I reviewed the Focus Audio Liszt Sonata integrated amplifier in April 2013 on SoundStage! Hi-Fi. To say that I was enamored of it would be an understatement. And just in case anyone hadn’t got the message, I followed up that review with an article that stated just how well suited the Liszt Sonata was to my specific musical tastes.
Evidently assuming that more is better, Focus Audio has now come up with a monoblock version of the Liszt Sonata: the Liszt Concerto ($25,000 USD per pair). But they’ve thrown a curveball: Rather than just strap the stereo Sonata into mono and remove all controls, and thus make the Concerto a dedicated power amp, Focus has retained the preamp functionality and added their entry to a relatively new category: the mono integrated amplifier. One of the neat things about the Liszt Sonata is that it encapsulates the entire signal chain: There’s no external preamp, no external wiring. You want monoblocks? Get a dedicated preamp and end up with three boxes. Focus, with their fanatical engineering, has rejected this approach.
It makes sense, really. Focus works hard. They tweak, measure, and refine their products, and the thought of having some unknown upstream preamp modify the signal they’re fixated on protecting must have been anathema to them. So by retaining the preamp functionality in the Liszt Concerto monoblocks, Focus Audio gets the best of both worlds: increased power output and signal purity.
Each Liszt Concerto uses four EL34 tubes to produce a reasonable 70W. Focus Audio made a smart choice here, and I do not damn with faint praise: I’ve never heard an EL34 amp that didn’t sound at least pretty damn good. The EL34 is a sweet-sounding tube that, in my opinion, stands head and shoulders above any of the KT-series bottles. Sure, KT88s and up sound neutral and powerful, but if you ask me, that’s what solid-state is for. The EL34 sounds like a tube.
A note of national pride: The Liszts are made here in Canada. Their circuit boards, transformers, and casework are all Canadian products, and the amps are assembled by hand at Focus Audio’s tidy, well-appointed facility in Markham, Ontario, just north of Toronto.
The Liszt Concerto is a sturdy, solid, dense little guy. Weighing 48 pounds, it’s all transformer. The front panel is aluminum anodized a tasteful champagne, and the case is of rich, brushed, folded aluminum. Pick up this chunky sucker and it’s immediately obvious where the mass is concentrated. The power transformer alone tips the scale at 17.5 pounds.
A peek under the hood reveals those four EL34s, as well as two 12AU7s and a 12AX7 tube. The amplifiers are auto-biasing, and in several months of daily use, I experienced zero problems and no change in performance. The build quality is obviously very high, and the interior is very well laid out, with no kludgey wires running the length of the case.
Suffice it to say that the Liszt Concerto parts quality is absolutely top notch. There’s tons of information at Focus Audio’s website explaining in great detail the design philosophies that were distilled into the Liszt amplifiers. When I spoke with Kam Leung, the designer of the Liszt series, it became clear that immense care and huge gobs of engineering prowess coalesced into this amp.
There are enough inputs around back for just about any system configuration: three single-ended (RCA) and one balanced (XLR) input all run through the onboard volume control. There are also two direct inputs -- one each, RCA and XLR -- that bypass the volume control and allow you to use the Liszt Concerto as a dedicated monoblock. This is especially handy if your home-theater system shares real estate with your antisocial two-channel rig: You can route the low-level left- and right-channel outputs from your HT receiver directly into the Concertos. Speaker connections consist of two sets of high-quality binding posts, one each for 4- and 8-ohm connections.
The Concerto’s front-panel amenities are sparse but sufficient. There are volume and source knobs, and a digital display that relays source information at startup and whenever the source component is changed. After the change in source is confirmed, the screen once again displays the volume level.
As with the Liszt Sonata, Focus supplies a nifty little Apple remote control for use with the Liszt Concerto. I’m somewhat conflicted about this thin little third-party controller. On the one hand, I feel that the substantial, well-designed, expensive Liszt Concerto deserves a dedicated, half-pound chunk of milled aluminum with which to adjust volume and choose inputs. On the other hand, the Apple remote was just perfect for these tasks: It’s ergonomically satisfying, worked just great, and it’s easily replaceable, should you spill on it a full glass of Beau’s Lug-Tread Lagered Ale while listening in the dark, and have to nip out to the Apple store to pick up a nice, cheap replacement.
