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Lavardin IS Reference Integrated Amplifier by Pete Christie

Issue 13 - September 2001

Do you ever get that feeling of deja vu? You know - the feeling that you've been somewhere, or done something before? Well it does happen, and it's just happened to me, in the shape of a slightly average looking amplifier that relatively recently redefined my hi-fi quality parameters, set my ears alight, and completely convinced me that I would never, ever, find any amplifier that could out-perform it.

Rule 1: Never say never!

If you take a peek at issue 10 (March/April 2001), you will find, on pages 86 - 89, some of my more enthusiastic ramblings on the subject of the Lavardin IS integrated amplifier. From this review, you would - quite correctly - have got the impression that, as far as I was concerned, the IS integrated was undoubtedly the finest 30 Watt amp known to man, and that it was significantly better than sliced bread - or unsliced, or toasted! I was content that, at last, I had discovered the audio Holy Grail, and all was well with the hi-fi world! The only problem with it was that I eventually had to give it back. I did put up a hell of a fight though, and it took four of them to Wrest it from my grasp. One of them is still walking with a limp! Then the IS Reference arrived. "Have a go with this" was the instruction from RG. "See if you think it's better than the last one. "Better than the last one?" Hmmmm.

For the uninitiated, I will "crib" a few salient bits of information from the previous review, as to all intents and purposes, at least visually the IS Reference is identical to the standard IS.

The Lavardin IS amplifier is made in France. It is not large - neither in physical proportion, or in rated power. It is black, and boasts as minimalist a design as you could possibly expect. Two knobs, a logo, four silver screwheads (one in each corner) and a red light - that's it! The left-hand knob is a four-way selector switch, and the right-hand knob serves as the volume control. The centrally placed red light is, well, a red power lamp. The rear panel is not exactly over-crowded either. Five pairs of under-stated, though obviously high quality, gold plated phono sockets, a pair of 4mm speaker outlets, an IEC mains inlet and a power switch. Oh, and a label telling you what it is and who made it and so on.

As I said, there are four positions on the selector switch - imaginatively labelled 1, 2, 3 and 4. Positions 1 -3 are normal line-level inputs, and position 4 serves as a recording circuit with the corresponding input/output phono sockets suitably indicated on the rear panel. There is no "Tape Monitor" switch - if you want playback, you just go to number 4 on the selector knob. Simple or what? Oh, and by the way, there's no remote control facility either.

The physical dimensions are fairly standard, the finish is good without being overly classy - for instance, its top panel tends to "ring" if it is tapped. There are only three feet underneath, and this surprised me a bit when 1 made the mistake of leaning on one corner. I won't do that again in a hurry! The power output is also fairly diminutive, rated at 30 Watts per channel into 8 Ohms, and there is no facility to "bolt-on" an additional power amplifier. So, on the face of it, I'm looking at a slightly larger amp than, say, a Rotel RA931, with less facilities (and feet!). Why then will the Lavardin IS set you back UK 1500 (yes, fifteen hundred quid!)? That's eight times as expensive as the little Rotel! The Lavardin IS Reference weighs in at a further UK 800. Yup! UK 2295 for a fairly (let's make that very) plain looking black box!
And so, I was presented with an amplifier-sized cardboard box which I took home, unpacked, and began hooking up to my system.
Wife: "What's that then?"
Me: "Lavardin"
Wife: "I really liked that - is it ours?"
Me: "Hope. It's a different one."
Wife: "Doesn't look different."

That was true enough - in fact, the only discernible difference on the outside of the box was on the back, where someone had written "IS Reference" and the date of manufacture (21/2/01) in white crayon!

Normal service was interrupted by the arrival of number two son (No.2S).
No.2S: "Whoaaa! That "thing's" back - great!"
Wife: "It's not the same one"
No.2S: "Looks the same!"
Wife: "It's different"
No.2S: "Doesn't look different"
Wife: "Apparently it's a Reference."
No.2S: "What's that mean?"
Me: "It means that it looks the same, but it's different"
No.2S: "Cool! - a Reference, I'll get my Limp Bizkit CD!"
Me: " Oh, good!"

Normal service resumed, I continued in my task of connecting my Helios 2 CD Player, Quad FM4 Tuner, and Rogers LS3/5a's when plans were again interrupted by the arrival of number one son (No.1S)
No.1S: "Haven't you already done that one?"
Me/Wife/No.2S: "It's not the same one!"
No.1S (retreating): "Don't shout!"
Eventually, I achieved "hook-up" and switched everything on. I inserted my copy of Joni Mitchells' Blue (DCC/Reprise GZS-1132), which just happened to be lying around. I selected track 9 A Case of You', and sat back to see if a "Reference" could out-perform it's predecessor; or, more to the point, if I could manage to tell the difference relying merely on memory.

