic Invader (Acoustic Invader). Another nice Serbian chap, Goran, who also speaks English, runs the company.

After a number of weeks, I received the preamp, with a silver faceplate as requested. Inside the box was a very nice hinged, foam-lined wooden case enclosing the preamp and its remote. No power lead, but I have plenty enough of those. It cost me £1170 plus a couple of hundred or so for import and taxes.

The Principal elements of my main system presently comprise:

AIP (substitutes for my 6000A, which was employed in preamp mode)​
XTZ Edge A2-300 150w/ch class D ICE power amp​
Earmen Tradutto DAC​
Quad S2 speakers​
REL T0 mk II sub (high-level connection)​

My music source consists mainly of selected FLAC files ripped from CDs.

The AIP’s remote is generic, but works well to control input selection, volume, standby/wake-up, and mute. It’s powered by two pre-installed CR2032 coin-type batteries. The AIP itself is a class A balanced design consuming only 65W, presumably because it’s a pre- rather than integrated or power amp. Goran says that in use the heatsink gets hot, but the case always feels cool to me. He also says it has a warm-up time of around 10-15 minutes after being woken up from standby, but I find it perhaps takes a little longer to come fully on song. Although one could leave the amp always on, Goran doesn’t recommend it. My class AB 6000A also takes a while to warm up when woken, so it’s no big deal anyway.

Luckily, my XTZ power amp has a gain control. It had been set at max for the 6000A, but needed adjusting appreciably lower for the AIP. As Shrboljub had warned me, it sounds less than ideal for a few hours after first-time switch on, but once warmed up and kept subsequently in standby when off, it’s fine. Unfortunately, my XTZ only has RCA input, so I can’t use it with XLR balanced cables. Goran says, and Srboljub agrees, it sounds better with XLR, but I haven’t been able to verify that. I will, however, be able to use a Pentaconn to XLR connector for my DAC (when I can get my hands on one).

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The AIP seems well built and weighs 6.6 Kg -- it’s around the size of my 6000A, but has three (rather sturdy looking) feet rather than four. The volume control knob is motorised and can be operated from the remote. Incidentally, Goran says that if I ever decide to buy his Fulcrum amp (£5300!) and return the AIP, he’ll offer a discount for the AIP’s full current price.

So much for the nuts and bolts -- now, how do I think the the AIP + XTZ combo sounds after a couple of weeks' audition? Well, the bare 6000A sounds fine, and imho the XTZ adds a little more weight and authority. But the AIP + XTZ is a different animal. I think it has better balance across the frequencies and better timing/rhythm, coherence and dynamics. It’s markedly fuller and richer, and to me, produces more emotional involvement, which I suspect increases as I continue to run it in after the 10 hours put on the clock before dispatch.

I particularly like internal dialogue in music, as occurs in most genres -- acapella, blues, country, Baroque, etc. It thrills me when instrumental or vocal threads appear and start to playfully interact with what’s already going on. The 6000A + XTZ combo is quite spacious, with voices/instruments emerging from a certain degree of blackness, but I find the AIP + XTZ’s voice and instrumental sounds to be appreciably more engaging. A harmonica or pedal steel guitar riff, or maybe a harmonising voice, double bass line, or oboe passage, may appear from nowhere, and thereafter, be easily followed, yet remain cohesively integrated into the whole.

I find the AIP + XTZ to be detailed, but never clinical, with a lushness that the 6000A + XTZ simply doesn’t possess -- the latter has clarity, but sounds thin by comparison. Metaphorically, the 6000A’s sound stage is like a segment of the night sky, with each musical thread a distinct, sparkling star. OTOH, With the AIP combo, while there seems, at first blush, to be less space between those “stars”, I think it’s actually at least as spacious. I’d say it’s more a case of the space being filled out with richer textures, without threads getting in any way indistinct or at all muddled.

It’s the difference between a rather precise line drawing and a painting that’s just as precise, but filled with pigmented vibrancy. I’m studiously avoiding the word “coloured”, because the sound isn't, to my ears at least, artificially massaged -- it sounds natural. The AIP combo fleshes out tones I didn’t hear with the 6000A combo: I think of it as recovering information that had always been there in potential.

I don’t have to struggle to pay attention. The music the AIP combo delivers seems to me to effortlessly happen. Imagery can be quite startling even when I’ve heard the same track many times before -- perhaps related to its greater dynamism. I can appreciate fresh dimensions in music, and sometimes it will be as if I’m hearing a track for the first time. Now and then I find myself listening to something I've often skipped; but for whatever reason, it sounds more arresting, and I wonder why I’ve skipped it before. One could say that the AIP has, effectively, made my collection of most favoured tracks larger.

Presentation may range from brash and bouncy, as in Frankie goes to Hollywood’s “Relax”, all the way to very delicate as in Evelyn Glennie’s “Valse brilliante” on xylophone, which I find indeed brilliant. Every lightening fast -- and often ever so tiny -- percussive event here and there within the sound stage deliciously titillates my eardrums. An acapella arrangement by Pentatonix (“Daft Punk”) mesmerises as voices rapidly interweave and interact (especially between 2:20 and around 3:10). The AIP takes all kinds of presentation in its stride. The last thing I’d ever call it is boring.

Finally, impacts can be clearly discerned, be they subtle (a cymbal being lightly brushed, fingers sliding over guitar strings, an occasional intake of breath), or heavy as one might like. The AIP’s tight Bass can slap me hard in the chest (Chris Jones’ “No sanctuary here”), or be a bit more sneaky (Bela Fleck’s “Flight of the cosmic hippo”).

It’s been a bit of an education. I’m very impressed, and the AIP has taught me as much about the 6000A and the compromises made by its designer as it has about itself. At its price, the 6000A is very good and has served me well, but seems to rather concentrate on (slightly exaggerated?) image precision, separation and clarity. This is perhaps at the expense of other musical elements I’ve only now realised were missing, such as a rich fullness and better overall rhythm and timing.

Doubtless, the AIP has its own compromises, but right now it’s hands down the best-sounding amp I’ve ever owned, and at a price that would probably be significantly higher from a bigger company like Hegel, Naim or Mcintosh. Bravo, Goran! I Hope my reflections will in some small way help raise awareness of your company outside Serbia. I for one think it deserves that.
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