Product: Integrated Amplifier NORMA IPA-60R
Manufacturer: Norma by Opal Electronics - Italy
Price: 2170 Eur/$ - Phono board stage I-PH1R 240 Eur/$ (Retail Price 9/2001)
Note: currently not available for USA, Canada and Mexico
Reviewed by: Giorgio Pozzoli
Reviewed: March, 2002
NORMA is an old brand name in audio, but about ten years ago was acquired and thoroughly renovated. The new owner, Opal Electronics, an electronic instrumentation company, is based in the countryside few miles from the small Italian town of Cremona, famous for being the town of the greatest violin builders, Stradivari, Amati and Guarnieri del Gesu'.
The designer, Enrico Rossi, says that Opal waited to introduce a new product line only when they were really sure of having all technical and sonic aspects of sound reproduction under control. It took several years, in which all kind of technologies were investigated and compared; this studies regarded technological aspects, but also and mainly the musical result that could be achieved.
Lot of time has gone by since XVIII century, but it seems that the musical attitude of this country has not vanished at all.
In a short meeting we had at Opal headquarters we discussed a lot of topics; the design philosophy of Norma products, specifically addressed, that was perfectly clear, afterwards.
The basic points in this philosophy are speed and transparence.
Speed is considered fundamental in order to reproduce the musical transient signals correctly. As Enrico said, his products are designed for a 2MHz bandwidth; if you reduce it to 1MHz the difference can be perceived.
This does not necessarily mean that the human hearing range is much wider than 20-20KHz: it probably means however that this is the hearing range with static signals, while in case of dynamic signal, it is probably (I have no scientific test result to support this opinion) true that a limited bandwidth can be perfectly perceived as a reduced dynamic. And this means a sound lacking of life, musicality, pace.
The other point is transparence. According to Enrico, transparence is mainly connected to the perfect reproduction of the smallest details. These details are often hidden in the high audio frequency range, so that only a real full range amplifier connected to real full range loudspeakers can provide an acceptable degree of transparence. On the other end, transparence requires a very clean and smooth signal reproduction, so that a very fierce war against any kind of internal or external noise or solid state granularity is to be fought.
To achieve the perfect elimination of any kind of external noise from the reproduction chain, Norma is producing a mono power amplifier rated @ 110W with fully regulated power supply. This feature, hardly seen in audio amps as the regulation itself costs about as much as the unregulated power amplifier, should grant the complete elimination of any external disturb also from the power stages.
What can I say? A very clear, precise, defined philosophy, that I find deeply correct and shareable. Well, ok, sure, if you are a fan of SET and horn speakers perhaps you will not agree thoroughly, but....
The IPA-60R is one of the four integrated amplifiers in the Norma price list, which includes also phono and line pre-amplifiers and power amplifiers. The R stands for Reference: in fact it exists a lower price model named IPA-60, of which the 60R is an enhanced version, using very high quality components and a better driver stage.
The IPA-60R is a 2x60W amplifier (the other intergrated amps are IPA90/90R with 90W per channel), with 4 line level inputs. An additional phono stage card, to be mounted internally, is available; also available is an external phono stage that can be powered from the amp unit, even though an available separate power supply grants even better results.
The cabinet appears really sturdy, I would really say solid in the precise sense. The weight is surprising; it is even more surprising after the designer has told you that the cabinet has been modified, substituting aluminum for iron, to reduce the weight and make it a-magnetic...
The cabinet structure is composed of several different elements, connected by a really large number of screws (for example, 11 just for the top panel).
The front panel is 20mm (4/5") thick solid aluminum, machined to shape. The fascia is rather slim, 44cm (17.3") wide and 8cm (3.2") high. All front panel corners are bevelled. The panel is available in three different finish: black, aluminum and polished aluminum (similar to chrome-plated) and can be easily "exchanged".