The remote control can be used to simultaneously adjust the volume and select the source for both amps. This means that if you’re just sort of waving the remote in the amps’ general direction, you might change the volume of one and not of the other. It’s easy enough to zip the volume down to zero on both amps and then start raising it again -- or, as I did, point the remote way off to one side and change only one amp to bring them back into sync. This was no big deal, but ideally, I’d like to see one master IR receiver control both amps.
The volume circuit is nothing so pedestrian as a common potentiometer. No, what we have here is a posh, high-rent ladder attenuator assembled from Takman tantalum resistors. Engage the volume control, either with the remote or the silky-smooth knob, and the Liszt Concertos exhale a soft, sighing click with each step. Keep in mind, though, that if you use the front-panel knobs, you’ll need to separately change each channel. I did this only once, just to see how it worked. Otherwise, I was thrilled to use that unbelievably cute little remote for all my volume-changing needs.
On the right rear of each amp is a rocker switch that turns on the power -- no constant-on or remote-power convenience. The Liszt Concerto is a purist design that eschews features and frippery for cutting-edge sound quality. Snap those rockers up and the amps jump into warm-up mode. About 20 seconds later, each emits a tiny chirp, indicating that it’s time to spool up the ’table. Warm-up is quick and painless, and -- surprisingly -- the amp doesn’t much change its demeanor after the moment of ignition.
“Don’t change your hair for me, not if you care for me . . .
. . . stay, little valentine, stay.” I’ve always kept Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker’s Carnegie Hall Concert (LP, CTI 6054) in my frequent-play pile. This exceptionally well-recorded live album is a sticky bonbon dripping with schmaltzy overtones from Baker’s trumpet and Mulligan’s foghorn baritone sax. I vividly remember just how rich this album sounded through the Liszt Sonata -- like liquid fruitcake. I reveled in this portrayal -- the kind of sound that evokes brisk fall nights, a crackling fireplace, and a mug of hot chocolate. Rereading my review of the Liszt Sonata, I see that I mentioned in no uncertain terms that a healthy dose of euphonic sweetening emanated from it.
While the basic overall sound portrayed by the mono Liszt Concertos was cut from the same cloth, it wasn’t quite as saturated with juicy tube glory. Some of that richness was replaced by a feeling of latent power, an honesty just slightly at odds with the stereo amp’s lovable cuddliness.
Listening to “My Funny Valentine” from Carnegie Hall Concert is like taking a bath in warm, melted chocolate. Sound aside, the interplay of sax and trumpet is sinuous and flat-out sexy. With the Liszt Concertos running the show, every little harmonic detail was clearly rendered. The texture of the baritone’s reed -- I could feel it vibrate. I could hear the spit popping and snapping in the bowels of Baker’s trumpet. Harmonic overtones were clearly on display but they didn’t dominate, as I recall them doing with the stereo version. This isn’t to say that you’d ever mistake the Liszt Concerto for a heartless solid-state amp. No sir. It would take less than a minute to realize that there are tubes -- lots of ’em -- in this chain.
For me, one of the benefits of the Liszt Sonata was its tendency to smooth-over the rough edges of poor recordings. I know, I know -- we’re supposed to be purists. If a recording has warts, they should be presented as such so that we can analyze the hell out of them. But that’s not how I like to listen to music. I want to enjoy a recording despite its flaws. I still need to know what’s going on in the recording -- I don’t want that glossed over -- but if a component can tell me the truth while still sparing my feelings, well, I’m all over that. So it was with the stereo Liszt Sonata. The vile sound quality of my Canadian edition of Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden (LP, EMI E1-46977) was always apparent to me through the Liszt Sonata, but I could still enjoy it -- the tube richness sanded off some of the rough edges. The Liszt Concertos also ground off some of the sharp corners, but not as much. Compared to my Audio Research VT100, the Concertos let me listen to Mark Feltham’s abrasive harmonica in “The Rainbow” at higher levels and with less stress, but they didn’t smooth things out as did the Liszt Sonata.
I’m playing both sides of the field. The harmonica in “The Rainbow” is supposed to be edgy and -- yes -- abrasive. It’s supposed to make the hair stand up on the back of your neck. And it does just that with every well-designed amp I’ve played it through, be it Anthem Statement’s M1 solid-state arc welders, my VT100, or Focus Audio’s stereo or mono amps. The bite was always there, and it was always listenable. The Liszt Sonata simply made it just a touch more listenable at extreme volumes. The Liszt Concertos upped the ante, keeping all of the bite, but still not running roughshod over the delicacy of the backing instruments.