From the first note of guitar, I was immediately back in that state of aural Nirvana that the previous IS had left me in. Total realism and incredible, pinpoint soundstage accuracy.

When the vocal started, I was completely convinced that Joni Mitchell was standing in front of me. Spooky! So good that I played it again... and again. This was precisely the effect I experienced with the standard IS, only more so. The idea that this wonderful sound was actually being produced by a bunch of resistors, capacitors, transistors and other electronic gizmos was becoming increasingly difficult to comprehend.
Without doing an A-B test between the pair of them it was difficult to pinpoint the exact differences, so I retraced my steps and selected the same pieces of music from my collection so that at least I could be sure that it was a fair contest. These were:

Paul Simon's album You're The One (Warner Brothers 9362-47844-2)

The 1997 James Taylor album Hourglass (Columbia 487748-2)

Verdi's Requiem, with John Eliot Gardiner conducting the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, with the Monteverdi Choir (Philips 442.142.2)

Lyle Lovett's album Joshua Judges Ruth (MCAD-10475). With Paul Simon, once again, I was bowled over by the complete intimacy of the sound. I really can't over-enthuse about this amplifier. I am generally a cynical old git when it comes to most claims or reputations for this and that piece of hi-fi. I look and listen for sonic and mechanical "shortcuts" or compromises. The final track on the album, `Quiet', when played on this system constitutes the finest transition between the art of the studio performer and the listener in the comfort and privacy of his own home. It is, in my opinion, a seamless, perfect vehicle to present not only the accuracy of the notes played and sung, but also the spiritual and emotional reason for playing and singing them. It was as though I had spent years looking at the Mona Lisa through a succession of tinted glasses, and at last, I had taken them off and actually seen the picture clearly for the first time.

I worked my way through the rest of the pieces, and each time, it was obvious that where the IS was merely magnificent, the Reference was staggeringly stupendous. (I'm starting to sound a bit like a hi-fi reviewer more used to handing out stars than being quietly rational!) However, having been joined by Number Two Son, we were both up way past our bedtimes, with no intention of going anywhere.

Sure enough, the track selection inevitably came around to Limp Bizkit, so we played it! Awesome! Not exactly my first choice listening material, but the way the Lavardin handled all that pure energy was certainly exhilarating. In fact, the question was asked: "Dad - can my mates come round and hear this please?" I think that's quite an achievement. Even with such wonderfully diabolical cacophony, the IS Reference managed to involve him, and surprisingly, me!
Inevitably, we got the royal command to desist from such extravagances, so No.2S departed and I continued albeit with a slightly more restrained selection of material. The passage that follows is once again copied from the original article, and again it's totally relevant:

The detail was stunning, - on everything! From simple arrangements for a few instruments (Debussy Cello Sonata, J.S. Bach Partita played on solo flute, Chopin Sonata No. 3), right up to massive orchestral pieces (e.g. the finale of Mahler's 2nd Symphony), the overall effect was enthralling. In fact, it was almost frightening! Every instrument was identifiable. The soundstage was presented in front of me as clearly as if the musicians were in the same room. And with Lyle Lovett, the results were just as extraordinary, only more so!

Listening to the track `She's already made up her mind' presented no problems. The production of this album, especially this particular song, can totally confuse many lesser systems, Not with this amp. The higher frequencies, cymbals, piano etc. came through with even more clarity and without any edginess. When I had finished playing the track, (for the third time) my wife commented that for the first time, she had not only heard all the lyrics clearly, she'd also met the band!

Now, for UK2300, you can buy a lot of hi-fi. You can buy something incredibly stylish, you can buy something that will set every room in your house rocking. You can get small stuff, big industrial stuff, or fairly flashy stuff. Or, you can get the Lavardin IS Reference. Possibly the most understated use of UK�2300 you can imagine. Yes it looks a bit, well, plain. If you are like me, that won't bother you. If you want to "get to know the band", and meet the conductor of the orchestra, and feel the tears rolling down Otis's face, buy one! As you have probably guessed, I'm quite keen on this French masterpiece, and to sum up, I will re-write one of my closing paragraphs from my previous review:

I have listened to an awful lot of hi-fi in the last 17 years. I have had the pleasure to review a lot of hi-fi in the last three or four years. This is the second time I have ever been so completely and utterly impressed with any single piece of equipment. I like minimal. I don't care that it doesn't have a remote control thingy. As far as I am concerned, lack of facilities equals lack of problems, and I can live with that. Four inputs is one more than I need, so that's no big deal. If you think I am going to readily give this amp back to the editor, you are making a big mistake. You want it Mr. Gregory - forget it, I'm already packed and moving away to adopt a new identity in a far-off land where you and your swarthy henchman will never find me!


Lavardin Technologies
42 rue de la Republique
37230 Fondettes France
Tel +33
Email lavardin@cevl.com