Only few controls are available on the front panel, as in most audiophile amps. The large volume knob, in aluminum, is the most apparent detail. At the right of this a groove contains all the other controls: a set of seven buttons that light up when selected. The first four from the left are the input selection buttons, then there are the tape monitor and the recording selector (used to disconnect the tape out connector from the pre-amplifier section - is there no buffer?). Finally there is the power button, which does not disconnect the amp from the mains, but switches it from stand-by to full operative mode and back.
On the rear panel, from the left you can find four output binding posts, in a vertical row fro each channel, with the hot side above and the ground below; then the four couples of RCA input sockets, in two horizontal rows, the upper for the left channel and the lower for the right one.
On the right of these you can find a DC power output DB-15 connector, used for external phono units, and at the right end the IEC mains in connector and the mains power switch.
All buttons and connectors are very high quality parts. They work really fine and with a reassuring solidity.
The system is completely managed by servo controls. When you switch it on (with the rear switch) it goes in stand-by mode, with the red power button lamp on with low intensity. Pressing the power button on the front panel (or on the remote) the power lamp goes fully on and the system starts getting fully operative. It enters this stage in about 10-15 seconds (you can hear the click of a relay), and at this point you must select an input source. The unit in fact has no memory when in stand-by or powered off.
Electronic protections are present, taking care of the system in case of over heating or DC voltage detected at loudspeaker output. They work quite well.
The remote control is really simple and easy to use, with few well placed keys.
The inside look is really memorable.
All power supply elements are hidden inside a large sub-enclosure. The driver circuits for each channel are hidden again under polished copper shields directly mounted on the large motherboard that fills the cabinet. Between the power supply unit and the driver circuits, the long shaft of the motorized volume control (the potentiometer is in fact placed as near as possible to the input connectors) and a double row of sturdy, high quality, capacitors. All around the drivers a number of small but expensive Elna audio grade capacitors.
On the extreme left, all the power mosfet directly soldered to the mother board and mounted on a rather small (but thermically more than sufficient) heat sink.
No internal wiring is visible. Perfect order everywhere, showing an high degree of engineering and industrialization, and a very clear view on audio electronics.
The procedure to get the unit fully operational takes some time. If the system is in stand-by and you press the power button, you cannot select any source untill the procedure is completed, which happens after 10-15 seconds. This second step, by the way, is not indicated by any light, only the clicking of a relay, but in any case I would prefer to be able to select the source immediately, even though the connection should get effective later. You know, I have no time to waste (strangely enough, other people instead say I am just a badly impatient man...).
No balance control is available. I do not consider this a problem at all: in the accompanying literature it is said that the components are accurately matched, so that you can expect a perfect balance out of the factory, and as a matter of fact, if you need to alter the normal left-right balance in order to be able to have a left-right balanced soundstage, then your listening setup or environment has such problems that a product of this level is probably wasted. So it is better to spend the balance circuit money somewhere else.
No mains cable is supplied, in order for anyone to choose the preferred one.
The remote control set might have been perhaps somehow better from the aesthetic point of view, but again in the end I prefer money to go into something more directly related to the sound quality.
The heatsink lines are very clean, but given the weight I would have appreciated some more rounded edges. No real problem in moving the unit around, anyway.
The manual supplied with the unit is divided into two parts, a "Safety manual" and an "User manual". It is a very professional way to try to protect one's own work from any possibile misuse and legal issue, and probably is much less shocking for US people than for European people, but makes me really sad thinking that a lot of time and work and money must go wasted in such kind of exercises of scarcely any use for the typical purchaser of these units. This said, I must agree with Opal that there is hardly any other way to limit the risk (and this is a way to spare money too).
The only small problem is with loudspeaker terminals: they are really too close one to the other. They are good quality units, but it is really difficult to work on them, especially if you use a large diameter wire, that cannot be inserted into the small through hole. Forks are scarcely of any help, especially with a scarcely flexible wire, as there is little room around. 4mm plugs solve the problem, but are forbidden by CE safety rules, alas.
As you see, really details: I found no real problem, and no problem at all with sound: I had to look really hard to find something worth criticizing...
One important note: the usage of the product in USA, Canada and Mexico is currently strictly forbidden in the manual. Anyway, it seems Opal is looking for a distributor in the USA.