So yeah -- my crispiest albums, the ones I often want to listen to but can’t because there’s a component in my system that’s just too damn bright, got the memo that the Liszt Concertos were in residence and came out from their hiding places. Neil Young’s Greatest Hits (LP, Reprise/Classic 48935-1) was mastered just too damn hot for my tastes, but despite that, I just love the sparse groove of “Down By the River.” I know down to my toenails that any component that makes this track easily listenable is flat-out lying to me. The Liszt Concertos told the truth. While they did sweeten the highs a teensy bit, this track was still an abrasive listen. The guitars still crackled with energy, one per channel, and the Concertos kept the pressure on, ripping into me with sonic lightning while at the same time keeping a huge sense of space around the instruments. I think the Concertos’ higher power output gave them a leg up in this respect over the Sonata -- even at extreme volumes, the aural images of those two guitars were huge, and perfectly placed in space.
Per Focus, each Liszt Concerto puts out 70W. That’s a difficult number to market: a decent pentode amp with 6550 tubes can do 70Wpc, as can some of the newer amps that use two KT120s per channel. Shouldn’t any decent, self-respecting mono tube amp be able to chug out at least a ton?
Well, give a good, long listen to the Liszt Concertos, as I have, and you’ll realize that power output doesn’t tell all. All else being equal, more watts is more better, but there’s more to it than that. The Concerto is an overbuilt amp, and its sound reflected that. Through them, a deep, latent feeling of effortless dynamics emanated from every note -- even compressed, shallow recordings benefited.
Unless you’re Canadian, you’re probably only peripherally aware of the Tragically Hip, but up here the Hip are a national treasure -- a mix of royalty and folk heroes. Adding to the poignancy of our love for these unassuming lads, their lead singer, Gordon Downie, was recently diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer, and the Hip’s honest-to-God farewell tour was an event that brought the entire nation to tears. Up to Here (1989) was the group’s breakout album (LP, MCA MCA-6310) -- “New Orleans Is Sinking” is the track you’d probably recognize. But I prefer side 2’s “Boots or Hearts” for its loping backbeat and less overproduced soundstage. The Liszt Concertos’ way with dynamics served the crisp leading edge of the acoustic guitar that opens the track. The music is dynamically quite compressed, and the bass intro should have more pop and drive (well, it would if I had produced it). “Don’t worry about that, Jason,” the Liszt Concertos whispered in my ear. “Turn it up a bit -- don’t be shy. Listen to what dynamics there are. Doesn’t this sound great?” And it did, as the song segues into “Everytime You Go,” the bass picks up a touch, and the Liszt Concertos dredged up way more musical meaning from this piss-poor pressing than any amp of my experience.
The cleanout of my record rack earlier this year was a project that bore several ripe, juicy fruits. I sorted, dusted, and pruned my collection, dumped a bunch of chaff -- and extracted some plums I hadn’t seen in years. There were also many moments of I wonder how this sounds? One of these was a London ffrr pressing of Benjamin Britten conducting the English Chamber Orchestra in J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos (2 LPs, London CSA 2225). I’d heard of this Britten dude, and figured that if other people feel his music is worth performing, well then -- he’s probably a decent conductor. What a barnburner this disc is! Beautifully recorded, and an incendiary pressing -- all four sides are of demonstration quality. And the music is (obviously) great, too! How rare it is that all those stars converge in a recording of historical significance. I played it repeatedly over a couple of weeks, at levels much louder than are strictly realistic, given its, for the most part, measured nature.
I’ve harped on about how smooth, rich, and satisfying the Liszt Concertos sounded, how they dredged up detail like no other amps of my experience. That tube richness was there, all right, but -- and this is somewhat counterintuitive -- it somehow served to accentuate the micromoments that add delicious meaning to music. That set of Brandenburg Concertos -- pick a side, any side. Just listen to the mathematic, fractal interplay among instruments. This is the music that should have been used to talk to the aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
In Concerto No.2, I could clearly hear the trumpet dancing with the harpsichord, despite the latter being way down in the mix. As it hung in space, each instrument had a world-class three-dimensionality that I laid at the feet of the inner light portrayed by the Liszt Concertos. As with the Liszt Sonata, I think this was a very slight added richness, but it served -- served, I say -- the cause of musical realism, helping instruments pop from the fabric of the recording. I strongly feel that this helped to reproduce much of the human magic that’s lost when live music is compressed through the tiny point in space that is a microphone.
