A Morning in Cloney

Cloney Audio sell quality hi-fi equipment. Superior and tempting hifi equipment. Their absolute cheapest, bottom-of-the-barrel (and I use that term in the loosest sense possible) CD player is priced at €629. Calling here is not a good idea for those planning an extra holiday or possibly even buying a car.

However, I’ve been in pursuit of a good amplifier for some time; my current system is a Denon MD30 micro-system along with a pair of B&W 602 S3 bookshelf speakers; two quality products but the Denon was only ever meant as a short-term solution until I found an amplifier worthy of the B&Ws. These speakers deserve:

  • A decent amplifier. More than decent, perhaps; the speakers themselves are due an upgrade soon enough, so it might make sense to consider an amp that completely outclasses the B&Ws.
  • A CD player. Not a great one because, eventually, I’ll get an audiophile-grade networked music device like the Transporter. The Squeezebox has changed my habits but, for now, I need a decent source.

Cloney were good enough to let me test a multitude of amps, CDs and speakers. In fact, this is why I come here: they’ll let you listen to your CDs on almost any combination of equipment they sell. I tested their sub-€1000 amps with a pair of B&W 685 speakers, the successor (and nearest match) to my current 603s.

Thanks to the salesman’s infinite patience, I eventually settled on a Primare I21. In an effort to relay to my future myself exactly why I chose this amp, I’m going to briefly describe the equipment I tested:

  • Rotel RA04
    An entry-level amplifier, only briefly tested; I wasn’t overly interested and, bizarrely, there’s no remote.
  • Arcam A70
    A league up from the RA04 and roughly twice the price. I also tested these – and every other amp – with a pair of B&W 685s. Detail is good – notably the drums in Lester Bowie – but, to be perfectly honest, I can’t detect €799-worth of difference from my present system. It fact, it seems less lively than what I’m used to.
  • Rotel RA06
    I like this right away. Priced similarly to the A70, this is a totally different machine with a completely different feel: Joni Mitchell is with me in the room, as is Stacy Kent. The trumpet in Gershwin soars above the orchestra, just like you always wished it would. If I see nothing else today, I’m happy with this.
  • Primare I21
    I’ve never heard of these guys (Scandinavian, it turns out). Certainly, it looks very nice and feels solid and reassuring. It’s in a different price league but why not try it while I’m here? Although Gershwin has about the same detail, the piano is very definitely tighter and better separated. The bass in Herbert is clearly more pronounced. In short, it seems this beast has all the detail and brightness of the RA06 along with a warmer sound.

Combined with a second-hand Primare D20 CD player going for a (relative) song – with which it handily shares a remote control – it’s a fairly easy decision.

Expensive taste is a curse; if the Primare was only cheaper, I’d take it. Lo and behold, they have an ex-demo model which works out at the same price as the RA06. My only reservation is that the warmer tone of the Primare may, in some way, neutralise its brightness. However, I eventually reason that it’s surely better to have warmth and brightness than brightness alone.

Having played with it for a few hours now, I’m happy. Almost-€1000-worth of happiness? Hard to tell just yet. It’s different, for sure: better detail in music, more realistic in almost everything. There’s a weird programme about harps on BBC4 right now and it sounds fantastic. It all sounds warm and fuzzy, like you remember an old valve radio. An interesting day, for sure; based on price lists and magazine reviews alone, I’d probably have opted for an Arcam. I’m very glad now I didn’t (and can’t see myself opting for hi-fi equipment blind in the future, plummeting sterling or not). Update on the Primare experience to follow after a few weeks’ listening…