I have been using the unit for more than one month.
It took some time for me, used to tubes, to get used to its sound. So for a couple of weeks I continuously switched forth to Norma and back to my Edison 60. In these weeks the sound too continued changing a little because of break in (even though I had already left it to break in for a week before starting listening). But after this time I really started appreciating Norma sound.
This sound is really first quality. The bottom end is perfectly extended, very full, round, perfectly controlled and clean. If you have currently have an amp with not such a roundness in the bottom, you might find youreself in the need to move the loudspeakers out of the wall, to recover the balance you are used to.
It is however, at stated, a perfectly controlled bass, full but detailed and with really good articulation.
Mid band is detailed, precise, never unpleasant, very natural and neutral. Voices are a real pleasure to listen to.
High frequencies are extended, brilliant, but never edgy, never tiring at all. Women voices are polite, correct, detailed.
Overall a perfect neutrality, a perfect balance of the different areas, all concurring in supplying a very realistic musical message.
Very realistic indeed, and never dull, boring. In fact the very good dynamics, the speed is perfectly evident, clear, even though never overstated. The amp is really fast, but never in a hurry: speed does not make the message less clear. Rithm gets through in a really natural way.
Imaging is first class. Any instrument is sculptured in its own place, perfectly defined, without any strange movements as the notes go through the scales. Even bass is always perfectly positioned.
The sound philosophy is clear: highest fidelity and neutrality in order to reproduce the recorded sound, with no thrill or invention, highest speed and transparence to offer a sound as involving and punching as it was recorded.
Do not look for an exceptionally airy amp, or an exceptionally dynamic one, or an exceptionally brilliant one or an exceptionally anything amp: this amp does not add anything to the recorded sound, is perfectly honest, just shows what is recorded in the best possible way.
You'll really find out what is on the recording and what is not. If the recording is airy, then it will sound airy, if it is dynamic it will sound dynamic, and so on. It is not yet unforgiving: you'll never find one of your CD sounding badly worse than you're used to.
Power is more than enough, with my 90dB loudspeakers the level that can be reached is far higher than I can afford, living in a flat. The sound character by the way does not change at all with level.
A very interesting, sound amplifier. A very neutral, detailed, precise unit.
The sound is really high level, a perfect example of understatement that in the medium term proves to be exclusively neutrality, transparence, speed and fidelity at the highest level.
It is however not a simple amp to understand. If you want to listen to it, make sure you can give it enough time: the perfect blend of these characteristics is very difficult to appreciate in a short listening session. There is nothing that especially attracts your attention. And before you can understand that you are used to a more coloured, biased sound it will take some time.
But if you give it enough time, than as soon as you'll come back to your usual system you'll clearly miss all its good qualities. A really very good product indeed, at a competitive price.
Referring to the review - apart appreciating the reviewers' coscientiousness and competence - we would like to clarify a few points.
A few of the "problems" found had already been reported by other users and, as far as possible, will be solved in the next version. In particular a led will be flashing throughout the "warm up" time, when the unit is switched on, but does not yet accept any selection input. The unit has been specifically designed to have no input selected after switching on and warm up procedure to avoid undesired selections the user could have forgotten or be unaware of.
The heat sink has sharp edges, it is true, but we have tested also a rounded edge heat sink and it does not blended with the rest of the design: the opposite side of the box has a square, sharp edge too. By the way, for technical reason is not possible to round it off homogeneously with a very reduced radius (1-2mm) for the full length: it might seem a simple operation, but it is not at all.
The loudspeaker connectors are not so far apart, but the mechanical structure and the unit layout do not leave room for any other solution. Internally any room is used up and to be able to place the connectors more apart we would have had either to eliminate one of the inputs or to use low cost input RCA connectors instead of the gold plated brass ones we use.
The tape output has no buffer; therefore when it is not used (99.9% of the listening time) it is disconnected from the signal path.
Enrico Rossi, Opal - Norma.
© Copyright 2002 Giorgio Pozzoli http://www.tnt-audio.com