I recall being utterly enamored of the Liszt Sonata’s grip on the bass. While slightly more full and warm than might be considered absolutely accurate, it felt utterly correct, never sloppy or boomy. The Liszt Concertos’ sound was, understandably, cut from the same fabric. A richness still underlay the low end, but now there was an added grip and authority. While the Concertos still didn’t have the razor-sharp, whip-crack, start/stop agility of a high-end solid-state amp, they had something that I feel is more important: They doled out organic bass. Rather than emphasize the binary on/off single-mindedness that’s the hallmark of solid-state -- or, flip side, the rounded, shortcake mouth feel generated by most tube amps -- the Liszt Concertos walked the fine line of featuring the best of both sides. There was zero slop or hangover, and it was dead simple to look deep into the details of the bass -- while, at the same time, instruments sounded rich, warm, and realistic, so it was just as easy to relax and enjoy them.
Last year, at a big yard sale, I raced another record collector. We’d both arrived early, at about the same time. We were rapidly scanning the many boxes of LPs, casting panicked glances at each other, terrified that the other vulture would unearth an original Coltrane Blue Note. The other guy turned out to be a decent sort. He stopped flipping and looked at me: “I’ve already got this one -- it’s great,” he said, and handed me Synchro System, by King Sunny Adé and his African Beats (LP, Mango XILP 9737). This is a great record with which to dissect a component’s performance. It’s dense beyond belief, with what sound like a hundred musicians, each playing a completely independent groove. But it all integrates into a rich African tapestry with a deep, lithe bass line holding together the whole shebang. It’s a wonderful recording, and it made my volume finger twitch louder and louder. In “E Saiye Re,” a whole boatload of percussion instruments crowds the bass guitar’s frequencies, but no matter how loud I played the track, I could differentiate at will among each bongo, talking-drum, and bass-drum whack, and what I’m almost certain is some sort of synthesized foundational note. It all added up to a low end that was satisfyingly and pleasingly rich without sacrificing definition.
I just did something I don’t often do -- pulled out a Pink Floyd album. For the most part I left this group behind when I lost my last bong. But my half-speed mastered LP of Wish You Were Here (LP, Columbia APH (C) 5000) called to me across the centuries from another life. I’ve never liked most of the tracks on this album -- they’re just too obvious, too AOR. But “Shine On You Crazy Diamond Parts VI-IX” is a compositional wonder. And what a delight this album was through the Liszt Concertos. Spacious and profound, this eulogy for Floyd founder Syd Barrett still makes me shiver. Richard Wright’s ARP synth filled the entire front of my room, and the short, sharp cracks of David Gilmour’s Fender Strat bridged the half-century and left me, post-bong, still marveling at the musicality and depth that Pink Floyd could muster.
Far be it from me to be free with your money, but I am of the opinion that Focus Audio’s Liszt Concerto is well worth its lofty price of $25,000/pair. But, like any audio product, it’s not for everyone. You commit your entire signal chain to the mono-integrated approach. It will make your current preamp obsolete, reduce your wiring needs, and probably require you to reconfigure your entire system setup. In return, you’ll get what we audiophiles always say we want: an incredibly short signal path, true dual-mono construction, and phenomenal sound quality.
Sounds like a good trade-off to me.
. . . Jason Thorpe
- Analog source -- EAT C-Major and Pro-Ject RPM 10 turntables, Roksan Shiraz cartridge
- Digital source -- Logitech Squeezebox Touch
- Phono stage -- AQVOX Phono 2 CI
- Preamplifier -- Sonic Frontiers SFL-2
- Power amplifier -- Audio Research VT100
- Speakers -- Definitive Technology Mythos ST-L, Focus Audio FP60 BE
- Speaker cables -- Nordost Frey
- Interconnects -- Nordost Frey
- Power cords -- Nordost Vishnu
- Power conditioners -- Quantum QBase QB8 Mk.II
Focus Audio Liszt Concerto Mono Integrated Amplifiers
Price: $25,000 USD per pair.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.
43 Riviera Drive, Unit 10
Markham, Ontario L3R 5J6
Phone: (905) 415-8773
Fax: (905) 415-0456